by Pat Holt
Friday, September 8, 2000
BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE 4 DIMES?
This is my official notice to readers that beginning September 22, I'll be charging a $40 annual fee for the twice-weekly email column and the new Holt Uncensored website. (If you want to subscribe now, go to http://www.holtuncensored.com and click on "How to Subscribe."
That's about 40 cents per column, but I know the amount of the fee may not be at issue with many readers. Rather it's simply the idea of charging that turns many people off, and I don't blame them.
Like most users, I'm accustomed to zipping around the Internet and picking up free information. It irritates me when people ask for money in this brave new world of freely exchanged ideas. I don't know of any e-mail book industry critic who's charging a fee, and I'm not even sure Inside.com, with its huge (compared to me of course) staff and newsy/gossipy fervor, is worth any payment, let alone $200 a year.
So let me try to put this fee business in context.
When I started Holt Uncensored in 1998, I thought the point of a book critic reporting on industry news was to bring a fresh perspective on issues that were neglected by the press.
But thanks to astounding reader response, almost immediately Holt Uncensored flew out of my hands to become something other than an email column. Within an instant it had become a forum for critical appraisal on all matters in the book business.
Letters poured in by the hundreds, even as it appeared the industry was blowing up in our faces. I did not want just to report news on, say, the implications of Bertelsmann having the audacity to buy half of Barnesandnoble.com (see below for an update). I wanted to throw a fit about it in print and, thanks to you, I found I was hardly alone.
Since then, the Letters section has often been twice the length of my own windy commentary. And a good third of the leads I've followed have come from readers.
Along the way, I never felt I was preaching to the choir. Rather it seems that a diverse, lively, knowledgeable and fabulously opinionated audience is always forming and reforming around these ideas to move us all beyond the obvious and the stale.
Up to now I've financed Holt Uncensored on my own because after leaving the Chronicle, I wanted to take the plunge see if an Internet column on the book industry would be relevant and useful.
I haven't sought advertising because a column like this, I believe, must be unencumbered if it's going to remain uncensored. It must depend on the bond between writer and readers alone. That means you support it, and I keep it going. The more you participate, the more the forum expands.
As we know, the last two years have been only preparatory. Truly massive changes are about to hit the book industry, and, more than news coverage, a critical forum is needed as every issue before us struggles through transformation.
So to keep this twice-weekly column going and to provide new services from a different website (more about that later), the $40 annual fee will go into effect in two weeks.
In a way, all this reminds me of that joke that Dolly Parton makes about herself: "It takes a lot of money to look this cheap." Well, in my case, it only takes 40 cents.
Thanks to the many readers who have subscribed on the basis of a quick mention last time. To those remaining who want to break out of that old Internet bugaboo about fees, you can subscribe now by going to http://www.holtuncensored.com and clicking on "How to Subscribe." Your username and password will be provided in an email confirmation. And Dolly and I will thank you.
PRICE-CHANGING AT AMAZON.COM
Well, this is a true mind-boggler: Amazon.com has been charging some DVD customers higher prices for the same product and can't seem to explain why.
On Tuesday, Linda Rosencrance of ComputerWorld.com conducted an experiment in which computers using a Netscape Web Browser found that the DVD of "Planet of the Apes" was on sale for $64.99, while computers with Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer found the same DVD selling at $74.99.
After more searching, Rosencrance writes, more price differences were uncovered. The practice, she concludes, depended on "which browser was being used, whether a consumer was a repeat or first-time customer and which Internet service provider address a customer was using."
In another test, the "Men In Black" DVD was quoted at $25.97 on Netscape and $23.97 on Internet Explorer. That's not a big difference, but when cache and cookie files were cleared from the PC, the Netscape price remained at $25.97 while the Internet Explorer price jumped to $27.97.
Amazon.com says it's testing such website elements as "the navigation system, what the home page looks like, overall site design and product pricing," writes Rosencrance.
But that doesn't sound right, does it? Why would Amazon.com, which has spent hundreds of millions promoting its "customer-centric" approach, ever want to confuse customers or lose credibility by fiddling with prices like this?
If word gets out that prices aren't to be trusted, won't people want to go somewhere else for DVDs? And who knows when the next test might affect the prices for books or cars or chain saws or drugs?
Well, here comes the Gobbledygook Factor: Whenever Amazon is stumped (i.e., caught in a little fib or a mistake), out comes the corporatespeak: According to Patty Smith of Amazon.com, "We've learned that certain aspects of our site resonate with customers in different ways, and we are continually fine-tuning our site presentation to see how these variables affect customers' purchasing decisions." Great idea: You may find that people don't want to pay higher prices.
Smith also fumbled a question about how long these "tests" will last or how it's decided which customers will be charged the high or low price. "Some customers will pay the same for a certain item as customers paid last week, some will pay more and some will pay less," she said. Hardly confidence-inspiring.
So ComputerWorld consulted an analyst on such matters who says that "it seems like it's 'buyer beware': you, too, could be a guinea pig." He couldn't make "rhyme or reason" out of it either and added that "Amazon is leaving it up to customers to speculate about why they're being charged different prices."
