Wednesday, Jun 23, 2010: Dedicated Issue: Algonquin

Algonquin Face-Out Fiction

Algonquin's Paperback Summer

Algonquin on Audio from HighBridge

Algonquin: Peep Show by Joshua Braff

Algonquin: The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes by Randi Davenport

Editors' Note

Dedicated Issue: Algonquin Books

In this issue, with the support of the publisher, Shelf Awareness takes an in-depth look at Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, the publishing house that one bookseller calls "the model company of what's right in the industry." Talk about timely.


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Algonquin Grows Up

Once considered a small Southern house that specialized in literary, coming-of-age novels by Southern writers, Algonquin has pulled a neat trick: it's come of age itself while retaining the qualities that made it such a lovable youngster. Algonquin is now a national publisher boasting a range of writers from around the country and abroad; it has its own paperback program; it nurtures and promotes its titles in imaginative, entertaining, effective ways; and it has created strong bonds with booksellers. At the same time, as it has since its founding, Algonquin continues to offer a solid mix of fiction and nonfiction and a standard of writing and storytelling that is remarkably consistent from distinctive book to distinctive book.

"Algonquin is the model company of what's right in the industry," said Joe Drabyak of Chester County Book & Music Company, West Chester, Pa. Besides having a good list, he said, "They're exceptional at publicity, advertising and personal sales--creating buzz and handselling."

Becky Anderson of Anderson's Bookshops, Naperville and Downers Grove, Ill., concurred: "They create relationships with us and help us create relationships with our customers. They value what we think and want to know what works for us and what we want to try. They make buying books very attractive with extremely competitive terms and margins. It all goes a long way to building a great business for them and in turn builds a great business for us."

That business began in 1982, when Louis Rubin and Shannon Ravenel founded the house in part because Southern writers had trouble breaking into New York publishing. Authors published in the first years included Clyde Edgerton, Kaye Gibbons, Jill McCorkle and the late Larry Brown. In 1989, Algonquin was bought by Workman Publishing. It maintains its Chapel Hill, N.C., office, although it has some operations at Workman headquarters in the heart of Yankeeland, aka New York City.

Algonquin publishes some 30 titles a year in two seasons, split about evenly between fiction and nonfiction. Offerings include some literary fiction, a debut novel or two, memoirs, cookbooks, a collection of essays and more, on average two books a month, and "each has its own audience and constituency," publisher Elisabeth Scharlatt said. Becky Anderson commented, "It's a small list, but they do so much." (For more on the fall list, see below.)

There are many advantages to having a relatively small list. For one, the staff of 16 knows the list well--not always the case at other houses. "We're contained enough so we can do what we want to do and need to do," Scharlatt said. "We make every book work."

Work them, they do.

In early times, however, some of Algonquin's bestsellers were helped by others, beginning in 1995, when on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote of My Old Man and the Sea: A Father and Son Sail Around Cape Horn by David Hays and Daniel Hays: "The account of the passage, related in alternating sections by father and son, will be read with delight 100 years from now." After that, My Old Man and the Sea had full sales.

In 1997, Oprah picked Ellen Foster and A Virtuous Woman, both by Kaye Gibbons, for her book club--and of course huge sales followed. In 2000, lightning struck again: Oprah picked Gap Creek by Robert Morgan. And Good Morning America helped boost Lee Smith to fame, picking The Last Girls for its book club.

But who needs Oprah when your company has developed the kinds of relationships that make some booksellers seem to be an extension of the publishing house?

In the past several years Algonquin has had three homegrown bestsellers: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, Mudbound by Hillary Jordan and A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick. And in the past year, Algonquin placed six books on the New York Times bestseller list. These achievements--and increasing sales throughout the list--come "from the momentum we create early on for a book," marketing director Craig Popelars said. Or, as publicity director Michael Taeckens noted, "We never stop talking about the books. We never stop promoting them."

