HOLT UNCENSORED #125
by Pat Holt
Tuesday, February 1, 2000:
BERTELMANN'S NEW HISTORY
BOOKSELLERS ON THE WEB: PART I
HYPERION DEFENDS THE BEARDSTOWN LADIES, SORT OF
HIERARCHY VS. 'THE MILLIONTH CIRCLE'
BOOKSELLERS ON THE WEB: PART I
As independent booksellers discuss the value of selling books on the Internet (see Letters), I'd like to offer a few thoughts about what makes booksellers' websites worthwhile from a reader's point of view.
It doesn't matter to me how efficient or money-saving or dazzling an online-only "virtual" bookselling service may be: Just about every one has little or no personality or character, offers no real insight on the books it says the staff is reading voraciously and can't customize advice to readers because personalizing anything in such a streamlined electronic operation is too costly.
It's true that customer reviews on Amazon.com and elsewhere bring a sense of other human beans on board, and for all their wild divergence and not-so-hidden agendas, these reviews can be fun and informative. Too often, however, that's all there is of a human voice on websites that promise advice but deliver formula suggestions and paid-for recommendations.
By contrast, independent booksellers who reinvent themselves on the Internet make a very personal commitment to the customer from the Home Page on. They transform the cold distance of cyberspace into an atmosphere of welcome and trust. They invite readers to browse books, search the backlist, listen in on staff discussions, read excerpts, ask questions, sign up for events and on occasion "talk" to visiting authors.
Critics and readers are alike in this venture - we search not only for a good book but for the spark that ignites true discovery, the place where word is spread that is unhyped and unstoppable. When that place is found, the number of clicks or discounts or shipment days mean nothing compared to the quality of the experience on the site. We remember why we read and what it means to find that rare place on the Internet where the people who serve us feel personally accountable.
So here are a few recommendations (more to come with each new column) of websites built by independent booksellers I have admired for a long time. I go to these sites to see not only what's new but how the store is doing, what people are talking about, and whether that delicate intersection of art and commerce is going to survive another day.
SKYLIGHT BOOKS, Los Angeles, California
You can't search the database on this smallish site, but Skylight's love of books is energizing, practical and infectious all at once. The staff offers "a free personal shopping service which is particularly useful if you want to send a book to someone in another part of the world," they explain. "Just send us a letter, fax or email telling us what kind of books you have in mind and your cost range. We will contact you with suggestions and, upon your approval, gift wrap and ship the books on your behalf." Peculiar to this site is a discount for seniors any Tuesday before 4 p.m. for some reason, and despite a few slightly out-of-date references to upcoming fall ('99) events, the store's character shines through. One memorable feature this month is "The Anti-Salesman," about one ferociously independent clerk who's personally sold as many copies of the mammoth "Infinite Jest" by David Foster Wallace as the store has sold of "Angela's Ashes."
WORDSWORTH, Cambridge, Massachusetts
What a dazzler this site is! It's fast, it's fun, it zips you around the Search function like an amazon and it offers an "Ask WordsWorth" department that promises "No Profiling or Circles" if you just want to "talk to us" - the knowledgeable staff is clearly unconcerned about how much time that may take. Hot books, author events, a great section for kids and a weekly "first lines" contest are all there, and what seems original to this store is "The Writer's Desk," a page on which local writers place their photos, bios and book summaries. Max Barnet, for example, is a former CEO of a small manufacturing company who has written "Driven: Notes of a Neurotic Enteipreneur." You can read excerpts from featured books, keep track of WordsWorth Favorites, WordsWorth BookTiques (I won't explain 'em here!) and other sections that reflect the wisdom of this 24-year-old independent store.
WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST, Chicago, Illinois
Talk about putting the store's heart and soul up front. This beautiful website with its stylized logo of a woman and child and photos from "the early days" all over the place brings its history to the workplace every day: "Our purpose in beginning the store 20 years ago was to promote the work of women writers and to create a place in which all women would find books reflecting their lives and interests," the staff writes. "We strive to do this in an atmosphere in which all are respected, valued, and well-served. That is our purpose still, online as well as in this store." You can't search the inventory online, but the Staff Picks are widely varied for the store's specialty, the services are many (ask about the mother-daughter book group) and the strengths of the store important: "It may look as though the newer book superstores and on-line booksellers offer more choice," the staff explains," but their effect on the industry has been quite the opposite. These days, fewer 'big' books get more marketing attention - while the truly original, quirky or non-mainstream voices may fall between the cracks. Unless an original, quirky, or non-mainstream bookseller notices them, puts them on the shelf, and points them out to customers." We'll forgive the store its sentence fragment for advancing such a great message.
