Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, January 16, 2001


    My Big Idea
    Taking the PODs to Kepler's:
    1) "Men Surviving Menopause"
    2) "Doctor Janeway's Plague"
    3) "Eat First - You Don't Know What They'll Give You"
    4) "Road to Belmont"
    5) "Papaya Myths"
    6) "Unlawful Deeds"
    The Big Lesson about PODs



Here we are streaming down the freeway with our six POD (print-on-demand) books and our pitches and our sense of destiny awaiting as we aim to answer the Big Question in the next few hours, and here it is:

Is society about to experience a Revolution in Publishing through electronic books and print-on-demand (POD) titles? Or are we about to fall victim to Another Doomed Fad (remember CD-roms!) or even worse, the Biggest Vanity Press Hoax to come down the pike in years?

I ask this because the new POD (digital) technology invites writers to bypass traditional publishers by paying as little as $99 to electronic printers like iUniverse and Xlibris.

This so-called "democratization of publishing" has resulted in tens of thousands of titles nobody's every heard of, nobody knows what to do with and nobody will read unless some kind of Big Idea comes up.


Taking a critical look at a hundred or so POD titles, I've found 6 that I feel are good enough to be sold in independent bookstores. Maybe all that is needed is for somebody like me, who loves self-published books (everybody else seems to dread 'em), to sort through the chaff and present the nice wheaties to booksellers..

Heck, maybe all customers need is to be invited to the great adventure, if that's what it is. Everybody's heard of Stephen King's electronic publishing experiment, so they know Something Big is breaking up that ol' publishing mainstream o' mine.

Maybe this is an opportunity for independent bookstores to distinguish themselves from bookstore chains and Amazon.com by taking a leadership role. Maybe somewhere in the store a sign could go up that briefly explains the new POD phenomenon to customers.

Beneath this sign there might be a little section of books offering a dozen or so POD titles -- "none of them 'great,' " the sign might say, "and most running the gamut from wonderful to occasionally irksome. But each POD book displayed here offers enough quality and originality, we feel, to warrant your attention. Welcome to the revolution." Something like that.

My partner Terry is hitting 75 (and we're in a car!) as I rehearse my presentation-to-come on this Great Experiment for two buyers at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, California.

I've chosen Kepler's because it's near Stanford University and already encourages customers to take a chance on new books by unknown writers through the store's wonderful Buyer's Choice selection, in which all books are discounted at 20%.

As the chief buyer, Karen Pennington, and the small-press buyer, Frank Sanchez, have indicated, Kepler's is one of thousands of independent bookstores that have been hit with a flood of emails from POD authors who want the store to carry their self-published books.

But without benefit of advance reviews, presentation by sales representatives, reading copies or "friendly" sales terms, bookstores have a tough time wading through POD titles. (The terms they're offered - 25-40% discounts on NONreturnable books - don't compare favorably with traditional publishers' and wholesalers' discounts of 40-plus% off for books that can be returned.)


So in we go to Kepler's, a beautiful, sprawling, catacomby store and find everybody smiling up at us from their computers in a back room that's so compact it resembles the interior of a submarine.

Behind them in the nose of the ship, as it were, is Karen's office, so tiny itself that Frank and I have to stand up and clear out a few inches of table-top for me to begin my presentation.

It goes like this:

1. "MEN SURVIVING MENOPAUSE: You and the Woman You Love at Mid-life" by Paul Selinger (iUniverse; 109 pages; $10.95 paperback). I place this slim red paperback - with an admittedly amateurish type design on the cover - on the table between Karen and Frank.

This Sonoma (Calif.) author says he's been in "two long-term, loving, committed relationships" with women who've gone through menopause, I explain, and in a chatty and informative manner, he describes what he thinks other men oughta know.

Selinger is a natural writer - he's amusing and erudite about everything from hormone replacement and osteoporosis to enhancing intimacy, and his thoughts on bringing a little tenderness to the present relationship are refreshing:

"If you do not feel comfortable touching her unless it is a prelude to sex," he writes, "you will have to get over it if you want to close the distance between yourself and your mate. First, let's think about some easy stuff, like walking holding hands from the car to the movie theater or restaurant. Okay, some of us don't even do that . . . "

Selinger is not a doctor or health care specialist - he's an ordinary guy who's savvy and who's done his homework, so you end up trusting him more than you might a gynecologist. He wrote this book because there's nothing like it "out there," he says, and I think if the book were published by a mainstream house, there would be no question - independents would buy it in quantity..

