Author Archives: Pat Holt

More on ‘Cell Phone Pilferers’ … and Bad, Bad Customers

I must say it was heartening to see so many blogs and letters objecting to the behavior of New York Times writer Nick Bilton and his wife, as described here last time.

To recap: The Biltons surrounded themselves with “several large piles of books” as they sat on the floor “for a couple of hours” at a Barnes & Noble store. They “lobbed” the books back and forth and photographed pages with their iPhones, then “left the store without buying a thing.”

Only later did Bilton wonder, gosh: “Did we do anything wrong?” He sought out legal experts: “Did we indeed go too far?”

I have never heard of such self-absorbed rudeness or flat-out idiocy in a bookstore and was further incensed when the article revealed that Nick Bilton is the lead technology writer for the Times and author of a book about the future of iPhones, for heaven’s sake. But enough about me.

Defacto Shoplifters

“Yes, you and your wife went too far,” writes Denny Hatch of the website Target Marketing, “And your tacky little iPhones’ theft of copyright wasn’t the half of it.”

Hatch says Bilton was guilty of “de facto shoplifting — taking merchandise off the shelf, using it and then discarding it.”

In the world of direct marketing, this is “the equivalent of the catalog bandit — the woman that orders three party dresses from a catalog, chooses one to wear to the party and then returns all three the next day for a full refund.”

A Treacherous Course

The Biltons not only got away with ruining the merchandise, writes Richard Curtis at [e-reads], a reprinter of out-of-print books.

“By the mere act of clicking their iPhone a dozen times, Nick Bilton and his wife steered a treacherous course between fair use and piracy, between the Copyright Act of 1976 and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act,” Curtis observes.

Bilton tried to excuse himself by saying that “many people have a cavalier attitude toward using cameras to obtain copyrighted material.”

Curtis huffs, “Cavalier indeed. Our archives are packed with the exploits of ‘cavaliers.’ Up to now the Times has tiptoed around the issue of piracy in the book business …. But the time is approaching when the subject will take center stage, for it is by far the greatest threat to the future of authorship and the success of the e-book industry.”

Infringement Recipe

Perhaps it’s not Bilton’s actions but his article that should be held up to scrutiny, writes Bill Rosenblatt at Copyright and Technology. By describing how easy it is to photograph book pages in a store, Bilton has published an “infringement recipe” that could “induce” readers to do the same. Given the newspaper’s exposure and influence, “would [publishers] have a case against the New York Times?”

Swiping More Than the Bar Code

Of course, readers already have the “recipe” for photographic infringement, and more. As independent-publishing expert Dan Poynter puts it, customers regularly “visit a store, see a book they want, pull out their iPhone, check the price at Amazon and make a one-click order.”

To do this fast (before the staff sees ’em! bad, bad customers!), iPhone users simply photograph the book and let technology take it from there. As Poynter explains:

“Now Amazon makes the process faster and easier with an iPhone App. With Price Check for iPhone, buyers can photograph the bar code of a book (or any other product), say the product name, or type it in. Amazon will find the product and offer it for sale—often for much less. Point, scan, check, click, done. And Amazon delivers.”

Blatantly Criminal

“If only the problem were just cell phone pilferers,” writes Suzanne White, author of bestselling astrology books. “People today can scan my entire books and put them up for sale all over the Internet — Kindle, Nook, Crook, et al, and nobody stops them. Others try. I try. But we don’t always succeed.”

White says that “Amazon now asks authors placing their books on Kindle to check a box attesting that they own the rights.” But elsewhere, piracy flourishes. One magazine group in France copied an astrology book by White and “pleaded innocence” when she sued. This group “tried to prove I was complicit because I had written horoscopes for one of their magazines. They had very powerful big guns.” She settled for 5000 francs.

In another case, “back in the beginning of Facebook, I found an
app called Chinese Horoscopes that used my text,” White recalls. “It was doing such good business that after much haggling, I eventually went into business with the guy! He had taken the texts quite innocently from a site that claims to ‘share copyrights.’ I wrote a stinging how-dare-you letter to the owner who wrote back saying that because the company was offshore, I could do nothing.”

