by Pat Holt
Tuesday, August 1, 2000
AMAZON.COM: A PROFIT AT LAST!
How wonderful to see, in the midst of last week's commentary about Amazon.com's disastrous second-quarter, a glimmer of hope for the beleaguered Seattle company.
"Amazon made a 10 percent profit," declared the New York Times, "on its shipping and handling charges." Isn't that something? Maybe the company should go into the shipping and handling business. Get rid of those pesky lawnmowers and books and see what life in the black is all about.
Customers probably know that much of the discount offered by Amazon.com is wiped out by shipping and handling charges anyway. And the common notice, "usually ships in 24 hours," has lost a lot of its credibility.
But as its stock kept dropping last week, and analysts wrote reports called "Throwing in the towel on Amazon," Jeff Bezos came up with some answers that even magician David Copperfield would envy.
"We're starting to get back to a little normality here," Bezos told the Associate Press, "where the proper amount of skepticism makes it properly difficult for bad ideas to get funded. That is good for Amazon.com because it helps build differentiation, it helps us with a noisy customer marketplace."
Translation: Don't invest in new dot.com start-ups - stick with Amazon.com, a proven rebounder, please try to remember, if ever NASDAQ saw one.
And speaking of magic tricks, the rabbit got a little stuck in the hat on this one:
"Sometimes people think Wall Street is forcing companies to do X when actually the companies are doing X because it's the right thing to do, and Wall Street is telling them to do X because it's the right thing to do."
Well, let's see: Wall Street keeps telling Amazon.com to make a profit, but Bezos says, let's slip right past that one and focus on growth, because Amazon.com's 84 percent increase in the second-quarter financial report is higher than Wall Street forecasts.
And anyway, if you're going to be picky about it, go back to the 10 percent profit in shipping and handling. That's the way of Amazon's future. UPS and Federal Express, look out.
THEM DISINTERMEDIATED LIPS
I know trends run in cycles in our inbred industry, and that perhaps just by osmosis, art directors and editors and book designers and marketing folks sometimes replicate each other beyond reason.
So there'll be a period when stormy sea stories are all the rage, and then British royalty bios, and then Terry McMillan lookalikes, and then quirky Asian novels, and so forth.
In the category of cover design, I've noticed that every ten years or so, jacket illustrators fall into the Disintermediated Lip Syndrome. This occurs when one book cover after another features two big, fat female lips painted fire-engine red on a mouth that's removed from a woman's face and is floating in a sea of some kinda hip metaphorical design in the background.
This month the Joe Eszterhas tantrum-in-print, "American Rhapsody" (Knopf; 432 pages; $25.95), is the most blatant example, as you'd expect. Here on the cover is a mouth so big and puffy and red that the lips look like intestines, with four very white teeth peeking out in Freudian splendor (no need to get into that) and the whole thing a tiny bit out of focus as if to say, don't gag, this is a parody.
The so-called comic novel, "Ringing for You" by Anouchka Gross Forrester (Washington Square; 193 pages; $12.95 paperback), is a gross second. The story of this book is told in one of those breathless, blurted-out narratives about sex and the office that says me, Me, ME from the first chapter ("All About Me") on. The disembodied lips aren't quite as bloated as those on the Eszterhas cover, but you get more (8.5) teeth peeking out from the wormlike nail-polish-red lips.
Third place goes to "Neighbors" by Thomas Berger (Zoland; 275 pages; $13 paperback), praised by its publisher as Berger's "most acclaimed novel since 'Little Big Man.' " Well, you'd never know it from the blood-red lips, not as disintermediated (the lower half of a face does appear to be tacked on), with 3.5 upper teeth biting the lower lip, either in childlike indecision or pouty sex-kitten allure - it's hard to know and just as awful to look at in either case.
