by Pat Holt
Friday, July 14, 2000
Well, congratulations to Barnes & Noble for a stellar week in the Land of Gaffes.
First, there was that misguided Barnes & Noble clerk who tried to lure some 300 Harry Potter fans from Books of Wonder, an independent bookstore, to a nearby B&N, where there was "no line and a 40% discount" on the Potter book, she promised (see #166).
Call it unfair, invasive or downright dumb (nobody took her up on it, bless 'em), but that was nothing on the Gaffe-0-Meter compared to what happened a few days later.
This Tuesday, Barnes & Noble tried to stop a group of independent booksellers from using the word "discovery" in their promotions. Unbelievable, but true.
In an astounding cease-and-desist letter, Barnes & Noble insisted that the "Discovery of the Month" program of the New England Booksellers Association, which began in 1994, violates B&N's rights to its own "Discover Great New Writers" program, which began in 1990.
Goodness, what damage the independents have done to this poor chain.
Not only has B&N lived with the "problem" for more than six years without objection, it has distinguished itself by charging publishers excessive amounts of money to help the chain promote these "great new writers" it "discovers" each season.
NEBA, on the other hand, uses a panel of member booksellers to select the new titles and does not ask publishers for funds. Its 400 stores reflect the spirit of independent bookselling by bringing enthusiasm and knowledge to the act of spreading the word and personally hand-selling the books chosen.
So what's going on, B&N? Surely a regional booksellers association that uses the word "discovery" in one of its programs can't be causing that much trouble. As NEBA prez Donna Urey suggests, executives at B&N "seem to think that they can trademark the English language" by beating their chest over the word "discover."
Even PW Daily, its objectivity set aside in an outburst of disbelief at the B&N move, began its story about the matter by wondering, "What's next? Copyrighting the word 'book'? Patenting paper?"
It could be that Barnes & Noble simply wants to throw its weight around. It wants everybody to know who's the boss and how far to jump and who's got the deep pockets. It wants what it's always wanted - to wipe out the competition and become, as Urey concludes, "the world's only book retailer."
I know I've made this point before, but it never ceases to amaze me that when you ask booksellers why they're in business, independents say they want to make a living at selling books. Chain booksellers and Amazon.com execs admit they don't have that much interest in the "product" they sell - they just want to win.
But bravo, NEBA! Within hours of receiving the B&N letter, NEBA director Rusty Drugan issued a press release portraying the association not as a victim but a hero. The headline did not say, "B&N ATTACKS NEBA." It said: "NEW ENGLAND BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION REJECTS BARNES & NOBLE CLAIM TO THE WORD 'DISCOVERY.' "
Then, minutes after the release hit the Internet, other regional associations throughout the country contacted their own media, spreading the word that Barnes & Noble was at it again.
Well, I hope the folks at Contentville have a great vacation package, because they sure have enough advertisements to pay for it.
The much-touted website ( www.contentville.com ) that's promised readers a new pathway to literature of all kinds - books, magazines, scripts, dissertations, speeches, legal documents - is so larded with ads to buy/join/subscribe that it's hard to find the content in Contentville.
"Join our club and get this book for free," runs one headline; "Get the latest insight into business," says a story about Forbes magazine, "Get a business-savvy discount," shouts another story about Harvard Business Review.
And these aren't even ads! The "real" ads sit on the sidelines: Order the New York Times online; "Start Your Magazine Subscription In Days, Not Weeks"; "Introduce Your Friends To Contentville And Get Up To A $10 Credit."
Gad, slow down with the money-grubbing, Contentville! The only fun ad (because it leads to "real" content) is a link to the page that sells Harry Potter #4 (of course) but also offers the most delightful anecdotes from independent booksellers about the Potter phenomenon that's yet been collected in one place (see this at http://www.contentville.com/expert/potter.asp ).
It's too bad readers must slog through these ads to get to the long-promised guts of Contentville: Original and astute critical literary writings by editors, writers, independent booksellers, professors and critics. But while the line-up of these experts is impressive, it's hard to know what they DO among all the ads and expensive downloads.
For example, the list of contributing editors is impressive - Sherman Alexie, Sissela Bok, Stephen Carter, Anna Devere Smith, George Plimpton, Anita Hill, Louis Begley, Wendy Wasserstein (35 in all). But what you get by clicking on each of their names is a short (except for David Halberstam, who seems even more windy than me) "What I'm Reading Now" piece that is interesting but doesn't have a lot of heat under it.
The magazine experts vary widely. Public radio's Susan Burton gives a snappy run-down of teen magazines (although why are they all for girls?) while Timothy Ferris's essay on magazines about science touches on The Economist, veers into television, complains that editors don't really like science and never gets back to magazines.
Independent booksellers turn out to be the most intriguing experts because they're usually not asked to participate in projects like this, and their fresh humor and VERY independent thoughts enliven a forum that is otherwise a bit staid and at times plodding.
And just about every time you get to a book listing, another ad pops up, this one for Alibris! This used/out-of-print/rare book website raises prices like mad and doesn't belong in an editorial section of anything. Past the Alibris promo, too often if there are reviews, they're from PW or Library Journal. These are fine and workmanlike, but they don't distinguish Contentville.
