Nancy Pearl is a librarian with an action figure modeled in her likeness; author of the Book Lust series; a regular commentator about books on NPR’s “Morning Edition” and a former bookseller. She recently joined forces with Amazon to create the Book Lust Rediscoveries series, which will bring out-of-print books back into circulation. The partnership sent a shockwave through the independent bookselling community. Many booksellers, who for years championed the famed librarian’s pursuit of books and reading, saw the collaboration as a slap in the face. Staff members from the Pacific NW Booksellers Association wrote about the situation here and it was reported on in national news outlets, such as The New York Times and on NPR. Regardless of where booksellers stand on the issue, they can’t deny that Pearl has gone above and beyond to connect books with readers. With all her experience in the book world, we wanted to pick her brain about the current state of affairs of the book business and to ask her about what happened with Amazon. She was kind enough to take some time from her busy schedule to answer (a lot of) questions.
You have been involved in the book industry a long time now. What is one of the biggest changes you have noticed? It could just be a trick of my memory, or nostalgia for those good old days, but I think I remember there being many more “midlist” books when I started out in bookselling in the 1980s. Those were just the sort I liked (and still like) to read and recommend to other readers. I remember the excitement of opening up a box of books from Knopf or Norton and knowing, just being absolutely sure, that there would be at least one wonderful novel or work of narrative nonfiction in there that I’d love and could handsell: Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant novel, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire were all published during my years at the book store, and what wonderful novels they were. There are still wonderful midlist books—they’re what I call “under the radar” titles on Morning Edition—but I find that they’re a lot harder to find amidst the celebrity bios, the titles rushed to print to capitalize on something in the news, and those reliable best-selling authors that we’re all familiar with.
Those books are the ones I most enjoy handselling. There’s a thrill that comes with introducing readers to an amazing book they may not have otherwise discovered. Have interests changed so drastically that midlist titles simply aren’t ever going to be profitable again? I hate to think that someday I’ll only be selling celebrity bios and books printed purely for the sake of capitalizing on the latest scandal. My experience tells me that interests haven’t changed. What’s changed is how hard it is to find good books among all the not-so-great books that are out there, particularly books from smaller publishers. One of my favorite publishers is Unbridled Books, and I would venture to guess that their marketing budget falls far short of Simon & Schuster’s, for example. So how do the mostly wonderful novels that Unbridled publishes get found unless you know to look for them? There’s where the role of booksellers (and librarians) comes into prominence.
What do you think are the strengths of independent booksellers? Where is there room for improvement? At first blush, it appears that libraries, independent booksellers, big box booksellers and online booksellers are all in competition with one another for readers’ patronage. But I believe that they are all also interdependent. Each has something distinctive to offer (libraries are free, but have limited numbers of copies of individual books available for check out; independent booksellers can build relationships with individual readers and handsell books, but are limited in their ability to discount prices; big box booksellers have large inventories and moderate ability to discount, but only limited personal service; online booksellers have virtually unlimited inventories and generally the greatest ability to discount prices, but essentially no personal service). They all, at least potentially, benefit when any of them contributes to growth in the community of readers, the pool of potential customers.
And when it comes to those midlist titles, the independent bookstore has it all over the online or big box retailer, because independent bookstores (and libraries, too) work to build personal relationships with their customers. When I’m at a bookstore or library and one of the booksellers or librarians whom I know tells me that she has just read a book that she thinks I would like, the fact that she’s talking to me (with enthusiasm) and holding a copy of the book for me makes our interaction much more meaningful than reading a review. I’m much more likely to buy the book.
I have to say here that, in fact, all the novels in the “Book Lust Rediscoveries” series fall into this midlist category: the books were midlist when they were originally published, and not nearly enough people read them, and I believe strongly that they deserve to be introduced to a wider audience.
When you signed on with Amazon for “Book Lust Rediscoveries,” you received backlash from much of the independent bookselling community. You told The New York Times that you were “surprised” by that reaction. Knowing that Amazon is a direct competitor of independent booksellers, and that booksellers have looked to you as a voice for the independent community, why were you so taken aback by the booksellers’ anger? I wasn’t surprised that most independent booksellers had a strong reaction to my decision to partner with Amazon. I expected that. What I was taken aback by was the extent to which the response was anger, and the extent to which it was directed at me, personally. I never considered myself to be a voice of the independent bookselling community. My primary loyalty has always been to readers, and to the task of bringing books and readers together.
I’ve always been a strong supporter of independent bookstores because I think they play a vital role in fulfilling that task. I believe that a large online bookseller like Amazon, or a big-box bookseller like Barnes and Noble, or a big box discounter like Costco, can also play a valid and valuable role in the process, but a very different one than that played by independent booksellers. If those other business models ever crowded independent booksellers out of the marketplace completely, that would be a great loss for the community of readers.
Many booksellers believe that Amazon is crowding them out—or at least trying to—with predatory business practices. Would you mind addressing that concern? Is it at all justified? I’m not a spokesperson for Amazon, so that’s a question you would need to take up with them directly.
