Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored

 

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  #238
by Pat Holt

Monday, May 21, 2001

 





JANE HIRSHFIELD: 'GIVEN SUGAR, GIVEN SALT'
AMAZON.COM DOES THE NEW YORK TIMES
LETTERS

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JANE HIRSHFIELD: 'GIVEN SUGAR, GIVEN SALT'

Perhaps the toughest challenge we face in our mass-oriented culture as booksellers and critics, and of course as librarians, teachers and publishers, is to reach that private, personal part in the reader that grapples with life almost entirely through metaphor.

This is the part that does the work of dreams while we are awake - that transfers to language the nearly inexpressible yearnings and observations of the subconscious.

Novels bring us this phenomenon, but poetry invites us into a world of stillness and contemplation that is the "place where all our lives meet," as poet Jane Hirshfield says. This place is given subtle yet life-altering expression in Hirshfield's fifth book, "Given Sugar, Given Salt" (HarperCollins; 87 pages; $24).

I find this collection most astonishing because here Jane brings us into the very process that overtakes the psyche when a poem begins taking shape. The following poem is one way into that realm:

Only When I Am Quiet and Do Not Speak

Only when I am quiet for a long time
and do not speak
do the objects of my life draw near.

Shy, the scissors and spoons, the blue mug,
Hesitant even the towels,
for all their intimate knowledge and scent of fresh bleach.

How steady their regard as they ponder,
dreaming and waking,
the entrancement of my daily wanderings and tasks.

Drunk on the honey of feelings, the honey of purpose,
they seem to be thinking,
a quiet judgment that glistens between the glass doorknobs.

Yet theirs is not the false reserve
of a scarcely concealed ill-will,
nor that other, active shying: of pelted rocks.

No, not that. For I hear the sigh of happiness
each object gives off
if I glimpse for even an instant the actual instant -

As if they believed it possible
I might join
their circle of simple, passionate thusness,
their hidden rituals of luck and solitude,
the joyous gap in them where appears in us the pronoun I.

This personification of the inanimate object tells us much about the relationship of poetry to everyday life. It sheds new light (to me) on "the honey of feelings, the honey of purpose," and yet it's considered a taboo in poetry, Jane says.

"To animate the world is sometimes given the terribly effective name of 'the pathetic fallacy,' " she explains. "This is a damning term when it means giving 'feelings' to things, the anthropomorphicization of the world. But I think it's been integral to poetry from the beginning. Aristotle praises it in his 'Poetics,' for example."

The taboo exists because "there are ways of animating things that are considered an insult to the world - turning everything into our own human ego. But there are also ways of animating the world that honor its being and the connection with everything that exists.

"That's the path I hope my poems are taking - not a monstrously egotistic, it's-all-ME approach. If anything I want to know it more fully."

So it is in "One Life Is Spent, the Other Spends Us," when the poet observes:

"Consciousness does not hate or love, it neither grieves nor longs. Walking and breathing are not its nature. It is."

Following the poet's struggle to search out and clarify such relationships is the first work of the reader - what Jane means when she describes her concern (see #237) about the "carelessness" of young readers who sometimes apply the poet's meaning to their own lives before they figure out what the poet actually says.

Indeed, very often exposure can only be revealed through concealment, as when "Olives adrift in the altering brine-bath / etch onto their innermost pits / a few furrowed salts that will never be found by the tongue."

One of the subtle yet driving forces of "Given Sugar, Given Salt" is to uncover the truths (perhaps "secrets" would be a better word) of these ordinary objects - these olives, that leather, a rock and a pillow.

In "The Button," for example, the poet wants us to know that although a button "likes both to enter and to leave," even "if fastening and unfastening are its nature, / it doesn't care about its nature."

This seeming contradiction between purpose and intention is fundamental to the larger questions of time and existence, and to that manner poetry has in showing us the interconnectedness of all things.

"Brevity and longevity mean nothing to a button carved of horn," Jane continues in "The Button."

