by Pat Holt
Friday, April 30, 2004
Let me get this straight: BookExpo America, the annual book convention that opens in Chicago on June 4, is representing Borders Books and Music as a sales agent this year. The BEA's job is to sell "slots" of time to book publishers, who will in turn get to pitch their Fall titles to managers of Borders stores.
This can't be right.
It's not that I doubt Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch, the daily book news digest that first reported this and that is about as accurate as they come.
It's just that even I can't believe that mainstream book publishers - accustomed though they are to groveling at the feet of chain bookstores - have fallen so low that they'll pay $1,500 for TEN MINUTES worth of breakfast time with Borders personnel, and $6,000 for a 40-MINUTE presentation, and only then IF Borders invites 'em to come.
That's just the beginning. To get "mingling time," you gotta pay; to get "bus sponsorships," you gotta pay; to arrange "hospitality lounge meetings" with Borders' personnel, ditto; "pillow drops," ditto (see below), meals, ditto.
And remember, you don't give the money to Borders directly. This company will not soil its hands with anything like a direct bribe, no. You pay the BookExpo sales team, and they bag it up. After that, according to Cader, "the entire proceeds" go to Borders.
So let's go back: The BEA staff is *representing* Borders as a sales agent? And publishers are paying the chain to get its store managers to come to breakfast, lunch and dinner "slots"?
Cocktail parties I can understand, free meals, too, where everybody gets tanked and walks away with a free book. That's a fine old BEA/ABA tradition.
But paying people to come to a book event? And paying *chains* to come? It's like paying Iraqis to...well, let's not pursue that part.
It's like assuming that store managers don't read, don't follow the business, have no interest in books themselves and don't know why they've been sent to BEA to begin with. So you lead 'em around the floor with a Treasure Hunt (see below); you pay 'em to eat and drink with publishers, and you hope they don't throw away their free books on the way home.
Real nice, Borders. This approach to personnel might have something to do with the union movement at Borders but let's not pursue that one, either.
I can understand charging a publisher for the phenomenon of the "pillow drop," where BEA arranges for free advance reading copies to be left at the door of the hotel rooms of targeted booksellers. This costs money, and the publisher of the dropped book pays for it. According to Cader, the American Booksellers Association has used "pillow drop" proceeds to reduce the room rate for booksellers at the ABA's official hotel, and this seems, well, almost legit.
However, the Borders' con - an "experiment" according to BEA show manager Greg Topalian, and boy, is that an understatement - does no good for its own employees. Consider how it must feel if you've worked your way up to be a store manager, and you learn of the Borders Treasure Hunt: Here store managers can win $500 in cash if they "visit the booths of 10 different publishers (paying $1,000 each), get their card stamped, and pick up a book."
Wonderful. You can't be caught wanting to *read* a book on your own. You can't be seen lingering in the booth to study the publisher's whole Fall line and look for books to recommend to customers. No, you won't have time! You have to get your card stamped! You have to race over to Farrar and Houghton and Simon and Random and Norton and Viking and Holt (no relation) and Harper and others (just guessing! no idea who will take the bait) so you can prove you're a loyal employee. You're on the bandwagon. Maybe you'll win money to compensate for your low salary.
So let's go back one more time. According to Cader: "As many publishers focus on using BEA as a place to try and break out a small group of big fall titles rather than to push an entire list, Topalian believes that, 'These highly targeted options give that opportunity.' "
Highly targeted options, my foot. It's extortion. It's take-space-in-our-Xmas-catalog or we'll cut our order; it's pay-through-the-nose-for-our-Celebrate-New-Authors-program or forget that first novel you love; it's buy-space-in-our-window/endcap/storefront/counter-display program or kiss your midlist goodbye.
And say: Is that cockamamie program still going at Borders where publishers DECIDE FOR THE CHAIN which titles to stock in various sections of the store? And the publisher pays six or eight million dollars (a guess) for the privilege? And wasn't this one of the reasons contributing to the rift, the split, the lawsuits, the kicking-out of chains from the American Booksellers Association, which used to run the book convention?
