Holt Uncensored

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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, July 10, 2001





Gee, Little, Brown executive editor Geoff Shandler sure got kicked around in a Publishers Lunch column the other day (7/4), and too bad:

Shandler's comments about a new data-collection system called Bookscan and the abuses publishers might put to it, are important and valuable as the publishing industry finds itself dragged into the 21st century.


The trouble with the book biz, statisticians have always said, is that publishers don't share real data (boy, do they lie!), and bookstores don't report real sales (boy, do they forget!).

Some data-collecting organizations are beginning to gain in credibility, like the Book Industry Study Group (though I don't believe sales have been as flat as the BISG contends). And of course, the one measure everybody follows - bestseller lists - are usually seen as too sketchy and random to be more than popularity contests.

But now comes Bookscan, "the book industry's first integrated sales-reporting system," writes Shandler in The Industry Standard (7/2). Bookscan (owned by VNU in the Netherlands) is modeled after Soundscan, the music business's efficient and automatic monitoring program.

Soundscan has been a great eye-opener because it can collect hard data right from the cash register, separate the numbers into industry music categories and compile an always-updated bestseller list that's more sophisticated and detailed than other lists before it.

The Least Creative Interpretation

That's why Soundscan shook up the recording world when it was first introduced. "Whole genres of music previously ignored were suddenly perceived as wildly commercial," says Shandler. "Those records had been selling all along, just not charting."

Once these hot-selling records/CDs/tapes showed up on the Soundscan bestseller charts, preferential "multiplier effects" took hold - music companies and retailers discounted them, promoted them and gave them better displays, so they sold in even higher quantities.

Because Shandler writes not as a reporter but as a publisher, he can say out loud that he's worried about the abuses of Bookscan, and good for him. We need more of this critical airing of doubts about all new technology, especially as it affects literary "product" (excuse me).

Soundscan is a terrifying example, according to Shandler. Once music companies got hold of its data, "the charts got worse," he says. "That is, just about everything became Britney, Faith, Puffy - in short, junk. Every so often something interesting got through, but on average, records slipped to the lowest common denominator."

The fear is that "Bookscan could do the same thing" - not that Bookscan itself is will be an evil number-cruncher tossing out slow-moving books in preference for high-turnover titles.

Rather it's the possibility that publishers will follow the lazy music-company lead. "The Soundscan experience shows that businesspeople often settle for the least creative interpretation and manipulation of data," Shandler says.

If that happens with Bookscan, he fears, publishers will use the data to make easy, no-risk decisions. Instead of pulling out the titles that have been simmering on the back burner and giving them some extra heat, they'll just turn on the gas under the already-percolating. They'll keep the obvious sellers selling and the lesser-knowns, well, lesser-known.

Publishers Lunch and the New York Times Bestseller List

Shandler also worries that Bookscan could usurp the influence of the New York Times Best Seller List, and it's here that Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch takes issue - mistakenly, I feel.

"The implicit assumptions and accompanying oversights," Cader writes, "are many (no one ever said the Times is abandoning their current system for Bookscan; the newspaper's lists already have ample competition that's based more on straight numbers; additional [bestseller] lists, like those from BookSense, will continue to offer results based on sales positions at stores rather than aggregated sales; B&N moved to their own list a while ago anyway) as is the lack of creativity.)"

Well, all that is exactly the why Shandler believes Bookscan data could be dangerous if publishers misuse it. Since the New York Times Best Seller List lost its hegemony in the mid-'90s (when it chose Barnes & Noble as its "exclusive online bookseller" and many independent bookstores stopped reporting to it), a free-for-all set in: Amazon and the chain stores stopped using it and started their own. The independents created the Book Sense list, as Cader notes. The Wall Street Journal and USA Today created their own as well.

Now, since no single bestseller list dominates, Bookscan can move in and look awfully attractive to those who want it to do the work of publishing for them.

As Shandler indicates, there's something alluring about the way "hard data" seems to measure everything scientifically.

It's much easier to say we have "real" evidence that proves our decisions are right than admit what has always been a sticky truism about the book biz - that publishing is a crap shoot and that literature is better off because of it.

Next: What Fun Is That? Bringing "Hard Data" to Regional Bestseller Lists.



In the column about Rupert Murdoch's obsession with ruling the world via interactive TV (#243), I worried that Murdoch's tabloid mentality would end up dumbing-down print so dramatically that reading, in his global empire, would become unnecessary.

Murdoch is not alone, of course; he's just the latest guy who wants to control TV and the millions who watch it.

But if you've been watching the preview ads on TV for the movie "A.I.," a far more intriguing story involves ways that the Internet has become a counterforce to the Murdochs of the world.

Of course, it's not news that game-players on the Web have learned how to interact with others and solve an unexpected challenge. Suddenly an instant community looms up out of nowhere and before you know it, everybody's in a feverish "open source" mode, developing skills that "smarten-up" rather than "dumb-down" the users.

