by Pat Holt
Friday, June 16, 2000
This must be a typical Silicon Valley conversation, I thought at a recent dinner party where a group of workers from one company that is now defunct (I'll call it Defunct Co.) had floated over to a huge conglomerate (Panacea Inc.) that's buying up a lot of dot.coms.
We were deep in the newish 650 Zone, named for that part of the Peninsula south of San Francisco that's most recently been hit by multimedia overflow from the suddenly junky but expensive Silicon Valley. It was also deep into the night, when people who work 12 hours a day to meet impossible deadlines for the sake of future stock options lift their heads for a moment and start asking questions
"Why doesn't anything make sense at Panacea?" one person queried. "The company puts in a new system, THEN does the research! It's backward. The research comes in, they throw out the programming and start a new system. We put in the programming, and THEN they do the research!"
"The whole deparment is angry, nobody knows what's going on, and the waste is horrible, something like $10 million every quarter," another person added.
"When we were at Defunct Co., we were a team," said a third person. "We were efficient and productive, but those concepts are meaningless nowadays. At Panacea, working around the clock is just stupid dot.com mentality. Nothing gets accomplished except losing more money."
"You have to remember the difference in profit margin," said their boss. He had hired them all from Defunct Co., which he had left for Panacea's offer of a high salary and stock options that would allow him to retire in five years if Panacea was still standing.
"Defunct had a 4% profit margin, so it ran like a perfect mechanism. It had to. Panacea is working with a 56% profit margin, and it's racing against competitors who'll kill us if we hesitate.
"The company philosophy is, get going, take the risks up front - forget research, forget team management - and 'waste' the money on the back end. Because folks, Panacea has got so much money we can afford to drop $10 million or $20 million in 'mistakes' along the way. There's no time to stop and think about it."
"Honest to god, we're as bad as any of these start-ups that spend investors' money so fast, they can't possibly make their IPO. Panacea is hell-bent. It's out of control - "
"That's the nature of business right now," the boss said. "Nobody's doing it right. But if you survive, you can change the company culture later on."
"There will never be a 'later on.' And I'll tell you, for the average worker, this breakneck pace isn't worth it. Whatever happened to taking pride in your work? Don't ask me to put in a quality system you're going to trash tomorrow. That's got nothing to do with why I come to work."
At this point, everyone realized work was indeed going to continue the next day, and the dinner party broke up, but the question of speed, speed, speed, and money, money, money followed everybody around the next day (while sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, of course, on the Dotcom Highway).
I've often felt that one of the problems of the corporate takeover of publishing was that everyone adjusted too quickly. But what could people do? Many of the historic independent publishers would have died a slow death if communications corporations hadn't "saved" them, and shopping centers and malls were too expensive for neighborhood bookstores until chains came along.
So the "corporitization of literature" became a force of the times, just as the PC and Internet revolution has overwhelmed the book biz today. Once again the pressure is on to adjust as fast as eBook technology demands. Speed, speed, speed is demanded, with startling results.
Just yesterday, for example, the New York Times reported that people aren't going to the library anymore. We knew this was getting to be a problem when many libraries installed cafe latte stations to compete against bookstores.
But the Times reports that when people can't find what they want on the Internet, they . . . well, they keep searching the Internet or give up. "I hate the library," a Harvard student says. "It's such a big facility that you have to search through." Yes, life is so tough.
So librarians are not only "racing to put the full texts of hundreds of thousands of copyrighted books, old and new, on the Web," they're hurrying to compete against companies like Ebrary.com and Questia Media that have no library or physical building, of course. They offer search functions at no charge and downloading for pennies.
Teachers still try to demonstrate to students that doorways to the world open when you go to the library; but the kids often see themselves as too savvy to the ways of the Internet for that - they rush to computer terminals IN the library hoping for a new game or free access to the Internet.
There's nothing wrong with that, but what is lost along the way - the fun of going to the library; the awesome, sacred feeling of being among millions of books; the joy of browsing deep into the stacks; the thrill of finding books you never knew existed - has been skipped over so fast there's almost no point going back.
Then there's the speed-up of daily life and thought. In "Wired" magazine, professor emeritus Chris Alexander from the University of California describes a meeting in which audience and speakers were to speculate on "the most far out things they could imagine" for the future.
