A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse–A book that gave me ideas about…books.

I recently read A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse, and if you want to read the full review, go to Mostly Fiction.

Just a brief synopsis. The plot concerns a bookshop in Paris which sells only ‘good’  books. A marketing strategy you cynically ask? Well perhaps, but the shop is the brainchild of two idealistic, avid readers, Van and Francesca who are both disillusioned with the publishing industry and bookshops. From this disillusionment, the idea grows to open a bookshop  called The Good Novel that sells “All the books no one is talking about”–this boils down to selecting titles that may or may not be in print but are some of the best books out there.

I initially felt a bit uncomfortable with this idea. I could see an elitism forming right before my eyes, and I bristled at the idea of people telling me what is and isn’t good. Of course it would be naive to think that this isn’t already taking place in the book world, and so I empathise with the frustration of these fictional characters. After all, I recently went to what is considered a decent book shop armed with a list of books published by the smaller publisher houses. I came back empty-handed. The idea of elitism, by the way, is addressed by the comparison of The Good Novel to any niche bookshop–let’s say a shop that sells only SF or mystery novels.

I relaxed when Van and Francesca asked 8 mostly under-appreciated writers to form a secret committee with each member submitting a list of the best 600 books they’ve ever read. The books are crossmatched, a master list is generated, and the bookshop is then stocked from the master list. The plot follows what happens to the shop and its owners, and as you can imagine some people (rejected authors) are rather pissed off when they discover (the horror, the horror) that their books are glaringly absent.

OK, now to the stuff I want to mention here. The story is a mystery, but underneath the mystery are some really interesting ideas about publishing; hence this blog post.  The bookshop creates a place that readers naturally gravitate to for their books. Van says:

“We are aiming to reverse the precedent between supply and demand. It’s not demand that’s going to lead, but offer. People will come through the door of the bookstore because they know they can find a rare selection of novels there, in addition to the regular titles they might be looking for. And then they’ll visit the website in a similar frame of mind.”

I chewed that over. Supply and demand…supply and demand…and then I started thinking about how, in the last few years, my spending habits have changed when it comes to the books I buy and read. For example, I rarely buy in bookshops anymore. Why? Because the ones I go to don’t stock what I want. While I still enjoy the small poky bookshops, the bigger chains are nightmares for readers like me. There are kids running around screaming, piles of sticky unshelved books, and there are far too many copies of books I know I’d loathe being shoved in my face. Plus the fact that even though there’s lots of stock, there are very few books that actually have much appeal.

I used to go the library and look for favourite authors or through the new releases. My local library has become an unpleasant place to hang out, and the selection seems narrow. Part of this explanation could be that at this point we are talking about sheer cumulative reading. Here’s an example: I read a lot of Simenon. My library has a few volumes on the shelf but I’ve read them all.

That takes me back to the sorts of books I am looking for.  These days when it comes to new releases I seem to be most interested in the books from the smaller presses. Just as I know Harlequin does not publish anything I’m interested in, over time I’ve identified publishers who consistently produce books that match my tastes.

Europa Editions published A Novel Bookstore. It’s a French book and according to those in the know, only 3% of the books sold in America are books in translation. Perhaps the current wave of Scandinavian crime thrillers will change that number. I hope so. Not that I am interested in stories of women who get sanitary towels shoved down their throats, but I think that it may cause publishers to ease up a bit and start looking for other books that might sell as well.

Bitter Lemon Press, Serpent’s Tail, Pushkin Press, OneWorld, Dedalus, Hesperus, Europa Editions, and New York Review Books Classics are all publishers I try to follow. I know I’ve left out some names. The smaller presses don’t have the money or the clout of the big houses, and what’s even more annoying they sometimes don’t even appear in the bookshop. So publishers if you read this, GET A SUBSCRIPTION NEWSLETTER GOING through your website. If you want us to buy your books, then connect with us.  I don’t buy every book that comes from NYRB, but when I get their newsletter, chances are I’ll buy something.

Another idea that came through in A Novel Bookstore was the idea of subscriptions (as in a type of book club)–customers sign up and then are automatically sent titles from the bookshop . In the case of the fictional Paris bookshop, this was a bit dodgy as people could feasibly have already read some of the titles on the shelves. But again, this got me thinking. Hard Case Crime had a book club (Hard Case Crime is on hiatus at the moment as Dorchester moved solely to e-book format). I was a member of the Hard Case Crime book club, and it was a really great idea. I never knew what they would send me every month, but I can tell you that I was never disappointed.

And now a final observation. I read a fair number of crime books. I’m not in publishing so I’m not in the know  but I can tell you that something is happening in the world of crime fiction. I hope it’s a movement. Crime publishers are connecting with crime writers and crime readers. Are readers of crime fiction more organised or are they just more devoted? Here’s Stark House Noir who are producing some classic noir that’s largely forgotten along with their first exclusive novel Johnny Porno by Charlie Stella.

