Americans love an underdog. Whether it’s the downtrodden hero in a movie, the come-from-behind win of a loser team or our kick-ass attitude in the Revolutionary War, we root for the small guy! Especially if said guy is unassuming, passionate and relentless in the face of horrible odds.
Meet the 2012 literary version of an underdog: Murder By The Book Bookstore in Houston, Texas. Their website states it’s one of the oldest and largest specialty bookstores in the nation, having opened their doors in 1980 and stocking over 25,000 books.
Despite that formidable pedigree, MBTB is unassuming. Situated in a tiny strip center the interior is dim and cozy, jam-packed with new and used hardbacks, paperbacks, T-Shirts with cool literary sayings and comfortable old armchairs. At MBTB you are welcome to hang out, read, explore and not feel like you have to keep buying expensive lattes. (But if you want one–the coffee shop is next door.)
Passionate? You bet. Ask about any book and the staff can lead you to the exact location in a far corner bookshelf. Want to know when Author X is coming out with Book Y? They’ll know and chances are they’ve already booked Author X for a book signing.
Last year alone MBTB hosted more than 200 of America’s favorite mystery, crime, suspense, science fiction, fantasy and romantic suspense authors. And I mean BIG names. Lisa Gardner, Tami Hoag and Lisa Scottoline all appeared within 6 weeks of each other (I know this because I went to all 3!) How about P.D. James? Sue Grafton? Harlan Coban? Yep, all have signed books in the little Houston bookstore. Many times.
Relentless? Check. Murder By The Book is one of the most aggressive ma & pa bookstores to take on the giant e-book sites and has no plans to surrender. In fact they keep coming up with ingenious ways to stay competitive and capture reader attention, even if you don’t live anywhere near Houston!
Meet the leader of this scrappy underdog team: John Kwiatkowski, Publicity Manager for Murder By The Book.
Welcome, John and thank you for being here! If a reader has a Nook/Kindle e-reader and loves the convenience of the click-to-buy read, how can an “Indie Bookstore” like MBTB stay afloat in 2012?
It’s easy with a Nook. You can purchase eBooks from the Murder By The Book website and load them onto your Nook.
With Kindle it’s a little bit trickier. The Kindle Fire will allow you purchase eBooks from other retailers, but the original Kindle does not.
In most cases, we’re selling our ebooks for the same price as most other retailers.
We’re always happy to walk you through the process. More info about how to use Google eBooks with different types of eReaders can be found on our website.
How does the resell work with e-Google? (Meaning where do readers go to shop and how do they get it downloaded to their specific e-reader?)
With Google eBooks, customers can purchase and download eBooks directly from the MBTB website.
In the bottom left-hand column of our website there’s a box that allows customers to search or browse for eBooks that are available from us.
Google eBooks work with just about any kind of eReader and we have the instructions for each type of reader linked on the website. http://www.murderbooks.com/gbook/help
I know most of our suspense readers would love to browse in your store or buy from you online. But they also enjoy other genres (ex., historical romance.) Is that something they could still buy from you?
One of the wonderful things about our partnership with the ABA and Google eBooks is that any book that is available as a Google eBook is available for purchase from our store. It doesn’t have to be a mystery.
We’re also always willing to order any book (regardless of genre) for our in-store customers. We may require prepayment if it’s not something we would stock on the shelves, and we can usually get it within a week.
How is the American Booksellers Association (ABA) helping indie bookstores like MBTB?
The ABA has helped us out immensely. Without the help of the ABA it would be almost impossible for small stores like us to get into the eBook game. They’ve set up all the infrastructure that allows us to be able to compete in the eBook business.
Without their help, we would have had to find a reseller and develop a high maintenance website that would allow us to deliver the books to customers. Thanks to the ABA, we’re able to focus on selling books and not the logistics of being able to do so.
Tell us about your idea to Skype during book signings.
We’ve done several Skype events this year. Our first was with Alan Bradley, the author of the Flavia de Luce mysteries. Bradley lives in Malta, so a tour wasn’t possible at the time. It was wonderful to welcome him into the store even if it was just through a webcam.
Our most successful Skype event was with Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. We had Preston in the store, and Child was able to join via Skype. Since Child doesn’t travel, it was a unique opportunity for fans to see them together.
When possible, we’ve also tried to arrange for signed copies of the author’s book when we’re hosting them for a Skype event.
