I remember the call from my agent Ayesha Pande like it happened a few minutes ago although it went down a couple weeks prior to the March 5th launch of my book, Bird of Paradise: How I became Latina. Something in the way my phone rang felt ominous. I didn’t want to pick it up at first but I knew that whatever the deal was, I wouldn’t be alone. I already knew that Ayesha jumps into the foxhole with her clients. “Raquel,” she said in a forlorn tone, “I have some news for you: Barnes & Noble cancelled every physical order of Bird of Paradise in every single one of their stores.” Everything else she said sounded like “wa, wa, wa, wa…”
My first thought was: my book cover is so fresh and would have looked beautiful on display. Then: shit, how will people know how to find my book when it’s so hard for books by women to get reviewed by major publications, and I wonder how many women in the sliver of the proverbial pie are nonwhite aside from Sonia Sotomayor and Rita Moreno? And then I stopped thinking. I sat there, numb, as Ayesha tried her best to make sense of it all.
It turns out Barnes & Noble and Simon & Schuster, my imprint’s parent company, are involved in a dispute that has resulted in B&N pulling all the books published by S&S (except for S&S powerhouse authors Jodi Picoult and the like, though even these books are being carried in reduced numbers) off its shelves. Beyond this the details are not clear and an easy resolution doesn’t seem to be in sight.
I’m not angry with Atria books. My editor Malaika Adero is a visionary, and Judith Curr is a literary rock star who’s taken chances in the industry that have paid off handsomely. Malaika, an anomaly in the typically white world of publishing, overstands culture and has acquired the kinds of smart books that add a kind of flavor to mainstream book publishing that is, for the most part, missing, or worse, ghettoized.
Right now, I cannot bring myself to purchase another book, magazine or journal from B&N for the teens I mentor at a suicide prevention program in the Bronx. I feel that they, the industry’s last Goliath, are betraying readers by stymieing access to physical books, and authors by bullying publishing houses for “support.” (And really, if it’s true that B&N want S&S to spend more money on co-op and hook them up with an even deeper discount than the bookseller receives now, how will authors ever pay back their advances?!) In a recent study, writer Dennis Johnson “posited that 40% of the people who buy books online looked at them in a bookstore first.” And with an awesome book cover like mine (not to mention a discount coupon in the back for an ancestral DNA test), I was certain that readers who may have not known about it, or missed a review here or there may have picked it up out of curiosity. This is the way many readers trip into worlds they may not have understood before. This is how, over the years, I came upon books like Angela’s Ashes, Push, and Down These Mean Streets.
Yes, it’s old news that B&N stores are falling down like a once mighty stack of dominoes across the country. Almost seven hundred Borders stores have been euthanized and more than one thousand B&N’s will disappear sooner than later. Publishing houses must now rely on their marketing departments more than ever to find creative alternatives that go beyond tweeting and designing groovy Facebook banners. (Talk to almost any author and they will tell you relying on marketing is, ummm, uh…scary.) And it looks like the onus will fall on us to rewire our creative selves to think and act like corporations but, like, sans the budget. The key to a book’s success, especially those like mine that may arguably lack an Oprah book club sensibility, will rest upon how well marketing and publicity engage their authors in the early stages of planning.
A few weeks later, I’m starting to feel more optimistic about the future of my book. Bird of Paradise is a format breaker: it’s equal parts coming of age in New York City story and genetic adventure. The book isn’t only about that thing that brings us all together—family dysfunction—the bigger picture looks at what it means to be Latina and American today. Despite the violence, the betrayals, the unlearning I had to do during the process, the narrative is peppered with humor and arrives at a place that is nestled somewhere in between truth and reconciliation. It’s a hyphenated American story, the first memoir by a Dominican-American writer of my generation to be released (or withheld) in the popular market. Some people will love it, others won’t get it right away but everyone should have an opportunity, in this land of the free, to be presented with the option and decide for themselves.
In the meantime, aside from doing more outreach and supporting the fabulous independent bookstores across the country, publishers and authors need to brainstorm sooner than later about life after B&N.
UPDATE: 11:10PM: Best-selling author M.J. Rose has just added my book to a growing list of others from S&S that are missing from B&N. Not only are the books on the list acclaimed, I must say, the covers alone are all arresting. BROWSE HERE.