Category Archives: Bookselling

‘Death in the city’

Perhaps you’ve been wondering what I’ve been thinking about the recent tragic events that began in Minneapolis.

I’ve been reluctant to talk about it. Frankly, I’ve just been hunkered down, “sheltering in place,” as the saying goes. I’ve reduced my talk radio listening, because it’s just too sad and depressing. I’ve buried myself in light reading, which is why I’ve been doing so many book reviews lately.

I’ve actually seen none of the rioting. Property destruction was centered in the southern inner city, far from my home. Some damage has been reported in a suburb north of me, but the boarded-up store windows I’ve seen personally have been precautionary.

But the area of main damage in Minneapolis, around the intersection of Hiawatha Avenue and Lake Street, was my old stomping grounds. I lived in that area for much of my twenties. Not only am I familiar with some of the destroyed businesses, I even remember what businesses were there before them. Spent a lot of time waiting for buses around there, back before I owned a car.

The most famous casualty for readers is of course Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore. Uncle Edgar’s was its twin, serving the mystery market. Uncle Hugo’s was not only a cultural landmark but one of the seedbeds of the whole Fandom movement.

I wasn’t a regular customer at Uncle Hugo’s, but I’d been there a number of times. I participated in a book signing there once (that was where I met Lois McMaster Bujold).

And it was there I had gone way back in 1984, flush with the excitement of my first commercial short story sale, to Amazing Stories. I asked the owner to order me extra copies so I’d have a stock to give away (I wasn’t aware I could order them from the publisher – that’s how green I was). When I went to pick them up, he asked me to sign a couple copies he’d ordered for himself – “So I can show them to people when you’re rich and famous.”

If those copies still existed, they’re ashes now.

Another loss – not burned but trashed – was a local Scandinavian meat market and gift shop. I bought stuff from them every year. I think I won’t provide their name here, since I assume they’re ELCA Lutherans and wouldn’t care to be associated with me. But they’d been on Lake Street since the 1920s, back when the place was thick with Scandinavian immigrants. Over the decades, through multiple population changes, they’d stayed committed to the neighborhood.

No good deed goes unpunished, as the saying goes.

When the George Floyd tape was first released, I was horrified. But I also thought – just for a moment – that this might bring us all together, in common outrage.

Instead it gave a golden opportunity to the neo-Maoists.

Pray for us. Especially for the poor who, as always, pay the highest price for the ideological games of intellectuals.

Empty Streets

The last time Vegas shut down was Nov. 23, 1963 out of respect for the death of a president. Yesterday Nevada’s governor said they needed to shut down for thirty days. People had been staying home for a while anyway.

“You see all these massive buildings that are meant to have 10,000 people in them and no one is there,” one interactive gaming exec said.

That means gamblers will have to find other ways to, uh, invest, like, say, the weather. Bookies are taking bets on high temperatures in select cities, rainfall, and events on American Idol. Of course, other countries have sports too, so maybe we’ll see a spike in soccer interest.

Two major movie theater chains have closed until better health prevails. I just learned my local library will be closed until April 1; they are encouraging us to use their digital borrowing service, Hoopla. Perhaps the librarians won’t have to go on unpaid leave, like those of retailer Tattered Cover of Denver, one of the largest independent bookstores in the country.

We’re living in troubling times. I’ve seen more people walking through our neighborhood, but the warm weather could have inspired that. Three of us took that walk after sunset tonight. Dark, empty streets can be nice.

Is the Novel on Life-Support?

We hardly lack for prose in this online age. Digital entertainments aside, English- language genre fiction has blossomed into a startling new maturity. Popular biography conveys lessons the novel once delivered — as do popularly presented sociology and ‘New Journalism’, which uses techniques of novel-writing for essay-length reporting. Still, the novel is moribund. Its failure signals an end of confidence about the past values and future goals of what conceived itself as Western culture. The signs of a weakened, diffident and timid culture are written in the dust on the unread books of our library shelves.

Joseph Bottum writes about the decline of the novel in a book by the same name, excerpted in this month’s Spectator. He doesn’t appear to go in the direction you may expect, so read the whole thing. As I read it, I kept wondering if his point is simply a bit beyond my grasp as an ignorant student or is he measuring by a standard I don’t value as much. (via Prufrock)

Book plug: ‘Post-Christian’

Probably my most eminent friend (though I only know him online) is Gene Edward Veith. Veith is possibly the most prominent Lutheran among today’s well-known evangelicals. He may be best known for his book, Postmodern Times.

