Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Friday, October 19, 2001


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How strange to read in Publishers Lunch, which refers us to Monday's article in The Times of London at http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/0,,2-2001355805,00.html , that Iceland, the British supermarket chain that bought the retail Booker company last year, plans to pull out of sponsorship of The Booker Prize, Britain's top literary award.

Okay, the cost of maintaining the Booker Prize is 300,000 pounds, not exactly cheap, but so what? Iceland, with its huge budget and corporate clout, could contribute a nice chunk of that cost and build a coalition of companies that could surely make public-relations hay by rescuing this great literary tradition and giving it financial security at last.

But Iceland isn't going to do that. Instead, a spokesperson for the Booker Prize stated lamely to The Times: "Iceland feel that their sponsorship of the prize is inappropriate. However, they are working with us to find a suitable home for the prize. They are not just dumping us."

What a term. Let's hope that's not what they do. Either way it's tragic that Iceland didn't leap at the chance to give the Booker Prize a secure new home.



She's been criticized so much for her remarks in the New Yorker about the events of 9/11 that David Talbot of Salon.com feels it's time to give Susan Sontag a chance to respond. This he does at http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2001/10/16/susans/index_np.html.

In the New Yorker, Talbot reminds us, Sontag savaged both the government and the press "for trying to convince the country that everything was OK," after 9/11, "that our attackers were simply cowards, and that our childlike view of the world need not be disturbed."

For this, critics have called Sontag a "moral idiot," a "traitor" and an "AmericaHater" along the lines of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

These are strong accusations, and Sontag responds to Talbot's questions with appropriate gravity. But her most refreshing comments take place, I think, when Talbot asks what Sontag thinks of the Bush administration's request that TV networks not show any more videotapes of Osama bin Laden.

"Excuse me," she snaps, "but does anyone over the age of 6 really think that the way Osama bin Laden has to communicate with his agents abroad is by posing in that Flintstone set of his and pulling on his left earlobe instead of his right to send secret signals?"

Sontag's humor also emerges when she talks about her position on the war against terrorism: "My position is that I don't like throwing biscuits and peanut butter and jam and napkins, little snack packages produced in a small city in Texas, to Afghani citizens..."

She's of course most direct about civil liberties during a military offensive. "I just don't understand why debate equals dissent, and dissent equals lack of patriotism now."

But for me, the one thing I'll never forget is Osama bin Laden and "that Flintstone set of his." Now that is real propaganda.



Here's a revealing thought from a columnist - Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle - who I bet represents a lot of people:

"For a long time, I've been doing a lot of my shopping at Amazon.com, but the site has gotten immeasurably worse - cluttered and filled with silly pitches ('If you liked COD: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, you might want to buy some high-quality reproductions of 15th-century cod-pieces'), and the convenience factor has decayed.

"I've been up to Cody's Books on Telegraph Avenue, my fave East Bay bookstore, three times since Sept. 11. There is something comforting about real books, rows and rows of them, and real humans gathered in peace to wander around the world of ideas.

"I like the people at the information counter, too. Ask them about COD, and they will walk you over to its place in the store, meanwhile telling you an anecdote about the author, or about Nova Scotia, or about a book they read last week claiming that herring was really the fish that changed the world.

"It's good to talk about fish. Perhaps that's what I have that passes for wisdom at the moment: It's good to talk about fish."

Well, it's good to talk about anything with real people these days in a face-to-face environment like a bookstore, instead of holing up with our computers as we had increasingly begun to do before 9/11.

So this brings us to the first of the Three Good Changes - in fact, Three Complete Turnarounds - that have occurred since Sept. 11.

  1. RETURN TO COMMUNITY: Remember Robert D. Putnam, the Harvard political scientist who spoke at the American Library Association (ALA) convention about his book, "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Renewal of American Community" (see #244)?

    Putnam presented convincing evidence of a sharp decline in the rate of Americans going to church, voting in elections, joining groups, playing bridge, participating in local arts and engaging in sports; he also showed that people are less willing to give blood, interact with neighbors, sign petitions, write letters to the editor, even attend picnics.

    But all that changed with the events of 9/11. Today we seek community, we give blood, we send emails to the editor, we're concerned about the world, we join political and humanitarian groups, we search for renewed spiritual connections, we leave the computer and go to the bookstore and we feel a kinship with everyone from fire fighters to military personnel, no matter what "side" we're on. What a time! It's not a foxhole mentality but a breakthrough, an awakening, almost a hunger, and it's not going to stop anytime soon.

