Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Wednesday, January 7, 2004


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Gad, will you look at the time. It's the fourth year of the new century and we haven't made a dent in those big nagging book-industry issues that never seem to go away. Here's the first of 10 Big Ideas.

(I wanted to wish for a headline from Baghdad last Thanksgiving that read "THE ONLY TURKEY IN THE ROOM WAS HOLDING THE PLATTER," but decided it's too late.)

1. To Amazon.com: Pay Authors for Used Book Sales

Come on, you guys, where's your heart? Take a leadership role in the book industry by at least pretending you have one. Here's all you have to do: pay authors just a few pennies for every used-book sale.

After all, it was Amazon's idea to barge onto its own webpages and establish a trading post for used books that is more lucrative for the company in the long run than sales of new books.

So what a tiny boon it would be if Jeff C. (for Cratchett) Bezos announced that Amazon now systematically records the sale of every used book in a new cyberAmazon account set up for every author.

Each sale would rack up the - again, *few pennies* - in royalties for every sale, and when the total reached a certain amount (say, $100), Amazon.com would send the money electronically to the author's publisher, which in turn would send the money *immediately* (no kickbacks! no shipping and handling!) to the author or agent.

And no excuses, Mr. Jeff W. (for Dubya) Bezos. Stop hiding behind the fact that brick-and-mortar bookstores never pay authors a royalty for used books sold. These stores don't have the high-tech software that Amazon created to push half its retail competition out of business anyway.

And no, I don't think the online versions of Powell's or BookSense or Halfbooks or Advanced Book Exchange or Alibris or even Barnes & Noble should start the ball rolling. I want Amazon.com to do it. (The chains will get theirs in Wish #2.)

Then there's this: Over the holidays the New York Times Sunday Magazine referred to Amazon.com's "unapologetic survival strategy ... to get huge quickly and at virtually any cost." What an image to carry into 2004. Remember when Jeff H. (for Prof. Harold Hill) used to keep his audiences laughing by saying Amazon.com had no intention of making a profit, so give him the money anyway? And they did it?

Well, I thought once Amazon.com *said* it made a profit (still in dispute), that unapologetic hubris might fade a little bit. I hear you falling off your chairs, but a precedent does exist.

A few years ago, Jeff T. (for Trump) Bezos tried to fence off the Internet for his own benefit by using lawsuits to protect Amazon's alleged "patents." It took publisher Tim O'Reilly to remind Bezos that the whole point of the Internet was the free flow of technology for everybody. As a result, Bezos and O'Reilly headed up an educational campaign for our head-in-the-sand U.S. Patent Office (see #133, #134, #138) to enter the 20th century (the 21st is still being considered).

Suddenly, Jeff S. (for Schwarzenegger) played the role of leader with a big heart, and friends, he can do it again. Taking credit for sounding like a leader with a big heart is something Jeff Bezos loves to do.

For an even better precedent, consider this: Long before the Internet or personal computers arrived on the scene, England created the Public Lending Right, a system of data collection that pays authors every time their books are borrowed from the public library.

Imagine the massive record-keeping and reports that are necessary to bring every earned penny to every worthy author, and what a huge task that must have been in the Pleistocene (pre-computer) era. But it was implemented because everyone agreed that authors should be compensated as much as possible every time somebody new read their books.

In other words, when paying authors is the right thing to do, a way can be found. Hear that, Mr. B?




The publishing industry shuddered over the holidays (or would have if anybody had been working) at the news that the FBI is "warning police nationwide to be alert for people carrying almanacs," according to the Associated Press.

That's right, almanacs. The FBI sent its bulletin on December 24 (so timely!) warning 18,000 police organizations to look for almanacs "during searches, traffic stops and other investigations ... especially if the books are annotated in suspicious ways," the AP reported.

What could make an almanac "suspicious?" I always thought precipitation over Ohio in 1992 had an ominous feel, but no. The FBI would like us to believe that terrorists carry almanacs so they can stop at a park bench or bus stop and annotate information about tall buildings and big bridges like mad.

