Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Friday, November 3, 2000





It's 8:55 on a crisp Fall morning as Elaine and Bill Petrocelli place chairs in a circle in the author event room of their bookstore, Book Passage, in Corte Madera, Calif.

Staff members drift in and sit down expectantly, only to hop up to answer phones that seem rude for ringing so early.

The store doesn't open for an hour, but customers outside don't believe this, yanking hard on the door to see if the lock is a mistake. Elaine keeps an eye on the door, the phones, the chairs; a plate of donut puffs is placed at the back of the room for all comers; Bill welcomes everyone with a flourish.

The staff has been asked to attend this meeting to meet Carl Lennertz, the energetic and often humorous ABA (American Booksellers Association) representative who's shaken up preconceived notions of just about everybody (critics included) in the book biz.

"The one word I hate to see next to 'independent bookstore,' " says Carl, "is 'BELEAGUERED.' For a while that's the only way the media saw us." The staff smiles knowingly. This is so true.

"One thing we've learned is that when people hear about the 'plight' of independent bookstores, or the 'struggling neighborhood bookstore' or even the 'courageous Mom & Pop bookstore,' " says Carl, "they think of independents as small and isolated - at best 'cute,' at worst something to pity.

"What they hear now is that independent bookstores are strong and powerful. And national. When customers walk into a store like this, the evidence is there at the front table."

The front table, everyone knows, is a display for Book Sense, the ABA campaign that Carl admits has become his own particular obsession. Created to "brand" independents with the same recognition value as marketing campaigns have "branded" chain stores and Amazon.com, Book Sense has in two short years helped to unite independents as a single entity.

Before Book Sense, Carl believes, independents appeared to be scattered, vulnerable, cranky, weak, out of touch and hanging by a thread.

After Book Sense, he suggests, independents are seen as galvanized, strong, resilient, tough, ahead of everybody and, if cranky, well, cranky for a purpose. They aren't closing by the thousands. They are fighting back.

The staff believes this, too, but knows that success for any bookstore lies in the details. Book Passage is one of many independent bookstores that has to draw customers to its out-of-the-way location, even while fighting a Barnes & Noble across the freeway and a Borders a few miles down the road. Author events, book clubs, publishing conferences, writing classes and children's programs all do their share. But Book Sense has been an unexpected boon.

Because of Book Sense, Carl says, independents have a national bestseller list, a national gift certificate program, new access to publishers' co-op advertising, BookSense.com (a website builder for stores that can't afford it otherwise), free publicity on National Public Radio, the Christian Science Monitor, the Wall Street Journal; advertising in the New Yorker and other media.

True, these are mundane, everyday practical concerns: these are decals on the front window and book stickers and shelf talkers (mini reviews by booksellers), as well as bookbags and banners and maps and posters and bookmarks.

These are booksellers taking the time to read galleys early and send recommendations to Carl, who translates the best ones, the hot ones, the most diverse ones and the previously most unsung ones to Book Sense 76, the list he prints up and sends back to the stores to display to customers.

And these are operations managers counting the sales of in-store bestsellers and sending those numbers, too, to Carl's colleague, Sascha Alper, who structures the data and turns it over to Carl, who in turn creates, perhaps, the first bestseller list with a heart.

The Book Sense Bestseller List offers books that sell, all right, but they're ranked to expose a different sort of "heat" than you see in the usual chain-driven list such as appears in the New York Times Book Review's bestseller list.

This list can do that because independent booksellers are so close to their customers, they alone can see word-of-mouth taking off far ahead of any computer program or institutional data-gathering system such as that employed by the NYTBR.

So the Book Sense list charts the most popular books as well as the up-and-comers, the obvious as well as the ones that percolate up from the outskirts and wow everybody because they're truly distinctive, beyond formula in every way.

Such words are music to the ears of a hard-working staff that has contributed time and space to Book Sense from the beginning. But Elaine and Bill - perhaps more vocal than many in their criticism of publishers - are most intrigued when Carl talks about the way publishers, "who always WANTED to help the independents succeed," now have the means to do it.


