Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Wednesday, January 28, 2004


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Hey, BarnesandNoble.com: Fulfill Your Sales Tax Dream

Like gay marriage, Hummers and Angelina Jolie's lips, sales tax on the Internet is inevitable - maybe not everywhere yet, but at least on books sold by chain stores like Barnes & Noble.

Here's one reason: "Customers want, and increasingly expect, a seamless, integrated shopping experience," Barnes & Noble likes to tell investors (this quote is from the company's annual report of 2000).

"They want the option to visit a store or shop online. They want instant gratification and virtually immediate delivery of products to the destination of their choice. And technology has enabled customers to get what they want."

Yes, Barnes & Noble has a dream. And the dream began turning into reality in 2000, when the company reversed its returns policy, which prohibited its online customers from returning books to its land-based stores. Since the 2000 announcement, however, customers who purchase books from barnesandnoble.com on the Internet can return those very same books to any Barnes & Noble brick-and-mortar store on Earth.

Can you get any more "seamless" and "integrated" than that? Why, Barnes & Noble hadn't even got started.

2000 was also the year that Barnes & Noble announced it would "install Internet service counters at its superstores so that customers can get online to order books or other products through its Web arm, Barnesandnoble.com," reported CNET News. Imagine: Standing at a "Net counter" inside a Barnes & Noble store, you could click on and order from barnesandnoble.com. That would be like walking through two stores in one!

Of course, other chain stores like Borders and Virgin Megastore had also offered "cyberversions" of their retail outlets, but one got the feeling that B&N was not going to be happy as third best.

So last year, Barnes & Noble offered to buy out Barnesandnoble.com shareholders - including the nearly 40% piece owned by German publisher (owner of Random House) Bertelsmann, which sold its shares back to B&N at a 45% loss. As a result of the new "merger," Barnesandnoble.com has become a wholly owned subsidiary of Barnes & Noble.

Ain't that visionary? And so seamless, too! as Lucy Ricardo might say. Yes, today Barnes & Noble has joined its two entities into that "seamless, integrated shopping experience" that the company so hoped would become a living reality years ago.

There is only one catch, one difference that still exists between the two: Barnes & Noble's brick-and-mortar stores collect and pay sales tax, but barnesandnoble.com on the Internet does not.

Now this sales tax could be money that satisfies customers' need for "instant gratification," all right, but here we're talking about needs *in the community,* meaning money collected by the state for building better schools, public health programs and safer highways.

Surely Barnes & Noble, business leader and philanthropist (remember the foundation created within the company? Okay, so what if it's a tax write-off? Good causes everywhere see it as a frigging cash cow) will want to collect sales tax on books sold at barnesandnoble.com sales for the benefit of every state in which those purchases are made.

And as publishing observers know, Barnes & Noble won't want to hide behind the idea that sales tax on the Internet is a new thing. That "seamless integration" of Barnes & Noble and Barnesandnoble.com has established "Nexus," which is legalese for brick-and-mortar companies with a cyberspace spinoff that should have been ponying up all along. All that needs to be done is a little law enforcement, but we know our B&N is not going to wait for that. This company is too much of an altruist in the new century.

Besides, in California the new governor has spent most of his time stealing a million here, a million there from those selfsame schools and public health programs to cover a state deficit of $10.2 billion. Since the state Board of Equalization has already demonstrated that in 2001 alone, California lost $1.2 billion by not collecting sales tax from online or mail retail purchases, beloved, far-seeing and cash-strapped governors in all states will be coming to call very soon.

Time is running out. The Board of Equalization in California has also "issued opinions stating that booksellers Borders Online Inc. and BarnesandNoble.com have outstanding tax bills for online sales," reported Almanacnews.com in 2003, "because both corporations have a 'substantial physical presence' within the state." This is another declaration that will one day be extended and enforced. So Barnes & Noble: Why wait? Why not step forward now?

Now it's true that Borders.com, Powell's.com and other Internet operations with brick-and-mortar Nexus bookstores ought to collect sales tax on the Internet, too. And one day they will.

But right now, I want that 'lil dreamer Barnes & Noble to do it. I want to see Barnes and Noble take a leadership role by returning some of the billions its operation has removed from local regions and sent to back to its headquarters in New York.

I want Barnes & Noble to go to the California State Board of Equalization and say, "Goodness. We are not Enron. We never meant to contribute to your state's near-bankruptcy. We'll sell one of our CEO's Picassos if we have to, but we'll do anything to fulfill the promise of this dream."

