by Pat Holt
Tuesday, May 7, 2002
SOME THOUGHTS ON BEA
I always love Book Expo America convention, held this year in New York May 2-5, because here after all the speculation the previous year, you get the truth about bookselling, and as usual there was good news and bad news.
The bad news, as we learned at the American Booksellers Association's membership meeting, is that independent bookstores continue to close down and that ABA membership continues to decline (now down to 2,191 members as opposed to 2,794 a year ago).
Meanwhile, chain book superstores continue to open - Barnes & Noble, for example, plans to build 40 to 45 stores in fiscal 2002 alone - often ganging up in predatory fashion to shut down independents near them.
The good news (part I) is that the power of independents has nevertheless increased, in large part because of Book Sense, the ABA campaign that helps independent bookstores join together to support good books that might otherwise sink without a trace.
Not only not does Book Sense encourage booksellers to share information about wonderful new books coming from all sectors of the industry, it also helps customers free themselves from chain-dominated bestseller lists and buy new books adventurously. Thank heaven for the Book Sense 76 recommendations, a rich new mix of Book Sense Bestseller lists, Book Sense gift certificates and the like.
Part II of the good news was, of course, the second annual Book Sense luncheon, which focuses on bringing publishers, booksellers and authors together to *celebrate* the flow of books rather than to fight with each other in a perceived adversarial relationship that has dominated so many conversations, panels and luncheons in the past.
In a beautifully worded thank-you and we-told-you-so message, incoming ABA president Ann Christopherson called for a round of applause for "savvy publishers [who have] known for years that staff-pick sections and store newsletters are among the most effective marketing tools ever invented. Now the Book Sense 76 gives all of our individual voices a collective voice that you can hear more clearly, that you can quantify, and that you tell us is helping to launch careers and, importantly, increase sales."
It was great to hear exactly how the Book Sense 76, which at first had sounded like too many recommendations from too many booksellers about too many titles, has been the source of so much independent discovery and so much customer attention.
"The 76 started less than 3 years ago when we sent out about 130,000 flyers containing booksellers recommendations for books," Christopherson explained. Now almost 500,000 BookSense 76 flyers are sent to stores each time for display and inclusion in local newspapers. The numbers continue to grow, along with a 76 list just for children's books, mysteries, audiobooks and more.
"Our names - the names of booksellers who make the recommendations - are being taped up on shelves across the country, posted on websites and of course, [published] in the New Yorker. So thanks go to all you independent booksellers, all you individual voices in your community - you who proselytize about the books you love, you who embraced the Book Sense 76 and all aspects of the Book Sense program so passionately."
And what a joy it was to sit at the luncheon and hear finalists for the Book Sense authors' award speak playfully as well as gratefully about the ways that independent booksellers had backed their books from the beginning. Here are a few highlights:
And one little last BEA thing: Years ago when I held an entry-level position at Houghton Mifflin's New York office, I remember how exciting it was to work on preparations for sales conference, and then for the ABA convention (as it was known then), after which all the middle management people raced out the door while the rest of us did the clean-up.
So I think it's great that so many people who work for New York publishers get to attend BEA when it's in New York. But I do think the crowds and ensuing gridlock simply bog down the proceedings for everybody.
My query, then, to BEA: How about asking publishers to give badges out to their staff for use on the third day only? A lot of people will have departed by then, and many of those remaining use the third day to explore the outer banks, so to speak. Besides, publishing staff members who arrive on the last day can always help with clean-up.
THOSE P.O.W. (POST OPRAH WINFREY) BOOK CLUBS
A number of readers have asked me about the new book clubs ("USA Today," "The Today Show," "Live with Regis and Kelly," just for starters) that have surfaced in the wake of Oprah Winfrey's decision to terminate Oprah's Book Club.
It's great to see attempts to fill the void, but I don't know if it's possible to just throw one's hat in the JOIN OUR BOOK CLUB (NOT THEIRS) ring so abruptly.
