Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Friday, October 18, 2002


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Wow. Something big is happening over at Google that may revolutionize the way we read about the news, deepen our understanding of events, achieve an international perspective or just click on and off to see what's happening in the news from many different angles on a minute-by-minute basis.

Launched earlier this month, the beta version of Google News at http://news.google.com/ offers a home page that looks like many other mainstream news sites on the Internet. The difference is that on other sites, if you want to know more, you're dependent on the host - say the New York Times, CNET or UPI - to link you to more sources within the site.

At the new Google News, while a news story on the page may be reported by CNN, the BBC, the Miami Herald or Reuters, that's just the lead-off. Below each item, Google News offers hundreds of other sources across the world, all reporting the same story from their own, often very different perspectives.

More important, what you get at Google News is the latest news with timed updates ("8 hours ago," "15 minutes ago"), and the luxury of taking nobody's word for it, because not a single editor at Google makes a decision about any news item you see. Instead, through an "automated grouping process," Google's search engines are continuously crawling through 4,000 news sites to pull out and package the news according to a priority of importance, determined by volume.

Oh-oh, you may say (I certainly did say): *No* editor at all? Right, this is news "untouched by human hands," as Dan Rubenstein of Vue Weekly reported last week (reprinted by Alternet at http://www.alternet.org/print.html?StoryID=14239).

The reason: Google News comes from a newly developed set of computer algorithms that look for "stories generating a large volume of Internet 'buzz,' " says Rubenstein. These stories are displayed the most prominently at Google News, "according to the algorithms' rather democratic whims,"

Ah, "democratic," that's a comforting word. As Google explains it, "while the sources of the news vary in perspective and editorial approach, their selection for inclusion is done without regard to political viewpoint or ideology."

Here's how it works, as Rubenstein reports: Earlier this month, demonstrators protested at World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings in Washington, D.C. As usual, the protests were portrayed according to the "deeply subjective" way editors make choices according to the biases of their newspapers, wire services or magazines.

For example, the news story at the Globe and Mail, says Rubenstein, "contained a swath of derisive comments like 'The same folks who earlier brought you tear gas festivals in Seattle, Quebec City, Genoa and elsewhere are back.' "

Coverage at The Guardian took the opposite tack: "The International Monetary Fund admitted yesterday that the benefits of the increasing integration of the global economy had failed to reach the world's poor as demonstrators gathered in Washington."

Even The Motley Fool had its own angle, as shown in its "top 10 ways capitalism is fighting back": "9. Drenched and shivering on Pennsylvania Ave., several protestors are spotted heading to Starbucks for a hot double latte."

So the presence of editors is very much felt at Google News once you start reading each news source's angle on each event. "We like to say we have thousands of editors," Google News team leader Krishna Bharat told Vue Weekly. "We look at their collected wisdom and how much time and space they invest in a certain topic."

The danger, of course, lies in the possibility that somebody at Google may develop these algorithms to cut out a certain kind of news source - let's say radical feminist vegetarian socialists, of which, I must say, not many representatives were quoted in the Google News sources I read.

But like so many services on the Web, the feeling that we're all in the same boat often provides its own checks and balances. If a radical feminist vegetarian socialist news site wants to be included, the group can contact news-feedback@google.com and hope "the algorithms' rather democratic whims" will find a place for it.

"The algorithms are trying to create diversity," Bharat says. "We're trying to be as objective as possible." Hey, that sounds like a good news editor talking: "The intention is to have a healthy debate, so you try to include a good mix...Some of the best newspapers, even in the U.S., have strong opinions. So you have newspapers and opinions from all over the world."

I love that idea that "strong opinions" exist "even in the U.S.," home of corporate ownership and ensuing blandness. Thanks to Google, we get to see at a glance more different points of view in our own country than we may have known before.

True, the concept of Google News has a long way to go - many of the "different stories" are the same wire service piece printed by different newspapers; not enough of a "healthy mix" is found in Google's endless links; a greater variety of international stories should be displayed on the front page; the graphics need vast improvement.

But as a way of fulfilling that great hope of the Internet - siphoning the World Wide Web into an online newspaper of the world, updated on a minute-by-minute basis - Google News may be a giant first step.



What a relief it is to investigate Google News (see above) in light of the Dark Ages kind of "reporting" that mainstream news sources like Time Magazine continue to spew regarding independent bookstores.

I suppose I should calm down and expect this by now, but it's infuriating that independent bookstores continue to be dismissed and condescended to, even when they're being congratulated for surviving the toughest assaults from corporate chain stores to come down the pike in decades.

The message is rarely straightforward any longer; rather it's sent by diminutives hidden within the larger story. For example: "Plucky little competitors" like "Mom and Pop" bookstores, says Time Magazine of October 13, have created "a feisty comeback" against that "Goliath" known as chain stores.

