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Cathy Robbins Thinking Aloud

Book Expo America 2012: Exhausting, Exhilirating, Indispensable

No matter how savvy we San Franciscans think we are, some person, place or event comes along to slap us across the face with a stinging reminder of our oh-so-human folly.

Book Expo America 2012, which took place in New York City in June, let me have it, right in the kisser. About 20,000 book people--publishers, authors, agents, publicists, sales reps, reporters and editors--met in the Jacob Javits Convention Center, a cavernous sprawling complex along the Hudson that bears the name of the U.S. Senator who represented the Empire State for 25 years. I had been to a BEA meeting in 2007 in Los Angeles, where I barely had the energy to circulate among the hundreds of exhibit booths. The size and diversity of the industry was eye-opening.

The show in New York seemed even bigger, and I was much more discriminating in visiting exhibitors’ booths—publishers in many genres with a large swath reserved for children’s and young adult books; digital services (including Google); author stages for talks and round-the-clock autographing. Another entire area housed a week-long special event called Read Russia! with authors and other representatives from that part of the world. I was pleased to see All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees (or Casinos) displayed in the University of Nebraska’s impressive collection of new books. Such good company!

From the hundreds of panels, I managed to attend a handful that I thought would give me a broad view of the book industry today as well as some practical advice.

I arrived on the first afternoon to pick up my badge and attend the final workshop of the day—the annual editors’ buzz session on their favorite 2012 books. Publishers had submitted about 200 titles; only six made it to the discussion. While “quirkiness” is a particularly modern aesthetic value, these editors looked for old-fashioned qualities in books: strong storytelling, unforgettable characters, and distinctive authors’ voices. This quest for the book with all those values was the sought-for prize. I rarely heard the term “platform” to describe readership, even in discussions of marketing, sales and cutting-edge technologies.

In the editors’ buzz panel, the editors told why they had chosen their books and how they shepherded the writers and their books through the editing and production process. They were fierce advocates for their books. Trish Todd, a vice-president and executive editor at Simon and Schuster said that In the Shadow of the Banyan, by Vaddey Ratner—a novel of pain and survival, of a girl coming of age in the Cambodian genocide—“was the most important book I’d ever publish”

Alexis Washam of Hogarth similarly praised The People of Forever Are Not Afraid. In Shani Boianjiu’s debut novel, three young Israeli girls conscripted into the army share their dreams and mundane lives in a world in which violence could be found at every street corner. The story resonates with the sense that history is almost over, and the author’s voice rings with fierce passion.

Also in the context of traditional values, a range of people who produce a book gathered in another panel titled Journey of a Book from Writer to Reader. The writer was Robert Goolrick with his new book, Heading Out to Wonderful, his agent Lyn Nesbit, and from his publisher Algonquin, editor Chuck Adams and Kelly Bowen publicist. Obviously the author wrote; the others were not merely supports but champions for the books. The author was involved in every step, even Skyping in digital book events for readers in isolated communities.

A book’s “team” comes into play for author events, and listening to booksellers and librarians discuss how to plan successful events was particularly instructive. The “author event” is not dead but it has to be more than a reading; it has to connect readers and authors and their books. The panelists −Vivian Jennings of Rainy Day Books of Kansas City, Stephanie Anderson of Brooklyn’s Word Books, and Andrew Kahn from the Free Library of Phildelphia− assume significant responsibility for getting people to an event, although they expect help from the author. They develop an audience base through their own newsletters, social networks and media, book clubs, outreaches to community and ethnic organizations, affinity groups, Meet-ups, continuous rapport with local media, flyers, posters and some advertising.

The role of technology was a central concern at BEA but not as a threat. In a panel titled Discovery, Recommendation and Serendipity: Helping Readers Read, web developers discussed how to strengthen the reader-book connection by expanding the book experience. With his site Small Demons, Valla Vakilli aggregates every person, place, event, song or other item in any book on a single web site. The reader merely clicks on the site to achieve access to more information about the text--discovery. Another result is that the book continues even after “the end.” David Gutowski’s site largeheartedboy.com is primarily a music blog but with extensive book reviews, notes, word lists and more.

Even panels covering marketing and sales issues were useful. Fauzia Burke offered an informative talk on using social networking sites more effectively. Despite the speed of digital communication, don’t expect overnight miracles when you use digital media for marketing. Networking equals using all the top sites (including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn) plus expertise plus time plus generosity plus 12 months.

