Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Ten reasons to buy The Immortalists, and if you're close enough, come to our event with Chloe Benjamin on January 18

The Immortalists came out on January 9. We have a lot to say about Chloe Benjamin's second novel. But I'm not going to write about the book's plot or why we love it so much here. You can read all our staff rec's on the Boswell Immortalists page. No, this blog is about all kinds of things that go into publishing a book. And just think, publishers are doing this with books and independent booksellers all the time. And with B&N. And Target. And Amazon. And Books-a-Million. And all sorts of media outlets. And Bookspan (that's the old Book-of-the-Month Club). And regionals. And bloggers. And vloggers. And Costco (if Pennie likes it). And libraries and librarians. And well, anyone they can get to pay attention who might have some sales influence.

1. The reads, part one! I think we've broken our record for number of reads on this book: Daniel, Jason, Jen, Jenny, Kay, Scott, Sharon, Todd. Eight! OK, Todd's no longer at Boswell, but he shops here a lot and doesn't that count for something? Peter's still reading it, but he might be added to the total. While some of us were more over the moon about The Immortalists than others, it means something that seven of the eight of us liked it and for six of the eight of us, we liked it enough to write a staff recommendation. I like that one of us didn't really like it; Boswell celebrates our freedom to say "meh, not for me."

2. The letter! I might have mentioned before that editors, agents, publishers, marketing are always sending us books. And not just me. This week Jen was chatting with an editor who noticed she'd loved Readers of Broken Wheel Recommends and that we'd sold a ton of it. I wish I could read more of them, but let's remember my limitations - I only read six or so books a month. Last year I got to 90, which was a recent high. So maybe you can say seven.

But when Putnam's Sally Kim wrote to me about this book (last March?), it connected on so many levels. It felt like the letter was talking just to me. Only later did I learn that maybe she was talking directly to me - it turned out to not be a form letter. But the four Gold children were about my age, and their family was in the garment business (like mine) and while we did not live on the Lower East Side, my oldest sister's in-laws did, and my parents liked to visit the shops on Sundays. I was fascinated that parking was free on Saturday but metered on Sunday. Is there any other old Jewish neighborhoods in the United States where they did that?

And did I mention that one of the kids was named Daniel? I'm reading a book about someone my age named Daniel Gold. How weird is that? So what I'm saying is that you never know what book is going to call to you, and sometimes the reasons are rather arbitrary.

3. The author! While I couldn't say I was friends with Chloe Benjamin, we met a few times. She lived in Madison and did an event with us for her first novel, The Anatomy of Dreams. It went pretty well, mostly because she had a champion in her friend Bri Cavallaro, who many of you might know from her very popular (and deservedly so!) kids series, A Study in Charlotte. Plus she's a prize-winning poet.

And then we ran into each other again, when Benjamin won the Edna Ferber Prize from the Council for Wisconsin Writers for her first novel. Weirdly enough, I also won a prize, my first I can remember since junior high school, the Christopher Latham Sholes Award, which I got for, wait for it, promoting Wisconsin writers. Below right is a picture of the prize winners with the board. Note that I didn't know Benjamin well enough to sit next to her. Hey, it's time for someone else to get this Sholes Award, isn't it?

But that is just to say that I didn't read it because we were pals. Does that happen? Of course.  But the thing about me falling in love with The Immortalists was that it felt authentic. And then of course I've met her at various functions and she's as nice as can be. Who wouldn't want to Benjamin find success?

4. The reads, part two! And then there's the next read in the store. Jen convinced me to read Pachinko (and that went well) and I was convinced that she would like The Immortalists too. Our tastes overlap but they are hardly completely in sync, but this seemed like a crossover book. And when she came back all ebullient, I got even more excited. One of the things I learned from the days of Schwartz (and working with my Schwartz pals to get folks to get on board with things like History of Love, Astrid and Veronika, and The Elegance of the Hedgehog) is that you know something's magic when people with very different reading tastes agree. It was when Conrad got behind The President's Hat that I thought we had something special, and we're now 300+ copies later.

Speaking of different readers coming together, may I give a pitch for the paperback of Hum If You Don't Know the Words**? Six great reads, close to 100 copies sold in hardcover, but I just don't think as many stores as I'd hope discovered how great this book is. Ask your rep for a copy. It's not a hard sell and it delivers.

5. The buzz! Not every book on the Book Expo Buzz Panel takes off, but a few do each year. It was exciting to see Benjamin featured. And the enthusiasm has built from that. It's a pick from both B&N and Amazon. It's the #1 Indie Next pick for January.

If you want an explanation of Peter's drawings, the ballet shoes belong to Simon, the top hat and wand to Klara, the stethoscope to Daniel, and the beaker represents Varya. Do I think that Klara would have used a top hat? Probably not. But does it signify magician? Yes. If you look closely, you'll see that each drawing uses one of the four colors (red, orange, yellow, and green) of the cover as an accent. It's very subtle!

6. The swag! So much swag. The cover is so beautiful that it lends itself to visual interpretations. There's the tote bag (from Envirotote, where I'm slowly trying to place a reorder for a Boswell tote, because I like this one so much), which was a very much in demand at Book Expo. There's a tee shirt. There are buttons. We don't normally demand a blow up cover for our event but I begged for one this time. I promised it would be up permanently in the store for at least the next few years.

