NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #36
by Pat Holt

Tuesday, February 9, 1999

WHY, AMAZON, YOU NAUGHTY WEBSITE
NEVERTHELESS, A LITTLE VENTING
SOMETHING POSITIVE: COVER TO COVER

WHY AMAZON, YOU NAUGHTY WEBSITE

Why, what do we have here? According to yesterday's New York Times, a little behind-the-scenes knicky-knacky is going on at Amazon.com!

And friends, we don't mean knicky-knacky in the sense that Amazon is letting authors and their families write those suspicious "customer comments" that are so often far too laudable to believe. Of course that happens, but gosh, how to stop it? When you pretend to stock around 3 million titles, you can't police every Tom, Dick or Harry who's got a book on the site.

No, we mean the kind of knicky-knacky that involves publishers paying Amazon for "prominent placement" on areas of the site where a book's appearance is supposed to be EARNED. We mean paid placement of titles on the Bestseller page, for heaven's sake, or in the feature called "What We're Reading" or even in the category named . . . "Destined for Greatness."

It's hard not to laugh when you think about the message these categories really convey. How about "What We're Reading: Our Soaring Bank Accounts!"

Or: "Destined for Greatness: Our Already Inflated Stocks!"

What are these titles that publishers have paid $5,000 to $10,000 (per book!) for Amazon to say are "Destined for Greatness" or "New and Notable" or recommended? Well, they're not terrible books - novels by Stephen King, John Grisham, Michael Connelly; a computer book from IDG; what is probably another piece of junk from David Baldacci. But I wouldn't say they're "destined for greatness" unless you - well, let's get right down to it - unless you paid me!

What fools they are at Amazon to think they could get away with this! Their customers have loved the site because it's been free of exactly this kind of thing, or so they thought. Readers have even "responded to [Amazon's] advice about 'What We're Reading' with grateful testimonials lauding the company for avoiding hype," says the Times.

How about this one: "Amazon.com Recommends: What We Get Paid For!" The results have been astonishing since the program began last summer (at first with minimal costs to publishers, only recently racheted up to the tens of thousands): Roy Blount's book of awful dog poetry leaped from 100 to 1000 copies sold in a week. An IDG tax book increased in sales by 56 percent.

Pretty impressive, no? Well it is, until you account for the credibility factor - and yes, there is one. Customers are pretty savvy about things like this, and they won't forget being shafted for a long time. Try hawking the next Roxanne Pulitzer as "Destined for Greatness" and see how many copies are sold.

Even more hilarious is Amazon's justification for accepting money to promote titles without telling its readers. According to a spokesperson, the company at first worried "that we might have a perception that we're selling placement." Smart observation. But, says the Times, Amazon executives "believed it had resolved that issue by giving editors the power to reject books that were nominated by publishers."

Yeah, right. Okay, name two. Okay, name one. Oh dear, that information is "confidential," aw. Why is that not a surprise? The Times also notes that Amazon's editors, who used to appear impartial in their reviews of new books, have given raves to the paid-for books. Another disclosure that doesn't surprise.

But the real knee-slapper comes when Amazon tries to explain why it doesn't just SAY these placements are paid for by "tagging" them as such so readers will know what to believe. "Amazon decided not to include tags because executives believe that they can provide adequate protection for customers through screening of books by experienced editors."

That's a good one: You remember how vigilant the editors were when rightwing Amazon "associate" Bob Enyart called for the death of abortion doctors and gay people. I'm sure we can expect the same conscientious attention when to comes to "screening" the books Amazon believes aren't good for us.

But the laughs, they no stop: "I think it would be more distracting to have a book tagged," says the spokesperson. "I think that would clutter it up. The customer experience is really clean and I want to keep it clean." Attaway, Amazon! Just backpedal as fast as you can! And remember: Cluttering up the list with the truth is something we'll never expect Amazon.com to do again.

Even the Times in its dull, gray way suggests that paid promotion creates a "blurring line between editorial and advertising," and let's be sure not to miss the next step: Unlike Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Borders, when independent booksellers recommend a book to a customer, they do not "blur" their intention. They do not get paid for pretending to have an opinion. They better mean exactly what they say, or that customer is going to come in the next day and let them have it, or worse, never come in again.

