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Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored

 





#158
by Pat Holt

Friday, June 9, 2000


 


WHEN THE TIMES WERE EVEN WORSE
NEWSWEEK'S PUBLISHING ROUNDTABLE
THAT FIRST BOUNCED CHECK
LETTERS

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WHEN THE TIMES WERE EVEN WORSE

Thank you, Jane Alexander, for describing a meeting years ago with Newt Gingrich that makes even these stormy times in the book industry look like a picnic in the press room.

During her keynote speech at the "Celebration of Books" luncheon at BookExpo America, Alexander recalled the turbulent period of 1993-97 when she was appointed chair of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Gingrich, who was leading the House of Representatives' assault against the NEA at the time, refused to meet with Alexander for a year and a half.

"The NEA was at the top of the hit list of that Republican congress," she said, "and its elimination seemed an easy victory to them. As I saw it, the mind of Newt Gingrich was far more facile and complex than that of his followers. I don't think he really cared about the NEA one way or another, but he was going to use it as a political pawn, when need be, in this very elaborate game of chess they all seemed to be playing in Washington."

Alexander was frustrated that celebrities were "coming and going into [Gingrich's] office at a moment's notice," yet she was never allowed in. No shrinking violet behind the scenes, she arranged an end-run one afternoon by inviting such heavy hitters as playwright Wendy Wasserstein, novelist Walter Mosely and actors Joanne Woodward and Melanie Griffith to talk to the Speaker about the NEA.

The story is told in apparently delicious detail in Alexander's book, "Command Performance: An Actress in the Theater of Politics," just out from Public Affairs, and the scene was just as vivid in her speech, complete with an image of Gingrich stalling the discussion by telling Melanie Griffith about the character she could play in the movie version of his novel.

Finally, Wasserstein got the subject back to the NEA by explaining to Gingrich that she herself had been given an NEA grant to write her Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "The Heidi Chronicles." Without missing a beat, Gingrich showed his disdain for the agency - or tried to - by replying that "Arthur Murray never needed a grant to write HIS plays."

A long pause followed, during which the NEA supporters wondered how to tell Gingrich that he meant playwright Arthur Miller, not ballroom dance king Arthur Murray.

According to Alexander, "Wendy considered [saying] that maybe Arthur Murray should have applied to the NEA's dance program."

So aren't we lucky that today politicians like Gingrich and Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond (who asked Alexander if she thought her job was to "fund pornography") have receded into the background?

On the other hand, I wish she would have fought them all. In fact, since conservatives used the NEA as a "political football" (Alexander's term), it's too bad Alexander wasn't allowed to lob the ball back in their faces. She could not do this, she says, because from the beginning, the Clinton White House gave her two instructions: 1) Keep a diary (a tough prospect during the Packwood scandal "when everybody in Washington was burning their journals," she recalls) and 2) stay out of the newspapers.

This last shows you what a struggle it must have been for the bold and forthright Alexander to toe the line - and what a bunch of weenies she ended up working for. If ever anyone should have stayed IN the papers, TV and radio, enlisting every showbiz and artistic friend she knew to read, perform and exhibit works of art in support of the NEA, it was Jane Alexander.

Having seen her own career launched by an NEA grant (for her first play, "The Great White Hope"), Alexander could have been a walking demonstration of the difference these grants can make to the lives of fledgling artists, and to the cultural health of the country in general.

Nevertheless, as former congresswoman Pat Schroeder, who introduced her, told the audience, if it hadn't been for Alexander, the NEA would be dead today. Fighting the House vote to terminate the agency and galvanizing the Senate to keep it, she became a charismatic and invincible foe of the Gingriches of the world.

And what was all the fuss about? "Since its founding in 1965, there have been a paltry 45 grants from the NEA that have been a problem for some people - out of 120,000 awarded," she said. "Even the Defense Department doesn't have that clean a record."

Today the NEA, though barely surviving on its paltry $99 million allocation a year, has every chance to build its budget toward the $350 million goal Alexander believes it needs for minimum operation. How great it would be great if the NEA got a fraction of the Defense Dept.'s budget - say, $1 billion - with the next administration.

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NEWSWEEK'S PUBLISHING ROUNDTABLE

What a thrill it is to imagine the story behind Newsweek's headline, "Will Books Survive?" on its June 12th cover. A roundtable of publishing experts is promised on the contents page, but one has to smile at Newsweek's idea of an in-depth discussion.

