NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #131
by Pat Holt

book Tuesday, February 22, 2000:

THE INTERNET SPLITS: MONEY OR TRUST?
1. On Hackers and The Jigsaw Puzzle Theory
2. Trust, Trust, Trust and Money on the Internet
3. Enter the Warning Flags

LETTERS

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THE INTERNET SPLITS: MONEY OR TRUST

1. On Hackers and The Jigsaw Puzzle Theory

Watching the damage that hackers have wreaked on the Internet this past week brings to mind the old "bad apple theory" that the late private investigator Hal Lipset used to explain to me when we wrote a book together many years ago.

[The book is out of print but emerges from time to time in used bookstores and at auction sites on the Internet. The hardback was called "The Bug in the Martini Olive," which referred to Hal's ability to plant tiny listening devices in such unlikely places as an olive in a martini (the toothpick was the antenna). Unfortunately, people thought the title meant someting about insects crawling around in the gin, which sort of ruined the sale, so the paperback edition was renamed "The Good Detective," also out of print.]

Anyway, Hal started out as an Army CID (Criminal Investigation Department) detective during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. His job was to investigate crimes committed by American military personnel against civilians or against each other.

People were always shocked to hear that American soldiers committed crimes such as robbery, extortion, blackmail or murder during a war, even during combat. WWII was, after all, "The Good War," and it seemed impossible that anyone would criminally exploit America's mission to liberate people enslaved by Hitler.

Thus "the bad apple theory": In any situation where large numbers congregate, Hal explained, people are good - they do their job, try to help others, obey the rules and contribute to the well-being of society. But at home as well as at war, a few "bad apples" emerge who are out for themselves and will use any illegal means they can find for their own benefit.

Now here's where it gets interesting: From a law enforcement point of view, at least at that time, "bad apples" stick out because they have a "criminal mind." The rest of us don't. While it's true that everyone is capable of a mistake that can turn out to be criminal, or a violation of law resulting from passion or bad judgment, people with criminal minds behave in a different pattern, and it is that pattern, as much as the crime itself, that the good detective seeks.

That's why the jigsaw puzzle metaphor is so prevalent in mysteries - in fact, Hal's most effective methodology was something he called "the jigsaw puzzle theory." Every detective, he said, starts out with a hypothesis about the way the crime occurred. As he interviews witnesses and collects evidence, he watches how each piece of the puzzle fits with his original hypothesis. (I use the male pronoun because men were predominant in the field when Hal was most active).

The fun part comes as we see how the bad detective differs from the good detective: When a piece of the puzzle doesn't fit the hypothesis, the bad detective simply crams it into the puzzle anyway - because he's lazy, or frustrated or wants his fee - so he'll appear to have been right all along.

The good detective, on the other hand, holds that piece apart as the key to the case. Since it doesn't fit, he's got to throw out his original hypothesis and start over again until all the pieces fit perfectly.

So back to our hackers: They are, clearly the "bad apples" of the Internet, and it's been thrilling to watch the FBI seek them out by seeking out criminal patterns (the use of university computers with DSL, for example) as well as investigating the events themselves.

2. Trust, Trust, Trust and Money on The Internet

To apply Hal's approach even further: In a way, the dangers of the comparatively few hackers and viruses and snipers in cyberspace reinforce the theory that by and large, people on the Internet are good - that millions congregating on the Web sort themselves into very small groups and create a collective wisdom anyone can tap into, simply by asking a question.

Now if you think I'm going to bend this image of the Internet into a new consideration of the independent bookstore, don't go away.

It occurred to me only recently that the reason I love the Internet is that it reminds me of a great independent bookstore. Take one step and you find a place that's exploding with ideas, great conversations, information freely exchanged and an environment you can trust.

Trust, trust, trust - don't forget the word. Independents know that trust is what keeps customers coming back. It is the one thing they hold "over" chains and online services like Amazon.com. It is the bridge between brick-and-mortar stores and their website equivalent. It is the key piece of the cyberpuzzle.

And just like an independent bookstore, if the Internet somehow gets bought (watch out what America Online does with that broadband cable it acquired in the Time Warner merger), or if it gets controlled by those who want to amass fortunes or wield power or be king of the jungle, the One Corruptible Thing that will go first is trust.

Right now, the Internet is going off in two directions at once - money (discounts! tech stocks! branding! product! no taxes!); and trust: If your mother has contracted MS; if your child is researching Homer; if you're driving to an unknown location; if you seek the weather in Albuquerque; if you don't understand the legal system; if you want to read a good book - trusting the Internet as a sancturary of information, much like a library or again an independent bookseller, must be an absolute. Because without trust, why bother?

