Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Friday, June 29, 2001


  An Innocent question
  Talk About Dumbing-Down
  Feeling Unriled



Word has come to this (bedroom) office that an article in the Atlantic Monthly calls the chief writer and bed-maker at Holt Uncensored a "cultural elitist."

Good heavens. "Pig-headed," sure. But "elitist"? It may surprise no one who reads this column that I have NEVER been called that before.

So let's see what the term means in the context of the article with its cheesy title, "Two - Make That Three - Cheers for the Chain Bookstores," written by Brooke Allen (July/August issue).

A "cultural elitist," Allen writes, is someone who hates chain bookstores "with the knee-jerk snobbery that is never far from the surface in American cultural life."

" 'I am a reader,' the [cultural elitist's] interior litany goes, 'therefore I belong to a privileged minority; I patronize exclusive bookstores known only to me and my intellectual peers.' "

These "exclusive" bookstores are snob-appeal independents, "standoffish" stores, as Len Riggio of Barnes & Noble puts it (you're surprised?).

"Just what is so wrong with the chains?" a philosophy professor asks. "Tell me, why should we care about the collapse of snotty, understocked bookstores where they complain if you want to return a book?"

My, my, look at those terms piling up: Snobby, standoffish, snotty, exclusive, intellectual, privileged.

Sounds like somebody had a baaaad experience in one of them dark and dusty hole-in-the-wall bookstores that some people do like to frequent (not everyone! not you if you don't want to!) and has now projected hurt feelings on the entire independent bookstore industry.

The article also refers to "supercilious" and "patronizing" sales clerks in independent stores. Some independents are considered "great" (Tattered Cover, Ruminator) and "enthusiastic," but watch out:

"There is a downside to hand-picking and personal sales," says Allen. "One may be subject to the whims, biases, and pretensions of an opinionated owner."

Goodness, call the fire department. Opinions will kill us all yet. Let's be grateful that chain bookstore buyers never fall into that wide abyss - they're objective and unbiased, never snotty or high-falutin', which is why Barnes & Noble and Borders have become perfect models of the bookselling craft.

An Innocent Question

Years ago, when city councils and business news reporters were trying to understand why chain bookstores were considered threatening, they would ask an innocent question: "What's wrong with the idea of chain bookstores? Don't we all WANT more bookstores?"

The answer was (and is): Of course we do. As long as bookstores compete on an equal basis, we want them all. But the moment someone wondered how you define that level playing field, the discussion would become increasingly complicated. This is not a simple question, after all.

Customers knew that three years ago when Barnes & Noble tried to buy Ingram and millions protested. They got it when Penguin, "to ensure the equal availability of pricing, credit, and promotional reimbursement terms to all booksellers" (not just chains), paid $25 million to the American Booksellers Association. Since then, the book industry and its customers have grown up, made adjustments and moved on.

One expects professionals in the field to figure this stuff out, but no. Brooke Allen, who's clearly done extensive research (heck, she read this column), tries to sound innocent and wise at the same time by starting her article with a similar question.

Wouldn't it have been "heaven" back in the 1980s, she poses, if there had been "a nationwide network of gigantic bookshops" with "cafes, comfortable chairs and public restrooms?"

Thank heaven she put the toilets in there. These "sumptuous emporia" with their huge inventories ("about 150,000 titles each") and lengthy sales periods ("staying open until 11 p.m. or midnight") would have proven to us how magnificent they are, "not only in the great urban centers but also in small cities and suburbs."

Looking at the superstore chains today in that light, we should be grateful for Barnes & Noble, Borders and Books-A-Million.

"Why, then, the chorus of disapproval from the cultural elite?," asks Allen. "Why the characterization, spread by a vocal group of critics, of the chain bookstores as a sort of intellectual McDonald's, a symbol of the dumbing-down and standardization of American life?"

Talk about Dumbing-Down

The problem is that if an article starts with a fantasy bordering on simplistic if not primitive thinking, it's probably not going to delve too deeply into the complexity of the issues that lie underneath.

Brooke Allen doesn't like "the image of the big bad chains gobbling up brave little independents," and good for her - that's silly and simplistic, too. But her article offers sketchy and unconvincing reasons not to believe it. For example:

* Allen's method of assessing the value of Barnes & Noble's inventory is to measure the NUMBER OF FEET per section, as in "approximately 189 feet of biography, 196 feet of philosophy, 92 feet of military history." Ah, quantity vs. quality: We know Picasso's "Guernica" is good because he used 30 cans of Navajo White.

