NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #115
by Pat Holt

Tuesday, December 14, 1999:

'BETTER NAKED THAN NIKE'

LETTERS

'BETTER NAKED THAN NIKE'

I probably should begin reviewing the wonderful "NO LOGO: Solutions for a Sold Planet" (St. Martin's; 224 pages; $25; buy online at http://www.codysbooks.com ) in a traditional way, but it's much more intriguing, in light of the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle (more about that later), to start out with a funny and telling anecdote from the book.

A brief introduction: "No Logo" accomplishes the near-impossible job of piecing together the huge and complicated jigsaw puzzle that has been o'ertaking our lives since the advent of that dreaded concept, "branding."

Author Naomi Klein discusses the kind of branding we've all witnessed by such companies as Amazon.com or Wal-Mart. But then she goes on to discuss ever-larger campaigns such as superbranding (Pepsi, Coke); cultural branding (Michael Jordan, "Austin Powers," Gap, Nike); "brand vision" ("Polaroid is not a camera - it's a social lubricant"); "cluster branding" in which a bunch of stores in a chain like Starbucks drive out the competition; arts branding (Mobil on PBS); "brandasaurus" celebrities (Ally McBeal launches designer clothing); branded stores (Nike World, Disney); privatization branding of public spaces (3Com Park, PacBell Park), and "total branding" as is "applied now to cityscapes, music, art, films, community events, magazines, sports and schools."

All of this, Klein believes, is seamlessly connected to sweatshop labor in Third World countries, the "malling of America," the Channel One educational/consumer TV station in schools; the "big-box superstore chain store revolution," conglomeratization of the media and compromised environmental standards through advertising (Chevron, Shell) - so much so that a web of relationships among companies and multinational corporations has superceded entire governments.

For example (I'm almost done with the introduction! you have to know this part!), it may be that companies like Wal-Mart swear to abide by foreign governments' laws about environmental protections, minimum wages, living conditions and child labor. But as Klein points out, bidding wars for factories are so fierce among Third World countries that tax/wage waivers are given out liberally to American subcontractors and sub-subcontractors until nobody knows who makes what (including and especially celebrities such as Kathie Lee Gifford), and the victims tend to be children working for pennies on double and triple shifts in filthy conditions.

Klein writes about all this with astonishing power, combining meticulous research with hip-hop-hot writing (she's 28), until finally we get to the great anecdote of the book, this one about a high school fashion show in Ontario to which author Klein is invited as a speaker.

This fashion show has been created because word has surfaced about such things as factories in Indonesia and the Phillppines where workers are forced to live in dormitories so crowded that they have to paint outlines of their bodies on the floor. In this way each person reserves a space for sleeping, thus making entire floors look like crime scenes after homicide victims had been taken away.

Researching such things, the students of Sean Hayes, a teacher and basketball coach at St. Mary's Secondary School, plan the first "Sweatshop Fashion Show" ever given at the school. Recognizing that high school kids are often targeted by multinational corporations to buy "made-in-Indonesia Nike sneakers likely manufactured under sweatshop conditions" - Hayes and his students create a fashion show that will look traditional and trendy but will soon blast away preconceptions before the audience knows what hits it.

As usual, logo-besotted student models will march out on the runway. But instead of offering the usual palliatives about color-coordination and fabric design, the student-announcers will "read a prepared narration about the lives of the Third World workers who made the gear," Klein writes.

Then the students will follow "with scenes from 'Mickey Mouse Goes to Haiti' and a skit about how teenagers often feel 'unloved, unwanted, unacceptable and unpopular if you do not have the right clothes.' " Klein's own speech will lead into a question-and-answer period about consumer options.

At least that's the plan, and it sounds "straightforward enough" to Klein.

But lo, on the day of the fashion show, just after 2000 students pile into the bleachers - all dressed without logos because they wear Catholic school uniforms, which the boys try to jazz up by wearing the pants low and the girls try to complement with platform shoes and black lipstick - Coach Hayes, wearing a "forced smile," utters nervously to Klein, "I hope the kids actually hear the message and don't think it's a regular fashion show."

Klein worries about what he means, but just as his warning starts to sink in, blam! The assembly erupts as each logo-bedecked student bursts through the curtains to huge cheers and applause from the student body. It seems the kids are indeed cheering for their favorite celebrity brands, and worse, they are drowning out the student announcer with "hoots and whistles."