One of the most intriguing panels—What the Next Generation Thinks: New Voices in Publishing Speak Out--brought together four masters’ candidates in New York University’s Center for Publishing. The future of books and publishing is in their hands.

All the students believe that hard copy books will not disappear, and Kristin Vorce offered an intriguing suggestion. Because people will choose printed books to read but also to value as objects, they will become more beautiful, maybe bound in embossed leather. As in the Middle Ages, books will become works of high art.

Digital marketing is ubiquitous, and users turn it off mentally. So publishers will work sales by building reading communities through their own web sites. As Andrea Chambers, the director of the NYU Center put is, publishers will also come together in their own sandbox to market their books against Amazon. For instance, bookish.com is a joint venture of Hachette, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster to provide an alternative to Amazon (its launch has been postponed, however).

The format—print or electronic--for reader access will depend on a book’s content and structure. Publishers will make buying, not just reading, as easy as possible with great diversification in pricing. Subscriptions to genres are already growing steadily, although they do not necessarily cannibalize other sales.

An audience member asked the panelists about the bricks-and-mortar places: book stores and libraries. They generally agreed that a bookstore is the best place to find out about any book, not only because it provides a sense of community but also because the internet is so busy that books get lost on it. Stores and libraries act as filters.

BEA is an exhilarating and exhausting experience. It is pricey, but thanks to my Authors Guild membership, my author’s badge cost just $80 instead of $279. Of course, you have to add the cost of airfare and a hotel. For an extra $25, I had breakfast with Stephen Colbert and a few hundred other attendees. He moderated a panel with authors Barbara Kingsolver, Junot Diaz and Jo Nesbo. The authors were almost as funny as Colbert. You can stream some 2012 panels at www.bookexpoamerica.com. Next year’s BEA is June 4-6, at Javits. Read More 
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About the book tour: San Diego

Jane Dumas, the heroine of the introduction, with Teepees/Casinos

Apr. 7, 2012
About the book tour: San Diego

In sunny San Diego, I had two author events in November 2011, one for the general public at the Downtown (Main) Library and another for San Diego Independent Scholars (SDIS) at the University of California at San Diego.

I spoke in the library's Wangenheim Room, the rare book room, a marvellous venue that was designed to look like a library in the home of a well-off family in the late 19th-early 20th century. Well-polished dark wood book shelves line walls, rugs cover the wood floors. Some glass cases display some of the room's treasures. One of them--not on display that evening--is a complete multi-volumed edition of Edward Curtis' original Native Americans of North America. Only about 300 were printed, and today, libraries and collectors guard those sets. In 2007, when I was living in San Diego, the library put some of the set on display in the Wangenheim Room, and I had the opportunity to see the exhibit and write about Curtis.

So this event was like a homecoming for me. About 15 people lively and engaged people attended--not bad given the warnings I had had about no one showing up! The talk was easy, because the introduction of the book was set in San Diego and the Kumeyaay of that area. So I read some of the chapter, and then threw it open for discussion. I had told the audience that some of them probably knew more about the Kumayaay than I did, and I was right!

The second event was also a homecoming. Again, while living in San Diego, I had been a member of SDIS. This is one of a half-dozen groups around the country composed of writers, scholars and intellectuals who have no academic affiliation but who work to publish valuable work in various fields. SDIS simply meets at UCSD for convenience; the university gives the group the chancellor's conference room for its monthly meeting.

I was November's featured speaker, and I was delighted to see familiar faces. This too is an active and engaged group, but they expected more and different! Besides content, they wanted to know how I had come to write the book, what challenges I faced, and other questions relating to scholarship and marketing. Like the library group, they were also knowledgeable about some of the subject matter.

San Diego ilustrates one of the lesser-known issues that authors face, namely, simply selling books at events. Bookstores are easy. They order the books from the warehouse, take care of the transactions , and handle the books after you leave (putting some on the shelf for later sale, returning those they can't sell). You just have to entertain and sign books. At both San Diego meetings, I had to sell the books myself--on a cash basis-- because neither organizations had mechanisms for charge cards or handling money. My friend Marina Bezzatti helped me out at the library, and I handled it alone at SDIS. But you have to work fast and do your own record-keeping.

