by Pat Holt
Tuesday, September 19, 2000
PRINT-ON-DEMAND IN TROUBLE
I'm hearing from every quarter that companies offering P.O.D. (print-on-demand) services are not delivering on the basic promise - high-quality paperback books quickly manufactured at an affordable price by professionals who know what they're doing.
Instead as we heard in #177 about Lightning Source, authors and small publishers alike complain of unfathomable delays, shoddy workmanship, poor customer service and general chaos.
The latest POD firm to take it on the chin is iUniverse, a company that not only prints the books but makes them available to booksellers through distributor Ingram Book Co., and to chain store customers through Barnes & Noble. According to M.J. Rose at Wired.com, the National Writers Union has been investigating iUniverse for some months and has come up with a disturbing list of grievances.
"Among the issues is the failure of iUniverse.com to notify more than 400 authors that their titles had disappeared from the site's database," Rose writes. "When readers tried to order the books, they were informed the titles did not exist. A source who did not want to be identified said that iUniverse was aware of the problem but did nothing to address it until enough authors complained."
Other problems: Titles that should have appeared on the Ingram database within two to three weeks took two to three months to be listed; and in despite the fact that Barnes & Noble owns 49 percent of iUniverse, "many Barnes & Noble stores are unwilling to take orders for iUniverse titles" because iUniverse offers a discount that's too low and takes 4-6 weeks to deliver books, Rose adds.
Then there's iUniversity, set up by iUniverse to print and reprint books for college classes. One author told HU that his short-run title at iUniversity, geared for the college season, was held up for six weeks. Two weeks after classes began, word came that iUniversity was "re-evaluating" its program. Books were so late that the author cancelled the order and found a POD company that guaranttes a five-day turnaround.
"The problem of delays with POD is serious," writes another author, also about iUniverse. "I've been told there are 4-6 week delays. Six weeks later I was told there are still 4-6 week delays. It's supposed to be listed with Ingram. I was told they put in an order for it in July. And it is listed on Amazon.com" - but as a back-order title available in 3-5 weeks.
Another author emailed a copy of the iUniverse.com Newsletter in which all seems up-to-date and hunky dory. "How do these people keep taking on more clients when they can't or don't or won't take care of their present clients?" the reader writes. "They must be trying to lock up as much of the market as they can, then hope they keep at least half of them. In this case you can bet they made their promised deadline while other clients waited."
QUERY TO READERS
Many authors of print-on-demand books have written to ask how they can alert independent booksellers to these books, which range from new titles to formerly out-of-print books that could still sell. I'm thinking of offeringa new service on Holt Uncensored that would provide brief critical reviews to good POD books in a section that might be titled HOT OFF THE POD, or something like that. If this would be of interest to independents as well as to general readers, let me know.
BRAVO, POLITICS & PROSE
What a privilege it was last week to watch the dignity and professionalism with which Claudia Cohen handled the headline-grabbing temper tantrum that Internet columnist Matt Drudge threw in public in an attempt to intimidate Cohen's store, Politics & Prose, in Washington, D.C., into having him speak.
It's too bad Drudge had a media megaphone at his disposal through Lloyd Grove's column, "The Reliable Source" (now there's a title that's up for grabs) in the Washington Post. Grove said Drudge accused Politics & Prose of "ban[ning] him from the premises" after the store declined to have him appear for his new book, "Drudge Manifesto."
"I have literally been told I am not welcome," he complained to Grove. On his own website, "Drudge Report" ( http://www.drudgereport.commat28bb.htm ), he wrote that an unnamed clerk said, "We are going to hide his book in the back when it comes out." Apparently Drudge thought he was proving his case by stating that "Politics & Prose has sold Holocaust denial literature 'mixed in with other Holocaust books.' "
For someone who depends on the First Amendment to protect him on the rumor-mongering front, Drudge acted more like the Christian Right swooping down with self-righteous wrath on his bookstore adversary. He called on his readers to flood the store with protests -- a cheap shot with the potential of crippling the store's communications system - that piled up more than 2500 email messages and hundreds more at the information desk.
"Most of the emails are generated by the Drudge Report readers and most of them are disgusting," Claudia Cohen told her customers in an email message and on the snazzy P&P website http://www.politics-prose.com .
"While perhaps one out of 20 ask us to explain our position, the rest are attacks on us saying that we are book burners and worse. We're Nazis, Commies, Clinton supporters, bigots, and everything else you can imagine. Many are graphically obscene."
Cohen coolly hauled out the arsenal of her store - a statement that invokes respect for the First Amendment and that defends the right of an independent bookstore to select the books it wants to sell and the authors it wants to host.
"Obviously," Cohen wrote, "[Drudge] is not banned from the store. We don't ban anybody from the store. He is welcome to drop by and sign copies of his book, which many authors who are not speaking, do. . . . Nobody at Politics and Prose said that his book would be hidden in the back."
