Barnes & Noble is hardly a corporation to be associated with quixotic publishing ventures. And yet the retailer's proprietary publishing program has embraced one of the year's more unlikely big-ticket reissues.
A first novel published in 1972, The Stones of Summer was hailed by the New York Times as the work of a major new writer named Dow Mossman. But the book, published by textbook house Bobbs-Merrill during a brief foray into fiction, went out of print and into obscurity. That is, until a passionate reader plucked it off his shelf nearly 30 years later and was so moved that he made an independent film about his quest to meet Mossman and find out why he had never published another novel.
The film, Mark Moskowitz's The Stone Reader, has attracted considerable print coverage since it won two awards at the 2002 Slamdance Film Festival and began touring art-house theaters last January. Booksellers and librarians have talked it up, while writers Dave Eggers and Nick Hornby have sponsored screenings, and Siri Hustvedt, Tom Carson and others have moderated discussions about it. It has also won the support of Barnes & Noble CEO Steve Riggio, who helped underwrite the movie's distribution last May, at the same time as he outbid other publishers to acquire Mossman's novel for Barnes & Noble Books.
While the film's brief engagements in about 40 cities over the past nine months have boosted Mossman's novel into the top 10 pre-orders on barnesandnoble. com, they hardly guarantee massive tie-in sales at the chain when the book goes on sale October 22. But for B&N, supporting Moskowitz's movie and literary rediscovery has another upside: it enhances the visibility of a film that celebrates reading while countering the perception that lesser-known authors and "make books" can get lost among the bestsellers that are often featured more prominently at the chain.
At the same time, however, the project is stirring up resentments about the chain among independent booksellers, many of whom admit they would otherwise support this kind of reissue with gusto. And for traditional publishers who bid against B&N for the novel, it's becoming a touchstone for uncomfortable questions about the retailer-cum-publisher's competitive advantage.
In one of the many ironies surrounding the book and film, Moskowitz initially saw the book industry as a source of ready money that would allow him to edit the movie, which he undertook on his own dime as a diversion from his career making TV ads for political candidates. Working on the assumption that the film would give the novel wider visibility, he convinced Mossman to allow him to try to sell the reprint rights to The Stones of Summer and use a portion of the proceeds to back the movie. But at that early stage, in 2001, the publishers Moskowitz approached wouldn't stake much on the book's prospects without a finished movie in hand.
Though Moskowitz found other sources of financing, his dream of seeing Mossman's book return to print remained unfulfilled when the film had its first commercial screenings at the beginning of this year. So it was an auspicious moment when Riggio set up a meeting with Moskowitz after watching The Stone Reader and reading Mossman's literary novel about a young Midwestern man's coming-of-age in the '60s, which he purchased for $1,775 on eBay.
As the filmmaker described the precarious financial position in which he had found the novelist who obsessed him, Riggio expressed a desire to publish Mossman's book. "It was for the most genuine of reasons: to help Dow. Nobody else talked that way," said Moskowitz, who had begun to receive offers from other publishers after the film's brief Manhattan run was written up in the New Yorker last February. "He said he'd put the book in the stores, and make sure it was carried. He was committed."
When Moskowitz told Riggio that he wasn't looking for a publisher so much as for support for the film and for his notion of a nonprofit Lost Books Club, which would bring other out-of-print books to the attention of interested readers, Riggio didn't flinch. "He gave us a $100,000 advance for the book, and $200,000 as a gift to promote the film," said Moskowitz. "As much as the other publishers loved the book, they were unwilling to come up with a comparable offer. For them it was bottom-line dollar decision, but for B&N it wasn't," Moskowitz said.
At Barnes & Noble, The Stones of Summer struck a resonant chord. "When you read the book," said Michael Fragnito, publisher of Barnes & Noble books, "if you're of a certain age, you get flashbacks to a feeling that books could change the world, to the idealism you once had, and that touched us on a lot of levels. In this industry, we all know how frustrating it is that so many books are lost. And the thing a merchant hates the most is not being able to sell a book to someone because you don't have it."
As a work of contemporary fiction that could find a significant market in bookstores outside the chain, the novel is an anomaly in B&N's proprietary publishing program, which so far has focused on inexpensive how-to guides, illustrated books and public-domain classics sold through B&N stores. Still, Barnes & Noble Publishing Group president Alan Kahn embraced it. "Steve's passion for books is very helpful, though at times it's almost a dangerous way of bringing in book projects—to follow your instincts," he said.
