HOLT UNCENSORED #144
by Pat Holt
Friday, April 14, 2000:
WHEN TOO BIG IS TOO BIG LETTERS
BOOK OF THE DAY: 'PATH WITHOUT DESTINATION'
THAT RIGGIO SPEECH
WHEN TOO BIG IS TOO BIG
Sometimes even I can't believe the stranglehold that some conglomerates are bringing to the print, air and Webwaves.
This week's announcement that Bertelsmann and Pearson have merged their television and broadcasting units to hornswoggle their way into U.S. media is one of those expected maneuvers that I'm sure is logical to participants and stockholders but just pierces the heart of observers (okay, observers like me).
First, this is not just a big deal. Combining the already huge broadcasting divisions of Pearson and Bertelsmann with the TV/radio Belgian group, Audiofina, a mammoth new "international media concern" has been created that is already declaring itself too big for its European britches.
As the Wall Street Journal noted, "the new group, still unnamed, had pro forma 1999 sales of 3.8 billion euros ($3.63 billion)," which indicates, Bertelsmann CEO Thomas Middelhoff announced, that "this new entity is big enough to start businesses in the U.S."
Uh-oh, you might say, but in a way, they're already here. Pearson Television owns such shows as "Baywatch," "Family Feud" and "The Price Is Right," so they know an American hit when they syndicate it.
Besides, actual invasion of - pardon me, expansion into - American markets can't occur without "relaxation of U.S. laws limiting foreign ownership of television stations." This is no mean thing when it comes to facing entrenched American TV corporate empires and a Congress already sensitive to sleazy end-runs.
Remember how Rupert Murdoch thought the U.S. was just too prissy about this very thing a few years ago? He tried to give Newt Gingrich that $4.5 million "advance" on a proposed book deal, and what a wonderfully seedy little scandal that turned out to be.
At the time, congressional bills were going through both houses "that would benefit [Murdoch's] Australian-based company by repealing the law limiting foreign ownership of U.S. television stations," Robert Scheer wrote in the Los Angeles Times. Gingrich, then House Speaker, held the key position of "determin[ing] whether those bills get brought up in the House or die in committee."
Gingrich ended up returning the $4.5 million amid outcries of unethical behavior, but Murdoch did not give up, nor will Bertelsmann or Pearson give up, when it comes to finding a way to break down or go around the same laws.
In the Bertelsmann/Pearson/Audiofina announcement, Middelhoff tried to dangle a carrot by stating that the new company will seek "joint ventures with U.S. broadcasters." He even swaggered a bit by adding: "The Americans now know that there is one pan-European leader that could be of interest to them." In other words, join us and reap the benefits or be sorry.
So: what is the point of talking about TV in a column about books and the book industry? Well, Bertelsmann and Pearson also own book publishers, and it's helpful to remember how big such entities have become.
Pearson, for example, owns Penguin/Putnam/Riverhead/Viking/Dutton/NAL, a number of children's publishers and Simon & Schuster's former educational division, just for starters.
Bertelsmann owns Bantam/Doubleday/Dell/Random House/Knopf/Pantheon/ Crown/Ballantine/Times/FawcettColumbine/Villard/Fodor's and many other imprints. We won't even get into the company's takeovers of Barnesandnoble.com or Xlibris and (through bn.com) iUniverse because I'm sure you get the picture:
Bertelsmann of Germany and Pearson of England have such a strong publishing foothold in the United States that it's going to be comparatively easy for them - or so they believe - to create dominion in American TV and broadcasting.
And with that dominion comes the blurring of "product" - book, TV/radio show, CD, radio, magazine - in terms of commercial value. Big products sell, and if you're going to be big, it's easy to lose interest in the small.
It's hard to develop enthusiasm for "little" books that might be discovered by independent booksellers and read by diverse audiences because nothing returns a profit as quickly or as hugely - so goes the thinking - as a big blockbuster that is tailor-made for a big blockbuster audience. At least that is the aim.
