Thursday, March 27, 2008

Booksellers or Smutsellers?

The latest shockingly disgusting thing to happen in the wide world of books this month happened in the state of Indiana where the legislature put forth bill H.B. 1042 and Governor Mitch Daniels proudly signed it into law. Here's a sampling:

A person, firm, corporation, association, partnership, limited liability corporation, or other entity that intends to sell sexually explicit materials, products, or services shall register with the secretary of state the intent to sell sexually explicit materials, products, or services and provide a statement detailing the types of materials, products, or services that are intended to be sold.
After receiving a registration described (above), the secretary of state shall notify the local officials of the county in which an entity described (above) intends to sell sexually explicit materials, products, or services.... For purposes of this chapter, materials, products, or services are "sexually explicit materials, products, or services" if the materials, products or services are entirely without redeeming social value....

In other words, if you sell a book that has what the Indiana legislature considers to be without "redeeming social value", you have to register - ala a sex offender - with the State, which will run you a $250 bill. Then you go on a list. If you do not register and are caught peddling said explicit materials, you are subject to a Class B misdemeanor, which could leave you in prison for up to 180 days and out $1000. All for ostensibly selling someone The Story of O.

Thankfully, in response, Chris Finan of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) issued the following statement: "It is un-American to force booksellers to register with the government based on the kinds of books they carry. It is also unconstitutional, and we intend to do everything we can to challenge this violation of the First Amendment rights of Indiana booksellers and their customers."

I can't imagine that this will not make its way through the courts on various appeals - in what way does the State of Indiana see this law as a constitutional one? I could be wrong, but this would seem to pretty much directly violate a person's First Amendment rights. Our fear of pedophilia and pornography - while relatively understandable, but not really in the same ballpark with each other - are constantly spilling over into the realm of normalcy, in this case, to your friendly neighborhood bookstore. Is the next step forcing consumers to register if they have any state-determined "sexually explicit" material in their homes? And who's interest is all of this in, exactly? Who is Indiana trying to protect, the theoretical, always-wandering-towards-the-precipice "children"? The law even excludes "public or nonpublic schools" since the are not selling anything - so where does the line actually get drawn? Who are these legislators to determine what is or is not appropriate reading material? Since Indiana's definition of "sexually explicit material" is so incredibly broad and shortsighted, one can only assume that booksellers are included as purveyors of smut. One would hope that the intent here is not to censor works of literature, but I just can't confirm that. The reality is that it's just sad that this sort of bogus legislation is able to make its way through so many levels of government - it passed 82-12 in the House, 44-2 in the Senate before the governor signed it. 44-2? That's just ridiculous. Or is it fascism?

If, like myself, you are curious about how such a horrible miscarriage of legislation was passed into Indiana law, I suggest that you ask Governor Mitch Daniels himself - use this helpful "Ask Mitch" section of the Indiana State Government's website. The only way that things like this will stop happening in this country is if the people speak up. So speak up!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

In-Your-Face Bookselling

How Not To Display Books according to the Borders Group Display SystemIn an article that ran in the Wall Street Journal last week (Borders Tries About-Face on Shelves, March 12), ace reporter, Jeffrey Trachtenberg broke the news scoop of this young century in a brilliant piece of investigative reporting: Borders, one of the two largest book retailers in the United States, is now employing an experimental face-out book display system in some of its concept stores. That's right, CEO George Jones has decided that book sales may increase if their covers are displayed facing the customer, rather than with their spines out on the shelves.

"Breakfast cereals are not stocked end-of-box out," he says. "You want to your product to be as enticing as possible. It's a little bizarre that it's taken booksellers this long to realize that the point of self-service is to make the product as tempting as possible."

Yes George, it sure is! Thankfully Borders has come along to show everyone in the backwards book industry how things should be done. No, this is how things are done when you live on the cutting edge - think of this brand of bookselling more as Corporate Literature Transference, if you can. I can't believe I never thought of something so bold, yet so simple. So drastic and in-your-face! It's no wonder that thousands of independent booksellers have gone belly-up in the face of such radical innovation! Where did Mr. Jones come up with such "crazy" ideas, you ask? Well, he "says he learned when he was a buyer at Dillard's Inc. early in his career that dresses sell better when the entire garment is shown rather than hung sleeve-out." And everyone knows that books are like dresses....or cereal boxes.

