Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The Sales That Bind

Literary blogs are full of tales of publishing woe, where promising authors see their books go nowhere. In a world where more than 120,000 books are published each year, it’s hard to get noticed. No one knows which magic ingredients make a book stand out. Is it a good review in the New York Times? Publishing dollars spent on catchy ads? Word of mouth?

The Columbia Journalism Review ran one of the most interesting – and depressing -- articles on the art of getting noticed, The Education of Stacy Sullivan: A First-Time Non-Fiction Author Learns that Getting Published Is Not Necessarily The Hard Part. The piece generated a lot of comments when it came out a few months ago, but it is still an interesting read.

If I had to guess the secret to brisk sales, I would say it had something to do with local booksellers. Independent bookstores can do a great job pushing books – look at the success of Book Sense. I cannot tell you how many times I have walked in to A Good Great Place For Books in Oakland and left with a book recommended by Debi Echlin, one of the owners. I trust her opinion and when she tells me something is great, I buy it.

I think her store is directly responsible for some of the success of the regional bestsellers, Take Me With You: A Round the World Journey to Invite a Stranger Home by Brad Newsham, Tumbling After: Pedaling Like Crazy After Life Goes Downhill by Susan Parker; and Working Fire: The Making of an Accidental Fireman by Zac Unger. Debi raved about all of them to her customers.

Now Robert Gray, a bookseller at Northshire Books in Manchester, Vermont has started an interesting discussion in his blog about another book, one that he is trying to rescue from the remainder pile. It’s called Ballad of the Whiskey Robber, and it is the true story of a colorful hoodlum named Attila Amburs, the Robin Hood of Eastern Europe.

You would think this book had everything going for it. The author, Julian Rubenstein, has written for the New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Salon and elsewhere. The book got a starred review in Publishers Weekly and won a Borders award. It was sold to the movies for lots of money. But Gray reports that sales have been below expectations, in part because of a confluence of unlucky factors. It’s depressing to think that good books sink for no reason.

I picked up the book after I read about the hefty film deal. (I can dream, can’t I?) So far I’ve found it fanciful, but I’m not yet convinced. But I am only on page 20. But if a book that well-received is allowed to flounder, what hope is there for other aspiring authors?

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