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30 Comments

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30 responses to “A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse–A book that gave me ideas about…books.

  1. Pingback: MostlyFiction Book Reviews » A NOVEL BOOKSTORE by Laurence Cossé

  2. That sounds like a reader’s book and I’d rather like a copy.

    Some very interesting thoughts in there – and your buying patterns almost exactly match my own. I agree with the subscription idea. Pushkin will send you all their books for an annual subscription but that’s not quite what you had in mind. Powell’s books USA have an “Indispensable” scheme which is rather like a book club but its US only and I’d want more flexibility than that – see http://www.powells.com/indiespensable/

    Haven’t HMV made a hash of Waterstones. It wasn’t great before, but now its terrible. The press suggests they’re going to put it back up for sale, and I heard on the radio that Tim Waterstone hasn’t ruled out buying it back.

  3. leroyhunter

    Interesting thoughts Guy. I’m with you, well, 90% on the frustration with your local bookstores. In fact, given both price and availability concerns, I don’t know rationally why I continue to buy books from my own favourite local shop anymore. I guess I’m still too wedded to the browsing experience, the pleasant surprise when something I don’t expect shows up on a shelf, and the idea of having it “now”. In defence of my local, it does stock a fair selection of NYRB, Pushkin, Dalkey Archive, Melville House etc alongside the pure mainstream.

    A lot of the crime stuff I’ve picked up on here (and elsewhere) is harder to find.

    PS I saw your review of Blonde Ice at NOTW, enjoyed it and will look out for the DVD.

  4. leroyhunter

    PS – the book sounds interesting too – hard to get a fix on it. Is it a thriller pure and simple, that happens to have these big ideas behind it? Or is it an “Eco” type thriller – the ideas are the main thing, hung on an effective (but secondary) plot?

  5. Tom: I think this is a novel you’d enjoy very much. The Pushkin subscription appeals to me but it’s pricey (my only complaint). The Hard Case Crime subscription worked because a) it was modest and b) chances were excellent that you didn’t have the books they sent because they were either a first time publication or revived from the long forgotten vaults.

    I didn’t know that Powells had that programme. I’ll check it out. I don’t like the website much.

  6. Leroy: I would visit my local bookshop if it had those sorts of choices. Browsing is foreplay for the avid reader, but again if the choices aren’t appealing, browsing is perfunctory for me.

    Amazon, I think, does a good job of replicating the browsing experience, but you have to watch it as they have ‘product placement’ so being wary doesn’t hurt. Of course ‘product placement’ doesn’t include used, OOP print books, but it will include other books that are tagged to the big sellers. I’ve been burned on that a couple of times.

    The mystery is central, I think. The book starts with these ‘accidents’ and then the bookshop owners tell their story (which includes their bookshop philosophy) to a very patient copper. A bit implausible that he’d sit there, shut up and listen to it all, but the plot is so appealing to a book fiend like me that it doesn’t matter. There’s also a limp love story sub plot that annoyed the hell out of me, but it was kept to a minimum.

    As for Blonde Ice, try to get the VCI release as it has extras and one of the most interesting formats I think I’ve seen. The image of the main character appears on the screen (it looks like ice), then a crack appears and she splinters into tiny pieces. All this before the film starts.

  7. Interesting stuff. Dalkey Archives are another publisher worth being on your list.

    Pushkin Press also do a subscriptions deal. You pay £99 (I think, that could be wrong) and you get every new book they release for a year. It’s a gamble sure, but it’s hard to go wrong with Pushkin.

    They did though release a Young Adult title this year which put me off a bit. I don’t understand the current trend for adults to read those.

    I don’t think the crime approach will spill over. To be honest I think a lot of general/literary fiction fans are very conservative. They buy what’s covered in the Sunday supplements or being discussed at their book club and that’s about it. I actually think crime fans are more open to the new than a lot of non-genre fans.

    But yes, most of these publishers could do more and given how small they are most of them should do more. Great post.

  8. Hah, I post and there’s six posts ahead of me I’ve not read. Shows why one shouldn’t leave the comments page open all day before actually commenting.

  9. The HHC book club was by the month, and I think that was a good idea. I also belong to a film club–although I haven’t been that happy with some of the titles this year.

    One thing I can say when it comes to crime fans (speaking for myself) is that it’s annoying to not be able to track down an old title or when you do it’s an exorbitant price for some tatty old paperback. I don’t know if SF fans are this way, but I think most crime fans enjoy resurrecting old titles. I tend to ‘hear’ about titles via the various crimeworld fan grapevines.

  10. SF goes out of print with bewildering speed, even classic titles can be very hard to get hold of.

    It’s a source of annoyance to me. I have titles I keep hold of not because I think I’m likely to read them but because if I ever want to in future I know I probably won’t be able to find them again. If the back catalogue was a bit more accessible I wouldn’t worry.

    In some respects SF dates more than crime, but the best SF remains worth reading because although the technology dates the writing and the characters don’t.

