by Pat Holt
Wednesday, June 4, 2003
A MILD BEA? IT WAS *SIZZLING*
I don't know where the notion emerged that last weekend's BookExpoAmerica was a "mild" convention.
Gad! I found myself attending one unexpectedly rousing meeting after another and finding many publishers who said that the "new climate of debate" in America was whipping up interest in a lot of different books that had been selling "mildly" before.
If each year's BEA is a barometer to the book industry, this year the reading was, I thought, pretty strong. Let's get our clipboard out: Fiscal health (surviving), literary health (newly varied), fighting spirit (rising again!).
As to the latter, who wouldn't feel heartened when:
*** ABA director Avin Domnitz declared, "We can win this fight," referring to the campaign of independent booksellers to convince state governments to claim sales tax from those cockamamie chain bookstores who keep saying their Internet sales have nothing to do with their brick-and-mortar stores.
Honestly! When you can order a book from a chain's online outlet and return it to the same chain's branch store, that's "nexus" the cyber-to-street retail connection that means you gotta grow up and collect sales tax and turn it over to the government like everybody else. "We can win this fight" means *everybody* gains, even the chains - they get to be law-abiding.
*** Vermont Congressional representative Bernie Sanders thundered to the audience at a packed ABFFE (American Booksellers for Freedom of Expression) panel that no longer does the "extreme right-wing" leadership in the House of Representatives by Speaker Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and others have the upper hand.
Only a few months ago, Sanders said, he was having trouble finding support for his Freedom to Read Protection Act, which is aimed at gutting the USA Patriot Act's Section #215 to stop FBI agents from demanding that booksellers turn over receipts of customer purchases and that librarians turn over records of readers' borrowing history and Internet use.
"You may know the difficulties a member of Congress would have had in supporting this legislation" back in January or February, Sanders said. "That was the 30-second advertisement paid for by Tom DeLay and his friends saying,
" 'CONGRESSMAN JONES IS SOFT ON TERRORISM! HE IS UNDERMINING THE ABILITY OF THE FBI TO PROTECT YOU AND YOUR CHILDREN! STAND UP AND VOTE FOR THE REPUBLICAN CANDIDATE.' "
Such tactics are no longer so easy, Sanders explained, now that Barbara Boxer has introduced a similar bill in the Senate; 109 co-sponsors have signed up to back Sanders' legislation, 110 cities and 2 states (with Vermont and others soon to follow) "voicing their opposition to the Patriot Act." Of course, anything as volatile as this can be buried in committee, Sanders reminded us, but even though the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee does not want to give the Freedom to Read Protection Act a hearing, just "plain old fashioned how-to-do political stuff" is going to turn the tide.
In other words, "we can win this fight, too," (Domnitz also made that clear) if a movement is built from the grassroots up. "It's a real tragedy," Sanders said, "that so few people are involved in the process today. So few people vote. So few people know what goes on.
"But the other side of that coin is that any three people who *do* get involved can have a profound impact. Make the system work for you," Sanders said. "If any 15 of you booksellers sign a letter or walk into the district office of a member of Congress and say, 'Here is the issue - we want you to sign on, or we damn well want to know why you're not' - you will bring real pressure."
If we don't act - and here he began to roar - the worst will happen: "GEORGE W. BUSH IS NOT DUMB! ... HE MIGHT BE THE MOST EXTREME RIGHT WING PRESIDENT IN HISTORY ... THE EXTREME RIGHT HAS PRACTICALLY NO OPPOSITION. THESE ARE TOUGH GUYS, AND NOT NICE GUYS."
As an example of "how rough these guys play," Sanders suggested that when Republican constituents come to Washington lobbying for legislation, the right-wing leadership says to them: "YOU KNOW WHERE THE REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE IS, AND YOU KNOW WHAT TO DO. WHEN YOU DO IT, COME BACK AND WE'LL SEE ABOUT YOUR BILL." (I don't think he means go over there and help with the dusting.)
Really? It's that blatant? "THAT'S THE WAY THEY PLAY IT!" said Sanders. "DON'T DEPEND ON THE COURTS! DON'T DEPEND ON EXISTING LAWS! GET OUT THERE AND SUPPORT THESE ISSUES PERSONALLY!"
