Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Friday, June 23, 2000



[NOTE TO READERS: I'm postponing the interview with Richard LaBonte of A Different Light Bookstore because of a flurry of comments about the two items below.]



Word is spreading and corks are popping all over the retail book business about Amazon.com's offer to Fed-Ex the 4th Harry Potter book by J.K. Rowling to the first 250,000 customers who order it.

Because of the mystery surrounding the title and the obvious need to give every bookseller the same on-sale date, Scholastic long ago announced a "simultaneous laydown" of Saturday, July 8. This means that any bookseller receiving the book before that date has been required to sign an affidavit stating that the cases will not be opened and the books will not be unpacked before July 8.

The affidavit is such a big deal that wholesalers have had to create their OWN affidavits requiring booksellers to keep the cases sealed and on the premises until 12:00.01 a.m. Saturday, July 8. Even the language of Scholastic's affidavit shows how crucial it is that everybody pay attention to the rules:

"It is absolutely imperative you abide by the national on-sale date of July 8th," Scholastic tells booksellers on the affidavit they are required to sign. "If you receive your copies prior to July 8th, you must ensure that these books are kept secure and not placed on the selling floor, sold, distributed or leave your secure environment prior to this date. This includes staff 'reads' and complimentary copies also."

Every bookseller must further promise to "make sure all the appropriate personnel at our company are informed of this announcement and its guidelines." Scholastic threatens to stop shipments if any infringements occur and promises "to monitor this important laydown closely."

All pretty clear, right? But now comes Amazon.com offering overnight delivery by Federal Express for no extra charge to the first 250,000 customers who order the book.

This means that FedEx employees, acting as Amazon.com's personnel, must open the cases and put the books in mailing cartons on Friday, July 7, in order to overnight them to customers by Saturday, July 8.

And there goes the affidavit. As soon as one of those cases is opened and one FedEx employee lays eyes on a book, the secret title will be out, the books will be processed, the rules will be broken and Amazon.com will have its 250,000-copy sale enroute before anybody else can touch the shipment in their own store.

That's because even the chains are playing by the rules. As of this writing, if you call independent bookstores or Barnes & Noble or Borders and ask for overnight delivery, they will say no, they signed an affidavit stating they can't open the cases until 12:00:01 a.m. Saturday.

True, customers are going to show up at midnight with their kids to make a party of getting the book, but that's the point: It's in keeping with the Harry Potter mystique that no seal be broken or mystery title announced until July 8.

It's also in keeping with the joy of a level playing field. For the first time in many years, a colossal blockbuster has come forward that can't be stolen by the chains or the Costcos or the Targets or the Wal-Marts, at least in terms of time. Until now, here was a chance for every bookseller to be the first in every neighborhood to sell the hottest book of the new century.

So what's going on, Scholastic? For some reason, it is now "absolutely imperative" that everybody abide by the requirements of the affidavit except Amazon.com.

One thing seems certain: If Amazon violates that affidavit, the door looms open for everybody else to violate it, too. Instead of Scholastic proceeding to "monitor this laydown closely," the frenzy that is bound to erupt will bring nothing but chaos to this once-ebullient scene.



Ever since Linda Leehman of Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vermont, wrote to this column about discovering unexpected limitations in the CD-ROM of "Books in Print" called "BIP+" (see #159, June 12), readers have sent queries with increasing concern to determine just how limited the CD is.

Most booksellers say they were sold "BIP+" as the complete Books in Print and have used it as the final word when searching for books to special-order for customers. Now, however, while some Bowker representatives are shocked to learn that "BIP+" does not list all the books in print, others say this has been true for some time.

But information is contradictory as to how many titles are missing. "I was told that now any title before 1992 that Ingram does not have is not on the BIP+ disc," wrote Leehman. Andy Ross of Cody's says Bowker informed him that any title before 1989 is not on the disc. This could mean that one-third of existing books in print - something like 800,000 titles - is missing.

If this is true, says Ross, "the worst part is that we have been giving customers inaccurate information by saying that a book's not available. Then they go online and find it at Amazon and never come back to the store."