And then, as an added bonus, Barnes & Noble could turn to the independent bookstores it has been driving into the dirt for many years and say, "Look! We've added sales tax (in Calif. the aggregate is around a whopping 8%) onto the sale of every book, online or offline, that you guys have been collecting from your customers all along, bless your honest hearts.

"This may not completely level the playing field (we're too predatory for that), but hey, give our CEO a big kiss for trying. Like the Tin Man in 'The Wizard of Oz,' all Barnes & Noble has ever wanted is a heart, fake or not, that would win the love and respect of its colleagues. Now let's all collude over ways to go kill Costco and Wal-Mart."



Dear Holt Uncensored,

About your list, "The Ten Mistakes Writers Don't See"

What should the aspiring writing believe?

You said the list could be called "10 COMMON PROBLEMS THAT DISMISS YOU AS AN AMATEUR," yet you use example after example of faux pas from published authors. So why weren't these people rejected by page 5? Are they friends with the editors? Is it OK to ignore good form in one sense as long as the overall story is salvageable? Or are they just considered lucky [published] amateurs?

Overall, you made good points. But I sometimes wonder how meaningful these tips are when I read so many books -- literary, mainstream, genre -- that defy "the rules."

Holt responds: I think the problem is that 1) editors have arbitrary standards - sometimes these mistakes brand the work a failure, and sometimes they go unnoticed. If you're the author, why leave it to chance? 2) We don't know how far an author has come in improving the work - maybe the mess we see in the writing is the best the author can do, and for some reason, the publisher has decided to go ahead. Either way, if writers keep the bar high for themselves, they'll always feel confident about the writing regardless of what a decline letter may say. Besides, you don't want some hotsie-totsie critic like me coming in after the book is published to ding the writing for all the (to you) wrong reasons.

Dear Holt Uncensored,

First, regarding Dave Mathison's letter about Carolyn Heilbrun and male domination at Columbia, where she taught for 30 years:

Barnard and Columbia have never merged. Barnard exists because women were not allowed to attend Columbia 125 years ago. Or even 40 years ago when I was there. We were told to wear a raincoat over our slacks if we dared to wear pants on the Columbia campus. My degree reads "Barnard College of Columbia University." (This is a loose translation as the degree is in Latin.)

Many courses are cross-listed, but Barnard has separate and distinct graduation requirements, many more female faculty members (even in this day and age), and is a far more nurturing environment for women than Columbia. Plus, the "Old Girl Network" both for Barnard graduates and for graduates of other women's colleges, is a saving grace, since I still run into members of the "Old Boy Network" who are outraged that some of my female friends dared to attend and graduate from their Ivy colleges!

Second, to the author who had his/her idea stolen: if you can prove the submission and the bidding war, and that the other author wasn't working on his book well in advance of your submission, there are principles of unfair competition and unjust enrichment that might enable you to win a lawsuit. What, you only asked your agent, and not a competent publishing lawyer? You probably let your agent negotiate the contract without having a lawyer review it, right? If your agent isn't also a lawyer, and doesn't have one on retainer to double-check the validity of new clauses and new wording, you're being shortchanged, especially in this world of 15% rather than 10% commissions.

Third, Brava for the idea of royalties for used book sales on Amazon.com. What about remaindered books? I must confess, I buy them. Often. But as an author I feel guilty every time. I'd feel a lot better if even a penny a book went to the author!

Ellen Kozak
"Every Writer's Guide to Copyright and Publishing Law"
(3rd edition coming in April)

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Bravo for your Publishing Wish List and the #1 topic, that Amazon pay publishers/agents/authors for used book sales. A modest subwish would be that J. Bezos at least tell us how many used copies are being sold so that we can rejoice in our readership being wider than we dreamed, while judging what size and quality of tears to shed over lost income.

As a first-time author ("POX: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis," Basic Books 2003), I entered the fray well-warned not to expect much in the way of promotion from my publisher. (Authors Guild lecture: "Don't be surprised to find your review copies collecting dust in the corner.") As it turned out, I'm still astonished at and grateful for how much work Joanna Pinsker did for POX. Somehow she got more than 50 nifty reviews in all the best places -- NYTimes, London Times, London Review of Books, JAMA, New Eng Journal of Med -- as well as interviews on BBC and NPR. The hypothesis of syphilis in the medical histories of Wilde, the Lincolns, Hitler has generated smart, thoughtful commentary.

