HOLT UNCENSORED #132
by Pat Holt
Friday, February 25, 2000:
TRUST, eBUBBLES AND PRIVACY
TRUST, eBUBBLES AND PRIVACY
Things happen so fast on the Internet that it seems we've already come to the kind of crossroads that lurk in the shadows of so many futuristic novels and movies.
I remember reading "1984" as a teenager and wondering how people ever allowed spying TVs in their homes to begin with. Of course, no one has a choice by the time the novel begins, but even in "Brave New World" or "Fahrenheit 451" or "THX 1138," it seems that constant surveillance must have arrived through the willingness rather than the opposition of "the masses."
That's the crossroads I think we face now - not the threat of ideas but the promise of technology.
Take zBubbles, for example, one of many Internet inventions like "cookies" and "shopbots" that are reputed to save consumers time and money in miraculous ways. zBubbles is the creation of Alexa Internet, which Amazon.com purchased for $245.5 million in stock last year.
zBubbles is a price-comparison service that resides as a little icon on your Web browser. It changes color whenever you are shopping for something that it's programmed to analyze. When you click on it, the zBubble fills half the screen and tells you all the places it knows where you can get a better or worse deal. It emphasizes Amazon.com, of course, because it's owned by the company, even if Amazon.com doesn't have the best price.
"So, if anything, zBubbles may result in further dominance and trust of the Amazon brand (and the Amazon community)," predicts a Motley Fool financial report, "because zBubbles is NOT pushing consumers to Amazon. It is helping consumers find the best products on the Internet at the best price."
But let's remember that word "trust" when we consider what else zBubbles does. Already Amazon.com is in trouble because of two legal actions against Alexa, one a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission and one a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court.
"The catch, according to [software designer Richard M.] Smith's FTC complaint, is that Alexa's technology, without asking for consent, simultaneously sucks up personal data (names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses) and monitors exactly what a person searched for at a given website, then relays that info back to Alexa and Amazon," writes Josh Feit on AlterNet ( http://www.alternet.com ), one of the hottest alternative news sites on the Web.
"Smith knows what he's talking about, because he's used his own software to spy on the spies," Feit continues. "Cruising the web to test out zBubbles, for example, Smith found that the program -- in violation of its own stated policy -- relayed his address to Alexa and Amazon.
"Smith ran the same test on Alexa basic software and found that his email address, his home address, a plane reservation, and his sister's name and phone number were sent to an Alexa web server, without his permission."
The lawsuit also alleges privacy invasion, claiming that Alexa uses a "secret information gathering capacity" to "shadow" users' Internet travel, "collect personal data and pass it off to parent company, Amazon.com."
And what might Amazon.com do with this information? On its "Your Privacy" page, Amazon.com insists that it "does not sell, trade, or rent your personal information to others." Not today, anyway. The next sentence explains: "We may choose to do so in the future with trustworthy third parties, but you can tell us not to."
That's helpful, isn't it? You can tell us not to, but trust our judgment of "trustworthy third parties," just as you can trust our Bestseller List and our staff recommendations and all the other things we sold out to the highest bidder from publishers long ago.
But here's the problem with telling Amazon.com or any other collector of information not to sell or spread that information around. The technology is moving ahead so fast that we may very soon have no choice in the matter. Direct marketers on the Internet now exist, according to the New York Times this week, "who begin building consumer dossiers on children from their birth announcements and school records . . . "
The Times story reports on DoubleClick Inc. and "other Web weasels" that gather enough information to "give some people the creeps." Click on an advertisement, and DoubleClick feeds your computer a "welcome cookie" (information-gatherer) that enables DoubleClick "to track everything your browser software does or sees on a DoubleClick-affiliated site" or other sites using DoubleClicks competitors, at which point "another cookie takes over."
Double-Click, of course, tells us not to worry: "DoubleClick promised that it would never link the data it gathers about a user's visits to online health, sex, child-related or financial information sites to the personally identifiable database." Never, that is, until it changes its mind.
There's a way to block cookies of the kind Double-Click sends out, even though the block function may knock out capability for other Internet travel. One can also decide never to click on an Internet advertisement again, but who knows how many cookies are already chewing around the edges of the screen your reading now?
It's interesting that Amazon.com doesn't have much to say about privacy concerns regarding such surveillance systems as zBubbles, but independent booksellers do. Joann Kuhar, an independent bookseller for more than seven years who "naively tried working at one of the mega-chains" and lasted eight months, writes in Book Women that "data mining" on the Internet has reached "a degree that was undreamed of just a few years ago," especially in terms of its threat to book readers.
She quotes David Schwartz of Milwaukee's Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops, who points out that "there is something called the soul of the book. It is a precious article that can change people's lives." Already we've seen Special Prosecutor Ken Starr tracking the reading habits of a someone like Monica Lewinsky; now only a short time later, it's as though we are all under surveillance.
