by Pat Holt
Tuesday, July 11, 2000
Well, perhaps the juiciest story to come out of Harry Potter night last Friday is the true tale of a Barnes & Noble employee who walked up and down the line of 300 customers at Books of Wonder in Manhattan, according to a story at www.Inside.com.
The time was 12:30 a.m. The line was full of people and kids in costume, with manager Jennifer Lavonier dressed in a witch's hat and long black dress. An oversized Harry Potter lookalike carrying yellow balloons had been keeping everybody busy by asking questions, to which the kids screamed the answers.
So when the Barnes & Noble employee showed up, yelling to the crowd that there was "no line and a 40% discount" at the B&N store up the street, guess what happened?
Nothing! Nobody left the line! The reporter ran over to the 6th Avenue B&N, and sure enough, "there [was] no line and barely any people in the store." But not one of those 300+ Harry Potter fans moved a muscle.
Customers told Lavonier that they came to Books of Wonder because her store had presented J. K. Rowling twice for signings, so this was the store where they were going to buy Harry Potter #4.
As one woman said to Lavonier from far back in the line, "You guys support us. We support you." Bravo, indy customers!
What a treat to sit down with Marty Asher, editor-in-chief at Vintage Books, the distinguished trade paperback imprint at Random House, and ask those tough questions every publishing observer wants to know: What's it like inside the jaws of Big Bertha or to put it in terms of the big picture, what do you think of independent bookstores, chains, Amazon.com, eBooks and the future of publishing?
Asher is one of the nice guys of the book business, a lover of good literature and a veteran of several publishing outlets - Pocket, Fawcet and Quality Paperback Book Club. Currently on tour for his quirky illustrated novel, "Boomer" (see Part 2), he smiles at the barrage of questions as if he faces it every day, which, come to think of it, he does.
So let's start with an easy one: What about electronic publishing? How does it affect a traditional publisher like Random House and Vintage?
"To me, the eBook is a solution to a nonexistent problem," Asher says. "I've yet to meet a person who says, 'Gosh, I would read a lot more, but books have all these difficult pages and covers - you can't plug them in; there are no batteries; it's such a hassle.' "
Well, isn't the time coming soon when young readers will wonder why we ever cut trees down to make pages that are glued together in disposable packages we call books?
Asher shakes his head. "This country is so technologically crazy that we assume every technology is going to obliterate everything else. Movies were supposed to put an end to radio; TV was supposed to kill movies. None of that happened. We find instead there's room for a lot of delivery systems. [Random House head] Peter Olson has gone on record that in 10 years, eBooks won't represent more than 5-10% of business. He sees it as parallel to audiobooks, a slow haul.
"So I'm more concerned with the level of electronic distraction we're all suffering from. You can make an eBook, but you can't read it any faster. Books are a very time-intensive investment. On the one hand I think in our electronically insane society, it's good to have books that force you to slow down, to think. But on the other hand, we have a job to do of keeping people reading. As publishers, we've done singularly lousy job with kids, for example. We should be airlifting books into every high school."
Electronic publishing may do just that very soon. Doesn't the speed of the electronic revolution scare people in traditional publishing?
Asher smiles - clearly he's been one of them. "I think any medium is fine as long as people are reading. It's content that's the issue. When all this started I got scared that editors were going to be outmoded, but then it dawned on me. There are two links in this chain that can't be replaced: writers and editors. Everything else can conceivably be done away with. You don't need publishers for distribution, for example."
Of course, on-line publishers like Xlibris and iUniverse may not agree with Asher. One reason they're so popular is that they've accused mainstream publishing of not meeting the proliferation of writers, of being too inbred, too New York-centered, too elitist and too inaccessible to be worthy of the young talent that's out there refusing to wait.
"I think online publishing is wonderful thing," Asher says. "It's having a terrific democratizing effect on the kind of publishing I do and making things accessible in a different way. It's a challenge to publishers that the means of production is in other people's hands. I don't think iUniverse is going to put Random out of business, but it wouldn't surprise me that Random House may buy books from authors who put them online first.
