by Pat Holt
Friday, September 15, 2000
DON'T FIGHT 'EM - BUY 'EM: B&N SNAGS FATBRAIN
[NOTE: This article and the one below are examples of quickies I've put up first on the "Hot Off the Keyboard" page at the new website, www.holtuncensored.com . These will be added when overnight publication seems a good idea and later linked or reprinted in the column.]
Why am I not surprised that this week, Barnesandnoble.com bought Fatbrain.com, the third-largest bookseller in the country (following Amazon.com and, of course, Barnesandnoble.com).
So much for diversity among large online booksellers. Barnesandnoble.com's stock rose by 10% yesterday as Wall Street took notice of the takeover. No doubt Bertelsmann took a strong hand in the move, since the German conglomerate owns 40% of Barnesandnoble.com and is not hesitant about buying up the competition.
Fatbrain, as you may recall, started out in business as Computer Literacy Inc., a respectable but dull-sounding company that languished in obscurity until it took on the deliberately gross and nerdy name of Fatbrain.
I made a joke at the time that Fatbrain sounded like a cross between Jackie Gleason and Albert Einstein, and you could hear them slapping their thighs in laughter at the Santa Clara (Calif.) company. That was EXACTLY exactly their point. Companies like Fatbrain demonstrated, they were here to say, that you can do business with irreverence and humor and still have a serious vision.
So when Fatbrain got into electronic publishing, it promised to "empower a whole range of authors to go straight to the people." Fatbrain said it would "change the world" through "the ultimate democratization of publishing."
To think that was only a year ago (9/3/99, see #88). Now, with its publishing spinoff MightyWords.com sold to Barnesandnoble.com earlier this year, the takeover of the rest of Fatbrain.com by Barnesandnoble.com -- "the largest example so far of consolidation among online book retailers" (PW Daily) -- was inevitable. And the world has hardly changed.
So goodbye, Fatbrain, and hello, Fatcat.com! Looks like the "empowered" entity now is none other than Barnesandnoble.com, which has already joined forces with Microsoft Reader to open an Ebookstore, created its own textbook store, declared itself a major player as a used bookstore and partnered with iUniverse with a "Publish Your Book" program for writers that B&N.com vice chairman Steve Riggio called "a giant step on the road to the democratization of publishing." Why, that sounds so familiar.
Meanwhile Bertelsmann, which The Economist predicts will buy 100% of Barnesandnoble.com, has announced that it's got a heartstopping $13 billion to invest in future acquisitions. It's an amount that says, step back; we're taking over.
So consider Fatbrain, that hotsie-totsie independent that once considered itself an online bookselling/publishing visionary, one of the latest casualties in the conglomerate battle to control the Internet. Sometimes I think that even if Amazon.com were to go under, some larger battle has already been won.
BOOK REVIEW: South Mountain Road
I'm not sure why New York critics missed this compelling memoir about theater luminaries in the 1940s and '50s, but what a wallop it doth pack. Theatergoers and historians will be drawn to it, of course, but so will anyone who's lost a parent by suicide or is studying the effects of suicidal behavior.
["South Mountain Road" is also an inticing example of the Internet promise that no book need ever go out of print, thanks to shared online databases and in this case an independent bookstore that's become the author's online sponsor (see below). Until only a few years ago, book biz observers worried that the shelf-life of hardcover books had diminished to less than a few months. But now a book like "South Mountain Road," published in April 2000, can enjoy a slower, surer spreading of the word to a grateful audience. Or so everyone who reads it hopes.]
The author, Hesper Anderson, is a screenwriter in her own right - she was an Oscar nominee for writing "Children of a Lesser God" - having started out as a single mother writing scripts for TV in the '70s ranging from "The UFO Incident" with James Earl Jones to "Streets of San Francisco."
In "South Mountain Road" (Simon Schuster; 286 pages; $23; buy online at Reader's Books http://www.readersbooks.com ), "Hep," as she is called, tells us about growing up as the daughter of Putlitzer Prize-winning playwright/screenwriter Maxwell Anderson ("Key Largo," "The Bad Seed," "What Price Glory," etc.).
Along the way, she offers a tantalizing glimpse of the New York theater scene in which her father -- compared to William Shakespeare at the height of his career -- was so revered that when the mountain facing his house was threatened by developers, he wrote a play about it that stirred enough protest to stop work on the mountain and send the developers home.
Anderson's anecdotes about her talented father will delight any budding writer. Maxwell Anderson had for years been an editorial writer for the New York World newspaper, she says. But after attending the reading of a neighbor's play, he began spending his lunch hours in the New York Public Library writing a dramatic work of his own - in blank verse yet - called "White Desert." It "won critical approval but none at the box office," says his daughter.