*Allen believes that chain stores' inventories are not dominated by impulse items, calendars and other commercial effluvia. Her reason: "Barnes & Noble, for example, orders about 85 percent of the more than 50,000 new adult trade titles published every year."

Well, that's a lot of titles, but give us a little more information about them. The data is meaningless if we don't know how many serious vs. commercial books Barnes & Noble packs into that 85%, and how many serious vs. commercial are returned. Allen doesn't tell us that.

* Chain bookstores, says Allen, "have a vastly wider choice of books" than independents. This is unbelievably naive. Taken together, independent bookstores offer a wider range and variety of titles than the formula buy you get in chain bookstores. This has never been disputed.

* Dredging up that awful and by now very old movie, "You've Got Mail," Allen has Meg Ryan's character (an independent bookseller) wield "the charges of the culture snobs." This occurs early in the movie when Meg says that chain superstores are "big, impersonal, overstocked and full of ignorant salespeople."

Well, gee, even I disagree with much of that statement. In fact, even the MOVIE disagrees with it. Setting up and knocking over Meg's statement, as Allen does, is like bulldozing a straw man. Meg's character must learn, as an independent bookseller, that chains are good so she'll give up and fall in love with Tom Hanks, who certainly does NOT "bear a certain resemblance to Len Riggio, the brash CEO of Barnes & Noble." Gad! Is there no decency left in the world?

* Professional writers know better than to substitute personal anecdotes for true evidence. Allen does not. "I decided to conduct a comparison in my neighborhood," Allen writes, and wouldn't you know it, the Barnes & Noble compares favorably to the inadequate independent.

In the same way, her children love the Betsy-Tacy series mentioned in "You've Got Mail." But guess what, Allen couldn't find these titles at Books of Wonder, "the famous Manhattan children's bookshop on which 'You've Got Mail's' independent appears to have been based." And - no surprise - she "hit pay dirt on the first try" at Barnes & Noble. Then she simply extrapolates her discoveries to the whole industry.

* It annoys Allen that chain stores are accused of not supporting midlist books, when anyone can see that the "large proportion of today's blockbuster best sellers, promoted by the chains, in fact started out as midlist titles."

Well, yes, but many of them started out as books the chains either missed or bought very sparingly. She mentions "Angela's Ashes," "Cold Mountain," "Corelli's Mandolin," "Longitude," "The Perfect Storm" and "Into the Wild."

These books, which the independents supported from the beginning, are somehow converted, in Allen's skewed thinking, into titles that owe their success to chain bookstores.

"Many of these books got their initial boost, it goes without saying, from enthusiastic independent stores that recommended them to customers. Once the word was out, though, it was the promotional and marketing clout of the chains that brought these relatively high-quality works to a mass-market readership."

So good for you, chains! You drop the ball on "high-quality" books at the beginning, wait for independents to do find them/recommend them/sell them, and effectively steal the sale with your "promotional and marketing clout" by bumping them out of the running.

* Apparently Allen never talked to independents, or she wouldn't have accepted quite so completely (and lamely) the notion that chain stores carry 150,000 titles. If she HAD asked independents, especially those who have survived chain stores moving into the neighborhood, she would have discovered that the 150,000 number shrinks, as do the numbers of titles in special-interest sections (African American, gay-lesbian, women's studies, New Age, etc.). Allen may think enough titles are stocked "to choke a horse" but that kind of image, while dramatic, tells us only that SHE is impressed and frankly, by this time her credibility is shot.

* What is truly atrocious in this article is an out-of-nowhere paragraph in which Allen unnecessarily and unfairly blind-sides public libraries. Chains are wonderful because they "have met a need" of supplying books to the public - but libraries have "ceased to meet that need," she says.

"Too often public libraries lack an adequate supply of books; too often the comfortable spaces that used to be available for relaxed reading and browsing have been swallowed up by computer terminals and video collections; too often staffs consist of untrained volunteers; too often the facilities are closed in the evening and on weekends, while the chain stores, which function as perfectly sufficient reference facilities as well as reading rooms, remain tantalizingly open."

