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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, December 30, 2002

Local books hot in 2002

 •  Fiction dominates list of 2002's best Hawai'i books

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Books Editor

Talking to writers and booksellers about books and book sales in 2002, a saying comes to mind that many don't like much: Hawai'i is a "regional market."

L. Ah Leong, inspiration for "The Money Dragon," on his 71st birthday.
This means we have a small but healthy regional publishing industry that is well-supported by local people and visitors.

Publishers here — among them Bess Press, Island Heritage, Mutual Publishing, Watermark Press — understand well that, in Hawai'i, local sells. Jodi Fukumoto's "The Guide to Hawaiian-Style Money Folds" ($9.99, Island Heritage) and the "The Okazu Guide" by Donovan Dela Cruz and Jodi Endo Char (Watermark, $8.95) for example, were brisk sellers during the holiday season.

Brian Melzack of Bestsellers Books & Music says books like these — non-fiction, inexpensive, very local, on how-to or cooking — dominate local best-seller lists, especially at Christmas. He suspects they may be the most popular books sold in Bestsellers' three stores.

But the quirky regional market also causes authors here to have a tough time convincing national editors — mostly based in New York — that audiences elsewhere will relate to, care about or understand Islanders as characters and island issues as book topics. Books set here (or elsewhere in the South Pacific) are dismissed as too regional, too ethnic, especially when they contradict the idealized views of insular publishers about Hawai'i or Polynesia.

The result is that some books that really ought to be with a Mainland publisher — because they are deserving of a broader audience — end up handled by University of Hawai'i Press or one of a handful of larger local publishing houses. Or the authors put up their own money to get the books published, or go the print-on-demand route. There's nothing wrong with this, except that much of a book's success depends on how much marketing clout its publisher has: money for book tours, advertising, point-of-purchase incentives and schmoozing buyers.

An example of this is a book that flew out of local stores in December, Stuart Coleman's self-published "Eddie Would Go: The Story of Eddie Aikau, Hawaiian Hero," (MindRaising Press, hardcover, $24.95).

"It's just taken everyone by surprise," said Les Honda, area marketing manager of Borders Hawaii. Pat Banning of Bookends said the book was "far and away" the local bestseller of the season. Melzack also was amazed by sales; it was No. 3 on his December local best-seller list.

"I think the thing that attracts people is it's not just a surf story," Honda said. That was the argument Coleman made in pitching the book to Mainland agents and publishers. But the idea that a Hawaiian surfer could become a cultural icon, a hero who continues to inspire people 20 years after his death seemed to be beyond them, Coleman said.

Banning said "regional interest" in books filters down to the neighborhood level. For example, in Kailua, where a lot of ex-Mainlanders live, any mention of a book on National Public Radio generates demand. Inspirational books also do well with the New Age-y mix of residents there, she said.

The hot spots for Bestsellers are quite different, with two stores in two visitor-dominated locations (Hilton Hawaiian Village and the airport) and one, downtown, frequented by local office workers.

Sometimes, the two interest groups merge, as with the picture-rich Hawai'i gift books that were hot sellers at Christmas, including the most expensive local publication of the year, the gorgeous coffee table book on collecting Hawaiiana, "Finding Paradise: Island Art in Private Collection," by Donald R. Severson, et al (Honolulu Academy of Arts, $89.95). Others that did well at Bestsellers: the new "Kapi'olani Park: A History" by Robert R. Weyeneth and contributor MacKinnon Simpson; Kim Taylor Reese's new collection of hula photos, "Hula i ka La, Dance in the Sun"; and Pegge Hopper's "Women of Hawai'i."

On the other hand, a book that has no clear local ties — except for its author — can blast off and become a national phenomenon. That's the case with Kent Keith's "Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments: Finding Personal Meaning in a Crazy World" (Penguin Putnam, hardcover, $19.95).

In January, Maui-based Inner Ocean Publishing sold the rights to what was then called "The Paradoxical Commandments," an inspirational book of ideas about how to conduct yourself ethically and kindly. The buyer, Penguin Putnam, rushed out a new "gift book" edition under the title, "Anyway," released in April.

Since then, life has been a whirlwind for Keith, who continues to serve as senior vice president of the YMCA in Honolulu. He did a six-week, 29-city, 23-state book tour in April, helped launch the British edition in England in June, attended the Maui Writers Conference as a presenter in September, maintains a busy lecture schedule, and did a piece for the December issue of The Writer magazine. The book is in print in several languages and was sold to several commercial book clubs. He remains close to the crew at Inner Ocean Publishing, for which he's contracted to upcoming projects.

"It has been an unbelievable year!" was all Keith could think to say in summarizing the journey on which he's been.

The booksellers said a lot of factors go into determining whether a book will sell well or sit on the shelf: the subject, price, press attention, a memorable title, whether it's suitable for a gift. And, of course, local interest.

The booksellers said they saw a bump in sales for Takashi Matsuoka's "Cloud of Sparrows" (Delacorte, hardback, $24.95) after local and national press attention in the fall, including mentions in People and Entertainment Weekly magazines.

Though deep into work on the sequel to "Sparrows," Matsuoka broke off to tap out a brief e-mail reply to a query about the latest developments: The book has appeared in Australia, New Zealand and Italy (where it's called "Nube di Passeri"). It will be released amid hoopla in Britain right after New Year's Day and elsewhere in Europe and the Middle East. And it was selected as a featured alternative for Book of the Month Club, Literary Guild and Simon & Schuster Book Clubs. Ma-tsuoka expects to send off the finished draft of the sequel in the next few weeks, meaning it may reach stores in 2003.

A book that has managed to garner national attention despite being locally published is Robert Barclay's "Melal" (University of Hawai'i Press, paperback, $14.95), a critically acclaimed novel set in the Marshall Islands. The book was a finalist for the coveted Kiriyama Prize, a cash award to authors of books that promote understanding of the Pacific Rim and South Asia. In the fall, Barclay attended the Maui Writers Conference, where he received the Harriet Goldsberry award and also got engaged to his longtime girlfriend. Right now, Barclay is working on "Tourism in the Pacific," an online experimental novel that will be mounted on his Web site (www.robert-barclay.com).

In looking back on the year in books, we can't help but mention that, in June, we launched The Honolulu Advertiser Book Club and have since read four books together, brought four writers into our extended e-mail family and held an event that drew a full house to hear writer Gail Tsukiyama discuss her books, especially "The Samurai's Garden," our current selection.

Banning said sales of the book-club selections have been "astonishing," though she doubted, at first, that there would be much interest in a book club here. She has been surprised to note that the first book-club selection, Sara Backer's "American Fuji" (Berkley, paperback, $14.95) is still selling — a clear indication that people are looking for recommendations of books to read, whether or not they participate in book club discussions, she said.

Meanwhile, Backer writes that she is settled in New Hampshire (where she moved from California right about the time her book was selected for the club), teaching, talking to book clubs elsewhere via speakerphone and working on her next novel. A review of "American Fuji" will come out in the newsletter "Education in Asia" in a few months; it's now in print in Polish, French and Dutch. She ends the conversation, "hoping the winds will somehow blow me to Hawai'i."