Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored

 

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  #201
by Pat Holt

Friday, December 1, 2000

 





FIRST AMENDMENT IN JEOPARDY
    Try This Test
    A National Schizophrenia
    Three Influences
    The Good News
    Thank You, Teachers
AMAZON MEETS ITS MATCH
LETTERS

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FIRST AMENDMENT UNDER SCRUTINY

Here we are at the top of a skyscraper alongside the wharf area of San Francisco, looking out fog-shrouded windows at a green and foamy bay far beneath us.

It occurs to at least one person here that even birds would be frightened to find themselves this high, the gusts so treacherous and the water roiling so hypnotically that one expects Mrs. Danvers (from Daphne du Maurier's novel, "Rebecca") to whisper malevolently, "Don't you feel the sea calling to you, my dear?"

Indeed, that very sense of danger "out there" has brought professors, attorneys, journalists, union activists, filmmakers, teachers and a few maverick columnists together for an all-day conference on The State of Free Expression -- which we already know ain't so hot.

Thanks to the sponsoring group, a watchdog First Amendment nonprofit group called The Freedom Forum, a national survey has been sent out to us for inspection, and what a hot little potato it turns out to be: The results of this carefully conducted poll, published under the name of "State of the First Amendment 2000," are truly alarming.

Try This Test

You can answer a few of the questions yourself to see how the language is presented (ever since reading Susan Faludi's "Backlash" I have been resistant to polls, but this one, conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut by telephone with 1,015 adults, seems pretty solid).

For example, Question 8 asks if you agree or disagree with this statement: "People should be allowed to express unpopular opinions." Well, this is a no-brainer -- First Amendment protections are taught to all of us from grade school on, and sure enough 69% of respondents "strongly agree."

Question 20 is another obvious one. Do you agree or disagree with this statement: "News organizations should be allowed to report or publish what they think is appropriate to report." Here 67% agree, no surprise. In fact I worry that it's not 100% - what could be more fundamental than freedom of the press? (Well, the wording could allow for legitimate concerns that the tabloid press and TV go too far, one assumes. Not that they should be banned or censored. Just trying to keep an open mind.)

But the answers take a different course as soon as the questions get a little more specific, as in Question 9. Do you agree or disagree with this statement: "People should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to religious groups." Whoops, a whopping (to me) 53% disagree. How strange. Isn't this a protected right to freedom of speech?

Same with question 10: "Musicians should be allowed to sing songs with lyrics that others might find offensive." Here 40% disagree -- not as bad as above but jeez.

Question 11: "People should be allowed to burn or deface the American flag as a political statement." Okay, granted, a hotsy-totsy question that hits very deep emotions and has been the subject of tremendous controversy, but still: 74% -- a HUGE number -- disagree.

And to Question 12a, "People should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to racial groups." A towering 67% disagree. What a blow.

Granted, it could be that the spirit of the Bill of Rights is getting lost in the midst of confusion over the difference between hate speech and freedom of speech. But the language of these questions doesn't hint of this; it seems more clearly to refer basic Constitutional freedoms, about which, I would have thought, just about everyone agrees.

But it's 13 that nearly knocks me off my chair: "People should be allowed to display in a public place art that has content that might be offensive to others." A huge number - 51% - disagree.

All right, folks like Rudy Giuliani and Robert Mapplethorpe might have murked up this one, but it seems to me most Americans should be able to see through the headlines to the essential protections beneath.

Even more to the heart of the matter is the notion of separating church and state, or so I've always thought, as posed in Question 30: "Teachers or other public school officials should be allowed to lead prayers in school." Don't we know that prayers in school are just a basic no-no? Apparently not: 65% agree with this statement.

Worse (to me), 61% agree with this: "Local school officials should be allowed to post the Ten Commandments on the wall of a public school classroom." Ack! You mean as an example of Biblical literature? How I wish. It's my guess this 61% want the Ten Commandments up as rules to live by.