KAREN AND FRANK RESPOND: "An old truism in the industry tells us that men don't buy self-help books - women buy them for men," says Karen. "I think that could be true in this case. If the book is not condescending or smarmy or inaccurate, if it's a positive, light-heared look at good techniques for dealing with a woman who's going through menopause, it could sell. The red cover may indeed be amateurish, but we might take a few copies and see. It helps that the author, for us, is local."

All right, then! This may be easier than I thought.

2. "DOCTOR JANEWAY'S PLAGUE" by John Farrell (iUniverse; 305 pages; $15.95 paperback). This novel has a blue cover in which we are shown circles that might be planets or molecules - it's hard to tell, and deliberately so. Still, the cover has a self-published look that's a little seedy.

Here's an enthralling novel that unfortunately starts out sounding like a serial killer thriller, I explain, but soon settles into a story that's reminiscent of the more meditative books by Stephen King or Dean Koontz.

Because it's set at Harvard and involves two very different couples whose conversations are as probing and literate (and gossipy) as I've seen in an academic setting, we get to ponder things like immortality and astrophysics without feeling overwhelmed or lost.

A cat-and-mouse game ensues between Dr. Janeway, who sounds like a literate and deadly character out of Ann Rice, and the woman who pursues him as both murderer and genius. I found this novel flawed but compelling, and I think an academic audience, if warned that it starts rather off-base and meanders a bit, would be intrigued.

KAREN AND FRANK RESPOND: "This is a harder sell," says Karen. "I think a specialty bookstore - say a science fiction bookstore - might be better able to give it a chance. I like the reference to Stephen King territory, but your candid appraisal of what's wrong with it could undermine interest. You might say: 'The style is lacking but I really like the philosophical investigation.' " Hm. Any sale here? "Let's move on."

3. "EAT FIRST - YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT THEY'LL GIVE YOU: The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter" (338 pages; $14.40 paperback; $25 hardcover; Xlibris). This is an all-type cover except for an illustration of an abridged table setting (a sillhouette of a fork, plate and knife).

Here is a delightful and informative memoir by Sonia Pressman Fuentes, who's one of the founders of NOW (National Organization for Women). It begins with her Jewish family's flight from the Nazis and arrival in the United States in 1934, and it follows Sonia through college and law career, marriage and feminism, with the same quirky and offbeat tone of the title.

The book is loaded with charming anecdotes (Sonia's father thought her dormitory at Cornell was "a whorehouse" when he saw dozens of girls kissing their boyfriends a moment before curfew). But Sonia's experience as a lawyer in the tough and often cruel politics at the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), where she was the first female attorney in the General Counsel's Office, is as instructive as anything you'll find in books by, say, Gloria Steinem or Brenda Feigan.

It's overwritten in many places, and too often the anecdotes don't weave into the larger narrative to support the autobiographical theme. But I found it instructive and important, and at times quite endearing. I think it could be sold in sections that like Women's History, Judaica, or Legal Issues.

KAREN AND FRANK RESPOND: "The title is awfully misleading," says Frank, "and the place-setting illustration only emphasizes the notion that this book is about food, not a founder of NOW." A pause occurs that I feel indicates feminist books don't sell any longer. Okay, how about Jewish history, legal memoirs? More pauses - it could be that memoirs by unknowns have a hard time. Surely Jewish history always sells? Well, they say, "the title and cover illustration still give the wrong signal."

But wait! The joy of print-on-demand is that it prints what you demand! In other words, if the author agrees that the title/cover is misleading, she can change it with the NEXT BOOK off the press! Whatddya think? "Well . . . " I guess they'll consider it when and if the changes are made.

4. "THE ROAD TO BELMONT: A study in Guerrilla Education Reform by Bryan L. Steele (344 pages; Foreshadow Press, 8581 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 180, Los Angeles CA 90069-4120). This four-color cover shows a school bus ramming into the title and a murky construction scene that make the illustration appear thrown-together.

