Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Friday, October 5, 2001





It's been great watching former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder perk up the stodgy American Association of Publishers (AAP) with new programs and fresh ideas for the past four years.

As the AAP's executive director, Schroeder has spearheaded the "Caught Reading" campaign in which celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg and Rosie O'Donnell are pictured in full-page ads hiding from everybody to read a book they love (message: Hey kids! Reading is for YOU!).

And she's convinced AAP members - most of them CEOs of the larger conglomerates - to open up the organization to more and more independent houses, even those (dare one say it) West of the Hudson.

To that end, last week the AAP hosted an all-day conference in San Francisco "for smaller and independent publishers," and while many panels were devoted to such nuts-and-bolts issues as publicizing frontlists and mining backlists, a couple of events were newsworthy.

First, this was the first public occasion in which book editor Oscar Villalon announced the San Francisco Chronicle's all-new pull-out book section, which begins publication this Sunday (10/7); and second, afternoon sessions paved new ground in giving equal attention to independent bookstores, chains and the Internet as places to sell books.

About that 'Battle Royal'

In between sessions, I couldn't help asking Schroeder about the controversy that's been raging since February when Linton Weeks of the Washington Post made it appear that Pat Schroeder and the AAP were striding into "a battle royal" against libraries.

The scene was an AAP cocktail reception in D.C. in which Schroeder, "like a nurturing shepherd," wrote Weeks, "moves gently among her flock. But when she talks about threats to [publishers], she stiffens her back. And who, you might be wondering, is giving Schroeder and her publishers such a fright? Librarians, of course.

"No joke . . . Publishers and librarians are squaring off for a battle royal over the way electronic books and journals are lent out from libraries and over what constitutes fair use of written material. Grossly oversimplified: Publishers want to charge people to read material; librarians want to give it away. 'We,' says Schroeder, 'have a very serious issue with librarians.' "

The point Schroeder says she was trying to make with Weeks was that libraries and publishers BOTH recognize the Napster-like threat that could hit the literary scene like a bomb if nobody does anything about it.

Let's say a library could loan an ebook to a borrower who duplicates the text and sends it out all over the Internet. The market for that book would then be dead; the publisher would lose its investment; the author would receive zero royalties; and the library would have to stop loaning ebooks.

"At the time the piece appeared in the Post [February], emotions were riding high," says Schroeder. Some library spokespersons and some publishing heads had spoken abrasively about the issue. Accusations were flying everywhere. Here are three I heard:

1. If publishers are so afraid of electronic piracy, or that libraries would become distributors of free material, why won't publishers encrypt the dang text so that the text couldn't be duplicated and let libraries do their job - loaning out ebooks one at a time?

"Because," says Schroeder, "publishers don't design encryption software. We're not technologists; we're supposed to be worried about high quality content. And besides, nobody's come up with an encryption system that's perfect. Someone will always hack through it.

"Also, the concept of 'fair use' is about intent, and I don't think you can create software that reads intent - software that knows, say, who's going to copy how much of what portion of what text."

2. Why don't publishers work with software manufacturers to create encryption technology that's at least better than what we have?

"We are trying to do that very thing," says Schroeder. "The problem is that so many different platforms are out there - one for Adobe, one for Microsoft, one for Peanut, one for Gemstar. We have tried very hard to create universal standards for digital publishing, but that's how we get into trouble with software makers. These companies are duking it out as to which one will control the market. We don't want to wait that long. We want one standard, and then we want to tell the software makers to work to our standard. They say, 'No, we won't accept yours,' so we're in this push with them."

3. If publishers are losing money because digital text can so easily be duplicated, why are they making libraries pay for the problem? For example, Weeks in his Washington Post article, acknowledging that publishers of academic journals have lost subscriptions when readers started emailing text to each other, quotes American Library Association president Nancy Kranich:

"The reason we're in a bind," Kranich told Weeks, "is that the price of some of the materials has skyrocketed, without any explanation." She said that a chemistry journal called Tetrahedron Letters, for example, now costs $14,000 a year.

Schroeder says that's atypical. "Most of the American journal producers haven't raised their prices to that extent. In fact, unlike pharmaceutical companies, they're giving journals away to developing countries. And while I don't think they've raised subscription fees much beyond the level of inflation, it's true that they would also tell you there are many fewer subscriptions being sold, and they do fund their organizations through sales of their journals. So it is a problem."

More That Weeks Missed

Of course, Weeks didn't go into these questions at any length in the Washington Post column. He mentioned that Schroeder was worried that inter-library loans could be a similar problem (one ebook duplicated throughout the system), and that technology companies have wired up libraries with so much expensive machinery, librarians have no money for content (the implication being they now want content for free).

