Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, July 18, 2000





I felt one of those funny whomps (sudden lung collapse) last Friday when Reuters reported that Bertelsmann, the German conglomerate that bought Random House two years ago, "is moving management of its book publishing headquarters out of Germany to New York and putting Random House CEO and chairman Peter Olson in charge of its book publishing activities worldwide."

Wow. That's going to make the monolithic nature of Random House today seem like a blip on the literary radar screen. Granted, it was because of the Random House purchase that Bertelsmann became the largest publisher in the English-speaking world, with "34% of company earnings [coming] out of the U.S. in the last fiscal year ended June 30th," Reuters adds.

But bringing the whole dang corporate headquarters to NY causes observers (me f'instance) to worry anew about what bigness means in American book publishing.

I'm not concerned so much about foreign ownership per se. Bertelsmann, like Von Holtzbrink (German owner of St. Martin's, Henry Holt and Farrar, Straus & Giroux), has not only been a benign corporate parent but often a positive influence on the American publishing scene.

You can't say this about the Rupert Murdochs or (years ago) the Robert Maxwells of the world, but these two German publishers have proven to be less comfortable with commercialism and more adventurous when it comes to taking literary risks with audiences than mainstream American houses are.

Nevertheless, consolidation of power puts the choices about the books we read into fewer and fewer hands, and that's scary no matter who does it. For Random House, the largest publisher on our landscape, to become even larger and even more powerful, while Bertelsmann continues its acquisition spree throughout the world, and across disciplines (don't forget the company's half-ownership of Barnesandnoble.com) is terrifying.

As to how it feels on the inside of Random House when you're one of those making the decisions, see below.



We're back discussing publishing with Marty Asher (see #166), editor-in-chief of Vintage Books, the respected trade paperback imprint at Random House.

It's time to ask this gifted editor straight out: Isnāt it hard to be in a corporation where you have to compete with other imprints under the same umbrella, let alone watch your own bottom line, plus protect your position from the politics that often come in such a large conglomerate?

Asher, who's just written an illustrated novel called "The Boomer" (we'll talk about it in part 3), says he doesn't mind fielding this kind of question, tangled though the answer may be.

"The thing with Random House to me is that the name isn't coincidental. A lot of things happen there at random, especially after we merged with Bantam Doubleday Dell [which Bertelsmann owned when it bought Random]. But while the imprints and the combinations of dealing with them got more complicated, from my perspective it doesn't matter.

"The way we acquire books is a sometimes very odd system, but the weird thing is that it still sort of works. I don't know what the market wants. I don't think the market knows what it wants. The only reliable indicator is passion. The only important question is: Do we love it? We bought 'Cold Mountain' six months to a year before [hardcover] publication. We paid a great deal of money, but it was so devastatingly well written that I went to Sonny (Mehta, publisher at Vintage) and said I had to publish this book.

"The times I've failed miserably have been the times I've tried to go downmarket. I have never overestimated our readership. There's nothing worse, especially in paperback, than buying a book that's not very good because you think it's going to succeed, and then being stuck with it a year later and having to sell it to your sales representatives."

Isn't the opposite problem what you usually have to face? Editors from other imprints wanting to bid against you?

"The taste of individual editors is still so different that in the course of a year, I'd be surprised if we tangle with each other more than, say, a dozen times a year," says Marty. "When you consider the number of books coming in all the time, that's amazing."

Well, we might as well talk about the Amy Tan episode, I say, as Asher grimaces, because what happened with the paperback of Tan's "The Joy Luck Club" is the kind of problem that comes up in a huge corporate-owned publishing company, or so it seems to many observers.

A little background: Long before the hardcover publication of Tan's book, Asher was an early champion of "The Joy Luck Club." He made an eloquent plea for Vintage to buy the paperback rights, and Tan was smitten by his passion for the book. So Vintage ended up acquiring the book over other paperback houses competing for it.

By the time the book was ready for paperback publication, however, it had become such a huge bestseller that others in Random House decided it should be published under the Ivy imprint (mass market reprint) rather than Vintage.

Asher was crushed, but his arguments got nowhere, for one reason because one of the heads of Random House was married to the publisher of Ivy. Not only was Asher out of the loop, so was Amy Tan, who had gone with Vintage in large part because of Marty Asher and didn't didn't hear about the switch until very late in the process.

Marty shakes his head at the memory. "That was my baptism by fire. I had been at Random House for only a year. There seemed no justice in it. I took a month off to ponder my fate. I still think it was a bad editorial decision. The book would have sold 2-3 million copies as a Vintage paperback. Heck, we've sold 3 million of 'Memoirs of a Geisha' in trade paperback. We're up to 3.5 million in 'Snow Falling on Cedars' " - another unknown to which Vintage committed very early.