"Nevertheless, I think there are more bad books that are published than good books that are not. It's similar to cable TV: Does anybody watch the channel with the deranged person in your neighborhood who's carrying on in front of a camera? I'm not sure that every novel somebody writes deserves to be published. If it is, I hope cyberspace is truly infinite."
As to the question of whether good books fall through the cracks, whether Random House has become such a monolith that its systems are crushing creativity, or whether publishers consider independents as equally important to chains and online booksellers - tune in for Part II and beyond.
During an interview at A Different Light (see #163), Richard Labonte mentioned several gay writers whose books have become bestsellers with general audiences. A few of these writers had new books sitting right there on the New Releases table that are worth a brief mention here. You can buy them from A Different Light at http://www.adlbooks.com/ .
Here, for example, is Christopher Bram, the critically respected writer who became famous last year when his novel, "Father of Frankenstein," was made into the Academy Award-winning movie, "Gods and Monsters." His new book, "The Notorious Dr. August" (Morrow; 498 pages; $26), offers the kind of engrossing personal saga that's swept up by historical forces (from the Civil War to the 1920s) in a narrative that educates as much as it entertains. Nearing the end of his life, Dr. August, a pianist, describes an unlikely yet not unfathomable love triangle (the gay Dr. August loves a former slave who loves a white governness). His early-century formality contrasts well with barely restrained emotion, and a relish for the telling detail: "We steamed into Liverpool on a cool May morning through dingy wedding veils of fog. My first glimpse of the Old World was of dark phantoms emerging from a soft gray chowder . . ."
Unfortunately, a lesser experience awaits with the great Edmund White. What a surprise: Since his eloquent growing-up tale, "A Boy's Own Story," struck a universal chord over a decade ago, White has written everything from biographies ("Genet") and fiction ("Forgetting Elena") to travel lit ("States of Desire") and literary criticism ("Marcel Proust").
In his latest work, "The Married Man" (Knopf; 321 pages; $25), White depicts Paris as seen through a gay man's eyes - resplendent and seedy, sophisticated and gorgeous, secretive and accessible. White is such a master at place that it's sad to watch his writing grow clinical and removed as the hapless protagonist, Austin, falls for the fey Julien. In their need to elevate dalliance as the preferred esoterica of the day, White's characters become childish and annoying, unable to seek deeper and more abiding realms of emotion and response.
One turns, then, to Jeannette Winterston, another superb writer whose career was launched with the ascerbic yet often comical coming-of-age saga, "Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit." Winterson, too, has run the gamut from essays ("Art Objects") to novels about physics ("Gut Symmetries"). Like White, she has written a novel about falling in love with someone who is married, although her book, "Written on the Body," offers the perspective of a person whose gender is never revealed.
Winterson is also a master of short fiction, and her latest collection, "The World and Other Places," just out in paperback (Vintage; 228 pages; $12) offers astoundingly rich and resourceful stories, vignettes and ideas that mix mythology and futuristic vision. Winterson's best writing captures those moments of daily life when the world seems to explode in a single detail.
For example, when the narrator of "The 24-Hour Dog" speaks the name of her "soft as rainwater" puppy, who perks up and "[catches] the word as deftly as I had thrown it," time stands still. "This was the little bit of evolution that endlessly repeats itself in the young and new-born thing. In this moment there are no cars or aeroplanes. The Sistine Chapel is unpainted, no book has been written. There is the moon, the water, the night, one creature's need and another's response. The moment between chaos and shape and I say his name and he hears me."
Cleve Jones is not well-known as a writer, but one of the most gripping chronicles of the AIDS epidemic is his memoir, "Stitching a Revolution," written with Jeff Dawson (HarperSanFrancisco; 285 pages; $26).
