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Local Literary Entrepreneurship

by Bill Castanier
June 17, 2011

First it was the dotcom, Amazon, then the passing of the Harry Potter franchise, then there was this past Christmas when the “writing was on the wall” (and not in the book) as e-readers absolutely exploded on the book publishing industry.

Not noted for its nimbleness, the book industry is struggling to survive, and all players from authors to publishers to booksellers are being forced to restructure their business models.

When Amazon’s best-selling item is the Kindle and some of the top fiction writers (think Evanovich and Patterson) sell more e-books than hard copy books, the industry has been turned topsy-turvy and book store owners and authors are being inspired to think like extreme entrepreneurs, often doing things that seem counter intuitive.

Take McLean & Eakin bookstore in Petoskey, which sells e-books on its website and in its store and offers tech seminars once a month for its customers. Jessilynn Norcoss, co-owner with her husband, Matt, said that whether it’s a sustainable model is a non-issue.

“We want to keep our customers,” she said. Norcross knows that customers are browsers and browsers convert to sales. Research shows that 33 percent of readers now read both print and digital books. Also, 99 percent of e-books are from the fiction genre.

McLean and Eakin is also working with publishers “as a team” to present innovative programming in the store and offsite. For example, they have started the “Yellow Chair Series,” which are conversations with authors. One of the Series events will be later this summer when 2011 National Book Award winner Jaimy Gordon and her “student” Bonnie Jo Campbell, a National Book Award Finalist, interview each other.

Another Michigan debut, author Ellen Airgood (South of Superior) was a recent guest. Her fictional account of life in the U.P. is based on her experiences co-owning and working at a diner in Grand Marais. The bookstore is also hosting National Book Award Winner and Michigan author Gloria Whelan for a tea.

In addition, the store continues its tradition of offsite events at locations such as the Perry Hotel in Petoskey and the Pier in Harbor Springs, featuring major authors such as Maria Doria Russell and Ann Patchett. The Patchett event, held June 16, was quickly sold out at $25 a pop. Patchett is a fan of the store and last year wrote an essay in The New York Times extolling McLean & Eakin.

Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor, another gem among Michigan independent bookstores, does more than 150 events a year both in-store and increasingly in the community. A recent event at the Michigan Theatre in downtown Ann Arbor featuring best-selling vampire writer Charlaine Harris was sold out, with tickets ranging from $12-$38.50.

William Cusumano, who is the buyer for Nicola’s Books, said that “everyday, less people come in the door.” “It is imperative for bookstores to do events like this.”

In fact, Nicola Rooney and Cusumano spent some serious time at the recent Book Expo America in New York City meeting with publishers to sell them on the idea of scheduling authors for these major events.

He said on their wish list are Michael Moore, Chris Matthews, Caroline Kennedy and Jennifer Granholm, all of whom have new books due out this next year.

Schuler Books and Music, which is Michigan’s largest independent bookseller, with five locations, has taken similar approaches. In the past it has hosted Caroline Kennedy and David Sedaris in its stores and offsite, and has sold books for the pop diva Chelsea Handler and recently for E.L. Doctorow.

Schuler Books also recently partnered with the Stormfield Theatre in Lansing to sell the Mark Twain magnum opus biography at a performance featuring a Mark Twain re-enactor.

Whitney Spotts, promotional manager for Schuler Books, said the store is reaching out to the various niches in the community, including some peculiar niches. At Halloween time it will be sponsoring a zombie night and feature a book published by Wayne State University Press called Ghost Writers, which is a collection of scary stories by Michigan authors.

Hosting zombie night will be the colossal best-selling author Elizabeth Kostova (The Historian). Schulers also has begun to live-stream some author events. Recently a Supernatural Tour was live-streamed to the Harper Collins Facebook page, resulting in online sales from readers as far away as the East Coast.

Bill Fehsenfeld, co-founder of Schulers with his spouse, Cecile, has been moving quickly to keep the independent bookseller competitive, setting up print-on-demand operations and selling used books in all their stores. He said the challenge of book selling continues to be “having conversations with customers.”

Deb Leonard, who has 20-plus years experience in the book industry and is now director of the Great Lakes Independent Book Sellers Association, said bookstores must do something extraordinary to bring people in.

“You must be looking outside what you’ve always done,” she said. The trade association’s fall conference, which will be held in the Dearborn Hyatt Regency, will explore some of these ideas. GLIBA represents about 170 independent bookstores in Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and Indiana.

“We have to open up our minds and reinvent this business and be smarter about the product mix, she said.

Leonard said events such as one-day book festivals and community book festivals (Ann Arbor has two: Kerrytown BookFest and the Ann Arbor Book Festival), along with events co-sponsored by libraries and bookstores, are important to the mix.

She also said independent bookstores should promote buy-local concepts whenever they can. The trade association executive also sees a resurgence of independently owned bookstores since chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble are under duress.

