Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, October 22, 2002


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Here's a question everybody in the book business wants to know (as discussed in earlier columns, namely #344):

Do buyers from chain bookstores and big-box stores (Costco, Wal-Mart) ever ask publishers to change the content of a book? Word is that they do this just enough to scare authors and editors to death, but evidence of the practice has been nearly impossible to find.

Now comes news that Wal-Mart - or more specifically, Anderson Merchandising, the distributor whose sole client is Wal-Mart - has asked a publisher of romance novels, Dorchester Publishing Co., to change the content of a book to make it more "appropriate."

It appears that a buyer at Anderson took one look at advance excerpts from Susan Grant's fourth book, "Contact," a lead romance novel from Dorchester's imprint, LoveSpell, and decided that the airplane hijacking theme of the story was "inappropriate" a year after 9/11.

Changes in "editorial content" were requested by Anderson/Wal-Mart, but Dorchester refused, bless 'em. As as a result, "Contact" was declined by Anderson and is not sold in Wal-Mart stores. (Interestingly, it's available through Wal-Mart online, but that seems to be another story.)

The effect of Anderson's decision could be catastrophic for Grant, whose first three romance novels have been climbing the sales ladder slowly but surely as she established a following among romance readers.

"It's unfortunate," Grant wrote in a posting to The Romance Journal at http://www.romancejournal.com/wwwboard/messages/45259.html, "as the vice president of marketing [at Dorchester] broke the bad news to me, that Anderson accounts for a 'significant amount of sales' and that this decision will indeed hurt me." When Anderson bought her last two novels, she added, "it really, really boosted my sales."

The Many Rubs

But here's the rub (well, rub #1): "Contact" is a *science fiction* novel about a United Airlines 747 jet that is "swallowed hole" late at night by an alien starship. It is not hijacked by Islamic terrorists wielding plastic knives who plan to blow up American landmarks. It is sucked into the starship and boarded by aliens who look very human indeed. One of them, Kao, is (of course) the incredibly handsome son of the ship's captain and provides the love interest for the 747's first officer, Jordan Cady.

And here's the great part, rub #2: Author Susan Grant is herself a pilot of 747 airplanes for United Airlines who routinely flies jumbo jets around the world. At 18, she entered the United States Air Force Academy and was a member of the third class in history to include women.

After graduation, Grant completed two tours of duty as a pilot for the USAF, although, "lacking the male gene to fly in combat," she told me on the phone, she became an instructor for fighter pilots.

Now Grant flies United Air Lines 747 jets as a veteran commercial pilot, and, better still, she has a knack as a writer for strategically inserting those telling details that prove her story's authenticity at every turn.

In fact, part of the fun in the early chapters of "Contact" is to watch protagonist Jordan Cady find herself promoted to pilot when the older, experienced captain of the swallowed-up 747 suffers a heart attack in the ensuing melee.

But when Jordan takes over, she must not only learn how to fly the plane; she must also keep the passengers from panicking, organize the crew to resist when the aliens board (one of the women flight attendants is a kick-boxing instructor), figure out the politics of the aliens and, of course, find time to fall in love. Meanwhile Jordan, a single mother, worries about her daughter "Boo" (for Roberta), whom she left at home under difficult circumstances.

All right, then - here comes rub #3: "Contact" is one of the first novels written by a professional insider that shows us how airline crews of today have adjusted in-flight procedures to accommodate the lessons learned from 9/11.

We learn that anything out of the ordinary brings the possibility of a hijacking to the minds of the crew, so they rely on the discipline of their training and proceed with extra post-9/11 caution. Rather than "inappropriate," the novel offers a delight and a comfort to romance readers who may also be future airplane passengers.

And now the joyous rub #4: You don't have to be a romance reader to enjoy this tale by Susan Grant. She's got the stuff. As Jordan watches in horror, the "object" on the radar screen" (which she first thinks is a storm) now "rushed out of the darkness," Grant writes, and "yawned open like a nightmarish Venus Flytrap. At 500 knots, {the 747] hurtled toward its shadowy maw."

Well, look at that: Venus Flytrap! Shadowy maw! Attaway, S. Grant! (You can read this excerpt at Grant's website, http://www.susangrant.com/contact.html).

Finally, rub #5: "Contact" is a far cry from the romance novels of old, in which faint-hearted heroines swooned at manly men with smoldering eyes who conquered disease, broke horses, climbed mountains and ran for President while proposing marriage. I'll never forget a Janet Dailey character who knew she met her future husband when out of nowhere, "he rocked me with a kiss."