Everything from gene-splicing to new forms of social organization of technology came up, perhaps because this was mostly an audience of "whiz-kid scientists and technologists" who did not think to discuss ethics, consciousness, God, or even "the intense search now going on in physics to find and recognize consciousness or mind as part of the universe."
What alarmed Prof. Alexander was the audience's clear "preoccupation with palmtops, gadgets, light pens, radio laptops and a host of far more wild technological things had all but pushed thought about the major human concerns into the background. It was indeed like being in a roomful of whiz kids - schoolkids - not yet mature enough to grasp for the ungraspable, or to focus their thinking on the matters that underlie every human heart."
One comment about speeded-up modern life that sticks in mind occurred at Newsweek's roundtable of publishers (see #159). There Susan Moldow of Scribner speculated that the eBook phenomenon is coming so fast that our grandchildren may never SEE a book-on-paper as we know it today.
Perhaps that's the point. The speed with which we could forget books-on-paper seems as invasive and demonic as the speed that's pushing dotcom people to kill themselves, and students to perceive libraries as uncool, and techno-whiz kids to build their lives around palm pilots with email, telephone, Internet, eBooks, movie screens, lube jobs, color perms and colonoscopies.
It's the same speed - and the same focus - that chain bookstores and online bookselling services like Amazon.com used to create a formula, establish a presence, grab market share and beat out the competition.
It's the same speed that's driving the book industry into a frenzy for a kind of switch you can pull to distribute books faster and promote authors more easily and send numbers through the ceiling.
It's the same speed that made Stephen King's book look like a model for the future - who can argue with 400,000 orders in two hours - when all we know is right now is that it's an aberration. King is an aberration. His books are an aberration. If other celebrity authors try it, they'll be an aberration, because celebrity authors can sell anything in big numbers.
The only phenomenon pushing against all this is the act of reading itself, that slow, private and luxuriously thoughtful process. You can't do it with too many other people, and even Evelyn Wood couldn't speed it up very much.
Then, too, there is that great irony of reading that is almost mystical: The message of the text can't be understood until the print disappears - only then is the mind fully engaged with that of the writer, and it won't be rushed.
So, too, the act of selling books. Beyond celebrity titles and commercial books, nobody has found a way to sell good and thoughtful books - midlist books, unknown books - by pulling a switch. There is too much hope, too much heart in the process.
"When we take the noise away from everything we do as publishers and everything you do as booksellers," Random House's Don Weisberg said at BookExpo, "we share one common thing.
"We want to put good books in people's hands, and have that sense of satisfaction when they read them. I worked in an independent bookstore for five years. I know people [for whom] putting a book in their hand changed their life. I can name at a given moment three books that have changed my life. That's what we do."
The great news at BEA was that in a remarkably brief time - one year - the American Booksellers Association's Book Sense program has demonstrated the enormous collective power of independent bookstores in launching and sustaining sales of books nobody ever heard of, books that were sinking in the midlist, books that needed to be read and talked about and proposed for the Book Sense 76 list before a single copy could be sold.
"You can think you're the best independent bookstore in the world, but there's a whole lot of people who are going to think that you don't know what you're doing, because there's only you," said Donna Urey of White Birch Books in North Conway, New Hampshire, to other independents.
Book Sense changed all that. It "gave us a wonderful feeling of being connected to something wider than ourselves - a whole bunch of people who were doing the same thing that we believed in so much. It produced a tremendous amount of creativity," she added, within the staff, especially in store displays.
By educating customers about Book Sense - "people look at the slogan, 'Independent Bookstores with Independent Minds' and say, 'What a great idea!' " - and by watching the list of 76 titles recommended by 350 booksellers, "the re-stock report we do every day is totally different than a year ago."
One book - "The Red Tent" by Anita Diamant - was unknown to Urey's staff until they saw it on a Book Sense list. "We got it, and the book immediately became a reading group pick and a popular seller." Instead of selling a dozen or so copies, the store sold over 150. Another, "Girl with a Pearl Earring" by Tracy Chevalier "would never have been pulled off the sleves of one-copy obscurity" if it hadn't been for Book Sense. "It sold 50-60 copies in hardcover."
Stories like that are happening throughout the country, making Book Sense the star of the convention. "The wonderful thing about being an independent bookstore is . . . you're independent!" exclaimed Weisberg. "But sometimes from the publishers point of view, that's frustrating."
