HOLT UNCENSORED #43
by Pat Holt
Tuesday, March 9, 1998
THE INDUSTRY GONE NUTS
Note to Readers: Shoot. I've got this great interview with poet and novelist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, but three late-breaking industry stories are taking up all the space (yes, the column does have space limits). Apologies for one chain/Amazon story after another.
SEARCH ENGINE GLUTTONY: B&N, BORDERS, AMAZON
REVENGE OF THE AMAZON CUSTOMEROS
BORDERS BUYERS: BOOKS THEY DON'T READ
SEARCH ENGINE GLUTTONY: B&N, BORDERS, AMAZON
It would be an understatement to say that independent booksellers are furious: Amazon, Borders and Barnes & Noble have placed advertising links on Yahoo, Lycos, Alta Vista and other search engines that not only divert sales from independents, they "use my store's name without my permission to hijack my customers," as Andy Ross of Cody's Books in Berkeley, Calif., puts it.
It's one of the sleaziest attempts to steal business that any of the three has attempted.
Here's how it works: Let's say you want to visit the website of Cody's Books, but you don't know the Internet address. You go to a search engine like Yahoo and type the words, "Cody's Books," into the slot. Voila: up come a few matches for Cody's Books, but before you click on one of them, you spy a link in the right-hand margin that reads, "Buy Books On Cody's Books - Buy Books Now - Amazon.com."
Click there, and zoom! you're taken right to Amazon.com where a book is listed about Cody's (by founders Fred and Pat Cody, published in 1992). Funny thing is, other books are listed as well, including "Cody's Law," a western, and "Cody's Ride," a large-print book, neither of which has anything to do with Cody's, the bookstore in Berkeley.
A bit of checking around at Yahoo reveals that Amazon's link appears on just about every search page that Yahoo provides. For example, if you enter "Holt Uncensored," Yahoo comes up with the usual bizarre mix of mismatches ("College Baseball," "50 Books about the Vietnam War") and an Amazon link that says, "Buy Books On Holt Uncensored - Buy Books Now - Amazon.com."
That's awfully authoritative of Amazon, or so it seems. Click on the link, and Amazon confesses it has no books on Holt Uncensored but would love to sell you some books by John Caldwell Holt (no relation).
That's the formula: Whatever you ask Yahoo to search for, Amazon.com will claim to have books for - it's an automatic thang. Matters get complicated, however, if you're looking for a bookstore about which there are no books.
When Yahoo finds Kepler's Books, for example, the same notice ("Buy Books On Kepler's - Buy Books Now - Amazon.com") pops up. If you click there, Amazon offers 13 titles, including "Kepler's Geometrical Cosmology" and "Kepler's Physical Astronomy" but nothing about Kepler's bookstore.
So: Right there is the mistake - it's not an oversight nor a coincidence but a Big Fat Fib. Because right there, when the reader is trying to find the website of an independent bookstore, Amazon steps in, opens its overcoat with hidden pockets of merchandise and says, pssst! hey bud! you don't wanna go over to that independent site - step over here; I got some unbelievable bargains over at MY site!
Because it's so easy to click on the Amazon link instead of searching further, no wonder independents are hopping mad: Just about ALL search engines have been "bought" like this. For example:
ALTA VISTA: Try finding "Tattered Cover" and you get a box that says, "Books at Amazon.com - Books about Tattered Cov . . . Amazon.com Bestsellers." Click on this and - oh oh! - Amazon finds no "exact matches" for Tattered Cover, isn't that a surprise? It does offer three "close matches," such as a book for job seekers called "201 Killer Cover Letters." Not exactly "close" to Tattered Cover.
INFOSEEK: Here Borders advertises on the home page, and if you search for Powell's Books, you find this right-hand-margin box: "Buy the Book - the latest titles at Borders.com. Oprah's Book Club Pick: The Reader." It doesn't refer to Powell's specifically, but the mention of the Oprah pick makes matters worse: If the customer is thinking of buying "The Reader" from Powell's and is going to the trouble of finding Powell's website address, Borders interrupts the process to say you'll save yourself several steps by clicking on "The Reader" in the Borders ad.
