Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, April 30, 2002


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Last year, the Arkansas author who calls herself Ruby Ann Boxcar wrote a delightful and informative letter about the way she created a one-woman campaign to make her self-publishing venture succeed against unbelievable odds.

I ran Ruby Ann's letter with observations of my own and sent the column out on a Monday night for distribution early on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Of course, few readers saw it; later on, even I had a hard time remembering the unique energy she brought to her story.

But since Ruby Ann will be appearing at Book Expo America this weekend to sign copies of "Ruby Ann's Down Home Trailer Park Cookbook" (Kensington) on Saturday at 1 p.m., ("I'll be wearin' my lovely new leopard print outfit, and if your readers bring a camera, I'll be happy to pose for pics as long as people don't mind standin' next to this much beauty at one time..."), it seems only right to run an updated version of a letter I would feel privileged to run at any time.

Here it is, with my comments and a few updates, from 9/11:


One of the joys of the book business today is the continued insistence of independent writers who insist upon being heard from far outside mainstream publishing.

Ruby Ann Boxcar, who lives in a double-wide trailer at Lot #18 in Pangborn, Arkansas, is one of those writers, though in many ways she stands alone. Let me get out of the way and let Ruby Ann speak for herself. As you will see from her letter, this woman is a force of nature:

"I'd like to pass a little story on to your readers, about an author who tried to get her book published usin' the traditional method. She got an agent who passed out copies of her manuscript to many of the well known publishin' houses in the United States. Well, all of 'em sent back letters sayin' how the manuscript was fun and interestin', but they had to pass, on account of the uniqueness of the book.

"The agent told the author that it didn't look like there was much hope in gettin' her manuscript printed, so she said thanks and they parted their ways. Well, while walkin' around a Barnes & Noble bookstore, she noticed a flyer for iUniverse.com.

"Before you could say, 'Wow doggies,' this gal had emailed her manuscript to iUniverse along with her cover ideas. Four months later (the last week of December 2000) her book was ready and listed with Ingram and online at bn.com, amazon.com, and other electronic book dealers. The author took time to create and mail out sell sheets across the U.S. as well as send out press notices to local media outlets.

"Soon she found herself on the radio as well as answerin' questions for both TV and newspaper articles. And then the responses started to come from the book stores. April 12 marked her first book signin' and more would quickly follow. By the first of June she'd sold several hundred books and had only spent around $200 on marketin'. That would change.

"Earlier in the year she had mentioned to iUniverse that she would love to attend any book conventions that they might be involved with, so she was thrilled to get a call from them invitin' her to attend the BookExpo America convention in Chicago. She still had to pay for her transportation (she and her husband drove) and for her hotel (thank God for those discounted Mom and Pop places), which came to around $1000.

"In any case she attended the BEA with press kits and copies of her book in hand. She walked that convention center till her poor polyester slacks were smokin' from the friction (thank goodness she'd remembered to pack the Gold Bond).

She also participated by sharin' a booth with other authors she'd met at http://www.bookhaunts.com at Chicago Printers Row Book Fair. Her sales at that event paid for most of her trip. Long story short, by the time she made it back to her abode, she had several emails from big-name publishin' houses who were very interested in her book.

"The book is 'The Down Home Trailer Park Cookbook: A Twister Of Tasty Treats.' The new selected publishin' company is Kensington Publishing Group, and the author is me, Ruby Ann Boxcar. Thanks to iUniverse, I can proudly hold my head and big hair up high and say that I was right, my book is mass marketable and people can enjoy it. [The Kensington edition will be out in May 2002.]

"Sure, there are some books that iUniverse puts out that might not be that great a read, but so what? Who does that hurt? I can name several times I've bought a traditionally published book at a book store, read it, and then asked myself the simple question of, 'Who was drinkin' when they published this thing?'

"Just years ago there were both good and bad books bein' self published for thousands of dollars a printin', and now, thanks to new technology, it costs much less. If anything, these companies that y'all want to call vanity press have helped bridge the writer with the readin' public.