Now he has a new book out, called Post-Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture. Amazon says:

We live in a post-Christian world. Contemporary thought―claiming to be “progressive” and “liberating”―attempts to place human beings in God’s role as creator, lawgiver, and savior. But these post-Christian ways of thinking and living are running into dead ends and fatal contradictions.

This timely book demonstrates how the Christian worldview stands firm in a world dedicated to constructing its own knowledge, morality, and truth. Gene Edward Veith Jr. points out the problems with how today’s culture views humanity, God, and even reality itself. He offers hope-filled, practical ways believers can live out their faith in a secularist society as a way to recover reality, rebuild culture, and revive faith.

Self-promotion for passive-aggressives

Photo credit: Maarten van den Heuvel @ mvdheuvel

Nothing to review today. My reading has slowed in the last couple days, which is not all bad. I’m trying to reduce my book spending, due to the current cutbacks.

Which will be exacerbated by the plumber’s appointment I had today. My kitchen faucet succumbed to the corrosive water we enjoy in Robbinsdale, and had to be replaced. I got the cheapest model they offered, but still… ouch.

Then out into the wide world and chill air, for a breathless visit to the drug store and the grocery store. Had my prescription filled at CVS. Later in the day, a somewhat pathetic e-mail showed up. Would I take a minute to fill out a form for them? Specifically, to indicate on a scale of one to ten how likely I am to recommend their enterprise to friends and family?

I don’t really want to fill it out. Because the truth would be cruel. I am somewhere between zero and one on that scale. Not because I dislike their stores. But because I can’t recall ever discussing drug store choices with any friend or family member. For some reason it just doesn’t come up. Maybe we’re atypical.

And in the back of my mind, the constant nagging voice of my inner publicist whispers: “This is what you should be doing, kid. If a big industry like CVS can send out plaintive appeals for affirmation, you can occasionally bug your fans about plugging your books and posting reviews on Amazon.”

Shut up, Nagging Publicist Voice. In these parts, we consider fishing for compliments a mark of weakness.

Then off to the grocery store. At checkout, the lady in front of me in line noticed I’d bought a Marie Callender Honey-Roasted Turkey meal. “Is that good?” she asked. “My husband and I eat a lot of that kind of meals, but we’re looking for something less bland than what we’ve been having.”

I told her I like it quite a bit, and don’t find it bland at all. (“Of course I’m Norwegian,” I should have added.)

Oddly enough, I had a similar conversation some years ago, at the same store, with a guy who told me how much he enjoyed that very same frozen meal. I agreed with him, and we shared a moment of social harmony, then went our separate ways.

In my world, that’s how promotion ought to be done. Not by intrusive tub-thumping, but by people just recommending things they like to each other, in the natural course of things. Even, unlikely as it seems, drug stores.

So when you plug my books, pretend it’s just natural. Thank you.

Does Free Speech Protect a Book for Hitmen?

This would have been a great topic for Banned Books Week, but, alas, I’ve had a long, sad year with a variety of responsibilities I haven’t wanted to work through. But now is as good a time as any to talk about the extent of free speech and the free press, isn’t it?

A 1983 book called Hit Man by Rex Feral purports to be a manual for contract killers with practical instructions on how to eliminate your targets without getting caught. The author says it is for entertainment purposes only, and you can see from GoodReads many contemporary readers think the book is too simple, dated, and even silly.

But things have changed a bit over 35 years.

In 1993 James Perry snuck into a Maryland home and murdered a disabled eight-year-old, his nurse, and his mother, following many of the details recommended in this book. A podcast from iHeart Radio and Hit Home Media, also called Hit Man, opens with an exploration of this murder and the man who hired Perry to carry it out. Later the families of the victims filed a lawsuit against the publisher, claiming the book was intended to be real-world advice that could be acted upon by anyone wanting to murder someone for a fee, and in doing so the publisher aided and abetted in murder.

The publisher argued that it did not intend for anyone to murder or be murdered based on what they read and that it has the freedom to publish whatever it wants.

