Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored

 

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  #204
by Pat Holt

Tuesday, December 12, 2000

 





PAUL DRY BOOKS: AN EXPERIENCE IN 'READING BETTER'
LOW MARKS FOR AMAZON.COM
LETTERS

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PAUL DRY BOOKS: AN EXPERIENCE IN 'READING BETTER'

Thanks to Internet time travel we can now journey back to NEBA, the regional book convention held by the New England Booksellers Association where I felt inspired to my toes by a new breed (or so it appears) of independent publisher.

Among the exhibits I spotted a genial man named Paul Dry standing in front of his tabletop display of beautiful trade paperbacks published by Paul Dry Books of Philadelphia.

We had never met, so it was a thrill to see his face light up with recognition when he spotted my identifying badge.

"Say, aren't you that relentless -- " he began, pointing his finger and maybe even shaking it a bit in the air.

"Why, yes," I responded gaily, "it's me!" and relentlessly began questioning him about his press.

It turns out that Dry has made his living "trading stock options," he said, "which I've enjoyed but realized long ago didn't provide me with everything I wanted from work." In 1986, he started a book group with friends -- not to read commercial or "easy" titles but to seek challenging books they might not read otherwise.

"Our first selection was 'The Tree of Life' by Hugh Nissenson, a National Book Award nominee that I liked very much but didn't 'get' until the whole group read it and was moved by it."

More books followed, the writers ranging from Shakespeare to Mary Karr, the books from the Bible to Sharon Olds' poetry, with a little Chaucer, Dickens, Woolf and Henry James thrown in.

"This experience of reading better because I read with others helped me feel a book's power for myself and to feel how it worked with different readers," he said.

Soon Dry began teaching at Middlebury College with his brother, who's a professor there, their courses ranging from Plato and Thucydides to Tolstoy and Bacon.

Here Dry felt such "pleasure in reading college students' efforts at exposition" that he felt "nudged" to begin publishing books himself. He attended the Stanford seminar on book publishing, where "I met wonderful and lively younger people who were already in the book business, and learned that I more or less knew enough; the only thing to do was to dive in."

So Paul Dry Books began, starting with reprints of books for which he continues to feel such inspiration that he sometimes hugs them to his chest while describing them.

The First Lists

Both his list and first print runs are short, ranging from a very small printing (1-2,000) of Ovid's "Metapmorphoses" to 3-5,000 of Frances Bacon's "The Advancement of Learning"; the intense and moving Holocaust memoir, "Who Loves You Like This?" by Edith Bruck; William Zinsser's magical book about two modern musicians, "Ruff and Mitchell," who brought jazz to China; James McConkey's stunning evocation of Anton Chekhov's trip across Russia, "To a Distant Island"; and others.

But what's so "new" about this? you ask. Isn't this the classic way most American publishers began, with passionate feelings for a small but eclectic list of titles, a hope that booksellers will select and display each book before audiences that will want to buy and read them, and a group of sales reps that will carry the house's spirit and character into the buyer's office? (Dry is distributed by Independent Publishers Group of Chicago, by the way, which he describes as "terrific.")

Certainly that's the way publishing used to be, when hundreds of publishers competed for bookseller space. And certainly some great small presses, many of them nonprofits, bring excellent books on a literary par to Dry's before the public now.

But in this unfortunate era of merger madness, in which five publishing conglomerates account for 80% of sales, very seldom do we hear of a lone figure starting a house on his own (Dry employs 3 full-time staff people), publishing books that require a certain dedication from the reader and believing that enough readers are out there to appreciate, buy and read the selection he offers.

'His Monkey Heart'

One of Dry's books I found delightful is "His Monkey Wife" by John Collier, a 1930 novel about the foppish yet tender British schoolmaster, Mr. Fatigay, who has come to the Upper Congo in the 1920s to "bring literacy and light" (and not a little bit of colonialism) to the children of tiny Boboma village.

There he befriends and "owns" a chimp named Emily, who, without his knowing it for the longest time, falls completely in love with him while teaching herself to read - and read she does from a wider-ranging fare than Mr. Fatigay has ever attempted.

