by Pat Holt
Friday, October 20, 2000
NOTE: Okay, we're back in business after list/serve crash -- See #188 and #189 -- and thanks to readers for spreading word that the column has resumed, remains free to everyone (we'll talk about voluntary dues later), is forwardable and reprintable without need for permission. Twice weekly publication begins again next week. Thank you again.
GEMSTAR SOUNDING LIKE BERTELSMANN
GEMSTAR SOUNDING LIKE BERTELSMANN
I knew that during my (enforced) vacation the Book Biz would continue flipping its lid, but gosh, who would have thought the world of book-related dotcoms could change so radically?
It seems that Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com, which only a few weeks ago were definitely falling out of fashion, can't seem to do anything right (see next week).
At the same time, Gemstar -TV Guide, while not on top (certainly not in my book), has become the darling (or is it monster) e-book trader of the year.
For starters, when Gemstar bought the massive TV Guide empire, federal regulators "bombarded industry players with questions about the antitrust implications of the deal," wrote the Los Angeles Times. Both companies were accused by competitors of having "unrivalled powers" and of "us[ing] their market dominance unfairly" and in a manner that would "prevent anyone else from developing or deploying lucrative interactive TV services key to their growth." The fear that Gemstar-TV Guide will monopolize the future of TV has not been dispelled.
Then Gemstar moved into the book biz and bought up its electronic book competitors, Rocket eBook (NuvoMedia) and SoftBook, whose reading devices now have the least creative names in the marketplace, REB1100 and REB1200.
I was sorry to see this sale, because the founders of Rocket eBook and SoftBook were young and innovative entrepreneurs who pursued their markets with enthusiasm and new ideas. Even when they got that hanging-by-a-thread pallor that made the sale of their companies seem imminent, observers hoped they would show the e-book world what a fresh approach in product choice could mean in the 21st century.
Ah well, not a chance with Gemstar-TV Guide, whose chief, Henry Yuen, seems to come from the same cookie mold as Jeff Bezos (head of Amazon.com), Leonard Riggio (Barnes & Noble), Thomas Middelhoff (Bertelsmann), Rupert Murdoch (HarperCollins), Steve Case (AOL/Time Warner) or any other corporate chief who's not content to run a single business well.
Henry Yuen "has an additional, and equally ambitious, goal" beyond being a contender in the e-book world, says USA Today. "He wants to become the king of electronic publishing."
So here we go again with the world domination stuff: Yuen's opening pawn was the French e-book company Les Editions OOhOO (what a delightful-sounding name! - it has so much flair it'll probably be the first thing Gemstar will change), which he bought "to make [Gemstar] a major participant in the new era of digital publishing in Europe." Today Europe, tomorrow ze voyld.
This bigness-begats-bigness thinking makes sense if you're out to be king, and the business press always couches its reporting in that way: Buying Les Editions OOhOO was smart of Henry since he wants to be king, and so forth. It's the all-business-deals-are-good-news kind of reporting that made the AOL-Time Warner deal look so celebrated and angelic.
But it's not good news for readers. It's not good news that the fledgling electronic book industry (like the restaurant, hardware, office supply, nursery and other industries before it) is already being eaten up by the latest megalomaniac company to hit the scene. It is not good news that here before our eyes is the kind of consolidation of power we've seen overtake the traditional book industry, because it means that very soon, once again, the choices about what we read are falling into fewer and fewer hands.
No wonder the next step for Gemstar is to begin controlling the very language that creates that power. Yuen actually wants to trademark the word "e-book," for heaven's sake!
He wants Gemstar-TV Guide to be the only entity in the world with the legal right to use a word that's been in common usage long before he got into the business. He wants to OWN a piece of language in the same way Barnes & Noble attempted to own the word "discover" - as a weapon against perceived competitors (in B&N's case the New England Booksellers Association, which refused to buckle under to bullying tactics until B&N left the schoolyard).
One hopes that upcoming e-book reading devices from Adobe and Microsoft will give readers a better choice than Yuen's expensive REB1100 and REB1200. Certainly Yuen's talk about keeping the price of e-book titles high (or "not discounted" as he said) because readers don't have to pay shipping charges is both naive and belligerent. Readers are way ahead of that notion. They expect lower prices because of lower production costs and non-existent shipping charges.
