HOLT UNCENSORED #139
by Pat Holt
Friday, March 24, 2000:
GOLDMARK SINGS LETTERS
ABOUT "PROTOCOLS" AND THE AMERICAN LIFE LEAGUE
Everybody's in transition in publishing these days, and when someone jumps into a new discipline, fresh ideas are bound to pop up.
So let's go visit that born instigator of author mischief and merriment, former author escort Kathi Goldmark.
She looks a bit strange sitting behind her new desk as publicity director at HarperSanFrancisco - for one thing there's a computer in front of her instead of a steering wheel - but after 16 years as one of the country's most innovative author escorts, Goldmark isn't exactly reticent when it comes to the things she's learned in the biz.
And the things she's sung. Readers may remember Goldmark as the blues-singer-turned-driver whose many conversations with writers at various traffic stops elicited the discovery that many writers are frustrated rock 'n' roll musicians, and voila! The Rock Bottom Remainders were born.
This group, with its many celebrities authors (Barbara Kingsolver, Stephen King, Amy Tan, Dave Barry, Robert Fulghum, Ridley Pearson, Roy Blount, Matt Groening and others), back-up kazoo band and resulting books, videos and CDs (see Kathi's website, Don't Quit Your Day Job Productions http://www.dqydj.com ), has played at the ABA/Book Expo, the Miami Book Fair and some of the seediest bars west of the Hudson.
It's also raised $200,000 for literacy organizations, First Amendment groups and the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, Kathi notes modestly.
But that's not the kind of notoriety we want to talk about. What inside stuff can Goldmark reveal after 16 years at "that hostage bonding thing," as she calls a relationship in which the escort "makes authors comfortable enough to believe it's their idea to do the things you're conspiring with the publisher to make them do."
How about those Big Bad Authors who can sound so malevolent in print? "Well, here are my two lifelong big surprises," says Kathi: "Norman Mailer is one of the most charming people I've ever met; and who would think Andrea Dworkin is a big country music fan? She has such a great sense of humor and so many serious interests it's hard to believe she's so lampooned so much by the press."
Hunter Thompson, on the other hand, was, regrettably, no surprise. "He arrived in San Francisco in the middle of the night and couldn't get the hotel to bill the publisher direct. So he decided to go out to the ocean and swim with the seals, and got all banged up.
"The next morning I showed up to take him to his first radio interview, but he didn't show. His phone had been shut off, so I sent a security guard up to knock on the door and tell him it was time to go. The guard came back with a message from Hunter: 'Please cancel all my interviews - I'm not going anywhere.'
"I said to the guard, 'That's not really okay. Would you go back and tell - ' and this huge security guard grabbed my arm and pleaded, 'Lady, please! Don't make me go up there again.' "
Although it's not her responsibility, Goldmark is sympathetic to - and has a cure for - people with stage fright. "Who wouldn't be sympathetic to authors on the road?" she asks. "Alan Gurganus puts it this way: You lock yourself into a room for eight years writing a novel, and then they send you out into the world and expect you to have social skills?"
Her cure? "Karaoke bars. You get to see that everybody in the bar is worried about what they're going to sing next, and nobody cares about you. Even when you make a mistake, they either laugh and cheer you on or ignore you. After a while you realize that making a public appearance is just simply microphon e technique."
The most famous author Goldmark trained was the then-obscure and very shy Amy Tan. She ended up donning a skimpy dominatrix outfit and singing "These Boots Are Made For Walking" with the Rock Bottom Remainders, often ending her act putting cigarettes out in the chests of supine slave-lovers.
What's changed in the book industry since Goldmark started? Kathi remembers publishers' publicity staffs planning tours six months in advance, "getting in there pitching and calling" and creating an interview and autographing schedule that was solid and reliable.
Now, it seems, "time has run out for everyone; too many authors are touring [her escort staff can mushroom from 3 to 15 in a day] and expectations of the author escort have soared. Sometimes, two days before the author is due to arrive, we'll get a call asking us to set up appointments at bookstores for the author to sign books.
