Friday, August 2, 2019

This event on Tuesday is literally going to be the most fun you've ever had at a book event. Too over the top? Well, it's still going to be great - Claire Lombardo and Jason Gobble at Boswell on Tuesday, August 6, 7 pm - some background.

Once upon a time there was the traveling book representative. The arrived with a suitcase filled with book covers, a marked up catalog, and a long list of accounts. Selling in was really the only important part of the job. What happened afterwards was somebody else's problem. Some of the old school reps didn't even know much about their books; I recall one beloved old rep who would hold up a photo of the book jacket and read to you his notes printed on the back. If you asked him how the book was, he'd tell you what New York thought. Even at that time, however, there were passionate reps who took an interest in getting the word out about their titles - the best reps moved up from the field to the New York offices. You don't see that as much anymore, but that's for another post.

Nowadays a sales rep more like a territory manager, doing follow up, helping with author event proposals, displays, and reporting back to the publisher on how everything is working. They're expected to keep you informed of which book sales are taking off, which might have stock problems, and yes, which are not hitting expectations. Our best reps know our booksellers so well that they will recommend advance copies for early reading. In a sense, I call them wholesale hand-sellers. They help us find the books that we then tell you about. And if you come back to us, thrilled with your newly discovered treasure, we'll go back to them and thank them for the find.

One thing that has become commonplace in the industry is sales rep presentations to booksellers. Many regional trade organizations organize them formally; there's a series in Chicago, for example. Boswell, along with Books & Company, cohosts a series of these meetings every year. This tradition goes back decades; it was over thirty years ago that a bunch of us gathered in David Schwartz's home to hear from representatives (at right, a book that was featured at my the first evening I attended). Sales reps are brought in now to do presentations at our trade conferences too. At rep-arounds, booksellers eat lunch while sales reps and sales managers move from table to table pitching upcoming and sometimes just-released titles of interest.

If you enjoy my book presentations that I do on new releases book clubs, and holiday book suggestions (at Boswell, the Shorewood and Elm Grove Libraries, the Woman's Club, on the radio, and wherever I happen to be booked), I am just cribbing from the style of our best reps. And there's no question that one of our best reps at this is Jason Gobble from Penguin Random House. And after seeing enthusiastic responses to Jason's presentations for years at our rep nights, as well as popular public presentations at bookstores in the Midwest (including both Books & Company and InkLink in metro Milwaukee), I sort of begged him to be a part of an event at Boswell.

If you shop at Boswell, you already might be familiar with Mr. Gobble. He actually came up with the idea of the sales rep recommends display and had his picks up for about a year. Right now we have three other reps offering their picks, and we'll be doing a little more rotation this fall. He was at the heart of our obsession with Hannah Rothschild's The Improbability of Love, started off our love affair with Peter Heller by seeding the store with copies of The Dog Stars, and convinced Chris and I that Amy Jones was Canada's best-kept literary secret. Needless to say, her novel, We're All in This Together, is one of his picks on Tuesday.

But what author should he connect with? Matching authors into these presentations is a fine art. You have to work with a book you like, and you have to have an author who is game for this alternate format with a slightly shorter presentation. I found that last year's talks with Kathleen Rooney (at Weyenberg and Elm Grove) for Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk were a perfect match. We wound up having a lot of book clubs pick this book as a selection; we also wound up having the third best sales at an independent (according to the Edelweiss inventory program) in the country, despite the book not being set here and the author not being from here.

And of course in this case it had to be a book that was in Jason's sales bag.

And then a delightful thing happened. It turns out that Claire Lombardo was doing a swing through the Chicago area for her breakout debut novel The Most Fun We Ever Had and the publisher agreed to add on a few dates in Wisconsin*. The Most Fun We've Ever Had is a newly released hardcover that has been selling particularly strongly in the Milwaukee area, according to Bookscan. The author is a delight, from everyone I have talked to. And the book is family drama set in and around Chicago, and we do love Chicago novels. Though the rest of the state doesn't think of Chicago as regional, much of Southeast Wisconsin has strong connections. It's funny, it's warm, it's heartbreaking, and the writing is beautiful. And you know I love a good sister novel and this one has four. What more can you want?

David and Marilyn seem to have the perfect marriage, at least from the perspective of their four kids - Wendy, Violet, Liza, and Grace. But their kids are not having an easy time of it. Wendy is a self-medicating widow, Violet is an anxious, have-it-all mom of four, Liza is pregnant but her husband is struggling with depression, and Grace, struggling to live in the shadow of her wealthier (Wendy and Violet) or even middle class (Grace) sisters, has lied to the family about her professional prospects.  And things take a turn when Wendy makes a big discovery that bring another member of the family into the mix.

Reviews have been great, with Jade Chang in The New York Times offering: "Weddings and deaths, pregnancies and illnesses, ways for the sisters to measure themselves against one another as they continue to excavate the contours of their parents’ love and hold it up to their own. At this point you may be thinking that there’s no way four women can spend an entire book being obsessed with their happily married parents and that perhaps I just have some sort of older suburban couple kink. (Perhaps!) But here’s the thing - Lombardo renders that obsession with such skill and finely tuned interest that it feels like a quiet subversion of the traditional family saga, a new way for the past to bless or poison the present and an unexpected engine for the revelations about being human that she delivers so beautifully."

What's also interesting about this book is that it's the first published title from acclaimed editor Lee Boudreaux from Doubleday, whose acquisitions over the years have included The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, the Pulitzer Prize winner Less, and two beloved novels from Madeline Miller, Song of Achilles and Circe. The list goes on - Boudreaux has a great eye. In a sense, the book reminds me of one of her early acquisitions at Hachette, Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, in that it skillfully captures several characters' perspectives. Boudreaux also obviously has an ability to find humorous novels with enough depth and heart to be taken seriously by critics. I know what you're thinking - why can't you get an editor in conversation with one of their authors. I would like nothing more, and I've tried. It's not easy!

Boudreaux's new home at Doubleday is also her homecoming. It's where she started (though folks aware of changes in publishing note that it's now part of the Knopf division of Penguin Random House and not the independent publishing house of of the Doubleday family (they later owned the Mets) that owned book clubs and thus made lighter-than-air books with their own printing presses.

I love how Jaclyn Fulwood in Shelf Awareness notes that Lombardo always has one more surprise up her sleeve. The Most Fun We Ever Had is a great literary novel that also has an escapist element - and enough plot to keep you turning the pages. I'm fascinated by how Lombardo supposedly came to the Iowa Writers Workshop with this work in progress, and was able to finely form it into the book it became.  It turned out that Rebecca Makkai (author of The Great Believers, which I'm sure you know already) was one of her teachers at the program, and she's one of the book's biggest advocates.

I'm not going to lie. If I didn't have book club on Monday evening, August 5 (we're talking about Washington Black), I'd be off to the Book Table in Oak Park (or rather, the Beer Shop around the corner) to see Claire Lombardo in conversation with Makkai. But I'm also really excited about our event with Lombardo and Jason Gobble on Tuesday, August 6, and that one I get to attend. Would do both? Is this the literary equivalent of a Phishhead? Maybe Can't make our event on Tuesday? Lombardo and Gobble will also be at Books & Company in Oconomowoc on Wednesday, August 7, also at 7 pm. (Editor's note - she's also at Women and Children first on August 8, in conversation with Elizabeth Taylor).

*Thank you, Todd! Publicists are the unsung heroes of publishing. They get little credit when things go well, but are blamed when things go badly, or at least they were in my day. Did I mention I was a publicist before I was a bookseller? Only 75 times?

Photo credit Claire Lombardo - Michael Lionstar

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