HOLT UNCENSORED #137
by Pat Holt
Tuesday, March 14, 2000:
ANTIQUARIANS SEE THE FUTURE AT OREGON BOOK FAIR LETTERS
MARK TWAIN AND HIS CANVASSERS
ANTIQUARIANS SEE THE FUTURE AT OREGON BOOK FAIR
The rain is a'splattering and high school kids are a'swarming around the Portland (Oregon) Coliseum minutes before the state basketball championship gets underway.
But downstairs at the Convention Center on this romantically drippy and moody afternoon, customers stand in orderly lines, straining to peek into the ninth annual Oregon Book Fair to see what treasures - ranging in price from 50 cents to $15,000 - await them. Inside, 100 antiquarian book dealers from seven states prepare their exhibits, and are soon swamped with buyers during this 2-day confab, which ran last weekend.
Antiquarian shows look so folksy and down-home with their wooden display shelves and leather bindings - as well as their illuminated texts, old maps, sepia photos and old-timey postcards - that one is startled to find such relative hotshots as Advanced Book Exchange ( http://www.ABEbooks.com ) with its big computer screens on one side of the room, and Alibris http://www.alibris.com ) with its gorgeous brochures and photos of its slick new warehouse on the other side.
These two online services remind us that of all the profound changes to have hit the book industry in recent years, perhaps the most convulsive is right here in the used, out-of-print and rare book scene.
Thanks to many electronic search and auction sites, antiquarian book dealers who used to love coming to this Fair to find new readers and trade with each other now talk about staying home to "make more money" on the Internet.
At the same time, customers who once thrilled at the weight and feel of these great books have become traders themselves on eBay, Bibliofind, the two above and other auction sites, some doing so much business that ABEbooks.com's monthly $30 charge for book dealers is no longer prohibitive.
One expects regional history from antiquarian traders, and the Oregon Book Fair doesn't disappoint. Books on Lewis & Clark, the Klondike gold rush, Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, archeology ("Hot Rock Cooking on the Great Edwards Plateau"), Canada ("Call to Faithfulness: Essays in Canadian Mennonite Studies"), forestry and the fur trade line up next to the usual categories (Civil War, Railroads, Victorian London, Voyages, Children's Literature).
But it's the first editions of newer books that are shockers for a book critic. I grant you it's a thrill to hold in my hand a 1928 first edition of Virginia Woolf's "Orlando" ($400), or a 1953 Olympic Press first edition of Samuel Beckett's "Watt" for $275.
Even a British edition of Norman Mailer's "The Deer Park" for $185 seems reasonable, as does a "first" of Graham Greene's "The Comedians" for $75 (more than reasonable, in fact).
But how is it that a first edition of Grace Paley's classic, "Enormous Changes at the Last Minute," should go for $25 while Bret Easton Ellis' little baby tantrum (love me! drug me! feed me!), "Less than Zero," sells at $65? Or a first edition of "Franny & Zooey" should go only for $160 while a first of "Angela's Ashes" sells for a whopping $400 (it's signed by the author, but still).
I know that literary quality does not determine value at an antiquarian fair. As Len Lanfranco, director of the Oregon Book Fair, points out, "scarcity is the more important measure of a book's worth here. The fewer copies in existence, the more money they command. That's a given on any collectible scene."
But here's something I've always wanted to know: Why are bound galleys, ARCs (advance reading copies), f&gs (folded-and-gathered sheets) and other temporary pre-publication versions of books valuable to anyone?
All the stuff I as a book critic usually cull out of these things (author bio, blurb sheet, pub slip, press release) has, for this Fair, been lovingly preserved inside the front cover, even though the error-strewn pages start falling out of the cheaply glued binding with very little handling.
[In fact it used to make me mad when book sharks would circle around the Book Review at the Chronicle offering to pay $5 for every galley ("for the privilege of carting them away for you," as if I didn't know their true designs) and a chance to bid on certain first editions. "Just don't open the books," they said, which I found even more infuriating.
"You know, this is a place where we READ books," I would explain, opening, say, a Stephen King or Sue Grafton galley and deliberately breaking the spine. "We don't collect them! Our mind is not on making money off any edition of any book! If it were, we'd be rich and in jail at the same time!"
Len smiles patiently as I tell him this. And I have to say, if I were a book review editor at a newspaper right now, receiving 15,000 books and their ARCs a year, I'd be acutely aware that the Internet has made collectibility a lucrative sideline for many people in publishing. Pilfering was a big problem in any book reviewer's office long before the Internet came along. Today it's ten times as bad.]
