Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, March 20, 2001





Independent booksellers who reinvent themselves on the Internet make a very personal commitment to the customer from the Home Page on.

They transform the cold distance of cyberspace into an atmosphere of welcome and trust. They invite readers to browse books, search the backlist, listen in on staff discussions, read excerpts, ask questions, sign up for events and on occasion "talk" to visiting authors.

Plenty of lists on the Internet cover online bookstores with varying emphasis (discounts, location, specialties, speed in shipping). But I'd like to start a list - very tentatively at first, with just two entries below - that focuses on the adventure of discovering independent stores.

Today I find myself adding a little fever to it, a little passion, a dash of outrage maybe because once again YEARS too late and MONTHS after the tide began turning, we find yet another story in the New York Times that misrepresents, misleads and misses the point about independent bookstores.

Finally a story hits about the effect of BookSense, the promotional campaign involving 1,200 booksellers that has proven how powerful independent bookstores can be in launching books by unknown authors and sustaining the much beloved but disappearing midlist (see #194).

And yet here is the way the NYT puts it: "The fledgling program, called BookSense, is a new twist in the independents' continuing fight to survive: instead of just bemoaning the power of the national chains' centralized promotions, the independents have begun to imitate them."

Imitate? Honest to Pete! Imitate! That is the LAST thing independents have ever done (sometimes to their sorrow). In fact, the reason people are looking for new online sites for books is because it's Amazon.com, Borders.com and Barnesandnoble.com that all look alike, all sound alike, all started swaggering around with their big discounts hanging out for everybody to see and then all ran around tucking them in and pretending nothing had changed.

Imitate? Using their collective power in partnership with publishers to buy advertising may SOUND like something the chains do but heavens to Betsy, these ads use critically potent statements about each book advertised from actual booksellers who are willing to put their reputations on the line for books ALL the time.

Whenever Len Riggio (chairman of Barnes & Noble) speaks out, we never hear him talk about current books he loves; we hear him swaggering and baiting as though on a child's playground without adults around.

And true to form, the NY Times quotes him as follows about BookSense: "I suppose if [independent bookstores] are going to speak in one voice, they have to accept the reality that they are acting very much like a chain these days. If they are doing so well, are they done crying about it?"

Okay, when in doubt, taunt. Neither Riggio brother is ever worth listening to, but today the quote is so odd: This is supposed to be a positive piece on BookSense and on Carl Lennertz, the galvanizing force behind the campaign, but it starts out with four negative statements, and Riggio's is the first.

Other booksellers and one industry newsletter publisher then knock BookSense before the program is ever explained, and only later, many inches into the story, do we begin to hear how vital and exciting BookSense can be.

I'm not saying the New York Times should write the kind of puff pieces about independent booksellers that they write about Barnes & Noble, their "exclusive bookseller" for online sales of books that the Times reviews.

But I do think there is an attitude here that says if you're not big, you're puny; if you're not dazzling, you're dull; if you're not new, you're outmoded. That's not only shallow and inaccurate, it's insulting to readers who know better, live better, think better than that. In fact, the Politics & Prose owners say it best below.


So here are two online bookstores I've admired for a long time - they're not listed first for any reason (other than they're more political than most and grrrr I'm still reacting to the NY Times), but they're wonderful to visit whenever you're in the cyberneighborhood.

Powell's Books,
Portland, Oregon

It may seem too obvious to even mention Powell's, the gigantic barn-within-a-barn-within-a-barn bookstore that calls itself "the largest used & new bookstore in the world," and is probably right to do so.

But one can never say enough about Powell's. It was one of the first independents on the Web, certainly the first and most aggressive indie to take on Amazon.com and the chains.

Today it offers one of the most extensive bookstore websites, with its contests, online cafe, wish lists, free books, Puddly awards, small press section, technical books, dishy staff picks, referrals to "other voices" (check out "Free Will Astrology") and some of the best author interviews ever (Jane Smiley, featured now, has never been more eloquent).

But I read Powell's on the Web because the writing is sensational. This is a very big store and a mighty presence on the Internet, but the attitude is playful, light, independent, adventurous, no-nonsense, sly and professional all at once.

