Category Archives: Book Publishing

Changing the World, One Idea at a Time: Part II

It may not seem that a $4.95 paperback with nothing but word lists could make a difference to an industry — maybe to the world — but that was the potential I saw in Richard Kirschman’s self-published book 25 years ago.

Richard Kirschman

In those days I was on the lookout for self-published gems outside the New York book trade. I believed a connection existed between the Gold Rush era of the mid-1800s and Northern California’s small-press revolution more than a century later. True, not many of the 300,000 people who came West made money from the Gold Rush. But they all believed that anything was possible when they got to California.

This idea, that breaking away from institutions in the East can make people more personally creative and adventurous in the West, seemed to thrive from one generation to the next, especially in the Bay Area. The legendary Whole Earth Catalog (1968) started out as a self-published list of tools, for example. Hundreds of author-produced books, including my favorite, A History of Doorknobs in the United States, followed that same path: The inspiration to self-publish, which so rarely occurred to writers in New York, very often felt like the only way to go, 3000 miles away, in Berkeley or San Francisco.

Richard had experienced traditional success in 1961 when Doubleday published his New York on the House, a guidebook listing free exhibits and events. But just as connections to the mainstream often fade as authors leave the hub of publishing in New York, so does that anything-is-possible belief flow more mightily from within.

Hope at a Glance

So. The premise for Richard Kirschman’s self-published book in the 1980s was simple: Tourists planning to visit a foreign country often dread the idea of learning a new language. They see it as scary and tedious, so they don’t get around to taking classes or listening to recordings or even browsing in a language guide. As a result, many travelers feel like failures before Day One of their trip.

Richard’s book, Thousands of Words You Already Know in Spanish, promised a series that would change all that. Designed as a half-sized paperback you could fit in your back pocket, the book provided rows and rows of Spanish words spelled as follows:

exactly the same as their English equivalents, such as inventor/inventor, labor/labor, superior/superior;

almost the same such as depositar/deposit, paralizar/paralyze, identidad/identity;

the same with a vowel added on as in pacifico/pacific, humano/human, incentivo/incentive.

And so on. That’s all it was, but oh, how it delivered.

In that B.C. (Before Computers) Era, one glance at these words, which you already knew in English, turned feelings of dread into surprise and delight.

Once you got used to the idea that, say, a word like supervisor meant the same, spelled the same and sounded the same in both languages, the effect was empowering. You didn’t have to memorize anything — once the ear was attuned, the next steps –the next words — fell into place.

Of course, the same thing happened to Spanish-speaking folks coming to the US or UK. One look at the other half of the title, Miles de Palabras Que Usted Ya Conoce en Ingles, and voila — I mean !presto! — you were on your way.

Richard enlisted the expertise of editor and writer (and future wife) Doris Ober to give the book some authority and class with a bright and colorful cover and inspiring (one page only!) introduction.

lists and lists: oh, how they deliver

The two began work on Italian, French and German editions but stopped when they hit a snag. Book distributors in those pre-Internet days tended to lock self-publishers out. Readers could buy books only at brick-and-mortar bookstores, which in turn were dependent on mainstream publishers in New York who didn’t carry self-published books.

Richard tried selling to travel agents and tourist guides instead, and he practically gave the book away to ESL (English as a Second Language) and Spanish-language teachers. He’s kept a few hundred copies, just in case: Today, as conditions worsen for immigrant families at Mexican-American borders, a book like this can be the first sign of hope.

Richard working with students today

Prototype Man

All my life, I have heard variations of that kind of energy — this book can change the world — from self-publishers all over the West. Richard stands out because he’s never been interested in making money or even selling a lot of copies. What matters is feeling that light bulb (the old kind) go off in his head and deciding to do something about it — to engage in society for its own sake, to get out there with your Great Idea and see it through; to stay involved, to never be passive, to find the gate and get it opened.

Thousands of Words today is better understood as a prototype, one of the reasons so many in West Marin admire Kirschman. He has created quite a number of projects out of thin air, gave them a physical reality and explored their potential in both the business and the nonprofit world. Many have taken off and become a success, as we will see. But equally inspiring is the way Richard has gone about exploring the world through the lens of every good idea.

“Thus began Richard in West Marin,” a Point Reyes Light reporter once wrote: “He had ideas, he invented, he petitioned. He studied, learned, asked questions and offered pragmatic ideas, always with a smile and good humor.”

Well, not always. Outrage has played a part, maybe the best part. So has ingenuity, skepticism, wonder, irony, love, despair — and some truly whacko ideas.

 

 

Remembering Peter Mayer

Reading about the death of legendary Penguin publisher Peter Mayer at 82 reminded me of an episode in the late 1970s that demonstrated the makings of that dear man as one of the book industry’s most charismatic leaders.

Peter Mayer: at Penguin in 1979

It happened after book publishers in the United States and England signed a consent decree in the mid-1970s that released English-language reprint rights to competitive bidding among different houses throughout the world.

The consent decree was created to level the playing field by weakening the dominance of London- and New York-based houses. So Peter Mayer — having climbed the ranks at Avon and Pocket Books to run Penguin’s international operation as CEO — traveled to Australia, New Zealand (often referred to in shorthand as ANZ, never as “down under”) and other countries to buck up the Penguin troops, as it were.

I was traveling through Australia and New Zealand at the same time, reporting for Publishers Weekly on the effect of the consent decree. This was a wondrous, in-between period for any reporter in ANZ because remnants of UK colonialism were in the midst of fading away — though too slowly for some. Many people still referred to England as “home,” and guests still sang “God Save the Queen” at ceremonial dinners. But a new belief in home-based institutions had begun to take over.

The famous Penguin logo

In book publishing, it was hoped, the consent decree would also help to diminish the particular colonialist notion that ANZ authors had to be published abroad before they were taken seriously at home. This had been true of Colleen McCullough (The Thorn Birds) and Thomas Keneally (soon to write Schindler’s List). But with the bidding process for acquiring books now open to local houses, it was hoped that dependency on the “parent” company or country would lose its hold.

So Penguin interviews figured mightily in my travels. Since its founding in 1935, Penguin’s series of color-coded paperbacks had become recognized and trusted the world over, giving ANZ branch offices a leg up in launching unknown local authors to international markets. Now, though, a belief spread among other houses, from Harper Australia and Random New Zealand to the independent Angus and Robertson, that the consent decree would break up that Penguin advantage.

Thus Peter Mayer, whom I had admired from afar but met only once in person, had his work cut out for him. Penguin had hit a low point for the first time since its founding in 1935, so who knew if this was the right time for its new CEO to fly 10,000 miles and visit the hinterlands? But word had it that Peter hit the ground running; he was a’vistin’ book trade folk like a house afire. Wherever I went in either country, people would say that Peter Mayer was either a city behind or a city ahead of me, and it always seemed that his visits had a profound effect on everyone who met him. Some said “incendiary,” but in a good way.

For example, if I interviewed staff members in a Penguin office before Peter Mayer came through, answers to my questions usually took a noncommittal direction — daily accounts and predictable data were trotted out to show titles selling briskly and markets responding nicely, and so forth. Few risked an opinion about the consent decree or, really, about anything.

Like a house afire

However, after Peter Mayer had been there, it felt like everybody from warehouse handlers to managing directors came rushing out with eyes shining to meet me excitedly and blurt out things like this:

Well, we used to sell to bookstores once a season, but now we’re going to do inventory checks and co-op ads and author signings even for the smallest books because we’ve got the legacy to turn this consent decree around, you see? Here, look at this advance title list: we’re picking up more local authors than ever and our crossover [trade to text] numbers are going up because real growth is in the offing, but first let’s introduce you to this editor and that sales rep, and do you want some tea? Are you going to the ABPA (Australian Book Publishers Association) dinner and have you heard of this small press and that new bookstore?

It was curious at first because I thought that Peter as the top Penguin exec would visit Penguin’s offices throughout ANZ and then, you know, leave. But his infectious we’re-all-in-this-together outlook about books compelled him to stop in at bookstores and wholesalers and competing publishers and author signings everywhere he went.

The original orange look for Penguin fiction

And each time he got somewhere, he’d strike up a conversation without regard to rank or privilege. To Peter it was a gift to work with books at any level – for publishers, for example, to sign an author with huge potential despite the house’s small budget; or to announce a large hardcover printing but reserve enough f&g’s (folded and gathered sheets) to bulk up the paperback run. It might be a gamble to offer discounts for unknown authors like one-free-for-ten (meaning the bookstore would get the 10th copy free, a crazy idea since most buyers ordered a maximum of three books by unknowns), but what the hell — if we believe in our writers, let’s take some chances.

Peter also liked to rummage around bookstores asking questions of everybody: Why were some books placed face out rather than spine out or as “endcaps” (end-of-the-aisle displays)? How had the buyer convinced publishers, who usually dreaded the idea of paying for bookstores’ advertising, to accumulate stats from previous orders to cover almost the whole bill?

