by Pat Holt
Tuesday, August 29, 2000
BOOK BIZ CRITICS HIT THE NET
For years, observers have been predicting that one day book publishing critics will appear by the hundreds to hold the book industry up to scrutiny in the same way that hundreds of movie/TV critics keep an eye on Hollywood today.
But boy! Who could have predicted so many book-oriented websites exploding on the Internet so quickly? Here are some thoughts on the latest bunch:
PUBLISHERS LUNCH: www.PublishersLunch.com
I've always hated the gossipy, lunchy side of New York publishing and wished someone would ferret out the news without all the schmoozing.
Well, here is #1 ferret Michael Cader, a book packager who knows how to cram everything into a snazzy email column, from rumors (is HarperC buying S&S?) to speculation (is Lightning Source the top digital publisher?) to fact (eBook readers in color!) to news stories from every possible source, including Writenews, Techserver, CNet, Individual, SFGate, and of course, PW Daily and NY papers. And he keeps an eye on British, Canadian and European publishing news as well.
Cader is a master at condensing complicated material - particularly about eBooks - in a scroll-down series of quick hits and excerpts that makes the windier Holt Uncensored swoon with envy. (He's even scooped H.U. about its move to a new website, bless his greedy little media heart. See below.)
And he's a tough critic of the biz, cautioning electronic publishers about piracy and wondering who's going to write the first book on "the increasingly vicious spiral of media about media," of which he is a part. Publishers Lunch is also loaded with useful (sometimes invaluable) links. Read this and PW Daily and you are set.
I've written before that this cybertabloid is CRAVEN in its lust for GOSSIP and at the same time ARROGANT and yet occasionally DELICIOUS and full of GUILTY PLEASURES and absolutely IRRESPONSIBLE and SHAMELESS as it brings you all the buzz and sometimes even facts on this hotsy-totsy website.
But there's a difference between holding the industry up to scrutiny and exploiting it, especially when money is so immediately at stake (and Inside.com does charge $199 annually).
True, agents and editors pore over the deal-tracking page, and columnists (such as Cader above) watch its Daily Digest for news. But much of Inside.com's understanding of the book biz is dependent on Barnes & Noble, and its bent for sensationalism and its recurring celebrityitis too often makes the site a yawner.
I'll keep paying the $19.95 monthly fee and watch for the new magazine Inside is spozed to publish (or is that the e-mail column?), but I wish in the meantime the folks in the Books section would quit re-routing people to Film, Media and other sections until so much confusion occurs that users just click out.
Calling itself "the world's largest collection of webfeeds" (oops, sounds like a cross between ducks and kelp), this terrific general-news site http://www.moreover.com ) offers a section on industries and a subsection on book publishing that is loaded with news from every angle.
For example, yesterday's story that Amazon.com and Microsoft are teaming up to launch an E-book store online was available at Moreover in eight separate articles -- from Newsbytes, SiliconValley.com, ZDNet, Reuters, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, TechWeb, and The Globe and Mail (Canadian). Okay, so they're a little heavy on single issues, but often you can find stories here that don't run elsewhere.
I'm glad independent booksellers get to have their considerable say about books for sale on this hugely hyped website for everything in print (dissertations, legal documents, screenplays, speeches, books, magazines) from the publisher of Brill's Content.
Sometimes these booksellers are so good we think we're talking to them in the midst of their store (see the summary of books for Bridget Jones lovers by Book Soup's Allison Hill, for example). Because of them, I don't mind that Contentville is a glorified sales site selling media products. (I do mind that many of its book descriptions are sketchy when booksellers voices aren't included.)
For all its self-promotion about various media "experts," Contentville takes itself way too seriously. Someone should stop that beauty magazine expert from so gravely describing Berry Berry nail polish and ways to "rescue wrinkled mouths." Of course, when the expert on men's magazines refers to "a groundbreaking piece on testosterone," you know you have to have it.