In a style that may be a bit over-earnest, Hit Man the podcast tells the stories of the murder, this lawsuit, other crimes connected to the book, the identity of the pseudonymous author, and the possible inspiration for the book.

Should our country allow a book like this (and others like it which are still in print)? Is this the kind of abhorrent speech we say we would argue against but fight for the rights of others to use? You would need to know what’s in the book to make that decision; the podcast offers some details, and you can read the whole book by searching for the text file. It’s possible it doesn’t say anymore about pulling off contract killing than many other books, fiction and non.

The bulk of the legal argument against it was about intent. Is the book what it claims to be, “a technical manual for independent contractors,” or is it an imaginative book on crime? I think there should be a line that we don’t cross, but ours is a society originally suited for a religious people who actively submit to the governor of the universe, so that line will have to be a moral one. If we live with a morality that is only defined by the law, then we will not live happily for long.

Hit Man is a real banned book, by the way, so I hope it makes the big list one of these years.

Photo by Skitterphoto from Pexels

Do Celebrity Book Clubs Sell Books?

Reese Whitherspoon has taken up the challenge of recommending books to fans and followers. Vox says it is an extension of her personal image. “Witherspoon’s star image is based on the idea of Witherspoon as smart and driven and bookish — in a funny way, a likable way.”

Some of her selections have sold hundreds of thousands, which is very exciting for those select authors; but this article has a remarkable detail about the book industry as a whole. It says that with 300,000+ new titles published in the US every year and 2,200,000+ published worldwide, readers want to get recommendations from celebrities they trust.

But here’s the shocker. Though sales of selected books soared when Oprah picked them, the overall sale of books that year stayed within expectations. “Exactly as many people bought books as were already going to buy books.” More readers are reading certain books, but apparently more people are not reading. Or at least they are not buying books to read.

In 2018, Pew Research reported that three out of four Americans read one book in any format last month, and that rate has been steady since 2012.

Reviews Are not Strictly Evaluations

John Wilson of Books & Culture, the Christian review of books published bi-monthly 1995-2016, talks about book reviewing with FORMA.

Is it harder to control the “gush” for a book you really like or the harshness for a book you think has major problems?

Wilson: Ha! It’s not so much a matter of “controlling” gush (just say no); it’s rather a matter of finding a way to single out a really good book at a time when people are acclaiming “masterpieces” right and left, cheapening the conversation. I don’t often review books that I think are terrible, or that are entirely uncongenial to me, but a reviewer who’s never critical—sometimes sharply so—is letting the side down.

But having said that, I’m reminded of another widespread misconception: that reviews are all about “evaluation,” the reviewer—from his or her lofty perch—saying “5 stars” or “2 stars” or whatever. There’s so much more to it.

For your Spectation

I have a new column up at The American Spectator Online today: Slaves to Intellectual Fashion: 1619. A little more fiery and dismissive than my usual stuff, I think. This particular initiative gets my goat in a personal way. I consider it slander against a country I love and am grateful for.

The weekend was good, thanks for asking. We had a couple Viking groups at Nisswa, Minnesota for a one-day Viking event on Saturday. I took a few pictures, but they weren’t very good. Having 2 groups together made it possible to have some relatively impressive battles, with (I guess) 15 to 20 guys all together. I did not participate in those. I sat in my pavilion in Viking splendor, dispensing wisdom and information to all comers. Also selling books.

It was nice, the weather was beatiful, and I stayed with some very gracious hosts in Brainerd. All in all, pretty rewarding. The scuttlebutt is that the event will happen again next year.

Alcorn Giving Away His Royalties

Years ago, author Randy Alcorn was a pastor, participating with his church in some resistance work at the local abortion clinic. For that work the courts penalized him and other members of the team thousands of dollars to be paid to the clinics. They would not pay. More court hearings came with more penalties, eventually landing the group in a jury trial before an angry judge.

“On February 11, 1991, nine of the twelve jurors agreed to award the abortion clinic $8.2 million dollars, averaging about $250,000 per defendant. It was the largest judgment ever against a group of peaceful protestors. “

But Alcorn has not paid the clinics anything; instead, he has given away over $8.2 million in book royalties to various charities. He wrote about all of this on his blog last month.

Alexandria the Great

Photo credit: Chris Falteisek

For a few days I was a rock star. Granted, I was a rock star with “selective appeal,” but a couple hundred people in Alexandria, Minnesota treated me like a celebrity.

