NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #143
by Pat Holt

book Tuesday, April 11, 2000:

CULTIVATING THE AUDIENCE - A PERSONAL STORY

LETTERS

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CULTIVATING THE AUDIENCE - A PERSONAL STORY

Over the weekend I had the pleasure of interviewing Jonathan Winters onstage at a City Arts & Lectures event in San Francisco.

Advertised months ago, the show sold out so fast that CA&L director Sydney Goldstein had the option of moving it to a larger, 3000-seat hall that would have filled up just as quickly.

But keeping the event small and intimate is something her season-ticket holders have come to expect of Goldstein. She has learned after decades of producing mostly literary events (ranging from Lillian Hellman and Truman Capote in the old days to Anna Quindlen and Nathan Englandler today) that cultivating the audience is as important as deferring to celebrities.

And her audience feels it. Sitting in the Herbst, people feel they're in a giant living room soaking up the longheld-but-rarely-spoken thoughts of a treasured artist we've come to love for a long time.

The atmostphere affects the onstage celebrity as well. For example, Jonathan Winters (author of three books, by the way) was far more candid than I ever thought he'd be about his life-long manic-depressive illness, his 51-year marriage, his first trip to New York as an untried comic (with exactly $56.46 to his name) and his concerns about comedy today (too dirty, too mean-spirited). Soon the evening was filled with as much emotion as laughter.

The idea of cultivating the audience also pertains those wonderful Actors' Studio interviews on the Bravo-TV cable channel. There when interviewer/teacher/host James Lipton asks questions of the actor he's interviewing, he rarely looks at the actor directly.

More often, he turns his face to the audience as if to say, listen carefully to our guest right here: This is part of the actor's retinue that's worth studying. Or here: This moment, this gesture, this raised eyebrow, this long explusion of breath is the reason we're all students of the dramatic arts.

Of course, the seats ARE filled with students, but there's something about the intimacy of that small auditorium and the regard of Lipton toward the audience that makes viewers watching at home feel that we, too, have taken on a long-standing apprenticeship in the theater.

I felt the same kind of relationship with readers while editing the SF Chronicle Book Review for 16 years. For me it was a privilege to hold up a mirror each Sunday to reflect how books were flowing through our part of California. Since the audience was voracious about reading to begin with, one could almost feel the books flying out of the stores the next day.

This kind of impact could not happen with one or two sporadically published issues, of course - there had to be a regularity, a gradually established point of view, a credibility and a comfort zone with every department (even and especially the Bestseller List) that would give the audience a sense of trust week after week, year after year.

Book reviewing at a daily newspaper is a service to the reader, I used to tell writers. You owe nothing to the author or publisher; you must prove everything you say, especially whether you think this book is good, to the audience only.

I got another hit about cultivating the audience after picking up a handful of audiotapes on the last day of business at GAIA bookstore. Granted, this store has been going out of business for so long that even founder Patrice Wynne joked that customers were banging on the doors to buy books long after those selfsame doors had practically been sold off their hinges.

What in part kept GAIA alive for so long were the many benefit appearances and panels by authors whose careers had been launched at GAIA and who understood very personally what it means when an independent bookstore takes the time to help an audience grow and develop an identity of its own.

The tapes I bought had been recorded at these programs and are intriguing for the classic statements that keep coming out of many authors' mouths about the importance of independent stores in general.

You get the feeling they all, at one time or another, find themselves shocked just like the rest of us at how so many neighborhoods have changed in the space of just a few years - how that independent hardware, health food, coffee, stationery, garden, ice cream, toy or furniture store has suddenly become part of a national chain.

The second shock is how it seems so easy, yet so sad, for customers to adapt to each chain and its many elements - its distant headquarters, its obsession with branding, its required form of payment, its formula "bargains," its underpaid staff - as soon as we walk in the door.

It's not that independent booksellers don't have their own systems - or indeed their own eccentricity - for running a bookstore. But they also have a greater sensitivity to the needs of their customers because personal hand-selling is so important, and because the bills are flying in just as fast as the books are flying out (sometimes faster).

So back to the tapes. One of the authors I've loved hearing is Helen Palmer, whose book, "The Enneagram" (about personality types and the "inner observer"), was first published 15 years ago from HarperCollins with a very small advance and first printing.