This is the reason I find it so thrilling that many independent bookstores, even without the failed booksense.com that was supposed to give them a shared database and help get them on the Internet, are figuring out how to haul the very character and integrity of their physical stores onto beautifully designed and efficient websites for all to see, and to trust.

And it's the reason I think Jeff Bezos makes such a big thing of Amazon.com being "customer-centric." He's a genius at amassing the money; he's been on magazine covers as the king of the jungle. And he wants to be appear accountable. He wants the piece of the puzzle that shouldn't fit for a huge operation built by Wall Street that's losing hundreds of millions of dollars - customers' trust.

Even over the holidays, Bezos had senior managers wrapping Christmas orders because "it's amazing how much you learn by doing something that's very close to customers," he told the Wall Street Journal. That way "you understand that if a shipment doesn't go out on time, some child isn't going to have anything under the tree on December 25th."

So learn to trust Amazon.com, Tiny Tim! And all the little children with credit cards. This is important in these days of price-comparison search engines that reveal a surprising diversity in savings on the Internet, at least as far as books are concerned. (Perhaps it's the reason behind its PEN/Short Story Award for $10,000 - see #130 and LETTERS below.)

Wired magazine reports, for example, that price comparisons on DealPilot show "how infrequently the best-known stores topped the list." For one bestseller, Borders.com was 67 cents over the lowest price and Amazon.com was a whopping "$9 off the pace."

3. Enter the Warning Flags

Not a problem, Wired says, because "Amazon doesn't promise to be the low-cost leader. Instead, it promises better service and more reliable delivery." This is a polite way of saying that Amazon.com once promised to be the low-cost leader (it was the first to knock off 50% on bestsellers, remember?).

But its real reason for "dropping prices online," writes JoAnn Kuhar in Book Woman, was "to gain market share" from independent bookstores. "Once all the independents are closed, prices will go right back up," she says.

Kuhar worked at an independent bookstore for seven years "and then, naively, tried working at one of the mega-chains. I lasted eight months."

She reminds us that this piece of the jigsaw puzzle doesn't fit with chain bookstores, either. "Barnes & Noble and Borders lured us into their retail stores with deep discounts, too. Anyone else remember when B&N gave 20 percent off all hardcovers? Then, without a lot of fanfare, the discount was quietly reduced to 10 percent off on all hardcovers. Well, guess what? Today, neither Barnes & Noble nor Borders give blanket discounts on hardcovers."

It's that gray area in both online booksellers like Amazon.com and chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble that makes the area of trust a bit shaky. Look at the Bestseller List in these establishments and you know you can't trust a single entry because the slots are available for purchase by publishers. This is a piece of the puzzle that's being crammed into the picture (as well as down our throats). By contrast I don't know of one independent bookstore that sells rankings on its in-store bestseller list to publishers.

But already the warning flags are waving in the cyberbreeze, and here's one: If your only goal in buying books on the Internet is to save money, you're going to fall prey to corporate ploys that appear to be "customer-centric" but are intended to exploit and manipulate. It's not that Jeff Bezos is a "bad apple" but rather that he's trying to keep too many plates spinning at once and rolling right over customer needs - and even constitutional freedoms - in the meantime.

The big problem that we don't see, and it's so big that trust in the Internet may falter because of it, is what is NOT promised, what is left very much unsaid and invisible, and that is what an online bookseller like Amazon.com takes away from us. It's not just a matter of collecting information about buying habits and selling that information to the highest bidder. As we'll see, and as two separate cases contend, it's a question of illegal invasions of privacy that portend a new era - consumer-driven to be sure - of capitalist Big Brother.

Hackers are the obvious "bad apples," distracting us from facing other matters we'll explore Friday - zBubbles, shopbots, data mining, two excellent and legitimately terrifying books ("Database Nation" and -- ta da! -- "1984') and the role of independent bookstores in the coming "privacy wars."

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

In response to "A very hungry writer" who gave two reasons for sending a story to the PEN/Amazon award: money and credentials:

1) Money - Amazon is using a very small sum to try to buy good will in the literary community. This $10,000 comes from the sales it has taken from small independent bookstores who are real booksellers, supporting first-time authors. The hungry writer knows this, and says it is "blood money" but if it ends up supporting him - who can argue with that? Well, to start with, booksellers forced out of business, who are now also hungry. Selling drugs is also blood money used to support poor hungry people. Who can argue with that?

