by Pat Holt
Friday, May 19, 2000
HOW IT FEELS ON THE 'INSIDE'
I've always said that one day there will be hundreds of publishing critics out there holding the book industry up to scrutiny - just as there are hundreds of TV and movie critics doing the same with Hollywood.
But I never envisioned a - a - well, what is it - an attitude or an approach or a point of view so - so - gad, there is no word - so CRAVEN and at the same time so ARROGANT and yet so occasionally DELICIOUS and full of GUILTY PLEASURES as a new absolutely IRRESPONSIBLE and SHAMELESS (and often AMUSING but in the end DISASTROUS and WORRISOME) website-in-the-making called "Inside."
Just go right now to http://www.inside.com , click on BOOKS first and then POWER INDEX, and you'll see what I mean. One look at this list of "the top people in publishing right now" and you may think, "Oh, for god's sake, more empire builders we do not need."
But just for the sake of gathering information, take a gander at how these rankings are listed. It's not surprising that everybody's perceived Mr. Thug is in the #1 slot. Nobody disputes the power-mongering ways of Barnes & Noble's Len Riggio (in this context). But the question is, what does it serve us to read a list like this?
Arranging people by some cockamamie power quotient is so antithetical to the motivating principle of our industry (creating a balance between art and commerce) that I can hardly believe it when my own eyes return to the list as if under their own power just to peek at #2. Lo, there in the second slot is king of the bighouse Peter Olson of Random House himself - not exactly a surprise, either.
Oh, well. It turns out that all of the usuals are here: Phyllis Grann of Penguin, Oprah Winfrey, Ann Godoff of Random, Stephen Rubin of Doubleday, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Charles McGrath of the NY Times Book Review, and so on. Perhaps the point is that even a Power Index can be a yawner when an industry is so clustered and inbred.
Slot # 50 goes to Terry Gross of National Public Radio, surely one of the sharpest and most influential movers and shakers on the book scene, don't you agree? Why, no, says the Power List: Why do you think she's #50? Although we're invited to vote on our favorites, the list exists not as a way to celebrate the long-standing leaders of the industry but to pass judgment on the behavior of others:
"Check throughout the day," the site tells us, "to see how the Index has, for instance, rewarded an agent for landing a seven-figure advance, or punished an editor who has lost out in a corporate power struggle." Oh dear, you naughty "Insider" folk - rewarding and punishing are a little too jaded, even snide, for something that could have been playful and whimsical from the start.
But that's just the beginning of this slice-across-the-top approach to book industry news.
Want to know how publicly traded houses are doing? Get an at-a-glance box by clicking INSIDE STOCKS, which thought superficial is kind of fun. Want to know what manuscripts are kicking around and who signed a deal with this or that agent or publisher? Check the Who Cares? (my description) page at ON SUBMISSION.
Or try BOOK TRACKER, which looks like a duplicate of Advance Book Information applications to me. Or WEEKEND READS, a not-too-bright list of books being submitted to the film industry. Or INSIDE DOPE, where somebody at Hyperion insists that Dave Eggers wasn't the reason the house decided not to print avante garde footers in a coming book. Thank heaven that's cleared up.
The site asks which field you're interested in - BOOKS for me - but it keeps throwing you into other fields (FILM, MUSIC, MEDIA, TV), which could be informative (I didn't know Florence Henderson was even interested in Kathie Lee's job!) until you look twice at some of the items.
We learn for example in MOGUL ASTROLOGY that "Napster co-founder Shawn Fanning probably never thought he'd see his skate-rat ass in a legal jumble," and how's that again? His "skate-rat ass"? We don't have a clue what's going on, until the writer explains that "the Saturn-Jupiter conjunction" is to blame, but you probably knew that.
"Inside," it turns out, is the brainchild of Kurt Anderson, formerly of the humor monthly Spy and the snide techno-media novel, "Turn of the Century." According to Newsweek, Anderson is using "$25 million of painlessly raised cash and a staff plucked from Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and the Wall Street Journal" to create such "savvy reporting" that nobody in the book/TV/film/media biz "will be able to drink his or her morning latte without logging on."
Well, we'll see. "Inside" wants terribly to be a glitzy, savvy, scoop-filled whipper-snapper of a site, and we forgive its sometimes desperate tone. One headline shouts, "It's Open Season on 'A Vast Conspiracy,' " but the story tells us that some errors will be corrected for the next printing of Jeffrey Toobin's book. Here is one of the great non-items of the century..