The commercial appeal of nonfiction books makes them vulnerable. “Astrology and Tarot and I Ching or diet or cookbooks and many other subject areas are commercial and easily exploited,” White says. But novels are copied illegally, too, especially in foreign countries.

“Does Stephen King know when his books are pirated in Czech or Hungarian, Chinese or Urdu? I doubt it,” White says. “Neither he nor his publishers can read those languages. Let’s face it. This is the Internet. There is money to be made in pirating any and everywhere. Publishers can’t police it any better than authors can.”

Most egregious for White was a matchmaking site in New York that “used my New Astrology™ book, pasted my photo on the front page …. then wrote to congratulate me! I could not get him to take it down. Instead, he hired someone to rewrite it all, paraphrased my whole book and changed the name of his site, and eventually tried to sell it to me for a million dollars (no lack of chutzpah there). Eventually he went bankrupt.”

(Granted it’s not saying much, but) I’ve never heard of such blatant stealing! It’s so criminal, and yet, as White says, going to court is not an option. “The folks who scan my books and pirate them are not rich people. I would be suing in the dark.”

Watching the Bookstore Go Up in Flames

Here’s another scam that floored me. In his article, “The Price of Now: Why I Hate Bookstores,” Kyle Bylin at Hypebot.com says he read the first chapter of Bilton’s book at a bookstore and was so taken with it that “I didn’t want to wait,” so he bought it right there, knowing “I could buy it cheaper on Amazon.”

He did consider another shortcut: “I’ve heard of people buying books from Barnes & Noble and returning them once their Amazon shipment arrives. I opted not to do that.”

My hero! We’re back to women and their pretty dresses! This scheme involves buying and returning the physical book after using the bookstore as your bag man. And won’t that book feel nice and new to the next customer.

Here’s what went through Bylin’s mind as he bought the book for a higher price in the bookstore than he would have paid at home, ordering it on Amazon: “In my head, I came up with the excuse — that while I’d be content with watching the store go up in flames for their high prices — I did like walking around, browsing, and the experience of holding books before I bought them elsewhere.”

So here’s a reader who understands the perilous situation of bookstores, all right. He’s just so jaded by the Internet that he sees the retail price as “a donation for feeling sorry about reading for free.” This was a real jaw-dropper for me. A … a…. donation? You mean, like a … a …. charity? Because you feel sorry for the bookstore?

Exactly, says Bylin. It’s the bookstore’s fault for overcharging the poor customer: “The instant gratification of getting what I want now, in my hands, something that I can carry home and read: Shouldn’t that be the bonus and not the cost?”

Yes, let’s all remember: The world is here to bring everyone like you instant gratification because today nobody owns anything, really. Copyright law is so “uncharted,” as Curtis says, that tools are everywhere to help you monetize, maximize, and Appize everything you want.

Being Almost That Stupid

And everybody’s in on this scam. even authors like Bilton, muses Poynter. “So,” he writes, “was Bilton’s ‘confession’ a publicity stunt to bring attention to his book?”

That would be hard to figure, since Bilton’s article makes him look so stupid. But maybe fame is fame: If you just get your name out there — even exploit the newspaper that (I guess) employs you — readers will race to buy your book.

But could that have been Bilton’s idea all along? I must say, when I listen to Bilton interviewed on the Internet, he seems far more knowledgeable than the kind of jackass who clogs up the aisles of a bookstore while photographing pages of new books and dumbly wondering, “Did we do anything wrong?”

Self-run Social Library Places

To be charitable, maybe Nick Bilton and his wife didn’t actively set out to steal. Maybe they simply represent masses of people who have changed their minds about brick-and-mortar stores in the last decade.

Certainly they, and perhaps millions like them, don’t think of bookstores as places to go to buy books. To them, in the 21st century, bookstores are just vehicles for “showcasing books for Amazon,” as Poynter puts it.

If that’s true, surviving bookstores may now be seen as “self-run social library places,” muses Suzanne White, because they offer book clubs, author events, classes, cooking demonstrations, storytelling hours, sidelines and even books lining shelf after shelf.

At these bookstores, observes White, “bookish and other types can meet and greet each other, have coffee and a sandwich and get to know authors, take courses and hear writers talk about their work.”

Wait a minute: That sounds familiar in a way that’s, you know, alarming.