Independents worry all the time about this placement question because the issue of trust is so fundamental to the bookseller-customer relationship. If the chains don't give a fig about it, or if this is the way Amazon wants to start paying its colossal bills, fine. But let's hope word can get out soon to those millions of Internet book browsers that if they want to know what's good to read, independent booksellers' stores and websites are the place - and now the only place - to go.

NEVERTHELESS, A LITTLE VENTING

I didn't think the future could look worse for independent bookstores than it did last week, when Barnes & Noble appeared to be eating up both the used-book and the electronic-book markets as though there were no tomorrow.

(And say: Doesn't it seem a little convenient to you that it's Barnes & Noble, not Bertelsmann, that's out there so visibly throwing hundreds of millions around? It's almost as if Bertelsmann doesn't want to appear TOO aggressive as a foreign publisher, having already consumed Random House, Bantam Doubleday Dell, half of barnesandnoble.com and assorted other book industry tidbits that make for a pretty big mouthful.

But that would be an intriguing strategy, wouldn't it? A huge German conglomerate buys, staffs, reorganizes and unleashes part of Barnes & Noble as a kind of industry terrier to go yipping around the heels of other contenders - Ingram, NuvoMedia, VersaWare just for starters - so that Bertelsmann can remain behind the scenes to buy up the rest of the world in peace? Just a thought.)

Anyway, I thought the blows that have blindsided independents since the '70s (mall chains, discounters, superstore chains, Internet suppliers) had at least subsided for a time, but no: Not only are the oldest (used book) and newest (ebook) income streams dammed up or rerouted to chains like Barnes & Noble, at the same time - and pardon me if I feel the fury welling up a bit here - every wonderful convention of independent bookselling has been ripped to shreds, over and over, by the more facile experts of our day. You know the drill:

*** "Oh, personal bookselling is a luxury today," says every expert who isn't a bookseller. "Quit talking to customers about books and get on the web - that's where you little guys can make some real money."

*** "Hey, you can't carry that 'Oxford English Dictionary' or 'Remembrance of Things Past' or any other multi-volume, high-priced book anymore. Every book in this store should turn over at least three times a year or no wonder you're going out of business."

*** "You gotta have a cafe/discounts/better lighting/wider aisles/6 million titles or you're FORCING the competition to win."

*** "Get these kids out of here - they don't have any money to speak of. Do a book fair where parents are invited and want to buy. Investing in children is always a bad idea."

*** "So your most knowlegeable and thoughtful sales rep can't present the list to you anymore. Ain't dat too bad. Well, if you don't buy enough books to make a sales call profitable for the publisher, that's your fault, isn't it? Buy from the catalog or telemarketing or the Internet - it's faster that way and smarter: The computer figures everything for you - discounts, shipping dates, author tour, co-op, calorie intake, dental appointments, religious affiliations, voting history and future candidates you're just gonna love."

And so on. Is there any hope for the independent bookseller who wants to stick to the basics of hand-selling? In a culture that's racing out of control with global capitalism and computer technology, it's refreshing to hear a bookseller like Walter Carr, who founded Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Company 26 years ago, figuratively hold up his hand and say, Stop Pushing.

"I think it's important to get a presence on the Internet, and we are on the Internet, but I opened a bookstore," he told the Seattle Times. "I didn't open a book distributor. It's not what I wanted to be when I started, and it's not what I want now."

Good for you. At some point a person just wants to say: You can take your Ebooks, your websites, your Palm Pilots, your Paradigm Shifts, your scales of economy, your conglomerates, your electronic paper, your mergers, your chain stores, your heavy discounts, your price clubs, your predatory practices and your dependence on E commerce and stuff it all up your endpapers, because guess what? It doesn't mean bupkis when it comes to the heart of independent bookselling.

Maybe now that Amazon has been exposed as just another Greed Machine out to sucker its customers (see above), readers will shift their attention from millions of titles nobody really carries, or from the "Goliath vs. Goliath" story nobody cares about, or from that heartbreaking dilemma (cinnamon or chocolate on your latte?) that costs you another buck-fifty, and recognzie that the human element (conversation, selection, trust, opinion, love of reading, expertise, community involvement) has always been a staple of the neighborhood independent bookstore.

Do customers care about such matters? Read on, dear reader!

