Archive for December, 2009

Remembering Bill Clinton at Cody’s

December 19, 2009

Bill Clinton’s book signing at Cody’s on June 29, 2004  was the biggest event that we ever had, both in attendance and in the number of books sold.

Cody’s had been doing events for a long time. I bought the store in 1977. Even then, events were a fixture at  Cody’s.  During the time I owned the store, we had 6000-8000  author events. Here are just a few  authors in no particular order: Norman Mailer, Barbara Kingsolver, Susan Sontag, Muhammad Ali, Mickey Mantle, Peter O’Toole, Allen Ginsberg, Michael Moore,  Gary Snyder, Steven Pinker, Joseph Brodsky, Buckminster Fuller, Ken Kesey, Margaret Atwood, Judy Collins, Richard Avedon, Salman Rushdie, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Ralph Nader, Hank Aaron,  Joseph Heller, Ray Bradbury, Garrison Keiller, Gilda Radner, Ann Rice, and Michael Chabon.  We even had Buffalo Bob and Beaver Cleaver.  Impressive.

But as I said, the biggest event we had was Clinton. We knew from the start that this was going to be different, but nothing prepared us for  what finally transpired.

We received a visit from the secret service about a month before the event. They scoped out the store. They were happy to see that there were alternative exits  in the event of unpleasantness by  homicidal lunatics or other crackpots, always a possibility in Berkeley. (As an aside, my wife, Leslie, once foiled a cream pie attack on Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State.)  

But I digress.  The Secret Service informed us that customers couldn’t bring bags and other personal belongings into the store. We had experience with this when Jimmy Carter did a signing. We rented a truck, parked it outside and had a team of  people acting as hat check girls.

The Clinton team were good guys but weren’t very helpful with logistics. We were faced with the largest organizational challenge in the store’s history and were not informed how long the president would stay at the store and how many books he would sign. Part of this was probably due to some security concerns. They didn’t want to give too many details regarding  their schedule. Part of it was simply due to flakiness. All they told us was that he would stay at least two hours.   We spent a lot of time speculating on how many books Clinton could and would sign in this period  and trying to parse what “at least two hours” really meant. No matter how you cut it, it was clear that most people weren’t going to get their book signed or even see the president.

So now it’s about 14 days before the big event. I’m up in my office with a sales rep. I remember it well. I was buying Simon and Schuster new titles from Beverly Langer. The phone rang. Normally I’d ignore it and let the guys at the information desk field the calls. But the phone didn’t stop ringing. I started picking it up. Everyone wanted to know about Clinton. Finally I sent Beverly home and decided to go downstairs and help answer the phone. I ended up staying down there on the phone ten hours a day  for two weeks. I tried to estimate how many calls we took during that time. I came up with about 10,000. But most people never reached us. The line was always busy.

Of course, all the questions were the same. And because of the vague and fuzzy information coming from the Clinton team, we were not able to answer those questions. What were they? “Will Clinton have time to sign everyone’s book?”(answer: we don’t know). “How soon should we come to get in line?” (answer: we don’t know.). “How long will Clinton be signing?” (answer: We don’t know. At least 2 hours, maybe, we think).

We also had to deal with logistical puzzles for which there were only bad solutions. The big one that ultimately defeated us (and every other bookseller who hosted Clinton) was how do you set rules for who can enter.  The obvious seat-of-the-pants plan was  only people with books can get in line. This is easy. We give an admission ticket for everyone who buys a book. But what if  the customer buys a book and wants to come in accompanied by his child?  Would we be so heartless as to say: “Only one person per book. Your six-year-old will have to buy his own book in order to get in.” No.  We feel our customers’ pain (even if Clinton did not), and  they would make us feel ours as well if we didn’t allow their kid to come in.  We had enough problems without having to deal with a Donnybrook of angry Clinton fans. So we gave everyone 2 tickets for every book purchased. I had a bad feeling about that, but we will get to that later.