Many people here remember Carl from his long tenure as the much-loved marketing director at Alfred A. Knopf. For years, Carl's irreverent and information-packed letters to independent bookstores proved invaluable to everybody in the book trade (critics ditto).

Few people in the book industry could better understand the language and perspective of publishers than Carl Lennertz, especially because he was there when the chains and Amazon.com rose to power, and independents began "falling under the publishers' radar," as he puts it now.

Indeed, Carl was running marketing meetings in New York when the first question publishers began to ask was, "How are the chains selling this title?" Gradually, he says, the term "chains" not only referred to Borders and Barnes & Noble and other book retailers. It also meant Costco, Wal-Mart, Target and nonbookstore chains.

"Over and over you'd hear that 'the chains' are selling tens of thousands of copies of a single title," Carl remembers, "and then someone would say, 'How many has Tattered Cover or Joseph Beth sold?' The answer might be, '62' - a number that didn't exactly carry the same weight."

The funny thing was that a sale of 62 copies in a single store early in the life of a title might be a fantastic indicator that the book could take off in the independent bookstore sector and last longer there, eventually selling more copies in the long run, than it ever would in "the chains."

But that was the problem. Columns like Holt Uncensored might talk mightily about the importance of independent bookstores in keeping good books from falling through the slots, in championing titles the chains missed, in preserving free speech and the very principles of democracy we all hold dear, and so forth.

But "nobody could visualize independents in the aggregate," Carl says. "There was no way to quantify their power, let alone translate that power into money."

Holy cow, "money and power"! Nobody has used those words in the same sentence with "independent bookstores" for so long that Carl deliberately throws them about like the magnets they are. Knowing that independents need money to be visible, he convinced publishers to take the unearned promotion money that many independent bookstores were too busy or overworked to collect(the paper work for "co-op money," as its called, can be enormous) and created a fund for Book Sense.

But more important than that, "when I say 'money and power,' I'm talking about using these features of Book Sense in a very precise way that will bring more money and more power and more jobs to this store.

"There's real money in the gift certificate - millions, in fact - because it stops people from walking by your door enroute to the chains. Next is the monetary worth of the free publicity the campaign earns, based on the Bestseller List and the 76 picks.

Third, think of the money saved building a website and offering newsletters and calendar of events electronically, as well as, of course, selling books online, just like the competition."


But if Book Sense is not a pie-in-the-sky program, it still has a lot of kinks. Not all 3300 ABA members have joined, so booksellers can't say that Book Sense Gift Certificates can be redeemed everywhere.

"We say to customers, 'You can redeem it at most independent stores, but sometimes that's not enough,' says one Book Passage worker.

Then there is that quirky consciousness-raising aspect. The staff places Book Sense fliers on chairs before every author event, only to find them on the floor afterward. Elaine refuses to use the Book Sense stickers because so many of her customers are book collectors, and they believe stickers ruin the value of books.

And Holt Uncensored worries about this aspect, too, having asked to sit in on the meeting as a curmudgeon seeking conversion.

Here's the problem as I see it: Book Sense is the brand that's supposed to convince customers of the value of "Independent Booksellers with Independent Minds." Yet every customer I've ever asked about Book Sense doesn't know what the term means or why the graphic is displayed or what it's supposed to do.

In fact, when I show people the Book Sense logo, they get that distant look that could mean loss of memory or an attack of gas. Carl doesn't think this is funny when I mention it to him after the meeting. He's gazing at the poster showing a map of the United States that Elaine has put up on the front counter.

This map displays dots (representing bookstores) scattered all over the country. Its headline reads: "Book Sense Gift Certificates Are Welcome Nationwide - Honored at More Than 1100 Independent Bookstores in All 50 States."

"Look at that," Carl says. "Over a thousand independents are out there spending time they don't have to make Book Sense work. What we have to get across customers is that with Borders or Barnes & Noble you can redeem gift certificates in only a few hundred stores. But with Book Sense there are over a thousand to choose from.

