A collaborative effort between Mississippi’s independent booksellers and the University Press of Mississippi has both revitalized the Books pages in the Jackson-based Clarion-Ledger and enlivened the state’s literary culture.
After several years with virtually no book coverage in the newspaper, which circulates statewide, John Evans, the owner of Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi, and Steven Yates, assistant director/marketing director for the University Press of Mississippi (UPM), decided to take matters into their own hands, and the results have been very much to the advantage of bookstores and booklovers statewide.
Thanks to their efforts, on every Monday since January 2014 Mississippi indies have been compiling and sending a list of their top 10 bestselling adult books and their top five bestselling children’s books from the previous week, along with the upcoming week’s author event calendars, to the University Press. Yates and his colleague Clint Kimberling, UPM’s publicity manager, then aggregate those lists and send them to Clarion-Ledger features editor Annie Oeth to print in that week's Mississippi Books page.
“[The Ledger’s] interest was based on the fact that Mississippi has quite a few celebrated writers past and present, so we thought it was something that our readers would enjoy and, of course, encouraging more reading helps newspapers, too,” Oeth told Bookselling This Week. “Thankfully, the Clarion-Ledger wanted to do this, not only to enhance the book culture of Mississippi but also the arts scene in general. They have been an organization that has been supportive of Mississippi in the arts for many years.”
In addition to compiling the list of bestsellers and author events for the entire state of Mississippi, Yates also assigns local authors to write book reviews of their fellow Mississippians’ works. (A recent pairing had short fiction writer Becky Hagenston reviewing Margaret McMullan’s Aftermath Lounge from Calypso Editions.)
Along with the bestseller lists, reviews, and interviews, the Clarion-Ledger’s two- to three-page Books feature, which runs in the paper’s Sunday Family Section, also includes exclusive columns from indie booksellers: Lisa Newman at Lemuria writes a weekly “First Editions” column on rare and collectible books and fine bindings, and Clara Martin, also of Lemuria, writes her own weekly column about children’s and young adult books.
Every week, Oeth lays everything out to create an attractive spread, which includes periodic pieces by local freelance writer Jana Hoops, who interviews many of the big-name authors who come through Mississippi bookstores on tour.
“Most of the Books page is author event-driven,” Yates said. “We’ll look to see who is coming to town and try to schedule an interview or review of the book beforehand.”
While all independent bookstores in the state are invited to report their sales each week, the five most consistently reporting stores so far have been Lemuria, Book Mart & Café in Starkville, Turnrow Book Company in Greenwood, Turning Pages Books in Natchez, and Square Books in Oxford, Yates said.
Though the Gannett-owned newspaper also began running USA Today’s syndicated weekly book section in the last year, the Mississippi-focused book pages are “returning [the Clarion-Ledger] to its roots as a community paper,” said Square Books owner Richard Howorth. “No one gets paid for any of this, but all contribute gladly, and the Books section today is perhaps better than it has ever been.”
Pointing to newspapers’ struggles to stay relevant in the face of 24-hour news cycles and the Internet, Evans said, “I think that the way for a newspaper to not go away is to have a lot of pertinent, common interest, timely pieces with a real genuineness that represents the culture of the area it serves. Our brand at Lemuria is specifically built around real books and real authors and real readings and the real printed word. I think that the newspaper has kind of adapted that same strategy: nobody wants our newspaper to go away."
Booklovers throughout the state have become great fans of the newspaper's weekly Mississippi Books feature, and readers even have been known to hand the bestseller list page to bookstore staff to check if a listed book is in stock. At Mississippi author Greg Iles' recent signing of Natchez Burning (William Morrow), some even ripped out the page for him to sign along with the actual book, said Oeth. And when Yates and Kimberling brought up the books page at a meeting of Bookfriends, UPM's literary focus group, they got raves, with some members saying it was the reason they look forward to getting the Sunday paper.
“I thought that the most authentic third party for us would be our own University Press, which was already in touch with all the bookstores and buyers and already invested in growing a flourishing book culture in Mississippi,” Evans said. But none of their success would have been possible if the Clarion-Ledger staff were not united in wanting to enhance the state’s literary culture. “It is essential to find willing partners at the newspaper who share that goal,” Evans said.
When publishers coordinate author signings for particular books among reporting stores — in Greenwood [at Turnrow], in Jackson [at Lemuria], and in Oxford [at Square Books], Evans said, “those books do usually fall on the bestseller list the next week, after the author has been exposed to the community through interviews, reviews, and booksellers getting onboard and hand-selling their books.”
At least one reporting bookstore owner, Jamie Kornegay of Turnrow, has figured out a very direct way for his store to capitalize on the weekly Mississippi bestseller lists. After an author makes a visit to Turnrow, Kornegay will e-mail the bestseller list to the book’s publicist to demonstrate that the whole state is now reading the book, Yates said. This, Kornegay hopes, will motivate the publicist to send more authors in the future.
“It’s a great unanticipated outcome,” Yates said. “[The section has become] “a marketing tool for the bookseller.”