Boy, it was exciting. David Cole, author of "Terrorism and the Constitution," was also on the panel and reminded us that despite the "rout" that Sanders rightly believes is taking place in Washington, the extreme right has failed on several key issues, and what a joy it was to remember: Among the (attorney general John) Ashcroft issues, for example, Cole pointed to "Operation Tips," in which Americans were supposed to spy on each other and report to Big Brother; and "Total Information Awareness," in which the Pentagon was going to collect every bit of information about everyone who ever existed and give it all to that great American ex-con, John Poindexter. Thank heaven those are gutted or gone, said Cole, but look out for USA Patriot II, still in the works and even worse than we thought.
*** Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood and moderator of the ABFFE panel mentioned above, explained that she had directly experienced what Sanders was promising - that "we can fight terrorism without undermining the Constitution."
Planned Parenthood has proven that hypothesis every day for decades with the worst kind of *domestic* terrorism, Feldt said. She explains how in her book, "Behind Every Choice Is a Story," and in an interview with me in the next column.
*** Steve Bercu of BookPeople, the largest bookstore in Texas, explained how he created the Austin Independent Business Alliance to combat an incoming development that was aimed to open across the street, where Borders had already signed a lease for one of its superstores.
In all the planning sessions about the new development, Bercu and other retailers discovered, "no one was considering what the impact would be on neighboring businesses." So Dan Houston - also on the discussion panel with Bercu - was commissioned to bring in his company, Civics Economics, and investigate the matter. The result is "Economic Impact Analysis - A Case Study: Local Merchants vs. Chain Retailers" at http://www.bookweb.org/graphics/pdfs/lamar.pdf.
The report found that - ta da! - local stores keep money in the community while chain stores take it away. This was only one of the astounding findings, and enough of a hubbub was made about it that Borders backed out, and whew! Now other communities can now use the report to combat mall-sprawl in other states. So that was one fight that was won.
*** Commentator-comedian Al Franken and Fox-TV talk-show host Bill O'Reilly exchanged so many rhetorical potshots at an author luncheon that former Congressional representative Pat Schroeder wished she had worn "a striped shirt and a whistle."
The outburst began when Franken talked about inaccurate claims he feels are often made by extreme right-wing conservatives (see #355), yet are allowed by today's media to pass for truth. For example, after hearing O'Reilly say many times that his former tabloid TV show ("Inside Edition") had won a coveted Peabody Award, Franken said he researched the claim and found it wasn't true.
Franken made his findings known, and O'Reilly admitted that he had made a small mistake - the award in question was a Polk, not a Peabody.
"Don't you think it's odd," Franken said, his voice directed to O'Reilly, "that you got it wrong about a *journalism* award?"
Everybody laughed, and the point was made later that "Inside Edition" won the Polk Award when O'Reilly wasn't on it, but of course, O'Reilly does not like being challenged (see #318), let alone criticized.
"This guy accuses me of being a liar, Ladies and Gentlemen, on national television," O'Reilly said. "He's vicious, and that's with a capital V. A person who's blinded by ideology. All he's got in six and a half years is that I misspoke, that I labeled a Polk Award a Peabody."
Franken started to reiterate his contention that O'Reilly had *lied* about the Peabody, but O'Reilly turned to him and yelled, "Shut up! You had your 35 minutes. Shut up! We're supposed to be on here for 15 minutes and this idiot goes 35." At which point, Franken said, "This isn't your show, Bill," meaning that O'Reilly's cheap rhetoric wasn't exactly suitable for an author luncheon at BEA. It's intriguing that O'Reilly's new book is called "Who's Looking Out for You?"
You don't usually hear shouting matches at BEA, but one could feel a bit of relief shooting the audience. Finally dissent had become visible, and in no way could it be called "unpatriotic" or "unAmerican." Difference of opinion is vital to a democracy, even if one panelist nearly went after the other with the silverware.
Franken, for his part, has had it. He quoted what he believed to be outright lies from other right-wing spokespersons - Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh - and said, "We have been taking it and taking it on the Left. We're not going to sit for it any more. We just aren't." With his trademark humor he explains this in his new book, "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right."
By the way you can watch this panel and others by clicking on Book TV at http://www.booktv.org/misc/BookExpo_053103.asp .
