Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Friday, June 15, 2001





Well, if Bertelsmann CEO Thomas Middelhoff wants to exploit the finances and privacy of Internet users (see #243), let's turn to an even scarier danger of our time, Rupert Murdoch.

Here again a rather kindly, this time grandfatherly man is depicted in the media with careful attention to the appealing side of his public personality. On the cover of Brill's Content this month, for example, Murdoch looks very sweet and optimistic in a giant photo above the startling headline, "IS THIS THE FACE OF WORLD DOMINATION?"

The answer has been a resounding YES for so long that we've almost forgotten to distrust Murdoch, the Australian tabloid king whose mission for years, it seemed, was simply to slovenize the news wherever he went.

Watching Murdoch turn once-responsible newspapers into sensation-mongering gazettes, I often wondered how low his estimation of readers would go in time. Clearly he has always believed that people won't read newspapers and magazines unless they get sex and gore as standard fare; but increased use of blown-up photos and celebrity gossip make one wonder: Does he think people don't want to read at all?

It's a question to ponder as we watch Murdoch's interglobal communications gear up for to his biggest power-play yet.

Today Murdoch's media empire, News Corp., ranges from print (New York Post, London Times, Sydney Australian, TV Guide, Weekly Standard, HarperCollins) to screen (Fox TV Network, 20th Century Fox, BSkyB and Star Direct Broadcast Satellites) and sports (Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Knicks, Madison Square Garden), just to follow a few of his many tentacles.

His next big move, which seemed bland and uninteresting in its early phases, is to buy DirecTV, the largest satellite-TV company in the United States (or if that fails, to buy the second biggest, EchoStar), and pair it up with his British satellite-TV company, BSkyB, and pair 'em both up with Star, his satellite-TV company in China, and pair the three of 'em up with his Latin American satellite-TV companies (Sky Brazil, Sky Mexico) and on and on until he's got the whole world in his tube, so to speak.

DirecTV is owned by Hughes Electronics (in turn owned by General Motors), and as the Wall Street Journal has put it: "Hughes' DirecTV operation, with about 10 million U.S. subscribers, could be the final big link in a global satellite grid Murdoch has labored for 20 years to assemble."

And he's not creating this grid just to sell a few more Fox-TV sitcoms. The big concept here is interactive TV, a culture-changing, lifestyle-altering force that in Murdoch's hands would bypass the benefits of services that seem sophisticated now (Tivo, DVD) and take us into the stratosphere of Couch Potato Land.

Murdoch wants to put his tentacles into television in a way that you can't see by making it possible - easy, even - to watch a TV program, record shows at the same time, order dinner, go shopping, pay bills, check your blood pressure, place a bet, send email, book your vacation, reserve a movie, make your own e-books, surf the Internet and buy tickets without ever moving from your chair.

Nothing about this is surprising or new, really - either it already exists or has been predicted somewhere - and in a sense we're all waiting for it.

There's nothing "wrong" with it, of course, except that throughout, you'll watch and react to advertisements, and every click on your combined remote/keypad will be tracked and recorded. In this way, ads will change to suit your personal needs the longer you interact with the TV. As much as many consumers (okay, me) hate this sort of monitoring, it ain't new and it ain't going away.

My worry is that Rupert Murdoch wants to make interactive TV so slick that print will eventually disappear from the screen. With a blur of celebrity come-ons and click-here, go-there commands, the idea of reading ANY text will be a come-down off the rush of this high and a return to the ordinary, get-off-the-couch life that demands actual thinking and individuation.

What Murdoch did to his newspapers and publishers when he first bought them (sensationalize! graphicize! photoize! propagandize!) will soon be so easily programmed at this level that reading, which challenges rather than sedates the mind, will even become suspect.

Of course, culture always insists upon emerging, and a reading audience will always exist for real books, good books, challenging books from every source.

But we all know how it feels to be dumb-downed to the point of infantilization by the Murdochs of the world. What scares me even more is that he'll soon be joined by the Middelhoffs, Steve Cases, Jeff Bezoses, Henry Yuens (hell, he's already onboard), Brothers Riggios and other bullies on the Internet playground.

The signs of this peril are everywhere. Here's a small one from PW Daily recently: "At its annual meeting held today in New York, Barnes & Noble chairman Len Riggio . . . was particularly upbeat about the prospects for B&N's video game subsidiary, Babbage's; earlier in the meeting Maureen O'Connell, B&N CFO, said the company expects the video game business to be bigger than the book business by 2004."

How nice for them! It's something we can all be "particularly upbeat" about very soon.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

I think you miss the point regarding Bertelsmann CEO Thomas Middlehoff [in #242]. Of course you can be horrified [at his plans to dominate the Internet], just as you can be horrified that a giant is large and ugly and has a big appetite, but it doesn't really change anything.

For most companies large and small the Internet is all about observing an individual's behavior and customizing what you're doing to match it; that's one way people pay for the all the "free stuff" that everyone seems to like - Bertelsmann's ambitions in this area are no different from that of any other large media company, and they all want to dominate and control in any way possible.

