NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #122
by Pat Holt

book Friday, January 21, 2000:

A TALE TOLD BY E-MAIL
WHEN BOOKS LOSE THEIR SEX APPEAL
THE REAL SHOWDOWN

LETTERS

A TALE TOLD BY E-MAIL

An independent publisher called Overmountain Press specializes in the literature of Southern Appalachia, though occasionally it publishes books that sell across the board, such as "Crock-It," a cookbook for crockpot owners by Barbara M Murray, which has sold about 50,000 copies.

Recently, Overmountain expanded operations to publish mysteries under its Silver Dagger imprint, starting off with two authors, Deborah Adams ("All the Hungry Mothers") and Mary Saums ("Midnight Hour"). Ballantine has published a number of Adams' mysteries set in Jesus Creek, Tennessee ("All the Great Pretenders," "All the Blood Relations," etc.).

So it seemed like a good omen for Overmountain/Silver Dagger when the middle-Tennessee chapter of Sisters in Crime, a discussion group of readers (rather than writers) that has been meeting regularly at a chain store, "TennBooks" (not its real name), for several years, invited Saums and Adams to autograph books at the chapter's January 2000 meeting, which took place this week.

The rest of the story is perhaps best told by e-mail messages building up to and following the authors' appearance:

Email from Beth Wright, editor in chief, Silver Dagger Mysteries, to Deborah Adams and Mary Saums:

Just to let you know, TennBooks is MOST uncooperative when it comes to ordering for signings! Tammy called them Tues, Wed, Thurs and today, and they finally ordered today. We are going to send the books to the store and then they are gonna order from Ingram and then return some to us. For some reason, they can't order directly from a publisher. I sent them the information SIX WEEKS ago - plenty more time than they request, and I don't know what the problem is.

Anyway, they will have books. HOWEVER: they refuse to order more than FIVE hardbacks and TEN paperbacks of each. I might suggest that you keep your extras in your cars in case you need to do a little business of your own. No amount of talking or requesting or promising them they can return unsold copies would convince them otherwise. AND she very pessimistically said "we won't even sell half of these!"

Email from Deborah Adams to Beth Wright: What is the name of the uncooperative person at TennBooks?

Email from Beth Wright to Deborah Adams: Tammy now informs me that the name of the person is Bonnie.

Email from Deborah Adams to Silver Dagger authors, other authors, some interested booksellers, and others: Bear with me. I feel like pontificating. I remember the first time I signed at TennBooks. Sandra was in charge, and there was delicious fresh coffee and yummy cookies.

I remember the first time I signed at TennBooks after Sandra retired. Ben was in charge, and there was delicious fresh coffee and yummy cookies, and I expressed dismay at the lack of chocolate. Halfway through the event, Ben slipped me a Hershey bar. (After that, Ben always made sure I had Godiva chocolate when I signed at his stores.)

Tonight Mary Saums and I did the Sisters in Crime meeting at TennBooks. No Sandra. No Ben. No chocolate, no cookies, no coffee, no pens, no store employees on duty. Our charming Mary sold out of the few piddly copies of her book that TennBooks had finally been persuaded to order. Then she sold out of the author's copies in her car. In addition, she was so gracious and erudite that many, many of those in the SRO audience surely popped off to Davis-Kidd bookstore to purchase her books there.

Final score: Mary, 10+; TennBooks, ha!

When one customer purchased Mary's book at tonight's signing, she was informed by the clerk (with a sneer) that she had just purchased a book from "an independent press."

As opposed to an enslaved press? Would this be anything like an independent bookstore?

Email from Beth Wright to Deborah Adams: Tammy tells me that the store manager didn't know anything about your signings last night! She is the one who finally ordered the piddly 15 copies.

Email from Ed to Deborah Adams: It would seem to me that there should, at least somewhere on the Internet, be a master list of bookstores to avoid for signings.

Email from Deborah Adams to Ed : Do it! I'll tell everyone to send you their Evil Bookstores.

End of emails but not end of story: Usually what we hear about special-interest groups asking for author appearances in a local chain store is that chain stores don't "get" independent bookstores and aren't allowed to buy more than a "piddly" few books on their own.

