NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #134
by Pat Holt

book Friday, March 3, 1999:

7,500 PROTEST AMAZON.COM
PARODY ON THE INTERNET
BOOK OF THE DAY: 'DEATH OF THE GOOD DOCTOR'

LETTERS

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7,500 PROTEST AMAZON.COM

Whew! If you ever doubted the power of the Internet in terms of amassing instant and hard-hitting response in the midst of crisis, take a look at what's still going on at publisher Tim O'Reilly's website, http://www.oreilly.com/ask_tim/amazon_patent.comments.html .

On Monday (2/28), O'Reilly wrote "An Open Letter to Jeff Bezos" deploring Amazon.com's use of software patents (1-Click and Associates programs) for technology that O'Reilly believes was invented in 1994 and GIVEN to the Web by its inventors for free use by everyone.

This kind of software, O'Reilly writes to Bezos, "had been deployed on thousands of sites well in advance of your 1997 patent application." By using software patents as a weapon against competitors (suing Barnes & Noble, for example, which Amazon.com did last year), O'Reilly says, Amazon.com is only going to "choke off" the "rapid innovation" of the Web and strangle the Internet, which "has proven so successful for you."

One has to hand it to O'Reilly for taking this stand, since his company's computer books sell briskly at Amazon.com, and his runaway bestseller, "Database Nation," ironically perhaps the best book on privacy on the Internet and critical of many Amazon.com tactics, ranks #326 (as of yesterday) in sales, a very good place to be among Amazon.com's millions of titles.

But the great thing about the letter is its call for readers to sign it and add their own thoughts. I figured a couple of hundred would write in immediately and was anxious to see what insights they would have that others might have missed. So I clicked the "print" button and went off to have dinner.

Okay, it's a slow and creaky printer, but an hour later it was still chugging along on "page 29 of 329" - I didn't have that many BLANK pages! - and within 60 hours, O'Reilly now reports, a whopping 7,500 readers had signed and commented on the letter.

And they still keep coming. Most, in the words of one writer, are "angry and disappointed, but not surprised" at Amazon.com's attempt to file for and exploit the patents in an aggressive offense against competitors. They express "outrage" and "disgust" at the "arrogance" of Amazon.com for its "selfishness and greed" at "playing dirty tricks to rivals in a competition that's supposed to be fair."

You can feel emotions boiling up as various writers liken Bezos to "an Internet dictator," or "control freak" for "ripping the goose open to pull out the golden egg inside her and destroying the future of the entire medium."

Still, what must be most frightening to Bezos is the zeal with which these readers say they have stopped buying from Amazon.com, and the power they represent in terms of sales made and cash spent. One manager says the 210 engineers in his unit were reimbursed for $95,000 worth of books last year, and "almost all of that was spent with Amazon." But no more: "I've instituted a new policy which states that nobody in my unit will be reimbursed for a purchase from Amazon."

While it's true that 7500 writers (maybe 10,000 by now) aren't much compared to Amazon.com's many millions of customers, there's no doubt they represent the veritable tip of the cyber iceberg: A boycott of Amazon.com already exists, and as word spreads of Amazon.com's truly monopolistic tendencies, a backlash could be swift and crippling.

But more than that, anyone who's ever surfed the Web knows what's really at stake: Nothing less than the free and open exchange of ideas that help individuals and science and knowledge move forward for the betterment of all.

"Once the web becomes fenced in by competing patents and other attempts to make this glorious open playing field into a proprietary wasteland, the springs of further innovation will dry up. In short, I think you're pissing in the well," O'Reilly tells Bezos in a private email he lets us see elsewhere on the site at http://www.oreilly.com/ask_tim/amazon_patent.html .

It's not a fun thing to see the "customer-centric" Bezos cornered like this by thousands of his own customers, but since O'Reilly asks him for clarification, and the whole World Wide Web is watching, here's an opportunity for Bezos to (again) come out a hero.

The point is that O'Reilly and his signatories are right, and the folks at Amazon.com probably know it. However, in an email to O'Reilly, Bezos shilly-shallys around, saying (paraphrased by O'Reilly) that "while he believes the patent process can sometimes be abused, he believes this is not the case with Amazon's 1-Click patent." Not exactly content- filled, one might conclude. Sounds more like a lawyer talking.

Wouldn't it be something if Bezos wiped the slate clean to say (and probably is dying to say) to O'Reilly and the customers who are responding so ardently, You're right - we'll retain the patents for defensive reasons and never use them "to limit the use of web technology for private advantage," as O'Reilly asks.

(Even O'Reilly says he understands using patents defensively, "to keep unscrupulous squatters from keeping you from doing business on the web"; it's the offensive use - taking out lawsuits to carve out territory on the free-wheeling Web - that's worrisome.)

