by Pat Holt
Friday, December 7, 2001
ASK THE (OCCASIONAL) ETHICIST
I never thought I'd laugh out loud while reading a book about Osama bin Laden, but two references in Peter Bergen's book, "Holy War, Inc.," caught this reader (surely one of many) off-guard.
Bergen is the former CNN producer who brought correspondent Peter Arnett to Afghanistan in 1997 to conduct bin Laden's first-ever television interview for the English-speaking world.
By that time, the Taliban, which had taken control of much of the country during the mid-1990s, had instituted what Bergen calls wide-ranging "Tali-bans" - prohibitions of soccer, kite-flying, music, television and the appearance of women outside their homes without a male escort.
The list is familiar to Westerners by now, but Bergen adds another item: "Some of the [Taliban's] decrees had a Monty Python-esque quality," he writes, "like the rule banning the use of paper bags on the remote chance the paper might include recycled pages of the Koran."
Well, the Western reader (okay, me) can't help but burst out laughing and maybe even think, heavens, who in the Western OR Eastern world would not find such arcane parochialism amusing?
But then Bergen gets to the part where the CNN envoy drives into Jalalabad. Passing the city's bazaar, "I was puzzled by the many carpets in the middle of the streets," he tells us.
"Someone explained to me that this was a trick of local merchants, who laid out the carpets so that passing cars and trucks would roll over them and give them the authentic 'aged' look prized by gullible Western buyers."
Well, touche, Afghan merchants! What could be more equally arcane than the "gullible Western buyers" who fall into rapture when they spy authentic Afghanistan dirt that's been ground into Afghan carpets - not by centuries-old use but by Russian military vehicles used by the Taliban?
All this brings to mind the also arcane ways that people place value on things (I realize this is a flimsy sequel, but stick with it for a moment )
For example, in the last column (#285) I wrote about websites that focus on selling new books at the lowest possible prices. That's nothing new: Used-book dealers have always offered new books as potential collectibles (first editions, sometimes autographed, of books by up-and-coming or famous writers) as well as ARCs - advanced reading copies made up of uncorrected bound galleys that publishers send out to reviewers before publication.
BI (Before the Internet), this trickle of new books in used bookstores (except for places like The Strand in New York and Writers Bookstore in San Francisco, both notorious for selling reviewers' copies by the ton), had little effect on sales in "new" bookstores.
But AI (anno Internet), the speed with which new books have been showing up on the Web has been astonishing. These slash-'em-up websites make no bones about offering "Brand New and Super Cheap" books that leave prices at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com, let alone those in independent bookstores, in the dust.
Happily, the question of how we value books is the subject of a January 2002 article in Consumer Reports. The issue is not on the stands yet, but CR subscriber Euan Bear critiques carefully in LETTERS below.
Here again, the point is made that service, ambience and (this is implied) trust are more meaningful than slashed prices: Most customers (88% in the CR survey) said they are "either completely satisfied or very satisfied with their experience at independents, which puts those stores on a par with the highest-rated stores from any Consumer Reports survey in recent years."
Well, it's about time: After surviving three decades of challenges that trounced every other retailer (competition from chain stores, discounters, price clubs, superstores, Wal-Marts and Amazons), independent bookstores have proven their worth one customer at a time, continued to make a profit, collected sales tax and provided a wide diversity of titles that give American readers true choices in the books they buy.
So now it's increasingly painful to see new books not only fly onto the Internet as used books but also described as bearing a "small remainder mark," when these titles won't be remaindered for a year or more.
Even worse is the new book listed as an autographed first edition that's considered the first of "multiple copies to come."
A description like that makes it appear that the bookseller is sending teams of agents out to independent bookstores, where the author signs books for lines of customers, not realizing that many of the signed books will become the very "multiple copies" that are soon to appear on the Internet.
Well, you can't stop people who are taking advantage of the new technology, whatever it is, to make money outside the system.
But I do think that as customers and readers, we can acknowledge that ethical considerations do exist, and that there is a profound connection between the health of independent bookstores and the choices we make.
More bookseller websites to come next week.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I just got my copy of the January Consumer Reports containing their analysis of booksellers (pages 22-26).
While castigating independents for maintaining near-list and list prices on books (versus online used and new book sites offering as much as 57% off list), Consumer Reports congratulates them for service, ambience, and customer satisfaction.
"A seller that satisfies everyone is almost fact or not quite fiction. Independents come closest - if you don't mind paying nearly full price. Altogether the dozen independents we contacted cut a mere 2 percent off list price for our market basket of 10 books (see box at right). The service and ambience were so good, however, that readers don't seem to mind. Eighty-eight percent said they were either completely satisfied or very satisfied with their experience at independents, which puts those stores on a par with the highest-rated stores from any Consumer Reports survey in recent years."
Further, CR reported, "When readers requested books that weren't in the store, independents were successful at ordering them 96 percent of the time vs. 88 percent for chains and 79 percent for web sites. Readers also judged independent bookstores the most comfortable places to shop."
The article also spent a couple of paragraphs relating the decline of independent bookstores to the increase of chains and the slowing of the decline to the Booksense program.
One statement in those two paragraphs gave me pause: "...superstores have siphoned business from independents (though some people contend that chains have been a boon for consumers who live outside major cities)."
I recently visited Brattleboro Vermont (population approximately 13,000), and was amazed and thrilled to find four (or was it five?) independent bookstores within a six-block downtown area. So, guess what, big-city literati, small towns can support independent bookstores, too!
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Until Booksellers, the National Chains and the Independents, focus on selling books rather than presenting books, only the trucking companies that ship books from and back to publishers warehouses are going to get rich from the book business.
We need to work on the sales and eliminate the returns. Markdowns happen every day in virtually every retail outlet with the exception of bookstores. We can no longer look for discounts to solve the old age problem of selling at retail price and then giving up. Turn inventory into Cash should be our mantra.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You do yourself and your readers a disservice by lumping ABEbooks.com in with the rest of the (usual) suspects you rounded up for issue #285. ABE is a godsend to anybody who wants to get out of the new book rut and explore the whole history of printed thought. Sure, I like what the ABA is doing [with BookSense.com], but let's face it - you go in one BookSense store and - unless they sell used books - you're not going to see that many books that you couldn't find at your local B&N. Some times I'm just not in a "76" kind of mood - I say more power to ABE and the thousands of truly independent booksellers who list their treasures on the site.
Holt responds: I hesitated putting ABEbooks in that list because I've admired them for a long time re USED books - it's just that NEW books are getting thrown into the same system so fast that ABE ends up competing in the same way as the others. It's not their fault, but there you have it. Or am I missing something (again)?
Pete LeBar replies: No, I wouldn't say missing something, but I guess I question your (implicit) assumptions that a) every new book sold via low-ball channels means a lost sale for some independent; thus b) all such bargain outlets are bad. Or at least that's the way I'm construing your logic. I'm not so sure it's that kind of zero-sum situation. Although I do agree with you that consumer education is vital for long-term survival of independents.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Just to clarify [re #285], when I use ABE.com etc. to find out-of-print books and then buy them directly from the bookshop that has listed them there, is that unethical? Hope not.
Holt responds: Not at all: I think buying direct from the bookstore as the original source is the most ethical way when you're looking for used/op/rare books, and that's why ABEbooks.com gives you that choice. But buying a book you know is new from a website that lists it as used, however - well, I'd say, speaking personally, that's unethical.
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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