When the Selling the Main Product Isn’t Enough

W. Witch asked some entrepreneurs about reviving independent bookstores and recorded her conversation with one strong entrepreneur and author.

Books can be bought cheaply and efficiently from too many people other than the independent bookstores. They, the bookstores, need to figure out what they can provide OTHER than books, while still revolving AROUND books, that CANNOT be provided by the others—and figure out a way to charge for THAT.

Service and recommendations aren’t enough, so how does a bookseller figure out where the frontier is in order to cross it? Ask readers and consumers what interests them.

That sounds like a long, hard road with many potential detours. For my part as a non-businessman who doesn’t understand making money, I’ve wondered about the profitability of an audiobook kiosk in a store which would allow a person to purchase and download audiobook MP3s to his player. Perhaps that would best fit a travel or tourist market in which customers don’t necessarily have all of their resources on hand to buy audiobooks through a website.

Another idea I’ve had is personalized dedications printed in nice editions of classic books. A store could work out a system with a local printer to have preprinted or custom printed dedications available as well as fine editions of popular classics (or maybe any nice book) for people to select and personalize as special gifts to students, visionaries, and book lovers.

And I won’t repeat my store marketing suggestion: Overpriced Books (Got Money to Burn? Spend It with Us.)

I got mittens for Christmas!

I finished my combat mitten project on Sunday. This is what they look like.

Viking mittens

Actually, I thought they were done when I took the picture, but then I decided to tighten up the stitching. All the stitching that looks like dotted lines in the picture is now solid lines. Tight seams! Redundancy! Those are my watchwords. I may end up a quivering, broken casualty, but I want the paramedics to say as they wheel me away, “Hey, this guy’s mittens are really put together!”

A lot of live steel guys use gloves instead of mittens, and I think gloves do actually look better. But mittens allow you to have your fingers unseparated as you grasp your weapon grip, and that’s not a trivial advantage. This past year I used welder’s gloves, which looked great with their gauntlet cuffs, but separated my fingers. So my new mittens are equipped with gauntlet cuffs (added by me), which also help to protect my wrists (wrist injuries are one of the most common in our sport).

The original moose hide mittens were a Christmas gift from my brother Baal.

Some guys use mittens covered with mail for live steel, but I’ve heard that that’s actually not the best system. The little rings sometimes drive themselves into the glove and break your fingers. I prefer heavy leather myself, and it’s lighter.

We have no record, literary or archaeological, of the Vikings using combat gloves of any kind, although we know the Normans were using mailed mittens not too long after. It’s hard to imagine doing this kind of fighting with no hand protection, though. Judging from the experience of live steel fighters today, you’d have to expect all the experienced Vikings to be missing a finger or two, if they fought without protection. And you can only sacrifice so many of those suckers before you’ve (literally) lost your grip.

Damnation Street by Andrew Klavan

Had the opportunity to meet faithful commenter “Michael” today. He’s a pastor in my church body, and was here for a missions conference. He probably won’t see this for a few days, but nice to meet you, Michael.

One-line review of Andrew Klavan’s Damnation Street: “Woo-hoo!”

I got a Barnes & Noble gift certificate for Christmas, and Damnation Street was one of the books I chose to get with it. I don’t generally buy hardbacks, but I felt this was a special case.

It was, in fact, a more special case than I knew. Because it appears that Klavan’s Weiss and Bishop books (the previous ones are Dynamite Road and Shotgun Alley) are not going to be an ongoing series, but a trilogy (unless I read the ending wrong).

I’ve told you about these books before. Klavan, author of such blockbusters as True Crime and Don’t Say a Word, made an abrupt shift from big thrillers to smaller mysteries, and the Weiss and Bishop series is the result.

The main characters are Scott Weiss, private detective, and Jim Bishop, his operative. Weiss is a large, sad-faced, fat man, an ex-cop who longs for goodness and justice and true love. Bishop is a wild man with sociopathic tendencies. He’s a special forces veteran who rides motorcycles and flies planes, parties hard, uses women and throws them away. But Weiss saw some decency in him long ago, and gave him a second chance.

Now he seems to have thrown that chance away. In Shotgun Alley he came close to selling Weiss out for the sake of a seductive girl who was using him just as he’d used so many other women. He’s left the firm, and is seriously considering a career in organized crime.

