Amanda MacNaughton has worked at Paulina Springs Books for six years, and she’s been in the book world for seventeen. Her first bookselling job was at her college bookstore in Illinois, when she was eighteen. Since then she’s worked at the Deschutes Public Library and at Barnes & Noble in Bend, OR. Tired of corporate bookselling, she saw a help wanted sign in the window at Paulina Springs Books’ Sisters location and decided to apply. After a three-hour interview, she was hired. In addition to being a frontline bookseller, MacNaughton handles the store’s author events and she occasionally contributes to NWBL (see interviews here and here). We asked her a few questions via email. Initially, we talked about keeping the interview short and snappy, but that notion became laughable as we got rolling.
You came to Paulina Springs from Barnes & Noble. How is corporate bookselling different from indie bookselling, and how is it the same? I feel much more freedom to be myself here at Paulina Springs Books. I feel free to express my own views, whether it be about books or even about politics or religion. I don’t feel much fear here that I will “get in trouble” if a customer isn’t happy, and no fear that I’ll be in trouble if caught reading a book while on the clock (which was forbidden at Barnes & Noble).
Being an indie store, the staff has much greater input on what books we should sell here (at B & N, this was all directed by “Corporate,” a mythical entity somewhere on the East Coast!) Here, if I like a book and think I can sell it, I go ahead and order it. I so appreciate the trust of the staff here. I was given a key to the store a couple of days after starting here, whereas at B & N, only managers had keys.
Of course, there are some elements that are the same. Handselling is a big, big part of the job, and naturally the more books you read, the better prepared you are for this.
What new and forthcoming books are you excited to handsell right now? Jane Kirkpatrick, who’s a beloved local author and one of the nicest people I know, has a book coming out in April (Where Lilacs Still Bloom), which I look forward to handselling to everyone I can corner. Margaret Dilloway, whose How to be An American Housewife is one of my top handsells, has a book coming out in August (The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns). The Apothecary by Maile Meloy is a super-duper kids’ book that’s adventurous, mysterious, funny and poignant, but very hard to describe!
What are some of your go-to backlist title favorites? The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss—great for anyone who says they want “good, uplifting fiction.” How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets and Raven Stole the Moon for the hundreds of customers who loved The Art of Racing in the Rain and have no idea Garth Stein has other books. The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer for kids 10-16 who love fantasy and/or adventure and think they’ve read it all. Impossible by Nancy Werlin for teenagers who like supernatural love stories but want something (or I want them to have something) meatier than the Twilight series.
How to be An American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway for people looking for the next read for their book club “but not something depressing this time!” This was her first novel, and I love handselling people’s first novels, partly because I hope someone will someday do that for me!
Heart of a Shepherd by Rosanne Parry and Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson. Those are both great kids’ books with main characters who have lots of moral strength. And I never stop trying to sell Emma Donoghue’s brilliant, poignant love story Landing to people who liked Room, but because it’s a love story between two women (though that is not at all the point of the story) most of my customers won’t read it. This is a real pet peeve of mine! There are some great books with gay main characters out there—I love K.M. Soehnlein’s Robin and Ruby—but I can hardly ever get my customers to read them. I don’t know if that’s because we’re in a small town in a rural area, or what, but it frustrates me to no end.
That is one of the heartbreaks of bookselling, I think, when you can’t get your customers on board for the books you love. Yes, it is. It can be so discouraging. So often, I think, the resistance comes from the customer feeling like they “can’t relate” to the book because the main character is not like themselves. The feeling that they can’t relate baffles me, because the same customers who won’t read Landing because they “can’t relate” to a love story between two women eat up Room, by the same author, because it’s just so much easier to relate to a little boy who’s been held in captivity by a psychopath for his whole life? I keep looking for the “way in” to selling the books people are resistant to. Brad, our store owner, suggested that I just describe the book without even mentioning the character’s sexual orientation. I’ve tried that, and I haven’t yet gotten a customer demanding a refund because ‘you didn’t tell me this was a book about gay people!’
You’ve been coordinating events for Paulina Springs for six years. What’s your recipe for a successful event? It would be great if I had a recipe for a successful event! I still feel like I’m gambling almost every time: will this writer be a good speaker? Will anyone come? Even if people come, will anyone buy the book? If I had a recipe, it would be something like: Take one local (Northwest, preferably Oregon) author who is a good public speaker (and who can tell jokes). Add a slide presentation, if possible. Shake on a liberal sprinkling of publicity. Provide (and advertise) refreshments. Bake in a comfortable store for an hour and a half or so.
I am uncomfortable with the fact that it helps if the author is an extrovert, or can pretend to be one, because I think that most writers are naturally introverts and should not have to be otherwise, so it makes me feel strange to say the author should be a good public speaker, but it does seem to help people enjoy the event.