If Bezos could say all of this in a public letter, call a press conference, ask people to take him at his word, he'd only have one thing left to do - pray that his once-loyal customers believe him.

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PARODY ON THE INTERNET

Tee hee. What a silly and welcome contribution to the Internet is http://www.brains4zombies.com , a parody that looks exactly like Amazon.com except that instead of books, it offers brains: Tasty Brains, Celebrity Brains, Other Brains, More Other Brains, Even More Other Brains, and of course 100 Hot Brains and Your Quick Pick Brains.

The target audience is (of course) zombies, but everyone will enjoy the detailed pictures of brains and peppy copy here. "We sell only the highest quality fresh brains, delivered straight to your door," the site tells us. "We do the dirty deed so you can spend more time . . . well . . . doing whatever the hell it is you zombies do when you're not ripping open people's heads."

And don't think the site is just for customers who want to consume these brains. Everywhere you look, another reference to Celebrity Brains pops up, the best of which is probably the one "from Rudolph Giuliani's Head," though one hates to look.

Certainly the most palatable must be the "Eat a Celebrity" page featuring "scores of rock stars and movie actors," "a panorama of supermodels" and "feasts of politicians," all of which you can "buy now and earn big brains!"

Customer reviews are expectedly sketchy (and often exactly the same!) from product to product. A clear favorite is "My Accountant's Brain," which one reader reviews as "tender, juicy, and full of all the neurotransmitters a young, growing, bloodthirsty zombie needs."

Far more scholarly is the New York Times Brain Review writer, who weighs in with "Must have brains! AGHahghaghAGHGHAGHhgahgAH! Brains are good. Eat Brains! AGHGAHGAHGAHGA argh huh. Excellent globus pallidus, aghaghag eat brains tastiest amygdaloid nuclear complex ever had."

Considering Amazon.com's current litigious nature (see above), we can't blame Brains4zombies.com for a concluding message in fine print: "This site is a parody. Please don't sue us."

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BOOK OF THE DAY:

DEATH OF THE GOOD DOCTOR, Kate Scannell, M.D. (Cleis; 194 pages; $14.95 paperback; buy online at A Different Light Bookstore, http://www.adlbooks.com )

This is one of the most startling and beautifully written books I've ever read from a doctor, so allow me to just plunge into a pivotal scene early on, when the author, internist Kate Scannell, is appointed the new director of a hospital AIDS ward in 1986.

Having recently burned out working with AIDS patients in another city, Scannell has the experience but little enthusiasm for spending "countless hours" with more patients dying from this hideous disease.

"Gradually, my confidence grew," she recalls. "I stalked the AIDS ward like a weary but seasoned gunfighter, ready for medical challenges to present themselves. I would shoot them down with my skills and pills. Diseases that defied my treatments and patients who expired were my valiantly fought failures. No one died because I neglected to offer him or her aggressive, full-service, state-of-the-art care. I became such a sharpshooter for HIV-related problems that AIDS patients gravitated to my medical service."

Enter Manuel, a 22-year-old AIDS patient, admitted "as a huge, bloated, viloacious, knobby mass with eyelids so swollen that he could no longer see." As is true throughout the book, Scannell does not shield us from the hideous tumors and early putrefaction that overwhelm the dying AIDS body. At the same time, she writes with such skill and compassion that we can tolerate the unspeakable and even see directly into the heart of the dying patient almost instantly.

Manuel can barely speak, but she can hear his plea, "Doctor, please help me," which she interprets as a charge to attack all the medical problems he has - drowning lungs, anemia, wayward electrolytes, massive swelling, purple tumors, skin cancer. She leaves him for the night after plugging his body into a web of tubes and monitors, as he continues to plead, "Doctor, please help me." This she now interprets to mean aggressive chemotherapy options, which she promises they'll discuss in the morning.

But when Scannell returns the next day, she learns that Manuel died in the night. A nurse tells her that the evening-duty physician interpreted Manuel's plea a different way. This doctor responded by taking off all monitors and tubes and giving Manuel additional morphine. "The nurse said that Manuel smiled and thanked the doctor for helping him," Scannell recalls. "He died within an hour, finally freed from his suffering."

Sitting there at Manuel's empty bed, Scannell, who sees herself as " 'the good doctor' in the conventional Western mode" scathingly examines the philosophy behind the kind of medicine she has been taught -- "the trend toward increasing technological interventions; the overriding philosophy that competent physicians save lives, not 'lose' them'; the blatant chastisement and devaluation of physicians who use their empathy and intuitive insights when interacting with patients; the taboo against using compassion as a diagnostic and therapeutic medical skill."

