The facts about platform

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What exactly is platform? It’s a slippery publishing concept. You’ve probably had an earful of the standard industry thinking on the subject, but it turns out that there’s more (or less, actually) to platform than we thought.

According to publishing pundit Jane Friedman, a writer with platform is “someone with visibility and authority who has proven reach to a target audience.” (And just to be clear: platform applies mostly, but not exclusively, to nonfiction writers.)

Friedman’s article “A Definition of Author Platform” explains the conventional thinking on the topic, and it’s depressing enough to push you in the direction of the nearest bar or a change of career. For instance, her “Side Note” says this:

Some people have an easier time building platform than others. If you hold a highly recognized position (powerful network and influence), if you know key influencers (friends in high places), if you are associated with powerful communities, if you have prestigious degrees or posts, or if you otherwise have public-facing work—yes, you play the field at an advantage.

And one of her explanatory bullet points is this:

  • Proven reach. It’s not enough to SAY you have visibility. You have to show where you make an impact and give proof of engagement. This could be quantitative evidence (e.g., size of your e-mail newsletter list, website traffic, blog comments) or qualitative evidence (high-profile reviews, testimonials from A-listers in your genre).

As you will see if you read the rest of the article, the expectations entertained by editors and agents are, for most of us, unrealistic in the extreme—no matter how much we want to break out of relative obscurity, no matter how much we long to please our publishers (or prospective publishers).

Writers have been plagued by this irrationality—the unrealistic demand for unreachable platform—from the day some p.r. person invented the notion. And social media have been cornerstones in the platform-building mythology. But here comes an important news flash from brand strategist Stephanie Bane, in a very good piece called “‘Platforms’ Are Overrated,” on a very good site called Creative Nonfiction: True stories, well told. 

The surprising subhead (better sit down…) is “Maybe you shouldn’t worry so much about building a presence on social media.”

What?

“Any author starting out today,” Bane writes, “is likely to hear the same advice from agents, publishers, and even well-meaning writer friends. That advice? Build your ‘platform.'” And then Bane proceeds to point out the Platform Emperor’s nakedness in great detail, starting with this:

Conventional wisdom in the publishing industry suggests that a robust online presence, maintained by an author, will compensate for a non-existent marketing budget and that some uncoachable mix of wit and digital luck can propel an author from obscurity to fame. The reality is that successful online marketing, just like successful offline marketing, is driven by money. A social media presence with no cash behind it doesn’t do much for the average author when it comes to selling books, and squandering precious hours on building a platform that few people will ever see—hours that could otherwise be spent writing—is a mistake that can hurt your productivity and, therefore, your career.

But she doesn’t just leave it there: Bane presents cogent arguments, with statistical support, for the pointlessness of most efforts to create (unfunded) platform via social media. She takes apart and debunks the assumptions that pass for facts among publishers. For example, she posits a situation in which you’ve managed to acquire 1000 fans for your author page on Facebook, by spending some money to enlist more than your personal friends. After that, this:

What does this do for sales when you’re finally ready to release your book? There’s limited public data on return-on-investment on Facebook, but we can use old-school direct marketing numbers as a proxy. As a rule of thumb, a good response rate on direct marketing efforts is 1 percent. If you reach all one thousand fans of your author page no fewer than three times with an announcement of your book release, and include a link to Amazon, you could reasonably expect ten of them to buy your book. That’s right: ten. But we know that only 6 percent of your fans will see each post to begin with; so, to ensure that your fans even know about your book release, you will have to promote yourself to them relentlessly. Mercilessly. To the point that they begin to unfriend you, or at least hide your feed.

Bane also takes on the value (or not) of blogging, Twitter, and your personal (rather than author) page on Facebook. I find myself wanting to quote the entire article, because not one word of it is uninteresting. And that includes some good advice from Amazon. Despite my issues with the gorilla, in this particular case Amazon acquits itself well: it tells authors to skip the social media and write more.

