by Pat Holt
Friday, November 22, 2002
CRACKPOTS OF THE WORLD, UNITE
At last the English translations of two best-selling books (in France and elsewhere) about 9/11 are soon to be released in the United States by USA Books (through Baker & Taylor), or so the company's ad in this week's Publishers Weekly has announced.
The books are "9/11: The Big Lie" and "Pentagate," both by French writer Thierry Meyssan, who's almost universally renowned as a crackpot since his conclusions first came out earlier this year.
Meyssan's premise begins with his distrust of American military reports that the Boeing 757 that flew into the Pentagon melted completely, leaving not a single trace. The size of the hole it left, the depth of impact, the surrounding environment all lead him to the conclusion that it was not an airplane that struck the Pentagon but a missile, and that missile was launched by the United States government itself from an unknown location. The attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, he adds, were all part of a government plan to whip up American hatred that would support a series of wars and bring control of oil in Afghanistan and Iraq to the United States.
It's such a stretch when you first hear it that when Meyssan first released his findings, critics all over the world wondered: Did the CIA or the Fairy Queen pay Osama bin Laden to execute the attacks on the World Trade Center? And things like that. You can bet when the translated books hit the United States, blanket dismissals of Meyssan's theories will flood the media as quickly as they did before.
But here's the nice thing about conspiracy theorists: Among their wildest conclusions, they always raise legitimate questions we can't poke fun at so easily. The effect of these questions is to rip the lid off existing institutions (like the FBI and CIA) so we can all look in and see that the very systems once set up to protect us have fallen into a state of disorganization and infighting long before the tragedy in question.
It's not that I have an affinity to crackpots - thought I'd say this first - but that I'd rather get past the oddball conclusions to the questions that still need to be answered.
For example, on this 39th anniversary of John Kennedy's assassination, it seems we will never know if Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone or if it was the CIA (of course it was the Mafia) that killed JFK. But we can still ponder the effect of key questions that remain unanswered: Why did the Secret Service allow windows to remain open when the president's car rolled by? Why was the president's route changed at the last minute? Did J. Edgar Hoover order the destruction of the note Oswald left for the FBI agent in Dallas? These questions indicate systemic weaknesses that could exist today.
In Meyssan's case, instead of dismissing the books because of their conclusions, let's take a serious look at the questions he raises, such as:
USA Books says that half a million copies of "9/11: The Big Lie" have sold internationally, and that "Pentagate" is not far behind. The reason might be the full-color photos Meysann provides that seem to offer at least an indication that something is wrong with the official scenario.
But while we wait for the translated books (Baker & Taylor still says it has them only "on order" as of today), we can do a little digging and photograph-comparing on our own about some of Meysann's questions.
It only takes a moment if you click first on the site that comically asks us to "Hunt the Boeing!" at http://www.asile.org/citoyens/numero13/pentagone/erreurs_en.htm
The questions posed here are similar to those above, and granted, they're almost too much fun to answer. Remember when you first saw questions about that "doctored" photo of Lee Harvey Oswald posing with his rifle, or the "cake-and-the-bible" gifts of Irangate, or John Dean finally testifying at the Watergate hearings?
It's like that: The photographs at "Hunt the Boeing!" are both seductive and deceptive. Unlike photos of the World Trade Center, nothing here shows an airplane flying toward or into the Pentagon. A model of the Boeing has been superimposed on a photo of the Pentagon, and sure enough, that hole looks awfully small. Still, quotations from firefighters that sound like a cover-up in the making could simply be the result of confusion in the midst of chaos.
So all is murky except one thing: It's a *very* small hole. And as Sonny Corleone might say before being shushed by his father: Are you tellin' me every single piece of the plane melted completely? There is *no* part of the plane left? Has that ever happened in any plane crash before? (Apparently not.)
To get a feel for the other side of the controversy, click to that great investigator of urban myths, Snopes.com, which addresses "Hunt the Boeing!" at http://www.snopes.com/rumors/pentagon.htm.
After refuting Meyssan's conclusions (who wouldn't?), Snopes.com tries to answer the questions Meyssan raises. Here are two examples:
*Why didn't the Boeing penetrate through than the outside ring of the Pentagon? Says Snopes: You can't see it, but the plane got through to the third ring. It would have done further damage except that section of the Pentagon "had just been reinforced during a renovation project." Hm. Sounds awfully convenient, but I've read about this elsewhere, and it's easy enough to prove.