Well, I don't blame BEA for letting chain personnel back in - BEA is a business. It's spozed to be neutral so it can reap the profits of everybody else's conflict and misery. And gosh, they do a good job of it.
ABA TO SELL TARRYTOWN PROPERTY
Thank heaven the American Booksellers Association is finally going to dump that albatross of a company headquarters that's been hanging around the ABA's neck for a dozen years.
Remember the reason the ABA executives gave for buying it in 1991? It's really a steal, they said. We can get it for a song. It'll be worth a fortune one day, so just avert your eyes at the millions we're spending to acquire and renovate now.
And they were right. The ABA made such a showpiece of the property that it looked like staff members were living like a bunch of fat cats while their members were dying all over the country for want of a few thousand bucks.
One couldn't view the manicured grounds of Tarrytown without wondering if the ABA employed gardeners whose salaries might bail a tiny independent bookstore over here or a specialty buyer's job over there, and OKAY, I know that's not the way you're supposed to think. A lot of the buildings on the Tarrytown property paid rent to the ABA and covered costs for the gardeners and other services. Many of the elegant meeting places could be maintained far more cheaply than if comparable rooms were rented in New York City.
Still, it was hard not to wonder: When your members are closing down, don't you want avoid even the pretense of eating cake? The answer was that even if things got so bad the ABA itself had to go under, the organization would leave a bundle behind after the Tarrytown property got sold. Of course, by that time the great diversity and range of independent bookstores would have been crippled beyond imagination.
So this new decision by the ABA board to sell Tarrytown now and lease back only what the ABA needs is a great relief to many. I hope eventually the staff goes back to digs in NYC, where their constant daily presence will remind publishers of the power and importance of independent booksellers. When publishers are willing to pay Borders $6,000 for 40 MINUTES at BEA (I can't help it), independents need in-your-face time between the ABA staff and mainstream publishers more than ever.
APOLOGY FOR THE SMOKING AD
Thanks to the many (many, many) readers who expressed their sorrow (well, outrage) at the advertisement from Lorillard offering discounts to "Menthol Smokers Only!" in this very column last time (#383).
I was just as shocked, having responded to an announcement from the column's online distributor, Topica, that free distribution was no longer possible and the company was going to insert a small ad on the top and bottom of the text.
So the whole staff here took a vote and decided that with the salaries I'm paying, it's better to stay on a free basis with Topica and let the ads run. How bad could it be? A few lines about cheap airfare or online flowers or quick-time software couldn't hurt, right?
Heh heh. Boy, did we get our head handed to us. ("Are you now in the business of endorsing killing devices," wrote reader Jim Reed, "or is this something Topica imposes on you? I can't imagine you're a willing part of this. Has Topica no shame? I write as one struggling to quit this horrid vice after 40+ years.")
Well, I quit smoking years ago, too, so back we went to convention headquarters for another staff meeting, took a new vote and we're now the proud owners of contractual papers permitting NO ADS at a rate of about $75 month, which isn't bad but does pile up, when you consider our mounting overhead (one dining room table, one laptop).
They tell me that free-to-paid service is an inevitable move on the Internet these days, and for those who remember the distributor from hell of several years ago that went belly-up, taking our entire subscriber list with it, the new contract is worth every penny I'm taking out of everyone's salaries to pay for it.
Caution: Topica has also graduated to the great tradition of Internet professionalism (no address! no phone! no visible humans!), so it's possible that another ad, probably for assault rifles, toxic toys or - egad, it would kill me! - Borders, Barnes & Noble or Amazon.com, may be visible at the top or bottom of this column, too. If I haven't driven a stake through my own heart at the news, please hang on for the next column, devoted to strippers at the ABA's new offices in Petaluma and discounts for anti-choice groups at Books A Million.
FIGHT SECTION 215 OF THE USA PATRIOT ACT
You'd think with a Constitution like ours, we would never have to sign a petition to ensure freedom of speech or privacy for readers, but following the hastily passed USA PATRIOT ACT, our 9/11-shaken Congress has created that very state of affairs.
