HOLT UNCENSORED #145
by Pat Holt
Tuesday, April 18, 2000:
THAT JASON EPSTEIN PIECE LETTERS
BRAVO TATTERED COVER
ONE GREAT MUG
THAT JASON EPSTEIN PIECE
I have to admit to sputtering away in my usual frenzy after reading a quote in PW Daily from the article about publishing by veteran editor Jason Epstein in the latest New York Review of Books (you can find it online at http://www.nybooks.com
I'll get to the quote and its sputter trigger in a moment - just to say here that the full piece turns out to be a beautifully expressed tribute to publishing as a once-magnificent "cottage industry" that has "fallen into terminal collapse" today.
And he means a collapse of publishers AND chain booksellers, which have gotten too big, too sluggish, too centralized, too money-crazed and too dependent on corporate parents to extricate themselves from the blockbusteritis that infected them 25 years ago. No wonder authors and agents perceive publishers and chains as obstacles to bypass through print-on-demand and electronic publishing on the Web, he adds.
Epstein raises a number of crucial points that are important to all of us in the book industry - especially that publishing may be the midst of reinventing itself (on the Internet, at least) as an again-beloved "cottage industry" of the future.
What a thrill to watch him evoke that "decentralized, improvisational [and] personal" kind of publishing he remembers so vividly during his first years with Random House (beginning in 1958), when about 100 people worked for the company (4500 do now).
In those days, he writes, authors and editors met in the privacy and intimacy of the old Villard mansion that Random House shared with the archdiocese of New York on Madison and 50th. Here was the essence of good publishing, he indicates - "best performed by small groups of like-minded people, devoted to their craft, jealous of their autonomy, sensitive to the needs of writers and to the diverse interests of readers."
One gets the feeling that however diverse and unpredictable were authors such as W.H. Auden, Ted Geisel, Terry Southern, Andy Warhol, John O'Hara and Ralph Ellison, they regarded their editors as professionals who saw the best in them and guided each work toward the highest standard. Then as now, says Epstein, good editors are to be valued because their reward was (and is) "the work itself and not its cash value."
Moving three blocks east to the Random House glass-and-steel monolith after RCA bought the house in 1972 seems to have disgusted and alarmed Epstein, who worried that the bigger and hungrier-for-bestsellers the house got, the less interested in literature editors were supposed to become. How right he was.
Yet he's perhaps speaking ONLY as an editor when he says that "more" books of excellence are being published today than ever before. Had he stood in a book reviewer's office and watched the decline of serious books from mainstream publishers over the last 20 years, he might not be so sure.
But give him his prejudice. Epstein would rather put the blame on chain bookstores for letting good books fall through the cracks, and that's a huge admission coming from an editor whose employers used to say the book industry would be nowhere without the chains.
Epstein's telling example is a biography of J.P. Morgan that was critically acclaimed and started out "on several bestseller lists" in the spring of 1999. By the holidays, despite its appearance on many "best of the year" lists, "fewer than one thousand copies were on hand in the 528 superstores of the Barnes & Noble chain," he writes.
Meanwhile, the Morgan book was "selling briskly in the independent stores."
His point starts out to be that many important books would sink out of sight if it weren't for independent bookstores, but unfortunately Epstein seems to think the chains have been so murderous that today only 75 "major" independents - "employing sophisticated sales staffs and stocking 100,000 or more titles" - make a difference.
This is where the old sputtering mechanism begins to gear up. Surely this distinguished editor knows there are still thousands of independent stores out there, many with a "sophisticated sales staff" even if that staff is limited to one, many with the potential of selling hundreds of copies of one title because the staff gets behind the book, and many capable of launching books, spreading the word and sustaining sales beyond anyone's expectations.
