"The thing is, you can't assume anyone gives a damn about an author talking."
That's Dave Weich. It's an interesting thing for him to say, considering he's the director of marketing for Powell's Books. At present, he's discussing the critically acclaimed series of short films Powell's debuted last summer.
"A movie about a book has to be interesting in and of itself," he says. "If it's not, you're doing something wrong."
So, why make a movie about a book? Simple. In a world of Twitter and viral video, mainstream booksellers still rely on the same expensive and unimaginative marketing vehicles—readings and print ads—that were popular during the Space Race.
But now, Oregon's own Powell's is teaching New York a new trick. It's called Out Of the Book, and it's a series of bite-sized films about…what else? Books and the quirky people who write them. So far there have been just three films in the series—the most recent of which, State by State, screens at the Bagdad on Tuesday, Sept. 22—but already they've got the publishing industry talking:
"The OOTB films are extremely innovative," says Meg Smith, chief marketing officer for the American Booksellers Association. "They can be run continuously on a monitor, shown at a one-time event, or even linked on YouTube, so they give booksellers an original way to add to the indie bookstore experience."
So, what's an OOTB film? It's the book equivalent of a DVD bonus feature. Each 30-minute film consists of a battery of micro-interviews with famous authors and book-industry insiders, peppered by readings and catchy music, on the subject of a single published work. It's a simple concept, but surprisingly, no one's ever done it.
Until now, when a publisher wanted to promote a book, there were only three ways to do it: print ads, author tours and NPR. The problem is that the first two are expensive, and the third is hard to get. Even the most modest reading tour costs $1,000 per city, and a full-page ad in the Sunday New York Times goes for a cool $90,000. In most cases it's impossible to determine, based on book sales, whether that investment was justified.
"And you have to consider," adds Weich, who has produced each of the OOTB films, "that if the ad runs on Sunday, it's in the recycle bin by Tuesday."
By contrast, OOTB films are cheaper, they last longer, and they have the potential to reach a wider audience. Powell's doesn't publicize its financials, but Weich says the average budget for these films doesn't approach the $90K of the NYT ad. In addition to screening tours that often include 60 cities, OOTB has been written up in The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. Most promisingly, booksellers who screened Powell's second movie reported that, on average, sales of Ian McEwen's On Chesil Beach—the film's subject—tripled in the month after the screening.
The book from which the most recent film takes its name is, itself, an interesting experiment. Edited by Sean Wilsey and Matt Weiland, of McSweeney's and the Paris Review, respectively, State by State includes 50 original essays by American writers, one for each state. Contributers range from the obscure to the famous, including celebs like Dave Eggers and William Vollman. Oregon's essay takes the form of a graphic short story about PDX gentrification and wet weather written and illustrated by artist Joe Sacco.
When it came time to make the movie, Powell's took the dialogue of statehood inherent in Wilsey and Weiland's almanac and ran with it. For the project, it assembled 19 of State by State's contributing authors—including former WW staffer Susan Orlean, John Hodgman and Anthony Bourdain—in the Harlem NYC Post of the American Legion. Over the course of a day, the authors drank cocktails, shot the shit and argued about statehood.
The key to the film's success, says co-director Jimmy Lester, was a casual atmosphere, some toe-tapping ragtime jazz, and a lot of booze. "We actually wanted the authors to get a little drunker than they did," Lester recalls. "But by 5 o'clock we had people relatively lit."
The interesting thing about these films is that Powell's hasn't made a cent on them. Believe it or not, that was the plan. As an independent bookseller located 3,000 miles from the engine of the publishing industry, Powell's has to be creative in order to make itself heard. In this case, it was willing to forgo profits in exchange for the networking opportunities and new skill sets that the movies brought.
But perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of
is the way it depicts authors just hanging out. Honestly, where else do you get to see a tipsy Charles Bock complain about his book deal from Random House? When else do you get to watch John Hodgman bug the crap out of Heidi Julavits? Why else would you watch Doris Lessing do a shot of José Cuervo out of Anthony Bourdain's navel?
OK, that last one was made up. But often, the only exposure readers get to writers is formal: somber Q&A's and aloof readings. So it's nice to find out, via a movie, that writers are people, too.
State by State