by Pat Holt
Tuesday, June 6, 2000
Well, as industry conventions go, Book Expo America, which met in Chicago over the weekend, was hard-working, happily dull and downright revealing at the same time.
True, walking through the booths, one could see that awful "thinning of literature" that has worried book critics and observers for years. This is the loss or absence of serious books in history, biography, science, essays, fiction and other areas. It's been getting worse for a long time, but new input from elsewhere in the book biz - university presses (Duke, New Mexico), mid-range independent houses (Beacon, Walker) and small presses (Coffee House, MacMurray & Beck) may counter the trend.
More upbeat impressions: Spanish-language books and publishers are very much on the upswing; expensive slick-stock magazines (Viva, Black Issues, Book) are focusing on serious as well as commercial authors; print-on-demand has become so inexpensive and accessible that hundreds of important out-of-print books are back in circulation; and the future of eBooks looks superb for everyone, especially independent booksellers.
More on this and other BEA phenomena in Friday's column.
JEFF BEZOS' SPEECH
About that "charming" if "disingenuous" (PW) speech by Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos. I tellya, I did not go in to that Grand Ballroom ready to chop his head off.
I've never disliked him personally, and by the time BEA started, I had gotten it in my head that Bezos, who after all is an astute and decent guy, would want to customize his generic speech for an audience of independent booksellers. Of all people he would appreciate, and perhaps want to show it, the way independents turn so many "small" and "midlist" books (especially those the chains miss and Amazon.com can't promote) into bestsellers.
So I hoped Bezos would want to say that 1) he's not out to grab more market share from independent booksellers, 2) he believes there's room in the retail book trade for everybody, and 3) he's glad to see increasing numbers of independent booksellers on the Internet because personalized websites fall right in line with the personalized hand-selling independents do so well.
It seemed possible, too, that BEA would be a perfect time for Bezos to 4) show that he sympathizes with independents over the inequity of sales tax policies (independents charge customers for sales tax; Amazon doesn't except in Washington), and that 5) he's not trying, as his critics allege, to "fence off the Internet" with software patents.
I won't go into 6) through 2,735) as I'm sure you get the point. My father would have called this sort of approach"leading with your chin."
Oh well. I didn't mind it that Bezos gave his standard speech about starting Amazon.com in a garage and borrowing money from his parents and opening "the store" without adequate funding while blowing out the circuits in his home and so forth. We've all heard that one many times. It IS charming, and true.
It didn't bother me either that despite his announcement about writing the rest of the speech "in preparation for this meeting," Bezos presented and dodged the usual issues in the same way he always does. (Why doesn't Amazon.com make a profit? Because we're investing in other things, he said. This is an answer?)
I did notice that tiny note of belligerance creep in when he announced that essentially he doesn't care about the sales tax issue. Amazon.com is located in Washington, where he uses state services, so he charges for sales tax there. The company is not located in, say, North Carolina nor does it use state services there, so why should he charge for sales tax there?
This was logical to him, though it didn't touch on the unfair advantage of Internet businesses over brick-and-mortar stores, nor did it acknowledge the adverse effect of taking huge amounts of money out of a state and leaving it high and dry, nor did it inspire fresh thinking that would at least contribute to the discussion of a level playing field on this issue alone.
One contradiction (or was it a fib?) emerged that sent off more than the usual warning flags. It seemed like a small thing at first when Bezos explained why Amazon.com has expanded its product line beyond books - why it sells electronics, kitchen supplies, toys and many other products; why it's opened Zshops and auctions; and why it's also located in England and Germany.
"The reason we're doing it is because our customers have asked us to do this," he said. "Two years ago, when we were selling books online, we continuously got email messages from customers asking us if we would consider selling music online."
So Amazon.com started selling music, he explained, "and then the customers started asking us to sell videos. At this point we sort of caught on." And the rest is history.
Hmm. Well, it happens that quite the reverse is described in Robert Spector's history, "Amazon.com: Get Big Fast." There an early Amazon.com staff member, Nicholas Lovejoy, says that in 1995, "books were just a starting point." From the beginning, he adds, Bezos had an "amazing vision . . . very clear, unambiguous, " that Amazon.com would grow into a much larger company. Spector himself writes, "Bezos always knew that Amazon.com was eventually going to be much more than books."
An example quoted in the book is Lovejoy's interest in kayaking, which Bezos knew about. "[Jeff] would say, 'In the future, when you come to Amazon.com, I don't want you just to be able to search for 'kayak' and find all the books on kayaking. You should also be able to read articles on kayaking and buy subscriptions to kayaking magazines. You should be able to buy a kayaking trip to anywhere in the world you want to go kayaking, and you should be able to have a kayak delivered to your house. You should be able to discuss kayaking with other kayakers. There should be everything to do with kayaking, and the same is true for anything.' "
So "books were always a prelude to other things" from the earliest moment. He "didn't mention it to potential investors," Spector says, probably for fear of looking TOO visionary and scaring them off with such big plans.