And does he know that taken together, independent bookstores bring a wide range and diversity of books to their audience from wherever they are located? Apparently not, as this volatile little paragraph (the one that got me a'sputterin' to begin with) might attest:
"Our industry was becoming alienated from its natural diversity by an increasingly homogeneous suburban marketplace, demanding ever more uniform products. Books are written everywhere but they need the complex cultures of great cities in which to reverberate. My publishing years coincided with the great postwar dispersal of city populations and the attrition therefore of city bookstores as suburban malls increasingly became the centers of commerce, so that even the well-stocked chain-bookstore branches located in cities today evoke the undifferentiated culture of shopping malls rather than the cosmopolitanism of the cities in which they happen to have been transplanted."
Whoa, blaming readers is not a good idea in ANY venue. Different audiences for many different books exist everywhere (just ask independent bookstores). But when it comes to losing our "natural diversity" as cities began closing up their downtowns, was it the suburban readers who were "demanding ever more uniform products" or chain bookstores selling mostly commercial books in suburban malls?
It's very important to get that cart back around and behind the horse: Chain bookstores give the impression they have all the books you will ever want to read, and indeed you can find many books you've always planned on reading in any chain store.
But the loss of true diversity in literature is harder to see; it comes from a narrowing of choices made for economic reasons back at the headquarters of the chain (which in B&N's case is located right in the center of that "cosmopolitan" NYC), not from the suburb or mall where none of the buying decisions are made.
I get to sputtering because thinking like Epstein's has led publishers to ignore or dismiss independent bookstores as having little or no role in the distribution process any longer. He says it wasn't publishers' fault that "the dominance of bookstore chains" led to "the consequent devolution of once-proud publishing houses into units of impersonal corporations." Instead, it was "morally neutral market conditions" (such as high rents in shopping malls) that "demand[ed] rapid turnover of undifferentiated products."
"Morally neutral market conditions"? That's only true if you cast your lot with the chains to begin with. Three lawsuits suggest the demands made by chains of publishers weren't the result of "morally neutral market conditions" but of greed, with the further result that independents got waylaid by illegal and unfair competitive practices that drove them under, as planned.
Epstein acknowedges that chain bookstores demand "rates of turnover that are incompatible with the long, slow, and often erratic lives of important books." Since he knows that independent bookstores do NOT demand that kind of turnover and in fact SEEK OUT books like the J.P. Morgan bio - books that take a "long, slow and erratic" time reaching their audience - why didn't mainstream publishers pin their hopes for such books on independents and support them in key ways during that crucial period of, say, the '70s through through the '90s?
I'm just asking, because Epstein's message is that big business is antithetical to good publishing. He even doubts that the very umbrella model of publishing, which Random House was among the first to establish, has EVER been successful. In fact, he says, "a melange of imprints within a single firm compounds the risks and inefficiencies that are intrinsic to the work." Indeed, what used to be a backlist-driven industry in which bestsellers were considered "a lucky accident" has now become a frontlist-obsessed business in which bestsellers are a requirement, he notes.
Perhaps he's too entrenched as a New York editor but I wish Epstein had questioned the whole setup of American publishing with its slavish attempt to duplicate the British model of major houses ending up in one city to dictate to the cultural tastes of the rest of the nation.
Not only did the United States lose important books of regional history, fiction and culture because book publishers did not sprout up all over the country from the beginning (as newspapers did); the atmosphere of inbreeding and tunnel vision in New York publishing paralyzed the industry in cycles of fashionability that often excluded the talented and gifted who were not "in" at the time.
It's great to see Epstein's take on the idea that the 20th century's great literary breakthroughs were set in the 1920s, leaving the job for the rest of us to rattle like "pebbles on the shore" under the force of that receding wave (from Yeats' quote).
Yet his focus, at best Eurocentric, disregards the more recent history-making entrance of Latin American writers on the American publishing scene, the emergence of women writers and especially women of color (Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Bharati Mukherjee, Julia Alvarez) and the opening of the Pacific Rim as fertile soil for American publishers.
