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Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


by Pat Holt

Tuesday, June 13, 2000

Tuesday, June 13, 2000




You know how the mouth tends to mold itself around its taste buds with the mention of, say, key lime pie or pesto pasta or fresh pineapple or lemon piccata sauce?

Well, you can imagine the simmering and salivating that started right up in the Holt Uncensored literary glands when PW Daily reported that Barnes & Noble and the Mercury division of Lincoln-Mercury have joined together to present a cash prize of $25,000 for the winning essay written by a high school student, and another 25 grand for the student's school.

"Mercury and B&N," says PW, "formed their partnership last October 'after identifying Sable owners' passion for reading.' " How they identified this is not known.

Immediately, the words began forming: Why, the AUDACITY of that chain bookstore using a BIG CAR COMPANY to step in front of independent bookstore contests by FLINGING A LOT OF MONEY around to ATTRACT THE MEDIA and using HIGH SCHOOL KIDS for a typically headline-grabbing stunt.

PW added: "Award contestants choose from a list of book titles whose authors or subjects are considered to exemplify 'independent thought' (Pat Holt, please note) and then write an essay about why their choice is exceptional." The prize is called the "Mercury Sable Independent Thinkers" award.

Whoa. Do you see that parenthetical aside? Why, the very idea. This is a column of VARIES AND DIVERSE INTERESTS, let's remember, not something you can cubbyhole just because Barnes & Noble and Lincoln-Mercury are giving an award for . . . "Independent Thinkers"? Are they nuts?

Why, this is LAUGHABLE and HYPOCRITICAL in the extreme. For a FORMULA-BASED chain bookstore and a BIG FAT CAR COMPANY to even suggest the idea of "Independent Thinkers" when real INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES are out there providing examples of "Independent Thinking" WITHOUT NEED OF FLASHY PRIZES every day is OUTRAGEOUS.

So watch out, PW. Don't cubbyhole the fringe element again.



What a delight it's been to watch the LETTERS section of this column develop into a forum for controversy and opinion. Heaven knows enough upheavals have hit the book biz that there can't be enough places in which different ideas get a fresh airing.

It would be wonderful if every letter were signed by the writer, but perhaps because the times are so heady, people who speak out may jeopardize jobs or careers. So I welcome anonymous letters. I'd rather judge each story on its own merits than insist on documented signatures.

(Granted, if you've been following the reaction to "Self Published Writer" whose "Open Letter" on the Internet was sent in by a concerned reader, it's true that sometimes the bias and possible hidden agenda of the writer brings the whole letter into disrepute. However, if there's a legitimacy in it that hits the nerve, I think we all should see it, especially since readers are not shy, as we have seen, about expressing their reaction.)

For example, the letter quoted below, while unsigned, is so instructive and revealing that I decided to pull it out of the LETTERS section as a way of demonstrating why anonymous letters run in this column.

In it, an independent publicist who arranges publicity tours for authors says that recently, a "well-received" author we'll call Frank arrived in a mid-sized city to promote his new novel. "Frank's publisher has paid untold sums of money to Barnes and Noble for 'placement' for a period of time extending through Fathers Day," the writer explains.

"The placement was for New Fiction, Suggestions for Fathers Day and New [category deleted]. That means that each B&N should have 12 copies, distributed among these three categories at the very least.

"So, Frank arrives in a hail of sunshine and wisecracks (he is one of the best touring authors in the world - funny, easygoing and low on the mollycoddle quotient). I arranged several drive-by signings - two independents and six chains (three of whom are B&N stores).

"When we arrived at each of the chain stores (and mind you I had called ahead to ask if we could come by and sign!), the cash/wrap counter clerks had clearly never heard of us, didn't know what to do, and had what most resembled an 'oh my god, this is a test from the home office and I'm going to fail' look on their faces.

"Almost universally the books were not where the publisher had paid for them to be. The stores had the correct number, but had not placed them where they were supposed to be.

"Contrast that with the small, deliciously ambient independent bookstore nearby. All four counter people had heard of Frank. They pointed out he was mentioned in their latest newsletter, and that his book was on the Staff Recomends table in the front of the store, with a blurb from the newsletter displayed. The people here knew his visit was no inspection from the head office - their only concern was getting all the staff upfront to meet Frank.

