Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Friday, March 8, 2002


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People on the sidelines of the book industry like my own self tend to pound the table when heads of chain bookstores - specifically Len Riggio of Barnes & Noble - take a "poor me" attitude about book prices.

As a book critic I get to stand on principle, but when it comes to facts that insiders know, you can't do better than an independent bookseller like Tony Weller of Sam Weller's Books in Salt Lake City.

Tony was busy in Salt Lake these past months - something about a sports exhibition - so he got a chance only recently to comment on a story in the New York Times last December (12/16/2001) in which Riggio again whined about publishers sending him to the poor house because of high list prices and low discounts.

Tony did some digging, and the result is a small education in the way books are priced and the effect of such pricing on both bookseller and consumer.

"A few years ago, I sampled the prices of 10 randomly chosen common titles from established American publishers which were in print continuously from 1992 to 1997," explains Tony. "I found that prices had increased 32%. National figures for inflation for all products for the same period was 14%.

"Between 1991 and 1997, the square footage of retail space dedicated to new book sales quadrupled, largely due to the competitive building frenzy of Barnes and Noble, Borders and Media Play.

"Book sales figures show that sales of books only grew by 5% over the same period. That’s an 80 fold discrepancy between the growth of the retail sector and the growth of the market. This compelled publishers to print increasing numbers of books just to stock the shelves and warehouses of the additional bookstores.

"In 1989 publishers expected to receive 15-25% of their books back as returns. By 1999, the returns had ballooned to 35-50%! This is a doubling or tripling of wholesale waste. And publishers’ statistics from the late 1990s show that, as a ratio of books ordered, chain bookstores returned books at twice the level independent bookstores.

"Clearly any wholesale producer who sees waste levels increase so dramatically is bound to start increasing the prices of the goods. In fairness, we must also attribute some of the inflation to the corporate mind-set of the major publishing houses. It is one which inclines decisions towards maximizing stock values above all else.

"Not only does the investor/speculator create financial drain on the resources of a company, but with the nearly myopic focus on stock values comes the bidding wars for celebrity authors that we’ve witnessed of recent. When author advances grow to multimillion dollar contracts, naturally prices must increase.

"So this all boils down to the book buying public paying for waste generated by the excesses of corporations. What is most ironic about the recent round of debates is that the issue was raised by Len Riggio himself.

"I can’t think of an individual who bears more responsibility for the inflation than [Riggio], for Barnes and Noble’s growth rate quadrupled that of their nearest competitor, Borders. Even if he is aware of his role in the situation, it is doubtful that he’d mention it.

"But certainly, someone besides me has observed the pattern. It’s time the public be made aware of it."

Gad! Here's another example of how much independent booksellers have to overcome just to keep the door open another day. That's not the point of Tony's comments, but I'm glad he's sent the above as a letter to the editor at the Times.

Let's hope NYT editors have the sense to run it. As Weller says, "the debate has only begun."



Since August of 2000, Stacy Mitchell of the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) has been tracking efforts of communities across the country to fight big-box invasions of chain stores such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Barnes & Noble.

We've all observed the take-no-prisoners razing of independent retailers by these giant concerns, the millions of dollars their parent corporations spend to squish grass-roots protests and the legions of lawyers employed to convince Planning Commissions and City Councils that no recourse exists.

Meanwhile, the big boxes just get bigger: As the residents of East Palo Alto, Calif., learned last week, the new Ikea that's soon to plop itself down like a beached blimp will be larger than 7 football fields (300,000 square feet). The only hint of good news is that the measure to bring Ikea to town won by only 75 votes.

I thought the country was doomed to accept these stores as a way of life until Stacy Mitchell's "Home Town Advantage Bulletin" began documenting how tough, resilient and inventive community protest groups can be.

Here we see successful protests against size variances, rezoning measures, ballot initiatives and other attempts by developers and their monster anchor stores to replace existing local businesses or drain downtown retailers dry by locating just outside of town.