Which is Ms. Bane’s point:

Multiple agents might respond to your query letter in part because you’ve got such an outstanding social media platform, but they won’t end up representing you if your book is mediocre as a result of your having spent hours building a presence on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook instead of writing.

When you have to make a choice about how to spend your writing time, choose your book first. Every. Single. Time. To approach your writing career any other way is a mistake.

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THANK YOUI learned about the “Creative Nonfiction” site from a Facebook post put up by artist Lorie Novak; I’m very grateful to her for sharing the link to Ms. Bane’s important article.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Book Court, Brooklyn, NY

Heirloom Bookshop, Charleston, SC

Skylight Books, Los Angeles, CA

 

 

 

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Lorelei Books, Vicksburg, MS

Common Language, Ann Arbor, MI

St. Mark’s Bookshop, New York, NY

 

IMG_0529There must be something in the air. Here’s another article on writers’ retreats: in this NYT case, one writer’s retreat—on a train: “A Writing Retreat by Rail.”

But since you’re probably unlikely to be on that Paris-to-the-Riviera trainIMG_0381 very soon, you might want to approach writers’ retreats a little closer to home. Read The Book Under Her Bed for this past Monday and Thursday…Retreats are totally doable, right here, right now.

 

Writers’ retreats/day 2: d-i-y how-to’s & d-i-y mini-retreats

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How to Create a D-I-Y Full-scale Retreat

The how-to part is a lot like planning a vacation, without the complications of factoring in everyone else’s needs and wishes. YOU are the only one you have to accommodate. What will you need? A big worktable? A plain desk? A reading chair? An Internet connection? Stores within walking distance? Cell phone coverage? Make a list of your requirements. 

Now find a place to go: If you want to do this retreat on the cheap, think about who might be willing to lend you a place for the amount of time you think you need. Possibilities:

  • Someone with a second home she doesn’t use all the time
  • Someone who needs a house-sitter
  • Someone with an empty apartment over the garage
  • Someone with an apartment in your city, who’s taking a trip and would love to have you stay there to pick up the mail and feed the cat

Once I did that in Manhattan: my uptown friends were going away for a week, and even though I lived just a couple of miles downtown, I moved into their apartment for that week—and it worked just as well as being farther away. New neighborhood, new workspace, no interruptions.

If you’re single you might also ask around or go online to find someone who wants to exchange homes for a week or two. (Be cautious about this approach when you’re getting involved with folks you don’t actually know.)

Look for off-season rentals advertised online or in a local newspaper. Try off-season B-and-B’s. And don’t discount the possibility of checking into an inexpensive hotel for a week—the Hilton’s Homewood Suites, for instance, or another low-budget chain. Set-ups like that can be really reasonable, especially if you qualify for a discount of some sort (like AARP members!).

There’s usually a complimentary breakfast, and since the suites have kitchens, you can save on meals. If there’s no airfare involved, the cost of a week in a place like that could be less than it would cost to go to an official writers’ retreat.  Maybe not as pretty, but hey, you’re supposed to be writing, not sightseeing.

Try not to take more work materials than you need, maybe just your laptop (and possibly a printer), plus whatever files, notebooks, books are important. Be realistic about how much you can accomplish in the time you’ve allotted.

Take some comfort with you too, because you’re likely to have a few tough moments—when the work isn’t going well, when you miss your partner or friends, when you feel isolated. Those feelings will dissipate, but it’s nice to have your [teddybear; music; poetry; M&Ms] with you until they do.

What’s the worst that could happen? You’ll hate it and you’ll go home. But what’s the best that could happen? You’ll love it and you’ll start planning regular writing retreats, one way or another.

Do-It-Yourself Mini-Retreats

Never underestimate the value of a two-, three-, or four-day mini-retreat. What’s most important, though, is this: Even if you can only snatch a few days, get away from home. That’s the trick. I’ve tried mini-retreats at home, and I doubt they’ll work for you any better than they’ve worked for me. Working at home can be productive, but it’s not the same as getting away to a less familiar venue. The unfamiliar pushes you to think differently. And no one asks you to make dinner or do the laundry.