So here comes the trailer for "A.I.," and what a delightful sneakeroony director Stephen Spielberg has pulled on the vast cyberaudience. In it, a few credits roll as usual, but somewhere in the obvious names (stars, director, etc.) comes a line that reads "Sentient Machine Therapist: Jeanine Salla."

The best description I've seen of what happens when you do a search of Jeanine Salla and "stumble upon" (of course you're led to it) a murder mystery appears in the July issue of Yahoo magazine, written by Josh Robertson.

Taking "first steps of a vast and virtually unsolvable puzzle spread out across the Web," Robertson writes, he knew he was deep into a marketing ploy for "A.I." even though the movie is apparently never pitched. Once you're on "the sphere, as the Net is called in 2142," he writes, you're hooked "in rather devious, startling ways.

"You hit the Back button on our browser and are bombarded by threats. You receive email with secret white-on-white text. You're constantly prompted to log in to this or that site - if you can just guess the password."

It turns out the whole thing revolves around the murder of a fictional biothermal analyst named Evan Chan, and that's the last simple thing you know. The rest leads the user far beyond a marketing scheme for the movie, Robertson says. "Here we have sites, images, sounds, words, plot, nuance, intrigue - a ripping good and often poetic yarn that's as much a work of art as any novel or movie."

But the truly big deal about it all is that no one person can solve the mystery. It's "so complex and real" that it requires the combined brain power of thousands of users, all working like a "swarm" of creative worker bees approaching the Net "as a great hive of thought, buzzing . . . as one super-intelligent entity; each person a neuron firing in a massive virtual brain."

Sure, it's all entertainment, but look at the difference between the mind-challenging effort Spielberg has apparently launched and the mind-numbing passivism that Murdoch's interactive TV will one day instill in viewers, or try to..

How great to know that on the Internet at least, "we're witnessing the birth of a new kind of art here, and whoever's behind it," writes Robertson, "has set the bar quite high."



Dear Holt Uncensored:

I also wrote a letter to the Atlantic Monthly about the Brooke Allen article about you discussed in #247, "Two - Make That Three - Cheers for the Chain Bookstores":

To the editors:

Brooke Allen's paean to chain booksellers, which includes the characterization of independent book stores as consisting of biased and opinionated owners, supercilious sales clerks, and snotty and under stocked stores, is so malignant and mean spirited that it is difficult to offer a balanced response.

Rather than deal with the complex policy issues related to the importance of diversity in the marketplace of ideas, Allen prefers to construct a straw man argument setting up a premise based on Nora Ephron's silly Hollywood romance, You've Got Mail. Allen incorrectly assumes that this premise accurately reflects the biases of America's cultural elite (whoever they are). Allen then demolishes the flimsy premise with withering contempt.

Allen next engages in some unsystematic competitive shopping in which we find that some chain stores have some pretty good books that some independents don't have. She also takes out her tape measure to prove the apparent tautology that big stores are big and small stores are small. From all of this, we are to conclude that chains are good and independents are bad.

Allen goes on to dredge up the tired old argument that mass merchants, such as Barnes & Noble, are really furthering the cause of democracy by catering to ordinary people instead of a cultural elite. It is an argument that Wal-Mart rolls out every time they move into a new community and destroy an existing downtown. It is a rhetorical argument. Although there is some truth to it, the whole truth is more nuanced.

True, all chain stores are not bad and all independents are not good. However a diverse system that disseminates ideas is absolutely essential for our cultural and intellectual health. That system is under attack. Although chains carry a wide range of books, they really aren't that good at discovering emerging literary talent. This job has traditionally fallen to independent booksellers, who are closer to their communities and are better capable of word of mouth marketing through personal salesmanship. Barbara Kingsolver, one of America's finest contemporary literary writers, has stated: "Authors like me would not have a career as a writer if it were not for independent booksellers."

The importance of cultivating diversity is not just an abstraction. Let us recall that in February, 1989 the Iranian government announced its fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Shortly thereafter, America's largest chains including Barnes & Noble, B. Dalton (now owned by Barnes & Noble) and Waldenbooks (now owned by Border's) yanked The Satanic Verses from their shelves nationwide. How sad it would be for us if this important book became unavailable because of a decision by a few executives. Fortunately the book continued to be sold by thousands of independents nationwide.

The culture of independent stores is fundamentally different from the culture of chains. Where chains are formulaic and predictable, independents are diverse, quirky and idiosyncratic -- but always different. This means that you might find a cranky proprietor who won't cash your check. But you might also find a genius or a saint. Go into City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, and you are likely to see Lawrence Ferlinghetti behind the cash register. That won't happen at Books-A-Million.

Independent booksellers no longer dominate the distribution of books in America. But I believe, as do many who have thought deeply on this subject, that we are still the carriers of the values of civility, diversity and respect for literary individualism, values that are fundamental to a free and humane society. For a small number of mass merchants to have hegemony over the universe of ideas is a very troubling thought and one that has already come to pass.

Andy Ross
Cody's Books

Dear Holt Uncensored:

On the question of book reviews, I must give the free-association opinion of a reader of them, a writer of them, and a reviewed writer -- an opinion that will offend everyone.

