Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Interview with Ann Kingman, co-host of Books on the Nightstand, Board Director for the New England Independent Booksellers Association, and veteran of the publishing industry through her career at Random House

Ann Kingman began her career as a sales assistant at Dell Publishing. This led to a 24 year career spent at the same company under various names: Bantam/Dell, Bantam Doubleday Dell, BDD/Ballantine, and ultimately Random House. Ann relocated to New England in 1992, holding positions in Field Merchandising, National Accounts, and for the past 11 years or so, District Sales Manager, covering most of CT, RI, part of MA, VT and upstate NY. In addition, Ann works with colleague Michael Kindness to publish Books on the Nightstand, a blog and weekly podcast about books and reading.

Books on the Nightstand ( is a weekly audio podcast with the tagline "Illuminating conversation about books and reading." Hosted by two veterans of the publishing industry, BOTNS focuses on topics of interest to the general reader, often with a peek behind the curtain of the publishing industry. Conversational in tone, the hosts keep it positive, talking only about books that they genuinely like, and giving book recommendations rather than book reviews. Despite holding day jobs with a major NY publisher, BOTNS is an independent project, and Ann and Michael feature books from numerous publishers and in almost every genre.

1) The premise of Books on the Nightstand, a great readers’ resource, is to recommend books you enjoy as opposed to simply reviewing books.  How did you and co-publishing industry veteran, Michael Kindness, decide upon this distinction and how do you personally maintain certain criteria for a book that thrills you (regardless of genre)?

Frankly, we just think that there are too many good books out there to spend precious time reading and talking about books that don’t thrill us. I am an unrepentant book-abandoner. I give a book 50 pages, and if it doesn’t grab me in some way, I’ll put it down and move on. However, I realize that we all look for different things in a book, and if I’m not finding what I need, it doesn’t mean that you won’t.  So I never proclaim a book “bad”. It might just not be right for me at the time.

A book can thrill me in many ways: it can be a book that is so beautifully written that I stop and marvel at a phrase or a sentence on almost every page. It can be a story so well told that I leave my real life and enter the setting of the book. It may contain a driving plot that makes me read well beyond my bedtime. Or it can star a character so real and intriguing that I want to invite him into my family (or put her behind bars). I am lucky that I can take any one of these elements as a point of enjoyment. If I’m reading for story, I can be more forgiving of the occasional wonky metaphor; if I’m reading for the writing style, an intricate plot is not so important. That’s also why I’d make a terrible reviewer.

2) Being on the Board of Directors for the New England Independent Booksellers Association, what do you think are the most important factors for readers/consumers to keep in mind about the role of the hand-held book and the brick & mortar stores with booksellers that give a personalized approach to shopping for a book?  What is one of your favorite memories of discovering something unexpected to read in an indie bookstore?

We are spoiled for choice when it comes to reading material. The biggest problem right now for most readers is discovering what to read. Our time is precious, and a great source of book recommendations is an asset to any community. If your town or city has an independent bookstore, love and cherish it, and if they don’t meet your needs, let them know (gently) so that they can do better. Independent bookstores are, in my very biased opinion, protectors of literature. That sounds overblown and hokey. But if we ever see the day where there is only one mega-retailer, it will be a sad day for readers and writers. That’s when much of our choice disappears.

There’s another crucial aspect to keeping the physical book alive: the kids. I can’t imagine living in a home without physical books. I can’t imagine a child growing up in a home without physical books.

That being said, many independent bookstores offer ebooks, and in fact a new partnership with Kobo should make it easier and more convenient for you to purchase ebooks from your favorite independent bookstore.

As to your last question, I discover something unexpected to read almost every time I step into an independent bookstore. My first stop is always the Staff Picks section, and inevitably there is a book there that I have never seen, have never heard about, and yet is just the book I didn’t know I was looking for.

3) In addition to working for Random House, you co-host BOTNS and are on the Board of Directors for NEIBA.  Books have a place of great importance in both your professional and personal spheres.  Talk to us about your earliest realization of your passion for the written word and share some of your favorite authors (contemporary, classic or both).   

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t a reader. The first book I remember loving was a board book called "Twinkle Tots". It was my constant companion when I was about 3 and it’s the first book I could “read” by myself (today we call it memorization). I tracked down a copy a few years ago, and it has a proud place on the shelf next to the rest of my favorite books of all time.

In middle school, during a particularly difficult time (we all have them then, don’t we?) I discovered Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, and I truly believe that that novel got me through that period relatively unscathed.

Favorite authors: this one is tough, because I am terrible at committing to "favorites". But in the last few years, I publicly declared that my favorite author is Ian McEwan. While none of his books is actually my favorite book of all time, as a body of work, McEwan’s novels speak to me more than any other author.  I will drop whatever I am doing to read Cormac McCarthy, Richard Russo, Karen Russell and Aimee Bender. Oh, and Margaret Atwood is up there with McEwan. I’m also a huge fan of the mystery and suspense genre, and love the novels of Lee Child, Tana French, Jo Nesbo and John Sanford.

4) You provide Book Group Resources on your site and discuss their significance.  Many people wish for this kind of atmosphere of shared literary interests but struggle with the logistics (time/location).  If you were to design the ‘ideal’ book group, what would some of its attributes and parameters be if anything were possible (instant communication/travel across the world, any place, and yes, even any time period if we apply our imaginations to time travel for a minute here).

Well, don’t tell any of the hundreds of book group members that I talk with every year, but my favorite kind of book club is the “salon.” This is a gathering where you meet to talk about what everyone is reading, but not everyone reads the same book. I love the sense of discovery and sharing that happens when readers describe a book and how it makes them feel. I would ban all "reading group guides", which in my mind are good only to remind yourself of the plot when the book group meets weeks after you’ve finished the book. I would require wine and chocolate at every meeting, of course, and the author would be on speed dial (brain pings?) to answer any of our questions and settle any arguments -- but would NOT be online when we talk about our less-than-favorite bits.

5) There is a quote by Angela Carter that speaks of how we as readers, through our life experiences, add our own individualized meaning to what we read:  “Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms.”  Is there a book you recall reading at a certain stage in your life that reflects this sentiment or have you recommended a book to someone based on an experience they were going through at the time which you felt the book could further illuminate for them?

As I mentioned above, The Chocolate War did that for me and I am certain for many, many other adolescents. But since I do unequivocally agree with Angela Carter, it’s very difficult to recommend a book to someone and expect them to have that experience that you think will help them. Instead, I look for books that help bring forth an emotion -- escapism if that is needed, or handing someone a very sad novel if they are trying to connect with their grief. The actual subject of the book may be irrelevant to that person’s life experience, but books can help tap into emotions in many ways.

6) In promoting reading and literacy, give us your personal view of why books are and will continue in the future to be so integral to the development of our society and those minds which would endeavor to shape it. 

Books allow us to walk in the footsteps of others in a way that nothing else does. It’s only through the understanding of others that we can understand the world around us. The exchange of ideas is easier and more understandable through story than any other means.

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