NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #48
by Pat Holt

Friday, March 26, 1998

KILLING THE MESSENGERS
HOW MUCH DO THEY MARK UP, ANYWAY?
LETTERS

KILLING THE MESSENGERS

Bertelsmann has finally announced the shrinking of sales forces, following its merger of Random House and Bantam Doubleday Dell. How nice for everyone except the fired sales reps - and in the long run, the reader.

This kind of move always seems so logical after the fact. Everybody worries when publishing mergers take place - when Pearson inhaled Putnam and Penguin, and Putnam went through Viking/Dutton like a buzzsaw; when Holtzbrink corraled Farrar, Straus & Giroux, St. Martin's and Henry Holt; when Murdoch; when Time; when Hearst; when Simon all did their sponge routines.

After a while, everybody just gets used to the (often benign, sometimes quite bookish) conglomerate, and heck, you can't blame the buyer for consolidating the business side - accounting, fulfillment, warehousing, sales.

But we can't lose sight of the price we're all paying for this, right down to that key spark of excitement that can bring a "small" book by an unknown to readers - sometimes millions of readers - who will love it.

As the book industry turns increasingly corporate, few interactions remain to preserve this process for literary books. One sure one is that magical moment in the independent bookseller's office when the buyer "gets it" about a title because the sales rep has taken the time to gear his or her presentation specifically and perfectly for the character of that store. That is the moment that literature has a chance

.

In our increasingly convulsive and chaotic industry, we need more, not fewer, sales reps "out there," to make these personal visits to independent bookstores, presenting lists and developing a relationship of trust with bookstore buyers. Every time a sales rep is taken out of the process (and don't tell me that telecommunications, customized CDs or marked catalogs from the publisher can ever replace a good sales rep) we lose. Every time a publisher decides the store is too "small" to see a sales rep (small orders always have the potential to create national bestsellers), or an independent goes under, we lose again. Our kids lose. The culture loses. Posterity loses.

To the sales reps who've been fired in the midst of the "new" Random House consolidation, good luck and goodbye (not many house jobs are opening up, after all). You will be missed.

HOW MUCH DO THEY MARK UP, ANYWAY?

Much has been said here about the hunger of Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com to get into the buying and selling of used books, and their potential for rolling over used-book stores by gobbling up this part of the book market, too.

It stands to reason, then, that Barnes & Noble and Amazon would become big buyers of rare and out-of-print titles, conducting "searches" through veteran dealers on the Internet, then marking up the prices as they sell the books to customers.

But how much IS the mark-up they use, one wonders? Could it be as high as 50-60 percent? After all, you can really gouge the customer on rare and O.P. books, not to say that Barnes & Noble or Amazon would ever dream of such a thing.

Well, it turns out that Rose Aguilar of CNET News.com asked that very question in a March 23 story http://www.news.com/News/Item/0,4,34174,00.html?st.ne.180.head, where she discovers that the mark-ups are "horrifying," according to one supplier.

"Several of the other booksellers who are selling on the Net and selling to Amazon or Barnes & Noble say the mark-ups are 70 percent or more in terms of what they are charging their customers over what they are actually paying us," said Ann Simpson, owner of 2nd Look Books [http://www.2ndlookbooks.com] in Spokane, Washington."

So Aguilar conducts a little experiment on her own that she believes "give[s] credence to charges of high mark-ups."

For example, she says that after emailing a request to Amazon for "The Letters of Ann Fleming," she received a quoted price of $127 in a message that did not include the edition or condition of the book.

"The same title was available at Alibris.com for $60 - meaning Amazon's price is 111 percent more," Aguilar writes. "Alibris offers users a search engine containing books compiled from a network of dealers, and includes a description of the book's condition."

In its own searches, barnesandnoble.com provides information about the requested book's condition, she writes, and about the dealer who has the title. "A barnesandnoble.com search for the book 'Invisible Woman' by Joyce Carol Oates, for example, turned up one copy for $130 at Antic Hay Books in Asbury Park, New York," Aguilar wrties.

"A search for the same title at ABE [Advanced Book Exchange] found the same book at the same dealer for $30 less. The only difference is the place of purchase - but that, according to Barnesandnoble.com, makes a big difference."

