NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #16
by Pat Holt

Friday, November 13, 1998

NCIBA DISCLAIMER
ABOUT THE DISCLAIMER
TWO APOLOGIES
FIRST, CUT OUT THE EYE HOLES
THE BIG PICTURE
NOW WHOSE CHARITY IS THAT?
WE NEED MORE SHEETS

NCIBA DISCLAIMER

"With respect to Holt Uncensored #15, distributed November 10, the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, which distributes the column, notes the following: While NCIBA assists in facilitating publication of the Holt Uncensored column, NCIBA does not review or approve the views expressed by Holt. They are 'uncensored.' They do not necessarily reflect the views of NCIBA or its members. NCIBA encourages each bookseller to make its own independent decisions regarding dealings with suppliers and encourages each reader to make his or her own independent decision regarding dealings with booksellers."

ABOUT THE DISCLAIMER

Well! Having never been disclaimed before (though many have asked), I hope readers understand the severity of the disclaimer above and don't expect Holt Uncensored to make any cutesy remarks or smirks-in-print about it. There is such a thing as the Sherman Act, you know, and this prohibits competitors from even talking about boycotting or besmirching or taking business away from any other competitor: That's called collusion, unfair competition, revenge! the whole shebang. It's illegal and should be.

So any comments verging on Sherman Act violations can't be recorded here, though work is underway to sabot -- pardon me -- to find loopho -- to open the door to the passionate outrage that has come pouring in since Tuesday's column. It's an interesting dilemma: Since the book industry is undergoing this tangled, convulsive transformation, there should be a forum for readers and book people to discuss what they think and what can be done about it. That conversation can be at least launched here. But first:

TWO APOLOGIES

1. A glitch occurred Friday that delayed #16 until today; if you received one or two indecipherable messages from Thomas Gladysz, our webmaster, please accept our apologies and delete them. This was not a virus or spam or problem; just an error, and we're sorry for the confusion.

2. As people are still reeling over Barnes & Noble's decision to purchase Ingram, the nation's largest book distributor, and want to carry the discussion to a new level, once again the regular work of Holt Uncensored has to be interrupted and some of the stories postponed from last week must be postponed again.

I'm not even going to say what's scheduled in case somebody comes along and buys Baker & Taylor (just a rumor!) (so far!) but I appreciate the interest in our continuing spoof, Remainders of the Day, which resumes Friday regardless.

FIRST, CUT OUT THE EYE HOLES

Of course if CUSTOMERS want to boycott, besmirch or take their business away from chain bookstores, we journalists get to call it a protest movement and report the heck out of it, which brings up that goofy "Bag Day" protest aimed for November 23.

This is the day that "people all over the U.S. [will] protest the homogenizing and destructive effects of corporate chains by browsing in Barnes & Noble bookstores with paper bags on their heads," writes the protest sponsor, ÆTMark (pronounced "artmark," http://rtmark.com/faq.html).

The reason, according to the Austin, Texas-based activist group that's behind it (http://www.fringeware.com/friends), is to support the American Booksellers Association's current lawsuit against chain bookstores by exploiting the fact that "Barnes & Noble inspects all bags carried into any superstore." Since people with paper bags over their heads "will probably not be allowed to enter any B&N store . . . the spectacle of many eager customers assembled and yet denied the ability to participate as consumers inside a corporate chain's superstore, due to their explicit facelessness, belies the myth and inherent contradiction of mass market customer service . . . "

Well, it's a bit heavy on rhetoric, but this is no small gag in a bag. ÆTMark is the odd but successful protest sponsor that helped produce last April's Phone In Sick Day, which was responsible for the "sickout" of 80 percent of the Irish police force. Then there was the great switcheroo performed by the Barbie Liberation Organization, "a group that in 1993 received $10,000 in ÆTMark funds," according to the Boston Phoenix, "to switch the voice boxes of 300 GI Joe and Barbie dolls so that the GI Joes said, 'I like to go shopping with you' and Barbie said, 'Dead men tell no lies.' "

Sounds like a Generation X performance thang, but whatever its size and impact, this is an indication that people are at least getting the point about the meaning of independent bookstores in a democracy. After all, we didn't see paper-bag protesters going into Starbucks - though since the chain started selling Oprah books, maybe just a leetle protest . . . (just a rumor!).