But "Contact" is NOT an aberration in the romance field. Today romance writers like Susan Grant are routinely introducing readers to strong-willed, independent and capable heroines who are often professionals in their own right, looking for their equal in a man who's as tender as he is tough.

To cut their literary legs out from under them when they have just begun to bring us authentic heroines such as Jordan Cady seems as cavalier as it is cruel. But help is on the way.

Enter Laurie Gold

Watching all of this from her own ferocious point of view is Laurie Gold, who writes an online newsletter about the romance-novel industry at "LLB" (for "Laurie Likes Books" at http://www.likebooks.com/contact2.html).

Laurie often explains how problems in the book industry at large can plague romance novelists. In 1996, for example, she discussed the peculiar ways that mid-list romance novels were being squeezed out as the number of romance-novel distributors decreased.

The result, she predicted, would be "bigger companies, fewer independent companies and more uniformity in what is available." She polled romance publishers and found that midlist books were indeed disappearing.

Worse, she discovered that Kensington was developing a new line of romances under the imprint Precious Gems, "which sell 'exclusively' at Wal-Mart for $1.78." Not only did Precious Gems, as one author commented, make romance novels look like "cheesy pulp fiction," Kensington was offering the authors a fee of $2,000 per title and no royalties.

So to say that Laurie Gold, the Paul Revere of her industry, flipped her lid when she heard about the Anderson/Wal-Mart "censorship" of Susan Grant's novel "Contact" would be an understatement. In her newsletter at http:///www.likesbooks.com/contact2.html, Laurie wrote: "I immediately thought to myself, what if Wal-Mart decides not to sell a Spike Lee DVD because of a disturbing theme, or won't sell any more 'Harry Potter' books because some find the magic theme subversive, antiChristian, or somehow Satanist? How different is this from the time 10 years ago when the Dallas ABC affiliate refused to air 'NYPD Blue' because [the show] was considered too controversial?

"In my mind, it's one thing to refuse to sell something that the community would consider obscene, but it's a form of censorship to refuse to sell something based on its content and the fear that some in the community might be offended."

Laurie noted that many romance novelists and readers "do not agree with me," thinking that "since the book is being offered on Wal-Mart's website, what's the big deal?"

Gold's answer is that Susan Grant's career could be damaged, not on the basis of whether the hijacking theme is appropriate, but on the basis of poor sales, writes Laurie:

"As the largest discount retailer in the nation, Wal-Mart contributes heavily to an author's overall sales. I would much rather a book not sell because it is poorly written than because you or I couldn't buy it at our local Wal-Mart and decide for ourselves. Because of their size, decisions [that the Wal-Marts of the world] make do matter."

Susan Grant Speaks

That's the problem for a reluctant-to-speak Susan Grant. Reached at her home in Rocklin, Calif., last night, she explained that at first, "the book was getting a lot of buzz because I'm a 747 pilot in real life and had joked that I was on a tight deadline and didn't want to do any research. My editor had become excited and the publisher wanted to push the book, so they didn't make finished ARCs (advance review copies) and sent out several teasers instead. Anderson got one, and before I knew it, no one was finding 'Contact' at Wal-Mart stores.

"I didn't realize something was wrong until someone told me to check and see if the book had been 'banned.' That word struck me as odd. I have never in my life heard that word used about a book like mine. It's true that if the cover illustration to a romance novel is a little racy, a buyer may check with the publisher - that can be common. But changes in content? This was a new one."

I say she was reluctant to speak because cries of outrage from influential industry observers like Laurie Gold - and from people like me, who was hauling out my own baseball bats to slam away at censorship of this kind - may do more practical harm than good for Susan Grant.

Gratified though she is at the support and advocacy that by now are exploding on romance novel listservs all over the Internet, Grant knows that as "an up-and-coming midlist author" she could get "blackballed" as a troublemaker. "Wal-Mart has been good to us. If you consider 5-6,000 Wal-Mart stores multiplied by 3 books a store, you can see how powerful they are in launching a book."

Nevertheless, here's what I find so uplifting about writers. When asked, "do you think the effect of the Wal-Mart/Anderson decision may cause you to tone down the themes of your next novel?" Grant answered:

"Maybe that would be a good idea for a normal person, but I've always felt a little fight instinct emerging at times like these, maybe because I was in the Air Force. You never know - an Earth-to-Mars expedition I write about in a future book may be hijacked. I think current books in my Star series are pretty safe. Publishers Weekly review referred to my little niche as 'aviation romance' so it sounds established (even though I was the one who coined the term!).