Penguin green: mystery and crime

I should mention that everybody on the sales side knew how to do these basic things. They did not need the boss from London to instruct them on their job. The difference was that Peter made it all fun again, made the risks of returns and bad reviews worth it and, again and again shared that vision he knew we all had, that working with books at any level was a privilege, a kind of art in itself.

I put the “we” in there because even hearing about such things third or fourth hand, I got just as revved up as anybody else. I remembered that years before, a younger Peter Mayer had taken a group of students through an Avon warehouse as part of a Publishing Procedures course in Boston. As a member of this group, I was not alone worrying that the book industry had become arrogant and stuffy and mired in the Dark Ages. So I was struck by Peter’s enthusiasm over little things, like new ways to glue signatures in paperback books, or how one day it would be possible to print all books on acid-free paper, so one day the pages wouldn’t turn brown and crackly the older the book got.

In the1990s

True, Peter Mayer had been billed as part of the new breed of publishing — hungry for new ideas, not stuffy, hugely ambitious for himself and his house and unashamed about driving a cab for a living (of course this made him all the more romantic) before he started in book publishing. Most important, he was no phony. Showing us around that ice-cold warehouse, he picked up, pawed at, held to his heart and even recited parts of so many titles that it was clear he loved reading for its own sake, a rare quality in our trade.

Peter left us at the end of that tour with a challenge. The paperback industry might cover the world with millions of reprints, but the house was always looking for the next, best one. Could any of us think of a critically well-received hardcover that hadn’t been reprinted in paper? Standing at a loading dock in that B.C. (Before Computers) era, this was not an easy thing to research.

I think my candidate was A Separate Peace by John Knowles, which prompted a “Great idea!” response from Peter, who then remembered that Bantam had picked it up in 1953. (How nice of him not to mention that any book on the bestseller list as long as the Knowles novel had been would be snapped up fast.)

Ah well, he shrugged, as if to say, that’s the joy of publishing — hundreds of other good books are out there waiting for all of us, so why are we standing here?

That’s the question I heard ringing through the book trade these past decades as collapse from a new era seemed inevitable. For every industry, it seems, you’re lucky if you get one Peter Mayer in a lifetime.

 

A Police Shrink Who Gives Up on Nobody — Part III

Sue Grafton’s recent death reminded me what a joy it was to watch this gracious, no-nonsense writer break into the male-dominated mystery genre back in 1982.

I’ve been thinking of Grafton while writing about Ellen Kirschman, a mystery writer whose work is just as fresh and relevant for her time.

Sue Grafton

Ellen Kirschman

As I remember the B.C. (Before Computers) era of the early ’80s, novels by unknown writers like Grafton were lucky to be published with a first printing of 5,000 copies — and luckier still to clear a sale of 3,000. Grafton’s publisher, Henry Holt and Company, took a risk on her first novel, “A” Is for Alibi, with an initial printing of 7,500 copies and was thrilled when it sold 6,000.

As the world now knows, one reason for its success was Grafton’s catchy, classy idea of making a lethal murder mystery sound like a children’s spelling book. Something about following the alphabet had a huge and immediate appeal, and why not? Few could resist solving “B” (Burglar) without looking forward to “C” (Corpse). Readers coming in late at “E” (Evidence) seemed to always want to go back and start with “A” Is for Alibi.

This was also the PFE (PreFeminist Era) when publishers were just beginning to realize that women not only bought most of the books in the United States; they actually read the damn things and, in the mystery genre especially, spread the word of an intriguing newcomer faster and more powerfully than any marketing or publicity campaign ever could (still true). Continue reading

A Police Shrink Who Gives Up on Nobody – Part I

Police killings and Black Lives Matter had begun to dominate the news in 2013 when I walked into an independent bookstore and found a paperback mystery called Burying Ben.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t make a big deal of this because Burying Ben is “only” a generic mystery — nothing literary or momentous about it. But looking back on the enormous pressures this first novel stood up against — as have the second and third in the series — I’m astonished at what the author continues to teach us.

Though unknown as a mystery writer at the time, Ellen Kirschman was famous in her field as a retired police psychologist who worked with the Palo Alto CA Police Department for 25 years.

Ellen Kirschman

Her nonfiction books (I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know; I Love a Fire Fighter, etc.) keep selling in the hundreds of thousands, and she’s much in demand as keynote speaker at police and family conferences from Singapore and Hong Kong to Toronto. First responders suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and other injuries swear by her workshops and retreats.

Kirschman has joked that mystery fiction is a way for her to “get back” at various foes and blowhards she’s run into in police work, and we do see stereotypes skewered here. At the same time it doesn’t appear that Kirschman exaggerates what one of her characters calls the “cowboy culture” of cop life.

When, for example, the new “little lady” psychologist is introduced to a roomful of FTOs (field training officers), someone asks, “Is that why she’s so short, because she’s a shrink?”

“It’s an old joke,” the psychologist knows. “I laugh to be polite.” But things are going to escalate. When it’s announced that she’s written a book about police officers and family life, another cop yells, “Can I get two copies, one for my wife and one for my girlfriend?” This kind of humor appears to be expected.

Burying Ben came out years before the Harvey Weinstein scandal and its aftermath, so reading such an exchange rings a familiar bell. Making a brief appearance is the police chief, who’s been standing behind psychologist’s chair. He “bends to my ear with a mock whisper. ‘The more they rag on you, the more they love you. When they stop teasing, that’s when you should be worried.’ ”

Well, it’s not teasing, we know, and it’s hardly love — perhaps the word “humiliation” would be closer. While the psychologist understands that “trust doesn’t come easily to cops, especially when it comes to mental health professionals,” the chief’s uncomfortable nearness feels calculated, his patronizing remarks intended to keep the new lady shrink in her place.

Just as Black Lives Matter launch protests against police behavior from the outside, Kirschman’s fiction explores the roots of it all from the inside. She may be writing a light mystery, but on the way we get an expert’s view of the dark side of police station life — its competitive atmosphere, deep strains of misogyny and racism, cruel hazing of new recruits and overall resistance to change.

Burying Ben

Still, it wasn’t Kirschman but the jacket illustration of Burying Ben that called to me that day in 2013. There on the cover was something unthinkable in the mystery genre — the chalk outline of a victim who appeared to be male.

Kirschman’s first mystery, ‘Burying Ben’

Whoa: No voluptuous babe sliced to pieces in some ghastly James Patterson bunker. No kidnapped women chained to radiators eating dog food off the floor. It was so refreshing.

The subtitle leaped into view: A Dot Meyerhoff Mystery. The name of the sleuth sounded so hokey and yet so genuine that I thought she must be adorable, and decided to investigate further.

Sure enough, the fictional Dot is very much like the author, a trusted police psychologist with decades of real-life experience and a peppery sense of humor. The difference between the two is that Kirschman, now in her 70s, keeps Dot — newly hired at the Kenilworth (Bay Area) Police Department — in her robust 50s.

If you’ve wondered what it’s like for cops — mostly male cops — to work with a female psychologist, Dot’s observations are worth the price of admission. As she notes in the third book in the series:

“Police officers are not eager consumers of therapy. They think it makes them weak to have problems. I think it makes them human. Almost every cop at Kenilworth PD regards me with skepticism, worried that I’m reading their minds and getting ready to report them to the chief as unfit for duty. They are not as standoffish as they were when I started three years ago, but it’s still an uphill battle to win their trust, let alone put a dent in the male-dominated culture of rugged individualism.”

We’ve seen that “male-dominated culture” in countless detective novels and police procedurals — and by the way, aren’t we all tired of every movie and TV show sticking a lady shrink in front of every star? Even Tony Soprano kept his sessions with Dr. Melfi secret because he didn’t want to seem emotional or weak.

In Burying Ben, what makes an embittered cop named Eddie so intriguing is the profane, unfiltered hostility he levels at the new female therapist.

“I don’t need you or anyone else picking through the turds in my head. I got my own doctor, Doctor Jack Daniels … As far as I’m concerned that [mental health] debriefing crap is just a big circle jerk where everybody cries, says their feelings and leaves feeling worse than when they started. … Listen to me, Florence Nightingale. You can shove your mail order Ph.D. right up your ass … Hasta lumbago, Doc. Have a nice day.”

Goodness. Do cops really talk that way? Well, when backed into a corner, they do, Kirschman reveals. Although readers may dismiss Eddie — alcoholic, racist, sexist, near retirement — as a lost cause, the joy of this series is that Dot doesn’t give up on anybody.

Dr. Melfi and Tony Soprano

Not a “Fun” Murder

Burying Ben is a doozy of a story, though painful: A rookie named Ben not only takes his own life, he leaves a suicide note blaming Dot Meyerhoff, the new female psychotherapist at Kenilworth (read Palo Alto) Police Department.

Dot realizes she has to find out why Ben killed himself before she herself is fired.

To do this, she must 1) gain the trust of cops who aren’t speaking to her (they blame Dot, too), 2)survive a painful divorce while enduring one unexpected (of course) hot flash after another, and 3) prove her worth to the chief, who’s suspicious of lady shrinks to begin with.