Ross believes some kind of class-action suit should be investigated and has written the following letter to Avin Domnitz of the American Booksellers Association seeking official action:

"Dear Avin:

"For many years now my store and thousands of others have used Books in Print on CD-ROM as the data base which we search to determine whether a book is in print and available. Both Ingram and Bowker have marketed these products as the Digital version of Books in Print. They have indicated that this product is complete. Ingram even calls its product 'Books in Print Plus'.

"We have determined that for some time now, the CD version of Books in Print is incomplete, both the Bowker and the Ingram version. To the best of our knowledge, these companies have failed to tell customers that the CD versions are significantly truncated.

"We have spoken with Bowker about this. They have told us that because of space problems on the CD, the CD versions have been cut. In the case of Ingram Books in Print Plus, all titles with publication dates before 1989 have been left off the list. Thus over 800,000 titles which are currently in print are not on the CD.

"Avin, this is an extremely serious problem for all of us who have relied on these CD's as the final word for in print titles. Not only have we lost sales as a result of this truncation, our reputations have been irreparably harmed with our customers. They have undoubtedly discovered that books which we cannot get are available from the Internet companies.

"Bowker and Ingram knew or should have known about this situation and did not notify booksellers. They have profited from a product which was knowingly defective. Indeed Ingram's Books in Print Plus should have been called 'Books in Print Minus'.

"Since so many ABA members have been damaged by this problem, I feel the ABA should intervene and negotiate restitution.

"Avin, this is a very big problem. In this day and age, information is everything. We have been providing bad information to our customers. We have been telling them that 800,000 titles whose pub dates were before 1989 were out of print and unavailable. We have done this because of false statements made to us by Ingram and Bowker.

"Andy Ross"



Dear Holt Uncensored:

Your account of Glad Day points up that the most lethal enemy of the independent bookseller today isn't the publisher, or Amazon, or the dumbed-down market - but the real estate developer. Bookstores unfortunately - by the nature of the goods they sell - have to be in locations priced out of sight, especially for so-called "small space."

Michael M. Thomas
New York Observer

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Underneath all the sexual phobias in Glad Day's story is the real estate problem. On my travels this spring I came across two independent bookstores being put out of business, one already, Parnassus in Boise, and one within four years, The Walrus and the Carpenter in Pocatello, by real estate. The lease at Parnassus became too great a burden for the bricks and mortar location and they went exclusively to the net. They sell antiquarian books primarily. When W&C's lease expires there won't be sufficient revenue to renew it.

Will Peterson of W&C said it's not the chains or the net that's driving us out of business, it's the price of real estate.

Another indy in Moscow solved this problem by buying the building across the street for their own use, Bob Greene's Bookpeople of Moscow.

I go on about this because I am in the real estate business as well as the publishing business and I can comprehend what is happening to values, real estate and otherwise. We also own our own commercial building and will eventually open an, need I say it, independent primarily poetry bookstore there, free of the notion that banks and real estate are capable of putting ideas out of business.

Charles Potts, President
Tsunami Inc.
Walla Walla, Washington

Dear Holt Uncensored,

In regard to the letter by Christie Schaefer in issue #160: There are any number of reasons why companies should collect sales tax from their customers - - just as there are reasons why not. Delivery trucks, air freight companies and like pay for their usage of public facilities through any number of federal, state, and local taxes. I'm sure we've all seen the bumper stickers on the rear of 18-wheelers: "This vehicle pays - (insert large sum) - in road taxes."

In regard to the entire issue of sales tax, use tax, nexus and other fun things this http://www.cbpp.org/12-13-99tax.htm from Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in DC is a fairly straightforward recapitulation of the situation as of late last year. There is an earlier paper (http://www.cbpp.org/512webtax.htm ); both take a bit of time to load; they're fairly long.

Personally, I'd like to see books tax free everywhere, but that ain't likely to happen . . .

Michael Walsh

Dear Holt Uncensored:

... So [according to your column], the taxes are getting paid, just by the wrong *kind* of company?