  2. INTEREST IN 'FOREIGN' NEWS - Observers have long worried about diminishing news reports from countries around the world: Newspapers and radio/TV networks have closed foreign bureaus, relied on "pooled" media services, and increasingly reported on rioting and wars in foreign countries rather than on human interest stories of very different people who also happen to be "just like us" in faraway lands.

    Well, what a turnaround has occurred since 9/11, American audiences can't wait for reports of the latest developments in world news, certainly in the Middle East but also in places like Ireland, China, Colombia, Japan, Kenya, the Philippines, Cuba, Germany and Australia. Previously unknown books about the Middle East but again about other parts of the world have been flying off the shelves.

    The most immediate hope is that instead of regarding all "swarthy males" as The Enemy, even alarmist-sounding columnists like Ann Coulter (see #273) may be intrigued by "people stories" from the Middle East: Are families who are fleeing Afghanistan going to make it to Pakistan? What is life like in refugee camps? Do humanitarian aid groups make a difference? Can women lead independent lives under the Taliban or the Northern Alliance? What is it like to live anywhere but the U.S. in the 21st century?

  3. AN EXPECTATION OF RESPONSIBLE JOURNALISM - For years, audiences have complained that the media hit bottom with obsessive coverage of Monica/O.J. stuff and must now buckle down and get serious.

    Well, they are! The press at home seems to glow with a new professionalism, and very good reporters are traveling all over the globe as though on a mission.

    One senses an international sensibility developing among journalists - a way of reporting that regards the United States not as the center of everything but as part of the world community. What a great idea.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

Here's an interesting book-related topic that has popped up recently: According to Publisher's Lunch, the forthcoming book from the Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams is most likely going to be cancelled after he had already been paid a $600,000 advance and his agent is "considering" dropping Adams as a client because nobody wants to be perceived as having anything to do with terrorists. Does this mean that Nelson Mandela will be persona non grata in the media because of the ANC's history?

For that matter, many of the older members of Likud, the ruling Israeli Party, including Sharon I believe, had a great deal of experience with terrorist tactics when they were trying to drive the British out of Palestine and get them to endorse a Jewish state. It will be interesting to see how broadly or selectively this chilling wind blows.

Steve Adelson

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Like many small presses, I believe we have much in common with independent bookstores--the most important being that we're trying to make it in a market where "brand name" is, supposedly, the norm. (Think "Kleenex" for tissue, "Barnes and Noble" for bookstore, etc.)

So what are small presses supposed to do when independent bookstores order autographed books directly from them, rather than through Ingram or B&T, and then the independent bookstore won't pay? We extend a 40% discount (30 day, returnable), pay the shipping, and then we ... wait for payment.

Currently we have three invoices outstanding that the owners of the bookstores simply will not pay. We've invoiced, sent collection letters, and we've ... waited. Six months in one case! These aren't "unknown," "Mom and Pop" operations. These are legitimate bookstores with solid reputations. Yet another independent bookstore (national recognition, reports to the NYT) didn't pay for seven months. And then wanted to quibble over the amount. We finally accepted the $975 they offered, though they in fact owed us closer to $1,200.

Barnes & Noble, On the otherhand, pay on time and in full if they place a special order. As does Amazon. Both of these corporations are supposed to be the "bad guys." And yet, they pay their bills.

I would be curious to hear what your other small press and independent bookstore readers have to say on this subject.

Fran Baker
Delphi Books

Dear Holt Uncensored:

You wrote:

"I can't believe the five major television networks have agreed, as announced yesterday, to 'abridge" all future videotaped statements by Osama bin Laden or his followers by removing 'language the government considers inflammatory.' Since the TV execs agreed so quickly (after 20 minutes in a conference call with Rice, for heaven's sake) for reasons that at least one of them said were 'patriotic,' it seems likely that the government is hoping for other agreements down the line. Let's consider what this kind of 'patriotism' means. Each time an agreement is made, the American public's right to know is diminished, and eventually we'll be left to wonder if we can trust what TV news anchors and reporters tell us ever again."

I generally agree with you, but in this case, I think that until most Americans learn that there's a difference between a Sheik and Sikh, we should be doing some homework, not sitting riveted to the tube watching disaster happen. It's the same (to me, unfathomable) weird and morbid curiosity, which makes so many people hang on every minute of "reality" TV, that drives them to want to watch bin Laden. If we really want to know what's going on, let's read some of the good books that are out there for the picking right now. THEN we can start to complain about lack of information. I, too, hate the idea of censorship, but I have to agree that it may, until we know exactly what we're dealing with, be necessary.

