by Pat Holt
Tuesday, September 26, 2000
JUST OFF THE PLANE FROM NEBA: PART 1
Every regional booksellers' association has a unique identity, and what a joy it is to travel around the country this time of year to witness the gusto of that uniquely robust phenomenon, the regional booksellers Fall trade show.
About a half-dozen of these hard-working conferences are scattered around the country, each one a key fit in the always-changing mosaic of the region's literary health, and a good predictor of the way books are going to flow from author to publisher to bookseller to reader in the Fall.
As we build up to the Christmas season - it's said the last three months of the year represent most of the year's sales for booksellers - you can imagine how crucial it is that every bookstore staff member identify the titles that will sell quickly or slowly, and know exactly why the store is going to support both with equal fervor.
The biggest and oldest regional independents' organization is the New England Booksellers Association (NEBA), and I must say I had been at NEBA's 27th Fall Meeting & Trade Show in Boston last weekend for only a few hours when I began to notice a weight taking hold everywhere - not the kind of weight that drags things down but the kind that adds unexpected (to me) significance to each proceeding.
In spite of its long history, NEBA has been hit hard by the closing of stores ranging from closet-sized neighborhood favorites to multiple independents such as Lauriat's and Waterstone's (hey, we don't call them chains at the regional level), and a toughened sensibility could be felt even as the members picked up their forks.
Then, too, more than any other region in the country, New England is still thickly carpeted with smaller bookstores that identify with the history of their villages and towns because they sell and read books about that history -- and in a sense still act it out.
True, at NEBA you don't see the brash pugnacity of, say, a group like the Northern California Booksellers Association. You see a longer tradition of bookselling that allows for greater formality and reserve, and reacts when tested with appropriate smash-mouth decorum, as on the occasion that Barnes & Noble ordered NEBA to cease-and-desist using the word "discovery" (see http://www.holtuncensored.com/members/column167.html ).
This year the NEBA president's award went to Seamus Heaney, not only a gifted poet and teacher but a writer who single-handedly brought an element of intelligence and wonder back to the bestseller list with his magnificent and accessible translation of "Beowulf."
Heaney, having won probably every literary prize that exists, including the Nobel, told the gathering with a twinkle in his eye that he was especially honored to receive this award because - one heard the unuttered word "finally!" behind the Irish brogue - he felt accepted as a New Englander.
Taking the opposite point of view was Jane Alexander, the actress who became head of the National Endowment of the Arts during one of its most embattled periods, in her case fighting assaults by Newt Gingrich and his followers. Raised in the Boston area -- her father, she said, was the attending doctor for the Harvard football team - Alexander knew that booksellers in New England represent the opposite of all that Banned in Boston stuff people like me used to hear growing up on the other coast.
"Regularly after school I would visit the Museum of Fine Art," Alexander said, "and view ancient Greek vases with distinctly erotic scenes" -- she paused here for a moment, letting the word "erotic" hang in air -- "and coming back again and again and again" (now the audience allowed itself a little laughter) "to spy those erect penises. You will not see those vases today, by the way," she added firmly. "I have looked for them, but they have been taken to a storage room."
Alexander spoke at BookExpoAmerica last spring (see Column 158) but mentioned not a single erect anything there, perhaps because she wasn't playing the home field, as it were. Indeed, she in this speech she went even further with NEBA listeners.
"I thought of [the Greek vases]," Alexander continued, "while touring the country for the NEA, when Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia was particularly angry with me for letting another controversial piece of art go through. He had threatened to cut the visual and theater arts programs by 40% of their budget."
At that time, Alexander said, "I was visiting West Virginia and saw in a museum a wonderful piece of folk art that was distincticly erotic, with the man starting to enter the woman from behind when you pushed the little lever."
Somehow the words "little lever" was the unexpected funny part and small explosions of laughter erupted throughout the room. "Now this was in West Virginia, and Robert Byrd adored folk art. I thought, 'Does this man KNOW what folk art by traditional artists is about?'