Maybe it's me, but every time lips like this appear on a book jacket, I think of collagen injections in real life, or those hand-pumps you use to inflate bicycle tires. Many people think of actresses like poor Angelina Jolie, who's getting that blowfish look, or Julia Roberts and those "bee-stung lips" (there's actually a name for it) that (I personally feel) ruined Melanie Griffith's career.
But hurray for Barbara Hershey, who seems to have chosen the flat tire look (almost worse), and for Goldie Hawn for showing the rubberized effect of inflated-to-bursting lips in the screen adaptation of "First Wives Club."
It's another case of Hollywood taking a publishing affectation too seriously and actually, physically, injecting it into actors' bodies. Let's hope jacket illustrators give up on the idea, at least for another 10 years. Julia Roberts will thank you.
CARVING UP THE DIGITAL PIE
I'm glad to see the book industry starting to adjust to the electronic book revolution by creating new "digital units," as the New York Times reported yesterday, in publishing houses throughout the mainstream.
Time Warner was the first major publisher to establish an imprint, which it calls iPublish.com, and Random House has now added AtRandom, said the Times, with more to follow when publishers "build their reputations as desirable places for authors to publish digitally."
So the digital gold rush, if that's what it is, is on.
But here's what bothers me. "All the biggest New York publishing houses are now moving quickly to prepare for the possibility that digital books will soon take off," the Times reported excitedly. "Over lunches at Michael's, the Four Seasons and other industry hubs, editors are quietly courting agents and authors, trying to sign deals for the digital rights to their new and previously published books."
Sounds a bit removed from the rest of the country, yes? A bit exclusive, maybe. Awfully clannish, in fact. "As they acquire new titles, [these publishers] are beginning to establish the rules of digital publishing, from authors' royalties to the prices consumers will pay."
So once again, as New York goes, so goes the nation. Once these guys figure out how to carve up the digital pie, everything and everybody else will fall into place. That's how it's always been.
Well, how else could it be, you may ask. Right or wrong, mainstream publishing IS located in New York, as are most authors' agents, the Authors Guild and other crucial players.
[Pardon me for saying this again, but I've never understood why Americans so cravenly followed the British model of publishing - that is, with mainstream houses centered in one corridor or city, dictating to the tastes of the rest of the nation. Why didn't we pile our book presses onto the same wagons as newspaper presses when we slashed and hacked our way across the Plains? Great gaps appear in our history books as a result, and today, when NY publishers congratulate independent presses West of the Hudson for "picking up the slack," it's as though colonialists are still with us, preening and patronizing as always. And they do this "over lunches at Michael's and the Four Seasons"!]
I'm not saying New York isn't the center of mainstream publishing. I'm saying that's the problem. Especially with the consolidation of power that has taken place in recent years, it's important that we understand the dangers, as well as the gossipy fun of so few people divvying up this pie.
It doesn't help that the Times gleefully supports this elitism by portraying New York as a staging arena for chic restaurants in which juicy deals are made by cronies whose job is to secure their conglomerates status quo.
Come to think of it, that's a pretty accurate a picture of the publishing mainstream, so what am I thinking? Good for you, NYT!
Dear Holt Uncensored:
About the reader who wrote:
"I recently received two POD (print on demand) books I'd bought on the Internet. One of them was previously published, made available through iUniverse and a special arrangement with Authors Guild. Both of the books I got were excellent, ones that I probably never would have found had it not been for e-publishing. If these are any indication, I'm willing to thumb my nose at all those warnings about quality disappearing without New York editors to guide us."
Wow, the iUniverse book I purchased was TERRIBLE. The content was great (well, could have done with an editor...), but don't get me wrong, the design was awful. The front and back cover graphics looked like murky low-res scans. The colors, fonts, and style were all wrong (it was a novel that sort of looked like a travel book), and inside it just got worse.
The author's section breaks had evaporated so that parts of the story melded together, making for confusing reading, and the kerning was off throughout. Any word with an apostrophe at the end indicating a missing letter (and there were loads) didn't have a space. So a sentence like, "Somethin' is wrong here" would read "Somethin'is wrong here." And the author did confirm that at least the typesetting errors were iUniverse's.