She explained exactly where the book would be placed (prominently), spoke candidly about her feelings - "I think he is obnoxious and harmless" - and explained what she had learned from the fiasco: "I have to say that the 'report' that Matt Drudge has concocted confirms my decision not to ask him to speak."
It's very interesting that Drudge, who depends on making a lot of noise so people will read his column, contrasts so dramatically with Cohen, who depends on the steady day-to-day selling of books without need of hoopla or false decorum. What a great lesson in commercial and literary standards - how they work, what they say - that Cohen and her partner, Barbara Meade, have hauled out of the "ruckus," as they put it.
THANKS FOR THE OUTPOURING
What a deluge of ideas and comments have poured in during the last few days about what appears to be the goal everybody hopes for Holt Uncensored - to keep both the column and the new website open to the public, so that it can move freely around the Internet and reach as many people who want to contribute to this unique forum as possible.
To update matters, regional booksellers associations have shown incredible support, and a new formula for bulk membership that could underwrite many of the costs of HU is underway. More news to come, but I want to thank the many readers who have sent in individual subscriptions and to say that during this unexpected transition a separate letter will go out to you soon.
STALKED BY THE STALKER NOVEL: A BREATHLESS (I CAN'T HELP IT) ESSAY
So I sez to my friend Pat Cody the other day as we're walking down the street in Oakland CA, "Pat, why are there stalker novels? It's agony to read about these horrible predators following people around with dreams of mutilating/debauching/bankrupting/dismembering/marrying/kidnapping (all the same to them) their prey. Maybe some male authors used to write about stalkers to titillate some male readers, but in recent years women have taken it up, and the books are just as bad" - I had just read Fay Kellerman's latest novel, "Stalker" - "and even worse, Pat, why do movie/TV producers follow these authors and make stalker films?"
The worst example of this in recent memory is an A&E adaptation of Robert B. Parker's "Thin Air" with Joe Mantegna in which a former boyfriend kidnaps a woman and videotapes her in this fortress-tenement he's taken over and begins his ritualistic revenge by ordering her to undress slowly in front of the camera so we know that in the first 5 minutes of the TV movie (as we knew in the first pages of the book) that the whole story is going to drag us from one stage of sexual humiliation to the next, which must be titllating to somebody because boy, does Parker stretch it out (I HAD to review this book but thank heaven had the option of turning the movie version off and washing the dishes instead).
So I sez to Pat Cody, "especially when Hollywood is being pressured to at least be thoughtful about the kind of violence it promotes, stalker movies have become the absolute bottom of the barrel when it comes to condensing the threat of violence into one long excruciating mental and physical terror because if there is one thing that connects stalker stories, it's portraying with relish the horror of victims when threatened or kidnapped, especially in the Fay Kellerman novel.
" 'Stalker' in the early pages has us watch a young mother make the mistake of GETTING IN THE CAR with the stalker because he says he'll kill the baby if she doesn't when we know - certainly many women know by now but of course this doesn't even occur to the mother - that IF YOU GET IN THE CAR, YOU'RE DEAD and so is the baby, and maybe Fay Kellerman thinks she's warning women but as readers we never feel we're learning anything new in this novel. It's still a vehicle for her returning police detective, Peter Decker, who in this novel grunts and barks at his rookie cop daughter Cindy who's being stalked all the way through the novel."
And Pat Cody is listening to all this and nodding, and in her thoughtful and wonderfully succinct way, turns to me and says, "Stalker novels and movies show us how to keep women in their place. Now where shall we go for lunch?"
And I thought at the intersection, that is so true! "You're so right, Pat! The stalker's subconscious thinks hey, if society isn't going to keep women down, it's up to me to do it! I'll just pick this woman who wouldn't give me a chance in hell as a date and convince her that once she gets to know me she'll fall in love and we can live happily and I won't let her out of the house for the next 30 years!
"And then the author thinks, boy! there's a lot of rage out there that I can use in my stalker novel because it's SO TIMELY I'll even make the story look literary as Thomas Harris fooled everyone with "Silence of the Lambs" when we all know people loved it because of Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster but now there's Keanu Reeves in "Watcher" in which YET ANOTHER SERIAL KILLER goes out and stalks women for one thing to show them they don't have that freedom."
Pat ponders and promises more conclusive thoughts later so I turn to Peter Handel, who used to review mysteries for me at the Chronicle: "The thing is," I sez to Peter, "if we all know stalking is a pattern and we've seen it a hundred times before, why do we still watch or read about it? Aren't we tired of it by now?
