1:57 pm Mar. 29, 2011
Last night Emma Straub, bookseller at Cobble Hill mainstay BookCourt, who recently published her own collection of short stories, Other People We Married, explained how she might have had a small part in making the hardcover edition of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad appear on national bestseller lists from The New York Times to The Los Angeles Times.
When BookCourt visitors are poking at the stacks, “sometimes they know exactly what they’re looking for and they go straight for it or ask me to help them find it,” Straub said. But, “half the time” they ask for a recommendation.
"And that’s when I get to say, how about A Visit From the Goon Squad?” Straub said. “And usually, I get so enthusiastic when I talk about it that then whoever else is in the store, all the other customers in the store say, ‘wait, what book are you talking about?’ And then they all buy them.”
Straub was speaking to a small crowd that had gathered in the back of BookCourt's top floor for a baptism party for A Visit From the Goon Squad’s paperback edition. The visitors, seated in pews and chairs in front of a podium, but mostly crowded among stacks and book display tables in the back of the room, ranged from 30-something professionals in stylish vintage dresses to aging literary couples including men with their hair slicked into pony tails.
The book business, even at the level of an accomplished novelist and nonfiction writer like Egan, is full of such shoe-leather tales: small bookstores whose contribution to a writer's sales are actually meaningful, and, in the case of Egan, a constant pounding of the pavement to sell her book herself, directly to readers. It's not as glamorous as it sounds like it might be, to be one of the most acclaimed novelists of your generation.
And it's not just sentimental. "Good" books, "successful" books, can sell a few thousand copies; that means in a single reading attended by 30 to 60 people, you could be speaking to one entire percent, maybe even 10 percent, of your reading public.
“You’ve, a little bit, solved a mystery, Emma,” Egan said, appearing in a moss-green cardigan and a casual black skirt before a crowd of more than a hundred people. “My sister-in-law, who comes here a lot, was texting me and sending me images of Goon Squad on the bestseller list here week after week.” (The bestseller list is printed and taped to the bookstore’s front door.) “So when the book had been out a long time I was like how are they selling all those books? Now I know.”
There were other factors that nudged Goon Squad onto bestseller lists, of course. The novel, which interlocks narratives about an aging music producer and a cast of assistants, publicists, and punk rockers, was released on June 8 by Knopf to nearly unanimous positive reviews. By the fall, just in time for the holiday shopping season, the book appeared on the Times' “The 10 Best Books of 2010” list, as well as end-of-year lists from editors at The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Time, People, O: The Oprah Magazine, and more.
On March 10, A Visit From the Goon Squad received the National Book Critics Circle’s fiction prize. The board, comprised of more than 600 professional book reviewers, described the novel as "at once experimental in form and crystal clear in the overlapping stories it delivers, offering us a sense of youth and what gets lost along the way."
And it was a competitive year! Egan won out over a boys’ club of authors for the prize, including Jonathan Franzen, David Grossman, Paul Murray, and Hans Keilson.
What’s the reward for all these awards? In sales, that is?
“The award, I’m not so sure because it was so recent,” Egan said at BookCourt. “I’m not sure that makes a difference.”
But, The New York Times’ “10 Best Books of 2010” list?
“I think getting on those end-of-year lists was critical for me, actually,” Egan said. “It helped hugely. I think we were in a 4th printing in November and then an 11th by January or February so that’s a sign that it really helped.”
Since its release in June, the hardcover edition ($25.95) has sold 32,703 copies, according to Nielsen’s BookScan, which tallies from about 75 percent of the U.S. retail market (big-time sellers like Barnes & Noble's numbers are included in the total, but not all independent sellers' copies, like those by Straub at BookCourt, are included in the final number). The paperback ($14.95), released on March 22, has sold 102 copies so far. According to her publicist, the total sales "are far beyond" BookScan's data, although she would not provide specific numbers. The paperback debuted on the Independent Booksellers Bestseller list at No. 7 today for Fiction Paperbacks. There are 80,000 copies of the paperback in print, ready for sale.
In an interview last December, I asked Egan how she felt about being on the Times’ end-of-year list for the first time. “While I am ecstatic to be an insider this time, I also recognize that it does not decide the value of a work of art—I think time decides that,” Egan replied. “The most tangible outcome of these lists is commercial, maybe, and believe me, I’ll take it.”
During the shopping season, local independent stores like McNally Jackson and even some of the New York-area Barnes & Nobles displayed Goon Squad in the front as part of a "Times 10 Best Books of 2010" shelf or table. The hardcover had a turquoise blue black-ground, with graphic knock-out type in all caps for the title next to an illustration of a black guitar's headstock, with strings curling from the tuning pegs.
The paperback edition’s cover, designed by Keenan, has a lighter feel: There's a white background, with a group of faded images of young people in a rainbow of colors, arranged on top of each other like the little chips inside a kaleidoscope. Some of them are jumping in the air, dressed in leather jackets, or leaning back while whaling on a guitar. "a visit from the good squad," in lowercase, appears in a faded gray over the image.
The cover is short along the right-hand side, leaving room for a black strip that reads: “A New York Times Book Review Best Book.”
“Writing a book is all about taking this private, amorphous thing and watching it become an object,” Egan said about the evolution of her work, “and that is kind of strange and amazing.”
“I actually love the way it looks, I find it candy-ish in its appeal,” she said. “Like how will people be able to resist?"
"I guess the one thought I have from a marketing standpoint is it looks like a book for younger people than the hardback. And I think that’s good. I have had a sense that younger people have really responded to it.”
Of course, personal recommendations from booksellers like Straub certainly might have moved that response needle for younger readers.
Egan recently told The Brooklyn Paper that the book “did not sell very well [at first], though it got really good reviews, so I felt like it really had to continue to support it.
"In another situation, I might have just said, ‘Enough, I’m going to let it sink or swim on its own.’ I felt I couldn’t do that with his one.”
Egan has been on seemingly countless readings and appearances since her book released, including last night’s reading and another one scheduled this week on March 31—an “Eat, Drink & Be Literary” event with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
“I think I always assumed that I would have to sell my books,” Egan said at BookCourt. “I just thought why would anyone else do it, you know? I’ve always been really committed to that.”
Egan said she had “a horrible public speaking phobia,” “to the point where I introduced two people and they got married I didn’t make a toast at their wedding, that’s how bad it was,” she said. “I was fainting and darting to avoid a confrontation with a crowd so far before it would ever happen so I would never have to be in that position.”
But, dedicated to going on book tours to sell other titles including 2006’s bestselling The Keep, she admitted to taking beta blockers for a few years. The drugs, popular among theater performers and musicians, clog up receptors for the physical effects of people’s natural fight-or-flight response. Egan took them “just to keep myself from literally spinning out of control in panic,” she said. “Then, of course, as with any phobia, you do actually get over it if you force yourself to do it.”
And what writer has a choice, even at Egan's level?
She's working on her next book now, about women working at Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II, but she's still hard at work selling Goon Squad. At BookCourt, she read an early chapter, “Ask Me If I Care,” and made charming conversation about her cats, one of which, Diamond, knocked over a glass of water onto her computer and fried it in the middle of her writing process. She had cat food in her bag to take home to them that night.