Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Thursday, February 6, 2003


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For some years I have been criticizing Amazon.com (wait, there's a reason) for interfering with new book sales by inviting customers to buy used books of the same title on the same webpage through the Amazon Marketplace.

This practice seemed cheap and belligerent to me, and still does. It's antithetical to the reason book publishers list new titles with Amazon; it negates the author's royalty; it steals books from the used-book market in brick-and-mortar stores.

Amazon makes more money percentagewise from used book sales than new book sales because the company doesn't have to deal with inventory and shipping. So it would rather give publishers the old here's-your-hat-what's-your-hurry routine and divert new book sales for its own benefit than keep these web pages clean of used-book propaganda.

Ah, but what an innocent I am. It turns out that a person can get all fired up about principles while the rest of the market makes adaptive shifts, not to mention a buck or two.

Publishers have quietly adopted Amazon's marketplace as a no-fuss way to sell hurt (damaged) books and some returns. This seems to me awfully short-sighted, but some publishers believe that, any income saved is - well, income. Other online websites sell used books, of course, but increasingly Amazon is becoming central.

More important, used book dealers have begun to buy new books from wholesalers and sell them as "used-like-new" on Amazon. Customers have learned the books often *are* new but sold at a steep discount.

This of course undermines sales of new books, but some publishers are not worried, especially if they also sell to Amazon through the Amazon Advantage program. Advantage pays a percentage of the listed price whenever a sale is made through a link from the publisher's own website.

For these publishers, however, more money is made if the sale goes through a wholesaler than through the Advantage program, so this is a plus. The author gets some kind of (probably not full) royalty; the book dealer gets a thin profit; the customer saves; and Amazon gets its own cut.

So what's wrong with that? Isn't everybody (somewhat) happy? Well, again, maybe in the short run, but here we have another example of what happens when the Internet, with its constant blurring of boundaries, is mobbed for pennies when the real bucks are waiting in the long run.

The hard fact is that it doesn't matter whether publishers like or dislike the practice. Book dealers are legitimately buying from wholesalers, who shouldn't be made to decide arbitrarily when to sell or not to sell. If, too, as independent publishers have been saying, Amazon.com outsells other online book retailers by far (the last comparison I heard was 10 to 1), the lie of "used-like-new" has found a secure home.



Recently I mentioned TomPaine.com's satirical "I Want YOU!" poster featuring Osama bin Laden explaining how delighted he will be if the United States declares war on Iraq (see #355).

Now comes news from reader Rick Kleffel that a true Mother Lode of satirical posters - most of them even better than the one above - can be found at "The Propaganda Remix Project" displayed at:


Most of the posters look like they've come right out of the "Rosie the Riveter" and "Loose Lips Sink Ships" propaganda flyers of the 1930s and '40s.

And that's the point: The idea of "propaganda remix" in the hands of talented artist Micah Ian Wright is to create dozens of sophisticated and strikingly colorful posters that draw upon display art from World War II but add a little twist in the headlines.

The art is powerful and arresting, but the subversive humor and sharp political message ("Patriotism Means *No Questions*!" or "You Write What You're Told! THANKS, CORPORATE NEWS") just knock you off your chair.

Remember the American plane that dropped a bomb on Canadians by mistake because the pilots were allegedly strung out on routine doses of Dexedrine? A poster showing a heroic begoggled pilot says: "PILOTS: Too Many Missions? Take Amphetamines!"

In another, a soldier carries a huge stack of books next to the headline, "Books Cause Dangerous Thoughts!" And there's George Bush's new motto, placed below brave infantry soldiers in combat, "ANOTHER WAR WILL SURELY PULL US OUT OF RECESSION."

Not all the posters are about war. A great jab in the ribs is "CAR-POOLING: One Person Per SUV is the Rule!" Big muscular American fists are always great for propaganda posters: Here's one wadding up a piece of paper under the headline, "SCRAP The Bill of Rights!"

And remember the posters of happy families tying up stacks of newspapers to help the war effort in WWII? Here's a picture of Mom, Dad and Junior next to the headline, "FOR VICTORY: Conformity, Complacency, Uniformity, Silence. Renounce Your Liberties Or the Terrorists Win!"

