HOLT UNCENSORED #52
by Pat Holt
Tuesday, April 13, 1999
NOTE TO READERS
SINGING AUTHORS ARE 'STRANGER THAN FICTION'
QUOTE OF THE DAY
WHITHER COMPETITION, BERTELSMANN?
PACIFIC NORTHWEST: PART IV
NOTE TO READERS: Last Friday's column was postponed due to a staff (yes, we do have one) emergency - and this was going to be our first all-new, no-complaining, all-fun Book & Author Day yet! It'll be back this Friday.
SINGING AUTHORS ARE 'STRANGER THAN FICTION'
Imagine best-selling writer Amy Tan approaching the podium at an independent bookstore with her usual dignity and sense of decorum.
Suddenly, the store's P.A. system begins blasting Tan's rendition of "These Boots Are Made for Walkin', " which she used to perform onstage as lead singer for the all-author group, The Rock Bottom Remainders.
Hearing "her" music, what can Tan do but adopt a be-boppin' stride as she assumes her familiar punitive mode: During her many performances of "Boots," Tan wore the studded collar and leather outfit of a dedicated dominatrix, complete with little whip and hip-high black boots.
Now the stomp! stomp! stomp! rhythm of the mustic compels Tan to glower ferociously at potential "clients" in the audience, and the crowd goes wild - talk about warming up the audience! The music stops, Tan begins reading, and we're immediately transported to the mah-jongg scene of "The Joy Luck Club" as the audience grows quiet and attentive.
Tan's singing is all part of the fun of the aptly titled double-CD, STRANGER THAN FICTION ($25; Don't Quit Your Day Job Productions, available for readers at http://www.bookpassage.com and booksellers at http://www.dqydj.com).
Singing rock 'n' roll like they've never sung before and perhaps should never sing again, the authors-turned-warblers appearing on the CD include such stars as Carl Hiaasen, Maya Angelou, Oscar Hijuelos, Molly Ivins, Stephen King, Ridley Pearson, Roy Blount, Norman Mailer, Dave Barry, Ken Follett, Blanche McCrary Boyd, James W. Hall, Norman Mailer, Robert Reich, the late Jessica Mitford and many others.
Fans of any of these authors will find the whole album a hoot. You won't believe how many octaves Molly Ivins' voice descends to sing the low-down "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" and how true-to-his-own-goldang-life Norman Mailer sounds in "Alimony Blues." It's difficult to imagine that Ken Follett would even know the words let alone belt his heart and soul out with "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man" or how velvety-slinky Blanche McCrary Boyd can talk (not sing) the lyrics of "Hot Rod Lincoln."
"Stranger Than Fiction" is produced by Kathi Kamen Goldmark, the hard-working author-escort who got to talking with the writers she was driving around some years ago and discovered they all had a secret fantasy of playing and singing in a rock band.
On a whim, Kathi got the authors together as The Rock Bottom Remainders to play a one-time-only stint at the American Booksellers Association convention, and little did she know what a musical Frankenstein she had created.
Appearances by Barbara Kingsolver (piano), Robert Fulghum (horn) and others, plus (on one occasion) surprise vocals by Bruce Springsteen, so dazzled the crowds that soon the Remainders were on the road playing the famous and the seedy, the lounges and the honky-tonks. A book was written, a video made; t-shirts flew outta the stores, and now a double CD inhabits the land.
And yet . . . and yet. One has to say that none of these authors-turned-performers has a memorable singing voice except perhaps Goldmark herself, and she's limited to two duets (with Tan and Stephen King). The minimal "house band" is pretty good, but without money for a brass section (and perhaps as a sop to spouses and roadies), Goldmark uses kazoos as backup, with the usual nasal result.
So this is no high-minded or even low-down music experience, and Goldmark insists it shouldn't be. "The older I get, the more I feel that music is something we're all supposed to do together," she says. "I don't think the separation of audience and performer is appropriate or healthy. I think we're all supposed to sing and play together, so this is my way of mixing things up a little bit and having some fun."
But why, Kathi is asked, are we not MEANT to separate the singer from the sung-to? Isn't it true that some people have talent and should sing, and some people don't and should listen?
"Look at it this way," says Kathi: "When Jessica Mitford stood up in front of a crowd at Slim's (a nightclub in San Francisco) and sang 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer,' it wasn't great singing; but it was a fabulous performance. People who loved her writing found another way to love her. When she teams up with Maya Angelous to sing 'Right, Said Fred' on the CD, well, you won't believe your ears." This is an understatement.
"Amy Tan herself has come a long way," Goldmark continued. "The first time we got her to sing, NOTHING came out of her mouth. Now she's out of her shell, and she has a good ear. True, you'd never call her a terrific singer, but there's a moment of transcendence in 'Boots' that carries us all away. It's weird as anything I can think of, but something happens to people who listen to these authors sing that is more exciting than a perfect performance."
