HOLT UNCENSORED #149
by Pat Holt

Tuesday, May 2, 2000:

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To New Readers: "Holt Uncensored" is a free online column about books and the book industry written by former San Francisco Chronicle book editor and critic Pat Holt. You can subscribe or "unsubscribe" by clicking here.

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S&S IN TROUBLE WITH 'PANTY RAIDER'
SEATTLE UPDATE II: Revisiting Elliott Bay Book Company
LETTERS

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S&S IN TROUBLE WITH 'PANTY RAIDER'

In the "What Were They Thinking?" department, congratulations go to Simon & Schuster Interactive for announcing a CD-ROM to be published in May called "PANTY RAIDER: FROM HERE TO IMMATURITY" (see www.simonsays.com/subs/press.cfm?areaid=58&view=909688574).

This is a CD game for - well, see who you think the intended audience is - boys of many ages, one supposes. Players are told they can save the Earth from "perverted" aliens with "hormone-driven anger" who will soon blow up the planet. The key: "Only the sexy underwear of supermodels" can satisfy these "testosterone-driven aliens."

The object of the game is to "Seek Out Supermodels to Strip Them Down to Their Bra and Panties.'' The reasoning goes like this: One day on a faraway planet, a lingerie catalog "inexplicably showed up in the mailbox at one horny alien's home." Time passed, and soon this alien and his friends had "worn out the catalog." Uh-oh.

Now they have hijacked a flying saucer to go "in search of supermodels in their underwear." The person playing "Panty Raid" must "help the aliens in their perverted quest" by cybertraveling to an island called Model Isle, disrobing supermodels to their undergarments and taking pictures of them for the aliens.

Of course the supermodels will be reluctant to participate, so to bring them out of the woods, players are given "lures," such as "tiny mints (lunch!) and credit cards," since "no self-respecting supermodel can resist these items." "Cheesy pickup lines" are also available, and a secret substance called "goop," thrown on the supermodels' bodies, "mysteriously removes their clothing."

Goodness, what a fantasy for the consumer! All that's missing is . . . but no, here come the X-ray glasses! With these, players can "see what kind of underwear each girl is wearing before they go through the process of undressing her." Granted, the game is very demanding: "Keep in mind if you waste too much time undressing a supermodel . . . BOOM! Earth will be destroyed . . . can you control yourself?"

Well, it's not the first raunchy CD game to hit the stands, and certainly those rape-fantasy CDs of a decade or so ago were much worse - or were they? This is the year 2000; we know this is a game that glorifies stalking; we know the audience consists of young boys who are still forming their ideas about women and girls. Didn't anyone in the many committees that met about this project and the many people who signed off on it raise an objection?

Apparently not, so thank heaven for Dads & Daughters www.dadsanddaughters.org/, a national advocacy group that last week called on Simon & Schuster to halt the CD's release. "From making fun of anorexia to objectifying girls to assuming that boys just want titillation from computer games," D&D announced, " 'Panty Raider' is a disgrace."

A letter from executive director Joe Kelly (at www.dadsanddaughters.org/praidletter.htm) to Simon & Schuster says it more nicely - and convincingly: "At first blush, Panty Raider may appear humorous. But when we fathers stop and think about the things this game asks our children to laugh at, we are disturbed and frightened. The premise and your promotional description reinforce dangerously unhealthy behaviors and negative stereotypes for both girls and boys."

Kelly indicates that when girls and women "are treated entirely as objects whose purpose is to titillate and be manipulated by the male characters," all other standards are dropped as well. To him, there is no question the "joke" about "tiny mints" as the equivalent of lunch for a supermodel is a reference to widespread anorexia.

"Folks, anorexia KILLS people, and holds painfully long years of recovery for those girls and women who do survive. It's no more suited for joking than cancer. And then there is the stereotype that the ideal girls are obsessed with shopping and appearance. We have daughters and we know better."

Looking at such matters through the eyes of fathers who see daughters AND sons adversely affected is illuminating. "We don't see the humor or fun in glorifying hormone-driven anger in boys, especially in the aftermath of tragedies like the Columbine shootings," Kelly writes.

"We are offended when our sons are repeatedly subjected to the destructive stereotypes of boys objectifying females, placing titillation above all else, and using violence or its threat to get their way. We have sons and we know their interests stretch far beyond 'X-Ray glasses' . . . "

It's important to note that nobody is talking about banning the CD-ROM, if it is released. This is a call to Simon & Schuster to regard its audience more highly, to raise its standards of literature (and this is literature), to consider the ways that stereotypes, prejudice and bigotry get started and are sustained.

On its website, Simon & Schuster refers to itself as "a global leader" providing "the best in fiction and nonfiction for consumers of all ages." The best, did you say? Now's the time to prove it.

