It’s no secret that publishers have their lists of indie bookseller “big mouths.” While I’m not sure how publishers rank the size of my mouth, I’m perennially searching for books to get excited about, and I don’t shy away from sharing that passion with colleagues in the book industry and, of course, with our customers. I’m in very good company. Independent booksellers have always been involved in the discovery of great books and in helping them become best-sellers, finding gems in the midlist and helping them climb to the top of the best-seller lists. I believe keeping the midlist healthy and interesting is perhaps the more important mission.
Although not a new phenomenon, the voice of indies is louder and stronger than ever. It’s more institutionalized, as it were, in part by the American Booksellers Association’s Indie Next program; through opportunities found at Winter Institute; and in the focus many publishers place on their sales reps’ working as marketers with accounts, filtering lists and supporting titles that are natural fits in the market. Agents, editors, marketing directors, reps, fellow booksellers and authors themselves put a lot of energy into garnering our attention.
How do I decide what to read? It is often torturous. Anguished. But it’s also Christmas every day. Which gift for the mind and spirit and imagination should I open next? Here are the primary deciding factors: relationships, relationships and relationships. I make my decisions, for the most part, based on suggestions from people I already trust. As I write this, I realize I sound timid, perhaps close-minded. Au contraire. I will read way out of my comfort zone when someone I know makes a strong recommendation. But it remains a matter of trust. OK, I admit, sometimes it’s a favor. Rarely is it a matter of guilt. Does friendship come into play? Yes and no. Bottom line: This is a business, and in business, reputation is everything.
On any given day, five to dozens of ARCs find their way to my office—an embarrassment of riches. How do I choose? What am I searching for? A new voice and, occasionally, a not-so-new voice that somehow I haven’t read before. It always starts with the personal. A sales rep declares, “I loved this and you will, too.” To the top of the pile it goes. Or a galley arrives in the mail: It’s beautiful! Special paper, almost like a Bible, with edges dyed blood red. It merits a second look. What puts it over the top, though, is a note from the editor, an editor whose taste I trust. The pretty packaging tells me there will be serious resources behind this book, but knowing the editor is how I know I’ll give it extra attention. For me, a note weighs a lot more than pretty does. Top of the pile! The knowledge or hope that I will be meeting the author at Winter Institute or BEA will automatically bring an ARC to the top of the pile. Serendipitous encounters with publishing friends on the floor of BEA, heartfelt pitches and promises to take a look have led me to treasured books I otherwise never would have placed on my pile. But can’t only one book be on top of the pile? Not if you have several piles!
Did I always trust these arbiters of my taste? No. Gingerly, carefully, we’ve come to understand each other’s motivations and predilections. It’s a very messy, fun and rewarding human algorithm. If you liked x, you might like y. If I don’t like y, they will generally hear about it. Or not; silence can be very loud.
Sometimes, recommendations from reps come with their own sets of codes, and I have to read between the lines. What is coming from New York, and what is coming from their hearts? It’s actually pretty easy to figure out. Part of the beauty and fun of buying for a large store is that even if a book is not my cup of tea, if I believe we have a customer for it, I bring it in. It’s sort of macro-curating.
There are so many books I love! Happily, it’s a nonstop treasure hunt to discover my next favorite book of all time. A knockout book may move me to tears, change my understanding of the world, make me laugh out loud or just entertain the pants off me! Whichever that may be, if I loved the book, I will make some joyous noise. Sharing my passion for a book is what keeps me jazzed, so keep them coming. I trust you. And it’s a club with open membership.
Cathy Langer is the lead buyer at the Tattered Cover Book Store, an independent with three large stores located in metropolitan Denver, Colo. In her spare time, if she’s not reading or rearranging her piles of books, she likes to bike, garden and travel.