Even if you or I may want to stop at that same park bench and read up on buildings and bridges for our own education, that's no protection. Any semblance of "careful planning" is the giveaway, as the FBI's official statement explains:

"The practice of researching potential targets is consistent with known methods of al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations that seek to maximize the likelihood of operational success through careful planning."

So there you have it: Careful planning is the key. Doing research is the warning signal.

It doesn't take much to note how stupid, how phony or how threatening to the First Amendment this FBI bulletin sounds to anyone with eyes to read it. Thus one might expect almanac publishers to be up in arms, to challenge the government on the basis of Constitutional protections, to insist on public debate, to urge Bush or Ashcroft to put a leash on overzealous Fibbies, but no again:

"The World Almanac and Book of Facts fully supports and endorses all efforts of the FBI, and all government agencies, in thwarting illegal activities," states a press release from The World Almanac. A senior editor there told AP that his company's almanac "includes no diagrams or architectural schematics," and only a dozen page in it list such statistics as the world's tallest buildings and longest bridges. Great idea: When pressured, let's all censor ourselves until government surveillance goes away.

But! Is it simply FBI overkill, or is something else going on here? I'd say that tragically, it's the latter. Somebody figured that the timing of this bulletin (Xmas eve) would not draw criticism from the sleeping media, and that its laughably inept warning would give law enforcement an extra foot in the door - a way to circumvent previous search-and-seizure laws and establish new reasonable cause for Orwellian/Cheneyian interventions.

The FBI's warning against almanacs, says David Heyman, whom Associated Press identifies as "a terrorism expert for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies," gives poilce "one more piece of information to raise their suspicions. It helps make sure one more bad guy doesn't get away from a traffic stop, maybe gives police a little bit more reason to follow up on this."

Gad. Remember the marijuana laws of the '60s, when all that was needed for police to stop and search a car for drugs and was a "furtive movement" by one of the passengers?

Well, here we are in the post-9/11 century, where the FBI concedes that the use of almanacs and maps may be "innocent," but still warns "that when combined with suspicious behavior - such as apparent surveillance - a person with an almanac 'may point to possible terrorist planning.' "

It's a warning, all right. It means that if you're stopped for any reason, watch out. That map or guidebook or almanac may land you in the clinker. (Next stop, dictionaries: "Did I see you looking up the word 'assassin'? Come with me.")

And if publishers don't stand up to this - don't get the Association of American Publishers' lawyers to nip it in the bud - tomorrow a novel or book of poetry is going to be just as "suspicious" as an "innocent" almanac.

Under the USA Patriot Act, the "new" FBI and "new" Defense Department, the freedom to read makes subversives of us all. Happy New Year.



Dear Holt Uncensored,

I was always under the impression that a proposal presented to a publisher by an agent was steal-proof. Not necessarily, as I found out.

My agent, a fine and reputable New York firm, presented my proposal for a book, which has a very specific title about a very specific subject, using 2 specific words to attract the target audience. A prominent house made the highest offer and won the book.

So far, so good.

However, one of the losing houses just couldn't accept the fact that it wasn't theirs to publish.

Editors at this house had expressed interest in the book and told my agents they weren't working on anything similar. Nevertheless, after I signed with somebody else, this house spoon-fed the concept to one of its existing authors. Several months after its editors had lost the bidding, lo and behold, they came out with a book so similar to mine one wonders why they even bothered. The title "borrows" one of the key words from my title; the cover illustration shows it's about the very same subject.

I quickly found out that authors have limited recourse in these matters. Pursuing further action is not cost effective unless a publisher steals an idea of Harry Potteresque magnitude.

So after this happened, I vowed to redouble my marketing efforts, and seek success as the only recourse. So far, my strategy has worked - my book is considerably outselling its imposter. But authors beware...

An Author Who's Still Steamed

Dear Holt Uncensored,

I am sorry to read of Shambhala's closing in your column, even though I live thousands of miles away. It's like hearing that another spotted owl has died, and although the species is not yet extinct, there's the fear that it will be soon.