The worst part of the Patriot Act, Section 215, allows FBI agents to search records in bookstores and libraries of anyone they believe may have information relevant to their investigations, including people who are not suspected of committing a crime.
These searches are Constitutionally illegal, and so are the shortcuts the FBI gets to use in obtaining warrants. Each FBI "request" for a court order authorizing the search is heard by a judge in a secret proceeding, which prevents a bookseller or librarian from objecting on First Amendment grounds. The court order contains a gag provision that forbids a bookseller or librarian to alert anyone to the fact that a search has occurred. As a result, it is impossible to protest the search even after the fact.
So when our glorious Attorney General, John Ashcroft, says to Americans, oh, don't worry, the Department of Justice has never *used* Section 215 (huh?), how are we to know this is true? If librarians and booksellers can't talk about it, courtroom hearings are secret and the searches are covered up, Ashcroft can say anything he wants while the FBI bashes the Constitution as much as *it* wants.
Booksellers have a reverse take on Ashcroft's statement, though: They say, let's believe him. If he's right, Section 215 is both unnecessary and inept, and it "has not made a single American family safer."
How to get rid of it aside from supporting legislation to delete Section 215? Well, thanks to the American Booksellers Foundation For Free Expression (ABFFE), the American Library Association, the ABA and PEN American Center, in February, 40 organizations representing virtually every bookstore, library and writer in the country as well as 81 individual companies, signed a statement urging amendment of Section 215.
By now the number of signers is much higher, thanks to a new website where you can go to sign this petition and read more about reader privacy. Go to:
It took me all of 15 seconds, so don't wait. A button on the home page makes it easy to forward information to friends and colleagues. You can also download the petition and circulate it in your store, library, book group, class or other organization. Go to:
You can also put a link on your own website to Readerprivacy.com by clicking on another home page button to download the correct HTML Code.
And finally, gloriously, you can download a full-color poster of Uncle Sam pointing at viewers with his (most) famous saying: "Your First Amendment Needs YOU." Attaboy, Unckie! Let's spread this word around.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You wrote in #383 about a "conspiracy to rob [children's] classics of their drama, their passion and their soul," and mostly I agree. If a book is well-written, kids will read even very long works (just ask J.K. Rowling or Chirstopher Paolini). And the Disney version of Pooh is an abomination. We used it with our kids when they were about two, but by the time they were four, they'd graduated to the real thing.
But there are exceptions - some of the classics are simply inaccessible in their original form. My son generally rejects abridged versions, but when I tried to read him "Gulliver's Travels" in the dense and flowery original, he only lasted about two chapters. And I don't know if the full-length "Heidi" is just badly translated, or if it's as turgid as it appears.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I am a library media specialist at a combined junior and senior high school. I walk a daily line between the rapt attention placed on computers by kids, and the students that I fondly call "my readers."
While it may seem simplistic, I told my principal if we buy new books, the kids will read them. My version of "if you build it, they will come." My library is full of old books, a lot of the old classics that you wrote about, but they never circulate. They are shelf holders so the administrators don't feel too guilty about empty shelves and poor funding for books that is rampant in public schools today.
MY example of what attracts kids to classics is the repackaging that comes with a link to a movie. A good example is the movie "Cheaper by the Dozen." The movie had nothing to do with the original book, but the Gilbreth book was repackaged with Steve Martin on the cover and voila, the book circulates. I admit it is a fake-out for the kids, but my point is that kids don't want to read old dusty books, no matter how noble the content.
A local women's group wanted to buy books for the school. I told them to buy classics. I knew I would hit on the heart strings of the group by appealing to the fond memories that reading books like "Little Women" had when they were girls. Surprisingly, I wound up with a selection of really great titles and some very nice looking books. They exceeded my expectations in the choices. Now, when English assignments come out, the new books always circulate first. I am not saying that kids beat a path to my door for classics, but they will take out the versions that look modern, have contemporary art work, are clean... etc.
