Indies Choice Winners Share Their Independent Bookstore Stories

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Bookselling This Week asked the seven winners of the 2010 Indies Choice Book Awards about their independent bookstore experiences. Each was asked to comment on how support from indie booksellers played a role in finding a readership for their work, as well as to share a memorable visit to an independent bookstore, either as an author or as a customer. Here, BTWshares their responses. All seven winners will be at this year's Celebration of Bookselling at BEA.

Abraham Verghese, Adult Fiction winner for Cutting for Stone (Knopf)

On how support from indie booksellers played a role in finding a readership for his work:

With my first book, My Own Country, the book tour was hit-or-miss in terms of any kind of audience: single digit crowds (counting my escort). The word-of-mouth had not yet caught up with the book. (The book would be reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, three weeks after the tour was over). What sustained me were the independent booksellers, and their enthusiasm for the book. It was the start of my building relationships that I consider precious to this day, relationships that in subsequent tours were deepened and cemented. I am thinking of Rick Simonson at Elliott Bay Books, Carla Cohen at Politics and Prose, Jim Harris and later Jan Weismiller and her incredible staff at Prairie Lights … so many more than space allows me to list.

With my second book, it felt as if I were building on these relationships. Now, with the latest, Cutting for Stone, I am convinced that it is on the bestseller list (#9 on the Timeslist at this writing) because of the way it was championed by the indie booksellers. When Elaine Petrocelli of Book Passage and Betsy Burton of The Kings English and Roberta Rubin of the Bookstall become early endorsers of your novel, good things happen; again I wish I could list here each bookseller for whom I feel a special bond -- it is a long list. From La Jolla, California, to Madison, Connecticut, when I walk into indie bookstores, I find the same DNA that goes with zeal and enthusiasm for the written word. Inevitably I walk away with a book that according to the indie bookseller is in the "you must read this" category. Indie booksellers talk, I listen. I am immensely grateful.

On his memorable visits to independent bookstores, either as an author or as a customer:

When I was at the Iowa Writer's Workshop from 1990 to1991, I spent so much time (and money!) at Prairie Lights. I think it takes living in a town like Iowa City and having a bookstore be part of your life and routine to understand the incredible value-added function of an indie bookstore. I remember sitting there in awe, listening to incredible writers and poets read, and feeling that I was in a place of worship, a place where the written word, the beauty of the emotions it evokes, were held up as being the mark of a society. Jim Harris who owned it then, but also Jan and Paul and so many others were our professors in some ways, guiding us to this book or that, curious about what we were writing, treating us as people with potential even though at that stage I had so little to show.

I always dreamed of one day reading at Prairie Lights and when that moment eventually came I choked up -- it was hugely significant to me to be reading there in that space. It was an affirmation that was personal and private, yet one that I think every writer with an adopted store would understand. My pride was immense this year in seeing the New York Times photograph of President Obama popping into Prairie Lights, an impromptu stop. It seemed fitting recognition of the store that shaped me as a writer.

David Grann, Adult Nonfiction winner for The Lost City of Z (Doubleday)

On indie booksellers' role in finding a readership for his work:

Indie booksellers have been instrumental in making The Lost City of Zsuch a success. Through their word of mouth, their handselling, and their close relationship with readers, indie booksellers have helped a book about a largely forgotten explorer and a distant part of the world find an amazing audience. I'm eternally grateful for everything these booksellers have done, and continue to do so brilliantly.

On his memorable visits to independent bookstores:

I'm a bookstore junkie. When I was researching and writing The Lost City of Z, I used to wander down the street to my local independent bookstore in Brooklyn. It was the place I would go for inspiration or to simply to clear my thoughts. And one of my biggest thrills was when I finished the book and walked down to the store and saw my book in the windowsill.

Kathryn Stockett, Adult Debut winner for The Help (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam)

On indie booksellers' role in finding a readership for her work:

This is my first book, and I'm proud that the first tour I went on was nearly all independent bookstores. You know the feeling of walking into an independent bookstore, when you're surrounded by books, and there's a family feeling. It's like they're putting on a party for someone they love.
On her memorable visits to independent bookstores:

I just left the Tattered Cover, which is incredible. Two of the people who work at Tattered Cover, Jackie and Anne, caught a chronological mistake in The Help early on, and they told me about it in the most gracious way. So in some ways in independent bookstore made my book better. Last night I actually got to look them in the eye for the first time and thank them. That communication between bookstore and writer is something you can only find at an independent.

Suzanne Collins, Young Adult winner for Catching Fire (Scholastic)

On indie booksellers' role in finding a readership for her work:

There's no question that the indie booksellers played a significant role in bringing readers to my books, especially when I was trying to break in. That's where the indies fill a unique role. People respect their taste and trust their recommendations. If they back a book by putting it on a seasonal list, honoring it with an award, or featuring it at their stores, the publishing community takes notice. They're like an incubator for new authors, giving them that extra, vital support as they enter the world.

