Monday, June 15, 2009

Gobbledygook versus Substance

As in politics, so be it in the corporate world, where spokespersons continually put the best face on what they are doing. With respect to publishing, most anyone in the business of publishing books—from big-time to smaller houses, to agents and scouts, and even to printers—will acknowledge that things are crappy, with layoffs and shrinking acquisitions the rule. Independent bookstores will also testify to this, where their existence has been under assault for decades as the expansion of chain stores have put so many of them out of business. However, there is one player on this stage who continues to spin optimism as deceptive as what we witnessed from General Motors, AIG, and nearly all the investment and large banking corporations which, up until they folded, were assuring investors that things would be fine and not to worry. So it is not surprising that the biggest bookseller in the world would be singing this same siren’s song.

This déjà vu experience came to me again on May 21, when, in their online daily edition, Publishers Weekly featured an article with the following headline: Sales Fall Less Than Expected at Barnes & Noble; Has Improved Outlook. Reading the copy, however, puts the lie to this optimism from the first sentence on: “Sales fell slightly less than expected in the first quarter ended May 2 at Barnes & Noble, declining 4%...” but “since the retailer had expected a decline in sales of between 6% and 9%,” Len Riggio and the gang at B & N considered this a sign of “improvement.” Digging deeper into this article it appeared that B & N's net losses in the first quarter amount to $2.1 million (nearly four times higher than first quarter losses last year) despite cost-cutting efforts and plans to close 15 superstores this year. While lesser losses than predicted hardly indicates good times ahead, it's common practice on Wall Street to underestimate profits and overestimate losses. Then, when the actuality shows greater profits and lesser losses, one can claim things are turning around. In the end, though, this is simply another case of putting lipstick on a pig.

One need only add to this the fact that Barnes & Noble is also planning to take over the Borders Group (which also operates Waldenbooks and is the 2nd largest chain in America). However, sales at Waldenbooks fell 19.9%, there were 11 store closures, and a 5.5% drop in same store sales. “A series of one-time expenses ate into the company’s bottom line resulting in a loss from continuing operations of $86 million compared to a loss of $30.1 million in last year’s first quarter.” To lower costs in the quarter, Borders cut capital expenditures from $27 million to $2.4 million and reduced inventory by 22%.” This planned acquisition reminds me of G. M.’s acquisitions of Hummer, Saab and other auto companies which have since proved toxic and were soon sold off because of continuing losses. Nor is it impossible that America’s largest bookseller could go the way of America’s largest auto company. Perhaps not, but don’t bet against it. After all, Barnes & Noble stock has fallen from $44 a share in June 2007 to half that amount today—a statistic that is not mentioned in B & N’s rosy press releases. I’ve news for you, Mr. Riggio: the only good news in all of this, is that the vulnerability of B & N could auger well for the return of the local independent bookseller, an essential component to those of us interested in preserving quality fiction.

And here’s another bit of gobbledygook concerning the recent Book Expo held in New York City last month and, as usual, reported on dutifully by all major news media as an important cultural/business event that serves to publicize “What’s hot” and “What’s not.” While there were quotes from various editors about “Big Books” and “Buzzes,” the most important news was rarely mentioned: the fact that only one fourth of those attending were booksellers. Total attendance was 29,000 plus, of which 17,000 were exhibitors and only 7,000 book buyers; the remainder were mostly people working for the media who were covering this “important event,” and trying to find substance in a gathering that had little to offer. (Unreported in the media was our one little event of importance: that Chris Knopf’s Head Wounds won an important mystery award sponsored by the IBPA—the Independent Book Publishers Association.)

Two weeks ago I read the lead review by Robert Pinsky, our former Poet Laureate, of Elmore Leonard’s 44th thriller, Road Dogs, in The New York Times Book Review, and then heard the two of them on an hour long NPR radio station. It was a thrilling review and interview and I had to get a copy. Ever since reading Leonard’s Cuba Libre, some dozen or more years ago, I was enthralled by his talent. I’ve since read over 30 of his novels and, like others, came to consider him the best crime writer ever. If, at age 83, his novels have lost a bit of punch, so be it; he’s still the real deal and deserves every bit of attention he gets.

Last week I read Road Dogs and once again Chris Knopf came to mind. I remember that when we received Chris’s manuscript for The Last Refuge five years ago, I found myself musing over how much Knopf and Leonard had in common; both being masters of dialogue who create memorable characters, add dollops of humor to balance tension in their plots, and have their own, though different, poetic sensibilities. I also felt Refuge to be more engaging than Elmore’s The Hot Kid, released earlier, which I had just finished. Again, this time, for all the praise for Road Dogs, I once more thought it not as tight and engaging as Chris’s latest release in his Sam Acquillo mystery series, Hard Stop, and the two other novels sandwiched in between. While Knopf has not yet hit the “Big Time” with three books under his belt and a fourth just released weeks ago, it took Leonard a good half-dozen attempts before he came to major prominence; a prominence achieved by turning out one wonderful read after another before his artistry became impossible to ignore. Here again the similarities are evident.

When we published The Last Refuge in 2005, it was greeted by critical acclaim, seven international sales, a rave review by Marilyn Stasio in The New York Times Book Review, and repeatedly drew comparisons to not only Elmore Leonard, but to John D. MacDonald, and Ross MacDonald. Plus it was a finalist for the 2006 Connecticut Book Award.

Chris’s second, Two Time (2006), again gained excellent reviews, more international sales, and now Sam, his protagonist, was being compared to Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, and Robert Parker’s Spenser. Two Time was one of thirteen mysteries listed in Marilyn Stasio's "Recommended Summer Reading" column in The New York Times Book Review in 2006, and was listed in Entertainment Weekly as one of the 50 "Hot Picks" of that summer. Publishers Weekly chose it as one of the “Best 100 Books for 2006.” It, and Philip Roth’s Everyman, were runner-ups for the 2007 Connecticut Book Award.

Head Wounds (2008), the third in this series, again gained great critical acclaim, and on May 28 (during the poorly attended, and mentioned, Book Expo) was awarded the prestigious Ben Franklin Award for Best Mystery this year. It was also a finalist for the ForeWord Magazine Mystery Award. All three of these Sam Acquillo mysteries made the Book Sense/Indie Next Lists, all were recorded by Blackstone Audiobooks, all were taken by Wheeler in the US for large print editions, and all were done by Random House Canada. All told 21 international rights have been sold for this series with one or more taken in England, Spain, Japan, Turkey, Italy, and China.

We’ve already signed up his “stand alone” thriller, Elysiana, for 2010, and Chris is working on a fifth Sam Acquillo mystery for 2011. In addition, he’s signed a two book contract with St. Martins for a mystery series featuring Jackie Swaitkowski (Sam’s ditzy female lawyer)—both novels have already been purchased by Random House Canada and Blackstone Audiobooks (our partners since “Sam One”—The Last Refuge—was published). At this rate, his current productivity rate is akin to that of Elmore’s, insofar as he will have authored eight thrillers within a seven year period of time. And like Elmore (who worked as a copywriter at an ad agency for seven years while working on his fiction), that’s exactly how Chris began as well.

Is it little wonder then that I see Chris as following in the Elmore Leonard’s footsteps? If any of you have read both Knopf and Leonard, I would welcome your comments. If you haven’t read any of Chris’s novels, I’ll gladly introduce him to you at no cost: all you need do is email me ( and ask for a pdf copy of The Last Refuge, and I will gladly send it to your computer for downloading.