Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, November 21, 2000





Valerie Lewis and I drive away from Hicklebee's, the children's bookstore in San Jose, Calif., that she owns with her sister, Monica Holmes, to talk to librarians at the California Library Association (CLA) convention in nearby Santa Clara.

"When we first opened Hicklebee's in 1979," says Valerie, "it was thought that librarians were the literary experts, and we were the - well, you know, the retailers." She smiles conspiratorially, having worked with librarians who didn't believe any such thing. "It was one of those perceptions that had to go."

As an example of how things used to be, Valerie describes the relocation, some years ago, of farm workers' children in the San Jose area. "They were moved from public housing to a number of institutions one summer," says Valerie. "Most of the kids were about 3 or 4 and mainly spoke Spanish.

"When I heard that many of them were being bussed in to places near Hicklebee's, I contacted the organization that was handling the matter and said, 'You aren't too far from us - do you want me to arrange for a Spanish-speaking person to come in and read stories to the kids?' The group was excited about the idea and ended up using us to arrange these readings throughout the summer.

"It later turned out that the leaders in that same group had called the local library and asked the librarian if she could find a person to read books in Spanish to these kids. This librarian was a block away from us but didn't know we were available, or that we had these kinds of contacts. So she told the group the library didn't have any way to do it.

"Today I think if the librarians in the area couldn't find someone to do something like this, they'd call us without hesitation."

In fact, librarians and teachers now come into Hicklebee's all the time. The store provides a room in the back where they can review and discuss books in private, even if they don't buy them. "Librarians can order from Baker & Taylor and Ingram and get discounts we can't give them, and won't," says Valerie.

There's even a Spanish-speaking librarian who comes in and takes notes on books in the store's Spanish-speaking section. "He'll also buy these books from distributors that give him the best discount," Valerie says. "But when it comes to recommending a bookstore to patrons, he and the other librarians will mention Hicklebee's."

That's a lot of work for relatively few sales, I say. "Well, we never know how many sales in the long run," she adds. "All we know is that you can't judge the store's overall success by the sales you make in one day. It's a cumulative thing."

At Santa Clara, we turn into the Convention Center and can see already that the place is jammed with librarians. I'm always excited when CLA comes to town because so much of librarians' work bridges the increasing divide between literary tradition (bound books) and the latest in search-engine technology.

To incorporate the power and the muscle of these systems, while still retaining the notion of the library as a sacred space, and offer it all for free to any individual who walks in the door, is dizzying to contemplate.

Our talk at CLA will be crammed into a hardworking schedule of workshops that range from hot new concepts like Filamentality and "Screamin' Streamin' Mania" to not-so-futuristic self-checkout technology, tough issues like "IHateYou.com" (Hate Speech and the Internet), the difference between the "Experience Library" and the "Digital Library" and such specifics as "Indochinese Students' Behavior in Using Academic Libraries."

It's not known how many librarians regard booksellers as their partners-in-arms, so at the President's Luncheon, Valerie explains how exhilarating it can be, from her point of view, to work with both librarians and teachers in a mighty triumvirate of reading advocates who share a multitude of programs and services.

She talks about arranging for authors of children's books to visit schools, libraries and her store to create programs that can turn kids who've been afraid to tackle a whole book into avid readers.

She explains that in-service training has become a fundamental part of her job at Hicklebee's. "I get reading copies before libraries do. We've established Preview Nights for librarians where we tell them about each new book before they have to order it." Teachers, too, attend Preview Nights. Posters and other display materials are given away.

An example of the way booksellers and librarians can work together occurred a few years ago after the death of Helen Owen, the manager of the local merchants association and a beloved character throughout the neighborhood.

Hicklebee's helped create a special library fund in her honor, Valerie says. "The store donated books to the library and gave librarians 20% off." Because Helen used to call everyone "my little rabbit," Hicklebee's worked with children to paint illustrations of rabbits on tiles that now line the patio surrounding the library's popular Reading Tree.

