HOLT UNCENSORED #152
by Pat Holt

Friday, May 12, 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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LISTENING TO FRAN
MAKING BARNES & NOBLE 'SEXY'
LETTERS

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LISTENING TO FRAN

It's hard to describe the atmosphere of excitement and expectancy that fills up a theater as the audience gets ready for an evening with Fran Lebowitz.

Her last adult book, "Social Studies," came out in 1981, and though it was combined with her previous book, "Metropolitan Life," in the1994 trade paperback, "The Fran Lebowitz Reader," her famous writer's block has stopped this very talented writer from publishing anything except a children's book since then. Were Fran Lebowitz anyone else, she'd have been forgotten long ago.

But audiences never tire of her performances, perhaps because she DOESN'T write. They know she has some set pieces (Q: "What is your favorite animal?" A: "Steak"), but it's that Lebowitz irreverence - that mix of iconoclast and idealist - that pulls them in every time.

As her onstage interviewer on two occasions (in San Francisco and Seattle), I get to introduce her now-legendary eccentricities. I point out that she lives a hermitlike existence, which usually consists of reading on her sofa and "not writing" at her desk. Fran has stayed inside so long that she once called the outdoors "a place you must go through to get from your apartment to a taxi cab."

She does have a social life but is grumpy about it. When asked, "What writers do you admire?" she answers, "I prefer dead writers, because I don't see them at parties."

The most intriguing discovery one makes about interviewing Fran Lebowitz in a theater, however, is that the onstage conversation is not the centerpiece of the evening. It's just a warm-up to get Fran and the audience reacquainted.

If she came out cold and started deriding San Francisco, for example, as "the most intolerant city in the world," people would be horrified.

But in conversation, she can begin with the subject of the Disneyfication of Times Square, which I ask her about first, since her hatred for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (long before his present marital scandal) is unparalleled.

"Of course I was very opposed to the cleanup of Times Square," she says. "Not that I loved Times Square to begin with, but it was part of New York. One of the many horrible things Giuliani has done is to make tourism the primary business of New York. When you make a place more hospitable to tourists than to its citizens, you've turned it into a Third World country.

"And as is true in any other Third World country, once tourists take over, no one ever stops to think what happened to the indigenous people. In Manhattan, you may ask, where are our hookers? Where are our 3-card Monte dealers? They're gone."

She blames new laws against smoking in New York on "anti-smoking mercenaries" sent there from California. "They come to New York to campaign for what they call a 'smoke-free society' because they got away with it in California," she says.

"They know you can't get people to stop smoking, so they develop a system of informants. That's the whole idea of second-hand smoke, you know. Make second-hand smoke dangerous and turn everybody against smokers. Then they say you can't even smoke in a bar - a bar! - because bartenders have a right to a smoke-free 'workspace.' Ah, bartenders, those health nuts . . . "

The blame for all this lies with the "intolerant" people of San Francisco, who "are in the forefront of anti-smoking lunatics," she says. By now, the audience is applauding.

"Anti-smoking sentiment has replaced middle-class morality entirely," she adds. "The smoker has taken the place of the homosexual. Today you hear people say things about smokers that used to be said about homosexuals - they pollute the environment; you don't want them around your children ... "

Granted, anti-smoking activists can get a little rabid, but ISN'T cigarette smoke an irritant to people who don't smoke?

"You know, almost everyone is an irritant to me. I think people have forgotten what the word 'public' means. 'Public' means you're going to be irritated. It's a natural consequence of leaving one's home. You go outside, and there are people who are irritating. I'll be standing on the sidewalk, and someone berates me for smoking. I look at the person and think, but what about your shoes? How can you wear shoes like that and have the confidence to accost someone like me?"

The aphorisms pour out. Fran doesn't recommend reading the newspaper during the week because "if something important happens, your mother calls you." She is opposed to motorcycle helmets and seatbelts because "I think it's my right to go through the windshield if I want to." And she prefers children to adults. "Children are much less annoying," she says, "and they NEVER start trends."