Because Steven Brill is a self-proclaimed media watchdog, I haven't been able to trust the site since the flap about freelance copyrighted articles running through Contentville without payment to freelance writers. Granted, Brill nearly redeemed himself by signing a deal with the National Writers Union to give writers 30% of the download fee. But it shouldn't have taken a near-lawsuit for that to have happened.
BUT ENOUGH ABOUT YOU
The above websites have been new to me since I began writing Holt Uncensored nearly two years ago. They demonstrate, more than I ever could with only an email column, the enormous changes that have thrown the book industry in upheaval.
So it's time for Holt Uncensored to provide both an e-mail column and a fully equipped new website - http://www.holtuncensored.com - where daily commentary will be available along with searchable archives, separate book reviews and current columns.
I'll charge an annual fee of $40 for both the twice-weekly column and access to the website - beginning on H.U.'s second anniversary, September 22.
If you're curious, you can visit the website now, though parts are under construction, and if you want to subscribe early, just click on the How to Subscribe box and be sure to jot down the username and password when you get your confirmation.
I'll send out several announcements about this move in coming columns.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
My wife and I just ran into an unexpected problem with Print on Demand publishing. Wildside Press recently issued my wife's first novel, "Apart from You," and my first mystery novel, "The Cavaradossi Killings," via POD (details on our Web site, www.dvorkin.com). We had a very successful joint signing and reading at a local (Denver) independent bookstore, The Denver Book Mall. Thereafter, we contacted Waldenbooks and set up similar readings/signings at a couple of Waldenbooks stores in the area. But then the manager who had arranged the Waldenbooks signings/readings called to say that she had been informed that company policy forbids signings for Print on Demand books.
I mentioned this on a couple of listservs I belong to and was told by some booksellers on those lists that they too would not want to host signings involving POD books because the books aren't returnable and the financial risk is therefore too great. Someone on one of those lists said he'd had a similar experience and had been told by one of the chains that he couldn't get around the problem by bringing a box of his own copies of his book to a signing, as he'd suggested to them, because of the danger of his copies getting mixed in with the store's copies and sending their computerized checkout system haywire. Not that this would work with Waldenbooks in any event, because of the corporate policy mentioned above.
Assuming that most POD books continue to be unreturnable and that major publishers shift at least some of their production into POD, what does this mean for the future -- that only established, big-name writers, who the stores can be assured will sell all of the available copies, will be able to do signings in the future? Or will POD books have to become returnable, perpetuating a cumbersome and problematic system?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
We held in our store what I consider a relatively successful event for David Lida and his book, "Travel Advisory." We have since continued to sell the book well -- relatively -- and also continue to give it a nice, prominent display in our store some six months after its publication, something we do because we want to sell the book and not because we are being paid extra to do so.
I was therefore disappointed to see David's letter broadly castigating independents for what he perceives as their lack of enthusiasm and for Powells' apparently unflattering listing of it on their website. While I enjoyed David Lida's book and his personal company as well, and wish to support his book, I also want to support Powell's right to post what he feels are negative reviews of it, and particularly their apparent decision to continue to do so after he has complained of it to them.
It seems especially important that we promote independent judgment, diverse tastes, and dissent in light of the fact they are sadly and dangerously at risk to this industry's pure and rather brainless lust for commerce. If we cave in to that, then we have only the dimmest hope for literature of which David Lida's is the very sort.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
As an author of self-help books since 1980, I've seen the industry go through several waves of changes, and hope to see several more. Your column on Poisoned Pen Press brought up memories for me. Al Saunders began Newcastle Publishing Company in a similar way in the 1970's. As a bookstore owner, he knew many books on metaphysical topics were repeatedly requested by customers, but out of print. He discovered many of these had reverted to public domain, and began a small press to publish them. Even he was surprised at the success of his venture as the New Age wave crested, and in 1980, he branched out and began publishing original self-help and New Age books, including my first, How to be a Couple and Still Be Free.