"In the Kellerman novel, a big deal is made of rookie cop Cindy's 'stubborn pride' in trying to handle the stalker herself and she makes the mistake of NOT TELLING DAD about the problem when Dad IS the police and we don't believe for a minute that Cindy would do this but Kellerman sees it as a vehicle for tension and suspense, which means we as readers have to huff and puff in the background thinking gad, this doesn't make any sense but instead of tossing the book aside, we keep reading."
And I add a quick other thought to Peter as he thinks about all this: "Peter, WHY are these stalker novels so consarn STUPID? I mean if they had an enlightened message or an original take or even some good writing or complicated characters, I could see, maybe, a reason, but these writers all sound like - well, never as bad as James Patterson, who has his stalkers living and peeping in the walls of the bedroom or housing his victims so he can torture them in droves - no, they're starting to sound as smarmy and as silly as Philip Margolin, who you may remember stepped into the trap of the killer leaving CODED MESSAGES for the police (yes! in one novel it was a rose on the pillow!) but why here, too, do readers make bestsellers out of stalker novels they have to rewrite in their minds all the way through to make palatable?
And Peter, who's reviewed thousands of mysteries and loves every kind of form there is in the genre, finally pipes up and says, "Well, stalker novels are going through a cycle; it's like the serial killer cycle. Stalking is a great 'crime fiction vehicle,' as they say. Same with child molesters. When psychologists started saying most victims are molested by a relative or family friend in childhood, why, you could hear those mystery writers stampede to their keyboards. To them it was fresh material, but now it's pretty much over. The more people detect a pattern, the more they'll grow tired of it and another cycle will begin."
But since women are the victims of stalkers most of the time, I sez to Peter, "WHY are female readers buying these stalk -- Oh,I know! You mean that because mysteries show our rational and deductive minds bringing order to chaos, reading about the terror (authenticity) and the capture (hope hope hope) of the stalker fills a social need?"
"Well . . ."
And you mean that because a writer like Fay Kellerman shows us the behind-the-scenes police work that figures out these predatory madmen who hide in the bushes or sit in their prison cells or paper their walls or send/drop/sneak/hide awful notes or order people into a car at gunpoint we'll FEEL BETTER BECAUSE THE POLICE ARE THERE and we can rest easier?
"Well, yes, partially," sez Peter. "Another reason is the Grimm fairy tale compulsion to look the most ghoulish thing that terrorizes you in the face and triumph; another is just the ghoulish part, period, another is that people like to be scared; another is the puzzle whodunit factor; another is pitting the rookie woman like Jodie Foster against the most heinous villain of all time and watching her find resources she never knew she had; another is just a good, fast, junkfood read."
Hm. This is Peter's way of saying to me what I used to say to reviewers: Don't step in the way of the reader. So let's switch gears for a moment and turn to a real-life channel of information about stalkers. This is a local "listserv" (or Internet news group) I belong to where cops get on all the time to alert readers about which subway station currently has more crime than others (in the Bay Area: Rockridge Station) or what kind of pedestrian is targeted (women talking on cell phones!) or what highway stalkers are up to next (flashing lights! watch out for vans that come right up behind your car with lights flashing and SEEM official). These warnings do offer a service and do, the cops say, thwart crime.
Well, the problem is that sometimes it feels as though fiction and real life are CONSPIRING to create worse and worse terror until we're supposed to laugh at that Nike ad where the woman in her sports bra is looking in the mirror only to find a stalker with a chainsaw and hockey facemask behind her and she's in such good shape and is so terrorized she races out and outdistances him while he, huffing and puffing, has to put his chainsaw down and groan back to her house.
This ad is supposed to be funny because we never see his face and can laugh at his - well, what, is it his humiliation that he doesn't get to cut her into pieces? - but the fact is so many chainsaw movies have routinely cut up women and so many dismembered victims with their hands and fingers sticking out of the furniture are discovered in real life and on "Law & Order" that we're not supposed to think of the Nike ad as trivializing the victims' terror. We're supposed to think of it as parody because that's the only way you can end up feeling sorry for the chainsaw stalker and not think about the plight of the woman who's just run screaming into the woods.
And okay, MAYBE I've gotten over "American Psycho" and thank you, America, for skipping the movie, but now an even worse quandary has appeared, and that is "Purple Cane Road" by James Lee Burke, one of the truely gifted writers of detective fiction and one who almost always wastes his talent with scenes of horrible violence, and boy does he use that early sexual molestation to inject hatred-of-the-villain early on so that protagonist Robicheaux can get into his kill mode and feel we're behind him.
So the point is (yes! there is one!) if we're stuck in a stalker cycle, let's know that it's coming at us from everywhere like an assault of its own. Pat Cody, who's been a'pondering these thoughts, offers this comment: "You may say that 'the stalker's subconscious thinks if society isn't going to keep women down it's up to me,' but my take is that publishers are pushing this poison that creates the ambience of fear that will keep women either in their houses or never venturing out without a man.