POP QUIZ RE: 'POPULAR MUSIC FROM VITTULA'
More to come on the literary side of BEA, but for now, come viss me for a minute to take a look at an advance copy of "Popular Music From Vittula" (Seven Stories). This novel has sold more than 700,000 copies in Sweden, which is astonishing just for starters, but equally alluring is the fact that it's set in the very northern tip of the country at the Swedish-Finnish border, which is inside the Arctic Circle.
Before we get to that location, however, the prologue is set in the Himalayas, where the narrator struggles to reach the top of a freezing mountain at something like 14,000 feet, gasping for air and so close to the sky it feels as though a curtain of stars is descending right down to the earth. So you can see why he doesn't want to leave: He has climbed to the top of the world and, despite his dizziness and exploding eyeballs (well, they feel that way) and lack of air, he's overwhelmed by gratitude at the experience.
Just to let you know: This protagonist is a guy who was raised in Sweden, so he understands high altitude, but his mind is so befuddled by the strain and the joy that finds himself leaning down to kiss the sacred Tibetan plaque, placed there decades ago, that commemorates and gives thanks to this place in the universe.
And lo and behold: he makes the mistake every Swedish boy and girl is told never to do - he puts his unprotected skin in contact with frozen metal - and his lips freeze on the plaque! All of a sudden his joy turns into panic.
He remembers the first and only time this happened in childhood, when his tongue froze to the doorknob of his home, and he made noisy crying sounds until his Mum came out with a bowl of warm water that she poured over his mouth and the doorknob, releasing him from tearing his own flesh. Now, decades later, he can't believe he's on all fours with his lips sealed to the plaque - which, by the way, is unmovable, so he can't just pull it out and take it down the mountain with him.
He then exhales warm air in great puffs, but it's something like 30 below, and his breath is frozen in seconds. There's no chance the weather will change and gradually allow him any freedom of movement - in fact the opposite seems to be happening: Colder air streams over the ice, signaling a new storms, which means no other climbers are going to chance reaching the summit for another day or two.
Soon he makes the decision to just rip his lips away, but even when he counts to three and jerks his head back with all his strength, the pain is so sharp that he nearly faints. A spark of hope occurs as warm blood fills his mouth, but this, too, freezes quickly, making the seal even worse.
The wind picks up again; he's near to freezing himself, and then it hits him: He not only figures out how to save his life, he stands up, makes sure his mouth is okay and announces to the reader that now can he tell the "real" story.
(Of course, we think he'll never equal the heart-banging experience of the first pages, but lo, how wrong can we be! He takes us back to his childhood in Vittula when the first steamroller arrives to create such a civilized thing as a paved road. As a little kid he throws rocks in front of the steamroller and then runs to the back end, where he's astonished find no trace of them at all. Thus begins a new story told with gorgeous detail at a more luxurious pace, and we find the pages keep a'turning after all.)
But back to the pop quiz: How do you think the narrator saves himself on the top of the mountain when his lips are frozen to the plaque and he can't move, can't call for help, can't hope for a change in the weather and can't pick up the plaque and literally kiss it home?
I was going to offer free subscriptions to the first 10 readers who send in the correct answer, but frankly the staff has rebelled. At BEA I went back to the Seven Stories booth and said to folks there, "Say! Have you ever thought of what a great worst-case-scenario contest you could make out of the narrator's dilemma in those first pages? I mean, marketing-wise, it's got such potential, don't you - " but the look on their faces, despite the pride or embarrassment of my own staff, suggested that perhaps Seven Stories was above that sort of thing.
All right, then, I'll just tell you: The narrator urinates into his canteen and pours the warm liquid over his lips, and voila! he's freed from the worst mistake of his life. Pretty good, eh? And we're only on page 4!
Dear Holt Uncensored:
If Duane Poncy exhibited the same resourcefulness in efforts to get his book printed as he has in claiming to be victim of censorship, it would perhaps already be printed! He was the victim of shoddy business practice by Color House Graphics - and not much more.(Poncy is right to claim that Color House should not be bidding on jobs online, only to later take issue with the content). But it is time to "GET OVER IT" and look into one of those "two or three other bids."