We see how campus bookstores in Canada are fighting a campus bookstore subsidiary - of which Barnes & Noble owns 49 percent - from expanding after its parent, Indigo, the country's largest chain bookstore, agreed to "refrain from further expansion until mid-2003" following its acquisition of Chapters, the other major bookstore chain.

We see ways to stop big box sprawl with resources such as Community Rules, a step-by-step guide from the Conservation Law Foundation at http://www.clf.org.

And we read surprising statistics - for example that Wal-Mart now has a record 396 empty stores, 40% of which have been empty for more than three years (see Sprawl-Busters releast at http://www.sprawl-busters.com/search.sb?readstory=886.

And finally we see hope as well as factual evidence that the tide is turning against big box stores, not only because they're too big and faceless and cause traffic snarls and weaken - not strengthen - local economy, but also because they exploit workers, harm environment and destroy the character of the communities surrounding them.

You can view the present issue and archives of Home Town Advantage at http://www.newrules.org/hta/index.htm.

And do subscribe - it's an eye-opener and it's free - by sending a blank email with "subscribe" on the subject line to home_town_advantage-subscribe@topica.com.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

I write to ask whether you've been clued into the latest scandal re Amazon.com, viz. that they are listing books as OP [out of print] that are indeed in print, mine included. Three author friends are having this experience, which means, of course, that there are hundreds, thousands. Amazon's explanation is, to say the least, baroque. They write:

"Please know that we store each item in the Amazon.com Books Catalog by its unique ISBN. Therefore, it is not unusual to find multiple listings for the same title with varying availability listings.

"While we understand that a publisher or authors desired edition may not appear as the initial item in a search results list, this search results feature is working in the manner intended by Amazon.com's Development Team.

"We are unable to manually change the initial item that appears in the search results list. The editions that appear are derived automatically by our system. However, please know that the initial item is subject to change over time."

And then, suddenly, I realized what it may be about: Amazon makes more money selling secondhand books than selling new books. Or could there be another explanation?

An Author

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I have been reading Dickens like mad for the last few months, and I think he would have written a great novel on our brave new world of "tagging'" juvenile offenders [with electronic tracking devices]. (And Orwell would have lit up the issue in a very different way.) In his world, it was as clear then as it is now. You can't raise the next generation with beatings and pummellings, either physical or emotional, with mistrust, with dislike.

Maybe we should make all law enforcement officers, social workers, philanthropists and other concerned citizens read, and possibly even be tested on, "David Copperfield," "Hard Times" and "Great Expectations," at the very least. They could be exposed to these novels after about two years in the field, while their idealism still thrives and their sense of justice has been outraged but not yet numbed by the system. Besides reading about young people caught up in a surreal, disordered, negligent world, they would gain a much needed sense of irony. They would be altogether more prepared for helping to minimize the harm that comes to children in our culture.

The most rational people in Dickens' work (amongst many many characters whose self-absorption and utter wickedness are still all too familiar) are seen raising children with patience, love, care and devotion--advocating for their well being. Why don't we try that? The blueprint will be derived from the most inspired notions of Dickens, Bronte, Twain, Angelou -- and maybe Ashcroft et all would just be left looking dumbly on . . . Amy Thomas
Pegasus and Pendragon Books

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re your columns on the "state of the (surveiled) union)": It's ironic that George W. Bush, in one of his debates with Al Gore, talked about secret-evidence trials as being an un-American variation on racial profiling. I guess it's less un-American now that EVERYBODY is susceptible to a secret evidence trial. I agree that one of the most important things that can be done right now is to make sure that people know what's been done. I'm glad to see that you and the Village Voice and Progressive Magazine and Slate, to name the publications that I'm aware of having run major pieces, are all doing exactly that.

Steve Adelson

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Do you think if I respond to all these comments [about civil liberties] with a "Hear. Hear," someone might want to put me "There. There"?

Frank Flowers

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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