NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #113
by Pat Holt

Tuesday, December 7, 1999:

A WISH LIST FOR THE NEW MILLENNIUM
Bertelsmann
Alibris
Crown Books
“Millionaire”
Borders
Elgrande.com
Barnes & Noble
Amazon.com
The ABA's Book Sense 76

LETTERS

A WISH LIST FOR THE NEW MILLENNIUM

Bertelsmann: Let the investigation begin!

It's been a year since allegations first surfaced that Bertelsmann, the fourth largest publisher in the world, was not correct in reporting that the company bravely resisted the Third Reich during World War II and was closed down by the Nazis.

"The facts are that Bertelsmann cooperated with the [Nazi] regime, publishing a wide range of Hitlerian propaganda," wrote Hersch Fischler and John Friedman in The Nation last December. Their blistering article portrayed Bertelsmann founder Heinrich Mohn as a member of the SS and described Bertelsmann titles that were "patently anti-Semitic works" supportive of Brownshirts, Hitler's pro-expansionist attacks on neighboring countries and Gobbels' propaganda ministry.

Bertelsmann promised to support an independent commission that would investigate its World War II activities and said it had asked "the historian and publicist Dr. Dirk Bavendamm, to look at the new information and begin to reinvestigate the role the publishing house played in those days."

But as the two writers more recently stated, again in The Nation (11/8/99), Bavendamm is the same "historian" who has published poems and drawings (later proved to be forgeries) allegedly written and drawn by a nicer, "mild Hitler." In the '80s and '90s he wrote books and magazine articles stating that "Roosevelt, not Hitler, had caused WWII . . . [and] that American Jews 'controlled most of the media' " in which they presented a false picture of Hitler."

Because of Bavendamm's apparent bias, the commission's chair, UCLA history professor Saul Friedlander, "insisted that it could not continue unless Bavendamm departed," say Fischler and Friedman. Bertelsmann agreed, yet apparently the investigation has continued to bog down.

Since the Bertelsmann Foundation gave a million dollars to the Anti-Defamation League, which fights anti-Semitism, and in October of this year the ADL honored Reinhard Mohn, the Bertelsmann co-founder whom the Nation writers say was once a member of the SS, one might say the tenor of the times has changed. The message to Bertelsmann may be simply to own up, pay up and move on.

Heaven knows, the longer Bertelsmann waits, the tougher it's going to be to bury the past in those long-closed archives and start the year 2000 off with a clean slate. As it is, Bertelsmann's acquisition of companies all over the globe does not inspire confidence in the fast-growing conglomerate.

So c'mon, Big B: Everybody's waiting. Bite that bullet and take Fischler and Friedman's concluding advice. "In any case, the Friedlander commission should widen the scope of its investigation of Bertelsmann to bring it closer to the present," The Nation concludes, "and Bertelsmann should immediately permit independent researches into the company's archives."

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Alibris: Setting those high standards

Didn't you think the president of Alibris showed tremendous ingenuity when he explained why his company is guilty of intercepting e-mail messages from Amazon.com?

Alibris is a rare-book exchange that provides email service to book dealers. Caught storing copies of some 4000 email messages from Amazon.com to these dealers, Alibris' president Marty Manley said the company expects to pay a fine of $250,000.

Then he took a proactive stance. "I would say to anybody who is connecting buyers and sellers via email: If you're keeping a copy as it goes by, watch out."

Good one, Marty! The lesson is: When in doubt, don't open other people's mail! There's even a law against it called the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which Alibris admits having violated, although the company still contends its interception of 4000 messages was one of those innocent practices wrongly perceived.

"There was never any customer data or other confidential data that was compromised," Manley said. What a relief: For a moment it looked as though people doing business on the Internet believe it's okay to throw out principles learned on Earth and take a shot at whatever they can get away with in cyberspace. Thanks to No-compromise Alibris, we now know that isn't true.

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Crown Books: Take an extended vacation!

Of all bankrupt stores to emerge from the dead, Crown Books is sitting up in its Chapter 11 coffin! Apparently it plans to return big time in the year 2000.

Don't do it, Crownies! The ruthless discounts this chain once introduced seem tame today, bypassed by Internet booksellers, and no longer can Crown get away with, say, a Nature and Environment section that features such titles as "The Big Book of Kittens and Puppies."

Then there's the rumor that Crown plans to resurrect that dreaded slogan, "Books cost too much." This implied that other bookstores, especially independent bookstores charging full price, are ripping off the customer. But beware, Crownies: The way things are going online, "Books that cost too much" could be a description of your own inventory.

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That "Millionaire" Show: When TV reflects the Internet

Thank heaven the hit TV program "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" is so intellectually challenging with its tricky multiple-choice questions. One of the tougher offerings (paraphrased):

How many letters in the word "cat"?

  1. MCXXVIII
  2. 19,285
  3. 3
  4. Grant's Tomb
No wonder it took the Fall "sweeps" by storm and is set to return with a bang in 2000.

I got hooked on this show's incredible (to me) resemblance to the Internet - not so much because of the set, though it does seem to float around in cyberspace, or the contestants, who stare hard at their tiny computer screens whenever destiny seems within their grasp.

No, the reason for the show's popularity, I think, is its absolute reliance on the collective wisdom of the audience.

There in the dark sit masses of people applauding and cheering for the contestant, anxious to throw out a "lifeline" to help with the thornier questions. And when they use their electronic keypads to vote overwhelmingly for the correct answer, contestants always seem to shake their heads in wonder: "The audience is always right," they say.

So true. It's simply a given that these anonymous crowds, who don't know the contestant and don't have a stake in the winnings, feel inspired to be part of the process of exchanging accurate information.

Sure, there may be a few bad apples in the crowd who'd love to cause some mischief by voting for the wrong answer, just as there are bad guys on the Internet who send out viruses and spam.

But all in all, if you ever wonder: Are people basically good? Here on the mini-screen is your answer - in overwhelming numbers, these people want to bring intelligence and vision even to these silly proceedings. They want to pull from their experience and add to the existing body of knowledge. And most of all, they want to spread something good around so the guy they're rooting for gets a chance at some money.

And if you wonder the same thing on a planetary scale, why, on the Internet, the same answer is multiplied a thousand times. There, day after day, people send out fresh and innovative ideas for everything from the "open source" movement (computer users help software engineers develop new products) right on down to a forum like Holt Uncensored. They don't do it because there's a personal payoff but because together we all benefit from sharing what we know. That's all. And every day that we log on, this great adventure opens up to us. And the more numbers we bring to the Internet, the better it's going to be.

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Borders: You Can Stop Now

Some book industry observers (okay, me) believe the biggest event in 1999 was that the frontier got met: Small to mid-sized cities especially have all the chain bookstores they need, so Borders (which seems to add more stores more quickly than even Barnes & Noble), congratulations: You don't have to build any more.

Think what a relief that would be. Stopping construction would mean that Borders would never again have to face neighborhood protests, the stigma of being a Faceless Corporation, angry planning commission hearings or hostile labor union organizers. Accusations of predatory or targeting practices against independent stores would stop.

Best of all, the end of new would mean that sales alone could determine the outcome of profit-and-loss statements. Perhaps a settlement with the American Booksellers Association over its lawsuit would result in paying clerks a living wage. Perhaps, too, those promises about customizing inventory for local regions would actually be fulfilled.

Anything is possible: Borders corporate might try returning stores to their glory days, when the Borders brothers first introduced the idea of well-run superstores to Ann Arbor. What an astonishment to see individual stores in the chain think independently and do some of their own buying. That would make each Borders store as sensitive to customers' needs as many independent stores, which would be a miracle indeed.

Okay, it's all a fantasy, but what a lens with which to view recent news that Borders plans to open a new store in Hagerstown, Maryland. According to Publishers Weekly, "the 23,000-sq.-ft. store is the NINETEENTH [my emphasis] Borders in the Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia area."

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Elgrande.com and others: Stop the baloney

Ah, the promise of automation, 1999 style, for book publishers: Get rid of booksellers and distributors! Go direct to the consumer and sell "tons of books" without marketing! Bypass even the lardy chain stores and their dotcoms and don't even sniff at Amazon.com or other online booksellers who insist they have access to millions of customers you don't know.

Yes, this is the year dozens if not hundreds of ads have preyed on - pardon me - promised publishers and especially self-publishers to open the "sell-direct" door and let all the Bats of Ignorance fly out of the belfry. Typical among 'em is this excerpt from a full-page ad in PW (10/18/99) by online bookseller (and not a very good one) Elgrande.com:

"Disintermediation. It means a world without distributors, brokers or retailers. A world with low prices for consumers, and high margins and unlimited virtual shelf space for book publishers. A world where you can sell tons of books direct to your customers and build personal relationships in the process. Soon, the entire planet will work this way. Elgrande.com has already lit the fuse."

Goodness, what a load of baloney. Perhaps it's possible to sell "tons of books" and form "personal relationships" without going through booksellers or distributors, but how, and with whom?

Elgrande.com doesn't go into detail. Clearly authors and publishers who simply want to list titles on the company's data base, as they would at Amazon.com and other online booksellers, will have to do their own marketing. But let's not pretend that books don't need supporters every step of the way.

Elgrande.com is not the culprit, of course - it's the constant hammering by many such websites that says: Let's strip the publishing process of the human element and mechanize all of it. Let's forget the joy of working with independent booksellers - of watching the momentum build as each buyer, each clerk, each owner, each manager of (not all!) every other or every two or three or every ten or 12 independent bookstores fall in love with a book. Who would want to disintermediate that?

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Barnes & Noble: Keep the Separations Sacred

The year 2000 might be a good time for Barnes & Noble to learn how to respect boundaries, perhaps for the first time.

Certain principles do exist. In book publishing, for example, you don't want to mix editorial with sales. You don't want editors who are gifted at acquiring good books to be compromised by people in sales showing the manuscript to a Barnes & Noble buyer to see if it'll sell.

The opinions of booksellers, after all, can reflect only existing trends. Readers expect leadership from publishers. We want somebody (not B&N) to offer literature that none of us (including B&N buyers) could ever imagine. That's why it's called art. Publishers find it, booksellers sell it.

Then, too, you don't want to cross the line of unfair competition, which B&N tried to do when it proposed the acquisition of Ingram, the largest book distributor in the nation. The Federal Trade Commission only had to LEAK its doubts about that one before B&N pulled out.

One wishes the FTC had also stopped Bertelmann's purchase of one-half of Barnesandnoble.com last year. Despite the kinky tastes of some chain bookstores, you don't want publishers and booksellers to get in bed together in ANY way, either.

But now we come to another crossing of sacred ground as Barnes & Noble implements its November/99 purchase of 49% of the online publisher iUniverse.com. On the one hand, iUniverse works with the Authors Guild, Kinko's, Writer's Digest and Ingram to keep books available through its fast and affordable methods of print-on-demand.

On the other hand, looking at the publishing pitch to author/self-publishers, here we go again with the Elgrande.com model. "The saddest secret in publishing today," says iUniverse.com founder Richard Tam, "is that for every manuscript published as many as 20 get rejected and go unread solely due to economic reasons."

No doubt many good books slip through the cracks, but is it "solely due to economic reasons"? Could talent be a component? "We now have the capacity to publish 2,000 titles a month," Tam goes on, "and by next year, we'll publish tens of thousands of titles."

Let's see: the lowest rate for a participating author is $99, so that's about $200,000 a month for iUniverse and of course the remark about "tens of thousands" move the income into the millions.

Barnes & Noble promises to display information about the services offered by iUniverse in its retail stores - appealing therefore to more writers for that $99+ - but of course it says nothing about displaying the "tens of thousands" of books themselves.

So out with it, B&N: It's almost as if with iUniverse, you're not in the business of publishing books for your customers to read; you're out there to turn would-be writers into a cash cow milked by iUniverse. Don't you have other things to do, like selling bound books, for instance?

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Amazon.com: Share the playing field

My only wish for Amazon.com in the new millennium is that the company and its spokespersons show greater respect for independent bookstores than they have in the past. Readers are everywhere, books are plentiful, authors are prolific and good booksellers acknowledge that there's room for everybody. So you acknowledge that, too, Amazon.com - get used to it, welcome it and respect it - and learn to share the playing field like everybody else.

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The ABA's Book Sense 76 and The Book Sense Gift Certificate

Well, this is the most refreshing new idea to come along in the book business for years. Since we know that independent bookstores often discover books that the chains and online systems have missed, BookSense76 fills a huge need by regularly polling and publicizing the independents' choices for the top 76 books in a variety of categories.

Then, because we also know that independents aren't backed by publishers' advertising money in the same way that chains and online booksellers are, Book Sense takes the list of 76 already-voted-on titles to publishers and seeks marketing funds that will support independents as they spread the word and hand-sell these books to beat the band.

This program, plus Gift Certificates you can buy in one store and redeem in thousands of other independent stores (many more than exist in either chain), is part of the American Booksellers Association's attempt to itself spread the word about independent bookstores and their incredible resilience, their passion for books, their love of customers and, most of all, their powerful role in the launching of American literature from the year 2000 on.

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Regarding Readers' Books in Holt Uncensored #112. I moved from Sonoma over two years ago, and Readers' is one of the things I miss most. The character of the store, the selection of books, but mostly Andy and Lilla Weinberger and their staff, their love for books and readers, their special events, readings, the cordoning off of the street for a poetry block party -- true community resources.

I'll never forget the Readers' staff marching in the town's Fourth of July parade, each carrying a sign with a punctuation mark on it, and a banner reading, "A poem a week -- that's all we ask."

Ruth Frear

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

Like your pointer to the thinking bookstore's website. Our own site has been staff-written since its start in early 1995. We decided then to not even try to hang up a data base but to put up warm and lively, frequently changing content by our colleagues. Of the 56 people who work at the independent American Book Center with stores in Amsterdam, the Hague and Leuven, 50 are buyers. They write about books and whatever else occurs to them in a quarterly newsletter, circ. 13,000, which hangs on the Web. We all read your newsletter and invite you to also read ours! http://www.abc.nl Keep up the ranting - it helps us to feel connected, even though only several of us are American or have even ever seen an American bookstore except on-screen.

Lynn Kaplanian-Buller, director

Holt responds: Ranting! You mean objective, constructive criticism, I'm sure, and now let's talk about you. What fun it is to discover American and British books through a distinctly European point of view on a website that may have a lot of holes but sparkles with wit and unabashed love for books of all kinds. According to the home page, the American Book Center is "the largest source of English language books in Europe" and it calls to "readers from around the world to interact with our multi-cultural, specialized book selling staff. Even if you don't know which book you want, we funnel your desires into our collective booksellers' brains" and have done so in real time since 1972. The site's Women's Gallery alone is a fascinating tour of books on Islamic Women, Evita Peron, Cyborgs (women on the net - this part a bit out of date) and Classics (do you know the difference between "gender" and "equity" feminists? all right, then). Gift suggestions range for everyone from "The Trekkie in Your Life" to the P.G. Wodehouse fans, and here, as elsewhere, the fun is in the browsing and the discovery of blunt language. How is it, these Amsterdam booksellers want to know, that "Amsterdam has somehow achieved a reputation as the 'Gay & Lesbian Capital of Europe' " when after all, "the fag scenes in cities like London or Berlin are far more booming"? This is writing to the point.

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

Regarding the letter about the book "Dead Men Walking." I believe the correct title is "Dead Man Walking," from the phrase that is shouted to men as they walk toward the execution chamber. It was indeed a powerful book and Sister Helen Prejean is a walking saint.

A Reader

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

Wow, someone else read Frank Yerby, also one of the towering authors of my misspent youth pillaging my parents Book-of-the-Month-Club stocked shelves (and, if I remember correctly, one of the few black authors who made it into bestsellerdom in the '50s). Samuel Shellabarger, Rafael Sabatini's inheritor, was the other one ("Prince of Foxes," "The King's Cavalier," etc.; he was the model for the Sterling Hayden character in the movie version of Raymond Chandler's "The Long Goodbye").

Michael Stern

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

Your powerful columm on violence made me think of a fascinating book I recently read: "All Souls: A Family Story from Southie" by Michael Patrick MacDonald (Beacon; 266 pages; $24). It is an incredible true story of the violence, desolation and despair of the white underclass in south Boston in the seventies, eighties and nineties. While many Americans were focusing on (though not necessairly addressing) the violence in poor Africian American communities, neighborhoods like "Southie" became more and more invisible, particularly to us liberals (and to many who funded inner city programs) as the stereotype that all poverty-based tragedy occurred in neighborhoods of color.

"All Souls" is the story of a town like Worcester, Mass. where I was raised. Often when I tell my friends that my brother's best friend and my sister-in-law's brother and best friend all died violent, street-related deaths, they look at me with surprise. I don't appear to be the "type." "All Souls" is a story that has needed to be told and is done so in a gripping page-turner. I was spellbound by it and I think it would be a great addition to basic college reading on class and race.

Jan Montgomery
Kailua, Hawaii

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