by Pat Holt
Friday, May 10, 2002
I see that during our many travels of the past month, the staff missed some neat tips from readers about book industry doings. Here are three of the best (next week we'll get back on track with those great stories promised a while ago):
You can imagine the dilemma of Minneapolis Star Tribune writer Kristin Tillotson when she was invited by the producer of conservative TV talkshow host Bill O'Reilly to appear on "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox TV to defend Judith Levine's controversial book, "Harmful to Minors" (see #315).
Tillotson spells it out well - and the debacle that ensued - at http://www.startribune.com/stories/389/2254674.html
Tillotson had argued in her Star Tribune column that "Harmful to Minors" was not "endorsing pedophilia," as conservative critics had claimed, that the embattled University of Minnesota had every right to publish it, and that "the book's primary themes, including the false or mixed messages kids get about sexuality, are useful, but are being completely ignored."
So come be a guest on the show, urged Bill O'Reilly's producer: "Present the pro side" of the book and argue against "the con position, to be filled by Minnesota House majority leader Tim Pawlenty," who Tillotson knew was as conservative as O'Reilly.
Apprehensive at O'Reilly's reputation as a TV bully but filled with a sense of mission to "talk about the positive aspects of this book and the freedom of the press," Tillotson found herself on "the video gallows," as she now calls the show.
For one thing she was seated so close to Pawlenty that "we were practically in each other's laps." For another, both had to direct directed their comments to the camera lens, since O'Reilly was miles away in his own studio.
The first thing she learned, Tillotson writes, is that dissenting guests must be "as rude as O'Reilly" to get a word in edgewise, and that when O'Reilly promises viewers that "the spin stops here," the opposite is true.
Reading incendiary excerpts to inflame viewers about a message the book did *not* promote seemed to be the point of the interview, she believes now.
"O'Reilly twice hammered me with a passage from Levine's book that said, 'We relish our erotic attraction to children.' Two problems: a) Levine didn't write those words; she was citing another author, and b) if you read the entire paragraph, you get a much different meaning."
The full paragraph written by Levine reads: " 'We relish our erotic attraction to children,' says Kincaid (witness the child beauty pageants in which JonBenet Ramsey was entered). But we also find that attraction abhorrent (witness the public shock and disgust at JonBenet's 'sexualization' in those pageants)."
Well, O'Reilly didn't want to hear the full quote, nor did his audience. Viewers bombarded the show with emails calling Tillotson a "scumbag," "hero to pedophiles," "Commie Pinko" and a guest who was "shrill and condescending to the host."
"Ah yes, my host, that vulnerable little rose petal," writes Tillotson. "Bruises like a newborn babe's soft spot, doesn't he?"
Followers of O'Reilly are remembered as well.
"The next day, KQRS morning-drive kingpin Tom Barnard decided to have a little fun with my name, repeatedly calling me 'Kristin Titson' on the air. The last time I heard that one was in third grade; by the fourth, the boys were too mature. Barnard, if you're wondering, is 50."
What's the lesson to learn from this experience?
"O'Reilly calls himself a newsman," she writes, "but he's being too modest. In reality, he's America's favorite carnival barker, with guests who disagree with him as a sideshow."
Lucky for Tillotson, she got to go back to print media. There an "ink-stained wretch" like herself doesn't have to worry "that my job depends on being an aggressive voice for the collective hate of my audience."
Bookscan, the electronic sales-tracking service that monitors book sales directly from cash registers of bookstores, "has been slowly gathering steam" as a new way to compile bestseller lists, writes Clive Thompson of the Washington Post at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A24656-2002May2.html.
The problem with traditional bestseller lists (compiled from booksellers' rankings, with no actual sales data required), Thompson says, is that editors typically ignore what's really selling - "genre" titles in such categories as science fiction, business, fantasy, food, spirituality, health and religion) - in order to "provide a snapshot of the culturati."
Thus if you're one of those Commie Pinko scumbag book editors who doesn't pay much attention to Christian apocalyptic novels such as Tim LaHaye's "Left Behind" series, you won't notice these titles until general bookstores (owned by the culturati, of course) report one or two. When the stores stop reporting it, you won't care that the books continue to "enjoy brisk sales in Christian bookstores nationwide," as Bookscan shows.
Bookscan, on the other hand, is unhindered by the human element. It records actual sales without interpretation. Here's the difference, says Thompson: In the old way, if book editors think that American culture is driven by "a demographic that is ... obsessed with, say, the problems of the ionospherically wealthy," they'll shoot "The Nanny Diaries" right up there to #6 on a list like, say, the New York Times Bestseller List, while Bookscan, reading only the hard data, will place "The Nanny Diaries" as #20.
Bookscan is indeed growing, but so far "only has 65 percent of national bookstores online," says Thompson. This sounds a little suspicious to me - the term "national bookstores" usually means chain bookstores.
If that's all you want, go on back to the chain-driven general lists at the Wall Street Journal or New York Times - bland as a page out of Mary Higgins Clark/Carol Higgins Clark/Baby Higgins Clark/Franchise Higgins Clark.
