by Pat Holt
Friday, March 23, 2001
THE ALA CASE
What First Amendment dunderheads those folks are at the Harris Poll. On Wednesday they conducted a poll at Excite.com asking for reactions to this question:
"Do you support or oppose the American Library Association's lawsuit that would allow youngsters to view all content on the Internet, including adult content?"
Phrasing the question that way makes the ALA's attempt to protect First Amendment principles sound like a bid to show smut to America's "youngsters" within the confines of your favorite library.
No wonder a whopping 68% of respondents (68,200 in all) opposed the ALA's litigation. If this is the way the media is going to characterize this crucial lawsuit by librarians (a similar suit was filed this week by the American Civil Liberties Union), we're all in trouble.
The ALA suit is an important and welcome attempt to overturn the Children's Internet Protection Act CIPA, which orders the use of "blocking technology" on computers in public libraries.
The effect of it is that the government wants to use computer filters that don't work, have never worked and will never work because they can only single out - never measure the meaning of - words and acts that might be on somebody's Prohibited list.
"If the same standards used in online filters were applied to a library's books and not just its Web," the ALA contends, "the shelves would practically be empty.
"Filtering technology is not subtle enough to distinguish between Hustler and Shakespeare. Filters work by spotting words, not by making judgments about decency.
"The word 'sex' - whether in a medical context, a law book or a great poem - is all a filter needs to 'see' to block the page or site. Emptying the Internet the way these filters would empty a library is not 'better than nothing' for our children. It deprives them of much of the world's great science, art and politics."
A few years ago, Publishers Weekly editor Nora Rawlinson, who used to be editor for Library Journal, told me a soon-to-be-famous story about filtering software that was installed for a branch library in the town of Essex, Maryland.
"The software locked access both in and out too well," she recalled. "Nobody could get any global information about Essex because the word 'SEX' was in the town name."
And you can't fix this problem by designing better software because there's never going to be such a thing as perfectly functioning filters. Human beans have a hard enough time themselves knowing whether Judy Blume, Mark Twain or Alice Walker should be available to young readers.
Besides, the quality of these filters is not the point. As Rawlinson puts it, "Librarians are seen as great protectors of children's literature, but what must be understood is that they are First Amendment supporters, first and foremost."
But then, fear of cyberspace is an easy sell. A recent Newsweek cover story blamed the Internet for creating dangers that threaten our children. Somehow missed in the story is the fact that the Internet is a multi-faceted channel providing new access to information that's already out there.
What can we do? Well, first we can fight unconstitutional legislature like CIPA and its even worse forerunner, the Communications Decency Act, which the Supreme Court invalidated in 1997, thank heaven.
Second, we can hold the media more accountable. Not only did the Harris Poll sensationalize the problem and sway opinion by the biased wording of question, it filed the poll in its archives under the title "Indecent Internet." Not good.
Third, let's remember that librarians are the professionals here - they know exactly what's at stake and all the ways to rectify it.
For example, here's one method they've found to protect young readers from porno sites on the Internet. "Many librarians now feel," says Rawlinson, "that since they have rules of human behavior in libraries - you know, people can't expose themselves in the library or pour soda pop on the books - they can require people using the Internet not to go to pornographic sites.
"They can simply say, 'I'm sorry, you can't do that here.' It's a matter of behavior, not First Amendment issues."
THE ABA CASE
I can't believe the usually astute Michael Cader of Publisher's Lunch - a vital and addictive email information service for the book biz - reported yesterday that the American Booksellers Association has spent $12 million on its lawsuit against the chains and then blurted out the following:
"This could be ignorance or heresy or both, but it makes one at least wonder whether that same money could have done independents more good used outside of the courtroom."
Well Mike, you got the first part of the sentence ("ignorance or heresy or both") right.
As a book reviewer and public speaker I can't express how important it is to be able to tell people that a lawsuit by independent booksellers against Borders and Barnes & Noble is underway and will soon be heard in federal court.
The PR effect alone is invaluable. What sounded to some as a lot of "whining" and "bemoaning" soon took on the mantle of an injustice worth fighting against.
The lawsuit shows that independent booksellers are tough enough and sure of themselves enough to go to court and battle it out at (of course!) great expense to themselves and their association.
Then, too, remember, Michael, it ISN'T just a PR thing. It's not the same as the little guy bemoaning Orchard or Home Depot or Starbucks just because they're deep-pocket chain stores.
This case is about under-the-table deals, unfair trade, antitrust and illegal discounts. That's why the previous two lawsuits, the consent decrees signed by publishers and the $25 million payment to the ABA by Penguin all happened.
And it's why the judge's ruling this week that the ABA can't claim any damages beyond expenses is, I think, such a huge blow.
The ABA immediately rebounded and said the point all along has been to clear a level playing field, and that's true.
But let's look at the reason behind Judge William Orrick's ruling (as paraphrased by the Associated Press): "It would be impossible to determine how much the independents were harmed by alleged anticompetitive practices."
Impossible? How about half the independent bookstores closing down in the last 5 years, just for starters? That's some kind of measure, certainly.