How can the website duplicate the experience of walking through all those colored rooms at Powell's City of Books with their million titles and oddball matchups and used books mixed in with the new?

Why, it invites us to "Do the Shuffle" on a page where a random selection of eight books, pulled "from selections throughout the City," beckon in fabulous range and variety, and every time you hit "shuffle," you get eight more.

A Powell's e-mail newsletter says: "A reader in Oxnard, California wrote to say that the Shuffle pages are 'the most addictive book browsing feature since the invention of the shelf.' " Who could put it better?

Then there are the "Great Deals on Really Good Books" - mostly new sale books ("Blonde," "Daughter of Fortune") - where the writing is so good you want to own the hardcovers even if a paperback is in sight.

For example, I admit to avoiding the sadistic writings of A.M. Homes like the disgusting bag of tricks they are, which means I haven't the stomach to give her a chance. So what a surprise and delight it is to find that Powell's not only got through Homes's "Music for Torching" but found it "exhilaratingly perverse," even "unsettlingly recognizable."

The site has partnered up with the Electronic Privacy Information Center to offer an astonishing mixture of books "about civil liberties issues posed by new technologies and the information age."

Best of all, I love Powell's e-mail newsletter. "FOR THOSE WHO ARE ABOUT TO READ, WE SALUTE YOU," it sometimes begins. One time an update on the bestseller list was headlined "YOU KNOW YOU KNOW BETTER" because only three books on the Powell's Top 20 were found on USA Today's bestseller list.

"Do Powell's shoppers know something the rest of America doesn't?" the item read, giving us a feeling that if we DO know something, it's about this goofball intimacy that Powell's engenders. Here's an item for the store's book of author interviews:

"LEIBOVITZ. ONDAATJE. BRYSON. HIGGINS CLARK. JIN. etc. Twenty-two authors and artists talking. What they read and how they work. What they think about. 'When I finish a novel,' Michael Ondaatje explains, 'I've said everything. I have to start again from scratch. It's a strange state to be in. I'm broke, trying to build again.' Nicholson Baker notes, 'Jiffy Pop right now feels imperiled.' Save 30% on 'The Powells.com Interviews' in paperback now and see Helen Fielding admit, "I'm not sure if I can do the long sentences anymore.' "

I think the feeling you get at Powell's, in the store or on the Internet, is that this is one big, happy, dysfunctional, nutso book-addicted family that loves to kick it ALL around, and we're welcome to take part in it, any way we want to. Walk in or log on; this place is for real.

Politics & Prose,
Washington, D.C.

You'd think the idea of the bookstore as a community center would apply only to neighborhood brick-and-mortar stores. Yet "walking" onto the website of Politics & Prose, I always get the feeling I'm in the nation's capitol and that every bit of the talk, the energy and the busy intimacy of this great bookstore (Publishers Weekly's 1999 Bookseller of the Year) has some kind of political edge to it.

One expects personal suggestions on the Featured Books page ("A Student of Weather" by Elizabeth Hay, Counterpoint; "Salvation" by Valerie Martin, Knopf), but it's the little asides that make the visit so instructive, and so much fun.

About traveling to England, for example, co-owner Carla Cohen tells us that in doing research and making reservations she experimented with the Internet vs. using travel books (guess which is better). She tips us to a great book ("The Cadogan Guide to London," $19) and a great story:

"While on a trip recently, two young customers, Madeline and Hannah Carretero, realized that the toiletries taken from hotels - shampoos and soaps and so forth - are most often taken home and stored in that mysterious black hole located in all households." Why not give these little goodies, the Carretero sisters wondered, "to someone who might actually USE them? Specifically, they thought of women and children living in shelters.

"Being enterprising nine-year-olds, they filled a basket with these toiletries from their house, brought it to Politics & Prose and [now] invite all of us to contribute to this worthy endeavor. The baskets are upstairs near the information desk."

I think it was a First Lady (Barbara Bush?) who used to collect hotel soaps for shelters, but she never found a way to engage other travelers in the process. Imagine a bookstore coming forth as a way station in this effort because two 9-year-old readers suggested the idea.