Do you have e-book signings?
We haven’t started doing eBook signings yet. Realistically, the profit margin on eBooks is so low that it would be tough for us to sell enough eBooks at a signing to warrant the additional cost of staying open and staffing the store. It’s not something that we’re ruling out, but not something we’re actively pursuing right now.
Tell us why buying novels (either hardcopy or electronically) from MBTB and other indie bookstores is more customer-oriented than large brick and mortar chains or online sites?
We spend a lot of time getting to know what we have in the store. It doesn’t stop when we go home for the night.We’re still reading new releases or discovering old gems that might have slipped by us.
While we might not have read every book in the store, we can usually offer some insight about most titles, whether it’s from trade reviews or other customer feedback.
Each staff member has their own “Staff Picks” shelf, and the remaining shelves in the bookstore are filled with handwritten recommendations. We really strive to get the right book into the hands of a reader that will love it.
We also host a variety of events in the store. We have a series of luncheon events and have hosted authors like Lee Child, Charlaine Harris, Michael Connelly, and Anne Perry. The luncheons offer a more intimate feeling than our regular events at the store.
We host evening events at the store for a wide range of authors from established bestsellers to debut authors just starting out.
We also have two books groups that meet here in the store.
In addition to author events, we also host Murder By The Book Recommends events where the staff talks about their favorite recent reads.
Earlier this year we hosted an eBook open house where we encouraged customers to bring in their eReaders and we would walk them through the steps of purchasing eBooks from us.
Basically our goal is to provide an experience, whether it’s meeting your favorite author or discovering someone who could become your favorite author. That’s missing when you’re just ordering a book from a website.
Whew! That’s really creative! Online sites have discounts and specials. Tell us how you fight that?
We have several promotions that we run throughout the year. We typically have a used book sale during the summer and the last week of the year.
In recent years, we just started offering gift bundles. We take some of our favorite books from the past year and create gift sets to satisfy any type of reading tastes. We try to pick lesser known titles that people might not have picked up on their own.
Last year some of our giftsets had themes like Private Eyes Are Watching You, Southern Gothic Gems, Supernatural Cozies, Excellent Espionage, Southern Humor, and more. We love helping pick out books for gifts!
Can a reader download an e-book from you if they do not have a Kindle/Nook?
They can. If you still want to read eBooks or eOriginal short stories but don’t want to invest in an eReader, there is a program called Adobe Digital Editions that allows you to open and read eBooks on your desktop. The program is free and can be downloaded here: http://www.adobe.com/products/digitaleditions/devices/
Who’s the most amazing author to have held a book signing and why?
It’s so hard to pick a favorite. We hosted over 200 authors in 2011. Our biggest surprise lately was being able to host Anne Rice in the store. Her publisher was extending her tour and we were thrilled to be one of the stores that was asked to host her.
We had over 500 people in the store over the course of the evening and had such a great time!
Huge events like that are always fun because everyone is so excited about being here. It’s impossible not to have a good time when you’re surrounded by that many people who can’t wait to meet an author that has meant so much to them.
A huge percentage of your clients are in other states and countries. Why is that, given that there are certainly bookstores in those places?
A large part of it is because of the signed books that we’re able to offer. With so many authors visiting the store, we offer a chance for customers to order signed books from us. We can get them inscribed.
As long as a copy of the author’s newest book is purchased from us, we even allow people to send in other books by an author to get them signed as well.
What question should I have asked that you want readers to know?
People always want to know how our in-store signings work. For large events, (famous author names) we give out first-come-first-serve line numbers with the purchase of the author’s newest book. (The line numbers become available the day the book goes on sale.) And the number you get is your actual place in line after the author-talk and Q&As, when the actual book signing begins.
The talks are always free to attend, but to get anything signed the author’s newest book has to be purchased from us.
We’ve got a complete listing of our signing policies on our website. http://www.murderbooks.com/signing-policies
Well America, summer is here and books abound! Why not take a chance on an Indie Bookstore and electronically download some great reads for the same prices as the giant e-sites? Permission given to pass the blog interview or information to everyone in your social network. Let’s get the word out and do our part to help the cozy ma & pa underdogs!
Simply leave a question or comment for John anytime today and you’re automatically in the our Kiss and Thrill drawing. The lucky winner’s name will be posted on Thursday, May 31st, so check back!