"Most often, author escorts are the stupidest choice to set up a stock signing," Kathi adds. "Of all the people involved, they know the least about a book's sales history or marketing plans."
Goldmark talks about some of the "mentors in the business" - Carol Schneider and Suzanne Wickham of Random House; Marilyn Ducksworth of Putnam; Patty Kelly, formerly of Viking, Jane Byrne of HarperCollins and independent publicist Lyn Goldberg.
In fact, Byrne, she says, "used to send me a galley and say, 'If you love this book, talk it up,' and I would - at parties or other meetings I'd say to booksellers and media people how much I loved, say, the recent Oscar Hijuelos, so that by the time he arrived, there was quite a reception."
Now that she's in their shoes, Kathi says she's suddenly aware of the blizzard of needs publicity people face - "when I saw a backlog of 400 emails in my computer, I realized this is a very different kind of job." So the first thing she did was very smart, the little thief: She hired one of the hottest events coordinators around - Calla Devlin of Stacey's, as her assistant.
Well, as Kathi turns professional within the publishing system, a gap opens up outside. Her author escort company will continue with many of the same good people, but the days are gone when I used to stand outside the Chronicle after interviewing authors and wait for Kathi herself to escort them to the next interview.
Anna Quindlen best expressed the consensus of many a celebrity author one day as she watched Goldmark drive up. "You know, in every other city I'm used to a big sleek limo with all the amenities," she said, starting to laugh, "but none of them measure up somehow to this one here."
At that moment Kathi parked her dented Honda Accord, the back seat filled with her son Tony's toys and records, Kathi getting out in the middle of traffic waving and beckoning while on the phone confirming the next stop. "How'd it go, you two?" she always said. "Did you have a good time?"
ABOUT "PROTOCOLS" AND THE AMERICAN LIFE LEAGUE
In recent weeks new questions about the issue of Free Speech have emerged at separate websites:
1 - the matter of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," an antiSemitic work and established forgery that has found its way into the apparently unmonitored Judaica listings at Barnes & Noble,
2 - the proclamation of the American Life League, a group opposing abortion, that Amazon.com "helps American Life League continue its pro-life mission."
Re #1: Letters about "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" and a proposed boycott of B&N stores and online continue below, but let me just add here how much people like me cheer whenever a title like this is singled out of the millions that Barnes & Noble carries in both its brick-and-mortar and online stores.
This is, after all, the reverse of what happens with independent booksellers, who are usually the ones to single out titles. They want to personalize or hand-sell or create a niche for or spread the word on books, one by one.
In their very positive way, they say to the customer, Look here: We love this book; we stake our reputations on it; we hope you take a risk and buy it, and when you come back, we'll have more.
Chains (and Amazon.com) can't do that unless they're paid to by publishers (in which case it's a fib), so the titles that get singled out come from customers complaining in a negative way.
These customers say, Look here: You missed this title, or you misplaced it, or you don't have any checks on monitoring such hate-filled books, and you should know better. In the case of "Protocols," they say to the chain: Simply refile it in a more appropriate section and don't ask us to accept your big top-heavy slow-moving inattentive system with all its ultimately cruel decisions (whether you intend them to be cruel or not).
So bravo to the rabbi who calls for a boycott of Barnes & Noble: He's not saying the company should ban the book; he's saying that out of respect for customers, the system is in need of adjustment - so much so that until the adjustment is made, he and other customers will withhold their business. When people talk about the market making an impact on business, that, I think, is the American way.
#2: As to the American Life League (ALL) , it appears the group has removed its proclamation that Amazon contributes to its antiabortion cause ( the address http://www.all.org/store/partners.htm no longer works and I can't find the statement elsewhere on their site). At the same time, Amazon.com has issued a disclaimer, but it hasn't officially backed down.
