#181 & 182
by Pat Holt
Friday, September 1, 2000
Something's been bothering me about that recent New York Times article by David Kirkpatrick in which a Los Angeles literary agent appears to have been "caught" trying to "manipulate" the New York Times Best Sellers List.
The article was pretty damning. It said that Alan Nivens of Artists Management Group (AMG), who represents Amway co-founder Rich DeVos's book, "Hopes From My Heart," was channeling something like 18,000 copies through a handful of Southern California bookstores:
According to the Times, Nevins "offered to pay the stores in advance to order thousands of books at deep discounts from the publisher, for direct shipment elsewhere." The stores didn't even have to stock the inventory. Books were sent "to companies that distribute Amway products so they could sell the books at a markup during their fall sales conferences."
To make sure the sales were reported to the Times' Best Sellers list, Nevins sent a fax explaining that each "order of books should be reported the week ending August 18th . . . as an off-site author book signing."
It certainly sounds shady, but here is my question: Why was Nevins so up-front about it? Why did he send out faxes, for example, when he knew they'd be kept as written "evidence" of the deed? Even Karen Watkins of Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, who hated the idea and "reported" Nevins to the Times and to the ABA, said she was "stunned that [Nevins] put something like this in writing."
And why was Ron Land, a sales executive at Thomas Nelson, which published the book, so outspoken about it as well? Land, the Times reports, "said he believed that it was 'very common' for business book authors to arrange bulk purchases either from seminars they lead or companies they run, directing the sales through stores to get on the [NYTBR] list."
Well, as everyone knows, it IS a common practice - so much so that the Times Best Sellers list itself uses a symbol (a dagger) to "indicate that some bookstores report receiving bulk orders." It's not an ACCEPTED practice, certainly, and Times' editors may disregard such sales entirely, but it does happen enough to warrant a flag.
I don't know what compelled Nevins and Land to create this outlandish scheme, but I do think naivete rather than manipulation might be at the bottom of it. They saw 18,000 individual copies about to be sold outside the bookstore loop. How to get those sales reported to the Times, how to channel them through independent bookstores, how to discount the books at Amway sales conferences - these were the questions they tried to answer, not, it seems, how to buy 18,000 books from unwitting booksellers and stuff them in a closet somewhere.
The whole "manipulation" charge seems so odd. If Nevins and Land wanted to create a NYTBR bestseller, an easier (and safer, in terms of being "caught") way would have been for Amway to tell its hundreds of thousands of loyal Amway salespeople to buy the book in bookstores across the nation within, say, a single week, and bam - the book would have popped up on top faster than you could say Mary Kay.
Then there is Kirkpatrick's attempt to portray the integrity of the Times list as so inviolate and its editors so scrupulous that any attempt to influence the list would be like torpedoing the mother ship.
But let's not forget that just before this happened, The Great Harry Potter Disappearance Act occurred on the Times' vaunted Best Sellers List.
Do we think the Times editors dropped three top-selling Harry Potter books from the list because they suddenly realized the NYTBR ought to have a children's best seller list?
Or do we think the removal of the Harry Potter books may have occurred in response to protests from frustrated publishers who simply and greedily wanted more slots for their own books?
I'm not saying that Nevins is the innocent in all this. I do think it's noteworthy that he lives in California, where the prestige of the Times isn't taken quite so seriously, and where it's easy to agree with Variety, which said recently that the Times Best Sellers List list, "once the gold standard of commercial success in the book world . . . has been discarded by America's biggest bookstores, all of which now use their own lists." So do most independents, large and small.
To me, the Times' Best Sellers List lost its veracity after Barnes & Noble became the Times' "exclusive bookseller online" and independent booksellers protested, many of them terminating their relationship with the Times as reporting booksellers for the Times Best Sellers List.
Since then, although some independents have returned to the fold, the Times' list has become indistinguishable from those of chain bookstores, not to mention creaky and sluggish, compared to others. In some ways, it's a wonder Nevins and Land even cared.