Here is a very different and effective blueprint for exposing corruption in bureaucracy, I begin. The author is a former school teacher whose idealism got him embroiled in politics that forced him out as a teacher, so he became an education writer for the LA Weekly in Los Angeles and uncovered sales of contaminated land to the Los Angeles Unified School District.

He shows us that it's not uncommon for many unified school districts, plagued by lack of funds, to buy polluted land that can be restored through cleanup procedures (official term: environmental remediation).

But this was not the case with what is now the notorious Belmont Learning Complex, Steele tells us. The author was so eloquent in his coverage at the LA Weekly that he was hired by the Joint California Legislative Audit Committee to help investigate what turned out to be a $200-million scandal.

I think if a traditional mainstream house published this book, Steele would be called the Erin Brockovich of the Los Angeles school system, But because the book is self-published, he starts out with no base at all..

It's a typical POD problem - there's not a lot of imprint loyalty out there, but reviewers and booksellers do trust a traditional house not to make a mistake with a book like this. So how can a POD author establish his credibility? By doing what Steele does here - he documents every piece of research, names every name, quotes impeccable sources and tells us his own personal story every step of the way.

KAREN AND FRANK RESPOND: "I've heard about the Belmont scandal, but the book sounds awfully regional," says Frank. "Witness the title." Well, Steele does make it clear that many school districts face these problems, I say, and every parent should know it. Wouldn't students and professors of urban planning want to know read a book like this? Grim expressions.

"I like the Erin Brockovich idea but only if you were to write a shelf-talker and put your name on it," says Karen. This I would love to do: Shelf-talkers are those personal notes, usually handwritten by members of the bookstore staff, recommending the book to customers and stuck or pasted right on the shelf where the book is displayed. "But would a shelf talker inspire the reader to take a chance on this book?" None of us can say for sure.

5. "PAPAYA MYTHS" by Kimberly Scott (iUniverse; 290 pages; $14.95 paperback). The cover shows a drawing of an older woman looking pensive and distant, with half her face in shadow and half in bright light. As illustrations for novels go, it's a bit elementary and cold, but enticing if you're a fan of futuristic novels.

The story (set in the year 2057) refers to the '90s as a bygone era. Jocelyn, now 84, remembers spending her free evenings partying with girlfriends in bars, where they begin each night playing "Ecstasy Roulette."

The game takes place with the first drink, when everybody downs a pill without looking at it - one pill is the drug, Ecstasy, and the rest are aspirin - then watch each other to see who starts to show the effects. "Stupid, right?" Jocelyn says to her granddaughter, Sarlin. "Even at the time, I kind of thought so."

It's fascinating to see this glimpse of recklessness and willing victimization in our own modern era, so we aren't surprised when Jocelyn reveals a painful secret involving domestic violence and death. Soon, the granddaughter must find strengths she never knew to absorb the difficult truth of her heritage.

Scott's narrative percolates along with good use of imagery and invention in daily life a half a century from now. Although the writing is not equal to the profound implications of Jocelyn's disclosure, the book offers a good example of what used to be called "women's fiction" and could be seen as satisfying, even enlightening, to many.

KAREN AND FRANK RESPOND: "I can see a place for this kind of fiction, but the title doesn't give the reader much to go on," says Frank, "and I'm not sure if you're saying the book is good enough to compete with others like it." Well, readers of authors from Danielle Steel to Marge Piercy could find it quite challenging, I say, and really it's more than creative - it's often a bit ingenious. The problem is this hole in the center . . . Hm. By the silence that ensues, I figure this is another book to table for the moment.

6) "UNLAWFUL DEEDS" by David S. Brody (iUniverse; 344 pages; $16.95 paperback) The cover shows photos of money and deeds of trust, some splattered with blood, in front of a valuable painting. It's not a great jacket, but it doesn't have that slapped-together feel of self-published books either.

Here's a legal thriller about real estate scams and art theft that I found quite engrossing, I say. The protagonist, Bruce, is a young lawyer with a good heart who's trying to extricate himself from a decidedly criminal past while using his stuffy old law firm as a vehicle to pull off some dazzling foreclosure deals. We're not sure if he's completely on the level, but we're rooting for him all the same.