"But I can only do that" - write books a company like Wal-Mart will view as "inappropriate" - "up to a point. The decision to buy is always going to be up to Wal-Mart. You'll see more and more that midlist writers like me can't really fight back."



Dear Holt Uncensored:

About your story on the Beta version of the new Google News: It took me a scant couple of days to switch my default home page from MyYahoo! to Google News. The reasons:

  1. Don't have to sign in.
  2. Opens ten times faster, no layers.
  3. Broader coverage.
  4. More and faster updates.
  5. And NO excalamation points ! ! !

As far as this kid is concerned, Google News hit the nail right on the head; duck Orwell...

Louis J. de Deaux
Cali, Colombia

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Regarding the unpaid holiday help that you and those illustrious authors provided to Book Passage: Well, I can think of a more straightforward and direct way to supply the much needed books to those indigent children (without "volunteer" support), can't you? However, the pay-off in good publicity for the store and the authors involved in taking this "round-about" generous way of providing books had to be a factor, n'est-ce pas?

A Reader

Dear Holt Uncensored:

About your story on the need for a "pitch" from an author: A one sentence hook line? I absolutely cannot. I'm sorry, but I just don't have that ability. Would that I did. I know this is a serious weakness. I've read a hundred stories of book proposals and screenplay pitches where the writer said something like, "This is the story of the entire city of Anywhere, U.S.A."

A Writer

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I thought you might be amused by this little Amazon tidbit. This past March, I heard that one of my favorite authors would soon be releasing a long-awaited new novel. I went to Amazon to see if they had release date information, and all they had at that point was the title. I decided to pre-order it through Amazon anyway.

The book was released in September. I received the book in October, and to my surprise, the invoice listed the book price as $0.00! Apparently, because I had pre-ordered the book so far in advance, when the order was posted it did not yet have a price assigned to it. So I got the book for free and only had to pay for shipping.

I'd be curious to find out if anyone else out there has had this experience. If so, perhaps the way to get free books from Amazon is to order books long before publication, before prices are entered into the system. (Of course, I'm a little nervous about sending this message not only because of the shame of admitting I'm actually an Amazon customer but also because of the off-chance that someone at Amazon will read this and bill me for my book . . .)

Greg Sanders

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Below is my (unseemly and never-to-be-published) letter to Time Magazine regarding their story about "indys" (independent retailers, including independent booksellers) - and Time's response.

Wallace Kuralt

Folks, Monopsony rules! Who is [Time writer] Daren Fonda and where did this person go to school? Losing 85% of a market to the national bookselling chains hardly qualifies as a success (for independent bookstores). For Time to turn into an apologist for the chains seems mightily like a ploy for advertising, hardly a factual piece on the real depth of the story.

The term "buying power" (also known as monopsony) has come to mean the ability to squeeze one's suppliers until they are forced to raise their prices in order to accommodate their largest customers' demands for greater discounts and secret special benefits.

It's the allegedly illegal use of this power - not business acumen, innovation, excellence of selection or any other normal business practices - that has brought the big box stores to the top and enabled them to clobber their competition.

Don't blame the booksellers in these stores, or their customers, either. They think it's all business as usual. Most of the smaller retailers who have failed probably think they just weren't good enough. But how can anyone compete with any company that can buy at half the price the independent must pay, and can sell at prices below what the independent must pay?

Yes, it's admirable and remarkable that any of these bookstores has survived - some 6,000 nationally have not. Time has the resources and the evidence available to report to the nation what's really going on (much of it provided by data from federal price-discrimination lawsuits - in multiple industries). Let's hear about that.

Cordially, and with respect and sadness,

Wallace Kuralt

Time Magazine's response:

Dear Reader:

Thank you for writing. We welcome timely, insightful reactions to material we have published, and we can assure you that your observations found an attentive audience among the editors. Should your comments be selected for the column, you will be notified in advance of publication. Again, our thanks for letting us hear from you. We hope that you will write again should you discover something of particular interest in the news or in our reporting of it.

Best wishes.

TIME Letters

Holt responds: Honestly! This kind of baloney form letter from Time's Letters-to-the-Editor department is even worse than the original article. Thanks to Wallace Kuralt, who with attorney Carl Person has expressed his position in a series of aggressive, indefatigable and passionate lawsuits against corporate chain stores selling everything from auto parts to books. Let's hope these two can stand the strain of the long haul on the way to what they see as victory and justice for all.

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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