And mystery author Kirschman has to prove her mettle, too. Statistics show that suicide is the number-one killer of police officers — in fact, cops are three times more likely to kill themselves as to be killed by criminals. Police don’t like to talk about it; mystery novelists don’t like to write about it, and it’s certainly not the kind of “fun” murder we mystery fans usually go for.

But Dot’s narration offers a different perspective. For one thing it’s a relief that she’s not the gorgeous hotshot female narrator so often seen rising up the murder-mystery ranks with fists and hormones a’flyin’.

Dot is rather a middle-aged hotshot female whose practice of patience and empathy allows her to slow down, observe and listen. We see how she notices things in a flashback, when Dot first meets Ben at a grisly suicide scene, where the gentle rookie is trying not to faint:

Police psychologist Elizabeth Olivet on ‘Law and Order’

“Ben’s eyes are fixed on the body that lays like a discarded cornhusk doll. His lips are clamped together. He looks as though he might cry. Crying on scene is forbidden. One tear would be enough to earn him a jacket as weak, sentimental and undependable in an emergency.”

One Tear Could Ruin a Career

Dot knows that cops depend on each other not to fall apart under pressure: Their very lives can hang in the balance. But does this mean they must constantly prove how tough and unfeeling they can be?

Apparently the sergeant in charge thinks so when he orders Ben to return to the corpse and “put in your report whether this guy was a Q or an A,” meaning whether the dead man’s tongue sticks out of his mouth in a straight or circular direction.

Dot happens to see the other cops stifle their laughter as Ben earnestly goes off to measure, so she realizes some kind of initiation rite is taking place. Soon her talk with Ben — compassionate and instructive at once — takes us a past the locker-room atmosphere to unveil the real mystery addressed by this novel.

This is: Do macho white guys like the sergeant start out mean-spirited, or do they learn the small cruelties via peer pressure along the way? Can’t the police department’s hiring process cull out candidates who suppress their feelings, like hatred for women and people of color? Or do most rookies begin innocently like Ben and “turn bad” as they move up the ladder?

How Dot sees it

We get some answers from Dot, who shows us how elaborate the application process has generally come to be, and how the instincts of a police psychologist can make a difference. But she also suggests it’s an imperfect system that requires fine-tuning long after cops have earned their badges.

I have to warn my mystery-reading colleagues that Burying Ben has a number of first-novel problems: It’s too busy, the pace bogs down, there’s a sameness to the dialog, odd redundancies occur and Dot’s unorthodox methods strain credulity.

And yet these days when police behavior has come under such intense scrutiny, I’m less interested in the success of the story than fascinated by its revelations. And I was really anxious to see how Kirschman had grown in her second (2015) and third (2017) Dot Meyerhoff mystery.

Next: Part II, The Right Wrong Thing

 


 

She’s Our Gladiator

I’ve never read a book by a woman with so much male ego as Settle for More (Harper) by former Fox TV News anchor Megyn Kelly (who’s soon to go to NBC).

On the cover of “Settle for More”

Confident and inspired even in childhood, little Megyn radiates entitlement as she asks the universe, What greatness does my future have in store? (my paraphrase). How will my inner gifts define my destiny?

Learning that girls’ baseball teams don’t exist in her neighborhood, Megyn tells her mother to sign her up for boys’ baseball with no fuss or fights or lawsuits (yet).

She has her vulnerable moments, too. There was a time in school when she was bullied by very cruel kids. But today, Megyn thinks it was a good thing. It toughened her. “Adversity is an opportunity,” she tells us, “and one that has allowed me to flourish. It has made me stronger, my skin a little thicker.

When Megyn Kelly becomes one of a few women attorneys hired by a prestigious law firm, she refuses to copy case files. It’s not fair, she writes, to charge the client an associate’s fee when a paralegal can do it. What she means: I didn’t compete my ass off in law school to stand in front of a Xerox machine.

Those tight tight tight cocktail dresses

Overall, her mantra — “I never say no to hard work— serves Kelly well as she carves out her path to Fox TV News. We see her prepping hard for interviews into the wee hours, dressing for combat in her fashionable, tight tight tight cocktail dresses. Kelly rises quickly to become the King of TV News with “the most successful news show in all of cable.”

Now readers, please don’t confuse matters by asking, Shouldn’t a woman be called the queen instead of the king in all of cable? Goodness, no. Power has no gender for Megyn Kelly, who with her Womb of Steel seems to have conceived and delivered three children by herself. No wonder their names — Thatcher, Yardley and Yates — sound vaguely like fancy soaps from a hotel called Downton Abbey.

It’s no wonder, too, that Megyn Kelly refuses to be called a feminist. What does being a woman have to do with ambition? She advises women, “the less time talking about our gender, the better.” Take the other path: “Be so good they can’t ignore you,” as a poster advised her news team at their pod at Fox.

Kelly says she wasn’t bothered a bit when an executive showed her into an office decorated with photos of nude women. Quoting Gwyneth Paltrow, who’s said that modern women can be “nurturing, maternal, sexual,” — Megyn Kelly says she, too, can be “playful and sexy,” as she was for GQ Magazine, or when she appeared “sophisticated and feminine” on the cover of Vanity Fair, or when she answered questions about her bra cup size and sex life during pregnancy on the icky Howard Stern radio program. “Even during the third trimester?” he asks as she sits there forcing a smile. Oh yes, that and more, she tells him, but in a YouTube clip she looks more like a sex slave than a news professional.

Sexy and playful in GQ magazine

All that is simply contributing to “a new archetype for women,” she writes, “that thankfully we’re seeing more often: multidimensional.” Or more testosteronal, or something. “I had just one path forward,” she writes.

How do we know this is true? Because Megyn Kelly seems fated to become the one journalist to stand up to Donald Trump in that male-to-male way he can’t tolerate, especially since it comes from a woman.

Seeing her rise at Fox, Trump first tries to woo her with gifts (Megyn returns them), flowers (she refuses them), even a vow to pay for a weekend she spent with girlfriends at the Trump Hotel (she pays it herself).

And so he gets miffed when Kelly is the only news anchor at Fox to realize that it’s wrong for a news program to cover “Trump being Trump: unscripted, unguarded, and fun to watch,” meaning not newsworthy. Too much of that Trump, she realizes, is the equivalent of “television crack cocaine.”

Giving Trump air time might raise ratings, she says, but featuring the crack cocaine Trump on a news show before the Republican primaries became a “questionable choice.” With Tom Lowell, her executive producer, Kelly issues a new directive — “no more gratuitous Trump coverage.”

Mr. “Television Crack Cocaine”

So that’s good, right? It shows us that Megyn Kelly has standards. Running clips of Trump actually saying something substantive, news-wise, is “a call to remember our journalistic duty, to provide balance and be judicious in our coverage, not to sell our souls for ratings or for our own entertainment.” But there is a price: When she makes sure that her own show, The Kelly File, sticks to that kind of hard news, Trump is furious.

This is where the book turns into a real surprise. For the first time that I know of, we learn the extraordinary lengths to which Trump goes to malign, ridicule and demean Kelly behind the scenes as well as in public; the phone calls he makes to Fox’s chiefs, including his pal, the now-fallen CEO Roger Ailes, to get her removed from the network’s host team at the Republican debates; the Tweets and e-mails he sends out to stir up his followers, who in turn bombard Kelly with hate mail, death threats and obscene texts.

Kelly refuses to relent, and the scary stuff gets worse — cars showing up at her house, strangers approaching her mother, retweets (by Trump Organization VP Michael Cohen) of a Trump supporter saying “we can gut her” — and soon Fox hires body guards for the whole family. When Trump tells her he knows about the top-secret question she’s planning to ask him at the first Republican debate (“You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs’ and ‘disgusting animals’ … “), she realizes he’s infiltrated Fox with undercover spies, and they’re targeting her.

“You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs’…”

But wait: Is Trump also capable of dirty tricks? On the morning of the first debate, a suspicious case of food poisoning (apparently from the cup of coffee brought to her by an unknown driver) nearly sends Kelly to the hospital. She recovers in time for the broadcast, where she asks Trump the question about women, and after that, he famously goes on the attack: “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”

More than demeaning Kelly, the comment reveals to millions that Trump is disgusted by natural functions of women’s bodies (Hillary urinating, Kelly menstruating). But he seems to think all men feel that way, so he uses it as bait.

“Trump wanted me to respond, so he got worse,” she writes, “I was a woman with power and couldn’t be brought to heel. I think he believed I could help or hurt him more than Anderson Cooper or Chuck Todd, both of whom also covered Trump with skepticism.”

Kelly “takes the high road” by following a “policy of dignity,” and remains silent. Reporters, however, dog her with questions about her “feud” with Trump. Again Kelly seems capable of focusing on the principle at stake. “I was still covering the news, but I was also being covered. Although I did nothing to stoke or even respond to it, the Trump-vs.-Me storyline was still regularly in the press.”