Do many booksellers take the time to work with librarians so closely? "More than you would think," says Valerie. "The more we do to be a part of the community, the more they will think of us when a person comes in and says, 'Where can I buy that book?' "

I still don't get it. How many sales can possibly result from spending so much time and energy with librarians? I get a glimpse of the underlying answer after Valerie's talk when a librarian comes up to describe a problem she hopes is being resolved at her library this very day.

This librarian tells us that "a bunch of very boisterous boys" about 9-12 years old have been skateboarding in front of her library with such enthusiasm that they've been getting in the way of - and possibly endangering - other patrons. Librarians have repeatedly asked them to leave, but to no avail.

"One person on our staff finally threatened to call the police," she said, "and then the boys did leave, but they were jeering as they did so, and the next morning we were hit by graffiti.

"I lost sleep over this because I'm a librarian and I'm committed to something I couldn't communicate to these kids."

The next day, the boys were back, "more boisterous than ever," she said. Pretending to be furious, she marched out the front door. "If you don't stop this," she said threateningly, "we're going to make you read the entire works of Harry Potter."

The boys kept skating. "You can't do that!" they yelled. "How are you going to make us?"

"Why, we're going to form the first Skateboarders Book Club this library has ever had," she said. The boys slowed down. "You are?" they asked. "Yes, and we're going to start reading the first Harry Potter book on Monday. Have you heard of Harry Potter?"

Of course they had heard of Harry Potter. She could tell from their faces that they had wanted to read the books but didn't think they were capable of it. "They reminded me of boys who don't know how to interact with girls, so they pull the girls' braids," the librarian says.

"When I said I'd need their names and phone numbers, they all trooped inside to sign up," she laughs. "Nobody worried we'd tell the police."

The library's first-ever Skateboarders Book Club is set to begin even as we speak, she adds. The Young Adult librarian is probably wowing those kids right now with the opening pages of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."

Valerie loves this story. "Imagine that," she says as we leave the Convention Center. "If that librarian hadn't figured out those kids wanted to get into the library all along, each one of them might never have found a way to start reading on his own."

That's when it hit me. The reason independent booksellers feel motivated to work with librarians and teachers so closely is that they all believe reading is a one-person-at-a-time proposition.

All the technology at the library and all the sales at the bookstore are important, of course; but in terms of the larger picture, a knowledgeable and caring bookseller/librarian/teacher placing a treasured book in the hands of a child is invaluable.

"One time when I was putting up the Hicklebee Hall of Fame, a librarian came in and asked if I would mind if he designed his Children's Room around our store. 'Mind?' I said. (This was shortly after a bookseller came in one day and said, 'this store lacks focus.')

" 'Why, we would be honored,' I said. If those kids got comfortable with books in the library's Children's Room, think how easy it would be for their parents to come on down to Hicklebee's and buy some." She smiles wickedly. Maybe sales really are at the bottom of it. After all, a child's reading life is at stake just about every moment the store is open.

Next: Hickelbee's gives its first-ever store bookstore award to the beautiful and poignant Young Adult novel. "Because of Winn-Dixie."



Some things in publishing are too bizarre even for me to handle.

A number of readers wrote about Bertelsmann CEO Thomas Middelhoff's oddly alarming talk with the company's New York employees at Radio City Music Hall in September, but reports were so wild I didn't cover it.

But now that Brill's Content has let the CEO out of the bag, so to speak, perhaps a few comments are in order.

It's scary when big corporations get bigger and their CEOs talk about dominating the world. But it's even more frightening when the CEOs take on the personality of something ranging between a savior and a dictator.

Middelhoff stated before the Radio City speech that he thought Random House and other Bertelsmann employees would want to know: "What is the personality of our CEO? For what is he staying and fighting? What to him is important?"

Well, the answer to that last one seems to be He Himself. The 4000 employees were greeted by the Radio City marquee that announced for all to see, "Meet Your CEO, Thomas Middelhoff."

Inside, a video showed Middelhoff to be so powerful that he could afford to be self-deprecating. A Bertelsmann magazine publisher pretended to break the news that Middelhoff couldn't be on the cover of YM (Young & Modern magazine), but the audience nevertheless saw the proposed cover - Middelhoff's head superimposed on the body of Britney Spears.