Perhaps most surprising was Yuen's contention that keeping prices of ebooks high is a "challenge to the notion that everything on the Internet should be free." What a fatuous remark. A more realistic goal that's respectful of customers knowledge is for e-books to cost pennies to the user once they're efficiently marketed to a worldwide audience of billions. That may be a long way in the future, but you'll never get to it by gouging the customer now.
THE OLD WAY
The big problem about e-books today, I think, is that people like Yuen concentrate only on the idea of blockbuster sales, thinking the Stephen King experience of a famous author introducing the new e-book form is the only way to go.
But when you move a step away from that fame, as a recent New York Times story demonstrates, the electronic book form itself is not catching on. "No one has figured out a good way to distribute e-books or even what to charge," says John Feldcamp of Xlibris. At his company, "fewer than 1% of the books he sells are in an electronic format," says the Times.
MightyWords is concentrating on technical manuals and business books; iUniverse is becoming "a provider of technology to tradtional book publishers." The real news in this story is that John Wiley has "struck a deal with the University of California and California State University to make more than 300 of its academic journals available online. The arrangement covers more than 700,000 students, faculty and staff members."
TURNING TOWARD THE NEW
For the publishers who made themselves so visible at the Gemstar press conference recently, it appeared the e-book biz will be transformed when reading devices like REB1100 and REB1200 are as cheap as calculators or cell phones. Certainly young people seem to think so. College students already make it something to boast about when they've read a whole book on a Palm Pilot. Grade-school teachers say that many students aren't interested in reading text unless it's on a screen.
So while all this percolates, knowing the numbers for e-books aren't there now but will be one day, why not plan for a way to answer the so-far-unsolvable-question: How can we help readers find the books (e-books or bound books) they want? By the time the numbers ARE there, millions of titles will be floating around in cyberspace, and if we don't answer that question, that's all they'll do - float around.
I know the ideal scenario for marketing on the Internet is to create new forms of metatag technology to define your product in such precise detail that the buying audience from all over the world and all walks of life can simply enter the right keywords and flock to your portal, as it were.
Self publishers and authors are already fine-tuning this system of spreading the word back to oneself and find customers for their books in the most unlikely and farthest reaches. For nonfiction e-books, what great adventure lies ahead in opening up the opportunities of cyber-browsing, cyber-description, cyber-reviewing, with the goal of every reader finding the most wanted book.
Well, you can see where I'm going, yes? This is all great for the easily described how-to, the history, the biography, the science book. But for those nonfiction books in which the writing supercedes content, and especially for serious novels in which the writing is just flat-out magnificent, at some point we are talking about that indefinable thing called art, and we've entered the Land of the Inexpressible Metatag.
It's not a rarefied area. I'm a critic, and I know there is something almost impossible to define in every good book, which is to say most midlist books, that makes the reading so worthwhile that one feels changed in the process.
A book reviewer or teacher can get close to that impossible-to-define thing, but when it comes to convincing someone to take the risk, and when taking the risk depends on how much you trust the person recommending the book, the only real channel we have is the independent bookseller.
You can skip this because I've said it differently before, but it always knocks me out that time and time again, independent booksellers prove that launching good books by unknown or midlist authors is a neighborhood thing, an over-the-counter-conversation thing, a handselling-from-the-heart, come-to-our-book-club, try-this-one-too thing.
We know this is true because whenever they speak in public, most authors, especially blockbuster authors, always thank the independent booksellers first: They discovered me when nobody came, these authors say. They were there talking up my books when nobody knew who I was. They showed my publisher I had "real potential" (when it shoulda been the other way around, if you don't mind my adding).
So the questions I think we should be asking now have to do with preserving that certainty, that sure means of getting books to readers on whatever land or cyberplane is going to exist for them in the future.
Instead of becoming infatuated with the idea of "disintermediating" booksellers out of the loop and shooting the book straight at the reader through cyberspace and talking like ya got sixguns on yer hips, let's remember how much we need the human element on and off the Internet.
Let's take a walk into independent bookstores and see how the real world works today, before we believe our own publicity and think that, like a king, we can dominate the world of the e-book tomorrow.
