by Pat Holt

Tuesday, December 15, 1998



Well, isn't this a treat for the holiday season: Stephen King and other bestselling authors (Frank McCourt, Scott Adams, Tom Clancy) - many of whom were DISCOVERED by independents, for god's sake - are appearing in TV ads that praise Barnes and Noble. (C'mon, Authors Guild: Before others get sucked in, a little education for members could do wonders.)

It's hard to know what King is thinking - he seemed to understand the key role independents play when he conducted that author-tour-by-motorcycle a while back, traveling to independent stores at the exclusion of chain bookstores. Maybe he feels this is the democratic thing to do, or something. Well, he's wrong.

And then wouldn't you know it, the end of 1998 turns out to be the one holiday season in which every magazine and TV feature is jumping up and down to promote "e-commerce" as the smart way to buy gifts this year. Why, you'd be a fool to WALK into a neighborhood store, these stories say: You might have to TALK to somebody or participate in your community during this season of giving. So get on the bandwagon.

And like lemmings, we do: Amazon is the new sexy thang, credited with opening the door to the whole e-commerce "movement," as it's been called. "Shopping on AOL is like living in a gated community," America Online VP Wendy Brown told Newsweek. Isn't that comforting? By shopping online, you may never have to see another person of a different color/income/belief/status again.

"This isn't going to be a white Christmas," says founder Jeff Bezos. "It's going to be a Web Christmas." Good one, Jeff! Make the talk sound "in" and trendy! Remember about five years ago when holiday catalogs were the "in" way to shop? And 10 years ago it was QVC?

People still use these shopping services, but the huge volume of sales they once commanded has severely fallen off, and in each case, people have returned to neighborhood stores in droves. It's just a matter of time before Internet shopping - even and especially with - will be relegated to the QVCs and catalog companies of yore.

The question is: Will "land-based" independent bookstores be there when customers decide to wander back in? With the chains slowing their expansion to a crawl and closing unprofitable stores soon (rumored for years, but watch what happens in 1999, say observers), it appears that independents may soon be on their way back.

But it may be too late. Store closings are everywhere - lease problems make Printer's Ink in Palo Alto, Calif., the latest victim, and that's just one store in the "invincible" Bay Area. And it - and it does appear that onc independents close, they aren't replaced: Few are the souls courageous or foolish enough to take that kind of risk.


Those are some blistering disclosures in The Nation's recent editorial (December 10) about "Bertelsmann's Nazi Past." For those who believed the German publishing conglomerate's "official history" that during World War II the company was "closed by the Nazis" for refusing to "toe the party line," Hersch Fischler and John Friedman have turned up some startling surprises.

"The facts are that Bertelsmann cooperated with the [Nazi] regime, publishing a wide range of Hitlerian propaganda," the authors write. They go on to name a number of Bertelsmann titles that were supportive of Brownshirts, Hitler's pro-expansionist attacks on neighboring countries and Gobbels' propaganda ministry, as well as "patently anti-Semitic works."

Several Bertelsmann executives were arrested in 1944 for profiteering, the authors continue. Heinrich Mohn, a member of the founding family and the firm's chief executive, was a member of the SS, supporter of the Hitler Youth and member of the National Socialist Flying Corps, they write.

They write that Bertelsmann told The Nation that it has "begun a complete examination and evaluation of the vast amount of documents, publications and internal communications from that time," apparently taken aback by revelations the authors found in de-Nazification files. (Remember Claude Rains in the movie "Casablanca" saying how "shocked" he is that gambling is going on at Rick's, just as the cashier brings him his winnings?)

Fischler and Friedman end the article proclaiming that "it's up to younger officials like chief executive Thomas Middelhoff to insure an honest examination" of company history. Sure enough, on Sunday Middelhoff answered the charges in the New York Post, of all nongossipy places.

"During the Nazi era there were clearly some titles published by Bertelsmann which were not consistent with our values. These books were not at all representative of the thousands of books published by Bertelsmann during that time, and we find their content abhorrent," Middelhoff said.