The interesting thing about Middlehoff is that he's the first of these guys to understand that, big as he is, he can't control the Net and Net behavior; he can only adapt to it. He's the first one I've ever seen to acknowledge that "37 million Napster users aren't criminals" and to acknowledge that peer to peer file-sharing is going to survive regardless of what the courts and Hillary Rosen and anyone else has to say about it.

Any media company that hopes to survive has to acknowledge this and figure out to how work with it, in a way that offers good value to large numbers of consumers - which is ultimately good for consumers, not nefarious. The jury is hugely out on whether even that is possible; many of the smartest observers I know truly believe that the digital genie will never get out of the bottle - free music files, book files and movie files, will be an unstoppable force, and making money off the front end of cultural products will be nearly impossible. But that could take us on quite a tangent.

Remarkably, what a person like Middlehoff says is quite different from what the guys at Random House will tell you about peer to peer and sharing of digital book files; they're still in the "this is terrible and has to be stopped at any costs" mode (beginning with not making the digital files themselves in the first place; as if that would stop anyone who really cares). And Middlehoff has actually stuck his neck pretty far out and created problems for the company with its corporate peers; there still aren't a lot of media barons (in fact none) saying that Napster and peer to peer should be saved and harnessed in a commercially acceptable fashion.

A Reader

Holt responds: The reason that being horrified at domination-minded giants does any good is that it stops us from following blindly, as we might have done with Jeff Bezos, and encourages us to listen critically, as we might now with Thomas Middelhoff and Rupert Murdoch, to name a few. Yes, Middelhoff sounds savvy and kindly when he says, "37 million Napster users aren't criminals," but we listening critically, we hear a lot more. He may be the first to acknowledge the freedoms of the Internet, but he represents one of many corporations moving to curtail those freedoms for profit - i.e., to stop what you are hoping (me too!) is the "unstoppable." People older than I am keep writing to warn us that "independence of the airwaves" was considered unstoppable in the early years of radio and TV, and look what happened. I do think the Internet offers far more power to the individual than any medium ever, but that just makes the challenge of controlling/dominating/exploiting it all the more delectable to the droolypuss "world dominators" of every stripe.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Thanks for the thoughts on ForeWord Reviews. The small and niche publishers need this service. They need third-party commentary, and they know that ads aren't the most cost-effective way to sell books.

Pete Alcorn
NetRead Software and Services, LLC

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re your comments on the changing dynamics of book reviewing and ForeWord Magazine's activities. As you point out, the Internet has made it possible to publish (online) reviews of every book -- good ones, bad ones, narrowly specialized ones -- a big change from the days of tight selection.  

We've been reviewing neglected categories of books (sci-tech-med, scholarly, reference) since 1976 (in two journals for librarians, SciTech Book News and Reference & Research Book News). Of course we've ridden the electronic tides by licensing reviews to numerous sites and services (as does ForeWord); this licensing is what gives the reviews an incredibly wide exposure (and it pays the bills for us).

ForeWord's plan to charge publishers for reviews is an interesting experiment. Like you, I don't think it will do any harm.

Jane Erskine
Editor, Book News, Inc. 

Holt queries: I see from the website (www.booknews.com) you plan to run selected reviews online soon - will these be available for paid subscribers only?

Jane Erskine responds: We're planning to put our reviews online at a Book News site -- and it will be a paid subscription site, maybe in conjunction with an established library journal (so we don't have to reinvent any wheels).

In the meantime, the public sees our reviews for free at barnesandnoble.com and powells.com; amazon.com carries our sci-tech-med reviews.

One other thing. Here's a question I think about constantly (well, almost): What constitutes a useful review? I'd be delighted if anyone cared to comment on this question. Book News has evolved its own standards over the years -- aiming to be useful to librarians -- but what we do seems to work for the general public as well, especially online.

Holt replies (can't help it): To me, a review is useful 1) if readers learn enough to make an informed decision about whether they want to read the book, and 2) if it contributes to that ongoing conversation we all have (even when silent) about critical standards in life and literature - about what makes a book or movie or marriage or experience "good" and what makes it "bad." Observing the difference between opinion (I don't like it) and criticism (it isn't any good) is the basis for just about every human exchange, I think, but then, I'm biased.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Interesting piece on the new venture by ForeWord. I'm just not sure how well I would trust a review that was in some way paid for. Yeah, yeah . . .advertising also pays for reviews, but this seems so . . . unsubtle? Words fail me.

Speaking of a failure of words:

"So aside from the traditional paucity of reviews and the narrow gateway for reviewing independent presses," Schwartz adds, "we were seeing a huge explosion in the marketplace of credible authoring."

"credible authoring"? What? Argh! How about "credible writing?" Sheesh.

Next thing you know we're going to be hearing books described as "product" (That was said with sarcasm . . .). Gotta go, I have to do some credible authoring of product.

A Reader

Holt responds: I've always disliked the word "author" used as a verb, but there was something about this man's eccentric formality that made "credible authoring" somehow endearing. Also it'll probably never catch on.

