Richard Kostelanetz does not like trees.
Christopher P. Stephens, Bookman
Chris Stephens has been a book dealer since 1965 - earlier if you count childhood buying and selling.
Stephens has sold major collections to university libraries all over the world. He has operated appealing bookstores in Mt. Carroll, Illinois, Hastings on Hudson, NY and several in NYC, NY. He is a wholesale dealer to other bookstores all over the world.
Chris loves books.
Stephens now maintains a lively internet operation out of his new home in Scranton, PA.
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Richard Kostelanetz does not like trees.
Monday, April 27, 2009
Saturday, April 25, 2009
Friday, April 24, 2009
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Alma Singer gave this picture of her husband to Chris Stephens. In 1993, Alma wanted to sell the books out of her apartment on 86th Street where she and Isaac Bashevis Singer had lived for so long. Someone recommended riverrun.
Monday, April 20, 2009
Sunday, April 19, 2009
Don't trade book salesmen have great jobs? The responsibilities are hardly onerous. Each salesman has a territory filled with book stores. The salesman visits each one regularly and chats with the book buyer who is often the owner. The book buyer orders inventory from the publisher's new season list while they discuss readers and book buyers and authors.
Saturday, April 18, 2009
Theron grew up in Oklahoma. He talked about the difficulty of farming poor soil during the depression. He remembered that he only had onions to eat as a child. Those onions sustained him well though. He became a tall, broad man with a wonderful singing voice. I met Theron Palmer in the early 1960s, not long after my father met him. This was before he returned to OK/TX. In the early 1960s he just represented Dial and his territory, like my father’s, included southern California. Many evenings Theron brought his guitar to our house. His strong voice sang out in our book-lined living room. My father could never get enough of Theron’s songs. Theron had a wide repertoire of country songs but most memorably he sang a powerful version of “The Tennessee Stud”.
Sometimes Theron brought his wife, Violet, to our house too. My parents, Frank and Mary Scioscia, became friends with Violet and Theron Palmer. Both men travelled, selling books to stores far and wide. It's a special kind of life. They both loved books. All four of them did. Whenever Theron wasn't strumming his guitar and singing, the adults were talking about books.
Friday, April 17, 2009
There are marvelous prizes. riverrun is involved. But the fun of the contest is in thinking up an entry more than in winning. I’m joining the clerihew party myself for that fun. Here are my submissions:
1.) What is a Clerihew?
A ditty silly not sublime.
Four lines with a-a-b-b rhyme.
Named for Bentley, Edmund Clerihew
And now it’s time for us to air a few.
2.) King Lear
Lear rewarded daughters two,
Would not believe their words untrue.
But for the banished girl who would not lie
He suffered anguish to see her die.
3.) Cyrano and Roxanne
He wrote of love in phrases rarified.
Alas, the signature she had not verified.
This blind triangle ends in ways quite drastic.
Consigning poor Roxanne to a life monastic.
Part woman, and too part child
This drove HH completely wild.
He made a plan and he took action
That led to his dark satisfaction.
Now that it’s typed out, I can see that Lolita does not really lend itself to a nonsense rhyme.
You try one. Send it in.
Find out more on the Literature Club website: literatureclubofhastings.blogspot.com
Send your entries to: firstname.lastname@example.org
O'Gara & Wilson, a Chicago Bookstore, runs a fun blog that also mentioned this contest on April 1
Thursday, April 16, 2009
The new Yankee Stadium is open for its first regular-season game. It's a beautiful day for it. Clear sky. Warm sun. Spring's sweet promise has touched trees and highway medians in New York City.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Dan came into riverrun on Sunday. He talked about publishing. He thinks changes are coming.
“The age of corporate publishing preeminence may be drawing to a close. Small, independent publishers are already springing up and filling niches too small for the giant corporate machinery. It’s exciting. The orientation of a small publisher is completely different. They’re passionate about what they publish. They aren’t as passionate about bottom line considerations.”
This is how Dan Frank sees the development of big corporate publishing in the first place.
