HOLT UNCENSORED #49
by Pat Holt
Tuesday, March 30, 1999
JOURNALISM GETS AN 'F'
THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST, PART II
SCHIFFRIN BEARS WITNESS
JOURNALISM GETS AN 'F'
Here we are at a round-table luncheon in the offices of the Freedom Forum - a Gannett-funded foundation (http://www.freedomforum.org) - at the top of a skyscraper in San Francisco. The view of the Bay is so glorious on this rainy day that it's hard to pay attention to the theme of the meeting, "Are Journalists Roadkill on the Information Superhighway?"
With an upbeat title like that, who could turn away? Every major newspaper in the area is represented, along with the Wall Street Journal, the University of California's Graduate School of Journalism and various Internet media and maverick online columnists.
Within moments, everyone is a bit in shock at the way media critic and round-table host Jon Katz lays into the state of journalism today in the same blistering way he's been writing about it for "Free!" the Freedom Forum's online magazine.
"In general, journalism has gotten fat and lazy," Katz says. "It's run by cautious corporate marketing people afraid to take creative risks . . . It doesn't fight for freedom or even practice much of it. It continues to routinely insult the burgeoning culture of the young as addictive, stupid and dangerous.
"As the Monica Lewinsky scandal demonstrated so powerfully, the press is out of touch with the American people, old as well as young. Whom, exactly, does it serve? It pursues its own increasingly angry, disconnected agenda."
You can almost see half the people in the room groping under their salad plates for the Freedom Forum's info sheet. Who is this guy? they want to know. Katz, it turns out, is a contributing editor to Rolling Stone, media critic for Slashdot.org, columnist for Wired and author of six novels and two nonfiction books.
His latest is a memoir, "Running to the Mountain" (Villard; 242 pages; $20), an often funny and poignant story of his attempt at age 50 to live in a run-down shack on the top of a mountain with two yellow labrador dogs and the books of Thomas Merton for company.
Katz believes that any author - especially those lost "midlist" authors so doomed to obscurity since Bertelsmann proved how easy it is to gobble up publishing houses - can single-handedly use the Internet to sell books.
"A midlist writer is something like being a dinosaur in the Pleistocene Era," he says. "In the age of change in these big publishing companies, we midlist writers don't sell enough books for people to worry about." Even at the Random House sales conference, where he was invited to speak, Katz says he was "told that 'nobody gets your book' - this meant it was headed toward a tight print run and richly deserved obscurity."
So Katz says he decided "to try some of my longheld notions about the Web and empowerment, and try to reach the audience myself." He posted messages about different aspects of his book at websites for parents, for owners of yellow labradors, for monks and for Thomas Merton readers. "One group of Trappist monks who were not allowed to speak but could email sent me a big case of jam and put me on an online 6 a.m. prayer list" - and they got interested in his book.
He gave away the first serial rights to Slashdot.org, which ran the excerpt with links to reviews of the book. All in all, "the book sold several thousand copies two weeks before publication and is now in its fifth printing."
So that's a nice lesson, and then, bam! Katz turns to his blistering indictment of traditional journalists, who have portrayed the Net "as a viral infection endangering our kids." What we should all remember, he says, is that "ultimately the Net makes anybody online a journalist" while reporters in traditional news have become "defanged and marginalized." Ideas bubble up from the bottom rather than float down from newspaper or broadcast pundits. To say that news doesn't exist unless jounalists say so is considered impossibly arrogant and a waste of time.
Katz explains that the New York Times recently asked him to write an op-ed piece, which he did, asking the editor to run his email address (firstname.lastname@example.org). The editor refused, as did others who asked Katz not to insist on it, because the Times had never run email addresses to identify writers.
This kind of attitude pushes readers and writers away from journalism, Katz says. "The editors of the New York Times do not care what people think any more than does ABC-TV, which says you can email Peter Jennings, who wants to know what you think. Well, he does not go over his email with an eye to shaping his report of the news. That is fake interactivity, not brave or daring."