But if the Tan decision was "very backward-looking and faint-hearted," as Asher believes, it wasn't exactly lethal. Looked at one (very pragmatic) way, Random House had supported Asher's choice as an editor; it just subverted his claim to it along the way. In any case, the house is much different now, he says. It's not just that the two married people are gone but that internal politics have changed with Bertelsmann's acquisition.

"Editorially, Sonny Mehta in particular has been quite supportive. And I'm kind of easy: Let me buy the books I want to buy, and everything else is negotiable. I really do regard it as a responsibility to try to keep the integrity of the imprint and to be competitive in a positive way that serves that goal."

But what can be positive about a publishing house that must depend upon the largesse of the parent? What happens to its independence? Suppose Bertelsmann changes its corporate mind, or two other married people start making decisions that change the editorial ecology of Random House?

Asher shrugs as if to say, go with the flow. "The fact is that Peter Olson has a surprisingly hands-off attitude about competing imprints. 'Youāre the publishers,' he tells us. 'You work it out.' So Random House has not become this monolith thatās put a stranglehold on creativity."

He agrees that a lot of people have worried the house has done just that. "At first, when Bertelsmann bought Random House, literary agents said 'the end of the world is nigh.' In some ways I think happiness for an agent is to get Doubleday, Knopf and Random House bidding against each other." He smiles at his small dig at agents.

Well, it wasn't only agents, I say to Marty. People like me STILL think the end of the world is nigh because Bertelsmann now owns so much of the American publishing mainstream. Surely even a person on the inside like Asher must recognize that fewer and fewer people deciding what Americans can read is frightening.

"I donāt think fewer people are making decisions about WHAT we read but about HOW we read," he answers - "about how the books are produced, how they' re sold, how they're marketed.

"But editorially there has not been one iota of difference in the two years weāve been acquired by Bertelsmann. They (Bertelsmann executives) are not interested. Thatās not their thing. Bertelsmann are book people. They know that to buy Random House and turn it into NOT Random House would be a foolish business decision."

Well, it's now going to be more Random House than ever under Peter Olson, so we'll certainly be watching. More about Asher's own book, "The Boomer," next time.



More evidence that readers continue to "get it" about independent bookstores emerged over the weekend when 41 independent stores of every size and variety set up table-top exhibits on Pier 32 in San Francisco and, for one day, welcomed anybody and everybody who wanted to take a look.

About 4000 cash-carrying customers did just that at the fifth annual confab known as Books by the Bay. Here the kind of bookish energy that so distinguished independent stores during the Harry Potter #4 stampede proved just as heady and contagious during the B by the B' all-day event.

Neither a book festival nor book fair (publisher exhibits are not allowed, although prominent authors appear on a makeshift stage throughout the day), Books by the Bay is set up as a celebration of independent bookselling. The intimacy and conviviality of the group is almost as alluring as the mix of stores - Toyon from Healdsburg, Sheila Grilli from Martinez, Thuderbird from Carmel, Cody's, Book Passage, Friends of Photography Bookstore, "M" Is for Mystery and others.

The average sale for booksellers was about $500 per table, with some doing as much as $1400, said Hut Landon of the sponsoring group, the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association. But the money was secondary.

"People came because they were attracted by so many different independent bookstores represented in one space," he said. "Nobody asked, 'Where is Barnes & Noble?' When I held up my sign that stated 'There IS a Difference' above bestseller lists from the New York Times and Book Sense, people saw the difference right away and wanted to take away copies of the Book Sense list."

Thanks to publishers who contributed books, this year's contribution to literacy groups will be $5000 (it was $3000 last year). "We don't want 20,000 people, or even 10,000," said Landon. "We're a small, focused event. To connect with readers this way verified to everyone that independent bookselling is alive and well."

Could it happen elsewhere? "Absolutely. As few as 10 to 15 bookstores in a region could get together. If 500 people attend, it's worth it."



Here we are back at A Different Light, the gay bookstore where I've asked general manager Richard Lebonte to show me some of those hidden gems by unknown writers that reflect the kind of discovery one finds at a special interest store like ADL.

We stop by the New Releases table, and I'm thrilled to see that it's loaded with memoirs and biographies of people I've never heard of. Book critics have been concerned for years about a narrowing of the Biography category, that the few biographies you see anymore are of the usual celebrity politicos - Presidents, First Ladies and the Royal Family - or stand-up comedians-turned-TV stars, or Top 40 historical figures (this generation's take on Napoleon, Emerson, Colette, Woolf, etc.)

