Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, January 9, 2001





Heavens, what a year it wasn't.

Over the holidays yet another catastrophe hit the Holt Uncensored list-serve when thousands of columns were returned to me as "undeliverable." After much deliberation and hustle, however, all is being resolved.

If you think your email address has dropped off the Holt Uncensored list, or if you've been receiving the column sporadically -- or if you were sent a confusing "confirmation" notice by a company called Topica -- please accept our apologies.

The column is now with distributor #3, which, despite a perplexing confirmation message to subscribers (it turns out I checked the wrong box) has a solid reputation with many happy Internet columnists and promises to protect and serve the Holt Uncensored list with the enthusiasm of a Riggio Brothers tag team (tiny B&N joke).

If you've missed any columns, please check the archives at www.holtuncensored.com or write to me directly at pat@holtuncensored.com.

Otherwise, you don't have to resubscribe or do anything (except forgive!) to remain on the list.

New subscribers can send the word "subscribe" to me at pat@holtuncensored.com.

Meanwhile, Happy New Year, we're off and running again, and thanks for your patience.



How nice to know that under the new electronic book program at Barnesandnoble.com, Dean Koontz will be the first author with an original title. Heaven knows Koontz will need his experience as a horror writer to describe the catastrophe about to begin.

As we learned last week, Barnesandnoble.com promises to publish "electronic editions of 'thousands' of classics with expired copyrights as well as books published more recently by other publishers," according to the New York Times.

The plan is also to "cut out the publisher by acquiring [e-book] rights directly from authors." A royalty rate of 35% will be offered that's significantly higher than the "benchmark royalty rate" (about 25%) introduced recently at Random House.

And Barnesandnoble.com says it will reduce the price of electronic books from the $20 range to the mass market range of $5.95-$7.95.

So that's a lot of big promises, yes? For a chain bookseller that's done a little publishing with public domain stuff (classics) and safe unoriginal stuff, Barnesandnoble.com has made itself out to be the savior to authors and the "nightmare" to publishers Stephen King once thought he Himself would be.

Oh yes, "the publisher may become an unnecessary middleman in the distribution of electronic content if they really don't do anything to build a market," says B&N.com's Steve Riggio. He's such a swaggering guy.

Riggio told the Times that Barnesandnoble.com can "easily market its electronic books to its roughly six million customers" and use "the technology, the customers, the Web site, the traffic" B&N.com has now "to build the market" for electronic books.

But, didn't Barnesandnoble.com already make these promises for iUniverse.com, the electronic self-publisher from which print-on-demand and e-book titles already pour out by the thousands?

You remember iUniverse: Barnes & Noble acquired 49% of this company in November 1999 and promised to start "giving authors with small voices the loudspeakers they need to get their works published and distributed throughout the world." B&N.com would be right in there, he said. "We're providing iUniverse.com with the marketing power to become one of the largest publishers in the world -- overnight."

Well, "overnight" was about a year and a half ago, and look what happened: iUniverse set retail terms (25% nonreturnable) that couldn't compete in that very same marketplace and made it virtually impossible for iUniverse books to be distributed to bookstores across the country (Barnes & Noble famously included).

Barnes & Noble "helped" iUniverse by marketing a few books and losing a whole bunch of others on the cybershelf. Nor was Barnesandnoble.com much help when iUniverse hit its now-legendary backlog that infuriated thousands of authors and customers alike with incessant delays and mistakes. Nor did Barnesandnoble help when iUniverse decided to move into business-to-business publishing and let individual authors find some other "loudspeaker" to the general trade.

This is the legacy that Barnesandnoble.com brings to its new role as electronic book publisher.

If I were Dean Koontz and other writers, I'd like to know the answers to three questions:

1) Where are the editors who are going to make this "product" worth reading - you know, when Barnesandnoble.com eliminates the "middleman" and make deals for original works directly with authors? (It gives a person chills to see how iUniverse still pitches itself to writers: "Remember the world will see it just as you send it to us!" Dear heaven, bring back that middleman.)

2) Who is the sugar daddy supplying Barnesandnoble.com, which had a disappointing fourth quarter and continues to lose a pile of money just like Amazon.com, with the financial base it's going to need to accomplish Riggio's claims?