This is her hard-won truth: When a reporter gets in the way of the story — and in Kelly’s case becomes the story — legitimate news suffers. Kelly insists on following her goal: “To cover Trump fairly and without fear.”

Out and about with husband Doug and kids

We get the feeling that Fox would have loved Kelly to appear victimized by Trump, but she sees the damage starting when her young daughter tells her, “I’m afraid of Donald Trump. He wants to hurt me.” That’s enough for Kelly. She vows to put a stop to it.

How Kelly confronts Donald Trump personally without telling the Fox bosses makes for an eye-opening chapter. But doubly intriguing is the way she finally acknowledges that for years, Fox CEO Roger Ailes was guilty of sexual harassment.

It ranged from inappropriate jokes and comments about her bra size to chasing her around his office and demanding sexual favors. Facing that familiar dilemma — blow the whistle and get labeled a troublemaker; keep quiet and he’ll get worse — Kelly talks to “a supervisor” who seems to help Ailes see the error of his ways. For the next ten years, “Roger never sexually harassed me again.”

Roger Ailes, after chasing Kelly around the desk

Kelly, then, could keep quiet when allegations by other women at Fox begin to surface. But realizing how precarious their jobs become when Ailes lines up supporters to defend him, Kelly the Gladiator — the Fox star who’s so established she can’t be fired — is born.

It’s Kelly who makes the call to the Rupert Murdoch second-in-command (his son Lachlan) and says, “You need to get your general counsel on the phone. I have something to tell you.” And it’s Kelly’s testimony that pretty much cinches Ailes’ resignation.

I’m not a fan of Fox News so I never saw Kelly in action until I looked up a few of her interviews on YouTube. Heavens. She has an irritating habit of interrupting and arguing when she should be listening and guiding the conversation for the sake of viewer clarity. So it will be refreshing, I hope, to see what Megyn Kelly will do when, freed from the conservative hijinks of Fox News, she takes the reins in a more professional way at NBC.

I finished Settle for More still laughing at Kelly’s king-sized ego, but I came to admire her, too. She believes in her principles as honestly as her ambitions, and she’s got an iron will that functions as delicately as a Sherman Tank.

That’s what we need and should demand from every journalist in the next four years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Woody Allen’s Latest Excuse for Lechery

I’m late reading the New York Times Book Review from Sunday 1/1/17, so pardon the delayed outrage, but heavens:

Just what we don’t need on the front page is Woody Allen drooling over the purported sex life of a long-gone movie star as he (poorly) reviews Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936 by Edward Sorel (Liveright).

Mary Astor with Humphrey Bogart in “The Maltese Falcon”

The book tells us that Astor apparently wrote about her sexual affairs in an explicit “purple diary.” In Los Angeles, her estranged husband discovered and threatened to use it in a custody battle while Mary was having “four-times-a-night workouts” with playwright George S. Kaufman in New York.

How do we know this? Bad reviewer that he is, Allen never quotes from the diary, alluding only to accounts in tabloid newspapers, which aren’t quoted either. He prefers to snicker and chortle over “her hormones tintinnabulating” and the reason “deep kissing with a hot partner always trumps bacteria.”

The review mistakenly tells us that “the tabloids ran excerpts from the portion of the diary allowed in evidence” during the trial. But we learn from other sources that the diary was never entered in court. The trial judge ordered it sealed and impounded in a bank vault, where it was removed after 16 years and destroyed.

(This last from Wikipedia, a doubtful source, I know, but it does footnote its claims. Meanwhile shame on you, New York Times: Readers of a book review should never have to fact-check on their own.)

Woody Allen

But wait: Why does Woody Allen believe the author? Because “in the midst of everything,” Allensays about Sorel, “he suddenly channels the departed Mary from the beyond and converses with her as she candidly reveals personal feelings in a novel interview.”

Ain’t that great. The author “channels” his subject. The reviewer behaves like a lecherous old man. And Mary Astor is proclaimed by Woody Allen to be “a foulmouthed, hard-drinking, sex-hungry carouser.”

Of course you could say the same thing about many of Astor’s male co-stars, but where is the fun in that? Woody Allen believes his view is titillating, so he gets to have his way and himself in front of us.

I’m sure the trial was scandalous and coverage at the time amusing. But nothing about this review is credible, and all of it is a waste of time. Maybe the book was worth a passing mention in our nation’s “book review section of record.” The Times gave Woody Allen three full pages.

Remaindering “The Art of the Deal” for … $184?

Remember a few weeks ago when Donald Trump announced that he raised $80 million in the month of July alone? And most of it came through “small dollar donations”?

Original edition, 1987

Original edition (with manly turned-up collar), 1987

I chalked it up as another Trump exaggeration to put it kindly until recently, when those fine and funny reporters on NPR Politics Podcast mentioned receiving phone tips from multiple “Trump entities” that Trump’s first book, The Art of the Deal (1987), was newly available.

That was strange. A month ago I wrote about The Art of the Deal as a big bestseller 40 years ago but an embarrassment today, the first indication that Trump sold out to corporate media. Even Ballantine, publisher of the shoddy 2015 reprint, has soured on him.

Blurred photos from shoddy 2015 reprint

Blurred photos from shoddy 2015 reprint

So what was new on the NPR podcast?

“On my phone yesterday,” one reporter said, “I got five different appeals from five different Trump entities, all offering to sell me a copy of The Art of the Deal for … ”

“$184!” piped up another.

Stranger than strange, since anyone can pick it up on the Internet for ten bucks in paperback. The podcast folks joked that Trump “has got to give up his entire basement stash” of leftover originals. But it turns out the campaign is offering the book as a reward to donors of — ta da — $184 and more. The question is, what book is being offered?

Webpage for the "very limited edition issue"

Webpage for the “very limited edition issue”

The Art of the Deal is now out of print,” Trump writes on the website, “so this is a very limited edition issue and only available through this special offer through my campaign. I want you to read about the unique leadership and business acumen I will bring to the White House.”

I love that term “very limited edition issue.” It’s like those authentic-looking gold coins you see advertised to old people with poor eyesight. Something’s being commemorated that must be worth it for the unaffordable price they’re charging, but what exactly?

Well, by a “very limited edition issue,” Trump seems to mean he’s taken the shlocky 2015 reprint and slapped a signature plate on the front to dress it up as something worthy. The text is the same, so at least you get to see just how “unique” Trump will be as president.

Trump supporters probably don’t care about this, and neither do I if it’s just a ruse to get more donations. But the NPR reporters smelled something sinister about it, and so should we. Why would “Trump entities,” who ordinarily are religious about cultivating journalists by leaking secrets from inside a campaign, irritate those same contacts about an overblown, overpriced, decades-old book nobody wanted anyway?

I bet they were ordered to. I bet Trump wanted to bamboozle the press by saying he raised $80 million in small donations during a single month, and even if he had to launder his own money under the table, the campaign could point to $184 donations-with-the-book-as-a-prize and say, See? That’s how we did it.

You can subscribe for free through the Podcast app on your phone

You can subscribe for free through the Podcast app on your phone.

Oh, this is conjecture, of course, but we’ll never get a straight answer from Trump, and that’s why I’ve come to love the NPR Political Podcast: Here are four Washington insiders — I’ll list them with the full quote below** — who seem to have so much fun together it sounds like they’re at a bar after an incredibly fertile day for news.

So it’s fun for us, too, to listen in. Away from their keyboards, they challenge rumors, talk too fast, dig out facts and analyze strategies. They’re informed, opinionated, observant, gossipy and incredibly knowledgeable. They can’t give you a reason for something like a no-good book for $184, but they can toss around the data to see what has meaning and what doesn’t.

Alec Baldwin: Fuck or Walk

Alec Baldwin: Fuck or Walk

I think the meaning here goes as deep into Trump’s philosophy to put it kindly as we can get. It involves his gusto for winning every point in the short run and his fear of building a successful campaign in the long run. Who can blame him? It’s as much fun to watch Trump’s glorification of Self as it is to, say, witness Alec Baldwin berating his underlings in that famous “Always Be Closing” scene in the 1992 movie, Glengarry Glen Ross.

Remember that? A merciless sales manager (Baldwin) harangues his salesmen to the point of evisceration in a speech that’s so cutthroat and so Trump, it’s almost poetic. As with Trump, we can’t take our eyes off him. He’s, powerful, dangerous, cold-blooded and perverted. Here’s what he sounds like in this a partial and condensed quote:

(People are) sitting out there waiting to give you their money. Are you going to take it? Are you man enough to take it? Winner, that’s who I am. And you’re nothing. Nice guy? Good father? Fuck you. Go home and play with your kids. You know what it takes to sell real estate? It takes brass balls. If not, you’ll be shining my shoes. (I’d) fire your fucking ass because a loser is a loser. … You can’t close the leads you’re given? You are shit. You are weak. You can’t play in the man’s game? Go home and tell your wife your troubles. Only one thing counts in this life: get them to sign. You hear me, you fuckin’ faggots? It’s fuck or walk.