She owes "about 80 million dollars" to her publisher for books unwritten but will not appear in high-paying American Express ads "because I don't believe in that level of commericalization." How about the reverse - would she ever come forward for a nonprofit cause? "I AM a nonprofit cause."

That she sides with out-of-fashion rebels comes as no surprise. "I agree with everything Theodore Kaczynski [the Unabomber] said," she explains. "He just went too far. He was a showy version of me. Opinions are everything, and I don't believe in taking any action."

Kaczynski did stay in his cabin a lot, showing a reclusive bent similar to Fran's perhaps. "Yes," she agrees, "but the difference is, he wrote! And he mailed the things. That's something I could never do - not the bombs, just the mail. Every day I get packages. I look at them and I wonder how it works - postage, boxes, mailers, some counter somewhere. I know how to do almost nothing."

About 45 minutes into the program, an invisible magnet begins to assert itself from the blackness on the other side of the lights. The audience wants Lebowitz for itself in a direct, almost free-for-all fashion. Alone.

"I'm here to answer questions in an entertaining fashion," she says sternly at the podium. "You don't have to ask them in an entertaining fashion. In fact, please don't."

Q: "What do you think of George W. Bush?" A: "Well, I didn't like the first one, and I like this one less. I am very opposed to the idea of sons, or daughters if there were any, taking the place of the parent. The point of a democracy is to avoid this type of thing. With the current crop of politicians, one from each family is more than enough."

Q: "What is your opinion of publically funded art and Giuliani's attempt at censoring the Brooklyn Museum?" A: "Initially I found the whole thing kind of funny. Giuliani was mayor for six years and nobody ever saw him at a museum. All the art we're called upon to defend against people like Rudy Giuliani is pretty crumby from the point of view of art. I would love some day to defend Madame Bovary.

"What suprises me is that the picture that excited the mayor - and I think excite is very good choice of word - is very banal. It's been done about 8 billion times, yet people like Giuliani rise to the same stupid bait. The point to a picture like that is to GET the mayor angry.

"I had to go on TV with the president of the Catholic League, which is not an official organization at all,just a lot of Catholics, or maybe it's just this guy. He demanded to de-fund art completely and argued that taxpayers should not pay for it. I said people who represent the Catholic Church shouldn't talk about taxes."

Q: "What kind of books do you read?" A: "I'm a very promiscuous reader. A slut of literature. Reading for me is a form of drug addiction. I read mostly fiction because I'm not interested in real life. I'm also addicted to mysteries and never throw them away. I don't read mysteries for the mystery, you see. I can read the same Agatha Christie about 800 times and not until the very end realize who did it. Then I'm shocked because each Agatha Christie mystery has about 75 covers."

Most of this stuff is not all that funny, but the audience by this time is on the floor laughing. Fran's gruff delivery has much to do with it, of course. She is a born curmudgeon and doesn't care what anybody thinks, least of all this audience.

So she has become that almost extinct famous person - unmonitored, untamed, unpredictable and for the most part, unseen. And people can't get enough of her.

Nevertheless, however she makes a living or stays on the couch or sits up with insomnia all night watching reruns of "Law & Order" (a show she's come to admire so much that she visited the set with her friend Toni Morrison, where the two fought over who would play a bit part as the arraignment judge), Lebowitz is not going to give us what we want.

We will probably never see again, from Fran Lebowitz, one book after another of blistering essays, all-to-true aphorisms, scathing indictments and profiles of leaders who turn out to be rotten to the core.

Her way of literature now is to show us - not describe to us - the world through her own critical lens. Each joke, each argument, each diatribe, each snort of derision is in itself a work in progress. If stands for anything (and she doesn't), it's to never take things at face value, never accept the company or government line, always judge things on their own merit, always hold the approved way up to scrutiny.

What astounds me is that Fran trusts the spontaneity of her responses in front of an audience of 600-2000 people. She does this instead of choosing to sit quietly in the privacy of her living room inventing her answers - and her entire persona -on the page.

This kind of nonfiction writing seems fraudulent to her now. One interviewer asked, "When are you at a loss for words?" Her answer: "When I'm writing." That takes a lot of courage, I think, though Fran, bless her, would never agree.

