Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Friday, February 9, 2001





Well, what in the heck is this "Honor System" announced recently at Amazon.com in which users get to " 'tip' their favorite cash-strapped website up to $50," according to Wired News?

According to this system, donation boxes are soon to appear on screens and home pages of websites that Amazon customers wish to support. Isn't that nice of Amazon.com? Such a civic-minded company.

And did you know the "Honor System" also gives Amazon another way to WRECK OUR PRIVACY (because them boxes are spies!)?

"Whether or not the donation box is clicked, Amazon will be able to detect when one of its customers visits an honor system site," Wired News continues. This means that routine collection of information will occur at Amazon.com without our knowledge and without a stated reason.

Because Internet users don't have a choice in the matter, privacy groups like Junkbusters call the "Honor System" an ominous "surveillance mechanism" - it watches us, it hides from us, it stores intimate facts that Amazon says it won't sell to another party.

Hey, that's like people who come to your door soliciting donations to charity but are really casing the joint so they can rob you later on.

And yet however odd and desperate and snake-oily this sounds, it's nothing compared to a second Amazon plan, unveiled this week, that in effect charges publishers for spamming customers via invasive e-mail ads.

Not only are publishers supposed to pay for spots on Amazon's bestseller list and Amazon's "recommended" slots and Amazon's "destined for greatness" box on the Amazon.com website. Now they have to pay for Amazon's outgoing email recommendations to customers in which recommendations say things like, "If you love John Grisham, we recommend Jesse Ventura."

Even if every mainstream publisher pays the maximum $10,000, the total would never compensate for a burn rate that's consumed over two billion smackers in a few years.

That's the kind of "waste," as analyst Christopher Byron concluded on Wednesday, that makes Amazon.com a "doomed" company.

Really? Could this be the end? The problem is that a lot more DEDICATED IRRESPONSIBLE SPENDING has to happen before Amazon.com goes under,and who knows how many more independent bookstores - legitimate, bill-paying, profit-making business models all - will suffer or go under in the meantime.

Perhaps the lesson in all this is that "the new paradigm" of old - Internet book retailing can work - is gonna take some time.

Meanwhile the old standbys, those thousands of independent booksellers who are out there hand-selling and recommending and stimulating the kind of word-of-mouth that gives literature a chance, are the ones to put your money on, or spend your money in, after all.



What fun it was (not to mention instructive and inspiring) to visit the Friends of the Library in Stockton, Calif., an efficient and effective group that raises more than a whopping $100,000 annually.

The Stockton FOL of course brings goods and services to the library that simply would not exist otherwise. But with a budget like this, there's room as well for a few unexpected treats here, a little sideline goody or two there. For example:

Summer Reading Club buttons ($500) and bookbags ($1,000), directional street signs for Stockton libraries ($2,100), popcorn machine and supplies ($2,100), visit by read-aloud expert Jim Trelease ($1,300), mousepads galore and "Klamath Ferry rental for Colleen Foster's retirement" ($1,690), where clearly a good time was had by all.
At no cost, so not on the list, is the Stockton FOL program staffed by 30 volunteers that brings library services to house-bound readers throughout the area. And a great fundraiser this fall will be tickets to Opening Night of the Harry Potter movie, a sure sell-out.

Even more impressive than their many inventive ways of supporting the library, I felt, is the high energy of this great group, which meets regularly with librarians for a dinner of home-made soups (the split-pea version a prizewinner in its own right), library business and Friends' updates.

They know that the new century is not an easy time for libraries. Harvard students tell the New York Times they wouldn't be caught dead in a library because they do all their research on the Internet. Competition with Amazon and the chains has driven some libraries to adopt "the Baltimore model," in which cafes serving lattes are touted more than books and research services as a way to entice new patrons.

Throughout it all, Friends of the Library groups find new ways to say the same old thing (the great old truth) - that the public library in any town is a sacred place, a free community center, a living demonstration that the First Amendment works. That these FOLs bring their money, their volunteers and their energy to help sustain full-service libraries for all is a great achievement in our time.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

Amazon must be run by an amazing bunch of people. Last year, when they were expanding from books and media into other categories, that change proved they were vicious, heartless, and morally unworthy to be in the book business.

Now (see Holt Uncensored #214), they're dropping some of those product lines. this change ALSO proves they're vicious, heartless, and morally unworthy to be in the book business.

They've had practice, of course. I remember recently that within a few columns of each other, they were both recklessly indifferent to making a profit (by discounting titles) and mindlessly greedy for profit (hints of padded shipping and handling charges).