Dear Holt Uncensored,

I have before me yesterday's ForeWord e-newsletter wherein Denny Fried tells the story of Eiffel Press and its experience selling books to both the chains and the independent bookstores. Eiffel's nil-independent sales history mirrors that of hundreds of hard-working, quality book-producing small press publishers I've met, including ours.

When considering the marketing plan for our new title, "Brother Iron, Sister Steel" (ISBN: 1-931046-65-4), I assumed independent bookstore buyers would respond better than chain stores to our mailings, advance reading copies and advertising, an innocent assumption of "person to person" rather than "person to corporation."

Boy was I wrong. The chains came to us; the independents are ignoring our substantial and expensive outreach to them.

The reviews of "Brother Iron" are stratospheric in some cases:

"...The most profound and gut-wrenching thinker in the business. You'll get hooked on "Brother Iron, Sister Steel," ...in every word Draper leaves the Mark of his genius." -- Julian Schmidt, Muscle & fitness, June, 2001

And the publicity includes a breathtaking who's who list that would trigger the salivation glands of even the most jaded publicity professional: "GQ Magazine," "Entertainment Weekly," an upcoming E! TV "True Hollywood Story" of the author.

We can sell the books off the shelves. The independents just aren't buying.

Laree Draper
On Target Publications

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re the ForeWord Reviews (which some of us are calling Reviews Forepay).

"Review-tisement"? "Ad-verbosity"? "Book-cent$"?

For years, we indie publishers have been mocking and contemptuous of a certain "review" magazine, given away to bookstores, that calls us up one day with the happy news that our book has been selected for "review" and the next day with a pitch for advertising. More than one publisher has commented on how declining the ad has led to the review being "dropped," no doubt for space considerations.

When some lusty teen on Dawson's Creek sips a 7 Up, he's drinking a paid product placement. When legitimate review media (in this case, a magazine run by several people who are greatly admired by their peers) charge for content, it's still pay for play.

What happens when this "model" takes over, and you have all sorts of so-called "reviewers" offering even better "reviews" at cheaper prices? What happens when aggrieved authors and publishers publicly excoriate the paid-for, maybe-with-an-ax-to-grind reviewer? The whole pond gets polluted, and murky.

A Reader

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I found the information on ForeWord absolutely interesting. It's a pity that finances are such an obstacle to staying alive. My newspaper, which I had to give up due to burnout and health, is a beautiful example of what happens to a publication when money becomes the primary factor and the main raison d'etre: It used to be beautiful and live up to its name, El Independiente. Now, unfortunately, it is dependent, no longer beautiful, but more of a bread and butter product as far as the employees' paychecks are concerned. But, oh, how they miss the good old days, and me, when we all starved together. It's no longer a labor of love, or a service to the community.

Your consternation at the fact that the Bertelsmann/Napster union will track our consumer habits through our computers as we pick and choose our musical favorites seems out of proportion to what's already going on in supermarkets. Every time we shop at Safeway or Raleys or Smiths or wherever, we must run a "membership" card through their computer in order to receive the sale prices -- or even so-called "club" prices on non-sale items.

Talk about tracking your personal favorites: everything from brands of tampons and toilet paper to truffles and caviar, to say nothing of our penny-pinching habits, check writing habits (down to how much extra cash), the use of credit or debit cards, etc., is observed by this method. With that information in their soft white underbellies, the grocery chains sell our addresses and stats to marketing companies, and wham! We're assaulted with unsolicited magazines, catalogs, ceramic figurine offerings and more.

Wake up and smell the coffee that they already know you bought!

Sareda Milosz
San Miguel de Allende

Holt responds: The big difference to me is that customers can choose NOT to use the membership card at the supermarket (so far). Of course one finds that supermarket workers do put up a fight if you don't present a "family card" that a frugal but perhaps foolish partner took out some time ago.

"Did you forget your card?" says the clerk. "Tell me your phone number and I'll enter it for you."

"No thanks, I - ."

"Afraid people will hear your phone number? Just give me the last four digits, then."

"Thanks, but - ."

"Don't want to say it out loud? You can type it in yourself on the keypad in front of you. Go ahead."

"Well, I - . "

"Don't have a card? We've got a special on new memberships - 10% off the whole purchase, which could be quite a saving."

"It's not the - . "

"Don't have time to get a card now? Remember, the few minutes it takes would save you $3.45 on this purchase alone. Why lose that money when it's yours to save?"

I'm always touched at the sincerity of these folks in their attempt to haul me kicking and screaming into the 21st century, or so they believe, and at their shock when I try to explain (not often! lines too long!) that privacy issues are, for me anyway, very much at stake. And too, sometimes that Big Teaser wins out: I look at the items on the screen and wonder how much money COULD be saved, and, anyway, what do I care who knows how many kitchen sponges and rice cakes we buy? All this happens within seconds, of course, but throughout it means I get to decide. When it's my choice, at least I know the window is open. When Bertelsmann/Napster steals through that window (and they are latecomers! they'll be FOLLOWING firms like DoubleClick and Amazon!) none of us 37 million will know it.

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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