by Pat Holt
Tuesday, September 12, 2000
YOUR FAVORITE SAQS (SELDOM ASKED QUESTIONS):
Thanks to the many readers who have sent in subscription orders and queries about the new website and the annual fee of $40, which goes into effect September 22. To subscribe go to http://www.holtuncensored.com/subscribe.html or mail a $40 check to:
Q: What is the Holt Uncensored policy on privacy?
A: I was going to have a little fun by announcing, "Your privacy is sacred at Holt Uncensored as long as we make some money off it" - but perhaps things are too testy at Amazon.com and other online retailers (see #182) to make jokes about such an extremely grave matter. And of course I've been the first to pounce on even the hint of customer exploitation in this regard.
Since independent booksellers have led the way, let me adopt their simple and straightforward language by stating that I NEVER sell, rent or give away any information to anybody about readers of Holt Uncensored, whether they're subscribers or not.
Q: What new features are offered with the www.holtuncensored.com website?
A: The most exciting to me is "Hot off the Keyboard," a place for instant commentary about fast-breaking news that'll probably change every day. Second, for those who've missed book reviews, much more critical commentary will appear in long and brief formats on the new "Book Reviews" page. Third, all the Holt Uncensored archives will be fully searchable by category or chronology.
Q: How have you financed Holt Uncensored thus far?
A: I had enough money after leaving the Chronicle in September of 1998 to support the column for two years. Thanks to investments during a strong economy (Jeff Bezos and I have so much in common) and very little overhead, I've been able to explore this first phase of Holt Uncensored with gusto. Now the money has run out.
Q: So this is why you're charging a subscription fee?
A: Yes - to pay a salary and travel/distribution expenses, but also to preserve the voice that Holt Uncensored has become. Our business is undergoing such enormous upheavals that a forum like this can be more than a watchdog or troubleshooter - it can be a safe harbor where new ideas are freely exchanged and perhaps a new vision created.
Q: Why a fee of $40? It seems high compared to magazine subscriptions because everyone knows you don't have the same kinds of expenses. Doesn't the Internet keep distribution and production costs negligible, thus making everything cheaper?
A: Absolutely - if it weren't for the Internet I'd still be licking stamps back at column #1! And look at it this way: If people in magazines worked off their dining room table as I do, you wouldn't have to pay $3-$5 a copy.
They say that one day we'll all create our own "screen newspaper" this way - we'll select a sportswriter from one place and a political columnist from another place and gardening/parenting/cooking/book reviewing commentators elsewhere, and we'll do it all for pennies. And whattaya know: the per-column price of Holt Uncensored breaks down to about 40 cents. Subscribe now and be a part of the wave of the future.
Q: If you'll no longer be writing to "the public" for free, won't you feel accountable to your privately subscribed reader base?
A: Happily, book critics never feel accountable to anyone! We get to think about critical standards, free speech, diversity and range in literature, the intersection of commerce and art and all that lofty stuff. I would never say, for example, that Bertelsmann's predicted purchase of the rest of Barnesandnoble.com (it owns 40 percent now) "makes sense" or is a "smart business move." I think that's a criminally short-sighted statement. Rather it's the place of Holt Uncensored to point out that such a move is potentially ruinous to literature and to the idea of a free and uncensored press, not to mention the dwindling options of readers, the health of the bookselling trade and the future of democracy (just for starters). AND it's bad business (see commentary about Germany's lesson in level playing fields below). I will say that kind of thing no matter who pays the bills.
Q: What about your bias toward independent booksellers?
A: Well, I think this should be everybody's bias. Despite their declining numbers and assaults from the competition (legal and otherwise), independent booksellers continue to be the key to launching word of mouth and sustaining sales of unknown and midlist books. Sometimes you'll see the chains mobilize behind such works, but only when it pays them, and the same goes for Amazon and other big Internet sites. There's nothing wrong with being in business to make money; but cutting corners when it comes to literature always has a terrible price.
I think seeing the world through the lens of independent bookselling gives us all a "truer" view of events than, say, through the lens of Amazon.com or Borders or Rupert Murdoch or any institution. I started writing this column because I felt the press was missing the real story behind the "bookstore wars" and "merger mania"; I thought then that the key was independent bookstores. I still do.