Which is why, as the story begins, Weiss is searching for Julie Wyant alone. We know Julie from Shotgun Alley. She’s a prostitute and one-time porn actress of rare beauty, and Weiss fell hopelessly in love with her without ever meeting her. But Weiss isn’t her only admirer. She is also the obsession of the Shadow Man, a mysterious contract killer. He’s a sadist and a natural chameleon. Five minutes after talking to him, people can’t remember what he looked like. He used Julie once in the past, and he decided she was the woman he intended to love—to death. She managed to escape him, and fled in terror at the things he’d done to her.

Shotgun Alley ended in a sort of stand-off between Weiss and the Shadowman. Weiss knew that if he found her (and finding people is what he does best) the Shadowman would be close behind. So he made the decision to leave her alone. (Sorry for the spoiler. I can’t see how to avoid it.)

Now Weiss has changed his mind. He’s decided that if he leaves Julie alone, the Shadowman will find her eventually anyway. The only way he can ensure her safety is to find her, use her to flush the Shadowman out, and eliminate him (by whatever means necessary).

Weiss is an old cop. A smart old cop; an intuitive old cop. But he’s not a killing machine like the Shadowman. He could use a back-up man, someone like Bishop. But Bishop’s not around anymore.

So Weiss goes on his own, tracing Julie Wyant’s path across the American southwest, learning her story, bit by bit. Watching his back, knowing the Shadowman is there somewhere, watching. Waiting.

The tension of the story is relieved by a seriocomic subplot involving the unnamed narrator, a young man working as a sort of intern in the agency. This plot thread is a romance, and—wonder of wonders—it has a Christian element. Hopeful Christian authors should read this book just to see how a real storyteller handles spiritual matters.

I loved this book. I can’t praise it highly enough. As I read it I couldn’t avoid the feeling that I was reading a novel that could be a turning point in the history of the detective story, just as the works of Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers and Raymond Chandler were. (That’s not saying it will have such an effect. That will only happen if the book gets the readership it deserves.) In my view, Klavan has taken the detective story to a whole new level of character depiction and spiritual exploration. This is more than a story about crime. It’s about love and hate and loneliness and longing. It’s about the deepest needs of the human soul—good and bad.

Not for children. Cautions are in order for language, violence and disturbing subject matter.

Just like real life.

I Want to Look Fabulous; Then I May Love My Neighbor

On Blogwatch, I noticed this link to what girls write in their diaries:

The author [of The Body Project] examined young girls’ diaries from the 1800’s to the 1900’s and found that “In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, girls’ diaries focused on ‘good works’ and perfecting the character. In the 1900’s, the diaries are fixated on ‘good looks,’ on perfecting the body.”

T.S. Eliot’s Passions

I heartily agree with the ideas in this post on T.S. Eliot, creativity, and art. The Lord God is the author and sustainer of life. When he created all things, declaring them good, he made them such that they work best by directly or indirectly honoring him. If the animists could truly listen to the spirits of everything around them, they would hear a profound chorus singing glory to God in the highest and calling for redemption from the curse mankind inflicted on them.

I suggest the reason certain philosophies glory in ugly art, destructive behavior, and personal freedom from the normal consequences of our actions is those philosophies are anti-life by virtue of being anti-God.

Hans Christian Andersen: Unsuitable for children?

I was chatting with a friend online last night, and the subject of favorite fairy tales came up. For some reason I forgot to mention “The Ugly Duckling” by Hans Christian Andersen. Somebody (I forget who) wrote a book a long time ago, saying that our favorite fairy tales reveal a lot about our basic desires and strategies for life. Girls who like “Little Red Riding Hood,” for instance, seem to always own a red coat, and have a tendency to get into relationships with big bad wolves.

“The Ugly Duckling” is actually a pretty uncharacteristic story for Andersen. It has a happy ending, and he didn’t write those often. Sorry to drop a spoiler on you here, but if you only know “The Little Mermaid” from the Disney movie, the original version doesn’t end the same way at all. Not at all

An excerpt (not the conclusion of the story):

The little mermaid could not help thinking of her first rising out of the sea… and she joined in the dance, poised herself in the air as a swallow when he pursues his prey, and all present cheered her with wonder. She had never danced so elegantly before. Her tender feet felt as if cut with sharp knives, but she cared not for it; a sharper pang had pierced through her heart. She knew this was the last evening she should ever see the prince, for whom she had forsaken her kindred and her home; she had given up her beautiful voice, and suffered unheard-of pain daily for him, while he knew nothing of it. This was the last evening that she would breathe the same air with him, or gaze on the starry sky and the deep sea; an eternal night, without a thought or dream, awaited her; she had no soul and now she could never win one….