Louann Miller

Holt responds: Hey! It's not fair to accuse Holt Uncensored of lazy no-account Amazon-bashing when the column is clearly invested in a studious and informed version of the practice. After all, it WAS foolish and greedy of Amazon to expand beyond books before the company was profitable, as we CERTAINLY CAN SEE NOW. At this desperate time, it's the WAY Amazon is dropping these products - Bezos' famous "get the crap out" memo - that could jeopardize the book department and yes, if the company starts dropping books just because they're deemed "crap" (e.g., slow-moving), I would say Amazon is "morally unworthy to be in the book business." Or do you think this is just more Amazon-bashing?

Louannn Miller replies: I was just reading your column over, and in the parts of Bezos' statement you quote (I trust you implicitly to produce evidence for the prosecution), there's no mention of cutting BOOKS at all. Except by you. You say:

"And does it mean that the Books department will be judged by the same standard?"

Not even putting words in his mouth, but putting thoughts in his head and then smacking him for them. You then go on to let Bezos and Amazon off the hook -- sort of.

"Of course, Bezos doesn't dare get rid of titles - he'd look too much like a chain store if he did."

Followed by one more round of whacking for daring to think bad thoughts about slow-moving books. Even though you don't KNOW that he did, in fact, think such a thing. And even though you say yourself that he's still going to SELL slow-moving books. Since I for one am in this to buy books and read them, not to be soul mates with a stranger in another time zone, I personally don't see that I have a gripe against the guy.

I'm going to go with the bashing option.

I'm sure it's very nice to live within walking distance of a cozy little bookshop where the owner knows your name and hobbies. I'm rural -- I barely live within walking distance of my own front gate. Amazon was all that kept me going from the time I moved out here until the time a good-sized chain store moved into town. (Local independent bookstore? Sure -- if you want the hardest of hard-core religious books about secular humanist conspiracies.)

Amazon gives good prices -- I don't take their word for it, I check dealpilot.com. They ship when they say they're going to ship, or sooner, and if they don't, they e-mail you. Maybe twice in 50 purchases have they failed to complete an order for me -- and I didn't have to keep driving into town to find out about the lack of progress. I don't need anyone to help me pick out books. I've got lists of recommendations a mile long from reading friends. I need to be able to get a title I've heard of but never seen, ideally at a discount, and Amazon does that well.

I don't want a book-buying experience. I want my books.

Holt responds: The funny thing is that since it was Bezos who said "get the crap out" - and why shouldn't he have included books? - many Amazon customers may not get the books they want, let alone the price they want, much longer.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Here's an interesting factoid for what it is worth: If Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos wants to clean up the Amazon.com site, he could start with all the out-of-print (OP) books the company has listed and get a handle on how his own software does things. For example, our recent release of "A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe," a reprint of the first kayaking travelogue by the acknowledged father of the sports of kayaking and canoe camping, has been selling well to enthusiasts.

At Amazon, however, it was only coming up under a "canoe" search, and not at all under "kayak." When the search was done as "bestselling" instead of the default "availability," it came up as the 401st book out of 401, preceded by about 200 books that were out of print and had been for some time, and a number of "on order" books that hadn't even been published.

Even according to Amazon.com's own sales ranking, Rob Roy should have been somewhere in the top of the second 100 books. And this plethora of OP books is prevalent in any type of search you want to make at Amazon. I'm not against Amazon offering the service of searching for the OP book, but it mentions 4-6 weeks to search when I know good and well it is about a 30-second job at ABE (Advanced Book Exchange - www.abebooks.com).

If Amazon.com wants to trim some fat, it could start by pruning the OP books that are easier to find through an independent dealer or the ABE site instead of clogging up the screens when you are looking for a current book.

Ken Hanson
Dixon-Price Publishing

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I assumed someone else would pick this up in response to your recent column about facts in books. This has a huge impact on how the public perceives the value of books in education, and the extent to which people will lay down money with the idea they're buying truth. So I couldn't leave this stone unturned. Below is a story that was in newspapers and on NPR as an AP release on January 15:

