OF ALL THE REWARDS THIRTY-YEAR-OLD Austinite Louise Redd hoped might result from publishing her first novel, Playing the Bones, none was expected less than her encounter with the Stinky Cheese Man. “I was so excited to be giving a reading at the big Borders here in my new hometown,” she recalled of a June 1996 stop on her brief publicity tour sponsored by the book’s publisher, Little, Brown. Though the tour was limited to a handful of Texas and Mississippi bookstores, Redd perhaps unrealistically anticipated enjoying the few perks she assumed might be afforded published novelists: a momentary spotlight, some applause, an additional sale or two. “But they had me set up in this really bright, hectic spot in the middle of the store,” she said. “There was no podium, no microphone, no introduction. I sat on the edge of a table with a few scattered piles of Playing the Bones and began to read to the three people sitting before me in this sea of empty chairs. It was so depressing. I had to pretty much shout to be heard over the jazz playing in the store’s music section, the classical music piped in for the book browsers, and the whirring of the cappuccino machine. Then, in the middle of my reading, a woman’s voice boomed over the loudspeaker: ‘The Stinky Cheese Man has entered the store!’ When I looked up, this creature with a big wedge of cheese on his head waddled right in front of me on his way to the children’s section to do some sort of promotional presentation.”
Shredding the paper napkin beneath her herbal tea as we chatted at Austin’s Flightpath Coffeehouse, which is located so close to Robert Mueller Municipal Airport that its windows rattle from the noise of jets landing and taking off, Redd smiled and shook her head good-naturedly as she recounted the year since Playing the Bones was published. I had been curious to meet her after reading an article she had posted on the Internet lamenting the commercialization of the modern novel, a phenomenon many writers believe is connected to the growing monopoly of megachain bookstores. Attractive and fashionably underdressed in faded jeans, a vintage fatigue jacket, flea market rings on all ten fingers, and rimless granny specs over bright green eyes, Redd’s appearance belied an upbringing more privileged than that of the typical struggling writer: She looked like someone who might still be worrying about next month’s rent. Here was a published novelist, someone who is to the world of fiction what an NBA draft pick is to the world of basketball, and she had driven to the Flightpath in a rusted thirty-year-old Chevelle that she would soon sell because she needed the money.
Released to warm reviews in the summer of 1996 (and now available in paperback from Plume), Playing the Bones embodied for Redd the dreamy culmination of lifelong literary aspirations, hard-earned writing degrees from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Houston, two years of struggle in front of a computer screen in rural Colorado, and several months’ worth of sleepless nights as she awaited an eventual thumbs-up from the faceless publishing world in New York. “The year between my finishing the book and its publication was absolutely golden,” Redd remembered, chuckling at her naiveté. “The day Little, Brown made me an offer, my parents and I celebrated with a bottle of champagne, and I was just filled with hopes and fantasies that once the book came out everything would be wonderful, that I would suddenly be smarter and more charming and more loved and better looking than ever before. But when my book hit the bookstores, the only people who seemed to notice were members of my immediate family.”
Redd would soon discover what a growing number of writers and readers of literary fiction have been grumbling about for the past two or three years: that there is a general indifference to the culture of fiction writing and that the superstore monopoly is partly to blame. They maintain that the ever-expanding reach of Barnes and Noble and Borders is strangling to death independently owned, neighborhood bookstores and, with them, much of the respect novelists and their craft used to enjoy. As far as the chains are concerned, the argument goes, novels are products and a novelist is simply a deliverer of the goods. “I am reluctant to criticize the superstores,” Redd explained, “because I’m dependent on them for my livelihood and grateful for the ones that carried my book. And my most successful reading was at a huge Bookstop in Dallas. But my parents, who had to drive all the way from their home in Uncertain, did all the publicity for it. I thought maybe I should take the indifference personally, but I kept hearing horror stories: editors rejecting novels because the author wasn’t physically attractive enough; houses spending more money on a flashy book jacket than the author’s advance.”
Redd shuddered as a descending plane rocked the building. “After Playing the Bones was published, my editor hooked me up with an agent in New York, whom I still have never met. She’ll call every few months and ask, ‘How’s everything down there in Houston?’ and I say kind of sheepishly, ‘Uh, I live in Austin.’”
Neither of the two Barnes and Noble superstores in my Manhattan neighborhood had Playing the Bones on its shelves when I first spoke with Redd by phone in April—though the Barnes and Noble and Borders locations in Austin presumably did. The book (which I read and thoroughly enjoyed after buying a copy at Austin’s independently owned Book People) is described on its dust jacket as a “sharply funny, erotically charged first novel about love, infidelity, and the blues.” Whether by coincidence or design, it revolves around what some cynics might argue have become essentials in a publishing business fueled by female readers: a salty-voiced female narrator; forbidden romance (the engaged protagonist’s chief love interest is a blues singer named Black Jesus); and confessional intimacy of the sort made popular again by Texan Mary Karr’s best-seller, The Liars’ Club.