ABA DUES: THE PREZ SPEAKS
Thanks to the many readers who've written to voice their concerns about the American Booksellers Association's plan to raise dues substantially - in some cases by 100%.
Questions have poured in about the ABA's other forms of income, lawsuit and advocacy expenses and even the notion of selling the ABA's Tarrytown estate for cash to keep going.
I described all this in a note to Neal Coonerty, current president of the ABA, who responds as follows:
"The purpose of the dues increase is to give the ABA a stable financial foundation. We sold the ABA convention, which provided the bulk of our income. If we were going to take on the industry's problems with effective legal action (which we have), it would have been impossible to do so if ABA was dependent on publishers' convention money. When we did sue certain publishers, in fact, they did cut back their convention presence substantially or totally.
"So we took the proceeds from the sale of the convention and invested them in order to replace the convention income. As you can imagine, these investments have done well over the last few years (which helped because the legal expenses have been breathtakingly large). However, the stock market being the stock market, we cannot completely depend on this income because the market may slide (or worse) at some time and our major income source may dry up. Also, in paying for the advocacy and other programs, we have been eating into this asset we gained from the convention sale. Obviously, the less to invest, the less return we get.
"I would not be in favor of selling the Tarrytown property in order to keep membership dues where they are now for three reasons: 1) I think the value available from ABA membership is worth the new dues; 2) our occupancy costs are extremely low because we lease out part of the property to other businesses and if we were to move, our monthly operational costs would probably go up; and 3) it would mean converting another asset into cash and it would put us more dependent on the stock market and its ups and downs. In short, I would feel that the ABA would have all its eggs in one basket and I don't feel that that would be financially responsible.
"Implied in the question concerning the property is the idea that we liquidate our assets and spend it until it is gone. As important as the current issues are, the ABA leadership cannot abandon the future by spending ourselves out of existence. There will be advocacy issues which need an ABA response in the future. There will be future issues such as the B&N purchase of Ingram which will need a strong ABA effort. If we win the chain lawsuit, we will need a strong ABA to insure that the victory we will have earned in trial is not ignored in everyday business practices. There will be future projects such as BookSense and BookSense.com which will require a national solution for independent bookstores. The board feels strongly that we have to give the ABA a strong financial foundation in order to be there for future independent bookstores as well as today's independent booksellers.
"Even while saying that the new ABA dues are fair and justified, I understand that any increased costs are very difficult for booksellers. All the booksellers on the board understood this and tried hard to come up with ways around this financial worries. Even though the membership dues have not been substantially increased since 1989, we will lose bookstore members from this dues increase and I have already heard from some of them. I hate to see that happen. But independent booksellers need a national organization that is strong and stable. I remain convinced that increasing membership dues is a fair and reasonable way to accomplish this important goal. I wish we were in a position to make membership free to booksellers, but that is not how the world works. I believe that the ABA has worked very hard over the last five years to focus its efforts into projects which are critical to helping independent bookstores survive and prosper (the lawsuits with publishers, lawsuits with chains, B&N/Ingram merger, e-commerce fairness, BookSense and BookSense.com). We have spent the money necessary to make sure these projects are successful. We have avoided, as long as possible, adding to the financial burden of bookstore members. However, the time has come for each store to decide if the dues are fair and justified for them. I know that a vast majority of our members value the ABA and will accept the dues increase as reasonable and well worth it."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
It's 5:20 on Friday night and on my way home I'll be stopping at my favorite independent bookstore, Coliseum on 57th and Broadway in Manhattan to buy "Listen To Us: The World's Working Children." I remain amazed at a world that despite its claims to love and cherish children, there is so much evidence to the contrary. Here in America our politicians yammer on about education and protecting children from a variety of evils but there is little to prove that anything is ever done. A number of years ago, New York's then governor Mario Cuomo dedicated himself to the Decade of the Child. I wonder if there is any proof that anything at all, except the creation of a slogan, was ever done.
And re Perry Ellis: The real Perry Ellis died of AIDS several years ago. Whatever consortium owns the name now must answer not only for its advertising but for sullying the name of a man who was much loved and respected by his colleagues (my sister and other friends do or have worked in the fashion industry).
