Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored

 

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  #287
by Pat Holt

Tuesday, December 11, 2001

 







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MORE INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ON THE WEB
QUOTE OF THE DAY
LETTERS

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MORE INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ON THE WEB

Egad, so many Letters have come in, and I just want to make this one point, that when a new book is sold on the Internet as a "used" book, my main concern is that the author will not be paid, and secondly that booksellers who primarily sell new books will lose the sale.

Meanwhile, excuse me for running overtime on these fabulous independent bookstores on the Web. I'm still not even making a dent in this lengthy list of Internet indies, bless 'em (and as a break, don't miss the onstage interview with Isabel Allende next time).

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ANDREA'S BOOKSTORE - http://www.andreasbookstore.com
Now in its 11th year, this Palatka, Florida, bookstore has some great tips for fans of Florida. Take the local bestseller, "Deep Water" by S.V. Date from Putnam, a satire about planned communities as only folks in Florida know them, in which the planned development of Serenity, Fla., turns out to be not so serene after all. The site also provides descriptions of each year' Sunshine State Readers, a motivational reading program co-sponsored by the School Library Media Services of Florida's Department of Education. Students in grades 3 through 8 read and review the books, take tests about them and vote for their favorites in the spring. But hey, this is the Internet - readers who don't live in Florida can take advantage of these librarians' great selections from current trade publishers' lists. Searchable.

BOOK ENDS: WINCHESTER'S CORNER BOOKSTORE - http://www.bookendswinchester.com/
It's fun to visit the historic corner in scenic Winchester, Mass., where Book Ends has been "an independent, community-minded bookstore since 1982." This is the cozy kind of store that hosts such customers-of-all-ages events as an Arts & Crafts Family Afternoon, and it keeps an eye on local authors such as Maria Testa of Portland, Maine, who came out of Yale Law School with her heart on fire to write books for middle-grade readers (yay, Yale!). Her first novel, "Some Kind of Pride," features an 11-year-old girl named Ruth who plays baseball in the style of her mentor and namesake, Babe (Babe RUTH, you see) (attempt at humor mine, not the store's). If you live far away and are looking for that perfect gift for a New Englandophile, one gets the feeling you could call or email this store and find some terrific suggestions. Searchable.

SAM WELLER'S BOOKS - http://www.samwellers.com/
First, take a moment to read this magnificent bookstore's turbulent history, which begins with migrating German grandparents who in 1925 opened a bookshop specializing in Mormon books and whose son, Sam, while resisting his father's insistence he take over the store, grew up with a "zealous commitment to finding books" of all kinds, "even a few contraband Henry Miller titles." Sam Weller, still in his mid-20s, saved the store from severe debt after World War II and again pulled it from disaster after a crippling 1972 fire, from which he carried out armloads of inventory until forcibly restrained by fire fighters. Rats, I'm using up all the space for store history, but the wonderful part is that Tony Weller, though he too resisted his father Sam's wish that he take over, has clearly kept the store healthy through a number of drastic changes in downtown Salt Lake City until the place is by now bursting with titles, new and rare, reflecting Tony's proud and curmudgeonly watchcry, "We have more books than sense." You can feel that energy and the crammed-with-books atmosphere all over the website. When Tony discovered that "Thunder Cave," a Depression-era children's classic, was out of print, Weller's published the book under its own imprint, Western Epics, and received blistering protests because some of the book's references, acceptable for the time, are considered racist today. Tony Weller's defense of the decision to publish the book without sanitizing it is a ringing endorsement of free speech that is heartening. The site is, of course, a great place for regional titles and its Author Spotlights (Tony Hillerman, Terry Tempest Williams), offering staff reviews and chunky excerpts, are a delight. Searchable.