"There is nothing new about stalking per se," adds Pat. "What's new is making it a so-called 'entertainment' that is about terrorizing women, what a lot of guys in this deeply misogynist culture would like to do if they had the nerve. "These people - especially writers like Kellerman - should take a look at what they're doing. Surely they're not so bereft of plots that they have to succumb to such vicious stuff. Good for that guy in Dallas who shredded his magazine [see below]. We [who protest] are not book burners, but we don't yell fire in a crowded theatre and we don't have books (yet!) glorifying lynching."
Peter Handel adds, "I hate to think a 'deeply misogynist culture' is driving this stalker motif, but in some ways there's no other conclusion. When you look at the current 'angry white guy' movement that has spawned an appallingly venomous anti-Hillary [Clinton] campaign, you have to see all of this as part of a larger and really atrocious mosaic."
Of course if publishers are "pushing this poison," it's because readers are buying it, which brings us back to square one. In our incredibly violent society, readers and viewers find our heroes where we can. At the same time, the stalker motif comes at us like an assault all its own, and it seems that individuals who are fed up with it should have options of their own. See below for one man's own Fed Up Quotient and what he did about it.
THAT GUY IN DALLAS
This is about Wick Allison, "that guy in Dallas" mentioned above who, as publisher of a Dallas lifestyle magazine called "D," was so shocked by what he considered "obscene" fashion ads in his own magazine that he ordered all 70,000 copies destroyed.
Mention here of those awful Perry Ellis ads in the New York Times Sunday Magazine occurred the same day that the Wall Street Journal took many fashion advertisers to task for similar themes suggesting kidnap, rape, S&M and murder.
The destruction of the 70,000 copies of "D" inspired Wall Street Journal contributor Pia Nordlinger (who writes editorials at the scandalous New York Post, so she should know) to investigate fashion ads ranging from the salacious to the downright dismembering Elle, Rolling Stone, Vogue, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Harper's Bazaar, W and others.
Perry Ellis, for all its rape-of-fashion-corpses theme mentioned in #185, appears to be the tamest, while ads from Gucci, Sisley (sister company to Benetton), Raffi, Emmanuel Ungaro, Joop and others show an attempt to pander and tantalize at a level "that guy in Dallas" found so personally objectionable he felt moved to do something about it.
It was an expensive and very popular decision, he says, as people he hasn't heard from in years are sending notes of thanks and support.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Amazon.com charged $3.00 per shipment and 95 cents per book for book shipments for the longest time. Early this year, this quietly changed to $3.30 + 99 cents. The end of that quarter, they reported 10% gross profit on shipping. In preparing a column I'm writing for Business 2.0 magazine, I went to doublecheck these amounts. Without me noticing (and I'm a regular customer), Amazon.com is now up to $3.49 + 99 cents.
So maybe they will turn a profit, Pat, by jacking those prices up without anyone paying attention.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Just a quick note about the Amazon.com "many clicks away from books" comment. I have always bookmarked the books home page and never see any of the other stuff they're doing - no "store of the day" for me; I just zoom right to the books.
Holt responds: Yes, most regulars will bookmark the Books page, but it's the gradual pulling away from books and attempt to redirect readers toward other products that I find worth monitoring. Whereas before the site seemed open and welcoming to whatever choices customers wanted to make, now there is a sense of being directed toward the high-ticket items that the company hopes will one day pull it into the black.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
The Perry Ellis ads reminded me of an article in Ms Magazine several years ago by Andrea Dworkin. She was talking about going to Israel and being horrified at the prevalence of Holocaust-themed pornography. In high fashion magazines a favorite theme seemed to be photos of young naked women posed looking dead in gas-chamber-like settings wearing nothing but the high heels or whatever was supposedly being "sold."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
[Note: The enthusiasm of this letter is typical of so many, and the idea it offers [re honor system] so intriguing that I wanted to run it here as an example of the fascinating (and gratifying) "outpouring" mentioned above.]
...At least a half dozen organizations I've belonged to have offered a membership on the "honor system" to anyone who was interested, the theory being that it was far more important to put the information via organization or publication "out there." Well, there must have been some validity in that...because it does work. Word of mouth is a VERY powerful venue! And willingness to include all, and to not exclude by virtue of poverty or whatever the situation might be, was a very encouraging and hopeful "gift," if you will. Gestures like this can be empowering for both the giver, and the receiver!
ALL of us are grateful for the awareness and interest we now have as a result of Holt Uncensored. Those of us like me, readers who LOVE books but who have not been part of the publishing world, wouldn't have been aware of [any of the controversy] until ALL the independents had been swallowed up, I'm afraid! I know that seems very ignorant, but the ENORMITY of these giants' "reach" is astounding...who would have any idea if not involved in publishing or the business world?
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.