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re your review of "Listen to Us," another book on the same topic, geared to a slightly younger audience: "Stand Up for Your Rights," $9.95, 96 pages, Two-Can Publishing. It examines the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and includes personal narratives by children from all over the world.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I am an out-of-print book dealer in London. Since Amazon.com started dealing in out of print books some 3 or 4 years ago, they have bought a significant number of books from me, with weekly parcels being sent by me to their Seattle headquarters. For small sole-trader dealers like myself, they were and are a first class customer - payment with orders to oil the constant cash-flow problems.
From 9th of September, my orders from Amazon dried up completely. I rang them on 28th September to see what was happening and if there was anything wrong. I was told that since the 9th September, they were now ordering solely from my Alibris listings. Previously, Amazon bought from me from my Bibliofind and ABE listings.
I was informed that they, Amazon, had ordered 43 books from my Alibris listings since September 9th. That they were aware it was my stock on Alibris means they have access to dealer information on there. I checked the number of orders I had from Alibris in the month of September & rather than being up on previous months, it remained much the same. Had all my Amazon orders through Alibris got through to me, Alibris would have at least doubled their orders for the month.
I withdrew my stock from Alibris and am pleased that Amazon are ordering from me again, matching against my stock on Bibliofind. I did have an e-mail from my "dealer relations representative" at Alibris stating, amongst other things, that , "I can confirm that of your recent orders, 13 were destined for Amazon" - were this the case, my orders from Alibris for the month would have increased by 50%, but they remained static. And my question as to what had happened to the other 43 Amazon orders remains unanswered - incidentally, 3 of the 43 books which Amazon had ordered did actually filter through to me, 2 of them after Alibris realized that I was not happy with their antics.
So what is going on at Alibris? As many people know, they have a very large stock of their own in their Nevada warehouse, where they also stock large collections of other people's books. No doubt, their own stock gets top priority, followed by the other people's stock they store. And then there are the dealers who list solely on Alibris, whose stock gets priority over those dealers, the vast majority, who like myself, place our inventories on multiple book sites - following Interloc's metamorphosis into Alibris, putting all one's eggs in the Alibris basket would appear to be bordering on lunacy, as literally thousands of booksellers were left high & dry for quite some time until new marketing networks were established.
I can only deduce that Alibris do not have the time to catalogue all their holdings - other than a cursory author & title catalogue for their own in-house use. And that they are using my listings, & those of other dealers, as a shop window for their warehouse holdings - substituting their own books for the actual ordered titles.
For a company which continually claims it is working ever so hard to increase the market share for its participating booksellers, this is all rather hypocritical.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In response to the person who wrote about authors criticizing chain stores and then being published by the big guys, Adrienne Rich has had all of her books published by W.W. Norton, one of the few independent publishers (it's owned by employees) left.
We've always had a soft spot for her here at the World Eye because she used to live in Montague, and we were one of her local stores!
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Last year, a Barnes and Noble opened up in our area. It has affected us but we are survivors. Just today, though, a very frustrated young man came in looking for the California Vehicle Code book. It's not something that we carry but can order it in for him (which I offered to do).
Apparently, he had gone first to B&N and asked for it there. Their computers were down so they asked if they could call him back later when they could research it. He asked if there was another bookstore in town and they said "no." Another customer in the store told him there was a Walden's at our local mall. He drove over there and, of course, they didn't have it either. They (at Walden's) told him about our store and gave him directions.
By the time he reached us, he was rather annoyed. He relayed this entire story to me and noting, of course, that B&N told him there were no other bookstores in town. We also found out that a few days ago, a bookseller from B&N called and wanted to purchase all of our copies of "The One-Minute Manager." We had three in stock. They came and paid full price for them. Apparently a customer had called (to B&N) and wanted 10 copies. I see it as a continued effort on their part to keep customers out of our store.
An Independent Bookseller
Holt responds: Publically, B&N likes to say that each of its stores opens a whole new customer base when B&N comes barging into new locations so it's not really competing against independents. But then come these signs of sneaky behavior - such as telling customers there's no other bookstore in town - that turn out to be the tip of the iceberg. I'm always astonished at the way that independent booksellers state matters with a "we're all in this together" frame of mind while chain bookstores act as though beating out the competition is the only reason they're in business.