Coach Hayes steps in with "booming threats" and eventually calms everybdoy down so that after Klein gives her talk, the discussion that follows is quite lively. The students "get it" about sweatshop conditions, she writes, but they want simple answers. "What brands are sweatshop free?" they ask.

Practically none, says Klein. "I told the St. Mary's students that shopping for an exploitation-free wardrobe at the mall is next to impossible . . . The best way to make a difference . . . is to stay informed by surfing the Net and letting companies know what you think by writing letters and asking lots of questions at the store."

What a "non-answer," scoff the students. "Look, I don't have time to be some kind of major political activist every time I go to the mall," one girl says. "Just tell me what kind of shoes are okay to buy, okay?" Not possible, Klein insists, and the atmosphere in the auditorium becomes increasingly tense as students realize there is no easy way out of a dilemma they resent learning about.

Finally a boy with low-riding "saggy slacks" saunters across the gym "holding his standard-issue navy blue sweater away from his lanky body with two fingers, as if he detected a foul odor," Klein writes.

"Then, he slouched down to the mike and said, in an impeccable teenage monotone, 'Umm, Coach Hayes, if working conditions are so bad in Indonesia, then why do we have to wear these uniforms? We buy thousands of these things and it says right here that they are Made in Indonesia. I'd just like to know: How do you know they weren't made in sweatshops?' "

Well, at this, "the auditorium exploded" with student passion and outrage, Klein writes. Suddenly everyone has a burning desire to look into the sweatshop question and become the kind of "major political activist" that has earlier been so maligned.

Of course, the motivation for the students' newfound concern is a "high-minded excuse" to get rid of their "lame-ass uniforms," Klein says gamely. But at least, she notes, a controversy like this brings a distant political issue into the realm of the distinctly personal.

Not only do people want to do something about corporate domination and manipulation, she explains, efforts have been made to investigate and stop the way schools make deals with vending machine syndicates and sports equipment manufacturers; the way municipal government buy uniforms for police forces and invest pension funds on the stock market; the way universities select telecommunications companies for Internet portals and enter into sponsorship arrangements with corporations - all of which blur the lines between "civic life (ostensibly governed by principles of 'public good') and the corporate profit-making motive."

What used to be "captive markets" such as Harvard and Stanford, which earlier might have believed they couldn't afford to turn down exclusive arrangements with conglomerates, have either rejected, say, vending machine deals with Pepsi out of hand or cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars when students blocked construction of a PepsiCo-owned Taco Bell restaurant.

Other boycotts and demands for corporate disclosures have contributed to a "brand backlash" that is spreading everywhere, she adds. This certainly accounts, readers of "No Logo" will conclude, for the explosion of protests at the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle. From anarchist and Teamster groups to Sea Turtle Restoration advocates and the Sierra Club, protestors' outrage against invisible corporate domination and abuses of workers in Third World countries were everywhere.

And because the demonstrations were well-planned at the same time that riots and lootings seemed to burst out of nowhere, it appears that Klein's greatest warning in the book - the dawning of a new censorship - has already been heeded by a disparate groups everywhere.

Branding, the act of narrowing consumer options to one or two targeted labels, has become an "assault on choices" in American life that has "moved beyond predatory retail and monopolistic synergy schemes and entered an arena which can only be described as straightforward censorship: the active elimination and suppression of material."

This is not the kind of censorship we are used to seeing out in the open, she adds. "When magazines are pulled from Wal-Mart's shelves by store managers, when cover art is changed on CDs to make them Kmart-friendly, or when movies are refused by Blockbuster Video because they don't conform to the chain's 'family entertainment' image," she writes, "these private decisions send waves through the culture industries, affecting not just what is readily available at the local big box but what gets produced in the first place."

As people in the book industry witness the influence of chain bookstore buyers on everything from publishers' cover illustrations to narrative content of books themselves, one can't help but worry that Klein's idea of a "one-size-fits-all" formula is increasingly applied to books.

While it may seem that Amazon.com and other online booksellers offer an antidote to this problem by listing tens of thousands of titles nobody's ever heard of, most often the millions of customers who frequent these websites never see such listings. What they see instead are the few books that have been brought forward through publishers' co-op financing and promoted as part of a paid-for promotional formula.