"I agree with Andy Ross of Cody's Books in Berkeley," Kuhar writes, "who says, 'It's like 1984 has arrived: what people are reading, thinking about, the ideas they're working with, should be completely confidential."
What can we do about it? The problem is so widespread that computerized supermarket discount cards seem harmless by comparison. But this is how the worst abuse begins, says says Simson Garfinkel in the best current book on the subject, "Database Nation" (O'Reilly; 312 pages; $24.95; buy online at http://www.politics-prose.com ).
The new technology is creating an environment in which "the systematic capture of everyday events" is acceptable, says Garfinkel - not just of every purchase we make, but of "every place we travel, every word we say, and everything we read." If not utilized now, this information is simply stored indefinitely "for later analysis."
Ongoing, automatic collection of information is only a start, says Garfinkel. Added to it are the "systematic monitoring of public places" by microphone, video camera and satellite; absence of human beings from "digital decision-making," resulting in "the smallest clerical errors [having] devastaing effects on a person's life"; "the fallibility of biometrics" including iris scans and genetic sequences that identify people wherever they go; loss of patient confidentiality, misuse of medical records; "runaway marketing" such as "solicitations that are continual and virtually indistinguishable from news articles, personal letters"; and more.
There are ways to protect your privacy, says Garfinkel - a company called Zero-Knowledge Systems has designed a way to anonymously browse the Internet and exchange email; he suggests a "government privacy agenda" that will enforce the few privacy laws that exist, suggest new laws, replace the Fair Credit Reporting Act with a Data Protection Act, and the like.
But readers will walk away shaking their heads when they get to Garfinkel's suggestion that video cameras at computer workstations, which are used for teleconferencing and controlled by software, needn't be a worry to the worker at whose face the video lens is always aimed. Now these cameras can be purchased with a piece of plastic attached to the lens that you can manually slide in front of the camera's eye to ensure privacy. Heavens, there's no digital answer better than sticking your thumb on the lens? Correct, says Garfinkel: the cameras may cost more with this kind of attachment, but it's the only way you'll have piece of mind that Big Brother ain't looking at you, kid.
So back to trust: It's wonderful to see independent booksellers standing up for the one thing they have always believed in, and that is respect for the customer. Let's not even pretend that Amazon.com is customer-centric when it comes to that info-sucking zBubbles and "other Web weasels."
"Isn't that what your book-buying profile would be?"
Dear Holt Uncensored:
One small correction for your article in the Feb 21 issue of Holt Uncensored titled "The Internet Splits." In that article you refer to "the failed booksense.com." The death of Booksense.com is grossly overstated. Word from Len Vlahos, the project's director, indicates that the project is very much in the works, albeit somewhat delayed from its original schedule, for technical reasons. Many of us in the industry still believe that this project will be a wonderful tool for independent booksellers, and will provide them with an excellent tool for bringing their individual offerings to the public via the web. Current hopes are that Booksense.com will "go live" sometime this coming summer.
Pacific Northwest Booksellers Assn
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re the reader who wrote: "No one will pay $1.00 for an old Western (unless they really want it or get carried away in bidding)."
She's out of her mind, right? Either that, or my customers are out of theirs. I am getting so tired of hearing the bookselling opinions of someone whose experience is limited to eBay bidders, where everything has to sell in a week or it's damned forever...
I will explain my initial anger. Two of the most important things to know about selling books are first, that they need time. Some books sell fast - that's great. Others will sell eventually, but they'll pretty up your shelves for a long while. Until that one person wanders by and starts shaking as they reach out to a book they've been seeking for longer than you've even heard of it. Which brings me to the second thing: some books have lots of readers, some have only a few. Are the less popular books trash because you can't get any competitive bidding going on them?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
We are two years old on the Oregon coast. Our best market is the visitor from "away" here to see the beauty. We have had great success by offering to deliver at prices below Amazon or Powell's, making the order contingent upon that. We then search the various databases, ABE, etc. and give up our credit card # to pay, but have the seller deliver straight to the buyer. No problems so far.
We were robbed by Barnes Noble on shipping 20 remaindered Dover children's thrift classics to us ($20 for books, $22 for shipping), but recovered by monitoring their "deals" and found that they were selling Indiana Classics of "Freckles" in hardcover about $2 below the paperback ($9 vs. $11.25) to get the $10 shipping bonus we had to buy 5 copies--it was a pleasure.
Daedalus, and Mountain Press are our favorite sources for new books. On used books we typically deliver at $3 less than Amazon. Since opening I have been surprised at the demand for poetry, and the popularity of the pre-history fiction.
Your letter devoted to the experience of [eBay book dealer] Norma Montgomery is the first I have downloaded to print copy. I thought it was very valuable for one with little e-Bay experience.