Here Jones, the gay organizer who founded the NAMES project in San Francisco, explains how he got the idea for the now-famous AIDS quilt from his grandmother, and how the little piece of cloth on which he sewed remembrances for his departed best friend inspired others to do the same. Now bursting with some 80,000 names, the quilt has grown into a vast carpet of grief and renewal that covers 25 football fields. If you've never seen this quilt, a photo is provided that shows all 43 tons of it (with 20,000 boxes of Kleenex discreetly placed on the walkways, and boy, do people need 'em) stretched out in front of the Washington mall in D.C.
"Stitching a Revolution" is the kind of book one expects to find in a gay bookstore, but until we read of Jones struggling past his own exhaustion and money problems to hear the stories of PWAs (people with AIDS) and the people who grieve their passing, we don't know how life-altering a book can be. It is an intensely practical, pragmatic story without a single a mawkish or sentimental word, its power radiating from Jones' respect for "average" people whose response to AIDS can lead to personal transcendence.
One night, for example, he spots an elderly black woman standing outside the NAMES Project's storefront, peering through the window. It turns out that after her son died at her home in Appalachia, she closed the door to his room and got on a bus for San Francisco. Now she stands outside what Jones suddenly realizes is a "young and white and gay" world that seems ominous and foreboding to her until Jones opens the door and invites her in. After observing the bustling activities and various outbreaks of joy and grief accompanying the sewing of the quilt, the woman approaches Cleve, hands him a quilted panel she has already made and says, "This is my son. I'm going home now and clean out his room." It's a small but intensely moving moment that's replicated many times throughout this memorable book.
On to the smaller gems from A Different Light next time.
Dear Holt Uncensored
The CD release of "Judy Garland Speaks!" may be new, but it has circulated on tape for years--I've had one since the mid 1980's. It is one of the most terrifying things I've ever heard and both major Garland bios of the past 30 years have quoted from it. To Judy Queens, this is not news, and though it is probably anathema to many, I would bet it is a rare devotee who doesn't own it.
Of course you can review the Judy Garland CD, although it is certainly your right not to do so if you believe that strongly that unauthorized recordings have no basis in the marketplace.
There are many publications who review bootleg recordings as a service to their readers and several books out there deal solely with the artists' bootlegged material. Even Judy's killer concert at Carnegie Hall, in the early sixties, was a popular bootleg for years, until the record company released it "officially."
A good history of the bootleg can be found in the book, "Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry"by Clinton Heylin.
Holt responds: A number of readers have written to inform me of my "right" to review the tapes and their surprise that I would "grovel" in apology (moi?) to the people connected with it. Like Labonte I agree with the principles of copyright law and didn't WANT to review it or promote it in any way. Bare-bones description in this case seemed the way to go.
After yawning my way through dozens of unconvincing indictments of Amazon.com's alleged ignorance of books, I was woken up and amused by Ed Hermance's demolition of Amazon's pretensions in his area. Pity, then, that Hernance then gets in a tizzy over the way:
"the e-commerce giant has taken 'amazon' as their name for purely marketing reasons. They have no commitment whatsoever to women's rights, let alone to the empowerment of lesbians. Millions of women in the twentieth century have invested the word with meanings that reenforce its ancient mythic meaning."
Aw, come on -- to that large percentage of the population that's not overly concerned with "ancient mythic meanings," etc., "Amazon" primarily means a river and a forested area. (Try looking up "Amazon" in an encyclopedia: which entry comes first?) It's obvious -- to me, at least -- that the company is referring to the forest that's being destroyed by production of its wares. If you concede this, then you may say that the choice of name is appallingly callous; I happen to think it's wry, and good.
I'm sorry to be such a stickler, but it was definitely "Swifty" Lazaar and not "Sparky." We Hollywood types need to keep our myths and legends remembered accurately.Things are moving so fast out here that we need to hang on to some of our history. Speaking of which, Bernie Brillstein's book, "Where Did I Go Right?: You're No One in Hollywood Unless someone Wants You Dead" makes great reading.
Holt responds: My apologies to the MANY readers who wrote to correct me on my "Sparky" gaffe - egad, I must have been thinking of Charles Schulz.