"Nor do old dreams of passion disturb it, though once it wandered the ten thousand grasses with the musk-fragrance caught in its nostrils; though once it followed - it did, I tell you - that wind for miles."

It is not fair to any poem to slice it up in this way, to excerpt it and "explain" a little part of it. Yet this is our charge when, turning with our own passionate sense of discovery from the galleys, the bookshelf, the stacks, the blackboard or the printing press, we try to make our own connection to the waiting reader, and (pardon me - can't help it!) to posterity.

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AMAZON.COM DOES THE NEW YORK TIMES

Well, it's not Amazon.com I'm worried about this time but a certain kind of journalism that verges on propaganda.

I'm referring to another New York Times article (in Sunday's Money & Business section 5/20) about Amazon.com.

This one makes it appear that the much-criticized Seattle company has finally stopped being secretive about its finances and strategies and opened its doors to investigative observation - in this case by New York Times reporter Saul Hansell, who was "invited" by Amazon to make the trip.

In the three days that Hansell spent "observing a half-dozen meetings on inventory management, marketing, pricing and customer service," he writes, "there was much, of course, that Amazon kept off limits - top-management strategy sessions" and the like.

"Even so, a clear picture emerged of a company wrestling at every level with turning growth into profits."

Yes, that's the message Amazon.com wants Wall Street to hear, and that's what Hansell saw. Here's how this "clear picture" came to be.

Hansell describes an MIT-trained business analyst named Russell Allgor offering a "simple" solution that is considered "heretical" by Amazon veterans.

This "solution" is the classic decision that most chain bookstores have made: Concentrate on selling the more commercial high-turnover titles and cut back on the more literary slow movers.

And this "solution" is often the opposite of what independent booksellers decide to do, which is to concentrate on building a wide and diverse range of titles, even if some are slow to sell and the margin of profit narrows.

Since its inception, Amazon.com has promised customers the largest (or one of the largest) selections of books on Earth. Thus Dr. Allgor's "heretical" idea: "Amazon should increase its holdings of best sellers and stop holding slow-selling titles.

" 'We need your buyoff on this,' said Jim Miller, Dr. Allgor's boss,looking cautiously at Ms. Blake [a vice president who previously ran Amazon's book department] . . .

" 'You're not going to have it,' she snapped, 'until you show how many items will no longer show 24-hour availability.' "

That's telling him, Ms. Blake!

" 'I worry about the customer's perspective if we suddenly have a lot of items that are not available for quick delivery,' Ms. Blake added."

Well, gosh, isn't it great that the NYT reporter is inside Amazon at the very moment conversations like this take place? You couldn't ask for a more genuine concern for customers on the part of top-level managers, even as the company struggles to make a profit. Sounds almost scripted, in fact.

It's too bad Hansell doesn't note that Amazon has cut back on its 24-hour shipping for many titles and that customers have been complaining since the holidays (of 2000) about delays, problems with customer service, mixups on orders, etc.

Instead, Hansell pays more attention to such inner workings at Amazon as the frankly hilarious concept called "meeting rationalization."

At the end of one meeting, "Ms. Blake has handed out an elaborate grid of 26 regular meetings and who attends them," Hansell writes. "David Risher, Amazon's senior vice president in charge of United States retail businesses, who has popped into watch, barks out: 'You should draw a line through one-third of those meetings."

Well, the electricity of that moment is nearly too much to bear. But even greater drama emerges when "participants must volunteer some way in which they are contributing to 'the march to profitability,' " Hansell writes.

He neglects to tell us what punishments are applied to those who can't come up with a satisfactory contribution to the company good, but that's okay: Critical analysis of unproven assumptions - for example that the "book, music and video business actually started making money last summer," or that a costly approach of hiring Ingram Book Group to mail books directly to customers "in some ways makes perfect sense" - is missing as well.

So a bandwagon approach spreads throughout the piece that's reminiscent of the way Amazon rose to prominence in the first place. Instead of an intelligent and serious analysis of Amazon's claims, the story is rather a greeting-card thank you to Amazon for giving the newspaper an exclusive that trumpets the company line: "Listen Up! It's Time for a Profit," runs the headline. And the subhead: "A Front-Row Seat as Amazon Gets Serious on Profits."

