Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Friday, February 23, 2001





Thanks to the many readers who advised me that the name I stared at for hundreds of pages and was so sure I knew by heart (in #217) is spelled EGGERS, not Eggars. My apologies to Dave Eggers, and to his readers and publishers. This kind of distraction is annoying no matter how it happens, and I'm grateful for everyone's patience.



Meanwhile: How terrific of Michael Cader at Publishers Lunch to alert everyone that Eggers has published the entire email correspondence between himself and New York Times writer David Kirkpatrick that created the foundation for Kirkpatrick's February 14th story.

(Eggars' introduction to and reprint of the correspondence can be found at the website of his Internet magazine, McSweeney's, http://mcsweeneys.net/news/clar_nytimes.html ).

As noted in #217, something didn't sound right in that NYT piece about Eggers' additions to the Vintage paperback edition of his book, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius."

I felt the NYT made Eggers sound bombastic and full of himself in part because he was quoted as saying, "Do I care? Not in the least," about coming sales of the paperback.

(Unfortunately this quote was dropped into a photo caption in the NYT story that said: "Dave Eggers's 'Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius' has been a great success. 'Do I care? Not in the least.' " Even non-fans noted that's not what he said. In the text of the article he was referring only to the paperback issue.)

The reprinted email correspondence shows us that Kirkpatrick made a deal with Eggers, who had been avoiding him for weeks, not to publish anything Eggers labeled as "off the record."

The quote "Do I care? Not in the least" was clearly labeled "Off the Record," and the following commentary shows us what Eggers meant by it: "Enough people have already read the book for my tastes, and I don't need any more money. If I did, I would not have . . . self-published my next book."

Okay, so everybody gets misquoted by the press. Why all the fuss?

Well, I'm making a fuss because Eggers is hardly alone. He is one very vocal author whose fear of this kind of journalism is both widespread and justified.

And he speaks for a lot of readers his age (hell, my age,too) who distrust the traditional media for having forgotten what real news is about. (See the Washington Post's nonstory about Amazon.com below, for example).

This distrust is perhaps the reason why the Internet has been so instantly popular - why groups of people who talk to each other via email list-serves trust their reports of the news more than those of professional journalists.

I had to laugh at the veracity of Eggers' take on this in his introduction to the email communication with Kirkpatrick.

Having declined many times to be interviewed by the Times, he tells us that he finally acceded to a question-and-answer format because it could not be edited.

"[With Q&A] there is no leverage given to either side," he writes. "It's simply information, without any tweaking. It's fair, and it's a format always agreed to when a periodical simply wants to get information to its readership without bending it.

"For example, if I was doing a Q&A with Dr. Heimlich (inventor of the maneuver), it might look like this:

" 'Q: Which of your maneuvers do you like best? " 'A: I love that which is called the Heimlich maneuver, because it seems to have saved many lives, and saving lives is good.'

"[In this example] I have asked a question, and given the subject the answer. I haven't bent his words or put any sort of spin on them. Now, if I'm a journalist with guile, working outside of the Q&A format, I could take that quote and make it look like this:

" 'Dr. Heimlich claims that he "loves" his best-known maneuver, because it's "saved many lives" and he insists that saving lives is "good." '

"What's happened here is that I've used the words Heimlich provided, but by taking quote fragments -- words out of context, between quotation marks that cast doubt on the words' sincerity -- I've made something kind of snide and sinister out of something simple and straightforward. Note that by putting the word 'love' between quotation marks, I've made Dr. Heimlich's sincere statement about his work seem false."

Eggers has been criticized for flying off the handle and being "thin-skinned," but the question is, why should an author be "thick-skinned" about something like this? Granted, a free press is going to be messy, but when it comes to newspapers of record, readers are right to expect high standards. Eggers' aversion to mainstream media is hardly an isolated case.



I’m probably the last person to come to the defense of Amazon.com, but heavens, coverage by the media these days borders on the hysterical.

Even more important than the event of Amazon's ascent or decline is the language used by the press.