*If the plane went through that far, what happened to the wings? Snopes says they "likely snapped during the initial impact, then were pushed inward towards the fuselage and carried into the building's interior."
Really? Those giant wings just broke off like balsa wood on a child's toy? Maybe that's possible, but is there no evidence of contact on either side of the hole? Snopes says there is evidence, referring us to a photograph with "blackened sections on both sides of the impact site" to demonstrate that "damage to the building caused by the plane's wings is plainly visible."
But a close look at the photograph shows that contact with the wings is not remotely visible. It's not visible even in the CNN photographs to which Snopes refers us, and guess why? The CNN site uses photographs released from the Pentagon! (See these photos at http://www.cnn.com/2002/US/03/07/gen.pentagon.pictures/index.html).
Of course nothing on any site leads us to believe Meyssan's conclusion that the U.S. military sent a cruise missile into its own headquarters or that these same government conspirators rigged the entire 9/11 scenario and blamed it all on 19 innocent Muslims who happened to be traveling that day.
But my worry is that the dismissive jeers and ridicule that greeted Thierry Meyssan's theories when they were first published in France will cloud the release in the United States of the English translations for "9/11: The Big Lie" and "Pentagate."
We could still be living in a climate of such patriotic zeal that booksellers who stock and display these books will be called treasonous or unpatriotic. If you think that's not going to be a problem, ask yourself this: Why aren't the questions posed by Meyssan and others under extensive discussion by more formal authorities in the United States? Why haven't we seen them explored at length by more traditional and reputable media?
Let's hope Meyssan's books get distributed widely enough to give those who want to investigate these questions the chance to read what he has to say. All anybody wants out of a horrible tragedy like 9/ll is a government that's accountable to its citizens, after all. At least that's what Elvis told me when I spied him at the cleaners the other day.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Regarding your comment that Rohinton Mistry cancelled his tour because he felt mistreated by airport security personnel: I just finished escorting Michael Malone for part of his "Last Noel" (Sourcebooks Landmark) tour. He has been stopped at every airport. He's definitely not ethnic, dangerous-looking or a threat. What he is is a traveler using lots of one-way tickets. This is the only factor we could come up with to explain this situation. I'm willing to bet that Mr. Mistry is a victim of the same thing. For some reason the computers are translating "author tour" into "potential terrorist." Malone is continuing to tour.
Holt responds: Mr. Mistry has said he doesn't mind being stopped for security reasons, and was stopped many times on a former book tour. This time, however, he said the treatment was abominable. How was the attitude of security personnel who stopped your author, Michael Malone? Thomas Murphy replies; I was with Michael when he was searched in Atlanta (not so courteous) and Jacksonville, FL (very courteous). I think it's airport by airport and security person by security person. The weird thing is that he's stopped at *every* airport. Something about that kind of travel/tour must set off alarm bells. He was actually getting quite tired of it - author tours are stressful enough without having your bags ransacked at every stop.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
When I tried to send a copy of your column to lit'rary friends on Whidbey Island, WA, it came back as morally unacceptable. See attachment below. If this isn't an argument against these auto-censoring devices, what is? Whoaaa.
Holt responds: I'll say. The attachment Jules sent states the reason the column was rejected, as follows: "550 Banned Subject: text was found 'uncensored'." Banned! I know that some filters have kicked it out because the computer reads *HOT* UNCENSORED; or I get four hot chili peppers or three swollen earlobes (tiny joke). But to "ban" it because of the word "uncensored" shows how crazy these filters can be - and to think librarians are *still* under pressure to install these filters.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You wrote: Romance fiction, I find, is still the most interdependent field in the business: Readers, booksellers, authors and publishers of romance novels seem to have intimate conversations about the direction of various series and the future of trends as though they are all part of a single joyous family.
Perhaps one day you might attend the many legit science fiction conventions that are out there. Or perhaps you can read ANSIBLE, FILE 770, or LOCUS. Then you can learn about Worldcons, TAFF and DUFF, how the Hugo categories are determined, and why Nosille Nalrah still has a piece in every issue of SCIENCE FICTION FIVE-YEARLY.
The fact is, the science fiction community pioneered interdependence, and nowadays has nearly 70 years of history and legendry behind it that help determine the continuing fate of the genre, not just in the States but as far afield as Poland and Japan.
