Posts Tagged ‘lord of the rings’

How I Became a Bookseller

January 9, 2011

Me in Cotati circa 1975


I became a bookseller because I had a passion for books. This is not a particularly good reason to make a life career choice.   But  my decision (if one could call it that) to enter the book business was disorderly. The critical path was filled with loop-de-loops.   I’ve never told this story before, but it goes like this. In 1971 I was a graduate student at the University of Oregon in Eugene. I was on a Ph.D track studying German cultural and intellectual history.  Most of the people with whom I associated outside of the History Department were hippies or some variation thereof. I suppose I was too, although spending one’s waking hours reading Kant and Kierkegaard created some real cognitive dissonance in my countercultural consciousness and lifestyle. I cut a kind of ridiculous figure with my non-academic friends. But people were more tolerant back then.

I was pretty focused  on  becoming a scholar and I was pretty good at it too.  I  had even  been admitted to Ph.D programs at some snooty universities.  I was writing a masters thesis on the social thought of Kierkegaard.  In my other life outside of the university, there was a lot of talk among my friends about freedom, spontaneity, communal living, feminism, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi,  psychedelic drugs, astrology, free love, vegetarianism, gestalt therapy, natural childbirth and that sort of thing. Marxism was very popular too. But the Marxism being bandied about was what we  superior intellectuals in the  History Department would call “vulgar Marxism”, by which we meant people who actually wanted to change the world, not just pontificate about it. Among the vulgar Marxists, there was a lot of waving of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Bookand  some vicious disputes over matters that were of no consequence to anyone other than the vulgar Marxists.  Oh, yes. There was a war going on, and Kierkegaard didn’t have much to say about that. (One could argue that Kant did, if you could actually understand what he was talking about.)

It  also rained a lot in Oregon. And there was a girl. There always is, isn’t there?  Things weren’t going too well with us, as is often the case.  One day she walked out on me and joined a free love commune called “Earth’s Rising Family.”  I kept going out there trying to get her back. The Communards were pretty nice people. They graciously put me up  in the teepee down the hill from the privy while they were up in the farmhouse having orgies (or so I imagined).  Kant and  Kierkegaard  didn’t have much say about that either.

Somehow all this led me to the decision to leave academics and  start a bookstore.  As I said, I had a passion for books. I don’t remember much about what kind of thought  went into the decision.  Not very much at all, I believe. Maybe 5 minutes of thought. Maybe it happened in my sleep. Maybe it happened in the teepee.  It was  dumb luck, but it probably set me in the right direction for  the next 40 years and counting.

At first I talked to the guy who owned the countercultural bookstore in Eugene. I had heard that he wanted to sell it.  If my mind doesn’t fail me, I believe it was called “Koobdooga Books.” It means “a good book” backwards.  He told me that he conceived of the name on an acid trip. I thought about buying it.  But I was tired of the rain and depressed about rushing back and forth to and from the teepee at Earth’s Rising Commune.  So I moved down to the San Francisco Bay Area.

I found a  bookshop for sale in Cotati, a small college town in Sonoma County about 50 miles north of San Francisco. There was a lot of hippies there too, kind of like Eugene  but with more sunshine. It was a very modest store, Eeyore Books.   It was started by a couple of local women a few years before. The entire space was 600 square feet, about as big as my living room where I’m writing this. The store wasn’t worth much money, because it didn’t have many books and did even less business.  But I still managed to  drive  a very bad bargain. It is a flaw that I  fortunately overcame before becoming a literary agent.  I paid them $15,000. And  the store  was mine.

I put in some new shelves, ordered up some books and opened for business a week later. It was 1972.  On my first day of business  I did $32 in sales. It was pretty discouraging. Later I learned that was the same amount of sales that  Cody’s had done on its  first day of business in 1956. The old Cody’s shop  on the north side of campus  was about  the same size too. 600 square feet.

The second day I was open, I met my first publisher’s sales rep, Maggie Castanon of Random House. Until her retirement some 30 years later, she was always my favorite person in publishing. She was a great sales person, filled with a passion for books and totally without pretension. I always felt good when I was around her. After she retired, she even came to work for  Cody’s at our Fourth Street store.   For booksellers, Random House always held a special place in our hearts. It wasn’t the largest publisher back then. That was Doubleday. But Random House had the best titles for a bookstore such as ours. A visit by a Random House rep was an event to be anticipated. This special relationship between Random House and booksellers continues to this day. Doubleday is now an imprint of Random House. And Random House is the largest book publisher in the world.