A successful bookstore, White adds, is more like a “bricks-and-mortar social network,” and there it is, the retail/electronic world in reverse: No longer does Amazon need to mimic the retail experience with its “Look inside!” feature and browsing facsimile. Instead, bookstores should now try to be Facebook inside the retail environment, a place where you can import all your “friends” right there in the aisles.

Isn’t that what the Biltons were doing? They could just email those iPhone photos to their contractor, so they didn’t bother about that pesky problem of buying a book or actually reading it.

This is why Bilton’s “infringement recipe” is so seductive! Customers who “hate bookstores” like Bylin at Hypebot don’t want to wait, and you shouldn’t either! You can “like” bookstore displays, Tweet shelf talkers, video author events and order, order, order books from every other resource but the store itself.

The Entitlement of Internet Pricing

Thank heaven many readers agree with Ben Patterson, a reader who left this comment at Hypebot: Along with “paying rent, providing a community gathering spot [and] bringing cultural events into a neighborhood,” brick-and-mortar bookstores are also “responsible for collecting sales tax — all things Amazon does not do.”

And to bookstore hater Bylin himself, Patterson wrote: “I suppose, if you’d rather have a Cash4Gold or PaydayAdvance on every street corner, that is an alternative, but it feels a lot like Internet pricing entitlement is negatively impacting neighborhoods and service.”

My new hero! That is so true: The sense of entitlement people get from pricing things on the Internet has turned consumers into tyrants! That’s why Bilton and his wife felt so righteous camping out in the aisles; and why Bylin has the audacity to pity rather than respect bookstores.

Patterson understands this odd reasoning: Keep the playing field even by charging Amazon sales tax, he says, and people will stop believing that Amazon is somehow ahead of the game by eluding the law.

That’s the real meaning of internet entitlement, I guess. Once you have your smart phone, anything on display in some dumb brick-and-mortar store is all yours for the taking.

When Cell Phones Turn Readers into Idiots

One needn’t be a fan of Barnes & Noble to sympathize with the staff at a B&N store where New York Times writer Nick Bilton and his wife acted like a couple of six-year-olds storming a playpen.

According to Bilton’s article, the couple sat down “cross-legged on the floor” and surrounded themselves with “several large piles of books,” which they “lobbed back and forth” (!) for “a couple of hours” (!!) while researching “ideas for a new home that we are planning to buy.”

Isn’t that nice. Whenever you need a library, just go to a bookstore, Bilton suggests. There you can turn new books into used books for all the customers to follow.

Then Bilton and his wife “snapped a dozen pictures of book pages with our iPhones” and “went home without buying a thing.” Very tidy. Bilton does mention that they “placed the books back on the shelf” like the Good Samaritans they see themselves to be.

A Disturbing Idea

But later that night, Bilton was struck by a disturbing idea: “I asked my wife: Did we do anything wrong? And, I wondered, had we broken any laws by photographing those pages?”

So conscientious! After all, those pages were protected by copyright, a very big word for a very important concept. You’d think an explanation of copyright would be the point to an article with the headline: “Can Your Camera Phone Turn You Into a Pirate?”

But no. The authorities Bilton consults compare the use of cell phones that photograph book pages today with the use of Xerox machines that duplicated book pages during the ’70s, and the use of Napster programs that shared music files during the ’90s.

According to these experts, technology has advanced so quickly that copyright laws can’t keep up, so nobody really knows the exact definition of piracy when it comes to cell phone cameras. But Bilton’s journalistic drive demands a deeper truth: Will he get caught?

“Need I worry yet that a phalanx of lawyers will soon grab me between the Home Decor and New Age aisles at Barnes & Noble?”

Well, if I were the two thugs running this chain, I would have thrown the Biltons off the escalator, but you know, bookstore clerks are nice. They allowed this couple to clog the aisles and rummage through new books on the floor because it might have sounded rude to ask them to put their !@#$%^&*! cell phones away.

That leaves readers to ponder a thought by Julia A. Ahrens, associate director of the Fair Use Project at Stanford Law School: “By the time this becomes an issue,” she tells Bilton, “we might not even have bookstores anymore.”

