by Pat Holt

Friday, March 5, 1999



Well, this is great, isn't it? Wells Fargo Bank has begun featuring advertisements at automatic teller machines, and guess what's the first to "pop up," as they say, when you stick your card in the slot?

Why, it's, of course, in turn sticking its online nose in your banking business. You want cash? You want to check your balance? Well, you have to wait: Wells Fargo has offered Amazon "100 percent of the customer's attention" while each transaction is occurring, says Barry McCarthy, vice president of Express Banking.

And don't think you get just a glance of the ad, because Amazon has a treat waiting for you. The ad offers a $10 discount on an Amazon purchase if you sign up for online banking at Wells Fargo. That's so stimulating. Ten dollars goes such a long way at

Somehow, between Amazon going into the drug business, followed by Reader's Digest, of all Amurrican publishers, planning to "dramatically reduce its retail book publishing program" and move into the real growth area of "pharmaceuticals and vitamins" itself, according to Publishers Weekly, the book business is lurching around even worse than we thought.

Then comes the news that Barnes & Noble is now charging publishers $10,000-25,000 for featured mini-sites at called "Brand Boutiques," - two words that bring such dignity and sophistication to a book industry going nuts before our very eyes.

One is reminded of Barbara Bush's horror during a trip to China when she kept hearing patriotic messages issued by the government over public address systems all over the country. She believed that sort of thing would never happen in the United States, never realizing that the recent explosion of ads for ads' sake (Amazon's "Publisher-Supported placements!" B&N's "Brand Boutiques!") is the capitalist way of issuing patriotic messages from every radio and website in the country.


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I can't imagine how Amazon can actually provide books quicker than bookstores because it takes them at least a week to order a book from me (a small publisher whose books are on Amazon's web site as available in 3-5 days). I'll get a voice mail from a buyer asking how to order a (1) book from me. I'll call back, leave a voice mail asking them to fax a purchase order and telling them I'll send the book the same day. Three days later, I'll get a voice mail asking how to order a book. (I repeat the same message.) No fax, no reply. A week later, I get a voice mail asking how to order a book.

Literally, it has taken no less than two weeks for Amazon to place their order with me though I would happily send them the book with an invoice if they would just leave me a message with their address!

(Query: why can't they use e-mail?) So much for this efficiency machine.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I'm curious: if Ingram is capable of handling one book at a time, as the small-press publisher told us in #41, is there a compelling Harvard Business School reason why Ingram or another large wholesaler isn't setting up their own online retail operation to undercut all these middleman's middlemen like Amazon and Lyle Bowlin?

On a similar subject, I know of two small-press publishers who ordered their own books from Amazon as a test. As customers, they were eventually told that their books were out of print but, as publishers, Amazon had never contacted them at all to let them know someone was trying to buy their products. Do you know whether this is a common problem for small presses?

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Your column always brightens my day, but I believe in this latest missive that, while the analogy is good, you may have misinterpreted a passage in one of my faves, the great Moby Dick.

The "sperm" that the men are "squeeze, squeeze, squeezing" is not in fact the male sex fluid, the "the literal and metaphorical manifestation of the great life force of the universe," as you mention. It is actually spermaceti, to quote Webster's: "a pearly white, waxy, translucent solid, obtained from the oil in the head of the sperm whale: used chiefly in cosmetics and candles, and as an emollient." Thus the lumpy globules, etc. that could otherwise be abjectly disgusting.

Elizabeth McNulty

Holt responds: Thank you for making that important point! I do think that whatever comes out of the whale in this great book about whales can be considered "the manifestation of the great life force."

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I saw the letter from a small publisher re: dealing with Ingram (paying shipping both ways etc). Ingram was the bane of our existence for a long time until it became impossible for us to continue selling unless they changed their terms. They finally did and we are now selling less but they are returning less and they pay shipping both ways.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

One of the things you mentioned about Amazon was that the database is so big they lose track of what it contains. Last November I thought I'd contribute my opinion of [a book] to the customer reviews (one of the things I do find interesting there, for a variety of reasons). I read through the other reviews and saw that the most recent one . . . criticized [the author's theme] and then proclaimed that she had done it much better in her own book, and that "If you liked this then you'll LOVE *my* book, which is [X]". I was shocked at her audacity and bad manners, and mentioned that in the review I wrote.

Apparently someone actually does read those things before they're posted (I figured they didn't since hers had made it through). Mine didn't appear for a couple of days, but when it did my comment about her manners had disappeared, but so had her recommendation of her own book (though the rest of her review remained).

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Would you do a squib on what your independent bookseller constituency can offer self-publishers these days? Originally, I was impressed by what Amazon offers writers who want to place their books for sale online. However, my instincts say "give the Indies first shot at my book" when I start printing. How many (if any) would at least consider some splay-footed hayseed who showed up at their door with a car-load of a new novel, asking the bookseller to look over a copy and, if they like the book, find a square-foot of floor space for a stack of ten, and a foot-square corner for a simple table- display. If Taos, NM, is any example, I'd guess Indies might do this for locally published neighbors, but I wonder if there's some modest number of your constituency able to quell the horde of objections that naturally arise and take a small chance along with a self-published new novelist that some modest-seller might just saunter in off the street and settle in for a season before chasing off after commercial publishers and other butterflies.

James Landers