CANTERBURY BOOKSTORE - http://www.madisoncanterbury.com
"Welcome to Canterbury," the home page greets us, "conveniently located far from reality." This cozy Madison, Wisconsin, bookstore does come to us as if in a dream - you can almost walk into the photos of the store's interiors - and it even offers a way to visit dreamland through its unique Frequent Buyer Program: Since Canterbury is both a bed-and-breakfast and a bookstore, your online book sales could earn you a free night for two in one of the six guest rooms (including The Wife of Bath!) upstairs - the equivalent of a 20-30% discount. Of course you have to have plans to visit Madison, but if you don't, here's another great independent that tries its darndest to send you autographed copies to online customers who email their requests before the author event. Since Canterbury's reading series has featured such writers as Kazuo Ishiguro, E. Annie Proulx, Tim O'Brien, Chinua Achebe, Gita Mehta, Ivan Doig and Sherman Alexie, for collectors this could be a site to watch. Searchable.

MYSTERY LOVERS BOOKSHOP - http://www.mysterylovers.com
"Nothing says happy holiday to me more than curling up in a comfy chair with a special hot chocolate (from the Mystery Lovers pantry, of course) and a good mystery," writes the host of the cheerfully murderous page called "Holiday Homicides" at this enthusiastic Oakmont, Pennsylvania bookstore. And what a great idea this is: "A special gift basket of mysteries and goodies can extend the merriment to friends and family." Put in a couple of holiday murder novels such as "Rest You Merry," "Mad as the Dickens" and "Corpus Christmas," add some books-adapted-to-famous-movies such as "Laura," "Strangers on the Train" and Cornell Woolrich short stories including "Rear Window" and you've got a true "basket of goodies" even if the person on your list is not a mystery lover. For those who are, though, the MLB staff has the goods on all those character series that dominate the mystery scene and has brought that expertise into a search program that leads even veteran mystery lovers to books they didn't know existed. Searchable.

KEPLER'S BOOKS & MAGAZINES - http://www.keplers.com/
"What sets Keplerís apart is its history, function and attitude," we learn in the About Kepler's page. The description accurately characterizes the store as "a literary living room" where readers from all walks of life - including those who attend and teach at nearby Stanford University - gather to "relax, meet friends and share ideas." The best part is "attitude": Kepler's still retains the tough-minded independent stance of founder Roy Kepler, a conscientious objector during World War II who stocked so many kinds of books that store windows were often shattered by pipe bombs and antiwar celebrities like Joan Baez were as much celebrated as protested. Today, through the lens of Roy's book-loving and far-seeing son, Clark, the store continues to take stands (it was one of the major plaintiffs in the ABA lawsuit that resulted in Penguin's settlement of $25 million). But best of all for the Internet reader, its "Staff Recommends" page offers some of the most insightful and articulate store reviews I've seen in bookseller websites. About "Golden Gate" by Richard Misrach (Arena), who took 85 photographs of the San Francisco Bay from his Berkeley Hills porch "at different times, weather and conditions," Kepler's staff member Nancy Wirth writes, "Viewing the photos, itís easy to fantasize the bridge as a sea serpent with two vertical scaly fins that mystically unites the aspects of land, sea and sky, while tiny car-pests run along its back." This kind of originality abounds at Kepler's, a store to bookmark for its voluminous "Kepler's Kids" page and its uplifting (with post 9/11 thoughts) Holiday Showcase. Searchable

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QUOTE OF THE DAY:

From PW Newsline's story about Jack Welch's book, "Straight from the Gut," which is about 200,000 copies short of earning out its $7 million advance. This is according to Larry Kirshbaum, CEO of Welch's publisher, Warner Books.

The quote:

"Asked generally about the wisdom of high advances, Kirshbaum said that a million dollar advance to a well-known author is often a better strategy than a high six-figure advance to an unknown."

What an interesting idea! Let's think about that. It could be that so many publishers are paying high six-figure advances to unknown authors these days that one wonders what ever happened to 4-figure and 5-figure advances. Such nostalgia! Or do we just not hear about advances in the lower realms?

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I need the help of your readers, especially as I'm not a Mac user. My daughter is, courtesy of New York City public schools, but the latest school budget didn't include the iPod.

I was fascinated by Apple's latest ad, the one for iPod, the music downloading device. As our 40-something music lover dances out the door listening to one of his 1,000 downloaded songs, a little message appears on the bottom of the TV screen: "Don't steal music."