Emily convinces herself that one day she and Mr. Fatigay will be betrothed, immersing herself in Latin and English poets as well as "the divorce laws of England." She reads the latter first for word usage, because it is simply "far superior to the more exotic phrasing of the marriage service"; and second because it may help her "wrest her naively infatuated Mr. Fatigay from his stonyhearted beloved, Amy Flint," as Eva Brann writes in the introduction.

The story of Emily and Amy vying for Mr. Fatigay's heart - in England yet, with Emily hired on as a maid - functions as a hilarious satire of manners and language in which England becomes victim rather than conqueror of its own fancied destiny.

But the best part of "His Monkey Wife" is the joyfully fatuous and overblown writing style of author Collier, who pauses, exclaims, chortles, ponders, sighs, regrets and opines so divertingly throughout that you almost don't care where the story goes.

"Spring flew overhead without settling, like a wild bird, tardy migrant! on its way to Hampshire," he writes in one of the shorter sentences, the interruptive "tardy migrant!" wonderfully typical of linguistic nostril-flaring throughout.

Here is Emily's reaction when she finds a love letter from Mr. Fatigay to Amy and realizes she is not chimp of his dreams:

"Aghast, the stricken chimp reeled back, one hand pressed to her brow. Her dream world lay in ruins about her feet, and, with the deathly faintness which now spread over her, it slowly began to revolve around, evoking a sensation not unlike (yet how unlike!) that procurable on the joy wheel at the fun fairs and luna parks of the carnal capitals of Europe."

Why doesn't Emily show Mr. Fatigay her talents? Well, she tries to at first, but he makes a remark that if she is "clever as all that," she'd have to be sold to perform in side shows.

At this, "the frightened chimp had relinquished the implements of clerkiness and crept trembling to her old place of subjection. How it all recurred to her when later on she read that Mrs. Virginia Woolf had been denied admittance to a university library!"

'The Tree of Life'

Perhaps worth greater study considering the state of publishing today is "The Tree of Life," the first book published by Paul Dry. Originally released in 1985, this novel is written in journal form, begun in 1811 by Thomas Keene, a Congregational minister from New England who has lost his faith and now lives alone on the Ohio frontier.

Entries in Keene's journal center on the mundane - "Shelled corn all day," he tells us about July 11; "Paid in full to Mother Beam on the Rocky Fork, for cracking 300 lbs. my shelled corn to make mash, .28" - this for July 13.

Keene spends a great deal of his time early in the novel reading the classics, drinking too much and masturbating to the works of the Latin poet Juvenal. His essential decency and courage mean a great deal to his neighbors at a time when starvation looms, a common cold can kill and it's not unusual to find an ad in the local newspaper with the following announcement:

"Riflemen Attention: A man will be shot for the benefit of his wife and children - $1 a shot - 100 yards distance... The fore-mentioned man is in a very low state of health and wishes to leave his family snug."

Among the pioneers living near Keene is John Chapman, forever to be remembered as Johnny Appleseed; a young widow Keene is courting; and a number of Indians whose fury becomes more brutal on every page.

Soon we sense among the wrought nails purchased at 14 cents a pound, observations about slavery and questions of faith and beyond ("Is Love as strong as Death? / I do not know. / Is Art?") that "The Tree of Life" is going to function like a good history - its biggest questions will emerge from the mundane - as well as a good novel. Its answers, though never yielded easily, will border on the profound.

Paul Dry's Effect on Publishing

Will many readers buy this book and return enough of a profit to keep Paul Dry Books going? Perhaps the better question is, how much relevance can a "little" book from a "small" press have in the multi-billion-dollar industry American publishing has become?

This answer, too, not so surprisingly, comes from "The Tree of Life" -- not the text per se but a suggestion in the introduction by Margo Jefferson -- that unless we can relate to history on a personal level (she quotes Czeslaw Milosz), "history will always be more or less of an abstraction...