As the big day approached, we sought information from the bookstores throughout the country who were staging similar events. Always we asked, how long did he stay? Did he stay longer than he promised? How many books did he sign? How many books per hour did he sign? Was he a fast signer (Jimmy Carter was the fastest signer on record. He signed 1200 books in 90 minutes.) Sadly, Clinton was a bit of a schmoozer. He liked everyone to feel that they had his undivided attention for 30 seconds or thereabouts. What we heard from our bookselling friends in Denver, Milwaukee, Chicago, and all points east was that the event was a perfect storm. The best they could say was: “We survived”. (Well, actually they also said that they sold a bunch of books).

Melissa Mytinger, who was masterminding the event, had the whole thing planned and mapped out on charts with little arrows running this way and that. A couple of days before the event, we all got together for a meeting. Everyone was given their tasks and stations. As was to be expected, there was a considerable amount of jockeying for “face time.” And the winner was: ta da!…..no, not me. I’m far too worldly  to be seduced by the cult of  celebrity.  It was…my son…Robert Cole. He got to stand next to Clinton for 4 hours holding the books as the president was signing.  Clinton was impressed by his energy and wide-ranging knowledge of foreign affairs. Maybe Robert’s next job will be Secretary of State. Let’s hope he doesn’t get a pie in his face.

I was happy to leave the logistics in the capable hands of Melissa.  I’m more of an idea man, a “big picture” kind of guy.  I’m really into the “vision thing”.  So I focused on  more strategic concerns like how much money we were going to make. The problem was that we became the victim of our own business acumen. For years we had been discounting best-sellers 30% to stay competitive with the competition (aka Border’s and Barnes and Noble). My staff was much more hard- nosed than me and came up with ideas to make an exception this one time and sell the book at retail. We knew that other stores were implementing  jury-rigged  schemes. Sticking a 20% coupon  in with the book  that expired before anyone would have an opportunity to use it. But I was trapped by my own foolish consistency and insisted on selling the book at 30% off. As a result, we lost money on the event. That still didn’t stop particularly shameless customers from arguing with us that it  they could get the book 10% cheaper at Wal-Mart. (Great. Do it, Bub. And go on down to Wal-Mart and wait for Clinton to sign your book.)

A few days before the event, I got a call from the Chief of the Berkeley Police Department. He was pissed off about the whole thing. By law, the local police must do what needs to be done to provide security for public officials. Of course, this was going to cost a bundle of overtime for an agency that was always strapped. He told me as much and suggested that Cody’s pay for the City’s  extra costs. I told him I’d think about it. I didn’t.

About 36 hours before liftoff, people started lining up outside. This was  pretty amazing to me. I spoke to the people on the sidewalk to try to understand why this was so important. Most of these early comers were women. I had an impression that a lot of this had to do with sexual attraction. And they remained cheerful throughout. When the person who was first in line got her 30 seconds with Clinton, I asked her if it was worth it. She said it was and then some.

And then the morning came on the great day. We were still getting phone calls. My favorite was from a person who was scheduled to give birth that day. She asked if she could go to the front of the line as a “disabled” person. I told her she probably should go to the hospital instead.

We had organized a signing station downstairs for disabled people. Clinton would go there first. Then come upstairs and sign everyone else’s books. The line snaked through the neighborhood for about 5 blocks.  

Clinton arrived through the back door. I was standing there waiting to greet him. I had  been rehearsing this moment for weeks. Of course, it would be  one of the great experiences of my life that I would tell my grandchildren about.. As he walked in the door, the security guard that we had hired elbowed me out-of-the-way and asked Clinton if he could sign two books. Clinton graciously did so and swept by me into the store. Boy, was I pissed.

Clinton went straight to the disabled signing station. The next thing that happened will always go down in bookstore history. But the adjective, “apocryphal” would probably precede the story. I’m serious. This really happened. The first person in the line was an old African-American woman in a wheel chair. When Clinton arrived, she said: “I think will stand up for my president.” Clinton was  always  able to fathom a dramatic moment. He spread his arms and said: ” You can do it. Stand up! Stand up!”  She responded, “Yes. I WILL stand up for my president”. She began pulling herself up slowly and shakily and fell into Clinton’s arms. Hallelujah!.  That episode, alone, made it all worthwhile.