Yes, brother! I agree! Napster is the epitome of the gimme gimme online generation. All free, all now, all for me. Screw the artist, screw the copyright. Give me music free! You go, Apple, for coming out against that mentality.

But wait. Screech! Like the Road Runner (whose company has yet to wire my street for DSL) pulling up in front of the stack of feed left by Mr. Coyote, is Apple really coming out against stolen music, or just covering its ass?


Dear Holt Uncensored reader, help me. I truly want to hear that Apple paid some rights money to the artists whose songs can now be slapped on the iPod. Both to established bands and to new artists who get screwed every other way. Who can enlighten me?

And hey, how 'bout the Supertramp comeback, courtesy of Gap? I'm sure they got paid, rightfully so.

Carl Lennertz
Book Sense guy


Dear Holt Uncensored:

You wrote:

"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."

Two little points -- selling advance readers copies or ARCs has been and still is illegal. It's been "overlooked" over the years because it was mostly out of sight, out of mind. But with the internet, the selling of ARCs has become a big, visible business. If I were a publisher, I might wonder about the cost-effectiveness of printing and distributing ARCs, given the wholesale abuse. And if they do cut back, it is independents who will be hurt most.

Also, while Writers Bookstore may be notorious for selling reviewers copies, that's nothing compared to its history of fencing stolen books. (I hate to see them even acknowledged in print). Not a criticism -- just my personal hatred seeping through...

Curmudgeonly yours,

Hut Landon


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I love independent bookstores. There are none -- NONE -- here in the capital of Maryland, Annapolis, so I treasure the moments I can get in Chapters, or Politics and Prose, or Olsson's whenever I get into Washington, DC. Sometimes I even allow myself the luxury of buying a full-priced book at one of these stores because it happens to strike my fancy. (I don't mind so much at Olsson's because their "frequent buyer program" gives me a savings certificate for every $100 I spend.) But the fact is that, particularly in this economy, every cent counts, at least in my family. I don't buy anything -- clothing, shoes, food at the grocery store -- that isn't on sale. My gift of choice for nearly all occasions is a book, and if I can save money, I'll do it. I've just finished my Christmas ordering from Amazon.com -- yes, that terrible company. I was able to purchase $200 worth of books and music for $157. No tax, no shipping. That means that I have $43 to spend on something else for my children for Christmas, or to save toward the tuition payment we have due in January. If circumstances were different, sure, I'd only patronize those wonderful independents -- and they are wonderful -- but that's not a realistic choice for me and, I suspect, many others.

I agree with you about the ethics of buying a new book as a "used" one. I do draw the line there. But that's a personal decision. The issue is much bigger and more complicated than simply the decision about where to buy a book. The problem isn't with the financially-strapped customer who needs to buy the book at the lowest possible price, but the system that sets up the situation in the first place. Rather than tsk-tsking someone like me, who makes the necessary choice to buy a book from Amazon.com or another bookseller who deeply discounts books, you should be focusing on -- as I know you have -- the inequitable wholesale discounting system and the returns policies that result in the wide price discrepancies in the retail book market.

I don't pretend to know what the answers are. Is seems obvious to say that there should be a level playing field for chains and independents, so that independent booksellers could sell books at competitive prices, but then the publishers complain that they can't make money. And the sad fact is that most publishers, even the very large ones, work on very small profit margins. If there's a profit at all. I think that it's an issue that needs to continue to be addressed, as I'm sure that you will. In the meantime, however, I think that you need to temper your criticism of those of us who need to make our purchasing decisions based on economic realities.

Laura Strachan

Holt responds: No doubt I get a bit strident about "that terrible company," Amazon.com, but I hope customers are comparing prices when it comes to Amazon's often changing and often minimal customer discounts. True, independents' discounts may often be smaller than Amazon.com's, but they also will include free postage, which means that savings are larger. And granted, I'm not a parent so this is easy to say, but your short-term advantage at Amazon does lead to a long-range threat in terms of the kind of free speech and expression, and free debate, that must be preserved and defended if children in the United States are going to enjoy the benefits of democracy.


