by Pat Holt
Friday, August 4, 2000
Was it a coincidence or power of the press? This Tuesday, the Boston Globe ran an editorial accusing Barnes & Noble of being a "bookstore bully" for telling the New England Booksellers Association (NEBA) to cease using the word "discovery" in its program for launching new authors.
A few weeks ago, the NEBA "Discovery of the Month" program had seemed to Barnes & Noble too similar to its own "Discover Great New Writers" program, so the big bad B&N tried to put a stop to the decidedly independent booksellers group.
But yesterday, the "bookstore bully" recanted. Thanks to NEBA's outraged and very public stance against B&N, and support from newspapers like the Boston Globe, Barnes & Noble backed down. Joining with NEBA, the company issued a press release saying both parties can use the word "discover" however they wish.
Considering the tyrannical tactics of B&N on other occasions (see "Dumb, Dumber and Dumbest," #169), NEBA most certainly can claim a victory on this one. A chain store like Barnes & Noble is not accustomed to backing down, especially when the company believed that snapping the whip with a ridiculous cease-and-desist letter would cause little NEBAs everywhere to run for cover.
But once the Globe accused B&N of "concocting a dispute" over nothing, NEBA in its outrage could have have plastered all 400 independent bookstores with blow-ups of the editorial and concocted quite a dispute of its own.
Happily, we all win on this one. As NEBA prez Donna Urey suggested in the heat of the battle, nobody "can trademark the English language." What a great way to learn that the free exchange of words is for everyone, with or without a team of lawyers and cease-and-desist letters in the background.
BARNESANDNOBLE.COM MAKES A PROMISE
I can't fault Barnesandnoble.com's Steve Riggio or any other head of a money-losing Internet bookseller for trying to put bad news in a positive light. Certainly its second-quarter losses, announced earlier this week, place the company on a par with Amazon.com for very, very bad news indeed.
But when Riggio told the Wall Street Journal, "We are committed to delivering a profit within 24 months," I still want to know, how?
What will change at Barnesandnoble.com that will show a real profit, and please don't throw in Harry Potter sales as the magic wand that's going to save this Muggle chain in the third quarter.
When Riggio tries to make Barnesandnoble.com look more stable than Amazon.com by saying that "we have $350 million in the bank and no debt, no debt, no debt," one can hear the desperation surfacing.
WSJ points out that significant expenses occurred during the quarter "due to a number of acquisitions and investments, including a $20 million investment in MightyWords, which provides digital content, and its Barnes & Noble University distance-learning courses." (Yes, don't forget all those expensive Nobel Prize winners lining up to join that faculty.)
The idea of flashy acquisitions and marketing expenses soaring while sales growth slows and losses widen has become a pattern with online booksellers and was going to be corrected by the clicks-and-bricks combo represented by Barnesandnoble.com. Or so we've been told.
But the fact that nobody can yet demonstrate how Internet booksellers will deliver a profit "raises the inevitable question of whether books are still a good online sell," as Katherine Hobson wrote in TheStreet.com The longer investors have to wait, the more Barnesandnoble.com will "take another pounding."
But not only on Wall Street. One of the nifty little petards awaiting bn.com strategists is the fact that costs could be cut if some books are shipped from Barnes & Noble stores rather than from distribution centers. But Barnesandnoble.com doesn't dare follow this path, says TheStreet.com, because of the sales tax issue that it's dodged so deftly until now.
"If B&N.com relies too heavily on the bricks-and-mortar stores," Hobson writes, "it will have to collect sales tax from consumers in every state where Barnes & Noble has a presence."
That means Barnesandnoble.com might in part have to compete with independents on an equal basis. That's tougher for a chain than owning up to second-quarter losses.
BERTELSMANN WOOING . . . READER'S DIGEST?
How I wish the leaders of Bertelsmann would address the fears of many observers and say, Hey! We don't WANT world domination in the 21st century! We want to encourage autonomy within the companies we own! Here's how individuality and initiative are rewarded!
Ah, but that would take all the fun out of the conglomerate's true goal, which appears to be . . . world domination in the 21st century.