Clint Cavanaugh

Dear Holt Uncensored:

A quick note of thanks to you for providing the valuable give-and-take analysis of events over the last several, tumultuous weeks. Your comments in particular have been helpful in cutting through much of the nationalism and spin.

Especially helpful has been the growing list of alternative news websites you've provided, many of which I've seen mentioned nowhere else. It's been frustrating, as the owner of a small bookstore, to not have been able to acquire and provide for my customers as quickly as I'd like the popular titles of history and current events, books whose small quantities sold out within days after Sept. 11. At least we can pass on your roster of informative Web sites to my customers who say they are hungry for a more balanced and meaningful view of history and less control of the news than they say has been provided by the mainstream media.

I recommend that you explore and add to your list the Web site for the Institute for Public Accuracy: http://www.accuracy.org. As a former journalist who has gloomily observed particularly over the last decade or so the remarkable decline of objectivity, fairness and balance in much of the news coverage, I've been heartened to find such beacons as I.P.A. and the other organizations whose Web sites you've publicized.

Mark Nemmers

Holt responds: Thank you, and what an incredible resource for journalists is http://www.accuracy.org! Here on the 10/16 page devoted to "Food to Afghanistan - Analysts Available" are statements and email addresses of experts from CARE, Christian Aid, Doctors Without Borders, Conscience International, OXFAM and Center for Economic and Social Rights, all of whom have experience bringing aid to refugees in Afghanistan and Pakistan. On the 10/15 page are authorities on nuclear weapons; on the 10/11 page are experts on the First Amendment. Most, as far as I can see, offer critical or dissenting views of current U.S. policy/

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Mary Tyler's point about Bush's movements immediately following the September 11 attack would perhaps hold water if his subsequent behavior indicated thought, confidence and prudence. But in the light that it took him three days to get to New York City I don't buy that his skedaddling all over the country was anything except panic.

I also disagree with her point that the president's job is to stay alive. Frankly, and I think we all have to be honest about this, the thought that Bush is actually somehow vital to this country in any other way than a figurehead is ridiculous. The fact that many of us believe him to be better than we expected only shows what low expectations we all had in the first place. His speeches are obviously fed to him and painstakingly read through a teleprompter. He still is not a thinker nor a man to inspire confidence. He is in no way a great leader. The idea that somehow his life was intrinsically more valuable (to the country) than comforting and calming the American people as thousands were dying in the rubble of the World Trade Center is specious.

Betsy Schneider

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I am a stay-at-home-Mom, with 3-year-old twins, a 7-year-old in school, and a 21-year-old in transition. I have never written to any column, but I must say a little something in appreciation for your newsletter, since most people seem to have developed an aversion to hearing the alternate side of issues since September 11. With all of the negativity that the press has fed the American public about our presidents in the past, the censorship of comments is so obvious that I just wanted to let someone know that "we the average, busy people of America are aware of what is not being said," and it is insulting to our intelligence. On another note, I have been a loyal customer of Amazon.com for years, and I was truly offended, then disappointed, at the changes in their website. Thanks for putting it in words for those of us who are not so prolific. Also, thank you for bringing a variety of viewpoints to your readers. After all, books and publishing cover everything, and your newsletter is testament to the type of information that can be found when we read.

Rosa Partee

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I find myself in the position of once again defending a company and site that I usually criticize. I think your criticism of Amazon's "See Inside" feature is somewhat unfair.

I think it's valid to criticize the choice of which book that includes this new feature is promoted from the home page and I think it's also valid to criticize the artistic merits of the icon and whether either of these "dumbs down the site."

But I don't think it's valid to criticize the usefulness of the feature itself. Is it easier for the customer to make a purchasing decision with these pages or without them? I think the vast majority of customers would agree that it's easier to make that decision with these pages. Is it even better to walk into a bookstore and scan the entire book? Of course it is. But in my opinion, when selecting titles online, this is a great aid; just as the cover photo and professional reviews are useful.

Book e-commerce sites have featured a number of "first chapters" and tables of contents for many years. In some cases, these were presented as only text and in other cases they were presented using HTML tagging to make the pages more presentable. Amazon takes it one step further by presenting scanned images of the pages.