The event was the Tre Lag Stevne. The Bygdelags (as I explained last week) are organizations composed of descendants of immigrants from various Norwegian regions. The three “lags” who met for the stevne (gathering) were groups from Gudbrandsdal, Hedemark, and Trondelag. They invited me to lecture twice on Thursday – once on the Lindisfarne raid in 793 AD, and again on the book Viking Legacy (which I translated; might not have mentioned that to you before).

The audience was attentive, smart (they laughed at my jokes) and appreciative. They descended on my book table like a flock of seagulls and snatched up every copy of Viking Legacy I brought. On top of the sales, I got an honorarium which was generous by my standards.

I have no complaints.

The next day I had to be in a meeting in Fergus Falls, just a little up the road, so I stayed a second night. I had some free time – and when Walker has free time in Alexandria, he can’t resist visiting the Kensington Rune Stone Museum. I’ve been there before, but I heard they’d made some changes.

Photo credit: Lars Walker

This is the stone itself. I have grave reservations about its authenticity, but you can’t deny it’s become a part of history in its own right.

Photo credit: Lars Walker

This display is the main thing I came to see. They did an upgrade to the museum a few years back, and decided to include a tableau about the real Vikings (even if the stone is genuine, it’s not a Viking artifact. Its date is 14th Century, long after the Viking Age ended). The person the museum hired to make costumes for the Viking family was my friend Kelsey Patton – who also made the Viking trousers and summer tunic I’m wearing in the top picture.

Photo credit: Lars Walker

Here’s a surprise – the museum has a Viking ship, in a barn outside. It’s a ¾ scale replica of a Viking knarr (a cargo ship), which was built as a project some years ago by the American Museum of Natural History. Somehow it ended up here.

An interesting and profitable few days. Thanks to everyone who made it possible.

One of the better days

Today I was a rock star. A rock star for a very small public, I’ll grant you, but I’ve rarely faced such an appreciative crowd as the people at the Lag Stevne at the Holiday Inn in Alexandria, Minnesota today.

The Bygdelags, as I explained yesterday, are groups of people whose ancestors came from various regions of Norway. Genealogy is one of their primary interests. So they like history, and they were primed and ready for a morning lecture on the 793 AD Lindisfarne raid, and an afternoon lecture on the book Viking Legacy and its themes.

They ate it up. They listened with rapt attention, laughed at my jokes, and asked good questions afterwards.

And then they bought up my entire stock of Viking Legacy, plus a good number of West Oversea.

I am a happier, and more prosperous, man today.

Thanks to all the Lag folks.

Reporting from the field

I write this from a motel in Glenwood, Minnesota. I’m speaking at a bygdelag meeting in Alexandria tomorrow, and I figured I’d take a room up here so I wouldn’t have to get up tomorrow before it was tomorrow. Glenwood is sufficiently close to Alex, and the rooms are a little cheaper here.

Bygdelags are an old institution among Norwegian-Americans. They started as social organizations for people who came from particular regions or neighborhoods in the old country. Nowadays (much consolidated due to falling membership) they’re largely about mutual support in genealogy. (Or so I believe; I may learn other things tomorrow.)

They asked me to do two lectures — morning and afternoon. They specified that they wanted to hear about the great 793 AD Lindisfarne raid (considered the start of the Viking Age) at 9:30 a.m. So I did some research and was happy to add to my store of knowledge. In the afternoon I’ll do my extended infomercial on Viking Legacy. My hope is to sell a lot of books.

Sorry, the lectures aren’t open to the public, as far as I know.

The Traveling Bookstore of France

Jean-Jacques Megel-Nuber’s first drawing of his imagined bookstore on wheels had little in common with its final design. “It looked like the cabins in a Christmas market,” says Megel-Nuber, who is from the Alsace region of eastern France, known for its festive seasonal markets. He had originally thought about opening a brick-and-mortar bookshop but decided he wanted one that could travel to French country towns whose bookstores have often closed. He also wanted a space where he could live during his travels.

So he commissioned a young design firm to construct a cute, little store on a trailer that travels through rural France with 3,000 books, typically stopping at festivals. He’s dubbed his shop Au Vrai Chic Littérère (The Truly Elegant Literary).