Referring to ALL as an "associate" like any other of the 430,000 members of its Associates Program, Amazon.com insists it does not endorse any associate's position. "We ask our Associates to describe this neutral business relationship in specific ways, precisely so that we can avoid this kind of misunderstanding," the disclaimer reads.
As much as I disagree with ALL's position against abortion, Amazon.com's own policy of neutrality is, also, the American way: It keeps the associates membership open to just about all comers without judgment as to political views; it allows books of every kind to be sold from its cybershelves, thus allowing customers to make their decision.
After all, this isn't like the time that Amazon.com associate in Colorado was calling for the death of all gay people. Now there a person might want to draw the line, which Amazon.com did.
Nevertheless, something else has happened here that is equally bothersome. Amazon.com seems to have been swayed by customer complaints rather than its own policy. It issued a disclaimer, all right, but in the meantime, ALL has retracted any mention of its membership as an Amazon.com associate. (Only a link to Amazon's home page now exists.)
Why didn't ALL just change the wording to show that every purchase it refers to Amazon.com earns the organization a commission? Why take the whole page off the site? Did Amazon cancel ALL's membership as an associate, and if so, why? ALL's position, however unpalatable to people like me, has its place in our cacophonous system of many different voices arguing many different ideas.
Or did Amazon.com simply cave in to the loss of sales or image or brand or prestige and come down too hard on ALL? "In this case we've asked the associate to re-phrase their description to help us avoid any further confusion, which they have done at our request," the disclaimer insists. Well, a URL to that new description would have been helpful.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
So BEA [Book Expo America] seeks to "honor" Mr Bezos by allowing him to "teach" us something about bookselling huh? Maybe how to scam the public through stock offerings or predatory patenting as a business strategy but bookselling? What are we expected to do bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, bow down, kiss his ring or what? Reason enough to avoid BEA this year.
Books at Stonehenge
Raleigh, North Carolina
Dear Holt Uncensored:
About the Rabbi who wrote to Barnes & Noble:
"I was appalled to discover that you are listing "Protocols of the Elders" on your Internet site under Judaica, and concurrently, carrying it in your stores under the same heading.
Not surprising. They're half owned by Bertelsmann, who published it fifty years ago. They can't claim ignorance.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Here is a copy of my letter regarding the Barnes & Noble boycott.
Dear Rabbi Silver,
Thanks for addressing this problem of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion being shelved in the Judaica section. I have discovered the same problem at my local Borders book store, not with this specific title, but with other anti-semitic works being shelved under Judaica simply because the word Israel or Old Testament appears in the title of the book.
I plan to address this situation with Borders by showing them the Library of Congress subject headings and stressing to them that just because something has a certain word in its title doesn't mean it's appropriate for that section.
Tara Arielle Cazaubon
San Diego CA
Dear Holt Uncensored:
The book industry reminds me of the oil industry in the late 19th century: tailor-made for greedy individuals who want to develop a monopoly and crush all the small, independent business people.
And the anti-Holocaust book--whew! I'm all for free speech - in fact I always tell my students that the wonderful thing about living in America is that you can have any opinion you want, even if it is stupid. But to put that book in a category with Jewish studies is appalling!
I sometimes think the world is going to hell.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
It's a fine line between censorship and responsibility, but if we're going to follow the suggestions to boycott Barnes & Noble for their marketing of "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," we'd better include Amazon. Not only is Amazon also selling this slanderous and inflammatory book, but in the book description--the first thing that pops up on the screen--they print the publisher's blurb that the book is quite possibly a legitimate document, rather than the forgery it has been proven, and conclude: "If The Protocols are genuine ... it might cause some of us to keep a wary eye on world affairs."
Reportedly, Amazon has been contacted for several weeks about this spurious blurb, and have not responded to requests to remove the blurb, if not the book, from its site.
Peanut Butter and Jelly Press
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You approve of Rabbi Eric A. Silver's boycott of B&N. Also, you're publicizing it -- I for one hadn't heard of it till I read "Uncensored" #138.
