Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Greetings from Memphis - some Winter Institute highlights

Last week I went with my colleague Jason to the 13th Winter Institute conference, put together by the American Booksellers Association. It was the largest one yet, but that was partly because they increased capacity.  I heard at least one attendee worry that it was getting too large, but I felt that everything ran smoothly, and there was nothing that indicated there were this was too large a crowd for the organizers to handle.

This was actually my second time visiting Memphis, and last trip was book related as well. Back when I was at the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops, I won a contest for putting together an Elvis Presley display at the stores (effectively bringing in a dump, or cardboard bin with books).  It was a strange time - we won enough contests of this sort that our owners had to come up with a policy as to what went to the individual bookseller and what funnelled back to the store itself (mostly cash). What I'm saying is, I was not the only trip winner and at least two of them were to Europe.

The trip featured a visit to Graceland, but 20 years on, I thought there were very few Elvis Presley references around town compared to my last time. We did have an Elvis impersonator at one of our cocktail parties, and I went to at least two restaurants that served dishes including peanut butter and banana. Did you know there was a new picture book edition of Presley's Love Me Tender that came out last fall, illustrated by Stephanie Graegin? There was!

Winter Institute features three full days of programming, and one additional day of supplemental pre-registration focused seminars, plus several tours. This year's featured Yoknapatawpha and Mississippi tours that each featured an iconic bookshop, Turnrow and Square Books respectively. A number of other folks detoured to Nashville for a tour of Ingram's warehouse. The rest of the days were a mix of keynote speakers, smaller breakout sessions, rep presentation luncheons, and publisher focus groups.

The keynotes were well received. Junot Diaz discussed his first picture book, Islandborn, with illustrations by Leo Espinosa, and chronicled his own journey to being a writer, discovering books as a Dominican kid in New York. Though he loved books as a child, he became disenchanted when he did not see kids like him in them. As my friend Johanna said to me afterwards, "It brought tears to my eyes." We have two big fans of the book (which comes out March 13) in Aaron and Jen, with Aaron calling this "a book full of beauty, empathy, and fun that will be in my personal collection!" Yes, you can preorder.

It was Daniel Pink's record-breaking third visit to Winter Institute, this time for When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, and I admit that my first instinct was to bring in someone new, especially because I read To Sell Is Human and my world was not rocked. Standards too high that every book should be life changing? OK, I'll calm down. But I have to admit, Pink did a great job and I heard Pink's premises slipping into conversational chatter. I will now avoid scheduling meetings in the afternoon and will do anything not to go before a judge just before lunch. Plus I might still read the book.

The pairing of Sarah Jessica Parker with The New York Times Book Review's Pamela Paul for an opening conversation was a change from past conferences, because the session is usually followed by a breakout, but in this case, there was not much to say (list the ways we love new imprints?), so the session focused on bookseller challenges, like increasing expenses and the continuing conversation about inclusiveness. Parker is the head of the new SJP Books imprint at Hogarth (which is itself part of Crown, which itself is part of Penguin Random House). She won't be line editing but she'll be working with acquisitions and bringing her very book-obsessed eye to projects. Her first title is A Place for Us, a first novel by Fatima Farheen Mirza, a multi-generational novel about an Muslim Indian family. Parker's gold standard is A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra's first novel, which continues to be among Hogarth's more notable titles on its backlist. What I think Parker did best is effectively convey to us that she is a serious reader who would love to have Reese Witherspoon-like impact and broaden the readership for books she loves.

There's a lot of author interaction, including two author receptions, one extravaganza featuring close to 100 writers, and another smaller buffet luncheon, that nonetheless had close to 30 stations. I think it was a great idea to move that second function from the end of the day to lunch. You see a lot of slippage on the third day (often us!) and I think it's better to lose them to a one-author keynote than a 30-author commitment. In addition, many booksellers attend publisher dinners that feature authors. I understand that not everyone gets to go to these and I'm grateful that I could be included, and hope I will do my part by discovering some great writers that we can get behind at Boswell.

I wound up reading two books featured at the show that I will hope to focus on later, perhaps in the blog. I went into the show very excited about My Ex-Life, the first Stephen McCauley novel in eight years, now at a new publisher, Flatiron, and a new editor, Amy Einhorn. I got to see McCauley at the reception and also at the hotel bar, where he was chatting with the great Aminatta Forna, whose new book is Happiness. Einhorn told me that she's hoping we won't have to wait eight years for the next Stephen McCauley novel. You can see that I already have a recommendation in place on our website. Yes, you can pre-order.

Another author who I was excited to see at the show was Michael Zadoorian, and while I did not read his short story collection, am probably one of the rare attendees (but not the only attendee) who has read his previous novels, Second Hand, and The Leisure Seeker, now a film with Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland, and which is opening soon at either the Downer or Oriental Theatres, as the poster is now up. His new book, which I think is more like Second Hand, which itself was a Nick Hornbyesque novel about a guy who runs a thrift shop in Detroit, is called Beautiful Music, and it's a Detroit-centric novel about a kid growing up in the early 1970s, in the midst of both his city and family fracturing, kept going with his love of music, and yes, growing a bit. It's also out in May.

There were so many other great writers there, but one of my must-see writers was Tommy Orange, whose There There has a groundswell of buzz. The title refers to the old Gertrude Stein quote, and yes, it turns out to be a novel about Oakland. Orange is a very exciting writer, a rare Native American under 50 (and 40) getting a major launch (hope to see more) and we're particularly enthusiastic about the over-the-top Sherman Alexie endorsement. I think Knopf did a great job on this cover treatment - no beef intended to the other covers, but I do like a nice orange jacket (Little Bee) and based on what we see in the gift world, everyone loves feathers.

And finally, I met so many wonderful authors that went on my to-be-read piles, but I thought I'd give a shout out to Christine Mangan, whose first novel, Tangerine, comes out in late March. It's an upmarket psychological suspense novel, set in Tangiers (hence the title), about a woman who, just after arriving for her husband's job, runs into her old college roomate, who she hasn't seen since "the accident." And so, as Booklist writes in their starred review, "the dance begins." Not just the publisher, but most of the advance reviews are comparing the work to Patricia Highsmith. One reviewer references Michael Ondaatje. Joyce Carol Oates referenced Donna Tartt, and while I was worried because it was the second day in a row I saw a Donna Tartt reference, this was from JCO, so I guess it's ok the invoke DT.

Mangan was one of the featured authors at the HarperCollins dinner, which I RSVPd to a year in advance (long story). Most of these dinners rotate the authors through the courses. It sounds weird, but otherwise a bookseller will wind up speaking to very few people and if you don't hit it off with the folks to the left and right of you, you're sunk. I've been at many a dinner where everyone is engaged in intimate conversations and I'm staring at my fork. And sometimes you're just on the wrong side of the table. At least now I can pull out my phone. I enjoyed hearing how Mangan sold the book just as she had signed a contract to teach in Dubai for a year. If nothing else, it was definitely material for a future book.

I think I might have a little more to write about the conference and Memphis, but this post is long enough already.

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