"The Enneagram" has sold so well with little or no promotion - the first of many successes for the author - that no matter how often you hear stories like this, you can't help feeling indebted to independent buyers/thinkers/booksellers who opened up channels for "new" thought as a service to customers.

"When I wrote my first book," Palmer begins (I've lightly edited her remarks), "I was 50 years old and had never written anything except a graduate thesis. I had very good material and was frightened about finding an outlet for it.

"When HarperCollins published it, I had an advance of $3,500, and the first run was $5,000. So I went on the road and gave talks about the Enneagram, and my students have been teaching about it as well.

"As it happened, the book went to 400,000 copies, not because it had any publicity or a single ad to its credit, but because bookstores like GAIA, and Shambhala Bookstore, and Traditions in Chicago and Yes Bookstore in Washington, D.C., and all the other grand places that are community-minded, put the book in the window or otherwise made it possible for material I find very important in our time to come forward."

So "The Enneagram" has become the kind of classic backlist that is still paying the bills for many independents. (I don't doubt the chains and Amazon.com have sold this book very well, but as Palmer attests, they didn't sell it in number before the independents discovered and supported it far beyond their cash registers' inventory-control systems.)

Recognizing that spiritual bookstores and those with extensive spiritual sections have become "endangered," Palmer adds: "It's not a bad thing to be [financially] pressed because what you have pioneered has become public. There's certainly no shame in that. But we [writers and readers] still need a conduit of settings like these independent bookstores that have been so hospitable to the inner life, a concept they have brought into the mainstream."

But what kind of mainstream is it, really? Although 400,000 copies is a big figure by anybody's standard, when you think about that number over 15 years, it's "only" about 25,000 a year, and spread out across thousands of bookstores and emerging online services, that's not many copies per outlet.

The point is that taken together, independent bookstores carry MANY books like "The Enneagram" in backstock because the audience of each book continues to grow as long as the bookstore's staff is attuned to customer needs.

Without advertising or publicity, such books could so easily slip through the cracks at chain bookstores or sit on the cybershelves at Amazon.com that it's terrifying to think of what would become of American literature without them - or to state it more honestly, what HAS become of literature in the last few decades.

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

An owner of a small bookstore in Ojai sent me your article regarding the print-on-demand industry. My novel, "Red Wine For Breakfast," is published (printed and distributed might be more accurate) by iUniverse.com. Prior to that, I WAS literally printing them in my store one at a time and taking them to Kinko's to bind the covers.

I signed with Writers Club Press last year simply to have someone ELSE print the book in a more professional looking format, which they did, and I also signed with book-on-disc.com to publish the CD-ROM, floppy and download ebook version. When iUniverse took over WC, they offered the option of being distributed through Ingram, which would get my book into libraries and bookstores. In January, I held 3 events in the Thousand Oaks Borders, Barnes and Noble and Waldenbooks.

I will be back in Ojai on May 22 to do a book signing at Local Hero, which was enthusiatic about my novel and didn't care who the publisher was. As far as the 40% vs 20%, if they order directly from iUniverse, they will get their 40%. It's only Ingram that's offering the cut rate and I have no idea why since Lightning Print is Ingram's. I also received a phone call from a Barnes and Noble in Manhattan Beach and will be there on June 22, and St. Martin's Press just sent me a letter requesting a copy of the book..plus Writers Club Press has me as the April Author Spotlight with a live on-line chat on April 27 at 6pm PST.

Although I agree with you about what's going on with major chains and bookstores, my only concern at this point is from an author's standpoint. With the major publishers getting fewer and fewer, the odds of unknown authors having their books published, especially fiction, are almost impossible. iUniverse gave a lot of us an opportunity to have our books PRINTED and distributed through Ingram, which gets them into libraries and bookstores and allows authors to set up book signing events and readings so that their hard work is now OUT THERE and not sitting in a desk collecting dust.

My novel came as a result of my best friend's fatal accident. Although it is fiction, I feel that many more people are reading about her, and in that way she will be remembered for a long time. Ingram sold 36 books last week.

I believe if the "smaller" bookstores got behind this concept of POD and ebooks and booked local authors to publicize this new electronic publishing industry, it would be a win-win situation.