I love my local independent bookstores, Pat, but I can't see how you can advocate certain online booksellers (such as Powells.com) over others (like Amazon.com) when neither will collect sales tax from me. Both will use UPS or USPS to deliver to me causing the same "wear" on the roads and airports. And neither purchase will support my local bookstores, just some west-coast e-tailer.

Is the issue really taxes here? Or is it just another cheap excuse to bash an online bookseller you don't like? I'm no fan of Amazon.com but I am a fan of your column--when you've got the facts straight. It's more fun to be right than be righteous.

Ed Dravecky dsheldon@netcom.com

Holt responds: Gad, I think everybody should pay sales tax where they have "nexus" - a physical presence in the state. California independent booksellers convincingly argue that nexus exists when the web-only bookseller uses as sales agents those affiliates, associates and partners to whom they pay a commission for every sale generated.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Regarding your specious argument about sales tax [why independents collect and pay it, and Amazon.com doesn't]: The government at the local, state, and national level is failing the consumer and their own constituencies through the lack of establishing a national sales tax clearinghouse that would simply and easily allow businesses to collect tax required for any jurisdiction based on Zip code and then to pay that through a single regular wire transfer or similar transaction.

We have the technology.

Blaming Amazon.com for attempting to maximize their financial benefit due to loopholes in the law and to try to extend those loopholes into regular practice, well, I don't like their logic either. But this loophole made it possible for many mail-order companies to exist, and though that's been moaned about over the years, the government entities who could have done something about this decided to NOT imperil their own local mail-order companies by doing so. (Would Maine want to force this issue with L.L. Bean in their state? Wisconsin with Land's End? And so on...)

I think your gripe with Amazon.com is that Jeff and a large part of our congress and other elected officials are trying to institutionalize something that is a momentary aberration. I don't believe that actually charging local sales tax is tantamount to shutting down the Internet but, in fact, helps reflect the *real cost of doing business* and the *real cost of things.*

On my price comparison site, ISBN.nu, I'm planning to add sales tax features soon so that people can see the true cost. When you factor in shipping and sales tax, it's often cheaper to buy at a small discount locally than a large discount remotely.

But don't get into the infrastructure issues - the principle is that every user of infrastructure pays for it, and the sellers must pass along those expenses. If Amazon.com's $3.95 for shipping doesn't cover it, well, that's part of their business model that may fall by the wayside. (I ordered a 40 lb. backup power supply from Outpost.com with free shipping - how can that make sense? But THEY paid for the shipping, ultimately.)

If you really want to start me and your readers on a rant, let's talk about how gasoline costs don't actually reflect more than a tiny share of the real cost of our infrastructure and pollution offset, and how by encouraging more shipping around the country, we're actually increasing greenhouse gasses, and costing ourselves more money because the hidden subsidization of transportation comes straight out of our taxes...

Glenn Fleishman

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I am still amazed that all of our attention is still focused on getting others to collect taxes when it seems to me the focus should be on stopping the tax in the first place. What public good does it do that someone must pay a tax in order to purchase a book? How are the poor served here, especially if they want to buy the book? Everyone talks about how regressive sales taxes are. Why, then, are we so insistent that more people pay them? Level playing field? If we worked to stop the sales tax on the books sold in the store we would have a level tax playing field. On this issue the chain stores would join us in the fight. So maybe that's the problem.

Arden R. Olson

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Glad Day was the first place I dared go to get gay-related stuff and thus was instrumental in my coming out (1980; I was 17). I bought Pat Califia's "Sapphistry" there. Thank God they were there.

A Reader

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Thanks for the posting on Glad Day. I think it demonstrates a problem that is occurring all over the US, for all kinds of retailers. Just recently a long-established record shop was kicked out of its space where it has prevailed for over 20 years so that a more "upscale" facility could be put in its place. A few days ago we ran into a friend with a long-established, very nice lingerie business whose lease won't be renewed because the mall wants a "chain" in her place. This is becoming an insidious disease. I think you called it by its justifiable name - Greed.