LYCOS: Type in Book Passage, and you not only get a big, colorful, animated banner ad for Barnes and Noble, you also find a link that reads, "Books about Book Passage at barnesandnoble.com," and on the right-hand side a box that says "barnesandnoble.com - Get Monica's Story Now and Save 40%." Now that's pretty rotten. The chain gets to trash the independent and steal the sale at the same time.
"Aside from the consumer fraud issue (there are no books about Book Passage bookstore)," says Bill Petrocelli of Book Passage, "these links pose the question of unfair competition: Lycos and Barnes & Noble are basically operating a scheme to divert customers looking for Book Passage's website to the Barnes & Noble website, just as Amazon and Borders are doing on other search engines.
"I can't see the difference between this and, for example, a chain store running an ad for Book Passage with the its own telephone number or even putting a Book Passage awning on its stores."
Surely there is some kind of screen or block or censor or plucker-outer that can take these notices off pages that appear when people are searching for independent bookstores. If that isn't possible, well, heavens, there aren't that many independents left, you gluttonous chains, you predatory Amazon: Just pay a typist to input the 3000+ independent names into the system so the Borders, Barnes & Noble and Amazon ads can be culled out.
Do this AS A COURTESY, you mean-spirited chains, you big bully Amazon.com. Do it as a matter of RESPECT for other booksellers. And do it as A STATEMENT OF TRUTH. You can't just say, we have books about everything in the universe and get away with it. You can't say you have books about Tattered Cover or Kepler's or Powell's or Book Passage or any independent store when there aren't any books. All you're really doing is separating the customer from the bookseller to get the sale, and that's pretty shoddy.
So come on, Len and Stevie (Riggio, heads of Barnes & Noble)! You've got a big enough piece of the pie. And you, Jeffy (Bezos, head of Amazon), you're in enough trouble already! Just get off the independent bookseller pages at the search engines where you advertise, and do it now. Staying there is just too low-down, even for you.
REVENGE OF THE AMAZON CUSTOMEROS
Perhaps to get back at Amazon for getting paid by publishers to "recommend" books or place titles on the Best Seller list, Amazon customers have been having a little fun with the online book retailer of late.
It may be that Amazon has gotten wise to this by now and erased the fiasco at http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0449148165/002-7513796-0928829. But for a good week or so, wonderfully pseudo-intellectual and often hilarious parodies of acadmic reviews disguised as "Customer Comments" have appeared on the page devoted to an out-of-stock book of cartoons called "Daddy's Cap Is on Backwards," by Bil Keane.
You remember Bil Keane. He's created thousands of "Family Circle" cartoons about a nuclear family in which the kids run around saying the darnedest things ("Notme" and "Ida know") while frazzled Mom tries to keep up with the laundry and Dad goes to work looking baffled by his growing brood.
The cartoon is so bland and predictable, at times a bit sanctimonious, that the satiric bent of some 32 reviews comes as both a surprise and a relief. Many of the comments offer straightforward parody, sometimes with the most intriguing signatures: "This is a portrait of a uniquely American hell," writes email@example.com, "one from which escape is impossible."
Someone signing on as "Gene Shalit (firstname.lastname@example.org) from Moscow, Russia" treats the book as a "script treatment" and says, "I have to warn parents: have a long talk with your children about bondage, sado-masochism, penis envy, spousal abuse, incest, bestiality, sexual encounters with the undead and incestuous sexual encounters with the undead before taking them to this film."
Observations of sexual themes are frequent, funny and Freudian. Under the title, "Castration or De-CAP-itation," one writer says the characters "reveal the truth about the phallus: not merely veiled, or 'capped,' it is in fact on 'backwards' . . . "
Comparing Keane to such novelists as Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, Arthur Miller, Jean Paul Sartre and James Carville, these customers know how to think and write critically: "All your favorites are here: from 'Mom, I stepped on a nail!' to 'Mom, I stepped on a nail again!' to 'Mom, I stepped on a nail '78!' to 'Mom, my lockjaw continues to worsen!' to 'Mom, surely Soviet Man is superior to Joe Six-Pack.' "
Some of the commentary is absolutely true: "How else can one interpret these children in this 'Family Circus' who blame their failures and malicious doings on the ghostly 'Notme' - a comical representation of the oppressed masses of the disenfranchised of 20th Century America."