Although Rabbi Silver's portrayal of the book (as "an anti-Semitic forgery created to disparage Jews and to disseminate hatred") is fully compatible with what I know of it from elsewhere (I have never read it), I find his letter confused.
Let's put aside his ambivalence (or so it seems to me) about whether B&N should sell the book at all, and concentrate on his statement: "However, you do not have the right to carry it under the rubric of 'Judaica' because that is what it manifestly is not."
I believe that "Judaica" is related to "Judaic." My copy of "The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary" skips the former but defines the latter as "Of or pertaining to the Jews, Jewish" - and that's all; I don't abridge.
It's my understanding that this obnoxious tract pertains to the Jews -- fictional Jews of a rabidly reactionary streak in the Russian imagination, of course, but Jews all the same. Thus it's at least arguable that it does fall under the rubric of "Judaica."
Rabbi Silver surprises me by not mentioning any previous correspondence with B&N. If he wrote another letter in private, what was the reply? If he didn't, why not? An instant boycott of B&N seems extraordinarily melodramatic.
Holt replies: Goodness, what a lot of hair-splitting in my opinion. Don't we all know what Judaica means, just as we know what, say, Christianity or African American means? You wouldn't put a racist tract in the African American category because it's just not respectful of the body of work that would surround it. But that's if you're present, as independent booksellers are, to make a considered decision about the matter. I don't think anybody at Barnes & Noble was at home to monitor placement of the book. This is a chain bookstore; it's too large, too streamlined and too anti-human bean to allow for thoughtful distribution and re-distribution of such titles.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
To a letter from a viewer/reader who couldn't understand why the newly released Steven King book could make it outside of the usual publishing business. As an author who went through the trail by fire and ignorance, I find the Internet a refreshing change to the old, old, old establishment. Of course, if you or I tried what King did no one would notice or care. Still, it's evolving nicely, I think.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I am responding to the invective of Chinook Bookshop's Mark Burski against national laydowns. My experience as a buyer favors national laydowns for a limited number of titles. Prior to the concept, we would often receive lead titles several days to a week after national bookstore chains and mass merchandisers. We don't necessarily monitor our competition but we have a number of customers who are happy to let us know what we are missing.
While some might accuse Penguin Putnam in particular of overusing the laydown concept and shipping the books too early (up to a week before on-sale date), I am wary of asking them to change this practice, based on the current difficulties with shipping delays in their Kirkwood warehouse.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
The URL you gave for Bezos' patent letter is either wrong, or he has jerked the letter. All I got was: "The file you requested cannot be found."
Holt responds: My apologies. Here it is again with the http// lopped off so it doesn't lose anything on the other end: www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/subst/misc/patents.html/103-0171762-3002247
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Oh, Lord, please don't let Holt Uncensored "go political"! We're going to get enough of this [malaprops by George Bush v. myths about Al Gore] in the coming eight months. Issues like the Internet tax and a particular politician's stance on it, yes, fine, my inquiring mind wants to know. Unraveling the distortions of the media as it relates to particular candidates on other issues, no.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
[Editor's note: I'm running this entire correspondence because months before Stephen King's faddish horror book, efforts to bring electronically downloadable books to readers have been developed that are worthy of as much hoopla as the media gave this week to King's effort. Wouldn't you know science fiction readers are way ahead of the game, interactively speaking.]
Re your last column about new books [laydowns] with draconian threats attached to their release dates. A writer mentioned that readers don't really care if they get a new book on "opening night" or a couple of weeks later. To my personal knowledge at least two authors at Baen Books (http://www.baen.com ), Lois McMaster Bujold and David Weber, are counter-examples. Both of them have highly organized fan presences on the Internet apart from Baen's Bar itself. For at least the past two years these collections of fans have been swapping information on each new book and the quickest way of getting access to it when published.