"Once the manuscripts come in, we all read them, and Craig and I strategize and figure out how to run with these different titles," Taeckens continued. "We're always trying to think of something that's new and fun and different that will attract people's attention. We can't always do giveaways with galleys, but we always try to inject some personality into the press materials and avoid bland corporate speak."

"Peter [Workman] and Elisabeth have never been constrained about how we promote a book," Popelars added. "The philosophy is that if you feel it will sell books, just do it."

The other important aspect of promotion is having fun. As Popelars said, "If we're not entertained, who will be?"

Becky Anderson, whose stores have done many programs with Algonquin, attested to the approach's effectiveness. "They're always successful," she said. "We always have fun and our customers have fun. And we sell a lot of books. There's nothing like the humor they bring to our business."

Among the company's typical and amusing promotions and marketing efforts:

In 1998, the house promoted Running North by Ann Mariah Cook, about a New Hampshire family's entry into the Yukon Quest, by hosting a dogsled run between two New Hampshire bookstores.

For An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, the 2007 novel by Brock Clarke, Algonquin staged a letter-writing campaign about house torching that led police to make inquiries--and had to be shut down quickly. Despite "a little bit of negative attention," as Taeckens put it, "we got an amazing outpouring of review attention, probably more than for any other novel we've published. I heard from so many people who thought it was a hoot."

Taeckens's all-time favorite campaign, he said, was for Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America by Steve Almond, "a funny and nostalgic memoir" about smaller candy companies and their history that was published in 2004. Algonquin contacted the seven companies profiled in the book and received "hundreds of boxes of candies" to give as samples with galleys to the media. "It went over extremely well," Taeckens said. "People reminisced about candy bars" that had either disappeared or were hard to find. "I heard from so many people."

Not only does promotion start long before it does at many other houses, it continues long after. For example, Heidi Durrow's The Girl Who Fell from the Sky was published at the beginning of the year, but she is "still on tour, still getting publicity," Taeckens said. "We're getting requests for interviews and appearances. We're still promoting it as much now as we were in January."

In the same way, Algonquin continues to pay attention to backlist. "Peter Workman is a pitbull about backlist," Popelars said. "Once he sinks his teeth into a book, he doesn't let go. A given title might be backlist, but we treat it like frontlist and pound and pound away."

"It's a lesson from Workman," Scharlatt said. "Don't give up on a book. It's not just for this season."

Among Algonquin backlist gems, Scharlatt cited Educating Esme by Esme Raji Codell, the diary of a teacher's first year teaching in inner-city Chicago. When the MS arrived, Scharlatt remembered, "I thought, 'Just what the world needs. Another teacher memoir.' " But she "laughed and cried," and now, 11 years, 200,000 copies and three editions later, "It's one of the classic books about teaching."

Popelars called Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv--which argues that exposure to nature is essential for a child's healthy development--"the most important book we've published. It changed the way people think about raising their children."

Just as Algonquin might change how people think about raising its book children.

The A Team Blog

A New Program for Booksellers: We Love This Book!

Many booksellers are famous for selling tremendous amounts of titles they love passionately. One example: Karen Frank and the staff at Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vt., who have sold some 500 copies of the paperback edition of Breakfast with Buddha by Roland Merullo, originally published in 2007.

To make it even easier for Frank and others to work their magic, Algonquin is starting the "We Love This Book!" program, which offers highly favorable terms on frontlist and backlist titles. The literal centerpiece of the program is a custom-made, poster with a picture of the bookseller who is handselling the title as well as his or her recommendation. "It's like an expanded shelf talker," Popelars said.

The terms with a minimum order of 25 copies of the book: 50% discount returnable/55% nonreturnable, free shipping, 120-day dating, $75 newsletter co-op, additional galleys or reading copies for the staff and, in typical Algonquin style, "unconditional love from everyone at Algonquin!"

Popelars happily admits that the "old-school" approach "flies in the face of just-in-time delivery, but it gives booksellers a couple of extra tools and personalizes it all. We're not forcing particular titles, but if booksellers find something they like, they can go bananas."

He added, "The personalization makes it different. Bookstore customers know staff members and trust them. This is a win-win."

