Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Friday, January 19, 2001





Well, there are times when the closing of a bookstore is a very sad occasion, and times when it's a signal of something else percolating with new energy and new vision.

In fact, I'm kind of astounded that Hut Landon's recent announcement about the closing of his store, Landon Books in Mill Valley, Calif., after 14 years is so -- well, so heartening.

Landon Books is not a victim of bookstore chains and Amazon.com, Hut says. The store survived the worst of that kind of assault (a 30% drop in sales) back in 1991, when Barnes & Noble moved in a mile away and redevelopment of the shopping mall where the store is located caused so many obstacles for customers that "we nearly went under," he adds.

The store slowly built its way back by 5% each year despite a tough location in the back of the mall where foot traffic is practically nil. "The irony is that independent stores up the freeway became our 'worse' competitors as they got bigger and better," Hut says.

Meanwhile Landon Books grew into the kind of neat coterie store that served its growing but never-to-be exploding audience well. One reason Landon did well in 2000 was the ABA's Book Sense campaign, which "provided any number of books I had never heard of but could recommend because other independent booksellers vouched for them. I must have sold 15 or 20 of 'A Month in the Country' and MANY other titles I wouldn't have been able to read or support."

A wall-sized presentation of the Book Sense Bestseller List, complete with books that sold quickly off the display, also became an in-store hit. "So did review copies a small store like mine, which doesn't see sales reps and doesn't get advance promotional materials, considered to be like gold."

Why, then, the "heartening" news that Landon Books is closing? Because it marks a new transition for Hut Landon (what fun to call him a mild-mannered bookseller) who, when he became president of the Northern California Booksellers Association eight years ago, found himself speaking at Chambers of Commerce and literary events and community gatherings.

"Until the chain superstores began moving in, people didn't realize what it would mean if independent bookstores went the direction of hardware stores, nurseries, stationery shops, and other markets - in other words, were wiped out by chains," he says.

And then Hut became president of the NCBA, which that year added the word "Independent" to its name. It may seem an obvious move for the same Northern California booksellers who several years before had launched their own lawsuit against publishers it accused of giving illegal deals to the chains.

But in fact the move to add "Independent" to the NCBA name was viewed as "divisive" by some observers, as "whining" by others, and as too outspoken, too risky by many. "Still, the vote was 150 to 2 in favor of adopting the word," says Hut. "Nearly unanimous because we all felt it was time to recognize that we weren't just an educational organization - we were know a full-fledged advocacy group."

Bringing the word "independent" out of the closet added fuel to the independents' position in the West more than anyone could have predicted at the time. "Before that, the term 'bookstores' was generic," Hut remembers. "A year later nobody talked about bookstores without distinguishing between independents and chains."

You'd think a person like me would be grateful to Hut for introducing the idea to the NCIBA board in 1998 to launch an unknown concept - a maverick email column, distributed by the NCIBA, on books and the book industry - and of course I can't imagine leaving the Chronicle one day and launching the column only a few weeks later without their help.

Nor should it be forgotten that Hut and the NCIBA board worked with an advertising and promotion company to come up with the concept of Book Sense, which was immediately adopted by the ABA as the now-famous national "branding" campaign.

But I think the action that just knocked me off my feet recently occurred when Hut, with booksellers Andy Ross and Bill Petrocelli, attempted to show the State Board of Equalization how many billions the state was losing as long as Barnesandnoble.com and Borders.com, as well as Amazon.com, all with some kind of physical presence or sales agent established throughout the state, refused to collect sales tax.

To say the door was slammed in their faces by the BofE would be an understatement. Instead of giving up, they found a lobbyist, created a strategy backed by the NCIBA board, secured the support of Assembly member Carole Migden, and, unbelievably, got a "declaratory bill" introduced AND PASSED in state congress within a year.

True, this is the same bill that was vetoed by Governor Gray Davis, the idiot, but that's the point: Controversy about the bill raised the consciousness of about 25 million people and paved the way for other states to follow suit. Another bill is set to be introduced this year, says Hut.

So I would say that watching the evolution of Hut Landon from small bookseller to statewide firebrand has been an education par excellence. "You know the real thing that separates independent booksellers from chains or Amazon.com?" he asks.

"It's not the money or the power. It's our passion. We know books; they sell product. When you wonder why, of all retail stores, it wasn't the hardware, gardening, office supply, coffee, juice or drug store that survived but the independent bookstore, that's the reason. Books are special to us, to everybody."

