Booked: Michael Link is the driving force behind Joseph-Beth's ability to draw literary luminaries

Northside resident says community imprint is key
Booked: Michael Link is the driving force behind Joseph-Beth's ability to draw literary luminaries
Posted at 7:40 AM, Dec 14, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-14 07:40:30-05

CINCINNATI -- Tickets to see Bruce Springsteen on Nov. 29 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Norwood sold out in four minutes.

The relationship that made Springsteen's Cincinnati visit possible began a decade ago.

Michael Link, publisher relations manager at Joseph-Beth's Norwood, Crestview Hills and Lexington stores, is the man who brings literary celebrities to Cincinnati. Rock music legend Springsteen might have caused the biggest frenzy, but in the last year, Link has hosted at Joseph-Beth or partnered with other organizations, including Xavier University, the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, to bring in dozens of high-profile authors, including Gloria Steinem, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Paula Hawkins and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon.

In one week this fall, three of the five finalists for the National Book Award -- Chris Bachelder, "The Throwback Special," Paulette Jiles, "News of The World," and Jacqueline Woodson, "Another Brooklyn" -- attended events in Cincinnati.

One could say Link is the man behind the scenes, but usually, you'll find him at these events in the front or off to the side in a button-down shirt, tweedy jacket and glasses, chatting with everyone, making connections.

"In my position, I'm lucky that every day I either introduce someone to their favorite author or introduce someone to an author they didn't know before that's going to be their favorite author," Link said.

The 41-year-old New York native became a bookseller by accident. After graduating from Alfred University, Link went to Washington, D.C., with plans to get into political activism. He took a job at Politics & Prose, an independent, community-minded bookstore, as a placeholder while he applied for jobs. But he found he liked the business and soon found himself turning down activism jobs to stay at Politics & Prose.

Literary activism was his calling.

"Any time that we can put books in people's hands, we want to be a part of that," Link said. "I really believe literacy is one of the few things that has the power to literally raise all boats."

Within two years, he was managing Politics & Prose, learning the business of bookselling and developing the relationships that help fill out Joseph-Beth's event calendar now. He first met the Simon & Schuster representative who coordinated Springsteen's visit in 2006.

Fifteen years in publishing have helped Link build a stable of authors who are also friends: People such as Emily St. John Mandel, who visited The Mercantile Library this fall and will come to Cincinnati when he asks.

But bookstores also have to deliver sales and attendance for publishers to be willing to send an author out, Link said. To do that, an independent bookstore like Joseph-Beth has to focus on what makes it different. It has to have a point of view. It has to be a place where people can ask questions and get answers and recommendations.

"Without that, getting a book at Walmart or wherever becomes an easier choice," Link said. "We want to be a place of community first. ... We want to be a place where important conversations happen."

Link came to Cincinnati to build Joseph-Beth's events strategy. He was a department of one when he arrived; now he supervises three event managers and coordinates hundreds of events each year with a wide variety of community partners.

In addition to helping to lead Books By The Banks, Link coordinates up to 75 school visits each year as well as events with public and private libraries, universities and nonprofit organizations, including the Cincinnati Museum Center and the Cincinnati Zoo.

"It's a strong message to the publishers that the literary community in Cincinnati works together," said Kate Lawrence, programming and exhibits manager for the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. Joseph-Beth often works with the library to bring in authors or to provide book sales at author events, donating a percentage of sales back to the Friends of the Library.

Link has provided support to WordPlay Cincinnati, a nonprofit that uses literacy to fight poverty among at-risk children and teens, since it began in 2012.

"We'd never have the clout to get people like Jacqueline Woodson and Mac Barnett," said Libby Hunter, WordPlay executive director and co-founder. Not only are these authors visiting, but some are donating to WordPlay. That support wouldn't exist, Hunter said, without Link.

When Link arrived in Cincinnati, he expected to stay for a few years. Nearly a decade in, he has a house in Northside, a 7-year-old daughter, Iris, and no plans to leave.

"I don't know another place where you can afford to be a bookseller and live in a city that has the cultural amenities this place does," Link said. Plus, he said, "Cincinnati really looks at and appreciates the literary arts. … We have a deep literary bench here that makes my job easier."

  • Link helps people meet their favorite authors. Who are his? George Saunders, Michael Chabon, Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen. "I've developed a real appreciation for children's authors (like Barnett and Klassen) since having my daughter. I watch the danger that is, you give a kid a book that's not great, then they say they don't like reading. You have to give them great books."
  • What authors is he still hoping to bring to Cincinnati? George Saunders, Sherman Alexie, Colson Whitehead
  • What books is he giving as gifts this year? Atlas Obscura by Dylan Thomas and In The Company of Women. "You could give either of these books to just about anyone on your list and they'd find it interesting."
  • What is he reading?The Mothers by Brit Bennett, Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett and The Daily Show: An Oral History As Told By Jon Stewart