Indescribable... Indestructible! Nothing Can Stop It! The Algonquin Blog

Paperback Righter

Starting with Water for Elephants, which was published in 2006, Algonquin has developed a formal paperback program and now retains paperback rights for many of its titles. Earlier it published some paperback titles, but usually sold paperback rights to other houses. The program helps the list as a whole and, among other advantages, results in more book club adoptions of Algonquin titles, which are popular with reading groups. And to help paperbacks with book club potential, the company publishes some titles as Algonquin Readers Roundtable editions, which have readers' guides, author interviews and other special features.

"We feel other houses won't love the book the same way we do," Scharlatt said. "We loved it when it was a baby. On others' lists, it's just one of a lot."

"Now we get to see the benefit of all the muscle and energy we put into the hardcover," Popelars said.

And the house reaps publicity from other sources that comes to titles way after publication. For example, sales of Water for Elephants have gushed since the movie version starring Twilight's Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon and Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz began filming last month--and publicity has run amok.

The house has also taken back paperback rights for titles it sold a long time ago. Recently it welcomed back Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of Butterflies, which had fluttered away for 15 years.

Paperback releases this coming summer include Far Bright Star by Robert Olmstead, The Ghost of Milagro Creek by Melanie Sumner, Peep Show by Joshua Braff and Lucky Girl by Mei-Ling Hopgood.


Algonquin Annotations

One of the major bonds between the house and booksellers is Craig Popelars's monthly e-mail newsletter, Algonquin Annotations, which Joe Drabyak called "informative and very chatty. Other newsletters use cut-and-pasted catalogue copy. By contrast, Craig talks with us personally. It's like correspondence with an old friend."

In the newsletter, Popelars writes about upcoming books, interesting programs or events at bookstores, media appearances and more. In last month's issue, he outlined a hilarious promotion for Father's Day inspired by The Big Lebowski: the Big Bookowski Dude Display, "an appealing display that saves dudes from having to browse," which could feature "Dude Approved" titles such as Robert Olmstead's Far Bright Star, Jim Dodson's A Son of the Game, Workman's Planet Barbecue by Steve Raichlen and The Fearless Critic's The Beer Trials.

"Suggested Dude Display Props: leg lamp, sports memorabilia, Weber grill, bowling ball, duct-tape shelftalkers, vintage beer cans, bathrobes, Clint Eastwood movie posters, fishing poles, live bait, etc."

The most popular Popelars feature is the final item, "The Plug: Shameless Promotion of Things I Like," where he lists music, books from Algonquin and Workman as well as other publishers. One recent example: "Jamie Moyer. When you're a 47-year-old pitcher and you still have the ability throw a shutout, you have my vote. Go Phils!"

To sign up for Algonquin Annotations, write to Katie Ford. And don't miss one of the more entertaining publishing blogs in the business at


Algonquin Awards

Most likely to knock your teeth out in a bar fight: Joe by Larry Brown

Most likely to wear Spandex and spit fake blood: Rock On by Dan Kennedy

Most likely to cause cavities: Candyfreak by Steve Almond

Most likely to trigger a book club stampede: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Most likely to produce weeping boils and paralysis: Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart

Most likely to result in the arrest of Algonquin's publicity department: An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke

Most likely to make women scream with ecstasy: Tab Hunter Confidential by Tab Hunter

Most likely to expose undergarments: Love, Loss, and What I Wore by Ilene Beckerman

Most likely to kick you outside for some fresh air: Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv

Most likely to challenge U.S. immigration policies: How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez

Most likely to make you pee your pants with laughter: any title by Clyde Edgerton

Most likely to make other authors say, "Damn, I wish I could write a novel half this good.": Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan

Books & Authors

The Algonquin Fall List: Selected Titles

The following is just a sampling of Algonquin's fall list, which Craig Popelars called "hands down our strongest list ever." For her part, librarian extraordinaire Nancy Pearl praised the company's "little gems of novels, like Sharpshooter Blues and Wolfe Whistle by Lewis Nordan and more recent works of fiction like those by Jonathan Evison, Joseph Skibell and Brock Clarke."
West of Here by Jonathan Evison, due in early February, was one of the books discussed at BEA's Editors' Buzz panel; it's a favorite of Algonquin editor Chuck Adams.
The book is set in fictional Port Bonita on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State and focuses both on the founders of the town in 1890 and their descendants in 2006. "It shows a pioneer spirit that in many ways is insatiable," Popelars said. It's a spirit that echoes down through the generation but remains unfulfilled.
Evison is the author of All About Lulu, published by Soft Skull Press. Algonquin has bought his next novel, Fundamentals of Caregiving.
A Curable Romantic by Joseph Skibell, coming in September, is "a huge sweeping novel that covers 50 years of European history and is funny, and character driven," Scharlatt said. Beginning in Vienna in 1895, the book is narrated by Dr. Jakob Sammelsohn, who was raised in a tiny Polish village and married twice, divorced in one case and widowed in the other--at the age of 12. Sammelsohn meets Dr. Sigmund Freud, who is just building his practice, and is smitten by Emma Eckstein, one of Freud's most famous and earliest patients.
A theme of the book is language: Sammelsohn later falls in love with a beautiful woman who is part of the Esperanto movement, and his father shows his piety by speaking only in words and phrases that appear in the Torah, which makes for one of the most hilarious passages in literature, when he gives his son a talk about sex.
The book begins: "I fell in love with Emma Eckstein the moment I saw here from the fourth gallery of the Carl Theater, and this was also the night I met Sigmund Freud. My seat cost me nearly half a krone. For a full krone, I could have stood in the parterre, but that would have meant going hungry all the following day."
Algonquin is also publishing Skibell's A Blessing on the Moon in September, first published in 1997, "a magical tale about the Holocaust."
Blind Your Ponies by Stanley Gordon West is about a high school basketball team in a rundown town in Montana and the English teacher who coaches them. After two stars come to town, the team rebounds. West published the book himself and sold more than 40,000 copies "out of his trunk," Popelars said. "Our Pacific Northwest rep kept hearing about it and the rep's mother heard a reading"--the rest is history.
This is Algonquin's first self-published title, which is also Peter Workman's "pick of the list," Popelars said.
Nothing Left to Burn by Jay Varner is a memoir of a family that includes a fire chief father and arsonist grandfather. Find some enlightment through this trailer.

A 2008 Giller Prize finalist, Barnacle Love by Anthony De Sa is a series of stories that "fit together and add up to a novel," Scharlatt said. The tale follows two generations of fishermen who emigrate from Portugal to Canada, "a wonderfully portrayed immigrants' story."
Colm Tóibín commented: "In Barnacle Love, Anthony De Sa moves with skill and ingenuity between folk tale, myth, and narratives of contemporary displacement. The tone is spare and elegiac; the stories are filled with carefully chosen details and sharply drawn characters. They have immense emotional and truthful power."
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey has led to an addition in Algonquin staff: Snookie and The Situation, two snails who are teaching the staff all about the lives and ways of Gastropoda. Read more about them via senior publicist Kelly Bowen's blog post.
The book is a true story about the author's friendship with a snail that takes up residence on her nightstand while Bailey is bedridden. "Everyone who reads this will be totally surprised and enamored," Scharlatt said. "It's a very quiet little book that is full of revelation."
Land sakes alive. Reflecting Algonquin's more national approach, the annual New Stories from the South, in its 25th anniversary edition this year, will continue to focus on work by Southerners across the country, but for the first time the guest editor is from the North: Amy Hempel.