SOMETHING POSITIVE: COVER TO COVER

So now: In the face of independent bookstores closing everywhere, what are the plans of Nicky Salan, an otherwise smart bookseller at San Francisco's Cover to Cover Bookstore who has good credit and outside income from conferences and school fairs and loyal customers and no chain superstores nearby (knock on fixtures!) to speak of?

Why, she takes on new partners (two members of her staff), makes a deal with a bookstore-loving landlord down the street, announces plans to relocate to a store twice the size of the present one a block away. Then she starts organizing a "book brigade" of customers young and old who'll form a "human link between the old and the new" to move the inventory on Februrary 27.

That's pretty risky in this day and age, but Nicky and her associates - Mark Ezarik, who's been with the store 12 years, and Susan Talbott (7 years) - believe their hunkering-down time in the present 1100-square-foot store has long been over. How small is the store? It's so small, says Nicky, that "every time we order books, I have to count how many boxes are coming, or we'll be too full. More than 15 and we can't get anything else in. We can't get to the Poetry section or to Humor."

Having lived with the problem for 16 years, Nicky sees the not-exactly-whopping 2650 square feet in the new place as something akin to her own superstore. And yes, it's risky to expand but once again, for the retailer, location is everything. "Thank heaven for San Francisco's hills," she says. "As the crow flies, we're not that far away from competing bookstores, but when you're hiking or even driving over these hills, other neighborhoods feel like a world away."

This is not to say Cover to Cover hasn't been adaptable to change. The store's first location across town shared a thriving neighborhood with a shoemaker, gift shop and laundry nearby. Years later, however, "90 percent of the businesses were Chinese-owned and Chinese-speaking restaurants," says Nicky. With sales dwindling, Nicky moved to the present storefront, where "we put in everything - toilet, hot water and heat. The rent at the time was $500 a month; now it's $3100."

She won't disclose the rent at the new location down the block - "it's not as much as other merchants think" - but she will say that the landlord "could have had a Gap or other chain store on the premises." He approached Cover to Cover, she says, because he "really wanted a bookstore there and he's paying for everything - the carpet, lighting, painting, office."

One could say that's awfully lucky for Cover to Cover, but then "luck" is not a word that comes to mind when you listen to Nicky Salan talk about bookselling. One of the most outspoken and aggressive booksellers in the Bay Area, she is a co-founder of the Northern California Independent Children's Booksellers and a major force in book giveaway programs for homeless children, alliances with librarians and teachers, summer reading programs and community organizations.

Perhaps that's the reason that despite some encroachment by Amazon.com, "1998 was our best year yet," she says. It's the reason people don't care that Cover to Cover never discounts books. It's the reason that many customers "browse Amazon.com's data base and come in with lists of books for us to order."

Do they deliberately bring you their business because you've educated them about the independents' plight against the chains and Amazon.com? "It's not that we've educated our customers," says Mark. "We feel they've educated us by keeping us on our toes. They know a lot about what's going on in the literary world. They get us to order books that suddenly appear on bestseller lists. They come to author signings and buy university press books I wouldn't have thought we could sell."

No wonder they come. Cover to Cover's events are always lively and intimate affairs, especially when the place is too small to accommodate the crowds. "When Chaim Potok was here, we had 200 people squeezed in the store," Nicky says. The place was also packed when Louise Erdrich and illustrator Jim La Marche met for the first time after collaborating by phone and mail on Erdich's children's book, "Grandmother's Pigeon." ("How did you know I had this little white cup in my kitchen?" Erdich asked.)

At the new location just down the block, Mark gestures expansively at the gorgeous new paint job, new track lighting and new blue-green carpet in the midst of installation. Since the mezzanine rises up right in the center of the store, the atmosphere is one of open and flowing movement in the midst of spaciousness and high ceilings and light streaming in through beautiful wooden windows.

However welcoming the landlord, this is going to take some investment. Amazon is still going to be something of a threat, and who knows if a Borders or Barnes & Noble will find a way in somewhere near. Mark nods - the threat is hardly unfamiliar. "We've grown accustomed to saying two things to ourselves," he responds. "First, there's a fine line between visionaries and lunatics, and we may just have crossed over." He doesn't mention which side they're coming from or crossing over into.

And the other thing? "I've found what I've wanted all my life," says Mark, 45. "I can't just let the bad guys win now."