QUOTE OF THE DAY
"To protect yourself, add a lot of unflattering characteristics to the fictional character. This is what libel lawyers call the 'Small Penis Rule.' What you do is describe a male character as having a very small penis. No self-respecting man will come forward to start a lawsuit that would require him to say: 'That character with the small penis - that's me!"
-- Law professor Leon Friedman, moderator of the Authors Guild symposium, "Whose Life Is It, Anyway," in which editors and writers discussed the "implications of the writer's appropriation of others' lives and experiences," transcribed and reprinted in the Winter 1999 Authors Guild Bulletin.
WHITHER COMPETITION, BERTELSMANN?
Bertelsmann has joined with other publishers in Germany to fight European Union attempts to stop what is called "price-fixing" in German publishing - that 100-year-old practice in which book prices are set "by agreement between publishers and booksellers," according to the Los Angeles Times.
"German publishers and booksellers vehemently defend fixed prices as beneficial to writers and readers," the article by Carol J. Williams explains. Fixed, non-discounted list prices keep "small specialty bookshops . . . [from] being run out of business by big chain stores."
Anticipating EU bureaucrats "refus[al] to compromise" on this issue, German publishers have run "advertisements [that] warn German readers that their favorite corner bookshops would be forced out of business" if heavy discounting is allowed.
Isn't that swell of Bertelsmann? Championing the little guy like that keeps noncommercial books in circulation and stops the kind of "cutthroat competition" that could drive so many independent bookstores out of business. Let's hope Bertelsmann CEO Thomas Middelhoff adopts that attitude as he maneuvers that tiny bookshop, Barnes & Noble (Bertelsmann owns half of barnesandnoble.com) and its projected buy of Ingram, the largest book distributor in the United States.
Or as Colleen Lindsay of Stacey's Bookstore muses: "Hmmm . . This is a VERY interesting article. Bertelsmann is apparently leading the fight against competitive book pricing in Germany . . . Not in my backyard, Mr. Middelhoff?"
--------PACIFIC NORTHWEST: PART IV
Every independent bookstore has a great story behind it, and the history of The Looking Glass Bookstore in Portland, Oregon, is a corker.
"In 1968, as the Vietnam war was heating up, some kids at the University of Oregon arrested their draft board for war crimes and held a mock trial," recalls Katie Radditz, who owns the store with her husband, Bill Kloster.
"One of the boys was the president of the student body, but that didn't help. They were all thrown in jail for it. A father put up money up to get them out, and they were allowed to leave as long as they had a legitimate job for a year. With that, they started a bookstore called The Looking Glass that happened to be located underneath the Induction Center, though they said this was a coincidence.
"From the beginning, then, this store was radically antiwar, counterculture, very alternative. The bus stopped in front of it, delivering people to the Induction Center upstairs, so it also became a hub for all kinds of political activity. It was a vibrant, very open store that evolved with whatever movement gripped the times - counterculture, spirituality, women, civil rights."
"Bill started working here in '72; I came a year later, just about the time the owners left. We bought it for the amount they had put into it, and that's the way the store survived. We're still here, not in debt but treading water. The times have made it harder and harder."
It doesn't look as though times are tough at The Looking Glass, a store that's crammed to its narrow stairways with books and offers customers the kind of adventure in browsing rarely seen in larger stores.
Like a treehouse that's set back amid flourishing limbs and boughs, The Looking Glass invites you to climb up a few steps and discover a thriving history section, then climb a few more and investigate its many mystery subsections, then wind around to another to spend a month or two among spiritual books and audiocassettes - as well as a beautifully stocked subsubsubsection on Buddhism (Katie's specialty).
Throughout the store, if you don't hear the sound of a bouncing ball or someone panting by your knee, that's probably because Hailey, the Looking Glass's dog, has taken a break. Doglovers come here specifically to throw Hailey her ball down the narrow aisles, which she negotiates with legs windmilling a mile a minute and spattery nails careening her around every turn.
The hard times came gradually, but with a finality that sounds all too familiar: Three years ago, a huge Borders store opened a block away, and five other chain stores now ring the Portland area. Bookselling online, particularly through Amazon.com, became so convenient that the old standby - walk-in sales - declined. "Today people don't have to leave their offices or work stations - they just order off the Web," says Katie.
A half dozen independent stores closed around The Looking Glass; chains in the suburbs gradually robbed the Portland scene of its infrastructure; the biggest store in town, Powell's (see #47) expanded with new categories and branch stores; suddenly "it's not enough for a store like ours to be downtown any longer," remarks Katie.