My co-author and I fondly called him "the unconscious agent of the Aquarian Conspiracy," since he had an uncanny knack for knowing which books would sell, but never read his own products. He was a very honest and ethical businessman, and our friend. Al passed away in 1997, and Newcastle was just acquired by Career Press, so his books live on. After dealing with many of the big publishers (most of whom seem now to be absorbed by Pearson), I can tell you that working with Al was never frought with the frustration and stress of working with "the big guys." We always knew what was going on. As a very small press, Al was almost entirely distributed to independent stores, and we had many great experiences with creative bookstores, like The Tattered Cover in Denver, University Books in Seattle, The Bodhi Tree in Los Angeles, and Richard LaBonte's Different Light Books in San Francisco and Los Angeles. My memories of Al are warm.
However, I can also relate to the other mid-list authors who have gotten better treatment from B&N than from independents. Here in Long Beach, CA. we had two small independents, Dodd's Books and Chelsea Books, both now out of business. While the store owners and staff were friendly and helpful, it took constant reminders that I was a local psychotherapist as well as author, and would refer clients to buy books (not only my own), if they would stock them. Unlike the Bodhi Tree, which has an amazingly accurate inventory system, constantly tracks what's selling, and keeps it on the shelves, the local stores repeatedly told my clients they were out of books I had requested they stock, and rarely seemed to remember what they had promised me. Occasionally, staff was rude to my clients. It was a sad day when each store went out of business, but not entirely a surprise. Long Beach now has two Barnes & Nobles, a Super Crown and a Borders -- four huge stores where there were only two small ones.
I have had wonderful experiences signing in B&N and Borders stores, some of which have Community Resource Coordinators who really know what they are doing, who treat authors wonderfully well, and who keep my books in stock. Others are a mess. I think it's the same the world over.
I don't know what to make of it. As an author, I am merely trying to keep my books in print, and survive. The business keeps changing, and we have to change our methods to keep up with it. One of the ways I keep up is reading your column. Thanks for the memories.
Tina B. Tessina
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In defense of small presses, we have to offer a rebuttal to the bs you were spreading about Barbara Peters and the Poisoned Pen Bookstore. We have no quarrel with what her husband is doing. It is good work, and we also acknowledge that Ms. Peters is in that rarefied group, such as [a certain bookseller] in Boston, who would like to believe that they can make or break an author. At least the Boston bookseller would return our phone calls.
Peters has never returned a call. Never stocks our books, but the ARC offered Peters has gone into its third printing. By the end of one year, the mystery will have sold over 5000 copies. Not only that, the second book in the series . . . will go into a second printing within 90 days of its pub date. Of course, there is a book for Xmas and next summer. We ain't Harry Potter, but we're having fun trying.
However, you won't find either the first mystery or the sequential mysteries in the Poisoned Pen or the bookstore in Boston, two of the places we were told to cultivate. How do we know? Oh, come on. Small presses call and check to see if you stock our book. Still, the next time another mystery is published, both of these mystery queens will get an ARC. You have to believe more than a few independent mystery bookstores are selling the series with the numbers we have going for us. Or did the chains do it?
Oh, yeah, like we're going to tell you what small press we are--and you have the nerve to print such a stinging indictment of one of your friends.
An Independent Publisher
Holt responds: Egad, such vitriol! My policy about running snide anonymous letters is that they have to be instructive in some way, and this admittedly borderline letter seems symptomatic of a larger problem: Many publishers, large and small, seem to think that an independent bookstore should buy titles only on the basis of projected or proven sales. They don't acknowledge that one reason booksellers remain independent is to select the books they WANT to sell. So my question to Independent Publisher is, why are you so mad? Since you're proving that no bookseller "can make or break an author," why not go on to the next mystery bookstore and keep "having fun," as you say?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Dick Lupoff's letter (Holt Uncensored #179) is instructive in regard to the dubious nature of the Internet as a source of information.
For several years I have been telling students and friends that I employ a "bullshit detector" from time to time. I pick nearly any search engine at random. I type in my name in quotes. If I get more than 16 hits that have anything to do with me (there are four other people in the wider world who share my name) I use this as a measure of just how much junk (read also, trash) is out there.