Yes, it's the little guys against the big guys, the Davids vs.the Goliaths once again. But here's the new twist: Instead of getting mad, independent booksellers should *thank* the chains for introducing a great new concept, "complementary marketing."

For more than a decade, says Time, the "giant chains" have been able to "crush local shops." But now, even as a huge mass-merchandiser like Wal-Mart can "stomp most rivals, whatever their size," the big specialty retailers like Home Depot and Lowe's "are focused more on fighting one another - and fending off Wal-Mart - than on targeting [independent] stores" whose annual income "is mere kibble to them."

Kibble. Can you believe it?

As a result, "a smaller number of strong indies" are left "to fight for some juicy scraps," Time reports.

Ah, the heart swells. Thank heaven, says the domesticated, ever-begging, always grateful, never-whining puppy, for juicy scraps! Customers who missed the freeway exit for Barnes & Noble or who don't want to wait in line at Borders are going to stumble into independent bookstores, and gosh! Here is the indies' chance to compete with "superior service," says Time.

More important is this observation: Savvy independents know they can benefit from the chains' exploitation of customers. When Starbucks charges $57.50 for coffee with steamed milk, why can't the Mom-and-Pop java joint across the street?

And because "firms like Petco helped spark a boom in part by changing people's conception of smelly, helter-skelter pet stores," wasn't it great that all the smelly Moms and Pops had to do was take a bath and break out the broom! Maybe Petco gets the big sale for cockatiel food, but independents get to sell expensive cockatiel accessories that are "unavailable at the chains."

(Okay, this part isn't clear but you see where Time is going: "Want a hedgehog?" the article asks. "You'll have to visit a local pet shop - the big chains haven't a clue how to care for them. For hedgehog food, Petco also accommodates." Somehow I think Petco is getting the better sale.)

"Complementary marketing" means you just ride on the coattails of the big guys' advertisements and pricing policies, according to Time, which apparently doesn't realize that this was suggested in the 1970s by other superficial and patronizing media "experts" when B. Dalton and Waldenbooks made a big deal of splashy ads and bestseller discounts.

Time Magazine does give independent bookstores credit for improving their collective clout by creating BookSense.com with its national gift certificates, its e-commerce site and its ads in the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly.

But the idea of giving bigness obsequious respect and smallness "some juicy scraps" has become about as repugnant as the notion that independent bookstores are somehow dependent on the chains and Amazon.com for expanding and sustaining the market for books.

The fact is, it's quite the opposite! Today we know that independent bookstores are running rings around the chains when it comes to finding and supporting books that are worth reading to a huge variety of audiences.

And these titles are not just the Top 10 or the Movers and Shakers or the Badda Bings with a Bullet that come to you with paid promotions behind them. These are lengthy, rich, wonderfully varied titles, often written by unknown authors, brought to us on BookSense lists of 76 choices, all selected by independent booksellers who write their own recommendations and celebrate the richness and diversity of American literature in their own way every day they open the door.

That is hardly squeaking by on the "juicy scraps" left by the chains. It is powerful, important bookselling. It is the commerce of literary works at its very best. It keeps good books - the ones that chain bookstores often miss - in print for longer and longer periods, and it offers more rather than fewer options on what the American reading public is offered to read.

The fact that chain stores now look to independent bookstores to turn titles by unknown authors into bestsellers - bestsellers that the chains then discount deeply, thus stealing the sale from independents - makes a person wonder who should be thanking whom for the literary bounty of books on the market today.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

About the letters wondering if Barnes & Noble can get away with using (rather than hiring) "volunteers" to gift-wrap books during the holiday season: Typically, the day's gift wrappers have a sign indicating their organization (Boy Scout troop #1211, Metropolitan Community Church, etc), a suggested donation of $1.00 - $2.00 per wrap and a jar for money. I do hope they manage to get out of the store without Barnes & Noble dipping into the jar.

I have no idea how effective a fund-raiser this is, and I do imagine that Barnes & Noble exercises some control over the groups attending and over the message the group is allowed to give. For instance, the one year Metro Community Church did a table, they were not identified as a predominantly gay organization, they had no information on the MCC church itself, and the project for which they were raising money was a family homeless shelter not associated with the church.

Nancy Phillips, M.D.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re the question of volunteer giftwrappers: It's work; the bookstore has gotta pay minimum wage, do deductions, etc. There's no such thing as "volunteer" work for a business. The state and/or federal wage and hours people at the Department of Labor (or whatever the state equivalent is called in your state) would be interested in hearing about this kind of thing!