Now Bertelsmann, the German conglomerate that owns so much of U.S. publishing (40% of Barnesandnoble.com, all of Random House, a number of book clubs, multimedia and such magazines as Parents, McCall's, YM, Fitness, Child, Family Circle), seems to be on the prowl again, with Reader's Digest in its sites.
Dow Jones confirmed this rumor yesterday, but it's more fun to read the New York Post, which never stints on hyperbole and envisons "the two media titans" coming together like "two leviathans" to "allow extended access to the respective companies' financials" and talk about "a massive joint venture."
As both reports show, Bertelsmann could very well succeed with the acquisition. Reader's Digest magazine is struggling as its readers grow older and its rate base declines. An effort to be purchased by Time Warner fell through.
And with Bertelsmann carrying "an $8 billion war chest," buying Reader's Digest wouldn't eve put a dent in the master plan.
INTERVIEW WITH MARTY ASHER: PART 3
Before we talk about his illustrated novel, "The Boomer," here's one last question for Marty Asher (see #168), editor-in-chief of Vintage Books, the respected trade paperback imprint at Random House.
What does Asher, as both a publisher and a reader, think about the difference between chain bookstores and independent bookstores?
He doesn't hesitate. "Thereās an emotional issue and real life issue," he says. First the emotional: "I love dirt roads. I wish instead of using the phone, weād all have neighborly chats with each other. But the reality is that people have a choice, and they're going to decide what they want.
"For books, theyāre going to go wherever they go ö online, chains, independents. Itās just the nature of this country. In the meantime, some independents have done well, some have had a hard time. It's unfortunate, but whenās the last time you saw a mom and pop appliance store?"
To my immediate shaking of the head - "appliances are not literature; the difference is enormous," I say - Asher also wags his head, responding, "and I feel the loss acutely. But itās a weird business. Things donāt necessarily follow linearly."
In other words, he's not saying the difference between appliances and literature doesn't matter. He's saying it's irrelevant to the fact that mom and pop stores of all kinds began disappearing long ago, and independent bookstores are part of that trend. Meanwhile, readers are going to find the books they want to buy in whatever outlet that's most available to them at the time.
"I'm a reader, and I buy some of my books in New York City, but in my town in Connecticut, I donāt live within striking distance of a good independent bookstore. So basically my choice is a chain or online. In this town, weāve lost a number of independent bookstores. I feel sad about that, but Iām not reading less because of it."
Egad, what a cold turn of logic that is. I feel sad, too, about the loss of independent bookstores, but I'm not going to contribute to it. I'm going to find independents online! I'm going to . . . but then I look at Marty and realize that above everything, he IS a publisher. His job is to sell books through all channels possible, chains and Amazon.com included, and he can't talk as though he begrudges any of it.
"You can look at the cup as half empty or half full," he adds. "As publishers, weāre selling good books in fairly record numbers, and thatās a good thing."
Yes, well, let's not dwell on publisher pragmatism. (Accepting the retail book scene as business-as-usual keeps the cup EMPTY for independents.) Let's remember instead that if Asher sounds a little heartless to folks like me, at least at Vintage he's publishing a wide range and diversity of affordable trade paperbacks that fly out of independent bookstores by the bagful.
And let's turn, then, to Marty Asher's life as an author.
Asher's illustrated novel, "The Boomer" (Knopf; 160 pages; $15), is one of those commercial books with a literary bite that can do well in both chains and independents.
The story follows 100 tiny episodes about an unnamed man from the baby boom generation whose life seems to reside in the commonplace. In the early numbered events, we hear about the first time he goes to school, creates a comic book hero, buries a small animal, feels attracted to girls, runs for office at school.
Ordinarily I hate minimalist narratives like this. The entire episode of Number 19 reads as follows: "In the sixth grade the boomer ran for school treasurer. On the day of the election he had a fever and had to stay home. At four o'clock the vice presidential candidate shouted up from the street, 'You won.' The boomer wondered if he could be President someday."
But that too-tidy smug tone fades as we watch the boomer grow up in isolation and try to figure life out. "A friend of his parents' was dying. They whispered, 'He's very sick' and 'Maybe there'll be a miracle,' when they thought no one was listening. The boomer liked the man and prayed for him. When he died, it confirmed his worst suspicions about the world."