And about that business of being outmoded if you're not new, or puny if you're not big? A sidebar by Cohen and Barbara Meade on the website recalls the time that chain stores "were said to stock everything" and Amazon.com was so hot, all you ever heard was, "How could Amazon fail? It could offer every book ever printed, get it to the customer faster and cheaper, and it didn't have to rent space.

"Well, guess what? The chains found out that they couldn't sell every book and they couldn't stay in business with discounts. Amazon has laid off employees and closed warehouses and stopped most of its discounting. Eventually, the stock market demanded that they show a profit.

"We're still in the same place doing what we have always done, we hope as well or better. We are lucky because we never had to deviate from our mission to provide a happy environment with interested staff to sell books that we care about. We had you to support us all the time against the upstarts. And . . . we expect to be here for some time to come."


Well, pardon me for getting a bit windy with the start of this list, but who can help it with these two? Many more independent bookstore websites will follow, and they'll all go up on a new page at www.holtuncensored.com in alphabetical order so that in a few months it'll be a terrific downloadable resource for readers. Meanwhile, keep them cards and email suggestions coming in.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

[This is an excerpt from a letter written by Richard Labonte, former manager of A Different Light bookstores, who in the midst of driving to his farm in Canada reflects on the recent closing of ADL's New York store]:

... Of news from the outside world -- there was a Thursday email from Norman Laurila, previous owner of A Different Light, letting me know that the New York store was to be closed effective today (Sunday). He expressed hope that the two California stores might pull through. Since those are the two I was most closely involved with, my first impulse was to agree; but in truth the new owners, in seeking necessary profitability, gutted the bookstores in every way -- they hired (at least in West Hollywood) what one long-time West hollywood customer called "shoe clerks" to staff the place; they turned them into what Don Bachardy among others termed "porn stores" and, most disappointingly, dealt with former staff, sales reps, authors and (from what I've heard from several small but important queer presses) not a few publishers with arrogance, ignorance and condescension. And such timing -- in a bad novel, the collapse would come as one of the people who had built the stores into something legendary drives off into a new life. Thank goodness this is the real world.

Richard Labonte

Dear Holt Uncensored;

I've enjoyed the last two columns about how recorded books are put together. It's nice to know that there are people who care about the work doing this. But nothing therein could convince me to listen to an abridged book however. I think it's too deeply ingrained a prejudice. My mother who loved books of all kinds would not allow one of those Reader's Digest Condensed Books to cross our threshold.

I agree with your correspondent who said how good Jim Dale -- who reads the Harry Potter books on tape -- is at making a story come alive. This is one of the few packages where the audio version is actually superior to the reading experience. The only other one I can think of offhand was John Cleese reading The Screwtape Letters. Jim Dale is an interesting man. In addition to being a very talented performer he was nominated for an Academy Award as a lyricist for the song "Georgy Girl."

Robert Loy
Charleston, South Carolina

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I'm a resident of Fremont, Calif., but currently have returned here to Rhode Island on a two-week book tour to tout my first book, a memoir entitled “Rogues Island Memoir” (see www.roguesisland.com). I wanted to share a recent experience with the Waldenbooks store at a Rhode Island mall. After being assured by this particular store that I had a memoir workshop and book reading reserved for Sunday, 3/18, and then traveling from CA to RI expecting to be there to meet all my local friends from my past life at this particular store (located five minutes from the place where the majority of the scenes of the book occur), two days prior to the event I was informed by the bookstore manager, "I meant to call you and inform you I can't order your book on our system so the workshop is off." I told this guy that two local Rhode Island BORDERS affiliates had agreed to order my book directly from my publisher: Free River Press of Lansing, Iowa, and it was my understanding that Waldenbooks and Borders both have a common distribution source.

The manager said he was sorry and my appearance was cancelled. I'm quite angry, although I have a number of other book readings at both independents and chain stores while I'm here, I am calling for a general boycott of Waldenbooks through your column as a way of teaching these idiots that new struggling authors (as well as the ones further up the ladder of success) rely on the integrity and honesty of bookstores when verbal commitments are made. I want to say I am sticking solely to the independents from now on, but that would not be true.