On her memorable visits to independent bookstores:

Many. I always feel like a queen at indie events. But I'll mention my first visit to Books of Wonder because it was also my debut author event. Coming from television, I knew next to nothing about publishing. The store's front door was a rabbit hole, a wardrobe, a what-you-will to a new world. I had no idea what to expect or how I would be received. If someone had pointed at me, and shouted, "Wait a minute! She's not an author!" I would have admitted that was true and apologized for any inconvenience I had caused. But what I found was a welcoming gathering of people that shared my passion for children's books.

I was in the happy company of Jonathan Stroud, Shannon Hale, Allen Kurzweil, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and Christopher Paolini on a night devoted to first-time fantasy writers. I remember details. Shannon was very pregnant, and her editor had baked goose-shaped cookies. Chris and I discussed sword fighting. Jonathan asked me to sign a book for his wife. The staff had all read Gregor the Overlandermaking them the single largest group of people I could say that about. Everyone made me feel at home. And that's the feeling I repeatedly get when I visit indie stores. One of being at home.

Rebecca Stead, Middle Reader winner for When You Reach Me (Wendy Lamb Books)

On indie booksellers' role in finding a readership for her work:

I feel as though independent booksellers have been my true partners from day one -- before day one, even! Indies were making noise about When You Reach Me before it was even published, and it made an absolutely huge difference when it came to finding a readership. I didn't plan an official "launch event" for this book, and had no particular plans for the day until the booksellers at Children's Book World in Haverford, Pennsylvania, asked if they could host a launch party. I was incredibly flattered, but thought "Who's going to come? I have no friends in Haverford!" I shouldn't have worried. The store's relationship with the community meant that the doors opened and the kids started pouring in. Every parent I met there gushed about how these booksellers actually knew their kids and what they liked to read. And that's how you create enthusiastic readers -- you get to know them.

From Seattle to San Francisco to Princeton to Naperville to Wellesley, Massachusetts, indie booksellers have made special displays for the book, blogged about it, included it in newsletters, put up shelf talkers, and invited me in to talk. All of this has made a tremendous difference, and I can't properly express how grateful I am.

On her memorable visits to independent bookstores:

I have many childhood memories of bookstores -- it was at an independent New York City bookstore that I met Madeleine L'Engle at age 12 or so. I remember staring at her and wondering how the world of the Murrys and the Austins could possibly have come from this one human being. (I also remember being amazed that there were strawberries out on plates -- free to anyone!) And I always liked to get cozy on the rug with a book at another, pretty run-down store near my apartment. The store is long gone, but I can still picture the children's shelf.

Since the release of When You Reach Me, I've had lots of memorable author visits. At Joseph-Beth in Cincinnati, I pulled into the parking lot to find that a power outage had shut down the area's lights -- even the traffic signals were out. It was a February evening, and dark. I made my way to the store, expecting that the event had been called off, and instead found booksellers with flashlights and a store full of people sitting happily in the dark.

I particularly love visiting the independents, because there is always a special feeling in the room -- the booksellers know the kids, their parents, their teachers -- everyone is talking at once. There's this absolute certainty that I'm seeing a real community full of real connections, and, in this increasingly "ethereal" world, nothing is better than that.

Jerry Pinkney, Picture Book winner for The Lion and the Mouse (Little, Brown)

On indie booksellers' role in finding a readership for his work:

We often think about collaboration as one between author and illustrator. However, there is also that important relationship amongst booksellers and a fertile book, and, then, getting that right book in the hands of the right customer.

I have illustrated more than 100 books for children, and because they have not been mass market projects most, if not all, are stand-alone books. For trade sales I rely on the support and enthusiasm of indie staffers for help in bringing my work to the attention of their customers.

On his memorable visits to independent bookstores:

Over the years my experiences while visiting indie bookstores for presentations and signings have been invigorating and rewarding -- giving me the opportunity to meet my readers face to face. There are two stores that stand out because of the number of times I have been invited to sign. Peter Glassman's Books of Wonder in New York City is a place where there is always a panel of gifted authors and illustrators. These presentations tend to be entertaining as well as informative. JoAnn Fruchtman's The Children's Bookstore in Baltimore, Maryland, is a place where I have presented and signed solo, and have been given ample time to speak on new projects. Both JoAnn's and Peter's stores and their staff have made my visits feel like a partnership, bringing families together with books.

Kate DiCamillo, winner for Most Engaging Author

On indie booksellers' role in finding a readership for her work:

Handselling! That simple and profound act (literally putting my books into the hands of passionate readers) gave me a career.

On her memorable visits to independent bookstores:

To get a chance to experience the sense of community that is part of an indie bookstore is a powerful thing for me as a reader and a writer. Every visit (I'm not kidding) is memorable. I walk away with books, stories and a sense of connectedness.

--Interviewed by Sarah Rettger and Karen Schechner