So why, then, have sales been modest? The number of new books published per year (which I have seen logged in at between 60,000 and 130,000) explains why the Independents can't stock everything worthwhile. While the chains do stock "POX," it lives in some dusty corridor where even Borders sales people can't find it. So people go to Amazon.com, and lo! There are stacks of unblemished hardbound copies selling for the tempting bargain price of $4.34.

Of course if you take those few pennies on $4.34 and calculate what the author/agent royalty would be, it would take enough books to fill an ocean-going container to buy a box of chocolates. Still, wouldn't we still like to know that number? Please, Mr. Bezos?

Deb Hayden

Dear Holt Uncensored,

A couple of comments regarding your last issue, HU380 (is that a kind of pill?) and your Publishing Wish List:

  1. As an author who has more books out of print than in, I am of course interested in used book sales. Every so often I'll look myself up on ABE or AddALL or some other used book search engine, just to see which of my books are on offer and at what prices. Lately my "top" items seem to have risen from $200 a pop to $250 or more. While that's flattering, I guess, it's also distressing when I look at my flat wallet and realize that *somebody* is making money off the books I wrote, but I am not

    The bottom ones, of course, go for stamp money so let's not worry about those.

    Your plan to get Amazon.com (and presumably everyone else, in due course) to pay a modest royalty to the authors of re-sold, used books is intriguing, but I disagree with your notion of sending those mini-royalties to the publishers. Most authors have more than one publisher; many have many publishers. Under the Holt Plan a pie that for most authors will be very small to start with will be further sliced into microscopic portions.

    A far simpler plan -- easier for Amazon.com, etc., to implement -- would call for each author to designate a single payee, either his/her agent of the author him/herself. The result would be easier bookkeeping for Amazon and other booksellers and fewer-but-larger checks going out to the authors.

  2. I was struck by the sad story of "An Author Who's Still Steamed" [about seeing the idea for his/her book submission stolen by a publisher]. In my many years of dealing with the publishing industry I have never been so victimized, but I have been plagiarized at least twice by Hollywood and I can empathize with "An Author Who"....
However, reading his-or-her story leaves me frustrated. I'd like to know which publisher was guilty and the titles of the two books - the original and the rip-off - that are involved. As things stand we're left with a report that "Somebody Robbed Somebody of a Valuable Literary Property." Not nice to read but also not very useful.

Dick Lupoff

Holt Responds: You're right, the accusation is remote, but it has to be. I never want people who write to this column to be blacklisted by publishers for - pardon me - teeing them off. So in subsequent correspondence the writer and agreed to take out those very details. Even stripped of its facts, however, the accusation, I felt, is so telling (and not uncommon) that it should be aired in a forum like this.

Dear Holt Uncensored,

I would add this to your Wish #1 regarding Amazon.com actually paying authors a royalty for used books:

For gosh sakes, send the token payments to the authors or their agents, not the publishers. Most used books are out of print and I can just hear Random sighing as they collect the money, retain their portion and by the time these pennies trickle down to the author, and, well... you know the rest. By the way, I have author friends in Australia who also receive an annual payment from libraries. Nice work if you can get it.

And regarding almanacs [which the FBI now regards with suspicion when carried by anybody deemed to resemble a terrorist]. Whatever happened to passive resistance? Why doesn't everyone carry their "Farmer's Almanac," sticky notes protruding, passages highlighted, everywhere they go? I am going to take several copies down to the assisted living center my father-in-law lives in and pass them around. Next time the medical shuttle is stopped for joy riding, the cops will have a real ol' fashioned drag net on their hands. Perhaps those folks, who knew what it was to fight for a cause, will show us younger weenies how to stand up for one's rights.

Randall Platt

Holt responds: I mentioned publishers receiving the money because Amazon doesn't get lists of authors' addresses or agents, and doesn't want them as far as I know. So I thought it would be more efficient if the company grouped and sent checks to single addresses, and publishers are always listed. However, you're right about older books, lost addresses and authors falling through the cracks at large houses. At least accounting departments will have a record of the agent, or they used to. Mostly I'm wishing that both the seller (Amazon) and publisher will recognize the problem and set about trying to give authors their due. It's just a change in direction from current policies in which authors are seen as the least rather than the most important gear in the book industry's machinery.

Dear Holt Uncensored,

Re your #1 entry in the Publishing Wish List, You wrote:

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.

