Nancy Pearl, the ex-librarian and frequent NPR contributor who inspired an action figure, has long been the toast of independent bookstores. Her first book — “Book Lust,” an annotated compilation of reading lists — “helped us pay the bills for a while,” said Mark LaFramboise, chief buyer for Politics and Prose Bookstore in the District. But her new series, a selection of formerly out-of-print novels, may be harder to find on the shelves of your local bookshop, independent or otherwise.
That’s because earlier this year, Pearl, a 67-year-old grandmother of three who lives in Seattle, joined forces with Amazon, the arch nemesis of brick-and-mortar bookstores. The online retailer is publishing and selling Pearl’s 12-title Book Lust Rediscoveries project. As e-books, the series is available exclusively on Amazon’s Kindle; in print, it is available only in paperback.
The series — with introductions and reading guides by Pearl — will include an array of genres, from coming-of-age novels to westerns. What the books share is Pearl’s straightforward dictum on what makes a book worth reading: “These are books with fabulously constructed three-dimensional characters who remain with you long after the book is over.”
When the deal was announced in January, some 50 independent bookstores threatened to sign an open letter castigating Pearl. One store owner said that Pearl “can no longer continue to be accepted as an objective and impartial promoter of books.” According to one booksellers blog, people “were doing not-so-nice things to their Nancy Pearl action figures.”
“I am feeling a little bit not eager to go into places I was formerly eager to go into,” Pearl said, suggesting she might have to do so in disguise.
LaFramboise said Pearl would be welcome at Politics and Prose, but he still didn’t plan to stock books from the Rediscoveries series. “I don’t know if there’s any audience for these books,” he said. “They’re books I haven’t really heard of.”
To Pearl, that’s the whole point. “Many of these books went out of print before they could find their audience,” she said. The first work in the series, “A Gay and Melancholy Sound” by Merle Miller, was originally published in 1961, and was just republished in April. The sprawling, 558-page novel tells the story of Joshua Bland, “an Iowa-born former child prodigy whose inability to love stems from a lacerating self-hatred,” Pearl explains in the introduction. Pearl calls the book “one of my all-time favorite novels.” The series’ second book, “After Life” by Rhian Ellis, which originally came out in 2000 and was republished this month, centers on a clairvoyant in a small town in upstate New York. Pearl was drawn to the “slipperiness” of its unreliable narrator and said it was “impossible not to be wowed” by Ellis’s “evocation of setting.”
Any brick-and-mortar bookstore can buy the books from wholesalers in much the same way it would buy titles from any other publisher, according to Amazon. The problem is that the list price of the books could be as much as twice what it is on Amazon. “We have to pay the people who work in the store,” said Emma Bell, a manager at Barnes & Noble in Bethesda.
Bell said the Bethesda store is not currently stocking the Rediscoveries titles; neither is Kramerbooks. “A Gay and Melancholy Sound” is available on the Barnes & Noble Web site for $9.36; Amazon is selling the paperback for $8.97.
For some booksellers, however, the issue isn’t so much price competition as profits — as in, who gets them. “I don’t want to stock a book and have Amazon get the money,” said LaFramboise. The company, he says, wants “nothing other than our total annihilation.”
Pearl, who is famously reluctant to speak ill of any book (other than “The Da Vinci Code,” which she says is poorly written), seems equally uncomfortable speaking ill of booksellers. The controversy over her arrangement with Amazon “just made me very sad,” said Pearl, who worked in an independent bookstore in Tulsa for nine years. Her agent, Victoria Sanders, says she took the series to several publishers before signing with Amazon.
At any rate, Pearl, speaking like a true librarian, is less interested in people buying the books than in people reading them. “For me it has never been about making money,” she said. “It has always been about having these books available again.” Pearl has committed to donate a portion of the proceeds from sales to the Nancy Pearl Endowment for Public Librarianship at the University of Washington’s Information School.
LaFramboise, for his part, holds no grudge against Pearl. “It’s like if your favorite baseball player gets bought by the Yankees. You still hate the Yankees, but you still love the player.” If customers request any of Pearl’s books, he said, he’ll order them.