by Pat Holt
Friday, January 25, 2002
REMEMBERING PUBLISHERS GROUP WEST
One morning in the mid 1980's I remember standing at the state-of-the-art "pick line" at the center of Publishers Group West's giant new (at the time) warehouse.
What a thrill it was to watch workers and conveyor belts and computers and snatch-and-grab-it machinery contribute to "fulfillment" of every kind - filling orders from thousands of bookstores, of course, but also filling the dreams of hundreds of independent publishers who believed their books would change the world.
Only a decade before, co-founder Charlie Winton and his partners had started PGW in a garage with very few clients, many one- or two-book presses with no track record and great books (though often not great-looking books).
PGW's idea, relatively new at the time, was to build a sales force of its own and aggressively sell books from one bookstore/wholesaler/territory to another, rather than simply stock the books and wait like a wholesaler for orders to come through.
And Winton did more: He delivered regular payment to cash-poor independent publishers who were accustomed to being the last vendor to be paid; he made it easy for independent booksellers to buy from a wide array of books without drowning in paperwork; he got orders for books from chain bookstores that would never have considered listening to a sales pitch from the smaller presses; and he established an in-house department to help independents with deadlines, editing and book design.
Soon the energy coming out of PGW was so high you could feel the sparks flying. That runaway bestseller of the late '80s, "50 Simple Things You Can Do to Change the Earth," was a product of the PGW collaborative model; the sudden renewal of interest in JFK assassination books started at PGW.
Practical guides were sold as ardently as literary books - in fact, for a few years in the mid-90s, recipe books for juice makers outsold all others and paid a lot of rent at PGW.
Clients of PGW also learned the benefits of co-publishing. New World and Carroll & Graf, for example, co-published a book called "Work With Passion," which hit Publishers Weekly's hardcover bestseller list - a first for the tiny New World.
And it goes without saying that if the reps at PGW hadn't personally convinced independent booksellers to take a chance on an unknown writer named Charles Frazier, his novel, "Cold Mountain," would have been colder than a mountain mackerel only a few weeks after publication - instead of becoming the long-term blockbuster and prize-winner we remember today.
In the process, PGW brought Frazier's publisher, Grove, into the spotlight as a serious contender among corporate-backed mainstream publishers.
This was nothing new. From the smallest New Age (and NEW New Age) to the obscure or forgotten literary, how-to, pop psych, Eastern philsophy and good old-fashioned children's/travel/women's/gay and other special-interest presses, PGW developed a way to position each client company both within and beyond trade categories.
Its secret was simple: Unlike bankrupt distributors before it, PGW did not fall into the trap of selling the hot titles and skipping the slowpokes. For one thing, the company's distribution was much broader; and sales were judged not by high numbers but by publisher intentions. For another, the reps elicited the kind of word-of-mouth that kept books selling beyond the usual publishing seasons.
Perhaps most important, especially today: PGW goes everywhere - conventions, exhibits, conferences, academia, nonbookstores and the Internet. Titles that might not have been considered for literary prizes become visible to judges - last year alone, five major awards, from Coretta Scott King to Newbery Honor to Caldecott and more, went to PGW children's publishers.
I'm sure PGW has a lot of problems that critics like me don't see. And I know distributors exist around the country that give as much support to their publishers.
But since I witnessed the combustion build at PGW in such a way that readers ended up with more options about what they read rather than fewer, I worry very much about the abrupt announcement of PGW's sale to Advanced Marketing Services last week.
AMS is, after all, the opposite of PGW. It's the one distribution company that has ONLY been interested in the kind of bestselling books it could load into the big bins at Costco and Sam's warehouses by the ton and at enormous discounts.
When AMS tried to "diversify into higher-margin businesses, mainly by starting a distribution business like that of Publishers Group West," as the New York Times reports, it stubbed its toe. Now it's picking up PGW for a comparative song with no understanding - at least none stated so far - of the way PGW has kept books selling and publishers publishing for many years.
It may be that the two companies will "stay separate" for at least a year, that AMS head Michael Nicita truly is looking for more "under the bestseller radar screen" books that PGW represents [and sell those books where?], and that PGW now "gets to operate with a lot more resources [what are they?] and a lot larger platform [to do what?]."
But down the road a year or two, when Charlie Winton has left PGW to run Avalon, the group of publishers he nurtured at PGW and will buy back from AMS as part of the deal, this marriage between distributors with conflicting philosophies is going to hit some purty stormy patches.
If the result is that some publishers will be thought of as less salesworthy than others - and therefore expendible - and that some titles will be thought of as too expensive to produce - and therefore not worthy of publication - well, you can consider this merger yet another nail in the coffin of American literature. It's not that American literature is dead, but rather that it's struggle to grow is getting deathlike.