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re your story about the credibility of television news: Here's a different story/complaint on television reporters. One winter a few years ago, our area was having so much rain that news reports covered the high water and flood potential for days. When a local anchor summed up her report, she said, "Looks like it's time to get down to Home Depot"...(for emergency supplies).

All I could think was whether the executives at Home Depot realize they just got tons of free primetime advertising.

Maybe I was overly sensitive to it because I'd just paid $800 to tape a cable TV commercial for my independent bookstore, which happens to be located in a neighborhood "strip" center whose main anchor - an independent family-owned hardware store - had just closed for business, for good.

Why couldn't the anchor have just said, "looks like it's time to get down to your local hardware store"? I wrote the television station owner but got no reply. Now I know to address such complaints to the advertising director, who suffers immediate monetary setback if you pull your advertising for some reason.

I'd like to know if television news departments have policies about saying brand names on the air. They need to use only generic mentions - say, soda or cola instead of Coke, ice cream instead of Baskin-Robbins. Just another insidious way that the message of "small equals less good" seeps into our culture's subconscious.

Kathy Kittredge
Village Books
El Dorado Hills, Calif.


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I am an editor and writer with a small, specialized bookstore online and a physical store that's open by appointment. The Wright Books genre is plants (herbs, horticulture, botany & gardening), food (cooking, gastronomy & spirits), livestock, and farming.

I have struggled hard the last three years to get this business off the ground and am slowly and painfully succeeding. I am beginning to get a good name and now have a fair amount of repeat business. Customers are beginning to go direct to my webpage (thewrightbooks.com) instead of finding their selection in Bibliofind or ABEbooks.

But I am in a sort of a tizzy suddenly. When Amazon bought out Bibliofind, which is where my inventory was listed, they fixed it so that no one could access an individual bookstore's inventory. That means that now when someone goes to my webpage and puts the name of a book in the search slot, they get all of Amazon's books by that name or subject. Amazon also charges a monthly fee and a percentage of sales, whereas before, with Bibliofind, the service was free.

It seems that since Barnes and Noble made a deal with ABEbooks, the same is happening. I wonder if there are other small booksellers out there that have this same problem and what have they done about it?

Karen Wright


Dear Holt Uncensored:

In response to Ed Dravecky III, to quote from the Alabama Sales Tax FAQ (http://www.ador.state.al.us/salestax/faq.html#5): "If the retail seller does not have nexus in Alabama, the tax reporting responsibility passes to the consumer/purchaser and they would be responsible for self-assessing the use tax and remitting it to the ADOR via a consumers use tax return"

So, the students at the U of Alabama owe the state some money. As I suspect do most of the citizens of Alabama and the citizens of other states with "use taxes" .

Of course the likelihood of an individual forwarding to their state the appropriate amount of "use tax" owed is, well, I suspect very small. Which is why states require retailers to collect sales tax.

I have this fantasy (ok, perhaps the burrito wasn't that good and it's actually more of a nightmare) of some state through legal action obtaining the data of all purchases made by their citizens with various out of state companies and sending said citizens bills for past due taxes. Wonder if it would include interest and penalties?

Anyway, to those who are working for a level playing field in regards to sales taxes . . . have you paid your use taxes?

Of course the ironic thing is, is that all those who are crowing about not having paid sales taxes to their Evil State Government aren't saving much at all, what with shipping charges.

Michael Walsh


Dear Holt Uncensored:

Of your attempts to define "Amazoned," I particularly resonated to:

"No, no, I got it: 'What happens when cutthroat corporate competition attempts to buy or inhale everything in its (cyber) path and forgets what independent thinking can do with relatively no money or outside backing to compete.'"