At work is the old pendulum approach: Amazon.com is either the darling of the press or the stumble-bum of the century. Jeff Bezos is either the visionary of the Internet or Mr. Bad Old Snake Oil Salesman selling his junk bonds to a gullible public.

Of course a lot has always been wrong with Amazon (its business model; its grab for software patents; its use of lawsuits to fence off the Internet; its paid placements on bestseller lists; its obsession with world domination; its condescension toward independent booksellers, for starters).

But come on, Washington Post: Let’s stick to what’s provable. Don’t infer, as the Post did this week, that publishers and other vendors are putting the squeeze on Amazon when there’s no evidence to support it.

"Some of Amazon’s vendors say they are past easy reassurance," the Post writes. No surprise there, but who’s saying this?

"Some of the publishers, manufacturers and distributors that supply the Seattle company say they are watching its cash levels very closely." Not exactly headline news. But who are they?

"One electronics distributor is taking steps to protect itself." Really? Which one?

We’re not supposed to ask. "Like other vendors interviewed for this story," the Post says, "this executive agreed to discuss Amazon only if he and his company were not named."

Well, that's the sop of the news industry, isn't it? Because the source is unnamed, for some reason the person's credibility is enhanced.

(True, Holt Uncensored runs anonymous letters, mainly because people volunteering information from the foxholes, so to speak, often talk more freely when they won’t get in trouble. Readers have protested and admittedly the practice is controversial, but the controversy remains in the LETTERS department.)

Other standards apply in a NEWS story, where quotes like this - "We’ve got the rope very tight on Amazon and all the other e-commerce accounts," again by an unnamed source – can have damaging effects on a company.

For example, if you were one of Amazon’s TEN THOUSAND vendors, and you learned from the Washington Post that the dominoes are falling, wouldn’t you at least monitor if not decrease sales as a precaution?

But then the pendulumn swings even farther. "One other supplier said that it limited the amount of business it does with Amazon," the Post continues, "after its insurance company canceled its coverage of transactions with dot-coms."

That’s it, tarnish all e-commerce retailers while you’ve got the brush out. Heaven knows, nobody’s going to hold you accountable.

The Post story goes on and on, slicing and dicing Amazon.com as the Best New Fall Guy of the year. Every time something positive comes up – for example, nobody says Amazon ISN’T paying its bills; in fact, the data show that Amazon is paying its bills FASTER than before – the Post charges in with something negative.

"The quicker Amazon pays its bills," says investment banker Gary Lutin, "the less cash it has on hand." The investment crowd doesn't mind being quoted by name, since word is out: Amazon.com can't do anything right.

Granted, Jeff Bezos does his inventive tap-dancing throughout. Vendors at a recent electronics show "were more positive about us than they ever have been," he says. Amazon "is in a stronger cash position than it ever has been."

The repeat of "ever been" indicates the new spin: Amazon is undergoing a rebirth! Just change your perception and you'll see! Now, everybody, GET BACK ON THE BANDWAGON.

Amazon's shares "teetered" and then recovered within a day or two of the Post's article, perhaps because everybody knew it was a nonstory at best.

Even without Dave Eggers being so vocal about it (see above), there's a sense that traditional media don't know how to report the news anymore - and that it's up to the rest of us to do it for them.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

I was struck by bookseller Lynn Dixon's complaint that print-on-demand titles, whether purchased by the bookstore from the author or from Ingram, give the bookstore at best a 16-cent profit as opposed to the $3 profit she gets from most mainstream titles.

At the risk of sounding naive, I'm wondering if there is something wrong with tacking $3 onto the cost of a POD book to make it worthwhile for the bookseller?

The POD author she mentions is local, and she wants to support his efforts by stocking the book. Probably many booksellers across the country face the same dilemma, but why should they lose out? As a POD author myself, I see nothing wrong with a bookseller sticking a higher price on the cover.

My town of Cambridge, Mass., is full of bookstores that specialize in old, out-of-print and hard-to-find paperbacks and other stuff. All these booksellers add their own prices, with those little stickers that fit right over the publisher's cover price.

