Welcome back to the Fiction Reboot! Today we will be speaking with bookseller and avid reader Chris Livingston. Chris is the owner and lead buyer of The Book Shelf, an independent bookstore located in Winona, Minnesota, celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2012. He served on the board of directors for the Midwest Booksellers Association for seven years, two of those as its president. Owning a bookstore, and more specifically being its lead buyer, has put Chris in a position to receive a lot of attention from publishers over the years. Nearly one hundred advance copies and manuscripts arrive in the store each week, demanding his attention. In fact, Chris has often called himself a professional reader, among other things. Today, I welcome his wise words about the reading life.
1) How has your work as a bookseller and reader for publishers changed your approach to reading?
Dramatically, really. I have so many books to give my time to, that in many respects I have become an auditor of sorts. I do not read everything that is sent to me, and to try would be an exercise in futility. I read a lot of first chapters, which was a hard transition for me. Prior to opening my bookstore, I always finished every book I started, and putting down a good book, even after reading just one chapter, is difficult. I give interesting books that I just don’t have time for to my staff and best customers to review for me. I have to prioritize my reading now. I read books for upcoming author events and book club meetings first, followed by those books whose author, publicist, editor, or publisher have asked me directly to review for them. It is only then that I pick out something for myself to read.
What I have noticed recently is the extension of themes that have become popular in young adult fiction finding their way into the mainstream adult side. Vampires and the occult are being woven into novels targeted at readers who would not normally read books in the genre. Harry Potter, Twilight, and the Hunger Games are permeating into even what many booksellers define as “literary fiction.” As a bookseller, it really isn’t that tough to see how Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” might lead a reader to pick up Justin Cronin’s “The Passage.”
3) I’ve often heard you remark that good writers are good readers. Can you say more about this? What is the power and value of reading for an author?
Wow. To be honest, I am not a writer, so many of you who are may only take this with a grain of salt, but I am astonished how many self-published authors have commented to me that they don’t read very often, if at all. For years my jaw dropped when hearing this. I have gotten so used to hearing it that I simply shake my head and walk away. How do you know what good writing is, unless you read it? How will you be able to self-edit your work, unless you know when you’ve written crap? And believe me, every writer puts crap on the page occasionally. How will you know good dialogue from bad? How will you be able to recognize flow and plot tempo? How will you know when your characters are believable? (I am now mumbling and walking away, shaking my head.) Oh…and I don’t accept the argument that you “don’t want to be influenced by other writers.” Garbage. The best writers in history were influenced by other great writers.
4) What do you look for in “great” writing? How do you recognize a “great” book? (That is, what sets one apart from another?) Any favorite first lines?
There is never one thing I can point to. One book usually doesn’t have it all. The books I love, I love for different reasons. The beautiful prose of one novel might be married to a lagging plot. I love it for its prose. The characters I fall in love with in another might be hampered by choppy dialogue. I love it for its characters. Some things help, though. You have to have a great first chapter, not just great opening lines, although the latter may be more memorable. It’s the chapter that will endear you to the book. To be honest, I don’t pay too much attention to first lines.
5) What advice do you have for authors about reaching their audience (publishers and readers alike)?
Gimmicks don’t work. Real marketing comes from other readers. Reviews, blogs, recommendations, and word of mouth are still king. Have real readers read your books. Support the systems that, in turn, support to distribution of this kind of marketing. Bring back the book review sections of the large regional newspapers. Make friends with booksellers and reviewers, and listen to the criticism, not just the praise. And this to publishers: publish fewer books. Publish only the books that you truly believe in, and then put some weight behind them. Bring back marketing budgets and author tours for the best books on your lists. Cultivate readers. Quit selling out to the lowest common denominator, and quit putting your money into discount retailers who have no interest in books as an industry, let alone an art form.
3. Finally, could you make some recommendations to readers?
- Popular Bestseller: In One Person by John Irving. Best novel I’ve read this year, and now one of my all-time favorite Irving novels.
- Book I Really Want to Read, but Haven’t Yet: The Red House by Mark Haddon. I loved his last two novels (Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and A Spot of Bother).
- New in paperback: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (staff pick for the last year in hardcover…great summer read….and goes to my point of occult creeping out of the genre and into the mainstream).
- Poetry collection I return to: Swallowing the Soap by William Kloefkorn (many of these make me tear-up….I must be getting soft)
- Classics that You May Have Missed: Hard Times by Charles Dickens and The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck. Give these lesser known novels a try. I loved them both.
THANK YOU, CHRIS! For more great recommendations, you can’t do much better than stopping in.
The Book Shelf, 162 West 2nd Street Winona, MN 55987, 507-474-1880