This, then, is "the death of the good doctor," and with it comes a very different approach in the next 16 chapters toward "conventional" care of the dying. Prescribing a bowl of ice cream, an hour of sunshine, "an afternoon with a tomcat, and massage as 'primary treatment,' " Scannell begins to interact with patients in ways that take us deep into the psyches of caretaker and sufferer until we don't know which is which.

Since she announces at the beginning and end her personal journey with cancer (the news is broken the day after she leaves her five-year tenure on the AIDS ward), Scannell's recollections are tinged with a sense of time slowing way down, of mindfulness exploring each detail of life's last events, of an enlarged respect for each person's unique manner of passage and joy.

Ironies abound in this book - while government health agencies deny the AIDS epidemic, corporations exploit it, in one example by "rais[ing] prices for vinyl exam gloves from $32-36 a case to around $80." Everybody was after a buck in that one.

But the contrast to Scannell's growing compassion and her patients' enlightenment makes "Death of the Good Doctor" as absorbing and memorable as Abraham Vergese's "My Own Country" and other classics of the period.

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I have read through the massive file (almost 1MB) of comments at the O'Reilly site, and the really depressing thing is that virtually none of these presumably intelligent people are suggesting switching to an independent online bookstore. Most talk about switching to Barnes & Noble as if this were the only alternative!

Michael Benham

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

A few years back when I was looking to jump from the "book industry" to the "multimedia industry," I attended a workshop on patenting software and other intellectual property. The patent lawyers on the panel all agreed on one point (imagine!) that has stuck with me when thinking about these matters.

"The U.S. Patent Office was established about a hundred years ago to protect innovations of farm machinery and has not significantly changed its procedures since its establishment."

This has explained many of the wacky happenings around patents and, at the time, chilled me so effectively that I remained in the book world. Copyright laws may be messy, but compared to patents...

Edwin Allen Bish II
ebish@bponline.com

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

Just to add a coda to Barbara Roberts's thoughtful letter about "84 Charing Cross Road" -- a friend recently returned from a trip to London and informed me that there is now a Borders on Charing Cross Road.

Robert Weibezahl

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

Pat, you left the second i out of politics in the URL for Politics & Prose: It should be http://www.politics-prose.com/

Ruth P.

Holt red-facedly responds: Gad, the one URL for that issue I wanted everybody to click over to instantly was misspelled! My apologies to everyone, especially Politics and Prose Bookstore of Washington D.C.

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

Many years ago when I ran a country newspaper, I attended a meeting in the tony Boca Raton Hotel and Club where those of us who were not playing golf listened to a speaker warn that the complete AP wire report could be delivered into our readers's living rooms. A startling thought. My industry's franchise on news was coming undone.

But when I returned home and looked in my newsroom, I saw Jerry Rodgers, my wire editor, up to his knees in copy (these were other times) and it occurred to me that the AP wire report is unmanageable for the unprofessional reader who simply must have the editing function if he/she is to make use of this ocean of information.

I long to shop places like Square Books (Oxford, MS) and That Bookstore in Blytheville (Ark), which bring me in contact with people--caring, considerate, helpful folks. Dear God, have we not gone far enough--with air conditioning, tinted windows, TV and VCR's--in isolating ourselves? There are some really fine people out there.

Hank Haines
Murfreesboro, Tennessee

Dear Holt Uncensored:

[Editor's note: This email was copied to me and is a good example, I think, of the kind of letter many of us might consider writing to our local mayor's offices and city councils; in some part it even has language we can pick up and apply to our own situations.]

Dear Ms Smith,

I think that the City Council needs to be aware of the tax funds not collected from retailers who use the Modesto city services (streets for UPS and mail delivery, police for security, contracts for cable and other services, etc.) and yet do not support them.

I hope that the council will respond to this by contacting the California US Senate delegation and Rep. Garry Condit to ask that retail sales be taxed according to the same criteria regardless of the media uses for ordering and receiving them.

There is pressure from retailers who use the Internet to frame the issue as "Don't Tax the Internet"; that is ridiculous. The Internet was created by public money NOT private investment, just as other infrastructure that allows business to flourish was created by tax funds. Retailer sales should contribute to the general good of a city or county whether they are transacted on the Internet, by mail catalogs, delivery, or in person.

Margo Sasse
Modesto, California

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

I had a strong reaction to Len Vlahos's letter about the ABA's (American Bookseller Association's) failure to get Booksense.com up and running. I do not share Hut Landon's view -- and all of the booksellers I have spoken to don't either. (Maybe it's a coastal thing?) Anyway, I'm attaching a copy of my letter to Len . ..

Dear Len:

Here are my questions, comments, suggestions, etc. about your update on Booksense.com . . .

First, what will you do to get back those booksellers who have invested in initial costs for [another website/database-sharing service] Booksite -- with the great possibility that an additional significant number of your customer base will desert ABA rather than wait another six months. If past performance is indicative, there is no reason to believe it will be only six months. Hope I am wrong.

