The book and the booksellers

Writer: Rick Bragg discovers the story of what it takes to bring his work to market.

September 07, 2001|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Rick Bragg has seen some unbelievable things in his career - the war-torn streets of Haiti, the wreckage of the Oklahoma City bombing, the dark and hauntingly isolated insides of a coal mine.

But the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter and best-selling author could not hide his amazement yesterday as he walked through the warehouses of Random House's main distribution center in Westminster.

"When you think of industry, any kind of shipping industry, you think about steel, you think about textiles," Bragg said, striding through the facility responsible for shipping his new book, Ava's Man, and hundreds of millions of others to bookstores across the United States. "Books seem like they should be more delicate - until you lift your first box of books, I guess, and realize how heavy they are."

In today's world of book publishing, it's not enough for an author to be talented, to be a best seller, to draw a decent crowd to a reading or signing. These days, an author has to be part of the marketing machinery.

That's what brought Bragg to the nerve center of Random House's distribution network, where the publishing giant invites authors to lunch with the folks who pitch their tomes to booksellers across the country and for a quick tour of the 1.2 million-square-foot facility.

As the conveyer belts churn and the front-end loaders dart from book stack to book stack just beyond the window onto the warehouse, a few dozen Random House employees gather in the bright and quiet offices of the telemarketing department for an intimate chat with the author. Many are the sales representatives who call independent bookstore owners and wholesalers in all 50 states to take orders for the offerings in Random House's thrice-yearly catalog of titles. Others are merely book lovers who work in any of the publishing company's other departments, from customer service to reorders.

In the three years that Random House has been holding the author lunches, the employees have heard from such best-selling scribes as James Bradley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of Flags of Our Fathers, and Richard Russo, whose Nobody's Fool was made into a feature film starring Paul Newman and Bruce Willis.

They coaxed a little jig out of Peter Mayle, author of A Year in Provence and other travel narratives, in honor of the dance he described from the Festival of the Frogs in France.

They persuaded best-selling crime novelist James Ellroy to take a list of bookstore owners' phone numbers and call as many as he could to thank them for selling his work, which includes L.A. Confidential and his latest release, The Cold Six Thousand. (Convinced his caller was a friend pulling a prank, one disbelieving store owner in Michigan responded by saying, "Yeah right, and I'm William [expletive] Faulkner." After a prolific apology, the two had a nice chat.)

For the 17 sales representatives who work out of the Westminster plant, the visits provide a little something extra to use as they try to boost book sales.

"One of the stigmas of being a telemarketing rep is that a lot of booksellers associate that with just being order takers," said Chuck Errig, a divisional director with Random House's telemarketing department. "So any chance we have to show them we're tuned into the industry and not just, `Give me the book title and quantity and I'll place your order,' the better."

The lunches also give the sales staff the chance to drop names and offer an insider tidbit or two about a particular author.

"It's especially great if you know a seller is a fan of Rick Bragg and you can say, `He was in the office the other day and we talked to him about his two books and I thought of you and have a couple signed books I can send you,'" Errig said. "I mean, that's huge."

For the authors, the gatherings are a chance to thank the people who get their books on the shelves of more than 1,000 of the smaller, corner bookstores. (A separate staff in New York sells books to the national bookstore chains.) Face time with the sales staff is also an opportunity to establish a personal connection and infuse them with a little more enthusiasm about a title.

No one, it seemed, left yesterday's lunch with Bragg feeling anything but charmed and impressed with his modesty.

Bragg, 42, who grew up in hardscrabble Alabama among the dirt-poor working class in the foothills of the Appalachians, wrote his first book, All Over But the Shoutin', in 1997. That memoir was about his mother, Margaret, a woman who just happened to be "not hungry" any time her three boys ate all the biscuits and gravy that were available for dinner and who went 18 years without a new dress so they could have school clothes.

But during and after his book tour for Shoutin', readers stopped Bragg to complain that he "left out the good part."

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