All the more reason, then, to let you and your readers know of a wonderful independent bookstore success story in small-town Vermont.

Briggs Carriage Bookstore opened in 1997 in a historic brick building with a good storefront in the small town of Brandon, population about 3500. A major two-lane highway (not an oxymoron in Vermont), Route 7, runs through the middle of town, but the parking was just four small and often contested slots that required backing out into Route 7 traffic when your shopping was done. I know all about Matthew Gibbs and Barbara Ebling, the husband and wife bookselling team, because I worked then in an office upstairs over the bookstore, and as a bookaholic I was thrilled to have such a rich resource right downstairs.

Matthew, a former woodworker, built the check-out desk himself, and crafts many (perhaps all) of the attention-drawing props that point to worthy books. Barbara, a former school teacher, keeps the accounts and works with her staff to make sure teachers get a discount and to have a presence at local schools' book fairs.

The bookstore made steady progress, the owners participated fully in the life of the community with readings and a charity Christmas tree each year (customers would pick a cardboard ornament with a name, gender and age off the tree and buy a book for that child to receive at Christmas). The quarters were cozy, with overstuffed armchairs, coffee, and always good conversation. It seemed that Matthew and Barbara personally knew all their customers. One night last year, I drove down for a reading by Suzi Wizowaty (_The Round Barn_), and as each of the three dozen or so members of the audience came in, Matthew would introduce them by name to the author.

And they had bigger dreams, both reinforced and held in check by the day after Thanksgiving last year: there were no customers, save two, of whom I was one, and I had driven a hundred miles from my home to be there and start my book buying for friends. They needed a bigger space, more traffic, and better parking.

When a clothing store owner decided he was going out of business two blocks up in the main square, across from the town green and next door to a hotel where the tourist buses stop, it took a year of negotiating to close the deal. The shop (3000 square feet on each of two floors) was about four times as big as the old store, with an upstairs then being used only for storage. Matthew and Barbara bought the space and planned for the move in August. Over a hundred volunteers showed up at various times, and all the books and shelving units were moved by noon. A gargantuan take-out order of pizza and subs appeared, and after lunch, the volunteers commenced to assemble shelves and shelve all the books according to a map. By 3:30 everything that could be done by volunteers was done, including an immaculate clean-up of the old store.

I had to keep reminding Barbara that she and Matthew had created this community of willing workers by being such a wonderful center of caring and goodwill. They had mentored countless high school and college kids while giving them jobs, earned the respect and gratitude of families from several towns around by providing books for younger kids, and provided a center of knowledge and understanding for adults who wanted something more than videos for long winter nights and long summer days at the lake.

The Briggs Carriage Bookstore owners were at times shocked and awed. With all the books shelved on moving day, they were three days ahead of schedule.

In October, the "Ball and Chain" Cafe opened upstairs, Matthew's brainchild, for coffee, meetings, and performances. It's a huge wide-open space 103 feet long, 28 feet wide, with a small stage area near the front windows. The wooden floors upstairs and down creak, as do the stairs. The coffee bar at the back is copper, and the loud hissing of the espresso machine forces conversation at the bar to halt briefly. Nearly all the coffee tables have designs painted by Matthew: a Red Sox insignia (Barbara is a die-hard Red Sox fan), a chess board, a Norman-Rockwell-ish grandmother reading to children, a starscape and others.

And on the day after Thanksgiving this year, the store -- and the cafe -- was jammed with customers, friends, college students home for the holiday -- some of whom were veteran employees asking whether they could put in some hours over the Christmas break -- even tourists waiting to board a bus from the hotel next door. It was perfect. My partner and I sat at a cafe table, and when she brought out her drop spindle and began spinning yarn, Matthew and Barbara both brought out their knitting. Barbara finished a scarf as we chatted (between showing us the 75 books she had bought on a recent trip to Ireland -- bringing up the amused question, "What do booksellers do on vacation? Buy books, of course!"), and Matthew got a start on the scarf he was making to match a hat that Barbara had made for him. Turns out there's a knitting circle at the shop on Wednesday nights.

