by Pat Holt
Tuesday, October 16, 2001
AMAZON DUMBS DOWN
A funny thing happened to Amazon.com on its way to the "path to profitability."
The once-dazzling website that seemed to provide instant access to many different kinds of books for many different audiences began to take on that dumbed-down look of diet ads and the back pages of comic books.
The change began recently when the Books home page of Amazon.com featured a single headline, "Now you can look inside books at Amazon.com!" with a little - well, what is it? - a book lamp or spermatozoa with eyeballs floating above the pages of an open book.
The idea was that free excerpts are now available at Amazon.com - excerpts that don't appear on the page if you try to print them out, so you can't violate copyright. Amazon wants to make a big deal of this, to say here at last is a way to bring customers the kind of browsing experience they can only get at a real bookstore.
They began (and continue still) with the biggest and most enduring example, Tiger Woods' "How I Play Golf," which has been featured endlessly at Amazon. It's as if the website is saying, Here Is What You Want In an Excerpted Book.
So let's go to the Tiger Woods excerpt and see what we get. First we have to skip over a lot of the obvious front matter - copyright page, flap copy, preface, foreword and table of contents (okay, worth a glance) to the parts that are really written by Tiger Woods.
Well, the excerpts go like this: Page 1 is Tiger predictably welcoming us to the book. Page 2 has three full-color photos of Tiger as a kid, one with Sam Snead, and a sidebar about learning fundamentals. Page 3 has a big half-page photo of Tiger and Ben Hogan and brief text about the toughness of the game. Page 4 offers a full-page artistic photo of what could be a naked Tiger, but he says he's a "naturally shy person" so it must be a press conference in which he's - well, not exactly naked but swinging something that may not be a golf club..
Page 5: A full-page photo of Tiger at microphone. 6: Full page photo of Tiger bopping the ball with his golf club, which I must say is fascinating when he does it on TV. 7: Big photo of Tiger at Stanford; 8: Full-page photo of Tiger on putting green; 9: Full-page photo of Tiger feeling awful about missed putt. 10-11: Big double-truck cartoon of Tiger and some text on "patience and practice." 12. Big photo of Tiger and Dad discussing the concept of "giving back" 13: Three big photos of Tiger, his mom and dad; 14: Half-page photo of Tiger practicing drives; 15: Full-page photo of Tiger looking pensive.
So the point is this: If you want to know whether the book is serious about golf the excerpts don't tell you much. In a bookstore you could flip forward to other chapters and see if Tiger gets down to real information about his technique and approach to the game, but not here. "How I Play Golf," as far as these excerpts tell you, is a Photoplay fan club book with many more photos than text.
Amazon.com says it has thousands of books with excerpts like this, and one hopes that most of them are going to have real text (no photos) on every excerpted page. That's something, but it doesn't in any way duplicate the bookstore experience; in fact the idea that somebody at Amazon has chosen which chapters to excerpt for you is frustrating.
Gradually over past weeks the Books homepage at Amazon has added more titles and lists of books that will appeal to more audiences. But the big feature is still Tiger Woods' book, as if Amazon wants to send a new message: Instead of selling to a vastly heterogeneous audience of many different interests and tastes, Amazon.com would love it if we'd all start buying just one big blockbuster, or a small bunch of popular crowd-pleasers, to make things easier and cheaper for the company in the next quarter. That's what, for them, the "path to profitability" really means.
MORE WEBSITES FOR ALTERNATE NEWS
Thanks to the many readers who have asked that this column return to book industry matters, which I am more than happy and relieved to do. The fact is that beginning in 1998 when the future of independent bookstores and independent publishers looked bleak, I've always considered the theme of of Holt Uncensored to be censorship and its effect - whether from the marketplace or the government - on literature and journalism.
So here are more websites for alternative news sites where readers can find dissenting, foreign and offbeat approaches to the news we are getting from the mainstream press. I vouch for none of these sites, except to say I find them all interesting and valuable in creating a diverse and informed point of view.
Afghan Daily - http://www.afghandaily.com/ - offers an English-language summary that seems to view news and events through a larger Middle Eastern viewpoint with an eye toward the most current news. Yesterday, for example, a story on Colin Powell's visit to Pakistan and the general strike that was planned (see http://www.arabpolitical.com/) brought readers into the thick of the political morass that has overwhelmed Pakistani politics.