Visit John and the rest of the MBTB staff at www.murderbooks.com
Please don’t forget to bid on the amazing items in Brenda Novak’s 2012 Cure for Diabetes Auction! ONLY 2 DAYS REMAIN! http://brendanovak.auctionanything.com/
Today we’re priviledged to have with us legendary James Grady, author of Six Days of the Condor which became the iconic Robert Redford movie, Three Days of the Condor. James has won literary prizes around the globe, including France’s Grand Prix Du Roman Noir in 2001, Italy’s Raymond Chandler Award in 2003, and Japan’s Baka-Misu Literary Award in 2008.
James doesn’t merely talk, he lights up the room, exudes a charge that amplifies and builds, reaching into the dark corners of the audience, until everyone is astonished by his fingertip information and unique perspective. No matter your political opinions, he has the ability to dredge up facts, turn your mind around, and get people motivated.
It is that same energy that pervades his books. He takes the most implausible of facts – for instance, crazies in a secret CIA asylum, let loose on society (Mad Dogs), and not only suspends disbelief, but transports the reader to a roller coaster of an adventure that doesn’t let go until the very last word.
James wil be giving one lucky reader who leaves a comment a copy of his book, Mad Dogs, so make sure you hit that comment button or you won’t be in the running!
Please help me welcome, James Grady.
Diana: You hit the best seller list the first time out of the gate with Six Days of the Condor . How did success impact on you as a young writer? If you had to do it all over again and could choose, would you want success at such an early stage or would it have been better a little later on? Did you understand what an incredible, lotto-winning miracle, that kind of success was at that time?
James: Condor swept me up like the tornado in The Wizard Of Oz. Living in a Montana shack, I knew how incredibly lucky I was. My major fear was that I would blow or betray my luck. Condor gave me a chance to do what I always wanted – write and publish fiction – plus I didn’t want to be some kind of footnote burn-out jerk. After Condor, I worked as a U.S. Senate aide and a muckraking reporter making far less than my fiction work because I wanted to use my life to do more, learn more. I lived like a blue jeaned grad student, worked as hard and as fast as I could, 12 hour days. I think success so early let me grow into being the kind of writer who – I hope – has earned it. Of course, now I’d love another tornado like that one!
Diana: As a journalist who has focused on the intelligence community for much of your life, how do you feel about the average spy novel? What kinds of things drive you nutty when you read them?
James: Most modern spy novels are better than most modern spy movies that are often actually “cop” or “superhero” cinemas. I’m not a fan of “grand conspiracy” spy novels. What makes spy novels hard to write is that at their heart, they are novels about politics and personal integrity. We’re lucky to have a bunch of “spy novelists” out there who get that, but what drives me nutty is the spy novel where nothing “real” or moral feels at stake or where the characters seem to be in a video game.
Diana: Condor was a quiet novel — by that I mean it was about an man battling the system with little more than his brain, and winning. Many books and films these days have more things that go boom than intelligent thought. Even Mad Dogs, while very smart, is much more action packed — which is also a direct result of the characters. Do you think the quiet novel is a lost art? How do you balance the need for intelligent writing and the market’s need for action?
James: Great question! I think publishers “push” authors to make their books BIG and BOOMING in the mistaken belief that that’s what readers want. Readers want great stories, believable characters and novels that say something, mean something, matter. Yes, we want thrills, but we want them to make us feel something more than the drive to turn pages. It’s like the difference between a guttural SHOUT and a great kiss: readers love, remember and seek out a great kiss. And such stories pay: Graham Greene wrote dozens of “quiet” novels that are still selling today.
Diana: Who is your favorite author? Who are you reading right now? Do you find you read more in or out of your genre when selecting fiction?
James: I can never narrow it down to one favorite author, though I think Bruce Springsteen is The Great American Author of my hit high school 49 – 37 years ago generation. As for authors who create words to be read…Ray Bradbury, John Burdett, James Cain, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Sally Denton, Emily Dickinson, Conan Doyle, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Dashiell Hammett, Elizabeth Hand, Steve Hunter, Craig Johnson, John Le Carre, Harper Lee, Dennis Lehane, John Dos Passos, Maile Meloy (who’s probably the Great American Author of her younger than moi generation), Bobbie Ann Mason, David Mitchell, George Pelecanos, S. J. Rozan, John Steinbeck, Rex Stout, Jess Walter, Robert Ward, E.B. White, Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I could drop 47 other names in that alphabetic row. Right now I’m reading Nathan Englander and Joe Lansdale. I make it a point not to read the kind of book I’m writing, and while I love what critics call “thrillers” or “crime novels,” I’ve been happily seduced by everything from chick lit to fantasy. There are just so many great authors out there, and so little time.