Then we learn that the reason Anne Beattie is leaving Knopf for Scribner is to "ramp up a stalled career." What a terrible way to put it.
So just when readers need in-depth and thoughtful analysis of the enormous upheavals that have convulsed the book industry, "Inside" comes along with silly flotsam that insists you take it seriously. That's unfortunate - and the tone is disrespectful to boot. Reference is made to "literary darling Bharati Mukherjee," whose distinguished books surely have earned her the dignity of some other characterization than "literary darling."
It's worrisome, too, that the only retail statistics offered at the site come from Barnes & Noble and B Dalton - no mention of Borders, very little of Amazon, nothing at all of independent booksellers - in fact, zilch of anything west of the Hudston River.
And aside from its provincialism, "Inside" suffers from an adolescent need to be cooler than thou. Instead of welcoming the news at Hyperion that Martha Levin has established a new imprint for literary books called Theia, some uninformed soul at "Inside" makes the disastrous mistake of taking the you-can't-impress-ME route.
"It still seems that Theia will be more of a cosmetic makeover than a personality transplant," we learn. "While some worry that the rest of Hyperion's books will be ghettoized, one source close to the house suggests that 'this is more about public relations than anything. It's a way to make people think about Hyperion differently. It's like a public call to agents: 'Hey, Binky, think of us for your clients.' "
Well, that kind of sophomoric reporting will lose readers very fast - or will it? As "Inside" gears up to become the book industry's "buzz," dreaded word that IT is, perhaps there are two ways to look at the site:
Either the "Inside" way of trying too hard to step in front of the book business and shift the limelight to itself is the worst thing that could happen to the publishing/bookselling industry right now; or considering the corporate culture that has taken over the book biz and the happy lowering of standards to which so many aspire, "Inside" is going to fit in perfectly.
'AMAZON.COM: GET BIG FAST'
Even skeptics of Amazon.com (what, me worry?) have to admit that the way Jeff Bezos stepped onto the Great Frontier of our time with virtually no money and one Big Idea is a true wowser of an American saga.
Despite its relentless cheerleading tone and pedestrian writing, Robert Spector's new book about the company is both entertaining and instructive. (Be careful when you order online - it's listed on website databases either as "The Amazon.Com Way: Inside the Revolutionary Business Model That Changed the World" or "Amazon.com: Get Big Fast" [HarperCollins; 288 pages; $27; you can buy online at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, http://www.elliottbaybooks.com ].)
At the beginning, it's kind of charming to watch the young Bezos, considered a comer at his "cutting edge trading firm on Wall Street," figure out a plan to meet single women. A born automation expert, Bezos seeks "a meaningful relationship" by creating a system he calls "woman flow," which is "a turn on the Wall Street term 'deal flow,' where bankers set a minimum amount on the size of deals they would invest in," writes Spector.
Of course, Bezos ends up with a terrific partner in MacKenzie Tuttle, who becomes his wife, driver, bookkeeper and supporter as the couple wends their way to Seattle. The book offers the usual platitudes (she is described as "a thin, attractive brunette"), but its observations of Bezos's early choices are true eye-openers.
Even now it's still a bit shocking to see how famously vulnerable the book business was to an entrepreneur like Bezos. He started out by drawing up a list of about 20 products that might be sold on the all-new, wide-open Internet. His first choice was not books, as Spector reports, but music, followed by office supplies, apparel, computer software and a dozen other products.
"In the course of his research, [Bezos] was surprised to find that books rocketed from being almost at the bottom of the list to the very top," because book distribution systems were so unmanaged and comparatively chaotic, not locked up as they were in the music industry, he realized.
On the fun side of Amazon.com's history, all the great stories are here. Spector lets us picture the scene when the lone circuit breaker in the garage that served as Amazon.com's first office "wasn't up to the task of powering all of the hardware" that Bezos and staff piled into the small space. "So the quintet got creative. They ran long orange extension cords that curled Medusa-like into the garage from all other rooms in the house, which were on separate circuit breakers.
"But even that power was not enough. By siphoning the entire house's power into the garage, it got to the point where Mackenzie couldn't turn on a hair dryer and Jeff couldn't vacuum the living room without blowing a circuit breaker." Okay, I have a hard time picturing Bezos vacuuming the living room at this crucial time, but let's let that one go.