Mini-retreats are especially good for:

  1. Reconnecting to work you’ve been torn away from by the daily grind of your life, even if that means you simply reread your manuscript from start to finish
  2. Focusing on the problems you’ve encountered in the work, to get them into some sort of order that will relieve your anxiety
  3. Working on one specific section of your manuscript
  4. Rewriting—one of a writer’s greatest pleasures

There’s sometimes a certain desperation hovering around a mini-retreat, a sort of “how can I get anything done in such a short time?” panic. You may feel like you’re gasping for air—but you’ll probably find that by the end of the first twenty-four hours you’ve begun to breathe again. Then you can think straight and accomplish a day or two of serious work. Which will send you home in a much better frame of mind to keep working.

Consider doing your mini-retreat with a writer friend—that can be a good way to ward off nighttime nerves. Be sure, though, that the two of you set ground rules for the workdays, so you both do get work done. Do not go on a mini-retreat with a high-maintenance pal.

Once you’ve tried a full-scale retreat or mini-retreat that suits you and makes you feel like a writer again, you’ll repeat the experience over and over. You’ll learn to give yourself the time and place you need for your work.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Ugly Dog Books, Attleboro, MA

Square Books, Oxford, MS

Rakestraw Books, Danville, CA

Writers’ retreats/day 1: the readymade & the do-it-yourself

This two-day post is about writers’ retreats: why we need them, what your options are, how to find retreats, and how to create them for yourself.
Today, Day 1: Readymade Writers’ Retreats & Colonies  AND  Do-It-Yourself Full-scale Retreats
Thursday, Day 2: How to Create a D-I-Y Full-scale Writer’s Retreat  AND  Do-It-Yourself Mini-Retreats

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Writers need retreats. We need to get away from interruptions, demands, social engagements, responsibilities, families, friends, and all the other distractions that come between us and our work.

Even if you live alone, as I do, phone calls, e-mails, chores, and a hundred other things can yank you away from what you intended to be doing. Learning to say no (see posts “No is YES” and “The No-is-YES multiple choice quiz“) is a positive way of going about getting more time for your writing, but it’s not the only way. Sometimes you simply have to get out of Dodge.

Readymade Writers’ Retreats & Colonies

There are dozens and dozens of writers’ retreats and colonies scattered across the country (and abroad too). Some residencies are competitive and require applications and acceptance (like MacDowell and VCCA ); others are independently-run retreats for which you pay a fee to stay in a beautiful setting where you have both a bedroom and some common space to use for writing, and no one will bother you.

The Writers’ Retreat website, for example, lists eighteen retreats from New York State to Oregon, from Costa Rica to New Zealand. Doing a little research will yield a lot of information. So will this article in Huffington Post: “Why You Need a Writing Retreat and How to Make the Most of It.”  And this one from Writer’s Digest: “6 Insider Tips for Finding and Applying to Writers’ Colonies.”

The only drawback about many of these places is that they require long-range planning—you have to know when you’ll be able to go. That may not be an issue for writers who are very organized and very sure about their schedules, but it could be a serious problem if you can’t plan too far ahead.

And here’s something else to consider: In some retreats there will be a lot of other artists and writers around while you’re there; in others there might be two or three—or none. How will you feel about having a little or a lot of social contact during your stay? Can you tolerate small talk after a hard day’s work? Do you want pleasant company? Or do you want complete solitude? Factor these questions into your choice.

Do-It-Yourself Full-scale Retreats

I’d like to make a pitch for one alternative to the readymade retreats: planning and carrying out your own custom-made retreat. There are lots of ways to do this, once you identify a time frame and make a few stylistic decisions.