Great to be back in San Diego. This is a place with a gorgeous landscape and natural environment that unfortunately has been badly damaged by urban sprawl of all types: tacky subdivisions, high-end enclaves, shopping centers that obliterate the San Diego River, a tourism and entertainment industry that threatens to slip into honky-tonk, freeways that become parking lots at rush hour. Fortunately, here and there, especially around downtown San Diego, a few graceful neighborhoods and wonderful institutions like the library survive. Can San Diego be saved? Read More 
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On the Road

March 21, 2012
About the book tour: Portland, Barnes and Noble

Since my last post (see below), I’ve been thinking about how to write about the book events. Chronologically? Geographically? Or in some other order?

Well, let’s take a look at the chain versus the indie book stores and within that categorization, I’ll write about the audience and their community.

First stop: Barnes and Noble, Portland. The chain is valiantly trying to hold on to its store patrons—thanks! Author events and book fairs are plentiful. Each store, though, differs greatly on how it organizes these activities. In Portland, the store at Lloyd Center was just terrific, thanks to events coordinator Steve Chandler. From the moment I contacted him, he has an idea in mind—a Saturday book fair devoted to American Indians with my book as the centerpiece at an afternoon author’s event. A portion of the proceeds of sales throughout the store that day would go to a Native organization serving family and youth.

With that kind of enthusiasm, I went a step beyond, too. Instead of just a talk, I contacted Karen Kitchen, the head of the Indian program in the Portland Public Schools and asked her to join me for a program on education for urban Indians, a topic I cover in one of my chapters. She rounded up a Native high schooler who spends her summers with her Navajo grandparents. I also asked Dean Azule, the head of the Native American Student Center at Portland State, to participate. He was eager to do it, and I arrived in Portland a day early to attend a meet-and-greet at the Center. Unfortunately, on the day of the event, Dean was down with the flu.

But we had a great event. I had the sense to leave most of the program to Karen and her young friend. They were inspired. Karen described the Indian program in PPS, a small one compared with Albuquerque’s, which I write about. But the issues are similar—cultural dislocation, language fluency but great richness. The young student she brought revealed a level of wisdom I did not have at her age; I even forgot to take notes on her wonderful talk—or write down her name! She is bi-tribal—from an Oregon tribe and Navajo. In her school, she said, she gets her education in science and other subjects and plays the sports she loves. Then during the summer, she goes to her grandparents on the Navajo Nation. There she listens carefully to elders and others who have other lessons to teach her. These, she said, help ground her and make her strong.

We had a good audience of about 30 people, and Steve was quite happy to sell 14 books. I will personally donate a portion of the proceeds to the Portland State Native Center.

That was Barnes and Noble Portland. Stay tuned for more.

March 8, 2012
I've been AWOL. Yes--on the road marketing Teepees/Casinos. Sales of the book are going well, and the publisher is planning a second printing.

Since November, I’ve done more than a dozen author events--talks--in San Jose, San Diego, San Francisco, Albuquerque, Portland and Seattle. Leaving boxes unopened and pictures wrapped and unhung, I went on the road just about six weeks after we had moved into our new apartment in San Francisco.

Now I'm taking a break!

We've organized the garage and hung some pictures. My lap swimming and Y workouts are on a regular schedule. I'm exploring nearby neighborhoods for provisions, going to the ballet, concerts, movies, and spending time with family and on community service.

I also have some space to think and to revel in that freedom. It gives me more time for this blog. First of all, I'd like to tell you about my marketing travels. If you dream of writing a book, you have to get it into readers' hands, and you do that with marketing. So listen up!

Each author event--sometimes called a book event--was different, and they were all the same. Some were more successful than others. Turnout is important, and in the most successful, we had up to 30 people, a large—maybe huge—number, organizers told me. The least successful was a meet-and-greet at a Barnes and Noble along the car dealer strip of Stevens Creek Blvd. in San Jose. I had a small table near the entrance with my books and some Indian items I’d brought from home. Only one person—a friend made the effort to come. I snagged a few others as they came in the door. Also not successful was the one at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle as a record snow storm barreled across the city; I was lucky that my flight out of town got off the ground before the airport was closed.

But just using turnout as a criterion, the rest were successful events: Bookworks in Albuquerque; Book Passage in Corte Madera, one of the Bay Area's top indie book store, just across the Golden Gate from the city; the main library of the San Francisco Public Library; the San Diego Public Library (downtown); San Diego Independent Scholars (La Jolla); Barnes and Noble stores at the Pruneyard in Campbell and at Lloyd Center in Portland. I also spoke to two elementary school classes at the Hillbrook School in Los Gatos; they are a different order of event!