I'm sure you folks thrashed this one out, but I still don't understand why you had to re-invent the wheel when Booksite was up and running, had all the technical problems worked out and, as I have found, an extremely effective way to sell books on the internet. Why couldn't some accomodation been made with Dick Harte of Booksite that would have benefited ABA members long ago? In the meantime, those ABA members who weren't Internet savvy have been dropping like flies and will continue to do so.

All of us have lost significant amount of business to monster-size e-traders and have been able to staunch the flow by being online with a decent data base. When I signed on with Booksite, I wasn't trying to take business away from Amazon.com; I was simply trying to keep the business I already had from going there. This seems to be working . . .

It appears to me that you not only have a technology problem to repair, but you also have a massive marketing problem -- marketing your product to your members. Perhaps this is an area one of your advisory committees might address

Warren Cassell

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

How sad it is that the public seems unaware of such useful sites as ABE, Bibliofind and Bookfinder. I pass these names on to my customers as often as I can to keep them from going straight to Amazon. As for eBay, sometimes you find great deals; sometimes you pay over $1000 for a poor copy of of a book you could have bought for $250!

Emma Spillane
Copperfield's Books

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

I work at a startup called NetRead in San Francisco. We're a "publishing portal" with features and services (some of the biggest are still forthcoming) for the entire book publishing industry, but focused on publishers. One feature, though, is of great use to booksellers as well as authors and their publishers, and I think your readership would appreciate hearing about it.

The EventCaster is an online calendar of literary events. Anyone can come to our site and enter a poetry reading, book signing, technical conference, online author "appearance", etc. The power of the EventCaster is that it broadcasts these events to 100+ newspapers across North America and online calendars such as Yahoo, Digital Cities, and CitySearch. These media outlets tell us what geographical regions they're interested in (usually by telephone area code) and receive a weekly fax or email listing all the events in those regions in a specified time period.

Though we may eventually charge for listings, the EventCaster is presently free for all parties. Bookstores around the country as well as some publicists are already using it. Here are some links:

NetRead's homepage: http://www.netread.com EventCaster: http://www.netread.com/calendar list of current media subscribers: http://www.netread.com/calendar/subscriber/outlets.htm

If you want to try adding an event to see how easy it is, go to the EventCaster page and click "Add an Event." You'll be prompted to register, then you'll see the entry form. Once you've completed it you can always edit it or delete it, or click on "copy" and "edit" in order to add another event without having to re-enter the same information.

Rob Riddell
NetRead, Inc.
mailto:rriddell@netread.com

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

It's one thing for Peter Schneider to argue that the selling of bound galleys [at Internet auction sites] is a "gray area" -- the fact that it goes on in spite of the law is gray indeed.

It's another thing entirely for him to advance the fallacy that authors aren't defrauded out of their "rightfully earned sales or royalties." Ummm, excuse me, but if you sell a copy of the author's work without the author receiving any royalty whatsoever, then the author has been defrauded, right? Am I missing something here?

I don't think so --- Peter is using the rhetoric of those who know they have no leg to stand on, but proceed to do so anyway. If you want to traffic in this, join the parade. But spare us the tortured rhetoric that tries to suggest no one is hurt by your actions.

John Cunningham

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

I recently ordered a newly released title from a MAJOR Internet bookseller. (I won't mention the name, but if listed in alphabetical order, it comes before barnesandnoble.com). The book I ordered and paid for was a hardcover. The book I received was a trade paperback, clearly marked on the front cover "Advanced Reading Copy." Clearly printed on the back cover were the words, "Not For Sale--For Promotional Purposes Only..." In addition, a stick-on barcode was applied to the back cover, clearly printed with the book's title.

Do I have cause to be upset because I ordered a finished hardcover book and received for my payment a paperback bound galley? Would the Federal Trade Commission be interested in this? I called the bookseller in question, and the response was, "Oh, this was a terrible mistake! I don't know how this could possibly have happened!" I also called the publisher, who also said it must have been a terrible mistake, and they do not sell bound galleys, etc.

The bookseller promised to send me a "replacement" book at no charge by 2nd day air. It's been over a week now and I'm still waiting. Just thought you and your readers might like to know.

Erwin Helms

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

I received an advance copy of "Old Books, Rare Friends" by Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern a few years back for my birthday from a friend who was working in a bookstore and therefore very poor. I love this book: I have read it two times and have gone out and bought three copies of it to give to friends. I ordered a different book from Oak Knoll Press that these two had written in limited edition, and gave it to my friend for her birthday. There is no doubt that advance copies of a good book are valuable, and I know I shall never part with mine.

Kate Hitt
Many Names Press