The Philly Liars Club, a Philadelphia-based group of authors who “lie for a living,” have a lot of true things to say about indie bookstores. Since May 2009, the thirteen professional liars of the PLC have been on a Truth Tour of independent bookstore parties, with signings, giveaways, games, and general mayhem. I recently asked them a few questions about the club, their parties, and why they choose indies. I think they were telling me the truth.
How and why did you form the Philly Liars Club?
Jonathan Maberry: The Liars Club formed as a natural outgrowth of a lunch meeting I had with Gregory Frost. We got together to talk about networking and promotion ideas. We swapped emails about how we should gather a group of writers together to do the marketing thing as a team. At the same time we thought about how much fun it would be doing group readings and signings, maybe a few classes… We each invited in some like-minded authors, and soon we had a crew. Because we’re writers and we make stuff up for a living, I suggested that we call our gang the Liars Club.
The PLC authors are pretty diverse. What's the criteria for joining?
Maberry: Certain qualities of mind: optimism even in the face of the publishing industry’s financial troubles; enthusiasm for the craft and the business; a sense of fun; and a willingness to participate in projects that wouldn’t always directly benefit you.
Some have suggested that our requirements for membership also include low personal standards, a fast-and-loose attitude toward the truth, and no outstanding police warrants. But those are probably lies. We decided that there should be an even dozen, which is why (as liars) we have thirteen. Oddly, all thirteen members have never been in the same room at the same time.
How did you come up with the idea for the Truth Tour Parties? Were these an extension of any regular PLC meetings, or a totally different idea?
Don Lafferty: Ha! The "regular" meetings were held in a variety of dark local pubs where we brainstormed ideas. The time always flew by and there seemed to be so much more to talk about, but the positive events so many of us were having at indie booksellers always seemed to be a bright spot in an otherwise uphill battle to reach more readers.
Maberry: It was one of those out of the blue suggestions that was so right that we all tried to lie and claim that we each thought of it. In truth it was cooked up by Marie Lamba, one of our newest members. Marie suggested that we throw parties for indie bookstores. And not pity parties, but real parties with a focus on fun. That felt right and it felt like it would be a blast. We had a meeting and bashed ideas back and forth and what emerged was a solid plan for a monthly party, the Liars Tell the Truth About Independent Bookstores. And we were off…
Jon McGoran aka D.H. Dublin: One of the biggest issues you face as a published author is selling your books, and the people on the front lines of that effort are the folks who work in bookstores, so we wanted to come up with a way to say thanks for all their hard work on our behalf.
Why does the PLC choose independent bookstores?
McGoran: We love all bookstores, and libraries too, but independents are special. Time and again I’ve heard writers talk about how independent booksellers have been the difference in their success as authors, about how one or several independent booksellers have taken on their book as a cause, and hand sold that book because they felt so strongly about it. We also realize that it is not easy to be an independent. We appreciate all the hard work and sacrifice that goes into it, and we are grateful for it.
L.A. Banks: I think we chose indies because they are the last bastion of actual entrepreneurial knowledge of the books they shelve and hand-selling. My books would have never taken off like they have and many people wouldn't have known about my obscure hip-hop vampire series without strong recommendations from independent booksellers saying, "If you like Buffy and other vamp tales you have to try Minion!"
Dennis Tafoya: For me, that's a no-brainer. Independents buy my books, they're open to events and flexible about when and how they're done, and they tend to be much more supportive of local authors. It doesn't seem to mean much to the local chain stores that I'm from the area and that Dope Thief is set locally. Doylestown Bookshop has hosted me alone, hosted me with the Liars Club and they're setting up a Crime Movie Night at the local theater to promote Dope Thief. The local chain store doesn't even know who I am.