Talking with Hut, I'm reminded that the "bookstore wars" aren't just a battle between independents and corporate chains/Amazon.com but a movement -- a way to preserve the best of our literature and the importance of free speech and especially the movers and shakers who are helping us all to define direction and vision in these rocky times.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

I think you hit the nail on the head about the problems with Print On Demand publishing for new, unknown authors. Certainly under the current economics of the POD industry, there is no incentive for bookstores to support POD titles.

For established authors, however, POD may have a happier outlook. There are many "mid-list" authors whose works publishers are reluctant to keep in print, even though readers might be looking for those older titles. Now, those readers have to depend on libraries or used book stores. In the future, POD services may well allow readers to obtain those titles... as well as provide royalties to the author.

Scott Bauer

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I thought I might pass on to you two messages I recently wrote to the MurderMustAdvertise email list. It perhaps adds a little fuel to the fire [in terms of your discussion about PODs as "test-marketing" the audience so that authors can fix errors, change titles and later resubmit to traditional publishers], but it is relevant. The second message was in response to a follow-up and expands on the first. HTH

Original message:

With all the changes that are taking place in publishing of late we have had to deal with a difficult issue several times recently and I thought I might share with this list some thoughts I've had. It relates to advertising only in the peripheral sense that I know some of you consider self-publishing an ebook or a POD version to be one of the things you MIGHT want to do.

I have no problem with ebooks or POD per se and we have done a number of POD books ourselves, but I have recently been approached by several authors who send a query letter to Poisoned Pen Press saying something like "I have recently published my mystery of 75,000 words with iUniverse it is doing very well and I would like to submit it to you for consideration." The problem for us is that if a book has already been self-published, we are not going to be interested in considering it. There is much too much work involved in getting a new book or author going for us to try to overcome the obstacles of publishing a book that, even it has been meticulously edited, has not been edited to our standards but has already been in print. I am unwilling to try to overcome unknown difficulties with an earlier version--we get too many "clean" submissions without taking on that additional problem. It is inconceivable to me that we will ever publish a book without requesting some editorial changes--the question: "if the book is that perfect, why did it come to Poisoned Pen Press?" would always be in my mind.

I suspect there may be other publishers who hang out in MMA and I would be interested in hearing if they have the same (or opposite) view. I am willing to be convinced that my opinion is wrong, but it will take some work. I hope these thoughts are helpful to some who may be heading down a road that I suspect will lead them to a dead end.

A questioner asked:

Would you consider a second book from someone like this? Not the book done by iUniverse but perhaps a second in the same series? Just curious.

I answered:

Certainly. I should have made that clear. What I wouldn't consider is the same work. And, in fact, if the second were something that we really wanted to publish, we would probably then want to take a look at the first. Please understand this is not a punitive measure. We get 5-10 submissions per week--several hundred per year. Most are unpublishable. Many don't meet our criteria for what we are looking for: "Our focus is on the well written novel of crime or detection more than the thriller. In evaluating a manuscript the most important considerations to us are: does the work represent excellence in writing and is it original; does it contain a strong sense of setting; does it contain highly developed characterizations; does it contain well written dialogue; and does it have a well developed plot? We are also interested in publishing one meritorious reference work annually." (http://www.poisonedpenpress.com/html/guidelines.html).

A very few (2-3 out of 100?) will get past the three stages of reading that we do before we TRY to come to an agreement with the author (or agent). It is expensive both in money and, equally important to us, resources, to vet all these submissions. We try not to waste those resources.

Also, lest someone thinks they could submit and "forget" to mention that it had been previously published, please remember that most publishing contracts (ours included) include a warranty by the author against this.

One last thing about PODs from our point of view here: The author, by publishing the book first, has taken away 100% of the sales that we might have been able to make to the collector market. We no longer would be publishing the true first.

Robert Rosenwald
Poisoned Pen Press

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I suspect that the e-books from publishers who offer professional editing, such as Hard Shell Word Factory, Avid, New Concepts and Word Museum, ought to have a leg up on POD sales then, huh?

Jane Bierce
Author of 5.5 books available in many electronic formats

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Let me throw my 2 cents in on the issues of the POD publications. The way I see the POD titles evolving is something like this:

  1. Many of the vanity titles will quickly peter out, mainly because customers just don't buy them, the prices are high for what you get, the discounts are awful for bookstores, and the writing and editing is just terrible. The only way most bookstores can handle these titles is on consignment until their worth is proven.

