If you're an independent bookseller competing with Amazon, you need to boldly go where no bookstore has gone before. That's why Kepler's Books in Menlo Park is looking to the far reaches of space and the realms of magic.
On Saturday, Nov. 15, the store will host a special in-store event. Sci Fi/Fantasy Day: An Afternoon of Aliens, Dragons, Magic and Other Worlds will include conversations between best-selling authors, lessons in the fictional language of Dothraki from HBO's Game of Thrones and a debate between local writers about which genre is "better": science fiction or fantasy.
According to Praveen Madan, Kepler's CEO, such events benefit both the store and readers from a wide variety of backgrounds. In June, Kepler's sponsored a day devoted to mysteries and thrillers. A program focusing on science fiction and fantasy seemed a natural follow-up.
"How do we differentiate ourselves from online competition? How do we make what we do sustainable?" Madan asked. "Our answer, which perhaps is a little different from the conclusion other people are coming to, is that the first and foremost goal is one of serving our mission. And our mission has always been not about selling books, but using books to change people's lives."
Madan is a long-time fan of science fiction authors including Kurt Vonnegut, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Frank Herbert ("'Dune' is one of my all-time favorite books," he said. "It's such a masterpiece of storytelling."). He feels that genre fiction hasn't yet taken its rightful place as literature.
"We want to help (the public) realize that this is a rich, deep sphere of literature and that there's so much more to it than most people realize," he said. "We do that best by creating these kinds of experiences, where people get drawn into the conversation."
As part of the effort to deepen the conversation and inspire aspiring writers, Kepler's is also sponsoring its first Science Fiction/Fantasy Fiction Prize. The contest, which closed Nov. 1, accepted excerpts of genre novels from authors who have not yet published a full-length work of fiction. The winner will be announced at the conclusion of the Nov. 15 event.
Madan acknowledged that online booksellers can offer instant transactions, but seemed unconvinced that the Internet offers useful ways to change minds.
"Encouraging people to open their minds to other things -- I don't think that happens as well online," he said. "I think that still requires the human touch, that in-person connection."
A variety of authors will be on hand at Kepler's on Sci Fi/Fantasy Day to administer that personal touch. Andy Weir, author of the New York Times best-seller "The Martian," will appear in conversation with Matthew Jobin, author of the children's fantasy novel, "The Nethergrim."
Weir's newly minted career as a science-fiction novelist reflects the ever-changing, brave new world of publishing. A lifelong fan of classic sci fi, Weir worked as a computer programmer and serially self-published "The Martian," a tale of a wise-cracking engineer/botanist stranded alone on the Red Planet, on his personal website.
This new wrinkle on "Robinson Crusoe" didn't take off immediately, Weir explained.
"I started to get emails from people saying, 'Hey, I like "The Martian," but I hate reading it from web pages. Can't you just make an e-book version that I can download?'"
After preparing a Kindle-compatible version, Weir submitted "The Martian" and set the price at 99 cents.
"I told everybody, 'OK, you can read it for free on this web page, you can download the e-book version for free, or you can pay Amazon a dollar to put it on your Kindle for you.' More people bought it from Amazon than downloaded it for free, which just goes to show you how far into their market Amazon can reach."
The purchases accelerated, especially after Amazon selected "The Martian" as a top science-fiction pick. At that point, an agent came calling, and Weir soon found himself contemplating traditional publishing and movie deals.
"Random House made an offer for the print rights and then (20th Century) Fox made an offer for the movie rights," he recalled. "Those two things happened the same week."
"The Martian" was published in hardcover by Crown in March. Directed by Ridley Scott, the film adaptation stars Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig and Donald Glover. It's slated for release on Nov. 25, 2015.
According to Weir, his love of science fiction and his persistence in trying to write it paid off.
"It's always been an interest of mine, and I've always just kept working at it," he said. "Eventually, if you do something enough, you stop sucking at it."
Following the conversation between Weir and Jobin, David J. Peterson, Steven Erikson and Tad Williams will also discuss their respective work in fantasy. Peterson is the author of the forthcoming "The Art of Language Invention." Erikson is the author of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series and the newly released science-fiction novel "Willful Child." Williams' books include "The Dragonbone Chair" and "Sleeping Late on Judgement Day."
Four writers -- Marie Brennan ("A Natural History of Dragons"), Chaz Brenchley ("Being Small"), Ellen Klages ("White Sands, Red Menace") and Pat Murphy ("The City, Not Long After") -- will face off to debate the differences between science fiction and fantasy. Spectators will be able to vote for the genre of their choice.
Although she won't comment yet on her arguments for the debate at Kepler's, Klages says she thinks the lines between genre fiction and mainstream literary fiction are blurring.
"The top-grossing movies each year are science fiction/fantasy and superheroes," she pointed out. "Game of Thrones is bringing fantasy to millions of HBO viewers. I know there are lots of people who might say, 'Oh, I don't read that sort of thing,' but would be surprised that some of their favorite books are found right in the midst of those very science fiction and fantasy shelves."
Murphy says she sees the importance of events like Sci Fi/Fantasy Day.
"I've long believed that an important survival strategy for any independent bookstore is becoming more than just a place books are sold," she said. "Kepler's, like my other favorite independent bookstore, Borderlands in San Francisco, functions as the center for a dedicated community of readers and thinkers. Events like this help build community, which is one reason I'm delighted to participate."
What: Sci Fi/Fantasy Day: An Afternoon of Aliens, Dragons, Magic and Other Worlds
Where: Kepler's Books, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park
When: Saturday, Nov. 15, from 1-5:30 p.m.