"Now, my question is: Why on God's green earth are publishers paying and continuing to pay for placement that they don't get at the chains? This isn't a question of chain vs. independent. This is a question of good vs. bad business practices. I really hope the big boys wake up and smell the coffee. Maybe they can take some of that placement money and put it behind touring mid-list writers."

See below for other takes on independent stores vs. chains, and on anonymous letters.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

One point you left out in your coverage of Jeff Bezos' sales tax mention at BEA. The fact that he doesn't use services in North Carolina has no bearing -- it's the North Carolina customer who uses local services and should pay sales tax. Amazon is merely the collection agent passing along the money.

Hut Landon
Landon Books

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re As a former Powell's Bookstore junkie (living a few blocks from their store in Portland and spending endless Saturdays and lots of money there) and now living but a few blocks from Green Apple (doing the same reckless spending) in San Francisco, I have a pretty good layperson's knowledge of books and a personal alliance to independent bookstores.

In searching for an out-of-print book for SEVERAL years, and checking just about every bookstore, garage sale, thrift store, etc., I found the book on .... for $490! Gulp. Ended up buying it off eBay for $96. Was curious about the price (this seemed REALLY excessive for a "nothing" book)... more and more research has found this book for SEVERAL hundred dollars less but, alas, at Bibliofind (the description for this book at Bibliofind AND at Alibris is exact, word-for-word).

Other books that are still in print ("Cruddy" by Lynda Barry, for example) are selling at Alibris for $7 over the full purchase price (new) at ANY store. Guess I am concerned, too, with the "hidden" identity of the booksellers... would still prefer to deal with them vs. doing everything via my computer.

Marisa Davis

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Thanks to Jane Alexander for her work to save the National Endowment for the Arts. If only literary and alternative publishers could begin to receive a meaningful portion of the NEA's grants budget, we might develop a more vital counterpoint to the corporate oligopoly that dominates book publishing.

Tom Christensen

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Hi, I posted this letter to the DorothyL mailing list, and I was told you would be interested in a copy.

To DorothyL:

One of the things my hybrid (new and used) independent store does for our web visitors is book searches - this is offered as a free service when we do not have the book they are seeking in stock . . .

If you have ever gone to Bookfinder to search for a backlist book, you may have noticed that on nearly every search either Alibris, Amazon, or B&N turns up as having the book you're seeking. Have you then gone on to any of those sites to actually order the book? If you have, then you've already discovered what I'm about to post - they almost NEVER have the book! This is especially true of books which are particularly hard to find or rare.

I have a theory as to why this may be - I'm going to bet it is because they have R.R. Bowker's "Books In Print" CD loaded on the search server. Even if this is not the case, I contend whatever they are doing constitutes fraud, although Bookfinder (rightly) maintains that the seller is responsible for their listings.

I would think that over time the false positives would frustrate the buyer enough that this practice would backfire on those folks, but I don't think the average consumer searches often enough to see this for what it is. Shameless marketing.

At first blush you might not think this hurts the independent in any direct way, but it does - and here's how:

1) The "bigs" get their name in front of the consumer for free 2) Often this will result in the consumer visiting their page where they might be attracted into buying something else by the same author, or something in the same genre 3) Since the search engines only do a sampling, a false positive might take the place of a real positive - meaning that the "Big" will get the visit, and not the independent who actually has the book 4) The search experience results in frustration for the consumer.

And what about that all-important consumer?

1) They don't get the book they *wanted* 2) In spite of all the marketing, books are ALWAYS more expensive from the "Bigs" - where do you think they get those out of print books? From me, and others like me, of course! 3) The coffers of the "Bigs" continue to grow so they can continue their rampage on the independent seller 4) The search experience results in frustration

What can you do? Easy ... when you search from sites like Bookfinder and a match comes up from one of those sites, simply don't click on it.

I can tell you that for the most part, if you see a listing from Alibris, it's offered elsewhere on the 'net - and for a lower price. They have a bizarre model and I simply cannot explain how they are succeeding - they list the inventories of sellers like myself, increase the price by sometimes as much as double, then order it from me when you order it from them. It is exactly their name popping up over and over and over that they must be depending on, otherwise who on earth would buy from them other than someone who thinks they are the only ones who have the book?

You'd probably do this part anyway, but if you see a book listed by one of them AND by an independent, buy it from the indie!

Or, to make things easy on yourself, just have us peel away the layers of detritus and perform the search for you!