The United Nations Refugee Agency - http://www.unhcr.org - offers up-to-the-minute updates on refugee crossings at the Pakistan and (slim hope) Iranian borders, possible airlifts and smuggling operations that are charging $100 for a family of six, "a huge sum in Afghanistan and well beyond the reach of most families. An "Afghan Pictorial," both heartbreaking and inspiring, takes us deep into the tent cities and UN humanitarian aid schools where water and food rationing is "always a problem" among the 4 million refugees in Pakistan and Iran. In the midst of the crowds, it's startling and heartening to see UNHCR's new "goodwill ambassador," Angelina Jolie, covered in appropriate dress, talking with women in the camp.
Z Magazine - http://www.zmag.org/ZNET.htm - offers often neglected critical commentary (Chomsky, Ehrenreich, Fisk, Shalom, Albert) as well as educational articles ("What is Islamic fundamentalism," "Is Hamas a terrorist group?" "What is the legal way of dealing with terrorism?") about the 9/11 attacks and aftermath. It's a very accessible website with great links to sites like Move On, U.S. Protests (current and coming), Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee and many others.
Nygaard News - http://www.tc.umn.edu/~jwalker2/nygaard_notes/ offers both an independent email column and webpage launched from the University of Minnesota with many links to unknown sites (such as Wesleyan students' site for peace)
American Civil Liberties Union - http://www.aclu.com provides excellent coverage of what's at stake whenever civil liberties are given up for the sake of national security. ACLU is well known for its positions regarding free speech and free press, but its thorough analysis of events (such as Congress' passing of the "PATRIOT" bill) affecting Constitutional protections can't be understated.
Arundhati Roy's essay, "The Algebra of Infinite Justice" - http://www.zmag.org/roycalam.htm - though written shortly after the 9/11 attacks, stands as an invaluable statement of dissent about the U.S. military air strikes on Afghanistan from an angry, coldly articulate yet compassionate activist and resident of India and author of "The God of Small Things."
Project Censored - www.projectcensored.org - Ironically, one of the censored stories of 1983 reported how the Pentagon wanted to establish special "state defense forces" to prevent or suppress terrorism. The proposal failed. For more information on this and other occasions of censorship, Project Censored, which has been publishing books with the "top censored stories" every year for over a decade, has the goods.
Osama bin Laden's videotaped statement - http://www.ict.org.il/spotlight/det.cfm?id=688.
Transcript of conversation with Peter Arnett and Osama bin Laden 3/97 - http://www.anusha.com/osamaint.htm.
Robert Fisk, one of the most respected experts on Middle East history and one of three journalists to interview Osama bin Laden, offers an eye-opening essay on Colin Powell's attempt to censor what has been called the Arabs' version of CNN, Al-Jazeera, at http://www.zmag.org/ZNET.htm.
http://www.sahafa.com - see LETTER from Alyce Cresap below.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re your definition of "censorship" in #272.
While I agree that the Concise Columbia Encyclopedia definition is better than the Random House Webster definition, I believe it is still too restrictive.
I would suggest deleting the word "official" from the CCE definition. As Project Censored has proven over the past 25 years, censorship is not restricted to "official" military or governmental groups. Indeed, the most insidious censorship in our society today is from the media themselves who will overlook, undercover, or censor information that might prove hazardous to their profits.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
It may not be about books exactly, but I am *really* enjoying your view of the world these days. I don't entirely agree with you, but that's what makes it so interesting.
On the Coulter front, I find the argument about free press and her self-expression to be tenuous. Hate mongering is all well and good and perfectly protected by the First Amendment as long as it doesn't involve actually gathering groups of people and telling them to kill others directly.
I think the First Amendment actually did protect that last bit, but the courts say otherwise. I don't per se believe that people should have the right to incite other people to violence, but I don't want to be the Solomon who cuts the baby in half trying to figure out that line.
But Coulter is a different story. The problem here is not a suppression of the free press because the people who pay for media and read it don't want to read or pay for what she has to say. When a sponsor threatens to pull the plug, and readers threaten to stop reading or cancel subscriptions, that, to me, appears to be the very point of the free MARKET press. The free market determines what media sinks or swims. This is independent of whether you think that media has been vastly overconsolidated, which it certainly has.
The free press itself is protected by having as many forums open to as many people who wish to express their views in public without government or majority censorship or coercion. Anne Coulter has not lost her forum. The free press doesn't protect your access to 300 million people. Rather, the concept protects your ability to publish and disseminate without prior restraint, without imprisonment, without coercion. She is experiencing none of those things; she is experiencing the market forces that shape what media can produce as acceptable.
It's a completely fascinating discussion to talk about how the free market and free press interact, and one that I think dominates all discussion of all coverage these days, before and after 9/11.