The second sales rep I met was Joyce Cole who sold books for Avon, a mass market publisher. I think she was Maggie’s best friend. Joyce was striking in appearance, sophisticated, and had a kind of  charisma that was difficult to define. I had a feeling that there was something interesting inside. But she seemed cool and aloof. I didn’t expect that we would ever be friends.  I was wrong about that.  Joyce and I  were married in 1986.

A lot of people say that the quality of books has gone downhill in the last 30 years, that literary values have been  replaced by commercial values and that American reading  has been seduced by the dark forces of  a hegemonic mass media with a fetish for  celebrity. Actually most people in the book business don’t talk that way, except maybe me, and then only at pretentious  literary cocktail parties. Nowadays  when I argue the point (and I still do 40 years later),  I like to recite the great line from Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.”  And most people agree. (Although there are some who are not familiar with that poem and have to slouch off toward Wikipedia to find  the  reference).

But looking back on the bestsellers of 1972, it would  be hard to characterize that year as a literary golden age.

The ten fiction hardback best sellers were:

1. Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach

2. August 1914, Alexander Solzhenitsyn

3. The Odessa File, Frederick Forsyth

4. The Day of the Jackal, Frederick Forsyth

5. The Word, Irving Wallace

6. The Winds of War, Herman Wouk

7. Captains and Kings, Taylor Caldwell

8. Two From Galilee, Marjorie Holmes

9. My Name is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok

10 Semi-Tough, Dan Jenkins


The non-fiction best sellers were:


1. The Living Bible, Kenneth Taylor

2. I’m O.K., You’re O.K., Thomas Harris

3. Open Marriage, Nena and George O’Neill

4. Harry S. Truman, Margaret Truman

5. Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution, Robert Atkins

6. Better Homes and Gardens Menu Cook Book

7. The Peter Prescription, Lawrence Peter

8. A World Beyond, Ruth Montgomery

9. Journey to Ixtlan, Carlos Castaneda

10. Better Homes and Gardens Low-Calerie Desserts

Still, as I look at this list now, I’m struck by the fact that it isn’t all that bad, certainly a good balance of fine literary titles along with the usual commercial mediocrity. A number of these books I don’t remember selling at all. They probably did  much better in the chain stores. Yes, there were chains, even then.

The other big venue for book sales was department stores. They all had book departments then. The department store  book buyers  were  towering figures in the book business with immense prestige and influence and were accordingly treated with deference and obsequiousness by the publishers.  Those department store book sections are all gone now, replaced with ladies’ accessories and cosmetics. I don’t think it was any great loss either. The department stores had very conventional taste in books that appealed primarily to rich old ladies. You’d walk into these departments and you knew that nobody there  really had a passion for books.

Book publishing was different back  then too.   As I mentioned the world wasn’t really focused on bestsellers the way it is now. At least that was true outside of the big chains. My store still had its counterculture feel. We sold a lot of books, mostly paperbacks,  on humanistic psychology,  eastern mysticism and other things spiritual. Fritz Perls, Abraham Maslow, Alan Watts, The Urantia Book,  and Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism were some of my best sellers in the mid seventies at Eeyore’s. I made a lot of money on the I Ching (Princeton University Press edition). And, of course, all things having to do with  the ever mysterious, Carlos Castañeda.

Fiction, too, was conditioned by countercultural enthusiasms: Tolkien’s  The Lord of the Rings, Childhood’s End by Arthur Clark, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, Siddhartha and Demian  by Hermann Hesse, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. There was the usual stuff by self-styled “visionaries” like Future Shock by Alvin Toffler and The Greening of America by Charles Reich. These books have not stood the test of time.  There were some other books that, though dated, I still think of  with admiration. I wouldn’t mind rereading The Last Whole Earth Catalogue.

But I couldn’t give up on my ponderous German philosophy.  We also sold the works of Karl Marx, One Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse, and anything by and about Friedrich Nietzsche. As you can tell from all these titles, things were different back then. People were interested in understanding life’s big questions. What is truth? How do we lead a just life? How do we make a better world? How to we find happiness and contentment.? I don’t believe we are asking these questions so much now, but maybe I am just blinded by nostalgia.