I work very hard at getting kids to read. I read young adult books constantly to find things I think kids will like and surprisingly, there is some good stuff out there. Between the schlock and the good stuff, there are some true gems. I find that what matters most, in the computerized MTV view of the world most kids have today, is that some kids actually do still read. But the reality is that we live in a slick, packaged world, and today's youth will not read ratty old stuff even if it has a wonderful literary past.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I too am concerned about abridged books, mostly because the language is so awful. I'm teaching an adult student to read, and part of the program is reading interesting books. We're reading the Alex Haley's as-told-to adult version of Malcolm X's autobiography because the abridged versions are so boring. Even though the vocabulary may be a bit difficult, the words and the sentences and the story have rhythm, a cadence, and an honesty about them that comes through in the voice of the author, not some simplified pap. It's not only kids who suffer!
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I am a little disappointed that you didn't mention the "Jane Austen Doe" brouhaha in Salon.com in your latest column. Everywhere I went on the web, people were discussing the article and trying to guess who "Jane" was. Salon ran three follow-up columns full of letters -- that must have been an unprecedented amount of reader response!
A friend of mine, a midlist author who has published several wonderful but underappreciated novels, said that after the piece came out, she received several e-mails inquiring if she was the anonymous scribe - including, believe it or not, one from her own agent. "You of all people should know I've never made that much money," she responded.
Holt responds: I've written before about the lack of respect and cruel treatment with which the book industry treats authors, who are, after all, the very ones who pay all our salaries. It astonishes me, and it's getting worse, but perhaps the irony of Salon.com's piece is that authors have become the last people who are believed when they speak openly about the problem. Jane Austen Doe is presumably a good writer of good midlist books, but she was dumped so speedily by publishers - picked up only when her agent told her to pander - that she ended up virtually unpublishable. It's a sorrowful, shameful, typical story, but instead of offering fresh insights to others who are in that same "You're Losing Your Track Record" boat, she complained her way through an increasingly self-serving, Poor Me story. Since her book advances averaged $40,000 a year during the period she discusses, letters from other writers were blunt and brutal ("quit whining!"), and I had to agree with many of them. I'm sure readers of this column know that if I had a new idea about saving midlist books from this downward spiral, I wouldn't be at all modest about it.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I would like to comment on the issue of Ingram's publisher-unfriendly policies raised in your last column. William A. Gordon asks whether there is any way to bypass Ingram completely and encourage bookstores to order through Baker & Taylor.
I am co-founder of a new Web-based store called The Compulsive Creative, and as both a retailer and an author (of 7 books), I've had quite an awakening about how books are distributed and sold. We looked into using Ingram and decided against it. The discounts are awful. Because we have to discount our retail prices so heavily to compete on the Web, we'd make no money at all using them.
We've been using Baker & Taylor (which is slightly better), but I have problems with them as well, which I'll describe in a minute. We order direct from a number of publishers, and this solution pleases me quite a bit. For one thing, we get better discounts. For another, we get sales people who actually care about helping us not only with orders, but with content for our Web catalog and other promotional issues. They also actually sell to us, which I like. (It's hard to keep up with all the new titles we might want to buy.)
One problem at Baker & Taylor that is somewhat the case with publishers too is the extraordinarily high proportion of books that arrive damaged. Most of the damage is due to two things: packing methods and the lack of care utilized by people who pick the books. We get books with knife marks, unremovable grease, dirty page edges, bent corners and edges, and all kinds of other flaws that make them unsaleable. Edges and corners are particularly vulnerable to the plastic that Baker & Taylor stretches over the books in their cartons. When we receive these damaged books, we have to send them back to B&T on our dime and wait for a credit memo. We also have to reorder them rather than having them automatically replaced. The percentage of a shipment that arrives damaged has often stood at 20% and occasionally approached 40%! Needless to say, this disregard for quality is not only a time and money waster, but it means that we can't be sure we'll have saleable books in stock when customers want them.
But I digress. My point is that as a retailer, I am happy to deal directly with publishers and in most cases prefer it. I know that doesn't help publishers get their books into Barnes & Noble, but I can assure them that we do everything we can to make our dealings with publishers and authors a win-win situation. There might be other stores out there that would welcome dealing direct as we do.