And here's the danger, if you haven't felt it already: "It's OK for a prayer to be said at a high school graduation if a majority of the graduating class favors it." All right, loaded question: Separation of church and state is primary here -- keep prayers out of official school functions; and as every civics class teaches, the law of the land is supreme -- no majority can vote away our fundamental rights.

Isn't that clear to everyone? Not by a long shot. An astonishing 81% say they agree with the statement.

And here's the nightmare question. 64% agree with the following: "Students should be allowed to lead prayers over the public address system at public school-sponsored events such as football games." The P.A. system, for crying out loud! And you know George Orwell is taught in these very schools!

Well you get the point. When the questions turn to the Internet, once again the general question gets good marks: Overall, 74% agree that "the Internet should have the same First Amendment protections as printed material such as books and newspapers."

But when it comes down to specifics, the tide turns. 60% agree that "the government should be able to restrict the posting of sexually explicit materials on the Internet [and here comes the kicker], even though those same materials can be legally published in books and magazines."

All right, I know there is substantial confusion over ways to "filter" pornographic and hate sites from computers used by children. But why doesn't the idea of legally published materials in books being censored on the computer screen BY THE GOVERNMENT send chills through the entire 60% who agree with the statement?

A National Schizophrenia

Writing this, I see that I keep slipping into the old apology stance that began to seep into journalism about 15 or 20 years ago because of constant accusations from the Christian Right that the American media are owned and manipulated by Jewish liberals.

So relentless and multifaceted are these charges, issued in the form of written/telephoned/emailed protests that flood media offices to the point of stopping or greatly slowing production, that editors and producers began equivocating all over the place when it came to the routine reporting of such legally protected practices as abortion or intermarriage..

In their zeal to show evidence of objectivity, newspapers and TV/radio new shows leaned so far backward to present a conservative viewpoint that even now I feel pressured somehow to present "both sides" of the First Amendment issue, when of course there are no sides and there is no issue: The First Amendment is the law of the land, and should be taught as such, in public schools.

It isn't being taught that way because, as the survey reflects, there is "a national schizophrenia about how we feel regarding freedom of expression in general, and freedom of religion in particular," says Marcia Beaushamp of the First Amendment Center, the Nashville, Tenn., institution that has sponsored the study (and is itself funded by the Freedom Forum).

Three Influences

"Why is there all this confusion in the way we view this fundamental right to freedom of conscience?" she asks. "I think the problem stems from three different influences.

"First, a broad misunderstanding exists of public school as a primary laboratory of democracy in this country. Over the last 15-20 years, I think we have lost sight of one of the two primary charges" of public schools, says Beauchamp.

That is, aside from preparing students academically, to educate students "to be fully functioning members of a pluralistic democratic society." This is perhaps an "even more important role for public schools to have," she adds, "because if it doesn't happen in public education, I'm not sure where it will happen."

Second, when schools don't teach the First Amendment, Americans end up having "little understanding of the roots of freedom of conscience or religious liberty in this country," Beauchamp says. It's important to know, she adds, that "these ideas and principles come out of a certain philosophy and religious history, that in their inception they were a reaction to forced religious conversion, forced conformity. Fundamentally they were about protecting religion or freedom of conscience from this big engine of the state."

Third, we have lost sight of all this, she says, because of a generalized "fear of change and loss of power." As the white majority becomes a minority all over the country, "the majority population in school districts in particular feels embattled by the diversity they're encountering all around them.

"And they don't know how to cope with it. They don't see how the First Amendment, and the religious liberty clauses in particular, provide a framework for living with our differences and coming to some kind of common ground without compromising our most deeply held convictions when they're of a religious nature."

The Good News

But in the face of so much confusion, there is a "growing national consensus on the appropriate role of religion in the public school sphere by a variety of religious liberty, civil rights and education groups."

Take the pamphlet, "Religious Liberty, Public Education, and the Future of American Democracy," a "statement of principles" espousing such ideals as "religious liberty for all" and other First Amendment protections and signed by such diverse groups as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Christian Coalition, Anti-Defamation League, People for the American Way, Council on Islamic Education, Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and about 20 others.