A basic problem of book reviews is that book review editors and readers see them as a guide to the best literature and a discussion of important issues. By contrast, the writer and his/her publisher see reviews as essential free advertising. That's why the most avid readers of reviews are writers, hoping in vain that the ideal reader will show true understanding of this invaluable contribution to world literature, peace, and progress--or in the case of the reviews of books by other writers, often taking secret, malicious delight in seeing a fellow writer trashed. (Gore Vidal wrote that whenever a contemporary's book gets a good review, "I die a little.")

Like Gore Vidal, I will be honest enough to say that unless I am searching for a review of my own book, I find the book review section of most newspapers boring -- just as the sports fan finds them boring, and skips them. (I was once told, by a book editor who shall remain nameless, that it was better to get a review in a weekday edition than in the Sunday Book Review because you would have more readers who just stumbled on the review, but never bother to open the Book Review).

Why are book reviews boring? From my experience in writing them, I have a couple of ideas. Most major newspapers put limits on the words allowed - 500 to 800 words except for the one major front page review, which gets all of 1000 words. Sound like a lot? Not. Furthermore, the book is assigned, not chosen. And then, the time constraints -- a book is treated like NEWS. The review must appear around the arbitrary pub date chosen by the publisher. Quick deadline, drop your own work and DO IT!

Then there's the money -- negligible. Do you know how much time it takes to properly READ a book? think about it? write a review? rethink and revise it? To suspend your own work to get it in by the deadline, and then find that when it appears, it has been cut and changed without anyone consulting you? (The last time I reviewed a book for a major newspaper review, I was actually sent a set of "guidelines" like a seventh-grade English student, the list of many rules including one that stated I must NEVER NEVER use first person.)

The good, really good writers who will put up with this in the service of literature are heroes. But they are few. Check the blurbs of reviewers, and you will find that most of them are unpublished writers -- getting a review in print is at least SOMETHING in print. And - I sometimes think - being unpublished makes them, well, just a tad bitter and envious toward the person who wrote the book under review?

All of these things come together to close out the good, generous, interesting, mature writers who won't accept these limitations on form and payment, and to create a formula writing that makes the WHOLE FORM of the book review boring.

The New York Review of Books proves that you don't have to pay a lot to get good writing from good people. The NYR articles may be a bit too scholarly for the general reader, but that's not the point. I believe that you can get good writers to write good things for ordinary readers by giving them space and respect.

Finally, until the commercial motive -- on the part of writers, not just their publishers -- stops being the main drive ("How can I get MY book, of the 50,000 published this year, noticed!), things can't get any better. We all have to put aside the rigid form of the hallowed BOOK REVIEW, and freely brainstorm about what would be a really interesting newspaper section about BOOKS. This means not about personalities, not about the latest glamorous hunk who wrote a book, but about the words and ideas of books that makes it possible for us to live our lives. I haven't heard anyone do that. What I hear is people choosing up sides, pro and con, without realizing that neither side (dump the book review section, keep the book review section) is talking about the real problem.

A Reader

Dear Holt Uncensored:

In your last column you responded to "reader" Louann Miller's preference for a store with 200 books in her genre of choice over one with just 50 by saying, "While reader Miller wants the chain store to place a lot of titles on the shelf, I go into many independent bookstores quietly THANKING the bookseller for culling through hundreds of titles to get down to the 50 or so they like and stand by for their customers. I like trusting their expertise."

In the same column you criticize the same chain stores for putting some of the genre stores, the kind that carry hundreds of titles in a genre, out of business and then cutting down on their own genre selections. Yes, the loss of independent genre bookstores is tragic, but you're trying to have it both ways on this topic.

Which is it, Pat? The evil chains have both too many books in a genre to choose from (choice is evil!) and not enough books in that genre to be a choice (no choice is also evil!)? The wonderful indies have both a huge array of titles in a genre (choice is wonderful) and a tiny, culled selection of a few dozen titles in the same genre (no choice is also wonderful)?

When I walk into a bookstore, I want the book I want. I don't want to be told that my favorite author was found lacking or that they object to the story or plotline. I don't want to be told I can get it in a few weeks by special order--I might as well order it online and get it faster or, more likely, go to another store with a wider selection and get the book immediately.

Remember, doing what's best for people like "reader Miller" will make her "customer Miller" but ignoring her needs and wants will only leave you more time to gripe about how it's everybody else's fault that your store went out of business.

Ed Dravecky III

Holt responds: Gee, for the most part, I agree with you, Stickler Dravecky! There's really no "which is it," thank heaven. I want my favorite independent bookstore to carry the books I like and to know what books I may want before I see 'em (that's why it's my favorite), and I want chain stores, if they're going to carry 150,000 titles, or say they do, to offer a true representation of what's available, and I want special interest stores to carry a lot of stuff in their field. Most of all I want all bookstores to compete equally so that people with different tastes than mine will have as many choices in the books they read as I do.

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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