by Pat Holt
Friday, March 7, 2003
SAYING GOODBYE TO OLIVER
One of the events I always looked forward to as a book review editor was the seasonal visit of local publishers' sales representatives, who came to "sell" us their list of titles each season as if we were buyers in a bookstore.
These most enlightening visits occurred some years ago (1982-1998), but with the sudden diagnosis of cancer and the abrupt death last week of W.W. Norton's beloved sales rep, Oliver Gilliland, I remember the meetings as vividly and as emotionally as if they had occurred yesterday.
A bit of background: Since mainstream publicists rarely ventured across the 3,000 miles that separated the Chronicle in San Francisco from New York, my staff and I discovered early on that sales reps, with their irreverent humor and easy pragmatism, their love of books and their ferocious respect for booksellers, could often be a godsend.
Even after studying publishers' advance catalogs (nap-inducing as they were), we were terrified of missing a local author or a literary gem or even an obvious heavyweight coming up for publication.
The reps' sales presentations thus became the kind of back-up insurance you couldn't buy. They were respectful of our position as book editors who had to make up our own minds, and for our own reasons, about which books we would assign to reviewers. But beyond those boundaries, we were all professional boosters of good writing, so these meetings had a celebratory air. As a bonus, the reps brought news from local bookstores and gossip from New York to us sealed-to-our-chairs newspaper staffers.
Every rep had a different style. Howie Leinoff from Knopf brought champagne and chocolate cake at 9 in the morning for some reason we never questioned; Harry Collins of Little, Brown told us Catholic jokes from the seminary he once attended; Bev Langer of Simon & Schuster had the deepest, most beautifully articulated convictions about books I have ever heard (i.e., she was just as opinionated as I was); Walter Mayes of Bantam Dell introduced us to that (pre-Harry Potter) orphan of the industry, Young Adult fiction; Gigi Reinheimer followed Henry Holt through its shamelessly commercial phase under CBS to its more literary incarnation under von Holtzbrink with grace and compassion.
Then there was Susan Reiheld of Doubleday, who told stories about authors that brought tears to our eyes; Adene Corn of William Morrow (in its Hearst days), who believed so much in "her" authors that I used to say our job was to await orders from Adene and report back to her when we were done; Roger Moss of Farrar Straus with his deep, barrel-chested voice and fatherly manner handed galleys across the table as lovingly as if they were newborn babies; Mike Harrison of Houghton Mifflin teased and baited us all and made every book sound like the find of the century; Patricia Kelly of Publishers Group West brought a dry, wry sense of humor that cut through a list of some 300 titles to its rich literary core.
And then there was Oliver Gilliland of W.W. Norton. Soft-spoken and impeccably dressed, Oliver matched his salt-and-pepper hair and mustache with gorgeous oversized grey suits and silk ties. He was witty, friendly and a bit dashing - our own Boston Blackie, I often thought - arriving with already-marked catalogs and heavy sample bags carried with ease and aplomb.
And for a man who dressed with such flair, Oliver surprised us at every visit with a sweetness and near devotion to Norton books that made the chaotic book business seem orderly and right-thinking.
Oliver was also the most formal of the sales reps when it came to presenting his publisher's list. Many of the titles were crossover scholarly books, often too academic even for the Chronicle's voracious readers, and Oliver was careful to watch our reactions and know when to move on.
Sometimes a few hours would pass as he took us through Norton's lengthy and complicated list with his usual polite authority, pulling galleys out of his bags in a dignified way until finally, near the end of his presentation, we realized that The Moment had come.
And this is what I will always remember about Oliver: After speaking about each title with formality and restraint, he would suddenly grab a set of galleys and clutch them to his heart, nearly swooning off his chair. Now all the boundaries disappeared.
"Oh, please, please, PLEASE review this book," he would say, looking at the ceiling as if this were God's decision. "I love this book and you will too! PLEASE don't miss it. Take it home tonight! You'll see! It's so IMPORTANT. You *have* to review it...."
We couldn't help laughing whenever Oliver fell into one of these trances because the change in his manner was so astounding and frankly hilarious. Often we had to lean over to where he was sitting and wrench the galley from his clutches, he loved that book so much, assuring and soothing Oliver that yes, we would take a look at it right that very night, even though it was six months from publication.