Then Middelhoff was told he could not sing a duet with Whitney Houston on a Bertelsmann (BMG) CD. The audience was supposed to go along with it and think, poor guy. Then he said, "I know you all have been making fun of my green jacket," and threw it into the audience as though fans were begging for scraps of his clothing. This was embarrassing.

"Middelhoff's most memorable statements, however, were far from ironic," writes Kaja Perina of Brill's Content. " 'Do you love your job?' he asked the hall. 'Because I love my job - I would die for Bertelsmann! I love Bertelsmann - and I love America!' On that note, 'New York, New York ' piped through the hall, and the stunned minions filed out."

Perina quotes a Random House employee saying that "Work was dead" after that. "Everyone just took off. I think people were floored by what they had witnessed."

Well, they weren't alone.

More recently across the country in Fernley, Nevada, Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos was observed standing on a packing crate to address "a crowd of several hundred workers" at the company's huge (786,000 square feet) distribution center - one of five built last year.

Here's how Reuters described the scene:

" 'Are you terrified?' Bezos shouts to a crowd of several hundred workers, who shout back, 'No!'

" 'Well, you should be,' Bezos chides. 'It is really brutal! The holiday comes on us like an onslaught!' "

Bezos' appearance was part of a show for reporters that included a tour of the facility and a look at some of "the 7,500 employees [whom Bezos] affectionately refers to as 'elves' this time of year," Reuters reported.

How strange. At a time when Amazon.com workers across the nation are mounting a movement to unionize the company, one would think Bezos would go easy on the elf talk. "Their complaints include mandatory overtime, no time off during the holidays, low job security and shift changes without notice," according to the Associated Press.

Amazon has scoffed at the movement as nothing new, which would seem to indicate problems simmering under the happy fašade of Bezos and his "elves" for a long time.

"We don't think we need unions at Amazon," Bezos insisted, "since all our employees are owners and are free to talk about workplace issues." That is so glib. Does he mean the lure of stock options is supposed to make workers feel like owners? Surely not THOSE stocks.

Eventually the love fest at Fernley looked a little forced, with employees lining up after Bezos' speech "to have him sign the backs of their shirts with phrases like 'Customers rule!' and 'Safety rocks!' " wrote Reuters.

Safety rocks. Remember the Tom Wolfe description about the Black Panther fundraiser attended by wealthy New Yorkers trying to be hip? Leonard Bernstein, the host, sounded the most desperate when he agreed to a Panther's call for Marxist revolution by saying "I dig absolutely."

Hey man, safety rocks. Just ask your CEO.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

Much is being trumpeted about Random House's eBook pay-out, which shares equally with the author -- 50%, touted as a magnanimous offer on their part. Well, first: How different is this from subrights sharing? Ever hear an author loudly sing the praises of a "regular" subrights income deal? But, more to the point: Shares what, exactly? "Net revenues" is the operative term. Once costs are deducted, only what is left is what is shared. The author has zero control over costs -- the publisher spends what the publisher feels it needs to spend to create the revenue. The author gets half of what's left over.

Would it be paranoid to expect that some of the publisher's "costs" could come later to trickle down its accounting waterfall as revenues in cost clothing? or in the form of costs in general, rather than specific to the author's book? The vaunted "cross-fertilization" between publishers and the film and recording industries extends to accounting departments, where, perhaps, more creativity isn't such a wonderful thing for all parties (ask any "points" participant in a film's profits). It isn't even necessarily dishonest (exactly); corporate executives, and their accountants, often devoutly believe in the truth--the "clarity"--of their way of seeing these things.

Unless the contract offered is countered by an author's sharp accountant, I suggest that Random House's magnanimous "deal" will result in author income below even the "traditional" 10%. Pay the author a set, unalterable amount and be done with it! In that way all concerned have expectations that can be met by reality. No hidden surprises--and comparing among publishers contains no variables. YBK Publishers, a new entrant in POD publishing using the domain name yourbookpublisher.com, offers its authors a 15% royalty, clearly stating that the percentage is that of the cover price. No muss, no fuss, no shenanigans. When the book sells the author gets paid a set amount--who's unhappy when counting their chickens before they're hatched? No one!