"They've allowed us to have more choices in what we read. They've allowed the consumer to meet characters and visit places that the traditional press understandably couldn't give them simply because of the financial risk it might cost. And they've worked as a talent scout who allows publishers to see what a potential client can produce.

"Thanks, iUniverse, for bein' there for people like me!

Love, Kisses, and Trailer Park Wishes,
Ruby Ann Boxcar

Ruby Ann and Her Strategy

If you attended BookExpo last year (2001), a picture of Ruby Ann may come instantly to mind. She is a large-sized woman whose mention of "big hair" doesn't begin to describe the Upright Tower of Pisa supported by pillowed buttresses she has constructed on all sides of her head. Ruby Ann wears oversized bejewelled glasses and so much blue eye-shadow that every blink looks like a rescue SOS from the island in the movie, "Cast Away."

But nobody needs to rescue Ruby Ann Boxcar, shrewd self-marketer that she is. Her all-pink website's musical rendition of "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town" sounds like it's blown out of a duck caller and backed up by twanging rubber bands (click on http://www.rubylot18.homestead.com/index.html).

A picture of Ruby Ann and her husband Dew reveals that the couple's three dogs (miniature schnauzers) have been coiffed from the forehead up with as much architectural flourish as Ruby Ann brings to her own hairdo. At the same time, that double-wide pink trailer that figures so prominently in the cookbook beckons to us in the background.

A kazoo/rubber-band version of "King of the Road" accompanies the website's tour of the trailer, which is two stories high, so if you're a visitor who gets into "a bout of wild love makin'" in the guest bedroom, you only have to look up at the ceiling to see a giant picture of Ruby Ann smiling down.

I go into this because of course the website is inventive and charming, but more than that, it makes the point that Ruby Ann is a true original whose personality and stories ("I selected [a glass coffee table] 'cause it stops guests from carvin' their names in it") as much as her recipes, will lead us to buy that cookbook.

Early on, thanks to iUniverse and its poor discount terms for independent booksellers, the site uses Barnes & Noble as her default bookseller. But Ruby Ann is one happy (trailer) camper when it comes to using a company like iUniverse - not to make a pile of money from sales, perhaps, but to get her book where she's wanted it to go for years.


NOTE TO READERS: We're off to the Book Expo ourselves this week - see you next Tuesday.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

Your e-mail congratulating the Author's Guild misses a real point that I pointed out to them as well via e-mail (below*). We use Amazon.com's Marketplace instead of returning books, because it's more cost effective than depending on wholesalers to credit your account in a timely basis, there's a better chance of getting your money back fully, and you can gain new customers as well.

So we contribute to the payment of royalties to the authors, limit the number of books returned to the publishers, and help our bottom line as well. We're not alone, I can tell you that. So bash Amazon Marketplace if you will, but it's really counterproductive.

Selling Used with new helps us define what sections need more new books, with less of an investment in New books until we can see a trend, we are making certain that books are ordered which will sell. This helps also with mid-list authors which we can promote via used, and move new readers of the author in buying New Books as well. Whole sections have benefited from our program to move used book readers into buying new books as well.

Some sections of our store were 99% used, but because of demand for new copies of some titles, they've moved to 60% new books, and 40% used. Some sections are 50 - 50. Last year we returned a great number of books, this year we've returned 0 books, except for those that arrived damaged, or wrong title, edition.

There are a high percentage of people who prefer new books and don't wish to buy used, so we have to keep both if we are to remain independent and profitable. But if Amazon closes down or otherwise restricts the Marketplace books, we'll have to limit the number of NEW books we order, and return as many as possible that don't sell within the limits set by wholesalers and publishers. I can tell people who are complaining not only don't understand bookstore economics in the new world of Big Box Bookstores, but also don't have the imagination to consider that this is a good thing, not only for booksellers, but for authors and publishers alike.

Rhett Moran
General Manager
Gutenberg Holdings at Apollo Plaza
Monticello, NY

To: Author's Guild

Dear Executive Director:

I have read your request for your members to remove their links to Amazon.com and your protest to Amazon.com about that site selling used books over their site. As a new bookseller (with some used) I think you are missing out on how we are now running our businesses.