Will you describe another memorable event? We’ve had a lot of memorable events! I’m going to pick when we had Garth Stein for How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets before he got big with The Art of Racing in the Rain. Of course, Garth is a former actor, so he’s much more extroverted than many authors. He did a completely audience participatory event, geared toward aspiring writers, with acting exercises! He would call a person up and act out a scenario with them, such as “Please give me that apple you’re holding. I need it for my poor old sick mother.” When the woman just handed over the apple, he said, “But isn’t it much more interesting when there’s conflict? How about you tell me no?” and they proceeded to have a dialogue. There weren’t many of us there, but it was great fun.
You’re also an aspiring fiction author. Is it inspirational or daunting to be surrounded by books for your day job—or both, or something else entirely? Yes! All of the above: inspirational, daunting, encouraging, smothering. For someone who wants to have a book out someday, the book industry is both an inspiring and a terrifying place to be. Terrifying, because you always hear how hard it is to “break in” as a new author, how you have to have connections, how you have to be practically superhuman to get in the door. Inspiring, because from what I see, that’s not true. Most of the authors I meet are perfectly normal people, and some of them pretty much came out of nowhere and got published.
That doesn’t mean I think it would be easy to get a book published! It can be daunting to see the vast array of what is already out there and think “How would I get noticed amidst all of that?”
On the inspirational side, we’ve seen a number of books written by booksellers recently, people like Eowyn Ivey and Emma Straub and Kevin Sampsell. Maybe you all will have your own section someday. Thanks for reminding me to read Eowyn’s book! Yes, it’s very encouraging to see this happen. I haven’t yet tried to market any of my fiction, but I do sometimes think that my experience “pitching” books here, giving a short, appealing summary that will make someone want to buy a book, can only work in my favor in the future. You just gave me a good idea for a display, too, “Bookseller Writers…” Hmm.
Do you fantasize about reading from your book at a Paulina Springs event and what that would look like? C’mon, now. Since I usually introduce the authors, maybe I’d have to introduce myself and make myself sound good, which would be terrifying. Or I’d have to let one of my co-workers introduce me, which is also a terrifying thought. It might be a lot easier for me to do readings at other stores! Often, my stage fright is worst around people I know.
We’re in this time of big changes for the book business. Almost everyone in the industry has probably formulated the equivalent of a paragraph or three about what they believe is or isn’t going to change or whatever else they feel strongly about that they say when someone asks at a cocktail party or a family gathering. What’s yours? I feel extremely uneasy about e-readers and e-books, and not just because I feel like they threaten the brick-and-mortar bookstore. For centuries, maybe thousands of years, books have been classic pieces of subversive culture, things you can smuggle into oppressive countries, hide, and read in secret, whether to gain information that will help you resist your oppressive regime, to foster your religious freedom, or for any number of other reasons. How does a missionary smuggle e-bibles onto the e-readers of a country with no religious freedom? If the Egyptian government shut down the Internet during the recent protests and revolution, a government can shut down your e-reader, or control what you can get on it.
I get upset that in all the discussion of e-book versus print book, I have not heard a single person touch on what would happen to all the people who don’t have electricity if there are no longer print books. This is a huge segment of the world’s population, and a lot of people in our own country still live without electricity. I grew up that way myself. Books opened up whole worlds to me.
I wish people would think about their own fundamental freedoms, and the freedoms of others, that will be impacted if we lose the print book diversity we have now, not just “I like to hold a book in my hands and turn the pages” (which I also think is important).
In that same vein, I wish it was more possible to educate customers that when they purchase books at independent bookstores, they’re not just doing a philanthropic good deed, which is what they often indicate (“I’m willing to pay a couple of dollars more so that you can stay open because I like coming in here”), but they’re supporting continued diversity in the publishing industry. Indie bookstores are famous for launching new authors by hosting their events and handselling, handselling, handselling. Without us, publishers would be much less willing to take a risk on an unknown author who just might become the Next Big Thing. Shopping at your local indie bookstore doesn’t just support “keeping it local.” It supports preserving your own reading choices and reading freedom—the freedom to have more than a few blockbusting titles to choose from.
Well said. We do need to play up the free speech argument when we talk about the importance of indie stores. But don’t you think Amazon is a much bigger immediate threat than e-books? You know, you’re probably right. I admit that I might be listening a bit much to media hype about how e-books are going to take over the book industry. I do think there’s a place for e-books, and lots of indies are now set up to sell them. I think Amazon is an enormous threat, and to people who would say, “Who cares if only one company controls the publishing and sales of books? What’s wrong with that?” I want to respond: “You won’t feel that way when what you can buy is limited to the top-selling modern authors. Amazon doesn’t care about getting new authors out there, about who has a good story to tell, or about diversity in the market. All they care about is money.”
I feel deeply uneasy about this, in the same way it makes my husband, a market gardener, uneasy that most seeds are now sold by just a few large seed companies. We need literary diversity and literary security in the same way we need biodiversity and food security. We want to survive so that readers can continue to have a rich, diverse reading experience.