Peep Show: Josh Braff's Playlist

Like his actor brother Zach (Scrubs, Garden State), Josh Braff is a music aficionado, and his novel cries out for a soundtrack that captures the seediness and counterculture of New York City in the 1970s. We asked Josh to create a Peep Show soundtrack, and here's what he came up with:

The E Street Shuffle -- Bruce Springsteen
Life on Mars? -- David Bowie
Sing a Simple Song -- Sly & the Family Stone

One Way or Another -- Blondie
Hot Stuff  -- Donna Summer
Boogie Shoes -- KC & the Sunshine Band
Tiny Dancer -- Elton John
Walk on the Wild Side -- Lou Reed
Candy's Room -- Bruce Springsteen
I Wanna Be Sedated -- The Ramones
Tangled Up in Blue -- Bob Dylan
Mother's Little Helper -- The Rolling Stones
The Sounds of Silence -- Simon & Garfunkel
New York City Serenade -- Bruce Springsteen

A Conversation with Brock Clarke

You got rave reviews for An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England--the New York Times, People, USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post and many more. How did you feel about following that big act with Exley, which publishes in October?
I felt good. Seriously, I was so happy to have what might be considered a big act in the first place, so happy that it seemed, and seems, ridiculous for me to even think about griping about how terribly tough it was to try to follow it. But I did want to make sure that Exley was different from Arsonist's Guide in significant ways, especially since there are a couple of superficial similarities (the whole why literature matters/truth vs. fiction business), and I especially wanted to make sure my narrators' (Miller and Doctor Pahnee) voices were different than Sam Pulsifer's, and the context different, too (in the case of Exley, the war in Iraq takes the place of literature and New England). I wanted the new book to build upon the old book without the new book rehashing the concerns of the old book, especially since I'll be rehashing the concerns of the old book in its sequels, starting with Arsonist's Guide 2: The Memoir Strikes Back.

Does a reader have to be familiar with Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes to enjoy or understand your book?
No, not at all. Although one of my hopes is that Exley will make readers to turn, or return to, A Fan's Notes. It's a great book. It deserves readers and re-readers.

You write in two different voices--that of a nine-year-old boy and his flaky, unstable therapist. What was it like writing in these characters' voices?
I loved it. Seriously. Because in Miller's voice I tried to do what I'd never tried to do before--I wrote in a stylized version of what I thought a smart young boy might sound like--sweet, somewhat earnest--while at the same time make him as purposefully unreliable as I have with some of my adult characters. In the same way, I wanted Doctor Pahnee to have his own particular voice, a voice that made him seem unreliable, even as he was trying to be the novel's voice of reason, the character who wants to find out how all the other characters in the book are unreliable, and why. In this way, the two narrators functioned as the novel's checks and balances, and, unlike our government's checks and balances, I think they do what their creator designed them to do. But then again, I would think that, and so shouldn’t be trusted, the novelist being just another one of the novel's unreliable interested parties.

You included Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley as a character in your book. Does this make you nervous?

When my editor made me send him a copy of the book, I was so scared I thought I was going to throw up. But I didn't throw up, and Mr. Yardley sent me a very kind note about the book, and I was thrilled and relieved, and we've begun a friendly correspondence based on our mutual love of A Fan's Notes, and I've promised him that I won't, a la Frederick Exley, start calling him up in the middle of the night and subject him to Exley's famous drunken monologues, and I think that promise made him happier even than finding out that someone had written a novel about a writer he loved.

Your previous books have been praised for their satire of everything from contemporary literary culture to academia to suburbia. Do you consider yourself a satirist? Is comedic writing underappreciated in our culture?
I'm not a satirist. I'm a fiction writer inclined toward the bizarre, darkly funny, and when a writer inclined toward the bizarre and darkly funny is also interested in applying that inclination toward what matters to us, politically, socially, sexually, what have you, then people call him a satirist. But while there are elements of satire in all of my work, there are other, equally prominent elements, too. As for whether comedic writing is under-appreciated, it's hard for me say, because if I say, comedic writing is underappreciated, then whomever is reading this will think, Oh, there's Clarke again, complaining about being underappreciated. To which I'd be forced to respond that I wouldn't have to complain if I were more fully appreciated. But that would make me sound like a jerk. And then I'd never get appreciated, would I?
What's your favorite scene in the book?
I am fond of the scene when Miller goes to the New Parrot to find Exley and the scene in the hospital with the Knock Knock joke; I also like all the Things I Learned from My Dad Who Learned Them from Exley sections. And then, in Dr. Pahnee sections, I like when he goes square dancing, and his scenes with Miller in which he begins to learn not only that the boy might be telling the truth, but also that he--Pahnee--actually cares about Miller, the way a father might, the way Miller's father might have, if he were still around. I could go on. Because, really, I like all the scenes. Can I actually admit that?