3) Isn't it intriguing that the German publishing conglomerate Bertelsmann, owns 100% of Random House and 49% of Barnesandnoble.com?

Like Zeus (or Machiavelli), Bertelsmann CEO Thomas Middelhoff knows how to play his subjects off against each other and, after the dust settles, wait for the most advantageous Next Big Play to present itself.



It was late at night near the end of the holiday season, and blissfully quiet - another rendition of "Santa Baby" woulda killed us - when the weary couple walked into Book Passage in Corte Madera, California.

I was doing my "flushing" (what a term! It has nothing to do with water!) by lining up books at the edge of each shelf as a way of tidying up the store at the end of the day.

The couple kept circling New & Notable, picking up and discussing one title after another. They asked me a question, and soon we were deep into the kind of intimate conversation that comes up so often between shoppers and staff in an independent bookstore.

The couple explained that their daughter had just spent four months in Paris and was having trouble "reacculturating" after her return. Aha, I said -- Diane Johnson's affectionate yet scathing look at Americans in Paris, "Le Divorce," might be just the ticket (they bought it), and if she likes that one, Johnson's latest, "Le Mariage," might be the perfect next book (they bought that one, too).

As we discussed other books for people on their list, the two kept looking at each other as if to say, "Can you believe it?"

It turns out they had just been to the local Borders -- "only because we had dinner nearby," they explained in one of those hokey excuses that for some reason I find endearing -- but had walked out disgusted.

"What a zoo!" said the man. "You have to stand in line for everything, but there's nothing to buy."

"The only books Borders recommends are best sellers," she said.

"The funny thing is," added the man, "I saw a lot of the books you carry while we were at Borders and had absolutely no feeling for them at all. But in this store, the same books have a different appeal - they're very compelling for some reason."

Oh, sir! I wanted to say. Let me bronze your baby's shoes! Of course, I'm new at this, so I was surprised to hear from other staff members that customers make similar comments all the time.

Maybe that's the reason independent bookstores held their own during the holiday season of 2000 and seem in so many places to be "winning back" the crowds who were once dazzled by Amazon.com and chain bookstores.

Perhaps we've all had it with promises of big discounts, big inventories and fast delivery - promises that can't be kept and aren't kept, yet are repeated anyway, time after time.

Besides,if it's all going to boil down to an atmosphere of sameness, what's the point? Customers get bored and want to engage in the search for "real" books at "real" bookstores they can trust.

It's something to remember, as we await the April court date for the American Booksellers Association's lawsuit against the chains, and as very good independent stores - Stacey's in Palo Alto is the latest and nearest one to me - go under because of chain and online competition.

So much is at stake in the "bookstore wars" that every moment customers and booksellers educate each other, we all win.



I see that Amazon.com has tried again to put our fears to rest, this time in its 4th-quarter report.

Profitability, once a concept that founder Jeff Bezos used to joke about, has suddenly become - well, a possible/probable/maybe/hopeful/you-never-know reality at Amazon.com.

Some financial observers are still trying to give Amazon.com the benefit of the doubt. "Amazon can probably make it to profitability on its current cash," says The Motley Fool. But "the truly worrisome part is that models for Amazon's profitability count on growth remaining strong.

"Estimates look for Amazon to increase sales 47% in 2001 and 57% in 2002. That task looks more and more daunting as time passes."

It reminds me of last year, when Jeff Bezos announced that the Books and Music departments were already turning a profit. No evidence or proof of that statement was offered, but it was a neat thing to say.

Today the one thing that's really changed is the language with which younger writers describe Amazon's position. Last year when Bezos was Time magazine's Person of the Year, the tone was respectful to the point of obeisance.

Now the tone is cocky, accusatory. "We think Jeff needs to be more honest," MaverickTrader.com said in December. "We think his demeanor should frighten Amazon.com shareholders. We think he's not exactly the picture of a guy in control.

"How many more quarters do investors need before they ALL throw in the towel? ... WE BELIEVE AMAZON.COM STOCK IS WORTHLESS."