Author Brody is himself a lawyer and unfortunately gets mired down in real estate subplots and arcana. But he has a knack for explaining what might be called "infomercial law" that we've all wondered about (how DO people make a bundle on foreclosed buildings without investing a cent?), and his characters are fully developed and original.

Three alternating plots revolve around Bruce -- one about a transsexual who's suing her snooty Brahmin ex-lover (did I mention this is set in Boston?), another about the Legal Aid lawyer who represents the trannsexual, and the third about a cute, roller-blading condo broker who risks all -- when suddenly the Big Murder, Big Scam and Big Art Theft all come together.

If it weren't for the bogged-down parts, a melodramatic beginning and an unfortunate bias against rent control in which all liberals are painted as one-dimensional villains, and there are plenty, I'd say this book stands somewhere between John Grisham and Scott Turow. But even with its problems, readers knowing anything about real estate will be intrigued.

KAREN AND FRANK RESPOND: "Well, our mystery audience is quite adventurous and could be interested in this kind of thriller," says Karen. In fact, the author has proven the book will sell, I add: He set up 26 bookstore appearances in the Boston area himself and has sold about 3000 copies. At one point, the book even hit #8 on the Boston Globe's bestseller list. "Sounds good," Karen and Frank respond. Did I hear them say, "We'll take two," or was I dreaming?


All right, we're now crawling up the freeway in the far right lane because something big did happen at Kepler's and it ain't our destiny and it sure feels a long way from the dawn of some dang revolution.

Granted, as a sales representative, I make a great literary critic. I spend too much time being "candid" about weaknesses as well as strengths; I can't say "the house really backs this book," because there is no house, no promotion, no publicity department, no tour other than what the authors do for themselves; and I can't say, "this book will sell for these reasons," because I don't know the reasons.

But I conclude from this session that even a professional sales rep would have a hard time convincing bookstore buyers to take a chance on POD books. The terms are just too "stiff," as Frank repeated many times; the stigma of self-publishing is often reflected right on the cover; even shelf-talkers from a book editor people remember fondly won't be enough to overcome problems in the writing.

The idea of having a sign explaining the POD phenomenon and a special section of recommended PODs "both ghettoizes these books and enhances their present newness," says Karen. "I'm more interested in placing the good ones within their category sections than trying to convince readers to take a chance on them as PODs," she says. "For one thing we offer a 20% discount in our Buyer's Choice section as an incentive. We can't do that with PODs."

"And with Buyer's Choice, we mix known authors with unknowns," says Frank. "We can't do that with PODs either."

One has to face the fact, too, that most PODs are not professionally edited, and should be. I've not heard POD publishers offering this service as part of the package. Perhaps the Year of the Manuscript Consultant is more at hand than ever before.

But the big lesson for authors of POD books may be this: Since it's so cheap to get your manuscript in print, why not use POD to test-market your book through what might be called an elaborate focus group, right in your own neighborhood.

Probably 99.9% of all POD trade books are going to be limited in scope, written for family and friends, and will never see the light of a bookstore day. But for those .1% others, many of which could be quite wonderful for everyone to read, a responsive and adventurous market awaits that can tell you how to fix that "misleading" title, that "amateurish" cover illustration, that "bogged-down" narrative, that "weak" climax, that "overwritten" autobiography, before you go outside the neighborhood.

Hey, wait a minute, one of these POD authors said to me after I broached the test-market idea: You mean I could work my head off and spend the money just to rewrite and recast my book so I could get BACK to traditional publishing and find a literary agent and accept a low advance and wait for a year or two and put up with mainstream arrogance because print-on-demand is NOT the dawn of the new revolution in publishing?

Yes, I say, as we slow to a snail's pace. I'm afraid that's the way it looks to me.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

Thought your column might be a good place to air this suggestion. As first-time authors are sending emails to independent bookstores asking us to carry their babies on our shelves, telling me how well the book is doing on Amazon.com isn't the best primary marketing ploy. I know that for most authors, any sale is a good sale, and I respect that. But the Amazon name in the first sentence of a marketing message sends me to the delete button pretty quickly.