Somewhere behind the the elaborate photos of seven industry leaders and the boxed blow-ups of their most trenchant quotes, Newsweek has sneaked some text into four pages of spirited conversation that should have been given at least three times as much space.

Perhaps the most intriguing element one notices right away is that the most complex questions of our industry elicit relatively simple and pragmatic answers.

"Richard, will you be putting a print-on-demand machine in your store?" Newsweek asks Richard Howorth, former ABA prez and owner of Square Books in Oxford, Miss. "Yeah, I'm sure we will," he responds without blinking.

And there it is, without hand-wringing or fanfare - that picture, once so far away and futuristic, of a store with mostly book jackets on the shelves and a big machine (where I like to joke you stick the author's head in one side and a book plunks out the other side). So be it.

"Does barnes&noble.com seriously expect Americans five years from now to be carrying around little e-book readers?" Newsweek asks Michael Fragnito, veep of bn.com's eBook sales. "Yes, absolutely," he says. "Within a couple of years the devices will be somewhat larger, hold more content, do a few more things and be easier to read."

These straightforward answers seem obvious, but what I like about them is the lack of judgmentalism or complaint on the part of the speakers. Like the age of the personal computer and the emergence of the Internet, electronic publishing is on its way whether we want it or not.

Of course a range of ideas and opinion is expected. Some people at the roundtable appear "apprehensive" about the coming eBook revolution (Susan Moldow, Scribner), while some believe that hardcover sales will remain "very substantial through bookstores" (Jason Epstein, Random House).

Literary agent Amanda Urban predicts "a slower transition, a generational transition," while novelist Scott Turow thinks the discussion about eBooks is "like a bunch of cave people sitting around talking about what spaceships might do."

But then there is this:

"Newsweek: So let's say a million titles can be kept 'in print' electronically, to be printed out on demand. Is there ever going to be a decent filtering system for readers so they can find the books they want to read?

"[John] Feldcamp [founder and CEO of Xlibris, an online service for self-publishers]: Anybody been to a supermarket lately and watched what spits out along with your receipts? You get this long roll of stuff, and on the back it's coupons. Those coupons are customized just for you. They know what you're buying.

"If you go to Amazon, Amazon tracks your buying habits at an extraordinarily deep level. They're in a position to know an unbelievable amount about what you buy. So you're going to see some very smart robots. I don't know if anybody loves this, but they're going to know an amazing amount about you and be able to recommend things to you."

Well, for me a little Boing! went off at this otherwise somnambulant roundtable when I read this - a comment so potentially rapacious that it bears re-reading to see if the speaker means what he intends.

Remember the Double-Click fiasco a few months back when it came out that advertisers on the Internet can release information-gathering "cookies" into your computer's innards the moment you click on a targeted site or ad or block of text?

About that time, a great disclaimer rose up from online filtering companies, which insisted that while they had the power to monitor who you vote for and how you worship and where you live and what you read, they would NEVER release personal details to advertisers or political candidates or the FBI or professional snoopers.

This was hardly reassuring to the cyberpopulace, so reporters looked anew at online retailers' privacy policies and, sure enough, found alarming statements like this one from Amazon.com: "We do not sell, trade, or rent your personal information to others. We may choose to do so in the future with trustworthy third parties, but you can tell us not to." Ah, those "trustworthy third parties" always inspire confidence.

All this to say that privacy on the Web is up for grabs among such companies, and now here is Feldcamp - founder of Xlibris, where tens of thousands of self-published authors haven't a clue how to find their audience - talking about those "very smart robots" that will be employed one day to look in your system or mine on behalf of any self-published author who wants to buy the service.

For some reason I don't mind the fact that anybody can employ the dang robots and cookies to invade and inhale information on my computer. But I do mind it when marketing forces so overtake the distribution of literature that privacy becomes a commodity.

Finally, independent bookseller Howorth, bless him, focuses on the fundamentals. "I think what we all want - and this is why most of us got into this business - is literature of quality. We want to get more readers. We want writers to be valued in society and to be paid for doing good work.

"I don't give a damn if my store is in Oxford, Miss. - or exists at all - as long as someone is in that community doing the quality of bookselling which I believe people in my community want and deserve. And I feel the same way about all the other components of publishing . . . I think we all want the best for a healthy reading democratic society."

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THAT FIRST BOUNCED CHECK

What's this we hear about a bounced check issued to a customer by Berkeley Book Buyers, the purchasing front - excuse me, I mean storefront - that's been buying books like crazy for its owner, the giant Internet used/out-of-print/rare book retailer, Alibris?