Brian Rice
Whitestone Books
Livermore, California

Dear Holt Uncensored:

At Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vermont, we used BIP+ for over a year before we were told that the disc we rely on does not contain all of Books In Print entries. We found out because last December we started having even more problems than usual. I called Bowker, and a new employee there informed me that Bowker had recently switched from a late 1980s truncating point for information on the disc to an early 1990s cutoff because the disc could not hold more. I was told that now any title before 1992 that Ingram does not have is not on the BIP+ disc.

When I responded in amazement that BIP+ didn't have all BIP titles, the person told me that it never has carried all titles. I looked through our pamphlets and information about BIP+ and found no mention of this limit. I had assumed that BIP+ meant that all of Books in Print was on the disc, PLUS other features (reviews, etc).

Because we believed BIP+ to carry all books in print, we gave our customers bad information for a long time. It was our customers who first let us know that books we had told them were out of print were available through other sources. We assumed at that point that BIP+ had a lot of data entry mistakes, so we started following up with a check in the hardcover edition when we didn't find a title in BIP+. Many times we did find the book in BIP when it wasn't listed in BIP+. But it wasn't until December that we found out that BIP+ has never carried all titles in print, and that books missing from BIP+ were not a result of data entry errors but of Bowker policy decisions.

I think Bowker has been irresponsible in marketing BIP+ without indicating that it's actually BIPminus. I'm concerned that other stores using BIP+ still think they have all of BIP on disc. I asked staff from Bowkers and Ingram to let customers know that BIP+ is not all of BIP, but got no commitment that they would spread this information. In fact, some of the Ingrams staff had no idea that BIP+ wasn't all of BIP. So I'm writing you, hoping bookstores with BIP+ will read this and realize the limitations of BIP+.

I understand and accept the limits of the CD for holding information, but I don't understand why there is no mention of these limits in the promotional material. Our credibility with customers went downhill until we realized what was going on.

Linda Leehman
Bear Pond Books
Montpelier, Vermont

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Since the question regarding the authenticity of "Self Published Writer" authenticity has been raised, let me say that my experiences have been the same as "Self Published Writer" with regard to Barnes & Noble v. indies.

Earlier this year I used iUniverse to self-publish "Seven Come Eleven: Stories and Plays, 1969-1999," a collection of seven short stories (from The Literary Review, Prism International, and other literary magazines) and 11 stage plays (10 previously produced, several national award winners). Since I am pretty much categorized as "a regional writer," I could find no small publisher interested in so large a book (several would consider publishing, say, 3 plays) and my goal primarily was to get the scripts to those 11 plays into libraries. The price was right for such a venture.

I live in Portland, Oregon, which has the reputation of being a good city for writers and readers. I've been here over 20 years and have a good literary reputation here. I'm well known throughout the state, being the only writer to win Oregon Arts Commission fellowships both for fiction and drama. Thus, when I sent out press releases to every bookstore in town, and to others in nearby Salem and Eugene, I expected to get some invitations to sign books and give readings.

And I did: but NOT A SINGLE INVITATION from an independent bookstore anywhere (including those I frequent)! In fact, the bulk of my readings, in and out of town, were from Barnes & Noble.

I found those experiences to be wonderful: hosted by knowledgeable people who were literate and supportive, well-attended by people. Sometimes I visited a B&N writing group. In Eugene, I gave a screenwriting workshop. Without exception, Barnes and Noble was enthusiastic about and supportive of my work, and my visits were well publicized. I'd go back to B&N anytime! Although I never went there often as a customer, I find myself doing that more now, in appreciation of their support.

So I don't dismiss the earlier letter from self-published author. His experience matches mine.

Charles Deemer

Dear Holt Uncensored:

In your response to Sareda Milosz regarding the unsigned letter from "Self-Published Author" it is interesting that you use the phrase "Unsigned open letters on the Internet often contribute as much to building preceptions as signed lettersˇ" I really do understand that it is very un-PC these days, but I have always thought that communication was about reaching the *truth* of an issue, not "building perceptions."

Steve Ball
Book Nook
Orange County, California

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Regarding Dani Eyer's letter concerning the existence or not of a French law limiting the size of the amount that books may be discounted. This law has been in effect for at least 20 years, if not longer. The purpose is to ensure a level playing field between the libraries and the big book stores like FNAC. The discount was 5%. I don't know if it has been raised in the time since I lived in France. The LeClerc department store chain tried to challenge this law by discounting the books they sold at 20% off, but I believe the government stood firm and forced them to back down. It has been some time since I lived in Paris, but when I was there independent bookstores were thriving, even those within a short walk of the big stores such as the FNAC in Montparnasse.