Nevertheless, "if Bookscan works," says Washington Post Book World editor Marie Arana, "the idea of a bestseller list might become moot very soon." I think she means that traditional bestseller lists are on the way out.
But why? Why not keep Bookscan as the gold mine of information it's soon going to be for publishers who want to know just how fired-up special-interest lists can get. Years ago nobody in the mainstream publishing scene wanted to publish books for the African American audience because they thought African Americans didn't buy books. What baloney - Bookscan would have revealed evidence of this lucrative "demographic" instantly.
So here's the GREAT IDEA: For newspapers, a Bookscan bestseller list every few months or so might be fun: There we can all see how cluttered its general list would be with obvious contemporary classics like "The Joy of Cooking," say, or the Bible. (And let's be truthful: Take away the clutter on the Bookscan list that showed "The Nanny Diaries" as #20, and I bet you'd find "The Nanny Diaries" somewhere near #6 after all.) Special interest lists would also be intriguing to see in newspaper/magazine book sections once in a while.
At the same time, let's stick with the human element. Booksellers, after all, live at the point of purchase. They hear that sizzle and buzz that make word-of-mouth so powerful (and that remains unquantifiable) every time a customer steps up to the cash register.
Indeed, for lists with real substance to them, you can't beat something like BookSense.com, a place where booksellers' antennae are picking up varied, unexpected, highly original books from all walks of life that are *starting* to sell in numbers that will be below Bookscan's radar for some time.
So. The essence of the GREAT IDEA about bestseller lists? Run 'em all at various times and give readers more options. That's what reading is about, isn't it?
You know how booksellers often share a laugh over the crazy questions asked by customers such as, "Do you have that winter romance, "Weathering Heights?"
Well, recently the British newspaper, The Guardian, decided to turn the tide and investigate whether bookstores themselves are "helpful fountains of literary knowledge" or places filled with "the incompetence of assistants who don't know the difference between Anthony and Joanna Trollope."
Sending six writers to "some of the best-known bookshops in the country," the newspaper discovered the kind of mixed - and mixed-up - response we all know can pop out of the mouths of novice and veteran booksellers alike. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4408273,00.html
When Guardian writer Emma Brocke goes to Foyles on Charing Cross Road in London ("the book-lover's bookshop," sez the Guardian), she asks for "The Colour Orange" by Alice Walker and is directed to a book about metallurgy.
Elsewhere in the store, Brocke complains that James Joyce's "Ulysses" is "full of typing errors and no punctuation" and suggests that maybe her copy is a publisher's uncorrected proof. "Mmmm," says the bookseller, looking at page 330, where Brocke points to "jawbo" and insists it's "not a word."
"It's rare that publishers make a mistake like that," he remarks. "If it's a proof copy, we will, of course, recall it." Then he looks at her kindly. "I expect [words like that] made it rather difficult to read."
At a Waterstone Bookstore in Deansgate, Manchester, that prides itself on being "the best Waterstone's in the country," Angelique Chrisafis almost (but not quite, thank heaven) confuses the staff about an alleged second book by "The Naked Chef" author Jamie Oliver, which she says is called "The Naked Lunch."
After looking it up on the computer and asking a colleague, the bookseller tells Brocke she's asking about a novel.
"Does it have good recipes in it?" Chrisafis persists. "No, it's about drugs," says the clerk. "It's really surreal and it's got giant cockroaches in it. It's completely mental. You have to think about what sort of book you really want; then we can help you find it."
That's great advice, but unfortunately it's not storewide. Upstairs she asks, "Do you have the latest horoscope books by Henry Miller? I know he's done Capricorn and Cancer, but I'm Aries." Answer: "Ah yes, didn't he do horoscope books for each month?"
The Guardian's test of bookstores could have become a cruel exercise because no bookseller can answer every question posed by every customer, and even well-read booksellers have their checkered periods where they missed some beauts, like "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker.
What makes it funny is the way the Guardian's writers have so perfectly captured the zeal with which customers often pursue self-knowledge by collecting scraps of information and laying them at the feet of booksellers, who are supposed to make sense of them in an instant. That many of the booksellers haven't a clue is more humorous than alarming.
At Borders on Oxford Street in London, Merope Mills asks a staff member if she knows of a book called "The Thirty-Nine Steps," - "I think it's a classic of the 'detox' genre," Mills says, referring to the many 12-step books that are written for people with addictions.
"It does ring a bell," says the bookseller, unable to find it on the computer. Looking for a 12-step type of book doesn't work. "Is it definitely thirty-nine?" she asks. She then enters the word "steps" in the computer, which brings up 279 titles, so the clerk leads Mills to the self-help/detox section without ever finding out "The Thirty-nine Steps" is a novel by John Buchan.
What's endearing about the story is the way booksellers try, almost in spite of themselves, to answer customer questions with patience and a zeal of their own. At WH Smith in Kingston, writer Stephen Moss asks, "Do you have 'Paradise Lost'?"
"Is that a novel or a play?" asks the bookseller.