It's such an irony that for new books, Amazon and Barnes & Noble attract customers with very big discounts and streamlined service, but in the used, rare and out-of-print book scene, the reverse is true. Customers pay through the nosies for streamlined service that unabashedly rips them off.

How many of them will soon learn how to "disintermediate" (I tellya these business terms have got to go) Amazon and Barnes & Noble by clicking directly over to www.abe.com or www.powells.com or www.ebay.com or dozens of other used, rare and O.P. book sites? Who knows, but in the meantime, just the idea that prices are hugely inflated could contribute to the "disembowledbranding" process that is making barnesandnoble.com and Amazon not the end-all-and-be-all book gurus of the web they'd like to be.

And now our daily chuckle. Bill Curry of Amazon defends the mark-ups "for the service we provide of going out and finding the book, notifying the customer, ordering the book, inspecting it, charging it on a credit card, and acccepting it if they return it." Goodness, that's a lot of running around - about 4 clicks and a reminder. But of course, "charging it on a credit card," yep, that's a tough one.

LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored,

When my local independent bookstore told me a book I was looking for (a biography of Anita Brenner, a journalist who wrote about Mexico in the 1920's-70's) was "not available," I ordered it from Amazon. To my surprise, they actually had it delivered in four days.

The next time I went to Amazon to search for a book (I normally only use Amazon as a research tool or card catalog, then order from an independent), something popped up with my name on it and suggested that I order three other books. The solicitation used the name on the credit card I'd used to order the Brenner book.

Apparently, Amazon had decided that since I had ordered a book on a Mexican art critic (who happened to be Jewish), I'd also like to buy books on Pancho Villa and HITLER!

Who is making these determinations? What other information are they collecting about us? And to whom are they selling their mailing/e-mail lists?

Dear Holt Uncensored,

Hey, I think I have a story for you. You'll have to check whether this is a corporate or local policy, but . . .

I went to Barnes & Noble after checking around at the local bookstores, because i was doing research on gay issues, and the smaller stores don't have gay sections. i called ahead and was told that Barnes & Noble HAS a gay books section. So I went in and spent 20 minutes walking around and around looking for it.

Finally I asked a sales clerk. He said oh yeah, sure we have it, and he led me to the section marked "Anthologies." Not GAY anthologies, you understand -- ALL anthologies, of any kind. I said, "but these are anthologies." He said, "only the first two shelves are anthologies. The rest are gay books." there were shelves and shelves of gay novels, stories, all kinds of non- fiction.

I said, "I don't understand. Why is this section marked anthologies?" He said, "Well, we HAVE a gay section, but we just don't mark it that way," and he quickly walked away.

This was the B&N on route 17S in Paramus. There are three or four others in this area, but I haven't had time to go and check out each one. You could try calling, but i don't know if you'll get an accurate answer.

If I were still at my old newspaper, I'd have a blast with it. but I'm not. So go for it.

(Note to readers from Holt: I'm astounded at this, but let's ALL "go for it!" Next time you're in a Barnes & Noble and have the time and inclination to see if there's a Gay section, or if it's somehow been "closeted," let me know.)

Dear Holt Uncensored:

In your glowing review of independent mammoth bookstore Powell's, you mention the foreign language section as including "many books IN foreign languages (Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Italian, French, German, African and others). I was unaware that there is a single unified "African" language. My impression was that most African countries have their own languages, with some having several specific to different tribal or clan groups.

The review of Powell's was otherwise interesting, giving more depth and sophistication to the Amazon/killer B's vs. Independents conflict. The idea is conveyed that it is not merely "size" that constitutes the problem, despite the temptation to espouse a "small is beautiful" philosophy (especially when it comes to handselling books), but top-down, centralized control and manipulation of the staff and customer.

Euan Bear, editor
Safer Society Press

Dear Holt Uncensored:

In response to the bookseller describing attempts by the university to intimidate and coerce faculty into ordering from the B&N licensed university store, I believe that this is a clear violation of federal anti-trust laws. I am not a lawyer, but I had a similar situation many years ago. The coercion by the University seems to be a combination in restraint of trade. It may even be a criminal violation. It sounds like the bookseller should get a lawyer now and meet with the university.

Andy Ross, Cody's Books