INTERNET SALES TAX: OUT OF THE GATE
Well, they're whooping it up in independent bookselling circles throughout California this week, and who can blame them. Making front-page news throughout the state (because nobody thought it would happen), California's legislature passed AB2412, a simple but hugely controversial bill that "clarifies existing law" regarding sales tax.
In effect, the bill challenges the tax-exempt status of Internet retailers like those clicks-and-mortar scofflaws, Barnes & Noble and Borders.
How can it be, the now-educated legislators of California want to know, that
the Internet companies of Borders and Barnes & Noble do NOT charge sales tax, but Internet companies such as EddieBauer.com and Wal-mart.com DO charge sales tax?
The reason for this, the chain-store corporations insisted, is that Eddie Bauer and Wal-Mart do not use separate, out-of-state subsidiaries for online sales while Borders and Barnes & Noble have created such VERY separate companies as Borders.com and Barnesandnoble.com for that very purpose.
But as representatives from the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association have proven, when California customers who buy books online from Borders.com and Barnesandnoble.com can return the books at physical Borders or Barnes & Noble stores, the question becomes murky as to what defines "nexus" (an Internet company's physical presence in a state) and what defines a "separate" subsidiary.
Speaking of murky, you have to wonder how efficient our electronic revolution has become when the closest the General Accounting Office can get to a number for uncollected taxes is its estimate that "California will forfeit between $23 million and $533 million in Internet sales tax revenues this year."
Such matters will become central to the discussion as other states create similar bills.
One remaining obstacle stands in the way: California Governor Gray Davis, who has stated he's opposed to "taxing the Internet" and appears overly influenced by Silicon Valley interests, may veto the bill. He needs to hear from those who understand the importance of the now-famous "level playing field" and want to tell him so at GRAYDAVIS@GOVERNOR.CA.GOV .
Meanwhile, bravo to independent booksellers Andy Ross of Cody's, Bill Petrocelli of Book Passage and Hut Landon of NCIBA, whose lone campaign to bring the matter forward with legislators and Franchise Tax Board members has finally resulted in this history-making legislation.
LIGHTNING SOURCE RESPONDS . . .
Larry Brewster, Chief Operating Officer of Lightning Source, telephoned yesterday to respond to the recent story here about the difficulties that Robert Rosenwald of Poisoned Pen Press said he had experienced with Lightning. These included long delays, orders lost, calls not returned, books damaged, website information mishandled, etc.
I had asked Robert if he felt Lightning's new deal with Putnam/Penguin - in which Lightning will digitize all of Putnam/Penguin's books - might be forcing smaller presses like Poisoned Pen into the back seat at Lightning. Robert didn't know, but Larry Brewster wants to set the record straight.
"In general, we are experiencing a lot of growth at LIghtning, and are trying to address the issues Robert Rosenwald has run into," Larry said. "We have more than doubled client-services support people, and we are implementing a new web-based system that's scheduled to go 'live' next week."
Aha. This was the system Robert said had been promised for some time but appeared to be causing more problems than it solved. "It's true, the web system was supposed to have happened in June but was delayed," Larry concurred.
"When it's ready, it will take away the frustration he has felt, because from then on, orders will be placed and tracked on the web. We're working on the responsiveness issues as well. I should tell you his experience is not the norm."
That's good to know, since Lightning Source "deals with over 700 publishers of all sizes," says Larry, "many of them small. There are not that many big ones. We now have in our library about 12,000 titles. In the past month we've received over 2000 titles to set up. We've printed over 100,000 books."
So smaller publishers won't being kept waiting as Lightning embarks on larger contracts, like the Putnam/Penguin deal?
"Absolutely not. The point is that the Print on Demand processes we're using are independent of the e-book contracts. This is a different process. The issues that affect Poisoned Pen are workload and growth and doing things on a much higher volume, and these issues we're addressing with systems implementation."
As to complaints about delays, Larry says that Lightning can print and deliver a single title to Ingram within 48 hours, or drop-ship a book directly to the consumer within 48 hours. "Those are the first-priority books," he said.