Thanks again for the great writing and information. Some of it makes my blood boil, but it's important to understand all points of view, celebrate them, and then argue vociferously against them.
(Likewise, I never thought that convincing sponsors to withdraw from Dr. Laura's show was censorship, either. Boycotts are an expression, typically of a minority, that attempts to demonstrate their capitalist worth.)
Dear Holt Uncensored:
The Bush administration indeed was very clumsy in its treatment of Bill Maher ó the naivete seemed to me on a par with President Bushís comment in his Thursday news conference that he doesnít understand why the Islamic countries hate us so much.
However, the attempts to ban dissemination of bin Ladenís taped messages donít seem at all out of line. Doesnít anyone else here remember that during World War II the existing high technology, radio, was used by both sides to transmit coded messages?
You said: ďThis kind of statement from the enemy is of course treacherous, manipulative, hate-mongering and inciteful. As propaganda, it's supposed to be. And if we don't see it - all of it - we won't know every reason why this country is at war.Ē
Well, first off, bin Laden isnít committing treason when he criticizes a country to which he has no allegiance. Second, we arenít going to know all his reasons for attacking us by viewing his statements. Since he has identified the source of his rage variously as U.S. troops in Islamís holy cities, the plight of the Palestinians, the bombing of Iraq AND the rout of the Moors at Andalusia we can surmise that he has a generalized hatred of the West and resentment that Islam isnít running the world. However, I donít believe his prepared statements are going to tell us anything we donít already know or suspect and they may well contain messages to his followers. Sure, theyíll use the Internet too, but why should the American media make it easy for them?
So far, the maps and information on troop deployment, which both CNN and ABC have on their web sites, seem pretty innocuous, with no information Al Qaeda isnít likely to have already, and I hope theyíll keep it that way.
As a lifelong journalist, I believe there are limits on the publicís need or right to know. Sometimes itís not censorshipóitís common sense. It may be undeclared, but it _is_ a war.
Sophie Annan Jensen
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You politely declined to respond to the letter in your 10/13 newsletter that began: "Okay, I've had enough. I've enjoyed your lively commentary on the book business, but whenever you veer off into political commentary, you only manage to vividly demonstrate your extreme political bias." I can't let it pass.
Yes, Pat, one could make a case for your extreme political bias. Personally, I find it refreshing that you make it clear where you're coming from. The same cannot be said of most other sources of news and commentary on the publishing industry.
But I disagree with the letter's claim that your column has drifted from publishing to politics. The "deep national crisis" we're facing is, above all, dogma and censorship. September 11 may have reminded some of Pearl Harbor. But the aftermath is much more like the Red Scare than WWII. Quite suddenly, we are being told that the invisible threat is surrounding us again, and freedom must take a back seat to security. "Self-censorship" is patriotic.
All big businesses fall into line with prevailing dogma. The bigger the business, the greater the tendency. Not that big businesses are dogmatic: their drive is profit, not politics. But when dogma prevails, big business finds orthodoxy prudent. This season, the investor-owned publishers and chains will fall all over themselves in patriotism and the officially approved.
Let's hope that the independent publishers and bookstores are sufficiently prescient to seize upon and profit by this temporary vacuum in free thought and expression.
Dear Holt Uncensored: FYI, any of the millions of US residents who have satellite Dish Network TV can watch the Arab network, Al-Jazeerah, which shows the Osama bin Laden videotapes directly. This cannot be stopped unless they decide to make dish TV illegal.
The channel number is 645/651 on Dish Network. Note: There are two different dish systems--Direct TV and Dish Network. Al-Jazeerah is NOT on Direct TV, only on Dish Network. I believe you have to subscribe to the Arabic package to receive it, but I think (according to my friend) that you do not have to pay extra--that it is part of the basic package. But I cannot be sure of that. She simply said that since she does not speak Arabic, she did not ask for it.