How would set-rate royalty work on e-books? E-book selling prices do bear some relationship to paper-and-ink pricing. About a 4 to 1 relationship seems to pertain in many circumstances. A $20 paper book might carry a $5 e-book price (download the HTML file and print it on your local laser) or will be higher when downloaded for use in a proprietary method such as Gemstar's new system or, say, Palm devices. The added costs encountered in each system is quite known to the publisher. To produce the same revenue to the author as would the ink-on-paper book, the $5 e-book would pay 40% of the e-book cover price.

The publisher will need to reduce the 40% to take platform costs into consideration--payments to Gemstar or Microsoft, or whomever. Then, good publisher, take what you further dare from that lowered percentage to compensate yourself for whatever costs really are irreducible--promotion, etc., and see how that reduced percentage flies with the author. Or, raise the selling price while reducing the percentage to keep the payout the same--all the time telling the author what he/she will get. Here at least is the potential for open and above-board competition!

Otto Barz
Publishing Synthesis, Ltd.
New York, NY

Dear Holt Uncensored:

[Regarding Amazon's advertisements of used copies on webpages offering the same title as a new book]Powell's does the same thing. (Check now and you'll find a used copy of the Blind Assassin offered for $16.95.) The Strand has offered review copies at 50% off for years.

I'm prepared to blast Amazon when they deserve it, but the anger at them about this issue seems out of proportion considering they're followers, not leaders. Do the writers who won't work with Amazon because of this issue feel the same about Powell's?

It has been interesting to watch the perception of Amazon change in four years from a David to a Goliath. But we should recognize that the people there aren't mythic in any way - - they are all too human. They've made huge mistakes by failing to understand their customers (e.g., the variable prices, the touting of "trusted partners" who go bust) and of their book customers in particular (e.g., the fight with the Amazon bookstore in Minnesota). Considering their brand is one of the newest in the book business, one would think that a more established company like B&N, Borders or (if only!) the ABA could have muscled in. The lack of a serious competitor to Amazon is an indication of how ill-served writers have always been. Singling out Amazon on every issue isn't appropriate. We used to do the same with B&N; no one bothers now that B&N is been proven so vulnerable.

My reaction to Amazon's new display is amusement. I'm convinced they'll mess up. Customers will think they're getting the (patented!) ease of Amazon's service, when in fact they're buying from individuals and used book dealers. They'll be confused and annoyed. It won't be nearly as easy as ordering from, say Bibliofind, where there's no layer between the bookseller and the customer. (Or even Powell's, which has its own inventory.) Anyway, that's my opinion.

David Colbert

Dear Holt Uncensored:

It is interesting to try and imagine how far this can go. Special printings such as UPs or ARCs are in the hands of the publishers and can be controlled by limiting them in number. Actual used books as in copies that were read and then disposed of indicate that the book was not something the reader wished to keep or pass along to friends to enjoy.

There is an internal break on that supply. Review copies have always been sold to bookstores or donated to thrift stores. I have even bought a few at yardsales from reviewers and from sales reps.

I just don't see that it will make a big difference in the market as a whole. Maybe I am wrong; regrettably I have been wrong in the past about a few thousand things but as I age I make fewer predictions and my won/lost ratio is steadily improving.

Kal Palnicki

Dear Holt Uncensored:

One of the things you "love about Hicklebee's" is the Book Exchange, but you continue to decry Amazon's used book sales? Why, Pat? Do authors and publishers get any more money for sales of used books at Hicklebee's than they do from Amazon? Why not soundly denounce this quirky independent for the same predatory practices of which you accuse Amazon?

That's a lovely Double Standard you got there, Pat.

Ed Dravecky III

Holt replies: I have never had a problem with a bookstore selling used books. I am talking about a page at Amazon.com that is supposed to be devoted to the introduction, description, customer review and sale of a new title. I find it irritating, to say the least, and greedy beyond reason when this sale is interrupted with a pitch for another sale just so that Amazon.com can make more money. It's unseemly, cheap and usurous.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I am a freelance writer who is looking for stories about independent bookstores that have added new wireless networking systems (like Apple's AirPort) for the benefit of their customers' access. I am writing a piece for a large-circulation newspaper.

Glenn Fleishman


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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