Weeks' column also made it sound as though libraries may not be accustomed to copyright compliance and are ill prepared to adjust to the complexity of the digital revolution - all of which made librarians hopping mad.

"I keep telling my librarian friends, 'Look, this was a *Lifestyle* piece for the Washington Post," Schroeder says. 'We're more sophisticated than that; we know what the issues are. So why are you feeding into it?"

Perhaps one reason is that Weeks had a lot of fun making Schroeder sound like a combination Miss Marple and General Patton. "Her hair is silver. Her eyes are sparkly. The strap on her purse is short; she clutches it like an AK-47. She is a woman on a mission."

News Media as Fight Promoter

So when the Weeks' column got circulated - and as you can imagine, in library circles it got emailed all over the place - librarians answered in kind. John Berry in the Library Journal started off a column called "With Enemies Like These...." and likened Schroeder to pro-censorship conservatives such as the Family Friendly Libraries. Others followed suit

Schroeder sighs - well, perhaps moans is more like it - at my question about what kind of "battle" this is turning out to be.

"You know, there are days when I think - and I used to find this in politics, too - that the press is more like a fight promoter than anything else. It's as though reporters feel their 'news hook' is another way to stir all this up."

So true! I start to say. Those rabble rousers! Then it hits me that I'm the one using it for my "news hook" this time. More about clarification, then: Surely Schroeder is not accusing librarians of wanting content for free?

"I think everybody knows you can't have everything for free," she says. "Certainly librarians know that. The irony is that we DON'T have a war going on with librarians."

In fact, she says, what didn't come out in the Post article is that "a lot of libraries are forming consortiums and are negotiating with publishers about licensing agreements, so that gradually the question of how to pay for, and how to control the content that comes to you from an author and a publisher through the library is finding some kind of resolution."

The Big Cyber Candy Store

But Schroeder isn't all that happy with technology vendors. It's true, she says, "they've been selling newer and newer systems to libraries and promising that once you get the latest, there's a gigantic cyber candy store of 'content' out there that library users are going to love. But who's going to pay for it?"

Sometimes, she says, "technology creators are like carnivores: They are out there selling newer and more powerful machines that are capable of eating everything content-wise, and copying everything, and putting it all 'out there,' and then making even newer machines to eat it faster and disseminate it faster and copy it faster.

"So you don't see the latest technology operating in a 'preservation mode.' I worry about the shape of our archives in the future," says Schroeder, "given all the changes we've seen."

The Big Omission

She thinks, in fact, that what lies at the heart of this controversy is a core idea that unfortunately not in the column by Weeks.

This is the difference between the idea of information that is NOT free - books and articles by authors and publishers who should be paid for their work - and information that in a democracy should be considered part of a "free-flowing exchange" of ideas.

"Libraries are the place," Schroeder says, "where you, as a reader, should get everything free, because the library has paid for the book or article as part of its collection, and presented it for you to have that privilege.

"I agree with librarians who talk about free expression and free speech. If they use the word 'free' in terms of 'free-flowing' information and 'free access' to ideas from the reader's standpoint, fine. But I don't mean 'free' if it means content that goes unpaid for."

This was all part of the conversation with Linton Weeks, but it apparently it got cut out to make space for the cocktail party's "unusually glittery guest list."

"So the Post column omitted that part; it happens. Of course I was very disappointed that some librarians took the article and slam dunked that thing all over the place - saying, this is why you have to belong {to the ALA], and we have to pound this woman to a pulp.

I told librarian friends, 'You guys, all I said was, we have a problem, and you know that's true.' In my entire career I have always been on the side of librarians, yet they took this article as a double cross."

What does Schroeder think will happen? "I think the rhetoric on both sides has calmed down a lot, and will continue to. Negotiating on licenses between publishers and libraries has made a lot of sense, and will continue to. I'm really very hopeful about the outcome."

She sighs (not moans) as if to say that controversy like this is to be expected. It's not as though she's new to it. "You know, if I had a dollar for every time the Rush Limbaughs of the world took something out of context and went nuts, I would be a very wealthy woman. That's not the case here, but, well, sometimes it feels like it."



Dear Holt Uncensored:

"A Tendency For Censorship"!?! Twaddle!