I invite you to visit my web site at www.westmiller.com/robin where you can link to my articles on the electronic publishing revolution and other activities, including the fact that the book is now available INTERNATIONALLY through 3 online bookstores.

I do understand how difficult it is to stay in business with the large chains. I own my own store in Thousand Oaks that started 6 years ago selling designer papers for desktop publishing. Over the years, Office Depot, Office Max started stocking the same designs BELOW my cost. Then Kelly paper moved into town and we had a very hard year. BUT we started cable TV ads, changed our focus to invitations and more speciality papers, added some stickers and a few "add-ons" and we've had the best year so far! SO, I agree that times are changing. However I don't agree that the changes are a bad thing provided that small family-owned stores like ours are willing and able to change to meet the demand of the customers.

I do have my disagreements with the marketing that iU is doing. However ANY author must work equally as hard if not harder to market and promote as they do actually writing it. I feel if you were a bit more open to authors who choose to go this route instead of coming down so hard on the companies that offer it, you could help both the author and yourself to succeed in a very difficult and competitive industry.

Robin C. Westmiller
Author, "Red Wine For Breakfast"
www.westmiller.com/robin

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re your April 7 comments about iUniverse and other print-on-demand publishers, I agree that the whole thing is complicated and changing all the time. iUniverse, from what little I know, seems be be basically a vanity press. I don't know what, if any services they offer as a publisher -- sending review copies to the right places? Or does their author's how-to kit simply give information on what the author has to do?

An important question would be, if the author orders enough books to send out to reviewers: Would the iUniverse imprint be the kiss of death that would make reviewers chuck the book as they do books printed by all-too-well-known vanity presses? What I have learned so far convinces me that this type of publisher might be okay for an already published author who wants to make an out-of-print book available to those who request it, either from the author or by looking it up on Amazon.com. (Whether or not one buys from Amazon.com, they do offer a more complete listing than I've seen on indy websites--or have I just not looked in the right place? I'm new at this.)

Your remarks did not, however, mention another thing that iUniverse, and, I presume, other print-on-demand publishers do. That is fulfillment of orders, billing, etc. etc. -- all the business details of publishing a book. My experience as a self-publisher brings people to me for advice -- usually too late, because they've printed up a bunch of books without any of the necessary preparations to publish. So much of which must be done at least six months BEFORE you go to the printer.

The ones who come ahead of time, when the advice could help them, often decide not to do it once they learn what the process entails. It's not just the promotion (review copies and all) because most authors have to do a good deal of that themselves, no matter who publishes them. But even if they are willing to learn design, and learn promotion, schedules and forms for review and all that -- they are daunted by the huge amount of record-keeping that the tiniest business entails. And if they print and sell a book -- they're in business.

I think the important thing to do is to educate people so that they will understand exactly within what limited circumstances it makes sense to use such a publisher.

Dorothy Bryant

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

Could you put a query in your column about other online booksellers that have partners/associates programs besides Amazon? Thanks,

Eve Diana
evediana@cts.com

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

One thing I'm sure you realize is that no new medium in the publishing world will ever totally decimate a former. You may realize that, but the chains don't. Amazon.com does not. What has made Powells the largest "brick and mortar" in the world is this: used and out-of-print titles. In the future we will still be bound by the copyright, still be discovering older and older books throughout the world.

Newer ways of publishing, easier ways, are most times a good thing. Smaller publishers can grow, new ones can bloom. The more people expressing themselves the better. But, let us remember that Amazon.com would be selling fertilizer instead of books if that's what they thought would sell. You could visit their website and find reviews about fertilizer, history or fertilizer, tesimonials from people who have used fertilizer, etc. Hell, you might be in a plane and look down to find "Amazon.com Wouldn't Fit Here" emblazed into fields of alfalfa.

My point? People use old cameras because they like the effect. People drive old cars because they love the rumble, the style. People listen to old music, enjoy old paintings, wear old clothes, READ OLD BOOKS -- because it gives them something that cannot be replaced, cannot be replicated. We can have e-books, I welcome them if it will get people to read and to educate themselves. But, the old way will never die. I am sure of it.

Russell Meyer
Powells Books
Portland, Oregon

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

Please note that Bertelsmann has bought (from Swedish owners) the very active "only Web" bookseller, Bokus, which operates VERY aggressively in N. Europe and has already finished off a number of REAL bookshops.

RFW