"No, obviously he didnāt. The point is that controversy and art go hand in hand . . . Garrison Keillor once told me that an inevitable tension exists between art and politics, [which is why] I'm so happy to be among independent booksellers. These are voices that have to be heard and are so important to democracy. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said, 'The marketplace for ideas must always be kept diverse.' "
Such speakers often hit a nerve more deeply than they're aware, and this was the case at NEBA, when one panel after another demonstrated the enormity of that single charge for booksellers, to keep the marketplace for ideas diverse, which means keep it healthy and thriving, vital and accessible to customers from every walk of life. More about this next time.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Recently I hosted a booksigning for an author whose book was an iUniverse book. To publicize the signing, the author sent out postcards (some of which went to my customers) saying the book was "Nominated for an Edgar Award."
When I questioned her, she told me that iUniverse told her it was nominated for an Edgar, i.e. they had submitted a copy of her book to the Edgar committee. Now, we all know that ALL published mysteries are supposed to be submitted by the publisher to the Edgar committee, but she didn't. iUniverse told her they only submit the ones that are deserving, like hers. And that "gave" her a nomination.
A few weeks later, I received a blanket promotional email from another iUniverse original author, saying that HIS book was an Edgar Nominee. Now, the 1999 Edgar Awards have been awarded, and the 2000 nominees have not been announced yet. And all publishers are still in the process of submitting the books to the committee. So (foolishly) I responded, very politely I thought, explaining this to him. I received a diatribe, so caustic and nasty, informing me that iUniverse was a "nominator of the Edgar Award" and they had assured him that his book was indeed "nominated for the Edgar" by iUniverse.
I have other iUniverse horror stories, but I thought this was really the worst. And by far the cruelest to the authors themselves.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
The print on demand material is vital. I've been making approving noises about it for a while, then watching to see how it develops. So far, it seems I was over-optimistic. Count me in as one of the people who'd like to see regular coverage on all aspects of this new technology, its effect on writers and publishers, and, of course, on readership. It's not going to go away, but I hate to see writers getting hurt while the wrinkles get ironed out. Or worse, getting taken with false promises about what POD can do in the marketplace.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
So glad to hear you will be able to keep the newsletter open to those who can't pay--as I have been talking it up whenever I speak about the problems independent publishers have as a result of the inroads of the superstores.
But subscriptions are not tax-deductible for a non-profit--only donations. Payment for a subscription is a payment for something the individual gets. A donation is given without getting anything in response. And there are strict rules that govern non-profit status.
Holt Responds: My apologies for not being clear about this: On the new honor system, you "get" the column and access to the website regardless, so your "payment" and any other contribution can be considered a donation, OR you can use the payment as a business expense and anything else as a donation. AND YOU CAN DO THIS NOW BY GOING TO "How to Subscribe."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Regarding your story on Print On Demand: Sounds as though, for now, the POD part of the industry is still being run by committees and corporations. A technology that is designed to make each copy of each book important is being used by people who know everything there is to know about publishing 500 books at a time but very little about publishing a single title. (Considering the corporate parents of Xlibris et al, who is surprised?) But I'm an optimist. Eventually, it seems, POD will allow a book to be published by so few people and with so little money that an author can cut out those people who aren't passionate about his or her book.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Now for a small suggestion: today's newsletter (#187, 9/22/00) contained a much more complete plot description of "The Blind Assassin" than I have seen elsewhere. I am a devoted reader of Margaret Atwood and have been saving this book for a time when I can read it without interruptions. I've deliberately avoided reading reviews in detail, though I noted the general tenor of the two clueless reviews you cited.
So, if you give such thorough plot information and such a revealing quote from the author, could you put in some notification such as "spoiler alert" to warn those of us who want to save such things until after we've read?
Again, thanks, and it is a minor complaint - I could have used self-discipline to avoid the whole thing.
Holt Responds: Believe me, I NEVER give the plot away, and let me tell you that 1) everything I said about the plot comes early in the book and 2) even if I told you everything plotwise you wouldn't be a step further in the reading of it - in other words the story is so complicated by the story within the story (and the story within THAT story) that the joy of it lies in feeling the layering seep in as you figure out what Atwood is doing. So I should have put a DON'T WORRY ALERT on the dang thing! I'm sure I'm not the only one who watches Roger Ebert with fingers in my ears and humming to myself because that guy and his new partner ALWAYS give the ending away and it's one thing I long ago vowed NEVER to do, not even to REFER to the ending because then you'll be reading along and think is THIS what was meant by the reference, or is THIS . . . or THIS . . . In any case thank you for asking so I can say in case you didn't catch it that I will never, ever wreck the ending for readers here.
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.