According to the customer, the check was written for more than $300, not an easy amount to keep covered at a place like Alibris, which has raised something like $60 million in venture capital and has said it'll spend $100 million on advertising.

Certainly the bounced check could have been a simple bookkeeping error - not anybody's fault, really, like the other details at this company one wishes weren't so thorny (hey, Berkeley Book Buyers! Why not call yourselves Alibris so everybody knows who's doing the buying?).

But when Martin Manley, who heads Alibris' headquarters down the street, refers to a 10-million-book database with a half-million books physically stocked in the Alibris warehouse, you have to wonder if the company is spending money so fast that it could risk bouncing a $300+ check.

So let's keep our eye on this company. Often when a bookstore is in trouble, customers gather round to help. Maybe here a Friends of Alibris group of supporters might chip in to help shore up the finances at Berkeley Book Buyers.

Too soon, you say? You're right - perhaps we should wait for their IPO.

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I was surprised to read that "Self-Published Writer" has had trouble getting into independent bookstores to promote his book. Is this a phenomenon characteristic of stores in California? As author events coordinator at Auntie's Bookstore, in Spokane, Washington, I am always happy to welcome authors with self-published books or books from small publishers.

Auntie's is a large independent store, but we do all we can to support and encourage authors of all sorts, including those who are self-published. The only time we are reluctant is if the author's "book" is obviously copied at Kinko's and stapled together. We prefer that the book look like a real book. We also encourage authors to contact us at least two or three months in advance, as our newsletter is bi-monthly and we are always scheduling at least that far in advance. Even if the author calls too late for us to get a notice into our newsletter, however, we are happy to schedule at least a signing, as long as he or she realizes that we can't do much by way of publicity. Come to Spokane, Self-Published Writer, and you will be made welcome at Auntie's!

Mitch Finley
Auntie's Bookstore
Spokane, Washington

Dear Holt Uncensored:

There is something very odd about the unwillingness of "Self-published Writer" to identify himself after expending so much energy blowing his own horn and criticizing others for not joining in his self-promotion schemes. One is bound to wonder about the truth of his assertions and/or the nature of his book & "seminars."

Alison Murie
No. Bangor NY

Dear Holt Uncensored:

With regard to Bezos and Amazon, I think you're beating a dead horse. The real issues lie with Barnes and Noble and Borders, and this is where the true creative buds in your column will bear fruit for independent booksellers.

I believe it's possible that the irate, self-published writer who failed to sign his name was shunning the free publicity his letter would have engendered for his book. It's also possible he's a fake. Weren't you curious to know? You might have checked before publishing his letter. Most newspapers will not publish unsigned letters, though many withold the writer's name upon request. Perhaps you could do the same.

Sareda Milosz

Holt responds: I ran the letter because it was posted on the Internet as "An Open Letter to Neal Coonerty," the independent bookseller who's a block down the street from a Borders and who's just taken office as the American Booksellers Association's new president. To me, the time is past that a column or newspaper has the luxury of insisting that letter-writers sign their names. Unsigned open letters on the Internet often contribute as much to building preceptions as signed letters, and while I agree with you - "Self Published Writer" has some kind of ax to grind, his anger strikes a familiar chord in the debate between independent publishers and independent booksellers.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Reading the independent publishers' and authors' letters, which relate some less than optimal experiences, I would offer this suggestion: Carl Lennertz does a great job sending out lists of review copies from many small and independent publishers to all the BookSense stores. It allows us to know what's out there and request a copy to review. I realize that small publishers do not have the budgets of an S&S or Random and many limit the number of copies available. However a few well placed copies with booksellers interested enough to respond can do wonders for a title. Several I have requested I have for the '76 list. Even if you have no review copies left or available, information and a review of the title can help us determine if this is a book WE can sell to our customers.

We are bombarded with new titles daily and certainly the big names make the most noise but we need to hear from you and what you have to sell. It seems to me BookSense can provide us with the connection that we seek. So email Carl (carl@booksense.com) and let him know what you have. He'll get the word out.

Barry Johnson
Books at Stonehenge
Raleigh, North Carolina

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I'm writing in response to the final letter in the last issue regarding the reactions from independent stores vs. chains to a small press or self-published author.

As I sat there at the Celebration of Books reception, I said to the people I was with - one of whom owns the largest bookstore chain in Jakarta, the other has designed and produced a wonderful cultural diversity game - that I feel that independent stores do to self-published and small press authors what they claim the chain bookstores are doing to them.

