Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Friday, February 8, 2002


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I've respected Jonathan Yardley as a book reviewer for many years, but his recent column in the Washington Post about independent bookstores being "poor alternatives to the best of the chains" is simply staggering in its ignorance.

"It makes me livid," said Ann Simpson of Generous Books, a website that provides administration services for about 2000 book clubs ( www.generousbooks.com"). "It's a terrible article."

Ann was leaving a number of hotly argued messages on my answering machine (it hangs up after a few minutes, so she had to keep dialing) when I came home and picked up the phone to see just how livid she was.

Too late: Racing out for a lunch date with Peter Aaron, owner of Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle; and Nancy Pearl, executive director of the Washington Center for the Book, Ann told me to call her cell phone at the restaurant, "where I just may bring this awful Yardley piece to refresh their memories."

So before she got there, I read Yardley's column in the Washington Post at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A18424-2002Feb3.html.

To summarize, Yardley makes the huge mistake of dismissing independent bookstores as "nice little mom-and-pop indies" that offer customers "a warm and fuzzy book-buying experience," but not a lot of books.

The mighty chain superstores, on the other hand, are models of success in "the hard business of bookselling," Yardley explains. The reason Barnes & Noble and Borders "long ago superseded" the independents is that they and Amazon.com "have two qualities serious book buyers most value: large selection and reduced prices."

He adds: "The independents, bless (some of) their souls, simply do not have the resources to keep up with these goliaths. They have to keep moving inventory to stand a chance of turning a profit and their shelf space is limited; the result is that they simply can't stock many marginal, special-interest backlist titles or give more than a few weeks' shelf time to new books that don't take off in a hurry."

Yardley knows this, he says, because one day he visited "the huge Barnes & Noble at Union Square" in New York. "I actually found copies of two of my own books, which suggests that it will stock *anything,* no matter how small the market for it."

Well, put it this way: He'll use *anything* to make the point.

Ann Simpson: Why 'Livid'?

I think I could have joined Ann, Peter and Nancy who were probably banging their silverware on the table over Yardley's piece if I could have made it to Seattle.

"Now Ann," I said when she answered the cell phone, "I think I know, but what exactly makes you so 'livid' about this column?"

"Well! First of all, may I say that my local independent store routinely beats Amazon.com by at least one or two days when it comes to getting a new book in stock.

"But more important, when we began our website service for book clubs two years ago, we did some research about where people who love books go to buy books. So we went to the Pacific Northwest Bookfest (October/2000) and handed out a survey of 15 questions. We got 500 responses back, and here's what they told us:

"On average, these respondents bought 14 books a year; 80% had bought books online at least once, but they did not continue to do so. The standard method of purchasing books for everyone was the independent brick-and-mortar bookstore. A typical comment was: 'I couldn't live without my independent bookseller.'

"So when Jonathan Yardley says that serious bookbuyers value large selection and low prices above all, I just get infuriated. The Number One thing I know a serious bookbuyer wants is a knowledgeable person to recommend books and to discuss books with. To somebody who's passionate about spending quality time reading, the price is absolutely secondary."

Ann has worked with thousands of book club members whose connection to independent booksellers is considered vital. "Our job is to help with tasks that keep a book club together - we send out reminder messages, maps to where the next meeting is held, reviews of books, interviews of authors. It's all free, and we're now creating a database of authors who are willing to call a book club free of charge and discuss a book with them on a speaker phone."

Book clubs have been proliferating for a decade or two, but many have fallen apart, says Ann, "because nobody in the group wanted to be responsible for handling all the mundane chores. We use an automated system that makes it easy and as a result, book clubs tell us they're getting upwards of 80% better participation."

The irony is that Generous Books supports itself by selling the book club selections to members, "but less than 10% buy them from us because they'd rather support their independent bookstore." She says even that amount is enough to finance the website's services and its two full-time, six part-time workers.

Peter Aaron of Elliott Bay

The phone was then handed to Peter Aaron, who sounded as though he whipped it out of Ann Simpson's hand in fury.

"You can talk about chain bookstores as a somewhat homogenous category," he said, "but *no such equivalent* exists for independent bookstores. There's such a range of difference among independents that to sweep the whole category into one commodity is an extremely faulty premise.

"One of the best stores I've ever been in is a little bookstore in Seattle called Open Books. They sell one thing: Poetry. They do a better job of it than anybody else I've seen in the world. (We do the second best job.) Now there's an example of a very specialized store doing a great job.