Perhaps most astonishing for anyone who's been watching independent bookstores close because of Amazon.com is to read how much Bezos owes the independent bookselling community for teaching him the principles that have made Amazon.com successful in terms of winning and keeping customers.
I did not know, for example, that Bezos attended the American Booksellers Association's introductory four-day course in bookselling and "took to heart" a story told by Richard Howorth, ABA president and owner of Square Books in Oxford, Miss. In this story, a distraught customer believed that Howorth store was to blame for dirtying her car, and Howorth ended up having the customer drive him to his house so that he could wash it himself.
This was the genesis, Bezos told ABA executive director Avin Domnitz later, of his determination to make the famous customer-centric obsession "the cornerstone of Amazon.com."
And how fortunate it was for Amazon.com that independent bookstores were nearby. When book information proved sketchy and undocumented, Amazon.com staffer Nicholas Lovejoy "frequently went to the Elliott Bay Book company, the legendary bookstore, which was in the Pioneer Square neighborhood, about a mile down First Avenue from the new Amazon.com headquarters," writes Spector.
"At Elliott Bay, he would peruse the books and take notes from the dust jacket copy." It's too bad Jeff Bezos didn't remember that a year ago when he spoke of Elliott Bay as the kind of independent bookstore where you can "hear the spines of the books creaking" (my paraphrase), as though this kind of store is so old-fashioned it's simply out of play.
Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, is learning of the early Amazon.com's dependence on open-source software, especially in light of Bezos' current attempts to fence off the Internet for his own benefit and use software patents to sue competitors like Barnes & Noble.
"Open-source software," Spector explains, is "source code written by thousands of programmers from all over the world and made freely available to all of them." It was "essential to the creation of Amazon.com," Spector adds, because, according to former Amazon.com programmer Paul Barton-Davis, it "provided the infrastructure for us to write programs, to develop them, and to debug them."
Ah, such nostalgia! Spector's book makes one wonder if there are two kinds of people in the world - the kind who want to make a living at what they love; and the kind who want to make a killing at whatever they do.
According to Spector's source, the Riggio brothers of Barnes & Noble met with Bezos early in 1997 and "reiterated their claim, 'We're going to kill you' when they launched their own website." Boy, what mistake that was, but the language is awfully familiar, isn't it? Had the Riggios and Bezos turned to the independent bookselling community to make a joint announcement about how voracious they were for market share, they might as well have said the same thing.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I have had much experience with looking for used books on the net, and one of the resources I use is Bookfinder (as it shows what many sources are offering, so you get a good overview).
Occasionally, Alibris will have a book not being offered elsewhere - more often, it will list the very same books (including the misspellings of the descriptions!) that are being offered by Bibliofind, ABE, Powells, etc. for almost twice the price. The one time that I tried to order from Alibris was awful - they barely replied, and I never got the book.
I have enjoyed my contact with the used book stores that list on ABE and the other "gathering places." The eccentric (but effective) packaging, the bookmarks and brochures all have a good, homey feel. Real people selling real books.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I was very moved by your piece on Belleruth Naparstek. I know that many will be interested in it. Did I miss something? Or did you tell us how to find this tape/book/work? From the publisher "Healing Journeys," or just where?
Holt responds: I should have made it clearer that yes, you can buy the trauma tape (and all others) at Belleruth Naparstek's website, Health Journeys, http://www.healthjourneys.com
In your column #151, you quoted Martin Manley of Alibris as saying, in support of Alibris's higher prices:
"That's okay - there are people who will put up with that [the low fulfillment rate he is alleging other sites have, based on Interloc's poor fulfillment rate in the past] in exchange for best price,.... or with wildly varying shipping rates..."
Thus implying that Alibris's uniform (?) shipping rates are one of the reasons to shop at Alibris.
However, I just purchased a book through Alibris (an "availablity guaranteed" title, which means that it is being offered directly by Alibris, not one of its associated dealers) and was offered the following shipping options which were "based on your shipping address." (Note: my shipping address is approximately a 3 hour drive from Alibris's warehouse in Nevada.)
The choices were 1. UPS Air - $30.00 plus $3.95 per book - within 3 business days 2. US Postal Service Ground - $3.95 for each book - 4-12 weeks after shipment from our warehouse.
First of all, I have NEVER seen domestic shipping on ANY of the other sites (ABE, Bibliofind, etc.) quoted at a rate of $33.95 for the first book if I want to get it faster than 4th class mail!!