ABOUT THAT 'FIRST PROFIT' AT AMAZON
Amid the celebrations on Wall Street that Amazon.com has finally "turned the corner" on profits and is "going to put on good quarter after good quarter" from now on comes a key point picked up by SmartMoney.com this week.
Amazon, writes Lawrence Carrel, would not have reached profitability "without an approximately $16 million gain from revaluing its euro-denominated debt at the end of the quarter.
"The company also doesn't predict another 'real' profit soon, but expects to break even in the fourth quarter of 2002."
Gee, sounds a bit like the smoke and mirrors that convinced Wall Street the Books, Music and Video divisions at Amazon.com have been profitable for years.
On Wednesday, Slate.com noted the same problem - that "Amazon's standard-rules profit depended in part on the weakening of the euro, which had a positive effect on its overseas debt payments to the tune of $16 million" - which makes Amazon's announcement "fall a bit short of a watershed moment in the history of retail."
I'll say. Take away the $5 million profit (real, not pro-forma) Amazon says it made and the company is still $11 million in the hole.
One supposes profit is possible if it's true that Amazon's international sales went through the roof and its huge marketing/advertising budget was cut drastically. But I don't know how a company can lower book prices and offer free shipping (for orders over $99) in a recession and come out with a profit for the first time in its ME! ME! ME! LOOK AT ME! (but not too closely) life.
Perhaps the best news for booksellers is that Amazon's announcement will probably mean nothing. Independents rode out this threat long ago when they found their own way onto the Internet by bringing the unique character of their store to customers online. (See a list-in-progress of booksellers on the web on our Online Bookstores page.
I don't worry either about that free freight policy, which Jeff Bezos has said will become permanent, and which Barnes & Noble has just duplicated, while Books-A-Million has taken a step further (free shipping for 2 or more items). Many independents have been offering free shipping for orders over $25, so if it's a freight game you want to play, Jeff, better ante up a little more.
Meanwhile with Amazon's book pages looking so dumbed-down ever since the company started giving readers peeks at excerpted pages (and not very well - half the time they're out of order!) and pushing used books, one has to wonder if Amazon is back to luring customers at any cost.
Remember when Amazon.com said it was going to act responsibly and cut back on those huge discounts? Well, go to the Books home page and there you see a 30% OFF notice on books over $20 - i.e., just about all hardcovers listed. That'll wow 'em in the next quarter.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You made an error in your review of the movie, "A Beautiful Mind." John Nash did not receive electroshock therapy. Rather, what we witnessed was insulin shock therapy. The former, now called electroconvulsive therapy, is still being used as a treatment for clinical depression and other types of mental illness, albeit less often now that effective psychotropic drugs are available. Insulin shock therapy has not been used in more than 50 years because it is not effective and extremely dangerous -- even fatal in some cases.
I liked your review. Kind of nasty, but your points were well taken.
Holt responds: Nasty? Moi? Pardon my error re Nash's shock therapy - the movie was careful to show that it was insulin, not electroshock therapy.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I can't resist adding to your on-point analysis of Hollywood and "A Beautiful Mind" with a criticism of the movie itself. I almost walked out in disgust after the scene in the pub where, we are to understand, Nash's "original idea" about game theory comes as he calculates how he and his buddies can get laid. They all want to get laid, but they also all want "the blonde" among her dark-haired friends; what choice should each man make to maximize the desires of all?
The so-called genius of men built upon the bodies of nameless women. Sounds about right.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
What book has ever been done by Hollywood completely and uncensored? Do you happen to be gay? Is that why you are so upset with that part of Nash's life being left out? I disagree - I don't think Russell Crowe looked particularly "beefcake" in this movie, in fact I think he gave up quite a lot - almost opposite ends of the spectrum from his "Gladiator" persona.
To have put in his homosexual escapades would have merely added a sordid element to an otherwise uplifting film. Most of the educated, thinking public understands that movies are still movies - even when they claim to be based on a "true story."
I enjoyed the movie completely and have taken the time to find out other information via the Internet, including the information which you shared.
Holt responds. Gay? Moi? Not only that, I have *feminist* blood in me, too. One does expect a certain amount of sanitizing from Hollywood, but this (leaving out extraterrestrials, divorce, child neglect, arrest, other lovers gay and straight) was beyond the pale, I thought.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Certainly Hollywood has been sanitizing people's lives in film biographies practically since the dawn of film. Accomplishments are exaggerated and those little nagging details are conveniently left out.
Just pretend when you go to a film biography that the film has absolutely nothing to do with that particular person's life and enjoy it for what it actually is: An entertaining (hopefully) diversion for a couple of hours.
As I am pitching my own film book, "The 100 Greatest Film Biographies," I am placing "A Beautiful Mind" in the top 50, just after "The Jolson Story" and "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," but definitely ahead of "Rhapsody in Blue" and "The Story of Alexander Graham Bell."