My experience has much mirrored the author of the letter. I have single- handedly scheduled over a dozen signings at Barnes and Nobles, Borders and their subsidiaries. Trying to get into the independent market has proved frustrating and tedious. I feel like if they don't have the back-up of a huge publisher, that they want nothing to do with a title.

I also found it interesting that at the BEA reception the titles nominated for Book of the Year were mostly books published by traditional houses. And Barbara Kingsolver, who no doubt is an outstanding writer, was the winner with "Poisonwood Bible" published by . . . HarperFlamingo in hardcover and HarperPerennial in softcover.

There were a lot of slick and empty books on display from the big guys at the BEA. But the small presses were relegated to the row by the emergency exit in a hall that easily could've fit several football fields. Did the bookstore owners attending the conference ever get to the Small Press Row? I've supported independent bookstores my whole life - and now I would appreciate some reciprocation.

Carl Lennertz and the BookSense organization are doing spectacular things to this end. And I hope that the members of the ABA support his efforts in bringing quality (I'm not speaking of comb-bound, copied at Staples, loaded with typos) self-published books, both fiction and non-fiction, into the spotlight. With the help of indies, wonderful books that wouldn't have stood a prayer in the politic-laden world of the big publishers can be read and enjoyed.

Staci Backauskas
Author of "The Fifth Goddess"

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re: Red Crane Books' Michael O'Shaughnessy and the small publisher's position

Ironically, one of our favorite hand-sold books is Jewelle Gomez's "Gilda Stories" from Firebrand...mentioned in Holt #157. We have had that book on our staff recommendation shelf for years (yes, we do rotate books, but always rely on our own personal favorites....best lesbian vampire fiction) Firebrand is truly a small press and I hope they were kept afloat and sent Ms. Gomez some royalty payments based on the recommendations from indies like ours. We do often recommend books from big publishers . . . We get lots of recommendations from our customers too. We often "trade" advance reading copies for "reviews" from customers. If they come through with a review we put them on a list of "reviewers." If they don't, we won't offer them review copies again. It gives our recommendation shelf a little more variety, and hopefully credibility . . .

Very small presses fit into this paradigm just as well as large ones do....due mainly in part to the independent nature of the inquisitive mind (and buyer!) one will find at an independent store.

Ed Elrod
Ventura Bookstore (RIP, est '38, closed '00)
Ojai Table of Contents Bookstore
Ojai, California

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Guess what, everything is not a conspiracy against small, or large, independent booksellers. The fact that Jeff Bezos went from books to music was undoubtedly customer driven, as he said. Note that even though he had an earlier vision about where Amazon.com "could go," he didn't go from books to kayaking in the example given. Why? No customer demand for kayaking. So he is truthful, books then music because of customer demand then videos etc. Kayaking's down the road or river maybe. Hey, like his business model or don't like his business model but in the way you are describing it his ultimate goal from the beginning was not to put booksellers out of business it is to put small independent kayak stores out of business. Come on, nobody adds anything to their store unless there is serious customer demand. This is becoming disinformation.com

Arden R. Olson

Holt responds: I certainly agree that everything is not a conspiracy! I'm sure Jeff Bezos never conspired to put Barnes & Noble out of business, but that software patent he used to sue B&N has certainly come in handy. The fact that he used his colleague's interest in kayaking doesn't mean he wanted Amazon.com to sell kayaks first, of course. It just means that the vision for Amazon.com was much larger than he characterizes it today.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I owned an independent store for years, and am past-president of a regional independent bookseller association. Recently I was in Athens, and I spoke with two men running a beautiful bookstore near the Plaka. I think it is called Metropolis.

They asked how independent bookstores were doing in the US and after I told them the discouraging news, they said that recently a law was passed in Greece, and they thought France too, which limited discounting to 10%. They noted that in rural areas in Greece book prices had been raised by about 30% and that large chain-type stores in cities deeply discounted. Their legislature (?) responded by limiting price fluctuations to 10% of the suggested retail price of a book. They mentioned that it had helped the sales at independent stores.

I didn't speak Greek and their English was good, but I wondered if I understood them accuarately, and if it was also true of France? Do any of your readers know anything about this...and how it happened. It made some sort of aesthetic sense to me that the French and the Greeks would come to the aid of independent booksellers with legislation.

Dani Eyer.

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Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.