"The reason bound galleys and ARC's - not of all authors but of a certain collectible few - are so popular is that the collector wants to get as close to the author as possible," says Len. "A first printing has so many thousands of copies; an ARC so many hundreds; if they send out f&gs you may be in the dozens; and there are probably only a handful of manuscript copies; imagine what value would be placed on the original manuscript."
Well, this is indeed intriguing: Bound-galley collectors may be on a parallel quest with (rather than at odds with) book critics. I, too, love to get as close to the author as I can - not physically close but close to the creative process. In interviews I ask questions designed to open that creative lid, to see why the writer chose to put Uncle Henry's announcement of cancer in the first chapter instead of the third; why a rural or urban setting was chosen; why a comma was so boldly, perhaps recklessly placed on page 283. (Of course the irony is that often, the author is the last to know.)
True, the collector wants to get as close to the author's original manuscript as possible, but in the very long term the quest may be more similar than I thought to the book critic's because, says Len, it's not just scarcity that determines value.
"You see a lot of Sue Grafton books in these booths, and some are very valuable today," Len muses, "but think what will remain a hundred years from now. Probably not the Sue Graftons. More like the William Faulkners." Aha: In the antiquarian scene, the sorting out process does the same for books as the critical process: Only the best of literature will stand the test of time - and bless these dealers, we are talking about a looong time.
Or at least we used to. The big changes in the antiquarian field are already taking their toll. What used to be a slow pace and thoughtful tone to the proceedings is getting spiked in the heart by the acceleration of Internet sales. Take Len: A former professor of journalism, he's been collecting books on communication for years and has been considered a specialist in the field since he opened his own antiquarian store, Columbia Books http://www.pagefour.com ) some years ago.
It took Len at least 10 years of searching used bookstores to find his prize possession, a signed book by WWII correspondent Ernie Pyle, and half a decade to find a signed memoir by wartime cartoonist Bill Mauldin.
But these days even very rare books like this pop up on the Internet with enough regularity to make such painstaking legwork unnecessary. And of course, the more first edition copies known to buyers, the lower the price. "Well, it makes less work for me," says Len, somewhat wistfully. He learned a lot exploring those stores and talking to fellow antiquarians over the years; he "chats" with others on the Internet but not surrounded by walls of great books, not in the midst of browsing, picking up, checking copyright, reading pages; not at all like before.
And hurry, says ABE.com: We have 17 million customers and nearly 6000 booksellers online, so come aboard and start trading! And quick, says Alibris: We have a giant new warehouse where we can hold your books for the top buyer and be the perfect middleman!
MARK TWAIN AND HIS CANVASSERS
One of the most fascinating items for sale at the Oregon Book Fair was "A Salesman's Prospectus for 'Life on the Mississippi' " by Samuel Clemens (1883), offered by Phillip J. Pirages ( http://www.pirages.com ) for $3,000.
This multi-panel hardcover sales kit opens to reveal separate leaves in front and back on which samples of the spine - in "deluxe" Morocco, sheepskin and calf bindings - have been glued with such care that you can almost read the indentations made in the endpapers the samples rest against.
The kit includes text with illustrations and, sewn onto the back, pages for names of readers agreeing to buy it, as well as their choice of bindings. Best of all, a separate sheet has been retained called "Notes to Canvassers."
This, again, is the kind of material a book critic would pull out and throw away, but thank heaven no one did: The Canvasser Notes offer a rare glimpse of traditions in bookselling (the salesmen sold this book door-to-door rather than to bookstores). They are intriguing for their use of language, respect for "product" and understanding of the haggard sales rep in the field.
You know the myth that editors want to see only a part of a book before they make a bid on it because they don't want to spoil their own hopes by viewing the whole manuscript? Apparently readers were regarded the same way in Twain's time.
"It is always easier to canvass with a subscription book containing specimen pages of the work than by taking and selling the work itself," the Canvasser Notes explain. "Time is saved, which would often be vainly spent in allowing persons to look over the volume. The labor of carrying the greater weight is spared. People will much more readily agree to take a book at some future point than to pay for it at once."
The Notes offer good ideas for any "canvasser" in the book biz, then or now:
"Enter with confidence upon your work. As you have a really good book, you know that you are conferring a benefit upon those whom you persuade to purchase it. ..Make yourself thoroughly familiar with the book, the author, the publisher's description . . Illiterate agents even are frequently very successful from the pains they take to be able to talk freely and understandingly about the work they have for sale."
Canvassers were expected to stir up their own publicity, stay disciplined and "work" the streets in a professorly manner. They were not to "rove about," as Twain himself might have instructed with a grin.