Thinking of the way Winfrey launched her book club, I remember the exciting and heartfelt discussions about books she conducted so passionately on her show for many years beforehand.
That was a time American viewers were first discovering Oprah Winfrey as a generator of unbelievable book sales. What an example was made when you could tell by time zones when Oprah's show with Marianne Williamson had aired because suddenly there was a run on all of Williamson's books in every region of the country, moving chronologically East to West. And what a great "panic" it was to hear that booksellers were calling ahead to colleagues to prepare them an onslaught of customers they had never experienced before.
To me, watching Oprah build a relationship with her viewers about books was very much like seeing a good bookseller establish that sense of trust with readers that keeps customers coming back to the store time and time again.
A viewer may not have cared for the early Marianne Williamson (or heaven knows the present Phil McGraw), but in terms of mid-list fiction, when Oprah held up a novel and said, "I love this book!" hugging it to her chest while introducing a filmed author profile or a live author interview, we all knew she was talking from the heart - and she wasn't "pushing" lightweight romance, either.
So by the time Oprah's Book Club began with a filmed dinner party for Toni Morrison in which the great novelist talked to "average" readers quite conversationally, often about weighty and literary matters indeed, viewers who might have been intimidated by Morrison's reputation (even before the Nobel) flooded bookstores in search of her book, and once again the Oprah onslaught was on.
Oprah's success came about because, for one thing, there was nothing abrupt, commercial or cavalier about Oprah's Book Club. It was respectful, thoughtful, challenging and fun. It was the natural next step to years of personal engagement about books on her show, and most of all, it was backed and nurtured and attended to by Oprah Winfrey until the very end.
It seems to me the new book clubs *want* to be commercial, coming out of the blue as they have to exploit rather than fill the loss of Oprah's Book Club. Perhaps there is a way to leap o'er that long-standing discussion about books that Winfrey built up with her viewers before starting her book club, but I don't think so - building trust about book recommendations takes a long time and is very personal on both sides of the page/screen.
Then there's the level of dialogue. USA Today posed a series of questions to prospective book club members about Richard Russo's novel, "Empire Falls," that have been preserved at http://www.usatoday.com/life/enter/books/2002/empire-falls-questions.htm .
Here readers are asked: "Would you like to live in a small town like Empire Falls?" "What's your favorite sentence?" "Is the Roby family - Miles, Janine and Tick - 'dysfunctional' or merely struggling with some problems?"
I dunno - did Winfrey ask dumb questions like that? These sound geared to first-graders.
And here's the invitation to Kelly Ripa's book club at "Live with Regis and Kelly":
"It's time to close those books with deep, meaningful messages and open up to something more light, frivolous and fun!" Every book selected, Kelly writes, "shall haveth no message, what-so-ever. It shalleth be fun, frivolous, fast and fiction. Any hint of life-affirming message will automatically lead to dismissal and disqualification from Book Club."
You can bet the ensuing dialogue has been just as "frivolous and fun" as the selections.
In terms of sales, it does seem the USA and Kelly Ripa book clubs are having an effect. The Associated Press reported last week that Ripa's selection on Thursday "made an instant best seller out of 'If Looks Could Kill,' a murder mystery by Cosmopolitan Editor-In-Chief Kate White.
"The novel, just published by Warner Books with a first printing of 30,000, had 105,000 copies in print as of Monday," the AP reported.
Meanwhile, USA Today is the "main reason," according to Russo's publisher, that "the paperback [of "Empire Falls"] is now in its sixth printing, with about 285,000 copies in print."
Well, that's the first blush and rush of sales. Even Oprah's declined a bit after the first few years - but then, she wasn't counting, I always thought. Let's see how long the book clubs of the P.O. (post-Oprah) Era stick around.
DOROTHY BRYANT'S "LITERARY LYNCHING" - CHAPTER 4: GEORGE ORWELL
I'm sure I'm not the only one to have felt that today's open-ended "war on terrorism" resembles the perpetual state of war that keeps the citizens in George Orwell's "1984" compliant as their civil rights and quality of life deteriorate.