One of the issues for bibliographic publishers and e-commerce sites is that data has to be integrated in an extremely efficient manner or the costs make it impossible to execute. There are also rights issues. If an editor has to make value judgments over which pages are the most useful to include, imagine the time and cost of including just 20,000 products, which is a tiny portion of the overall database. (And in the case of a novel, the first chapter is probably not the best section to include anyway. I always wanted to include "second chapters".) Most publishers will only give permission to use covers and first chapters in any case.

I do have one criticism of the execution. As you view each product, a suggestion appears at the top of the page to view another product that includes the feature. This suggestion appears to have absolutely no relationship to either the product in current view, clicks or past purchasing. For example, upon viewing "The CISSP Prep Guide: Mastering the Ten Domains of Computer Security", the site recommends that I 'see inside' "Olivia Saves the Circus." No bookstore clerk would ever be dumb enough to make that same association unless I was standing in the computer book section accompanied by a complaining four-year-old.

Martin Brooks
BOL.com Product Development

Holt responds: It does seem clear from the way Amazon makes such a big puerile deal out of the "look inside" campaign that the company wants customers to think the browsing function is just as good, just as much fun and just as informative at Amazon.com as it is in a bookstore. The customer return rate at Amazon.com is still so lousy it wants to stop people from going back to bookstores, and this is one way to keep 'em at Amazon. So rather than being "unfair" I thought the column was more of a way to counter such palaver, and then of course one full-page picture of Tiger after another was just too funny to pass up. It was as if Amazon was saying, "Want to browse? Well, here are a lot of color photos because there's almost no browsable text!"

Martin Brooks replies: My view has always been that a good site will give as much information as possible about a title, in order to facilitate the purchasing decision, but without overwhelming the customer. That's why I added professional book reviews to the Books In Print CD-ROM back in 1987. I have to believe that is Amazon's approach to adding the scanned pages.

If I understand your views correctly, you feel that any enhancements Amazon makes are with the intention of taking business away from a bookstore. I really don't feel they think that way. They've got plenty of customers who come to the site, but only a small percentage of those buy. They're looking at increasing revenue from those who already come to the site. After all, they're not doing any offline marketing to promote the new feature. And getting existing customers to buy more is much less expensive than acquiring new customers. That's why e-commerce sites have all but stopped doing off-line marketing. It's too expensive to acquire new customers and they already have tons of customers who aren't buying or should be buying more, based on projections of the lifetime value of a customer.

Let's say I need a book about HTML programming. If I search a site, I will get back hundreds, if not thousands of hits. So how do I know which book is the one that's best for my need? I might be looking for something that's relatively basic, very concise and graphically presented. Sites generally don't tell me that, at least not directly. In a bookstore, I have the ability to browse a great number of titles in a very short time. If I'm in a really good bookstore, maybe the clerk knows the books well enough to suggest which one is best. Images of pages help the user in this regard.

One of the weaknesses of e-commerce sites is that they never compare products. Instead, they try to present results sorted by relevance or by sales and they present customer reviews (which I personally think are useless) to attempt to provide enough information to make the buying decision. So most sites are great if you already know what you want but they're not so good if you don't know what you want. And the more titles they place on the site, the worse this situation gets. This is why small, specialty bookstores are frequently much better than large ones -- because they make selection decisions, just as libraries do.

Recorded music is no different. If I search for a performer who has been recording for many years, such as B.B. King, I'll get back hundreds of hits. There are probably more than ten different recordings entitled, "The Best of B.B. King. " Which one is the best? What's the difference between them? Without this info, most users just close the page and defer the purchasing decision.

I have to believe that Amazon added the page scans because they believe that it will help them close sales by providing more information about a title to the potential purchaser. It's a very simple business case: "if we invest X in content acquisition and development to display these pages, what will the return on investment be in terms of increased sales?" I assure you that someone at Amazon developed a business case that promised an increase of sales of X% from existing customers. They did not make the business case that if they added these pages, they would take more business away from physical booksellers.

Holt (can't help it) responds: It isn't that the decision-makers at Amazon.com want to take business away from independents but rather that they want to stop the hemorrhage of what I thought were customers leaving the site and returning to "real" bookstores. I can't believe they haven't had their eye on that percentage of sales bookstores have held onto even when public enchantment with Amazon was at its height. But I see the "buy rate" you're talking about is even more crucial to them than that.

Martin Brooks (who can't help it even more) responds: I didn't realize there was any evidence to document that users are leaving sites and returning to bookstores, but even if that's accurate, and maybe especially if that's accurate, it still provides a benefit to the user to be able to view the page scans when searching for books on the Amazon site.

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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