That’s comforting, isn’t it, Nick? One day the same might be said of libraries.

Bookstore Rudeness

I know that bookstores have long been invaded by ill-mannered customers who blithely sit down in the aisles, break the spines of new titles, “lob” books around or — these I could throttle — buy a book on Amazon and bring it into a bookstore to have autographed at an author event.

But Bilton’s article raises new questions about the effect of cell phones on social manners in general. Maybe we’ve all grown accustomed to cell phone users driving erratically or talking loudly on the street or in elevators and restaurants because for some reason, they think their conversation takes precedence over everyone else’s experience.

What I can’t figure out are bookstore customers who blatantly use cell phones to compare prices with Amazon’s while they walk around the New Release table, or worse, take cell phone photos of books they might want to read so they can buy them on Amazon later.

I won’t go into Kindle owners who actually bring … well, you get the point.

This is not just rude behavior; it’s profane. A bookstore offers browsing opportunities and instant camaraderie with staff and authors that we never find on the Internet. There’s something sacred about a place where censorship is fought routinely, unknown authors are welcomed and introduced and young adults who’ve inexplicitly stopped reading are lured back to books they’ll treasure forever. For a customer to interrupt this kind of sacred exchange because they’re so entirely self-involved seems tragic.

Thanking Our Lucky Stars

The Biltons don’t appear to be stupid or cheap — I bet if you asked them, they’d want to contribute to the betterment of bookstores. Then, too, Nick Bilton is the lead technology writer for the New York Times and author of I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works (Crown; 304 pages; $25), a book published last fall about the impact of iPads and smart phones. That makes Bilton an expert. Yet he doesn’t know the meaning of copyright? When he and the missus took advantage of the bookstore staff’s good graces, he had to ask, “Did we do anything wrong?”

So come on, Nicky, get off the phone. Think how you’d feel if somebody photographed your book and blithely departed “without buying a thing.” The future you write about can and should provide Americans with every kind of reading option, most especially the bookstore option.

Patti LuPone, Part II: “Don’t Give Critics the Power”

A big difference between books and theater, as Broadway star Patti LuPone points out in her enlightening and instructive memoir (Crown; 324 pages; $25.99), is the fact that in publishing it takes an accumulation of negative reviews to damn a book; in theater, one review can kill a play overnight.

Here’s one reason: With books, the Internet has ushered in our current era of “the democratization of publishing” in which everybody’s a critic. True, traditional critics at newspapers and magazine may still be influential, but readers give as much or more weight to reviews by bloggers, customers, book clubs and, of course, themselves.

Theater criticism, on the other hand, has remained more parochial and elitist. A handful of trusted reviewers still seems to reign, and among these few, for Broadway shows especially, the New York Times has inordinate power.

Fighting Back

LuPone is both victim and victor to this oddly provincial tendency. She has even been doubly damned: Despite her incredible talent and wildly favorable notices in Europe, LuPone has been the subject of hostile critics in New York not just for a few years but for entire decades.

This forced LuPone to re-earn audience regard every time she appeared onstage. For example, thanks to early publicity, tickets for Evita, her first big hit, were sold out so far in advance that LuPone and her co-star Mandy Patinkin had to outlast the sour impact of New York critics who hated her performance. This surprised even LuPone: Continue reading

Patti LuPone: A ShowBiz Memoir to Remember

She is probably the last of the great Broadway musical stars, certainly has the loudest (and funniest) wit, couldn’t be more honest (or complaining) and, with her trademark honesty and bawdy humor, has a heart and a funnybone as big as the Great White Way.

All of which to say that while actor/singer/comic/tuba player Patti LuPone sails through her memoir bringing one skeleton after another out of the closet from New York to Hollywood to London, we readers get to chuckle and wonder in wow-I-didn’t-know-that delight all along.

Who knew, for example, that centuries ago, opera singers canceled performances at the peak of their menstrual cycle because blood would so engorge their vocal cords that they could blow a singing gasket, as it were, that would render them silent for days and weeks afterward.