  2. There are some new publishers coming onstream that only publish POD books. Renaissance Alliance Publishing is a good example ( http://www.rapbooks.com ) . These books are well written, well edited and well publicized through the Internet networking systems. They are printed by POD firms (e.g., Lightning Resource) that state they will have a 48-hour-turn-around to the distributors. We have found that these publishing firms have the option on establishing their own discounts rates and return policies. The printing firm, and not the publisher, is set up to work directly with the distributors. We are selling a lot of these books off our web site and many have reached out best selling lists.

  3. If these new publishing companies that specialize in POD books have best sellers, they can always have these books printed in mass [editions] from printing houses with standard presses or sell the copyrights.

  4. Print-On-Demand books are here to stay. POD offers authors and publishers a fairly inexpensive way of introducing new authors to a mass market, especially through the Internet. As with any book, bookstores do rely on the merits and reliability of known publishers to only produce works that are well written and edited. If the publisher or POD printing firm gets a name for producing vanity pieces that are poorly written and edited (e.g., iUniverse), they will not stay in business very long and their produce will not be ordered by bookstores.

Larry Bailey
The Open Book, http://www.openbookltd.com
Sacramento, Calif.

Holt responds: It certainly appears that iUniverse doesn't care whether bookstores buy these books or not - the company's poor sales terms and lack of services in helping authors create a quality "product" make that clear.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Regarding the announcement by Barnesandnoble.com about publishing ebooks: On the one hand, I agree with your condemnation of BN.com's becoming an ebook publisher. But I agree with it only as a tactic in war. I'm happy that you continue to do damage to the public images of BN and BN.com with your critiques of their plans and their past.

However, I also hope you recognize the danger in your critique. Many people in the business will readily agree with your logic, and many will therefore scoff at BN.com's claims. They had better take the matter very seriously. Vertical integration--booksellers becoming publishers, publishers becoming booksellers (Bertelsmann), wholesalers becoming printers (Ingram), wholesalers becoming retailers (the German e-tail market)--these trends are even more dangerous than boundless horizontal mergers (Random House) and chain stores (BN and Borders). They are a sign of big, monopolistic businesses turning the corner and hitting their stride.

The argument that BN.com won't be successful because good books need editors is insufficient. First of all, it doesn't cost very much to hire good editors (I know, I used to be one). Editing is a very small part of the cost of creating a book. For fiction, it's almost insignificant. With ebooks, the unit costs disappear and most of what's left is royalties and marketing.

I wouldn't be too cavalier about iUniverse either. Long-term, iUniverse isn't interested in being a vanity press. They want to be a software-driven design/layout factory tied to automated print-on-demand and ebook conversion and distribution. They are to production what Lightning is to printing. As such they will be very valuable to BN.com.

But this is the critical point: BN.com has access to better marketing data than any publisher and any brick-and-mortar retailer. Why? Because they have specific information about which customers have bought which books. People have highly idiosyncratic but highly consistent taste in books. If you know what they've bought in the past, you can market far more effectively.

Traditional publishers spend roughly 17 percent of revenue on sales and marketing and have profit margins that average 7-10 percent. A publisher that actually knew the name and address (read: email) of buyers could market electronically, cut costs dramatically, and sell far more copies. If you factor in marketing savings and increased sales, a publisher could be two to three times more profitable with this data on hand. If you consider that the publisher might start selling a lot of books direct to past customers, the profit differential grows further. (Most publishers seem to prefer not to stab the retailer in the back.) If you consider the economics of ebook publishing, I suspect that a publisher with customer data about a major percentage of sales could be at least five times more profitable than one without.

Amazon has more of this kind of information than anybody. Mercifully, Amazon has been focused on expansion to other retail markets and has been relatively benign with respect to vertical integration. Jeff Bezos doesn't and hasn't spent nearly as much time thinking about books as have the Riggios and their friends over at Bertelsmann. But I suspect that Amazon.com will come to the same conclusions sooner or later. As far as I'm concerned, the later the better.

Please continue to lob bombs at BN.com. But please don't lead your readers away from the seriousness of this issue.

Pete Alcorn

Holt responds: I wrote that piece hoping authors won't fall for the Barnesandnoble.com pitch because while it's true B&N.com has this huge info you mention at its fingertips, the company doesn't really use it effectively when it comes to selling ebooks. I do think we should all take B&N.com seriously, but my idea was to warn writers to avoid this kind of braggadocio like the black hole it is.