But that's the kind of pondering a piece like Epstein's should and does inspire. Coming after the self-searching speech by Len Riggio of Barnes & Noble to the Association of American Publishers, it's like a breath of fresh air. And at times like this I'm so grateful publications like the New York Review of Books exist - esoteric, weighty, cranky, open to very lengthy pieces (Epstein's is 10.5 single-spaced pages when printed out) - and courageous, in their way, for allowing a look at the past to inform our understanding of the present.
BRAVO, TATTERED COVER
It can't be easy facing down government agents armed with a search warrant and determined to bust in and examine your records.
But Joyce Meskis of Denver's Tattered Cover did just that when drug enforcement agents no less (not DEA but local police) arrived to investigage the book purchases of a Tattered Cover customer.
Meskis' stand - she got a temporary restraining order keeping the agents out until May 4 - proved that privacy may be for sale all over the Internet these days, but it's alive and well at independent bookstores like Tattered Cover.
It's the kind of case that makes a person wonder: What do agents like these, or prosecutors like Ken Starr in the Monica Lewinsky case, hope to find by subpoenaing records in a bookstore?
For example, one of the titles Starr wanted to locate was Nicholson Baker's "Vox," a novel about phone sex that Monica Lewinsky reportedly had given president Clinton as a gift. Or something. Well, let's suppose Starr uncovered the sales slip for that very purchase made out to Monica Lewinsky. How would that "incriminate" either party?
She could have bought the book because she was a fan of Baker - it was a serious literary work, many critics (me included) believed. Or did Starr think he could argue that this page or that page was stimulating to him and therefore stimulating to her (and To Him!) and hope some really dumb judge and jury would connect the circumstantial dots?
Now here come these drug agents with their Very Important Work of rendering null and void our Constitutional protections of privacy and the freedom to read by subpoenaing records in the hope of finding - well, what? that underground bestseller, "The Guide to Buying Drugs Illegally and Selling them for a Profit to Really Disreputable Felons and Laughing at Drug Agents All the Way to the (Numbered Account in a Swiss) Bank"?
Or "How I Opened a Crystal Meth Laboratory in a Certain Denver Bookstore Where You Can Sniff Page 62 of a Certain Guide And Go Out of Your Mind"?
Yes, there are very, very suspicious books out there, friends, so beware. Remember when the FBI asked librarians to keep track of the borrowing habits of various - well, I don't want to use the incriminating word - let's say *p* i * n * k * o* readers? Thank heaven for our democracy. Who knew we had such caring big brother-agents keeping track all manner of books in this way?
ONE GREAT MUG
I'm drinking my morning tea with soy milk from a beautiful dark blue mug with an illustration of the earth and the wonderfully inspiring words "A BETTER WORLD WITHOUT BORDERS" surrounding it.
You can take the slogan a number of ways, of course, but independent bookseller Jim Lewis says customers view it as an anti-megabookstore cry that's very timely during "the bookstore wars." With his store's name and address emblazoned on the other side, he's selling the handsome mugs at a nice clip.
Can other booksellers get in on the sale? "The cups cost us about $3 apiece for a gross," Jim writes. "If any of our pro-independent readers would like to 'steal' the idea and promote their store, they should email me their contact information, and I will pass that on to our vendor who will help them get their logo attached to a gross of coffee cups just like ours.
"If expressing their sentiments about a certain chain is important to them but not to the tune of 144 cups, we would be honored to send one cup or more to a kindred spirit for $5 each including postage."
Jim Lewis is at Fireside Book Shop in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, phone 440/338-3290 or 3315 voice; fax 440/338-3315, or email email@example.com.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Louise Wilker wrote in a letter that she found a biography of Paulette Goddard listed on Amazon.com as an out-of-print title and, when located, offered for $50. She then cancelled the order, calling the price "outrageous."