"We take our social responsibility seriously and will meet this responsibility in the course of an independent critical review of our company's history." Gee, you'd think that would have taken place before investigative reporters made such allegations.

For a while, it's seemed as though Middlehoff has been on a campaign to present a new and benign Bertelsmann on the international scene.

In July, for example, Middelhoff visited B'nai B'rith, the world's largest Jewish organization, "to learn about concerns in the Jewish community and discuss the company's commitment to social responsibility and promoting tolerance," according to a B'nai B'rith press release.

Of importance to the group was the "partnership culture" Bertelsmann creates in its acquisitions of other companies that "empowers [colleagues] to retain and enhance the cultural identity of the individual countries in which we operate," Middelhoff said. And Bertelsmann historically "[does] not interfere with expression of ideas and contents" in the book, magazine or newspaper publishers it owns, he added.

Of course, no publishing house should have to depend on the largesse of its owner for this kind of freedom. So it is with some alarm that one reads from the press release that "Middlehoff . . . said that the company prides itself on not interfering in the publishing decisions of its companies unless its material is pornographic."

Uh-oh. As a line from an old vaudeville sketch goes, "You said dot void!" We may think we know what Middelhoff means by "pornographic," but the word is always interpreted subjectively, and that's why it can't be legislated or regulated or standardized or generalized. Now that Bertelsmann is so severely in the public eye, Middelhoff really ought to define exactly what he means.

Would a modern D.H. Lawrence be pornographic to Middelhoff? Or Henry Miller or James Joyce? Perhaps not - today that kind of writing seems obviously responsible and literary. But what about the two lesbian novels mentioned here last week - so bawdy, so graphic, so lust-soaked, so rebellious and, in the case of Erika Lopez, so deliberately intended to shock as part of the book's narrative aesthetic?

Well, we'll only know when Bertelsmann starts dinging books at Random House or Bantam Doubleday Dell - or it's more accurate to say only the editors will know, because this kind of internal silencing too often remains unheard by outsiders. But the next time a publisher says that merger-mania only strengthens the publishing process by infusing new cash into failing houses and leaving publishers alone to make independent decisions, it might be worthwhile to think again about who's doing the deciding.


Here we are on the "pick line" of that great book wholesaler/distributor, Bookpeople in Oakland, Calif. Clanking and thumping noises reverberate around us as forklifts and shopping carts transport books across several football fields of crowded shelves. Nearby, hundreds of roller-skate wheels spin merrily under book-loaded boxes that trundle down the line to the slap-'em whap-'em packing station at the end.

Bookpeople started as an out-of-nowhere hippie business at the height of the '60s when alternative publishing exploded onto the mainstream scene. Books you couldn't get from mainstream publishers - on meditation, massage, acupuncture, sufis, marijuana, ecology, feminist spirituality, gay life, astrology, Zen, tarot, LSD, Chinese medicine - all found a home at Bookpeople and from there to independent bookstores that sold them by the ton.

You can feel the hit of history practically coming through the floor. It was on a pick line just like this that Bookpeople opened the door to the East-West connection that would so appeal to popular audiences for the next 30 years. The Whole Earth Catalog started here; so did the transition of Shambhala from an independent bookseller to a visionary publishing force; so did the quirky titiles of John Muir return the impulse-to-publish to the grass-roots level.

So here again is a place in the book industry where energy seems to sizzle right off the books. One feels that if there's still a chance for literary roots to sink into our conglomeratized, Starbucked, Walmarted, power-hungry, bottom-lined, onlined, streamlined, lemming-lined culture, this is it. Really bad poetry mixes right in here with the really good; books on UFO-watching and healing with crystals reside on the same shelves as Kabbalah and Buddhist studies. Since the '60s, despite numerous ups and downs in the New Age and NEW New Age, (what Reagan/Bush materialism taketh away, Shirley MacLaine and Deepak Chopra returneth, workers here like to say), Bookpeople has emerged not only as a major wholesaler of alternative books, completely owned by its workers, but a close-to-full-service wholesaler offering an astounding number of titles from mainstream publishers as well.