“Book clubs were very successful. Book of the Month Club and other mail order book clubs. People all over the country subscribed. This made bookstore corporations develop nationwide aspirations. Book retailing chains opened up, dotting the map. Now publishers jumped in. There was that glint in the eyes of the executives. They figured the distribution was in place. They could mainstream cultural items, publish in greater quantities and make bundles of money.
“They didn’t understand though. The book market is a niche market. People want to read history or poetry or fiction or mystery. Only very rarely is there crossover interest where all the different markets converge on the same book for gigantic sales.
“It does happen occasionally. There are a few golden success stories, like a John Le Carre spy novel, but the few breakthrough blockbusters only reinforce the unrealistic dream. Dream: If we can sell 10,000 copies of a book, why can’t we sell many multiples of 10,000? This business model is based on ever-increasing expansion but publishing is not really that kind of industry.
“People in publishing have torn themselves away from the corporate trough before. Atheneum, for instance, was founded in 1959. Michael Bessie was disgusted with Harper’s. Pat Knopf hated the idea of working with his father. Hiram Hayden left his post as editor in chief at Random House. They started Atheneum and published quality books without regard for mega-sales.
“There are other small, distinguished publishers, and I think more are coming.”
This is an interesting prediction for publishing. Dan Frank sees parallels with the movie industry. “You have the major studios producing pictures, and at the same time you have all these independent film makers.”
The 40 or 50 years of corporate publisher dominance have changed the nature of not only publishing, but writing too.
“The corporate publishers have created a class of writers that didn’t exist before. The publisher’s advance is the difference. Years ago, advances were a minor part of the pay package. A publisher would take on a worthy book even where they anticipated sales of just 5000 copies. The offer to the author might be something like $4000 advance against royalties. No one can live on that kind of money. The author kept his day job.
“Nowadays publishers look for the huge seller. Bidding is competitive. The advance is big, really big. Now the advances are big enough for the author to live on. He can leave his day job and write fulltime.
“The fulltime author is a creation of corporate publishing and the big advances.”
As Dan Frank sees it, this new class of author changed the dynamics of publishing in many ways.
“Twenty years ago, the most important relationship was still between author and editor. Now it’s between author and agent.”
The editor’s job is to get the best book possible out of the author. The agent’s job is to get the most money possible for the author. I’d heard that Dan Frank has very loyal authors.
“Not all,” he said. “More left than stayed.” I was skeptical.
“And editors move now too,” Frank told me. “It used to be that an editor spent his entire career at one publisher. Take Cass Canfield. He wasn’t going to leave Harper’s. He was doing what he wanted to do, publishing the books he wanted to publish. It used to be the only reason an editor left a publisher was if he couldn’t sign the authors he wanted. Bob Giroux, for instance, left Harcourt for Farrar, Straus because he wasn’t allowed to sign Catcher in the Rye. I mean, that was the last straw.”
“Now the editor’s job is more tenuous. Editors move around just like authors move around.”
Dan Frank talked about authors.
“A part-time author who writes around his schedule is, in a way, more even-keeled with his publisher. He’s happy to be published. He’s happy to be paid for his writing. The new fulltime writer, created by corporate publishing, is not in the same easy position. For him, publishing is his livelihood. And it’s a remarkably fickle livelihood. No wonder the author moves. When that day comes that his publisher doesn’t want the next book, or wants to pay less, or demands more revision work, the agent says ‘Come on. We’ll find some other publisher with deep pockets.’
“I think the hardest thing is for an author to stay true to what they are.”
Dan Frank offered more insights and anecdotes. It was a great conversation.
Dan Frank had a couple of small jobs before he became an editor at Viking.
“I was really lucky. I got there just about the time Penguin purchased Viking. There were great editors at Viking – like Cork Smith. He was a real Pynchon enthusiast and he had such a good editorial eye. And Alan Williams. Quality history.
“With the Penguin/Viking combination, they were pushing some of these fine editors out, but I got to see their work”
Dan talked about the editorial eye. “It’s completely grounded in the individual’s interests as well as his curiosity and urge to push on for more. You’re thinking ‘I want to know more about this,’ but it’s really your familiarity with the subject that allows you to recognize something you haven’t seen expressed that way before. You’re reading, and you say, ‘Oh my god! I’ve never read a book like this.’ And that’s what you want to publish.