IT DOES MATTER if writers are co-opted and corrupted.

2) Credentials. It will not be so sterling with PEN's name on it - forever linked with Amazon's name. PEN has in my view tarnished its prestige by letting itself be used.

Pat Cody
Bookseller Emeritus

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

Regarding service in bookstores. A long time ago I got a job at the information counter of Kroch's and Brentano's ("the world's largest bookstore," then said to be). This was in the days when young Mr. Kroch would show up with his chauffeur, to pick up money or something, and older book clerks would tell me, "There are 3 things true of young Mr. Kroch. He has never worked a day in his life; he has never ridden public transportation: he has never read a book.")

Once I was handed a list of books by a well-dressed man, and I told him where to find each of them. Later, young Mr. Kroch himself sent a memo which was handed to me attached to a letter he had received from this same gentleman, who was the Chairman of the Board of Standard Oil of Indiana. The letter complained of my failure to gather up the desired books.

Whenever I have asked for such help from floor employees at Powell's in Portland, Oregon (who are always somewhere about), I have always been led to the spot and helped in the search. It's just that Powell's employees are rarely smilingly sociable. They are book people, not sales people, and they are overwhelmed keeping up with the constant carnival-like crowd that is the Powell's scene.

If I thought Powell's was in trouble, I'd hold benefits for them; they are at the pinnacle of their calling and always leave me impressed (sometimes I go there just to have coffee and sit surrounded by books and fellow readers), and I have visited over 2500 US and Canadian book stores for my business...

Bob Williams
Book Darts

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I read John Gear's letter [about free parking] with some amusement. While I agree that it would be nice if everything I needed in life were within easy walking distance, his anti-automobile screed seems to favor those who stay at home to shop online over those who would have to drive 10 miles to their "neighborhood" independent bookseller.

Does anybody really think it's "better" to send my book-dollars out of state to Powell's or Cody's via their website rather than drive around visiting my local independents on a lazy Saturday? Wouldn't online-only stores be even more eco-friendly in Mr. Gear's eyes? What next, letters favoring e-books over "dead tree" formats?

Ed Dravecky III
dsheldon@netcom.com

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

Okay, John Gear, I like your utopia better than mine, but not in my lifetime. I live in a city of about 85,000 people, growing and sprawling fast, no will at all on the part of the city fathers/mothers to initiate anything that could be called planning. My city has a downtown that is dying, and a set of shopping malls that is thriving. The difference? Parking.

This is not a walking city. It has execrable public transportation. (The buses do not run on Sunday AT ALL, nor late at night, which poses quite a conundrum for people who work late shifts or weekends.) The downtown stores are minimally open on Saturdays, and on Sundays not at all . . . I do most of my purchasing from catalogues or online - dividing my book purchases, which are substantial, between online services (no longer including Amazon.com, but now including the real Amazon Bookstore) and the local Barnes & Noble, the only real bookstore in town, which is in a new shopping mall.

For about ten years our downtown had a no-vehicles "mall," which was a really good idea except that they left out the other necessary part: someplace to put one's car while one shopped on the "mall." It gets REALLY COLD here, the walks are icy, and it's a pain to park (and pay) many blocks from where you want to shop. So ultimately the idea failed, and they dug up the mall and restored parking on those streets (metered, of course).

I have to drive to work, because my office is located ten miles out of town, and there is NO PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION to this place. The shopping malls are on the way to and/or from work. Downtown isn't. Would I like commuter rail service to the Twin Cities? Indeed I would. But it won't happen before I retire.

There's no point in railing at the automobile; someday it will be replaced with something better, but people are still going to have to shop for heavy, bulky goods and carry them home in some kind of vehicle. And they have to park it near where they shop, so they can tote the heavy, bulky goods to the vehicle. Or else they can just order everything online . . .

Linda Maloney

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

Attention! Attention! Corporate shenanigans are not limited to the independent bookstores versus the chains. Behind the scenes are the struggles of independent publishers, having to battle for attention from both the independents and the chains PLUS deal with independent distributors who have their own battles to fight with the booksellers on both sides of the streets.

Does all this matter to independent booksellers and readers? Well, it damned well better start mattering because the problems here, behind the scenes, are the breeding ground of the "virus" whose symptoms are being increasingly felt by independent booksellers and the whole reading public.