But before we get to the how-to discussion (on Thursday), you’ll want to read about a few examples of made-to-order writers’ retreats:

  • One of my friends spends a week every late spring with a small group of other women writers, in a rental house in New England. Each writer has a bedroom of her own; group dinners are cooked on a rotation plan; no one intrudes on anyone else unless specifically planned. My friend always gets work done, including the thinking kind.
  • Several times artist friends in Putney, VT have invited me to use the small house behind their big main house as a writing retreat.  It was like living in a delightful doll house for a week at a time. We all worked separately during the day, and then convened for dinner in their kitchen, where we cooked, talked, relaxed.
  • My closest guy-friends have a weekend home on Shelter Island, NY, and twice I’ve been invited to use it for a two-week stretch of writing. The day I arrive they drive me to the supermarket for a big food-shop, and then they leave me at the house and return to the city. It’s the most blissful solitude because the house is so comfortable and well-appointed—and since I don’t really know anyone on the island, no one bothers me.
  • When the Girl Group was only a year old, the members decided to have a writing retreat at the upstate home of one of the members. They invited me to come, but I declined: I wanted them to be on their own with their work, to help each other and not look to me for guidance. Varying amounts of work got done, including one major breakthrough—and they had a wonderful time together.
  • Another writer I know holes up in his country cottage several times a year, when his wife takes week-long business trips. He informs colleagues only on a need-to-know basis, and he turns off his cell phone for most of each day.

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To be continued on Thursday, Day 2: How to Create a D-I-Y Full-Scale Retreat  AND Do-It-Yourself Mini-Retreats. Don’t miss. 

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

G.J. Ford Bookshop, Saint Simons Island, GA

RiverRun Bookstore, Portsmouth, NH

Kepler’s Books, Menlo Park, CA

The Corner Bookstore

It’s not what you’re thinking.

The title of this post does not refer to corner bookstore, but to The Corner Bookstore.IMG_0579 Celebrating independent bookstores all over the country is one mission of The Book Under Her Bed, and The Corner Bookstore is my local indie. Just for today let’s allow it to stand in for—be the exemplar of—all local indies, though of course it is unique, as every independent bookstore is.

The Corner Bookstore, which opened its doors in 1978, sits on the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and Ninety-third Street in Manhattan. The small brick-and-brownstone building had been home to a pharmacy for nearly fifty years, and the couple that bought the building in 1976 seized the moment to turn it into what they loved and the neighborhood—Carnegie Hill—needed: a general-interest bookstore.

IMG_0587They restored the beautiful interior features: terrazzo floor, stamped tin ceiling, elegant wood cabinetry. There’s even a bell over the door, so it feels like old New York at the same time it offers the most up-to-the-minute books and services.

The exterior, restored in its turn, also feels like a bit of old New York, warmed by the bright red geraniums on a ledge over the frontage and in the windows. When you step from the sidewalk into the store, it’s like stepping into a refuge—safe and calm, quiet and full of possibilities.

Wait, that’s not quite right. It’s quiet and calm only for the minutes between whooshes of customers of all ages. That central area you see in the photo above is for children: it holds a fleet of those little wheelie stools you see in libraries, and after school and all weekend there are kids sitting on them (and on the floor), reading. Also talking and laughing and not being quiet at all. It’s a bookstore, not a library.

One very special thing about TCB: Parents can open accounts for their kids. Then the kids can go into the bookstore any old time and choose their own books. Which brings us to the other special services we love about TCB—and there are a lot of them, including treats for your dog.

1. The most important service is the staff itself: dedicated readers themselves, they guide and recommend with—in my experience—complete reliability. They’ve helped me pick out perfect birthday gifts for friends and relatives when I didn’t have the slightest idea what to choose. Describe the giftee, and the right book is forthcoming. Same thing works if it’s you buying for you. In fact, some customers have go-to staff members who know them and recommend regularly for them.IMG_0592

2. Once you decide on a gift book, TCB will wrap it (lots of paper options, including seasonal ones, plus a gift card and a TCB bookmark tucked into the book) and either deliver it if the giftee lives in the designated area or send it by UPS. Fast.

3. Of course you can have your own account at TCB (I do) and call in any order you like or browse and put your new books right onto your account. But even if you haven’t gotten around to setting up an account, you can still call in and order whatever you need.

