Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Friday, April 5, 2002


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I started calling the sender "Mr. X" when anonymous messages - full of warning and pith - began arriving about Barnes & Nobles' plans to step up its book publishing program.

Frankly, the idea of a chain store pretending to be a publisher by turning out cheaply produced classics in the public domain (thus no royalties), or atlases or dictionaries by quickie packagers held little interest.

I knew a threat existed for other (and to my mind legitimate) publishers of references or Tom Sawyer" novels or bibles or puppy books or football anthologies, and so forth.

And I knew that Barnes & Noble chief Len Riggio sounded like he was out for revenge when he said that the new B&N publishing program headed by Allan Kahn was going to show publishers their prices were too high.

But having surveyed B&N's "product" so far ("Celebrating Mothers," "Pitchers of Perfection"), which looked like remainders and were often sold only as bargain books- I felt (hoped) audiences were better served by others and that B&N would be left in the wake of competing publishers.

Silly me.

Mr. X kept writing. "B&N's new announcement is terrible for everyone from authors to publishers within the industry," he said. "Already both [art book publishers] Harry Abrams and Abbeville have taken serious body blows as a result of B&N's publishing efforts.

"I would even say that B&N has ruined the market for art book publishing - get a current Abrams catalog and compare it to one 5 years ago, and you'll see. The same thing is happening to children's publishing, and it will happen to every other publisher both large and small that publishes nonfiction."

B&N has two things going for it that other publishers don't have, he says.

First, as a bookstore chain, it has instant knowledge of what is selling and what isn't. "This knowledge is worth the difference in a first printing of 5,000 and 20,000 copies.

"Or take another example: B&N published a book about the American flag that sold very little about 4 years ago. But after the attacks of 9/11, the staff noticed that people were coming in looking for books with patriotic themes. So B&N did a printing of 25,000, then another and another, selling about 100,000 just as other publishers got their American flag books into print. When B&N buys the rights to other books, they can get them into the stores in as little as four months, sometimes even three months or less."

Second, B&N wants to build its publishing arm into a $400 million business in five years - a full 10% of bookstore income - so it's going to support the venture to make sure it works in what Mr. X says are four distinct scenarios:

* Hardcover reprint rights for nonfiction books: You can see the writing on the wall with "Georgia O'Keeffe: One Hundred Flowers," for which Random House charged $100 with its original edition. B&N is selling it for $30.

"But think, too, what would happen," Mr. X add, "if B&N bought hardcover reprint rights to, say, 'Longitude.' Walker [the book's publisher] kept it in hardcover until sales declined, and now Penguin has it in trade paperback. But suppose B&N could sell a reprint of the hardcover for a cheaper price than what Penguin is charging for the paperback? And suppose B&N could do this with any number of books currently in trade paperback?" It's been done before, says X, but nothing on the level of what B&N plans to do now.

* Children's books: Series bestsellers are particularly vulnerable. "Here's another example: Barnes & Noble could license the rights to 'Curious George' for an omnibus edition of say, three 'Curious George books in one. This omnibus could be published at *less than half* what readers would pay if they bought the three 'Curious George' publisher's editions. Again, multiply that times who knows how many bestselling children's series are out there and you see the kind of inroads B&N can make."

[Okay, I have to stop here and ask the obvious: Why would a publisher sell these rights to B&N in the first place? The publisher's own books are just going to get undercut in the process, so why not set a policy *not* to sell publishing rights of such titles to Barnes & Noble?

[Mr. X: Are you kidding? Publishers have to earn as much money as they can on *every* book. Imagine the delight of a subsidiary rights department upon discovering that a hardcover book you thought was exhausted now has a new life, saleswise. It's found income.

[Q: But it's the wrong kind of income.

[X: Sez you.

[Q: Sez their accountant one day!

[X: Publishers just don't set the kind of company-wide policy you're talking about.

[Q: You mean especially when they've been afraid for years of angering B&N's Len Riggio, and they think a company-wide policy like this could make him furious?

[X: I think what infuriated Riggio from the beginning was the way publishers sold their bestsellers to Costco and Sam's through AMS (Advanced Marketing Services) at unprecedented discounts. Riggio has always felt he's in the bestseller business and that publishers have gone out of their way to damage him by selling to Costco. It's one reason why he keeps hitting publishers for every discount, every edge he can get - often the profit doesn't come from book sales but from co-op advertising and placement of titles, things like that.]

* Reprinted classics in the public domain.. "Barnes & Noble has by now published almost all of D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce, as well as books by Robert Frost, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, Fyodor Dostoevsky, William Shakespeare and many, many others. Everytime an author falls into the public domain, you can bet B&N is going to be there to scoop those books up.

"It's true, other publishers have produced dozens of editions of the more popular books. But now B&N is adding a 'scholarly' introduction and spending money on creating new covers to make these books look as elegant as any Modern Library edition - but sell far more inexpensively."