Soon the pop-art illustrations change from simple to metaphorical to philosophical. An actual personality emerges in the boomer, though his life is measured in quantifiable terms. In college he has three best friends; his cat lives with him for eight years; he collects 219 CDs; his father dies two weeks after his wedding, his mother six months later; he cheats on his wife three times.
This version of counting out your life in coffee spoons would sound like a bad existential novel if it weren't for the fact that somehow this faceless character becomes likeable - even, at times, courageous. We're surprised by several twists in the story, and near the end "a little window of grace" opens and we're sorry to see the book end.
"The boomer has bought into the American Dream," says Asher. "He keeps thinking: If I get a good job, if I get married, if I have a kid, if I buy a car, if I get the house, thatās going to make me happy. Meantime he's desperately lonely. He can't connect with his father, wife or kid. The only thing he can relate to is his dog.
"To some extent thatās true of other generations: Weāre sold a bill of goods that 'It,' whatever it is, is out there. But as you get older, you realize thereās not a lot out there, that ultimately itās in here." He taps his heart.
The idea for the book occurred when Asher "happened to look at the CDs on my wall," he said. "I started to count them: A sentence, 'he collected 219 CDs in his lifetime,' came into my head.
"I began thinking if I were to die, someone might judge my life by the CDs I had collected. This got me to wondering what other things in a personās life might seem insignificant at the moment they're first experienced, but when you look at them in a different way, they could stand out as important."
Indeed, if you don't watch for these "snapshot moments," they'll fly by as fast as the 100 episodes of the boomer's life. "You just have to be so vigilant," says Marty.
"In the boomer's case, a remembered moment turns out to be the first time his dog jumps up on the bed and starts to snore. In the course of a day, who would pay any attention to that? But toward the end of his life, that's what matters to him."
Existentialism for 15 bucks in a nearly square (5.5" x 7") little hardcover that makes a neat gift. And say: As the editor-in-chief of the trade paperback imprint, Vintage, how come you didn't publish "The Boomer" as an original trade paperback?
"Gee," says Marty, looking very much like the puzzled boomer of the last 47 episodes, "it never occurred to me." Rats, another snapshot moment down the drain. Or maybe the reprint rights are available?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Your report (#172) of Amazon's apparent 10% profit from shipping & handling comes as no surprise to me.
Briefly: a week before Christmas, 1999, I needed to top up a couple of titles in my store. Depending on the "usually ships in 24 hours" promise and a 40% discount, (not to mention the Canadian-American scary exchange rate), I figured I could at least break even, so I ordered $198 (US) in books.
The best shipping deal I could get was three to six days to Canada, so I pressed that option.
Shipping costs? $205 (US).
Order cancelled and I have not looked at Amazon.Com since.
About your piece on three different books with similar puffy-lipped mouths on the covers: There is one appropriate usage of such lips on the cover - Daniel Handler's "Watch Your Mouth," which shows the lips on a stage. The book itself is pretty darned good.
I was a bit alarmed to see all the other lips come out at about the same time, since if they all look somewhat alike, it's hard to do the "judge by the cover" thing. I hope Handler's book will not get lost in the shuffle.
Christie Schaefer Book Passage
P.S. Handler's cover lips are comparatively wholesome looking.
Holt responds: I can't believe I missed this pair. You're right, Handler can be very funny, but I'm not sure about the "wholesome" look to them lips. On the cover the eponymous mouth gets an actual spotlight, and two rows of teeth under the puffy lips glitter as they open the mouth to - well it looks like it's going to sing! Sure enough, grand opera is big in this book, along with Jewish mythology, blistering family dialogue and a lot of sex on the brain.
Jeff Bezos's positive spin on negative reality is reflected up here by Larry Stevenson, the head guy of Chapters (the Barnes & Noble of Canada). Responding to a newspaper article pointing out that Chapters was hugely in debt to its suppliers, Stevenson simply accused his suppliers of lying, while acknowledging that there might be some "missing invoices." Late last week it was announced that HarperCollins had put Chapters on hold for non-payment of its bills. A Chapters spokesperson insisted that in fact Chapters had put HarperCollins on hold for reasons she was not at liberty to discuss. Huh? Meanwhile the Chapters share prices -- both the bricks and mortar and online divisions -- plummet to all-new depths.