"Doubtless every family archive that perishes, every account book that is burned, every effacement of the past reinforces classifications and ideas at the expense of reality. Afterward, all that remains of entire centuries is a kind of popular digest."

This quote reminds us that great gaps exist in our history because American publishing for some reason duplicated the British model (I know I said this before! This time a new idea is coming!).

For some reason, we didn't take our book presses with us as we went hacking and slashing across the country toward the West, and instead of turning to regional publishers as the great caretakers of local literature, authors and writers had to wait for national publishers based in New York to decide what was worthy.

Of course, regional publishers have established themselves all over the country, as have university presses, as the great caretakers of local literature. At NEBA, one could see many instances of long-term geographic publishing in action.

For example, perhaps only a local house like Down East Books would absorb the considerable expense required to make "MONEGHAN: The Artists' Island" by Jane and Will Curtis and Frank Lieberman, a stunning art book with breathtaking full-color paintings inspired by this "spectacular scrap of land" off the coast of Maine.

But Paul Dry Books is the kind of literary publisher that seeks out readers who want the kind of challenging experience beyond geography, so that in the details of a single moment in time and the particularities of a single landscape, the timelessness and universality of art.

At the same time, by publishing "The Tree of Life," Dry lets us view history as if we did bring our book publishing presses with us across the vast interior to the Western frontier, wherever it happened to be at the time.

Paul Dry Books, by the way, encourages readers to shop for its titles at local bookstores, but you can view and buy books from its website at www.pauldrybooks.com.

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LOW MARKS FOR AMAZON.COM

Even I can't believe reports of how poorly Amazon.com is performing for customers during this crucial holiday season.

The latest damage to the company's reputation are described in James Cramer's column, initially for RealMoney.com (December 7 & 8) and now listed on TheStreet.com (see "It's Holiday Time - Do You Know Where Your Amazon Order Is?" at http://www.thestreet.com/_yahoo/comment/wrong/1203878.html and "Readers Irritated at Amazon, http://www.thestreet.com/_yahoo/comment/wrong/1204684.html

In the first article, Cramer says he has been worried, after waiting for two weeks for books he thought were in stock, that he's the only one receiving books "way late" from Amazon. "I wasn't going to say anything, but I just got this note. So I am passing it on."

The note came from a reader complaining of "very little in stock" at Amazon, items labeled as available that were not, shipping times taking much longer than promised and the feeling that ordering from Amazon is a "crapshoot."

In one day, Cramer says, "I was deluged with people complaining about how poor Amazon's service is this holiday season." Most spoke also of late shipments and customer service that "is just abysmal."

Many of the people writing, says Cramer, "LOVE Amazon and can't believe things are unraveling like this."

>From Pete H., who says he usually spends $90% of his $3000 holiday shopping with Amazon: "Every shipment is late, every order has been shipped in multiple pieces over multiple days. They are out of stock on the most popular items. Half through my list and I say no more Amazon!"

"Here is what I think is happening," says Cramer: "Amazon won all of us over with great quick service. Now, Amazon has to try to show a profit or at least lower the loss in order to get its stock up to do more financing.

"It can't do it while providing the same level of service it used to have. That was too expensive. It can't spend the money it needs now to put in the systems to handle the business. Those inventory management systems cost big money. Put simply, if Amazon ran its business the old way it would go out of business. The old model was great, albeit unrealistic.

"But here's the rub: they have no business if they anger their customers and deliver bad service. You can't win with Amazon."

Gee, sounds a little panicky out there, doesn't it?

Add to this the dropping of True North Communications, Amazon's expensive San Francisco ad agency, as well as continued conflicts in-house over what appears to be a growing union movement, and things don't look too good for that "new" P2P (path to profit) idea Amazon has been trying to convince Wall Street is the next best thing.

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I, too, received the letter from Bob Mankoff, Cartoon Editor of The New Yorker Magazine, President of The New Yorker Book of Technology Cartoons. You would think that the editor, president, etc. of a cartoon bank would know one of the primary rules of comedy -- know your audience.

