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Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Tiger's Wife: A Review

By now it is likely that you have heard about The Tiger's Wife, the debut novel from Tea Obreht. The advance praise this book has received is just short of the "I have seen the future of rock and roll, and his name is Bruce Springsteen" hoopla that preceded the release of Born to Run. And while The Tiger's Wife is not the greatest rock album of all time, it is one hell of a book, and certainly deserving of all the attention it has received.


From The New York Times to The Christian Science Monitor to The Los Angeles Times and every possible publication in between, The Tiger's Wife has been touted as THE book of 2011. No doubt part of the reason lies with story of the author herself: at 25, Serbian-born and US-raised Obreht is the youngest member of The New Yorker's "20 Under 40," a group of young writers the magazine has subtly labeled "the future of American fiction." I don't know about the rest of the group, but if The Tiger's Wife is any indication, they are dead-on in Obreht's case.

The novel's narrator is a young physician named Natalia who is on her way to treat orphans in a neighboring Balkan country after years of civil war when she learns that her beloved grandfather has died. Her memories of him and her quest to discover the circumstances of his death are interwoven with the folktales he used to tell her on their trips to the zoo in "The City," an unnamed place that is obviously her stylized version of Belgrade. Two of these tales form the second and third plot lines of the book: the story of the deathless man and the story of the tiger's wife.

“Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories,” Natalia says, “the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life — of my grandfather’s days in the army; his great love for my grandmother; the years he spent as a surgeon and a tyrant of the University.”

I won't go into any detail about the two tales here; part of the joy of this book is encountering them for the first time. Because one thing is clear from the first few pages: Obreht is a magician with language. Her prose is beautiful without being flowery, and the pacing of the novel changes slightly to fit each of the separate stories perfectly. Through this gift with language she shows us the importance of stories and storytelling in the lives of individuals and communities.

The Tiger's Wife is the kind of book you savor, get lost in, and are sad when it's over, wishing it had gone on for a hundred pages more. Hopefully we will see many more novels from this fine young writer, because (to paraphrase the line quoted above) I have seen the future of literature, and her name is Tea Obreht.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Borders Looks to Used Books for Help

As Borders Bookstores announced additional store closings today, Borders Group CEO Mike Edwards told the Wall Street Journal the troubled bookseller is considering a radical option: used books. During the interview with the WSJ, Edwards indicated that "Borders may also seek to add used books, an area that Mr. Edwards said is doing well online." While on the surface this may seem like a solid plan, there are just as many drawbacks for Borders as advantages.

It is hard to say just how well sales of used books are doing nationwide, simply because used books are not included in monthly and yearly sales figures reported by the Association of American Publishers. However, it is likely that used sales a doing well based on the number available online, the continued growth of mammoth used-book chain Half-Price Books, and the fact that in a down economy readers are looking for the cheapest deal they can find.

Borders would benefit from offering used titles in at least two ways. The first is the increased profit margin that used books enjoy over new titles (depending on how much Borders pays sellers for those titles when they acquire them). The second is that at least in the short-term, people looking to sell their used books would go to Borders first to see if they offer more than Half-Price or their local used bookstore. Half-Price Books, for example, has been offering less and less money to sellers over the past several years as their competition has essentially dwindled to garage sales. Borders' entry into the used-book market could help increase what sellers receive across the board as the stores compete for inventory.

But the downside for Borders of selling used books is daunting. Borders is a new book retailer with no experience in the used book market, and it is a very different market. Edwards said recently that it was "critical for Borders to be able to return (unsold) books to publishers consistent with our ordinary business practices." You can return unsold new books to the publisher for credit, but you can't return used books; you're stuck with them until they sell.

Another point in the WSJ article shows just how little Edwards understands what it takes, labor-wise, to handle used books:

Although Borders isn't looking to add to staff—it shed a number of key members earlier this year, Mr. Edwards said he might be willing to hire a senior online executive to work with Borders.com.

If Borders isn't looking to add staff, they should not even consider moving into the sale of used books, and here's why. I was recently in a Borders store (one that has escaped closure) and a Half-Price Books location. The Borders store is a roughly 25,000 square foot super-store, and there were four employees on duty. The Half-Price store is a little more than one-tenth that size (3,000 square feet), and had 7 employees on duty: two working the registers, two shelving and answering questions, and three working the counter where people sell their books to the store.