Jon Graham
Acquisitions Editor
Inner Traditions

Dear Holt Uncensored:

In response to Dani Eyer's question, I can offer the following: In Germany, France, and probably other European countries there is a "fixed price" for books. Discounting (beyond, perhaps, the ten percent mentioned by the writer) is not permitted. Books are expensive, but chains are virtually unknown. The sweetener in this for the customer is that there is a fabulous distribution system (though lately the booksellers and publishers have been complaining that distributors do not carry all available titles and lie to bookstores about what is in print - what they have in stock). When I lived in Germany I frequently had the experience of going to the bookstore for a book and being told, "I'm sorry, we don't have it, but we can order it for you. Would tomorrow morning be too late?" And indeed, the book was there the next day.

On another note, I recently learned of a 1994 book from SUNY Press that I very much wanted to have: I checked - they never heard of it; then I checked (the real Amazon bookstore); they had it listed, and I ordered it. They e-mailed me the next day that they did not actually have it in stock and would have to order it, which would take about a week, did I still want to order? I did, since I'm traveling and won't be home for a week anyway.

Linda Maloney

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Regarding the idea of a legislature "limiting price fluctuations to 10% of the suggested retail price of a book" as a way to "help the sales at independent stores."

Good grief. I now have images of every bookstore now being unable to sell off old unmoving stock.

I don't have the answer to making independents more competitive with big-box bookstores, but it isn't government regulating prices and sale prices.

John Shinnick
New Wave Publishers

Dear Holt Uncensored:

A gentle disagreement: Letter writers need to sign their names if they expect to be taken seriously, and expect a response.

Also, a comment on Auntie's Bookshop: We try and support our local authors, from Random House all the way over to local and self-published works, some that are, in fact, done on color zeroxes with spiral bindings if they are of interest. It is a very heavy lift ,as any bookstore knows, to try and sell these products.

Promoting events is another big problem. I know publishers understand that small independent bookstores do not have cash sitting around to advertise author events, so-called co-op funds do not begin to cover the cost of even one small ad, and putting on extra staff is expensive. What we need more of are partnerships between a store and the publisher that go beyond the formula and require commitments outside the usual box., but which are of course, strictly legal.

To be very, very, blunt: If you are a small publisher and you would like to place an author at an indie who will go the extra mile, do not send your author to the chain store or stores that operate close by! With that issue resolved , speaking for my own bookstore, we can look at newsletters, mailings to libraries and groups, fundraisers and lots of other non-traditional marketing efforts to promote the book. (And do not be surprised if even these efforts fail to bear fruit.)

I am one who believes that my future lies with forming informal "partnerships" with publishers to promote books that reflect the mission of our store, and the interests of our community and we try and look at any proposal with an open mind.

Michael DeSanto
Book Rack & Children's Pages
Winooski/Burlington, Vermont

Dear Holt Uncensored:

[NOTE: Many readers have asked to see Rusty Drugan's comments to the NEBA (New England Booksellers Association) readership regarding the recent column in Barron's on Thanks for permission from Rusty; here it is with pleasure.]

For those who have never figured out how the stock market puts a value on Amazon, the current issue of Barron's won't help.

Columnist Mark Veverka writes that "sell-side analysts have been trying to justify the hyper-inflated values of various 'Net companies every which way. First they looked at page views, then at 'stickiness' (time per visit) and, ultimately, they seemed to settle on top-line growth." They've now moved on to a new "metric" of "lifetime customer value analysis."

One analyst using that approach concluded that "each Amazon customer was worth $1,905," but Veverka approvingly quotes another analyst as putting the true figure anywhere between $26 and $35.

Why the latter? "Average customer revenues fell, rather than rose, and profit margins were much lower than expected. Only the total customer count was better than expected." Moreover, "Amazon experiences nearly 40% attrition to its customer base."

Using those figures, under the "lifetime customer value analysis," Amazon's stock would figure somewhere between $1.25 and $1.68 per share. Yesterday Amazon closed at $51.

The article is not available on the net without a subscription, but if the issue is on the shelves in your store, pick it up to read (page 66: "Number Crunch: Value of an Amazon Customer.") Otherwise, unless you really care, you've got the gist.


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.