Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Case Study: Cutting For Stone

Surprise. I read a book that I had issues with. Normally it's an obscure title that likely won't see the light of day beyond a write-up in Publishers Weekly, but several times per year, it's a book that goes on to win wide acclaim.

Everybody likes it but me. What do I do?

I sell the heck out of it. My best skill as a bookseller are not my award-winning critical eye. It's keeping a pulse on what lots of readers are liking and matching a reader up with something they love. I think this is a skill that most booksellers learn; when you first get started, it can be quite frustrating that a book you really love (Wrack and Ruin comes to mind) can be very difficult to sell.

As I told people until they were sick of hearing it this fall, you're either a Sarah's Key person or a Fault Lines person, but likely not both. Of course, several folks took that as a dare and insisted on buying the two books together. Most booksellers were no different; they liked one or the other. The good ones learned to sell each of them, matching reader with book.

So here comes Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone. It's a grand novel of the making of a doctor, set in Ethiopia for an exotic twist. The characters are large, the structure as thought out as a breakthrough circuit, the tension of the last hundred pages so thick you'd need a surgical knife to cut through it. The Addis Ababa setting under Emperor Selaisse gives it a bonus historical angle, in much the same way that Junot Diaz explored the Dominican Republic (see earlier posting).

We sell a lot of medical lit in the Atul Gawande vein. Though this is a novel, Verghese's knowledge and style will have fans of the nonfiction genre chomping at the bit. His acclaimed nonfiction works My Own Country and The Tennis Partner cement his writerly and doctorly reputation.

It's a grand and heroic story, and it's got twins. Twins! Sort of conjoined! You should know that I love that. Had I been blogging earlier, I surely would have had at least one conjoined twins posting. Chang and Eng, The Girls, Half Life, the list goes on and on.

It's the #1 Indie Next Pick for February, selected by booksellers in the American Booksellers Association. It's a focus title from Knopf so if it's not a front-page New York Times Book Review, I promised a fellow bookseller I'd eat page 77, or at least a little bit of it. I'm using stats here--eight of the ten best books of the year for 2008 in the New York Times were from the Knopf group.

But for me? I had issues. I admit it, and I don't want grief for it, the way one fellow bookseller chided me when I confided why I didn't like The Year of Magical Thinking. I'll tell you what I like, or I'll tell you what's acclaimed, or I'll tell you what's the best page-turner. I'll even know when someone shouldn't be recommended Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader. My suspicion is, however, that that person isn't likely walk into one of our stores.

What are my contacts with other bookstores for, if not to hear what they think about new books? I've got discerning readers all over the country sharing feedback, and though most of us were crazy for Verghese's novel, I'm not alone. It happens the other way too; if you've run into me, I've likely talked your head off about how amazing Chris Cleave's Little Bee is, but one out of about 10 reads were problematic. That's still a pretty darn good success rate, 90%. If you were a teacher, you'd still give it an "A."

We've got Cutting for Stone in stock, and as a special treat, it's being discounted 30% in our bestsellers case, for a limited time.


The horn that is tooted by oneself department: Here's a piece in about my hopes for the Boswell Book Company. Its a bit goofy, but would you say anything different about me?

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