In Chapter 4 of Dorothy Bryant's "Literary Lynching," Bryant tells how Orwell's 1938 book, "Homage to Catalonia," in which he describes fighting against fascism in Spain, was effectively lynched in a literary way by the Communist press, abetted by the silence of the liberal press, on both sides of the ocean.
Bryant shows how Orwell's shock and rage at this censorship turned him toward a radically different style of writing. This resulted in the best-selling political satires "Animal Farm" and "1984."
Orwell's publisher believed the brutal reaction to "Homage to Catalonia" may also have wrecked Orwell's precarious health, leading to his death at 46, only a year after writing "1984."
As always, the best part about reading Dorothy Bryant is the wonderful mini-education we might never have explored otherwise. You can click on the Orwell chapter here.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
From this week's Chicago Reader:
"It seemed like a good idea nearly two years ago, which is when Chicago bookseller Adam Brent of Brent Books and Cards opened a second bookstore in the Renaissance Place shopping center in Highland Park. The town had the Ravinia Festival, the Suburban Fine Arts Center, Apple Tree Theatre, a first-class library, and a movie theater and was about to get an art-film house - but it had no bookstore.David Novak
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Thank you for the update from Ruby Ann Boxcar! We must have been one of the few bookstores to carry the first print-on-demand version of her book, not because we planned to make any money with the 15% discount offered by iUniverse, but because it is a real hoot, very camp and very creative. We felt the author deserved exposure, and no other cookbook that I know of promotes the use of "real imitation flavorings" and a Jell-O Cake that recommends it be served with a bottle of Wild Turkey. Our customers also deserve exposure to the best! Girlfriend - what a thrill to discover that this "fabulous" book "Ruby Ann's Down Home Trailer Park Cookbook: A Twister Of Tasty Treats" was picked up by Kensington.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Regarding your story on Judith Levine's "Harmful to Minors," here's another case of a hysterical reaction to a scholarly article about pedophilia: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/30/education/30MISS.html?todaysheadlines
Holt responds: I'll say. Prof. Harris Mirkin at the University of Missouri's Kansas City campus couldn't have imagined that the article he wrote in 1999 about the atmosphere of "moral panic" surrounding accusations of pedophilia would spark unprecedented outrage in 2002. But the New York Times reported on April 30: "Last week, the Missouri Legislature voted to cut $100,000 from the university's budget, saying taxpayers did not want to finance such perversity."
In the article, Mirkin likened the hysteria about pedophilia "to the outrage of previous generations over feminism and homosexuality," adding that "in 1900, everybody assumed that masturbation had grave physical consequences; that didn't make it true." He said the issue of "intergenerational sex" needs to be viewed more realistically. "Most adolescent males have fantasies similar to his, as a 12-year-old delivery boy, of being seduced by a female customer," the NYT wrote. "He wondered whether it would have been so bad had [his fantasy] come true."
The University of Missouri chancellor, president and faculty senate, as well as the American Association of University Professors, have all backed Prof. Mirkin. "The Legislature's meddling in university budgeting is a dangerous precedent," says the chancellor. However, Republican State Senator John Louden has made political hay out of taking the position that "We all respect academic freedom. Legitimizing molestation doesn't fall under academic freedom."
As to Mirkin, 65, his optimistic conclusion is worth remembering: The article he wrote, he says, "is meant to be subversive; the article is meant to make people think. Because [the Legislators] have tried to stifle discussion, there has been a discussion, which is one of the healthy things about the United States." Bravo.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
We've got a two party system in this country and they both are capitalist organizations. Whether you vote Democratic or Republican, neither of them are going to want the likes of B&N, Border's. Tower Records, etc. put out of business. Because BIG BUSINESS is our (the American) Business. DO YOU or any of your constituents vote socialist? Marxist? Communist? Don't know. But I probably doubt it. What you're doing, if I may used the analogy, is asking Satan to get rid of sin. SATAN is in the business of SIN. The "BIG BUSINESS" of sin. If you want to change the system and the way it works, then you have to change system. How do you do it? By having more vision and foresight so you can see a Barnes & Noble coming. Do what B&N is doing and do it better. Vote for a new government, or work to change the laws and legislations within this one...those are just some suggestions.