I assume this is regular practice. Just wondering if there's anything wrong with doing it for a local author's POD book. If you think it's a good book and believe readers will enjoy it. Why not mark it up?

John Farrell

Dear Holt Uncensored:

You say of Dave Eggers' book, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" that it "...ends up about as self-serving and tedious as an author can get." You mean it can be more "self-serving and tedious" than it was in hardcover? And you say it has a wacky upside-down back cover? Three of them? How clever! Where can I get me one? People think I'm deep when I read it on the bus.

Howard Cohen

Dear Holt Uncensored:

In one small town in Massachusetts, a friend of the library has been picking out the most valuable books donated to the library, then offering them for sale on eBay. Net: $6,000 last year, supplementing the $10,000 made through the annual book sale, with many more titles.

Dr. Jonathan Price
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Powell's employees also have a union, unlike Amazon, etc.! Matters a hell of a lot to me, even though I also work part-time for a giant independent used book store (Renaissance, in Milwaukee and the Milwaukee airport). Michael J. Lowrey
Sunrise Book & Software Reviews
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Dear Holt Uncensored:

One thing about Powell's -- they're wholly in Oregon, which does not fund its services through the regressive sales tax. Unlike Washington, where Amazon is. So when you buy from Powell's, no matter where you live, you *are* paying the same sales tax -- that is to say, none -- that everyone else is paying. It doesn't help your home area necessarily, but at least it's a level playing field all the way around -- *no* one pays sales tax on books bought from Powells, which is the right answer ultimately isn't it? (No sales tax on newspapers, so why on books?)

Whenever I recommend books, which I do a lot, I always encourage people to find and support a local indy dealer first but, if not, to go to Powell's.

In addition to being unionized, Powell's has a long and proud history of opposing censorship and supporting human rights by being *very* outspoken in its opposition to the vicious anti-gay initiatives that tend to haunt Oregon politics. Mike Powell also runs promo days where, just by saying so, customers can have 10% of their purchases donated to the local school district for their libraries --- a godsend in a state that is trying to destroy its public infrastructure thanks to a handful of rich kleptomaniacs who fund an endless stream of anti-tax, anti-environment, and anti-public employee initiatives.

John Gear

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I cannot tell you the impact that Judy Blume had on me when I was growing up. It is because of her that I became a prolific reader. I read "Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret" when I was 9 years old, and it brought me to have the courage to ask my mother about what was going to be happening with my body in the coming years. I probably learned more about adolescence with her books than anywhere.

Anyway, I was not aware that the threat of censorship is stronger than ever. Since there are so many publishers out there now today, and people seem to be politically correct about NOT censoring an author's work, I didn't realize that some publishers would not publish certain texts. Perhaps the danger is not whether or not a book will be able to be published because of its content, but rather, will it sell, and will it go on the list of "Banned" books? And will the bad publicity mean poor sales for the author? Well, isn't that the risk an author takes when they put themselves out there in the world? I believe that there is an audience for everyone.

Rachael Joachim

Dear Holt Uncensored:

My hunch is that what Judy Blume calls censorship is what the Pope called unbridled capitalism - the big trade publishers have sold themselves to oil companies and the like who demand profit for stockholders - which translates into running scared and daring not much.

The huge growth of Print On Demand and ebooks will probably teach the trade publishers a thing or two. The entry price is low, the marketing is rough, but it can be done... I know, I'm doing it after getting something like 13 positive rejections from the major publisherss working with an agent. Positive rejections mean personal notes from editor saying things like "great book," "good writing" and "someone should do it, but not us." Was it censorship? No, the bloom had come off the recovery market.

Of course, it's the people who buy or don't buy that determine my success, once I've reached them with my sales message - but I'm sneaking up on numbers now that would make the trades at least consider me for a solid mid-list.

Anne Wayman
Most recent book:
"Powerfully Recovered! A Confirmed 12 Stepper Challenges the Movement"

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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