You have so beautifully defined ABookCoOp which is - as you know - a group of independent on-line used book dealers who formed a cooperative and put up their own bookselling website at www.tomfolio.com. In fact, it may be the first cooperative and/or the first website developed entirely by e-mail!

www.tomfolio.com officially went "live" in December. The co-op was developed and incorporated, and the site built and maintained, with funds from selling charter owner shares. Each book business can own only one share. There is no way for anyone to buy or leverage control. In April we opened the site to non-owner subscribers so that booksellers who were disenfranchised with the absorption of Bibliofind (by Amazon) would have another option for continuing to do business independently. We're happy to say that many have responded, that ownership shares are still selling as booksellers realize the potential of a member-owned and operated site, that we are being searched by Bookfinder, that we already have about 1,000,000 items listed, and that we are growing daily.

www.tomfolio.com offers some things other sites do not. We are attempting to look to the future and to redefine the on-line selling of used and rare books, magazines and periodicals, and of a wide variety of ephemera. We are in process of setting up a category system that invites browsing in many subcategories...making www.tomfolio.com a "virtual bookstore" where you can leisurely browse the "shelves" in addition to doing traditional searches.

www.tomfolio.com is fresh and new and very young, but we plan to be in this business for a long, long time. We plan to adjust to altering needs of customers and booksellers. We plan to grow steadily and to still be around when the Big Biz balloons have burst and faded away. We - independent book dealers every one - plan to continue pursuing our businesses in the way we enjoy, by providing top quality merchandise backed by the best one-on-one customer service in the business. www.tomfolio.com is a place where, if we could, we'd provide big soft chairs, free coffee and tea, and maybe some cookies on Fridays...we like to think of ourselves as "that friendly little bookshop just around the corner."

We'll never be like Amazon or any of the other powerful on-line promoters....and we never want to be.

Lee Kirk


Dear Holt Uncensored:

About the continuing saga of Amazon and the used book business. You already know that Amazon closed down Bibliofind and now intends to have used-book dealers sell on two venues on the Amazon site. (I am not one of the ones who would consider listing on Amazon, but I do receive notifications from them and reports from other dealers on how this is working.)

The first way to sell books on Amazon is called zShops. This is sort of a mini-mall with various shops for books and other merchandise as well. The other way is Marketplace. Marketplace only accommodates books with ISBNs, nothing older than 1965 (I think that is when ISBNs began?). There is a monthly listing fee, and Amazon takes a commission. The arcane details on their commissions, postage reimbursement, etc., can be found on their site if you go there and pretend that you are a dealer: http://www.amazon.com/sellers

The most interesting thing about zShops is the difficulty in uploading, because the shops were designed for all merchandise, and not for books. Therefore dealers who have databases set up for uploading to the various other book search sites have to re-do their listings and put, for instance, author and title into one field. The complaints and grievances about the difficulty of these uploads were flooding the book discussion lists (Bibliofile, Bookfinder Insider, Tomfoolery, etc.), until some of them set up a new discussion group on Yahoo last week that is devoted solely to troubleshooting for people trying to get their books onto zShops.

In all fairness, most of those who list on these venues report that they have sold a lot of books. But now that Bibliofind has closed down, many who used to list there are moving to Amazon so the competition has become greater and sales are slowing down in the last two weeks.

I am adding here the Amazon announcement FYI. Hope this all has been interesting reading for you.

An Independent Book Dealer

Holt responds: Many readers think ABEbooks has been "taken over" by Barnes & Noble, although I see the relationship is presented as one of those "partnerships" that gives dealers an option to list with B&N as long as books are given a 10% discount. What do you think about ABEbooks?

An Independent Dealer answers: I like ABEbooks.com, have always listed on ABE and only on ABE (never on Bibliofind). They had a few bumps in the road a couple of years ago when customers were not able to reach the dealers directly to make credit card purchases-they were routed to ABE.COMmerce instead. But after the outcry, it was remedied. Concurrent with Bibliofind's demise, they raised the monthly fee a little, but I feel it is justified. They have excellent tech support and service and I find their fees very reasonable. I do not use the B&N option that they provide for the same reason that I don't list on Amazon. I am now thinking of listing my books on Antiqbook [ http://www.antiqbook.com ] about which I have heard very nice things.


