Friday, January 31, 2020

AUTHOR IN CHIEF, by Craig Fehrman

Author In Chief, by Craig Fehrman
(Like The Indie Bob Spot on Facebook and follow The Indie Bob Spot on Twitter)

Regular readers know about my journey to visit and document independent bookstores across the country.  This entry is not about a bookstore, but a soon to be released (Feb 11, 2020) book about presidents, their books, presidential history, and some mention of historical bookstores.  Craig Fehrman discovered my blog and kindly asked if I would read his advance reader's copy and interview him about his new book.  For all you booksellers, I encourage to read the interview and prepare to hand-sell this great book when it's released.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book and can strongly recommend it.  Read on.

This is a nineteenth-century engraving of an independent bookstore in Baltimore.  This picture looks like many I've taken on my tour, the view from the front entrance looking into the store perhaps.  

The Indie Bob Spot:  Thank you for the advance opportunity to read this book and dialogue a bit with you about it.  I cannot even fathom the overwhelming amount of research you did for this book.  But before you read a single sentence of research, what was the spark that ignited your interest in this subject of presidents, their books, and many things related to books?

Craig Fehrman:  Believe it or not, this all started back in 2008. Like a lot of people, I was following the election obsessively, and I noticed that Barack Obama's books were really good and really resonating with voters. Not a very original observation! Still, I found myself wondering if there was a history here, a history of other books making this kind of impact. By 2009 I was digging into that history, and I discovered a story that was far richer than I expected -- rich not just in new insights into our presidents but in new details about old bookstores, steam-powered printing presses, and the lives of regular readers.

A young John Kennedy already writing.  
TIBS:  Some of the presidents you chose to feature were obvious candidates.  The Founding Fathers, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, JFK, and Obama.  Yet many presidents were omitted (Tyler, Polk, Fillmore, Arthur, Cleveland, e.g., just to name a few).  Not as prolific writers or you simply had to limit your material?

CF:  I felt like I had a real story to tell here -- the evolution from the first campaign book (Jefferson) and the first presidential memoir (Adams) to our current moment of political publishing. So many presidential books were big and important titles in their own times. One way to see this is that lots of presidents read other presidents. (Adams, for instance, carefully perused Jefferson's book.) C

Anyway, I wanted to keep my book fun and focused in order to tell that story. That was the most important thing to me. I spent several days in Kansas, for example, doing research at the Eisenhower library. I found some fascinating material, but it overlapped with the Truman chapter, and I wanted to keep the narrative moving. In the final book there's only a half a page on Eisenhower, but I hope that made Author in Chief a better book.

TIBS:  What would be some suggestions you could give booksellers in promoting your books to their readers?

CF:  I believe booksellers are the real experts here -- they know their customers better than I do. That's why it was so amazing to see Author in Chief on the February Indie Next list. I love the blurb from the list, from a wonderful San Francisco bookseller named Katerina. She said my book offers "a perfect combination of history, politics, and bibliophilia," and I hope she's right! Author in Chief is a book for history buffs, but it's also a book for any serious reader. The stuff on reading practices and old bookstores can show those serious readers the history of themselves. 

TIBS:  Do you have another book project in mind and/or are you working on something now?

CF:  I spent ten years on this one, so I better be really, really sure before I try another one! Right now I am spending a lot of time watching my kids, who are three and one, and getting ready for the book tour. Maybe a new idea will come to me on the road -- there's no better place to get inspired than at an independent bookstore!

TIBS:  I absolutely loved your mentions of some of our country’s earliest independent bookstores.  In many ways, they sounded much like what we see today.  Did your research reveal any additional info about early bookstores and/or can you tell us more about the ones you did mention?

CF:  I'm so glad you felt there were similarities. One of my favorite things about books, and book people, is that they haven't changed all that much. Abraham Lincoln's belief in the power of print -- to preserve ideas, to inspire critical thinking -- sounds a lot like what passionate readers would say today. (And Lincoln's belief is what inspired him to write a bestselling book of his own.)

Even at early bookstores, they sold sidelines.  
In terms of actual stores, I feature more than a dozen in my book. One favorite is the London Bookstore in Boston, which John Adams often shopped at. While there are no surviving images of the London Bookstore, here's one of a similar store that was also open in Boston in the eighteenth century: (see photo on right)

Stores like this didn't just sell books -- they sold quill pens and ink and even bottles of British beer to supplement their book sales. That reminds me a lot of indie bookstores today, which curate beautiful stationery or hand-made cards. A good bookstore teems with all kinds of culture, and bookstores also respond to that culture. The owner of the London Bookstore got run out of Boston during the buildup to the Revolutionary War!

TIBS:  You curiously did not include much about the current president.  Was the research you wanted just not there?  A limited body of work?

CF:  I think it's clear that Trump is not as literary as, say, Obama. (Honestly, very few presidents are as literary as Obama -- John Quincy Adams is the only real parallel in terms of bookish ambition.) But the biggest reason I didn't do, say, a Trump chapter was the desire to tell a real story I mentioned above. Trump does show up for a couple pages when I'm talking about blockbuster publishing -- the system that emerged in the 1980s and prioritized celebrity hardcover books, books that would show up not just in independent bookstores but in national chains and even at grocery stores and other retailers. The Art of the Deal is a perfect example of this system -- Trump did multiple book signings at Waldenbooks -- and I interviewed the book's editor to get the behind-the-scenes story about it.

Crazy detail: this editor, Peter Osnos, didn't just publish Trump's book -- he published Obama's Dreams from my Father too!

TIBS:  Thank you so much for the opportunity to read AUTHOR IN CHIEF.  Good luck on your bookstore tour and good luck on the release.  

CF:  Thanks for these thoughtful questions, and for a chance to talk to your audience. (I found out about your site from another smart bookseller in Cincinnati.) 

I am as much a book person as I am a history person, and I hope my book reflects this. If someone loves independent bookstores or reading in general, I think they will really enjoy Author in Chief!

No comments:

Post a Comment