BERTELSMANN EYEING ON AMAZON?
This is the routine collection of personal information, to be held for use at a later time - something George Orwell warned against more than a half-century ago. Amazon also issues one of those invitation/threats that can stop customers in their tracks: You can always opt out of this information-gathering system, it says, but you'll be sorry if you do, because then Amazon will withhold many of its "cool" features.
I think these two elements are so potentially alarming that Amazon.com threw in a little diversion right out of "Wag the Dog" to keep everybody distracted. This is the bombshell the press has been talking about this week - the "unlikely even that Amazon.com Inc. or substantially all of its assets are acquired."
One wonders why the company would even mention this, if it's so unlikely? Who would even WANT to buy the greatest Internet money-loser of all time?
If such a buyer exists, it would have to be very big, bent on world domination, in competition with Amazon, and drooling to control Internet retail in Germany, France and Japan for starters, and able absorb huge losses in a single bound . . . and ta da! Despite the fact that PW Daily made a joke about this, the fact is that Betelsmann.com is so ripe for this kind of purchase it's a wonder we're all not hiding under the bed.
As The Economist suggested earlier this summer, Thomas Middelhoff, CEO of Bertelsmann, made a big deal of partnering with America Online in Europe years ago but was said to feel "jilted" when AOL hooked up with Time Warner. So Bertelsmann, which owns 40 percent of Barnes & Noble's online subsidiary, "is likely to buy out the rest of Barnesandnoble.com . . . and merge it with its wholly owned www.bol.com, which sells mainly in Europe. Both lag far behind Amazon."
I'll say they do. But they could dig out Amazon, with its mammoth losses to colossal burn rate, and tuck the company in the Bertelsmann pocket without so much as a blink of the eye. Bertelsmann does not like being the third largest media conglomerate in the world, and it's got $15 billion to spend.
MR. C.E.O. COMES TO TOWN
Meanwhile, did you see that New York Times report that Thomas Middelhoff is renting Radio City Music Hall on September 15 to speak to the 3000 employees of Bertelsmann's businesses in New York?
He got a little megalomaniacal about it when speaking of the topics people will hear when he goes onstage: "The employees are getting: 'What is the personality of our C.E.O.? For what is he staying and fighting? What to him is important?" Surely not ego.
The Times says a question-and-answer session will take place during the program. Do you think someone will ask how that investigation (by Saul Friedlander et al) of Bertelmann's Nazi past is going? Perhaps it won't come up. Maybe a question about "the unlikely event" of Bertelsmann acquiring Amazon.com could be the safest thing to ask.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I've been waiting on an expose for years on how the NYT gets the numbers for the bestseller list. I think it was corrupt long before the link to B&N.com. As I recall, Donald Trump may have been the first business author to send drones into the stores to send his book to the top of the list. Many have done it since.
I'd like to raise two other points, though. First, when I was a sales representative for a large New York publishing house (I am now an independent rep) one of our duties was to call all of the NYT reporting stores in our territory to "get the numbers" -- we kept lists of the stores that reported to the Times and if our titles were not on the preprinted Times list we made it very clear we'd like to have the numbers written in. Were we directly manipulating the list? I have no idea. But the company thought this was a good way for us to spend our time.
Second, and I would love to get someone to corroborate this, I believe the Times gets its numbers not only from chain and independent stores, but also from Ingram and the other wholesalers. You and I both know that sales figures from a wholesaler are not "sold" books. They are stock that is being sent to retailers to be sold off the shelf. It seems to me that a lot of books get counted twice if you take this factor into account. How does this change the type of title that goes on the list? Obviously the old days of the Times calling up your store and chatting about what's selling is a days gone by event, but the corporate mentality of the list has really limited its diversity.
Thanks, as always, for the terrific forum.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I, too, was surprised at agent Allen Nevins' attempts to maneuver his client's book onto the NY TIME bestseller list, as reported in the TIMES and in HU #181. Surprised not so much by the attempt, but by the incompetence of it. Experienced book marketers know that the TIMES takes bulk sales out of its influential (but hardly scientific) calculations, and the paper trail Mr. Nevins left was just embarrassing.
I theorize this was a case of a firm experienced in other media trying to enter the book business with a bang, and falling on its face. The Artists Management Group that Mr. Nevins works for is a new Hollywood talent agency, founded by Michael Ovitz after his departures from CAA and Disney. Its strategy is to manage clients' careers across all media. It must be hungry for bestsellers. Many of its agents, perhaps including Mr. Nevins, are used to how the movie and music industries see quick, hard numbers of box-office receipts and disks sold. In comparison, the book bestseller lists, based on polling selected stores and simple wizardry, may have seemed quaint and easily manipulated.