“An estimated seventy percent of all books are bought by women,” explained agent Cherie Burns of the New York— and Boston-based Zachary Shuster Literary Agency, who earlier this year brokered a six-figure advance for a biography of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. “The chains cater to that. They have not only caused the homogenization of the novel, but they influence what kind of fiction will be marketed and, to some degree, the kind of fiction that’s now being written. The chains don’t waste space on marginal books—they just want best-sellers. I’ve even heard editors say that they sometimes consult the chains before they decide how much of an offer to make the author.”
Indeed, a front-page story in the New York Times this August reported that publishing executives are now turning to Barnes and Noble and Borders for guidance in commercial decisions about dust jacket designs and creating punchier titles, and on whether to even publish certain books. The Times article states that Harold Evans, the president of Random House, the leading publisher of adult hardcover books in the United States, recently decided to pass on a first novel by a British author after consulting with superstore buyers. “I think all of us recognize the common interest that we have,” Evans said. “They reinforced our doubts. We didn’t buy it.”
That reality angers Philip Sansone, who has run Book People since 1978—which, with more than 225,000 titles in stock, is the biggest bookstore in Texas. “The buyers at the superstore chains are buying books for a thousand stores in hundreds of cities,” he said, “so they have to concentrate on books that appeal to a wide audience. Does anyone really think they are capable of fine-tuning their selection for each and every neighborhood?” Sansone refers to this trend as the “Wal-Martizing” of literature, and at least as far as the big picture goes, the analogy seems apt. As recently as 1991, independents accounted for the largest chunk of the overall bookselling market—more than 32 percent—while the superstore chains had only 22 percent. But today, the superstores have enjoyed explosive growth similar to that of Wal-Mart: They now account for 26 percent, while the independents have less than 19 percent.
The small picture is just as revealing. With more than 1,000 stores nationwide, including 454 superstores (such as Bookstop and Bookstar) and 559 mall stores (such as B. Dalton Booksellers), Barnes and Noble is by far America’s largest bookseller and is growing faster than ever. (Borders has become the second-biggest bookstore chain, with 170 superstores nationwide.) Barnes and Noble reported $2.4 bil-lion in revenues for the 1996 fiscal year, almost half a billion more than in 1995. A publicist for Barnes and Noble in New York told me that only four or five people order all of the literary fiction for its thousand or so stores. (So too with Borders, which has just two people ordering all of its general fiction, according to one of its publicists.) The potential ramifications are clear: If this select group of megastore buyers chooses not to order copies of, say, Playing the Bones or a novel by Cormac McCarthy, you may have a tough time finding it—period. If a prospective publishing house feels it may have difficulty placing a recently completed first novel with Barnes and Noble or Borders, it probably won’t get published.
To be fair, the bottom line is that the entire publishing world—not just the superstores—has determined that fiction is no longer cost-effective. Even a store like Book People, one that promotes fiction and often draws hundreds to its reading events (two thousand copies of Anne Rice’s latest novel were sold during her appearance there in August 1995), makes only about 15 percent of its profit from novels and short-story collections. And fiction by young, untested writers sells slowly. Once upon a time, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny were typical best-sellers. Among this season’s hits are country singer Tanya Tucker’s autobiography, a memoir by former Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman, and Success Is a Choice, by the Boston Celtics’ new head coach, Rick Pitino.
It will be interesting to see if Redd’s second novel for Little, Brown will be marketed differently—yet no matter what happens, she insists she does not regret having dedicated her life thus far to writing novels. “It has been a learning experience for me,” she said. “And not everything this past year was unpleasant. I’ve gotten a kick out of meeting readers who connected with my book. Barron’s, a small independently owned bookshop over in Longview, was even nice enough to hire a blues band for the night I read there.”
With a delicate wave of her hand Redd shooed away my question about what, if anything, she got paid for the paperback version of Playing the Bones and continued detailing what had helped make the hard work worthwhile. “Recently I was invited back to Hockaday, the high school I attended while growing up in Dallas, to talk to a creative-writing class. It turned out to be one of the best days of my life. The man who had taught my sophomore English class pulled out an old report card of mine that he had saved. He had written on it, ‘I fully expect to be reading Louise’s novels in the years to come.’ He was so happy, now that he’s read my novel, to show me the report card, and I felt very flattered that he had bothered to save a report card from 1984.
“As I was leaving at the end of the day,” she continued, “a girl whose very fine short story we had discussed in class came up to me in the hallway and said, ‘I want to be a novelist.’ She had drawn tattoos in ballpoint all over her arm, like it wasn’t enough to have written those great words in her notebook. I thought for a moment, wanting to encourage her obvious talent but fearing I might sugarcoat what I have discovered is a very unstable existence, and finally answered, ‘If you simply have to write, even if it means you have to scribble on the backs of napkins or the soles of your feet, then sure, try it.’ The young woman nodded, and I felt that she had heard me. Then she had me sign her copy of Playing the Bones, and I wrote, ‘I look forward to getting a signed copy of your first novel.’ And I truly hope that someday I can.”
Keith Kachtick profiled author Michael Lind in the March 1997 Texas Monthly.