Dear Holt Uncensored:

A couple of comments about your remarks regarding ABE (Abebooks.com) - my apologies for the length:

In replying to one reader, you said, "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)?"

...and again, you said "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."

I guess I am not sure here what you mean by "new" books - are you referring to "unread" books, fresh from the publisher? Or books that have just recently come out and are still in print? A significant percentage of the "new" (in the sense of never previously sold to the public) are remainders being sold on ABE directly by Dadaelus, HamiltonBooks and other smaller remainder houses. These remainders are also sold by hundreds of "independent" booksellers, both used and new, on-line and those with brick and mortar stores.

The fact that recently printed books wind up as remaindered so quickly is hardly the fault of those booksellers who sell on ABE, but was a direct result of changes in the tax law. I think being able to find a large quantity and variety of remainders is one of the advantages of a site like ABE. An awful lot of remainders are really good books, and this gives them a second chance of being sold. As an independent bookseller who buys in quantity from the remainder houses and resells some of these books on ABE, I would certainly prefer it if the remainder houses weren't competing directly with me on ABE - but the Internet in general has increased the level of competition in all sorts of different ways.

Among the other new books which I personally might be offering for sale are those which I buy directly from a small publishers whose books are not available in much of the country. I select these books carefully and I am willing to be patient and sell them over a long period of time (no returns to the publisher if the book doesn't sell quickly). Again, I see this as providing a real service to both the buyer and the small press publisher. (In fact, I still have some copies of a book which I bought back in 1996 and again in 1997 directly from the publisher, and to which you wrote the introduction...... but my supply is dwindling).

Other "new" books which we sell are signed copies or are the first printing and in those cases, the books are usually priced at a premium for those collectors or buyers who are willing to pay more for such copies. If I am listing a signed copy of a first edition at 50% or more over the published price, at the same time as a regular new bookstore is selling a later printing, then neither one of us is really hurting the other's sales - we are looking at different markets. In fact, a significant number of these autographed copies which we offer for sale were purchased from independent bookstores at full price in the first place!

If another bookseller on ABE is selling the same book at half the published price, even signed and a first printing, then yes, that will delay the sale of my copy - but if it is a "good" book, then eventually these cheap copies will disappear.

All of the above examples are "new" books, in the sense of being unused - but they are either hard to find (in the first printing) or collectable (first edition or signed) or no longer generally available (remainders or from very small presses with limited distribution).

Alternatively, one could define "new" books as those which just came out, and which are being sold as "used." Literally within days of a book being published, there will be copies in a used bookstore somewhere - or in thrift stores or at library sales. I am sure that you did not mean to imply that it is "unethical" for anyone (a used bookseller or just a bookbuyer) to buy a book in one of these venues, just because this title is also being sold in new bookstores at the same time ..... nor can it possibly be construed as unethical if a bookseller who sells on ABE, in looking thru the used books available in stores ("independent" bookstores, both used and new) or thrift sales, garage sales, etc, selects what he considers the best of them, and offers them for sale on line.

Many online booksellers will try to select their used books not just for content and edition, but also for condition - so sometimes these books appear brand new, but technically they are used - even if the shrinkwrap is still present - because they were bought on the secondary market.

Anyhow, while one might find a few objectionable examples on ABE or any internet site, in general, I do not think one can call the selection of books on ABE, or the buying of any books there "unethical." And for the most part, the quantity of a particular title is so insignificant compared to the number of books being sold in bookstores, that I don't think they can have a significant effect. 50 copies of a recently released title is a lot to find on ABE - but the bookstores might be selling literally thousands of copies of that same new title every month!

Let's use a specific example: Franzen's THE CORRECTIONS, which has been out a while and is being sold in large numbers by independent bookstores. ABE lists 101 copies of this book. Of these 101 copies, 80 are first printings (with the error) or signed or both, and are listed at prices ranging from $30-150 - or more than list price (in fact, 52 copies are $50 or more) - then there are a few copies of the UK edition, a couple of audio/cd versions and some at "list" price. Of all of those copies, only 9 (some of which are described as 'new' - but others as only 'very good') are being offered at under the list price. Not exactly damaging competition for the new book stores. Furthermore, I will bet you that if you checked WHERE the booksellers offering the collectable copies (signed and otherwise) bought them, you will find that a significant percentage came from new bookstores at full or almost full price in the first place!