Michael J. Lowrey

Holt responds: In the last two years, Rachel Naomi Remen ("Kitchen Table Wisdom"), Sheldon Siegel ("Criminal Intent"), Terry Ryan ("The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio"), Isabel Allende ("Portrait in Sepia"), myself and a dozen other authors have taken over the giftwrap desk in shifts at Book Passage Bookstore in Corte Madera, Calif. Their "pay" was the knowledge that hundreds of indigent children who wouldn't have received any gifts at all got at least one book in their age bracket and when possible in their first language during the holidays. Heavens, I hope the IRS doesn't get wind of that.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Regarding your story on Bertelsman's history and attempted coverup of its Nazi past: The schemes, tactics, coverups utilized by Bertelsmann in their efforts to hygienize their past remind me of so many of the clever smokescreens utilized by  Nazi war criminals who found sanctuary in the United States after the War. They became ardent anti-Communists and supported the McCarthy investigations whole-heartedly. Many of them are wandering about freely (although by now perhaps with canes), enjoying wealth and prosperity and liberty, rather than justice.

Find politics and money and you will find strange bedfellows - but the worst part is, as your mention of the manufacture of running shoes indicates, that one never knows when one is actually contributing (at the mall or online) to an individual or cause that one would never support were the true colors more apparent.

These are the economic land mines of the Post-War world. I wish the U.S. weren't about to rush right in to further strange bedfellowshipism. It's hard to "win" a "war" without sleeping with the "enemy."

Sareda Milosz

Dear Holt Uncensored:

About the "Six Things Every Author Can Do Right Now": In addition to a Friends-of-the-Author List, consider the tradition of "patronage" publishing. Literary history is filled with success stories of writers whose first works - and sometimes their last - were supported by friends. Names such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf come to mind. I published the first printing of my novel, "Spirit Circle," that way, sending out requests to 200 or 300 friends. Over 40 people each sent me $50, and some sent more, which covered my printing costs for that first edition of 500 copies. Each patron got his or her name on the first page of the book and 2 copies. I had an imprinter made at a local stationery store so that I could put a gold seal on the title page saying "Special Patronage Copy." 

"Spirit Circle" has since gone into a second printing, sold to bookstores through the usual independent book distributors. Current sales are just over 2500 copies. Not bad for a self-published novel in a world where many novels don't do better than that, even with mainstream publishers. And that first edition would never have happened without those early patrons. Hal Zina Bennett

Dear Holt Uncensored:

One thing in Holt Uncensored #345 made me curious, and that was the reference to the Bay Area Editors Forum. To me it doesn't look like a particularly promising source for an author in search of a manuscript consultant -- it seems to be oriented mostly toward services that publishers would use more than authors. Its page devoted to definitions of editing-related terms doesn't include anything like manuscript consultant -- "developmental editor" is the only thing that comes close, but it's really not the same.

I wonder if it would be appropriate for you to devote a piece of another column to more information about manuscript consultants -- what to look for in one, and where and how to look for one. This is something that you've glossed over so far, and given that the manuscript consultant is a complement to Manuscript Express, it would be an appropriate topic for more in-depth treatment.

For example, what does an aspiring author ask a self-proclaimed manuscript consultant, or look for in a consultant, to get an idea that the person is competent? Anyone can ask (say) the first five questions you list in #343, but what indicates that a person can competently answer them about a book, and give the writer pointers for improvement?

Here are some questions I think an aspiring writer might want to ask a manuscript consultant:

  • Have you worked in-house for a publisher? Who? In what capacity/doing what, and for what kind(s) of books? For how long, and when?
  • If not, have you worked with publishers on a freelance basis? Doing what, on what kinds of books? On about how many books, and when?
  • How long have you been working as a manuscript consultant? About how many clients have you worked with, and on how many books? On what types of subject matter?
  • What are your own publishing credentials? (This isn't a pass/fail question; an unpublished person can be a good editor/consultant. But consultant who have publications may speak more authoritatively in their field.)
  • What are the kinds of books that you have given a "leg up" into publication? Have you done this solely by helping improve the quality of the book itself (how?), or did you help the author do research or networking in the publishing industry? If the latter, how?

I'd look for someone with a publishing background because I would want that perspective on answers to the questions you pose in #343. Even the first few questions overlap with marketing. On forums for fanfiction, I've seen feedback commentary to the effect of "Are you a professional writer? You should be!" on material that I considered far from professionally written. But who is qualified to decide how "professionally written" a book is? I'd want such a judgment on my book coming from a perspective that was not only informed but publisher-informed.

So if I were looking for a manuscript consultant, I'd want to know what to look for that would tell me this person could steer me in the right direction for publication -- even if I weren't looking for someone who could answer marketing-type questions. Of course, the further along the list of your questions a consultant could take me, the happier I'd be.

A Reader

Holt responds: Gad, those are *wonderful* questions for any author to consider asking a prospective manuscript consultant. And you're right: Judgment about the quality of the manuscript is important before a reader seeks a literary agent or publisher; the possibility of that judgment being "publisher-informed" could be quite a bonus.

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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