At its prototype store, Borders is also testing a special display that highlights covers of classics from Charles Dickens and Jack Kerouac, as well as movie tie-in titles such as Cormac McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men."

My God! Do you mean, perhaps, a metal spinning contraption of some sort, that displays books face-out? I cannot imagine such a thing. Are you from the future, George Jones?

I must admit, I am just as upset at the fact that the Wall Street Journal ran this ridiculous puff piece, as I am annoyed at Borders for claiming to be so groundbreakingly innovative. This qualifies as genuine news? Jesus, they ran this on the front page of their "Marketplace" section - what were they thinking? Even if you have never been in a bookstore before - independent or otherwise - doesn't it seem strange to you that facing the cover of a book out on the shelf would be a new concept? No one had ever thought of that before? (In doing a bit of research on this post, I came across a Borders employee forum - fascinating stuff. Even some of them think that Jones is an idiot, as they face books out all the time.) To top this all off, seven days later, Publisher's Weekly reported that Borders was in enough dire financial straits, that they would be open to the prospect of a corporate sale. Of course, Barnes & Noble immediately perked up - being the only buyer in the market for gigantic bookstore chains. So the question remains, how can anyone take seriously the claim of innovative merchandising and forward thinking when they are ready to pack it all in themselves? To my eyes, the financial trouble that Borders seems to be headed for would seem a better fit for an article in the Wall Street Journal, rather than an absurd piece about how their display techniques have finally caught up to the rest of us. And that's the sad part, really - the rest of us just love to talk about books to anyone who'll listen. Yes, we face books out so people can see their covers, but it's not always about pushing the book that you stupidly bought too many of - more often it is about bringing attention to the books that we love and that we want to share with others. That is what "bookselling" is all about - this simple concept, this radically innovative process, is what separates the corporate chains from the small independents. We are not interested in shoving product down people's throats - we just want to share wonderful literature with other humans, to promote literacy, art, and commonality.

Side note: At the risk of inflating his ego, I have decided to post the following Letter to the Editor from Thursday, March 21's Wall Street Journal. The letter writer is my friend and co-worker Scott Ehrig-Burgess - I think he may have been able to put this whole thing a bit more eloquently than I. You be the judge:

"On behalf of the hundreds of thriving, resilient, innovative, independent booksellers surviving the onslaught of superstores, discounters, online booksellers, electronic publishing, and the predicted death of the book and reading in our culture, we would like to welcome Borders Group to the 20th century.
Since the 1950's, Warwick's has employed the "face-out display" concept, with little or no media fanfare. Independent booksellers were also the first to employ the cafe concept, the first to host events, the first to sell music. The list goes on.
Here in the 21st century, we continue another revolutionary concept in retail: We treat books like books, rather than breakfast cereal, by hiring and retaining great booksellers who take reading seriously and who are passionate about building relationships with our wonderful customers who are great readers themselves. Until Borders realizes that great books begin in the hands of great booksellers and great readers, not in boardrooms and concept stores, we will continue to thrive at the cutting edge of our industry, with this simple, insurmountable, competitive advantage."

Thursday, March 20, 2008


The Book Catapult is on a brief hiatus this week as I have been working on my brackets and will be watching basketball at every opportunity during the days ahead - instead of reading. I apologize to any bookish types who've stumbled in here expecting great literary reviews and insights. Go UConn.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Cross by Ken Bruen

Ken BruenJack Taylor is the guy that the fallible detective types look at to keep their own miserable lives in perspective. He’s been described by his creator, Ken Bruen, as “the world’s worst detective”. He doesn’t detect so much as he stumbles into situations, makes them worse, and maybe, maybe, helps to bring about some degree of resolution, which usually involves his getting beaten with pipes, hurleys, bats, fists, whatever. Usually, he just creates more problems, causes more pain to those around him, than he solves anything. In his checkered career as an ex-cop in Galway (prior to our meeting him, he was dismissed from the Guards for punching a corrupt politician in the face) he has gone from being the town’s worst drunk, to a serious cokehead, to a pill-popping lunatic, to being committed, to being 100% sober, but ultimately really unhappy. I know its cliché to say that he’s fallible, but lovable – “lovable” really, really being the wrong word - but there’s something just so compelling about his voice – you live inside his head for the whole of the book, so you are able to really get a sense of what he is truly thinking, even while his mouth runs away from him. Often, what he really thinks - usually something good-hearted - is thrown aside while his rage and indifference takes center stage. “I don’t know why I said that” is a common refrain of his.