But why change the story now? Nobody's going to call him on it, and it's clear he's a man with big plans by this time. So what could the purpose be? My guess is, it's the same purpose that keeps him describing that garage and the door he made into a desk and the early orders that came in from everybody's Mom - all that wildly innocent and gee-whiz Internet pioneer stuff that makes Jeff Bezos look like someone who just happened to build an empire, someone who doesn't have it in him to dominate the Internet.
Maybe that's why Bezos at BEA didn't tackle Amazon.com's two controversial software patents - one of which he's used to sue his main competitor, Barnesandnoble.com. Nor did he mention the latest patent, issued only days ago for collaborative filtering, a method of sorting millions of customer preferences electronically to help new customers choose products and services.
This third patent has been called by CNET news sources the kind of development that could "spell trouble for dozens of e-commerce sites that use similar technology to recommend books, videos or other products to customers."
So here we go again re software patents, a subject Bezos has danced around quite deftly by suggesting radical new ideas for improving U.S. Patent procedures and timetables - but never offering to give up or stop applying for or cease using patents as weapons to stop competitors. That wouldn't be so innocent, would it? Not even disingenous.
So it was hard to imagine this sweet and affable man giving his generic speech at BEA planning a strategy that would destroy independent booksellers, take control of the Internet and pretty much rout out the competition from retail markets all over the world, all along portraying himself and his colleagues as wide-eyed nerdy "guys" (his favorite word) whose only hope was to be "customer-centric" all along.
The audience was extremely congenial, I thought, and at times the questions could not have been more adoring - what will be your dream job after Amazon.com? what do you as a new father read to your baby? - but there's no doubt people listened with a critical ear. In the end, it doesn't matter what kind of personality Jeff Bezos has or whether he has any respect for independent booksellers at all. The question is whether we'll be ready when Amazon.com makes its next move, whatever it is.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Jewelle Gomez's requiem for Firebrand Books is especially poignant for the rest of us independent smaller publishers. Not that my employer is in danger of biting the dust any time soon, but it makes me want to underline the independent publishers' part in this chain-vs.-independent bookstore equation:
One of the several factors driving up the price of our books is the increasingly deep discount we have to offer to place our books in stores - discounts demanded, and received, by the chains. The fewer independents there are, the more we have to sell through the chains, and the more we sell through the chains, the higher we have to set the price to recoup the discount. There are other factors, of course: skyrocketing paper costs, printing costs, etc. - but those alone wouldn't be driving the cost/price ratio up so fast.
A corollary to this is that we have to be more and more selective about the books we publish. For a long time our press has maintained (and we hope to continue to maintain) a policy of encouraging and giving a start to newer authors in the field of religion. People have also looked to us, especially in the field of the academic study of scripture and theology, for significant translations from European languages. But nowadays we have to have more and more "sure sellers" (well-known names) to balance those books that will only sell 1500 or 2000 copies (with luck), and especially those that have to bear the cost of translation along with all the rest of the costs.
Linda M. Maloney
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I enjoyed your profile of Amy Thomas in this issue. Her story is the story of independent booksellers everywhere, and offers clues to the kind of creativity and personal connections that are important to the future of the industry.
What messrs. Bezos and Manley won't say is that they can't begin to compete with the independents on service. The majority of the professional online independent booksellers go out of their way to ensure a good transaction, even when the customer will probably not be THEIR repeat customer. There are other ways of building confidence than secure servers.
Amazon or Alibris won't tell you that they can't compete with my response time, the quality of my descriptions, the quality of my inventory ...
Sure, Alibris and Amazon are going to bring new customers to the industry at an astronomical cost via their marketing budgets. Meanwhile 10,000 indies are building their business one customer at a time, building relationships for the industry as a whole that go beyond secure servers, etc.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Thanks for writing about Amy Thomas and her wonderful bookstores. I worked for the Barnes & Noble right across the street from her Berkeley location and she and her staff were always friendly and helpful.We sent customers to Pegasus when we did not have what they wanted in stock. Both stores called each other when nasty pseudo-customers (shoplifters) were trying to steal from us and sell to them.
Yes, Barnes & Noble is certainly formidable competition for a store such as Pegasus. However, Amy Thomas has figured out a way to survive and still manage to see the employees of the "enemy" as decent, knowlegeable, and well-read human beings, something many other independents refuse to admit.
I have since left Barnes & Noble because they have gotten so huge that I was spending more time performing boring administrative tasks and dealing with the incredibly high turnover of booksellers (no doubt due to low pay in a high cost of living market) than recommending books to customers.
Pegasus booksellers are lucky to work for Amy Thomas.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
The story about Amy Thomas was enlightening. After doing business to sell used books at both [Thomas's bookstores] Pegasus and Pendragron, I felt negative toward used book sellers, in general. The staff members at those two stores had anything but scripted responses. They were not unfriendly, but completely aloof, uninviting and unwelcoming. This perplexed me, because I arrived with my used books well organized, all in perfect condition and did not challenge any of their decisions about accepting or rejecting the books. That attitude/behavior was in marked contrast to what occurred when I discovered a few books that I wanted to buy.