“For example, here’s someone who is looking at Einstein as a man who is thinking as dreaming.”
Is that real, I interrupt Dan. “Yes. Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman.
“An important aspect of the editorial eye is that it’s shaped by your early encounters with reading – your earliest sense that what you’re reading is entirely different from what you’ve read or thought before.”
So what is Dan Frank’s eye exactly? What does he want to publish?
“I want to find books that are still going to be read 40 years from now. I’m not as interested in the first 6 weeks of a books life as I am in the next few decades. I want books that offer writing and concept that isn’t dated. There is this thing that rarely gets talked about in publishing – the truly great authors that may or may not have been a success in their time.”
Dan Frank’s editorial eye has far reaching vision. He wants to publish books whose greatest success may come beyond our time.
“Of course your employer wants you to find books that will sell – will make money now. That has to be one criterion in the selection. But consideration of the book market today need not be the dominant criterion. At Pantheon, we’re allowed to be quite idiosyncratic. We make money on Alexander McCall Smith and on the high quality back list. We’ve been publishing books for the future all along.”
I wonder about some of the authors that Dan Frank most likes. He spins out a few of his favorites.
“David Abram. The Spell of the Sensuous. It’s a book of natural philosophy, about how language comes out of human experience with the earth. Abram has a lot to say and he says it his way. Sometimes he takes my suggestions but other times he doesn’t want to make my changes. This book speaks to many. He has become hugely influential in the environmental movement.”
“Richard Holmes is a big biographer of romantic poets. He’s written a wonderful book, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. He writes about what a biographer does – about how he excavates his subject. Holmes, the writer, is taking you on a tour of his own workshop in a way. He shows you how it’s done, what interests him, how the research works.”
“Joseph Mitchell. Great writer. He wrote in the 30s, 40s and 50s. McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon. The Bottom of the Harbor. Up in the Old Hotel. I convinced him to let me reprint his essays. He wanted it done a particular way. He wanted everything in one volume.”
Dan Frank has lots more favorites. He sparkles with enthusiasm for authors, for books, for publishing, for reading. His enthusiasm is quite contagious.
Monday, April 13, 2009
photo by Christopher Stephens
(all other color photos, except those noted - like this one - taken by L. Scioscia Stephens)
I'm always ready for a good conversation. Most conversations are like bubbles - delightful, then gone. It is the conversation's passage through, leavening our daily lives, rather than the conversation itself that is significant.
Sometimes though, conversations themselves are kept. For instance, I'm going to post an extremely interesting one I had here with Dan Frank on this blog in a couple of days.
Another good way to capture a conversation is at Storycorps. This is a global archive of conversations housed at the Library of Congress. The project was created by David Isay. He has sound booths set up in a couple of cities and two mobile booths that travel throughout the USA collecting recordings of people talking. About anything. The booths are staffed by remarkably empathetic "facilitators" who handle the technology and exude encouragement.
Dan Frank indulged me by chatting with me in a Storycorps booth. Look it up if you're in Washington D.C. Go chat with someone in a Storycorps booth yourself. And come by riverrun for books or conversation.
Sunday, April 12, 2009
Saturday, April 11, 2009
Something Else Press printed wonderful books and pamphlets. I just came across the press' last catalogue 1973/74. Jan Herman, sales manager, wrote descriptions of each book. What great descriptions! I wanted to read every single book.
Chris Stephens often ordered books from Something Else Press. One day in 1974 he telephoned to place an order. Jan Herman answered the phone. He sounded down. "Sorry. Can't. We're broke," he told Chris. "We're out of business. Closed down."
Chris was appalled. "But where are the books?" he asked.
"Lawyer has them. Has all our papers. You might be able to get something from the lawyer I suppose. I don't know how he's handling it."
Herman gave Stephens the lawyer's number. Chris called. The lawyer wasn't filling individual orders but he asked if Chris wanted to buy everything. Chris did. The lawyer sent lists of books stored in Vermont and in NYC. They negotiated a price for the entire inventory and papers. The lawyer said Chris would have to send a truck for them but that he'd arrange workers to load the boxes onto the truck.
