Oh dear, lately we seem to have gotten a bit lax here at Follow the Reader. But, today we are making up for our recent lack of quantity, with a whole lotta quality in the form of a lovely chat with the Word Hoarder‘s own, Mr. Rich Rennicks.
Rich is a self-described “father, bookseller, gardener, writer, and jack-of-many-trades,” who works as bookstore liaison for Unbridled Books, and part-times it as a book seller for Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, NC. As you will find out, Rich also enjoys the pleasure of a good book.
If you needed another reason to be fond of him, Rich is a huge advocate of book sellers using social media to engage with their customers, and has a fantastic post all about it over at Word Hoarder. Go check it out after you read our equally fantastic interview with him.
Kat Meyer: Through extensive research (I clicked on the “About” section at your blog), I discovered you are not native to North Carolina, but hail from Ireland with some time spent in the UK. You mention on your blog that your library reflects your travels. Can you elaborate? Are there any titles that stand out as touchstones for particular times and locations of your life?
There are several books that impacted on me for one basic reason: their authors lived (or had lived) nearby, and that brought the world of arts and letters close enough to home that I began to think I might have a part in it some day. Brendan Behan’s memoir Borstal Boy, J.P. Donleavy’s hilarious The Ginger Man, and Francis Ledwidge’s poetry, were particularly impressive and remain so..
I read Silas House’s marvelous Clay’s Quilt on a trip to NC while I lived in Michigan. That book, with its warm and nuanced understanding of Appalachian culture, had a great deal to do with my family deciding to relocate back south after years up north. Also, Look Homeward Angel is one of my favorite books of all time — and one of the few to reduce me the tears – so, Asheville carries a certain aura and romance for me because of Thomas Wolfe.
I almost began grad work in Indian and post-colonial literature after falling under the spell of Rushdie, Roy, Mukherjee and others. My wife and I traveled throughout India in 1998, and I brought home a ton of Indian novels and some literary nonfiction. Upamanyu Chatterjee’s hilarious English, August is one of those special books for me. I’ve discovered an informal fraternity of travelers who have spent serious time on the subcontinent and have often read that book. It captures the distaste the urban, educated Indian often feels for the raw, superstitious life of rural India, which often mirrors the first impressions and feelings westerners have of the country. It’s a book I’ve bonded with a few people over, and one that is something of an antidote to the glossy, sprawling family sagas that were being published as fast as possible for a few years. English, August is no more comprehensive or representative of India’s myriad communities than those sagas, but is one of the few books I’ve found that takes a brutally and humorously honest look at what’s often romanticized.
KM: North Carolina seems to have one of the most tightly knit (or at least, active) literary communities outside of New York. That’s really just an observation, and I don’t have a question to go with it, but it fascinates me when certain geographical locations seem to be such hot beds of bookishness. I’ll make up a question: What is it about North Carolina, in your opinion, that attracts, or brings out the bookish in people?
RR: There’s a great history of literary excellence in North Carolina. Thomas Wolfe is the ghost no writer can escape in Asheville. Carl Sandburg lived nearby. Today there are so many great writers living in and writing about North Carolina: Charles Frazier, Lee Smith, Fred Chappell, Robert Morgan, K.S. Byer, Ron Rash and Tommy Hayes, among many others. So there’s the tradition and the constant inspiration, but there’s also a very active network of not-yet-published writers (including the young and not-so-young) who meet, workshop and talk shop through the NC Writer’s Network, which is lead by the irrepressible Ed Southern (whose new book, Parlous Angels, is just out, BTW). There are also numerous thriving literary magazines, like The Asheville Poetry Review, edited by poet extraordinaire Keith Flynn, Kakalak and The Pisgah Review, which stimulates the literary scene. That all adds up to fertile ground for bookstores in cities large and small.
KM: I love your blog, the Word Hoarder. You put so much time into your posts, and give a real sense of the books you cover, without giving away too much. What drove you start your blog, and what are your goals with your blog?
RR: My basic hope with the blog is to become a better writer, and the only way to do that is practice.
I used to write reviews, marketing copy and interview authors all the time for Borders.com, and I enjoyed that. My posts tend to be a bit long compared to many blogs because my ideal is John Updike, and the great profiles he used to write for the New Yorker.
I find I do my best thinking when I write. If I keep ideas in my head I wander around with all these ‘precious’ thoughts untested by any argument. If I get them down on paper I often find they’re flimsy and short-sighted in the first draft. The writing process allows me to flesh out the ideas, and then any discussion they engender is fabulous.
KM: How’d you end up in the book business?
RR: I moved to Ann Arbor, MI after traveling around the world. I was really only interested in getting into publishing or bookselling, and I found a job at the embryonic Borders.com. I had the typical bookish background: a degree in English and years of maniacal reading, along with a diploma from the UK in business and IT, so they thought I would be able to straddle the bookselling and computer worlds. I loved selling books, writing about books, the great strategy game of buying for a store – I found everything about bookselling fascinating (still do). So I stayed with Borders in various roles learning all I could until we decided to return to the South.