P.S. Since I wrote yesterday I have been told that Chapters has -- as of late last week -- suspended employee discounts at its stores. Sounds a lot like a business that's ticking along smoothly.
You write: "So once again, as New York goes, so goes the nation. Once these guys figureout how to carve up the digital pie, everything and everybody else will fall into place. That's how it's always been."
I humbly beg to differ with you. In your recent column on digital books you say that the NY publishing folk are blazing a trail with ebooks and POD and that the rest of the nation will follow. But its quite the opposite.
The rest of the nation began the ebook revolution in 97 and 98 out of garages and bedrooms in places as far away from NY as Indiana and San Francisco.
It was over two years ago that epublisher pioneers such as Bonnee Peirson of Dreams Unlimited, Marilyn Nesbitt of Diskus and Mary Wolf of Hardshell Word Factory started working on their publishing models.
It was 95 when Chris MacAskill began Fatbrain out his garage and it was 96 when Martin Ebehard started working on his little reading device that became the Rocket Ebook.
By 98 there were dozens of authors like Charlee Compo, Pauline Jones and myself who were selling electronic downloads of books from our own computers. Not only did we not have the blessing of NY - they didn't even know we existed.
No, in this case, New York is playing catch-up with over 1000 eauthors and epublishers who were there way ahead of them.
M. J. Rose
Holt responds: I wonder if you'd comment about the divvying up of the pie re pricing, rights, royalty rates, etc. It does seem the power is concentrated along original lines in NY - or am I wrong?
M.J. Rose replies: Sure, but sorry, you're wrong again. The highest prices that have been paid so far in regard to royalties and the most open ended in terms of rights are not the NY publishers but the small pioneers.
For instance, Booklocker.com pays 70% royalties on ebooks. The average among the pioneers and web-only e-only publishers (Diskus.com, Mightywords.com, Awe-Struck, Hardshell, etc.) pay 50% royalties and have been doing so for over 18 months.
Contrast that to the NY houses who generally pay the standard paper rate (6-15%). In some cases, agents have pushed and e-book rates have risen to 20%. Supposedly, Time Warner's new iPublish will be paying this royalty rate.
The same is true when it comes to rights. Many epublishing-only companies own only the electronic rights. Some don't own any rights at all but encourage their authors to sell their ebooks everywhere. And the majority are perfectly willing to let their authors get out of any rights deals if and when a bigger better print deal comes along.
According to sources I've interviewed (I cover epublishing for wirednews.com), New York publishers are holding on to all rights for dear life. So far there hasn't been a big breaking story where an author refused a book deal because a NY publisher insisted on e-rights. But that is sure to happen soon.
With all that said, the NY houses still offer authors the marketing, validation, and backup and services that the smaller companies don't. But there are many authors these days who say that isn't what it used to be and are going to the more entrepreneurial, smaller, epub-only houses with their work. Or - as Stephen King and Seth Godin have recently done - bypassing the publisher completely and self publishing their own e-books.
So Amazon.com has shown a profit in shipping and handling. Why am I not astonished at this? As I said months ago, they gouge buyers at that end. They cut the price of books 20% to 30% and then jack up S&H 40%. It's one way to make money. (Apparently, the only way at Amazon.com.)
A reader wrote: "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."
There is no doubt the writer is right, in most cases. I believe there are many, many exceptions and you pointed out a few in your commentary on inflatable lips. I am one of many published authors (nearly 40 books) who is going into Print On Demand. We are doing so for various reasons, among them to retain control over our work and to get work published that trade publishers, in their stampede for best sellers only, won't look at.
What about quality of editing, interior design and covers? My next book, and my first novel, will go to a professional editor who works with some best-selling authors who hire her as something of a pre-editor for the simple reason that editors in New York do not do their jobs. When she and I are content, more or less, with the manuscript, I will work from a template to be certain the interior of the book is easy to read and does not have the silly errors you pointed out. I think, by the way, that the author could have caught those typographical mishaps. I was given galley proofs of my memoir iUniverse published and am responsible for some of the glitches that appeared in the first edition. For $150, by the way, I am going to have the book, "Home Country," completely done over and four photos added.