"In commencing the canvas of a place, try to secure the good will and editorial commendation of the local journal, if necessary by the promise of a book . . . Enter upon a faithful and systematic house-to-house canvassing . .. Do not rove about but proceed regularly, neglecting no house, store or shop.
"Never attempt to canvass among groups or crowds in the street - find your customers at their homes or places of business. Always learn the name of the occupant before entering a house. Never disturb a man who is busy. Accost everyone politely, and keep your temper under all circumstances, remembering that your object of interest is not yourself but your book."
What a great phrase: "Accost everyone politely." Wouldn't Mark Twain be proud? And to think Judge Judy wasn't even born yet.
Thanks to the many readers who caught my GAIA Bookstore URL gaffe (sounds like a vacation in the Seychelles). The Berkeley GAIA is located at http://www.gaiabookstore.com/ .
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I just read in today's PW Daily that Stephen King's new 16,000 word short story is being published by Simon and Schuster only in ebook format; and that S&S is negotiating with some other authors to do the same.
Am I wrong to feel that this is a kick in the face for all bookstores?
I thought it was bad enough that one recent title by King was available only in audio format. But at least we can sell those. I don't read King so won't miss his work personally, but I'm wondering which authors S&S are wooing away from those of us who don't believe in reading books on computers.
Old Harbor Books Sitka, Alaska
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Please alert your readers to the following:
For the first time, the members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America are endeavoring to turn the Nebula Awards Weekend into an event so large that even New York City can't contain it. And we need book stores!
Authors Sarah Zettel and Steven Piziks, with the blessing of SFWA president Paul Levinson, have volunteered to try to coordinate a grass-roots effort to set up group signings in other locations across the U.S. on Nebula Awards Weekend (May 19-21). These events are envisioned as an opportunity to promote the Nebulas, science fiction, and independent book stores around the country. We're trying to match as many book stores with science fiction and fantasy writers as possible.
For those unfamiliar with them, the Nebula Awards are the Oscars of science fiction and fantasy. Like the Screen Actors Guild, the members of SFWA vote on the best sf and fantasy published in the previous year and give awards to winners in the categories of short story, novella, novelette, novel, and screenplay. This year's Nebula Awards will be held on Saturday, May 20 in New York City.
So far, we have Nebula Award Weekend signings scheduled at independent book stores in Oregon, Washington, Michigan, Texas, Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois, and Florida. Although we need more book stores from everywhere, including the states already listed, we're especially looking for independents from California, Arizona, and the Dallas area. (Several authors in these areas have expressed interest, but we don't have book stores for them yet.)
The signings would be on Friday, May 19 or Saturday, May 20. If you know of or own a book store that would be interested, please contact me, Steven Piziks, at firstname.lastname@example.org as soon as possible. Thank you.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You wrote passionately about the Bell Hooks event at GAIA Books and about the sad closing of that store. You also explained how GAIA didn't have enough books for the event, but very intelligently found a solution to this unfortunate situation in selling photocopies of the title page, which customers could later trade for a physical book: "A week or so later, these new customers came into the store and picked up their books, which the publisher had finally shipped."
What struck me about this comment, and has inspired this letter, was the slightly sarcastic phrase "which the publisher finally shipped."
I worked with the author events at Powell's Books in Portland for about three years, and I can fully appreciate how truly horrifying it can be to not have enough books for a large event. We work very hard to prevent this from happening. But sometimes, unfortunately, it does, either through fault of the publisher, the distributor, the printer, or yes, even sometimes through fault of the bookseller. More often than not, though, it is just an unfortunate situation with no one party to blame.
What I take exception to is the casual, gratuitous dig you made here at the publisher, without any evidence or explanation that this situation was their fault. Though the publishers themselves won't have to face any irritated customers, they are certainly just as concerned that the books be there at one of their author's readings. After all, 9.5 times out of ten, they are the ones who have actually paid the cash that has made the event possible: not the bookseller.
This seems like a minor point, but I feel it is indicative of your approach and your thinking. Though I do appreciate Holt Uncensored and find it both passionate and informative, I also feel that in your zeal to laud the virtues of independent booksellers, you sometimes aren't willing to make the effort to view whatever situation you are dealing with at the moment from all angles, or with thoughtful understanding for all sides (though I admit it's hard to find much compassion for Jeff Bezos). I would also propose that this sort of complex, things-are-never-quite-as-black-and-white-as-we'd-like-to-think-they-are point of view is the very foundation of most great literature. And, therefore, as someone who has devoted their life to promoting the value of good books and reading, and to those who make that experience as diverse and accessible as possible, you really ought to know better.