How many of your readers know that the demise of independent distributors such as Atrium, Pacific Pipeline, and others, over the past few years has resulted in independent publishers and their authors getting ripped off for books they wrote and produced? It happens because of shady--I'm being diplomatic here--corporate policies by both the chains and the distributors.

The newest controversy is with an independent distributor called Access Publishers Network, which distributed as many as 200 excellent independent publishers at its peak. Their list once included the highly esteemed publisher Samuel Weiser. Like other independent distributors before them, Access started off with great promise. But many once-loyal publishers are abandoning ship owing to late payment, no payment, billing errors, and administrative indifference.

Part of the problem, of course, is with the chains. They continue to be able to return books for full credit, in some cases for up to a year, which puts the squeeze on everyone at the receiving end of the billing process. Plus, they have a corporate policy of "aging" bills as long as they can--which comes down to another way of squeezing the authors, distributors and publishers.

The distribution and corporate retailing policies of the publishing business have become nothing short of vicious since the advent of the chains. And the bottom line is that in order to stay in business at all, publishers and authors turn more and more to writing and publishing only books that are sure to move fast in the chains. The bottom line is that we have become a culture where editorial policy is determined at the cash register . . .

Hal Zina Bennett
Halbooks@AOL.COM

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Prompted by Norma Montgomery's comments (about selling used books on eBay), I bought some old Western paperbacks from the '50s and '60s, including an Elmore Leonard. I listed them in lots of 4 for $4 each, and nothing sold. So I surfed the Western novel listings and found that most of them had no bids unless they were extremely cheap (10 Max Brands for $2) or very very old (1913 Zane Grey). My best sellers are treasure hunting, building things, crafts, and the occult.

Sharon Jarvis

Norma Montgomery responds:

I mentioned that I had sold a FIRST EDITION hardback, dustjacket copy of Louis L'Amour's "Lonesome Gods," so this is not a 10-cent Western. I don't sell Westerns (except the occasional one of real value, like the L'Amour) -- they don't sell. I would never put a paperback lot up at $4.00. No one will pay $1.00 for an old Western (unless they really want it or get carried away in bidding).

I found five paperback L'Amours at the Atchison Village free library and tried them out (at $2.00). They didn't sell. I will take them back to the free library and never try Western paperbacks again. Although I did once sell a very nice Ace double paperback (they are special) Western to a relative of the author of one of the books. A Western has to be "Special" to sell.

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

Some time ago, I requested advice on "returning" Borders gift cards. I have just received my check from Borders, in the amount of the card, and thought you might be interested in knowing the process.

I began by phoning the number on the back of the card. When I told the telephone rep. that I was "unable to shop at Borders," she gave me the address to use in requesting a refund (BGI Home Office, Customer Service, 100 Phoenix Drive, Ann Arbor, MI 48108). People requesting refunds need not send the actual card to BGI, but should send a photocopy. It takes about a month to receive the refund.

Dylan Besk

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Dear Holt Uncensored,

I have another suggestion for those folks who receive chain-store gift certificates that can't be redeemed for cash: Select a book for the local public library, and ask for a bookplate honoring the person who bought the certificate. And check with the librarian first to select a book that would enhance the collection.

Linda Minor, Reference Librarian
Forest Grove, Oregon, City Library

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

Please advise reader Janet Taylor and all Holt Uncensored readers who care about the creators of words that "the immortal words of Tom Hanks in 'A League of Their Own,' 'It's supposed to be hard; it's the hard that makes it great. If it was easy, everyone would do it,' " did not spring full-blown from the mind of the talented Mr. Hanks. They were written by screenwriters Kim Wilson & Kelly Candaele (story) and Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel (script).
We who toil in the vineyards of TV and film creating words that others (admittedly more beautiful and luminous than ourselves) speak, ask only that you remember SOMEBODY WROTE THAT, and that it was generally not the person who said it on screen.

Richard Beban
Venice, California

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Dear Holt Uncensored:
In regard to Amazon.com's 1-click patent and the resultant consumer boycott, I've been tagging on to that national boycott to inform people (generally tech folks) of Amazon.com's predatory practices toward the book industry. Whenever I see mention of the 1-click affair online, I post to the author (or the comments board) about other reasons to boycott Amazon.com. I've done it several times already.

I think many people out there don't know about the worthiness of independent bookstores. So, as a kind of strategy that we booklovers can use, I say we should all make good use of people boycotting Amazon.com for the 1-click reason and inform them of other good reasons to boycott even after the 1-click affair is settled. This way, the groundwork has already been paved for us in arenas that we may not often get to.

Conal Ho
University of California, Santa Cruz

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