7. The window! The visuals on the cover of course demanded some sort of visual merchandising. We're touch and go about effectively using our big window. I think we did a really cool window for Scott Kelly's Endurance, but then we had a big of a hole before we filled it with holiday books. I have two more planned out for spring. I can't believe that some stores do this every month, or even every two weeks. Peter and Olivia did a great job putting it together. I really wanted icons representing the four characters. And Amie noted that we had some leftover ornaments that matched the leaves on the jacker. I wanted hanging letters that I don't think we've done since we hosted T.C. Boyle. It looks great, but pictures never turn out great - our window creates a lot of glare.

8. The event! Being that we are only an hour from Madison, it was not hard to making a convincing pitch to put us on the tour. In these days where author tours are shrinking, it's exciting to see Putnam working with venues around the country (with lots of indie bookstores). I love the image they made for the tour.  I'm trying to do the conversation with this one, as we usually get nice feedback from this format. If you look at this slot, it's equivalent to Emily Fridlund's History of Wolves. Hey, that went on to be a finalist for the Man Booker and has been selling like crazy in paperback. We had an okay turnout for Fridlund, but the trick on this sort of thing is that most of the enthusiasm was coming from us. Had that event been later, the number would have been much bigger. Our event is Thursday, January 18, 7 pm. Let me just say right now, you are going to have a good time.

I'm rereading the book since it's been so long ago. I'm also halfway through The Anatomy of Dreams, Benjamin's first novel, which is our In-Store Lit Group pick for February (Feb 5, 7 pm, at Boswell). This has really helped us get the word out about the new book. I am hoping that many of our book club attendees will have read both books. I see some connections!

9. The reviews and profiles.
a. A profile in Bustle
b. A review in The Economist
c. A review in Pop Sugar
d. Marion Winik's eternal life roundup in Newsday
e. San Diego Jewish World review
f. The AP review, reprinted in The Washington Post
There's also a review that gives away every twist, and on top of that, the review is lukewarm. I think the lukewarm review is connected to revealing all the spoilers. But don't worry - studies show that knowing the spoilers doesn't make you like a book (or film, or whatever) less, and sometimes it makes you like a book more.

One thing that Benjamin has said in interviews is that she had hoped the Daniel (not me) section would be more Jewish themed. At one point, he was going to be an architect. It just didn't work out. It's interesting that the opening is so Jewish and the rest not so much. But in a way, that works too - there are five sections in the book and each almost has a different worldview. (At left, Daniel shilling for the book. I might have to park myself at a busy street corner. If I were a doctor, I wouldn't have to do this.)

The Immortalists is like reading five books in one. The Simon section brought me back to the glory days of 1990s gay male coming-of-age fiction, of Edmund White and Christopher Bram, the pre-and-post AIDS stories of Armistead Maupin and David Feinberg's Eighty-Sixed. I was just talking to a publicist about Call Me by Your Name (Aciman is at Boswell on February 19, by the way), which came out at the tail end of that. I mentioned that I read the book when it was out in hardcover (or maybe as a galley!) He thought fondly about Mark Merlis's An Arrows Flight and I highly recommended Christopher Bram's Lives of the Circus Animals. I love that book so much that it is on and off  my rec shelf even this past year, 15 years after publication. Now I feel like I should read it again, and see how it holds up. I'm fairly confident, but you never know.

10. Oh, come on. Just take my advice and read the darn book. No, not all of you are going to love The Immortalists, but it's a fascinating premise that is so well told. it straddles the line between commercial and literary with finesse. It's a book that works for readers who like speculative novels, coming-of-age books, philosophical inquiries, and thrillers, because it is all those things. It's a book where you want to talk about it afterwards, and talk about each character. I've already figure out that Daniel doesn't generally come out on top. But I have to give my doppelganger* props - he's a loyal guy who loves his family.

So why so much work on this? We're tiny, a niche of a niche of a niche. But there's a perception that independent booksellers can have outsize influence. We can sometimes affect how other retail outlets and websites and media position a book. Somebody's thinking, "I should pay attention to this." And that's probably a good thing, at least when the attention is mostly positive.

In conclusion, read The Immortalists.  And if you're reading this before January 18, come to Boswell for our event with Chloe Benjamin.

*There was a good deal of hope on my mother's part that I would be a doctor. My life as a bookseller did not compete very well with her friends' kids.

**I mention Hum If You Don't Know the Words partly because it's also a Putnam book and because I went to a lovely Putnam cocktail party in Chicago where Bianca Marais was featured, and came back from it super jazzed about the book and how wonderful the author was. The enthusiasm was infectious and we wound up with a terrific event at the Lynden Sculpture Garden (thanks to partners Margy and Polly!) and great post-event sales.

But the truth is that Sally Kim and I spent much of the cocktail party talking about The Immortalists. Sally and I met many years ago at a party in Brooklyn thrown by our mutual friends Charlotte and Roz. And yes, Charlotte and Roz were immortalized in a party scene (page 291) in Christopher Bram's  Lives of the Circus Animals. When you see this kind of interconnectedness in our town, someone always says "Smallwaukee."

No comments: