HOLT UNCENSORED #114
by Pat Holt
Friday, December 10, 1999:
NEVER SIT ON YOUR COCKLES
One of the ironclad rules I used to enforce on myself as a book review editor was to never get close to authors, agents or editors. The reason seemed obvious - critical judgment is easily impaired by personal attachment - but sometimes the rule caused a bit of amusement.
When a marketing director wanted to visit the Book Review with the editor-in-chief from his house, I felt I had to decline. Having watched the editor-in-chief from afar for years, I had come to admire him almost too much.
Talking with him about the books he had edited would create the kind of tug on the emotions that might surface when a review copy came in and I'd think, oh, this is the editor-in-chief's book, rather than this is the next book by the author of such-and-such, or this is a novel by a new writer, and so forth.
Well, you don't have to meet the editor-in-chief, the marketing director joked: I'll talk to you in your office, and the editor-in-chief can stand outside the door making hand signals.
Okay, so the ironclad rule sounded silly to some people. And it was true that on occasion I did talk briefly with editors and even asked them about new projects and new writers. But phoning or lunching or chatting with them were no-no's.
Except for Faith Sale.
She was a respected editor (Macmillon, Dutton) who had been working at Putnam for only a few years when I first met her at Keene's Chop House, a favorite lunch place of Russell Snyder, then the advertising manager of Putnam.
In those days (early '80s,) my colleague Bill Chleboun and I visited publishers every year to talk about advertising in the Book Review. Russ - very much of the Gentlemen's Profession school of publishing - was a master at the long, gossipy publishing luncheon in which a lot more than advertising rates were exchanged, I'll tellya.
I didn't know Faith the first time she appeared at the luncheon with Russ, but I remember how quickly the texture of conversation changed. She talked about books and language and authors as part of the larger mosaic of literary life that's so often invisible in the day-to-day doings of the book industry. She talked about that rare editor's joy of discovering a writer right on the page, right in the middle of a sentence, right in the midst of an offbeat phrasing or unexpected metaphor.
It was a thrill to hear an editor of such experience talk so calmly yet ferociously, I felt, about the very heart of our business. And of course a bridge developed that violated every aspect of my so-called ironclad rule. There are few people I can admit to puddling up over the placement of a comma, but she was one.
It astonished me how many times a book I thought had simply rolled off a writer's pen had in fact been rewritten and revised to reach a higher standard that Faith Sale represented to the author. This was not an imposed standard - Faith was too respectful of the writing process for that. Rather it was a standard so deeply ingrained in authors' minds that very often they didn't know they had it.
How does an editor pull from the core of a writer's talent? I wondered. How do you inspire authors to take risks they would never attempt otherwise? Well, you believe in them, Faith said.
She went on to discuss things like author intention, finding a voice, working with metaphor and (bless her) placement of commas. But it was her belief in writers that inspired many of the authors she worked with to "trust her with my life's work," as Kaye Gibbons told Poets & Writers magazine recently. "Faith keeps me honest," echoed Kurt Vonnegut.
Over the years I felt that Faith represented two absolutes in the book business. First, she worked for one of the most commercial houses in mainstream publishing, yet she proved that everyone in the house - and by extension everyone in the book industry - took personal pride in working with a well-written literary work, even if it started out with only a few thousand copies.
Second, as convulsive changes in publishing created a system that was often ruthless toward writers, Faith maintained an unabashed love for writers, and especially for the author-editor relationship. "The process of helping to shape and polish the work of a writer I admire can be an act of love," she said in the Poets & Writers story. "Sitting home with a manuscript, pencil in hand, studying somebody's writing - this is what I still do and love to do."
I thought after Faith contracted cancer that it might be too exhausting for her to go to lunch with us, but year after year during her increasingly painful battle she sat at the lunch tables of various places - Russ Snyder had retired and passed on long ago - chatting away about writing and authors, looking thinner and more gaunt sometimes yet stronger and more vital than ever at other times. I have never seen a person face the work at hand - whatever it was, editing or fighting to live - with greater dignity or resilience.