This is one of many statements issued by several coalitions to reacquaint Americans with First Amendment guarantees. "There's a lot of guidance out there," says Beauchamp, "Late last year, President Clinton announced that he was ordering the Secretary of Education to send out a packet of guidelines to every public school principal in the United States on the appropriate role for religious expression in public schools."

The "Religious Liberty" pamphlet is among the documents chosen for the packet, which Beauchamp calls "a great start. Probably most of the principals have put the packet on a shelf somewhere, hoping they would never have to pull it down. The truth is that someday they probably WILL have to pull it down, and now at least they know where to look for help."

Thank You, Teachers

The other good news, says Beauchamp, is that "in my travels working with educators I find that without fail, public school teachers as a group know what fairness looks like. And they know it in a way that I'm not sure a lot of other professionals do.

"I think the reason for this is that these teachers are in diverse classrooms all day long, every day. And they care about kids. All of us know that public school teachers don't go into their profession because of the money. Most of them are there because they have some sense of mission about their work."

Thank heaven they do, since the stakes are inexpressibly high. "Frankly, if we don't think hard about these principles, " Beauchamp concluded, "we're in a lot of trouble. The religious liberty clauses in particular were put in the First Amendment for a reason. Without the protection of freedom of thought and conviction, the other protections -- freedom of speech and press and assembly and petitions -- don't really mean anything."

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AMAZON MEETS ITS MATCH

Well, didn't you find it humorous to read yesterday that Amazon.com, in its battle against a union movement, is "telling employees that unions are a greedy, for-profit business," according to the New York Times?

Really, when you lose as much money as Amazon.com does - and only a year ago, this company was proud of throwing hundreds of millions down the drain and appalled that anyone would ask about profits - you have to say that for-profit companies are as disgusting as keeping employees on the payroll long enough to give them benefits.

Besides that, unions cause "growing aggressiveness and dawdling in the lunchroom and restrooms." For shame, you Communications Workers of America, you United Food and Commercial Workers Union: Get back on the assembly line and lose money like the rest of the dot.com world!

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I ran across a short article entitled "Failure of Amazon.com No Big Surprise" in (of all places) a publication called DENTIST'S MONEY DIGEST (Nov-Dec 2000) sent to my dentist husband. It is written by Joan E. Lappin, CFA, president and chief investment officer of Gramercy Capital Management( NY) and general partner of Gramercy New Millennium Growth Iartners. It says she can be reached at 21l-935-6909 or jlappin@gramercycapital.com. I'll quote the last paragraph so you get an idea of her take on the Bezos business plan: "It's not surprising that amazon.com is down overwhelmingly. It traded as high as 113 in december, just as Mr. Bezos' face was appearing on the cover of TIME. Today, it traded around 35. The business plan was flawed from the very beginning. It was kept afloat by continuous infusions of new capital. Those who were skeptical lost a huge opportunity to make money during the 1998-1999 euphoria over this concept. Those who had the nerve to go short had their clocks cleaned. In the end, virture will triumph. but in between, timing is everything." Article is well written, clear and concise.

Joann Kuhar


Dear Holt Uncensored:

Found on the Romance Writer's list -- with permission to send it on to other writers [and permission granted by Patricia Gardner Evans to run here]:

From: Patricia Gardner Evans (pgevans@att.net)

Subject: You think Amazon isn't going to make a killing on UBs? - Long -

XPost

Tuesday's WASHINGTON POST article on Amazon's new button for used book sales, as well as the catty PW Daily article that used the WP figures, are a good example of the decline of print reporting; nobody does their homework anymore, they just use the press release or paraphrase another reporter's piece. Both articles mention that Amazon earns 99 plus 15% of the sale price yet gives the seller a credit for shipping, seeming to imply that Amazon is facilitating used sales by private sellers out of the goodness of Jeff Bezo's big ol' heart, selflessly barely breaking even or maybe even losing money on the deal. If you believe that, I've got this fantastic beach front property right in downtown Albuquerque that I'll let you have sand cheap.