Censorship is about power, and we have plenty of reasons to worry: how about the so-called PATRIOT Act(s) 1 and 2, the increasing media ownership monopoly, the decline of public funding for (and access) to the "airwaves," an executive branch of government run amok...need I continue? Indeed, there is ample fuel for paranoia these days, but the aggravating occurrences of day-to-day life and business should be among the least of our collective concerns.
Surely the Department of "Homeland Security" has not yet confiscated ALL the copy machines and staplers in Portland?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Interesting article about Color House Graphics' "censorship" of "RAISING OUR VOICES: AN ANTHOLOGY OF OREGON POETS AGAINST THE WAR." Publisher Duane Poncy says, "It is censorship, pure and simple." He is wrong.
Color House Graphics is doing nothing to suppress Mr. Poncy's book. They are exercising their own right not to print a book they find offensive. Would Mr. Poncy have the Federal Government step in and FORCE Color House Graphics to print the book?
I'm a liberal, a "yellow dog Democrat" and a war-protester. Mr. Poncy's ... hand-wringing over a private individual's decision not to help him promote his point of view is embarrassing to me. It's protests like Mr. Poncy's that give liberalism a bad name, that help cement our image as self-absorbed crybabies.
Move on, Mr. Poncy. Move on, Pat Holt. Nothing to see here.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I don't often find myself taking the side of the censors - and yes, I do see the response of Color Graphics' Phil Knight as censorship. I am not ashamed of my pro-peace, multicultural politics - and still, I defend Phil Knight's decision.
But I think the right of a small business to turn down work for moral reasons is a key point. When a client inquires to me about marketing copywriting, my return e-mail includes a line noting that I have the right to reject a project if it's not a good fit. Most of the publishers who come to me for a press release or sell sheet do excellent work, and that's not a problem. But I do reject a few per year because the quality is too poor, and I won't do my best work for them. And there's been at least one time I can think of when I rejected a client because I didn't like its politics...
Here's an ironic example: Arthur Anderson, the man. While researching my new book, "Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First," I discovered that he turned down a client who wanted him to cook the books in ways amazingly similar to the Enron scandal. Though he was just starting out and business was bad, he told the owner that there wasn't enough money in the city of Chicago to convince him to break his own ethics code. Would that his successors had been so virtuous!
What is moral for one business owner is not moral for another. While I disagree with Phil Knight's choice, I respect his right to make it - to do what's right for his own conscience. I would suggest, however, that any company choosing to exercise this right give notice from the very beginning. Put on the initial e-mail or bid response - and prominently, not tucked away in a corner - "We reserve the right to reject any job that we feel is not compatible with our values. This includes ... " It could be excessive profanity, content we consider unpatriotic; whatever the criteria, list them. Be open and up front that you don't want that kind of work, and it won't come to you in the first place.
Then Duane Poncy would not have lost two weeks of production time (and I know what that's like, because I had to scramble for a short-run printer of my own, after my original choice couldn't get the cover colors right. There aren't many affordable short-run printers).
So, my advice to Phil Knight: You can easily prevent a recurrence and stick to your principles.Aand my advice to any publisher dealing with printers: say upfront, this is the content, does this present any red flags?
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I don't know if this is of interest to you, but for those looking to self-publish a book in small runs, there is a company that will bind books here in Waco, Texas, called Library Binding Company. It is a very small business in a rapidly dying industry. They are not a printer but rather a bindery, and if someone wanted even just one book bound, they can do it. This might be an attractive alternative to an author wanting to self-publish. After all, authors have taken over much of the publishing process already - typesetting, proofreading and printing can all be done on one's computer.
Their Web site is at http://www.librarybinding.com. I know about them because I designed their Web site. There is also a lot of interesting information on the Web site about paper grains and such.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
One of your readers, Sandy DeWine, praises Sandra Day O'Connor's wit and her autobiography, and urges us to buy the book. Well, I'll be damned before I'll put any of my money in O'Connor's pocket. No matter how pithy her wit or how surprisingly literary her autobiography, the fact remains that by her vote in the matter of the Florida recount she helped deliver the government of our country into the hands of a sleazy and sinister cabal and their mean-spirited, buffoonish, unelected front man. O'Connor has earned herself an unenviable place in American history. I'm satisfied to know that much about her, and I have no wish to know any more.
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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