As to all the "stuff" (Contentville infantilizes itself by saying it's got all "the best stuff") that's been publicized as intriguing and informative - "Download Your Shrink's Thesis," Find "Landmark Speeches" - well, get out your credit card because most of it's chargeable.
According to Salon.com's Sean Elder (who reviews Contentville at http://www.salon.com/business/col/elder/2000/07/12/contentville/index.html , with so much available free on the Internet, "the wisdom of [Contentville] charging for Nixon's Checker's speech, or William Jennings Bryan's 'Cross of Gold' crowd-pleaser seems specious. With a little patience, I found both online. For free, of course."
The idea is to make your search so easy you won't mind paying, but even here the site is a tangle of problems. Among the many transcripts the site provides, we're told, is "the downloadable JFK 'Bay of Pigs' Speech," but this is extremely difficult to find, especially when you get into various transcripts of TV shows that might have it, and you're forced to pick through the show's program on an "Abstract" that looks like this:
Filler: Comments on Florida rape case(45 lines)
The eBooks section is not ready yet, which we can forgive (why put it up, though?), while the Screenplay department is also tough to search. I tried the Hitchcock classics "Vertigo" and "Notorious" and got "no match." Ditto with "Notting Hill," and here the site decided to be helpful by suggesting that "Notting" was misspelled - "try 'Noting,' " it prompted. A successful match came up for "Fargo" (the Faber & Faber paperback, not exactly a find), but when I got down below the book and clicked on "Contentville Recommends These Related Products," up came . . . another ad! For Premiere magazine, of all things.
Well, maybe Contentville will learn to serve the reader first, quit selling itself so hard and have a little fun with its own site. But new warning signals are all over the place. Read on.
Robert Bolick wrote an absorbing piece called "Curling Up With an E-Book" for the New York Times the other day (7/7). There he said that popular books are now available by the tens of thousands for downloading on e-Book readers, that reading text on a screen is a delight, and that it's a relief not to lug 50 pounds of paper books around when you can download 'em into an e-Book that weighs a few pounds.
He notes how satisfying it is to use e-Book resources (dictionary, type sizes, margin notes, search engine, etc.) and how quickly he has left the print-on-paper world as a remnant of the past.
But Bolick's "idyllic portrait" was met with skepticism in a letter to the editor from Hugh Siegel, who wrote to say he was reminded "of the great promise of the early Internet. At first the Internet was a liberating and democratic source of pure, uncompromised knowledge.
"Then the commercial interests staked their claims, transforming virtually every Web page into a honky-tonk landscape of flashing advertisements." Woe are we, says Siegel, if that happens to e-Books. If it does, "I'll be reading print on paper till the bitter end."
I think that's what has happened to Contentville.com (see above) already, and Inside.com (#154) in a way: A clutter of flashy attention-getters blinks out at us with so many sales pitches, it feels like we're in a used car lot.
Siegel is already worried that the margins of e-Book pages will get hit with the same clutter, and good for him. I'm sure someone in the industry will say, oh, you can just ignore the ads or put a strip of tape over them or something like that. This would be the equivalent of renting a video and fast-forwarding through a dozen previews to get to the movie. In either case, the message is clear - it's your fault if you're distracted by an obscene number of ads in a video or e-Book you're already paying for.
For many readers, it's not the ads per se that are bothersome but the giant corporate muscle underneath that continues to wrest control of every inch in cyberspace from Internet users. In this light, there's no difference between Jeff Bezos' use of software patents to fence off the Internet for Amazon.com's gain or Barnes & Noble's attempt to stop those booksellers in New England from hosting their own "discovery" program.
Since mainstream publishing has already been reduced to seven giant conglomerates, it's difficult to imagine, given what's happening on the Internet so far, that anybody will stop a new ads from cluttering up e-Books' electronic pages.
Did you see that Faith Popcorn writes in her new book, "EVEolution" (whoa, Faith, lose that title) that the best way to market to women is to brand every inch of Earthspace they touch? Every truck they see on the way to the grocery store should have a banner ad, and every slot on the parking lot blacktop should be painted with ads, so your kids can fight over whether you park in Cap'n Crunch or Cheerio slots?
Well, insane as it is, the idea reminds me of Contentville - "the best stuff" made so repellent with ads that unless they're careful, advertisers will have a backlash on their hands. If there's one thing Internet users know very well how to do, it's not sticking around.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I just read your column regarding the private audio tapes Judy Garland made in the '60s. I thought you might be interested to know that those tapes aren't the only Judy Garland material involved in a copyright issue and that Lorna Luft is not the only person defending Judy.
I am currently engaged in legal action against Random House/Gerald Clarke for his unauthorized use of my aunt's (Dorothy Ponedel) unpublished memoirs regarding her work in Hollywood as a make-up artist and her relationship with Judy Garland, in particular.
I, like Lorna and the rest of Judy's family, am furious at the continued misuse and abuse continually thrown at Judy by people who not only never knew her but have absolutely no clue as to what she was really all about.