A search at Advanced Book Exchange http://www.abebooks.com brought up the Goddard bio for as little as $9, and the Goddard-Remarque bio for as little as $17. Spread the word (again?), Pat - ABEbooks and the other independent databases are the best way to find out-of-print books at rational prices. I've ordered books from all over the country and from Canada, and have never had a bad experience - no delays, no misrepresented conditions. Some stores even ship without waiting for payment.
Most follow up after the sale to be sure everything is satisfactory. Same would hold true if I used ABEbooks to find a new, hard-to-find title.
Amazon and the other behemoths notwithstanding, the Internet is the best thing that's happened to indies--or will be, when word gets around to more potential customers, and when more indies have a presence on the Net.
Holt responds: ABE also runs features about used and rare books that are very entertaining and informative. This week Forrest Proper of Joslin Hall Rare Books in Concord, Mass., offers a great story about fakes and forgeries that covers the gamut from entire "fake libraries" to forgeries that are so good they turned into original works of art and finally for those a bit too interested in the field, "Good News For Fakery Enthusiasts." Click over to http://dogbert.abebooks.com/abe/TextToHtml?t=Feature+Story&h=x&f=featurestories/forgery.htm
Dear Holt Uncensored:
It's hard to believe a reader of Holt Uncensored would go to Amazon.com for an out of print book. Amazon doesn't stock out of print books. It buys books from online services such as BiblioFind (which it owns), ABEbooks, Bookavenue, and others. Amazon pays the dealers to ship them to Seattle, marks them up, and ships them to folks like Louise. She could have chosen from several copies of two different biographies of Paulette Goddard for as little as $10 by buying directly from Amazon's source. By the way, there's soon to be another "direct from the dealer" site, a cooperative of bookdealers going by the name of http://www.TomFolio.com (operational about mid-summer).
The Gallagher Collection
Books and Library Related Antiques
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I have to second the motion on Transitions Bookplace. As an author I have done numerous presentations there in the spacious coffee shop which is part of the store. The crowds are always large and responsive and book sales brisk. Besides that, Gayle, the co-owner, is nearly always there to welcome you in like a long lost brother or sister. It is one of the world's great bookstores--online and in the brick! If every indy was run like this, the chains would be no threat at all. Transitions is surrounded by chains, with a Crown right across the mall and one of those B-chains a block away, and it hasn't affected Transitions' business at all. If you are an independent bookseller and you are going to be in Chicago, you shouldn't miss the opportunity to visit this store!
I list them as the online place to buy my books, instead of you-know-who. Every author who cares what's happening in the book business should find independent bookstores that carry their books and give good online service and recommend them instead of those corporate guys.
Hal Zina Bennett
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I've been reading your column for nearly a year now, and I thought I would pass this news along to you. A Novel Approach, the only indpendent bookstore in Tuscaloosa, AL, is closing its doors after 25 years of service (see attached letter). I don't know when the Books-a-Million came to town, as I was only in Tuscaloosa for one year working on a graduate degree, but I do know that's what ran them out. Barnes and Noble and Borders gets lots of press, but Books-a-Million hits towns under their radar and runs the independents out as well (also happened in my home town of Johnson City, TN), and they should not be neglected in analyzing the problem. Just thought you'd like to know. Here's the letter they sent out:
"It is with much sadness that I inform you that A Novel Approach bookstore is going out of business. Continued decreases in sales volume have made it impossible to continue in business. After nearly 25 years serving Tuscaloosa, we will close our doors for good on May 31, 2000.
"To liquidate our inventory, we will have the biggest sale we have ever had. Effective immediately, all books in the store will be marked down from 30 - 75% off. We invite everyone to stop by and take advantage of this great opportunity. In addition to books, all fixtures, shelves, displays, furniture, etc are also for sale. We hope you will be able to stop in and see these great deals for yourself. We also ask that you help us spread the word about this closeout sale to help us clear out as much inventory as possible.
"I want to thank everyone who has shopped in our store over the years.
"We have truly enjoyed serving you.
"Benson and Cathy Bolling,
"Owners, A Novel Approach"