It's only independents (bookstores and other retailers) who continue to value the notion of trust, a phenomenon that's been entirely lost by corporations in their frenzy to pretend that Americans can be so easily branded, just like cattle, and re-branded and superbranded and cluster-branded until they become zombie customers whose existence is measured by following one trend after another.

So the real antidote and one of the most effective "solutions for a sold planet," as Klein puts it, is the informed consumer who "gets" the notion that a "Made in Malaysia" label is related in a very real and relevant way to an increasing environment of censorship and enforced conformity - and refuses to participate in any of it.

Such consumers may seem to be few and far between now, but in this day of instant Internet education and eruption of mass protests, it could be that we'll soon all agree with the topless protestor who stood proudly in the public square at Seattle with her fist lifted as Newsweek snapped a picture of her back, where somebody with a marking pen had written in large block letters, "BETTER NAKED THAN NIKE."

Gee, if only I had been there with my spray can to write "BETTER BARE THAN BARNES (&noble)" or "BETTER AN AMAZON THAN AMAZON.COM" or "BETTER BORDERLINE THAN BORDERS" or "BETTER BRANDLESS THAN BRANDED" or "BETTER CANDIED THAN BRANDIED" or let's see now, where were we . .

Surely the true survivors of all these frenzied power plays and graspings for business are the independent booksellers who open their stores every morning at the same time - always reliably, with a knowledgeable and helpful staff and without pretentions of manipulating customers through "branding" or other passing fashions. Walking into an independent store even in the busy holiday season is like entering a sea of calm and clarity. Customers and books are respected and transactions are handled with dignity, good will and cheer - and not, thank heaven, a logo or brand in the place.

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Regarding Interloc/Alibris and the Department of Justice:

While I agree in general with [Alibris president Martin] Manley's statement regarding email duplication ("Interloc had nothing to gain ... Interloc did not need to read email to know what buyers were buying and sellers were selling"), I also found this statement perhaps unintentionally humorous: "We are mildly obsessive about protecting customer privacy -- and our independent booksellers and major business customers ... all know it."

We are rare, used and out-of-print booksellers on the Internet, and we were subscribers to Bibliocity.com until it was bought out by Alibris. We opted not to list our books on Alibris after it bought out Bibliocity - precisely because Alibris "protects customer privacy" in part by making sure that the "independent booksellers" don't know WHO the customers are.

That means that not only do the Alibris customers pay a marked-up price for their books, and wait longer to get them since they go through a central warehouse, they also cannot contact the "independent bookseller" who is actually offering the book for sale to ask questions about the condition or the content, or perhaps about related material, and we can't offer the customer recommendations that might fit in with their needs, etc. In other words, Alibris is making sure now that their booksellers are not able to "hand-sell" books or to develop mutually beneficial relationships between book buyers and book sellers.

Alibris makes a gross profit of approximately 40% on every book they sell for their "network of independent booksellers" while other Internet book databases charge a low flat monthly fee to the booksellers and facilitate contact between book lovers of all types (buyers and sellers).

The Alibris business model, which relies on (to quote CEO Manley again) "price-insensitive customers" and "price-insensitive booksellers," might be a profitable one for them, and might be a convenient one for some "major business customers" but it is not a beneficial one for independent booksellers or for most individual book buyers.

The sites that truly benefit independent booksellers range from the giant ABE.com (with over 15 million books) and almost as large Bibliofind.com (which has not changed its business model despite its acquisition by Amazon) to European-based Antiqbook.com and newer but growing sites like BookAvenue.com, Digibig.com and GBM.com. Buy a book there, and most booksellers on those sites can even make sure you'll have it for Christmas!

Christine Volk
Volk & Iiams Booksellers
chris@vibooks.com

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

Thanks for the lovely tribute to Faith Sale. She was a great editor and a good friend who will be sorely missed. When I was the lowest of the low - the departmental assistant in the publicity department at Putnam almost 20 years ago, Faith nonetheless took me (and all my fellow assistants) seriously, listening to my opinions of her books, asking me to read manuscripts, or just "shooting the breeze" about subjects literary and not (my spontaneous visits to her 16th floor office from my own 11th floor warren were always encouraged).

Unlike so many "higher ups," she made us underlings feel as if we were a vital part of the publishing process. We were invited to her home for parties at which none of the stuffy top brass were present. Publishing should be fun, Faith felt. And books mattered.