I know that Pearson and Bertelsmann can point to many small books their subsidiaries are proud to have published, and have published well. But their tentacles are spreading into every aspect of daily life, slithering around every decision millions of people make.
Well, I'm a reader/viewer/listener, and as these conglomerates acquire, merge and grow bigger, taking control of smaller "media concerns" with whom they create "joint ventures" along the way, I don't want them to them to make these decisions
I want many different companies out there publishing many books for many different audiences. I want readers to respond to the publishing process by buying enough copies to return a profit that will keep each publishing house - and by extension our literary foundation, our informed citizenry and our democracy - strong and healthy.
It may be that Bertelsmann and Pearson don't give a fig about these concerns, at least not when they're launching an assault on American markets. But they did once say that they did - at least Bertelsmann's Random House held a sales conference a while back with the theme of "Is bigness good?" (I'm paraphrasing) and, quel surprise! they decided that in many ways it is - bigness is good.
But for the the rest of us - for independent booksellers and publishers, as well as teachers and librarians and literacy counselors and readers, there's something about that swagger, that push for world domination, that all by itself - even if Bertelsmann and Pearson were selling nothing but shoes or dog food - is not good. It's frightening. It's too big. (And read on.)
BOOK OF THE DAY: 'PATH WITHOUT DESTINATION'
If you think one person can do nothing in the face of such overpowering conglomeration and consolidation of power, take a look at "Path Without Destination" by Satish Kumar (William Morrow/Eagle Brook; 309 pages; $13 paperback; buy online at http://www.transitionsbookplace.com ).
Kumar was a Jain monk in India for nine years (the Jains are ascetic travelers who beg for food, carry a single bowl and never kill or disturb any living thing, including insects and plants) until he was inspired by Gandhi's call to activism.
Without food or money, he walked across three continents to meet with the prime minister of England (where 90-year-old Bertrand Russell was waiting for him in jail), the premiere of France (where he himself was put in jail), the head of Russia and the president of the United States.
Kumar's aim was to protest nuclear war and deliver a precious (to him) gift of tea each leader. He succeeded in three out of four of his destinations in what turned out to be two years of walking, begging, talking and listening. Every pair of shoes (there were eight) was given to him, every immigration problem (he had no passport) resolved for him, every bed and morsel of food provided - all his needs were left to providence.
Anecdotes along the way are full of humor and unexpected adventure, like the time four Americans driving a car over the Khyber Pass stop to ask Kumar and his companion if they want a lift. "No thank you, we are walking," says Kumar, and when asked his destination, replies simply, "To America."
The Americans burst out laughing and ask if Kumar knows where America is. "We have seen it on a map," he says, to more laughter. So the driver, who is from Philadelphia, gives Kumar his card and speeds off, but TWO YEARS later, Kumar reaches Philadelphia and calls the driver as casually as if he has just flown in on the shuttle from Boston.
And that is just his first trip. Along the way we learn the difference between utilitarian ecology (let's save the dolphins because the web of life saves us) and reverential ecology (all life is sacred), as well as the enormity of power one person can possess even while (and because of) casting off all the trappings of power.
I'd suggest we send "Path without Destination" to Thomas Middelhoff but who knows? These days he might buy Morrow/HarperCollins and make a Pearson TV sitcom out of the book as well.
THAT RIGGIO SPEECH
Speaking of swaggering, I can't believe that Len Riggio of Barnes & Noble thought he could get away with a speech to the Association of American Publishers that called for elimination of returns without mentioning the culprits that have created the worst returns in history - chain bookstores.
"Returns are crippling," he said, "to booksellers as well as to publishers." No kidding. "Eliminating returns, under the right conditions, could produce robust profits," he added.
But how? Eliminate all the "risky" books, all the "slow" literary books that take time to find their audience, all the books that require thoughtful reading from bookstore buyers, all the nongimmicky noncommercial nonblockbuster books that don't have co-op advertising budgets, don't pay for window/endcap/catalog displays, something like that? Len, this ain't a discussion you really should take part in.