Finally, one comment about the Consumers Report article - in talking about "hard to find" books, the article mentioned that NONE of the independent bookstores were able to obtain copies of out of print books for them!! Can this possibly be true? Are independent bookstores universally ignorant of ABE and other online sites as a resource they can use to order oop books for their customers? ABE even has a program called "book case" which is designed to make it easy for independent booksellers - and which is free to stores -

Chris Volk
Christine Volk & Shep Iiams, Booksellers


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I have been following your comments regarding used books with interest. I don't wish to step into the mare's nest of debate concerning whether it is right or wrong to sell or purchase new books as used books, but I did want to call your attention to some industry statistics that came as a surprise to me.

Specifically, I saw a report within the past six months or so to the effect that sales of used books were in fact declining year by year and had now dropped to 3 percent of total books sold. I will qualify these figures in a moment, but the astonishing items for me were (a) the small percentage of used books sold and (b) the fact that the number was dropping, whereas I would have thought it was rising, rising, rising.

Regrettably, I don't have the citation for this report at my fingertips; I believe the source was the Book Industry Study Group, but I am not sure. In any event, the ultimate source was not some Internet junk site or some other wholly unreliable purveyor of (mis)information. Of course, once you begin to focus on the figures, a number of questions arise. Is the 3 percent figure measured in units or dollars (this is very important, since used books typically sell for around half the price of new books)? How do antiquarian books fit into this? Are the figures for trade books, or do they include college texts, where used books have been built into a minor industry? And most importantly, if the figure has *dropped* to 3 percent, what level did it drop from and over what period of time? This raises the important question of future trends. If the figure were to hover around 3 percent, perhaps there is little reason to make a fuss, but if it were to rise to 20 percent? Hmmm. I am not aware, however, of any reliable data that suggests that the percentage is growing, though perhaps the innovations with used-book merchandising at Amazon and elsewhere have not yet found their way into the statistics.

Another issue here is, Are some categories of books more likely to be sold in used form? My anecdotal evidence (based entirely on the fact that I spend most of my discretionary time browsing used bookstores) is that used books are skewed toward books of intellectual distinction: literary fiction, serious nonfiction, and the like. If this is true (and we really need the hard work of shoe-leather research to find this out), then the points you have made about no revenue going back to the publisher or author are disproportionately true for the kind of books that serious readers most appreciate. How disproportionate? Without the empirical data, we can't know for certain.

On my bedside table the current stack of books numbers 10: 9 used, 1 new, all "literary" or "serious" except for one popcorn mystery novel (please, God, be tolerant of my weaknesses!). Our household is surely in the top 1 percent of U.S. households in terms of dollars spent on books. Why don't we buy more books new? Money. If we (family of 4) only purchased a book each month, the incremental cost of a new hardcover would be negligible. But when you purchase 4-5 books each week, out comes the calculator. There is an interesting marketing opportunity here for some creative individual in connecting the industry's best customers with the products that yield the best return.

Joseph J. Esposito


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I am a used/op book dealer who sells through ABE.com.

Publishing houses are remaindering books faster than ever. The hardback editions of a book, especially fiction,†are now typically remaindered as soon as the trade paperback edition is released. This can be as soon as 6 months after first release of the hardback.

The real culprits here are the publishing houses dumping their backstock of hardbacks into the used and discount†market while their retailers and secondary marketers are still trying to sell what is still new on their shelves.

