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Behind the Scenes with Official Bookseller Politics & Prose

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The following post is a Q&A with Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, DC. Politics & Prose is the official bookseller of the 2015 National Book Festival.

Book sales pavilion at the 2014 National Book Festival. Photo by Jim Cannady.
Book sales pavilion at the 2014 National Book Festival. Photo by Jim Cannady.
This will be your second year as the official bookseller at the National Book Festival. Was there anything that surprised you about the festival last year?

We were very pleasantly surprised by how strong the turnout remained, despite changes in both where and when the festival was held. After years on the National Mall, the festival went indoors for the first time. And instead of occurring in late September, it was held over Labor Day Weekend. We worried that both the venue change and the earlier date would dampen attendance. But nothing of the sort happened. In fact, many who came said they preferred the indoor setting. So we’re looking forward to large crowds again this year.

How do you prepare for an event like this? What is happening behind the scenes right now?

Serving as the bookseller at the National Book Festival is a mammoth undertaking. While the Library of Congress arranges for the authors who will speak and sign, we decide how many of each author’s book to order. This year, we’ll be offering more than 430 titles, and at the moment the orders are being processed. Over the next few weeks, as the books arrive (more than 35,000 of them!), they’ll be gathered in a warehouse in Pennsylvania by Ingram, the nation’s largest book wholesaler, then delivered to the Convention Center a few days before the festival. Meanwhile, we’re putting together a list of about 100 people who will run the sales area. Most will be Politics & Prose employees, but some will also come from Ingram, from the American Booksellers Association, and from publishing companies. To help promote the festival, we’re spreading the word among customers, sending posters to bookstores around the country, and arranging for advance interviews with several festival authors which will be posted online.

How do you decide what books to sell?

The authors who appear at the festival let us know which books they intend to talk about. Usually, they pick their most recent works. We then decide whether to offer some of their previous books as well. That decision is based largely on how popular those “backlist” titles have remained. We found last year that many customers at the festival want these earlier titles, so we intend to provide even more of them this year.

Book sales pavilion at the 2014 National Book Festival. Photo by Jim Cannady
Book sales pavilion at the 2014 National Book Festival. Photo by Jim Cannady
Some people theorize that physical books – and even books in general – are a fading medium because of the digital environment and the popularity of short-form, emoji-studded communication. What have you observed about books as a medium, and do you think they are as important to the average person today as in the past?

Demand for physical books remains strong. We see evidence of this not only in our sales figures, which are up, but in the sales reported by many other bookstores around the country. In fact, the bookstore business is experiencing a bit of a rebound. After two decades of decline, the net number of independent bookstores in the United States has started increasing again. Part of this upturn reflects a renewed commitment by people to support their neighborhood stores. But part also reflects continued interest in physical books and widespread recognition that holding a book and turning its pages are an integral part of the reading experience.

What are some trends you have observed over the past year about subject matter or the kinds of books people are buying?

People still buy the books with buzz. That hasn’t changed. But our chief buyer, Mark Laframboise, says he has observed two particular trends in recent months. One, after the success of “Gone Girl” and “Girl on the Train,” there has been a rise in imitative titles featuring strong women protagonists in dark, domestic settings. And two, interest in “adult coloring books” has exploded. Some of these books are clearly meant to be meditative, like an assortment of mandala design works. Others feature cityscapes and nature, or they highlight celebrities.

Do you have any idea how many books you read in a year?

I’ll read–or at least extensively skim–more than 50 books a year, many of them for Politics & Prose events. Additionally, I keep up with reviews of dozens of other books.

This year’s theme is “I Cannot Live Without Books.” I know this is probably an impossible question for a bookseller, but can you name a book that you cannot live without?

“The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. This book introduced me to the principles of clear writing when I was in school, and later remained a frequent reference during my three decades as a journalist. Nowadays, it’s a work I recommend to anyone looking for a classic guide to the rules of usage and composition.