HOLT UNCENSORED #141
by Pat Holt
Tuesday, April 4, 2000:
THANK YOU FROM THE STAFF LETTERS
ABOUT THAT SPEECH AT BOOK EXPO
GOODBYE AND HELLO, DORLING KINDERSLEY
BOOK OF THE DAY: 'BONES OF THE MASTER'
THANK YOU FROM THE STAFF
Thanks to the many readers who welcomed us all back with get-well wishes and those funny email cards with waving hands. Quite a sight for these flu-bleary eyeballs, and I must say news of hackers stealing the Stephen King eBook over the weekend sure got us out of bed in a hurry.
True, these things happen and pirated copies were kept to a minimum, Simon & Schuster told the Wall Street Journal. But the consequences are unsettling. More chaos on the Internet means that important and life-changing things, like books, never develop consistent value.
Again I find it wonderful that independent booksellers continue to "unhackerize" life in general. These are people who love books; they put new discoveries into the hands of grateful readers; they treat customers and authors with respect, they open the doors of the world's knowledge to kids.
Independent booksellers are different from chains and online outfits like Amazon.com because their word is, first off, what they sell. That is a not a hackerizable skill.
ABOUT THAT SPEECH AT BOOK EXPO
Reading more about Jeff Bezos' upcoming speech at the Book Expo America convention in Chicago, I couldn't help but imagine the reception he's bound to get from independent booksellers who'll be so happy he took the time to attend.
Word has come to this column exclusively during a flu-induced stupor that the title of Bezos' talk will not be "How I Became a Billionaire With the Help of Independent Booksellers, Whom I Love." We already know that one by heart. Meanwhile, here are a few of the points one hopes he'll cover.
1. Software Patents
Goodness, what a mistake these hot potatoes turned out to be! Having applied for and given two U.S. patents (on its 1-Click procedure and associates program), suddenly the wunderkind of the Internet was accused of fencing off the World Wide Web for his own benefit, AND of crimping software from more civic-minded software engineers who had offered it free to Internet users in the first place.
Then it looked like Amazon.com, once armed with the first patent, was trying to stick it to Barnes & Noble with the first of many lawsuits, and the Internet boycott against the company was on: Jeff Bezos has talked about patents as though he were on Earth protecting his investment, but Internet folks who know (computer publisher Tim O'Reilly for one) think the software patents are a bad idea in cyberspace.
BEA would be the perfect place to - well, "come clean" is perhaps too strong - explain what the future holds in terms of Amazon.com's aggressive nature. If more lawsuits are in store, the industry oughta know.
2. Sales Tax.
Having proven how "customer-centric" he can be, Bezos now has a chance to show us he's also "community mindful" in a big way.
Like sales tax or not (of course he doesn't), Bezos surely knows it isn't fair for Amazon.com to get away with murder in this area. This is a great time to support every state's education and transportation program by collecting and paying sales tax right along with his idols, independent booksellers.
And while Jeff Bezos is on the subject, how about NO TAX ON BOOKS at all? They're too precious to be taxed, even the gimmicky ones! (Yes, let's start there, Bezos may say; then we'll move to CDs and software, etoys and zshops and MyAutos and UrGroceries and BestAddictiveDrugs.com and FreshCaughtExoticPets . . .No, no, Jeff, JUST BOOKS should be tax-exempt. Right, says Jeff: We'll start with MyTaxReturn, then move on . . . )
Anyway, just think: If the founder of Amazon.com can organize senators and Internet leaders to change U.S. patent law, as he has suggested, what tremendous weight could he bring to the NO TAX ON BOOKS movement? Or is Amazon.com too far away from books by this time to be interested?
3. "Supported Placements"
This fancy term for paid advertisements just isn't earning enough money to support all the hassle Jeff Bezos is still getting from disgruntled customers and annoying book critics. So along with the patents, "supported placements" could easily go the way of the dustbin. Now that would really be "customer-centric."
4. The Business Model
How independent booksellers have survived the tremendous competition Amazon.com has helped to bring down on them - and how, most of all, independents succeed on the basis of SALES ALONE - I bet leaves Jeff Bezos floored.
It would be fun while he's at BEA to compare the track record of independent bookstores during 30 years of withstanding chains, superstores, discounters, price clubs and Internet carpet-baggers with the five-year losing streak of Amazon.com, whose losses could put a nice dent in the national debt.
And it would be nice if Bezos now used the Book Expo pulpit to issue an apology to Wall Street and to all the little start-ups in Silicon Valleys everywhere that are following the Amazon.com model in disastrous fashion (Newsweek's label for the phenomenon Bezos started: "Insolvency 101").
Of course if I were Jeff Bezos (and I guess we know I'm not), I'd come to the BEA to ask independent booksellers: How do you do it? How do you make a living off books and not expand into frisbees for dogs or (legal) drugs? And what about the issue of trust? Amazon.com recently declared that its Books Division is making a profit and everybody smirked right at Jeff Bezos when for all he knows, it could be true.