As we went to listserv, Amazon had not yet discovered the sabotage (or, maybe Jeff Bezos wants to keep the page intact to prove that Amazon doesn't mess with Customer Comments. If so, let's hope he's asked Bil Keane, Gene Shalit and Christopher Lehmann-Haupt how they feel about it.
Meanwhile a huge THANK YOU to whoever conspired to create such blistering commentary about Keane's vision of "burb noir," his "persistEnt trumping of the American booboisie." To think that 32 email addresses were constructed to smuggle these magnificent voices (are any real? are they all written by the same person?) past Amazon censors, who, those naughty slackers, seem to have receded into the wings, is kind of astounding. Bravo to all participants, and also a big THANKS to Amazon as well!
BORDERS BUYERS: BOOKS THEY DON'T READ
How wonderful to see the two fiction buyers at Borders' headquarters in Ann Arbor, Michigan, open their hearts and minds in a recent interview with the Detroit Free Press book editor, Linnea Lannon.
Regardless of your feelings about chain stores in general, or specifically about Borders' abominable and irresponsible encroachment on the independent bookselling scene, Robert Teicher and Matthew Gildea sound as conscientious as two chain bookstore buyers can be.
For example, they don't make decisions on the basis of personal tastes, they say, and one way they "remove our biases," is by not reading at all.
Says Teicher: "I don't read commercial women's fiction, but there's currently a migration of it from the romance category to the women's fiction market. Publishers are conducting a fairly extensive marketing campaign on various authors, trying to broaden their audiences. I have been and plan to continue to exploit this marketing campaign. It seems to be working. It's not an area I read, but I see the potential."
Well, aside from the gobbledygook (them spin doctors must be working overtime), one couldn't ask for a better example of the difference between chains and independent bookstores.
First, there is this pressing question: Just what is "women's fiction" these days? Since Teicher mentions romances, we assume he's including everything from Danielle Steel to - well, what would be the continuum? Let's say Steel, Barbara Taylor Bradford, maybe, Mary Higgins Clark, Anne Rivers Siddons, Patricia Cornwell, Anna Quindlen, Anne Lamott, Isabelle Allende, Amy Tan, Alice Walker, Barbara Kingsolver, Maya Angelou, Louise Erdich, Jane Smiley, Toni Morrison.
Probably Teicher means that women who used to read romances have been following Oprah Winfrey's suggestions to read mid-range novels, but, then, many of Oprah's picks are hardly confined to the stereotype of "women's fiction," especially those who've won Pulitzer or Nobel Prizes.
But since "it's not an area I read," as Teicher says, we can assume he doesn't want to have a personal sensitivity to customers' tastes or range of interests or depth of literary understanding or love of favorite authors or subjects or themes. But then, why not, Bob? Since studies long ago proved that women buy the majority of books, surely deliberate ignorance of books that are read by this huge base of customers could make a buyer jaded and capable of spouting - well, gobbledygook.
Then, too, any buyer who relies solely on publishers' marketing campaigns, never even cracking the books open to form his own opinion, can't judge a book on its own merits. Teicher himself says it's the publishers' responsibility "to show confidence in the title they're presenting. And if there's very little confidence - maybe no advertising budget, no real reason why they're publishing it - and it's from an imprint that doesn't have a real good track record, there are a lot of signs to pass."
Well, nice going, Bob, you've just insulted every nonmainstream publisher in the land, not to mention imprints inside publishing conglomerates that may not have built up "a real good track record" by your lights.
Instead of reading the books you buy and taking customers' interests and tastes into account, you seem to go the safe way, the easy way by using the formula approach: Money + hype = storewide promotions. In this era of telling the customer about "publisher placements," how about a window display called "RECOMMENDED BOOKS OUR BUYER NEVER READ"?