Holt responds: A number of (mostly unsigned) letters have come in explaining Ingram's story, which I think is worth retelling, because Ingram certainly has tried hard to carry and maintain accounts with "micropublishers" (self-published authors, many using print-on-demand or POD companies) and other small presses.
As I understand it, due probably to the POD "revolution," by the late '90s, bookseller and library customers were asking Ingram to start carrying more micropublishers than the company had before. Ingram agreed to do this, and in 1997 the company formed a team of buyers to work with these new accounts. Soon, however, the number of vendor/publishers at Ingram had soared from 3500 to more than 10,000. About half of the latter were micropublishers.
Confusion erupted almost immediately. Many of the self-published authors were new to the book biz and assumed that "getting books into Ingram" meant certain success. They didn't know that Ingram is a wholesaler and doesn't automatically place books in stores or actively represent publishers to bookstore buyers. Misunderstandings resulted when self-published authors would set up an author appearance at, say, a Barnes & Noble store, but were told that Ingram didn't stock their book. However, it would turn out that the copies in stock were so few that the chain couldn't order enough and gave up trying. And *then* it turned out that some authors decided to forget about Ingram and just bring their own copies to the event, which meant that somewhere down the line, unknowing clerks tried to return the unsold copies to Ingram, which had never sent them in the first place.
The other problem was that micropublishers were so inexperienced at book promotion that Ingram found half its order (of, say, 5-10 copies) still sitting in the warehouse two years later. Eventually the costs of carrying 25,000-50,000 slow-moving or non-selling books became too much, especially as the stagnating economy of the post-dotcom and 9/11 eras set in. That's when Ingram, having gone through layoffs and the closing of three warehouses, began revising small press terms (to 60%) and telling micropublishers to join up with larger distributors.
One sympathizes with Ingram for going through all this, but here is my question: Why didn't that team of buyers set a ceiling for the number of small press and micropublishers the company could handle? Why didn't they review micropublisher titles more critically and decline books that were lousy, or that, no matter how good they might be, weren't going to sell in bookstores in the first place? Surely Ingram knew that most of the time, you just can't buy 5-10 copies of a self-published title and expect the books to walk out of the warehouse on their own. Even I, who love POD books, know that 95% should never be carried by bookstores or by Ingram - they have to prove themselves in their own markets first, and then they have to be shepherded into the book trade by people who know how publishing works.
And, too, for those POD titles that did sell, why didn't Ingram insist on better terms from POD companies in order to provide better terms to booksellers? That alone, I'm told, would have helped many a micropublished book find its way off the shelves and into the hands of customers who wanted it.
Years ago I visited Ingram and remember thinking that despite the millions of books stacked floor to ceiling in a huge warehouse where everybody was bustling around like crazy to move, move, MOVE those books, very knowledgeable people behind the scenes were exercising tremendous judgment in the selection of the publishers and titles that Ingram could carry. Although I hated the fact that good local wholesalers like Raymar and Gordon's and Pacific Pipeline and now Bookpeople (in my part of the country) were losing ground to one big fat wholesaler in Nashville, the people at Ingram appeared to respect the depth and range of options in books that a democracy must have to sustain an informed citizenry. I mean, it's all of a piece, right? So it seems to me that with more power and territory - and almost the entire pie when it comes to market share - Ingram has a responsibility to carry small-press and micropublished titles that, by their merits, deserve their time on the bookstore shelf. All of which to wonder that Ingram might, you know, think about trying this again.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
A last word about your piece on urinal scenes in books and movies: There's a scene in "Panic Room" where Jodi Foster lifts her skirt and sits down on the toilet seat to do what comes naturally. The story line would not have been lacking had that scene been deleted, but it fit in very naturally.
Bonnie De Clark
Holt responds: Yet another woman-on-a-toilet scene I missed, and in a movie I remember very well! That makes about 6,234 urinal scenes compared to about 4 or 5 w.o.a.t.'s. And they said the ERA was doomed.
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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