TATTERED COVER BOOK STORE, Denver, Colorado
I know this is everybody's favorite bookstore! I wasn't going to put the obvious ones down in this first go-round, but who can help it looking at the TC's modest website with its golden-mountain-colored backdrop and great services, including several bibliographies dealing with issues surrounding tragedies such as the Columbine High School event; online interviews (check out the "contrived Q&A featuring Ernest Hemingway"); collection of school supplies for children in Russian orphanages;its Autographed Book Club and resources such as ReadersNdex and Electronic Book Aisle. A treat for browsers is owner Joyce Meskis' personal letter to customer sabout her grandfather from Lithuania and her salesman father who watched independent merchants close, "one by one," many years ago. "Sometimes it seemed Dad lectured me endlessly about the impact this had on society," she writes. "He talked about the problems the local economy suffered as a result, how choice in the marketplace had been diminished." From these early conversations, Joyce grew up trying to look at the current retail landscape "with the eyes of a consumer who cares deeply about the range and diversity of the marketplace." Although this website is more rustic than snazzy, its service orientation is as magnificent online as it is in the store. "We don't take your support for granted," Meskis concludes. "The business of books is more than just a business . . . Where you shop matters."
HYPERION DEFENDS THE BEARDSTOWN LADIES, SORT OF
Well, here's something everybody should get outraged about: "the arrogance of big media corporations and their contempt for their consumers," as Steven Brill puts it in the February issue of his magazine, Brill's Content.
You'd think I'd be right in there with my usual baseball-bat ferocity, but instead I find Brill's story about Hyperion's naughty, greedy, chop-licking, money-grubbing, back-stabbing mentality kind of refreshing. (Okay, so back-stabbing is a bit extreme.)
Brill's subject is certainly intriguing: a pending class-action lawsuit against Hyperion and its parent, Disney, for false advertising on the jacket of the now-famous bestseller, "The Beardstown Ladies' Common-Sense Investment Guide."
You remember The Beardstown Ladies, those spunky retirees in Illinois who claimed their modest investment club had brought them returns of 23.4 percent. That astonishing rate made them famous but, when investigated, proved to be about 14 points off. The true return, says everybody from the Wall Street Journal to Price Waterhouse, according to Brill, was about 9 percent.
Brill thinks it's terrible that Hyperion only printed up a bunch of errata slips that apparenly fell out of the books halfway to the distributor, then yawned its way to the bank. Even now, he says, the book is online at Amazon.com in both paper and hardcover editions, both of which are shown still claiming the "23.4% annual return."
Tsk tsk. That scheming Hyperion. As everyone knows, no other mainstream publisher has been guilty of such inflated claims. Remember the grapefruit diet in "The Beverly Hills Diet Book"? Or the 50 glasses of water a day that slimmed you right down to a twig of your former self? Or the self-help book that says men who sulk in their "cave" are better lovers (and don't follow him in there, lady!), or the protein-powder-that-could-kill books?
It's one thing for the authors to make claims like that, says the lawsuit. But when the publisher puts the author's claim on the jacket, that's advertising. Although Disney's motion to dismiss the case on First Amendment grounds was granted by the trial judge, an appeals court reversed the decision last October because advertising isn't protected by the Constitution.
Brill thinks the case will ultimately be decided against Disney because the lawsuit is based on "consumer protection principles, not traditional libel law." This, he says with relish, will open the door to many more lawsuits we all can file when our consumer skirts are ruffled by books or even magazines "whose hyped cover lines promise something specific that is not delivered inside."
That's just what we need - litigation-happy consumers looking for subjects to sue, just as tens of thousands of self-publishers are about to take their places on the Web.