Winchester Bay Trading Co.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I've been following your recent articles on Norma Montgomery with great interest, for the simple reason that I've now gone into bookselling full-time on Ebay.
It all started out as a lark last year when I was going through the six or seven thousand books my wife and I have in the house. (We have both worked in publishing.) I started listing a few of these books on Ebay, and people started buying them. I was hooked. After a while, however, I realized that I was going to run out of my own books to sell (those I wanted to sell, of course--we still have thousands left).
It all came to a head last August when a friend of ours was over and I was showing her how I was selling books on Ebay. She commented that she had many signed and first edition books and proofs from her years in publishing, but she had no idea how to sell them. She had talked to a few book dealers, but they would offer her only about 50% of the value. (No denigration intended here--these dealers have to make a profit somewhere.) I realized that there was a business here. In the last six months I've set up my own company: BindingDeals.com, Inc. What I do is sell books for people on a commission basis. I take 20% commission, which also covers all expenses (such as shipping, Ebay listing fees, etc.) I have my own website which solicits customers, but I do all my selling on Ebay under the user ID BindingDeals.
The business has taken off with a vengeance. As I successfully sell one person's collection, two of their friends approach me to do the same. I usually only sell those books that I think will bring in $20 or over, given the amount of time I have to put into each description. I feature color photos of each book, along with photos of copyright pages, signatures, and illustrations. My poor wife has seen her dining room turned into a shipping station and the basement music room has become my photo studio.
As Norma points out, the genres (science fiction, mystery) sell the best. I've had some very interesting literary works which just don't sell. For example, a two-volume bound manuscript of A SUITABLE BOY by Vikram Seth (both volumes signed by Seth) hasn't sold at $75 for two listings now, even though it's listed on ABE Books at over $200.
I'm very fortunate in that most of the publishing people I deal with have some very exciting material, including signed limited editions and signed firsts with great association value.
Another element that has become popular are bound galleys (uncorrected proofs). Even though the market for these is smaller than the market for first hardcover editions, they are actually the first appearance of a title in book form and so can be considered the true first edition. I make it a practice to never sell any proof for which the hardcover edition has been out for less than a year. I'm very sensitive to the problems that publishers face when proofs are sold instead of the actual book. My feeling is that after a year of publication, the proof becomes an artifact as opposed to a substitute for the book itself.
A few high points? I purchased a proof of John Grisham's THE CLIENT, which had been signed by Grisham. It was in pretty terrible condition; it looked like someone had spilled coffee on it. Given that ABE Books featured a few copies of this at around $250, I figured I might be able to get $125, given the condition. I listed it for $75. Within two days the book had shot up to over $400, where it stayed for the rest of the week. I always monitor my auctions during the last two minutes, given that that's when the action takes place (if indeed there is going to be any action). At 60 seconds left in the auction, the book was still at $410. Within the next minute bids flew fast and furious and the final bid was $1,025. I went back and made sure that the photo and description of the book showed the condition, which it did. My customer was truly pleased with the book when he received it, and posted some great feedback.
So to get back to the original question which came up in your column: is Norma a bookseller? Of course she is. If she was buying old books and selling them for paper pulp or to interior decorators to use for "ambiance" (a truly sickening thought), one might make the argument that she's simply a merchant. But the people who buy her books are obviously purchasing them to read. What else could she be?
There are plenty of issues to discuss, of course, such as Alibris (which is burning through venture capital faster than many other internet sites) and how they overcharge for their books. The beautiful thing about Ebay is that you can't overcharge--people are only going to pay what a particular title is worth to them.
Holt queries: I'm wondering if you ever hear any criticism about working with publishing people who get many books free, as well as bound galleys and signed manuscripts. Now that the auction market has grown so huge, especially on the Internet, the idea of collecting copies of anything in print is also pretty volatile. What is your take on the matter?
Peter Schneider answers:
You've touched on the most sensitive part of this business. In fact, I've talked to a few heads of houses about this very situation.
In the case of bound galleys, they seem to feel that if an employee sells these either before or just after the book itself is published, it's the equivalent of stealing. That's why I made my rule about not dealing with any bound galley until a year has passed after publication of the book. The people I spoke with seemed to think that this would answer any problems with the situation.
However, this opens up another can of worms. If a publicist or an editor orders additional bound galleys when they're being produced for the sole reason of holding onto them and selling them at a later date (and you know how expensive the bound galleys are), then that person is misusing company funds.
Fortunately, the customers I've been working with don't seem to have done that; they just happen to have one or two sitting around years after the publication.
What's very interesting is that a number of bookstores that receive these galleys from the publishers turn right around and sell them on Ebay. For example, I was talking to a friend in Marketing at Doubleday. They had just sent out the proofs for the new James Lee Burke title, PURPLE CANE ROAD, to the bookstores. Publicity had not yet sent out their books to reviewers. Within two days there were a number of these proofs showing up on Ebay, going for $50 or more. Right now I don't think the trade publishers are fully aware of what's happening here--and the fact may be that they simply assume that a few booksellers are going to do this but it's not worth their time to go after them.