Purchasing at 50% discount with no returns is the way to go to compete with the big boys, so most of our books are purchased from the publishers under those terms. When we can't put together a big order or where it's a smaller publisher, we buy either direct from the publisher or from wholesalers.

Cost of processing returns is too great for us to bother, so we place items we normally would have returned on Amazon Marketplace or zShops at 80% to 50% of retail, and usually sell the item, with the Author getting the royalty and the publisher not getting a book back. It helps our bottom line, it helps the publishers bottom line, and the author gets the royalty.

In this way we've been able to stock on an everyday basis more technical books, higher priced books, and more mid-list titles than we normally would be able to, with the assurance of being able to sell the ones that don't sell, via Amazon zShops or Marketplace. Take that avenue away, and I think you'll notice more returns and indeed less income for the author.

I know it looks just the opposite, but I wanted you to know that this is not the case with this bookseller with 6000 sq ft of Mall space, and 50,000 books on display.

As far as used books, when we have them in sections, and notice they are selling, we immediately order new copies and offer them side by side, and normally we would;t take the chance. Another plus for having new and used together.

Rhett Moran

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I thought you might be interested in this Web site:


Holt responds: This is an informative and lively forum for Borders employees who discuss not only the union movement that has been building throughout the chain for years but also issues of interest to us all = low pay, deliberate understaffing, promotional snafus, books missed by buyers, etc. I

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I really like the Library of America series a lot and it seems like 95% or more of their catalog is all public domain ... so my entire $25.90 (delivered) per volume goes to the publisher and post office ... and in return I get a beautiful volume on acid-free paper that's easy to read and hold, and is professionally crafted (smooth edges, a placeholder ribbon, sewn bindings etc.)

John Gear

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Judith Levine's Lament (about the reception to her book, "Harmful to Minors") went: Reporters and broadcasters "only repeat what each other say without checking sources. They present my detractors as rational 'experts' without investigating legitimacy or telling the audience who and what these people really represent."

I constantly and bitterly complain about this to a reporter friend. And I feel this way just from watching the daily newscasts. My friend says this is standard for newspaper, TV and radio. No one is willing to spend the money for investigative research. And when they do, they are subject to censorship by the advertisers. So if we want the truth, we have to find it in pieces, from many different sources--like your newsletter.

Sharon Jarvis

Dear Holt Uncensored:

You wrote: "... the forum [Judith] Levine has found in the media to discuss these charges has been 'pretty demoralizing. As a journalist I'm ashamed of my profession,' she says."

Ms. Levine, don't be ashamed: they're not journalists. Journalists use objective fact as the basis of reporting or analysis. You may or may not agree with William Safire's editorials about the Middle East, but you can argue with him about the basis of his information, which is typically rock solid. Your conclusion may differ.

But you cannot argue with hatemongers and Savonarolas: Their goal is to whip their followers into a frenzy that transcends rationality. Rationality is the basis of good journalism, which is often why folks who rely on tenets and doctrine hate journalists who find contradictory information.

"Good Morning, America" and its ilk and its talkshow siblings are entertainment television which seek to create little morality plays. The actual facts are much less important than the play.

Glenn Fleishmann

Dear Holt Uncensored:

The cover story in this week's City Pages (Twin Cities alternative publication) is about the controversy surrounding the publication of "Harmful to Minors" by Judith Levine. It's one of the most complete accounts I've read of the attempt to censor Levine's work. If you'd like to know what Levine says, as well as what her critics and the U of M Press and administrators have to say, pick it up at the news stand or read it online at http://www.citypages.com.

The National Writers Union has sent a letter to the University of Minnesota to support Judith Levine's right to publish - it's posted on the NWU website, http://www.nwu-org ; click "NWU Joins Defense of Book on Children and Sexuality."

Sue Grieger, Co-Chair, Twin Cities Local National Writers Union

Dear Holt Uncensored:

The difference between Oprah starting her own press for "old titles" and Barnes & Noble doing the same thing would be what exactly?

Holt responds: Money (she has plenty; B&N can't get enough) and heart (ditto).

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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