"I think it's a long poem," says Moss, "possibly by Milton." The bookseller, appearing not to believe that a single poem could be *that* long, asks, "Would it be a whole book?"
And so on. To me, the most revealing reaction comes when Guardian writer Tim Dowling sends a desperate email to both Amazon.com and Bertelsmann's own online bookseller, BOL.com.
There he states that his wife asked him to get her "the latest Trollope" for her birthday, but he doesn't know anything about Trollope and has discovered on their websites that there are TWO Trollopes, "Anthony and Joanne," deliberately misspelling the latter. Finally he asks, "perhaps you could just tell me which one had the most recent book, and I could get that one for her."
Now that is a very simple thing to do, but you can imagine what the customer service workers write back. Amazon, responding immediately, hasn't a clue; BOL, responding 15 hours later in a letter beginning "Dear Tim Dowling" and signed by "David Ball, Customer Service Representative," hasn't a clue.
"To be fair to David Ball," says Dowling, "I think that he might be a robot."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
When I first negotiated my bookstore lease at the shopping center where the store was located, I insisted on a clause that did not allow the center to rent space to any other business whose book sales were more than 50% of total revenue. I would encourage any bookseller facing a lease - new or old - in a shopping center to ask about a similar clause and, if they don't get it, to look long and hard at the long-term consequences of being indentured to such a landlord.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I heard about Judith Levine's book, "Harmful to Minors," on another news list and immediately purchased it. What a read! A very courageous lady has written what I believe is the truth about the situation concerning sex education and the fear and anxiety that is being spread by the media concerning anything having to do with sex.
I knew something was wrong with what I was hearing, but was unable to put a finger on it. When I went to the Internet to purchase the book, I had a fear about even typing in the title as if I was some sort of pervert for even wanting to read the book. It is exactly this sort of mind-set that is addressed in the book, and I am grateful that this author has been able to get her book published...
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Please: Oprah Winfrey has plenty of heart? She has plenty of ego and plenty of money to feed it. Oprah receives far to much credit for her supposed good works. What she does is driven by the amount of press she receives.
Holt responds: Don't you think Winfrey backed up her book selections with true heartfelt testimony, lots of time given to behind-the-scenes author profiles, live interviews and on-camera dinners with club members and authors? I thought she did all that because she fell in love with the books; but tell me if I'm wrong.
Carol Nordstrom replies:
Oprah perhaps read and loved the books chosen for her show. Perhaps it is the sense that Oprah was bestowing books upon the world that rankled. Each book chosen was such an "Event." I wonder if she was offered co-op? This is what I think -I believe that Oprah keeps a large and well-oiled staff that are quite able to put together those book programs. Oprah may well enjoy reading, but I think she also was quick enough - this is Oprah, after all - to read the direction of the country re: a general revitalization of reading interest (isn't everyone a member of a reading group these days?) and calls for increased literacy. But it is quite possible to do each of those shows without falling in love with the books - I still believe what she loved was the response to her pick - and the adulation she received acting as the first lady of the written word. Winfrey's pronouncement that she's finding fewer books to recommend doesn't hold water. I think it's a poor excuse for "I'm bored with this - and you guys aren't watching me the way I expect you to, anyway. So I'm calling it quits." I do think there is a considerable amount of conceit in the manner in which she ended her book club.
Holt: I know there is some thought that Winfrey realized the sales of the books she chose were declining and decided to terminate Oprah's Book Club because the picks were no longer the huge event they had become. But gad, look at the context: Her selections still accounted for a quarter to half a million *additional* sales or so, which surely made the publishing industry swoon (PW still announced her selections with the headline, "Oprah Has Chosen").
What worried me was the possibility that the show would slip into a kaffee klatch sensibility or, even worse, the self-help/inspirational bombardment of tips and confessions and bullying "experts." A few weeks ago I turned it on to find members of the audience admitting to personal flaws they were going to change. One woman explained that she was addicted to talking on the phone all day and was becoming a bad mother because of it. Her way of taking steps toward being a better person was to limit phone calls, and Oprah said, "good idea! no more all-day conversations about pedicures!" or something like that. I suddenly wondered if Oprah always has been more comfortable with subjects like these and, especially after the blow-up with Jonathan Franzen, regretted moving toward more literary selections.
Granted, no industry should ever depend on the largesse of one person - Oprah, Len Riggio, Jeff Bezos, Charles McGrath - to determine the direction of any part of our literary culture. Maybe that's what gripes you? Your comment about Oprah being offered co-op sounds more like an indictment of craven publishers than of Oprah herself, and that, too - publishers pressuring the Oprah staff - was said to have been so extreme it pushed her toward discontinuing the book club.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I'd like to comment on the letter you printed from Karen Z who said that "books cost too much." I have heard this a lot when I try to sell my own books to people who are not generally book buyers. I don't understand it. The same person who turns up her nose at a full price $15 paperback will go to a movie (which offers only 2 hours of entertainment, then is gone) and spend $8 for a ticket and another $10 on snacks. (Including a $5 tub of 50c popcorn). Why do people think $15 is too much to spend on a book?
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.
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