At A Different Light, however, readers find the very form of biography so compelling that they often don't care whose life story is being chronicled. Labonte seems to agree as he hands me the decidedly obscure "Sex and Math in the Harvard Yard: The Memoirs of James Mills Peirce" by Hubert Kennedy (Peremptory Publications; 196 pages; $12 paperback - buy this at A Different Light online, http://www.adlbooks.com ).

Peirce (pronounced "purse") was not only a respected professor at Harvard in the mid-1800s but "the world's authority on quaternions," an esoteric mathematical theory quite in vogue at the time, we learn from math prof. Kennedy. A co-founder and Dean of Harvard Graduate School, Peirce traveled to Europe frequently, spoke many languages and loved theater and opera - as well as, of course, other men.

So as we learn about the influences of his time - his excitement at seeing a new play in Paris called "Cyrano de Bergerac"; his shock at the "monstrous hypocrisy" of his church's silence about slavery; his successful contribution to the "liberalisation" of Harvard (he successfully proposed that required attendance at prayers be ended) - we discover, too, a way to see history through a gay lens.

Early in his life, for example, Peirce is shocked that Boston police would run people suspected as "rogues" through a mob that shouted and spit and tore at their clothing. "The most pitiable case was a young woman who was in the habit of dressing as a man," he writes. "The mob tore off nearly all her clothes, and in the process tore her flesh, too . . . She was never accused of any real crimes, but the fact that she was 'different' was crime enough in the eyes of most people."

His own "difference" informs Peirce's ability to negotiate through elite levels of society that can turn harsh and judgmental in a second. When Oscar Wilde comes to town in 1882 and is presented with "a dreadful display of incivility" by hooting and hollering Harvard students, we see Peirce silently cheering as Wilde brilliantly turns the tables, leaving the students chagrined, and walks off the stage in triumph.

Such instances would not be quite so intriguing if it weren't for Peirce's robust writing style, his exuberance at every new experience, his love for art and his heart-pounding experience with even the slightest glimmer of love. When, in the midst of an impassioned discussion, Peirce's (straight) best friend happens to clasp Peirce's hand to his chest, "I was unable to concentrate on his words," Peirce writes, "for I was completely absorbed by the feeling of well-being that flowed through me. I felt protected from all the hurtful forces in the world in that instant."

Peirce's sexual adventures, explicitly described, bear an equally naive charm because he so enthusiastically grapples with the larger picture. He hates Kraft-Ebbing's conclustion that homosexuality is a mental illness and finds astounding scholarship to prove it isn't. He glories in the many different "species" of gay men that exist (drag queens, for example) and ponders the question of his day - does being attracted to another man make one "feminine?" Peirce argues convincingly against the notion.

Peirce is such an insightful observer of his time that we "notice" his "difference" only in the ways he has to hide it. One day, he modestly hopes, his secret memoirs may "furnish a motive of encouragement for readers to take charge of their lives, to reject the useless 'authority' that tries to tell them how to live." It's advice that's as valuable today as when he wrote it in 1905, four months before his death.



Dear Holt Uncensored,

Regarding Cam Thornley's letter: I am not exactly sure what Boorstin is referring to when writes of booksellers trying to maintain "Fair Trade" prices, but it may have something to do with Fair Trade or Unfair Trade laws on the books in some 40 or so states.

These laws were enacted primarily in the 1930s. The specifics vary from state to state, but in general they make it illegal for a business to sell goods below its own costs with an intent to harm competitors.

States enacted these rules at a time when Americans believed maintaining numerous small businesses in the marketplace was good for the economy and consumers, and absolutely essential for democracy.

Unfortunately, we've lost sight of the importance of antitrust in the last few decades. Chains routinely engage in practices that likely violate these laws, but states do little to enforce them.

Small businesses are allowed under these laws to take legal action themselves, but of course most don't have the resources to engage their big competitors in court battles. One exception is the American Booksellers Association. Its lawsuit against B&N and Borders alleges violations of both national antitrust law and California's fair trade laws.

Stacy Mitchell
Institute for Local Self-Reliance

Holt Uncensored:

As one of the official Old Guys in this bunch, I can tell you that I do remember "Fair Trade." I'm certainly no authority on the subject, and maybe one of your other readers will know all the gory details, or will take the trouble to research the subject. (Maybe in .)

But as I recall, "Fair Trade" was a system under which a product manufacturer could dictate a minimum retail price, and sellers were legally prevented from selling the product for any less than that price. Thus, if a book publisher said that a given book was "Fair Traded" as $2.95 (I'm talking about a hardcover novel now -- that's what prices were like in the 1950s and early 60s) no bookshop could discount it.