The great Jessye Norman told LuPone this, but too late: Following disastrous vocal blowouts (especially during Evita previews because that !@#$%^&! Andrew Lloyd Webber wouldn’t lower the register but more about that below), LuPone — one of Broadway’s most powerful and versatile singers — had to have surgery and learn how to sing all over again. Continue reading

Two Terrific Books (And Amazon Blows it Again)

The most controversial book (by far) at the NCIBA trade show* was Tiger, Tiger, the true story of a pedophile in his 50s who not only befriended a 7-year-old girl but became her “playmate, father and lover” for 15 years before he committed suicide and she ended up in her twenties becoming both an incredibly mature author and a — well, you hafta wait and see.

Not one parent at the show could open Tiger, Tiger to even begin page one because it’s so menacing, so terrifying and so creepy …. or so it seemed by the look of it.  The fact that the author, Margaux Fragoso, lived to tell the story would seem astonishing enough;  that she writes in a beautiful, gripping narrative voice with the most astounding insights opens our ears (and, incredibly, our hearts) to otherwise unspeakable matters.

I can say that once you do open the book and you do begin reading, it’s impossible to put down. And boy, is it needed. Fragoso refuses to be either victim or avenger. What she learned about herself and human nature keeps us appalled and instructed every step of the way. From the start, her choices in life are so unexpected and in a way so thrilling that … well, again, you hafta see for yourself. The wait may be excruciating, because Tiger, Tiger is going to simmer (and not on the back burner) at Farrar, Straus & Giroux until its March publication.

(BTW, thank you, Autumn, at From The TBR Pile, a blog for readers that’s turned up a good handful of other books named Tiger, Tiger [or Tyger, Tyger in goblin speak] that you can find here. And extra thanks of course to poet William Blake who started it all.) Continue reading

REMEMBERING PAT CODY

Iron-willed, big-hearted and unforgettable


The recent death of Berkeley, Calif., bookseller and activist Pat Cody reminds me what a privilege it is to work with books at any time.

Pat and her husband Fred opened Cody’s Books in 1956, long before the emergence of computers or chain stores, and right in the middle of a conservative backlash called McCarthyism that ravaged free speech almost as badly as the Patriot Act has in our last decade.

The Codys are remembered as champions of civil rights, but throughout even the most turbulent decades, when gas masks hung by the cash register and protesters squared off against police outside the store, their core belief was the value and the right and the privacy of reading.

To Fred and Pat, it didn’t matter who walked into the store — a homeless self-publisher (hardly an oxymoron) or a professor of physics from UC Berkeley: Matching the right book with the right customer was the highest act of political engagement they knew. Their first and last job as booksellers, they felt, was to contribute to the experience of quiet solitude that can only happen during the act of reading. When the reader’s mind meets the author’s mind, they believed, the world will change. Thank heaven that Andy Ross, who bought Cody’s Books in 1977, believed the same thing. Continue reading

U.S. OPEN: WATCHING TENNIS THROUGH NEW EYES


Andre Agassi’s ‘Open’ Reveals Dark Underside of Early Training

I’m sure I wasn’t the only reader of Andre Agassi’s memoir, Open, to laugh when announcers at the US Open mentioned what a crime it would be if the legendary tennis coach, Nick Bollettieri, is passed over for the Tennis Hall of Fame.

A Prison for Teenagers

In Open, Agassi lambastes Bollettieri’s famous tennis academy as a “prison” where teenaged hopefuls are forced to exhaust themselves on tennis courts, live in “cell blocks” and act out in a cafeteria that resembles “a mental hospital where the nurses forgot to hand out the meds.”

And that’s just in the mornings. In the afternoons, students are taken by bus 26 miles away to Bradenton Academy, another windowless prison where “the light is fluorescent and the air is stale, filled with a medley of foul odors, chiefly vomit, toilet, and fear,” Agassi writes.

The school, more than the tennis academy, overwhelms Agassi with feelings of claustrophobia and failure. “At the Bollettieri Academy, at least I’m learning something about tennis,” he says. “At Bradenton Academy, the only thing I learn is that I’m stupid.”

Under Bollettieri’s management, however, even tennis takes a back seat. As the other boys tell Agassi, “our job is to keep Nick’s four sports cars washed and polished” because Nick is “a hustler, a guy who makes a very nice living off tennis” while stifling his students’ growth.