Short-runs are based on available capacity, and this "varies dramatically," Larry adds - it could be 2-3 days or 2-3 weeks, depending. While Robert Rosenwald said that five weeks was more of the norm for his orders, Larry says that at present, a book may take five weeks if there are problems in the set-up process. "Some orders did get messed up because we dropped the ball," he said.
Additional equipment will also speed things up. "A fourth line (complete printing process) has just been added - each of these can do about 30-40,000 books a month. Overall, we've got an awful lot of publishers who are very happy with what we've done with them." he said, "and a very small percentage that's dissatisfied."
(Contacted at home, Robert Rosenwald of Poisoned Pen Press says his customer service representative has told him that Lightning will be telephoning him once a week with status reports. Meanwhile, the books he had been waiting for have arrived. The call from Larry Brewster, he believes is "a good faith response," and all is well for now.)
. . . AND SO DOES THE POISONED PEN PRESS
Meanwhile, a reader sends this query about Poisoned Pen's practice of sending out-of-print books to India to be rekeyed: "I wonder how many children at sub-human wages are employed in sweatshops over antiquated typewriters to do this? Is Poisoned Pen exploiting Third World child labor?"
Robert answers that "this is a legitimate concern and I'm glad to answer it. My Indian firm does work for a number of U.S. universities and other places that need this kind of data entry. The company employs around 23 people, most of whom are college graduates who've majored in literature. They are paid monthly wages between Rs.2500 & Rs.5000.
"As best as I can tell this is between $60 and $120 per month, which seems to be two to four times the average wage, though I am still investigating that point. Of course we aren't dealing with typewriters but sophisticated electronic equipment. As an aside, assuming 100-wpm typists are being used, I am paying about $12.00 per hour for rekeying (it costs me about $180 for a 90,000-word novel)."
As to The Poisoned Pen mystery bookstore (run by Robert's wife, Barbara Peters) that's been discussed in the Letters section lately, see below..
NOTE: Holt Uncensored is taking the holiday off - see you next Friday.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I'm so glad you printed the letter from an irate author/press [who sent an advanced reading copy to The Poisoned Pen and was angry that the store does not carry the title] who raises an important point--if arguing from a false premise, i.e., that good sales are the determinate in what makes a "good book."
In fact, what makes a good book, and thus a book to stock and sell, is a matter of individual taste and judgment. This is the whole point of an independent bookstore (and a small press). We only have to sell book we like. We only have to sell to customers with whom we wish to interact. We enjoy making a marriage between the two. And we're allowed to say No to a book or a buyer if No seems to us to be appropriate.
Having said that, I've argued since the beginning that we try to stock one copy of most crime fiction in print as that, too, is the point of a mystery specialty bookstore--to make the range of the genre available. We try to live up to that ideal at The Poisoned Pen, but with reasonable limits, avoiding for example tabloid books or books that by some objective standards don't work for us: badly written, badly produced. Subject matter doesn't enter into a No decision unless the book is clearly some kind of tabloid presentation. I, for example, argued against Mo Hayder's recent thriller The Birdman, but we carried the title in the store and sold it to those who ordered it. Our customers shop with us in large part because of our expressed opinions.
The rise of the small press, POD, etc. has raised some tricky problems for the bookseller. One has to do with the sheer volume of material flooding in. Another with pressure to find time to read it. We try to the extent possible to read every book we add to inventory. Another with wildly fluctuating quality. Another, and increasingly the most difficult, is dealing directly with the author. It's one thing to turn down an event or a title with a publisher. It's much more difficult to say to the author him/herself that you don't care for the work. Clearly, the turn down is becoming confrontational, as the letter you published makes plain.
When an author writes a book and sends it out into the world, however that's done, the work should rise and fall on its own merit. Some people will love it, some will be indifferent, others will dislike it. The very fact of publication, or of presentation to a reviewer or bookseller, doesn't alter that. If the small press in question sent me an ARC and we don't now carry the book, then the plain answer is I didn't like it--and for an objective reason since I'm not inclined to censor subject and I can stretch to accommodate technique. I'm not obliged to defend that decision, nor am I answerable to someone who voluntarily submitted something to me. The fact of publication bestowed no set of rights on the author or the publisher.
