NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #110
by Pat Holt

Tuesday, November 23, 1999:

THE WASHINGTON POST GOES TO SEATTLE
YOU BET I'M GLAD TO KNOW

LETTERS

THE WASHINGTON POST GOES TO SEATTLE

Thanks to the many readers who have referred me to the odd yet fascinating article about Amazon.com in yesterday's Washington Post. Gad, after the last column I wasn't going to write about the Seattle company for at least another hour or so.

A lot of journalists are watching Amazon.com for chinks in its empire-building armor, just as a lot of employees and ex-employees are purporting to speak out from the inside, especially when the company looks shaky on Wall Street. Just a few days ago I received an anonymous note from the always remarkable FOF (friend of a friend), this one in "soggy Seattle." It reads:

"One of my co-workers worked in a wonderful Amazon.com warehouse. He, a veteran of 10 years in the book biz working for a great independent bookstore, was told that he was too inexperienced to work in customer service (or was it the opposite?), so he and his pal went to work in the warehouse. He says that a buzzer sounds when you start your break, then another buzzer as a 5-minute warning. Another after 3 minutes and if you are not in place on time, you're fired. One night, having had enough, they quit on the spot."

Tantalizing notes like this make it appear that working conditions at Amazon.com, if opened up to scrutiny, might be Dickensian at best. So who could blame Washington Post writer Mark Leibovich for going to Seattle to interview employees who apparently promised to tell all about "a secretive Amazon world."

His article in the Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/WPlate/1999-11/22/152l-112299-idx.html offers an inside look at alleged pennypinching tactics aimed at employees in the customer service division of Amazon.com.

The statistics and background information he offers are important, but it appears that nothing extraordinarily oppressive is going on. The most Leibovich uncovers is the familiar griping of overworked, underpaid employees who find their talents "underutilized" in the electronic industry.

One does feel sympathy for college graduates stuck in customer service cubicles answering hundreds of email and telephone queries that sometimes back up in the thousands. Leibovich reports that last Labor Day weekend, Amazon.com's backlog "swelled to 11,000 outstanding e-mail messages" - not exactly a "customer-centric" system, to use founder Jeff Bezos' favorite term.

And there is an amusing if chilly reference to Amazon.com managers trying to act like happy cheerleaders whose "Hi Team!" enthusiasm inspires and threatens at the same time. As one manager's memo states: "You own this goal. I own this goal. We all will share in the consequences of failing to meet this goal."

Contests, races and "build your own sundae" parties cajole staffers to get the work done on overtime. Possibly Orwellian is the "midnight madness lock-a-thon," at which customer service representatives shut themselves in all night to see who can answer the most emails. Who couldn't love the manager who titled his lock-a-thon memo, "YOU CAN SLEEP WHEN YOU'RE DEAD."

So as much as I join with the Leiboviches of the world in suspecting that Amazon.com's dazzling image is tarnished on the inside, I think it's important to note that investigative reporters haven't turned up much over the years. Amazon.com's employee-relations policies are simply as mediocre as those of any other Internet company, which is as telling, perhaps, as any out-and-out indictment.

Heaven knows the New Economy notion of luring overqualified employees to accept dirt-cheap wages for a grab at stock options should not be the standard for any era. Amazon.com, which insists it's the pioneer and the visionary and model for so many Internet E-tailers, has every option to choose a more enlightened "employee-centric" path, but refuses to choose it.

The whole matter reminds me of a similar and rather comical attitude toward employees that was prevalent in the early days of publishing (well, my early days, beginning in 1969), when everybody used to laugh about salaries paid to young hopefuls in New York houses.

Surveys at the time revealed that publishing was the only industry to pay lousier wages than did the insurance industry. The book biz got away with this by embracing employees' love of books, and art, and the creative process as though it were part of the benefits package.

Entry-and mid-level workers were supposed to feel so privileged to work in something other than, say, soup or shoes or linoleum that complaining about working conditions or asking for a raise was verboten. One assistant editor in my publishing house who sought an increase of $5 a week was required to submit her personal budget to the Vice President of Trade Operations so that he could personally ascertain whether she needed the money.

So you stop that, you tight-fisted Amazon.com payrole officers! Skinflint salaries may be a fine old tradition in publishing, but remember the new millennium! Spread those losses around!

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YOU BET I'M GLAD TO KNOW

Excerpt from Alex Beam's column, Boston Globe, 11/19/99:

"Does Pat Holt know about this? Holt writes a weekly newsletter bashing chain bookstores (nciba.com/patholt.html), so she'll be delighted to know that the good guys seem to have won one. The landlord of the Barnes & Noble superstore on Route 9 in Chestnut Hill has put the 19,000-square-foot space on the market.

"This means that the store has failed to achieve its purpose in life - destroying the TGIF-approved, family-owned New England Mobile Book Fair. Now, we wonder if B&N will close down its eerily empty Harvard Street store in Brookline, which has also failed in its mission to put the TGIF-approved, independently owned Brookline Booksmith out of business. A B&N spokeswoman says the company is trying to renegotiate the Chestnut Hill lease, which expires Dec. 31. ...

"Alex Beam's e-dress is beam@globe.com ."

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored,

While we can all run in circles, scream and shout over the taking over of America's independent bookstores by the monolith of book sellers, Amazon.com, why is it that even when one goes to a local library and asks about a certain book, the reference librarian makes a few quick key strokes on their computer and - voila! - up pops Amazon.com to give a complete readout of book, author, price, publisher and whatever else one needs to know about said book?

Is Amazon.com now the generic reference for reference librarians of our fair land?

To the uninitiated library user peering over the reference desk, this tells that person that Amazon.com must be the oracle of knowledge for all libraries and librarians. Surely there must be a better and more neutral source of book information available and readily useable for libraries, one that is visible to the borrower and one that is not a screaming advertisement for this elephantine corporation that appears to be displacing the independent bookstore and book seller on a daily basis.

Phil Anderson

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

Loved your description of the Jackie Gleason skit. . . . But let's give credit where it's due. Charlie Chaplin did the first version of this (as far as I know -- maybe there was an earlier incarnation, but I doubt it) in his splendid film "Modern Times." He even anticipated Radio Amazon by having the owner of the factory where Charlie worked deliver motivational lectures via 78-RPM recordings.

You remember those things. They looked a little bit like black CD's.

The breathless description of the Amazon.com distribution center, however, sounds more like a gob of futuristic puffery out of a Hugo Gernsback magazine. Maybe, SCIENCE WONDER STORIES circa 1929. Don't know if you're familiar with the works of the late Mr. Gernsback. He was an energetic publisher who flooded the world with "scientifiction" periodicals, pamphlets and books, painting a glorious technophiliac utopia, just in time to be brought down by the Great Depression.

Something to think about there, too, sweetums!

Dick Lupoff

Holt comments - thanks to the many readers who remember Charlie Chaplin when I did not. He was the first and most memorable of the assembly line workers who tried to become an automaton. As one reader notes, "The analogy holds up even after all these years and changes in eras. When it comes to the trilogy of humanity, money and technology, people are configured in last and thoughtlessly."

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

Here's another "Let's Hear It Again for Independents" letter:

A month or so ago, Ed Kaufman of M is for Mystery in San Mateo called out of the blue to say he'd be in Los Angeles and wondered if he could bring down copies of my book, The Elvis and Marilyn Affair, to be signed. How flattering for a first-time author, I thought, and, moreover--Wow! What a savvy, sales-minded book seller. We made arrangements and I subsequently signed 10-12 books.

Flash forward to a few weeks ago. Ed on the phone again, wondering if I might be interested in flying up there for an in-store appearance on Saturday, Dec. 4. No way I'd even think of saying no to an indie dealer so supportive of authors, who sees so clearly that selling is an aggressive art that calls for a partnership in cooperation toward mutually beneficial intent: moving books out of the store while helping to establish an author's "brand identity."

It'll be my first visit to a Northern California bookseller, and I'm looking forward to it.

Robert S. Levinson
http://www.rslevinson.com

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

Little Professor Book Center, an independent here in Columbus, OH, has an angel program at Christmas. They get the names and ages of children from one of the county agencies and pin them up in the store. Customers then buy age appropriate books, and the store wraps them for free and distributes them. Is that going on anywhere out there in your neck of the woods? It's a great program.

Holt responds: This kind of program goes on everywhere that independent bookstores exist and is one of the more heartwarming aspects of a season so otherwise affected by commercialism. I'd love to run more examples.

\r