Trump on the cover of his failed magazine, Trump

Trump on the cover of another he’ll-fire-us-all book

Okay, he’s a little coarser than Trump at the podium, and yet Trump is the one who called John McCain, an authentic war hero after five years of torture in North Vietnam, a “loser” for getting caught. The Alec Baldwin character would never go that far. Trump does because he doesn’t care how you judge him. When the spotlight stays on Trump, he wins.

That tradition of the dictatorial boss whipping his inferiors into shape always has the same outcome. Trump is most comfortable as the swaggering alpha male. I know it’s a tradition because Ben Affleck makes nearly the same speech to stock market trainees in the 2000 movie, Boiler Room.

Ben Affleck: fuck you, Mom and Dad

Ben Affleck: fuck you, Mom and Dad

You are the future big swinging dicks of this firm. Anybody who tells you money is the root of all evil doesn’t fucking have any. I have a Ferrari, a ridiculous house, every toy you could possibly imagine and best of all, kids, I am liquid. We want winners here, not pikers. People work at this firm for one reason: to become filthy rich. We’re not here to save the manatees. You want vacation time? Go teach third grade public school. Parents don’t like the life you lead? Fuck you, Mom and Dad. See how it feels when you’re making their fucking Lexus payments.

Well, say. Haven’t we all met someone like this in our lives? Years ago at a book publishing panel I was placed next to Ishmael Reed, a talented author of experimental novels who was well known in the Bay Area for his outspoken political views. Ish, as he’s called, abruptly began speaking very loudly, pounding the table in outrage about the book trade, which he thought was rigged (not his word but he was right), interrupting everybody and drowning me out when I disagreed with him.

Ishmael Reed, c. 1980s

Ishmael Reed, c. 1980s

The audience sat there stunned; the moderator couldn’t get a word in edgewise, and I felt mowed over by a man whose books I admired. At the end, Ishmail turned to me and laughed as though we were in on some kind of joke. “Hey, you were a great sport,” he said, holding out his hand. And what did I do, pillar of righteous feminism that I saw myself in those days? Of course I shook his hand. I wanted to be the gracious one, remembering my mother emphasize peace in the family, believing that the book industry needed people who pound the table — and giving him, I’m sure he thought, the win.

(It goes without saying that Hillary is wise not to react when Trump so blatantly lays out the bait. Hillary co-founded Isis? Really, she can’t be bothered. Let him hang himself.)

I’ve thought of that panel many times since Trump started his run because I don’t think he wants to be president at all. Realizing he can’t win must be a big relief. His obsession starts and stops with winning in the short term– in speeches, tweets, interviews, debates — because that keeps him in the center of attention. He doesn’t mind being seen as a racist, a woman-hater, an ignoramus, a bully or a coward. To him, taboos exist to bring the spotlight back.

In terms of winning the whole shebang — well, look what happened to Trump the big businessman. He got tired of fighting the thousands of lawsuits, bankruptcies, labor problems, tax audits, the constant burden of accountability. That’s what The Art of the Deal tells us 40 years later: becoming a caricature of himself, making a million dollars to say “You’re fired,” reselling his books of dreck — well, who wouldn’t choose celebrity over responsibility?

as long as I'm not fired.

as long as I’m not.

That’s the role Trump likes to play now. He’s an accuser, a punisher, a winner of the moment. But eight years in the White House?. The TV series House of Cards couldn’t state the lesson more plainly: The candidate may be interesting as he bludgeons, manipulates, kills and screws his to the top, but once in the White House, he’ll have to placate, he’ll have to convince, he’ll have to lead. Let Hillary have the headache. Trump has already accused the national election of being rigged, so he can’t lose. Come January, when Trump can’t be blamed for the next president’s mistakes, he wins.

Anyway, I’m not saying Trump lined up campaign workers and tore them apart for not selling more of The Art of the Deal at $184. I’m saying he didn’t have to. Word came down that the boss had another scam going, and everybody fell into place. Whatever their contribution to the $80 million in “small dollar donations,” they helped him look like a winner, at least for the month of July.

**About that NPR Politics Podcast, which ran August 4, 2016

In this episode the speakers were host/White House correspondent Tamara Keith, campaign reporter Sam Sanders, campaign reporter Scott Detrow and editor/correspondent Ron Elving. I can’t tell most of the voices apart so no one is identified, but here’s the full excerpt about the calls they received regarding The Art of the Deal:

Judging by what I get on my phone — yesterday I got 5 different appeals from 5 different Trump entities, or agencies that were working for the Trump campaign — all offering to sell me a copy of The Art of the Deal for —

$184!

For 184 …

Whoa.

… every single one [of the calls was] the same, and they just kept coming in and coming in and coming in. There’s a little bit of expense involved in that, plus of course he’s got to give up his entire basement stash of old copies of The Art of the Deal —

Yeah, I bought The Art of the Deal on Kindle earlier this year for a story we did —

Did you like it?

It cost a lot less than $184 —

Gonna bet it did —

I think it’s important to bring the context back with the Trump fundraising.

Yes!

The fact is that two months ago he had the amount of money in his campaign account that was less than a typical House (of Representatives) candidate. He had basically no money..

He had less than Ben Carson at one point, right?

Yes, everybody was freaking out about this. Shortly after those headlines, the Trump campaign kicked it in gear, actually made an effort to start making money. They’ve now had two months in a row where they’ve raised a decent amount of money. It’s still not as much as Hillary Clinton, but we’ve also not seen them actually take that money and spend it on things.

Hillary Clinton still has a huge advantage in terms of the number of ads that she’s going to be running over the next two months. The Trump campaign just has not bought that much advertising, and the fact is, for all the stuff that we’ve talked about high-tech outreach, you still get to the most voters with big TV ads.

This is the place to acknowledge that … is how Donald Trump gets away with spending so much advertising and winning primary after primary. He’s the master of social commentary, he gets a lot of free television, and I think he might just be thinking he doesn’t need to buy the kind of ads that Mitt Romney or John McCain bought, because he isn’t sure [advertising] did them much good, and he might just thrive without them.

It’s actually something he talks about in ….

THE ART OF THE DEAL!

(they all chime in)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About that “Publishing Revolution”

I’m very excited to speak next Saturday 3/5 in San Rafael for Sufi Women on “The Publishing Revolution.”

For years I’ve used that term to describe what Holt Uncensored is all about. Now for the first time I hope to answer two big questions about it in one talk:

#1 From the start, why did Americans follow the British model by allowing book publishers to locate in one place (the Atlantic seaboard at first, now New York), thus dictating to the tastes of the rest of the country? We certainly took our beloved newspaper presses Westward; why not book presses?

#2 Why don’t we call the present Internet era a transformation? What is it about the print-to-screen process that’s made it a publishing revolution? (Hint: arrogance and outrage, to be describe calmly.)

Coming with me will be a giant USA map (4 by 6 feet!) held up thanks to Sufi Women with clamps and tape and more than one easel, plus a red dot laser pointer used by actual snipers to show the glorious mess in media and book industries we’re living with now.

The energy of the crowd brings its own surprises, so come with burning questions and remember, the fee may be hefty ($30) but you get a terrific brunch plus the ambiance of golfers swearing outside the windows and me swearing calmly inside..

Pre-registration required but the great Sufi Women have extended the deadline to Wednesday 3/2. Here’s the information:

Patricia Holt

on

The Publishing Revolution

Saturday March 5, 2016

Brunch 9:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.

The Club at McInnis Park

350 Smith Ranch Road, San Rafael CA

For reservations call: 1-415-472-6959

Or register online at ias.org/swo

 

P.S.: THANK YOU SUFI WOMEN, a spiritual and humanitarian organization to beat the band.

Dumbness and Pornography at the New York Times

I used to enjoy the Sunday Magazine of the New York Times, in particular a page called The Ethicist. The writers there grappled with tough, snarly questions about ethics and moral clarity in our increasingly complicated times.

But something’s happened in recent months that make me want to toss the thing out the window. This once intelligent and thoughtful bastion of good writing has dumbed-down its content so much that kindergarten kids would laugh if they could read it.IMG_1938

Take this typical question: “Is it O.K. To Come to Work When I’m Sick and Sneezing?” Oh gosh, let me think. Answer: No.

Here’s another from a recent issue: “Should My Rich Friends Apply for Financial Aid?” You need an expert for this? Answer: No.

And Another: “Should I Help a Classmate Who Sexually Harassed My Friend Get a Job?” Are you nuts? Do you live on this planet? Answer: No.

And here’s one from the “Bonus Advice” column on the Ethicist page: “My husband complains that I use too much toilet paper. (We measured. I use approximately 20 squares per — .)” Answer: Never write to this column again.

IMG_1941Elsewhere, the New York Times Sunday Magazine has started a weekly survey that is so stupid and so appalling, I can’t believe anybody working there isn’t in jail.