Also when it comes to serious books in which the quality of the writing is central, don't you think a publisher really must invest in a team of professional editors whose decisions carry real power? It's not just their salaries but the long-range house commitment to the authors they choose - some of whom take a long time to be recognized - and the often costly decisions they make that's at stake.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Wow, those answers [about the publishing house worker selling new books from the house to this used book dealer] really ran the gamut of opinions. That was great.

Here's what happened [after we told the publisher about it]: The publisher doesn't care to press charges because of legal fees. The company can easily afford to lose that many books. People there told us cut the guy off. He hasn't been back. I suppose they fired him.

Nobody told us this directly except for the "cut him off" bit. My coworkers and I speculated the rest. We aren't students, but I don't see what difference that would make. If Mr. Colbert is suggesting that we're ambivalent at best about the ethics of the matter, he's correct. I am supposed to be firmly on the side of my employer. We are not supposed to fence stolen books. However when it comes right down to it, does an employee necessarily make enough money to care? Maybe I steal whatever "perks" I can rationalize from the bookstore myself, or turn a blind eye when others do so. Maybe I think the guy who works at the publisher deserves to do the same. The bookstore, even a struggling independent, and certainly the publisher, have a lot more money than we do, and often don't inspire much loyalty.

When my co-worker read that guy's response she was really mad, but it didn't bother me. One letter-writer obviously sells books himself and feels defensive about it. Another probably works at a publisher and thinks it's unethical in the extreme. Whereas the "Former worker bee" person has about the attitude I have. It's a gray area. When exactly do perks become stealing? Everyone has to feel their own way in the dark.

A Used Book Dealer

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I just read the letter from the "Used Book Buyer" in your latest column. The selling of new books by publisher employees has been going on for a long time. Back in the early 80s I was in the editorial department of Doubleday. For several months I was perplexed by seeing a number of editorial assistants walk out of the office at the end of the day with large shopping bags filled with books. Getting free books was certainly a perk of working at a publisher, but I couldn't understand how these people could read twenty or thirty books a week. Finally, one veteran editor told me that this practice was called "the editorial assistant bonus plan." The shopping bags of books would be taken down to the Strand bookstore in NYC where they would receive approximately 20% of the list price in return.

This practice was taken to new heights in the late 80s by a publicist at one of the big NY trade houses. She placed standing orders with the warehouse for new titles to be shipped to the Strand in quantity; once they arrived, they would be credited to her account at the store. This rather sordid episode was uncovered and the publicist was fired. PW reported on it and the Strand was forced--for a few months at least--to stop buying books from publisher employees.

Times have changed, of course, and the piles of books that used to lie around publisher's offices have now been moved into locked publicity rooms. Also, employees can no longer order books from the warehouse without signed permission from their managers.

I can only wonder at the crass idiocy of the person mentioned by "Used Book Buyer" in his stating that he's an employee at a book publisher. Quite frankly, this practice is nothing more than stealing; the "Used Book Buyer" is putting him or herself in danger of being charged as a receiver of stolen property (or, in the law-and-order vernacular, being a "fence").

There's another issue that's been raised over the years by publishers, and that is the sale of review copies by reviewers. There are many reviewers in NYC who sell the hundreds of review copies they receive each month from publishers to places like the Strand. Some publishers have taken issue with this practice. To my mind, this is a completely different animal. Most reviewers I know make a good-faith effort to cull through these books and read and review those they feel are worthy. Most of the time, these reviewers receive these books unsolicited from the publishers. Legally, this makes them their property and they can dispose of them as they wish.

Peter Schneider
Ossining, NY 10562

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I was away from my computer or I would have responded sooner to the First Amendment issues you brought up in response to the Freedom Forum's survey.

Of course, how you ask a question makes a difference: Suppose the Forum had asked: Do you believe that a writer or publisher should be jailed for expressing an unpopular opinion?

Or, do you believe that an American citizen should be able to display [photograph of women's genitals] from Hustler on a billboard in a downtown area?

Or, do you believe that "good taste" has a role in determining what can be expressed in a public place?

Or, do you believe that your personal opinions must always be in line with the "law," or with the U.S. Constitution? Do you believe that your answers to these questions must be in line with the First Amendment?