[NOTE: After booksellers wrote in to say that some iUniverse authors are saying they've been nominated for the Edgar (mystery) Award because iUniverse says it nominates its authors (more or less routinely, I gather), I got to talking with Hesper Anderson, author of "South Mountain Road" (see #185, http://www.holtuncensored.com/members/column185.html#south ) about the matter. Hesper was an absolutely-for-sure Edgar nominee for her TV movie of the week, "The Deliberate Stranger," so I asked her if she received official notice of her nomination and what it looked like. Here is her answer.]
The certificate is on my wall. It has a drawing of Edgar Allan Poe on it and says: "Edgar Allan Poe, Certificate of Nomination, The Deliberate Stranger by Hesper Anderson, by Mystery Writers of America." It was probably nominated by Lorimar, the production company, or NBC, the network it was on. I was in Los Angeles at the time and asked a friend to go to the ceremony for me. He either picked up the certificate or they sent it to me."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Last week I attended the much-touted Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, a poetry gathering -- the largest of its kind in the United States -- held every two years in the historic village of Waterloo, New Jersey. Ever since seeing the Bill Moyers PBS specials on past Dodge poetry festivals, I'd greatly looked forward to attending this year's event. After all, what poetry lover wouldn't want to spend four days listening to and meeting many of our country's most revered poets? This year's lineup included U.S. Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz, Gerald Stern, Gwendolyn Brooks, Edward Hirsch, Billy Collins, Diane DiPrima, Coleman Barks and a host of other stellar writers.
Imagine my shock at discovering that this otherwise phenomenal event, this pantheon of American writers, now has been all but co-opted by Borders Books. In the middle of the festival grounds, an enormous tent had been erected for Borders to flog scores of books written by the participating poets. If, while attending the festival, you wanted to buy a book, your only choice was to shop Borders, or go without. For the four days and nights of the festival, their cash registers rang feverishly, creating a sickening wash of blue and white Borders shopping bags toted by hundreds of attendees throughout the festival grounds.
In addition, after the readings by the various poets, Dodge Festival emcees frequently importuned members of the audience to "go to the Borders tent and buy books."
The nightmare didn't stop there. Not only had Borders insinuated itself into the festival overall, but it also cleverly positioned itself to brand the poets individually. An example: in order to have a book signed, in most cases you had to enter yet another tent controlled by Borders (where more cash was being raked in) and take your book to a table where the poet sat. In front of each poet was a sign displaying his or her name...with the Borders name prominently broadsided on it. If you wanted to take a photograph, the Borders name ended up imprinted on the poet.
But we all know by now that Borders does what Borders does. What most bothered me was why the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, an organization I had believed to be an enlightened one, supporting generally progressive causes, had chosen to so blatantly affiliate itself with an imperious, callous and controversial corporation like Borders Books. Surely the foundation could have approached a regional independent bookstore chain, a local indy bookstore, or even asked the American Booksellers Association, to coordinate the festival's book sales. Any of those outlets could have just as effectively provided books (and probably done so beating the measly 15% of sales Borders claimed it was donating to the foundation) without being a controversial and, for many attendees, saddening and upsetting presence.
As it was, I left the festival feeling more than a little depressed that it had been so despoiled by the crass, heavy presence of Borders, disappointed with the Dodge Foundation, and vowing to not return to what should have been an uplifting and inspirational event.
Even though my e-mail of protest to the festival's coordinator, Martin Farawell, has gone unresponded to, I'm hoping your readers will take a moment to contact him. I have little doubt Borders will be back in full corporate colors at the next festival unless the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation is urged to "turn on its brights" and replace Borders with an outlet that would far better represent and protect the independent voices of America's poets.
Please send e-mails to Martin Farawell at: email@example.com.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
With respect to iUniverse's delays, they've told me they've reduced their backlog from 50,000 to 35,000 and are continuing to cut into it. When they'll be current they weren't sure, but they told me that orders coming in now are being handled efficiently as they come in (?). Oddly, they said an order for a book placed with Amazon.com will be fulfilled faster than with them or, say, B&N.com, even though the latter owns 49% of iUniverse. It's to whom the printing orders are being subbed, I guess. They've still a long way to go, but eventually they might get it right.
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.