Bob Weibezahl

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

This is about the reader who wrote: "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."

I disagree. Email is very much like real mail. It would be far easier to steam open an envelope (or tap a telephone line) than to write a program to intercept e-mail. Any postal worker doing maintenance could accidentally access your regular mail mangled in one of their sorters. I get misdelivered regular mail frequently.

What makes regular mail relatively safe is the sheer volume, and that has also become true of e-mail. The reluctance to send information by e-mail is, in my opinion, brought to us by those selling security.

Jim Lawton

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Dear Holt Uncensored,

I want to echo the letter you published in Holt Uncensored #114 from the literary agent who warned would-be authors that writers never, ever pay a publishing company - publishing companies pay writers. Electronic publishing is a fast-growing field, one that is already full of people who want to take advantage of the new and naive.

Any time a publisher asks a writer for money, it means the publisher is a scam artist. Some scam publishers (and agents and editing services/book doctors) have the most wonderful excuses. "Since you're an unknown, we need some starter money." "You'll get all this back when your book hits the stores." "Advertising is expensive, and we can't be expected to shoulder the entire burden."

Scams, all.

The sole exception to this is a self-publishing company, a.k.a. a vanity press. You pay these companies to have your book printed, bound and published (various copy shops will do this, too, incidentally), but they don't pretend they'll advertise or distribute your book. This is the place to go if you want 50 copies made of that family history you want to distribute among your cousins or if you need 20 copies of your great-aunt's poetry to give to friends.

Traditional publishers also give advances, meaning they pay authors before the book is even published. This money is - always - non-refundable, regardless of how the book's sales run. (Writers never give money to publishers, remember?) No author in her right mind will hand over a book to a publisher who says, "Okay, we'll pay you in a few months, after the book has been published and we see how the sales go."

It's also worth your time and money to join a writer's group such as the Author's Guild, the Horror Writers of America, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the Romance Writers of America, or whatever organization exists for your chosen genre. Dues are usually low, and these organizations are a gold mine of information for new writers.

Steven Piziks
Member, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

I'm a small press publisher who charges a reading fee because I'm a consultant just like a real estate appraiser, lawyer, financial advisor. Since I insist on seeing the complete manuscript, I get swamped. Seniors are finally witing that long-anticipated novel now that retirement's here. Plus, today's software has lifted much of the mechanical drudgery once associated with creative writing. . .

Consequently, I receive rough mss from dabblers who nevertheless will receive a page-plus critique where I make suggestions toward improving their work. I'll spend two to four hours reading 40-100 pages and writing a helpful reaction. My time is money and . . .I must be paid for both hours and effort. This is the way it works in the real world. Why, then, do we cling to the myth that "literary workers" should donate their expertise and offer their commitment and investment for free?

So, I would ask your anonymous literary agent of #114: What's better, a form-letter brush-off (often unsigned), or a personal letter expressing an honest but sympathetic appraisal of the work? The agent cites the article by Alicia Rasley from the December Romance Writer's Report where the sacred, operative phrase is "standard publishing practice." That generic form-letter rejection is but one insulting standard the industry follows today . . .

The cherished author-editor-publisher synergisms are being replaced by author-accountant-sales manager expectations, and this is the harsh reality that new, unproved authors encounter. Unless they guarantee some bottom-line breakthrough, new voices and landscapes are dismissed because the industry will retreat to the shelter offered by a favored "name brand." . . .

The sacred assumption that publishers make money by publishing and not by charging fees is becoming invalid. If I cover manufacturing and distribution costs, is the book successful? Of course not! There must be net to cover the overhead and provide capital for the future. Why is it assumed one successful book will keep a small press in business? Today - emphasis today - one winner must cover the costs of the other nine that returned no net or ended up in the red. If I find that one rare book with worlds of literary merit and insight, should I buy it or invest in something more commercial?

I see a lot of imitative work today, purporting to be techno-thrillers, written by technical writers who have never invested a minute toward learning the craft of fiction. Should I gamble on such an enterprise and enter the overcrowded, highly competitive fray with my Michael Crichton, Tom Clancey wannabe? Or, should I go with a modest, midlist author who deserves to be heard but will most likely will become a fatal dive in red ink for me? You tell me, those of you who cling to the notions of "standard publsihing practice." . . .

Jim Cotton
The Seniors Market
Stevensville, Montana