"And then, once you find yourself in an independent store that's new to you, and you see all the choices you have, and so many great books have Book Sense signs saying, 'Recommended by Our Fellow Booksellers . . . "

Suddenly I notice: Carl's eyes are actually misting over.

"So it gets to me," he says, seeing me looking. "Why shouldn't it? Don't you see, it doesn't matter if customers don't understand what the words 'Book Sense' mean exactly. Somehow they see right through it to the essence of independent voices, independent thought, and yes, our expression, 'Independent Bookstores for Independent Minds.' You believe in that, don't you? Against all odds, isn't that what these stores are fighting for?"

I have to admit, I grew a little misty myself. Carl is some firebrand, I'll tellya. And to think this was just one meeting with one bookstore staff. I'll be writing more about Book Sense elsewhere in the country, and Carl's one-man band (I should say "brand") to change the world, bless him, in future columns.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

One of my small press publishers sent me the following. I thought in your neverending struggle for truth, justice and the bookselling way, you would find it interesting.

Helen Chappell

I've just sent the following to Amazon. I encourage you to send a copy as well. Please also encourage any writers you know to do the same. This is disaster!

Kelly Ferjutz Regency Press

Dear Mr. Bezos,

I cannot believe the latest new trick at your site. Having done your best to eliminate bookstores, now it appears you're working at eliminating publishers, as well. I just discovered the new box that appears just below cover and title info, before reviews, etc., at nearly every book listing, I think. I checked out half a dozen or so, but it is at ours, and even those of Stephen King! It's a bright blue box that says:

Already own this item? I have one to sell! (Sell yours here)

Come on! Be sensible. How long do you think publishers will stay in business if you encourage your visitors/patrons to sell their brand new books, as used books, when the book has not yet even been available to purchase for one month?

As a new publisher, I can't afford to have people selling our books used, when they're so new. That's criminal on your part. Yes, used books have their place, but new books should not be allowed to be sold used until they are at least six months old! Who will buy new if this practice is not stopped? Who would be foolish enough to continue writing books, if they cannot earn honest royalties? Authors get no money whatever from sales of their books as 'used books.'

Or are you aiming to become the worlds largest used bookstore? What happens when eventually, the supply is gone? What then?

I was encouraged (strongly) to have our books available at Amazon.com, because of the publicity if nothing else. And, to be honest, you've sold quite a few copies for us. Which is a good thing. But when your customers are encouraged to compete with me, for sales of our books, that's going too far! We cannot stay in business without sales of our books--in whatever format--when new.

Please, PLEASE!!! Rethink this, and eliminate that box from the new book pages. Once a book has been available for six months or more is an entirely different matter, although still distasteful.

Kelly Ferjutz Regency Press

Dear Holt Uncensored:

PW Daily rolled in last night with the fascinating note that due to the new relationship between B&N-bricks & mortar and B&N.com that B&N.com will now be collecting those pesky state sales taxes.

Could B&N move into the "lets have a level playing field with sales tax party?" So . . . would be most amusing to see B&N trying to force Borders.com to collect the state sales tax where there are brick-and-mortar Borders stores.

Just a random thought . . .

Michael Walsh

Holt responds: And a GREAT thought it is! To me, this historic decision is like the First Domino to fall. It not only shatters the complacency of the retail cyber-cartel that refuses to collect sales tax on the Internet (and that in one case even MOVED TO SEATTLE to avoid collecting sales tax). It also contributes to a growing environment in which state legislatures feel compelled to enforce existing law and capture those billions before backward governors like California's Gray Davis try to invoke veto powers. And by the way, speaking of the power of independent booksellers (see above): What a joy it's been to watch independents start this ball rolling when nobody thought there was a chance in heck that any state government, let alone California's, would stand up to dotcom retailers at this early stage.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

One of my clients said regarding your column about children being forced to work in intolerable conditions as shown in the book, "Listen to Us: The World's Working Children" (Groundwood - see #189, 10/3): "There's nothing about the little kids in India being paid a penny per stone for cutting low value Russian "bear" diamonds. Boycott Nike. Boycott De Beers. There is no end to the misery inflicted world wide on children.

Natasha Kern


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.

"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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