Then Riggio made this incredible statement: "We now live in a world where a megabookstore is located in every neighborhood in America and will soon sit atop virtually every desk at home and in the office. What better conditions could publishers hope to expect? Where do you think we would be if these bookstores hadn't opened?"
Anthony Miksak of the Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino, Calif., takes issue with this question in his weekly email commentary (archived at http://www.gallerybooks.com/bkm/index.html ), and what a beautifully stated response it is:
"Here's the answer, Len: We'd still have Earthling Bookstore in Santa Barbara with its fireplace, art exhibits and music; Gaia in Berkeley, The Book Mark in Tucson, and thousands more excellent bookstores forced to close when you established multiple mega-outlets in towns able to support maybe one or two bookstores.
"The Book Mark in Tucson was Barbara Kingsolver's favorite bookstore. When she heard it was closing, she wrote:
" 'I owe my career to people such as those at the Book Mark who first guided readers to my words. I think of them as family. . . After 40 years, the Book Mark is passing away. Tucsonians' buying habits are changing: We now purchase through the Internet, we hunt for bargains, we're drawn by the lure of chain stores.'
"She continued, 'The tides of fortune will reverse themselves. It will happen, I'm thinking, because this is America. We love independence and freedom of thought. We believe in our own story: that any one of us could write the great American novel, and the rest of us could read it without waiting for big brother to buy it a place at the table.'
"Barbara Kingsolver has company - thousands of thinking, dedicated book people, working well below publishers' radar, who make the American book community an ineffably wonderful place to live and work.
"Independent readers use words such as 'variety,' 'choice,' 'selection, 'service,' 'neighborhood' and even 'nice people who know me.'
"In his speech, Riggio used words such as 'make the cut,' 'growth, 'broadcast channel,' 'content aggregation,' 'capital investments' and 'this new techno-economic world order.'
"I'm with Barbara Kingsolver and I'm very glad she's with us."
Me too. I think what bothers me most about Riggio's speech is his certainty that publishers should thank their lucky stars for megabookstores because all they have to do is throw money at the chains, and huge orders will be theirs (and don't forget, Len - so will returns).
What used to be a respect bordering on reverence for the relationship between publisher's sales representatives and independent bookstore buyers - a relationship that has proven, time and time again, to create the spark that ignites one literary discovery after another - is not only lost in the shuffle of this kind of arrogance, it is dismissed as unworthy of mention.
By contrast, I have never heard an independent bookseller say that chain stores per se are no good. I hear instead that chain stores have their place, or chain stores serve a purpose for some customers, or that independents can coexist with this chain store or that chain store (but not with chain stores that use illegal under-the-table means to compete, of course - THESE chain stores are certainly no damn good, and you don't need an independent bookseller to say so).
So let's get with it, Len (and brother Steve) Riggio! If you think the answer lies in "content aggregation" and "a megabookstore in every neighborhood," remember: 'This new techno-economic world order' is made up of the Kingsolvers of the world and millions like her who don't need big brother to create "a place at the table" for the books we want to read.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
In response to a request from Eve Diana ("Could you put a query in your column about other online booksellers that have partners/associates programs besides Amazon?") we at BookSite have been involved with book associate programs for 5 years. There are two directions Eve may have wished to follow, either a) find someone else to sign up with as an associate, or b) consider the pros and cons of such programs.
Assuming it is (a) I would suggest she try to keep the business local. Nothing beats good old-fashioned customer service. Just in case something does go wrong with the order, having your business partner close by to resolve the problem sure beats dealing with a nameless computer. Not to mention that this is a nice way to support your independent bookstores. Any bookstore offering a full book search capability should be able to provide you with an associate account. I know the 200 stores on BookSite can.
If (b), I would suggest that there are not that many associate relationships that are actually worth it for both sides (maybe 1%). Folks like Yahoo, and the New York Times and all of those new price-comparison sites drive most of the associates' volume. You should have a high-volume site, probably 2,000 visitors a day and a unique niche before considering becoming an associate. The name of the game is to have the addition of books add content to your site and convenience for your readers. Try to minimize the extra work involved and stick to your known area of expertise.