Melissa Mackey
R Books, http://www.rbooks.com
Los Alamos, New Mexico

Dear Holt Uncensored:

[Regarding books taken from publishers' offices by employees who sell them as to used book dealers:] As a former employee in the children's division of a major book publisher, I can vouch for the fact that obtaining "review copies" of books is a VERY easy thing to do. Working at a publishing house, you're literally surrounded by books and books were abundant for the taking -- when I was there, everyone helped themselves. It was relatively easy to place review orders for books from the warehouse, or raid the publicity book room. A very common practice was to send boxes upon boxes of books home to yourself or to friends, justified by many reasons: it's a perk of the job, it's really product development "research" if you sent the books to friends with kids, etc.

I never, however, brought any books to a used book store for cash, and none of my colleagues did this, to my knowledge. I did hear, however, about lots of adult trade editorial assistants and other assistants who routinely brought review copies down to the Strand Bookstore in NYC for cash. This, I think, is highly unethical but I'm assuming they justified the offense since they were paid such a paltry salary and probably needed cash to eat or for subway fare to get to work. Since starting salaries at major publishers have recently risen to a more palatable level, I don't know if this practice still goes on or not (and I would think that no one would be as brazen as the guy who's bringing books to the used bookstore mentioned in your latest issue!)

It was difficult, however, to get adult books vs. children's books for free. You either needed to know someone in the division that published the book, or you could try to place a review order (which most times got shot down). Many divisions placed a "review restriction" on certain books so they could limit the amount of copies that are sent out -- or taken -- on a review basis. Sometimes the numbers of books sent out on a "review" basis got to be astronomical -- for example, 1000 vs. a printing of 10,000. That's a lot of books!

Every job has its perks, and the bottom line perk of working in publishing is that you get free books. I probably have enough books at home now to furnish a small library. I love it!!

Former Publishing Worker Bee

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Regarding the bookstore's used book buyer who has been receiving new books from a publishing house employee:

I'm fascinated that someone would take the trouble to check on the employment of the seller, and then write a letter to Holt Uncensored asking about "ethical issues," but not simply inform the publisher or the police that someone has been selling stolen books.

This isn't an ethical matter. The buyer is clearly aware that the bookstore has now become a fence.

Instead of a philosopher, the buyer needs a therapist. There's something very strange about the request for advice. Perhaps the buyer is confessing the crime so we'll stop him/her from committing it again. (In that case I'd say: seek help, friend.) Or - - my choice - - the buyer is doing everything possible to avoid losing a source of books. (In that case it's ridiculous to ask us to assuage the guilty feelings.)

As a legal matter, even the buyer's halfhearted investigation has made denial of knowingly buying stolen goods an impossibility. I suggest an immediate call to the publisher and/or the local D.A., so the bookstore can switch to the right side of this matter. It's too late to simply stop buying the books. If the employee goes somewhere else with the books and gets caught - - highly likely given that the buyer, by explaining that the books have been stolen from the office, seems ready for a spot on America's Dumbest Criminals - - the buyer's bookstore could easily get dragged into the mess.

From the question asked and the reference to the college town, I'm guessing the buyer is an undergraduate working part-time. If that's the case, I can understand the confused feelings. But regardless of those specifics, the buyer had better stop waffling and start doing what he or she already knows to be the right thing.

David Colbert

Dear Holt Uncensored:

While your letter-writer's concerns are proof of his or her vigilance as far as buying stolen property, they have nothing to do with ethics or publishing practices. If publisher B sends free books to publisher X or review source Y or Joe Shmoe, that's their decision. What any of these entities decide to do with the books is their decision. The only caveat to this is that a bookstore may not sell an Advance Review Copy AS a new book; they may sell it as a collectible book at whatever price they wish. While I was working for Publisher Z, the books that were sent in by other publishers (sometimes multiple copies) were regularly winnowed and a local used bookseller was brought in to offer a price. It sounds as if "A Used-Book Buyer" has a serious case of Nosey-Parkerism. Just to make this crystal-clear; I have no love for book thieves and have gone out of my way to apprehend them, but the subject of "A Used-Book Buyer"'s complaint just sounds like a lucky guy.

A Bookseller

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Some people referred me to Borders recently - I was looking for a book on sentence-diagramming for my students - and they said Borders had a good "reference" section. I said, "my ass!" in a sort of Thurberesque way. In the meantime, I have found a small bookstore that carries education books. So there! One only has to look.

Sharon Cadwallader


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