Rod Haynes

Holt responds: Well, okay, but I’m curious - why call for a “general boycott of Waldenbooks” when your gripe is with only one store in the chain? Naturally I’m not averse to using this column for a boycott of any chain store (not that I think it’d work), but I do think the lesson here is larger than that. The Waldenbooks manager treated you this way because he knew he could – the chain would hardly stand or fall on the basis of his credibility. But if word got out that an independent bookseller handled “struggling authors” in this way, the consequences could be devastating. I don’t think any author or publisher should close up any channel between readers and books, but when you have clear evidence that chain stores automatically have no investment in “struggling authors” while independents do, it would be great to focus more on independents as the proven leaders in their field. Use them to help sell your book, surely, and also use the book to help independents reach more customers. Just a thought.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Oh great. I just read in a local rag that Borders has decided to replace community-relations coordinators at more than 300 Borders stores with only 70-some regional managers who will do the scheduling of events. This is less than good news for book authors like myself -- I have a new creative activity book for parents, PLAYING SMART, just coming out this month -- who like to call up all the local bookstores and plan a mini-workshop with a signing. (Los Angeles is spread out enough that an author can appear at most of the independents and some of the chains over a period of a few months without overlapping territories too much -- a strategy that helped my WRITING IN FLOW reach the bestseller list, I'm convinced.) 

At least one used to have the vague sense that a coordinator at a local store, even a chain, would recognize an author's name or otherwise feel some connection to a fellow local. I have a feeling this new form of centralization will be like when I have a financial question for the bank I've been visiting for decades, and I have to call an 800 number in some nameless state and talk to an overly-lawyered-up clerk. Sigh.

Susan K. Perry (www.BunnyApe.com)

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re Deepak Chopra and issue 221: I hope the good Dr. Chopra credited Arthur C. Clarke for the pilfered witticism he used to open his talk.

Something we don't understand is called a miracle/once we understand it, we call it science.

This sound bite is used quite often -- but it's usually credited to its originator, Arthur C. Clarke. Thought you'd want to know.

Robert Marsh

Dear Holt Uncensored:

As a publisher, I must appreciate every store that invites me and my authors for bookstore appearances, as Borders does, but here are some actual responses I've gotten from Borders store employees when I have asked questions:

Q: Why aren't any of the five books of mine you say are in inventory on the shelf?

A: I could do something about that ... if I cared. But this is my last week.

Q: Why are my private elementary school guides shelved with college guides and the public elementary school guides shelved in Education?

A: Because kids who go to private school are more likely to go to college than kids who go to public school.

Q: When will your events person be in?

A: I don't know, I'm just a lowly grunt. (This was the response I got on the three occasions that I called. Finally I recommended that he take advantage of the fact that he worked in a bookstore to read Proust. He didn't seem to know what I was talking about.)

Susan Vogel
Pince-Nez Press
San Francisco

Dear Holt Uncensored:

This might be of some use to the person whose letter you printed re: Contentville and the indies. This is from a recent PW daily.

"Contentville.com, the e-commerce Web site founded by publisher Steven Brill, has laid off four employees, but claims that no further layoffs are planned and that it is looking to expand its dealings with independent bookstores.

"Brill told PW Daily that the four employees (two are being interviewed for other jobs at Contentville) were in charge of producing content that wasn't attracting much traffic.

"Brill emphasized to PW Daily that he is looking to expand the use of independent bookstores to provide book recommendations to the site. 'We're offering new ways we can help them and ways they can help us.'

"Brill said the indie booksellers are being asked to use their Web sites to refer customers to Contentville to purchase 'nonbook' items; the stores will receive a referral fee. In turn, Contentville is offering to use its sophisticated customer databases to e-mail Contentville customers about upcoming events at those local bookstores. Brill also said the site is changing the kinds of information indie booksellers provide: 'Some of it isn't attracting readers. But information such as lists of favorite titles is very useful, so we want to expand on that.'

"He also told PW Daily that Contentville's e-book program was 'doing pretty well,' citing Elmore'Leonard's 'Fire in the Hole,' an original e-book from Contentville Press. "We're moving slowly and selectively with e-books,' he said. 'But it has done well.' "

Howard Cohen
F&W Publications

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re: So You Want to Work at Borders

In the question: "A customer wants to special-order a book not immediately in stock. You should: . . . "

The correct answer, which was missing from the list of choices, is:

Insist the book is Out of Print.

Kalen Landow

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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