What WP's David Streitfeld and PW's Edward Nawotka failed to do is their job--checking the facts. Selfless person that I am (and because novelists will do anything to avoid actually writing a novel), I did it for them. What their pieces don't tell you is that Amazon is collecting $3.49 s/h on every used sale. So let's see how close to breaking even Amazon is on these sales.

Using the latest bestseller lists, I shopped for new and used copies of three pb bestsellers and three hc bestsellers. One used pb bestseller would have cost me the sale price of $2.50 + the $3.49 s/h fee for a total of $5.99. And how much would Amazon have grossed on this--in Jeff Bezo's words--customer-centric sale? A whopping $2.83! (99 + 38 [the 15%] + $3.49 s/h - $2.03 back to the seller.) Not bad for barely breaking even. I doubt Amazon grosses that much on the new copy it sells for $4.50. Remember, all Amazon is doing w/ used sales is providing a virtual showroom and cash register, no warehousing, no packaging or postage, no sales or shipping staff. On the used hc bestseller, Amazon's gross would be $4.10. No wonder the buttons are appearing for titles not even published yet!

Amazon does waive the 99 fee for "professional sellers," those who had previously listed zshops and/or run actual used book businesses, but the gross would still be $1.84. Amazon likely has had to hire an extra tech or two and pays a few percent to the credit card issuer on each sale, but the profit margin is still terrific.

It's obvious that the seller of the $2.50 used pb that could earn Amazon more than its price will not make equal profits. Amazon does handle the sale by processing the credit card information, which relieves sellers of a big headache and the percentage they would have to pay to the credit card company, but sales are posted to the sellers' accounts every two weeks, not daily, allowing Amazon the use of the money for perhaps more than a week. Given the sums that Amazon is going to collect, even savings account interest for a week would not be chump change. The $2.03 shipping credit that Amazon gives back to the seller will cover the special standard mail rate (the U.S. Postal Service's former book rate) on a three pound package. A package weighing a pound mails for $1.13 at that rate so, even considering packaging, a seller should make a few cents on the average pb. On the other hand, a seller will lose money mailing the new edition of THE STAND.

So how will buyers make out? They may be taken aback when they realize that they cannot lump all their used book buys into one order. Each used book is an individual sale, with that $3.49 s/h fee. PW's Nawotka said he'd seen "many cases where the used copy priced (sic) even higher than Amazon's new copy." True, for autographed, first edition or otherwise out-of-the-ordinary copies, but not for a standard copy in very good to excellent condition which are by far the majority of offerings. When a reader can't find the book he's dying to read anywhere in town and turns to Amazon in desperation, which copy do you think he'll buy: the new one for a total of $9.48 or the used one for a total of $5.99? If you're not sure, remember that Amazon built its success on customers looking for a bargain. Even though their only "protection" against unscrupulous sellers will be the same feedback feature that eBay uses--and that causes eBay constant complaint, those bargain-hungry book buyers will take the chance. BTW, if I'd bought those six bestsellers new, I'd have paid $73.36 vs. $65.58 used. Just buying the pb bestsellers, the price difference is less than a dollar: $20.15 new vs. $19.22 used. Buying the three hc bestsellers used would have saved me $11.34. It's no surprise that used hc copies were far more often sold out than used pb copies even though equal numbers of copies were often available.