Faith Sale died Tuesday night during a series of surgical procedures that finally proved too much for her. One can be consoled by the fact that though their numbers are dwindling, editors in the mainstream still exist who value high standards of writing and are able to champion literary works through the publishing process. Of course (and I say this with all respect), I hope never to get to know any of them.
But the next time I come across something by an author who was edited by Faith Sale, I won't say to myself, oh look, here's a book by Amy Tan, Kaye Gibbons, Lee Smith, Donald Barthelme, Connie May Fowler, Kurt Vonnegut, Alice Hoffman, Bebe Moore Campbell, Delia Ephron or a dozen others.
Instead I'll probably run my hand over the cover and say, oh look, it's one of Faith's books.
NEVER SIT ON YOUR COCKLES
Well, it's kind of fun to go along with the New York Times' assessment of the "clean-cut" new TV commercials from Internet e-tailers that are supposed to evoke Mitch Miller singalongs, Petula Clark hits and fashions of the early '60s.
Prominent among 'em is Amazon.com's " campy all-male chorus singing carols in matched cardigans" with a ribbon of lyrics moving across the bottom of the screen. This distinctly "low-tech feel" is designed to warm the cockles of older viewers ("they say it reminds them of watching the old variety shows like Lawrence Welk or Andy Williams," an Amazon.com spokesperson says), while still "winking at the trendy young techies."
Yes, it's a fine holiday statement of security, comfort and trust, and thank you, Amazon.com, for having a little fun with the TV form while hiding the fact that behind the scenes, chaos presides.
With "all these dot-coms screaming" for our attention, as a marketing consultant tells the Times, competition is so stiff on the Internet that even Amazon.com, "breaking away from the pack" this week (Reuters) as predicted, has plenty to worry about.
Having branded itself as a bookseller, the company is hardly distinctive when it comes to toys, pet supplies, hardware or liver transplants (I know I've made that joke before! Harvested organs are next!), and of course those seven gigantic high-tech distribution centers on Earth are waiting to be paid off.
So next time you see that VW bug or laugh at those happy, portly men in cardigans or hear Petula Clark sing "It's a Sign of the Times," remember that many a retailer and many an e-tailer are sending a message that says: PLEASE, PLEASE, BUY FROM US! WE'RE HOCKED TO THE GILLS! HERE'S ANOTHER DISCOUNT! LOG ON AND GET A PRIZE! DON'T FORGET YOU OLDSTERS YOU CAN CALL US ON THE PHONE (WE'LL SEND YOU A ROTARY!). SANTA WILL LOVE YOU IF YOU SPEND, SPEND SPEND INTO THE NEW YEAR. . .
Dear Holt Uncensored:
[Regarding Tuesday's story about Alibris and its president's comments about copying Amazon.com's email to book dealers:]
In case the facts are of interest, it was the Justice Department that concluded that we never opened any email, not me.
Yes, employees of a former company copied email (at our customer's request), yes, that violates the law (even if you don't open it), and yes, we actively helped the DOJ investigate and paid the smallest fine permissable. We take this stuff seriously -- we sold our ISP, relocated the data center, got out of the email business, and did several other things.
By the way, the email between our customers and dealers would have been of little interest even if we had opened it because they voluntarily tell us if they have bought or sold books. No other way to keep the inventory up to date.
President and CEO
Holt responds: Facts certainly are of interest! Like many readers, I'm wondering why you stored the email at all if you never intended to open it and your customers and dealers gave you all the information you needed to know. Just curious.
Martin Manley writes back: I am happy to answer your question more completely. Interloc, our predecessor company, began in 1993 before ISPs were widely available, so Interloc provided email to booksellers who listed books with them. By December of 1997, some of our independent out-of-print book dealers were still using Interloc for email. At that time, some dealers complained they were not getting email sent by a big customer -- a problem for them, since these emails likely contained holiday book orders. To troubleshoot this complaint, Interloc staff wrote a program that automatically made copies of email and stored them in a big file. When the complaints stopped, they erased these files. But as we now know, you can't do that - it's against the law even if you never open the email . . .