Call me a snob, but publishers add value to books in so many ways. Sure, not all publishers know how to design a cover or interior properly but I've got to believe they're in the minority.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I think you are right that independent booksellers (the ones that have survived) have an opportunity to shine as Amazon's star wanes.
However, I have a plea for the independents: Improve your literary backlist stock! As a small publisher specializing in literary classics, we have seen Amazon.com become our single biggest account for backlist, and I imagine we are not alone. I think it is because independents have ceded to Amazon.com what should be one of their greatest strengths.
I don't blame the independents for fighting bestseller with bestseller, trying to survive against the onslaught of chains. But I think literary backlist stock has become a casualty of those battles, and Amazon.com is now filling that role for a lot of readers as a result.
I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where we are blessed with not one but several thriving independents. However, if I am looking for a literary backlist title myself, I can no longer count on any of them to have it in stock. I often troop through them all, and still come up empty.
Needless to say, I can no longer count on them to stock the books we publish, either, outside of our most recent releases.
Please urge the independent bookstore buyers who read your newsletter to take a hard look at their own backlist stock, and consider how they may be failing those who should be among their most loyal clientele: readers of literary titles, interested in the classics as much or more than the new releases. We don't want to rely on Amazon.com, as publishers or readers: please don't make us!
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Given a $100 paid Floos Gift Certificate [ www.flooz.com offers gift certificates in any amount to be used at selected websites]. OK, belong to a book group, so went to Barnes and Noble website. Selected item I wanted and went to checkout. Spaces to enter Floos Certificate Number, so I did. But nothing happened. Refused to check me out .
To left of Floos spaces were spaces to enter Credit Card Name, Credit Card Number, etc. I don't use credit...The Tattered Covered Book Store in Denver will send me any book I want with an invoice and I send a check...We have been doing business for years like this.
If I offer all information of a paid Gift Certificate, why should I have to give credit information to justify a cash purchase? Maybe you know and I'm off base. But I had Floos Certificate cancelled. Contacted an independent book store in California, got information, sent check and received book I wanted within a week.
Robert L. Marton
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Amidst news of Joseph Beth opening another store, this one in Cleveland, comes this fun story about Julia Child, which ran in the Cincinnati Enquirer on July 27. I thought I would pass it on to you.
BOOK SIGNING SAVED
It's heart-warming to see retailers Ð and future competitors Ð working together. Seattle-based cookware retailer Sur la Table had scheduled famed cookbook author Julia Child to sign books Wednesday as part of its grand opening in the new Rookwood Commons shopping center in Norwood.
But the Norwood fire marshal told Sur la Table Tuesday it couldn't hold the book-signing in the store because construction vehicles blocked fire lanes. With fire officials' approval, the store planned to move the event to a tent in the parking lot. But at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, the fire marshal announced he was closing the parking lot to the public.
Sur la Table staff thought it would have to cancel the signing, until Annette Meurer, marketing director of Joseph-Beth Booksellers, walked over from nearby Rookwood Pavilion. "Some customers told us that the signing was canceled, so I offered to let them do the signing in our store," she said.
Sur la Table quickly agreed and moved 600 books over to Joseph-Beth for the signing. "What's the name of this store again?" Ms. Child asked after arriving for the noon book signing. Ms. Child, who turns 88 next month, signed nearly 300 books in two hours.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
About Amazon.com's claims of making a profit in the books and music division, you wrote: "Where in the company's records can somebody point to a different method of listing, describing, advertising and shipping books that accounts for this marvelous and miraculous turning of the corner?"
Well, actually, I believe Amazon is correct. Why? I keep a close watch on titles that Amazon carries that I also carry. Over the past six months I have noticed that more and more titles are being listed at full price rather than the 20% or 30% off. With a movement in that direction they have to be making more profit in the book division. Maybe not enough to save them, but better than in previous years.
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.