Why do you think A Fan's Notes has become a cult classic?

Because it is book about a guy drawn to extremes and because the man/character and his voice cause such extreme reactions in his readers. Some people love the book, some hate it. It's a book I love, beyond reason, because there are things in the books--scenes, lines, sentiments--that I would not love so much if I found them in other books written by other writers. And I think that's why it's such a cult classic, too: it causes readers to love something they wouldn't if they found it in another book written by another writer. It surprises readers, which then makes them want to share the book with other readers, so that they can be surprised, too.


Book Brahmin: Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt is the author of eight novels and is a columnist for the Boston Globe, a book reviewer for People and a writing instructor at UCLA online. Pictures of You, which will appear as a trade paperback original from Algonquin in January, is the story of two women running away from their marriages who collide on a road on a foggy night. One woman is killed, and the survivor, along with the husband and son of the dead woman, tries to make sense of where that woman was running and why.

On your nightstand now:

The Disappearing Spoon and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean. (I'm a science buff and the title alone is irresistible.)
Room by Emma Donoghue. (The premise--about a kid who has lived his whole life in one room--grabbed me.)
Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez. (I so admired The Last of Her Kind, and I love apocalyptic novels.)

Favorite book when you were a child:

I am still enraptured by A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes, about proper English children on a pirate ship (spoiler alert!) who wind up deliberately sending their kind pirates hosts to their doom. The first time I read this beauty, I was sick with asthma in the hospital and my beloved eighth-grade English teacher sent the book over to divert me. I was so enthralled that I forgot the oxygen tent and the nebulizers and instead imagined myself on a pirate ship. In fact, I love this particular novel so much, I try to have a character in every one of the novels I write reading it.

Your top five authors:

My list shifts all the time--and there are so many--but right now I'm worshipping Aimee Bender, Dan Chaon, Maile Meloy, Jonathan Evison and Elizabeth Strout.

Book you've faked reading:

Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. I was young, and I had no idea what I was reading, but I carried the book everywhere and told anyone who asked that I thought it was magnificent. I think faking reading it traumatized me, because I've never attempted to read it since.

Books you're an evangelist for:

I try to make everyone read Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon because it's so unsettling. It reverberates with small shocks. I first read Moving On by Larry McMurtry when I was in a miserable first marriage and wanted to be moving on myself, and I've read it every year since. The Wanderers by Richard Price is a funny, brilliant snapshot of what it means to be young in the New York City projects on the cusp of the 1960s. Plus, Price wrote it when he was just 24!

Book you've bought for the cover:

I've actually never bought a book for the cover! (I always read the first page and the last of any book I'm considering, though, and no, it doesn't spoil it for me to know the end.) I do, however, shy away from books with bodice-heaving sorts of covers, but that's just because they reflect the stories inside, which aren't my taste.

Book that changed your life:

When I was 13 and feeling gawky and unlovely, I read in a magazine that a celebrity model I liked carried around George Orwell's 1984 in her bag. I asked my father to buy me the book in hopes it might make me more model-like, and I was dumbstruck by the first few pages. I couldn't believe how Orwell pulled me into this whole shatteringly different world. He made it so believable and so intense that I couldn't stop reading. I was desperately invested in the story, and instead of caring about the model any longer, I began to care more about being able to write something that good myself.

Favorite line from a book:

The Great Gatsby
still knocks me out with the last haunting lines: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

All of them. Truly. But if I had to pick (oh, this is hard), I'd probably say The World According to Garp by John Irving because it was so startlingly fresh and funny and tragic, and all of those surprises would be brand new.


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