He didn't elaborate, but one can understand why a thousand individual booksellers with their many questions and problems can make a publisher anxious. Book Sense is not an easy answer, but it does cut through the slow accumulation of sales in twos and fives and tens. It shows fast growth (well, faster than before) in areas where strategic promotion at the right time can make a difference.
As Weisberg says of Book Sense, "What all of you have been doing independently, you can now do collectively. To a publisher that's an extraordinary advantage."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Hello from Paris, in answer to Dani Eyer's query [about government-protected prices on books].
Yes, France passed a law some time ago (shortly after 1981, when the socialist Mitterand was elected, but I don't remember exactly when), establishing a single price for books. However bookstores are allowed to discount by 5% (not ten). This has indeed contributed to saving independant bookstores, though of course chains like FNAC, and what the French call "hypermakets" that sell EVERYTHING under one roof, have made inroads.
And in Paris, several famous old bookstores have had to close because of skyrocketing rents in central Paris. Too often replaced by clothing and shoe chains, which I personally find much less interesting. This law is under attack by the European Community, lead by countries like England, which believe that governments shouldn't try to regulate market economies.
P.S. It's Margaret Crick in Paris again. I've just read newsletter #159, after replying to #158. . . In answer to John Shinnick, the fixed price only applies to books for the first couple of years of their "career." After that, there is a provision for putting unsold books on sale at a lower price. And of course, I maintain that it's pefectly valid to regulate the economy (as well as a lot of other things) with laws. Otherwise, you might as well get rid of the laws that try to prevent the chains from doing the illegal things that are getting them sued.
France sees its language and culture kind of the way Holt Uncensored sees independent bookstores - playing on an uneven field in the same game with English. The French voted a law that supports independent bookstores because they know a vibrant literature is important in maintaining and exporting their literature and culture.
When you compare the numbers of English books translated and published in France, and the number of books from any other language or culture published in England or the USA, you can understand why some regulation is needed. Itās the same in the movie industry. France has a program of support for their movie industry that is the envy of beleaguered movie-makers all over the world. It hasnāt kept the Americans from grabbing 60% of the market share (in countries like Spain or Germany, itās more like 90%). But France is the only country in Europe (and one of the few in the world) that still HAS a movie industry.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Amazon.com does so use resources in the cities to which it sends books (and whatever else). Whose roads are being worn down by delivery trucks? Whose landing strips accommodate the planes?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
About that B $ N (oops, B & N) Mercury Sable Independent Thinkers Contest. A grand prize of $25,000 was also to be awarded in a non-student category along with four prizes of 2000 Mercury Sables. The contest winners were supposed to be announced May 15. B & N set up Ind. Thinkers displays and shamelessly sold their "Ind. Thinker Series" books. (I know, big news.) Our store (South Austin, Texas) even brought in a published essay writer for an informal workshop before the big contest deadline.
I have tried numerous times to find out who the winners are. No one seems to know. I've lodged several complaints about the less-than-truthful publicity for the event. No one seems to care.
K. D. Thompson
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Did I miss something? Two corporate giants are offering to fund a significant portion of a student's college education AND pay the high school enough to add three more English classes, and you're complaining about this? How about applying a little subtlety here and encouraging them to repeat this ploy so that one student in each of the fifty states can benefit? After all, corporations this large should spread the largesse around, right? Wouldn't that be the socially responsible thing to do?
Okay, okay. I know that a kid who could win a national essay contest probably already has a scholarship to Harvard, Yale, and Texas A&M, but still winning that contest frees up scholarship money for some other student. I agree that large corporations often behave with callous indifference, but please don't pick on them for trying to help encourage literacy and coherent writing. As a junior high school teacher, I am all too familiar with the concept of going hat in hand to corporations or government agencies to try to persuade someone to fund some special project for kids. If someone does this voluntarily, for whatever reason, please just say thank you and encourage them to open their checkbooks a little wider and a little more often.