Eeyore’s was a one person operation. We did grow over the years. By the time I left Cotati, I think it had become a two person operation. I had moved the store to another space. It was about four times as large as the original location. I’m still pretty proud of that store. I think it had a kind of perfection, just right for its time and place.

If you want to read more about my life in bookselling, check out these links:

How I Came to Own Cody’s Part 1

Cody’s as It Was in 1977

How the Computer Came to Cody’s

Bookselling in the 80s at Cody’s Part 1

Bookselling at Cody’s in the 80s Part 2

Remembering the Rushdie Affair Part 1

Remembering the Rushdie Affair Part 2

Fighting Against History Part 1

Fighting Against History Part 2

The End of Cody’s



Laurie McLean on Genre Fiction

February 25, 2010

Laurie McLean

Laurie McLean is a literary agent specializing in genre fiction. That is a term of art for such categories as: romance, thrillers, mysteries, fantasy, horror, westerns, science fiction, etc.. Laurie has been a literary agent for 5 years and works at the Larsen Pomada Agency in San Francisco. The agency’s website is at: She has a fantastic blog, Agent Savant at:, which is a good place to start learning about genre fiction.

Today I’d like to talk to Laurie about genre fiction.

Andy: Laurie, can you give us a definition of genre fiction? I mean, don’t all book subjects fit into a genre?

Laurie: The term, genre fiction, is used by marketing folks inside publishing and bookstores to help book buyers, also called readers, find the type of books they like to read. If one is a reader of mysteries, then it makes sense that a bookstore would shelve all mysteries together to increase overall sales. That’s really why the term genre fiction was coined—to differentiate these specific genres from general commercial or literary fiction.  It’s also similar to the way non-fiction is shelved by interest rather than author.

Andy: I’d like to go through each of the genres and have you describe them and tell me what publishers are looking for now.

Laurie: Science Fiction: It seems that the UK is the biggest audience for hard science fiction, while US readers prefer space opera and softer speculative fiction. There is also cyberpunk, where man has integrated with computers; time travel; alternate history; military SF; and the newest craze, post-apocalyptic or dystopian speculative fiction.  Think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

Fantasy: Epic fantasy, also called sword-and-sorcery or high fantasy, is the coming of age quest tale like the Lord of the Rings or the Sword of Shannara books. It has gone down in popularity today by what is called urban fantasy, stories that revolve around the conceit that supernatural creatures, mainly vampires, werewolves or other shapeshifters, ghosts, demons, etc., have lived among us forever but are now recognized by humanity and begrudgingly accepted—until a rogue creature starts wreaking havoc and humans and preternaturals must team up to put things back in balance.  It features a lot of ass kicking but no quests.  There is also interest currently in steampunk, where everything from appliances to weaponry to transportation runs on steam and the devices and clothing are very Jules Verne-esque; futuristic fantasy; superhero fantasy, etc.  Fantasy and Science Fiction can sometimes genre blend or bend and are often located in the same section of the bookstore.

Romance: When you have a hero and heroine who meet, with sparks flying, then internal and external conflicts keep them apart despite their mutual attraction until the end of the book when a happy ever after ensues, you know you are talking about the largest genre in fiction by far: romance. More than 50 percent of mass market [pocket size paperbacks] fiction sales in the United States each year are genre romance.  The biggest trend in genre romance lately is paranormal romance, but there are also contemporary, historical, comedies, romantic suspense, inspirational and erotic subgenres.

Mysteries/Suspense/Thrillers: I’ve lumped all these together, although they are all different. In mysteries you have a murder in the first scene and the remainder of the book is spent trying to figure out who dunnit.  In Thrillers, the fate of the world is at stake and the clock is ticking.  Suspense novels are somewhere in between where a family could be in jeopardy, or a town or group of friends and the protagonist(s) must save them with, again, time against them.  You’ve also got subgenres within these categories such as cozy or detective mysteries; legal, crime, action, disaster, conspiracy and religious thrillers; and more.

Horror: While horror, now sometimes called Dark Fantasy, is more popular on the movie screen than in books, you have everything from serial killers to splatterpunk (think the Saw movie series) to dark fantasy, to more psychological horror.