If you didn’t see yourself as a voice for independent bookstores, why do you think you were perceived as such? Did people really see me as “the voice of independent bookstores,” or “an official spokesperson for independent bookstores?” I can’t imagine why. From the time I began gaining public recognition, I’m pretty sure that the public saw me primarily as a librarian who promoted books and reading. I certainly never hesitated to share my enthusiasm for the wonderful independent bookstores that I knew. I’m sure that indie booksellers saw me as an ally (which is the way I saw—and still see—myself). But, my primary allegiance was always to the promotion of books and reading, not to the business model of independent bookstores. Perhaps some independent booksellers didn’t make that distinction. I guess that would explain why, when I chose to promote books and reading with the “Book Lust Rediscoveries” series in the way that I thought would be most effective, but a way that didn’t put a priority on supporting their business model, some might have seen it as a betrayal by “their Nancy.” To the extent that that happened, I am very sorry, but I hope that anyone who felt that way will come to see that I was just being true to what has always been my primary raison d’être—helping readers and good books find each other.
I felt more puzzlement than anything when I heard the news, because the “Rediscoveries” project seemed like the perfect partnership to work out with On Demand Books, the company behind the Espresso Book Machine. (Full disclosure, I manage the self-publishing program and run the EBM at Village Books.) Was that an option that had been considered when you were shopping around the proposal? If not, why? As I was developing the project, my primary responsibility was getting these out-of-print books that I loved so much reprinted, and finding readers for them. My agent, Victoria Sanders, sent the BLR proposal to all the major New York publishers, as well as Amazon. After much exploration of my options for making the project happen, it became clear to me and Victoria that partnering with Amazon was the best option for bringing the project to fruition. I don’t know a lot about On Demand Books, except that none of the books in the BLR project were available from them.
My agent and I always envisioned this project as a branded series called “Book Lust Rediscoveries” that would be promoted to a wide readership. The authors who wrote the books should get royalties, and the books should have lovely, inviting covers. I wanted to write introductions, discussion questions, and bibliographies for further reading for all the books. None of that could have happened using On Demand Books. One angry tweeter asked why I didn’t use Google books to do the project. Google is not a publisher. And neither is On Demand Books. If, in fact, I’m wrong, and On Demand or Google could have produced the series the way I imagined it, and paid royalties to the authors, then all I can say is that the information available about them doesn’t make this at all clear.
Since I work directly with On Demand Books and the Espresso Book Machine, I have a better idea of the machine’s technological capabilities and accessibility to older books. You said that the information available about On Demand Books isn’t clear, but I’m wondering if you considered investigating On Demand Books further to see if they might be a good fit for Book Lust Rediscoveries? Or were they completely off your radar at that point? When I first heard of On Demand Books and the Espresso Book Machine, I was thrilled by the idea, because I (rather naively, I now think) believed that this would mean that all those books I loved that were out of print would be available again. I imagined talking about a book on NPR and having people be able to buy a copy via On Demand Books. Alas, none of the books I wanted to talk about, or other out-of-print books that I simply wanted to own were available.
I just rechecked On Demand Books and not only are the books that are included in the Book Lust Rediscoveries series still not available, but even if they were available, it would not be possible to create a book that included an introduction, a bibliography of further reading, and discussion questions—all of which I wanted in the BLR books. Again, the BLR titles are not in the public domain; therefore in order to reprint them, someone needed to negotiate with each individual copyright holder. Perhaps someday I will be able to get nice clean copies of the Betty Cavanna books, or the D.E. Stevenson novels, or all the novels by Elizabeth Cadell, or all those o.p. children’s books that I loved so much, but not yet.
Could you tell us about the first book that will be released in the Book Lust Rediscoveries series?
The first BLR novel is Merle Miller’s A Gay and Melancholy Sound, originally published in 1961. Miller is probably best known for his biography of Harry Truman, Plain Speaking. A Gay and Melancholy Sound is about an emotionally stunted and self-destructive man named Joshua Bland who is not only unable to love, but—perhaps worse—unable to accept being loved. It’s a beautifully written, character-driven novel, one of the purest examples of novel-as-autobiography that I’ve ever read.
Ok, change of pace, how many Nancy Pearl dolls do you own? I own two of the “deluxe” mode and one of the original (dressed in blue). The Librarian Action Figure was discontinued in 2011, so what I have now is all that I’ll ever have.
The world has lost a great action figure! Thank you. It was great fun but exhausting being an action figure.
What author do you think deserves his/her own doll as well? Stewart O’Nan, just because I love his books. Ernest Hemingway, because he already seems as though he were turned into an action figure, and the add-ons could be very cool, like a model of his boat, a Cuban flag, and four additional action figures (smaller than Ernest) – his four wives.
Ha! It could also have a detachable beard in case you just wanted the mustachioed Hemingway. I love that idea!
What is the last book that wowed you? I think it was Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz. For nonfiction, I finally read Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson (hence the Hemingway Action Figure) and loved it.
I really like the cover for The Forgotten Waltz—there’s something about it that’s inviting. Do publishers ever come to you for input things like that? That just happened for the very first time late last year. It was for cover designs on two of a publisher’s forthcoming books. I loved doing it!
What books coming out this spring are you excited about? Carol Anshaw’s Carry the One. I loved her novel Lucky in the Corner. Lauren Groff’s Arcadia. Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins (one of my favorite novels is his Citizen Vince). Jim Lynch’s Truth Like the Sun; The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey; The Passage of Power by Robert Caro; Talulla Rising by Glen Duncan; The Lola Quintet by Emily St. John Mandel, which is published by Unbridled Books.
Lindsey McGuirk began her career in books as the events coordinator for Village Books in Bellingham, WA. She took a two-year stint at Algonquin Books in North Carolina, where she learned about the publishing end of the business, but returned to her true love of bookselling at Village Books in 2009. She is now the Digital Marketing & Publishing Coordinator and handles the online marketing and working with authors to get their books printed on the store’s print-on-demand Espresso Book Machine.