"Oh thank you, THANK YOU. I promise you'll be glad! I'll call you tomorrow!" and off he would go with his empty sample cases, practically sobbing and still talking about how he envied us the joy of starting the book fresh, and when he thought of a million readers turning to Page One he just .... he just .... and he was gone.
Well, you know how it is. Even when you don't see a respected and admired colleague for years at a time, it's always good to know that person is still out there, carrying on the work, whatever it is.
Oliver had worked for Norton, a publisher he loved for its independence and respect for employees (who are, after all, part owners), for 21 years by the time he died at age 54.
One does make adjustments for death, but I don't think I'll ever stop wondering, whenever a Norton title is displayed with pride in a bookstore or reviewed positively in the newspaper, if this book might be The One by Oliver Gilliland's high estimation - The One that breaks all barriers as far as he might be concerned, the one that even the most jaded readers may find themselves hugging to their hearts.
For Bay Area friends of Oliver Gilliland, a memorial service will be held Saturday, March 15, 1 PM, at Grace Cathedral, 1100 California St., San Francisco, CA 94108. A reception will follow. One of the places Oliver requested that donations be sent in lieu of flowers is the hard-working nonprofit wholesaler of nonmainstream books (where he was a board member), Small Press Distribution,1341 7th St., Berkeley, CA 94710.
AT LAST: THE FREEDOM TO READ PROTECTION ACT OF 2003
How great to see the work of that "little committee of Vermonters [librarians, authors and booksellers] against Section 215," to which author Judith Levine tipped us off in #356 (January 21), has indeed paid off.
This week, Congressman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Ron Paul (R-TX) introduced the Freedom to Read Protection Act of 2003, which specifically attacks that section of the USA Patriot Act that "gives federal authorities virtually unchecked authority" to search customer records of bookstores and libraries.
Section 215 also places a gag on booksellers and librarians so they can't warn people or raise any kind of hell about this gross invasion of privacy.
The best they can do - and many have done - so far has been to hang a sign announcing: THE FBI HASN'T BEEN HERE TODAY, so that customers and patrons will know to head for the hills when the sign *doesn't* appear.
The new Freedom to Read Protection Act would stop the FBI and other agencies from seeking "personally identifiable information concerning a patron of a bookseller or library." The government can still subpoena this information but has to prove its case to a judge to get the subpoena, a step that Attorney General John Ashcroft often found to be a nuisance.
The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression this week "hailed" the new act and is part of an emerging movement to confront the excesses of at least one section of the USA Patriot Act.
If you think the "chilling effect" of something like #215 isn't freezing the brains of law enforcement, consider the man wearing a T-shirt that read "Peace on Earth" and ""Give Peace a Chance" in an Albany NY shopping mall.
Security guards told the man, Stephan Downs, to remove the shirt. When he wouldn't, "the guards summoned police officers, who threatened to charge Downs with trespassing," (huh?) according to The Week magazine.
Downs said he told the police, "All right then, arrest me if you have to," and they did, taking him away in handcuffs. Boy, it's getting cold in here.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Here's another note for your file on the hazards of corporate publishing. It's not an uncommon story, I know, but since it happened to me, the bite is deeper. And so ironic with a book that is a celebration of bookstores.
On Wednesday I submitted the manuscript of "Alone Among Others" to my editor, a great feeling. Yesterday, one day later, I got a call from my editor at Prima. Random House (under its Crown umbrella) has dissolved Prima, as of June 1, and every title scheduled after that is being set free. They are paying off their contracts, so I am getting the back half of the advance, and am free to sell the book elsewhere.
The news is dispiriting because it's not just about my book but all the employees who are now out of work, and all the books that were just abandoned, without a single thought to their futures.
The last chapter of the book is called "New Arrivals" and is about the current state of the bookstore and what might be around the corner. I tried to be balanced in what I wrote, but found myself coming down a bit on the publishing scene for its excesses. Now that I think about it, I should have been much harder.
It's depressing to anticipate the prospect of finding another publisher for it. Not even sure I want to find another one.
Anyway, the battle rages.