* Original books: "Barnes and Noble recently acquired Friedman Fairfax, a wide-ranging publisher and packager of quality illustrated books. This company can sell books to other bookstore chains such as Borders, which might not like carrying titles with its competitor's name on the spine; or if, say, Books-A-Million wants to buy a lot of copies, Friedman Fairfax can do a special print run for that chain alone."

There are other suppliers, "one of the largest of which is the Italian packager White Star, which has done a beautiful job for B&N on such books as 'Lost Civilizations.' Here's stunning a hardcover that looks like an Abrams book - it's big and lavish, has gorgeous illustrations and substantial text. But while Abrams might sell a book like this for $100 or $75 or $50, B&N sells it for $29.98."

Wow. That *is* terrifying. "You know what else?" Mr. X adds. "B&N even owns the trucking company that distributes B&N books - it's another very large source of income."

And "B&N's publishing arm may extend greater discounts to local schools and businesses than independent bookstores do now. That means B&N (as a chain bookstore), having taken away bestseller sales from local independents because of its discount policy, could now take away the local school and business market as a publisher."

The end result, says X, is that "B&N is trying to produce books to meet the bottom *and* the top rung of the market. It's not just some cheapo line that will appeal to the pocketbook of a few. It's an extensive and elaborate publishing program that will affect independents profoundly."



Dear Holt Uncensored:

This is a bit discouraging: On his tour for grass roots support, Ralph Nader is doing a signing at Barnes & Noble here but will stop by our store later that afternoon. Michael Moore is speaking with him, but he will not be coming to our store at all, preferring to sign at stores that report to the New York Times bestseller list. He will be going to Borders. We work with the local community radio station who is helping sponsor the speaking event and they are surprised (as are we ) by the political choices of these two anti-corporate individuals. As my partner said, "If Ralph Nader and Michael Moore don't see the importance of local independent booksellers, who will?"

Leslie Reiner
Inkwood Books

Holt responds: I can't believe it either. Michael Moore got in a tussle with this column a year or so ago when it became apparent he didn't get it about independent stores at all. One feels that his attempt to make direct contact with the common man often bypasses the larger issues that remain beyond him.

Leslie Reiner sends update: Mr. Moore is not signing at Borders, but they are selling his book at the event because we were told he wants books sold by a store that reports to the NYT (alas, not BookSense).

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Could you please let those of us who would like to buy this Dorothy Bryant book about writing a novel where and how we can get it? I just talked with a wonderful woman at Kepler's (they're all wonderful, of course) who found the book and a 510 number of the publisher, but she was afraid it might not be available any longer. Bookpeople and Ingram do not carry it.

Debbie Duncan

Holt responds: "Writing a Novel" is still in print and available from Ata Books, 1928 Stuart St., Berkeley, CA 94703. Pre-paid order by check. $9.95, plus $2 shipping, plus .80 tax if you live in California. If you want ordering information on all of Dorothy Bryant's books, write to the same address. Phone 510 841-9613, FAX 510 548-9846

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I was fascinated by your story about Dorothy Bryant. You mentioned that her books are now published by the Feminist Press. Do you know why she did not go with an independent publisher like the Feminist Press right away? It seems her books might have been a good fit with a small independent publisher. A 5000 copy sale for many presses is great and they tend to know how to handle a book that is difficult to categorize. I'm just curious, did the small presses also reject her books or did she and her agent not try to find one?

Jerry Bilek

Dorothy Bryant responds: When I started trying to publish my first novel in 1968, the Feminist Press didn't exist yet. Their editors came to me in 1996 when a scholar of Italian-American literature mentioned me. Until recently (and still, to considerable extent) small presses didn't do many novels -- the books are too long, production costs high. University Presses did only scholarly books until a few years ago, when conglomerates made little room for literary fiction among the blockbusters. Now university presses publish some novels, but few, and they tend to be local.

Dear Holt Uncensored,

Thank you for the history of Dorothy Bryant and her books. I have been a "Kin of Ata" fan for a long time, and yes, I see it as a spiritual allegory. It's one of the books I reread to be reminded and uplifted when I feel the need.

Also, as a long-time "mid-list author" myself, it's nice to hear Bryant's views on the category. I wholeheartedly agree. I found her struggle encouraging. Now, to head to your website and read "Literary Lynching," which I know will be fascinating.

Tina B. Tessina, LMFT, PhD

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Are you familiar with this website? http://www.dcn.davis.ca.us/vme/no-borders/survey.html It is a listing of independent bookstores forced out of business by the chains...

Unfortunately, it's not being maintained, but it would be great if someone could/would maintain it and create attention to the problem. Any ideas?

In the less than two years that I've been trying to introduce In My Book [bookmark/greeting cards], three retailers that I've sold to are going (or have gone) under -- Bookmarks in Corning, Mysterybooks in DC and Coliseum Books in NYC. Plus countless others that can't afford to risk adding anything unproven to their inventory.

Robin K. Blum
In My BookR

Holt replies: What a heartbreaker it is to see this list of closed independent bookstores. It goes on and on, almost beyond memory, yet it's mesmerizing, too. One is reminded how hard it is for any independent to stay in business and how crucial that so many do.

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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