These posters will soon be available in a book called "Back the Attack: Remixed War Propaganda," from Seven Stories in April ($15, paperback). Can't wait.



[Note: In the early years of the POD (print-on-demand) phenomenon, it seemed that a "democratization of publishing" might be possible because unknown authors who had little or no "platform" (established audience) with which to lure publishers could have their books printed for fees as small as $99-250.

Also, with the help of their POD "publisher," these authors believed their books would be listed on chain store and online cyber-inventories, which often did and does happen. Meanwhile, these authors have worked hard to sell their books customer by customer through publicity and word of mouth.

But as many booksellers have noted in this column, a deluge of POD books overwhelmed buyers who could not find a way past the "vanity press" stigma: The books, even when they started to look good on the outside, still had that untested, unproven feel on the inside.

So instead of embracing the new POD technology, some booksellers have shunned print-on-demand, and perhaps this has contributed to the emergence of a new POD phenomenon, the non-subsidized (i.e., no payment by author) POD publisher.

To find our more about this, I've been corresponding with British author Wilma Clark, to whom I'm gratefulfor answering questions in a step-by-step manner. Pat]

Dear Holt Uncensored: Thanks for your interest in the kind of print-on-demand publishing I've undertaken with my publisher, BeWrite Books. Here are the answers to your questions:


    Because I wanted to get my book out there. Virginia Woolf self-published and survived. So did Bernard Shaw (who started out as a jobbing printer) and also promoted work of others he believed in (e.g. W. H. Davies "Autobiography of a Supertramp"). Both these authors believed in themselves and their work. I believe in myself and my work.

    Also, with the state of the book market being what it has become, I preferred not to struggle as an unknown. I'd visited enough publishing conferences and read enough industry books to know that the chances of making it out of the slush pile were little more than 1%, and even then you'll always be at the back of the queue when it comes to money and cutting back on costs because you're an unknown quantity. When I was offered the more realistic option of proceeding via a reputable non-subsidy POD publisher, I opted to take my chances - but on my own terms. At least when my book was out there, it would have the opportunity to be judged on its own merits.

    I had only three basic requirements:

    I would retain copyright I would receive a reasonable rate of royalty I would not have to pay anything towards the cost of publication In my contract with BeWrite, not only were all three requirements met, but a good editorial, design and production team were also thrown into the equation. As a result, I've come to know the business in a lot more depth. I know what's expected of me. I know that if I don't work closely with my publisher, my book will go nowhere. I know that if I don't take an interest in the promotion of my book, it will drop into that bottomless pit of the great unknowns. Writing my first novel has been the greatest adventure for me - I refuse to let it disappear that easily.


    I have greater one-to-one contact with my publisher. I have a much deeper involvement in what happens to my book, how it is edited, packaged, covered, priced and promoted. I have greater responsibility for making it a success, but at least, this way, it's a double success for me because if it works, I helped to make it that way.

    The impression I have of the traditional publishing world is that it's a place where a lucky few names make big advances and capture all the media whilst others are left to flounder on their own merits and at arm's length. With all the interim operators, there is less and less opportunity for authors to get deeply involved in the production, publication and promotion of their novel - although I suspect this is more true of new authors than established ones who have the clout of an established readership to shore up their demands. It seems, then, that my own small, independent, non-subsidy POD publisher offers the kind of editorial support, author involvement, and ongoing marketing efforts others can only dream of.

    Who hasn't heard horror tales of books being accepted, an advance made, and some time later, publication ultimately rejected as not viable? At least with my own contract, I knew that my book was definitely accepted, that it would definitely be published and, once published, it would remain available for the long-term.

    In addition, all the hard work behind the scenes: classification, obtaining ISBNs, designing covers, listing for availability with all relevant parties was done for me. These represented a side of the business I knew little about, and it was a great help to have this taken out of my hands as was the effort which goes into making the book available via online stores such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble, etc. (not forgetting the option to order from any traditional bookshop, anywhere in the world). And -- as an added bonus I can look forward to royalties for any versions sold as ebook downloads or CD-Rom.