But here is a case of a great staff making a local chain store work - for a while. In this case, it was the tradition of that TennBooks store to customize autographings, at least for Deborah Adams, even to the point of bringing in her favorite chocolate. By now, however, the two staff members who acted most like independent booksellers are no longer there.

I find the story doubly interesting because readers have been asking when the American Booksellers Association's shared database, BookSense.com, will be ready so they can recommend "something other than Amazon.com" to friends who order books exclusively from the Internet.

Of course, BookSense.com won't mean anything without the character of each independent bookseller using it, nor is Amazon.com ever as helpful as independent booksellers for customers who are looking for advice about specific books.

By now, thousands of independent bookstores have reinvented themselves on the Web with all the personality, knowledge and ambience for which they are known in their bricks-and-mortar versions. It's an adventure to find them (try browsing the ABA's membership directory at http://www.bookweb.org ) and a joy to see the enthusiasm of the whole staff transferred in one big joyous bulk right onto the screen.

I thought of this upon discovering how another store in Tennessee - this one in the town of McEwan - called Twice Told Tales considers Deborah Adams "our" author - they're proud of her, proud to have her books in stock (email twicetoldtales@tnns.net ), even proud to publicize their local readers' group via e-mail (a website is under construction):

"NOW AVAILABLE! Deborah Adams' 'All the Hungry Mothers' recently republished in trade paperback, available AUTOGRAPHED exclusively through us... Email for more information. See Deb's wonderful Jesus Creek website at: http://www.JesusCreek.com

"Reader's group web page ~~ http://gateway.to/twicetoldtales Or go directly to our ABE home page and from there, browse/search our stock: http://www.abebooks.com/home/TWICETOLDBOOKS/ ."

It's amazing to see how much of a store's identity can be transferred to the screen, even in an email announcement tacked on to the end of messages. Nothing can replace in-store author events, but the possibility that an independent bookstore's heart and soul can compete with Amazon.com's efficiency and dazzle is great news for booklovers everywhere.

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WHEN BOOKS LOSE THEIR SEX APPEAL

A while ago I wrote about Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com "separating" from the traditional business of bookselling (goodbye! it wasn't fun! don't come back!), but I think something even more important is happening behind this move.

These two corporate machines no longer find books sexy.

They're sick of playing Goliath vs. Goliath (or: "You're Goliath this time!" "No, I'M the David!") over pennies. They're tired of sticking it to publishers for another thousand bucks for this endcap or that Best Seller List placement or that window. The money, compared to other "product lines," is terrible.

Barnes & Noble's balance sheet may look acceptable-to-terrific as long as it opens new stores, but a dead end, she's a'coming when the last small town groans under the weight of too many chains trying to knock each other off.

Online, despite Jeff Bezos' promise that the Books division will make a profit by the end of the year (and let's all make sure he remembers that promise), the profit margin in books is nothing compared to . . . chain saws! computers! self-published authors! and other money-makers that make life much more interesting.

So let Amazon.com go off to its zStores and zBubbles while Barnes & Noble goes off to iUniverse and Microsoft. Books may remain as product lines, but there's no more pretending, if there ever was, that either of these companies ever had any interest in books - not as readers, anyway, certainly not as booksellers.

Besides, another "Goliath vs. Goliath" story is shaping up. Read on . . .

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THE REAL SHOWDOWN

For Amazon.com, perhaps the most formidable opponent online will be Wal-Mart's online division, a separate company called Wal-Mart.com, which has moved from the Wal-Mart's headquarters in Arkansas to form its first team of Internet strategists in Palo Alto, Calif. There it temporarily shares offices Accel Partners, a venture capital firm that co-owns the company with Wal-Mart.

According to Jim Breyer, one of three Wal-Mart.com board members and managing director of Accel, the new company will soon move to Silicon Valley and aim for "nothing less than rapid domination of online sales of everything from books and CDs to toys and appliances," the San Francisco Chronicle reported last week.

"Amazon.com is the most obvious and logical initial competitor," Breyer told the paper, and some analysts agree, giving Wal-Mart the edge. "The question is if Amazon can go head to head with Wal-Mart," said Bernard Sosnick of Fahnestock & Co. "Amazon is in trouble," said Jennifer Secallus, at Atlantis Investment.

