NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #40
by Pat Holt

Friday, February 26, 1999

DOPING 'EM UP
AMAZON'S NEMESIS?
YOUR COUPON, DARLING

DOPING 'EM UP

Don't you think it's great that Amazon.com is getting into the drug retail business?

And why not? Now that the company's invisible payola program is working so well in the book department, what fun it will be when it duplicates this proven formula for drugs. Can't you see a "We Recommend" box for Viagra, for example, or how about "Destined for Greatness: Family Sized Immodium."

AMAZON'S NEMESIS?

Some independents believe the best way to fight Amazon is to step out of the way as other contenders step in and the so-called "Goliaths" kill each other off. Barnes & Noble seems itching for that kind of fight, but this week, what should pop up but a scrappy http://www.bestsellersforless.com.

Selling only bestsellers, this website offers discounts so huge that it doesn't even mention the publisher's list price of books. It shows only the Amazon price and the bestsellersforless.com price (most are about 15 percent less than Amazon, though the home page advertises "savings of up to 30% over Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com").

The site offers faster shipping (and cheaper - it's $3 plus $1.75 per item) and, in a little dig to Amazon's latest troubles, announces as one of its sales points, "And we NEVER accept fees from publishers to recommend books. Other online bookstores do." Goodness, you can bet those Amazon customers who got miffed at disclosures that Amazon charges for recommendations aren't going to feel the old loyalty to Amazon when they get a load of these discounts.

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YOUR COUPON, DARLING

Rats. I see that Publishers Weekly's online daily publication beat me to the punch by describing press coverage of Barnes & Noble and Borders floundering behind Amazon.

Of course PW is too nice to call publications like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal a bunch of jackals for taking easy and cheap shots at the chains (yes, even easier and cheaper than Holt Uncensored's).

The craven We Are Not Worthy! media coverage of Amazon is symptomatic of the kind of Bandwagon Journalism that made O.J. Simpson and Monica Lewinsky such stellar names in American history. It also leads otherwise clear-sighted institutions like the Wall Street Journal to pronounce the losingest company in sight, Amazon.com, the "best-performing company in 1998," reports PW.

Writes the Times: "Wall Street is betting that the Internet-only retailers who got there first, and got it right - the bookseller Amazon.com, for example . . . - are in a position to dominate on-line sales long into the future, taking an increasing share of the stores." Gee, what an insight.

But what made my heart sink was PW's reference to the Wall Street Journal's story that "sales growth at [Borders'] superstores is slowing" and that CEO Phil Pfeffer's answer is to give the stores a neater look, a new paint job and one of the most sensational deals offered to consumers in the history of bookselling. I wanted to be the one to quote WSJ's scoop: "People who register for Borders.com will soon get a coupon for a free cappuccino at one of the stores."

Is that not brilliant? Does the yuppie kingdom have no bounds? Do we get chocolate sprinkles if we actually order a book?

The tragedy here is that Borders continues to step up its construction of superstores at the same time its stock plummets and its online presence pales.

CEO Pfeffer says, "it's catch-up time. No question," so watch out: Barnes & Noble may be slowing plans to open new stores, but Borders has announced 45-50 for this year, with openings coming up in Gainesville, Florida; Mentor, Ohio; Northglenn, Colorado; Sterling, Virginia, and (late this summer) Santa Rosa, California.

But a certain myopia seems to be setting in: "By [Borders'] own admission, massive superstores have lost some of their appeal," writes WSJ: The stores "are no longer novel, and competition has increased from unconventional booksellers such as Home Depot Inc. as well as the Internet."

It's odd that Home Depot should be singled out. How unconventional could this glorified hardware store become? ("Get your latest Danielle Steel romance down by the socket wrenches!" "For the Dalai Lama's book, turn left at Needle Nose Pliers.")

The best news that isn't reported is that independent bookstores are holding the line against chain bookstores because customers return to independents after the dazzle of a new Borders or Barnes & Noble wears thin. The superstore inventory gets very tired very soon, and promises that half the title base is "customized to each location by knowledgeable buyers" prove just a leetle bit inflated.

The world saw only recently just how "customized" Borders can be in its new location at Brighton, England, "where there are more than three shelves of books on baseball," reports PW, "and only half a shelf on soccer." Go you customizers, go.

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