Andersen was a writer of tragedy. He wrote tragedies for children, which seems perverse to us. But Andersen was a lonely, shy man who had little experience of happy endings. He’d grown up in poverty and been rejected by every woman he ever fell in love with (he was not, despite what the activists will try to tell you, a homosexual). He was only comfortable with children; remained a child himself in many ways. But the message he had for children was not the one we like to give them—“Hold on, keep hopeful, and everything will turn out all right.” His message, forged out of his own experience in a world where lots and lots of children never grew up, was, “You may fail. You may die. But death doesn’t have to be the end, and the way you die can make your life beautiful.”

I wrote about something like this the other day, in regard to the story about the widow in the smoky house. Our ancestors lived in a harder world than ours, and they had wisdom we can’t begin to comprehend, wisdom that allowed them to endure suffering we can’t imagine and retain their sanity. Afraid to look closely at such holy things, we, the descendents, malign them and label them “morbid.”

Three unconnected items

Just now, on his radio show, Hugh Hewitt made the following spit-take inducing statement: “That’s why I’m repeating the first hour of this program, though I don’t often do that.”

Hugh, you know what happens to little boys who tell fibs, don’t you?

By way of Paul McCain’s Cyberbrethren blog, this incredible Bible map site. Extremely cool.

Our IT guy came to my office to replace my two side-by-side computer monitors (I use two computers at work. One’s dedicated to cataloging) with a wonderful new big-screen monitor today, plus adding a nifty switch that toggles back and forth between the two, clearing one monitor’s footprint from my desk. More room for clutter!

He told me about a woman he’d talked to recently. She’d grown disillusioned with the Very Large Lutheran Church Body That Shall Remain Nameless. She’d been involved in some sort of planned giving commitment, and she’d finally come to the end of that. She sent them a final check, in the amount of $10.00.

Someone from HQ called her and asked her what the ten buck check was for.

“I’d like you to take that ten dollars and buy a Bible with it,” she told them. “I don’t think you have one up there.”

Adaptation: How to Keep Your Bookstore Running

I’m sure location is almost everything to running a successful bookstore. At least, that’s my conclusion from Frank’s comments about his store on this thread. But after location, adaptation may be the next big piece to running a successful store.

Tudor Book Shop and Cafe in Kingston, Penn., is celebrating 30 years, and they don’t sell books alone. The cafe started 10 years ago and now makes up 20% of their sales. A store partner says, “Throughout November, we held trunk shows to create some excitement; one featured Folkmanis puppets, and another, jewelry. We need to offer different things than the chain stores”–things like hand-made jewelry, crafts, and stationery.

2006 Review: Big Money for Plagiarism

In case you don’t see this in the lists of last year’s news, here’s a reminder of the good ol’ days.

Some writers spend decades trying to break into the biz, and even then, they often can’t make ends meet. For legitimate writers, an unproven teenager landing a $500,000 deal to write two books adds insult to the obvious injury of plagiarism.

This comes from industry news that young writer Kaavya Viswanathan received a $500,000 two-book deal from Little, Brown. Still just as heart-warming now as it was then. The writer asks, “Given how the Internet and digital content have highlighted the limitations of old-school media, stories like this one suggest that the publishing industry should take a long, hard look at where it’s directing its financial resources, and why.”

Maybe we should let illegal immigrants do the work in publishing houses that otherwise decent citizens don’t want to do–fact-checking, editing, maybe marketing.

A Feast For Crows, by George R. R. Martin

One line review of A Feast For Crows by George R.R. Martin: “I give up.”

I say that with great regret. In my view there’s only one contemporary fantasy author who bears comparison with J.R.R. Tolkien in any meaningful way, and that’s Martin. No other author in the field today comes close to him in combining fully realized worldbuilding with skillful prose and insightful character development. There’s no other contender in that weight category.

Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is loosely based on (or perhaps “suggested by” would be a better combination) the English Wars of the Roses. But Martin’s wars are bigger affairs. Britain has become Westeros, a full-fledged continent, home to a dozen kingdoms, as culturally diverse as the European Scandinavia-to-the-Mediterranean range. All are under the overlordship of the Iron Throne, but the death of the king in the first volume set off a rash of dynastic wars. The wars are big. The passions are big. The treachery would put the Borgias to shame. The crimes are appalling, the heroism…

Well, no. There isn’t any real heroism in these books, which is a major part of my problem with them. People who aspire to chivalry in these books generally get cut off pretty promptly, and those who survive mostly do so by lies, murder and betrayal. The only fighters Martin seems to admire much are the female ones, of which I counted about four (it’s hard to remember) in this book.