Young adult: This is not a genre, per se, but one of the healthiest and fastest growing categories in fiction. The young adult, or YA, category was created by a savvy bookseller who observed families coming into the bookstore, the young children going to the children’s section, the parents going to the adult stacks and the teens going to the coffee shop. The young adult section was created and all of a sudden teens had a comfortable place to shop for books about subjects ranging from chick lit and teen fantasy to more contemporary realistic gritty fare about teen suicide, pregnancy, drugs, sexuality preferences and more. Urban fantasy and post-apocalyptic fantasy are currently big trends for teens.

Andy: In the greatest works, doesn’t genre fiction cross over into literary fiction? Isn’t the greatest romance novel ever Wuthering Heights? Can you give us some examples of contemporary works in the genre that are also literary masterpieces?

 Laurie: When a genre book is superbly written and an instant classic, it rises out of the genre shelves and migrates over to the general fiction or bestseller stacks.  Think anything from Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer for romance—or modern names like Nora Roberts and Jayne Anne Krentz; Stephen King or Dean Koontz for horror; Terry Brooks, Neil Gaiman or J.K. Rowling for fantasy; John Grisham, Dan Brown and Tom Clancy for thrillers; William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and Orson Scott Card for science fiction; Janet Evanovich or Sue Grafton for mysteries; Stephenie Meyer and Scott Westerfeld for young adult.

Andy: Which of these categories are hot and which of them are not?

Laurie: Hot: Young adult, steampunk, paranormal romance, urban fantasy, political thrillers, apocalyptic fiction.

Not hot: Chick lit, contemporary and inspirational romance, epic fantasy, quaint cozy mysteries.

Andy: Do you think that the rise of the e-book offers opportunities or challenges for genre fiction? It seems to me that these titles are perfect for the new electronic formats.

Laurie: Erotic romance was one of the first genres to do well in the eBook format and some credit this subgenre for the rise of eBooks today. Ellora’s Cave was a pioneer in racy romance. But really all genres do well in eBook format. They are perfect for this digital format in terms of storage (you can fit a lot of vacations reads on your eReader but not in your suitcase) and anonymity (no one can see that you’re reading a “bodice ripper”, the disparaging term for romance novels).

Andy: You ran a public relations agency for 20 years in Silicon Valley. Why did you get out? How do you like being an agent?

Laurie: I got out of high tech public relations when the lucrative nature of the business could no longer hold my interest as the challenges declined and ethics began to get compromised.  Being a literary agent, to me, combined the best of both halves of my brain, similar to the way being a publicist allowed me to be creative and strategic simultaneously. I love the publishing industry because it really is about the writing. They money’s not the greatest unless you’re a bestseller or handle a stable of bestselling authors, but every day is different, the pace is often bracing and exhilarating, and the people I deal with on a daily basis are wonderful. I think I’ve found my calling!

Andy: How has your experience in public relations been helpful in your second career?

Laurie: All the facets of what made me successful in PR—time management, marketing savvy, the ability to think on my feet, contract negotiations, interpersonal skills, a diligent hard work ethic, attention to details, the ability to think outside the box—all come in handy for a literary agent.

Andy: When we had lunch the other day, you astonished me by saying  that you receive 1200 unsolicited queries a month. How do you manage to address this ocean of pitches?

Laurie: Well, this is kind of like the frog in boiling water analogy. If you put a frog in boiling water, it jumps out immediately. But if you put a frog in cold water and turn on the heat, that frog will boil to death because of the gradual nature of the temperature rise. I started off with a small number of queries each day and could easily give personal suggestions for improvement and reasons for rejections. When I got busier, I switched to a form rejection letter where I could add a few sentences of advice in many cases.  But by the end of 2009 I was receiving more than 1200 queries a month. I was boiling. So, I’ve had to change my submission process. Now I have a separate email address for queries only ( where I have an automated reply that informs the writer that I’ve received his or her submission, but they will not hear from me again unless I want to read more of their work. It’s not something I ever thought I’d do, but once I’d given up my spare time, some of my sleep and meal time, and it still wasn’t enough, something had to give. Now I don’t have the monkey on my back screaming and clawing at me. I can read queries on the weekend, as many as I can fit in the hours I have, and ask for more from those that interest me.