I’ve been with Malaprop’s about four years, although these days it’s on a very part-time basis.
KM: You recently began working as bookstore liaison for the publisher Unbridled Books. I think this sounds like an incredibly innovative and proactive way for publishers to get in touch with the reading community, and it’s actually one of the first times I have heard of this as an official position within a publishing company. How did you end up in the position, and what exactly does one do as a bookstore liaison?
RR: I’d been interested in getting into publishing for quite a while, and was always impressed with the consistent quality of Unbridled’s books (and that of BlueHen’s before that). The role of bookstore liaison and events coordinator allows me to bring my bookstore experience to help Unbridled expand their market presence and reach out to bookstores learning to navigate the world of social media marketing by providing rich content and working to use social media to bring out a crowd to our events.
The discussion among booksellers for past couple of years has revolved around how to get involved in social media. One of the many pushbacks I’ve heard is that booksellers just don’t have the time to blog regularly. So, at Unbridled we want to help stores fill their enewsletters, twitter streams and blogs with interesting, literary content, and one of my projects is to create an enewsletter full of links to the latest reviews for our authors, as well the great content Unbridled creates (book trailers, promotions, Q&As, essays, etc.) to support our titles. Booksellers can then feature this material on their own blogs or store enewsletters. In this same vein, I’ll be attending some trade shows to talk with booksellers and find out what’s working, what isn’t, and identify new ways for us to work with stores to sell more of our books. We genuinely feel these are great books, that should be read and talked about, and we’re going to do all we can to help launch these titles and get conversations about them going.
Much of it is spreading the word when there’s a great review in the media (for example, PW’s great notice for Matt Roesch’s fabulous debut novel Sometimes We’re Always Real Same-Same). It’s also important to let people know that Masha Hamilton isn’t just reporting on the war in Afghanistan, she’s actively working to improve the lot of women in that oppressive environment by creating the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. 31 Hours is a great read and covers a hot-button issue, which makes it perfect for book groups. Of course, social media cuts both ways, publishers need to use their own social media presence to highlight stores that are doing innovative things and help them get the word out to the literary community (and I use that phrase to mean both readers and bookselling professionals).
We’re at a pivotal moment right now. The taste-making power of newspaper review sections is dwindling, and the discussion is shifting online and diversifying. Part of the risk in this is everyone may talk about the same, few over-hyped titles and ignore the small presses, the artistically challenging books and the new authors. Bookstores have this great opportunity to seize a piece of this online cultural taste-maker role and expand their influence beyond their neighborhood. My role is to encourage, cajole and persuade booksellers on the leading edge of this change to ensure our books remain part of the conversation.
For me, the great thing about Unbridled is that, unlike huge houses with enormous lists, we keep working to get media and publicity for our books all year long, so an author’s event isn’t the end of that book’s life in a store, it’s just the beginning. Our design standards lend themselves to impulse sales off the front table and from faceouts, and the attractive packaging really helps handselling. I saw this over and over again as a bookseller (Andrea Portes’ Hick is a particular backlist superstar – great shelf appeal) and I’m excited to be part of the Unbridled team now.
Now that I’m over the “deer in the headlights” phase of starting a new job, I’m reaching out to booksellers and stores in different regions to get a handle on which titles are working for them, get some feedback on our events and marketing strategies, and brainstorm creative ways to promote events with our authors.
I think the coming season will be very exciting. We have some great books coming in the spring (including Emily St. John Mandel’s much-anticipated second novel, The Singer’s Gun, and an excellent new novel by Elise Blackwell, An Unfinished Score). Even sooner, Colin Dickey’s upcoming nonfiction account of grave robbery and the pseudo-science of phrenology could be one of the must-read narrative histories for the holiday season. It’s a serious history of a quirky, offbeat subject which has real contemporary interest because phrenology really represents the roots of the self-improvement/self-help movement that is such a defining feature of western culture (not to mention the book business). I think Cranioklepty will be a great “Dad” gift for the holidays, because, after the last several years, I suspect many people are maxed-out on books about the Roosevelts, WWII and the founding fathers.
KM: What book have you most frequently been recommending the past few weeks, and why?
RR: Sarah Hall’s new novel How to Paint a Dead Man is frankly amazing: it contrasts the stories of several artists and their attempts to reconcile the demands of their art with the requirements of family life and strictures of social normality. I reviewed it at length on my blog recently.
Otherwise, I’ve been reading through Unbridled’s current season, and am beginning to read through next season’s manuscripts. Emily St. John Mandel’s first novel, Last Night in Montreal is wonderful, a really well-told, mysterious tale of love, loss and identity. I’ve been hand-selling that since it came out, before I began working for Unbridled.
Links to Some of the Subjects Mentioned in this Post:
Afghan Women’s Writing Project