After finishing with the disabled customers, Clinton finally came upstairs and began the real work of the day. It was about noon.  We were still trying to figure out how long he intended to stay, and the Clinton team were still no help.  We were still going up and down the line telling people we didn’t know anything about how long he would sign. At last the team gave us some advice on where to cut off the line.  But it still  wasn’t clear that people who didn’t make the cut-off   might yet have a chance to get in.

I was standing about six feet away from the signing station, so I had a pretty good view of how things were going. Unfortunately    reports  from the other stores throughout the country were correct that Clinton liked to schmooze and was keen in making sure that the people had quality face time. I also had a chance to observe the famous Clinton charisma. It was impressive, to be sure. But it also became very clear that it was artful and well-polished. Nothing natural about it. He did have an uncanny ability to appear calm in the face of all the chaos. It must have taken huge discipline. I’ve tried to use the same techniques in my own public speaking experiences. It works. The women tear me apart.

After 4 hours we cut off the line. Remember that we gave everybody 2 entry passes for every book signed. At a certain point, people were selling and bartering  their  extra passes. When others  saw this going on, there was a lot of yelling and screaming. I think it even turned to fisticuffs.

My wife, Leslie, agreed to go outside to inform people that Clinton was no longer signing. Fifteen minutes later she ran back into the building, rattled,  her eyes turned to stone from the trauma. She said nobody could ever make her go back out there.  She feared bodily harm. The people in the line had gone crazy.

At the end of the event, we tallied up the box scores. Clinton had  signed about 1400 books in 4 hours. We actually sold about 2800 copies leading up to the event, and surprisingly we got very few returns.

Clinton  graciously stayed around after the line was cut off  and surrounded himself with the staff for photographs. I got to sit on the floor next to him. As the camera was being set up, he looked down at me and said, “nice tie”. This was the only comment made to me by the leader of the free world.

At this point, his handlers were getting antsy. He was due for an event at the Barnes and Noble in San Jose in 2 hours. Clinton looked out the window and saw that there was still a huge crowd outside the door waiting for him to come out.  Probably 5000 people. Clinton told the handlers, “I can’t leave yet. I have to go out there. They’re waiting for me.” And he did. What a mensch!

He walked out the front door with that remarkable practiced composure. The crowd surged forward. I was pretty sure that I was going to get trampled. But the police threw up a blockade just in time. For the next 45 minutes, Clinton worked the line shaking thousands of hands and making sure that all those other people who couldn’t get in got their own moment of face time. They left happy.

Leslie and I took Melissa to Café Rouge after the event. We ordered up 2 dozen oysters and some 18-year-old scotch. We thanked Melissa. She deserved it. We all did.

Peter Rudiak-Gould on Surviving Paradise

December 10, 2009

Sometimes I love this job and feel like I’m really doing something great for the world. Today I’m going to interview Peter Rudiak-Gould, author  of of Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island published in November  by Union Square Press.  When I was just getting started as an agent, I got a call from a writer who had a friend who had a son who had a manuscript. My friend was sort of wondering if I might take a little of my valuable time to, maybe take a little peek, just to see if it was, you know, any good. So being a newbie, I figured there was always a chance. And I liked the travel narrative genre. The author, Peter Rudiak-Gould was a 25 year old graduate student in anthropology at Oxford.

Peter sent me his manuscript. By the time I was 30 pages into it, I realized that it was a masterpiece. It took awhile to get a publishing contract.. But when people started looking at it, there was a lot of excitement. The biggest and most prestigious imprints all seemed interested. Viking, Random House, Harper. They started asking me if I was going to hold an auction. (“Jesus, how the hell do you conduct and auction?”. –”We may. But we would certainly entertain a preemptive offer.”) Well they all bowed out at the last minute. Another victim of the cult of “platform” in commercial publishing. Fortunately Union Square Books, an imprint of Sterling Publishing, recognized what this book was. And the rest is history.