THE BIG PICTURE

The best news comes rolling in from readers who are, bless 'em, feeling the "call to arms" throughout the land about chain store domination and saying such things as "I wouldn't be caught dead in a Barnes & Noble" in a variety of ways through wondrous emails that are heartening to see.

Those who have "deleted all references and links to Amazon.com" have written for information about independents' websites in their area (more to come in this column). While a few believe that chain-store "discounts, discounts discounts" are the real attraction and that a call-to-arms only reduces the independents to "charities," most bookstore customers see Barnes & Noble's proposed purchase of Ingram as a vague but weighty last straw.

People may not know what part of which corporation has bought or is buying what part of another, but getting hammered with news about the giant conglomerate Bertelsmann linked to already giant Random House linked to huge Bantam Doubleday Dell linked to creepy crawly barnesandnoble.com linked to big bad boy Barnes & Noble linked to giant Ingram is enough so send many screaming for an independent store with a good selection of books and no ulterior agenda. "I have seen what they have done in NY," writes one reader. "Wherever and whenever I find independent book[stores], I'll stick with them - the atmosphere is friendlier and the employees more caring and knowledgeable."

NOW WHOSE CHARITY IS THAT?

At the same time, this question of independents as victims or little guys or Davids or charities has got to be confronted in a media-friendly way that will help to educate the public. If ever a charity existed that sucked up donations (stock investments) in one end and blew 'em out the other ($13-24 million in losses per quarter), it's Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

Further, chain stores haven't exactly been paying their own way by following the example set by the expand-til-you-drop Crown Books (now defunct). Barnes & Noble has an "appeal as a long-term investment" that is "nil," as the New York Observer commented a few weeks ago, because the chain's "basic business strategy of superstore expansion was fundamentally flawed and would sooner or later implode." By the end of October, when the rate of new-store-openings dropped from 91 in 1996 to 65 in 1997 (and "only 11 new stores [opening] in the six months ended Aug. 1") of 1998, growth rate in existing stores dropped by half as well. No wonder the company's "money-losing Internet operation" sold out half the cybershop to Bertelsmann.

Clearly the real professionals in the book industry are independent bookstores whose bottom line is based on actual sales. The only difference is that independents don't have the accountants or the spin doctors to do a lot of fiscal-futzing around. "Borders, like its evil twin B&N, canplay with numbers all it wants," writes a former chain store manager, "and come up with convincing statistics, only to change them whenever they want to and pretend the earlier event never happened, a la '1984.' "

A case in point: At the Planning Commission meeting described in last week's column, Border's spokespersons said that half of the proposed store's 150,000 titles would be geared to the local community's tastes and needs. I asked a former Borders manager if this could be true. Answer: "I think they are stretching the idea of local interest and local authors to the extreme. They are probably counting hiking books, because you can hike in San Francisco. Cooking books, because there are so many restaurants. Women's studies, due to a lot of feminists. I'm sure you get the idea.

"Also, there is some ordering done on the manager level, but Borders corporate really discourages that, unlike B&N, which allows more ordering and latitude from its managers. (There are actually a lot of important distinctions between the 2 behemoths. I learned a lot about B&N when I worked at Borders because they both spy on each other all the time, and report back the results. . . . ) [Local orders] used to go to Ingram, but probably not now! (The only part of this new Ingram deal that makes me snicker is all the heart-attacks that are happening right now at Borders.)"

WE NEED MORE SHEETS

Did you hear that Phil Pfeffer, former CEO of Ingram and president of Random House for a time, has now been hired by Borders? What an information treasure-trove Phil must be unloading in Ann Arbor [the chain's headquarters]! To the question expressed so sensitively and delicately a column or so ago:

IS EVERYONE IN THE BOOK INDUSTRY IN BED WITH EVERYONE ELSE?

Why yes, it turns out, even more than we thought.