by Pat Holt
Friday, July 21, 2000
[NOTE TO READERS: Pardons with the listserv have slowed today's column release. Please pardon delay.]
Few institutions are encouraging readers to shop at independent bookstores as much as Barnes & Noble, it seems.
Last week I thought I was making a joke about Barnes & Noble hitting the Gaffe-0-Meter big time by making two astounding mistakes. Now a third one will no doubt damage B&N public relations even further, bless its tryannical little heart.
To review again: First, there was the Barnes & Noble clerk who tried to lure 300 Harry Potter fans from an independent bookstore by shouting that the B&N store up the street had "no line and a 40% discount."
Second, there was Barnes & Noble's letter demanding that the New England Booksellers Assocation cease and desist using the word "discovery" in its wonderful promotion for new writers, "Discovery of the Month." It seems that Barnes & Noble has a "Discover New Writers Program" it feels is imperiled by NEBA's flagrant use of a common word, which Barnes & Noble apparently thinks it owns.
And now this month comes #3, Barnes & Noble's decision to remove locally published alternative newspapers, brochures, circulars, flyers and other free publications from the vestibule area of all 500-plus B&N stores.
"We are dedicated to these groups," says B&N press director Debra Williams of the publishers who distribute this free info, "and will continue to support these organizations by way of events." That's a nice promise, but when I looked at bn.com and clicked on events for the stores in my zip code, nary a group of this nature could be found.
Barnes & Noble has tried to convince the American consumer that each store contributes to its community by supporting local events and free publications of all kinds. Since many B&N vestibules smell of piped-in coffee from the Starbucks or other cafe on the premises (I've often wondered if it's fake), you know the B&N people consider the vestibule a place to hook the customer into staying in the store.
But now it seems Barnes & Noble snatcheth and then it dumpeth. The only reason for the new policy of rejecting free publications, says Williams, is the company's desire "to display our own products." Well, who couldn't sympathize? There's only 25,000 square feet inside the store, and you know those Tele Tubbies take up a lot of room.
Corporate decisions like this - made somewhere far away, in Barnes & Noble's headquarters in New York, probably - demonstrate how difficult it is for employees in regional stores to humanize the chain's coldly efficient profit motive.
On the other hand, one of the precious qualities that independent bookstores share is their genuine investment in community. These booksellers don't resent or avoid the role of distributing information about local groups - they delight in it.
Being the center of neighborhood activity, intellectual and otherwise, is what independent bookselling is all about. So is discovering new writers; so is treating readers so well that even a 40% discount down the street can't seduce customers to leave.
Who can figure those huge advances spewing out of mainstream publishing this week - and all for nonwriters, it turns out.
The list of hotties includes GE head Jack Welch ($7.1 million from Time Warner), former treasury secretary Robert Rubin ($3.3 million from Random House), actor Michael J. Fox (2 million "and counting," as the drooling Inside.com puts it), Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy $1.1 million for starters) and others.
And let's not forget the one writer who topped the charts a few months ago, Mary Higgins Clark, to whom Simon & Schuster has promised to $15 million for each of the next four mysteries and (okay, she took a hit on this one) $4 million for a memoir (total: $64 million).
Perhaps the most amusing figure in this how-far-will-the-pendulum-swing story is HarperCollins, which lost out in other auctions so went a'lookin' for a big deal of its own. HarperC thus pounced on Michael Wolff, media columnist for New York magazine and author of "Burn Rate: How I Survived the Gold Rush Years on the Internet."
In the kind of about-face that makes publishers look like the I-am-not-worthy guys in "Wayne's World," HarperCollins offered Wolff a reported $500,000, without Word One on paper, to write a book on the AOL-Time Warner merger
Wolff sounds like he needs a little courting. ''I would consider a proposal," he sniffed. Yes, that would be nice, HarperC! And don't bother the guy further without writing 2 chapters and an outline for him.
What does it mean to "real" writers when big money is thrown after . . . well, big money? Read on.
I wish this new big-money cycle in publishing (see above) would somehow release higher advances for less-er-known and midlist authors. So often, these are the very writers who prop up the house when multimillion-dollar celebrity books fizzle out.
But "real" writers (and I don't mean up-and-coming Clarkettes) continue to struggle with four- and five-figure advances. Then they discover when the book is turned in that the house can't give it very much support because - well, the advance wasn't very big to begin with.
I know it's easy to say these huge advances are obscene, that the inbred nature of mainstream publishing in NY whips publishers into a frenzy until they can't see beyond the prospect of winning the next auction.
But the fact is that traditional publishing no longer has a lock on the publishing process, and writers in the middle know it. Self-publishing chop shops like Xlibris and iUniverse are now waiting in the wings, and if a model for disintermediation ever popped up for writers savvy about the ways of the Internet, it's not Stephen King's "Riding the Bullet" - that was so April 2000 - but his latest serialized story, "The Plant."
To read this one, you pay only a dollar an episode, and you're asked by King not to forward it free to friends. If not enough people pay, there won't be enough funds for the next episode, and the next and next. "Pay and the story rolls. Steal and the story folds," he advises in his friendly up-yours fashion.
So this is a fun and hugely affordable kind of honor system that also offers a special Internet perk, intimacy on a mass scale.
And look what King promises: "My friends, we have a chance to become Big Publishing's worst nightmare," he writes, because going directly to the reader over the Internet, King disintermediates publishers, booksellers, even the book itself.
"Not only are we going glueless," he says. "Look Ma, no e-Book! No tiresome encryption!" The best part - what seems to be the key for all paid information on the Internet - is that it costs the reader pennies.
It seems to me that if traditional publishers keep paying these huge advances, "real" writers are going to stampede. While most authors don't have anything near the readership King enjoys, every writer on the Internet has the ability to compile a list of friends and supporters whose numbers might become sizable indeed by the time the book is finished. This nucleus of Internet customers could easily buy enough copies of the finished book to pay the author's publication expenses, with a tidy sum left over.
Of course, maybe such books are exactly the kind - too small, too regional, too specialized, too badly written - that publishers are not interested in seeing. Fine. The point is that for the first time, it's the author who's making the decision, and the publisher that is cut out of the process entirely.
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.