The survey asks readers questions like this: “Would You Be an Anonymous Porn Star?”

That took my breath away. The editors write: “If you could star in a pornographic movie neck down and get paid handsomely for it, would you do it?”

To be kind, maybe the person who dreamed up this question is an older gentleman from the Penthouse/Playboy era who still believes that pornography portrays men getting laid by women who enjoy servicing them. Maybe this person thinks it’s fun to sidle up to guys like himself and say: Hey, it’s about anonymous sex with plenty of babes. You never get caught and it even pays well, so why not?IMG_1943

I’ll tell you why. We’re talking about the New York Times! Didn’t anyone research the fact that even 40 years ago, women “porn stars” were treated like sex slaves — beaten up behind the scenes; made to copulate with animals, submit to simulated and real gang rape, endure primitive breast implants and humiliating ejaculation scenes?

Remember “porn star” Linda Lovelace? She said the oral sex scenes in her famous movie, Deep Throat, were performed “with a gun to my head the entire time.” But let’s say women “porn stars” aren’t coerced — let’s say they need the cash and choose to appear being strangled or whipped while raped. Is this the kind of image you’d want your son to see at age 11 (average age of boys first viewing pornography), or your daughter to aspire to as a “porn star”?

411vFXivT2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Plus, that was 40 years ago. As any New York Times assistant editor would have discovered through a cursory search on Google, today, thanks to competition on the Internet, the pornography industry is much worse — much more brutal, cruel, ruthless and jaded.

As documented by Wheelock College professor Gail Dines in her book, Pornland (Beacon, 2011), escalating forms of violence in pornography have made the sight of ripped vaginas, bloody anuses and faces blinded by ejaculate lure younger and younger male viewers.

So the problem isn’t only dumbed-down information. It’s the New York Times Sunday Magazine pimping out women as objects of sick fantasies. Who takes responsibility for this? Ultimately, it has to be the publisher, Andy Wright.

Andy Wright

Andy Wright

And look, he’s not an elderly gentleman at all! Just a nice-looking white guy, like your typical John.

Granted, Andy Wright gets to take credit, too, for an excellent article elsewhere in the magazine just last Sunday (January 5) called “To Catch a Rapist.” It describes SVU (Special Victims Unit) detectives in New Haven working through a huge caseload of sex crimes.

But that’s all the more reason for the entire staff to keep professional standards high in every article and item, including — ta da! — a page called The Ethicist. Or maybe they’re counting too many toilet paper squares to notice.

Amazon: The Spoof and the Store

Here’s a fictional job interview from a recent novel about Amazo — pardon, a retail book giant on the Internet with the made-up name of Scroll. See if you recognize this novel:

“Tell me, Alice, how do you like to read?”

“Oh – well, I love to read!”

“I mean, do you use an e-reader or …?”

She leaned forward slightly, like she wanted to reach over and catch my answer in her hands.

“Of course. I have a Kindle, first generation. I also read galleys, manuscripts, hardcovers, basically whatever I can get my hands on.”

“So you’re agnostic.”

“Actually I was raised Catholic, and I’ve fallen pretty far from the flock, but I still consider myself a spiritual person, if that makes any sense?” (Why was she asking about religion? Was this even legal?)

“Good to know. But I meant platform agnostic, meaning you toggle back and forth between your device and carbon-based books.”

If you spotted this as a scene from A Window Opens by Elizabeth Egan, published by Simon & Schuster in August, you’re right.

"A Window Opens," hardcover edition.

“A Window Opens,” hardcover edition.

Egan, who once worked as an editor at Amazon’s New York publishing office, has given us both a cautionary tale and a spoof about the horrid place. Instead of parodying the book publishing efforts that she witnessed for about a year, A Window Opens envisions what might happen if Amazon were to climb down from its e-Ivory Tower and open an actual brick-and-mortar bookstore.

And so, ta da! That very thing happened just last month, when the online retail giant Amazon.com opened Amazon Books, a 5500-square-foot retail bookstore in Seattle. Rumor has it this might be the flagship for a coming chain of retail bookstores across the country, but we won’t know for a year or so.

Amazon's first bookstore (not a Benihana)

Amazon’s first bookstore (not a Benihana)

In the book, Egan’s vision of Amazon’s first retail effort is different from the reality, as we’ll see. But in both cases, the store and the spoof, observers get to see how easily the language of e-everythinge-readers, e-books, e-devices, e-families, e-marriage, e-idiocy and e-tyranny — affects modern life.

A Window Opens is about Alice Pearce, a happily married mother of three kids in upscale New Jersey, who holds a part-time job as book editor for a popular women’s magazine called You.

This is the first of several parallels linking author and character. Egan is also a mother of three living in suburban New Jersey, and You sounds like a combination of the real-life magazine Self, where Egan once worked as book editor, and Glamour, where she reviews books now.

Alice loves the fact that she can commute to Manhattan part-time and be a stay-at-home mother most of the time. When, however, her husband Nicholas is passed over for partner at his hotsy totsy Wall Street firm, he figures his only option is to start a firm of his own. With no start-up money, no office and no clients, he needs Alice to step up and find a high salary-paying job of her own.

Author Elisabeth Egan

Author Elisabeth Egan

Facing that all-too-common terror of the long-out-of-work “soccer Mom” leaving a cushy fun employer like You and returning to full-time work, Alice finds out fast that she’s practically unemployable. Then almost out of the blue, she’s asked to interview for a job as “content manager” at Scroll, a new chain of bookstores that may quickly dominate the retail landscape.

“Our mission is to reinvent reading the way Starbucks reinvented coffee,” says the Marketing Specialist at Scroll who discovers Alice – not through an employment agency or head-hunter, of course, but by following Alice’s cute literary bon mots on Twitter.

Scroll outlets will not be bookstores exactly. They’re called “reading lounges” because for one thing, there will be no physical (carbon-based!) books in the stores. Instead, customers will be able to, as Alice learns, “browse e-books on docked tablets and then download files directly to all their devices at once. Plans for the lounges include fair-trade-certified coffee bars and eco-friendly furniture sourced from reclaimed local materials.”

Although based in Manhattan to be near the mainstream book industry, Scroll is “tethered to its parent,” a giant chain of shopping malls called MainStreet that “curates” retail needs in one place. “So patrons could buy, say, a wheel barrow along with their gardening book,” Alice tells us.

You can see the author’s smart set-up. Words like CURATE, AGNOSTIC and CARBON-BASED all sound like exaggerations that could easily spring from a company like Amazon — or Google, Apple, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — where workers feel required to use language that sounds visionary, hip and brave.

At a Scroll store, customers can browse e-books in a recliner chair with cup holders that keep their organic beverage warm. And they can sit there as long as they like doing SSR (Sustained Silent Reading).

[DRIB (Don’t Read If Busy):

[I kept thinking that Scroll is the worst idea for a bookstore I’ve heard in years — for one thing because it’s already been done. The very first B Dalton store in Minnesota (late 1960s) looked something like Scroll, with big easy chairs, wide aisles, parquet floors, a helpful-to-obsequious staff and muffled quiet to inspire as much SSR as people could handle.

Pickwick Bookshop, founded 1938

Pickwick Bookshop, founded 1938

As I recall, that first B Dalton nearly failed until a management scout visited the noisy, congested Pickwick Book Shop on Hollywood Blvd. in Los Angeles. The aisles were covered with ratty flooring and crowded with so many piles of books that customers had trouble walking anywhere, let alone sitting down for SSR. Shopping was entirely self-service and the lines at the cash registers were packed with people buying (not reading) books by the armload.

The lesson at Pickwick was that bookstore customers didn’t want to interact with a sales clerk who might ask embarrassing literary questions they couldn’t answer. And they didn’t like SSR in a retail setting – too much like a library. They preferred to do their reading at home or in a crowded coffee shop.

B Dalton mall store

B Dalton mall store

So B Dalton’s management adapted to this model by not learning anything in particular. It simply bought and closed the venerable Pickwick Book Shop and its small local chain, copied the Pickwick approach and charged publishers for every inch of display space it could get away with. As a result, B Dalton’s junky, commercial-books-only shopping mall stores did well for a time, as did its competitor, Waldenbooks.]

Egan is clearly aiming her expose at Amazon, but she’s too smart to quote CEO Jeff Bezos’ icky coined words, like “customer-centric.” Instead she turns to his other icky ideas, such as “the empty chair.” When Alice notices that at least one chair is left empty no matter how crowded the meeting, a Scroll colleague explains: “The empty chair is for the customer,” because the customer, nobody should forget, “always has a presence in meetings.”

The "empty chair" theory as adopted by business consultant Gardner Customer Solutions

The “empty chair” theory as adopted by business consultant Gardner Customer Solutions

Yikes, how dumbed-down can Amazon get, you may scoff. But Bezos used the empty chair as “the ultimate boss at Amazon” — and the idea was picked up by so many management consultants for so many years, it became a cliché. According to Forbes magazine, Bezos then replaced it with “specially trained employees” — actual human beings called Customer Experience Bar Raisers. “When they frown, vice-presidents tremble.”