Well, ok, if you promote it as helping the author, but I don't want to get into any sort of notion that the royalty is owed again on the same work in the same format and copy if it is sold as used. Otherwise all sorts of used items other than the obvious books and music will have this issue, and it's really double dipping. On the other hand, lending services are a bit different, which is likely why England chose their Public Lending Right system, but in the U.S. that's not quite how copyright works, though it is changing for the worse ... don't get me started. Anyway, back to the point, I wouldn't mind if used outlets did this voluntarily, but it shouldn't be a part of copyright law.

Joshua Tinnin

Exactly. If it were voluntary, think of the goodwill (for company image) it would inspire, and what kind of stingy no-accounts would Barnes & Noble and Borders be (especially since Borders online sells through Amazon) if they didn't follow Amazon.com's lead?

Dear Holt Uncensored,

You wrote:

"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."
There are a few errors here. First, it's not just England but the whole of the UK that has Public Lending Right (PLR). Second, PLR isn't "a system of data collection that pays authors every time their books are borrowed from the public library"; it's an approximation of that. Each year a number of libraries up and down the UK are selected -- in conditions of strictest security, obviously -- as representative, and their borrowing records are used as the basis for an _estimate_ of national borrowing figures.

This means, of course, that one's annual PLR payment bounces around a bit. The year my local library was, as I later discovered, one of the selected ones, my estimated borrowing figures went up a chunk, and so, consequently, did my PLR payment. Other years, the selected libraries have, by chance, fewer than usual of my books on their shelves, and so my receipts go down. Obviously this all averages out from year to year; the system really works surprisingly well.

A further reason that the "a system of data collection that pays authors every time their books are borrowed from the public library" statement is inaccurate is that there's a maximum figure any author can be paid annually in PLR. That maximum, last I heard, was 5000 pounds (usually about $7500, though more like $8500 at the moment thanks to Dubya's economic miracle having driven the dollar down); where an author's calculated PLR exceeds this sum, the excess is channeled back into the system, being effectively shared among all the less popular authors. (If this might seem a tad socialistic to US readers, Jeffrey Archer, a pillar of the UK right wing and one of the lucky L5000-earners, has described it as eminently fair, a view echoed by every other L5000-earner I've heard comment on the matter.)

Allied to PLR -- the two services work in partial cooperation -- is another service, called, if memory serves me right, the Authors' Licensing and Copyright Services (ALCS). This is an idea copied from, I believe, Germany whereby certain large organizations pay a small royalty every time they photocopy pages from an author's work. The sums that accrue every few months to individual authors are never large -- at least, they have never been in my case -- but they're always welcome! I imagine ALCS brings much joy to the authors of specialist works published by the academic presses.

You say: "Long before the Internet or personal computers arrived on the scene ..." In fact, personal computers were much on the scene by the time PLR appeared. Because of the assessment method used -- sampling a limited number of libraries -- the existence or otherwise of the Internet is not pertinent to the discussion.

Best pedantic wishes --

Paul Barnett

Holt Responds: Bravo and thanks for filling in the gaps. This is the joy of the Internet - someone scrappy like Holt Uncensored suggests a thoughtful but ignorant idea, and everybody else makes it work.

Dear Holt Uncensored,

Your Publishing Wish List #1 is a topper. You want Amazon.com to "pay authors just a few pennies for every used-book sale"? No other used book store in the entire United States is doing this -- and you suggest that no other store *should* do it until Amazon steps up. Ignore for a moment that any fee would be passed along to sellers and thus to buyers. Ignore the fact that Powells.com also pushes used and new books together on the same page *and* has the same technology with which to track sales of used books. Ignore even the laughable thought that publishers should process these payments for free.

What you're asking Amazon to do is to single-handedly overturn the First Sale Doctrine, a guiding force in the U.S. legal system for centuries. Once I buy a book (or CD or DVD), then that physical object is mine to do with as I please. I cannot reproduce the book outside fair use but I can give it away, sell it, or line the bird cage with it without further compensation to the copyright holder. They got paid when I bought the book new.

The big media companies want to overturn the First Sale Doctrine, and any such action by Amazon.com would be fuel for their legal fire. Please tell us you were joking.

Ed Dravecky III
Allen, Texas

Holt Responds: Speaking of lining the bird cage, your letter comes in with value added, I must say. Good Heavens, reader Dravecky, think of what *you're* saying. The fact that the First Sale Doctrine is centuries old means that as well-intended as it might have been at the onset, its founders had no conception of the Internet or the effect of instant worldwide electronic sales on used books. I want Amazon.com to step up first because Jeff Bezos has wielded the company's famous software for years as a weapon to drive out the competition *and* to deprive authors of legit royalties on the very webpages designed for NEW book sales. Okay, so it's all legal and he gets away with it. But have a heart, reader D: Amazon can afford a penny or two here and there without adding a charge for processing, and helping authors retrieve at least a part of the lost sale can be promoted as positively angelic for cutthroats like Amazon.com to do. I tend to give Powell's more time to make the adjustment because this fabulous brick-and-mortar store has always been author-friendly.