 Andy: Peter, in my humble opinion, your book is a masterpiece of the travel narrative genre. I don’t think Paul Theroux could have done better. Correction. He couldn’t have done as well. Do you have any advice for others who write in this genre?

 Peter: You are too kind. All I can do is describe a few of my preferences in travel writing (and the pet peeves that go along with them).

1) Guard against sensory overload. I find long lists of exotic sights, sounds, and smells to be exotically boring. I’m not particularly interested that the morning air in Sao Paulo smelled like armadillo fruit and chestnuts, or that there were distant sounds of yak bells as you spoke to the Tibetan lama. I want to know how it felt to be there. I want to know how the experience tested you. I want to learn about what the local people are proud of, and what they worry about. I want to know about how your expectations were fulfilled or destroyed. That is the meat of travel writing. The sights, sounds, and smells are just a garnish.

2) It is no longer very subversive or original to describe the soullessness of Western society as compared to the spiritual harmony of whoever you’re visiting. Maybe our society is corrupt and degenerate, but it’s been said so many times now that it’s not very interesting to read it any more. If you admire the people, I want to read about it – but it will be more touching, and more convincing, if you admire them as real people and not as the convenient opposites of everything that is awful about us.

Andy: How did the Marshall Islands become your writing muse?

Peter: I think good stories often come from an experience which is, in some way, unresolved, unfulfilled, or mysterious. If there is nothing still nagging you about the experience, why go to all the trouble of writing a book about it? My time on Ujae shattered all my expectations. The question is why. The answer is the book. Paul Theroux wrote: It was my good fortune to be wrong: being mistaken is the essence of the traveler’s tale.”

I find the country intriguing because of its paradoxes. It’s a tiny inconsequential country on which Cold War politics hinged. It’s a cheerful country on which an H-bomb was once dropped. It’s a country of people who constantly surprise you with what they know about your world. (Our hearts were beating fast during Obama’s election”), and what they don’t know (“So, in America, people steal children?”). It’s a place that confounds any easy distinction between old and new – it’s not a mix of the two (as travel brochures love to say about, well, everywhoere), it’s that it destroys the distinction between the two.

 Andy: Can you explain the title? Who is surviving paradise?

Peter: My brother came up with it. I liked it because it brings together the two main themes of the book: my experience, and that of the Marshallese people. We were both surviving paradise. For me it was a year of getting by in a place that was more interesting than idyllic. For them it was millennia of scraping by in a place which is more beautiful than hospitable. And now there is a third meaning, since global warming means that this paradise may no longer be survivable. I once thought of calling the book “One Nuclear Bomb Can Ruin Your Whole Day”, which is honest-to-God written on the wall of the office for Marshallese nuclear refugees.

Andy: What was the hardest part of writing Surviving Paradise?

Peter:Organization. I think of writing as a giant exercise in organization which is best suited for those with a neurotic distaste for chaos and clutter.  I have to tell a story while simultaneously inserting various short essays about life in the Marshall Islands.  Certain scenes can’t happen until certain essays have appeared, but the essay can’t be inserted unless it fits into the narrative at that point. All of these cross-cutting considerations make the task unspeakably tedious, but getting it right is hugely satisfying. If I’ve done my job right, then the reader won’t notice any of this.

Also, the beginning of the book was incredibly difficult ot write. I think I went through six rewrites of the prologue (not just six revisions, but six entirely different concepts for what the prologue would be) before I found one that I was vaguely satisfied with. The first two or three were so bad tht I won’t even tell you what they were.

Andy: How have you found your first foray into publishing?

Peter: You remember when we met another writer for coffee, just a few weeks before my pub date. We were talking about publication, and he said, “Get ready for the biggest disappointment of your life. This–sitting around, yacking it up about the book–this might be as good as it gets.” And I told him, “If this is as good as it gets, I’m not disappointed.” I never thought I’d be published, so even the worst publication experience will exceed my expectations. Even a poorly selling book reaches thousands of people, which is amazing when you think about it. Also, pretty soon (any day now), I’m sure I’ll be able to buy fast, shiny cars.

 


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