by Pat Holt

Tuesday, April 20, 1999




Goodness, what fun the New York Times had Sunday giving us one o' them close-up views of Barnes & Noble founder Leonard Riggio. Did you know he didn't pay attention in his college business courses because he was so wrapped up in the "History of the Peloponnesian War"? Such a budding classicist. Riggio read Thucydides with "zest," he says, then dropped out of college. One of his favorite books this very day is "The Metamorphosis" by Franz Kafka.

Of course there's no mention that Len Riggio reads maybe six books a year, as reported in a magazine last year. We do learn of his private jet and de Kooning bronze, thanks to the Times. He's so rich that you just know those thousands of B&N clerks earning subsistance wages must be very proud.

But please don't mistake this hard-hitting article as a puff piece for Riggio just because it appears at the very time he hopes to raise $200 million by selling stock. No, this the kind of tough-minded, no-nonsense Goliath-vs.-Goliath story we've come to expect from journalism today. In it, B&N looks darned heroic - if not just as literary as Len Riggio himself - by sticking up for that old dinosaur, the chain bookstore.

What a king is this Len Riggio with his thousand stores (half B&N, half B. Dalton) all stamped outta the same mold, all streamlined and well-lit and fulla wide aisles and killing independents (barely mentioned) right and left.

And how about that ABA lawsuit (not mentioned), the pernicious Barnes & Noble used-book empire (not mentioned), the deadly Barnes & Noble takeover of college stores (not mentioned), the attempt (not a done deal yet, NYT!) to buy Ingram (barely mentioned), the sell-out to Bertelsmann (barely mentioned), and the aren't-we-great-in-bed "business tie" of Barnes & Noble and the New York Times website (mentioned in parentheses only).

Yes, a king among men is Riggio, mit der artcollectzen und der Hamptonmansion und der declining stock! Certainly there have been other articles filling in the gaps, but this one is unique for the expert way it dodges the thornier issues. And as a bonus, NYT dismisses independent booksellers as though their 17.2 percent market share in the book industry is nothing.

So let's go back to some basics. This is the same 17.2 percent that is launching sales for literary books that B&N couldn't get off the ground if Riggio hawked his townhouse Picasso. This is the same 17.2 percent that many mainstream publishers no longer believe in (more like 7 percent, they say), so they order regional sales reps to cover fewer independent stores and wider territories. And it is the same key 17.2 percent to which readers and book critics are clinging as the only real hope for American literature.

It could be that the book industry is falling to pieces all around us while the heads of chain bookstores and are lionized for playing a game they themselves have said just happens to be about books. (Shoot, why DIDN'T they go into toasters or lawn mowers first?) Nevertheless, every time an independent bookseller puts a book in the hands of a grateful customer - just because the book is good - we all win.




Perhaps the great paradox of our age is the sight of so many independent bookstores closing or struggling, while all around, an unprecedented excitement about books and reading has exploded - thanks largely (I think) to America's return to print via the personal computer.

Independent booksellers in Portland, Ore., have begun to harness this feverish energy by supporting a reading project that appeals as well to the critic in us all. Ellen Emry Heltzel of the Portland Oregonian is one of many book editors to take advantage of these forces by launching a book club from the pages of the paper's feature section.

The Oregonian's book club works because of Heltzel's diligence in mixing general readers with people whose experience is similar to the that of each author discussed. Thus the March group's discussion of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's "Mistress of Spices" included an Indian-born doctor, a former member of the U.S. diplomatic corps, a technical writer who grew up in India, a writer, a marketing director, a businessman and a student.

Similarly, for the April group's discussion of Stephen Kuusisto's memoir, "Planet of the Blind," Heltzel found a neuropsychologist with the same sight impairment that affects the author, the director of the Oregon Eye Bank, a poet, a teacher, a social worker and a community volunteer.

This kind of mix sets up an atmosphere of critical reading and commentary that allows each group to investigate the many different dimensions of the work discussed. What develops in the group's discussion is the kind of conversation that people yearn for but can't find in chain stores or on with its many opinionated but often unenlightened and shallow "Customer Comments."

As a result, few are the readers coming upon Hertzel's double-kabammy pieces (the book club's discussion across the page from Heltzel's interview with the author) who don't want to read the book. From the beginning, Portland independents have sold book club selections at 20 percent off and stack piles of them on the front counter. As trade paperbacks they're immensely affordable and appealing.

Perhaps the best news in Portland and elsewhere is that book-club fever is spreading. Katie Charles, a children's librarian, has for three years been conducting a reading club for middle-school girls that meets once every three weeks. "I bring popcorn and punch to make it fun rather than work," she says. "The hope is that they'll grow up remembering these stimulating discussions about books, and never want to be without a book to talk about with friends."

A great book for discussion is "Letters from the Inside" by New Zealand author John Marsden, about two high school girls who appear to live charmed lives when they begin exchanging letters. "As you get into it, you find out that one is imprisoned, and the other has an older brother who's very disturbed and seems to be abusing her," says Katie.