Just how much the expansion of Powell's might have affected other independents will always be a question, since the twin assaults of Amazon and the chains have done considerable damage on their own. What appears to be consistently true, however, is that bigness in bookselling has its own inherent problems while "niche" bookselling - once considered safe and protected - can turn lethal in an instant.
Certainly the old approach to competition - that discounting is the answer - has not proven true at The Looking Glass. "We offer corporate discounts, school discounts, hardcover discounts, and more," says Katie. "Customers just haven't paid attention to in-store discounts. I don't think the chains are winning because they have bigger discounts. What's giving them the edge is convenience and the fact that a lot of people just feel more comfortable in something that's more generic."
It's also true that a store like The Looking Glass, as facile in its ability
to change as it has been for 30 years, can lose ground fast if publishers give up on its potential and discontinue author appearances as well as regular calls by sales representatives.
NEXT: BOOK CLUBS IN PORTLAND AND ON TO SEATTLE
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re: the Barnes & Noble college store issue: I attended Brandeis University from 1982-86, and even then it was a Barn's Ignoble. Even at that early date, I and my college cohorts were not duped into thinking that our college store had a unique "Brandesian" (the actual word for "of-Brandeis") character, and we were disgusted at the rigid policies and price-fixing that entrapped us (and our dollars). We were a captive audience - 3,500 students at an enclosed suburban campus atop a hill 12 miles out from downtown Boston/Cambridge, with no competitors in sight, and none accessible without a car.
And to add insult to injury, B&N had negotiated the exclusive rights to the Brandeis insignia. This meant that they designed and sold the ONLY Brandeis-emblazoned clothing on the planet. Their clothing designs in the '80s were universally hideous, and they set their competition-free prices nice and high, too. Even back then, before they became all the rage, those heavyweight college sweatshirts were selling for (I don't exaggerate here ) $80-90! This was outrageous.
The only books ever discounted were obscure or outdated titles that no one had any use for; it seemed as if they rounded up the remainders from all their area stores and dumped them in our campus discount bin. If a title was desirable but not on this semester's syllabus, it was not on the shelves. Period. They stocked only what they could sell here, now, and for top-dollar. I know a lot of people (probably at B&N management) stereotype Brandeis students as rich kids from New York, but I was a poor kid from Ohio, and my best friends were poorer still. This type of gouging of college students -- most of whom are working minimum-wage jobs to help pay their fees -- was and remains unconscionable.
I must say I was deeply saddened to hear about the insidious takeover of the Harvard Coop. I really would've thought they were impervious; after all, they were a landmark, an icon, and a major destination for college kids all over the state. So very sad.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
We read Ron Sukenick's letter with great interest, for we are the promotions manager and head buyer at one of the book stores to which he alludes. We would like to respond to two issues. If the reading Ron mentions in the letter were taking place at this bookstore, we would have placed an order for at least 30 - 40 books. The reading actually took place at the university, where there is a book store which has first dibs on selling books at campus events.We ordered two copies of Ron's book on our front-list buy. Once we received Ron's press kit, we excerpted the reviews and created a review tag for our Recommended Reading section on our main floor. We will probably order three more from a wholesaler to round out the shelf and then see how sales go. Our Recommended Reading section is, by the way, an award-winning section with the highest turns in the store.
If we start selling two to three a week, we will order five at a time "overnight" from the Ingram's Denver warehouse (we'll order from there until the merger is a done deal) to keep the book in stock. If we have a chance to order backlist with a decent discount from the sales rep, we will order from the publisher again. We call this ordering smart - it's how we manage inventory in the present bookselling climate.
In other words, a front-list buy is determined by looking at (when possible) an author's previous sales (and returns) and plans for promotion. We can't afford to order stacks of every book by a local author anymore (if we ever could). Once we know we are doing a promotion, we up the order accordingly. Juggling orders between wholesalers and publishers is tricky, but definitely worth it.
We usually try to shift as much as possible to the publishers for better discounts (not to mention better co-op the following year), but use the wholesalers to keep the book in stock while we wait the sometimes two to three weeks for the publisher's order to arrive. We endure the headache of staggered orders because with sales being siphoned off by chains and the internet, internal efficiency and keeping costs of goods low, even by that 1 - 2%, is the name of the game.
When Ron's books do arrive and when they have been in our Recommended Reading section for a while, we'll be better able to judge whether or not jumping into the arms of internet booksellers is justified in this situation.
Lisa Gesner and Arsen Kashkashian Boulder Book Store
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In response to the author complaining about independent booksellers' small orders of his book: Yes, books are selling to independents in small amounts. Most books are selling in "Ones" and "Twosies" to independents. And let me tell you why I as a publisher appreciate that. THOSE ORDERS FOR THE MOST PART WILL NOT COME BACK AS RETURNS! Independents order the book again as it sells. In 1996-1997 we sold 14,000 copies of a first novel that was originally ordered in ones and twosies by independents. The independent booksellers kept re-ordering that book.