With the cafe, the store hosts readings and concerts, most recently jazz that I heard about from the long-time clerk at the locally owned drug store two doors down.

Here is one bookstore that is clearly thriving. It's true that the nearest Barnes and Noble and Borders book behemoths are an hour north in Burlington, with Walmart and Waldenbooks a half hour away in Rutland, the nearest city, so there is no immediate competition. But few of the locals and almost no one else would have pegged Brandon as a likely site for a successful bookstore.

It's a pass-through town on the way from Middlebury to Rutland and points south and west. Victorian mansions dot streets just off the main road, some of them run down until they were bought and renovated in the last decade. Now there are half a dozen (or more) bed-and-breakfast spots, new sidewalks, two new riverside parks, a restored steeple on a church at the gateway to town. Locating a bookstore in a run-down town coming back to prosperity and pride was clearly part of Briggs Carriage Books' success. But the major factors are the warmth, caring, integrity, faith, vision, and community participation of Matthew Gibbs and Barbara Ebling.

Euan Bear
Bakersfield, VT

PS: I haven't worked in the office upstairs over the bookstore for more than 3 years, but I still drive the two hours down five or six times a year to buy books.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

About your the story on former Columbia University professor and author Carolyn Heilbrun (the following statistics are taken from http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/help/faq/reference/#butler) :

What names are chiseled on the facade of Columbia University's Butler Library?

  • North side: Homer - Herodotus - Sophocles - Plato - Aristotle - Demosthenes - Cicero - Vergil
  • West side: Horace - Tacitus - St. Augustine - St. Thomas Aquinas - Dante
  • East side: Cervantes - Shakespeare - Milton - Voltaire - Goethe
  • The panels under the large front windows: George Washington - Benjamin Franklin - John Adams - Thomas Jefferson - Alexander Hamilton - John Jay - James Madison - John Marshall - John Quincy Adams - Henry Clay - Daniel Webster - Abraham Lincoln Jonathan Edwards - Washington Irving - James Fenimore Cooper - William Cullen Bryant - Ralph Waldo Emerson - Nathaniel Hawthorne - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow - Edgar Allen Poe - Henry David Thoreau - Herman Melville - Walt Whitman - Mark Twain
  • The names were selected by President Nicholas Murray Butler.

Notice anything interesting about this? ALL MEN. Not one female name.

One of my favorite memories is when Columbia College and Barnard merged and went co-ed. At graduation ceremonies that year, someone hung a banner over the etchings on the front-facing facade - it was so long it ran the entire length of the building. It covered up the men's names with the names of famous women writers - Woolf, Bronte, Plath, Alcott :-) It was great!

Thought you'd get a kick out of that....

Dave Mathison

Dear Holt Uncensored,

Your recent piece on adverbs - reprinted in the 1stbooks.com newsletter - was (amusingly) wonderful. Besides being a published author, I am also the Senior Managing Editor with Virtuserve, an upstart literary agency in San Diego. You should point out that there is a place for the misuse of adverbs within a story when the author is presenting a character in dialogue with a street voice. If all dialogue is grammatically and structurally correct, it will make for very dull and unrealistic reading and will remove a creative tool that can be used to subtly (maybe not so subtly) portray different voices in a novel. Outside of the quotes, it (really) should not be used.

Robert Catalano
Virtuserve Inc.

Dear Holt Uncensored,

Your reader, Nicki Leone, wrote: "Bloom... expressed horror - no pun intended - that Stephen King would receive "a lifetime award that has previously gone to the novelists Saul Bellow and Philip Roth." (And also to Ray Bradbury, the science fiction writer, and Oprah Winfrey, but let's not quibble)."

No thanks to Nicki Leone for lumping the author of "Fahrenheit 451" and "Something Wicked This Way Comes" with Oprah Winfrey. I am reminded of the Vonnegut quote about getting out of the drawer labelled "Science Fiction" because so many critics mistake that drawer for a urinal.

Michael J. Lowrey
Sunrise Book & Software Reviews

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.

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