J. L. Bell
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re the New York Times best seller list . . . it's been a manipulated scam for years controlled by the large publishers and their peers. From a small publisher's perspective . . . what we face is not much different than independent bookstores and Amazon. Your larger houses control the industry ... we struggle to survive.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I managed a "chain" store for 15 years. We always considered ourselves an "independent" as we had autonomy to stock our stores with what we knew our customers wanted. Granted we had to accept what the "main office" bought, but that never stopped some of us from calling the "main office" & screaming [literally] what the hell are you doing; how did you miss this & what the hell were you thinking when you bought that?
The local chain was Encore Books in the Mid-Atlantic area. Seeing as we were bought out by Lauriat's [a despicable New England small chain that started out well but turned to the worst I have ever seen] we were at first relieved [thank you! we will be owned by a REAL bookstore], we really thought this was something wonderful. Well it was all downhill from there. We had a CEO who was a very glib talker. We had dedicated people who were bailing out over the years because they knew where this was all headed & we had a few dedicated booksellers who stuck it out through thick & thin because this was their life. The point I wanted to make [& yes I know I got off the track] is, as we were forced to go to "classes on bookselling" we sat there & thought :WHAT ! You don"t have a clue!. I have hired many people through those 15 years & a lot of them didn't last past the first 3 days because they didn't understand that customer service goes beyond the interview process & you are expected to REALLY care about books. I guess my point is that those of us who really love books BUT need to work can't afford to work in the venue that would suit us best. . . . [This] refers to the many people who have commented on the lack of customer service they find in independents. Rest assured when my "good" people were working I never had those complaints.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I have been an avid reader of your column for nearly a year now (keep up the good work!) and finally decided it was my turn to send in a letter.
I feel compelled to sing my praises for abebooks.com. I buy a lot of out-of-print books and had been going to Amazon until I discovered AbeBooks through your column. I decided to try them out and I was not disappointed. The process was convenient and the service was prompt, and the first two books have arrived in great shape. Very well done. You might also be interested to know that I tried to order both of these books some time ago through Amazon's out-of-print search service, but they couldn't find either one!
P.S. I am disappointed your column will not be free for much longer....
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Thank for your very informative column. I am a former bookseller and current museum retailer with a soon to be online presence. I am also a local elected official (Library Trustee), and I am happy to see the action of the California legislature in taking on the faux clicks-and-mortar entities whose intention is primarily to avoid the various states' sales taxes. State and local governments are dependent on these revenues for the host of services that they provide, many of which have been previously highlighted in your column. As a former CA resident, I wonder how many of your readers follow the letter of the CA tax law, and remit the sales tax due on all of their ouit-of-state mailorder purchases for the year when filing income tax in April?
I do recognize that any sales tax is perhaps one of the most regressive of taxes, and I for one would be happy to consider eliminating all sales taxes in favor of a dedicated portion of the state income tax for local government. Short of that, the "physical presence" test should apply regarding issues of taxation.
Robert D. Peters
Dear Holt Uncensored:
With interest, we at PICARO PRESS˙ have followed the recent dialogue between you and Lightning Source and the Poisoned Pen Bookstore. Add all this to the recent demise/bankruptcy of a couple of traditional 'independent press' distributors (neither of them ours, thank goodness!) and to the tangle of POD publishing/distribution options on the horizon, and frankly, we are at minimum dizzy with indecision!
In theory, the POD option along with e-book distribution via the internet has us wild with excitement. However, in the rush of the past year, i.e., Lightning severing its ties with Ingram, B&N backing out of its offer to buy Ingram, B&N now in ownership of 49% of i-Universe, which in turn uses Lightning Source as its POD provider...well, WHAT'S a small press to do?
Partnering with i-Universe as a small press to design our books, to store our titles in its database, to handle POD, e-books, AND some distribution¸even connection with our own brick-and-mortar distributors¸seems to be a dream, even at the percentages i-Universe requires to do this. We keep our same imprint, same distribution channels (if we wish), and books are not printed and warehoused and insured, etc., etc. They are out there "on demand."
I guess one of the main questions would have to be how far "down the list" an order coming from us -- via i-Universe, via Lightning Source, to either a bookstore or a consumer or one of our traditional distributors, and THEN to a bookstore -- would take? And at what ultimate accumulated "discounts" and delays? Well, you get the idea...
Has anyone out there actually taken this route to database storage/printing/distribution of their titles? (We can't seem to find anyone with experience here.) If so, we're wondering how has it worked?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
The comment from a letter writer about child labor in India is off base. One of the big industries in India is the re-keying of text. Think about it...a kid has to speak or write well enough in two languages (or more) to do this kind of work. The workers are generally university-educated, skilled people. There was a story about this on NPR several years ago.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
RE: Louann Miller's comment on Holt Uncensored providing bad advice for booksellers
There are two areas where independent bookstores fight the fight--in the political arena and in their own stores. Holt Uncensored provides a forum where many political/industry issues get discussed, and Pat's column helps independent stores think and act on issues out in the wider world that affect them. But the bottom line at my store is always about giving people good reasons to shop there instead of at chains stores or online--because in the final analysis, if I fail at this I don't deserve their business...
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.