You might think that the number of books sold is another criterion for success, but that is not the case. Over and over, I have heard from marketing people that these events are not for selling books. Rather they are for raising visibility. While I did sell books at some of them, what was more important was the publicity they generated: a full-page story in the entertainment supplement of the San Francisco Chronicle; long pieces with plenty of photos in the Santa Fe New Mexican’s Pasatiempo and in Seattle’s Real Change; in Albuquerque, a fine review in the Albuquerque Journal, a 20-minute segment on New Mexico In Focus (KNME/PBS), an hour on Native America Calling. Some publicity came from the venues themselves: Book Passage's the large-circulation newsletter ; the web sites of the San Francisco and San Diego Public Libraries; Barnes and Noble stores' publicity machine.

I was going to just mention each event in passing, but the more I think about it, the more I feel that each needs more time and space. In many ways, they all reflect the communities where they happened. I’ll noodle it and get back to you! Read More 
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New article covers the book thoroughly

Casey Sanchez wrote a thorough article about Teepees/Casinos in last Friday's Pasatiempo, the fat weekly magazine of the Santa Fe New Mexican. Sanchez managed to cover a number of topics I cover in the story, which splashed over 2-3 tabloid-sized pages with plenty of pictures. Unfortunately, Pasatiempo is not available on line, but I have it on my hard drive as a jpg, so I'll post that! Thanks Casey for a good job!

This follows a terrific piece a couple of weeks ago in the hefty 96 Hours section of the San Francisco Chronicle. Wirtten by Louis Peitzman, a Los Angeles writer. See the text posted on the reviews page! Read More 
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Thanks San Francisco

Had a wonderful turnout for a book event at the San Francisco Public Library Main. Glad you came and enjoyed the talk. Thanks to Joan Jasper at the events department. I'll visit the Merced branch for its monthly salon on Feb. 22, at 7 pm., 155 Winston Drive, across 19th Ave. from Stonestown.  Read More 
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A Remarkable Woman, from Navajo to San Francisco

Helen Waukazoo hasn’t changed much since I saw her last in 2005, when a dream came true. On a brilliant sunny spring day in the San Francisco's Mission District, the new Friendship House opened with a dedication ceremony.

Helen had guided Friendship House for more than 30 years, arriving from boarding school, a relocated Navajo who nearly fled the city on the Bay. She had never seen so many people in one place. Even after nearly 40 years in the Bay Area, Helen still has traces of her singing Navajo language. She returns to her home on the reservation near Crownpoint, New Mexico at least twice a year.

On that spring day, a drum group drawn from various tribes, with dancers in regalia and singers, VIPs from the city, and other visitors from the American Indian community in San Francisco and beyond represented the promise of the new Friendship House.

In the crowd, the building’s Chinese-American architects looked puzzled as they surveyed the thickly woven Pendleton blankets given to them. Someone finally explained to them that the blankets were gestures of respect and thanks.

The spanking fresh building they had designed was an 85-bed treatment facility for substance abusers and alcoholics and, frankly, any American Indian floundering in the big city or who simply wanted to see a familiar Native face or receive a healing touch. Friendship House has the only licensed sweat lodge in San Francisco—just one example of its culturally-based healing.

Friendship House had come a long way since Helen arrived in the 1960s. After boarding school, she and some girlfriends knew that jobs would be hard to find on the reservation, a place of excruciating beauty and painful economic distress.

They opted for San Francisco, where Helen took a job as a clerk-typist at the Christian Reform Church's Friendship House, which received a growing number of relocated--and disoriented-- Indians. By 1973 the American Indian community in the Bay Area increased by 27 percent and a new generation of Indians far from home appeared at Friendship House's door, as culture-shocked as she had been. Helen had moved up to bookkeeper, and she would become executive director in 1987.

The ribbon-cutting for the new Friendship House spoke of a long history and a long promise for thousands of American Indians in San Francisco. The budget is at $4 million, and the $12-million Friendship House is the nation’s largest facility for Indian substance abusers.

Helen is 70 now and she knows Friendship House's leadership will change, so she’s writing a “practices” manual and a history for the new boss, whoever that is. Sitting before me, she dispenses advice on caring for elderly parents, fields phone calls, and grills me about my book. I’d just given her a thank-you copy. One entire wall of shelves in her sun-drenched office holds family photos, awards, and Navajo and other Indian pots, baskets and art. I can’t imagine anyone else at that desk.

For more, see pages 110-112 of All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees (or Casinos). Read More 
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