Q: Why are you writing Holt Uncensored?
A: For the long answer, go to http://www.holtuncensored.com/aboutHU.html. Here's the short one: I think many of our basic freedoms are being suborned every time decisions about what we read fall into fewer and fewer hands. At the same time, every one of those freedoms has the potential for new life as the Internet reveals its capacity to foster a revolution in independent thought.
Q: Why are you leaving your arrangement with the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association?
A: To go back a bit, I felt such a sense of urgency about starting this column when I left the Chronicle that I was overjoyed when the NCIBA offered to help me launch it by 1) establishing a page for Holt Uncensored and archived columns at its website, www.nciba.com, 2) setting up a "listserv" or online distribution service that would send out the column twice a week and 3) paying me $10 per column for the first year (because frankly my tax advisor said I had to show an income).
It was a great way to start, but problems on my end occurred right away: The column was too long even for quicko scrollers so I started cutting out book reviews and lost many readers who read the column not for industry news but critical commentary.
Despite the care of NCIBA's web designer, Thomas Gladysz, I couldn't change copy on the web page, update columns or write overnight commentary on breaking news without a lot of work on his part. And while $10 per column was inexpensive, it did add up and I felt that when the NCIBA went after the California state legislature and state Board of Equalization to enforce existing sales tax laws, I didn't wanted to drain these courageous booksellers of money so stopped charging even the $10 fee.
(Then, too, there was that somewhat amusing business of my disagreeing with certain policies that caused some worry among legal advisors, resulting in an NCIBA disclaimer that I thought was so important I wrote a disclaimer to the disclaimer. We laughed about it at the time, but it didn't seem fair to me that the NCIBA should bear the burden of whatever baseball bats I was swinging in a national column like Holt Uncensored.)
So I always had it in mind that I would one day "go independent." With website costs and subscription set-up fees mounting, it just took longer than I thought. I'll always be grateful to the NCIBA for the launch.
A LESSON FROM GERMANY
Well, thanks to the German government for dramatizing a lesson Americans once celebrated - that you can have a thriving business sector and resist efforts to buy up (or kill off) the competition at the same time.
This is what happened recently when Wal-Mart, having arrived in Germany two years ago, and having instituted "aggressive price 'rollbacks' " since January, was charged with "inciting a price war in which it and two German supermarket chains illegally sold products below their wholesale costs," according to the New York Times.
At the center of the controversy is the fact that shareholders of one of the biggest German retailers, Metro A. G., resisted Wal-Mart's takeover attempt. The acquisition would have given Wal-Mart "enough stores to duplicate the legendary Wal-Mart efficiency in the United States" - meaning enough deep pockets to drive the others out.
Without that acquisition, Wal-Mart started the kind of price wars that were "little more than a series of tricks to lure customers from one store to another with temporary bargains that would soon disappear," the Times reported. Gad, these chains do it everywhere!
The result, say German regulators, is "what amounts to predatory pricing." Taking a welcome long-range view, cartel office director Ulf Boge explains: "The benefit to consumers [of predatory pricing] is marginal and temporary, while the damage to competition through illegal obstruction of small and medium sized companies is lasting and significant."
Of course there are drawbacks to the fact that German law is "heavily tilted toward protecting small shopkeepers in the thousands of towns scattered across the country." For one thing, stores are not permitted to stay open past 6 on weekdays or Sundays.
But the article reflects the "too late" factor that is so crippling in the United States. Before chain bookstores arrived here in the 1970s, independents were growing organically and slowly - granted, too slowly for some - to meet the needs of customers. Had they been given minimal protection from unfair and illegal tactics of competitors, perhaps not so many would have been mowed down as the chains flourished.
While it's true that many of the larger independents today are excellent business models because they learned over the years how to survive against unbelievable odds, the ranks of those small but essential bookshops in neighborhoods across the country have been damaged beyond repair.
Too bad it's too late for a national law that's "heavily tilted toward protecting small shopkeepers in the thousands of towns scattered across the country." Of course, enforcing state sales tax law would be nice, too.