In Cross, his sixth adventure that we are privileged enough to view, he’s at his most vulnerable, his life’s loneliest point. Over the course of several years, he has managed to ostracize every person in his life that may have cared about him at any point – with the exception of Ridge, his lesbian cop friend, his relationship with which thrives on mutual venomous animosity. Not helpful when you’re at rock bottom.

He dreams of leaving Ireland for the greener, calmer, safer(?) pastures of America – he even puts his apartment on the market and buys his airfare. What’s keeping him in Galway anyway? No one likes him, not even himself, so why not try and reinvent overseas? You would think that the end of The Dramatist – two books previous - would have been the worst possible moment for Jack: Sober Jack, picking up the pieces of his life, in a moment of inattention, allowed a child in his care to fall out a window to her death – a death that came as such a shock, I don’t think I’ve ever been so floored by the closing events in a novel before. But the depth of this character Jack has come so far – his is an emotional decline that is palpable, visceral. Since you live in his head for the duration, the emotions feel, somehow, more raw, more tangible. He is filled with such self-loathing, yet he can’t really admit it to himself – he doesn’t really take it out on others, really, but he bottles it up to such a degree, that he pushes everyone around him away. Only the one who is as volatile as he can even begin to break through his rough exterior. Ridge is the key to his salvation. If only he could admit that.

It is a minor tragedy that Ken Bruen has not yet won an Edgar Award for the Jack Taylor series (although, hopefully this will change on May 1st, as Priest, the previous book in the series has been nominated for Best Novel). Perhaps the problem is that these books are barely "mystery" novels in the "whodunnit" sense. Each is more a chapter, only a glimpse, into the fascinating life of Mr. Taylor, transcribed with the lyrical Irish fury of Ken Bruen.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Go white girl, go white girl, go!

Since this is ostensibly a book blog, you knew that this story would be addressed on the Catapult eventually. On Tuesday of this past week, the New York Times broke the story that the memoir Love and Consequences by Margaret B. Jones (Margaret Seltzer), was a total fabrication. She invented a mixed racial background and claimed that she had been raised in fostercare in South Central L.A., where she ran drugs for the Bloods as a child. "...all the time, people would say to me, you’re not what I imagine someone from South L.A. would be like." Actually, she's all-white and was raised in affluent Sherman Oaks by her biological family.

"For whatever reason, I was really torn and I thought it was my opportunity to put a voice to people who people don’t listen to."

So I made up the whole thing and pretended that their stories were my own, never thinking for a second that someone would find out. Brilliant. Her rock-solid story was exposed when her sister saw her picture in the Times and called the publisher to rat her out.

"I’m not saying like I did it right."

You think? Part of the fun fall-out from this has been the backward glances to the critical acclaim she received before the controversy, mainly from my least favorite book critic, Michiko Kakutani of the Times: "Although some of the scenes she has recreated from her youth (which are told in colorful, streetwise argot) can feel self-consciously novelistic at times, Ms. Jones has done an amazing job of conjuring up her old neighborhood." I like "streetwise argot", myself. The real negative aspect of this though, lies squarely in the lap of Riverhead Publishing. After the ridiculous James Frey Incident, publishers have the responsibility to research the stories that they publish as memoirs. Now, Riverhead claims to have been thoroughly duped by this woman, which they apparently feel gets them off the hook. How hard would it have been to do a quick search for the family of Margaret Seltzer - whether the fictional foster family or her Sherman Oaks one - just to make sure that they didn't have a James Frey on their hands. And actually, this whole thing makes the Frey debacle look petty and pathetic - all he fabricated was the length of his jail sentence; he was still a deplorable crackhead. Yet look at the mess Oprah left from that one. Riverhead should have done their homework, simply because this has happened before.

They should know, actually, since they published James Frey's second book, My Friend Leonard in 2005.