“It’s hard to remember” is something you’ll hear a lot from Martin’s readers. His method is not to put a few sympathetic characters on stage and follow them over time and geography, in Tolkien’s manner. Martin sets out dozens of characters (all of them admirably fleshed out) in hundreds of locations, and leaves it to the reader to keep them straight (with the help of character indexes in back, without which reading these books would be impossible for anyone not blessed with a photographic memory).

And that’s only the half of it. Martin explains in a note at the end of this volume that he’s left out half the characters and action in this section of the plot, and that he’ll provide those in the next volume. Just be patient. And keep your notes at hand.

And that’s the other part of my problem with Martin. He seems to have allowed his grand scheme to run away with him. His desire to populate his books with a cast of thousands is admirable in its way, but it’s taxing for the reader. I could probably hang on to the end (whenever that comes—Martin is coy on the projected length of the series) if I thought the payoff would be one I’d appreciate.

But Martin doesn’t appear to be preparing us for any Tolkienesque “eucatastrophe.” His message, judging from what we’ve seen so far, would seem to be the old, tired (and false) one that goes, “War never solves anything.” To drive that message home, he employs the device of regularly killing off characters we’ve started to root for, and in the most unpleasant ways he can think of.

So sorry, George. I’m not going to invest the effort you demand of me just so I can watch you kill off the rest of your viewpoint characters and hear you sing, “Give peace a chance.”

It’s been a good effort. But I have other things to do with my life.

The old widow in the smoky house

A relative recently sent me a copy of some pages from an old “kalender,” (actually more like what we’d call an annual) published in 1932 by Augsburg Publishing House in Minneapolis. These pages contained an essay by a pastor (identified only by the initials “Th. F.”), concerning his memories of a particular aged widow he’d known when he was a young schoolteacher in Norway. The article was of interest to me because this widow was one of my ancestors. Her name was Sophie, which was also the name of my grandmother, a descendent of hers—also in her own turn a godly widow.

The essay is called “Den gamle enke i røkstuen,” which means, “The old widow in the smoky house.” A røkstue was a kind of cottage once very common among the poorer classes in Norway. It was a single-roomed house with a plastered fireplace in one corner for heating and cooking. Such fireplaces had no chimneys. The smoke filled the room, then escaped through a hole in the roof. They were sooty and unpleasant places, and Sophie’s living in one was evidence of her poverty.

The author remembered Sophie as a simple, quiet, loving soul who devoted her life to prayer. One time she went down to the river to wash some clothes, and felt compelled to spend some time with God. Because she didn’t like to “pray to be seen of men,” she went further along the river to a quiet spot where she wouldn’t be seen. But just as she knelt down, a stone rolled over on her foot and crushed it, pinning her. She had to call for help to get free, and she was crippled for the rest of her life. She often wondered, the pastor recalled, why God would allow such a thing to happen while she was “approaching the throne of grace,” but she finally decided it was for God to understand and for her to accept.

The pastor felt he knew why. He believed that if the accident hadn’t happened, no one would have known about her secret prayers. He felt the sight of her limping (like Jacob’s limp in Genesis) was a constant testimony to God’s presence in her life.

Such thinking seems insane (not to mention heartless) to us today. But I wonder if it’s possible that we, with our love of ease and comfort, have simply grown unable to understand things that were clear to earlier, tougher generations who took daily suffering for granted.

Or maybe not. I’m not drawing conclusions here. I’m just wondering.

I’ll translate a little from a passage near the end:

And she was not one of those who, while listening to God’s Word, sit and (in their thoughts) share the message generously with others; she applied it to herself, and so brought rich blessings home with her. One time, when the pastor at the altar said, “Let us all pray,” she began to think that obviously not everyone there in church was praying along. How could so-and-so pray, being such-and-such, etc.? And just as she sat and thought that way about others, she realized that she, precisely because of such thoughts about others, was herself neglecting to follow along with the prayer. “I was both grieved and ashamed that the devil should deceive me so,” she said. But after that she was always vigilant in guarding against that temptation….”

We think of our forebears as unenlightened compared with our educated selves. I suspect God doesn’t see it that way.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture