NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #53
by Pat Holt

Friday, April 16, 1999:

SUZE ORMAN: THE COME-FROM-NOWHERE KID
BOOK REVIEWS:
'PRESIDENTIAL AMBITION'
'MOONLIGHT ON THE AVENUE OF FAITH'
'CONFEDERATES IN THE ATTIC'
'LIVING IN THE CITY'
'INSPIRED PHILANTHROPY'
LETTERS

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SUZE ORMAN: THE COME-FROM-NOWHERE KID

Ordinarily the author of the #1 hardcover nonfiction title of 1998 would be the last person interviewed for this column. You don't need me to tell you that Suze Orman's "The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom" is a good bet when it has 1.8 million copies in print, or that Orman's new book, "The Courage To Be Rich" (Riverhead; 370 pages; $24.95), is already a huge bestseller.

But following discussions here (Holt Uncensored #49) of ways that unknown authors can market their books beyond the traditional means of publishers, I found a talk with Suze at her home in Oakland, California, both inspiring and instructive. Everybody loves a good come-from-nowhere story, and this one is a beaut.

Suze is a former waitress at the Buttercup Cafe and financial counselor at Merrill Lynch and Prudential Bache. Her first book ("You've Earned It - Don't Lose It") was rejected by every publisher who saw it until Esther Margolis of Newmarket Press took it on in 1994.

"Esther had 7,000 copies in the bookstores when she decided to send me on a 24-city publicity tour," Suze recalls. "Many times only one person would show up at a store to hear me speak, which I have to tell you is a fascinating lesson. The two of us would sit down and talk about life and money. Booksellers would listen in, so I started giving financial seminars to the staff as well. If 10 people came, we had a 'massive turnout.' "

At no time did Orman believe she was out there selling books. "I felt my message could revolutionize people's attitudes about themselves and their money. I believed I could change the world. I still do. But that was MY mission, not the publisher's. And my job was to find other ways to get the message out."

She sought, and got, appearances on QV2 (the smaller TV shopping channel), PBS and Oprah Winfrey. Gifted at pinpointing each caller's financial problem and turning to the TV camera with compassion and no-nonsense advice, Suze was soon hefted from QV2 to the major-league QVC and found herself selling thousands of copies in minutes.

In its first year, Orman's "9 Steps" sold 200,000 copies through QVC and 100,000 in bookstores. "Most authors would have been happy with a sale of 300,000," she says. "But I believed in revolution, and 300,000 copies did not a revolution make. It would not change the world. It changed only a small sector of those who happened to find it."

Then came the hugely successful PBS special, part of which she funded herself, and a nearly disastrous appearance on Oprah Winfrey. "Authors today have to make their own book," she says. "They have to check everything themselves and never fall back on the publisher." Discovering that books weren't in the stores a week before the Oprah Winfrey tape was set to air, she and her staff achieved an unprecedented double-kabammy by getting Crown to redistribute the book immediately and Oprah to postpone the show by a week.

We should stop here and mention a recent Forbes article about the kind of authors whose "personality" sells more copies than does the merit of the book itself. Frank McCourt and Nicholas Sparks are named as "perfect" authors who "sell themselves as much as their prose."

Perhaps another way to say it is that these authors believe in their books almost as much as Suze Orman believes in her message. It is not her personality that sells books, she feels; it is her philosophy, her faith, her insistance that money is spiritual, her belief in coming back from the dregs of debt and bankruptcy, her vision that ethical and financial wealth are available to all.

Certainly few authors are as outspoken as Suze Orman. She advises readers with little income to stop giving money to religious or other nonprofit institutions. And she is furious at authors and institutions that try to separate women into classes or investment groups.

"These brokerage firms are giving 'Seminars for Women Only!' Well, when in the hell do they ever give a seminar for men only? And why is it for women only? They're appealing to the fact that women do like to be together, but are they doing it for our good, or to profit off of us? And what is the message here? It should not be: Come to these seminars and invest with us. The message should be: All right, everybody, learn how to invest on your own, so that 5 percent commission you're paying to us, you can keep."

Orman's identification with the little guy has made her appear a bit too anti-system in recent months. Backlash articles in Forbes, the San Francisco Chronicle, a gossip sheet called The Globe and other publications have attempted exposes that reveal little of her past except that she was once a little guy, too.

"My mother, who is 84, said recently that for the first time in her life she feels secure. 'I now know my daughter has enough money,' she said, 'and no matter what happens, she'll be okay.' My mother always felt guilty because she had no money to leave me. Then she said, 'And if I ever need anything, I know she'll take care of me!'

"Well, that's quite a message. Don't wait until you are 84 and your daughter has enough money so that you feel secure. Don't think money doesn't have something to do with security, because it absolutely does. It's not the last thing; not the beginning thing; but it plays an important part in every one of our lives.

"And the question is, do you give it the respect that it deserves, and that you deserve? Remember the Law of Money: Undervalue what you do, and the world undervalues who you are. That's a message for any author, too."

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PRESIDENTIAL AMBITION, Richard Shenkman (HarperCollins; 361 pages; $26):

Okay, so we're done with Clinton and all things kinky about presidents and their concurrent drive to succeed and self-destruct. But here's a great antidote for all that ails ya, White House-wise: a look at American presidents as "normal" human beings with almost as much ambition as Bill Gates or Sylvester Stallone.

In the minds of voters, there are two kinds of American presidents, says former NBC reporter Shenkman: The "insanely driven" modern ones who've been blistered by media scrutiny (John F. Kennedy to the present); and the older, more benign ones we might think of as Dad in the Oval Office (Dwight D. Eisenhower and before).

The reason we see a difference, says Shenkman, is that we don't know the whole truth: All presidents have "devoted themselves to the obtaining of power" from the time they were cub politicos on the farm to the day they won the highest office and beyond.

All of them "made every effort to marry into power," Shenkman says, with land-grabbing George Washington perhaps the most blatant example, and FDR, Taft, JFK, Garfield, McKinley, Buchanan and LBJ just as cavalier in their search for rich or well-placed wives.

All presidents have "tried to obtain power fast," says Shenkman. Abraham Lincoln, for example, ran for state legislature at age 23 without experience, money, consituency and "no more than a year's formal education."

Shenkman's writing is a bit dramatic sometimes, but it's fun to read his searing revelations about our "runningest" candidates - those who were destined to be prez: "They ran after they'd been shot at, after they had actually taken a shot, after their wives had come down with dread diseases, after their wives had died, after they themselves had contracted dread diseases - cancer, Bright' s, Addison's - and nearly died." He forgot polio.

And hey, did you know that Grover Cleveland dodged the draft in 1863 by "hir[ing] a substitute, a Polish immigrant, to do his fighting for him"? Or that Richard Nixon considered himself as "weak" president and even "a turkey"?

Filled with juicy anecdotes, "Presidential Ambition" sheds new light on the naked (pardon) ambition of the present White House inhabitant.

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MOONLIGHT ON THE AVENUE OF FAITH by Gina B. Nahai (Harcourt Brace; 376 pages; $24)

It's too bad the title of this absorbing novel sounds so much like "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," or that it's being compared to fiction by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (no, no, no) and Isabel Allende (NO).

Just because somebody writes a scene about levitation or light coming out of flowers, the words "magical realism" pop up in all the wrong places (reviews!) that mislead readers into thinking of "been-done" Latin American fiction and before you know it, the book is dead.

Let's hope nothing of the sort happens to this beautifully written story about an Iranian woman who bursts from confinement and tradition to meet her destiny at last. The story begins in the Jewish ghetto of Tehran with generations of women so locked up, veiled over and hidden away that they "go insane" and "vanish" (or so their neighbors believe), leaving a legacy of seeming danger and betrayal that few of their descendants understand.

When Roxanna, the little girl who grows wings and flies in her dreams, grows up to fly away for real, author Nahai masterfully takes us along. From Tehran to Turkey to Los Angeles, we join Roxanna's quest and see it through the eyes of her abandoned daughter Lili at the same time.

The result is a lush and absorbing novel that frankly tells as much about the consequences of independent thought as its adventures. Weaving her tangled way through humor and tragedy, trust and betrayal with light, sharp authority, Nahai unveils a prescience in everyday life that is not "magical" at all.

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CONFEDERATES IN THE ATTIC, Tony Horwitz (Vintage; 406 pages; $14)

This reprint of Pulitzer Prize-winner Horwitz's study of the "unfinished Civil War" has thankfully retained the cover photo of Robert Lee Hodge, a dead-ringer if there ever was one for a Confederate farmer-turned-soldier.

But look again and you see that Hodge is a modern Virginian who's glowering a little too dramatically and has coiffed his bushy chin beard a bit too stylishly to be an authentic Johnny Reb.

Hodge, it turns out, is a modern-day "hard-core re-enactor" who spends his time dressing up as a Confederate soldier to re-enact Civil War battles. He and thousands of others seek such "absolute fidelity to the 1860s" that they urinate on the buttons to "oxidize the brass," eat hardtack and restrict their language to Civil War speech patterns (talk of Monday Night football is out; cursing Abe Lincoln is in).

The more maniacal they get, Horwitz finds, the more euphoria (they call it "Civil Wargasm") they feel, to exhaustion across former battlefields and starving themselves to acquire the near-dead look of prisoners of war.

What makes the book so compelling is that it's not just about a bunch of fanatics doing the Civil War "bloat," at which Hodge is a master, falling "dead" on the battlefield with "his belly swelled grotesquely" and "his mouth contorted in a rictus of pain and astonishment."

It's rather about the loss of a living Dixie, an attempt not to prove that the South will rise again but rather that the South will die again - and again and again - each time properly and gloriously. It's about "the shooting war continuing" in various towns where racism truly does rise again, and most telling of all, it's about the "Northern zeal for righting Southern wrongs" that makes the South such a mirror of all things American.

"Listen closely while you're down here and take a hard look at your own prejudices," suggests one re-enactor. Seen through this lens, the desperate attempt to revise history in terms of modern needs seems not so regional at all

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LIVING FOR THE CITY, Jervey Tervalon (Incommunicado Press; 190 pages; $13 paperback).

This is the book that the owners of Broadway Books in Portland, Oregon (see Holt Uncensored #51) have been recommending successfully to high school kids and adult readers after the author's visit to the store a month ago. I would never have found it if an independent bookseller hadn't placed it in my hands.

Writer Tervalon ("Understand This") writes about young people like himself growing up in South Central Los Angeles with such matter-of-fact attention to detail that at first the book seems too simple, too plain, too episodic to be a "real" novel.

But soon the individual stories gradually reveal an interlocking narrative as we watch young men named Frank and Garvey negotiate life and death in the balmy weather and constant violence that mark this famous L.A. neighborhood. Here every stranger is a potential enemy; gangs have their own zoning laws; cars, drugs, money and weapons are the fare of daily survival. In the midst of nearly complete alienation, no one is allowed a childhood.

Yet it's astonishing to watch these kids carve out a "normal" life in the midst of such a lethal environment. Dates with girlfriends, (carefully mapped) jogs through the neighborhood, family dinners, talks with elders, attempts at house parties all seem touching and sweet in the face of "drive-bys," teenage prostitution, guns going off everywhere and the constant lure of drugs.

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INSPIRED PHILANTHROPY, Tracy Gary and Melissa Kohner (Chardon Press, Berkeley; readers can buy at http://www.bookpassage.com; dealers: http://www.chardonpress.com; 105 pages; $20 trade paperback)

When you're "ready to give and receive," Suze Orman writes in the foreword, "wealth of all kinds comes your way . . . You become the receiver of gifts."

But giving to good causes is not a matter of sending a check out of guilt when solicitors call or PBS telethoners make you feel guilty or kids selling magazines come to the door. In fact it's a lot of fun and even very powerful to give money when you figure, say, 5 percent of your income can go to groups you believe in. That way, co-authors and philanthropists Gary and Kohner advise, systematic planning can contribute to real social change.

Did you know that "an astounding 83 percent of the money donated in the United States each year comes from households with incomes of less than $60,000 a year"? That's only one of the fascinating statistics compiled by these energetic authors.

Their case studies, which show how average people plan their wills, savings, retirement income and investments with an eye to donating and thereby strengthening organizations they believe in, can be downright inspiring. And their exercises and worksheets are invaluable in helping readers assess income through "the power of doing good."

A chapter on volunteering and skill-sharing is included ("time is also a resource"), and such pepper-uppers as a "Donor Bill of Rights," sample letters and a chapter on "Money and Relationships" make this workbook as much fun to read and ponder as any book on making the usual bundle.

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Regarding the quote about creating a character with a "small penis" as protection against libel suits: Anne Lamott offered much the same advice long before this in her book, "Bird by Bird."

On page 227, she talks about problems of libel and how to disguise a person. She ends with, "And the best advice I can give you is to give him a teenie little penis so he will be less likely to come forth." Then on page. 230 she is back (or still) on libel and says, "The best solution is not only to disguise and change as may characteristics as you can but also to make the fictional person a composite. Then throw in the teenie little penis and anti-Semitic leanings, and I think you'll be Okay." These page numbers are from the 1995 paperback.

Sandy

Dear Holt Uncensored:

You state that "Amazon . . . records orders of customers without their knowledge and ends up monitoring and directing "taste" and interests."

They have to record orders in order to fulfil those orders. It then becomes obvious that they keep records of those orders . . . But 'directing" taste and interest? Amazon makes recommendations. If you choose to take the link that generates these recommendations. You're then free to order any of these books, if you wish.

Your column also stated 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)."

At the bottom of the main Amazon page is a link called "Your rights." Take it, and you read:

"Amazon.com does not sell, trade, or rent your personal information to others. We may choose to do so in the future with trustworthy third parties, but you can tell us not to by sending a blank e-mail message to never@amazon.com. (If you use more than one e-mail address to shop with us, send this message from each e-mail account you use.)

"Also, Amazon.com may provide aggregate statistics about our customers, sales, traffic patterns, and related site information to reputable third-party vendors, but these statistics will include no personally identifying information."

I prefer the way Book Passage does not require you to write them an email for this purpose. But note that Book Passage simply says, "We never sell, rent or give away any information about our customers." Your beef with Amazon is that it stores people's preferences for its own use (and possible use by the police); as far as I can see, Book Passage says nothing about not keeping information for its own use.

What would Book Passage do if this information about purchases were subpoenaed? If we take them at their word, we'd have to infer that they'd tear up any subpoena. But would they? Or do they expect us to take it for granted that they'd obey subpoenas? I don't know. I could ask them, but--unlike Amazon (and many much smaller companies)--they have never responded to any of my email!

Dear Holt Uncensored:

As Margarita Donnelly pointed out, the public is not going to find a little-known author buried on an Internet bookstore any more than they will in a real bookstore. And it's unlikely that author Ron Sukenick has the money or clout to get the book featured on Amazon or B&N.

Perhaps he was thinking of building his own website that features himself and his books? If so, how will the public find out about it? He will have to network with other websites, join in with their discussion groups, send his books to the editors, participate in author chats, create promotions/contests/giveaways, write & publish articles or reviews that reference his website, etc.

These are EXACTLY THE SAME efforts an author must make to sell his/her books at a real bookstore! Ron has gotten some reviews, but getting reviews and interviews on local TV, magazines and newspapers is just a start.

Teaming up with local charities for events, teaching workshops or classes at adult education centers, developing promotional materials like posters and bookmarks, working with libraries, or doing a contest that would gain free publicity in the media or at bookstores are just some general ideas.

Unless you're a big name author, even a large stack of books at a bookstore won't sell. And unless your publisher has a big promotion budget, you'll have to promote your own book. It's tiring, it's hard, and it's sometimes depressing. But charming the pants off bookstores is always a good idea.

It would have been much better if Ron visited Boulder Book Store in person, noticed how his book was impressively featured in the Recommended Reading section, appreciated how they used his press kit reviews, and thanked all the booksellers. I think the Boulder Book staff might be pretty annoyed that he just called to "check-up" on how many copies were on hand and then complained to Holt Uncensored.

Lisa Regul
Bay Books / SOMA Books

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Well, I certainly feel better knowing that bookstores can reorder my books very quickly and efficiently these days, even if they only order them initially in "onesies and twosies," as a correspondent puts it. Only, speaking for authors, I can tell you that it's often hellishly hard to get bookstores - not yours to be sure - to reorder once they've sold their onesie or twosie. Limited shelf space maybe. Moreover, some stores, for whatever reason, aren't that eager to take special orders. Certainly I can and will send my readers to independent bookstores, but if they don't have my book and won't get it, I guess I can however guiltily suggest the online vendors. Maybe the answer to this situation is an online store representing the independents, a development which PW says is coming this summer. I hope so, because I hate that guilty feeling.

Ron Sukenick