Michael J. "Orange Mike" Lowrey
Holt responds: You're right, and I think other genres (mystery, children's poetry) exhibit this interdependence in varying degrees. My apologies!
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I am an experienced writer and recently encountered something unfamiliar to me. I had sent a book proposal to Hyperion. It came back from the legal office of Walt Disney (which must now own Hyperion) and said it was illegal for them to look at it unsolicited manuscripts.
The other night I heard Kevin Spacey mention this, too. Is there some rule that applies to film companies that doesn't apply to book publishers? If the big media companies own these publishers, will the landscape change? I don't understand this policy. I did understand some publishers not accepting unagented manuscripts, but this new ploy baffled me. Any answers?
Holt responds: I think that it *is* a ploy, or let's say another excuse for a book publisher to refuse unsolicited manuscripts. Even if the Disney lawyers simply pressed a policy from the movie side onto the publishing side, the fact remains that access to publishing channels is again restricted to authors.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
About booksellers buying PODs: I poked around on our database, and discovered that we're getting standard discounts from Booksurge here at Powell's. Being such a big store, I assume that we order more copies than the average independent, but I'm sure that we don't carry the quantity clout of Barnes & Noble or Border's. Print On Demand seems to be a viable publishing model. Ethan Fleischer, bookseller
Dear Holt Uncensored:
About your columns on whether booksellers are buying Print-on-Demand books: Something booksellers fail to take into account when bemoaning the lower discounts offered on POD books is the cost of print. We are one of only two non-subsidy, full royalty-paying publishers in the world (BeWrite Books and our friends, the excellent Jacobyte Books) working solely on Print on Demand technology. We do not cash in, no-risk-style, on backlists as many of the big guns do when using this new technology. Our interest lies purely in the release of new titles, and we sink or swim on the literary value of the books we select and bring to production.
We at BeWrite - http://www.bewrite.net - use Lightning Source US and UK. Jacobyte in Australia - http://www.jacobyte.com - uses an excellent local print shop.
Often the print cost of a book is almost fifty percent of its cover price (and quality is not, as your earlier correspondent implies, "equal" to the mass produced equivalent ... it knocks spots off it!). You don't need a degree in mathematics to realize that, after print, distribution, author and artist royalties, payments to any sub-contracted editors and proofers, original print set-up fees, promo, in-house editorial and technological time, admin, etc., it doesn't take a huge retail sales commission to mean that every book is sold at a loss to the publisher.
I'm sure our colleagues at Jacobyte will not object if I admit that - after all payments are made - our houses and their full-time (unsalaried) professional staffs are still working at a loss and looking forward to the day where we might not need to pay expenses from our own shallow pockets.
Although we openly discourage the stocking of high street shops (preferring major and minor online stores and merely an ordering facility at all brick-and-mortar outlets), when an author insists on a physical presence in a traditional store, we, most reluctantly, must artificially inflate cover price to take at least a portion of high retail discount into account without outside royalties being impacted. Such adjustment still leaves the publisher behind financially (the extra dollars go straight into the seller's pocket), and also produces an unattractive price which leaves books on the shelves and gives the general buyer the impression that a POD book is not an economically viable reading option. Jacobyte, which experimented with high street retail, had their fingers badly burned.
Also, high print and delivery costs mean that the time-honoured sale-or-return scheme (more commonly sale-or-burn where paperbacks are concerned) are absolutely out of the question. Taking average shelf-life of a newly displayed book at eight weeks and a return/destruction rate of 60%, every POD book sold would cost BeWrite or Jacobyte more than three times RRP. Your earlier correspondent, who suggests that he would not have placed a POD order had he known he would not have been able to return unsold books, should consider the very nature and purpose of POD - books printed as per a buyer's stated and pre-paid demand. The whole idea is that a book is printed according to a pre-order. No wastage. No returning and no burning!
Our third party online and high-street ordering system costs us about 30% discount (the equivalent of three times' author royalty). As a rule, a high street store demands more than double this to actually place a title on shelf. So the cover price of a title sold traditionally would not cover print and discount. Forgetting any publisher profit, where do folks think the author royalties, art royalties, editor royalties, etc.. come from?
You see, BeWrite and Jacobyte are not involved in the kind of dubious self-publishing that allows an author/client to price his own work. We, no less than any longer-established, traditional house, are selective, consider market pressures, and carry all financial risk. POD to us is no more than an expression of the new technology and sales technique open to us. It does NOT suggest that we produce a reading book if someone else produces a cheque book.