True, analysts are always waiting for Amazon.com to stumble, but this time there's reason for such tough-minded predictions, and that is is Wal-Mart's "incredibly deep pockets," the Chronicle suggests. "With a market value of nearly $300 billion - more than 10 times that of Amazon - and annual revenue expected to top $160 billion this year, Wal-Mart has money to burn in making its online subsidiary pay off."

What rankles some observers (okay, this one) is that Wal-Mart.com can, as a separate company, simply follow the lead of Amazon.com, Borders.com and Barnesandnoble.com and avoid collecting sales taxes for most of its Internet transactions. Nexus, that confounding word for brick-and-mortar connections that require Internet companies to collect and pay sales taxes, will probably be limited to California, Arkansas and Utah (a distribution center).

Further, since "Wal-Mart gets 100 million customers a week," Breyer said, Wal-Mart.com won't have to spend a lot of money branding new customers but will adopt a strategy of luring existing Wal-Mart shoppers to the company's website, Breyer told the Chronicle. "It's possible that the Web site will offer prices even lower" than discounted prices in Wal-Mart stores.

Then too, don't forget the recent deal between Wal-Mart and America Online for the creation of a "co-branded Internet service targeting rural communities," just in case you think there may be some rock unturned by Internet opportunists looking for customers in America.

Of course, the retail world has been waiting a long time for the all-new Wal-Mart.com, and the new company is still at the bare-bones stage. But if Amazon.com is at all weakened by other competition or its own financial house of cards, couldn't its dominance on the Web be threatened by the time Wal-Mart.com comes after it with both barrels?

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Regarding your column about Anderson Consulting's survey [of Internet users and their bookbuying habits]: I am reminded of an old Burns and Allen routine. Gracie tells George that her uncle has been hired to see how many people use the telephone. "And how many do?" George asks. "Everyone he called," Gracie tells him.

Michael Kurland
kurlmic@mindspring.com

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

A quick reply to Linda Kauffman's comment about how the Internet hasn't done one thing to help the homeless problem: There is an organization trying to use the Internet for just such a purpose. They're called http://www.LAhomeless.com . The site provides a way for people to contribute money to their favorite homeless organization, learn about volunteer opportunities, search for missing persons, get referrals to homeless shelters and substance abuse programs, etc. They can be reached via e-mail at wecare@LAhomeless.com.

Jeffrey Goldman
Publisher, Santa Monica Press

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

The film version of Bret Easton Ellis' "American Psycho" was filmed and written by a woman named Mary Harron who also did the film "I Shot Andy Warhol" about the feminist (?) Valerie Jean Solanas, who shot and wounded Andy Warhol.

Spencer Thiel

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

I like what Carl Lennertz and others are doing connecting Book Sense with what good literature is all about, thinking for oneself (instead of relying on the mindless campaigns of publishers to promote their profits--instead of relying on such adjuncts of these promotion schemes as the NY Times Bestseller List).

I've often wondered how booksellers could have missed for so long the connection between our need to support independent bookstores and such bookstores' need to support independent publishers and presently unknown authors. I'd like to think that Book Sense (and others passionate for self enlightenment) might be beginning a movement which will enlist thoughtful (as opposed to "ambitious") writers. Maybe someday soon such writers will find that climbing the corporate money tree is as much an anathema as submitting to Reader's Digest, and as harmful to their reputations.

Also, I think that some of what is going on with the great confidence in the world of Internet-business might be the result of a kind of false analogy - shoddy thinking, perhaps. Many who have seen what labor saving possibilities computers provide in so many fields (auto parts, travel agencies, inventory control) think that anything computerized must be miraculous. In fact, I think, it is as easy and more controllable to order from a paper catalog by telephone.

Am I wrong or is there a kind of mass hysteria/bandwagon effect going on as a result of assuming that anything computerized promises salvation? What you are doing and what was done to organize against the WTO on the Internet is some evidence that this tool has some wonderful potential, but as you say, it takes some sound and hard independent thinking to sort it out.

Bob Williams
Book Darts