The joy of writing for the Internet, Katz believes, lies in not being an expert or formal pundit or acknowledged spokesperson of any kind, but in "launching a conversation" that grows and changes "as everyone gets a piece of you" and the collective wisdom of large numbers of people filters through. "This is a bottom-up approach, not a top-down approach," he says. "It is pure interactivity. The young like informality, point-of-view arguments, not objectivity."
Would these Net-addicted readers ever come back to traditional print media? Absolutely, says Katz. "They did to Wired, a strange magazine that defied all conventions because it seemed so graphically inaccessible and took pop culture seriously. Nothing in Wired couldn't be done in traditional media. But the fact that it was published apart from those traditions confirmed journalism as a staid and reactionary culture that goes around warning people about everything - don't eat this food, don't listen to this music, your kids are in danger - and so becomes little more than a consumer alarm system."
People at the round table listen politely to Katz, and some do object. Traditional journalism has space limitations, they say, meaning somebody has to select, somebody has to report, somebody has to think about what standards are applied to the news. You can't have readers in the newsroom directing story assignments or editing text, or you'd have chaos.
That's true, says Katz. "But can you name a single newspaper in 50 years that has radically altered its design, philosophy or format? That has taken up the challenge of the Inofrmation Revolution rather than cluck at it disapprovingly?. . . I can't point to a single news organization that has really tried to change."
As book publishers try to wrestle the power of the Web into books filled with online energy, we'll see if those Net-addicted young readers will leave their screens for the printed page once again.
THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST, PART II
POWELL'S: TROUBLE IN PARADISE
In last week's column, a visit to Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon, proved dazzling and heartening at once. The largest independent bookstore in the country and one of the first on the Internet, Powell's is in the midst of even more growth - from 43,000 to 68,000 square feet in the store, and double its sales online.
At the same time, the store retains its personal and funky interior, with room after room identifiable by paint job as much as books (the Rose Room, the Gold Room, the Purple Room) and "findable" through a colored map that's fun and indispensable for any new customer.
Powell's has become such an institution that the very mention of "trouble in paradise" last week sparked a number of worried letters. Readers were concerned that too much (or not enough) would be made of the union movement among employees that will come to a vote April 22.
Others noted the growing anger at Powell's among some booksellers in the area who feel that if it weren't for the dozen "killer Bs" (Borders and Barnes & Noble) that now ring Portland, Powell's with its six satellite stores would itself be the monster competitor against which few "real" independents could survive.
Both these issues are in some ways tremendous compliments to Powell's as a unique phenomenon in its own right. The store has grown so organically and so fast that it's now going for broke. It aims not only to compete with cha in stores and Amazon.com but also to knock them over like so many dominoes in its path. Naturally this kind of gamble, sometimes won in fits and starts, is going to make enemies inside and outside the store.
The questions for observers in the book industry are many: When you opt to go big, are the consequences big too, and inevitable? Is the existence of Powell's after nearly three decades in jeopardy because of them? Are other independent stores in trouble as a result?
A great drama begins to unfold as even the most unhappy employees extol the community-minded virtues of owner Michael Powell: In 1993-8, his store gave $206,000 to local school libraries; he is still famous for his outspoken and early opposition to one of Oregon’s insane anti-gay initiatives, Measure 9, in 1992; periodically he puts up "BREAK THE CHAIN" signs imploring customers to take their business to independent bookstores in Portland, and he lists them all.
Inside Powell’s, an employee says, “the benefits package is generous. If you have a baby, Powell's pays hundreds of dollars a month for childcare; if you go back to school, you get hundreds per quarter for continuing education; the Christmas bonus is a week’s worth of pay. Profit sharing has been $650 a year. Powell’s has one of the best medical care packages, including provisions for naturopaths, acupuncture, chiropractic treatments. The store even brings in a masseuse during the holiday rush to give free 15-minute massages.”