The heady atmosphere of literature and its free exchange of ideas suggests that the world, the mind, the Internet, Amazon.com's pocketbook and the hearts of booksellers everywhere are big enough for everybody to coexist without having one entity declare itself the Earth's biggest or most important or cheapest bookstore over all.
I'd rather hear how Amazon.com fits into this mosaic than be told what independent booksellers must do to serve their customers in the future.
GOODBYE AND HELLO, DORLING KINDERSLEY
Learning of Pearson/Penguin's acquisition of Dorling Kindersley also sent the recovering staff bolting out from under the kivvers.
I know the reasons behind the deal were very practical: DK lost $41 million during the first half of its fiscal year; Penguin can be magnificent bringing its educational/entertainment mix for children to English-language markets all over the world.
So once again, from the industry point of view, it seems, another struggling publisher is "saved."
Of course from the reader's point of view, every independent house gone from the ranks of publishers means fewer people making the decision about what Americans can read. Not good.
Then, too, every time something fresh and different and imaginative gets snapped up by a trolling conglomerate, it's not the system that adjusts around the new thing - it's the thing itself that has to do the adjusting, and in the long term the literary base weakens just a little.
As much as I found DK's design labored and junky, I used to watch kids pick up DK books and find themselves glued to the page in seconds. That was the DK magic - it turned children into readers, and one had to stand back in awe.
So weave 'em in, Big P! Let's just hope the spark that made DK distinctive won't go the way of, say Lippincott, McKay, T.Y. Crowell, Liveright, Arbor or Dodd, Mead or other imprints that seem so - well, extinguished today.
BOOK OF THE DAY
BONES OF THE MASTER by George Crane (Bantam; 293 pages; $25.95; order online at Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle http://www.elliottbaybook.com )
In our household we seem to go to bed a little earlier these days to read aloud from one of the most extraordinary and mesmerizing true stories I've come across in years.
This is the beautifully written and conceived "Bones of the Master" by George Crane, a poet in midlife who's poised (and stumped) on the brink of self-discovery when out of nowhere, an elderly Chinese monk of the historic but dying Ch'an tradition steps into Crane's driveway in Woodstock, NY.
The reader senses a rare destination in the spare, elegant writing as Crane, on page one, goes back to 1959 to describe this monk, Tsung Tsai, preparing his escape from Mongolia and Mao's army.
"The monk lit a candle stub and warmed his hands by its flame. The wick spat, guttered, then flared. The light flickered over his face and over the stark stone of the six- by nine-foot cell where he had lived for 18 years. In it were his few possessions . . . "
Ordinarily I hate the use of nouns as verbs, but who cannot admire the term "guttered," so perfect and visually precise, so boldly and knowingly placed by a poet-turned-narrator whose own story is soon to follow.
Using alternate chapters to describe his growing friendship with Tsung Tsai in the late '90s, Crane hooks us right from the start with the monk's year-long walk - through "a country of corpses" and two steps ahead of the monk-slaying Red Guard - to Hong Kong and a new life in the United States.
What we don't expect is the kind of playfulness and humor only a deeply wise soul like Tsung Tsai, and an unabashedly confused soul like Crane, can use to lighten and deepen their conversations at once:
"What do you call this kind of philosophy talk?' [Tsung Tsai] asked. 'English have word?'
" 'Bull like cow? Shit like cow make?'
"He laughed appreciatively. 'Bu-shit,' he said trying it out for size. 'Bu-shit so good describe. Wonderful idiom. Chinese mind similar. Shit can grow many good.'
" 'Idea also. Very rich.' "
By the time Tsung Tsai convinces Crane to return with him to Mongolia, to bury the bones of his master teacher in proper Ch'an fashion and to rebuild his former monastery, we are hooked. We want, like Crane, not only to go and help our elderly friend meet his destiny at last, but to apprentice ourselves on the not-so-separate, parallel journey of the soul.
While the consequences, Crane fears, may be lethal for the 74-year-old monk, the tone again shifts seamlessly from gravity to humor when Tsung insists they carry with them an extremely heavy 3-foot-high marble Buddha. Crane is afraid the size and weight of the box will create a "long line of hassles," he writes.
"But, as it turned out, Tsung Tsai was right: Buddha was a breeze. He flowed through the porters, ticket checkers, and security at JFK [airport], gliding on a benevolent cloud. His strange gray Buddha shadow floated on the x-ray monitor. " 'Jesus!' said the x-ray operator to the guard.
" 'Similar,' Tsung Tsai said."
And off they go on a journey across China that is even more harrowing in its death-defying way than Tsung Tsai's original escape.
By this time we two read-alouders stopped even pretending to wait for bed to finish the story, which you have to keep from reading too fast, and never want to end.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
As a member of the team that launched Stephen King's RIDING THE BULLET eBook, I was disheartened to read your comments in the 3/24 edition of Holt Uncensored. Your comments dismiss the hard and fast work done by the Scribner, Simon and Schuster Online Group, and the Simon and Schuster Sales staff who service over one thousand booksellers.