John Campbell


Dear Holt Uncensored:

About Booksense.com, I tried it a couple of months ago for a hard-to-find book. The website told me Booksense had the book and then - I assume based on my zip code - directed me to what may or may not be my nearest participating store. So I tried to order the book, but the bookstore told me it did not have the book and could not get it for me because it was available only through something-or-other (I forget, but that's why it was hard to get in the first place). I went back to booksense.com, but the program had assigned me "my" bookstore and would not provide any other that actually did carry this book. (I assume that some participating store must carry the book; otherwise, the program would have told me the book was unavailable, I'd think.)

The bookstore the program assigned me to seemed to be a lovely place, and the people there were congenial and apologetic. But it's 50 miles away from me. Even if I was a zealous shopper, which I'm not, that's too far away to browse.

In summary, I guess I'd say I'm a dissatisfied would-be customer.

A Reader

Holt responds: I asked BookSense.com chieftain Len Vlahos to answer this customer's many questions. Here is his reply:

First, thanks for the wonderful coverage of several truly excellent BookSense.com stores. If only there were room to review all 260! (One minor point relevant to what is to follow, the database is 2.6, not 1.6 million titles.)

Okay, my thoughts on your reader's email below:


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I tried Booksense.com a couple of months ago for a hard-to-find book.

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Just to be clear, this customer was shopping at www.booksense.com, and not at one of the individual participating stores. It's the same database behind each, but I think the problem below would not have been encountered had your reader been shopping at one of the stores you reviewed.

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The Web site told me Booksense had the book and then--I assume based on my zip code--directed me to what may or may not be my nearest participating store. So I tried to order the book, but the bookstore told me it did not have the book and could not get it for me because it was available only through something-or-other (I forget, but that's why it was hard to get in the first place). I went back to booksense.com, but the program had assigned me "my" bookstore and would not provide any other that actually did carry this book. (I assume that some participating store must carry the book; otherwise, the program would have told me the book was unavailable, I'd think.)

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BookSense.com's database of approximately 2.6 million titles is not store specific. When a customer searches for a book on www.booksense.com, we're not assigning that sale based on which store might have the book in stock, but rather, on geography. We find the closest participating BookSense.com store to the customer's zip code and assign that store to the customer's shopping session. Customers can also search for stores and link directly to the store of their choice, rather than shopping through the BookSense.com website.

If you look at the language on the site, particularly the inventory statuses as well as language in the checkout process, we try to make this clear, But if feedback like this is telling us we need to make it more clear, we will.

Having said that, we are in the process of adding functionality that will allow each BookSense.com store to upload its own inventory position on titles listed in the database. This will give customer's much better information, hopefully avoiding the situation faced by your reader.

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The bookstore the program assigned me to seemed to be a lovely place, and the people there were congenial and apologetic. But it's 50 miles away from me. Even if I was a zealous shopper, which I'm not, that's too far away to browse.

+--------------------

Of the more than 1,000 Book Sense locations, approximately 260 participate in BookSense.com. While a customer can search for any store that participates in Book Sense, the system can only assign sales to those stores that use BookSense.com as their website. Sometimes, but not always, this means that a customer will be presented with a store that's bit further away.

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In summary, I guess I'd say I'm a dissatisfied would-be customer

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It's always sad to hear this, but any business will occasionally have unhappy customers. My hope is that we can learn from this to make the service better for participating stores to minimize any customer dissatisfaction.

Holt responds to Len Vlahos: One part of it I'm not following: I was surprised the bookstore said the book was too difficult to order; when you have a shared database of 2.6 million aren't all the books equally accessible?

Len Vlahos replies: As with any database of books, the availability varies from title to title. (It's true of all websites that sell books.) Our site currently shows one of five distinct inventory statuses for each ISBN listed:

  • Not Yet Published -- the book is more than 10 weeks from its scheduled publication date.
  • Coming Soon -- the book is within 10 weeks of its scheduled publication date.
  • Usually Ships in 24 - 48 Hours -- either Ingram or B&T has it in stock and ready to ship in at least one of six warehouses.
  • Special Order -- neither wholesaler stocks the book, but it's still considered "in print."
  • Out of Print -- self explanatory.

In the near future we'll be allowing stores to optionally upload their own in-stock positions for items in our database, which will add an "On Our Shelves Now" inventory status to the five listed above.


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.

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