Regarding the Amazon.com listing of a book by Gay Talese in a gay history category "for no reason other than the author's first name": This type of listing problem begins with an inadequate or incorrect set of categories, and demonstrates the problem the book buyer experiences in every transaction at the larger websites. You can magnify the Gay Talese problem by a factor of 10,000; it pervades the large corporate booksellers' sites.
Booksellers have never been asked their opinion, just for their money . . . You just shake your head when a suggestion has been dismissed by a 20-year-old in the out-of-print department who has no access to a heavily fire-walled middle and senior management at Amazon.com.
I recently cancelled my zShops service because of the poor upload protocols, the confusion in their billing department (twice I did a purge and replace, and they billed me $200 for the privilege, then sent me through hoops to get the invoices fixed), the slow and spotty sales compared to my other listing services (I have 4500 titles but never successfully loaded more than 1700 of them to zShops), and the quadrupling of the price (they were tolerable at $9.99 per month for 3000 listings, but not worth the trouble at $39.99).
If I ever had doubts about having joined TomFolio.com [the independent bookseller's cooperative], those doubts were allalyed recently In the closed member-only list, where members have been passionately and intelligently steering their board toward a category list and set of search protocols that do not exist on any of the book search services (TomFolians want to get it right before we open the door).
The online book industry has never had a discussion that comes close to the intelligent discussions that take place on the co-op's member-only list. It's impressive the depth and breadth of the experience that is being focused by the co-op.
I am gay. I spent over $250 at Giovanni's Room in the past 12 months. I LOVE books and bookstores (brick and cyber both). Onward:
While the listing of Gay Talese in the Male Queer History list is clearly an error - and a hoot - some of Ed Hermance's other criticisms do not seem entirely well-founded. I'm a bit surprised that you would reprint them as is without any question as to accuracy.
"In the gay list is 'Gay Metropolis,' which Amazon.com offers at $27. They don't tell you there's a paperback edition at $14." All you have to do is click on the title to learn that it's available in paperback. For under $12 at Amazon, by the way.
"Though there are only 25 titles in the gay history list, one of those titles is the 1995 fundamentalist rant, 'Straight or Narrow?' which maintains that we [gay people] are all going to hell - and Amazon's reader/critics liked the book." There are 100 titles. Just look. And Fundamentalist rants against gays are a critical part of gay history.
"Though there's a separate lesbian history list, the gay list includes Lillian Faderman's 'To Believe in Women' at $30 (full price and with no mention of the paperback at $15) and Diane Middlebrook's 'Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton,' neither of which has any gay [male] content." Same deal with the paperback as above. The Middlebrook book is certainly relevant to both gays and lesbians as it provides a powerful examination of sexuality and gender roles.
"The Amazon.com gay list does not include Marc Stein's 'City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945 - 1972' (U of Chicago, June 2000), nor Martin Duberman's 'Stonewall,' nor K.J. Dover's 'Greek Homosexuality' (Harvard, 1989), nor Louis Crompton's 'Byron and Greek Love,' nor any of hundreds of other titles that Giovanni's Room carries in gay history."
Hey, it's 100 of Amazon's bestselling titles in the category. Amazon does carry these other books. Just look!
"Among their 25 titles in lesbian history." Again, it's 100 titles. The screed of complaint seems to suggest just a cursory glance.
"One last comment: It is enraging that the e-commerce giant has taken 'amazon' as their name for purely marketing reasons. They have no commitment whatsoever to women's rights, let alone to the empowerment of lesbians. Millions of women in the twentieth century have invested the word with meanings that reenforce its ancient mythic meaning. Now, thanks to the predatory corporation's media savvy, the word is tarnished with its ignorant commercialism. Talk about bad people ruining a perfectly good word."
Amazon.com was named after the river (i.e. an endless stream of information brought to your doorstep) and their original logo featured an image of a river. This nonsense is akin to saying that the phrase "black out" to describe a power outage is racist.
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.