When his second play, "What Price Glory?" (with Lawrence Stallings), became a commercial success, Anderson quit his job at the World and, squirreled away in a cabin where he rigged hoses and pulled drapes so he thought it was raining and could concentrate in the gloom, wrote one hit play (and some screenplays) after another.
Anderson offers tantalizing - but all too brief - anecdotes about the stars her father worked with in New York and Hollywood, including Ingrid Bergman, Marlon Brando, Katharine Hepburn, Greer Garson and others.
Sometimes the smallest details stay in memory. For example, reviewers praised a mumbling Marlon Brando in "Truckline Cafe" but blasted Maxwell Anderson's script so cruelly that he took out a full-page ad in the Times calling critics "the Jukes family of journalism." The Jukes at the time were "a well-known family of morons," Anderson writes.
In other parts of the book, we see her mother going off to the races with Lee and Ira Gershwin, Katharine Hepburn taking Hep swimming, Rex Harrison visiting the house to talk to Max about "Anne of the Thousand Days" when word comes that Harrison's mistress, Carole Landis, has killed herself.
But the book really comes alive when Anderson evokes the woodsy paradise of the mountain across the Hudson River where a cluster of forest-loving, hermitlike stars came to live near her family's home on South Mountain Road.
Connected by overgrown paths and as clannish as a primitive tribe, these delightful and often eccentric neighbors - Lotte Lenya, Kurt Weill, Burgess Meredith, Alan Jay Lerner and cartoonists Bill Mauldin and Milton Caniff - become godparents to Hep and provide a compelling backdrop to the many problems of the Maxwell Anderson family..
We find ourselves ducking for cover, along with the young Hep and others, under the spreading dark cloud of her mother's insanity. A striking and charismatic woman of considerable charm - neighbors competed with each other to be her best friend - "Mab" Anderson becomes increasingly claustrophobic in the very woods that seem sheltering and protective to Hep and her father.
Mab's violent tantrums and attempted suicides are matter-of-factly described by Hep, who at one point saves her mother at the last minute while her father is paralyzed with fear and repulsion. These scenes are described in flashbacks with surprising beauty and respect, as are moments when the bewildered little girl tries to regain control of her life.
It's Mab's eighth suicide attempt that succeeds in the very first sentence in the book. For ho-hum/kick-you-in-the-teeth beginnings, this is the antithesis of sensationalism and in its way a tribute to her mother's attempt to be a part of the environment surrounding South Mountain Road. "My mother killed herself on the first day of spring. Her crocuses must have been coming up, small green shoots between patches of old snow . . . "
These two themes in the book - an idyllic family home, blessed by the sophisticated yet crazy world of the theater, and a nightmarish childhood in which Hep rescues her mother from the brink of death time after time - combines with a third theme, in which a handsome young novelist (Marion Hargrove, author of the World War II classic, "See Here, Private Hargrove!"), takes appalling advantage of the vulnerable young Hep.
How she hauls herself out of depression and into adulthood without help from anyone, least of all her father, and seeks release in conventional marriage, is a kind of miracle that makes for a coming-of-age book many young women will find instructive. (More to come in a sequel, we hope.)
But she leaves us with everyday scenes that make readers feel closer to art and the people behind it - for example her father and Kurt Weill collaborating on many versions of songs at the piano ("Vitch von do you like, Max?" Weill used to say), or Lotte Lenya amusing Hep by dancing in the kitchen, "imitating her washing machine that had a way of jiggling across the floor."
CAUGHT DEAD IN THE NEW YORK TIMES SUNDAY MAGAZINE
[NOTE: Here's another "Hot Off the Keyboard" item from www.holtuncensored.com .]
I was glad to see an irate Letter to the Editor in the New York Times Sunday magazine about those dreadful if unintentionally hilarious fashion ads from Perry Ellis.
We may all be accustomed to seeing emaciated fashion models, but nobody could have been prepared for these two double-page spreads in the "Fashion of the Times" issue for Fall 2000.
The setting for both ads looks like a green-tiled shower. The female model, wearing an explosion of matching green eye shadow and fire-engine red lipstick, lies like a corpse with blank eyes open on the floor where the drain should be.
In one ad, a naked man bends over the woman's propped-up body and grasps the tie of her coat. He is so blandly menacing and she so comatose that it seems just as possible he will perform some hideous sexual act as cut her up into little pieces. At least with a shower motif, he won't have to worry about getting blood on his clothes.
In the other ad, the same model lies on the floor, dead green-rimmed eyes staring upward, as the man, again naked, crouches over her like a football player at scrimmage. It's kind of sickening.
The letter-writer protests that the ads constitute "a horrible glamorization of rape ... This is not an ad for clothing; it is an ad for violence."