Well, as the government keeps telling us, American consumers are too delicate to protect themselves from things like vitamins and TV shows and books. While it's true that Hyperion took side-stepping to a high art in this case, look how the "General Public" responded.
Disney, faced with evidence that it had a fraudulent book on its hands, quite aggressively did nothing, according to Brill. People keep buying the book because what the heck, we like those feisty Beardstown Ladies, or at least the concept of them, and if Brill wants to call his article "Selling Snake Oil," maybe that's what should be protected - my right to buy a book, however bad for me you think it is, and your right not to buy it.
But Brill fears there's no end in sight. "What if a publisher knows that a celebrity didn't write a word of her autobiography and that half the anecdotes in it are made up?" he asks. Why, Steven, what a question. If it weren't for made-up stories, half the publishers in New York would have closed down years ago.
HIERARCHY VS. 'THE MILLIONTH CIRCLE'
That was certainly a memorable headline in the New York Times last Friday about the State of the Union address. It read: "Clinton Claims Bragging Rights to Nation's Prosperity."
Bragging rights? What an odd way to put it. Every president is going to take credit for something - didn't Ronald Reagan believe he alone caused the fall of Communism? - but the term "bragging rights" itself sounds so swaggering, so accusatory, so cowboy, so, well, adolescent.
Then a subhead: "Grand View and Ideas As Power Slips Away." Another strange thing to say. It's as though you're taken seriously when you're on top but shown the door when you're not.
I was struck by this perhaps because news and business magazine covers of the previous week featured Steve Case of America Online as the new Citizen Kane or King of the Internet or Man of the Century or executor of "The Big Deal" (doesn't anyone consider AOL's takeover of Time Warner a BAD deal?). Previous to that, Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com was shown on all the news and business magazine covers as everything from King of the Jungle to Person of the Year.
There's nothing wrong with highlighting the movers and shakers of the business world. It's just that since the Internet Revolution began (if that's what it is), a hint of hero-worship keeps leaking out of this lopsided coverage. It reminds me how much I loved reading Jean Shinoda Bolen's "The Millionth Circle," which came out last fall from Conari (87 pages;$14.95) and is still available in most bookstores and at firstname.lastname@example.org .
"The Millionth Circle" is a little gift book about groups - support groups, political groups, reading groups, healthcare groups - all over the world and their manner of meeting in a circle where everyone is considered equal, rather than forming a hierarchy where everybody takes orders from the person on top.
Bolen believes that our hierarchy-prone culture will change worldwide once the millionth circle is formed. She concentrates on women's groups, but one assumes that by the millionth formation, many mixtures of gender and lifestyle will have come together. In the end, the millionth circle will mean, among other things, that nary a magazine cover ever again annoints some corporate star-of-the-moment as King of this or Pinnacle or Epitome of that.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
It was refreshing to see John Gaffey's inquiry (HU #124) about online bookselling criteria based on business instead of emotional factors. I guess I am in as good a position as any to give a realistic answer since our BookSite network (www.booksite.com) is so widely adopted by independents and has a long history.
To answer John's question, some people make money with the Internet and some don't. Most can't tell because the Internet becomes part of their overall store marketing process, like the telephone or the lights in the store.
The Internet can't make or lose money, only store owners can. It is just a tool to help them increase sales and decrease costs if desired. It is more basic and simple than it is made out to be. And if by now, a store owner doesn't see a need for the Internet, they either don't need it at all, or it doesn't fit with the personality of the owner.
Here are some other acid tests:
If a store isn't doing $200,000/yr. don't bother adding the Internet. It won't replace store sales - it builds off of store sales.
If a store owner is afraid to make a mistake, then the Internet is no place to go. This is like the Wild Wild West 130 years ago. Rules change on a dime. They have to be quick on the draw. Pondering whether on not to pull the trigger will only get them a bullet between the eyes.
If you're waiting for someone else to do the "Internet store," forget it, that's like waiting for the bricklayer to run your brick and mortar store.
The Internet simply provides an opportunity to compete for business in ways that have never been possible before. It gives independents that run a good business the chance to offer their services to a broader market at little or no additional cost. It provides an opportunity for the store owner to choose from hundreds of new marketing programs to add to the existing programs. It lets the customer take a bigger role in the sale and selection process. It gives folks a chance to succeed or fail on their own terms. It un-stacks the deck.
