Monday, August 9, 2010

Algonquin Night II: Be There or Die Regretful

Abe Froman works for Edward Mckay in Greensboro, North Carolina.  The other day he told me he was disappointed he wouldn’t be in town for Algonquin Night because, “If it’s Algonquin, you pretty much know it’s going to be good.”

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill is a small press based in North Carolina which sets the tone for a lot of marketing at larger publishing houses.  Email newsletters are commonplace, but Algonquin’s is one you look forward to seeing in your inbox.  As booksellers across the country buzz about the conversational tone, humor, and solid recommendations of the Algonquin Annotations (or Workman Off the Shelf, or Workman Unbound, or whatever they want to call themselves), a the big publishing houses are attempting to mimic the format.

Booksellers may not be the brightest lot – we are rearranging the deckchairs of our favorite titles on the sinking Titanic of an outdated retail model, after all – but we can still smell bullshit.
The Big Six throw hundreds of titles at the wall and see what sticks.  They ride huge mega-sellers until they’re dead, push them for a while, then drag them another few yards.  The Algonquin philosophy is no less aggressive, but a little less frantic; they publish a few fiction titles a month, and they believe there is no backlist.

In other words, they push just as hard for Roland Merullo's 2007 Breakfast with Buddha as they do for Jay Varner’s Nothing Left to Burn which comes out in six weeks.

Algonquin is like that favorite friend or bookseller who you go to time and again because their recommendations are so great.  That and the “no backlist” rule are important parts of Algonquin’s mystique, but I think what really sets them apart is how their titles turn readers into evangelists.  Ask Darby C. about Robert Goolrick’s A Reliable Wife.  Ask Debra L. about Heidi Durrow’s The Girl Who Fell from the Sky.  Ask anyone who has read Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants. You’ll see a look come over her face, a shine in her eyes that says, this book took me somewhere special, and part of me never left.

Me?  I’ll rave about all three of those greats, plus Jack O’Connell's haunting, imaginative The Resurrectionist, Hillary Jordan’s mighty, stark, dazzling Mudbound, and Brock Clarke’s* microscopically precise character portrait An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England.

The book industry gets criticized for gripping practices which have been in place for seventy years, for refusing to adapt to how the buying public wants to read.  Like the rest of the industry, Algonquin will need to get serious about digital formatting, but in the meantime they represent all that was right with the book business in the 1940’s.  Writers got small advances, not so much that they threatened the financial stability of the entire publishing house, but enough so the author wouldn’t starve.  The books were much more likely to make these modest advances back.  Success, even as defined by not losing money, allowed the author to publish another, to grow and develop his or her craft.

That’s why Algonquin sets the tone for publishing today.  People say, “I love John Irving” or “I loved The Historian,” they don’t say, “I love Random House” or “I love Little, Brown.”
Well, I love Algonquin.  And the more people who love them with me, the better the future of storytelling will be.

* If Brock Clarke sounds familiar, it might be because of this post, which I wrote before I knew he was coming.  Stop by Books & Books of Coral Gables Thursday at 7pm to see him present Exley, which goes on sale for the rest of the country in October.  But for you?  Thursday.  If you like a good buzz with your book, you can also catch co-authors Robin Goldstein and Alexis Herschkowitsch as they present The Wine Trials and The Beer Trials.