AMAZON.COM - READERS NOT JUST A CLICK AWAY
[Note: Here's an example of an item that was filed under "Hot Off the Keyboard" on the www.holtuncensored.com website shortly after Amazon.com changed its home page. In the future I'll use "Hot Off the Keyboard" items in the column or leave them on the website if they seem minor or out of date.]
Remember when Amazon.com started, and all it sold was books? You just clicked on www.amazon.com and found yourself on the home page for book sales.
Then as the company acquired or partnered with one company after another (toys, CDs, electronics, drugs, hardware, appliances), Amazon.com established its famous tab system and a general-audience home page with many different items to sell. This meant it took 2 clicks to get to the Books section.
A few weeks ago, Amazon sent a note to its customers to say that if the tab format stayed the same and the company continued its acquisition addiction (my term), a forest of tabs would sprout up that would be confusing for customers to navigate.
So a new system has been created. Now a large Welcome and Directory tab are prominently displayed on the left-hand side of the home page, and a handful of smaller tabs under an umbrella headline called "Today's Featured Stores" appear on the right.
This means that on the days when Books aren't shown under "Today's Featured Stores," it'll take three clicks to get to the Books home page.
I never thought even a few years ago that anyone would make a fuss over the function and meaning of a few clicks. Yet every time Amazon.com moves readers another click away from the Books home page, more than a few consumers feel at the very least annoyed.
Perhaps it's because the reasons that many Book customers go to Amazon - speed, efficiency, ease - are compromised with each click taking us farther away from the Books section. Now, instead of "one-click" shopping, the experience is frustrating; with "Today's Featured Stores," it's like a game of hide and seek.
Indeed, a new game at Amazon.com has been afoot since 1) the bankruptcy of Amazon.com's former partner, Living.com, a few weeks ago; 2) Amazon's recent acquisition of Greenlight.com, an online automobile dealer; and 3) Jeff Bezos' recent promises that profitability is very much on the horizon.
As a result of all that, the emphasis at Amazon.com is now on those big-ticket items that carry a high profit margin - not on the little $15-$25 books that require so much labor to deliver and are discounted too much anyway.
You book readers are costing us money, the new Amazon.com home page seems to say, so we're going to try a little bait-and-switch, with the goal that customers come in for a book and ... drive away with a new car! Instead of spending $25 you get to spend $25,000! Now is that a brilliant idea or what?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I am attaching a Just Books privacy statement which we e-mailed to several thousand of our e-newsletter subscribers yesterday. We've had phenomenal response already and we have simply re-inforced the concept that doing the right thing is good for business. Could you urge other independents to write similar messages (use all or any of our stuff) to their customers. It will pay many fold in credibility for independents and will result in the Davids of the world getting stronger and stronger.
In response to Amazon.com's statement and to a number of customer inquiries, we thought it time for us to put in writing the policy to which Just Books has always adhered:
We believe that your private information is private. We use the information you provide us (addresses, phone numbers, credit cards) only to fill your orders. We have not and will not share that information with any third party.
We do not spam. We do not add anyone to our mailing lists without permission, and we do not send mailings on behalf of third parties.
We would never stoop so low as to BUY information about our customers. As to what Amazon thinks it needs with social security numbers and income profiles, we respectfully decline to comment but assure you, Just Books will never ask you for such information or acquire it in any other way.
If you'd like to read the privacy statement we've just added to our website, follow this link: http://www.justbooks.org/page3.htm or http://www.justbook.com/page3.htm
Warren Cassell and Cheryl Barton
Dear Holt Uncensored:
To add to your "case" against Amazon and the concern about price inconsistency, I offer this anecdote:
My first novel, "Hunter's Song," was released by Avid Press this spring. Amazon.com made it available for order before it was available, and listed the price as $6.50, higher than the $5.99 cover price. Once the book was actually printed and Amazon's order was filled, they "discounted" the price to $5.99.
However, anyone who preordered the book was forced to pay the inflated price of $6.50. All this, on top of their 60% purchase discount . How on earth are they not making a profit with such underhanded tactics? Can anyone say "mismanagement"?
Natalie J. Damschroder
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.