"From the tiniest niche store to the large general independent bookstore, you find a huge, broad range of diverse booksellers and they all have different missions, different expertise, different inventories, different events. I mean, to lump them all into one category doesn't make sense."

Well, I asked, do you think --

"Second, don't forget that with the competitive environment we've been operating in for the last 5-6 years, those independents who've survived have found a way to provide (for lack of a better term) a 'value package' that's compelling and wanted by enough customers to keep the store going.

"From the independents I've been in, I think most of us are doing a good job. If I were to make a sweeping generalization about indies vs. chains, for the most part, I'd say the people you come in contact with in a good independent store really care about the books and the customers. It's not just a job for them.

"And if I were to make a sweeping generalization the other way (and I'll preface it by saying I've had some wonderful service at some of the chains) staff members at a chain bookstore who love what they're doing and really know books are the rare exception. Chain stores train people to ring a cash register. But if I'm looking for ideas, stimulus or inspiration - people on staff who have some knowledge and passion for books - I'm going to an independent."

It's stunning how Yardley misses this point. He talks about "ardent book lovers" who own and work in independent stores but uses that "commendable" love for books against them: To him, there's no way an "ardent book lover" could be a good business person. Had he studied the independents he says he's browsed in over the years, he'd know that every inch of selling space has been meticulously studied to make that mix - making a good profit and love of books - work to the benefit of staff and customers.

I asked Peter how Elliott Bay Books is doing. "The health of the store is pretty good, considering everything," he said. "We survived a challenging year, as did every independent. But in our case, there was not only the depressed level of business after September 11; there was also a severe earthquake on February 28 that had its own negative impact on sales."

It's that toughness of spirit that always floors me about independents. Like the song goes, they get knocked down! But they get up again! (Critics like Yardley) are never gonna keep 'em down!

And by the way, when Yardley talks about independents as a "poor alternative" to the chains in terms of inventory size, it's good to remember that Elliott Bay is no "little Mom & Pop" - it stocks 175,000 new titles (30,000 used) and offers a data base (through BookSense.com) that's about equal to those of the chains or Amazon.

Nancy Pearl, Washington Center for the Book

The vast energetic wonder of Nancy Pearl was palpable almost as she reached for the phone. Nancy not only heads the Washington Center for the Book, a regional nonprofit connected to the Library of Congress's Center for the Book, she is also a former bookseller and the brains behind the now-famous reading campaign called "If All of Seattle Read the Same Book...." (The idea has been adopted by cities ranging from Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago to countries such as Trinidad and Tobago.)

"What a smug piece!" Nancy said of the Yardley column. "When we first launched the 'If All of Seattle' campaign, calls from independents came in immediately - they wanted discussion guides, signs they could post, everything They were great." And chain stores? "They weren't interested."

The success of the campaign, she believes, "speaks to an almost desperate sense of wanting to find a community. We live in this sound-byte world where you can go the whole day without having a serious conversation with anybody. People participating in a city-wide reading event value talking about a book in discussions that go deeper than the 'did you like it?' sort of question.

"Our goal in selection was not to choose a classic but to introduce people to books they might not have picked up in the ordinary course of things. In Seattle the first book was 'The Sweet Hereafter' by Russell Banks. For two months it was a top bestseller among independent bookstores - and here it was eight years after publication."

The Washington Center for the book and the fourth year of its campaign of "If All of Seattle Read the Same Book" are described at http://www.spl.org/wacentbook/centbook.html.

Yardley on the Future

The funny thing is that Yardley admits he never has to buy a book. As a critic he receives all the books he wants free from publishers.

"But no small part of my job is to keep a weather eye on the book industry itself," he assures us, "which is to say I spend a fair amount of time prowling around bookstores."

Maybe not enough time. He gets it backward when he says that independents "have to keep moving inventory to stand a chance of turning a profit"; that independents "simply can't stock many marginal, special-interest backlist titles"; that independents can't "give more than a few weeks' shelf time to new books that don't take off in a hurry."

What a colossal mistake: These are all chain store problems. It's the chain store that moves inventory fast, favors books that "take off in a hurry" and avoids the marginal, special-interest backlist title (except in some big-city stores). He omits the fact that chain stores depend on a formula buy and offer few real options for readers.

Finally, Yardley concludes that independent bookstores can be corralled under the heading of "the little guy," while chain bookstores are the "big guy."

This kind of thinking went out with the B. Dalton and Walden bookstores of the '70s, but that's not the kind of "weather monitor" that interests Yardley. He observes of his old weather-vane self that "just as I go to Home Depot and Trader Joe's and Target" for other products, "if I want a book, I go to Borders or Barnes & Noble or Amazon.com. So, in all likelihood, do you. It's the future, like it or not."