You could mark it UP from the "FT" price, if you could get away with it, but you couldn't mark it down.

The concept, in theory, was that this protected "little guy" independent retailers from predatory discounting by chains and superstores (or the 1950s equivalent thereof) by forcing everybody to sell the same product for the same price. This was designed to preserve competition and level the playing field.

Hence, "Fair Trade."

I don't think the law that gave Fair Trade pricing its muscle was ever repealed. Rather, it was struck down by the courts. To this day, customers sometimes ask, "How come this book says $14.95 right on the cover and you're selling it at that price when your competitor is selling it for $9.95?"

The responses are varied and can be lengthy, but in a nutshell, that happens because "Fair Trade" no longer exists and cover prices are only "recommended retail prices."

BTW, I heard a wonderful story the other day of an independent bookstore that had no copies of "Harry Potter #4." I don't know why not. Some astonishing glitch.

But when the Big Day arrived, they sent an employee to a chain outfit that was offering the book at a 50% discount. The employee bought a couple of cartons of copies and brought them back to the independent. There the cartons were opened and unpacked and the books were put on sale at list price. Sold out in one day.

Moral of the story: If discounters want to price books as loss leaders, God bless their bloated greedy souls. Let's help 'em lose money, the more the better!

Dick Lupoff

Holt Uncensored:

I just noticed the homepage of bn.com. It is outrageously funny.

They had 6 lines of books on erotica and Jackie Collins' Lethal Seduction, directly followed by the Harry Potter's children's book. I wonder what any kid coming to bn.com for Goblet of Fire would have thought.


Dear Holt Uncensored

We thought that we would let the "INDIES" know a thing or two about being a bookstore on an Island, the Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands, which is a British Crown colony only an hour from Miami, Florida.

After ordering Harry Potter IV the International Division of Scholastic advised us that our order would be shipped AFTER ALL USA SHIPMENTS AND AFTER THE USA ON SALE DATE, shipment was scheduled to be July 10! There were lame excuses by the International Division about how embarrassed they were with the situation but Scholastic management decided to HOLD BACK SHIPMENTS TO EXPORT CUSTOMERS UNTIL AFTER THE USA ON SALE DATE!

We kept following up on the order and received a fax advising that shipment would be made on Friday, July 14. We then decided to order more than the original order and upon phoning to check up on the shipment we were advised that the shipment was now delayed until ABOUT EARLY AUGUST - NEARLY ONE MONTH AFTER THE WORLD WIDE RELEASE DATE. The reason given for the further delay was a shortage of inventory.

Again, as we are only one hour from Miami, many of our customers will now order the book from Amazon or have someone pick up a copy for them in Miami. How can we ever explain with any credibility to our customers why we will not receive the book until one month after the USA on sale date?

And you INDIES in the USA think that you have reason to complain about unfair treatment by Scholastic.

To add insult to injury the rep at Scholastic advised us we "could send an order to Amazon.com because they have a large supply." Needless to say we told them what they could do with that suggestion.

Over the years there has been similar horror stories of poor treatment of foreign customers by USA publishers, but this recent bungle by Mr. Richard Robinson takes the cake.

In the days of old an act like this would have been reason to hang Mr. Robinson from the yardarm of a sailing brig. Today we just crucify him in words - Oh for the good old days.

Best wishes

William H. Adam
Hobbies and Books Ltd.
Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands

Holt responds: I gather this is a typical rather than unusual episode in your dealings with U.S. distributors? Also, just curious: Don't airplanes flying over Cuba to the Cayman Islands invade Cuban air space?

William H. Adam replies: Unfortunately for us, you are correct, poor treatment of overseas accounts is more typical than the exception. The USA loses much potential export income because of the EXPORT FEAR SYNDROME.

Castro actually likes all of those planes flying over Cuba - he collects money for the over flight privileges from all airlines. An interesting fact here is that for all the ANTI CUBA TRADE EMBARGO the USA government has against Cuba, every USA airline does business with the Cuban Air Traffic Control by paying their fee to a Cuban government bank account in Mexico on a per over flight basis. Slightly hypocritical!. . .

Dear Holt Uncensored:

The latest #167 about contentville content struck a cord. I'm an author agent in Canada (big nonfiction client list) that represents a web site that has been reviewing books, interviewing authors etc for over two years and is the antithesis of contentville. No ads. Only content. In the past three weeks the site has featured major interviews with Tom Robbins. David Sedaris, and Martin Amis.

While the mandate is different than contentville it's the approach to books that has attracted a dedicated world-wide subscriber base. Try www.januarymagazine.com.

Robert Mackwood
Contemporary Management


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.