Diana: Mad Dogs takes place in a secret CIA insane asylum, which sounds perfectly reasonable and practical on the page as you describe it. Is there really such a place in real life? What other kinds of black sites exist that the public knows little about?
James: spent years as an investigative reporter chasing whispers that the CIA had a secret insane asylum. I never found it, so I let the notion flower as fiction. There are black sites for SIGINT (signals intelligence that targets communications), as well as training sites and way off the books operations not on any federal register.
Diana: Will they have to kill you if you tell us? Or now that you’ve told us? How do you balance the fine line between being interesting and not divulging something you may know but that might cause problems for the intelligence community? Is there such a line? Do you think Americans should know everything in freedom of the press, or should journalists restrict themselves and under what circumstances?
James: I’m cautious about what I divulge. I have a problem with wholesale or frivolous dumping of secrets. That’s one reason the people who work in our shadows trust me. There is a line – sometimes fine, sometimes fuzzy, sometimes undeniable – between the rights our Constitution gives writers for freedom of the press and doing damage for no good to our country. We need to know the why’s and what’s of our government . We may not need to know the how’s. There are two questions every writer must ask her or himself when they cover government or even personal secrets: Who does reporting this hurt? Who does reporting this help? When the FBI is trying to stop the Mafia from heroin smuggling, election rigging and prostituting children while the CIA is using the Mafia to assassinate a foreign leader like Castro (happened!), we have both a right and a need to know. We need to know what our public servants are doing for our democracy to work.
Diana: Your new book is on Arab Spring. Can you tell us a little about it and when it will be out?
James: While I’m calling it an “Arab Spring” novel, 2/3 of the story takes place in Washington, D.C., with the rest in a blended imaginary “Arab” country. But the story is actually about our new streets of politics everywhere and how a man and a woman risk everything to fight for their personal as well as political integrity. I think of it as a blend of Condor and Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havana. Sarcasm, suspense, glimpses behind the scenes in D.C. and spy worlds, and a love story unlike any I’ve ever written. The working title I had is too close to another author’s thriller that just came out – something I bet many people can relate to — so I’m “opening my heart” to whatever title will come from my manuscript. I’m about halfway done, have shown it to no one, so there’s no pub date yet. When I get one, I promise to let you know.
Diana: You have a pretty spectacular family. Tell us about them. James can’t stop gushing about them, another one of his endearing traits.
James: I am in awe of my family. My wife Bonnie Goldstein, now a blogger for The Washington Post’s “She The People,” has been an internet journalist, a national ABC TV producer, a U.S. Senate Aide, a Private Eye, a coat check girl, a model, and a never went to college hippie who managed a tough bar in Mexico. My daughter Rachel Grady is an Academy Award nominated documentary director/producer who tackles issues like struggling kids, poverty, our crashing American dream, women’s rights. My son Nathan Gradyhas published two articles in national venues and is defining himself on the way to being 24. Rachel’s not yet two years old son Desmond
says “Yeah!” all the time and never stops laughing. So far, they still let me come to family dinners.
Diana: The love story in Condor was very poignant. Why couldn’t your hero and heroine have their happily ever after? Do you think you might have written it differently today?
James: Another good question. I struggled with this. Didn’t think it was believable for amateur Condor to score a complete “win” against the professionals hunting him, plus I wanted to make the readers feel the real costs of that world. So he had to lose the girl.
I try to create a story that feels authentic to smart and deserving readers. And actually, when I got a handle on my sorrow and anger after 9/11, I wrote a novella “re-imagining” how I’d “do” Condor in these times – “condor.net” (click here to read!) — with the roles of women changed and deepened.
Diana: See I didn’t even know that! James is always ahead of the curve. Thanks so much for stopping by today, James, please visit us again soon.
James will be giving a copy of his book Mad Dogsto one lucky commenter below. So don’t forget to hit the comment button and leave one. Mad Dogs is a book you don’t want to miss. Come back on Thursday to see if you’ve won!