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Symbiosis, Indies First, and Part-Time Indians

Indies FirstI have often said that indie bookstores have a symbiotic relationship with 2nd and 3rd tier authors. I suppose that symbiosis got a little out of hand when I bought a bookstore, but that’s another subject entirely. When Stephen King writes a new book, it doesn’t matter to him whether a little store like mine promotes it. His publisher will throw a fat marketing budget at it, his massive fan base will be all abuzz, and the book will hit the New York Times bestseller list before it even comes out. It’s a different matter for most authors.

When I write a new book, it makes a huge difference if a few independent bookstores pick it up and hand sell it. Small stores can launch an author. And one big author event can pay off that last big bill that pushes an indie store into profitability for the month. Don’t get me wrong; indie bookstores need J.K. Rowling and John Grisham and (sigh) Dan Brown. But authors like them aren’t going to show up in Red Lodge, Montana to do a book signing. Craig Johnson, on the other hand, still remembers the stores that hosted him back when he was relatively unknown, and still does his “outlaw motorcycle tour” each year where he signs at little stores like mine.

Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie models an Indies First book bag in this photo from the American Booksellers Association.

A few months ago, Sherman Alexie (author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, among other books) wrote an open letter to other authors suggesting that Small Business Saturday would be a perfect opportunity for authors to show their support of indie bookstores by becoming an honorary bookseller for a day. He said we could call it “Indies First.” His idea, in the e-parlance of today, went viral. Authors jumped on the idea, and the American Booksellers Association stepped in to help pair up authors with stores.

On Small Business Saturday, which fell on November 30th this year, over 1,000 authors showed up at their favorite bookstore to sell books. Not just their own books. These authors did what the people in the stores do every day: they talked to shoppers and helped them pick books for themselves and for gifts.

Craig Lancaster came to my store that day — and it warmed my heart that an author published by Amazon still loves the brick & mortar stores! Craig introduced himself to everyone that came in the store and told them about Indies First. Normally, when Craig is in my store, I’m telling everybody about his books: Edward Adrift is as good as (dare I say “better than”?) 600 Hours of Edward. I really enjoyed his short story collection, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, and I think you’ll like it, too. That day, however, I got to listen to Craig helping people find good books by other authors. Sure, we sold some of his, but I enjoyed hearing what other authors he recommended.

I think that the Indies First program is a wonderful idea. It does sadden me a bit that we need to do it. A section on a website entitled, “People who looked at this book also bought these books,” isn’t a substitute for talking to someone who’s knowledgeable about books, and that’s what indie stores are all about. Back before I bought a bookstore, I used to seek out the indies because shopping at the big stores was frustrating. I could never find anyone who actually knew their inventory or knew how to answer my questions. Even though I own a store now, I still visit other indie stores when I travel. After twelve years in the business, I continue to learn from people in those other stores, and they often recommend books I wouldn’t have thought of reading — or giving as gifts.

The timing on Indies First was also just right. Most of us manage to muddle along finding good things to read for ourselves. But finding good books as gifts can be more challenging. That’s where the perspective of the authors helps. They can come up with ideas for gift-giving that the store staff might not have thought of. With Christmas approaching, that’s invaluable.

Thank you to Sherman Alexie for coming up with the idea, to the American Booksellers Association for promoting it, and to Craig Lancaster for bringing it to my store. It made a difference to us.

Book Review: “Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure” by Craig Lancaster

Cover-Quantum Physics and the Art of DepartureYou know those books of short stories where every one of them has a character that overcomes a major crisis, and the story ends with puppies and rainbows? This isn’t one of them.

As a newspaper editor, Craig Lancaster has had plenty of close-up views of the grittier side of life, and those views show through in Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, his new book of short stories. He addresses themes like death, homelessness, domestic violence, divorce, self-mutilation, cheating spouses, crime, suicide, and demotion at work, and he pulls no punches. The stories aren’t all depressing, although some of them definitely are, but they are all thought-provoking.

The theme of the book is followed only loosely. This isn’t one of today’s short story collections where each story shares setting and/or characters with all of the others. This led to some publishing challenges for Lancaster, as publishers really want the tightly-tied “novel in short stories” format.

It’s hard to say much about the stories themselves without giving away the endings. For some authors, spoilers would ruin the book entirely. For Lancaster, it would detract from the ending’s effect, but I would read the stories even if I knew the endings, because his writing is good enough to hold my interest. He builds characters with depth, complex characters that make you want to find out what happens after the end of the story.

The first story in the book, Somebody Has to Lose, was a great choice for an opener. Paul Wainwright, the coach of a high-school girls’ basketball team, has an incoming freshman named Mendy who just might be able to break the team’s ten-year championship drought. Shades of Blind Your Ponies? No, Lancaster takes his story in a whole different direction, as Coach Wainwright has to deal with hard choices about what’s best for the girls on his team (as opposed to what the town wants him to do), and what’s best for his family. This is the longest story in the book, and it showcases Lancaster’s skill as a writer. He drew me in to the plot and the characters. When I finished the story, I just had to keep going and read the next one. As I said, excellent choice for an opener.

Some of the stories were downright depressing (e.g., She’s Gone and Sad Tomato: A Love Story). Some were uplifting (Comfort and Joy ends the book perfectly). Some just made me sit back and say, “wow” (Star of the North). It would be fun to see some of these stories stretched into novels (Alyssa Alights, for example). And if there are any disgruntled old-school journalists reading this, step away from your computer, grab a copy of the book, and read The Paper Weight. Oh, my goodness!

The book is set mostly in Montana, although most of the stories could easily be transplanted elsewhere. There is little in Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure that readers in other locales wouldn’t get.

I read this book while on vacation, and I had some trepidation about it. It seemed a rather heavy read for vacation time. Luckily, that wasn’t the case. While it is a literary work that deals with serious themes, there isn’t an ounce of pretentiousness between the covers. It’s absorbing, attention-grabbing, and well-written. Comfort and Joy is downright amazing. I enjoyed the book, and I think others will enjoy it, too.

We don’t have the schedule set up yet, but Lancaster will be coming to Red Lodge Books for a signing and a talk, most likely after the Christmas holidays. Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure officially releases on December 6, but you can order it on the Red Lodge Books website right now.

NOTE: This review is based on an advance copy, and there may be changes before its scheduled release on December 6, 2011.

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