Monday, October 26, 2020

Boswell events this week, part one - Readings from Oconomowaukee, with Matt Haig, author of The Midnight Library

Monday, October 26, 3 pm CDT
Matt Haig, author of The Midnight Library
Readings from Oconomowaukee series
in conversation with Lisa Baudoin from Books and Company and me - register here.

One of the things about living in the COVID era is that we've had to be creative in our programming. It wasn't easy and it wasn't fast. We just stared at our event calendar falling apart in March and only tried doing a Zoom event in April. And despite that being fairly successful, I continued to cancel events in May and June and reschedule them, when we probably could have pivoted many, including a number of ticketed event - but that's another story.

We quickly realized that 99% of the events had to be conversations. We had one traditional talk and it was really boring. We had a recent event where the author didn't embrace the conversation format and instead read and talked for much longer than we suggested - it was all sort of canned. There was a conversation partner, but that part of the event was displaced. We sold zero copies of that author's book in that case.  

There are some stats that we've noticed. On average, 65% of the people who register for an event show up. In most cases, about 50% of the folks who do log in to our event are local, from Southeast Wisconsin. Yes, we do sometimes have folks that travel from Madison or Green Bay or Chicago (particularly the northern suburbs) for an in-person event, and on strange circumstances, fly in from a far-away city. But once they come to a physical event, they are actually more likely to buy the book. With virtual events, not so much. That 50% number can vary widely - it's more of a median than a mean.

We considered an in-person event's sell through acceptable if 35% of the folks bought a book, higher for launches, and that's why many of our in-person programs for higher profile authors are ticketed. That number is lower for virtual events. Book plates help, tip-ins help more, actual signed books are a beautiful thing. Alas, we do not have any more bookplates for Matt Haig's event.

Despite no bookplates, The Midnight Library is selling well at Boswell; it helps that we sold a lot of copies of his last book, How to Stop Time. I was able to get an early hardcover to prepare for today's event (alas, no physical advance copies available), but I had a bit of dilemma when I finished it - it would help the event for me to pass my copy on to another bookseller before the event, but I felt I needed the book to prepare.

An existential crisis is at the heart of Matt Haig's The Midnight Library. Nora has lost her job, her boyfriend, her cat, and her friends. There is a notion that when making a choice, we are more likely to regret not doing something as opposed to doing something and failing. And Nora has a load of regrets. So in the process of overdosing, she winds up at the Midnight Library, where her childhood librarian curates the books that offer the alternatives to Nora's existence. You start reading the book and that life becomes yours. For example, what if she'd never left her brother's band?

I call these kinds of books Sliding Doors stories, named after the Gwyneth Paltrow 1998 movie. Stories about the multiverse are quite popular, no doubt helped along by quantum theory. I've read several myself - our buyer Jason tends to read as many as he can get his hands on. My introduction to the multiverse was through DC comics where they tried to justify the differences in the Golden Age and Silver Age heroes by saying they were on parallel Earths, and yes, if you vibrated quite right a certain sort of superhero could move from one to another for cross-over adventures, which led to several Crisis mini-series to fix continuity, which led to me being very confused. But like thinking above three dimensions*, I kind of have to go with it without fully understanding it.

The thing about Matt Haig's novels, particularly his more recent ones, is that I think there's a reader for these books who normally reads nonfiction of a certain human potential nature - they are fictional incarnations of his popular nonfiction book, Reasons to Stay Alive. So many of his books are about what makes a life worth living, from The Humans (his most in-demand paperback novel at Ingram), which is about an omniscient alien who takes the form of a mathematician to learn more about the race, to The Radleys, concerning a family of vampires, to How to Stop Time, about a secret society of people who live for a thousand years. And in a sense, Nora continues that storyline - she could hop into the lives of these different Noras indefinitely, living a life where she didn't give up competitive swimming, or the one where she was the Arctic scientist.

In another universe, COVID didn't happen, and it's likely that we wouldn't have been able to host Matt Haig. Lisa Baudoin and I put together a joint series at the Sharon Lynn Wilson Center for the Arts and someday, we hope to return to that program. But these Readings from Oconomowaukee series is different and more personal. Instead of big names interviewing the authors, we take that on. And if you think it's easy to have a three-way conversation without stepping on your partner's words, it's not! We practice. But we love it! And I think we might try to continue this series when in-person events resume, perhaps with two programs, one during the day at one store and the other in the evening at the other store, with us both in conversation at each.  

And we haven't even touched on Matt Haig's kids books! Or my desire to repackage Haig's adult backlist novels, something that in the day of ebooks and print-on-demand, rarely happens anymore.

You can still register for our Matt Haig conversation at 3 pm CDT here. And you can buy the book from Boswell here, and from Books and Company here
*I have a secret fondness for The Fifth Dimension.

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