Holt responds: You're right, the dispiriting effect is often invisible yet it just weighs everyone down. Every time an imprint is dissolved, we hear publishers trying to assure the public that "no good book goes unpublished." This is just not true and hasn't been for many years.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
About your comments on eBay's relationship with law enforcement: There's a story in today's Boston Herald about two dumb thieves who stole some skis and put them up for auction on eBay. The skis' owner was shopping on eBay for some replacements and saw them. Police got the necessary identification from eBay, set up a sting, bought the stolen skis, and arrested the thieves. So apparently the new policy is working. You can find the Herald story at: http://www2.bostonherald.com/news/local_regional/ebay02272003.htm.
Holt responds: This is a wonderful example of a legitimate way police and eBay security personnel can work together, it seems to me. But I wonder if the police look for stolen goods on eBay and routinely ask for information they would otherwise have to subpoena about sellers of goods they suspect for a variety of reasons that never come out. This would be an example of going too far, to my mind.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
While eBay's zeal to cooperate with law enforcement is chilling when shone, essentially, in the light of the Patriot Act, it's actually warming when shone in the light of an ever-present eBay problem: fraud. eBay is a very easy way to sell stolen merchandise, then disappear. Or offer a computer and send only a box of rocks. And when it comes to collectibles, caveat emptor. It seems their "signal analysis" is set up to track those who repeatedly abuse the system, not to track terrorists (unless the terrorist is funding his cell by hawking fake Precious Moments stuff).
Stephen S. Power
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Just a thought concerning the recent article about eBay... the report quotes an eBay employee as saying "(staff) have created "pseudo buyers" with "simulated histories" and "simulated feedback" to draw suspects into the open..."
"Simulated feedback" could translate into a higher bid for an item, couldn't it?
At the end of your commentary, you pose the question of what eBay is up to. Not sure how eBay makes its own profit (commission on the total sale value?), but I would suggest that if that is the case, pushing up the sales price of an item by creating pseudo buyers' bids would have an obvious financial benefit for eBay. The only risk is that the other, real bidders might be tempted, at some point, to let the eBay pseudo buyer win the auction & buy the product, but the detailed bidding history maintained by eBay of their real customers would indicate if one was likely to top up a previous bid.
Something fishy's going on at eBay, dude.
Holt responds: It's interesting - although I now distrust eBay and will never trade there again, of all the things I think eBay would NOT do, jacking up the price is one of them. Pulling this kind of scam is just anathema throughout the eBay network. The purpose of "simulated feedback" as I understand it is to chat up the suspected buyer/seller to extract information about the person the police couldn't get otherwise.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
We've put together a list of information about emergency resources (Red Cross, Centers for Disease Control, Nuclear Radiation Emergency, etc.) for our own families that may be helpful to yours.
We get over a million visitors a year worldwide to the PANGAEA (Publisher for Nature and Peoples of the Earth) website and felt this would be a valuable contribution.
Bonnie Hayskar, partner
Dear Holt Uncensored:
While you're mentioning the bias against reviewing small-press POD books, why not discuss the bias against reviewing self-help books? There's a parallel to the attitude you mentioned toward book groups. Even though my self- help books have sold moderately well over many years, enough so they get reprinted and even get new editions, it's difficult to get any press on them at all.
I am curious about this bias against books for people who want to improve their lives. How-to books for fixing your plumbing, burping your baby, planting a garden, or building a new deck get far more respect than books that actually help people have healthier, happier lives and relationships (I've got reader thank-you letters to prove it.)
Tina B. Tessina
Holt responds: When I was at the Chronicle (where review space for literary books was at a premium, so that's one reason), it seemed to me that self-help books in psychology were very personal, that a reader looking at a book like yours in a bookstore would know if the book was for him or her far more quickly and thoroughly than through a review by me. I certainly concede it's a tough market for you when it comes to feature interviews off the book page, since the arena is so crowded and interviewers are often worried they don't know enough about the field to choose one author over another. Also, since the revolution in "pop-psych" books in the '60s and '70s, it's hard for an author to prove that something original or fresh is being said.
Tina Tessina responds: Of course, self-help books have varying quality, just as fiction and other types of non-fiction do. It would be helpful if someone reviewed them - first of all, to let the public know what new books are out there, and secondly, to analyze the quality of the book, and give the consumer some kind of guideline to go by. Often, as with diet books, it's the flashiest but least useful books that get the media attention. I've often thought of doing a self-help review column myself, but haven't a clue who would run it.
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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