Secondly, I am assuming by ground, Alibris is referring to book rate or bound printed matter rates, both of which are relatively slow. Nevertheless, virtually every book sent this way, even cross country, will arrive in less than 2 weeks, and the only time it takes more than 4 weeks is when something goes wrong, and the package goes astray. For close distances, even with this method, books can arrive within 2-3 days. Why would Alibris cite a time of 4 to 12 weeks, if not to encourage buyers to use the $33.95 method with its significant built in additional profit for Alibris??
We order lots of books on the internet - and the costs range from free (for example, Powell's if one orders more than $50) to approx 75c per book for large orders via RPS, etc to $2.50 or so for book rate, with a high of $4-5 for priority mail or UPS. ALL of these "wildly varying" shipping rates are less than the standard Alibris rates quoted above.
I would love to hear Manley's comments about why ONLY Alibris seems to feel it necessary to add a surchage of $30 to every UPS shipment -
By the way, Alibris also states that once I have placed an order it cannot be cancelled!! Why the heck not if it hasn't been shipped? Or to put it another way, since any book can be returned, why would Alibris prefer to ship the book and have me return it, rather than letting me cancel the order? Is it because they are hoping that most customers will not bother to return the book?
I have to admit I hestitated to send you this - after all, by calling attention to their faults, I am helping a competitor improve their business practices. However, I want everyone who buys out-of-print books on the internet to have a satisfactory experience, and the unfortunate fact is that the wildly inflated air shipping which Alibris offers could reflect negatively on all internet booksellers, and I hate to see that happen - so I hope that Alibris cleans up its act, and stops gouging its customers on shipping.
Chris Volk Volk & Iiams, Booksellers
For those who could not find the article published by bookseller Gavin Grant at Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop http://www.avenuevictorhugobooks.com/newsletter/newsletter_00001_4.php3 on the subject of Alibris, here is the complete text:
Alibris: Hung, Drawn, Quartered and Damned
Their ads are good. They're simply old dustjackets with a tag line based on the premise, 'Lost it then? Find it here.' And that's a shame, because the company is a complete waste of time and money. Despite large warehouses and maybe a nice suite of offices, they are a web-based business. But they're trying to add a layer between customer and retailer, when this is exactly the fat that is being reamed from the book business. So why are they doing it and how did they get to the position they are in today?
Early Years In the early '90s if you were in the book business or occasionally read the trades you'd have heard of Interloc, one of the many companies trying to bring together book buyers and sellers. However, their method was a little odd. They were building a searchable database that was only available to booksellers. The customer was left out. Interloc was soon left behind as others realized the advantages of reaching the customers directly, rather than a middle man. Services such as the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE), Bibliofind and Bibliocity (see below) sprang up and quickly found both funding and revenue. All the while Amazon.com showed that books - a concrete item with known specifications - could be marketed and sold over the net.
Interloc was being pushed out of the market. They needed to reinvent themselves. So, a couple of years ago, they were transformed into a customer-focused service, Alibris. But their business plan was again based on proprietary information. This time instead of the bookseller paying a fee to be part of Interloc, the bookseller disappeared into the brand of Alibris - and paid 20% of the price of every book for the opportunity.
This is where it gets ugly. There are no saints in business. This is used books, as nostalgic and basic a product as there is outside the bare necessities. The market is changing from month to month and very rapidly concentrating. ABE has a business arrangement with Barnes & Noble (B&N), the "category killer"chain - although Alibris just sneaked around the back and made a deal with B&N to be the first service B&N goes to when an out-of-print book is requested. Bibliofind has been sold at least twice since starting up and is now owned by Amazon.com. Amazon has thus far left well enough alone (although I cannot condone Amazon's out-of-print search practice of adding huge mark-ups to the books). Bibliocity has disappeared into Alibris. So we need to take a more detailed look at Alibris' business practices.
The Middleman Alibris is an oddity: a two-year-old company with $100 million to spend on advertising - sorry, brand-building. They apparently have 1700 book shops signed up compared to the 6000-plus on ABE and Bibliofind. The business model begun by ABE, Bibliofind and later adhered to by services such as Global Book Mart and Yourbooks is to charge the book shop a fixed amount per number of books listed with the service. Thus if a book shop sells one book or 20 books, the cost is the same. Alibris is very different. They charge a flat 20% fee on every book sold. There are two ways this 20% can be paid as illustrated:
This book is listed by the venerable John T. Zubal Books in Cleveland, OH:
Exactly the same book, one $70 (20%) more expensive than the other. Alibris either takes 20% of the original price of every book, or, 20% is added to the price of the book.