This is possibly why the chains missed "Cold Mountain," whose publisher, Atlantic Grove, isn't exactly a bestseller machine. It may also be why independents discovered it, having read advanced galleys and listened to sales representatives and tested the waters by talking to customers long before the book was published.
To be fair, both Borders buyers say they do read many books, and it seems clear they understand that "different markets" exist. But when it comes to discussing the big bugaboo of the industry in an honest, clear and straightforward manner, things get a little murky:
Lannon: "Well, doesn't co-op advertising (in which publishers pay to promote a book) contribute to [a book's] prominent placement?
Teicher: "Not necessarily. There are several bookcases for nonfiction and fiction was well as trade and mass-market titles. While many featured books are in co-op programs, we're exercising 100 percent editorial control. And there's plenty of display space available for books not in programs."
Oh, Bob, more baloney, so disappointing. Why not say you're charging publishers money to put certain books in choice locations? Customers do want to know.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Shaking my head reading about Amazon's ATM presence.
Have you heard about FreePC? Concept: get a PC at home free or very cheap. You simply agree to have an inch or two of the margin of your monitor constantly be used by advertising! Who knows what other information they are gathering and selling about the respondents actions and site visits. The idea makes me shudder, to put it mildly!
Dear Holt Uncensored:
We love Amazon because Amazon.com sells our books, mostly one at a time, all the time. Because they know us and we know them, we seldom get a call for price and availability. Since we are a small publisher, every title in our 62-title list IS available every day.
We get email or Faxed orders several times a week, and we ship UPS (they pay freight) same day. It works. The turnaround from Amazon order received to the day Amazon in Seattle gets delivery is never more than 3 days including shipping time. To Amazon's Delaware warehouse, it's about 8 days as we are in Oregon. We sell to all booksellers who will pay on time--net 30 days-- (many independent booksellers are slow pay), and Amazon.com hasn't violated the pay-on-time-trust.
But are we looking at where I find the book business really exists in a most excellent way? In 1998, Amazon was 8th on my list of booksellers in dollar volume, outrun not by bookstores (Barnes & Noble and Borders placed only in the "also run" category) but by tourist traps. Our top booksellers are gift shops in tourist traps that get customers all year. Even a seasonal tourist trap (March - October) of ours placed No. 6 on our list. Our best independent bookseller placed No. 5. His entire town is a tourist trap and he is closed entire month of January.
Tourist traps. We love them. But be our customer a tourist trap or an independent bookseller -- we love independent booksellers -- or a B&N or Amazon.com, they all get the same service from here -- Ship same day the order is received. Service counts, and we mean it.
Webb Research Group Publishers
Dear Holt Uncensored:
To the writer who asked "what your independent bookseller constituency can offer self-publishers these days."
From a bookstore perspective and as a former buyer for a large bookstore, I can offer a few dos and don'ts...
DON'T drop by a bookstore unannounced and ask to see the buyer or the author events person to talk about your book. These people are usually very busy, keep appointments by schedule only (even in the smallest bookstore you go to) and quite often have other responsibilities on the floor (like running a register, answering phones, etc...)
DO phone the buyer and leave a message to make an appointment, or if the buyer is busy, offer to mail or FAX information about your book to the buyer. Often the buyer will make a short appointment to see you in person to talk about your book. If you can, drop off a copy of the book to the buyer. Note: books left in this manner are assumed to be the property of the bookstore and many buyers will discard them if not interested in the topic. If you want the book back, say so and enclose an appropriately sized envelope with the right postage.
DO remember to include this information in your flyer about the book: The Price, The ISBN, The Distributor That Will Carry The Book (if it is self-published or a small press), and **What You Are Doing To Publicize The Book.** (very important)
DO make a follow-up phone call within 7-10 days. Buyers get hundreds of these calls per month so you shouldn't wait too long. They may forget. (Hey, they're only human.)