Sounds great, no? No, says the same person, not if you’re still making $8 an hour after several years; not if raises are being held to 3 percent a year; not if you’ve been a section head who’s specialized in one category for years and is now reduced to shelving books you know nothing about as part of a new "team" reorganization.
"The team system was established so that more than one person would have in-depth knowledge of a section and provide better service to customers," the employee says. "Until then, over 100 section heads were ordering books, which was way too many.
"But the team restructuring was, like so many decisions at Powell's, poorly managed and handed down by fiat from above. It felt like a 'dumbing-down' of jobs that require a lot of maturity and expertise. At Powell's, employees feel they have helped build the store into what it is today; they want to have a voice, and they aren't given one.
"Also, you have to understand the culture among workers - it's antiestablishment, antiauthority, anticapitalism. Many are very educated, very cool people who hate corporate America. Yet they are working for a profit-making store that has made the decision to become a major player, in an industry that's already dominated by major players."
For a long time the sheer energy and love of books within the store seemed to compensate for these differences. "Now," says the employee, "it's all very hard to reconcile."
The feeling among many workers is that Michael Powell switched priorities in mid-growth, cutting costs and reorganizing staff to pay for expansion on the Internet and a new four-story tower annex. Earlier expansions caused layoffs and spawned union movements that failed. This time the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which has organized other bookstore staffs (Stacey's in San Francisco, for example), has offered to give Powell's employees their own chapter, Local 5.
"Would the union bring back the 'old Powell's'?" an employee wonders. "It's hard to say - the 'glory days' of Powell's are often discussed, but too often they sound like so much mythology. It does seem that collective bargaining will help solve some problems, like salary distribution, but who knows how the staff will feel when they're actually paying union dues and clocking out for breaks."
Whatever the outcome, it's heartbreaking to see how deeply everyone cares about Powell's - its inventory, its character, its vision, its customers - and how deeply rancor and animosity have settled into nearly every daily task. Perhaps the greatest irony is that if Powell's does succeed in competing against the chains and Amazon by growing too big to conquer, it could still weaken, or thrive, depending upon its strengths within.
Next week: Whither the anger at Powell's; other bookstores in the Portland area; and the newspaper that serves them all.
SCHIFFRIN BEARS WITNESS
How fun (and foreboding) it is to watch New Press publisher Andre Schiffrin take on the book publishing industry in the latest Chronicle of Higher Education (March 19).
Armed with catalogs from nine publishers selected by category (mainstream, university, independent), Schiffrin goes in search of good, solid literary books and, of course, doesn't find very many.
"As one flips through the many advertisements in Publishers Weekly," he writes, "it seems clear that collectors, food lovers and concerned investors are in for a treat." How shameful: He forgot the cat books, angel books, CD combos, how-tos and star bios that make up the vital core we know to be publishing today.
In fact, though, Schiffrin seems intent on exploring the deeper fundamentals of publishing that are too often overlooked in the midst of merger mania and blockbuster frenzies. He wonders, for example, if hot-sellers at Random House - such as the two big TV tie-ins, Peter Jennings "The Century" (Doubleday) and Tom Brokaw's "The Greatest Generation" (Random) - are pushing out more serious books written by American historians who may write better books but can "never compete" with a Brokaw or a Jennings.
He ponders the way HarperCollins "has dramatically changed its editorial compexion" since Rupert Murdoch bought the company and moved its publishing vision toward the Jerry Springer and Joan Rivers books that make up so much of its list today.
He cautions Simon & Schuster from "reminding readers of its 75 years in the business . . . . because the names from the past - Graham Greene, Bertrand Russell, Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Shirer - eclipse the authors of the current offerings."
Well, times change, and so do readers' tastes, and publishing is vastly different today, and so on and on. But you can't help feeling Schiffrin's concern over what he finds missing from the catalogs of these three mainstream publishers: "There is no book of serious history, none of scientific theory, not a single translation. Let us not even talk about philosophy, theology, literary criticism, art history - all fields that were, at one time or another, represented on these three commercial lists, even if sparsely."