Why do you believe the Internet booksellers will sell more books just because they keep books on their lists? Do you realize that most books on the net are bought by Internet providers in ones and twosies.? Amazon only orders what it needs - what people actually order from it. Thankfully it does not order in bulk (or we'd have high returns there, too). And how does the public find the book by a developing author who is not well known on Amazon or B&N? Small presses can't spend the thousands of dollars it costs for the special placements on the Internet stores. When you list as many books as the Internet booksellers where does one begin to browse?
Independent booksellers can order any book anyone wants that is available in the distribution networks. Why doesn't the author tell his friends to order his book from an independent?
Books are ordered in bulk numbers these days by the superstores, and that hurts many small presses. Superstores overorder books and then return high amounts. Often very quickly. The book returns at the small press where I work have risen from less than 15% in 1995 to close to 40% in 1998. At the same time, our sales revenue has also fallen over 25%.
The introduction of National Poetry Month in this nation has caused a curious backlash for some poetry publishers. Previously poetry books were not overordered, even by the chains, and the returns were never as high as in other genres. But since National Poetry Month was introduced 3 years ago, poetry book returns have risen for some publishers during the spring as a result of overordering of poetry books by the chains.
In 1999 it is much harder for us to take an unknown, developing author's work and sell 14,000 copies of the first book. To sell an unknown author that well, one needs independent booksellers to get behind a book. But independent booksellers are in shorter supply in 1999.
At our press, we have a commitment to keeping books in print. But in this bookselling climate such a commitment is also more difficult. In the past our backlist books sold well as they were extensively adopted for classroom use as supplementary texts. Since superstores have bought up so many college stores, the use of our books for supplementary texts has had a dramatic decline. And this is directly related to supertores owning a larger part of the college stores.
I believe, though I have no proof, that the supertores' staff discourage the faculty from ordering books that are not warehoused by their distributors. In fact, we get calls from some faculty who are told by their college stores that books of ours are out of print or no longer available--they call to see if that is true. Now I wonder how many faculty don't call and simply accept what the store clerk tells them, when in fact our books are available?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I loved seeing the article about Broadway Books. It's my neighborhood bookstore. Next month my writers group will be having their 3rd annual reading there. They also host our annual Jewish Women Read Jewish Women Writers event. And every holiday season they host a benefit for Soapstone, a retreat for women writers in the Oregon Coast Range. Gloria and Roberta are wonderful neighbors and run a great store. Thanks for recognizing them.
There are a number of other great independents in Portland too. I don't if it's because of Powell's or in spite of it. Maybe we just have an independent consciousness here. I've never bought anything at the B&N down the street, though I occasionally use them as a reference library.
A story we in the neighborhood love: one day someone walked into B&N and asked, "Isn't there a bookstore around here?" The clerk pointed East (the direction of Broadway Books) and said, "It's up that way."
Dear Holt Uncensored
Regarding your comment about the advantage of the small bookstore knowing your reading tastes and being able to suggest possible new titles that you might be interested in: I read a remark from an Amazon customer recently who was incensed that the giant had taken note of his reading habits and was recommending new titles that [Amazon] thought might be of interest to him. Invasion of privacy no doubt or long live the First Amendment! . . . Frankly, having spent 20 years as a librarian, I'm delighted when someone offers news of a good read that I might enjoy. To each his own.
Holt's Comment: This is a key difference, I think, between independent booksellers, who get to know their customers personally and develop mutual trust over time, and Amazon, which records orders of customers without their knowledge and ends up monitoring and directing "taste" and interests. Amazon's approach is an invasion of privacy not unlike the way FBI agents once asked librarians to monitor and report patrons' history of borrowing books - Ken Starr's demand to see Monica Lewinsky's book purchases from Washington D.C. bookstores. Perhaps because Amazon makes it so easy and fun to zip around its attractive data base, many customers find it hard to conceive of a Big Brother presence behind the scenes. But the information gathered without the consent or awareness of customers is just as dangerous as the dossiers once compiled by our great leader of the paranoid, J. Edgar Hoover, who simply collected data until he had a use for it in threatening Americans into submission. No one is saying Amazon wants to offend; but civil liberties are very much at stake, which is why it's such a relief that many independents now declare their policy of protecting customer privacy right on the home page of websites (a good example is http://www.bookpassage.com).
Dear Holt Uncensored:
[Regarding the story about buying used and new textbooks electronically:]
As a professor, I think standing in line at the bookstore for the quarter's offerings should be a required part of the college experience!\r