As for Donald Wayne Mitchell and his 837 customer reviews on Amazon.com -- I guess the rest of us just have jobs and family to keep us busy.

Howard Cohen


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I've just returned from a publisher-sponsored mini-book tour for BEACON STREET MOURNING that took me through San Francisco and finished up with the Mystery Tea at Book Passage. I did only two formal events but "dropped in" (with a call first, not unannounced) at a number of bookstores. I've done this for a lot of years now, particularly considering that I lived in San Francisco for two wonderful years before returning to Pacific Grove last year -- driven by the need for lower rent and more quiet. I've come to know the bookstores I visited well enough to sense atmosphere, patterns, and so on. What struck me most markedly was that the big chains' practice of hiring the cheapest help without regard as to whether or not those people know anything about books is beginning to take its toll in terms of atmosphere, employee morale, and disorganization. To a casual observer these things might not be obvious, but they certainly were to me. "Pride goeth before a fall," I couldn't help but think. Meanwhile, Solar Light Books on Union Street (in my old neighborhood -- oh, how I wish the rents would go down!), where we successfully fought off another Borders as I'm sure you remember, continues to be the excellent, comfortably crowded, intelligently staffed, warm and pleasant place it has always been. I can say the same for all the independents and small chains (like Books Inc on Chestnut -- I find it hard to think of Books Inc as a "chain") I visited. With one sad exception: String Box Books on Russian Hill has closed. I don't know if that's permanent or temporary. Book Passage always impresses the heck out of me, and this past Sunday (11/19) was no exception. Therefore I was very interested in your Holt Uncensored column about Book Passage and Book Sense, which I also am familiar with through Thunderbird Bookshop in Carmel and May Waldroup, who's one of the world's great women whether she's selling books or whatever she does. Anyway about Book Sense and Carl the Firebrand: Words are my business, literally -- otherwise I wouldn't have the nerve to try to get word to a Firebrand that "Book Sense" is the wrong thing to call a truly excellent idea. "Book Sense" has a sort of elitist ring to it that is the exact opposite of what we're trying to accomplish; it seems somehow to imply that someone, or a group of someones, is behind this sticker or list, who has more sense than I do when I walk into the bookstore and begin to look around for something to read. That's a downer.

Also: "Book Sense" seems to imply that the independent stores are somehow superior, which may be true but strikes the wrong chord with many people. I would rather see a website and a label with wording as awkward as "Network of Independent Booksellers" (which could be NIBs for short, & if the Firebrand would miss the elitist note he could still be "his NIBs") because that is a title that tells exactly what it is. If I saw that a book was recommended by The Network of Independent Booksellers I'd be far more likely to pick it up than one with the "Book Sense" sticker. The first time I saw one of those, I had to ask a clerk in one of the largest independent stores what it meant, and she struggled to explain it to me. Since I'd like to see the concept behind Book Sense flourish, I vote for a name change. With apologies for being so presumptuous, Dianne Day


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I'd known for a long time that bookstores were the worst places in the world to sell books if you're not Anne Rice or otherwise profoundly connected in the machine. Indeed, I already had books that I have self-published in bookstores where they weren't selling, so when I was invited to do a book reading/signing at a McBorders, I wasn't sure I wanted to be bothered. Also, I was aware that everybody who's anybody hated McBorders, but then again everybody who's anybody wasn't doing anything for my books anyway. So I decided to go for it, figuring anything is better than nothing. It was set up two months in advance, plenty of time to get prepared.

The Borders people told me there would be a table upon which to display the books in the main room near the main entrance with an area cleared for the reading. They told me there would be publicity. They told me they wanted to order ten books. They told me they were big time. It did not occur to me that I might be treated in any way other than right.

I chose to read from GOODNIGHT CAMBODIA, the book I wrote for and about Vibol Ouk, the Cambodian Holocaust survivor and by-the-skin-of-his-teeth refugee who escaped into the American Dream and to bring him along for the event. It's a horrible story, so I considered changing the pace and reading one of my own stories from LIFE AND CRIMES OF CHARLIE NOTHING at the end, to leave them laughing as it were.