Maberry: Indie bookstore people know books. They also know their demographic and tailor what's on their shelves to the browsing history of the folks who walk through the door. You’re more likely to find something rare and unusual—but wonderful—on the shelf at an indie. What a lot of people don’t realize is that indies can get any book. Everyone orders books from the same handful of distributors, so readers can get best-sellers and really obscure titles just as easily from the indies. Most of them do online sales, too. For me, I like standing around chewing the fat about books with bookstore people. In the indies you can always strike up a good conversation about books.
Lafferty: Since I was a little kid I loved going to the local hardware store. I'd go in with a scrawled list of stuff my dad asked me to pick up and hand it to the owner who'd give me a dime for a Coke. I'd zig-zag around the store behind him while he gathered everything up and talked to me about school or little league or the Phillies. Sometimes I'd go in even when I didn't have to just because I knew I'd get the Coke and maybe even earn a little money moving boxes or sweeping the floor. My kids consider that one of my stories from "the old days" because by the early 90's those hardware stores were long gone here in Philly, driven out of business by big boxes.
Twenty years later I see vividly the parallel threat faced by the indie bookseller, but just as importantly, the parallel threat to future generations' access to this irreplaceable, unique brand of enlightenment, entertainment and community. Hard as they try, the big boxes can't afford to provide a community with this level of personal experience or diversity of choice. We're doing this with indie bookstores because we want book buyers to know that a slight change in their book buying habits can help to preserve this experience for their kids and maybe even their grandkids.
Merry Deedee Jones: The tradition of local, personal, even eclectic bookselling seemed, for a while, to be vanishing, replaced by interchangeable supermarket type venues managed by distant and indifferent corporate heads. So if, for example, a shopper wants to pick up a mid-list writer's book and skim a few pages, he/she often can't, because it simply isn't in the shelves of these big stores.
Independent sellers, on the other hand, put their individual touches to sales, selecting titles of special interest to them, or that intrigue them, or that they think will interest their customers. They don't simply take direction from corporate headquarters. It's an old-fashioned but well cherished process. As a writer, I want to keep that process alive. So I want to promote the independent bookseller and his/her vital role in the world of reading.
Marie Lamba: Quite simply, because we love them. I know, it sounds cheesy, but it's true. If you are a book lover, you want to go to a place that knows books inside out and that makes thoughtful choices on what to stock. Plus, the support we have received from indies throughout our writing careers has been phenomenal. They are so open to carrying our titles, to hosting author events, to actually learning what is in our book and sharing their opinions about it with their customers. As authors, how can we not choose independent bookstores?
Keith Strunk: In a society where the value of everything seems to be measured by profitability, the independent bookstore provides a sanctuary for the community that is created through the love of the written word. While the large chain bookstores are forced into a corporate-driven sameness, each independent bookstore is defined by its own unique quirks and passions, which draw folks that are equally passionate about what they read. Where the large chains are about the business of books, the independents are about the love of books. This makes for a very exciting place to be when you're an author. A place to make a connection with folks who are as passionate about your work as you are.
Obviously, the parties look like a lot of fun. Any stand-out experiences?
McGoran: I have promised I wouldn’t mention them.
Maberry: The first one, at the Doylestown Bookshop in Doylestown, PA, was eye-popping. A constant crowd came through and there were a lot of laughs. The first-event buzz was in the air and the bookstore staff seemed to be having a blast. But really, each event is different because each store has its own personality. To compare the events is like comparing apples and garbanzo beans –I like ‘em both, but they really aren’t alike.
Banks: Doylestown and the Chestnut Hill Book Fair were both like old fashioned street festivals. At Doylestown there was a friendly dog, raffles, free candy and water ice, and just a fantastically festive atmosphere.
Lamba: At Doylestown, we had a huge space, and an almost carnival-like atmoshpere. We did a special giveaway, with a grand prize winner getting a cameo appearance in the It's Todd's Show, an on-line canine comedy produced by Liar Laura Schrock. Todd the dog was there, along with the camera crew, and a huge crowd lingered to witness the drawing, and watch the filming, which happened in the bookstore! Our party at Aaron's Books in Lititz, PA was held during the town's 2nd Friday celebration, and the cozy shop was packed. Then a T.V. crew showed up and interviewed us, which was a nice surprise, and a hoot.