I often get a hit that tells me that Amazon.com has a book authored by me. I did write the book amazon cites. Henry Holt never published it.
I simply observe that this is another particle of Internet pollution, an error in what many people assume to be the "comprehensiveness and completeness of the information age." . . .
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Have you read "Lip Service"? I suspect not, based on your comments. I had the same trepidation upon reading the book excerpt but was pleasantly surprised to find it an intelligent, compelling story. Read a little further. I think you will rethink your position.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Last year, when "Lip Service" by MJ Rose was first published, what you call "this theme of ordinary housewives/careerists/suburban moms moonlighting as sex workers" wasn't so "weary," as you put it. MJ Rose had been an active participant on pub-forum -- a listserve of independent (thinking) publishers, writers, editors, etc. many of whom had been part of the former PMA listserve). Having watched from the sidelines as she published the book and then saw it take off by "word of mouth," many of us purchased a copy.
After mine arrived, I couldn't stop after two pages. I turned off my computer, let my AT&T automatic phone answering service take messages, put on a bathing suit, grabbed a towel and escaped from the pressures of my _own_ publishing efforts and deadlines. Just what I needed!
I devoured this erotic thriller in less than a day -- probably the same way I used to devour Nancy Drew mysteries on lazy afternoons as a 12-year-old. Summer isn't over, Pat, and it's a still a great book for the beach, pool, or hammock. And congratulations to MJ on her 2nd printing!
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I was just forwarded your column and really, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.
M.J. Rose's book is NOT what you think it is. Why not try reading it before you diss it before hundreds of potential readers?
This is a book which is about the search for self. It is a highly thoughtful psychological book (with a touch of thrill) that is NOT about phone sex, but about a woman breaking out of a shell and risking it all--to discover herself and her place in the world.
I might even argue it isn't erotica at all.
T. Mounts, author and reader
Holt responds: Thanks to you three and others who've written to set me straight. You're right: I got the book and am finding it far more substantial than I gave it credit for. It's my fault for judging a book by its Prologue, which I'm almost sorry I read because as soon as the author moves us past the phone sex scene, the novel begins beautifully. At a posh New York benefit, we meet the tough-minded protagonist who is so subtly and superbly belittled by her psychiatrist husband that we feel her isolation and her returning sense of purpose at bone level. For a quickie read in the bath, "Lip Service" has a lot of depth and a linguistic surety. Thank you, author AND readers.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I've enjoyed reading the exchange between yourself and Mr. Michael Moore. And had it not been for the following paragraph, it is unlikely that I would be sending this email - but his questions require a response.
Mr. Moore says,
"And finally, what about me? Should I just limit my work to the choir? Should I not write my next book because it is being published Rupert Murdoch? Should I cancel my TV show because it is aired on a network partly owned by GE? Should people throw away their copies of 'Roger & Me' because it has the Time Warner logo on it?"
In short, Mr. Moore is creating a false dichotomy. There are other, innovative options that can be pursued outside of publishing/not publishing, throwing away/not throwing away. I submit that it is exactly individuals like Mr. Moore who should be looking for and creating innovative business outlets and distribution methods.
In a current publisher's message on BlueEar.com [mentioned in an earlier Holt Uncensored column], I write the following::
"Artists and those with a calling can align themselves with those in the business world who share their priorities. For such individuals (and I claim to be one), business is not only, or even primarily, about money, but about bliss and justice. If artists seek out and work with those whose calling is business, there can arise a greater likelihood of financial sustainability, even financial success, and integrity to co- exist. Such business people do exist."
The full message is located at (self promotion perhaps, but with a purpose):
I share Mr. Moore's desire to preach beyond the choir. And a lack of recognition and visibility is certainly a potential downside when using alternative outlets, but we must start somewhere. If artists, writers and those with a calling continue to concede the moral authority to those in the business world, it will continue to be business as usual - which most often means profit at the expense of integrity. Profit and integrity can and must co-exist, and writers can assist in making this a reality by seeking alternatives to the business as usual organizations.
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.