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WHAT'S 'SEXY' TO BARNES & NOBLE

I'm sure we all want to forgive Len Riggio of Barnes & Noble for sounding as though his heart has been with video games, not books, all along.

Riggio's deal this week to buy video-game retailer Funco Inc (400+ stores) follows Barnes & Noble's decision last year to buy another video-game chain, Babbage's (500 stores). These acquisitions give Barnes & Noble a $349 million stake in the video biz - not too shabby when you consider the two chains pull in about $760 million a year in sales.

That's more consolidation of power than anyone wants to hear about, even for the video game biz. What's important for Riggio, apparently, is that video vido-game sales grew by 12% last year while book sales have been flat and at best will grow, he predicts, about 3-5% a year. Poor guy.

So instead of acknowledging that "the video-game industry has a long history of hot growth spurts - followed by long, cold downturns," as the Wall Street Journal puts it, and that growth patterns in books are slow and steady by contrast, Riggio casts his lot with the bouncy-bouncies.

"We see the (overall) video-game business as potentially overtaking the consumer book business within the next half of the decade," he told the WSJ. "In the scheme of things, that's where we want to be." One financial analyst couldn't put Riggio's view better: "[The video-game industry is] the opposite of the book business, which isn't all that sexy."

Gad, how I detest words like "sexy" used in terms of books and the publishing industry. If you want "sexy," get out of the book business, or grow up. There is a lot of heat in the book business; its numbers can be hot when a "small" book takes off and its authors/booksellers/publishers passionate when it comes to literature that can withstand the fashions of its time.

But to say flash-in-the-pan sales increases are "sexy" is to celebrate the kind of adolescence that turns out such CD-ROM games as the pornographic and cruel "Panty Raider" (see #149), for which the Babbage website is now taking advance orders, and with which Barnes & Noble does seem perfectly at home.

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I read your article on Alibris and would like to address the following points:

FILL RATE

I have no idea where [Alibris head] Marty Manley gets his figures on our fill rate, but he's just plain wrong. Our own rate currently runs about the same as his (80% on up). We base this on our sales history, as well as our own personal experiences in book-buying, and we've also done surveys. All the data - statistical, experiential and anecdotal alike - converge around the same figures.

Running a central warehouse, per Alibris, is no guarantee of a better fill rate. Why not? Well, the most common reason for a no-fill occurs when a one-of-a-kind book, recently listed, has attracted multiple buyers in a very short timeframe. This scenario will hold equally true regardless of whether the books are held in one central location or 6200 distributed ones.

HONESTY

I take umbrage (to put it mildly) at Marty's impugning the honesty of both ourselves & the booksellers by suggesting that they need Alibris to control "unsecure credit-card transactions, or wildly varying shipping rates, or dishonesty."

1. ABE credit card transactions are secure. Try our secure server for yourself & see.

2. Shipping rates vary primarily with jurisdiction - it costs more to ship a book a long way than it does to ship it a short distance. No surprise there.

3. It's a shame that Marty would denigrate as honest a group of people as it has ever been my pleasure to meet.

The first two items you can check out for yourself. As for the honesty ... still need proof? Then check us out w/the BBB. Or, if you like, ask our bank if there have been any problems; they handle all the credit card purchases and they know the score.

Banks often need to be cautious. Indeed, ours were genuinely concerned about the potential for problems ... in the past. But today, they too know that booksellers are honest people, and they have the objective transaction history to back up that statement.

SALES

ABE sells a lot of books. I have not seen Marty's sales figures, but I doubt very much that Alibris comes anywhere close to matching ABE's sales.

Need some proof of this too? Try going to each company's homepage, then clicking on the "What's Related" button on your Netscape browser. ABE is the 1600th most popular site on the Web; Alibris is way down the list in the 6500th spot.

ABE has demonstrably more booksellers, more selection, lower prices and more traffic than Alibris. You can pretty much figure out what that means to sales.

You can also check out the following url ...

http://www.100hot.com/directory/entertainment/books.html

... which says much the same thing.

RENTING INVENTORY

Alibris's 10 million listings - and the recent surge that put them there - look transitory to me, and for one reason: cold, hard cash that will soon expire.