Holt responds: Well, the word "finally" was not meant as a jab - I wrote the piece from the bookstore owner's and author's point of view, and you could feel their relief when the books finally did arrive. At the same time, though, I think it's pretty astute of you to see beneath a single word to some issues behind the scenes that I kept saying to myself were better left unsaid. I am a former publicity manager (Houghton Mifflin) and West Coast publicist (San Francisco Book Company), and I do know how awful it can be for any publisher when not enough books wind up in the store. I also know that when a book is written off early on - and remember the author was told her book was a "failure" when a chain store didn't buy enough copies - few of the next steps, like a West Coast publicity tour, are going to succeed.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
When I moved from New York City to a small town in Florida, Amazon.com saved my life. I buy primarily non-fiction, signed first edition mysteries and reference books. Except for signed first editions, Amazon.com sends me whatever I want, quickly. They have even looked up small privately printed works that they couldn't get economically and sent me the address so I could order directly.
I have not been happy ordering online from a variety of independent bookstores. The chief source of the unhappiness, aside from limited stock, is that they are neither timely nor thorough in communications. One book I've been waiting for for three months with no response to recent queries from the bookstore--a signed first edition that I ordered at a crucial moment which is no longer available elsewhere. Another I found and read from the library and am still waiting for the copy I purchased (which I want anyway). These are the biggest problems at the moment but the standard deficiency (with some exceptions) is lack of prompt acknowledgment of orders and notification of shipping or expected shipping.
None of the stores would look at someone standing by the cash register and say "Oh, I'll be there in 48 hours" or "We only take money on Fridays." The wouldn't leave their store open and go on vacation without letting the customer know that no one is there to take money. But they do this to Internet customers routinely. They just don't take you seriously or have systems set up for responsive service.
There are exceptions--Poisoned Pen and Grave Matters have been dependably responsive--but Amazon has changed definition of service and the independents (as much as I would love being around the corner from them) have not stepped up to the plate.
I think there are other questions about which plate the independents want or need to step up to, but they still don't take Internet customers seriously.
MacGuffin Guide to Detective Fiction
I'm surprised at what seems to be consistent good service - or I should say customized and personal service - from Amazon.com. Most often I hear about patchy attention - some customer service reps will go to bat for you in the way you describe; others won't take the time. Has that ever been your experience?
Sharon Villines responds:
I've ordered from Amazon an average of twice a month over the last year and a half (since moving to Florida) and have had excellent service. One time, a week before Christmas, they got my order mixed up with someone elses and I had to go to a manager to get them to ship me my original order before receiving the wrong books back. I had to wait for a shipping tag to send the wrong ones back and I didn't want to wait another month for my books back. I assume I got an inexperienced clerk.
I also didn't mention that they also list books as soon as they have a pub date and I love the ability to be secure that I have a book ordered and will get it automatically as soon as it is published. I don' t have to remember anything or "check back later."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Still another wrinkle in the Internet sales tax fabric: there was a story this morning on Morning Edition; if I heard rightly (and I seldom hear rightly at 6 a.m.) there is discussion in Congress about collecting a tax at the national level and "apportioning" it to the states. It was intimated, I think, that collection by individual merchants/sites would be impossible because there are more than 7500 taxing jurisdictions in the US - not 50, as is often supposed. Not much thought seems to have been expended in the discussion here about the phenomenon of local or municipal sales taxes, a quarter or half or whole cent added to the state sales tax for local needs. Obviously such taxes would be utterly uncollectable on sales at a distance. (This is setting aside the constitutional dictum that one state cannot tax the citizens of another state, which is what prevents sales taxes for state X from being collected by merchants in state Y.)
Apportioning the revenue from a national sales tax on Internet sales among the states would obviously be a political football (consider the flap over the method of taking the census if you don't think so). Probably more serious is the threat to local revenue, and we ought not to forget that.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
As a collectible and used bookseller, I occasionally glean good information from your newsletter. However, I must unsubscribe due to your ridiculous liberal bias. One small example.....Molly Ivin's book mentioning George W. Bush's malapropisms.....how about Gore inventing the Internet, subject of Love Story, etc, etc.? Oh yeah, those are simply lies, not malapropisms.
In general you are so scared of capitalism. You should truly start promoting the socialism you obviously embrace, if you believe it, do it; I would have more respect for you if you at least come clean and promote your ideals.
Holt responds: And here I was worrying that I sound like an OBSOLETE capitalist because I think the way independent bookstores succeed on sales alone, and are always saving pennies to make that very slim margin of profit, is nothing less than heroic. What Amazon.com does is cheating to me; and the same goes for the major chain bookstores .\r