Perhaps the answers to this type of question would have pleased or disturbed you more. It's a matter of phrasing. The mayor might be entitled to his own opinions, but perhaps he is not entitled to determine what I am/am not allowed to view, read, etc. Or to interfere with what I have to say about something that pleases or displeases me.

These are serious issues, and peoples' answers to survey questions reflect their own opinions on the matter. In the end, as any member of PEN International or Amnesty International can attest, hundreds of writers and publishers and journalists languish (or are being tortured) in jails around the world for having expressed either unpopular or anti-government opinions in print. Fortunately, this occurs infrequently in the United States.

Still, to write in favor of freedom of expression and at the same time to disdain, in a public forum, the opinions of the masses in response to tricky questions, as you have done, makes no sense to me. I find no conflict between believing -- for instance -- in separation of church and state, and at the same time feeling that students should be allowed to pray together if they wish, as long as not everybody is forced to pray or to listen to the prayers. While you may not agree, I have a right to my opinion, too, as well as a right to think it and express it in accordance with the First Amendment. And you have every right, as the editor and publisher of your own on-line column, to publish it or not, in accordance with your own editorial criteria.

(This is a personal opinion and not necessarily the opinion of the group of which I am president.)

Sareda Milosz,
President PEN San Miguel
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Holt responds: Usually what I disdain are murky or biased public opinion polls! This one was not.

Dear Holt Uncensored,

I share your concern about the appalling ignorance of the First Amendment to the US Constitution that seems to exist in this country. However, I suspect the confusion is deeper than you might think. In the USA, people learn to take short cuts in all things, including serious matters like individual rights. We speak of "freedom of speech" and "freedom of religion" without any qualification. That leads people to believe there such freedoms are unlimited. It is important to get the First Amendment (and the rest of the Constitution) clearly fixed in mind before trying to draw any conclusions about its meaning.

The First Amendment states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Of course, the Supreme Court had now interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment to impose the first ten amendments on the several States as well, so we can say that all legislative bodies are also prohibited from making such laws as listed in the First Amendment.

Please forgive the digression but I can't make my point without it. When a polling group asks questions like you quote in Holt Uncensored #201, they are not really asking about support or knowledge of the First Amendment. We do not have freedom to publicly say anything we like anywhere we like without subjecting ourselves to consequences. Legislative bodies shall not make laws that prohibit speech, as such, but they may pass laws regulating the time, place and manner of certain speech in the interest of public safety. Government schools may not endorse a particular religion by practicing or allowing others to practice that religion at any official activity of the school. The alternative of allowing all religions and those who actively reject all religions to practice equally at official school functions is simply impossible and so would rule out anything related to the practice of religion at school especially including the Christian and Jewish form of prayer usually practice in the USA. Of course nothing prevents people from forming their own school to teach whatever religion they wish, so long as they are not teaching people to kill, maim, etc. in the name of religion, which then results in those people doing those things or trying to do them.

My point here is that if you wish to test people on their understanding of the First Amendment, you should really understand it yourself and your questions should reflect that understanding. The practical problems that arise from the simple statement of the First Amendment have occupied courts throughout the country for 200 years and still new issues arise. Congress may not make a law forbidding me to use very insulting racial or religious language, but if I use such language to start a fight, I might be in trouble anyway. Congress can make a law forbidding me use that language and any other language to start a riot or induce a mob to seriously breach the peace, start a fire, beat someone, or the like.

I do accept your premise that far too many people neither understand nor support the First Amendment. However, a poll with questions like you quote does nothing to help or measure those problems. We should certainly teach the First Amendment, and indeed all the US Constitution, in the public schools, I have my doubts that it can be done well enough to produce the understanding we need. Who would teach it? With all the problems of understanding evidenced by the court cased arising each year, how could you get agreement through state boards of education of just what views to adopt? The way to teach such complex issues is to engage the students in discussions about the issues raised for them by the language and role playing of decided court cases which takes a lot of time to do right and very well trained and interested teachers.

So here is another one of those fundamental matters that will not be included because too many people do not understand it now and cannot agree with others what to include. What do we do with those things we don't understand? Why, we ignore them and go on to something else. Do keep this series going. I find much of interest in what you and your readers write.

Gerald T. Richards
Antioch, Calif.

Holt responds: What is so difficult to understand? The protections guaranteed in the Bill of Rights are written in a way that we can all absorb and apply in daily life. Differences of opinion and interpretation may occur, but the principles are fundamental.


Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

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