These actions were not malicious and not a part of any corporate policy. Interloc had nothing to gain by actually reading email, since dealers voluntarily told Interloc when they sold books and customers voluntarily told them when they bought one. Interloc did not need to read email to know what buyers were buying and sellers were selling. Our dealers and our customers understand this completely and have been very supportive of us during this matter.
Alibris is a strong privacy advocate, so we actively assisted the government with their investigatation -- something that the government has recognized. We were obviously relieved to learn that after a very throrough inquiry, the government concluded that "no confidential information was obtained or misused" and that no dealer, customer, or competitor suffered any financial harm. Nonetheless . . . we decided to accept responsibility and settle the matter. Given that we cooperated fully, the government levied a very low fine for what is legally a very serious offense.
We take privacy seriously and we took these concerns seriously, even though nobody got hurt. We took action starting 18 months ago when we first learned of the government's concern. We fully advised our customers about this situation. We discontinued all email services and sold our ISP -- we are not in that business any more. We relocated our data center from rural Massachusetts to Silicon Valley, hired professional managers, and dramatically increased our system security. We took personnel action and talked with our staff very openly about this . . .
Alibris is a totally different company than Interloc. We are 80 people, not 8. We do not handle email unless we send it or receive it. If you spend an hour in our offices, you will see that we are mildly obsessive about protecting customer privacy -- and our independent booksellers and major business customers (libraries, retailers, distributors) all know it.
What does this mean for other companies who connect buyers and sellers? Specifically, are they entitled to collect data from email as it goes by? I'm not a lawyer, but I can tell you that we would not do that -- and we did not. I therefore stand by my statement that if you are a company with other people's email passing through your server, you had best not be looking at it in any form . . .
Dear Holt Uncensored:
While you are absolutely right, reading email addressed to other people is wrong, we all have to get over the concept that email is like real mail.
There is no protective envelope to ensure privacy; email is just text - plain, open, being shot from computer to computer, leaving temporary copies in each one. A System Operator doing maintenance anywhere in the world could accidentally access email. I get misdelivered email every day.
If you want email to remain private, encypt it. Otherwise, remember that email is much more like postcards than letters. Don't write anything on email you wouldn't write on a postcard. Period.
Edwin Allen Bish II
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I was surprised and dismayed at the limited understanding you showed in your column of 12-06-99 about iUniverse.com.
As an independent publisher of thirteen years, I can assure you that publishers and authors alike realize the economies of the publishing industry today demand that new creative ways are needed to bring books to the marketplace. iUniverse.com looked at the existing system of publishing, saw a better way, and put their money into building it. I feel your characterization of the company is totally off base.
It is unfair to assess the focus of iUniverse.com as (1) making money by exploiting authors, and (2) making unrealistic promises.
Do you really think that a company can take a manuscript, design, format, and proof it; make it browsable; load it on a website; and make a profit at $99? The focus of iUniverse.com is selling books. In addition, iUniverse.com puts out of print titles for author association members back into print at NO charge. This gives authors continued revenue on works they have created.
iUniverse doesn't promise authors a guaranteed spot in Barnes & Noble. They do promise distribution channels-that the book can be ordered through bookstores (Barnes & Noble, independent booksellers, bn.com, amazon.com) which is quite a coup for authors who want to promote and market their books.
The economics of the industry, as well as the the purchasing habits of the reader, are changing. And many of those changes are very good for those who love to read. The publishing industry will need to change with them.
Terri A. Boekhoff
San Francisco email@example.com
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I wonder whether any of those tens of thousands of authors now being published by e-publishers have carefully read the contract they sign. Imagine the uproar if a traditional publisher demanded an up-front fee from authors in order to obtain rights to the authors' work!
In the December Romance Writer's Report, there's an excellent article by Alicia Rasley on scams perpetuated on writers by bogus literary agents. Agents cover their costs and make a profit by selling books, not by collecting up-front fees, and so should publishers.
Here at this agency, we're hoping authors realize that Alicia's final paragraph may well apply to the current publishing mania: "Never forget the Writer's Rule of Thumb: In the standard publishing practice, money flows one way--to you. The publisher pays you; you don't pay the publisher.... Whenever someone offers a deal outside of this very basic equation (money goes to writer), it's time to step back and re-consider."
A literary agent