You can also receive news via the computer (Media Player) by clicking on AL-Jazeera at http://www.sahafa.com/television.asp
Holt responds: And what a great resource is plain old http://www.sahafa.com (sans TV). Here are news articles written in English from a Middle East point of view and about as current as is possible even from this side of the planet. President Bush's refusal of the Taliban's offer to send Osama bin Laden to a neutral country, for example, was up on Sahafa hours before it hit the wires and websites here.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Osama bin Laden's statement has proven to be a public relations disaster for the Bush administration and a general reminder that the "terrorist" metaphor, constantly being drummed into us by our press, is an oversimplification. Anyone who has studied it carefully finds many interesting gems. For example, the following: "God has blessed a group of vanguard Muslims, the forefront of Islam, to destroy America. May God bless them and allot them a supreme place in heaven, for he is the only one capable and entitled to do so." It is interesting that bin Laden, the good Muslim, admits that he cannot know the mind of Allah. Would that we Americans were also so circumspect.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I just want to echo the other letter writer and say that while I appreciate your commentary, many of your readers are waiting for book industry analysis. I find myself skimming over the media analysis and political remarks because there's plenty of that out there elsewhere. But what we lack is astute analysis of the book publishing industry, and that's what your readers rely on. Certainly, these are unusual times, and I would hardly want to dismissively tell you or others to "get back to the business of America" :-) but I miss your coverage of books and authors and am looking forward to its return.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
No doubt this is only one of many postings you will receive pointing out that Paul Bowles - an upper-class white writer and composer who chose to live in Morocco because it gave him easy access to kif and other drugs and young sexual partners - is hardly a political authority on Islamic peoples. He seems to have enjoyed living among Arabs because they nourished his imagination, which was essentially colonialist. Please do keep up the good work. Your column is a wonderful source of information.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
A key example is what happened to Dan Guthrie, a popular columnist for the last 8 years at the Grants Pass, Oregon, newspaper, The Daily Courier. On September 15, Guthrie wrote that President Bush "skedaddled" after the 9/11 attacks, and that "against their courage [that of the passengers on the airplane that crashed in Pennsylvania] the picture of Bush hiding in a Nebraska hole becomes an embarrassment."
I really enjoy your newsletter. I'd kind of like to see it get back to books, but I understand that speech and books go hand in hand. Regarding the remarks made by Dan Guthrie that Bush hiding out in Nebraska was an embarrassment. Those comments are just plain stupid, and dead wrong.
In a national crisis like the one we had, where we could not say when or if another strike was to take place, the President's job is to STAY ALIVE. It is not to make some bold statement by going back to that big white target in DC. All the major leaders of congress were secreted off to safe places. As the leader of our country, the President is the most important person to keep safe.
Think, if you will, what would have happened if the President had returned to the White House and had been killed proving how brave (and stupid) he was. Would it have added to the chaos of an already chaotic situation? Would Cheney have stepped up quickly enough? Would he have been able to give the country the comfort it needed, because you know every one of us did need comfort? Would he have been able to lead effectively in the days following?
We don't know. And hindsight is 20/20. Let's not second guess, shall we?
For the record, let me say that I was never a Bush supporter. In fact, I still don't much like 3/4 of the things he has done. But I have to admit, he has risen to this occasion in a way that I never suspected possible. Much as I have bemoaned his pig-headed "my-way-ism" in the past, I think he will need it in the future, because the American people are going to get tired of this war long before it is over.
At any rate, let us not forget that in a crisis, the best thing the president can do is stay alive so that he can lead the country. Dying pointlessly in an effort to be macho is stupid. It is stupid when privates do it. It is stupid when lieutenants do it. It is stupid when the commander in chief does it. In our zeal to be brave, let us not be stupid as well.
Mary E Tyler
Holt responds: I see what you mean, but what do you say to people who think Bush could have taken a leadership position by appearing in front of the cameras as he went from place to place without telling us where he was? And do you believe the Air Force One was in danger (Some think this story was to cover his tracks.)
Mary Tyler replies: Actually, I don't think "appearing in front of the cameras as he went from place to place without telling us" would have worked. The single best way to keep a secret is for as few people as possible to know it. The way that those hiding places remain secure is that few know where they are, especially those people with cameras, what do they call em, "the press"? You know, those people who sometimes feel that "the public has a right to know."
Okay, so I am being a bit tongue in cheek, here, but the point remains, we were in a situation where no one quite knew what was going to happen. Until the attacks were "over" no one knew if they were really over. Even now, no one is sure if it is "really over." I'm not sure if the incidence of Anthrax is related or not, but it sure seems suspicious, no?
I live on a military base and we were on ThreatCon Delta Sept 11-13. They evacuated all the civilians, closed the base to all but emergency traffic and went house to house to tell us to stay in our homes. Even now, we are only down to ThreatCon Charlie. I must show an ID and answer questions whenever I come on base. There are jersey barrier barricades and a large truck filled with sand. While the country goes back to normal, life here on base is still a constant reminder. We do not know for whence the danger might come, we can only try to be ready when it does.
As to your question re Air Force One, I don't think they knew if AF1 was in danger or not. The military was on high alert. I think that they did pretty well considering the level of anxiety and uncertainty. Personally, I would rather a president who exercised caution than a brave but dead one.
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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