So true. The ads are SO bad that the model seems to say: "I wouldn't be caught dead in this Perry Ellis outf -- oh, wait, I AM caught dead in it."
What could be the purpose of such an ad? Let's take a look at www.PerryEllis.com and see: Here more shower ads appear: In one, the man is clothed and holding a woman's bikini-clad torso - it has no head, of course - across his lap. In another, he allows a different bikini'd model to bend over him and, well, sniff his armpits, it seems.
Perry Ellis is characterized on the site as "a great innovator of fashion... with 'a twist.' " I'll say.
It just goes to show that the Anything-for-a-Shock school of advertising has reached the New York Times, which is apparently accepting all the ads unfit to print.
INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS HAVE A GREAT IDEA
Perhaps it's the adventurism of the Internet that makes it possible to launch a well-thought-out idea after two years of research and then stop in mid-stream, as it were, to consider a whole new plan.
When I announced last week that Holt Uncensored would require an annual $40 subscription fee beginning 9/22, I didn't think about multi-tiered rates, separate prices for separate industries or other alternatives. These have been proposed, but in a one-person shop, time/labor expenses don't allow for much complication.
Then Thom Chambliss of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association came up with a proposal. "It occurs to me that we might both benefit from a bulk membership [in Holt Uncensored] that is offered to PNBA members," Chambliss wrote in an email message.
He proposed to create a formula that would estimate the likely number of members in PNBA who would subscribe to HU. If we agreed on the number, "PNBA would pay you a flat annual fee (with one check), so that any of our members who ask for it could receive your newsletter, compliments of PNBA."
What a great idea! It not only frees up my time and labor but opens up the column to PNBA members who might not find the $40 affordable. It helps finance the column and adds yet another valuable service afforded by the PNBA.
The idea has such potential that other regional booksellers' associations are considering it. Yesterday, for example, the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association voted to put the plan officially in gear.
It's also an idea that sheds new light on the only flaw in the subscription plan that has concerned me so far. This is that Holt Uncensored, which has been an open and free forum for ideas and news entirely "for the public" (and therefore incredibly ubiquitous, it has turned out - I find it quoted everywhere, on and off the Internet), will because of the annual fee become closed to subscription-payers only.
Looked at that way, it doesn't matter how many subscribers there may be or how diverse their interests - the fact is that Holt Uncensored would never again be as facile or mobile or stimulating or rip-roaring around the Internet or newspapers or the mortars as before.
Thom's idea turns some kind of key that opens the HU door again. As another bookseller put it, "if you could announce to the public that independent booksellers were picking up the tab for your column with the agreement that the public (the with-it public -- our customers) gets to come in [to read it] anytime they like, and say anything they want, then that would be a coup for all."
How refreshing. Perhaps it's the constant message from chain bookstores and other corporate behemoths about "winning the game" and "beating out the competition" and "becoming #1" and "taking market share" that makes this independent bookseller's viewpoint so welcome.
When it comes to books and reading, independent booksellers really mean it when they talk about creating a public forum, free and accessible to everybody, that would be "a coup for all." More to come on this.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Apparently now that Amazon.com is under increased pressure to actually make money, the company is beginning to price gouge! I did an informal survey of titles I regularly carry as backlist and found innumerable instances of surcharges from 90 cents to several dollars. In one instance the price of a book was nearly $35 higher than my price. My price is not discounted. This was not an out-of-print book, but one from a smaller publisher. The title is "Some Bears Kill" from Safari Press and it is listed in BIP at 24.95. The price at Amazon.com is $60.
The frightening part of this scenario is that amazon customers still think they're getting a deal...."if Amazon has to raise the price, can you imagine
what my local bookseller is charging!"...but of course they no longer bother to check us out.
I can't say I'm that shocked...it was only a matter of time before prices skyrocketed. However, I'm going to do even more price comparisons...and begin a new ad campaign. This could be a great opportunity. Not only are they price gouging, but they can't even seem to decide on what the actual price of a book is....
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Apropos your piece about our new format at Amazon.com, I just wanted to point out that the bookstore is *always* only one click away! If "Books" isn't a featured store on the top right, you can always find it as the top feature in the left-hand navigation bar of the Welcome page, followed by our other stores. No extra clicks needed! :-)
Dear Holt Uncensored:
This is to the letter from Natalie J. Damschroder about the price of her book at Amazon before and after publication. The $6.50 price may have come about because the publishers don't always provide wholesalers, for example, with the exact price until close to or on the date of publication. In those cases the wholesaler/distributors guess at what the price will be based on paperback or cloth, etc. My guess is the $6.50 was a guess and not a bad one.
Arden R. Olson
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.