Not surprisingly Alibris has been slow to find book shops to sign up for this 'deal.' Thus they are looking for ways to leverage their name into becoming the only available choice for used books. Last year they bought a competing service, Bibliocity. We had been listing books with Bibliocity but when offered the chance to list with Alibris, our answer was a very quick and definite No.
Imagine our surprise last month when we logged on to the website of our distributor for new titles, Ingram, and found an Alibris link. Alibris has signed a deal with Ingram to offer out-of-print searches in new book shops. Knowledgeable book shops do not do this. They will use Bookfinder or one of the other Meta Search Services (see below) to check a range of options and prices on the book you are looking for. When you go to a chain book shop such as B. Dalton or Waldenbooks, and they offer a search for used or out-of-print books they will probably be using Alibris. With the built in 20% mark up. And Alibris thoughtfully provided a further mark-up chart for the new book shop to use. By the time they are finished you are being quoted almost twice the price you would pay in a regular used book shop. Write down the quote. Go home - or to a library if you do not have internet access - and go to Bookfinder and check the price yourself. Alibris is listed there, and you can laugh at their higher prices and the quote you received as you buy the book you want from Global Book Mart or Antiqbook.
Controlling the Net The only reason Alibris is getting away with this is ignorance. The same books, and the same dealers, are out there and can be found on Bibliofind, Bookavenue, etc., but no one else is pasting the world with advertisements in quite so unsubtle a manner as Alibris. They know they have a short period of time in which they can take advantage of the public's ignorance as to the existence of other, cheaper services before they disappear just like last time, with Interloc. Their basic problem is an inability to recognize the free nature of the Internet. Subscription-based services are on the rise, but for the most part the individual using the internet in the USA does not need to pay for access: either to connect (www.altavista.net, www.freeinet.com), to find books (www.bookfinder.com) or to use services and information (i.e. www.phonefree.com, www.nytimes.com).
Two of the most popular types of sites are recommendation (www.recommend-it.com, www.apple.com) and comparison sites (www.cnet.com). And a quick tour of these will show that they are not charging their users or customers. Many industries are experiencing a collapse as individuals or businesses are brought into direct contact with one another. Dell is a leader in home computing and has a roaring trade through its website. Everybody wants to reach their customers directly. The traditional role of the middleman is changing. They are no longer necessary. Where they can be useful, in comparisons and recommendations, they are charging the companies that list with them, not the customer.
Brand Building National branding for used books is an idea that B&N, Borders, Book Sense and others are investigating. But from the independent bookshop's point of view, this practice would mean we'd be losing our name, reputation and the individuality that makes browsing in different parts of the country so much fun.
At our bookshop we have spent 25 years building a unique and hopefully interesting shop. We have had a website for about five years, and the only thing holding us back on Internet sales is data entry - the industry bottleneck. Every week our website gets hits from all over the world: Japan, The Netherlands, Australia, Spain, New Zealand and more. Alibris requires bookshops to give up their name and spirit and package books under one brand. Books are no longer held in the shops; instead they are warehoused by the company. They are shipped by the company. Billing is done by the company. Book shops do not immediately receive payment. It is an interesting idea to apply such ideas and potential efficiencies to the book business, but where they will lose is their insistence on control and proprietary use of information.
The Future According to a recent New York Times article, Alibris is burning through their cash reserves very quickly. They need to have something to show for it. So they have signed on with B&N and Ingram to be the out-of-print vendor of record. They have the cute ads in the expensive dailies and glossies. But who are they providing a service for? Neither the bookseller, nor the buyer. Who benefits? The potential shareholders of Alibris? I doubt they will make it to their Initial Public Offering. Their business model of controlling the flow of information and placing themselves as a nexus for book buyers and sellers to meet is outdated. There are already too many other highly efficient and profitable sites doing just that. They are a huge, sleek, good-looking dinosaur, which will soon be extinct.
Book Search Services
These sites search at least two or three (and often more) of the listings below. They are free to use and are funded by (non-intrusive) advertising. Bookfinder is the mother of all book comparison sites, whereas 123pix and Addall boast CDs and many other products.
These are sites that book shops pay to list their books. Here you will find many copies of most common books and usually at least a few of uncommon ones. Some of them are bigger than others; some of them are better designed; but none of them are charging you 20% to use them.