I do see what you mean - instead of resenting the "Mrs. Parker" movie as a vehicle for Jennifer Jason Leigh, we should enjoy a sourpuss performance within the context of the movie presented. I guess it was when she read DOROTHY PARKER's poetry that I had a hard time separating the two. But what would be your, say, Top 10?
Greg Hatfiled replies:
We know from history that there was a writer of light verse and a book and theatre critic named Dorothy Parker, and she hung out with the famous Algonquin wits and later went to Hollywood to work on a myriad of things. As a fan of hers and that crowd, I was pleased no end to see my heroes, such as Alexander Woolcott, Robert Benchley, etc., represented on the screen,much as it thrilled me in my youth to see George Hamilton and Jason Robards play Moss Hart and George Kaufman, respectively, in "Act One," the movie.
That film is no more accurate than any of the others. Indeed, according to the newest Moss Hart biography, "Dazzler" by Steven Bach, Moss Hart's own autobiography, "Act One," is embellished, and Hart tinkered with the facts of his life for his own purposes. Does that in fact diminish the book in any way? "Act One" has been cited as an influence for many a person entering theater as a vocation, much like the fictitious writer's room from the old "Dick Van Dyke" show has influenced a generation of comedy writers.
All I'm saying is simply don't go see movies for history lessons or accurate biographical stories. See them for their entertainment value. So, with that in mind, and since you asked, here are my Top Ten Greatest Film Biographies ever made:
9. Somebody Up There Likes Me
8. The Miracle Worker
7. Bonnie and Clyde
5. Abel Gance's Napoleon
4. Lawrence of Arabia
3. Raging Bull
Of course, your list may vary.
Holt replies: PATTON? Well, of course my list "may vary"! How could anyone forget "I'll Cry Tomorrow"?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Your discussion of what gets left out of film adaptations reminds me of my favorite book-to-movie effort. Have you seen the Claude Lelouch "Les Miserables" movie with Jean-Paul Belmondo? I loved the Hugo book, despite its digressions and unlikely coincidences, and have not enjoyed other movies, or the stage version. Lelouch, however, does not try to produce a Cliffs Notes version of the Hugo. He reimagines it in 20th Century France and the result, I think, is much closer to the spirit of the original than those who try to hew too closely to the original. It's a complement to the Hugo, not a replacement.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
While I agree with much of what you've said about the film, "A Beautiful Mind", Hollywood has been changing the facts in biographical films for years, including but certainly not limited to:
*Changing the nature of the plagues from the account in the Bible in "The Ten Commandments."
*Having Houdini (as portrayed by Tony Curtis) die as a result of performing the water torture trick, instead of the reality: he was punched in the abdomen by a student before he had time to prepare his muscles for the attack and as a result, his appendix burst. He performed anyway, but the entire show consisted of card tricks.
I also understand that the so-called hero of "Black Hawk Down" is actually serving time in jail for child molestation or something similar. Iím sure your readers can identify many more examples. Frankly, Iím not sure that many Hollywood screenwriters understand the distinction between "fiction" and "non-fiction."
However, it seems to me that each time Hollywood does this, it makes for a great marketing campaign for bookstores. "Want to know the real story? Read the book."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You say about Russell Crowe, "your Academy Award-winning he-man beefcake talks as though he's terrified of playing a gay scene." Certainly in his past that has not been the case. He starred in an Australian movie called "The Sum of Us" in which he plays a young gay man living with his dad. If you have not seen it, I'd highly recommend it.
Holt responds: That was a quote from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, whose writer apparently didn't see "The Sum of Us." I did, and what a poignant role it was for a talented young actor in Australia. One wonders whether Crowe's agents in Hollywood would let him play a sexually active gay man today.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Hey dang it all. I haven't seen "The Talented Mr. Ripley" yet and here a part of the plot is given away. Even if I'm the only one on the planet who hasn't seen it, there is a code, ya know that says you don't give plot parts away unless your audience and you agree you all know the details and can talk without giving anything away. Very interesting on "A Beautiful Mind." I loved Russell in "Gladiator" and guess that will have to stand. Rhen
Holt responds: Yes, a quick alert to readers who hadn't seen the movie would have been simple and easy, and I apologize for missing the chance. You'll find I didn't ruin the movie completely if you do see it (and then I hope you'll read the first of many Ripley novels).
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Am wondering: do you know of any publishers (small, independent types) who've met with success (or have at least attempted) selling books via vending machines? I'm aware of the "high tech" WH Smith experiment at Pittsburgh International Airport, where you're able to choose from a "selection" of 25 bestsellers available through a computerized vending machine, "even after the store is closed." I'm thinking, though, more of conventional machines -- the ones with the "spirally thing" that kicks out the product. Any ideas? Leads?
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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