Notebook: November 5, 2018

From Ann Kjellberg, Book Post editor

How do people become the people we read? Talking to Buzzfeed, Angie Thomas, who was twenty-three and a student at Bellhaven University in Mississippi when she wrote the story that become the book and movie, The Hate U Give, tells an inspiring tale of a young person with a fresh and honest way of looking at harsh experiences who reaches out to a literary agent (via Twitter!) and ends up with a book contract, a runaway bestseller, and a position at thirty-one of success and influence. Talking with a reporter on the set of the movie, she reflects on the opportunity she has now to influence the thinking of young readers who may become the leaders of tomorrow. Meanwhile, the novelist Kiese Laymon, also from Jackson, and also with a childhood punctuated by terrifying violence, recounts in his new memoir Heavy, and interviews marking its publication, a darker path: ambition and opportunities thwarted, a solitary struggle to write and publish with full honesty, a search for a literary home. In the upper reaches of power, legendary literary agent Amanda (“Binky”) Urban, writing for a special “Women and Power” segment of The Cut, offers instances of books that might and might not have been. Publishers Weekly describes how she was not able to sell a memoir she encouraged her friend journalist David Sheff to write about his son, Nick’s, addiction, until an article he published in the New York Times Magazine went viral; then the memoir sold and another publisher commissioned a children’s book from Nick himself, and the two books eventually became the current film Beautiful Boy.

As writers struggle in their different ways to bring their works to light and to print, publishers worry over a persistent decline in the sale of fiction, confirmed by a September NEA study in Americans’ reading habits (poetry and non-fiction are up, though). Editors point to the difficulty of bringing readers’ attention to new work in the world of e-commerce, the narrative satisfactions of streaming TV, our distraction by news, and the disappearance of daily book reviewing (hence Book Post!). The net result is a focus in fiction publishing on cultivating “name” authors at the expense of new voices. This as researchers and teachers continue in recent weeks to report on the benefits of reading fiction for developing empathy and emotional sophistication, not to mention all the other things we like about it!

Independent bookstores and small publishers, though, continue to show gains reaching readers in their communities. Wanda Jewell, executive director of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, told Publishers Weekly a few weeks ago “I feel like stores are finding their groove. They’re finding ways to present themselves to their community as more than just a bookstore.” The Wall Street Journal published a capacious piece, covering some of the same ground as ours, on the success of small publishers in cultivating independent work in an era of corporate consolidation (Laymon was first published by a small press). Literary Hub, by way of example offered the case of the thriving bookshop and publisher and literary destination, San Francisco’s City Lights, interviewing Elaine Katzenberger, who went from bartender to bookseller and now runs the place. The Guardian featured a series of photographs put together by Philippe Ungar and Franck Bohbot to celebrate the independent bookstores of New York City—many of which, by the way, have cameos in the new literary forgery caper, Can You Ever Forgive Me? The book business even got a boost when United States–Mexico–Canada Trade Agreement (formerly NAFTA) removed a threatened tariff on Canadian paper.

The biggest problem faced by those trying to sell books these days may not be declining readership but real estate. Booksellers in California and the Pacific Northwest told Publishers Weekly that they were being squeezed not only by their own rents but by the difficulty of paying staff enough that they can afford to live within commuting distance of the customers. The pitiful wages of booksellers were highlighted in a recent Longreads piece on bookstore unionization. San Francisco, which, with a real estate market juiced up by the tech boom is perhaps the country’s most expensive city, recently released $103,000 in grants in support of its bookstores (including City Lights, we hope!). France (by the way) supports its booksellers with direct grants and price protections.

The revered Manhattan bookstore McNally Jackson, which led a resurgence of independent bookselling after many of the city’s legendary independents were wiped out by chains in the eighties, prompted cries of pain throughout the city when a realtor started advertising the spot earlier this month. In an interview in New York Magazine, owner Sarah McNally said the owner had raised her rent from $360,000 a year to $850,000 and then started advertising it before she had gotten back to him. Her business model, she said, is built on brick-and-mortar browsing: a large share of her sales come from impulse purchases. (McNally promises a new location, announcement immanent.) Meanwhile another New York institution, the Drama Book Shop, which had sold scripts to generations of the city’s theatrical types, announced that it too was being forced out by an astronomical rent increase. McNally joined advocates of a New York City Council Small Business Jobs Survival Act, protecting small businesses from predatory real estate practices. Lexi Beach, the co-owner of Astoria Bookshop in Queens, tweeted that what bookstores need is not so much book buyers but policies protecting small business and people prepared to advocate for them.

On a smaller scale, Book Lovers even lost the founder of the Little Free Library, Todd Bol, who died last month of pancreatic cancer. Boll set up his first miniature library near his home in Hudson, Wisconsin, in 2009, to honor his teacher mother and make use of a nice piece of wood. Fortunately in this case we are left with 75,000 Little Free Libraries dotting the landscape from Uganda to Siberia. Set up your own! There are tips and kits on their web site.

Bookstores are in their own ways getting in on the Little Free Library spirit. Our partner bookstore for November, Left Bank Books, has a philanthropic arm that distributes books and hosts literary events in distressed communities. At the time of the Ferguson protests they created a Ferguson Reading Group and a Black Lives Matter reading list. Beth Ineson, executive director of New England Independent Booksellers Association tells Publishers Weekly that she’s working on an initiative with 826 Boston, the local arm of the national nonprofit youth writing and publishing program, to bring young people from different backgrounds into bookstores. The mentorship group Girls Write Now, which pairs young public high school students with writers, recently published an anthology; mentee Samantha White and mentor Erica Silberman recently spoke with Masie Cochran for Lit Hub about their experience together. Freebird Books in Red Hook, Brooklyn, among many others throughout the country, packs up donated books for prison libraries through the Books Through Bars program; they all welcome donations of books, time, and materials. (Recently Pennsylvania has moved to restrict imprisoned people’s access to books; a move similar to one New York State tried earlier this year and recinded after a backlash.)

Meanwhile new sorts of books continue to proliferate. Robert Patterson announced that his new novel will appear on the Messenger app; Harper Collins is putting a YA novel on Snapchat; and Dutton is releasing a new kind of book, originating in Holland, that fits in your hand. Instagram poetry, for better or worse, continues to buoy the boom in poetry reading. A Chinese farmer found her form in live-streaming. LitHub for its part took us back a few centuries by remembering an ancient medium, the literary magazine.

Before we say good-bye, a few codas to some of our earlier stories: PBS’s Great American Read television series on October 23 announced its multiply-voted-upon most-loved novel, To Kill a Mockingbird; the alternative Nobel Prize, stepping in for the scandal-plagued regular one (good riddance, per one contrarian), was awarded to Guadelpoupean writer Maryse Condé; and Ruth Franklin, who reviewed Susan Orlean’s Library Book for us and also wrote a biography of the writer Shirley Jackson, offered a few thoughts on the Netflix series based on Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

For those who can’t wait, we have already seen the first of the “Best Books of 2018,” from Publishers Weekly, who are equipped to look ahead. If lists are your thing, you’d do well to follow Largehearted Boy, who does us the great service of keeping a comprehensive best-books list list.

In the last few weeks, sadly, we lost playwright Ntozake Shange and poet Tony Hoagland, who contributed a lot in their different ways to the writing lives of many readers and protégés.

Finally, if you are missing baseball, please read this beautiful essay by novelist Alvaro Enrigue, following his baseball passion from Mexico City (1970s) to Baltimore (1980s, 2010s).


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Little Bookmobile. A handmade Little Free Library by Mark Franzke in Johnson County, Kansas. More info at the Shawnee Mission Post.