BUT, we are in the job to publish "unknown" authors who would otherwise be neglected. Bookshops -- chain or independent -- must understand the POD principle. They should stay out of it or bone up; clear a few greeting cards and party treats displays and install their own compact POD equipment so that an ordered book could be run off for a client in situ within the few minutes it takes the customer to browse other titles available on-shelf and shuffle out his credit card. If only struggling NSRP POD publishers like BeWrite and Jacobyte could afford such equipment, we could slash cover prices. (Mind you, we'd still be stuck with the need for establishment distribution).
A new POD bus system is shortly to take off in the US where a small truck (equipped with a satellite dish) can beam down books and print to order in school playgrounds. Unfortunately, this is only planned for public domain freebies with 100% profit to the bus driver/print operator/"publisher." It does show, though, that the technology is in place for a book shopkeeper to offer a similar POD facility for *new* titles to a customer as well as the public domain free lunches and warmed-over goodies major houses are offering.
I'm sorry to have to say this, but non-subsidy, royalty paying POD publishing is there for the author and not the bookseller (certainly not yet the publisher, otherwise there would not only be BeWrite and Jacobyte spearheading the job). We are in direct competition with the high street store, with the publishing establishment with its closed-door policy to new authors and cross-genres -- not to line the pockets of shopkeepers or to encourage the big boys' policy of cashing in on their deadwood by hedging their bets through POD.
Please forgive my wee rant -- I sincerely offer best wishes to everyone in the industry. From author to seller, we're all in the business of promoting the written word. We just happen to be in a state of exciting flux right now. It'll be interesting to see how things develop. Fingers crossed that whatever happens, it'll work out well for the top of the food chain ... the reader. And that no one from him or her down will suffer as non-sub POD finds its stall in the marketplace.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Patchett fits the profile of the born writer in that she has been writing successfully all her life, beginning at the age of 5
For once, and perhaps the first time, I disagree with you - or at least with your theory that Jane Smiley typifies the born writer. A born writer is not someone who starts writing at five and keeps on writing and eventually writes a masterpiece at 40. Sorry, that's a MADE writer. All the practice, all the honing, all the classes and the arts degrees, those make the writer who's been writing since she was 5.
The born writer is the one who picks up her pen at 28, or 40, or 65 and writes a story with IT, the undefinable quality that makes a story you can't put down. She does it without the arts course, without the practice, with only the grammar learned in 8th grade and junior year of high school writing essays. Arts majors who have been writing since they were five are a dime a dozen. Wild talents who blossom out into the literary sunshine at 40, fully formed, are as rare as a four leaf clover in a Chem Lawn wasteland.
I'm a stickler about mastering the craft of writing, but I would never put down a neurosurgeon, or anyone, for that matter, who wanted to try. As you may have guessed, I'm a wild talent. I was "born" at the age of 28. In four years, this "neurosurgeon" (civil engineer/computer programmer) has written several novels. Perhaps some day, there will be a masterpiece with my name on it. In the meantime, I have articles in national magazines. I am making a living as a writer.
It is not only those who have been writing since they were five who can learn craft. Anyone with the passion can learn the craft. The passion must come first and it can come at 45 as readily as at five.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
You wrote: "More to the point in today's electronic experience is that endless search on the Internet for voices one can trust; it's the knowledge that the World Wide Web has become as junked up as a universe crowded with dead satellites; it's the sense that a from-the-bedroom column like Holt Uncensored might cut through the chaos of millions speaking at once - or it might be just another stick in the fire."
I thought I should let you know about BookMuse, http://www.bookmuse.com, based in Mill Valley, Calif. It's the premier online resource for readers of all ages in book discussion groups ... Take a look at the in-depth Muse Notes Plus that we books we believe are worthy of book discussions - and shorter Muse Notes for kids and adults. We are constantly adding new Notes.
We, like you, have become to our readers "a voice one can trust" in "a universe crowded with dead satellites." I think you'll enjoy the site.
Holt responds: It's a beautiful site, not only for children's books but for adult books, with a new category for author interviews (Walter Mosley, Peter Carey, Dan Gutman so far), extensive book club tips, book reviews, newsletter, intelligent commentary and Powell's Books as its online bookstore. I've bookmarked it as a site to watch.
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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