Further, Powell's took a shot at mixing used and new inventory long ago and discovered, on a book-by-book basis, that it worked. Powell's wasn't the first bookstore to do this, but it surely was and is the largest, and look at the labor-intensive process Powell's has set up to do it: Powell's has expert staff people examining and paying for thousands of used books brought in by customers; the store then prices these books for sale, then places them in physical inventory and/or offers them for sale on the Internet. True, books come in the other (online) way, but in terms of setting a standard for used-book sales, Powell's has certainly been a leader.

Amazon.com, of course, simply sets up a cyber-trading post and that's it. Powell's hosts events with authors ranging from the big celebrities to unknowns and self-publishers. Amazon.com gets paid for everything from its "staff recommendations" to its bestseller list. So I would say that Powell's and stores like it have earned their way into the 21st century while Amazon.com has (brilliantly, I'll grant you) exploited the computer age. (So has Barnes & Noble, but its turn for taking the lead, I feel, should be in the sales tax arena as outlined above.) As to Amazon.com passing costs onto customers, think of the PR value in *not* asking anybody else to cover this teensy expense.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I want to applaud your call to Amazon to pay for used book sales. One thing that has struck me is how Amazon.com rankings for my books - rankings that were pretty stable for years - plummeted once the used book thing was implemented. While I realize that rankings ca. 35,000-50,000 don't represent that many sales, it's still got to be a difference when they're now 100,000 lower... and that could make the difference between a book being reprinted or not somewhere down the line.

An Author

Dear Holt Uncensored,

Re: your delightful article about writing mistakes, item 4, Phony Dialog: A friend of mine (and professional translator) came up with the following line, the epitome of phony dialog: "Your father died last December, as you know."

The Precision Blogger

Dear Holt Uncensored,

I had to smile when I read your articles on Phony Dialogue, reprinted in 1stBook's Newsletter. I have to classify it as half-informative. One might question a weatherman when he or she says tomorrow will be partly cloudy... but what is the other part? You commented on Ann Packer's words in one of her stories. You expertly said what would make a reader recoil. If you are going to tell us what's not "politically correct", then please follow it up by using Ann Packer's example and writing what is correct in your mind. Telling someone something is wrong without offering what is better or another way to do the task is defeating.

Herb Clark

Holt responds: I try not to tell writers how to write, and Ann Packer's book demonstrates that she can be a very good writer, so my thought was to point out mistakes that got through the publishing process as examples that I think other writers might avoid. However, since you asked, Packer is not alone in her use of the words "how" and "of how," which makes the narrative sound lazy and sloppy (and she is not a lazy or sloppy writer). It goes like this: "She went on to relate a story of how, as a teenager..." Common sense tells us not to put so much burden on the word "how," and grammatically the "of how" is a mess anyway. Here's another one, trimmed down a bit: "I remembered how, watching her drive away..." The fix is easy ("I remembered that, watching her..."), but it's still awkward. I'd rewrite both sentences from scratch.

Dear Holt Uncensored,

Evidently there are authors who make their living by writing the same book over and over under different titles. Why do publishers collude in this? It seems like fraud to me.

I recently bought a bunch of books about my specialty in medicine to see what the "competition" is like, since I am writing one myself. I was outraged to find that three of the books were nearly identical in content, including cartoon drawings; only the titles differed. Not only that, but three different imprints published them.

[Note to readers: With his agreement, I deleted the list of books about the writer's specialty to protect his anonymity.]

This is a pure bunko scam. I wonder how many more authors resort to these dirty tricks?

An M.D. Writer

Holt responds: The books you mentioned were published about 3-4 years apart, which may mean that as one goes out of print or is considered out-of-date, others are going to come forward with a different voice and updated information. The books may all say virtually the same thing, but is there anything original or new they *can* say about this specialty other than the latest technology or techniques? Patients who anticipate this same medical procedure usually want the latest book with the most pertinent and updated information. That's not a defense - if everybody's writing the same thing in the same voice, it's pretty shabby. But isn't the field changing rapidly?

M.D. Writer replies: Regarding the three books, the content listings are almost identical, to about 95%, and the text appears to be pretty much unchanged between one and the next.

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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