In your column about Bill Maher's comment regarding "cowardism" on the part of the U.S. military for "lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away," and then you quoted a writer called The Skeptic in the following paragraph:

"When the press secretary of the White House tells 'all Americans that they need to watch what they say,' observed The Skeptic at http://www.UnquietMind.com , he shows a 'tendency for censorship' that jeopardizes the 'pair of freedoms that America is supposed to be about -

freedom of speech and the press.' "

You then tell us White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said "Maher's comment was 'a terrible thing to say, and it's unfortunate . . . There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do,

and this is not a time for remarks like that; there never is.' "

I think The Skeptic jumps to a conclusion and that you do a disservice by reprinting it. You pose this as though mouthpiece Fleischer has any means to control what I say or write or think. (Prior to this crisis, the Bush administration couldn't find its collective a-- with both hands. Now people are comparing him to FDR. Help me!) People are so in love with the IDEA of "being heard," with "being right," and are so strident about "expressing themselves," they often don't listen to one another.

Common sense seems to be a casualty these days, as well.

Howard Cohen

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I would rather read your account of the Bill Maher incident than anyone else's. You get the most information in the most clear fashion with fewest words.

As for free speech, one would have to wonder about the question of prudence. Was it prudent for Bill Maher to say what he did in the way he did? If you try to incite people with your speech, for whatever purpose, laudable or not, you ought not be surprised when you incite them to anger.

You can say what you want, but others are going to respond. Don't forget human nature. What good would free speech be if others didn't care about what you said? And if our government is of, by, and for the people, we should not be completely surprised if some people in government are incited to imprudent speech in response.

Free speech does not guarantee prudence. But clarity, balance, an eye on the proper end of government, these qualities are essential to prudential self-government...

Paul Dry

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I would love to be able to read the Bill Maher transcript but you wrote, probably out of haste:

> [You can find the complete transcript at > .com/primetime/politicallyincorrect/transcripts/transcript_20010917.html > > ],

Could you send the address for the website with the full .com name?


Holt responds: Egad, I forgot the ABC component of all things! It's not a conspiracy! Here's the full address: http://www.abc.com/primetime/politicallyincorrect/transcripts/transcript_20010917.html

Dear Holt Uncensored:

You say the correct response to view with which we disagree with is more speech. And that's just what FedEx and Sears did. By refusing to fund Bill Maher further, they made their point quite clearly. And the ABC affiliates that dropped him exercised their constitution-given right as well.

If Maher says stupid and offensive things--as he has often done--he has to take the consequences. This has happened to numerous other radio and TV personalities, and it's not like he didn't know the rules. After all, it was his willingness to say controversial things that got him the show. Maher played with fire and he got burned. He has the right to play with fire again...but not to expect others to pay for and hand him the matches.

Daniel Bial

Holt responds: Well, whenever sponsors cancel ads because of complaints from callers, I do worry. In this case the irony was that a conservative talk show host in Texas told his audience to call the sponsors and complain. Most of The callers hadn't seen the show so their complaints were not well informed. The Los Angeles Times quoted a spokesperson from Sears who said, "People who called me didn't even know the show's name." Sears then got a tape of the show and read the transcipt, then pulled the ad. Of course that's the sponsor's right; it just sounds backward to me.

Dear Holt Uncensored,

Any overview of commentary on the events of 9/11 would not be complete without a tip of the hat to The Onion for 26 September 2001 (Volume 37 issue 34). http://www.theonion.com/

Yes, the language is strong, the news articles often tasteless, but these guys aren't afraid to speak out and describe things as they see them. To give the flavor of a few of the more restrained items on the front page, I like the cheeky sidebar that announces "Hugging up 76,000 percent" and "Rest of Country Temporarily Feels Deep Affection for New York."

In case anyone isn't paying attention, there's a serious message here: the article following the headline "Arab-American Third-Grader Returns >From Recess Crying, Saying He Didn't Kill Anyone" reminds us just how stupid we can all be when hysteria strikes.

The news articles are accompanied by many banners and links referring the reader to major donation and information sites -- the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, FEMA, the New York Firefighters' 9-11 fund -- to further drive home the point that if someone is speaking out against the stupidity of the government or their fellow citizens, it doesn't mean that the speaker is anti-American.

It's important to remember that the best satire is often written by the ones who love the target most; they have a deeper understanding of what makes it good than the people who ridicule things simply because they don't like them.

P.S. Here's one from the International section: "New Cambodian Barnes & Noble - Will It Threaten Cambodia's Small Book Shops?"

Jan Murphy

Holt responds: Just to show how subjective this sort of thing can be: I love the Onion, too, but I felt the editors went too far with the 3rd grader story (that's too close to reality!), while the headlines that did find humor in tragedy in my estimation (how could you miss these?) were the ones that deftly exaggerated everybody's point of view:

"U.S. Vows to Defeat Whoever It Is We're At War With"

"Hijackers Surprised to Find Selves in Hell: 'We Expected Eternal Paradise for This,' Say Suicide Bombers"

"A Shattered Nation Longs to Care About Stupid Bullshit Again"

All tasteless, all the time!

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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