Don't enter into an associates program unless you are willing to systematically turn your reader base over to the merchant you are tied to. And don't plan to get rich off of it. The volume will be much less than you expect (probably less than 1% of site visits), and just about everyone offers 5-10% royalties off such programs.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In "CULTIVATING THE AUDIENCE" (#143), the reference by Helen Palmer, to "Traditions in Chicago" should be "Transitions Bookplace" in Chicago.
Incidentally, Transitions Bookplace is another fine example of an Independent with both an excellent community presence, and a website worthy of visiting: http://www.transitionsbookplace.com
Thanks for your continued efforts and, as always, your unique perspective.
Holt responds: Holy cow! PARDON my mishearing and apologies to the staff of Transitions. And thanks for the tip: What a beautifully designed website is Transitions, fully searchable and offering a great behind-the-bookstore story: A miraculous survival of a head-on car collision inspired stockbroker Howard and his wife Gayle Seminara-Mandel to start their own bookstore in a 400-square-foot converted garage ("to us it was the Taj Mahal") that grew to 900 and then SIX THOUSAND square feet that now houses bookstore, cafe, newsletter, reading clubs, lecture series (all-day workshops take place at the store's spiritual center). Let's all go there instead of BEA! - or I mean during BEA. Maybe Gayle and Howard will tell us more anecdotes like this one (found under "Our Story" on the website):
"People still stop and smile, reminiscing about our first bookstore. They remember when we worked the store ourselves before we had any employees. Now we have 25 employees who support and enhance our vision. Some customers even remember the day bestselling writer Julia Cameron (whose book 'The Artist's Way' we sold as a manuscript) took pity on us and relieved us behind the store counter so Howard and I could eat lunch."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Have a humorous report. Was looking for something about the actress Paulette Goddard when I found a biography listed on Amazon.com - out of print, of course.
Since they never found any out-of-print books for me before, I assumed they wouldn't this time. Well, wrooong! Next day a message from Amazon.com said the book was found for a price of $50! After cancelling the order, I phoned San Carlos library to find the book on their shelves. The reference fellow even knew who the actress was! Heavens, who would buy an old, useless (to most) bio for that outrageous price. Looks like they're making profits somewhere!
Dear Holt Uncensored:
To answer Dorothy Bryant's question about iUniverse orders, they are distributed through Ingram via their Lightning Press, and books ordered are usually shipped within 48 hours. However, if you check your computer listing for my book, "Red Wine For Breakfast" you'll see it's listed as a "C" category, or a 20% discount instead of the usual 40% if ordered through Ingram.
HOWEVER....if books are ordered DIRECTLY from iUniverse.com, bookstores will receive their full 40%. I've ordered my books directly from iUniverse for 2 events and they've arrived in 2 days ( I did request next day UPS), packed very well and in excellent condition.
I agree that one of the best ways for new authors to get their books out there is not necessarilly by going to the big chains, but by holding smaller, more intimate events at local independent book stores. Unfortunately, in Thousand Oaks, California, the only indy we have is a mystery book store, and they almost went out of business last year. Borders and B&N were even too much for Crown, and our mall, which had 2 bookstores, now only has one, Waldenbooks, where I did a booksigning in January and now have them in stock at that location. But they are also a chain.
If the iU authors made a consolidated effort to support their local independent bookstores, and vise versa, I can see a GREAT partnership happening that would be very beneficial to all. Authors could really showcase their books, independent bookstores could draw a bigger crowd of people who may be tired of the same ole stuff offered by the chains, and at a 40% discount through iUniverse, the stores wouldn't be losing any $$...I have a one list for Print On Demand authors. If anyone is interested in contacting a local author, that's a good place to start. Just a thought.
Robin C. Westmiller, http://www.westmiller.com/robin
Author, "Red Wine For Breakfast," http://www.iUniverse.com