Goodness, you'd think they were writing an uncensored email column.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

I am an established "series" author. In the recent "fallout from the latest merger," as my agent calls it, the company that published me for years was split up, and for a while my imprint was left hanging with its future uncertain. Then the corporate directors decided to go with setting up a new entity combining imprints, and finally they invited my editor to leave with a silver parachute or else stay and get his headchopped off (that is not the official wording, you understand).

Only recently he called and told me goodbye, and oh by the way, the reason my house had "set aside" my next book in the series, which he had asked me to submit a proposal for over a year ago, was that the big new imprint does not intend to publish anything in series form from now on. What hurts is that the sales were growing and I was finally beginning to make some moneyin royalties.

I do still have a contract for a stand-alone title but it's hard to write under such conditions. I'm capable of writing at a higher level; I write down purposely because I need the income. I'm beginning to think of going my own way and seeing what happens. I'm too old to mess around anymore trying to please these corporate princes.

An Author

Dear Holt Uncensored:

My partner Barbara and I so thoroughly enjoyed your comments about working at a bookstore at Xmas, We printed them off so our gals could read them. We are a very much smaller store than the one you worked in, 2000 sq. ft. and in a much smaller community of 14,000 which is a bedroom community for San Luis Obispo where a Barnes & Noble has all but wiped out every independent (there were 5 and now there is 1).

We are in Los Osos, and in order to indulge our passion for books, we added many sidelines which now account for almost 40% of our sales--but we are still here! And we are about 10% ahead of last years' sales. Due to our size and nature of our community, we do not have the author signings that you described and were a little green with envy, but we are an integral part of the community and as long as they continue to shop with us we will remain small, struggling at a little above minimum wage, but victorious! Thanks for being there and helping us to keep our perspectives.

Carroll and Barbara

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Just wanted to write in support on the piece on Book Passage. I used to work for a book packager down the street from Book Passage, so I've spent many hours there, bought many books, and downed many cookies and bowls of soup. For me, Book Passage pretty much defines great bookstore ambience.

Your piece also reminded me of one of the most bitterly ironic things that I've ever heard about the modern trials of the independent bookstore. I was at a 1999 BEA session in which bookstore owners were talking about selling online. Mr. Petrocelli was present and was talking about the process of getting BookPassage.com listed on the search engines. He said the worst part about getting listed with Yahoo or MSN is that, no matter how good a job you you do at promoting your site, if you type "Book Passage" in the search window, the first thing you see is a colored box saying "Search for books on *Book Passage* at Barnes & Noble."

That was a year and a half ago, and little has changed. The colored box is still there, and Book Passage is still a great place, online and off.

Pete Alcorn, CEO NetRead, Inc.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I'm glad you made your grudging apology [to chain bookstores.] I don't think chain stores deserve any slack, but people who work at chain stores are distinct from the corporations themselves. Customer service is reaching a shocking low in every area of retail these days, but I do think that a lot of people at B&N and Borders -- I don't know how many because I only worked at one Borders for under a year -- are serious book people who either don't understand the importance of working in independents (okay, that doesn't seem likely) or are not at liberty to (maybe they couldn't get hired at a small struggling store!). I used to really hate it when a newspaper would run this or that article saying booksellers at chain stores couldn't direct you to a book like the Rumi poems you mention but only to the latest coffee flavor in the cafe. Of course the way I rationalized it to myself was, "they're talking about those jerks over at Barnes & Noble, not me!"

Former Borders Employee

Dear Holt Uncensored,

I'm a buyer in the used-book department of an independent bookstore near in a university town. Recently a man has been coming in to sell me great quantities of brand new books - mostly multiple copies of the new hardcovers and paperbacks. He said he works at a large publisher that apparently has many new books lying around. We called and he does work there, but it seems at least unethical to us that he is selling books in this way. Even if the employees are allowed to take books out for friends or themselves, I would not think the publisher would want them to sell new books as used.

I'm hoping that if you run this in your column, maybe employees of publishers would comment on just how unethical they think this is. How easy is it in most trade publishing houses for workers to get access to books? How many are you allowed to take? How many would make it outright stealing? We are always suspicious of new books coming in. We sometimes are lucky enough to make legitimate connections with reviewers and publisher, but it seems like you can't be too careful these days.

A Used-Book Buyer


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