Chris was very pleased about the books but not about getting them. For one thing, he had a weekly poker game at our apartment, which he hated to cancel. For another Chris didn't relish a lengthy road trip.
I did. I love road trips. I rented a truck and packed the kids into the back of the cab. I brought along my friend from Marvin Cohen's creative writing class, Bruce Hovenstot. It was evening by the time we were finally ready to roll. The poker players had already arrived. I drove out into the night. Bruce quietly criticized my driving the whole way to Vermont.
We were waiting outside a Vermont barn at the appointed hour next morning. The lawyer came with some workers. We didn't get to meet any of those notable authors and poets and artists in person, but we did get to pack thousands of boxes of their work into the U-Haul truck.
I drove back. We unloaded at our loft on 38th Street. Those books took up a lot of room but we had a lot of room. We had the whole top floor, 17th, and around that time we took the 16th too. Chris picked up more Something Else Press books from the NYC distributor. For months we looked through those boxes.
Business files were there too. Chris could see that production costs on some titles exceeded wholesale price. No wonder they were broke.
Chris Stephens himself, and Frank Scioscia too, have often flipped conventional business wisdom. The riverrun proprietors routinely bought high and sold low. But the difference is that those lines rarely crossed.
Something Else Press was publishing remarkable material. It pumped creative energy into our society. Their bankrupcy leaves us all slightly bankrupt. It was a very fine press - a very fine project.
Thursday, April 9, 2009
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
One afternoon, almost 20 years ago, Chris Stephens was in the William Morrow publishing offices. He was talking with an editor friend. The editor was planning a trip to southeast Asia. Conversation came around to Indonesian author, Pramoedya Ananta Toer.
"He's in Jakarta under house arrest," said the editor. "Carefully guarded. In a comfortable situation now, I understand, but still confined."
Pramoedya's earlier imprisonments had been far from comfortable.
The Indonesian government was allowing the editor to visit Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Stephens had an idea.
"Wouldn't it be great to get some signed copies of his books? They'd be the only ones. "
"You don't understand, Chris. His books are outlawed there. He's imprisoned because of his writing. You don't just stroll through those streets with his books in your arms."
"What about blank sheets? You could bring him blank sheets. He could sign them and then we could tip them into books when you brought them back here."
"That might work," said the editor.
That did work. Chris brought the editor a packet of blank book-sized pages. The editor brought them to Indonesia.
Pramoedya was reluctant to sign blank sheets. He worried that someone might frame a contract or a confession above the signature and he'd be in further trouble. The editor reassured the author. He got the signatures.
Back in the United States, the signed pages were tipped into existing books. Those signed books came with a good story.
A couple of years later, Pramoedya Ananta Toer was finally released from house arrest. He traveled. He went on a North American book-signing tour.
some of Pramoedya Ananta Toer's books that have been translated into English: The Fugitive (CPS's favorite), Corruption, The King The Witch and the Priest, The Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, House of Glass, House of Glass, The Girl From the Coast, A Mute's Soliloquy
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
Going into strangers' houses for books puts Christopher Stephens into the lives of those strangers. Sometimes he brings more than books back to riverrun.
Monday, April 6, 2009
Dana Gioia discovered riverrun shortly after the store opened. He and Frank Scioscia became fast friends. They were a generation apart but they shared a way of thinking about books, authors, readers and life.
Sunday, April 5, 2009
That would have worked. Riverrun contains some dangerous passageways. ("Do you want me to help tidy up a little?" Isabella asked.) Long corridors between shelves in the back are like canyons. Open areas in the front are mighty vistas.
In the end, her vision could not be contained within walls. The magnificent palisades across the Hudson became books. Meriwether Stephens points the way.
Isabella Bannerman is the Monday cartoonist for the syndicated Six Chix strip. Her off-beat humor is a great treat.
There will be an exhibit of Isabella's work at the Station Cafe in Hastings on Hudson on April 25th. You can catch her Mondays in any one of hundreds of newspapers, or anytime on the internet.