  11. I’ve never heard of her, I think I will read it, it sounds interesting. The French title is “Au Bon Roman” and it sounds like a title from Zola. (Au Bonheur des Dames, which is translated under The Ladies’ Delight)

    That said, I rely a lot on publishers to choose books in a bookstore. Of course, when it comes to books in English, I’m lucky to have an international bookstore in my city. Lucky to live near a big city too.
    But French bookstores, even chains, seem different from English or American ones. Display tables mix the latest, say, Katherine Pancol and the book from Mme Roland I reviewed the other day. So, a reader looking for Pancol may be tempted to buy Mme Roland. (especially for 2€)

    I should take pictures and write a post about it but I’m afraid it would not be interesting for Anglophone readers.

    I’ve never heard of subscriptions to receive books at home in France, except for crime fiction, and I’m not sure it still exists.

  12. BATC: The last e in Cosse should have an accent on it, but I don’t know how to do that (if there is a way, I’d be happy to know about it).

    The Ladies’ Delight is also called The Ladies’ Paradise–I loved that novel btw.

    I think where you live makes a huge difference when it comes to bookshops–esp. used bookshops.

    • I loved The Ladies’ Paradise too, read it three times, I think. I don’t like the English title but I don’t know how to translate the French title.

      For the accent : write the word with the accent in Word, copy and paste in WordPress. Example : Laurence Cossé.

      • I recently watched the silent 1930 film version and enjoyed it (particularly the photography) very much.
        I’ll try the cut and paste next time. I used to cut and paste my posts but formatting was a nightmare. Perhaps just a word or letter would be ok.

  13. Max: Busted Flush Press (which recently sold btw) is an example of a grassroots type of publisher. They reprinted some titles. I know with crime fiction, many readers want to really dig around into the classics of the genre. I expect it’s the same way w/SF

  14. Max: signed up for the DA newsletter, thanks!

  15. Guy – I’ve ordered A Novel Bookstore – an example of the benefits to publishers of bloggers creating a buzz about a book!

    I used to be a heavy library user – now the only thing I use it for is to order things online – no point at all in browsing their shelves for anything interesting.

  16. leroyhunter

    Thanks for the tip on Blonde Ice – looks like it’s only available on import (region 1) where I am – and I neglected to buy a multi-region player all those years ago. Oh well.

    BTW, to save cut & pasting, you can generate the accent you want simply using ctrl + alt + e = é.

  17. Tom: The Novel Bookstore is a book for avid readers. You can’t help investing a bit of yourself in the bookshop. I took notes of the books mentioned on those fictional best-book-ever lists and have subsequently picked up several titles. In fact I’m reading one at the moment.

  18. Leroy:
    I finally broke down and bought an all-region player a few years ago, and I wished I’d done it earlier. It’s odd that so much more noir comes region I. Is it a question of sales?

  19. I’ve just bought this book on your recommendation and am looking forward to reading it. Mary Whipple has also reviewed it – http://snipurl.com/12nxaz

    • Tom: Mary has been a good friend of mine for years. Our reading tastes overlap to a large degree.

      Take my advice and have a notepad handy when you read The Novel Bookstore as the titles of some of the selected books (sold as stock) appear throughout the novel. While these titles are generated from the fictional master list of ‘best books ever’ you can pick up some fascinating titles to check out later. As you know we tend to read what is under our noses, so the books mentioned gave me some great leads. In fact I’ll be reviewing a book I bought thanks to reading A Novel Bookstore.

      Hope you like it.

  20. I have ordered it and I should receive it soon. I’ll let you know what I think about it. I’m curious to discover the book titles you mention.

    • Many of the names I wrote down were French books, so I expect they are familiar to you but not to me. The fictional book shop’s stock was supposed to be at least 50% French I think. One of the names on the ‘best book ever lists’ I recall noting was Christian Gailly.

      I was a bit annoyed with the fictional characters when they decided to sell every book every written by Cormac McCarthy as I am not a fan, but then that’s what happens when you start drawing up lists.

  21. The suspense is painful : is Romain Gary on the list?

  22. I failed to start taking note of the suggested novels right away, so I didn’t write down every title, but looking at the notes I took, I don’t see him here. Not to worry, I have The Life Before Us waiting on a shelf.

  23. Poornima

    This is a wonderful post and captures my thoughts exactly about why I don’t like the chain bookstores or even my local library. My husband and I were driving past the new library site our town has just bought. While I would never be against funding for a new library (we voted yes) my complaint was that the library should be focusing its efforts on getting better, not bigger. As far as I can tell, this is not happening. Fortunately our neighboring town orders a lot of the books we like so we make the 20 minute drive there instead of the 5-minute walk to ours.

  24. Thanks Poornima: I think many libraries are clearing out stock these days. I thought libraries were supposed to be the repositories of books, but that seems to be changing. There have been fights at my local library over the internet and scheduled sessions.

  25. Pingback: A Parisian book store | Bookaroundthecorner's Blog

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