4. Want a book TCB doesn’t happen to have? They’ll special-order it for you, and you’ll usually have it within a couple of days. Even oddball things like poetry from small presses or out-of-print books. They’ll go the distance for you.

5. They make gift baskets. I dream of a gift basket full of books. Forget jams and cheeses: books!

6. But for my birthday this year I received the next-best thing: a gift certificate from TCB.

7. TCB holds lots of book events, sometimes a few per week, sometimes a few per month. Readings, interviews, conversations—it’s all about local authors: New-York-based writers and their friends. Ex-New-Yorkers with a lot of New York friends are big draws too. Recently the entire Girl Group went to the launch of member Geralyn Lucas’s new book Then Came Life, at The Corner Bookstore. (It was spectacularly attended, with food produced by former GG member Ngan Nguyen.)

TCB also handles the book sales when The New York Society Library does a book event, which makes life easier for the library and is very good for the authors who speak there.

Chris is the long-time manager of The Corner Bookstore, and he says, “Twenty-six years at the bookstore and I still want to get out of bed and go to work.” That’s saying a lot.

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SIDEBAR: I regret the need to mention this—I wish you’d simply trust me—but it’s better to be perfectly clear: The Corner Bookstore had nothing to do with my writing this post. They didn’t ask me to do it or pay me to do it or reward me for doing it. They’re innocent; I’m guilty—of loving my local indie, wanting to share it with you, and hoping you’ll support your local independent bookstore.

DON’T MISS THIS: There’s a great article on the website of an indie called Rainy Day Books, in Fairway, KS. It’s “Why Shop Indie?” Just in case you need to know more.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Water Street Bookstore, Exeter, NH

Montana Book & Toy Co., Helena, MT

Fountain Bookstore, Richmond, VA

 

 

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Today is my mother’s 92nd birthday; our family has a flock of girl-birthdays in October, which is one reason I’m going to Oregon in about forty-eight hours—to be with the other birthday celebrants.

Reading yesterday’s NYT obituary of David Greenglass made my mother’s birthday the most…poignant. Not because she and Greenglass are the same age (which they are), but because she had to endure the witch-hunt politics of the 1940s and 1950s, for which David Greenglass gets some credit.

This isn’t at all logical: With Ruth Greenglass, the Rosenbergs, and now David Greenglass gone, I have the urge to dust off my hands and say, Well, that’s finally over. Not logical. Read all about David Greenglass and the Rosenbergs in the Times obit.

And if you’re too young to know what I’m talking about, read the many comments that accompany the obit. TBUHB is a blog about writing and reading: read the writing—the comments—to get insight into both sides of the story.

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Happy birthday

To me. Today, October 13, is my birthday, which I must sometimes share with Columbus Day. This was annoying when I was younger and worse when I was very young, since every seven or so years My Day would be subsumed in that guy’s day. No mail! No birthday cards!

Now I don’t mind: I like sharing a day with an explorer, adventurer, seeker of the strange and unexpected. The thought of setting sail on a tiny boat with no bathroom of my own isn’t a huge draw, but the idea of setting out to find something new is.

IMG_0610I was trained not as a writer, but as a visual artist. Though writing is now my art of choice, painting is still a source of deep pleasure and inspiration. A visual way of thinking informs all my fiction and a lot of my nonfiction too. My tendency toward overindulgence in descriptive writing is a function of having been a visual artist for more than half my life: I like to describe what I see. Both criticism and appreciation have come my way for that particular sin.

I can’t give up the visual just because I’ve embraced the verbal. Aside from looking at art in museums (this birthday afternoon will be spent at Dia:Beacon, with friends), I still have to make art too. Not the paintings, drawings, prints I made when I was a serious visual artist, but smaller, less demanding projects that satisfy my need for color and design.IMG_0607

If I don’t make art with regularity, I get—well, crazy. Sometimes I can’t go to sleep at night without doing a little paper-cutting for the collaged cards I love to make. Cards aren’t important art by any means, but the beautiful Japanese papers I use are a banquet of color; cutting out intricate shapes with a small, very sharp pair of scissors is utterly absorbing; and arranging those cut-paper shapes is design heaven.