Vibol and I got there ten minutes late. The store was big and slick. My books would be out of place, not shiny enough, not shiny at all. The embarrassed feeling grew. There were posters on the windows, none about a reading. Inside, there was no area set up for any reading. I couldn't help noticing our names not up in lights. No one greeted us, so I went to the check out stand and got on line. Vibol had stopped next to a rack in a corner near the entrance and was standing motionless, blending in. I motioned for him to come along, but he didn't respond. A person who survived a holocaust by his wits and wiles would be expected to be autonomous, much more so than in the usual understanding of the word.

The line was slow. What did any of this have to do with writing? I'm an old man. I don't have time for anything but my work. It's too late to build character, too late to gain experience. If I haven't got it by now, I'm going to die without it. I started to sweat.

"Can I help you?" the clerk asked. She was hardly out of her teens, looked like she belonged more in McDonald's than McBorders. "I'm Charles Martin Simon," I said, and received a blank look. "Here to do a book reading," I said. More blank look. "Book reading/signing?" "I'll get ______," she said, picked up a phone, said something into it. "Wait over there." She motioned me away from the money maker. I moved over a few paces and stood there a long time. A young male clerk approached me. "Can I help you?" Another McDonald's-looking, post teen. But then my perception changed. These kids didn't seem out of place anymore, because the place was out of place, looking like a fast-food establishment, where intellect was a Happy Meal, served at room temperature although the menu stated "steaming hot" with an order of fries and a choice of carbonated beverage. I was the one who was out of place. "I'm Charles Martin Simon," I said. "Here to do a reading." The boy had no mechanism for cop! ing with that information. He wasn't the one I was waiting for. He disappeared without saying anything. I stood there a long time, sweating. I looked over at Vibol. He hadn't moved.

Was this a cultural event or a war? Was this the way a large book entity treated two men who have spent many years producing a book? After inviting them? Of course it was, because the entity apparently had no soul, no center, from which to treat anyone in any way, except for the mechanical taking of money and releasing of merchandise. Without soul there can be no communion, and communion is a necessary ingredient to the literary process.

It was well past start time. Another kid approached, this one with an air of authority. His demeanor made me feel uh-oh, what did I do wrong? "Can I help you?" he asked, aggressively. That my presence had been brought to his attention had irritated him. "I'm Charles Martin Simon? .... Here to do a reading?" I received the blank look again. They must teach it to them at the training seminars. He pointed to the area in front of the main door. "We have our readings over there," he said authoritatively, "but they put up all those new racks." You could push the racks over, I thought but didn't say. "Let me go upstairs," he said, with a conspiratorial nod that meant, "and get this straightened out," and left me there.

The kid in charge came back with his take-charge attitude more firmly in place. "I'm ready to help you in any way I can," he said. "Do you want to read upstairs or downstairs?" "I was told I would be reading downstairs, in the main area, over there." "Let me check on that." He went back upstairs, came back. "You see, there's a problem. They got those racks over there?" "You already told me that." "I'll help you any way I can." "You already told me that, too. But the thing is, see, the problem is, it looks like you're not prepared." "I'm so sorry, I'll help you any way I can." "I don't think there's anything you can do. There has been no arrangement made for a reading, no accommodation, no publicity." "You can go upstairs and sit at a table." "I don't want to go upstairs and sit at a table. I'm not going to expose myself and Vibol under these conditions. We are going to leave." "I'm so sorry." "I'm sure you are."

I looked over at Vibol. He gave me a questioning look. I went to him. "We're going," I said. "They're not ready for us. Like they didn't even know we were coming." He accepted it with his characteristic acceptance.

"I don't feel bad," I said. "Do you?" "No," he said. "I don't feel bad. We do our job. We show up. Maybe this way better. This way we don't cry. I don't want cry today."

There are some advantages besides the obvious to surviving a holocaust -- and to not doing what you set out to do. When God (if there is a God) closes one door, He or She (if He or She exists) opens another.

Charles Simon

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