The cost savings are much easier for most to visualize. The business-to- business side of things will let stores offer a wider selection of product from a wider range of suppliers than before. It will be possible to offer more products to customers, and easily choose new suppliers with the best pricing, and have less paperwork. Expensive physical tasks such as newsletters (costing $2.00 or so per letter) are replaced with electronic tasks such as e-mail (free).
What does it cost to keep the store open for an hour? I bet it is more than the 25 cents an hour to keep a worthwhile website open. But the same old problem of getting the customer in the store or in the website is still the same.
Marketing materials can be created on a website that already has all the necessary content in 5 or 10 minutes. That material can even be transfered to a physical snail mail newsletters or store handouts at a click of a button. It would take days to do it the other way around. Generally, you should expect to improve efficiency of you prep work by 10-fold with the Internet over your old ways.
Most people will tell you that they work harder once they add the Internet. That is because more things are possible and they choose to pursue new opportunities. The Internet is important for those who want to make a good store better and compete harder than ever for market share.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
On the 16th day of January Davis-Kidd booksellers in Knoxville,Tennessee, was closed down by the owner of the DK stores in Tennessee, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, which is based in Cincinnati. Our DK was the smallest of the stores, only about 6000 square feet, and it had been there for 13 years. Some of the employees had even been there that long. I had only been there 5 1/2 years as a bookseller.
To make a long story short, Knoxville was bombarded two years ago by Barnes & Noble and Borders, and you know the rest of the story. The loyal customers, who are many, begged us to open a store somewhere else. The response from the community to our closing was incredible. Letters to the Editor, TV time, and letters to the owner of DK were to no avail, naturally, but we are proud of being booksellers and have no place to go in Knox unless defecting to the chains.
A big money person in the downtown area has offered us a space with free rent for a while and some financial backing, but we're scared, to be quite blunt, with all the Internet buying and the superstores ready to nip at our heels. Please advise. The only job that looks appealing is as a waitress in an old drugstore luncheon counter. One last note, our downtown is undergoing some massive revitalization but won't be vital for a year or so, no guarantees, of course.
Thank you for listening to this severed bookseller looking for a real bookstore.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
Is anybody else tired of all the talk about Amazon, Wal-Mart, Barnes & Noble, Borders. Hey, they are a fact of life and they aren't going away, so we have to deal with it.
How about some talk about books, writing, or publishing from the writer's perspective. Or at least some spotlighting on all the great independent mystery bookstores around the country. I've done signings at so many of them, and they do one hell of a job!
Holt responds: If you want to know why we need to keep talking about Barnes & Noble et al, read the letter above yours. The only way to "deal with" this "fact of life," I think, is to understand what is lost in terms of books that don't get published or are lost in the shuffle, independent stores that close in towns that are "bombarded" by chain stores and a drying up of diversity in the book industry that pertains very profoundly to "the writer's perspective."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
There is a new trend in publishing I find disturbing, and I've heard little mention of it. It is the English-English translation service.
If we examine, for example, the British edition of Alex Garland's THE BEACH, we find British usage. But pick up a copy of the American version and you will find a few changes on most pages: The "windscreen" is now a "windshield," an item that was "nicked" has now been "stolen" and of course, "favourite" is now "favorite".
This practice is silly at best. At worst it is insulting to the American reader's intelligence, a violation of the author's work, and damaging to the essence of the book.
THE BEACH is no great prize, in my opinion; dull brain-candy so derivative of LORD OF THE FLIES it made me cringe. On the other hand, throughout my reading of it I had to keep checking if the author and narrator were alledgedly English. The narrator, having been translated, was perched in this peculiar washed-out Anglo-American non-identity, partially as a result of this English-English translation, and partly as a result of good old-fashioned bad writing.
Is anyone else upset by this publisher practice? What galls me most is that there is no disclaimer anywhere on the American version. If publishers are going to change the book, shouldn't they tell us so up front?
I have heard that the HARRY POTTER series enjoys the same benefits of publisher stewardship of our dumbed-down American sensibilities. The excuse I have heard is that "it's for kids", as though children are incapable of learning and maybe even enjoying unfamiliar words.