When my aunt wrote her memoirs, she did so prompted by these same feelings. They were written not too long after Judy passed away, and Dot was also very angry at the lies being written about her by people only out to make a profit. Dot decided to put down her story, which actually involves a lot more than just Judy. My aunt started in the industry about 15 years or so before she had even met Judy. She had made a name for herself as one of Hollywood's top make-up artists by the time they met. Dot and Judy remained close friends 'til Judy's death.
Your letter writer, Greg Hatfield of Seven Hills Book Distributors, was seriously misinformed or misinforming you when he stated that "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.'"
This is untrue. There was no period of "years" in the sixties when "Judy at Carnegie Hall" was a "popular bootleg." Capitol Records rushed the album into the stores, even releasing an early deluxe limited editon with a plain black cover so that the more dedicated fans could buy something even sooner.
The album hit the Billboard chart at #1 and stayed there for 13 consecutive weeks, logging an astonishing 85 weeks on the chart altogether. It won Grammy awards for Best Female Vocalist of the Year, Best Album of the Year, Best Engineering Contribution (Popular), and Best Album Cover.
There are pros and cons when it comes to bootleg albums, but let's not use false arguments to push our positions. This CD release was of private audio journal entries; it was not a concert. It was cloaked as something that would give insight into a star's psychology, but in reality it was merely a ghoulish attempt to make money from a star's dirty laundry.
I've been reading Daniel Boorstin's "The Image" (1961 edition) and I just came across a passage that I think you and your readers might find interesting historically as well as in light of the debate about indies and sales tax currently playing in your column and elsewhere.
Briefly, Boorstin's socio-psychological analysis of U.S. culture examines the rise of the "pseudo-event" in 19th and 20th century America. The pseudo-event is exemplified by press releases, political "leaks," tourist attractions, celebrity "stars," and, in the chapter I just finished, such representations of the modern "arts" as mass reproduction of artistic images and mass marketing of books.
Forget all that for now; read this excerpt in which Boorstin addresses the effect of the "best-seller" on bookstores:
"It is not only the moral and aesthetic effects of best-sellerism that have plagued the book trade. The commercial side effects have been serious. In May 1961 [the year "The Image" was first published] 'Publishers' Weekly' noted that bookstores in the metropolitan New York area, in their struggle to maintain Fair Trade prices, were selling fewer and fewer best-sellers. This was because as soon as a book appeared on one of the more publicized best-seller lists, it was customarily selected by Macy's and Gimbel's to be offered as a loss leader and was then sold by them at cost or below. Under these circumstances, regular bookshops could not compete; they could not find buyers for the book at the list price, and hence did not order it.
One bookseller proposed, therefore, that the Best-Seller List be called instead a "Worst-Seller List" - "this cut-throat list no bookseller wants except the outlets that football a few titles as traffic builders. If there were no best-seller lists, all booksellers would sell more books at a profit." But the public demands its best sellers and its best-seller lists as it demands its celebrities and all its other pseudo-events. The synthetic character of all of them bothers most people very little. The quality of being a best-seller, despite everything, still remains the most advertised and advertisable fact - the biggest 'news' about a book."
It's hardly an exact analogy but it seems to me that the problem at that time (as at present) involved "real" bookstores constrained financially by laws which prevented them from competing on a level ground with "outsiders" not similarly constrained. Sound familiar?
This makes me wonder what happened in the book-marketplace that kept the B-S list going and bookstores selling it. I have no historical background on this, nor do I know what happened on the bookselling scene in the sixties after Boorstin wrote. What was "Fair Trade?" What happened to it? Why doesn't Macy's sell best-sellers anymore? Or does it? B-S cookbook signings certainly qualify in Boorstin's book as "pseudo-events." (As does "Harry Potter" fever. Come on, Pat, how can you defend such a ludicrous spectacle? "Let's all multimillions of us buy the same book at exactly the same time! Look, there's a camera!")
Disclaimer: I'm not shilling for Boorstin here; I just thought I'd share an interesting passage from an interesting book I'm reading.
Holt responds: As to the Harry Potter phenomenon, I think it's a privilege to live in a time when something so extraordinary - and so worthy of ALL the spectacle - takes off. It's like watching "The Wizard of Oz" and the series that followed in microcosm. If you don't think it's a "real" event, see below.
You wrote: "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."
Many of us who went to the Harry Potter pajama party at Cover to Cover in San Francisco felt the same. We had seen J.K. Rowling there, too. Tracey, and Mark, the co-owners, and their staff had called us personally and said, "Your Harry Potter copy will be waiting here for you when you come." How they made those hundreds of calls, I don't know.
Amid the cookies and juice, four stations were set up in the store for distribution, and by 11:30 pm we were all in line. At a few minutes before midnite, the children had started a countdown (like a NASA rocket launch) and when the 5..4..3..2..1...0 finished there was sea of small hands reaching for the books that were being pulled out of the white boxes.
Sophie, a classmate of my son's, got the first, and we all cheered and clapped. What a moment! What a wonderful moment to see a bookstore of children in pj's and tired parents happy and anxious to run home and read!
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.