This reception was in marked contrast to my experience for many years, selling used books at Holmes Books (now defunct) in downtown Oakland. Without fail, from the first time to the last, each time I took my precious already-read books to that store, I was greeted warmly and careful explanations were given for why certain books were not accepted. As I write this, however, I wonder if that could possibly have had something to do with their demise...?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
As a small publisher for the past 11 years, I have read with interest your newsletters since we are very much affected by the independent-chains battle. I do note that while you take the position that small is beautiful when it comes to bookstores, every book you cite as examples of hand- selling is from large publishers. From my experience, the idea that independents look for books from small publishers is one of the great myths of our times. What is fit for the goose is fit for the gander. There should be some intellectual consistency reflecting the reality that independent bookstores will go to big publishers as buyers go to the chains. Its easier and looking for quality becomes a far second to ease.
Holt responds: I use large publishers' books as examples because they're well known, the point being much of the time that they're well known because of hand-selling the independents do. But you're right - independent publishers' books need far more exposure than a column like this has given them.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I saw the following pseudonymous post made to the Usenet newsgroup "misc.writing". It was made in response to an earlier post which contained a letter from one of your prior "Holt Uncensored" issues.
I thought you and your readers might be interested to read this self-published author's opinion. The newsgroup 'misc.writing' is very popular and no doubt has several tens of thousands of readers.
Subject: Open letter to bookstore owner (was Re: Pitbull legal attack on independent bookseller by Borders and B&N) Date: Wed, 24 May 2000 18:11:32 GMT From: Self-published Writer
Open letter to:
As an author, I sympathize with your legal dilemma. It is outrageous. I hope you get the subpoena quashed.
Also as an author, I'd like to point out one big reason *why* Borders and Barnes & Noble are the goliaths they are, a situation that really doesn't benefit me any more than it does you:
Borders and Barnes & Noble work with small publishers and authors. Independent booksellers almost unanimously do not.
As a small self-published author, I spend a good deal of my time traveling around the US giving seminars at bookstores. I have done hundreds of interviews on local TV shows, local radio shows, and in the newspapers in the various cities around the US that I visit.
When I call up Borders or Barnes & Noble in a city I plan to visit, and ask to hold a seminar in their store, their usual response is:
"THANK YOU!!! Want some free coffee? Can we help you in any way?"
Bear in mind that the bookstore pays me zilch to do this. All of my travel expenses, etc. are on my own back. All I make out of this is increased sales. The bookstore does nothing but order books and set out chairs.
When I call up an independent bookstore in a city I plan to visit, and ask to hold a seminar in their store, their usual response is:
One independent bookstore actually told me, and this is a direct quote:
"Oh, we couldn't have *you*. We had Ray Bradbury last month."
[What does this have to do with the price of tea in China? Is Ray still parked at the author table a month later?]
Independent booksellers normally turn their noses up at authors with small publishers or (horrors!) who are self-published.
Unless you are with Simon & Schuster or Random House, you need not offer an independent bookstore any FREE publicity when you visit their town to promote your book.
BTW, my self-published book has been a best-seller in its genre category with Ingram for the last 3 years straight. It has out-sold every other title of its type from *any* publisher since it came out 3 years ago.
To this day, after feature articles and reviews in every major newspaper in this country, hundreds of TV and radio interviews, and over 100,000 copies of my book sold through Ingram in the last 3 years:
I CAN COUNT ON ONE HAND THE NUMBER OF INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS THAT STOCK MY BOOK!!!
Usually, when I phone anonymously to an independent bookseller to see if they have my book or not, I'm told that it's "out of stock", "unavailable", and sometimes that its even "out of print".
A Barnes & Noble was the very first bookstore that carried my book on the shelf. Based on a series of very successful seminars that I put together in their stores, they now stock it nationwide. My book is their best selling title in my genre. Borders came along about 6 months later.
So, in a way, I can't sympathize with you all that much about the "goliaths" you now face, because you helped create them.
Do you want to do independent booksellers and small publishers a favor? Do you want to help both at the expense of the "goliaths"?
One real easy way: When a small publisher or self-publisher approaches you to host a free seminar, get your butt off your shoulders, order a dozen fully-returnable copies from Ingram, set out a few chairs, and let the author knock themselves out running all over town at their own expense and trouble getting free publicity for your store on TV, radio, and in the newspaper.
Will you be disappointed sometimes? Sure. You might even have to put the chairs away again and return the dozen books to Ingram. Boo hoo.
In my experience, though, you may be pleasantly surprised much more often than you might think.
There is a *reason* why Barnes & Noble has a "small press office". Small press titles sell *tons* at Barnes & Noble, partly because they don't stupidly turn down all the free publicity small publishers and self-publishers have to offer.
Holt responds: It's just amazing to me that I get many (signed) letters from authors complaining of the reverse - that chain stores never give them the time of day and that ONLY independent bookstores appreciate self-publishers and welcome them to do events. But there's no doubt "Self-published Writer" strikes an exposed chord: Just when you'd think independent booksellers and independent publishers and self-publishers would celebrate a common cause, they often seem to be at loggerheads. More to come on this.