Gosh, sounds a little vindictive, doesn't it? And to what purpose? Librarians are the only reading specialists who are trying to offer state-of-the-art technology for finding information ALONG WITH enough books to "choke a horse," as Allen likes to say. Instead of berating them for what may look to Allen like too much on the technology side, how about THANKING librarians for trying to navigate through this impossibly complicated tangle for our benefit, often without adequate budgets, hours or staff. Just as often as you find a library that appears to have "been swallowed up by computer terminals" (keep looking - the books are probably there), you find one that's not only put the books up front, it's placed many current and best-selling titles next to a cafe that will make people like Brooke Allen feel just as comfortable as if she were in her ideal, the chain book store.

(Comparing chains and libraries is ridiculous! Except for the find-a-book kiosk, chains are hardly "reference facilities"! Perhaps the chain bookstore suffices to some as a "reading room," which is one reason why some libraries have adopted the "Baltimore model" - see #215 - but this is all transition stuff, growing pains. Chain stores have no more stepped into the role of libraries than vice versa.)

Feeling Unriled

Oh well, readers are pretty savvy about all this - in fact, I think they'll skim Allen's article as old news, done to death and by-passed long ago.

But it should be answered by the cultural elitists of our times, though the funny thing is, I've always felt culturally trampy (thank you, Internet!) in this area. Perhaps it's because I admire all independent booksellers (even you crabby cakes) for their courage, their belief in books and especially their "opinionated" approach.

If only Brooke Allen had written an article that included and welcomed everyone to this new frontier we're facing - not e-books, for god's sake. I mean everyone's hope following the lawsuit settlement (which Allen doesn't mention) that independents will continue to survive, even flourish; that the chains will behave themselves and stop trying to dominate the world; that chaos among online retailers will settle down and that the book industry will regain its health (come on, flat sales, pick up! come on, book review space! come on - or wait, hold back - you POD's [just kidding!] and come on, techno- book-filled libraries).

Well, maybe one day. If, by the way, you want to see how readers have reacted to Allen's piece, a good website is plastic.com, that gathering place for the very knowledgable, the very opinionated and the truly berserk. The address for the Atlantic Monthy discussion is http://www.plastic.com/article.pl?sid=01/06/26/068236&mode=thread but I'll add one of the most instructive (a comparison to the chain bookstore situation in Canada) below.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

About the Amazon.com shipping/pricing story, you can read about "customer outcry" in the Wall Street Journal at this link:


Here's my take on the lowdown in brief:

* Amazon.com eliminated or reduced discounts on most of the books they carry. They are very B&N (bricks not clicks) now with only a few loss leaders heavily discounted, and the rest lightly. They have been trying this out for months. If you look at an average, well-distributed book, it's now typically 10% or less instead of 20 to 30%.

* They dropped their per-order shipping price for books to $2.49 from $3.49 at the same time. This lessens the sting slightly.

* They added a $1.99 surcharge per item for all books listed as 4 to 6 weeks availability - special orders. This is on their domestic shipping page, but wasn't on their page explaining changes; I missed this in talking to the Journal, and I'm not sure it's been covered anywhere. It's *per item.*

* The free shipping on two or more items offer is a *promotion* and clearly labelled as such. It's unclear if and when it will end; I'm sure that's something they're testing.

* Free shipping is *only available to US 48 states*! So they've effectively increased their prices without any offer to all their international customers, as well as Alaska, Hawaii, PR, Guam, etc.

So what does this mean? I don't object to Amazon.com raising prices. In fact, they are now charging something that's reasonable, and if they'd charged it all along they'd be profitable now (and wouldn't have built all those warehouses) while not using the financial markets to subsidize unsustainable discounts to their customers.

Essentially, this is the final capitulation: Amazon.com can only say that they offer a different set of options, not a cheaper one, than independent booksellers or the chains.

What I object to, by the way, is that they have created such a complex set of changes that no current customer can easily figure out what it means.

"Let's see, last week I would have paid $72 for this book, and now it's $76, but if I order a 50-cent book, it's free shipping and I would have paid $4.48 before, but I live in Hawaii, so it's not free, and, wait, it's a 4-6 week availability, so as I checkout, I see it's not just $3.49 for shipping, but $3.48 + $1.99 = $5.48."

This is easier? Better? Fairer?