As expected, Schiffrin finds that university presses (he looked at Harvard, California and Nebraska) now publish the more important books that mainstream houses used to publish, but they, too, are forced to leave "large areas" of deeper and vital scholarship neglected. Independent publishers such as Beacon, Brookings and Graywolf are far more adventurous but far more limited in their capacity to fill the gaps as well.
Of course, it's easy to take potshots at the beleaguered and embattled publishing community, especially with so many houses tossed about in the merger frenzy of recent years. But perhaps the mistake we all make in the book industry is to adjust to these changes too soon. In the midst of arcane politics and intolerable pressures, Schiffin insists we stop and witness what's at stake in publishing today.
Certainly there are people in publishing houses who are trying to "bring important discussions to a national audience"; publish "innovative literary writing" and "serious literary works"; and publish the many "important books that appear in European languages every year [that] will never find their way into English."
But those who do are disappearing from the landscape at this crucial time, when "80 percent of American titles now come from the five largest conglomerates. The alternative and university presses together account for barely 1 percent."
Probably the vast "alternative" publishing community will dispute those numbers, but the proportions Schiffrin suggests, even with radical adjustment, are frightening.-------
(Editor's Note: This letter is in response to column #43 about Amazon, Borders and Barnes & Noble buying advertising on search engines such as Yahoo, Alta Vista, Lycos, Infoseek and others. The ads claim that books about any subject searched, including independent bookstores, are available through the advertiser. Clicking the ad's box, however, brings the reader to the chain or Amazon website, where it turns out that in most cases involving independent bookstores, no such books are available. Some independents believe - and I believe - the effect of the ad is to "hijack" customers who are looking for websites of independent stores by directing them to websites of chain bookstores or Amazon. However, as the quoted paragraph below demonstrates, a better term may be "bait and switch.")
Dear Holt Uncensored,
The following article [in The Industry Standard, March 19] on two lawsuits against search engines selling keywords to advertisers might be of interest:
In two separate suits, Playboy and Estee Lauder are charging that banner ads that pop up when searching on trademarked keywords dilute their trademarks and mislead customers. The author of the article believes that Playboy has a better chance with its suit, as the banners disguise the fact that they do not lead to Playboy, while the Fragrance Counter, which has bought the Estee Lauder keywords, both sells Estee Lauder products and implies on the ad that the link does not take you to an Estee Lauder site.
However, since the Fragrance Counter has bought not only the Estee Lauder brand name as a keyword, but also the names of some of their product lines, there may be further trouble. Here's a paragraph from the article:
"The Fragrance Counter claims that the form of advertising it uses 'is perfectly legal and that there is no confusion among our customers as to who is selling the products,' says Gary Holmes, a spokesman for the company. But it could still run into trouble for using the Estee Lauder trademark in its banner ads and for buying the keyword 'Origins,' an Estee Lauder brand name and line of products the Fragrance Counter does not sell. When users go to the Fragrance Counter and search the site for Origins products, they get the following message: 'We did not find a match for your search on Origins. We suggest using the Fragrance Advisor below to find a similar fragrance.' This, says Estee Lauder, constitutes 'bait and switch.' "
Remembering the discussion on this list earlier about Amazon's use of search-engine keywords in its own ads, I conducted an experiment. I searched on Excite using the keywords "origins perfume," and an ad appeared for the Fragrance Counter -- along with a box **that did not look like an advertisement** (it appeared next to the first search result, not where we've come to expect ads, and used the same color scheme as the rest of the page) that said "Amazon.com / Books about: origins perfume." When I followed the Amazon link, I was surprised to find that I did not get to a page with Amazon search results using these keywords, but instead got dumped on the main page, with no use of my Excite keywords anywhere. I tried this with different keywords (including the name of the bookstore where I work, A Different Light), and always ended up at their home page. Eccch.