After the novel is edited, I will hire a professional artist to design the cover. Since the novel involves a biplane, the cover won't have a dive bomber on it. This may sound like an exaggeration but it is not; almost every author has horror stories about cover art, including birch-bark canoes in Puget Sound where no birch trees grow.
This will cost me in excess of $1,000, no doubt, but in this case it is worth it because the novel is very important to me for several reasons. I can't get an agent to look at it, and certainly no publisher. There's a good chance that once it is in print and at least looks good that I can sell subsidiary rights, but that is iffy at best, a gamble I am willing to take. The royalties are much higher than any trade house will give, by the way.
I am a great believer in authors taking control of their work. And why not? Painters don't have editors lurking around, hindering more than helping in many cases. Print On Demand is the best thing that has happened for authors since I have been writing, and let's hope New York doesn't find a way to make it illegal or to take total control of it.
In response to the letter from the reader who thought the production values of an iUniverse e-book were "terrible," I just had to try downloading the Stephen King story, and found a wonderful thing: You can download it as a .pdf file, which has all of the author's exact layout and typeface and page breaks. It is a wonderful looking work.
There are several other ways to get it, such as html or raw text, but the Adobe Acrobat pdf is beautiful!
Just had to comment that it CAN be done well online, given an author with enough clout (or $$$).
To "The Reader" who wrote about the errors in a POD book purchased online, who complained it was filled with errors:
Uh...I don't know how to break this to you but for about 100 years now the author has been responsible for the final proofing of the typeset material. Look in any publishing contract! It is as much so for epublishing as it is for the big New York houses. Blaming the publisher for typos--unless they refused to correct them after the author asked--is a little like blaming the cop who ticketed you for driving too fast.
In epublishing you can go back in and correct typos at nearly any point, since books are being printed one or a few at a time. Can't do that when your publisher just printed 30,000 copies! I'd say, if there are errors in the book, the buck is on the author's desk. And his/her face should be red.
Would people at large New York houses allow errors like that? To borrow a line from a popular TV ad, "People do!"
Quality control is clearly going to be an issue in this emerging technology, but perhaps what will shake down is "quality levels." Just as in traditional publishing, there will be quality houses and not-so-quality houses. In case you haven't noticed, it's getting increasingly difficult to determine who is what in New York anymore.
I'm not championing this new technology so much as I'm seeing that the genie is out of the bottle. We gotta start dealing creatively with all the problems as well as the benefits it brings. Taking sides between traditional and digital publishing will get us about as far as the debates around cars versus horses back at the turn of the 20th century. Come to think of it, maybe it ultimately comes down to which kinds of gases we end up with in our environment.
Hal Zina Bennett
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Thought you might enjoy this true story.
My husband (who is a *very* sweet man) wanted to buy me a birthday surprise, an item that was on my yearned-for list but something I didn't imagine I'd get so soon.
He's a traditionalist, and wants to handle his items before purchasing. So last week he went to the neighborhood Barnes & Noble (it's in Dallas, one of their big, fully-stocked stores) and inquired at the information desk. "Where are your RocketBooks? What section are they in?"
"What was that title, again, sir?" the employee asked, hands on his keyboard to look it up.
"No, a RocketBook, you know, e-books."
"Uh, I never heard of--what did you say it's called? What kind of book is it?"
(Much thrashing as they trade ignorance - my husband had only heard me talk about it.)
"...Guess we can't help you."
My husband, confused and baffled, retreated reluctantly, went home to his computer and found it immediately at bn.com online, from whence it arrived only two days after my birthday.
Holt responds: Can't help but ask if your husband considered looking for the book outside of b&n - at an independent bookstore perchance?
LeAnne Baird replies: No, he's your classic low-risk conservative B&N/Computer City mainstream type. When *I* shop, I always use independents when I can. The closing of our local Dallas mystery bookstore still has me in mourning. I like to touch and feel before I buy books, but to do so I'm at the mercy of B&N and Borders, and I DON'T LIKE IT.
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.