And speaking of buy-local, most bookstores will be the first to tell you about the need to collect taxes on non-brick and mortar booksellers located outside the state.

Jessilynn Norcross said she would like to see e-fairness in Michigan and that all e-commerce websites collect sales tax. “In addition to basic fairness, it is money that our schools and public services are missing out on.”

The New York Times best-selling Author Doug Stanton also had young writers in mind when he launched the National Writers Series in Traverse City in 2009. Stanton, who has written the phenomenally successful Horse Soldiers and In Harm’s Way, takes writers and writing seriously and thinks it is important to bring writers to the community.

He recalls growing up in Traverse City and his desire to be a writer. “There was no clear way to see a way to be a writer,” he said. That is until he met Jim Harrison. “The distance between me and a real writer was now 10 feet…Meeting author Jim Harrison changed my life — it was transformative.”

Stanton decided to replicate that experience in downtown Traverse City by exposing young writers to established writers, and at the same time raising scholarship money for area high school students who want to study writing in college. Stanton remembers how a similar grant helped him as a teenager.

“It made it seem possible I could make a life, as well as a living, with words.”

Since the National Writers series was launched, more than 40 authors have made appearances in Traverse City, including Tom Brokaw, his daughter Sarah Brokaw, Phil Caputo, Peter Matthiessen, Walter Kirn, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Ford, Sebastian Junger and scores of others.

Stanton said the Series has created a national buzz, and publishers and authors are now requesting to be included in the event even though authors forgo speaking fees.

The summer and fall schedules of the Writers Series read like a national book festival, starting with Michigan’s own Elmore Leonard, who kicks off the series July 2 at the city’s National Cherry Festival. After that, authors Daniel Silva, Gretchen Witt, Tom Perrotta, Jeffrey Eugenides, David Sedaris, Vince Flynn and Chuck Klosterman will make appearances.

Unlike typical author appearances, Stanton likes to create an atmosphere for conversation, which he compares to late at a cocktail party when “the conversation turns provocative and entertaining.”

At most Series’ events, held in the intimate 19th Century Traverse City Opera House, Stanton carries on a conversation with the author. There is no script, no preordained topics.

“I like it raw and up close and personal — making people lean in,” he said.

At the recent appearance of Richard Ford, several hundred attendees got to see Stanton and Ford talk nearly an hour about writing and the life of a writer. The audience also saw a lighter side of Ford, who showed he can be both charming and edgy at the same time.

Stanton said that in addition to providing $10,000 in scholarships to area writing students, the Writers Series has brought 20,000 people downtown — a form of literary entrepreneurship. Detroit writer Mitch Albom attracted more than 750 attendees. “We sell books,” Stanton said. (More than 5000 and counting.)

The event would not be possible, Stanton pointed out, without the support of area businesses that provide everything from rental cars to lodging. At the Series, Richard Ford told an engaging story about how he had to “break in” to the condo where he was set to stay at the former Traverse City State Hospital. He also provided some wry comments on the suitability of writers staying at a former mental institution.

Stanton’s unwritten goal for the Writer’s Series is that it will inspire a young person to write a book. He voices frustration at the current state of affairs in education that has creative writing relegated to a back seat in schools.

“There is a huge imbalance, educationally,” he said.

He has a plan to ameliorate that to some degree in Traverse City by launching a program he calls “Writer on Front Street,” where a writer would be in residence on the city’s main street for one year running, writing programs and coordinating tutoring.

For that idea he has taken some inspiration from author Dave Eggers’ social entrepreneurship writing and tutoring project called 826, which is located in eight cities across the country, including Ann Arbor. All the programs run tutoring and writing programs for students six to 18.

The 826Michigan focuses on Ypsilanti area students, according to Amy Uhle, executive director, serving more than 2,000 students annually.

Richard Ford and Jeffrey Eugenides recently hosted a book launch and fundraising party for 826 Michigan at Zingerman’s Road House in Ann Arbor, raising more than $30,000 for the program. Each 826 branch is required to have a retail component or theme, and 826Michigan sells robot supplies and novelties at its location on Liberty Street in Ann Arbor.

Uhle said retail sales of robot material paid the rent and most of the utilities at the location last year. The chapters also produce books and chap books of student material so participants can see their work in print.

The Ann Arbor branch has been so successful that the executive board is looking at other options, according to the executive director. “We’re ready to grow,” Uhle said.

Which seems to add credence to this paraphrased Mark Twain quote: “news of the death of the book industry in Michigan is greatly exaggerated.”

Bill Castanier, a retired state government administrator and Michigan State University advertising graduate, writes a weekly literary column for Lansing City Pulse and manages the blog mittenlit.com, a daily look at Michigan literature and authors. He also is a member of the Michigan Notable Book selection committee and the board of MSU Press.

June 16, 2011 · Filed under Bookit

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