Beth C. Davisson
Holt responds: Reading a gracious letter like this, as much as I admire the tenacity of teachers and nonprofit fundraisers, I think that Newt Gingrich has won. When you ask if you're missing something, the answer perhaps is yes, we're all missing the public funding of the arts and of reading and writing programs that was woven into daily life during those long ago BNS (Before Nike Swoosh) times. Gingrich may not have killed NEA, but he left it so weak and mutilated that all we could do was adapt to his philosophy that private corporations are our only hope of support for everything from public broadcasting to municipal stadiums.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Regarding Charles Deemer's letter about self-published writers using iUniverse as a publisher:
For the small independent bookstore, iUniverse really sucks. The discount rate is far below a rate that bookstores can stay in business with and there is no return policy . . . Of course B&N owns iUniverse and does not face the same problems that an independent bookstore faces when ordering books published through iUniverse. To criticize independent bookstores for not inviting any one author into their store for an event is somewhat unfair.
We, a small specialty bookstore, are usually receiving somewhere between 200 to 300 new titles each month - all deserve to be publicized and we would love to be able to invite each and every author into the store for an event. But of course we have to schedule some time to order books, review all the thousands of catalogs for new titles, receive books, pay bills, try to contact authors for an event that customers have requested or top selling authors, entertain authors who would do schedule events, arrange for advertising, repair equipment and computers, sweep the sidewalks, vacuum, clean, water the plants, and the thousands of other tasks it takes the owners 12 hours a day and 7 days a week to keep our customers happy.
When authors do contact our store to schedule an event, we go out of our way to schedule an event and make the author feel as comfortable as possible.
I would venture to say that self-published authors who wait for an independent bookstore to find their title among the thousands that are being released each month and then criticize the store for not inviting them into the store for a signing are really not dealing with the real world. If Mr. Deemer had to contact the B&N stores to schedule an event, he would be surprised if any one of them invited him without being solicited first. From what I hear from authors, B&N usually gives a pretty cold reception to self-published authors.
If Mr. Deemer would have contacted the independent bookstore owners, letting them know that he was available for an Author's Appearance and agreeable to putting his books on consignment to the store, I am sure he would have received a warm reception.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
"Self-published writer" complains that chain stores readily offered events at their stores and, in his experience, independents did not. As a self-published author and a bookseller at an independent, I have opinions that may have merit.
My novel is set locally in Santa Cruz, CA, so my plan was to market it locally, and expand later if I should get so lucky as to have actual humans actually buy it.
When I contacted local Barnes & Noble and Borders stores to request they carry it, I was directed to a national buyer, who refused because they desired a copy of my "national marketing plan". (Heh-heh) Since I had no such thing, they had no desire to carry it.
I tried to sell the book to many regional independent bookstores. Some were rude, implying rather broadly that my little book was a huge infringement on their buying time and that they were doing me the greatest of favors carrying it. I understand that logic -- hey, they've got a huge Random House order to transmit today, why waste time on one little self-published novel, which in all likelihood is poorly written, otherwise it would have been published by the deeply wise big publishing houses, who never err.
Some independents -- the majority -- were close to incompetent or unprofessional. No one answering the phone had any idea what I wanted, nor who at their store dealt with such matters. Once I got a buyer, they couldn't find the advance copy, lost the phone call memo, blah blah.
Some independents were wonderful. Absolutely, we know how to help you. We do that all the time. We would love to set up a reading. Great. There is a strong echo here of what, if I may be so bold, seems to be the Holt Uncensored Philosophy: Independents are not each terrific for their own sake; but variety is wonderful for its sake.
If I had had to rely on the chains alone, I would have nothing. So far I have discussed the process of getting the book into the stores. "Self-published writer" describes the process of being allowed to hold an event. The first thing this writer needs to realize is that not all stores can accomodate all events -- sometimes they're too small. This is never a problem at a B&N or Borders because they are all the size of zeppelin hangars.
I would also offer this writer some other words of advice: Events seem like a huge deal, but they really aren't. How many people actually attend your seminar-based event and buy the books? How well is it advertised, so that the public see the name of the book? Let's pretend, to be generous, that the number sold, after word-of-mouth and all, for each event is fifty copies, and that's quite generous.
Now, there's a little something called "hand-selling" that comes into the discussion. An independent bookstore may not hold an event, but staff may actually read the book! And once they like it, they recommend it like angry wombats. They force their buyers to order extra, they put it in their newsletters, they display shelf-talkers, they grab the long-time customer and say "you've got to read this.". This sells not fifty books, but hundreds or thousands at many stores over a span of years. Does this happen at chains?
That would be a rhetorical question.
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.