NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #142
by Pat Holt

book Friday, April 7, 2000:

BERTELSMANN GOES TO ITS CORNER
ABOUT THAT DISCREPANCY

LETTERS

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BERTELSMANN GOES TO ITS CORNER

How strange to read about Random House's impending purchase of 49% of Xlibris and not feel the old shot of adrenalin (and fury) surging up.

Of course the acquisition of Xlibris is stupefying: Here is Bertelsmann, one of the largest publishers in the world, having bought Bantam Doubleday Dell (yes, we have to start back there to see the whole picture) and then all of Random House and then half of barnesandnoble.com. (And don't think Bertelsmann wasn't a key player in Barnes & Noble's bid to buy Ingram Book Co.).

Now, with Barnes & Noble having acquired half of iUniverse last November (and don't think Bertelsmann wasn't somewhere behind THAT one), here comes Random House acquiring half of Xlibris. That's the two major online self-publishers already gobbled up before they're barely out of the cybernest.

A year ago I confess I would have exploded in print (I mean, the arrogance - they're all in bed together AGAIN).

But now I just find it intriguing that a retro-'70s approach to corporate self-protection still hangs on.

The idea of growing so big you have to protect your flanks and acquire fledgling competitors so you'll remain dominant in your field is like filling a leaky bucket when it comes to the Internet. Sure, buy 'em up and try to keep the business to yourselves, you conglomeratin' lardies. But see how far it gets you in the infinity of the Internet.

Remember the '60s, when Marshall McLuhan used to say, "In the age of Xerox, anyone can be a publisher," and many centuries back, when priests (I'm making a slight assumption) looked up and said, "In the age of Gutenberg, anyone can be a printer"?

Well, in the age of the Internet, print-on-demand is coming to your corner photocopying store so fast it's going to make the present Xlibris and iUniverse look like dinosaurs before this century is in its teens. Why pay even $99 to start out with iUniverse when you can put your diskette into one end of a Kinko's machine and pick up your book hot-off-the-perfectbinder at the other end for what - $75? $50? $12.99? Remember how expensive calculators and cell phones used to be?

And while Xlibris offers a free "core service" (egad, that sounds like the "core automobile" before steering and brakes), the day is also coming that those extras Xlibris makes you pay for will also be free elsewhere.

The tough part begins when the author takes that fast-and-affordable book from the print-on-demand station and tries to get it into brick-and-mortar stores.

One assumes a chain like Barnes & Noble will want to stock any book that is saleable, but how easy it'll be to select inventory from a company like iUniverse in which it has a 49% stake (and remember, iUniverse authors, we're talking about only a comparative handful that will even be considered B&N candidates - the rest will go up on them distant if ever-seen-again cybershelves).

Amazon.com has reached the point where declaring itself the Earth's largest bookstore has lost a lot of its pizzazz because the problem for many customers is how to find the book they don't know exists. Who will lead them to that great new discovery they'll come to love if only they can find the way?

So it seems the biggest burden, and the greatest thrill in this regard, will go to independent booksellers who look beyond the usual "cookie-cutter" formula books from the mainstream and want to bring in books of real originality and (by their terms) quality for customers.

This has always been the independent's stock-in-trade: buyers with standards and a sense of customer tastes. It's not going to be easy to beef up the buying staff with every Tom, Slick and Cheri coming in to sell self-published books, probably on consignment, but if anybody can do personal buying and personal handselling to customers, independent bookstores so far are the only ones who WANT to.

I used to cringe at the idea that after print-on-demand arrives, the only use for a brick-and-mortar store will be to display book jackets and have a machine in the corner for printing single copies of each title sold.

But now I'm wondering if the future might be brighter than we think for an independent store crammed with new and used "real" books (on paper) and audiobooks and electronic books and Palm Pilot books and print-on-demand books and yes, book jackets with excerpts and monitors everywhere for browsing on the store's website and the Internet plus all the usuals (book clubs, writers groups, storytelling hours, school fairs, author events etc.) and MOST OF ALL a sense that this store and ONLY this store has created such a wide-ranging inventory of truly diverse titles selected with such personal care and eclectic taste that you never want to leave.

This is the direction many independent bookstores are already taking, each one in its very independent way, and let's hope they can afford to hang on through this exciting and brutally costly interim. It may be that in the future, the independent bookstore will be universally respected as the great break-through place where literary treasures and commercial gems can be discovered in number.

At the same time and not so far afield, here comes that other reality of downloadable books that bypass print-on-demand and go right to your screen. As everybody's been saying since Stephen King's ebook sold 500,000 copies in a few days, in the age of the World Wide Web, we're all published authors if we want to be.

So go ahead, BertelsmannBDDbarnesandnoble.comRandomXlibrisiUniverse! Gather ye e-firms while ye may in your own protected and never outflanked corner of the Internet. We know that good books will come of it, but in the meantime, leave all the percolating and the selecting and the searching for (all the other) books of originality and distinction to everybody else.