Carol Chittenden
Eight Cousins Books
Falmouth, Mass

Raleigh, NC. -- Twelve of the most popular science textbooks used at middle schools nationwide are riddled with errors, a new study has found. Researchers compiled 500 pages of errors, ranging from maps depicting the equator passing through the southern United States to a photo of singer Linda Ronstadt labeled as a silicon crystal. None of the 12 textbooks has an acceptable level of accuracy, said John Hubisz, a North Carolina State University physics professor who led the two-year survey, released earlier this month. "These are terrible books, and they're probably a strong component of why we do so poorly in science," he said. Hubisz estimated about 85 percent of children in the United States use the textbooks examined. "The books have a very large number of errors, many irrelevant photographs, complicated illustrations, experiments that could not possibly work, and drawings that represented impossible situations," he told The Charlotte Observer. The study was financed with a $64,000 grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. A team of researchers, including middle school teachers and college professors, reviewed the 12 textbooks for factual errors. One textbook even misstates Newton's first law of physics, a staple of physical science for centuries. Errors in the multi-volume Prentice Hall"science: series included an incorrect depiction of what happens to light when it passes through a prism and the Ronstadt photo. Hubisz said the Prentice Hall series was probably the most error-filled. Prentice Hall acknowledged some errors, partly because states alter standards at the last minute and publishers have to rush to make changes. Last year the company launched a thorough audit of its textbooks for accuracy and posted corrections on a Web site, Wendy Spiegel, a spokeswoman for Prentice Hall's parent company, Pearson Education, said.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I read with great interest the letters in Holt Uncensored regarding encryption for e-books. While the Napster phenomenon in the Internet music space does serve as a model for what writers and publishers face with the advent of e-books, there are some important differences. The medium that everybody wants music in is CD, and the medium everybody wants for reading is a bound book. It is now very cheap and easy to take music files that have been downloaded over the Internet and ďburnĒ them to a CD, but there is no such equivalent for books.

Sure, you can print out 8 &1/2 X 11 laser sheets, but stuffing four or five hundreds sheets into your beach bag is a bit of a pain. E-books can be read only from computer screens, Palm Pilots or an e-book reader like the Rocketónone of which come close to replicating the experience of reading a bound book. Until someone comes up with an e-book reader with mass appeal books are going to be a lot safer from piracy than music is.

And guess what? It turns out that music is pretty darn safe! There is no credible evidence that Napster has cost the music industry any money, and in fact may have increased the industry's profits. All five major labels, which comprise more than 90% of what is downloaded from Napster, had record years in 2000. Studies often cited by the RIAA, showing that Napster has had a negative impact on record sales, were all funded by the RIAA, a record label or some other music industry group. Independent studies have shown that Napster either has no impact, or a positive impact, on sales. Who you gonnaí believe?

I spent two years working for an Internet music company that developed a system for encrypting music files for downloadable sale. Napster was the enemy. What I learned is that encryption doesnít work. It didnít work in the software industry, it didnít work for DIVX and it wonít work for either music or publishing. Customers hate it and they wonít buy products that use it. The Internet music companies, including my former employer, are all moving away from encrypted downloads and towards a subscription model with far more transparent piracy protection.

There is some hope on the e-book reader front. The brainiacs at the MIT media lab, for example have developed a programmable paper; it looks and feels like paper, but new text and pictures can be downloaded onto it. The only problem is that right now an e-book made this way would retail for about $10,000. When the price does come down, and it will, the publishing industry will have to abandon the encrypted download format in order to garner wide-spread consumer acceptance.

Iím about to publish my first novel via a POD (print-on-demand) firm and I also plan to release an e-book version, which I will distribute for free, or a very low price, without encryption. Iím convinced that anyone who really wants to finish my book will pony for a hard copy, but if some hearty soul wants to read the whole thing on his Palm Pilot, God bless him!

Matt Ward

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Thanks for your response. Someone in our office sent an inquiry to Amazon.com to see if it was possible to buy a 30-lb bag of nails and got the following rather straightforward response. Seems inconsiderate of them to not do the math and differentiate how many pounds a bag of 500 nails equals! After all, we'd hate to get stuck with 31 lbs. of nails. I wonder if they sell pocket calculators?

Jimmy Johnson

From: info@amazon.com [mailto:info@amazon.com]
Sent: Tuesday, February 06, 2001 7:31 PM
Subject: Your Amazon.com Inquiry

Thanks for sending your inquiry to Amazon.com! I'm not sure if I located the item you're looking for, but I'm forwarding the information I found in the hope that it will help you with your search.

I used the keyword search tool at the top of our home page because it provides easy access to all of the products in our store. A fairly broad search will often find items that a tightly focused one misses, so I entered just "Nails" into the search field and selected "Tools and Hardware" to restrict my search. When I pressed the "Go" button, I found the following:

B & C Eagle A314X131/22 3-1/4" x .131 Plain Shank Quantity 500/box
List Price: $10.99
Our Price: $9.89
You Save: $1.10 (10%)
Availability: This item usually ships within 2-3 days.
3-1/4 in. x .131 plain shank framing nails full round head
Quantity 500/box
Fits the following guns Hitachi NR83A, NR90AC, Duofast CN350, Senco
SN60, SN65, Makita AN8300, Porter Cable FR350
ASIN: B00004R9TZ

If you would like to investigate any of these items further, you can find this list in our catalog by repeating the steps of my search. To access more information about a particular item, click on its title-- this will take you to its detail page. From there, you can begin the ordering process by pressing the button labeled "Add to Shopping Cart."

Good luck with your search!

Best regards,

Nicki K.

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.

"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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