Here's a verbatim excerpt from recent Alibris promotional material that I believe coincides with their surge even as it explains it:

"List books, get CASH! Earn 10 cents for every book you've listed with Alibris as of 5/12/2000, when you:

1. List a minimum of 2,500 books by 3/10/2000; 2. Keep them online through 5/12/2000; 3. Fulfill orders at 80% or better.

We'll review your account on 5/12/2000, and send you a check by 6/15/2000!"

In other words, they are paying the booksellers for a few months to list their books on Alibris.

Some booksellers have gone for this, many haven't. Anecdotally, the majority of those to whom I've spoken have told me that, sometime after the payment deadline, they're gonna take their money and run. This is why I personally view the whole exercise as "renting inventory."

The real test will be whether or not Alibris can maintain its listings in the months following the expiration of the above offer. That expiration is set to begin in a few days, so let's see where things settle a few months after the rent money stops.

EPILOGUE

I could continue, but you get the idea. I believe that the nub of the "battle" is not really between ABE and Alibris ... it's about which business model will work best on the Web. Alibris is betting on a Big Warehouse model.

ABE, on the other hand, is betting on a Distributed Network model. We just think that it's a lot easier and cheaper to move bits & bytes than it is to run a warehouse and ship a book twice for every order.

Or, if you'd prefer that I phrase the argument in Alibris-style vernacular, ABE has 6200 free warehouses; either way, tough to beat.

Rick Pura, Director
Advanced Book Exchange, Inc.
Victoria, BC, Canada
rpura@abebooks.com

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I just finished reading your article on Alibris and want to compliment your taking a good look at their business practices. I do believe that you're a bit optimistic regarding the future of the small book dealer. As you pointed out, Alibris is doing a flanking maneuver by hitting the supply route. As the supply dries up, the other dealers are forced to pay higher prices, join the enemy (Alibris) or surrender. They are also adding propaganda against the small book dealer with depreciating comments. This is a military tactic from way back. Money and resources are the issue here. It won't happen overnight but probably in our lifetime as long as businesses like Alibris continue their push for conquest.

I predict that the next move will be to require their limited number of book dealers to sign an exclusive with Alibris (one of their big pushes is to have a high fulfillment rate for their orders). This will eliminate a number of their present dealers who like being on some of the other services such as ABE and Bibliofind. Some of these people will just sell Alibris their stock (another move predicted). They already have a quota system of how many books that you must have to list on Alibris (2000).

Cynthia Putt
Parnassus On Wheels (ABE, Bibliofind and AmazonZ)
putt@oregoncoast.com

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Alibris sent me and my web site an offer to exchange links (also an offer to be an "associate," Amazon.com-style, which I ignored). I figure I'll exchange links with any bookstore that will get my site some exposure (unless they specialize in basement torture techniques or something so conservative I wouldn't want to be associated with them). They sent me the link, I put it up, and then I took it right down again and told them why. When a visitor to my site clicks on the link to alibris' site, they would get stuck there and cannot go BACK, no matter what. Alibris made some kind of excuse for this "temporary" problem, and said they'd let me know when it was fixed. Meanwhile, I don't believe it's unintentional and I've lost respect for them.

Susan K. Perry (www.BunnyApe.com) Author, WRITING IN FLOW

Dear Holt Uncensored:

One feature of Alibris that you didn't mention is its highlights on dealers and articles on collecting. I've "met" more dealers through its site than I ever would otherwise. Wonderful people -- one in Scotland who deals in cookbooks. I'm not a collector of anything, particularly not cookbooks, but I like reading about books and hearing from dealers as experts. The Alibris site itself is a reader's delight.

Sharon Villines, Editor
MacGuffin Guide to Detective Fiction
http://www.macguffin.net

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Here is the text of an arcticle we just posted on our website ( http://www.avenuevictorhugobooks.com/newsletter/newsletter_00001_4.php3 ) on the subject of Alibris. I have just read your column and it does nothing to reassure me that Alibris wants to be anything but a monopoly.

Regards, Gavin Grant

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