Lee Kirk

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I feel I have to respond to some of what Asher Brauner said in your last issue about self-published books.

No, the National Buyer at B&N will not buy a book without a marketing plan. Having fifteen years advertising/marketing experience, I cannot blame them. But there is always a way to circumvent the "rule." Scheduling events with local stores can get your book into the hands of that particular store's manager/employees.

They cannot carry it on a regular basis without the book being in the national B&N data base, but they can carry it for a month or two around a reading/signing. Do a few of them that are successful, develop a relationship with the Customer Relations Coordinator and/or manager, and you've got entry into the national database. It may take a while, but I've read posts from people in my publishing lists that have accomplished it this way.

In response to the statement that indie employees can recommend your book and others because they've read them, implying that the chains do not, that is simply not true. The B&N I did a reading at last week has a list of employees and their specialty genres. It also lists their picks and invites you to ask for them to discuss the books.

Many indies do this as well. I just did some signings for The Town Book Store in New Jersey (the one in Westfield, by the way, is the LAST independent bookstore in Union County - how sad). I was totally impressed by the employees' knowledge of their inventory.

The bottom line to me is that you can't make blanket statements about either indies or chains. Every chain store has its own subtle differences, due largely to who the manager and customer relation coordinator are. There is no easy answer to the promotion of a self-published book. You just need to keep trying. Then stop doing the things that aren't working.

Staci Backauskas

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I think there's enough experiential evidence from self-published authors on the table now to suggest that generalities about chains v. indies really don't work. For whatever reasons, bookstores of whatever size behave differently -- chains don't all act alike and indies don't all act alike. Some chain stores welcome self-published authors, as has been my experience in Portland, Oregon, and indies don't (ditto), but other authors have different experiences. To me, this strongly suggests that individual chain stores do NOT all act alike, at least not with respect to promoting local authors. (Indies, of course, should not do so by definition, though perhaps they can be less independent that many believe). Indeed, the various B&N stores that welcomed and promoted my recent book were different in degrees of promotion and enthusiasm, from those who seemed only to be doing their job to those who were wildly enthusiastic beyond the call of duty. These B&N stores did NOT all "feel alike" despite similarity in decor -- my experience there as an author seemed to reflect the personality of the host, the community rep there, an individual human being. I had no more sense of being in a restrictive corporate environment than I do in my university classroom.

In other words, INDIVIDUAL EMPLOYEES, whether at a chain or indie, do much to determine and communicate the feel of a store. They define the service level of a store. In Portland, Oregon, in my experience, as well as from the listings of readings I see in the newspaper, the chains are more receptive to local authors than the indies. (To cite another example, when graduate writing students from Portland State Univ, where I teach screenwriting, received their degrees, it was a chain store, BORDERS, that hosted a reading by them, even though they had no books to sell. This is a worthy public service, and if indies don't have the resources to do it, fine, but the chains shouldn't be criticized for picking up the slack. Giving our young writers a stage is important.)

Charles Deemer

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Jack Saunders makes a reasonable point about the suspect nature of state-sponsored art, but I think he's a little over the top in implying (well, saying!) that there can be no difference between the workings of totalitarian societies in this regard and those of a democratic society.

WPA art may look quaint now, but it was progressive and even challenging in its time, and if the WPA didn't revolutionize art or literature, it at least kept a number of great artists from starving or freezing until such time as they could produce magnificent work that people other than the government would pay for. That is probably how the NEA functions now, and we may have to wait another 50 or 75 years to get a good perspective on the value of what it sponsors.

Linda Maloney

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I'm not sure what point Jack Saunders is trying to make - except it appears that he would do without the NEA as well as Newt Gingrich setting the cultural agenda.

If that is the case, I agree.

However, the inversion of cause and effect in the assertion that the reduced funding for the NEA in effect determines the content of our literature can't really be serious. The content of our literature is determined by those who write and those who publish. And those numbers are increasing without the help of the NEA or the Congress.

Gene Schwartz


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.