Given the savings for buyers, does anyone really believe buyers are going to give up those extra dollars for more books so they won't hurt writers? Given the profits for Amazon, does anyone really believe it will move those bedamned blue buttons? Not without serious arm-twisting, all of it economic. As writers have already begun doing, removing an Amazon link on your Web site is also a given. The suggestion that you let Barnesandnoble.com (or any other virtual bookstore) know why you are now linking to it is excellent. I would hope that every other authors' organization follows the lead of Novelist's, Inc. by lodging an official protest with Amazon and telling its members to remove Amazon links; I would seriously question the professionalism and author advocacy of any organization that doesn't, and soon. Additionally, group pressure on publishers and alliances forged with musicians organizations will help. None of this will be the magic wand that makes those buttons disappear, of course, but it will wake up the ones who have to wield it. When publishers, booksellers and recording and movie companies threaten to ship new releases to Amazon weeks after shipping to other online sellers because of falling profits, the buttons will vanish. I don't think most of us would object if they reappeared on the page listing all available formats of a particular title--at the end of the list.

One interesting observation is that only books (and soon e-books), music, DVDs, videos and video games are being sold used. Despite the fact that Amazon also sells cameras, electronics, computer games, software and numerous other goods, there isn't a blue button on even one of those pages. Can you imagine Bill Gates' reaction if he saw a button on the page selling Windows Millennium? The CEO of Nikon? Sony? Those industries aren't putting up with for-sale used ads on their product pages. Why should ours?

Sent to Holt Uncensored by Valerie Lewis


Dear Holt Uncensored,

I noticed that Michael J. Lowery -- who, in his November 28th letter to you, calls reviewers who sell their review copies of books "crooked," and says such sales are "evidence of moral turpitude" -- proudly signs himself "Editor-in-Chief" of something called Sunrise Book & Software Reviews.

This, to me, implies a steady job. That implies a salary. Perhaps this contributes to his apparent lack of awareness both of what more typical book reviewers get paid, which is not much, and how they get paid, which is through freelanced arrangements. In Mr. Lowery's town of Milwaukee, for example, the daily newspaper, the Journal-Sentinel, pays sixty dollars per review, although that paper's wonderful book editor, Geeta Sharma Jensen, is always careful to make sure her reviewers get not only the galleys of the book, but the final version, too. Her hands are tied as to how much she can pay but, as she explained to me, she sees the book as part of the payment.

This is the basic deal at newspapers big and small across the country, although the average payment is almost half what Jensen pays. Even if you can get more than one paper to carry your reviews -- which is a lot of work, believe me -- you're still talking about peanuts. And of course, there are no benefits of the type I'll wager Mr. Lowery gets as part of his job.

The point is that for the type of book review that the average person will read -- a review that appears in the local newspaper -- the author has been paid far less than the minimum wage. I love to write book reviews and have made great sacrifices to do so; I'm not complaining about that. But I am complaining about the fact that Mr. Lowery adds insult to injury with his moral browbeating. The simple fact is that most dedicated freelancers earn far too little to give away part of their income as does Mr. Lowery. The money they make selling books is often the difference between being able to review books and not -- sometimes, between eating and not. Let me further emphasize the kind of stakes we're talking about here: all those "crooked" reviewers Mr. Lowery castigates are getting, on average, about a dollar per review copy.

But even if they were getting far more, what, exactly, is so unethical about buying or selling something earned fair and square? No book reviewer would stay on publisher review-copy lists for long if he or she wasn't diligently writing about the preponderance of the books they request. Publishers do check on these things, after all. So to all concerned, obligations are being met.

Except, the argument goes, the obligation to authors, who are being deprived of royalties. But I would suggest that the blame for this lies with publishers and giant retailers, not the reviewers who put those titles before the public eye. Were it not for outrageous list prices and the sales policies of bookselling monopolies, places like the Strand would not be necessary, and would not survive.

Amazon's new "I've got a [cheaper] version of this book" button is a case in point, and shows why it's unfair to compare the Strand to Amazon, as Mr. Lowery does. Amazon is obviously doing injury to authors by actively diverting readers from the purchase of copies of the book for which authors would receive royalty payments -- distracting customers from books offered at a price they were apparently prepared and able to pay. What's more, as letters to you attest, the button is also frustrating customers, who are finding when they push it that there's either nothing there to buy, or that the process is so complicated and unreliable as to be not worth it.