Limited editions don't seem to be that much of a problem for the heads of houses. Those people inside the company who receive them are usually those associated with the publication of the book. There are many restrictions on in-house people ordering additional copies of expensive books like limiteds. Their feeling is that the limited is basically a gift to the person who worked on the book and that they can do what they want with it. Just to be safe, however, I impose the same year-after-pub rule on limited editions.
The trickiest part here deals with the manuscripts and other artifacts of the actual publishing process, such as letters from the author, etc. Most publishers view these as the property of the author--something I agree with completely. If, say, an editor holds on to the finished manuscript and then sells it later on, that's truly a betrayal of the author/editor relationship. Fortunately, I've not run into anything like this in my work yet. I do establish provenance on everything I sell for people, so if it were to come up, I would not deal with the item.
As far as reviewers copies go, most heads of houses agree that these copies are the property of the reviewer and they can do with them what they want. It irks them if the reviewers sell their copies before the hardcover books come out, but the fact is that most people who buy proofs for their collections also buy the hardcover as well, so it's not stealing sales.
This brings up a related issue I'm trying to do something about. It concerns the archives of publishers in these days of consolidation and mergers. In 1988, when I worked at BDD, I was invited by the head of the Physical Plant at BDD to come out to the Doubleday archives in Garden City. I went out there on a Wednesday. We walked into the basement and there was one of the largest rooms I've seen, piled high with boxes of files dating from the earliest days of Doubleday. It looked like the last scene of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." I asked this fellow what was going to happen to all this. He said that it was being incinerated that Friday--BDD wanted to lease out the old Garden City offices and they wanted everything out of there. It was truly the most amazing thing I've ever experienced--this entire record of Doubleday's dealings with authors like Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling, and scores of others was being destroyed. I then asked why they didn't donate it to a university or have a curator come in and go through it. He said that they didn't want to take the time or trouble to do so. And so, that Friday, this irreplaceable history of American letters was trucked away and cremated.
This is the only case I know of personally, but I can bet that this scenario has happened many, many times. When a publisher is bought by another publisher, there's no sense of history with the new owners. Archives and old books of the acquired publisher are not really important. Who knows what happens to these?
The one publishing person who recognized this problem was Peter Mayer. When he was CEO of Penguin, he set up a climate-controlled library in the basement of the Saatchi building and hired two curators who made sure that all old files and books were catalogued and kept in order. It was a thrilling experience to go down there and see the entire history of Viking, Dutton, NAL, Signet and all the others in one place. Quite frankly, I don't know if this library still exists, after the merger with Putnam. I'd be interested to find out if they considered the expense of this project to be worthwhile.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Yes, Pat, it is "thrilling to watch the FBI seek [hackers] out" in the same way it is "thrilling" to view the men (and women) in blue throw a perp to the curb on the Fox Network's successful _Cops_. But the finer details, in both cases, are often lost in the scuffle, and innocent people DO get hurt.
Just what do we mean when we say "hackers?" For every suspect teen with a razor-sharp understanding of computers, there is an equal number of Digital Age wanna-be moguls who would like nothing better than for their security software (or books) to sell sell sell. And if undue public fear of the "hacker menace" helps things along . . . well, so much the better.
Does the average American understand what exactly "hacking" is or how one "hacks?" Decidedly not. And this is just the sort of hole into which law enforcement agencies are able to drive their vehicles of propaganda, consequently convincing the public that personal privacy should take a back seat to nebulous "security issues." I'm not offering an asinine cry of UFO cover-up here. Simply look at the statistics: the staggering number of government wire-taps is in disproportion to the miniscule number of successfully tried cases that result from such court-supported surveillance.
My understanding of computers, beyond utilizing online resources and word processing software, is rather limited--I'm a writing geek, not a web wonk. However, I often peruse with interest the letters section of the infamous _2600_, "The Hacker Quarterly," a publication of much controversy among and within booksellers, including Barnes & Noble. In these pages one finds stories from countless teens and college students who have been hassled by clueless teachers and librarians and parents. Sure, times have changed: mischievous kids used to squirt glue in the lock of the principal's office and now they can disrupt a hard drive. But one downside of all this "hacker" hype is that young people with an honest fascination and love of technology must suffer the suspicions and paranoias of adults acting as either self- or school- or state-appointed gatekeepers. One young man simply "minimized" the screen of a classroom computer and was accused of "hacking."
The cops-and-robbers game makes for good entertainment, no doubt about it. But the discriminating viewer of the Modern Media Spectacle understands that there's more to the story than meets the eye (or ear).