Dear Holt Uncensored:

There has been some speculation that book dealers are having a tough time selling on Amazon's Z shops and marketplace. Their listings disappear and then reappear. Also sometimes even if they are there, Amazon will not accept orders. The speculation is that Amazon doesn't have enough servers and is concealing that information while accepting full payment.

A Book Dealer

Holt responds: Do you have any documentation or evidence that this is so?

A Book Dealer answers: I myself pulled out of the Z shops because although I was beginning to get sales, I thought customer support was lacking, probably because there weren't enough hired people to provide the support. Also Amazon didn't tell us when they had down days. I did get them to refund on a missing order because their order system wouldn't confirm to the customer that she had bought a book from them. I only found out because she told me and I forwarded her complaint to customer service. Otherwise they will not confirm and not refund.

Readers and writers to various list-serves I subscribe to are referring to "Amazon's rolling blackouts" - the filling of some orders some of the time but not all orders all of the time. If the Amazon shareholders and stock anaylsts knew about these difficulties, the hideous uploading system and the lack of concern from customer service, I am sure that stock would plummet.

I think this situation will interest bookstores selling new books as well as used since with the advent of its marketplace, Amazon has been advertising a used version for sale on the page that presents and sells the new book. My feeling is that eventually Amazon will charge publishers directly for simply advertising on its site and direct customers to the publisher's site for book purchase. How this will effect local bookstores is anyone's guess. My personal aim in this is to force Amazon to upgrade services for sellers. Here are some messages from the list-serves I subscribe to that show how the problem is being felt among dealers. I've taken out all personal and identifying information because I haven't asked for permission to send these out. However I feel we all want the information to be seen:

  1. Have been told by several customers that Amazon is saying we don't take "Amazon payments." [Note from A Book Dealer: "I think 'Amazon payments' in that context probably means the Bookseller does not accept Amazon's one-click system for payment. Now everyone has to accept using one click. A couple of months ago or so, booksellers had a choice to use either Amazon's one-click credit system or their very own credit card or check payment system. I am guessing the bugs haven't been completely removed from the changeover."] When I called I was told that their system was down for an upgrade . . . (read, We don't know what the heck is happening but we sure aren't going to admit to any problems on our part). Zshops said it might be "several" hours before it is up. When the 800 lb. gorilla burps, the whole zoo has indigestion.

  2. I am convinced that Amazon is the Titanic reincarnated.... I've tried three times to upload my books to them from Bibliofidn and three times I have failed... I have called customer assistance three times and three times I have gotten no results other than the standard try it again schlock . . . I've decided not to try again and will cross the Atlantic in a rowboat . . . Now will I be able to get my $39 fee back? (That's the only transaction that worked...).

  3. Some booksellers who are convinced that Amazon has instituted some sort of rolling blackouts due possibly to insufficient server capacity . . . have done some fairly extensive testing of this theory. They believe that Amazon is switching some sellers' accounts on and off throughout the day or alternating days. Another bookseller and I have been comparing our daily sales so that she could bolster her rolling blackout theory and over the past few weeks we have never had sales at the same time of day and usually a great sales day for one of us is matched by zero sales by the other. Not proof, I know, but this is an interesting possibility. What do you all think - could this be happening? If so, it obviously means our "stores" are only open part time on Amazon.


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I would like to applaud Willard Williams' thoughtful letter regarding returns and net pricing. I agree with Willard that no returns is not a good idea. The book industry is different from most others. The lumberyard does not take much of a chance ordering plywood. Good, well-stocked bookstores take chances every day and always will, but without the returns option, I know I would stock a lot fewer titles. This would be a shame, as many worthy books would not be stocked, and ultimately a lot less worthy books would be published. No doubt, returns are a costly problem, both for the bookseller and the publisher, but from this bookseller's perspective, it is a worthy cost.

Michael Katzenberg
Bear Pond Books
Montpelier, Vermont


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