One would think booksellers would be loathe to damage the welfare of authors, who, after all, create the product they sell. One would think they wouldn't want to annoy customers, either. Both assumptions are so logical it's hard to recognize that Amazon is just engaged in another do-anything-to-get-people-to-the-site campaign. Unlike the Strand, Amazon sells more than just books, and clearly believes that even if customers are frustrated trying to buy books, they'll find something else they want on the site before signing off. Plus, the way Nielsen ratings in the television industry can be turned into advertising revenue, simple "hit" numbers for Amazon can be transformed into money, in various ways; if that new button simply attracts new customers who previously couldn't afford to shop at Amazon, it doesn't matter, to some degree, if those customers are frustrated once they get there. As for authors, well, why should Amazon care about them? Amazon gets its cut whichever copy of the book people buy, or makes it off something else.

Meanwhile, in a simple, straightforward deal, the Strand is bringing authors more readers, and readers they would not otherwise have -- people who cannot afford new books. This may be why every writer I know -- including some famous ones -- regularly shops at, and loves, the Strand.

All of which is indicative of not only the never-talked-about digital divide, but the greater, growing divide between a counterculture of readers and writers who can't survive without places like the Strand -- for reasons of not just finance but philosophy -- and people like Mr. Lowery. Indeed, his letter seems mostly aimed at espousing some bizarre xenophobia, whereby he encourages further division by piously uncovering another evil New Yorker-ism; he seems unaware of the fact that what's going on at the Strand is going on in cities across America. He's not alone in the kind of charity he brags about, either -- all the reviewers I know also donate books to the library when they can, and wish they could do so more often. Lowery's right that it's a good thing to do, and I'm glad it makes him feel so good about himself. It's his blindered elitism that's so deplorable.

Dennis Loy Johnson


Dear Holt Uncensored,

An author on a writers-and-readers listserv I read posted the following, that I thought might be of interest to you (passed on with the author's permission).

"I want to mention to you the Fall 2000 'Authors Guild Bulletin,' which has a lengthy report and symposium on midlist books. The report discusses an interesting set of facts. More midlist books are being published than ever before, and they're on the shelves longer than ever before (because the chains use them to fill space, as 'wallpaper'), but their share of sales continues to drop. The symposium is about WHY those facts exist and what could be done about it, and I learned a tremendous amount from reading it. Much discussion of the 'chain bookstores versus independents' issue; vast amounts of information about how much publishers have to spend to get good placement in the chain stores; all kinds of good things.

I won't take up more of your time with this, but I do want to quote one astonishing paragraph. It was in the context of a discussion of the claim that the reason midlist books don't sell more copies is because they don't get enough attention and publicity. It's on page 27, and the speaker is Peter Osnos:

"Do you remember Tina Rosenberg's 'Haunted Land'? 1996 Pulitzer Prize winner. 1996 National Book Award winner. One of the 10 best books of the year in The New York Times. A book that everybody who read it, and there were 10,000 in hardcover, found enormously valuable. Once the book won all those prizes, Random House shipped 26,000 copies and 70 percent of them came back. From independents, from chains, from wherever they were sent.

"'The reality was that 10,000 people in the United States were prepared to spend $25 on Tina Rosenberg's wonderful book. So the question then becomes, what do we do?'"

Euan Bear (ebear@sover.net)

Holt responds: The Midlist Report is indeed eye-opening (see Column 191) but should be balanced by Andre Schiffrin's "The Business of Books," which identifies midlist books differently and shows that the more serious books are NOT being published as much as they were in Schiffrin's day. Re the Peter Osnos quote: This seems to demonstrate that readers aren't about to jump through hoops when literary awards are announced. Perhaps the lesson here is that you can't really exploit critical prizes (send out a lot of books while publicity hot) but you can reposition the trade paperback, which is published after the prizes are announced, and relaunch it as carefully as one would a new book. The fun is then hanging in there for the long haul.

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