Baen has been in the habit of posting sample chapters for each new book to its website. When new sample chapters are posted, some fan is sure to spot it and forward the information to the list or newsgroup literally within minutes. Once the book is released, the hard-core fans certainly do care how quickly they can get it; they burn up the "airwaves" with messages about which store took their pre-order and what kind of service they got.
More recently, Baen has taken to offering on-line copies of both its new releases and backlist (4 books for $10 US) with the full text available a month before any paper copies hit shelves anywhere (including Amazon). Granted, reading on screen doesn't suit all readers. Even devoted technophiles like myself find it hard to curl up in bed or bathtub with a 17-inch monitor. But it is an interesting experiment in publishing, and they've been doing it several months longer than Stephen King. I haven't heard anything yet about what WebScriptions, as they call them, have had on their paper sales or overall bottom line.
Holt queries: Looking at this site, I read the Webscription charge as $10 a month for 3 months, is that not correct? Also, I'm curious: As a reader, do you print these books out or read them on the screen?
Louann Miller responds:
Webscriptions: not exactly. That would suggest you have to make three separate payments, total $30, to read the entirety of a batch of books. I think they could have explained this better on their website. For $10 you get four complete books (I think five for some months), but they become available in increments over a three-month period. Despite the use of the word subscription, each batch of books is a separate purchase. They don't keep sending books and charging you unless you specifically order something.
Example: I recently ordered the "March" Webscription batch of books, and paid one $10 fee. In December, I got to download the first quarter of all four books. In January, I got to download the full first half. In February, I got to download the complete texts. The books were then released on paper in March (hence the name). I was downloading files in January and February, but I didn't have access to the "January" and "February" batch of books because I hadn't paid for those sets.
That particular month had one brand new novel I wanted, one brand new novel I didn't want (and still don't, after reading part of it) and the reprints of two back-list novels I already owned and did want. I'd rather that it was possible to buy only one book out of a batch and pay less, but $10 for an online copy vs. $26 for a hefty hardcover was still worth it to me. The online second copies of books I already owned also had some value, though I probably wouldn't have subscribed for just those.
I find my Webscription handy because I have a job with frequent but brief slow periods during the day and unlimited computer access. Reading text on line falls well within the permitted "looking busy" behavioral limits, while reading a paper book at my desk might be seen as goofing off. I also read Webscriptions at home to a lesser extent. I was intending to use the Webscription as a substitute for the hardcover version of one of the new books, but then buy the paperback later. However, my husband (similar taste in authors but less comfortable reading on a screen) went ahead and got the hardcover. In our household, Baen got two sales out of one title with its Webscription idea.
Webscription access is by user name and password to a central site which tracks which books you've bought. The books are HTML files. You can either read them directly from the site (they mildly discourage this, for bandwidth reasons) or download a zipped file containing all the HTML and install it on your own computer. The third-installment zipped file for the January group was just over 2 meg, which was a little unwieldly but not impossible to manage. Besides the text and JPGs of the book covers, one new release included four JPG line drawings, star maps and spaceship blueprints, for the techie-minded reader. These also appeared in the hardcover.
To date, Baen shows no sign of being anal-retentive about tracking how readers use their Webscriptions. I've downloaded mine to two different computers with no sign of a complaint. If I wanted to "loan out the book" by letting a friend download them as well with my user name and password, there's no sign of any security features that would prevent it. I'm told that these electronic books can be downloaded to palmtop computers such as Palm Pilot, but I don't own one and so can't comment on readability on a small screen, file size vs. available memory, etc.
One webscription novel, "On Basilisk Station" by David Weber, is completely free to read on line or save chapter by chapter, although there is not a downloadable zip file for that book. It's the first novel in a very popular series. I suspect that they regard it as good business to sell readers on the Webscription concept and on Weber's series by letting them have a free sample. I suspect they're right, too. The same novel was recently re-released in a very cheap paperback edition, presumably for the same marketing reasons.