DO try get a distributor if you are self-published or a small press. Although many larger bookstores will carry your book on consignment, we all prefer to go through a local distributor. There are many reasons for this. A distributor will often have sales reps who call on us week in and week out with their new titles; they'll make a sales pitch to a buyer on behalf of your book. The reps often sell on commission so it is in their best interest to sell your book. Going through a local distributor also makes it simple to reorder a title that sells well.
If you are unable to get a distributor, find out if the bookstore has a consignment program. Here at Stacey's we carry dozens of books on consignment. DO remember that a consignment is a legal contract between you and the bookstore. Read it carefully. There are often clauses that ask the author to pay for shipping to and from the bookstore and almost all consignment contracts will make it the responsibility of the authors to collect their books after a certain date. .
DO try to find something to compare it to. If you say, "It has been compared favorably to 'A God of Small Things,' it will sound better than just saying "It's a great novel about a brother and sister in India."
DO try to get the local papers to review it. Don't forget the alternative weeklies, and the small neighborhood papers. Often these are the best places to get word-of-mouth spread about your book.
If buyers say no, DO trust that they know their store's clientele better than you, and do not take it personally.
And mostly DON'T lose faith in yourself, ever.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
As a small-town, small-scale book store, we have tried very hard to make ourselves available to new and/or local writers, whatever their scale or type of publication. For instance, we have our own writer, here in our town, Deborah Adams, a fantastic writer of mysteries. We promote her by having book signings, displaying her book prominently in the store, and using her books as the basis for a reader's group. We support her, and other authors that have contacted us, or that we know, on our web site as well. We like ANY author who would take the time and effort to come in ...
As to "...some splay-footed hayseed who showed up at their door with a carload 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." We would do our best to promote and encourage this author. The book will sell, or not sell, based on the writer's talent, as well as on our willingness to promote the author here...
I suppose the key here, for writers and independents, is to realize our interdependence, and work together for the common good. As you have stated over and over again - it isn't the big guys that have made authors famous, it is the little guys. At our store we have done lots of things to make ourselves a more viable entity in our community - we sell used books (over 7000 of them in stock); we do special orders; we sell local crafts; we do Internet researches, etc. I hope that all of the new struggling writers take the time to contact independents - I think MOST of them will be interested, willing and eager to help.
Twice Told Tales
Dear Holt Uncensored:
...If anyone showed up cold at my bookstore door with a carload, or even a suitcase, full of books, I'd be - well, surly is a polite word. The time to contact bookstores is before the book is printed. The smaller your promotion budget and the less known you are in the area, the more important this is. Unless you're an experienced self-publisher, consider hitting the bookstores before you design or approve the cover.
Say the bookseller makes floor or table space available for your book. Ask yourself, "What's going to make these books move?" Some possibilities, in (approximately) ascending order of plausibility:
Your book is discussed by Oprah Winfrey.
National ad campaign
You are well known in the area
You get good PR (reviews, readings, interviews, etc.) in the area
Someone on the bookstore staff LOVES your book
So what are you willing to do to help? At the very least, get a copy of your book to the bookseller before you show up at the door. Ask the bookseller for advice about promotion in the area; booksellers tend to know who the friendly folk are at local newspapers, radio stations, coffeehouses, etc. Be willing to make press contacts and, if you're a good reader of your own work, give readings. (Unless you have a local following, avoid "signings" like the plague.)
Keep in mind that although YOUR book might have the potential to become a steady seller, the bookseller you're dealing with has probably seen, and read, some serious dreck. (Most of the mss. I've been hired to edit by aspiring self-publishers are not ready for prime time. Nowhere close. Sad but true.) S/he has probably read quite a few self-published books (or at least opening chapters) that turned out to be poorly written, poorly edited, and abominably proofread.
As to the self-publisher's assumption, "If Taos, NM, is any example, I'd guess Indies might do this for locally published neighbors," the reasons indies often do this for locally published neighbors is that the bookseller often has a good idea of the quality of the work, and, at the very least, the author has friends and neighbors and colleagues who are likely to come into the store looking for the book.
Moral of story: Part of self-publishing is self-promotion. Booksellers can't afford to commit a lot of space to books that aren't likely to move. Do what you can to help.
Susanna J. Sturgis email@example.com