Let's see if they say that when they end the free shipping promotion.

Glenn Fleishman

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Regarding your suggestion that the Association of American Publishers (AAP) take some action in concert with the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) to solve the crisis in book reviewing:

Publishers Marketing Association (PMA), not AAP, is the organization stepping into this kind of void. For example, PMA, not AAP, addressed another bane of the industry - returns - with a white paper report and a panel discussion on the last day of BookExpoAmerica. In many areas, PMA, which represents smaller independent publishers, is stepping in where AAP simply refuses to tread.

In research co-sponsored by PMA and Book Industry Study Group (BISG) published a few years ago ("The Rest of Us"), you can see the dramatic multi-billion dollar industry PMA represents.

Just counting the sales of smaller independent houses contributes mightily to the estimated size of the publishing industry. Smaller independent publishers account for conservatively $14.6 billion up to as much as $22 billion in sales, according to the PMA/BISG study. Compare that with an entire industry that was previously thought to be $23.6 billion.

So, further to the letter from Cynthia Orr at the Cleveland Public Library: I would like to recommend that your readers (librarians, self publishers, small publishers, independent retailers) take the opportunity of creating synergy among themselves through PMA. With more than 3500 members and a commitment to educating publishers about how to connect their offerings to the right audiences, this nearly 20-year old organization has stepped into the vacuum left open by the creation of huge mega-conglomerate publishing.

Bobbye Middendorf

Dear Holt Uncensored (by way of Plastic.com):

Brook Allen should have taken a look at the Canadian publishing and book retail industries for an example of why big-box chain bookstores are a Bad Idea. The following is a quick course in 21st century Canadian publishing:

Chapters is the largest bookstore chain in the country, with about 75 box-box (15,000 to 40,000 square feet) stores. That's a lot of stores -- that would be like B&N owning 700 stores that size in the US.

They were recently acquired in a hostile takeover by Heather Reisman, one of the principals of Indigo, the second-largest Canadian big-box book chain in the country, with about 20 stores. How? Her husband, Gerald Schwartz, has a ton of money and Chapters stock prices had dropped by about 75% over the last few years.

Bear with me here for a sec.

When Indigo started up, it was originally intended to be the Canadian arm of Borders, using the same distribution system. Chapters, however, used the Competition Act to ensure that Indigo couldn't do so. Because books are a protected cultural product in Canada, no more than 25% of a Canadian book company or store can be owned by non-Canadians, and they must preferentially deal with Canadian wholesalers where possible (although there is no restriction on Canadian content as you hear about with radio and TV).

So Indigo was forced to go it alone, which stunted its growth while Chapters continued to expand (even after Barnes & Noble bought a 20% non-voting share in Chapters, in a great irony considering the Chapters-Indigo-Borders spat).

Chapters put literally hundreds of smaller bookstores out of business through predatory pricing and locating, and using their financial clout to essentially force the large Canadian publishers and distributors (until Chapters started its own distribution company!) to give them preferential terms and delivery. Several small chains went belly-up. Quill and Quire, the magazine of Canadian publishing, prints several snippets a month about stores that have gone out of business after a Chapters opened across the street.

So what, you say. That's natural selection.

Not at all -- rather than doing business ethically, Chapters would buy millions of dollars worth of merchandise (the average Chapters store opens with about $6M Cdn ($4M US) in merchandise. This merchandise would be purchased without any real consideration of how it would sell; Chapters stores would have tremendous selections, because whether or not they sold the books was irrelevant.

Why? Because within a year of opening, they would return the unsold books to the publishers. After driving their competition out of business with tremendous selections and discounted prices, the stores could return the bulk of their selection and get cash or credit usable for best-sellers.

End result? Many Canadian publishers who have been hit with intolerable returns from Chapters over the past thre years or so are now on the verge of bankruptcy. In a few years in Canada, you may not be able to buy even ten per cent of the selection of books by Canadian authors because Chapters will have killed the independent bookstores that promoted them and the publishers who printed them.

As part of the Indigo/Chapters merger, the combined company must close and/or sell more than thirty stores (Chapters also owns Coles and SmithBooks, which make up about 90% of the smaller "mall bookstores" in Canada) and sell off some of its trademarks. But really -- who's going to want to buy old Chapters stores knowing that they'll still have to compete with the 800-pound gorilla?


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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