Gregory Frost: Without a doubt, Between Books in Claymont, DE, was a great, great time. The owner, Greg Schauer, had a cake made with out book covers painted into the frosting. That store has a large and vibrant following--people who come there because they love books--and which I think Greg has cultivated over something like 30 years.
Lafferty: Our party at Clinton Book Shop in Clinton, NJ fell on a rainy Saturday so we figured foot traffic would suffer. Sometime during the gig I walked out front to check on the weather and found Rob Dougherty sitting on a stool out there - in the rain - personally greeting every single person who walked by. Even the ones on the other side of the street! But what really took me by surprise was everybody greeting him right back, and how even in passing - even in the rain - people would thank him for his latest recommendation, or tell him how much fun they'd had at an earlier event, or how good the special was at the restaurant up the street. It really drove home the intimacy these indies booksellers have with their communities.
Sometimes your parties look like parties, sometimes more like a panel. Is this planned in advance, or do you just go with the flow?
Lamba: At Between Books, we found a huge crowd waiting for us seated in front of a line of tables, laid out as if for a panel discussion. Okay, so we normally don't do a panel discussion at our parties, but we decided 'what the heck?' and took our seats, and winged an animated talk about writing and lies. The audience really got into it, thankfully!
McGoran: The panels are so much fun they sometimes look like parties. Maybe the parties sometimes look like panels because, well, once we start talking there’s no shutting us up.
Tafoya: We bring our props: tote bags, quizzes for the giveaways, free books, candy, etc, and we're happy to do whatever the bookstore envisions. We generally do sit at tables, but sometimes we do panels and sometimes we just sign books and talk with whoever we can entice to come by to our table. This is where my day job in technical sales comes in handy—it's a little like a trade show (and I've worked a million of those) except that I'm having fun!
How many Truth Tour stops will you make? How far would you go for a Truth Tour Party?
Maberry: I think most of us are committed to doing these as long as there are indie bookstores, and as long as we’re all having fun. Our plan is to do one each month at a different store.
Lafferty: The original plan was to throw a party every month. Since the word is spreading we're already seeing the need to squeeze in more than one some months. Once we have a bit more traction I'd like to start coordinating these types of activities with Liars Club parties all over the country.
Kelly Simmons: I'll go anywhere because I have a big car and we can sleep in it!
What’s next for the PLC?
Lamba: Our next event will be at Moravian Books in Bethlehem, PA on October 3rd. The store has two ghosts, and we have plenty of authors who write about things like zombies and murders, so we're expecting a spooky twist. On November 7th, we are honored to be doing a splashy special 60th anniversary party for Womrath’s in Tenafly, NJ. And on December 5th, we’ll be visiting Wellington Square Bookshop in Exton, PA. The store is elegant, with antique cabinetry, a fountain and a cafe that serves fancy coffees. I’m sure it’s going to be a classy day.
An important part of each party is the press we put together and send out beforehand. This is our chance to quote the bookseller about what makes their store special, and we Liars tell the truth in each feature, bragging about all the great stuff a particular shop offers. It's our simple way to spread the word and educate the public. And we are more than happy to do so.
Lafferty: The PLC is still evolving. We've gained a lot of momentum in a short time and recognize If you're interested in setting up one of our parties at your indie bookstore, hit me with an email or a phone call to get the party started: firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-698-6900.
Maberry: If you love books and can appreciate the value of independent bookstores, I urge you to join IndieBound. It’s also a great way to find an independent bookstore no matter where you go.
Thanks to all the members of the Philly Liars Club for the interview! Keep up with the Liars, the Truth Tour Parties and other PLC events at liarsclubphilly.com.