Worse, Nick reminds Andre of his tyrannical father, Pops, a seeming tennis mentor who is, like Nick, “captivated by cash.” It never occurs to the former paratrooper Bollettieri that he’s really known for running “a tennis sweatshop that employed child labor.” Continue reading

THE ‘MISERY LIT’ INDUSTRY AND OUR PART IN IT

Finally Getting Rid of Important Gasbag Author David Shields — Part III

So back to the most delicious part of that blowhard David Shields’ book, “Reality Hunger.”

To summarize Parts I and II below, Shields says that thanks to the Internet, we’re all bombarded with so many words and ideas from so many sources that it’s impossible to find truth or meaning in daily life, especially from authors we used to trust.

So Shields has decided to “help” matters along by adding his own thoughts to quotes from our best thinkers (Woolf, Emerson, Orwell, Goethe, Yeats, Gornick, Thoreau, etc.) to generally f— pardon me, mess with our minds.

The ensuing confusion is not a departure from reality, Shields suggests –

it is reality, and we’re all adding to the confusion by asking for lies when we say we want the truth.

The Memoir Hoax

Remember how incensed everyone was about yet another “memoir” that turned out to be a fake?  Well, I was. That pissant James Frey lied about so much that didn’t really happen to him in his whole drug-addicted life that Oprah Winfrey, who had loved his book, “A Million Tiny Pieces,” dressed him down dramatically on her show.

You’d think publishers or agents or editors or somebody would stop these liars from making millions from an obvious hoax. But no. Continue reading

LITERARY CON ARTIST TAKEN SERIOUSLY

“Reality Hunger”  — Part II

So the question (following Part I below) is whether professor and novelist David Shields is a dilettante and a liar (he praises himself for both), or a genuine intellectual who’s onto something original and possibly profound as “author” (itself a lie) of “Reality Hunger” (Knopf; 219 pages; 24.95 obscene dollars).

Certainly many of the reviews and interviews thus far have brought acclaim to “Reality Hunger,” a collection of 619 statements that are sometimes attributed to the correct source (Picasso, Orwell, Kierkegaard, etc.), sometimes “remixed” with (a better term might be “violated by”) Shields’ own statements, and sometimes rewritten according to Shields’ whimsy.

So let’s see what happens when we take Shields seriously.

First a little background:

To paraphrase Shields’ first point, “reality” in our time has become a bombardment of comments on reality from, say, YouTube, 9/11, Google, two wars, Wikipedia, bailout funds, Tea Party antics, the Obama “Hope” poster, climate change, Russia from my window, professors like David Shields, Oprah, “bail out,” Twitter, “Glee,” Mobb Deep and the Texas Board of Education’s version of “history” (more about this in a later column but really, in an age where history books may replace Thomas Jefferson with 16th-century puritan John Calvin, literary con artists like Shields look like scholars).

Excuse me, back to taking Shields seriously.

So instead of having a mental blueprint of current history and culture in our minds, average people like you and me carry the chaos around with us –  wildly random bits of information that in the past have made sense only through artistic forms, like fiction.

As a novelist himself (tragically, he was a good one), Shields used to think that reshaping of facts through story could bring readers closer to the truth about life than nonfiction ever could. Reading fiction, we could decide how to build our own mental blueprint, turning to it often as a guide to how the world works and what life asks of us. Continue reading

‘SCROTIE MCBOOGERBALLS’ ELEVATES DAVID SHIELDS’ CAREER AT KNOPF

Silliness Seen as Brilliant

That semi-talented professor David Shields is certainly enjoying unprecedented acclaim for his new book, “The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs,” released recently from Knopf.

Just the other day on the “Today” show, Matt Lauer confirmed that the book is such a mixture — so brilliant and so offensive at the same time — that no one can read it without vomiting.

Lauer himself admired the book yet succumbed when he said, “My favorite part was when Scrotie McBoogerballs slid his head up into the horse’s — bleagh! awwwrrflgh!! ptui! pppt. ppt.”

As soon as he recovered, Lauer asked about the deeper significance of the book: “Was that chapter a slam on healthcare reform, as people have suggested?” he asked the author.

Answering from his home, where his parents have grounded him for using dirty words in print, author Butters Stotch said, “Yes, I pretty much think so.” Continue reading