Anyway, I don't know much about trademark law, but all this seems unethical at best. I wonder if ordinary users are annoyed to find themselves hijacked from their search path with their own keywords, then dumped on an irrelevant website? It seems especially sneaky that the Amazon link blurs the distinction between advertising and "editorial" by looking so integrated with the search engine.
Any lawyers out there want to take this on?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
. . . I believe you meant to refer people to www.abebooks.com, not www.abe.com. Also, www.bookfinder.com is not only a good aggregate of many of the search engines, but also can lead one to their specific websites. (Incidentally, www.bookfinder.com is the same as www.mxbf.com, but with a different name now, in case you didn't know.)
Dear Holt Uncensored,
You might want to mention www.bookfinder.com next time you talk about searching for out-of-print books. It's a meta-engine that searches ABE, BiblioCity, Your Books, Alibris, Antiqbook (European-based), Powells, and Amazon (helps you determine if the book is out-of-print & what the in-print or list price is. I know you're against them, but it's a helpful research tool for out-of -print dealers). The only weakness is that it only brings 25 titles from each site, but it does pick a few from each price range. That's a small price to pay for being able to search all those sites at once.
Jim Deak, Acorn Books
Sterling Hts., MI
email@example.com (no "o" in the acorn for e-mail purposes)
Dear Holt Uncensored,
Just a footnote to your How Much Do They Mark Up, Anyway? story... If you go to Alibris' site and scroll to the bottom of the page, you will see... "in association with Amazon.com."
Around the Corner Books
Eldora, IA 515-939-5826
Dear Holt Uncensored,
Maybe I missed it in one of your earlier columes. But the Independent book shops have the ability to provide a complete bookselling service to clients; and combat conglomerate used book inroads, by utilizing the free search services available via: ABE; Bibliocity; Bibliofind and Bookfinder.
These book search engines are free to anyone who takes the time to log-on. And Bookfinder ( my first choice to check used-book availability ) scans the. top-25 titles offered by eight search engines in one time-saving scan.
Even before the massive movement to consolidate (monopolize) the retail side of publishing, new books had a short lifespan. In the past, few book shops selling new books offered the service of tracking down out-of-print titles. Today, even mass-appeal titles have a short shelf-life, and books published three years ago and older are only available via catalogues, out-of-print bookshops, or special-interest organizations.
It would seem to us the effort to provide an out-of-print book search by new book shops would not only satisfy clients; but could significantly boost the income of independents. It might also provide a broader buying-base for out-of-print (oop) booksellers, who are gradually being herded into the corrals of Alibris, Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble with the lure of greater international book sales. The success of the "big boys" in bookselling, and the sales they generate, are hard to resist for most of the "mom 'n pop" oop book sellers.
The influence of Internet booksales during the past two years appears to have initiated a decline in the number of oop brick-and-mortar bookshops in favor of virtual oop businesses. That's wonderful - while it lasts. But the possibilities of the buying power ending up in the possession of a handful of oop book-broker companies could result in the "terms of sale" being dictated to the independent oop booksellers.
The Interloc/Alibris about-face in the summer of 1998 shows how tenuous the thread binding oop booksellers to a way of life can be: Overnight, Interloc restructured itself from a search service and conduit between buyer and seller for thousands of oop booksellers, into a corporate buyer dictating the terms of purchase,demanding a 20-per-cent discount and re-selling at a sliding-scale mark-up.
Suddenly independent oop booksellers were faced with the option of becoming glorified book scouts for a book broker, or bailing out. There was a mass-migration to other book search services. But during the past three months those same Search services have associated with conglomerates, or been taken over by deep-pocket bottom-line marketing entrepeneurs.
The present trend - which WE are plugged into, while it lasts - narrows the field of opportunity until the biggest boy on the block, Amazon, Bertlesman or B&N, holds all the book-order marbles. We believe a broader-based buying market, strengthened by new book shops BUYING DIRECTLY from oop booksellers, would be of mutual benefit.
Jack Owen, Old Book Shop
Lake Worth FL; (561)588-5129