    I believe that the growth period for a POD book is much more of a long-term thing than is allowed for in-store books (especially for new authors). I may not have become a million-selling author overnight but then, how many first time authors are? I would love to know what the true average sales for a first time author are with traditional publishers and I'd anticipate that, for the majority, they're probably not much greater (and perhaps often much less) than that of your average POD imprint (provided, of course, that the latter is placed with a quality non-subsidy POD publisher who cares about the product and not just about profit).

    Please bear in mind that, throughout, I have been referring to a reputable non-subsidy POD imprint rather than those fly-by-night operations that will take your money and run. There are many hundreds (perhaps thousands by now) of operators out there who will publish at a price but who do not care about the quality of the content, nor the end product, and who provide no editorial backup or further advice of any kind. These, of course, are best avoided at all costs.


    I may not have the money to stick posters up all over town, but I do have a bigger billboard available - online - and I intend to make the best use of it I can.

    All the options available for promotion (and more) are accessible via the online community: interviews, reviews, articles, chat rooms, author sites, a dedicated website for the book, publisher sites, etc. I'm prepared to shout about it (from the keyboard) and to do what I can in the "real" world, too - by approaching booksellers, by seeking reviews, interviews and other coverage elsewhere, by making contacts who love books and are willing to promote a good book for the reader's sake rather than for pure gain. And my trusted publisher is behind me, making its own efforts to get my work noticed.

    I believe the time has come for POD authors to stop feeling inadequate and second class. I speak here, in particular, to those who, like me, have had their work selected as being worth the qualified risk with no amount of subsidy being asked in return.


    I believe the answer is a solid NO, as to do so would, effectively, mean that the recommended retail price would have to increase in order to cover the additional costs. I would not want a reader to have to bear that cost simply to cover the high level of in-store payment. I do not believe that the price of any paperback novel should have to rise above 10.00 or US$15.00.


    So far as my own book is concerned - companies like BeWrite are not, of course, dependent on author subsidy - there isn't a whiff of self-publishing or vanity press involved and the sooner that folk in the business come to understand that POD is not a synonym for these, the better. Many books, I suspect, go unpublished simply because they cater to a niche market and yet, such books, even if self-published, may happily be sold by small independent booksellers catering to those niche markets.

    As far as I'm aware, BeWrite accepts less than 20% of submitted manuscripts. The only difference between BeWrite and traditional publishers is that they are willing to use new POD technology so that they can afford to offer the chance of publication to new authors - a risk and an effort that traditional publishers are just not willing to take, or make.


    "Jahred" was initially promoted by word of mouth and email to friends, and an advance ordering option was placed on my publisher's site enabling people to request that they be notified once the book was available.

    My feeling is that one of the great differences between non-subsidy POD publishers (and I stress that I am only talking about non-subsidy, risk-taking operations here) and traditional publishers is that the author has a greater hand in helping to promote their book (although, as is evident by the many appearances made by mainstream authors, this is happening more and more in the traditional publishing world, too) long before it becomes available.

To be honest, my view is that the only real difference (at present) between a small independent non-subsidy POD publisher of good quality (like BeWrite) is that of resources. Traditional publishers have money and staff to throw at books they believe will sell well (and I often wonder what percentage of their catalogues receives such treatment).

BeWrite is no different in the promotional stakes than traditional publishers (except perhaps in BeWrite's publicity budget, but what the company may lack in terms of finance, it more than makes up for in energy) in that BeWrite goes all out with both traditional and online media publicity, submits its authors' work for major book awards, is heavily into promotion and has recently set up a new reviews operation to give exposure to any book newly published by ANY genuine small independent or even by self-published authors worth their salt.

BeWrite Books: http://www.bewrite.net/merchant2/4.00/merchant.mv?Screen=SFNT&Store_Code=B

"Jahred and the Magi" website: http://www.jahredandthemagi.com/jpe_chap1.htm

Wilma Clark

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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