Ah, thank you, Mr. Yardley. There's nothing like a weather forecast from someone who's been hibernating for decades.



It just makes you wonder, when John Grisham says "money is not that big an issue anymore" - as he did recently in the New York Times - what kind of issue money must have been when he was pulling in millions of dollars per book per year.

In other words, what makes an author, whose books are already bestsellers - and in Grisham's case really big honking blockbuster bestsellers - grind out books under pressure of deadlines when he knows his work will be inferior by his own standards?

(He feels that way because his last two books - "Skipping Christmas" and "A Painted House" - not legal thrillers but bestsellers just the same - were "better," he says, since "I went slower with both books, without the pressure of a deadline.")

Grisham allowed that the idea of being one of the "big guys [who] come out every year" with a bestseller once had its appeal. That was back in 1989 after publication of his second book, "The Firm."

But Grisham, who earned $12 million on "The Firm," said after that, when he was indeed turning out a book every year for the next 10 years, "obviously if I was not getting paid for the books, I wouldn't write them."

Huh. He seems to reverse himself later and says, "I'm a writer. If I didn't write, what would I do all year long?" He could spend some of that money, maybe.

Well, writers and their motivations sometimes make sense only to writers. What's difficult to understand about the NYT story is publisher Stephen Rubin's comment about the fact that Grisham has returned to the legal-thriller field with his new book, "The Summons." "I am gratified," says Rubin, "only because I know it is what his fans want."

Aw. "Give 'em what they want" is a credo of the movie industry, not publishing. Book publishers who make a difference, it seems, encourage authors to find the best in themselves, to set higher standards, to develop buried potential. When publishers do this - and it sounds like Grisham is dying to explore ever newer horizons - we all benefit.


NOTE TO READERS: The fourth installment of EdgeWork Books series will resume on Tuesday. For those in the Bay Area who would like to attend an EdgeWork Salon, the next one will be held February 10th from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Five of the founders will participate. Kim Chernin and author Lillian Rubin will discuss questions such as "Why write? Does writing make sense in today's world? What is the cost?" Location: Montclair Women's Cultural Arts Club (men are welcome), 1650 Mountain Blvd., in Montclair, Oakland. Ca; 510/524-2281 for directions. No entrance fee.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

I read Richard O'Connor's comments regarding EdgeWork and the work of editing with great interest. While reading it I thought, now here is an editor I'd like to contact, only to get to the signature and find that I already had contacted Richard (FX to his friends) to edit my current WIP. He edited my first book, took out a whole chapter to the betterment of the whole. I had written 10 pages only to introduce an idea which, after the edit, I dealt with in one sentence. That "third" eye is essential to any writer and a writers' group is only as good as the writers in it. An uninvolved third eye is worth a host of others who are all too familiar with the writer and the work to be objective. Harriet Robbins Ackert

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Am I just lucky? I've got a work of fiction in production at one of Random's houses and it's not the book they bought--it's a much better book. There's no question in my mind that I've learned a ton from my editor, who knows what she's doing and has spent a lot of time doing it well for a new writer for whom she's taking a risk. And who had a lot to learn.

I hear the claim editors don't edit all the time. I don't believe it's generally true. I'd say it's definitely true that editors are under terrible pressure from their corporate masters who aren't in the book business but are vertically integrating the infotainment industries and snap up some book publishers thinking they can make them make more money. Usually shrinking profit margin and quality are the result. But there are a lot of good editors out there, struggling to do their jobs honorably and well against some pretty steep odds.

Barbara Fister

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I like this heated discussion (see #298) about editors and would also like to add a word or two. One of the things missing in the discussion is the fact that three of the writers in the EdgeWork group ARE professional editors, and teachers of writing, in addition to being writers. We've edited not only for one another but for major books, all of them highly respected, some of them indeed on the best selling lists.

We are, and have been for years, precisely those "local editors" we are advised to look for. And we know many, many others as well. Moreover, our books WERE edited by professional free-lance editors, whom EdgeWork hired for that task, and who have been the best editors I've encountered.

No disrespect was intended to the profession or to my colleagues and no claim was made to be independent of a severe editorial process. My comments had to do with the frequent absence of this severity in major publishing companies.

And finally, about self-published books: Let us all remember that Virginia Woolf self-published hers and set an excellent example by doing so, although of course it would be possible for many people to think of her in the category one of your readers evokes: ..."self-published authors tend to ramble."

Kim Chernin
EdgeWork Books

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