Sure, Amazon.com and other online booksellers played a role in thousands of store closings, but for heaven's sake, if we can determine how much Japanese Americans were harmed by the Japanese American internment during World War II in determining reparations today, anything's possible.
THE AMAZON CASE
Wow, the securities class-action lawsuit filed this week against Amazon.com certainly signals a new backlash against Amazon. from the very public that once idolized and invested in the company.
As I understand it, the suit alleges that between February 2, 2000 and March 9, 2001, Amazon.com made it apparent that payments from its ACN (Amazon Commerce Network) partners would be made in cash. The total would be $500 million, paid out in five years.
However, the complaint says, Amazon.com knew the payments would be made not in cash but in stock. Potential investors were misled; the cash-poor company got positively cash-bereft, and so did investors.
Who knows if the suit will win, or if it's the first of many. The sight of a once-adoring public now turning so aggressively against Amazon.com bears a whole new message of its own.
WHY ERNEST HEMINGWAY IS ROLLING IN HIS GRAVE
Have you seen a new TV commercial for the Ernest Hemingway Collection? Lots of photographs of the great white hunter (I guess he was also a writer) appear on camera, followed by faux-safari sofas draped with leopard-themed cloths, what look like tables made from animal hides and cane-woven couches in a campside-environment motif.
If you're not sold by more photos of Papa winking at the camera, never fear: A Safari Side Stand is thrown in free for every $5,000 purchase. Surely you get your own African guide or maybe battery-operated life-sized rhino for $25,000?
Almost as appetizing is the British Airways ad in Atlantic Monthly that gives us an up-close photo of a coarse-featured but sophisticated man (something like a young Hemingway) dressed in elegant safari clothes.
He's shown spontaneously looking up from his book, a makeshift table at his side, a bottle of wine and a beautiful young woman nearby, in an immaculate setting deep in the jungle, of course.
"A proper Englishman never went on safari without a fine Claret," says the ad. "Over the centuries, the British have perfected the art of travelling well. And fortunately for you, they've passed it down to the generation serving you today on British Airways. Then as now, the British simply know how to travel."
Yes, by killing wild animals for pleasure and parading around with with their big discounts hanging out in the open and - excuse me, that was the last column - their superiority over African guides always at the forefront.
Thanks, British Airways, for reminding us of that glorious era in contemporary history that made African nations so grateful to the Western world.
NOTE TO READERS: Well, heck, these lawsuits and poor Hemingway took up so much space I'm going to move the next installment of Online Independent Booksellers to next week.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Concerning the New York Times article on Book Sense and BookSense.com, I read it, didn't think much of it, and ignored it, until a friend forwarded it to me and I noticed the byline: David Kirkpatrick. The journalist who recently interviewed Dave Eggers, leading to many further "clarifications." Kirkpatrick is not known for his optimism* so perhaps his jaundiced view of the world should not be surprising. It doesn't help anyone that he's writing pieces like this -- although, like you, I'm not looking for puffery -- but it's not going to hinder the pumped-up independents for long either.
*From Salon: "Stephen King's decision to take a hiatus from writing installments of 'The Plant' has been treated by the media as nothing more than a dispatch on the viability of e-book self-publishing. "Publishers one, authors nothing," wrote David Kirkpatrick in the New York Times." (Laura Miller, 12/1/00, http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2000/12/01/king/index.html)
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Before I begin, The Disclaimer: I don't usually buy books from ANYBODY online these days. When I do it's either a research book and I'm in a time crunch, or it's a Canadian or British book I can't get in the US yet, in which case I do not go to Amazon-uk, I go to Sleuth of Baker St in Toronto. End Disclaimer.
I visited Powell's Online site after reading your current newsletter (3-19-01), overflowing with enthusiasm for that famous store, and I had fun,did the shuffle, signed up for the newsletter ... and then I did a search on my own author name out of curiosity, to see what they had.
I thought: Hmm.
Recently many authors became unhappy when one of your un-favorites, Amazon.com, started advertising used copies of our books right beneath the information about our new ones. Some have complained to Amazon about it, to no avail.
As I said, there I was at Powell's Online,thinking Hmm. Because: In all fairness: I don't see much difference between Powell's practice re used books at their website and Amazon's.
A fact of life I wish all book lovers would keep in mind: When publishers are deciding the fates of track-record authors in this country (i.e. those of us they have to decide whether to dump us or push us up to the next level), they count only NEW BOOKS SOLD in the first print run (and other print runs, should one be so lucky as to have that first one sell through).
Other countries count things such as the number of times an author's books are checked out of libraries; and there may be countries that count used book sales too, though I haven't heard of it. Here in the U.S. an author's fate is based solely on "the numbers," and those new books sold ARE the numbers.
When displayed side by side, it is such a temptation for any book lover to buy a used $13.95 copy of a much-desired book, versus a new copy at $24.95; it's too much, sometimes, even for me. Now that I understand the system, I will ONLY do it if the author is already a bestseller.
I'm dismayed about Powell's Online policy of making the used books almost irresistible. Therefore I won't be shopping there, any more than I would at any other online site that puts the used books next to the new ones.
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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