IMG_0604But then there is painting, probably my first nonhuman love. To me there is nothing–nothing–that is like painting. Since I can’t, won’t, don’t make paintings anymore, I paint ceramic tiles. I know, I know, that sounds like ladies painting plates. It’s not.

Maybe there’s an element of left brain/right brain adjustment going on when I paint tiles, but I’m never sure which side of my brain is asserting itself when I switch from writing to tiles to writing again. What I am sure of is that five or six hours of painting a tile gives me a rest–in the way that riding a bike or baking a pie or pruning the roses gives other writers a rest.

Because is it my birthday—and an official holiday—I indulge myself by sharing a few of my ceramic tiles with you.

 

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Marcus Book Stores, San Francisco, CA

R.J. Julia Booksellers, Madison, CT

Unabridged Bookstore, Chicago, IL

got kids? tablets away, books out

Put those little screens away and read to your children from real books. But you knew that already. And the New York Times offers confirmation in “Is E-Reading to Your Toddler Story Time, or Simply Screen Time?”  

You’ll like this piece. Nothing like being right, from the get-go.

Coming of age

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I was reading A.O. Scott’s fascinating NYT piece “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” when I bumped into his link to Ruth Graham’s Slate magazine story called “Against YA.” Left Scott in the dust and switched over to Graham. (I can only hope I won’t lose you the way A.O. Scott lost me; please do come back when you’re finished reading the Graham piece.)

Graham’s article is subtitled: “Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.” The piece netted over 3000 comments, and plenty of them were nasty. Really nasty. Ms. Graham’s general assertion is that YAs are for teenagers, a lot of YAs are on a pretty low literary level, and adults should read better books than that.

From the hostility of so many of the comments, you’d think that Graham had the power to stop adult readers from reading junky YA. She doesn’t, any more than another critic has the power to stop adult readers from reading junky adult fiction. Bad fiction is available for every age level, and readers will read it. Which of us hasn’t indulged in reading some truly bad fiction?

The teenaged niece of a friend of mine wasn’t a reader at all–until she tore through The Fault in Our Stars, and now she’s hot to read more novels. Personally, I wouldn’t be caught dead reading The Fault, but I have to admit that when I was the niece’s age I read Peyton Place–and I was a bona fide adult when I read Valley of the Dolls. YA junk, adult junk, junk is junk and sometimes we read it. I know of a long-running book group that meets once a month: eleven out of twelve months they read at a very sophisticated level, and in that twelfth month they read a trashy novel.

I enjoyed Ms. Graham’s acerbic and thoughtful piece, and I even agreed with many of her points. Where we parted company was at the fork in the wide road, where one branch went high and the other went low. She wants to take the high one, and I want to take both–or at least I want to stray occasionally or have the pleasure of throwing a bad book across the room.

The difficult news for serious writers is that junk is easy to read and therefore sells more copies and therefore gets published more often. A lot more often. But hasn’t that always been true? Bad books do, in a way, support good books: many publishers stay afloat dispensing a lot of drek, and they keep their self-respect by publishing a little literature too. When you outgrow YA junk and aspire to better reading, literature will be there for you.

I am hopeful but not always confident that young readers will advance from pop YA to good books, and when I am feeling flattened by the torrent of low-level reading matter raining down on all of us I try to remember that it was Alice Munro who won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year, not the guy who wrote The Fault in Our Stars.

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I wanted to make a cozy list of coming-of-age novels to end this post, but I discovered that my notion of c-o-a books is a little narrow and just possibly out of date. So instead I offer you a few links to some interesting coming-of-age book lists that include oldies and newbies.

  1. Goodreads
  2. Publishers Weekly
  3. Shortlist
  4. Huffington Post

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

The Mysterious Bookshop, New York, NY

The Reading Bug, San Carlos, CA

Malaprop’s Bookstore, Asheville, NC