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ABOUT THAT DISCREPANCY

I've pulled this email out of the LETTERS column below because the writer's experience is something we've all faced and the dilemma he feels has been expressed by many readers. And answering him in this way allows me to be even more windy than usual.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

As suggested in your review of "Bones of the Master," I went to the Elliot Bay Bookstore website to look at the book. There it was, a cover and the bare bibliography information. Well, I wanted more reviews - so I went to the evil enemy (Amazon.com) just to see what they offered.

I found reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, a store reviewer and several readers who had posted their thoughts. I don't see the independent store winning this one.

If Elliot Bay was my local indy, then clicking on someone's picture to see what their staff picks are might make sense - but for a remote reader on the Internet it isn't that useful. I don't have the time to click on two dozen staff people to find out who likes the same kind of books that I like.

No matter how nice it is walking into an indy bookstore in your town (if there is one; B&N has squeezed out everything but one children's speciality in my town), the bottom line in Internet bookselling in information, on screen and readily findable.

Rowan Fairgrove

Holt responds: We have to remember that Amazon.com has spent hundreds of millions of dollars setting up a fast and efficient website so full of information that no one, the Amazon.com folks hope, will want to try the competition. And Amazon.com STILL spends hundreds of millions keeping it dazzling because the company doesn't have to worry about making a profit.

Independent booksellers do, and most of them don't have hundreds of millions to spread around, so in many cases there's going to be a discrepancy. I for one use Amazon.com to do research, but I like to give my business to independent bookstores. If Amazon.com were to charge a fee for use of its website, I would pay it, though I'd never buy a book there.

But when it comes to the invaluable services one finds at independent bookstores - services that will be extinct if enough independents close - plus websites with real character, recommendations you can trust, a commitment to helping customers (beyond that ghastly term "customercentric"), community involvement and a personal knowledge on the part of the staff that will solve just about any question you have, I think it's worth finding an independent on the Internet that you'd like to support, just because YOU feel they're good at what they do.

That way when you find a book you like (through whatever means, Amazon.com's website included), you won't care about the discrepancy and will have just as much fun exploring the indy's other advantages - offering new discoveries in books, authors you've been dying to meet or never heard of, issues debated by staff and customer, literary games and discounts or free postage on occasion.

Plus there's this fact that can't be said enough: Taken together, independent bookstores offer a greater range and diversity of titles than do chain bookstores, and they play a key role as advocates of new and important literature the chains often miss and online book services like Amazon.com tend to bury with hundreds of thousands of other titles. Because independents offer more choices in the kind and variety of books we read, they are vital to such key American principles as freedom of speech, an informed citizenry and the free exchange of ideas. When shopping for books, online or on Earth, supporting independent bookstores is one way to preserve those principles.

Sometimes I liken comparing Amazon.com against an independent's website with deliberately walking by a chain store - one that has heavily discounted the book you want - so you can pay full price for it, and happily, at the independent store you have come to love around the corner. The price discrepancy simply doesn't matter when it comes to the people and services you've found so profoundly moving at the indy.

Online readers who live in towns with only a chain store or with no bookstore at all may find that the slick and faceless Amazon.com staff (nice and responsive as they are in their formulaic way) ain't all there is to good bookselling. Thousands of independents are waiting for us all on the Web, and thanks to the computer revolution, we can have just as dependable service and inspiring communication with a store that's across the country as with one that's nearby.

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(OTHER) LETTERS

Note: Thanks to the many readers who caught my mistake about the use of the word "gutter" as both a noun and a verb in the review of "Bones of the Master" last time. Here's a sample of the wondrous outpouring that came in.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I know (and -- in the interests of precision, vocabulary-building, and literacy in general -- I hope!) that I'm only one of dozens of readers who are writing to point out that "gutter" has a long and respectable history of meaning "to burn low and unsteadily; to waver, to shine intermittently." It's no more about gutters than its synonym "flickered" in the same excerpt is about birds.

I like your column anyway, though.

Kitty Florey

From Ann Whipple: . . . But I must protest (niggler over words that I am)--"to gutter" to describe the death of a candle has been in use since 1706: I looked it up in OED. Fairly respectable, no?

From John Veronis: . . . I just wanted to remark that George Crane's use of "gutter" to describe a candle flickering is a well-established usage dating to the 14th century, according to Webster (http://www.m-w.com), not a case of poetic license or "verbing" a noun -- at least, no more so than "lighting a candle" or "airing a grievance".

From Linda Maloney: Whaddya mean, "nouns used as verbs"? "Gutter" is a perfectly respectable verb (see Webster), and is what candles and oil lamps have been doing in every thriller I've ever read since childhood!

From Anne Holmberg: My trusty Merriam Webster provides the following definitions: vt 1. to cut or wear gutters in 2. to provide with a gutter vi 1 a. to flow in rivulets 1 b. of a candle: to melt away through a channel out of the side of the cup hollowed out by the burning wick 2. to incline downward in a draft (the candle flame guttering in the breeze).

\r