Why so many working the incoming books counter? Because buying used books from customers for your inventory is a time consuming and labor intensive process. You have to look through every box and at every book, look up current used-book prices, and consider how many of that title you already have on your shelves. You have to wade through piles of books with torn covers, mold, and water damage. For every current best-seller you examine, there will be multiple Readers Digest Condensed books, diet books, Jane Fonda workout books, Harlequin romances, and book club editions, all of which are worthless on the secondary market. Then you make the offer to the seller. If they accept then you have to price and shelve the good books and dispose of all the dreck; if they refuse the offer, they take their books home and you just wasted valuable time for no benefit.

At a time when Borders is both unwilling and unable to add staff, there is no way they could process the used books customers would bring in to sell; they simply don't have the manpower. They would have to reconfigure a sizable area of each store to receive and process these books, as well as using significant shelf space for a used-book section. These issues are not a problem for smaller, independent used bookstores with 1,500 square-foot stores (which need much smaller inventories) or for Half-Price Books (which has 40 years of experience in the used-book market). But for an established new-book chain struggling to get out of bankruptcy, adding used books would simply be another in the long line of critical business missteps that brought them to where they are today.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Buying Indie When You Can't Buy Local

I'm a big supporter of the "Buy Local" movement, having seen both through research studies and personal experience that supporting merchants within your own town and neighborhood benefits your community far more than buying from a big-box chain store. For obvious reasons, I am especially supportive of local booksellers. But what to do when there are no independent bookstores in your area?

I was faced with exactly this dilemma when searching for a signed copy of The Tiger's Wife, the debut novel by Tea Obreht. I have heard great things about this book (and will be starting it soon, so look for a review in the near future), but there was nowhere to find a signed copy in my area. The nearest independent bookstore is more than 60 miles away and had no signed copies.

Then I saw a post on Facebook from Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn saying that they had a few signed copies left (Obreht was there for a signing a few days ago). I immediately went to their website (http://www.greenlightbookstore.com/) and snapped up a copy. Within a few hours I received a nice e-mail telling me that my order had been filled and would ship soon. Imagine that: better customer service from two time zones away than I get at the Borders down the street.

While I was not able to buy the book locally, I was still able to support a local independent bookshop rather than a chain; it just happened to be the Fort Greene, Brooklyn neighborhood. And as strange as it may sound, I was even happy to pay the New York sales tax. I live in a state that is laying off teachers at the same time Amazon is fighting to keep from paying the $275 million in sales taxes they owe the State of Texas, so I'm a big believer in E-fairness when it comes to collecting sales tax.

So the next time you can't find a book at your local indie bookstore, or if you have no indie bookstore near you, try buying online from an independent bookstore like Greenlight (or Powell's in Portland or Murder By the Book in Houston or the Tattered Cover in Denver...you get the idea). It may not directly benefit your community, but it directly benefits someone's community, and the more local business that thrive the better off we'll all be.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Surprising Poll Result

Three weeks ago I posted a poll on this blog. The results are now in, and I must admit that I am a little surprised by the outcome. The question was about the ongoing debate over printed books vs. electronic books, and it was titled simply "Which Do You Prefer?" The results were:

Printed Books - 62%
E-Books - 8%
Both - 30%

As for those who chose "printed" or "e-book," the comments I received were the standard arguments we have all heard made for each option numerous times since e-readers became mainstream. What surprised me was the high number that answered "both," mainly because the media frenzy surrounding this issue rarely includes that option. Several people responded that they would be likely to continue to buy both because there were some times when they wanted to read on their e-reader (during the work commute, on vacation, etc) and other times when they wanted to hold a printed book in their hands (when curled up on the couch on a rainy day, when reading to their children, etc).

Obviously this was not a scientific poll, but it was one where (given the nature of this blog) the respondents are most likely actual readers. Many of the other polls of this type never take into account that a majority of those queried haven't read any type of book since high school.

The 8% result for e-books is intriguing for another reason. According to several publishers' statistics, in 2010 electronic books made up just a little over 8% of the total book sales in the United States. There is no doubt this number will increase in the coming years, but it is an interesting coincidence. I was personally gratified that printed books still won a clear majority in their own right, as I am both a traditionalist when it comes to books and a collector (try getting your favorite author to sign your Kindle).

The debate over printed books vs. electronic books will continue for the foreseeable future, but for today at least it appears that the printed book is both still very much alive and unlikely to meet its demise anytime soon.