Enter, then, the recent cataclysmic announcement that Ingram, the country's largest general book wholesaler, may soon be purchased by Barnes & Noble, the bookstore chain that has put many of Bookpeople's independent bookstore clients out of business. For a while, says Bookpeople president Gene Taback, "people here were in a state of shock about the news," because business may shift away from Ingram to other wholesalers, Book People especially.

"It's a great opportunity, but not a slam dunk by any stretch," he says, "to beef up the inventory in a way that's really useful and still pay for these buys by 90 days." After all, Ingram's giant inventory and multiple services to booksellers "created a level of service that became the industry standard" and can't easily be matched, he adds.

Already business is changing. Publishers Weekly reported that "a major change in buying patterns" is already underway and that "some titles that sold two copies a month [are] now selling 40." For Bookpeople to maintain its own niche, keeping thousands of unusual and often obscure titles in stock even if they "turn" (sell to customers) only 2 times a month (8 times for mainstream titles), AND to expand as a general book warehouse remotely near the size and scope of Ingram, "is going to put an incredible burden on us, but we want to do it."

So tension builds as outside Taback's door, sales representatives from the major publishers wait to help him search through lengthy backlists for titles to reconsider and reclaim. "Every time I find myself reordering books that once died on us," says Taback, "I realize how much Bookpeople has to be reinvented."

But the great risk at Bookpeople has always resided with the 2000 small presses - so strapped for cash themselves, so needful of help in design and marketing - that provide the bulk of alternative titles for which the company is now famous. Here, says Sheridan McCarthy, director of the company's independent press program, the minimum requirement for sales is an incredibly low 2 turns a month. Bookpeople also gives many small presses "with meager budgets" a good six months to find their markets.

The irony here is that alternative books are supposed to come out of a fringe mentality that's not very stable, while by contrast, the word "mainstream" connotes reliability, authority, permanence. But in Bookpeople's world, the reverse is true: Fashions that have crippled the mainstream world (remember the "gay boom" that never happened? the decline of feminist books? the glut of healthcare titles?) don't seem to affect Book People. At all.

"Oh, there was a heyday of goddess books every place you looked for a while," says McCarthy, "but for us, gay books, feminist titles, healthcare and spirituality all continue to hum along. I'd say the strongest steadily growing area right now is how to integrate allopathic and alternative medicine - how your acupuncturist can work with your surgeon, for example."

On the pick line a few minor trends can be identified - feng shui books are still hot, angels are out (witches will return, says Taback), "energy medicine" is climbing, East Indian spirituality is back, religious mysticism is big. And in this day of industry-wide merger mania, here is the Big Question for McCarthy: Is it true that whenever publishing gets too commercialized in one area, literary presses pop up in other areas? In other words, for every big publisher that's gobbled up in an acquisition, do a bunch of independent publishers emerge that refuse to fit the mainstream? McCarthy ponders this for awhile. "I think no matter what happens with consolidation in New York, independent publishers will continue to grow, and the reason is that they can't help themselves. It's a passion.

"I have met many fascinating people who have mortgaged their homes because they have a book they feel is important to get out there. That compulsion to publish is not going to change. While I wonder sometimes if the medium is going to change - whether we'll all be walking around with electronic books one day, I do know that technology has already made a huge difference because of desk-top publishing. I certainly see a reaction to the homogenization of the culture in the greater variety to the books that Bookpeople sells."

In its 30 years of operation, Bookpeople likes to say, "we have facilitated two revolutions: one in independent publishing and one in independent bookselling." Who would have thought the third revolution - the one in book wholesaling if the B&N purchase of Ingram goes through - would give Bookpeople its greatest challenge.