In a similar way, Scroll increasingly takes on a kindergarten feel in Egan’s novel. As part of their “onboarding” (orientation) period, workers must learn “the patois of Scroll,” such as “dropping a meeting” on someone’s calendar, or showing team spirit by switching their candy preference to gummy bears made by Haribo, “the leading candy consumed by voracious readers,” Alice’s boss Genevieve declares with authority.

Customer-centric gummy bears: better than books?

Customer-centric gummy bears

True, the pressures on Alice are anything but child’s play. She must “liaise” with 30 agents and editors immediately and select 450 titles for Scroll’s first inventory; she must generate quickie e-books called ScrollOriginals (how close to Amazon’s “Kindle Singles” can you get?); and she must aspire to become a “ScrollCrier” who keeps the world “up-to-the-minute on our mission as it continues to evolve,” says Genevieve.

At first, workers at Scroll don’t have to punch in or account for their time, but soon an email circulates that everyone must “run their palms beneath our new Biometric Time Clock” each morning as a way of assisting “trackability.” No matter. Alice’s first email from Scroll arrives at 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday, so she’s on the clock 24/7 anyway.

And Scroll is not just any start-up. It’s backed by MainStreet, a hugely successful chain of high-end shopping malls founded by the Rockwell brothers – and here the author’s description sounds a bit like the brothers who started Borders Books, a now defunct but once tyrannical big-box bookstore chain. The Borders brothers sold out before they could do as much damage as the thuggy Riggio brothers of Barnes & Noble (not mentioned in the book, thank heaven). Still, they left their mark by contributing to the bankruptcy of every independent retailer in Borders’ path.

The first Borders brothers store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1971

The first Borders brothers store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1971

In any case, Scroll is set to become part of MainStreet’s new “lifestyle centers,” meaning shopping malls called Heritage Towne – and that’s TOWNE WITH AN /E,’ by the way. (Any time you want to evoke an old-timey feeling, just add an e or other letter, like the Bun Shoppe).

Heritage Townes are thriving, Alice learns, because they “mimic the hometown vibe of the very mom-and-pop stores they put out of business. Cobblestone, gaslit lanes connect Johnny Rockets (hamburger joints) with Hollister (clothing stores for “cool guys and gals”); phone charging stations are coyly housed inside old-fashioned phone booths; easy-listening renditions of folk favorites are piped to the furthest reaches of the parking lot, for the brave souls who forgo valet service. Heritage Towne has a gym, a movie theater, a band shell, a medical center, and its own Whole Foods.”

Liberty Bell topiary -- who could resist?

Patriotic topiary — who could resist?

Further, Alice notes, “all shrubbery was cleverly groomed with a patriotic theme. In the short walk around the place, I spotted topiaries in the shape of Uncle Sam, the Liberty Bell, and of course, a giant dollar bill.”

Alice doesn’t like the studied kitsch of Heritage Towne, but she is intrigued by Scroll’s boldness, even its vision, in the face of New York’s rickety old publishing industry. “It would be fun to be at the beginning of something,” she thinks naively. “How many years have I been listening to the death knell of magazines?”

Or books. “Who doesn’t want to see more bookstores, right?” says Genevieve, also thinking simplistically. Whether Scroll is good or bad for readers, for free speech, for capitalism, or for our democracy doesn’t seem to matter to Genevieve or for the most part to Alice. What gets everyone’s attention is the latest upgrade in buzz. In the “simulated Scroll lounge” that’s been constructed in the New York office, Genevieve points out proudly, “we have a roaster on the premises so we know our beans have been treated humanely.”

What sustains Alice through her exhausting 90-hour weeks at Scroll is that allure so often heard in real life from Wonder Boys like Jeff Bezos — that you don’t just have a job when you work for companies like Amazon; you are changing the future.

Unknown-6Remember Bezos’ 10 business philosophies in real life? Just to dip into them for a moment: #2 is Stick with Two Pizzas, meaning a project team should consist of 5-7 people, small enough to “feed with only two pizzas,” heh heh, pretty sophisticated, right?

Similarly, Scroll abides by its own Tenets of Winners, conveyed through acronyms such as:

WGIR Winners Get It Right

SADYC Surprise and Delight Your Customer

WTF not WHAT THE F-K as they say in Internet lingo, but rather Winners Talk Frankly

WATOQ, Winners Answer Their Own Questions.

Using the Tenets of Winners, Alice is told, every problem has a solution: “If you couldn’t find the answer you needed, you could file a ‘trouble ticket,’ organized by six-digit numbers. Your manager would be cc’ed on any trouble ticket you filed, so new employees were cautioned to file them sparingly or risk flagging themselves as poor problem solvers.”

At one meeting, the young team leader mispronounces the word Tenet as TENANT, as in the TENANTS OF WINNERS – a mistake only someone like Alice (considered an editorial type in this crowd) catches but can’t share. She’s older than her bosses and doesn’t dare instruct them.

Sandberg and Zuckerman: dress code even for them?

Sandberg and Zuckerberg: dress code for her?

Nor does she change unwritten rules, such as: When visiting MainStreet’s midwest offices, women wear blazers, blouses and skirts, while men come and go in hoodies and jeans. This is so close to the bone (see photos of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg), you hear yourself groan.

Finally, Alice learns that she must defer especially to Greg, the self-empowered youngest MainStreet brother and founder of Scroll. Greg has his own wisdom statement, often repeated, which is: We have to ask ourselves, by which he means the older generation’s truths may not apply to today’s realities, so “they” were wrong and we -Greg and his brothers – are right.

In a rare visit to her office, Greg looks at a stack of books on Alice’s desk that are soon to be released from New York publishers. He should know that Alice is one of the very few people outside mainstream houses to see these books so early, but instead, thinking of that “carbon-based” label everyone at Scroll uses by now, he says,

“You really want to pollute the environment with that crap?”

“Excuse me?”

“No, seriously, I just got back from a fact-finding mission at the Strand.** That place is a tinderbox waiting to go up in flames. We have to ask ourselves, what kind of impact is all that paper having on our planet?” He shuddered….

Alice begins to tell Greg how she’s curating her first list of recommended fiction titles for the Scroll customer, but he interrupts.

“All good stuff. But we have to ask ourselves, what does the customer really want, right?”

“Right.” I was still getting used to Scroll speak, which involved a semi-Socratic tic of inserting “Right?” at the end of every sentence.

“Wait, sorry, Greg, what do you mean?”

“I mean, does the customer really want books with his coffee, or might he enjoy something else?”

“Like …?”

“I don’t know. Isn’t that your job?” Greg gazed at me through heavy-lidded eyes. Was he high?

“I guess I’m not understanding your question.”

“I’ll break it down for you. What’s the best way for us to gain traction in the marketplace?”

“By creating a bookstore experience like no other? By giving customers something they can’t get anywhere else? Beyond that, I haven’t really thought -“

“Well, start thinking, girl!” Greg squinted at the picture on my desk.

“Hey, switching gears here, is that your family?”

“Yes, the kids are older now but – “

“Let me ask you, what video games do they like to play?”

I laughed. “Much to my son’s chagrin, we don’t have any video games…I want my kids to be readers and to live in the real world – not some fake universe. Not to mention the violence.” I congratulated myself on adhering to the sixth tenet, WTF: Winners Talk Frankly.

Oh dear. Well, we know where that’s going to get her. You only talk frankly to the company founder if his attention span is longer than the three seconds he allows himself to “switch gears.”

[**DRIB: Don’t Read If Busy

It’s worth taking a moment to note that Greg refers to his “fact-finding mission at the Strand” as though walking into a bookstore is a dangerous, heroic quest. All he sees are stacks of glued and sewn paper that make no sense to him in the Brave New World of e-bookstores he believes Scroll is bringing to life.

But something happens to customers at the Strand — it’s just a thought but it has the power of a thunderbolt — and I wish it had struck Greg when he was there. That is: It’s one thing to imagine the virtual universe of Amazon/Scroll’s access to a million books in the e-atmosphere; but it’s quite another to walk along the Strand’s incredible 18 miles of new, used and rare books that customers can actually see, pick up, open and start reading right there.

These 2.5 million books don’t represent anything — they ARE our reality; they bring to us just about everything humanity knows at this moment (in the English language mostly); and have been valued and traded in this one bookstore for nearly 90 years. That’s before and after the arrival of the Internet.

The Strand, interior shot

The Strand, interior shot from ceiling

It’s this thought — the astounding physical fact of the English-language world in book form right in front of you, surrounding you and if you’re not careful about to topple down on your head — that astonishes customers and staff alike, so of course Greg is unimpressed. To Egan’s credit, he is not a Jeff Bezos lookalike or a Mark Zuckerberg stand-in. He is a well-drawn Internet caricature with no curiosity, no sense of history and no interest in the way differences in customer tastes could strengthen rather than weaken a company like Scroll.