The fact that the letter is unsigned seems to me another indication that its author has missed the point just made, or perhaps just desires to duck a response in which I would be driven to make plain, in public, exactly why we don't carry the title in question.
Anyone who thinks The Poisoned Pen is an easy sell out to big publishing, or is highly commercial, ought to review our record. We are cranky, opinionated, passionate for good books, and strive to ferret out the unknown. The fact that we are also successful shouldn't obscure our basic position: we're in this for love, the money follows.
One final point: Poisoned Pen Press is a completely separate entity, and a separate corporation, from The Poisoned Pen bookstore. To avoid all possible conflicts of interest, the press has a different set of officers and staff and operates in its own best interests (which frequently conflict with those of the bookstore). That's deliberate policy. The fact that I am editor of books published by the press may be confusing, so let me state that my position at the press is limited strictly to the editorial sphere and is zero in regard to operations and policy.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
This will probably be my final note, as I will not be opting for the subscription version after September 22. The decision to change formats is yours, of course, and I do wish you every success in the new mode. Whatever else, it's never been boring.
But I remain concerned that the column is, with the best intentions, giving independent bookstores dangerously bad advice. The whole thrust of your column, in the time I've read it, has been to model changes in the industry this way: "Chains and dotcoms are stealing business from independents, which they have no right to do and which should be stopped."
This theory leaves out one key element: customer free will. I believe a truer model is this one: "Customers are choosing to move their business to chains and dotcoms, for reasons which make sense to the customers. We need to understand these reasons in order to change and make independents the better deal in the eyes of the customer."
The first model gives independents little to do except grumble "no fair" or demand that somebody pass a law. I'm afraid a lot of businesses are going to sink without a trace this way, maintaining to the last that they have a _right_ to keep their vanished customers. Bankruptcy is a high price to pay for moral superiority. The second model opens the door for independents to listen to their customers and adapt. It's not a sure key to survival -- virtually ALL small businesses eventually go under, regardless of category -- but I think it's the independent's best shot.
Again, best wishes in your new mode.
Holt responds: I'm not "changing formats" so much as adding a new and enhanced website, but let me say that this column has reflected what independents have taught me, not "advice" that I am sending to them. And if anyone knows how to honor customer rights, it's the independents.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
So are you going to start charging everybody for access to your twice weekly column in September, regardless of whether or not they also want access to your website? I really enjoy your column, but as one of those enthusiastic yet impoverished folks in the publishing business, am not sure I will continue to subscribe with a price tag added on. Of course you should get paid for what you do, but there is so much flow of free information on the web, that it seems weird to be charged. Surely you haven't exactly been volunteering your services all this time, anyway -- what's up?
Holt responds: In fact, "volunteering" is the right term, though I never thought of it that way. The idea of the first two years has been to show how vital a forum this can be and, thanks in large part to the liveliest letter-writers in the country, how worthy it is of your money. So the email column is what you're paying for, but now you also get access to services (book reviews, searchable archives, daily commentary) on the website I've wanted to offer since the beginning. More about this to follow. The subscription fee isn't required until 9/22, but the website is "live" at http://www.holtuncensored.com and the How to Subscribe box is on the home page.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
To the authors, small publishers and others who like to speculate on why bookstores close I can only say a few things. If there were a level playing field for all many stores would not have to make the tough decision to stock or not stock a particular book from a particular press or author (we have many local authors' books in stock, and for many them have never been out of stock (because we never sold a book?). We have clerks who have misinformed customers and authors alike (they are only human) and customers who return to the superstores time and time again without minding that they have been misinformed, misquoted or under-served by those stores' employees. Was it because they were paying less that they felt they had to accept less in the way of service? Little by little the perks, benefits and discounts are going away, and will there be any independent bookstores left to return to with ones patronage and loyalty? And do bookstores really deserve to close their doors because they haven't been efficient to the writers who claim to have been mistreated, under-represented or poorly served? I think not. I think it all goes back to the lack of a level playing field for all stores. Give us the same advantages and we will try our hardest to do the job we love, selling books!
Ed Elrod, bookseller
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.