Your opinion that we "discounted" the importance of independent booksellers is an affront to the philosophies and the mission of this initiative. It was the responsibility of the Field Sales Office to notify ALL booksellers of the options and opportunities to offer eBooks to their customers. We made every effort to include as many booksellers as possible in a very short period of time.
In fact, the SS Sales Division notified all channels within the same 48-hour period. We called the ABA to announce the project in the same half-hour that we spoke to the "slicker counterparts." We eMailed the Simon and Schuster Field Account Managers that same evening (March 7th) with instructions to forward the information to all their wired booksellers the following morning. On Wednesday, March 8th we emailed the executive directors of the regional bookseller associations and the ABA asking that the news be forwarded to their memberships. I would argue that this is far from leaving independents "hanging" - but would welcome any suggestions on a better way of spreading news to the independent channel.
None of us could have predicted the tremendous success of this project. The tech people involved for Simon and Schuster and Softlock literally worked around the clock to set up the affiliate windows and to download copies of RIDING THE BULLET to customers. Over 150 booksellers responded to our recommendation (not instruction) to become a Softlock affiliate. Within a 72 hour period of March 14th at least 26 independent booksellers featured RIDING THE BULLET on their home page. By the end of that week dozens more booksellers featured RIDING THE BULLET on their websites.
With respect to the issue of data control, it was our decision to share this information with the bookseller and our third party vendors - again with the "opt in" privacy tags. As this is something new for all of us, how we use this information is up for discussion as a post-mortem task in this venture.
I appreciate your recognizing that there are "some at Simon and Schuster who see the independents as a vital connector to the web." Indeed that is our stated position and that is why we worked so hard to launch Stephen King's eBook through ALL channels rather than a select few. We could have simply worked with just a few megadotcoms.
Perhaps it takes a Stephen King to mobilize everyone's attention to the promise and opportunity of eBooks. I am proud that our company has sent the first volley and a powerful message that such an initiative should be inclusive, rather than exclusive. I would welcome an open dialogue to find the best ways to foster the aggregate strength of the independent channel. The Simon and Schuster Office of Field Sales looks forward to working with all booksellers in this brave new world. We do indeed "invite independents to participate in the direct sale of all literature." If booksellers want more information, they should contact their Simon and Schuster Field Account Manager, their regional association, the ABA, or my office.
Roger S. Williams
V.P., Dir of Field and Online Sales
Simon Schuster, www.simonsays.com
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You wrote: "You can talk about the Internet as the new sexy thang captivating millions and point to Stephen King all you want - and I'm one who's launched a new career on the Internet - but when it comes to independent booksellers who have been cultivating readers for generations and know how to help unknowns and moderately knowns find their audience, independent booksellers are not only the place to start, their existence is invaluable."
Your commentary on the implications of internet marketing for new authors and new titles and booksellers is pointing in the right direction. As the volume of new titles skyrockets (I'll bet the end of this year sees a jump of from 5 to 10,000 in the average number of new titles published from the on-going norm of 50K or so) - how will the consumer market, which consists of human beings internally wired the old fashioned way, find their way through the thicket?
"Mediators" will, of course be more important than ever -- media, reviewers, librarians and - of course - booksellers. And this will also be true of new independent "pBook" (ouch!) and "eBook" publishers who will develop new "brands".
"Bricks and mortar" will not go away. Electronic books and the internet notwithstanding, we all like to get out and touch things and see real people now and then. And, among us there are of course, the cohort of more than casual readers and booksellers with passionate interests, such as those you ceaselessly celebrate in your postings.
Those independent booksellers who have managed to survive the chain and superstore outlets that have been homogenizing the bookselling garden like ground cover, will have more of an opportunity to expand their reach, however. Heretofore "unpublishable" but good writers will come to market by way of book-at-a-time and electronic editions. The unmediated portals provided by the likes of iUniverse, MightyWords, PublishingOnLine, et al, will become "input" resources for the new Kirkuses that will arise (ForeWord Magazine's on-line activity is a precursor, I believe, of this new age of reviewing).
With the advent of affordable in-store book-at-a time, and electronic book access for browsing, sale and download (H-P presented a preview of its two-years-away in-store kiosk at the Waterside Publishing Conference last week, as did Sprout), the independent bookseller will be able to expand its access to immediate delivery of a wide range of titles. Attracting people into the store with this capability will, of course, result in impulse-browsing of books on display as well.
As an aside to the above, there is no indication that the ABA will be incorporating access to even the existing book-at-a-time and e-book sales opportunities in their forthcoming BookSense.com business model. Hopefully, they are. But if they don't get around to it, someone else will.
So, out of the ashes of the Amazon, B&N, iU, FatBrain, Borders and other initiatives which have been elbowing their way into the bookseller "space," will grow a new Phoenix of multi-channel access and distribution (along with Kinkos and McDonalds, I fear) that will by-pass and exist side by side with the pop-culture portals created by the "big guys." Independent booksellers will become an important outlet for those readers who are selective and constant.