Isabella Bannerman's website
Six Chix website (I especially like the painting of Kinally Cove posted there on March 6)
Saturday, April 4, 2009
Dan Wilcox sent more photos of Siv Cedering reading at riverrun on March 23, 1986.
In the first photo, Natalie Polly (then, Natalie Safir now) is introducing Cedering. Natalie Safir organized the Pomegranate poetry reading series. She is a poet herself.
Dan Wilcox sent along photos of other poets reading at riverrun for future posts here. Check out his addictive blog of poetry readings in other venues.
Dan Wilcox's poetry blog, DWX
Natalie Safir's entry in Poets & Writers
Siv Cedering in Poets.org from the Academy of American Poets
Friday, April 3, 2009
Fran told me how the grand old industry turned not-grand in the early 1970s. "A man at Harper's typified the change. Tad Akaishi. He was briefly head of the trade department but he wasn't a real bookman."
One wonders how someone who wasn't a real bookman became head of Harper's trade books. McCullough explained.
"First he was a Korean minister and then he was the head of the religious department, which is generally not one of the high visibility profit centers in publishing. Under Akaishi, Harper's religious department was extremely profitable. People asked him how.
" 'Easy,' he said. 'Keep the best sellers in print. Drop the others. Don't take chances."
His successful publishing philosophy may have catapulted him to a head position but it was anathema to McCullough. Other editors found it repellant too. Fran tells about a philosophical collision.
"Tad summoned all the editors. He wanted to get everyone on board the Harvard Business School model. The Love of Literature model wasn't necessarily taking them to Profit City. He wanted to know the editors' plans. He asked Joan Kahn first. You know Joan," Fran said to me. "She had her own mystery imprint. Tad asked about her five-year plan.
"Joan spoke clearly. She said, 'My plan is to find the best books I can and to publish them well.' 'No, no,' said Tad. 'I mean what is your publishing plan? What are your projections? What numbers do you see in the future?
"Joan stood her ground. She said it again. 'I intend to find the best books I can and to publish them well.' All the editors agreed with Joan.
"Someone else said, 'Every book we publish is an experiment.' "
Those editors who follow the Love of Literature model look for the best books. They pour their hearts into them and hold hands with the authors and publish the books well. After that they wait and see. That's because they know that each book they publish is an experiment. Quality is part of it. Chance is part.
Fran says, "In the old days, when the Love of Literature model prevailed, literary editors were trusted to sign up books they loved and few other questions were asked. No one can do that anymore, though it's assumed that editors love what they publish - but they also have to be able to argue persuasively that these books will be successful and support their arguments with numbers. So does the Biz School model work? Not at all, but it lets everyone off the hook by pretending to be scientific, and its so pervasive now that it's virtually impossible to try any other system that might be more realistic."
The meeting Tad Akaishi held early in the 1970s was just a skirmish. The editors won that one, but over the decade they lost the war.
"But Tad Akaishi wasn't really a bad guy. He was just ahead of his time and in the wrong place. Eventually I came to like him. He had interesting other talents too. For instance, he knew a technique for walking on bad backs and making them feel better. You'd lie on the floor, right there in the office and he'd walk on your back."
In college Fran McCullough won the competitive Madamoiselle intern contest. It was the same contest that Sylvia Plath had won and made famous in The Bell Jar. Fran was disappointed to be matched with Bennett Cerf for her internship, but she learned a lot about publishing.
"Cerf told me, 'Publishing is a business, like the butcher business.' It was very shocking to me at the time, but of course, it couldn't be truer."
In the early 1970s Fran McCullough was a poetry editor. Later when backlists and insightful, interesting poetry weren't bottom-line material, McCullough became a cookbook editor. This is not the radial transition it may seem. Fran McCullough is a magical cook. She makes poetry out of meals.
Fran McCullough's cookbook website
an interesting paper comparing Sylvia Plath and Iranian poet Forough Farrokhad - bibliography includes poetry edited by McCullough
Bennett Cerf profile
1945 announcement of Madamoiselle contest