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SEATTLE UPDATE: Revisiting Elliott Bay Book Company

One reason why a visit to Elliott Bay Book Company a year after its acquisition is a good idea: Here is yet another independent bookstore that has provided a wide range and diversity of books to its customers, played a key role in the launching of unknown and midlist authors, contributed mightily to the community - and nearly gone under as a result.

As independents continue to close all around us - PW Daily mentioned three the other day; I know of four in California - one sees that look of exhaustion and near-paralysis setting in as bookstore owners and staffs battle to keep customers and make sales until you'd think there is no fight left - and then they come to work and battle some more.

I often remind myself that this fight has been going on not just for a decade but for at least for 30 years, beginning with the first chain bookstores (Dalton, Walden) and getting worse with the discounters (Crown), the price clubs and cheapo department stores (WalMart, Target) and worse still with predatory chain superstores (Borders, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million) and finally with Amazon.com and other online booksellers storming the barricades and discounting bestsellers by 50-55%.

Right up to the moment that Seattle developer Ron Sher acquired Elliott Bay Book Company a little more than a year ago, head buyer Rick Simonson had been meeting with prospective investors and community leaders to see if individuals or coalitions could be found to keep Elliott Bay alive.

That he and former owner Walter Carr found a way to work with Sher and his Third Place Books, a mixed used/new store in a nearby suburb, is a testament to the resourcefulness of all parties and further proof that being an independent bookseller today - caught in the crossfire of increasingly aggressive competition and so often dismissed as obsolete by many publishers - is about the toughest job you can find in retail.

All this comes to mind as I walk into the bustling and lively Elliott Bay and breathe in the atmosphere of calm and high expectation that have made this store such an anchor for readers and writers since its beginning 27 years ago.

Nobody denies it's been a hard road back - many employees left Elliott Bay during the transition (some were on the way out during the store's downward spiral anyway, I hear), and while the store is solvent, profits still loom in the distance.

Sher himself was a perhaps a bit ambitious at the outset. Plans for multiple stores and a big injection of used books have not worked out, and Third Place Books, which brought its manager from Elliott Bay, has perhaps benefited as much from the relationship.

"It is a little disappointing," Sher told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's John Marshall. "I had been hoping to see increases. But anybody in this business is an optimist at heart, and I'm not discouraged. Elliott Bay is here to stay. I don't want to give the wrong impression - I do believe sales are turning around."

Today used books account for nearly 10% of Elliott Bay's inventory, and outreach to corporate and conference sales has helped return the store to solid ground. But as is true for many Seattle retailers, living with Amazon.com in your backyard isn't easy.

"Actually it feels a bit easier," says Simonson. "Amazon.com used to be seen as this spunky, interesting, unique thing, a David-vs.-Goliath story. But as it expanded to sell other products, its Books division has become more publisher-fed, and stores like ours go on the Web [at www.elliottbaybook.com], our quality is seen to be getting better as theirs diminishes."

Simonson believes stores like Elliott Bay maintain a key standard that computers can't touch. When publishers complain that independents can't offer instant and collective feedback like that of a chain like Target, Simonson likes to respond, "Don't you want a little mystery in life?"

He's not kidding. "I've seen this instant-feedback process work in the movie and music business, and I don't think it's doing anybody any favors. Everyone looks at first-week grosses as though that's all you need to know. In the book business, the first week is not a great indicator. You couldn't have predicted from the first three weeks what was building for 'Angela's Ashes.' So let there be a little cauldron of mystery."

And when great, stormy, convulsive change hits the community, independent stores are flexible enough to find the books that meet readers' needs and haul them into the fray. During the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle last year, Elliott Bay brought books to the center of the boarded-up downtown where an all-night teach-in was conducted.

"It was nutty in a lot of ways," Simonson remembers. "We contacted so many small presses and needed those books so fast, we were ransacking boxes as they came in just to get the books into the forum." The store held a packed reception of its own for writers and readers, using the children's section as "a great wine bar."

As Elliott Bay now faces even newer trends in electronic books and print-on-demand, what strikes Simonson is "how connections are made and not made in the book business," he says; "how human this all is and how those of us who are human in it are so stretched out."

He talks of feeling a kinship with individual editors, publicity directors, sales representatives and literary agents from Seattle to New York - connections that can make a tremendous difference when it comes to discovering new writers and launching careers.

Perhaps these are not connections that are valued in these times of disintermediation - but as long as independents like Elliott Bay are around, good books will be saved from falling through the slots, for customers and for posterity.

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I was outraged by the subpoena that Borders issued to Bookshop Santa Cruz, and forwarded #146 to several friends and acquaintenances. One reply, from a professor of law agrees the Borders subpoena is "outrageous" and informs me some SLAPP suits (SLAPP stands for strategic lawsuit against public participation have been effective in getting sanctions against people or corporate entities that abuse legal process. In these litigious times, perhaps the possibility of a good SLAPP back is something we should all know.