By traditional publishing standards, Riggio's $300,000 deal for a literary reissue and the distribution and promotion of an independent film seems like a major risk. But given his publishing imprint's low overhead costs and the free front-of-store placement the book is assured at B&N stores, it may be more calculated than it appears.
For Moskowitz, the cash infusion from B&N made it possible to make 15 prints of the film and screen it in multiple cities with advertising and PR support over the course of the summer—promoting B&N's new edition of the book all the while. The $10,000 that's left over will become seed money for the Lost Book Club, which will appoint a president and board later this fall.
The Indie Factor
Priced relatively inexpensively as a $19.95 hardcover, The Stones of Summer presents an unusual test case for B&N's publishing program. Most obviously, it is a test of other booksellers' willingness to stock a book with the Barnes & Noble Books logo on the spine.
Unsurprisingly, B&N's largest retail competitors—Borders, Waldenbooks, Costco and Sam's Club—will not carry the book, according to Ronnie Stolzenberg, marketing director at Sterling, which is owned by B&N and distributes B&N books outside the chain. But orders from national and regional wholesalers, as well as independent booksellers, account for 9,000 copies, out of a first printing that will exceed 50,000, Stolzenberg said.
At Ingram, which fulfills orders from independent and chain stores, senior product manager Nancy Stewart characterized the company's advance order as comparable to those for novels by other relatively unknown authors that attracted attention at BEA, such as Edward P. Jones's The Known World (HarperCollins, Sept.) and Tim Gautreaux's The Clearing (Knopf, June). "It's possible that some indies will hang back because of the B&N logo on it, but I have strong backorders on our initial buy, which is a sign that people have seen the movie or heard the buzz about the book," she said.
But only one independent bookseller, Prairie Lights in Iowa City, Iowa, will host an event with the author, who is scheduled to visit a dozen B&N stores on a tour of the Midwest and Northeast, according to Rose Carrano, the independent publicist hired by Sterling to handle the book. Prairie Lights was also the only independent contacted by PW that planned to stock the book aggressively and to discount it.
For buyer Jan Weissmiller, the book was a natural fit because of its strong ties with the writing program at the University of Iowa, which was spotlighted in The Stone Reader because Mossman was a student there. Though she described Mossman's book as "probably more difficult to read than [Joseph Heller's] Catch-22," Weissmiller believed that many of her customers would seek it out. "It certainly repays one's investment in time," she said.
Other booksellers were more wary. At Denver's Tattered Cover, Margaret Maupin is trying to treat the book "as though any publishing company had brought it to us, since that's the only way to be fair to the author." Even though the store took special orders when the film was shown in Denver in May, Maupin's order was relatively modest since "it has been so long since the movie came out, and also because it was shown in art houses, not cineplexes."
For Posman's Books in New York City's Grand Central Station, as well as the Tattered Cover, the biggest question is, how well will B&N promote the book? "If I notice the media on it, I'll buy a pile," said buyer Robert Fader. "But I won't buy a lot before I see the media break. I'm not all that thrilled with the B&N imprint on it, and frankly I wonder if Sterling has the [publicity] machine for it, since they don't usually publish fiction. If they're relying on placement in B&N stores rather than media to make this work, it could backfire," he said.
Though Barnes & Noble Books has advertised the book on NPR and in Book magazine, and will place a full-page ad in the New York Times announcing the book's publication on October 26, there is little other confirmed publicity for the book at this point, according to Carrano. Some book critics may have been encouraged to review the book when Times critic Janet Maslin singled out The Stones of Summer as one of four fall must-reads on CBS Sunday Morning on September 14. But it remains a question whether major newspapers will consider giving it off-the-book-page placement, since many have devoted significant coverage to Moskowitz's film in the past six months.
Meanwhile, it's hard to determine how much the film, which is still being booked for theatrical runs and will be released as a limited-edition DVD in October, will help sell the book. Although Moskowitz's deep personal engagement with the novel is evident, the movie conveys very little about the content of The Stones of Summer, and makes no case for its greatness.
For all the discomfort the B&N's publication provokes among independent booksellers, it may pose bigger issues for publishers if it is successful. Some industry insiders are already wondering what kind of precedent B&N's first foray into trade fiction publishing will set—and if it happens again with any frequency, whether it will sideline similar publishing efforts by traditional houses that can't compete on the same terms.
In the end, B&N's expectation that its publishing program will account for at least 10% of its total revenue within five years may limit how frequently it experiments with risky frontlist fiction. But all the same, many of the questions raised by this publication may linger among independent booksellers and traditional publishers long after the dust settles over The Stones of Summer.