Of more importance to Greg: Everything he says has such kingly import that he needn’t worry about “staying on topic.” It doesn’t serve him to think more deeply than the platitudes he believes are making Scroll a success. He is a grown child, both a big baby and a paternalistic brat who should be out on the fringes but somehow feels all too recognizable in any business, especially the postmodern Internet start-up world.]

So now let’s turn back to see what we can learn from A Window Opens and the real-life Amazon’s first brick-and-mortar store ever, Amazon Books, which just opened last month in Seattle.

First a question: is Amazon Books in the University Village of Seattle really located “just up the road” from the historic (founded in 1900) University Bookstore of the University of Washington? (From a map it appears to be a dozen blocks away.) If so, do you think Bezos could have found a location more distant from another bookstore that sells, you know, books?

University Book Store, U. of Washington

University Book Store, U. of Washington

I ask this because barging into the neighborhood of an existing independent bookstore and stealing its customer base by offering heavily discounted books was the predatory method that chain bookstores used to cripple the competition in the ’80s and ’90s and early 2000s.

You’d think Amazon for once wouldn’t make that mistake, if only for the PR advantage of no longer being considered The Internet Bully of All Time. But no. Even the New Republic said “it’s difficult not to see Amazon’s choice of location as yet another act of aggression toward indie bookstores.”

Amazon Books, interior (not the Dish Room)

Amazon Books, interior (not the Dish Room)

Second, here is an excerpt from Amazon’s welcome letter to customers, written by Amazon Books’ vice president, Jennifer Cast: The books in our store are selected based on Amazon.com customer ratings, pre-orders, sales, popularity on Goodreads, and our curators’ assessments. These are fantastic books! Most have been rated 4 stars or above, and many are award winners.”

Amazon Books: signs show just how "fantastic" these books can be

Amazon Books: signs confirm high ratings of customers

Okay, got it. Only good books at an Amazon bookstore, right? And Amazon wants you to know they are good because customers like you — your peers — have said so. Signs make it clear not to worry, you are secure knowing the books are “Highly Rated” with a positive customer comment printed out right there on the shelf.

[We figure Amazon didn’t fall for any phony wowzer comments the author paid for, right? So let’s just bypass that conversation.]

Plus all titles, by the way, are sitting “face-out” on the shelf so you don’t have to lift your hand to pull a book out by its spine and turn it this way and that to examine the cover. Sort of like the Dish Room in the White House; kind of a static feeling. Books facing out take up so much space that Amazon Books offers a fraction of the inventory sold at an independent store, and yet customers on Yelp and other sites say the aisles are small and have that “cramp” feeling.

The real Dish Room at the White House

The real Dish Room at the White House

This is the difference between an Amazon bookstore offering statistically popular books and an independent bookstore employing buyers who choose books for different reasons than widespread acceptance.

In an independent store, the buyers meet with publishers’ sales reps as much as six months in advance to weigh the value of each title for every kind of audience. There is some guesswork in this process — publishing is always a crap shoot, after all — and sometimes these buyers will recommend a title that offends some customers. Or at least, that is the hope. These buyers are looking for quality in messge and style; they trust that enough readers are out there who’ll seek out or take a chance on titles that might not be as popular as they are adventurous, off the grid, a little wild.

I wonder for instance if Lolita or Howl or The Color Purple or Lady Chatterly’s Lover or The Autobiography of Malcolm X or The Naked Lunch would have received 4+ stars from customers when these titles were first published — you know, when they were banned and reviewed with disgust and when they caused booksellers to be prosecuted simply for displaying them in the store.

Today you’ll find the modern equivalent in independent bookstores because that’s why these retailers ARE independent — an experienced buyer with vision and a sense of literary ambition for the store is always looking for the unpredictable, that rare opportunity to pique our interests.

On the other hand, at a store like Amazon Books, offering titles that are already established among readers is a safe, dull and (to me) insulting way to enter the retail market. Yes, there is reference to “our curators’ assessments” (sheesh, that word) but these titles seem confined to a “staff-favorites section” rather than as part of a buyer’s decision to mix up the inventory.

[Plus: The staff-favorites section at Amazon Books includes several of Jeff Bezos’ own picks, isn’t that cozy? Maybe we’re supposed to think, Oh good, Dad’s entered into the fun, since one of his favorites is Traps by his wife, MacKenzie Bezos. Aw, Dad. you old softie.]

What’s missing at Amazon Books is that element of risk and adventure you can sense the minute you walk into an independent bookstore. Of course, best-selling titles are everywhere in an indie bookseller, but so are books by authors nobody’s heard of who may be so original and fresh they just have to be read. Unknown, controversial, up-from-nowhere works may not appeal to everybody — they may, in fact, take your head off with their decidedly UNpopular views or style — but heavens, what kind of democracy would we have without that kind of choice?

So it isn’t just that Amazon Books looks like an expensive chain restaurant that’s been overdesigned in wood and signage. (How much of the interior is “eco friendly” or derived from “reclaimed local materials” is not stated.) Rather, everything feels so tidy, so received, so Soviet, so data-molded that a blandness and prudency seem to settle over the place.

I’m sure many titles at Amazon Books do challenge us, but hell, you can get that kind of surprise from a spin rack in a drug store. What makes me nervous is the promise of statistical rankings (“4.8 Stars and Above”) that guarantee conformity.

What does novelist Elizabeth Egan have to say about all this? A Window Opens shows how an Internet company like Amazon/Scroll not only limits our choices in books but corrupts the very language we use about the book business. Granted, fashions in word use come and go, like using “curate” because it sounds classier than “select,” or tossing in the term “carbon-based” so you’ll feel guilty about — well, whatever it describes. But fashions are always short-term, thank heaven. The day everybody gets sick of “iconic” will herald a national holiday that I hope comes soon.

What scares me is that the narrowing of language leads to a narrowing of imagination, as represented in Egan’s novel by Greg and the Scroll team. When workers see no difference between the TENANTS and the TENETS of Winners — or like Alice they can’t say they do without sounding unAmerican — the core message of Amazon/Scroll turns out to be: Stay low, use approved buzz words, don’t read (who has time?), be a team player, lean out and shut up.

One last thing about A Window Opens: It’s a great send-up by a former employee of the metastacized Amazon empire that’s consuming the world. But it’s also a very good commercial novel with its own twists and surprises, its unexpectedly poignant moments about raising children and its intriguing subplots, some of which don/t involve an expose of Amazon.

Woven throughout, for example, are Alice’s brother, seemingly liberated from capitalism; her dad’s throat cancer (and the “Buzz Lightyear” appliance he uses for a voicebox); the children’s adjustment to Mom’s insane new job; and Nicholas’ own, very rocky transition from up-and-comer to failure to scaredy cat to independent thinker and Dad.

Plus there’s a very intriguing conflict between Alice and her best friend, who owns a terrific independent bookstore that may be the first to be knocked off by Scroll. This store seems to be similar to Elisabeth Egan’s own neighborhood bookstore, Watchung Booksellers (of Watchung Plaza in Montclair, New Jersey).

Remembering how much she has valued this store, Egan commented recently that “Watchung Booksellers is the first place that my kids walked to alone.” This was just a casual comment made without much thought, but it’s a tribute as touching as anything Alice Pearce says in the book. It means that the first time you let your kids walk anywhere on their own, you want the destination to be a trusted place where people know your children and keep an eye out to make sure they arrive safely. Local retail stores are like that, bookstores especially, because kids already know the way to story-time events, circle-time readings and the like.

Egan signing books at Watchung Booksellers

Egan signing books at Watchung Booksellers

And, more important than I thought at first, A Window Opens is the story of yet another mother trying to “have it all” by going back to work in a job environment so dictatorial and punishing that it may ruin her life. Here is Alice’s advice to the family’s indispensable baby sitter — who at 18 is leaving the family to start her own career- but the message applies to many:

“… please don’t waste time wondering whether it’s possible to ‘have it all.’ Banish the expression from your vocabulary; make sure your friends do, too. A better question is What do you really want? Diving headlong into the second quarter of your life without asking this question is like going grocery shopping without a list. You’ll end up with a full cart but nothing to cook for dinner. Figure out what you feel like eating, and then come up with your own recipe for the whole messy, delicious enchilada.”

This is in character for Alice but I’m kind of disappointed that she didn’t say what A Window Opens tells us, that “having it all” is a family thing. Everybody gets to have it all if everybody pitches in. Husbands need to balance priorities – not just to do the dishes or pick up the kids up but to assume full partnership with Mom and tackle that surprising array of family needs — and, most of all, experiencing those unpredictable heart-stopping moments when the kids do something that’s hilarious and serious and in character for the self-actualized beings they are still to become.

I think that’s what the book really proposes. It’s sort of a fictional take on Sandberg’s Lean In, and again I’m impressed that for all we learn about Amazon-type companies “reinventing the future” in an alarmingly bland, somewhat willy-nilly and domineering fashion, the book’s most valuable inside look is at our own humanity in the face of enormous change.