My husband's from Switzerland and there every bakery has to charge the same price for the same goods. So no matter where you live, the prices are the same. So why go anywhere else? I say maybe because the bread tastes better at the bakery across town or the customer service is better at the one down the road. Is this system perfect? Depends..but I definitely think its better than the one we have, and closer to what you and some of your readers are advocating.
People are always talking about supporting the local bookstore. WHY? I ask myself. Just because they're local and independently owned? For that reason only. Am I suppose to pay more than I can afford for that! I say, no siree. You've got to earn my dollar just as I have and give me something in return other than the simple fact that YOU are there and independent.
I don't buy retail and haven't paid retail or premium prices for any goods for quite some time. Including books. THEY COST TOO MUCH! Thank GOD for the Internet's Half.com, Napster, PayPal, to name a few; it may be the only invention on the planet that's capable of attacking capitalism at its heart. Allowing for a more free and equitable trading of information and distribution of wealth.
Be inventive. Look for better solutions. Don't be so greedy. Stop moaning and start thinking. The only organizations, people, I want to buy books from are the ones who are smart enough to out-think the B&N of the world. I know you're out there. I got money in my pockets just waiting to to give it to you.
Holt responds: Well, I always appreciate hearing from the "side" that thinks the real issue concerns a lot of independent booksellers "moaning" about the realities of capitalism and big business. It's this crazy "stigma" that blinds people from recognizing that these very independent booksellers have survived obstacles for more than 30 years *because* they are the best models of capitalism we have. Moreover, if you think price is the only measure of a good bookstore, take a look at the enormous range of services many independents offer that you don't pay for (see below for example). Then quit your own moaning and support the one retail sector that refuses to be mowed down by big business.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I recently ran up against a more serious and personally challenging censorship issue that I thought I would relate to you. As an independent bookstore, I naturally try to support and promote authors who are significant in our region (southeastern North Carolina), so when the well known Carolina journalist Jerry Bledsoe announced he had a new book coming out, I ordered it right in - without even looking to see what it was. I know Bledsoe to be a careful and sympathetic writer, with a talent for pulling out the human drama without undue sensationalism in his subjects - usually true crime stories. What came in was a book called - provocatively enough - "Death by Journalism? One Teacher's Fateful Encounter with Political Correctness" (John F. Blair).
This turns out to be a story about a class taught back in 1997 at a local community college on the Civil War in North Carolina. The class was part of the adult education extension program, which like all such programs allows members of the community to teach short courses in subjects they are interested in or know something about. This course was taught by a local history buff who happened to be a member of the Sons of the Confederacy. He had a few guest speakers who were a little, um, shall we say "radical" about the real reasons behind the Civil War (the title of the course was "North Carolina in the War for Southern Independence").
Enter an ambitious young reporter from the local paper - he came to a few of the classes, and went away to write a story that claimed that the class taught that black people were "happy" under slavery. Once in print, the story gained a life of its own and was picked up by the Associated Press, whereupon it received national attention. The instructor and the college experienced a huge backlash, and the college cancelled the course. The instructor died of a heart attack a few months later - friends and family claim from the pressure - hence the title of the book.
It is all pretty sordid, is it not? A class is taught with skewed purpose, reported on by someone with his own agenda, picked up by the national media who heard what they wanted to hear, which caused an educational institution to cave into public pressure, and finally made a normally sober and thorough reporter write what seems to be a highly emotional and one-sided account of the whole incident - which he published with his own press. And it finally comes down to me, who has the responsibility of telling my customers whether or not to read it. My ambivalence about the whole thing must have been pretty evident in my book review for a local radio station, because several people on both sides of the issue called to thank me for supporting their side! It is a real cautionary tale, and no one comes out looking too well.
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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