Richard Wilcox

Dear Holt Uncensored:

You wrote [about police seizing reporter Bruce Mirken's computer and looking for "evidence" of child pornography]: "The point is the same: It's nobody's business what a person reads. In our system you can't prove guilt of a crime through the nature of a person's reading material."

I believe producing, storing, selling, or reading child pornography are actually crimes in the USA. So in the example given, if [Mirken] had actually downloaded child pornography, he would have been in big trouble, whatever his intent. This makes some sense, I think, since it would otherwise be extremely difficult to prosecute the production and consumption of this particular form of pornography. Almost every stage of the process could otherwise claim some sort of First Amendment or other privilege. The producers of adult pornography are harder to stop, since there are few special laws to control them.

A similar situation exists in the trade in stolen state secrets or illegal drugs. If he had downloaded nuclear bomb plans from Lawrence Livermore Labs or purchased cocaine for the sake of writing an eventual book, he'd probably go to jail anyway or at least incur a huge legal bill when he was caught. In real life, there are subjects so dangerous to investigate that you'd have to be a fool (or very brave) to touch them without strong protections and prearrangements with legal authorities in place.

The Internet doesn't make these sorts of perilous and potentially criminal activities any more innocent or risk free than if he had cruised the streets looking for teenage prostitutes and gotten caught in a similar sting.

A Reader

Bruce Mirken responds: The reader's analogy to prostitution is only half correct, as prostitution is (in most jurisdictions, at least) always illegal. Therefore anyone attempting to solicit prostitution is breaking the law and most likely knows it, regardless of the age of the prostitute. Adult erotica, however, is legal in the U.S., although it sounds like the reader might prefer otherwise.

On the Internet it is entirely possible not to know that material is illegal until you download it. Either in Usenet newsgroups or in attachments to email messages, for example, it is not uncommon to see file names that are not terribly descriptive. A file that is called "mary.jpg" doesn't tell you whether Mary is an underage child, an adult or a chihuaha. To inadvertently come into possession of illicit material, delete it within seconds and STILL be prosecuted for "possession" is Orwellian.

It is also worth noting that child pornography laws have gone well beyond their original purpose of protecting children who might be harmed in its production. A federal statute passed a few years ago criminalizes even material involving no actual children, such as images that are entirely computer-generated. When we move from protecting the innocent to banning material just because we find it distasteful, we enter dangerous territory indeed.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

"One World, one Web, one Program" - Microsoft promotional ad running 4/28/00 on television "Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuhrer" - Adolf Hitler

Ray Howe Lone Oak Press info@loneoak.org

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Your opinion from Kris Molesworth on the "success" of the Seattle Bookfest needs some facts. The bookfest charges independent publishers such as Tsunami nearly $500 for an 8' table for 2 days. Bumbershoot, the real independent event in Seattle over Labor Day, by contrast charges independent presses $75 for an 8' table for 4 days.

Much of the $210,000 that has been contributed to 'literacy" programs in the past five years by the Seattle Times, the prime sponsor of bookfest, has been raised by gouging independent presses, not by walk-in contributions.

The Times, like all newspapers, is in the business of distributing advertising. Their concept of literacy is confined to the capacity to read an ad and buy something as a result. They hardly review books. Bookfest is a patronizing public relations ploy.

Charles Potts, President Tsunami Inc., tsunami@innw.net Walla Walla, Washington www.tsunami-inc.net.

Kris Moleworth responds: Northwest Bookfest is a non-profit organization founded by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, The Seattle Times, and Washington Commission for the Humanities. Bookfest's mission is to bring people together to celebrate the power of the written word and to promote literacy. We do this by producing the region's largest literary arts event each fall, featuring hundreds of writers and publishers.

Admission to Bookfest remains free to the public so that everyone is able to attend. Voluntary entrance donations help fund literacy organizations in the five Northwest member states of PNBA. As you pointed out, Bookfest supporters have contributed more than $210,000 to literacy in the past five years, including supplemental grants totaling $7,500 from U S WEST. Bookfest production and administrative costs are funded via corporate sponsorships, grants, individual donations, and exhibitor fees. Our exhibitor fees are developed by comparing our prices to other consumer events with similar audiences. To help make our event affordable to as many booksellers as possible, we offer early-registration discounts, low half-table rates, and extremely low non-profit rates (for literacy organizations).

We are grateful for the support Bookfest has received from its sponsors as well as the enthusiastic participation of the hundreds of booksellers who exhibit. Bookfest is a tremendous gathering of all elements of the book world here in the Northwest and we are proud of the support readers, writers, and booksellers have generated for literacy.