"The book has a very disturbing, very powerful ending, and the discussion brings out strong feelings." Other books that have hit a nerve include a World War I story, "After the Dancing Days," by Margaret Rostkowski; Karen Cushman's 12th-century novel, "Catherine, Called Birdy"; and "The Forest Wife" by Theresa Tomlinson, a feminist view of Robin Hood.

NEXT: On to Seattle, where booksellers thrive or go under with in their back yard.



"Who on the campus understands the real impact of turning over the [Stanford] Bookstore to a for-profit outsider? I ask students to please use common sense in pondering these questions.

"Are the outside corporations in business to retain earnings from the Stanford Bookstore for the benefit of Stanford? Where do you suppose the profits they earn on the business will go? How do these corporations make their return from the major investment they will make to take over and run the Stanford Bookstore? From lowering prices and improving service?

"In fact, studies show that prices RISE and services DIMINISH when an outsider takes over a campus store. (Why do you suppose Duke just decided NOT to outsource their stores after studying the proposition for over a year?) . . .

"Understand this decision for what it is. It is about face saving and money, not about what is best for you and for Stanford's academic reputation."

--Eldon Speed, former general manager, Stanford Bookstore, in a letter to the Stanford Daily newspaper



Once again I took a break at the keyboard and hiked by clicker over to City Arts & Lectures' tapes of recent onstage interviews with various authors

New up this week is Armistead Maupin's recent appearance, in which he reads the first chapter of his new work-in-progress, a beautifully written story about a man who adopts a child under strange circumstances.

And Molly Ivins, often hilarious in her interview with columnist Jon Carroll, turns gravely serious when discussing the state of journalism today.

"I'm not sure the profession I went into about 30 years ago exists anymore," she says. "I think that we [journalists] have become part of a giant infotainment industry. The same profit concerns and distortions that afflict the other parts of infotainment are increasingly seen in what used to be journalism."

She goes on to say that the Hollywood focus on blockbusters has infected book publishing and journalism from Danielle Steel and John Grisham to "O.J., dead Diana and Monica." And she adds: "If because of the focus on the blockbuster you miss a gem of a movie, or a jewel of a book, that's sad - in fact, it's tragic.

"But if because of journalism's focus on the blockbuster you miss something really important, it could change your life, or kill you. I think the fact that journalism is infected by the values of this giant infotainment industry is incredibly dangerous."



Dear Holt Uncensored:

A funny word about Ingram [the nation's largest book distributor]. They finally removed my probationary ankle bracelet, elevating me to full-fledged publisher status based upon the growing quantity of my books they sell. (They've had me on probation for three years because they have only sold a few hundred of my books.) So they write me a letter congratulating me and asking me to sign a new contract. They also ask me for three bank references and my bank account numbers. I start filling in the form then think, "Wait a minute! I'm extending credit to them! I ship them my books and they pay me whan they feel like it!" I call them and say I'll give them the references if they'd like to loan me some money, but otherwise, I think it's Ingram that should give me references.

The person I talk to says she has been told to say that they need references in the event I owe them money for advertising, or in case I go bankrupt. (If I do go bankrupt it will be because of paying shipping charges on their one-sy and two-sy orders and returns!)

An Independent Publisher

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re Suze Orman, the champion of the little guy: Why did Orman, whose publisher Esther Margolis is a wonderful person, a decent and devoted "little guy" herself, leave Margolis for (cough, a favorite publisher of mine, too) Riverhead, a division of Penguin Putnam? Did you ask? I think as another little guy myself, I'm not alone in wondering what precipitated the champion of the little guys leaving her own publisher.

Holt responds: I assumed - and Suze Orman later confirmed - that she went on to Crown, then Riverhead, for one thing because larger mainstream publishers can do the kind of huge printings that blanket the nation in a single day through that oft-derided process called the simulaneous laydown.

Dear Holt Uncensored.

I notice in your column of April 14, 1999, there was a letter raising questions about our privacy policy at Book Passage. I am happy to respond, because informational privacy is something I feel strongly about (I actually wrote a book about it several years ago).

Our privacy policy is this:

We will never sell, rent, or give away any information about our customers.

We use the least intrusive methods possible to get the legitimate information we need about our customers.

We don't track customer sales at the counter. Books that customers buy in the store do not get into our system in a way that can be linked to that customer.

We do keep some customer records of books that are ordered by mail-order, telephone, and internet sales, but we have to do that to make sure that we ship the customer the right books. We do not assemble these records into any sort of database, or cross-reference them, or use them for any other purpose.

We have a mailing list for customers who receive the Book Passage News & Reviews, but this contains no list of any books that a customer has purchased. We never sell, rent or give away this list or share any information in it with anyone else. We occasionally send out postcards or letters to people on our mailing list who have identified themselves as being interested in certain subjects (e.g., mysteries, poetry, book groups), but once again we do not track these people by any book they have purchased.

The writer of the letter wanted to know what we would do if a process server subpoened a customer's records. We would probably fight it. Certainly if the case in any way resembled the Monica Lewinsky subpoena, we would not give up any information without exhausting all legal recourse.

But it is important to note, I think, how little information would be in our records even if we were forced to give them up. Unlike some of the big on-line booksellers that seem to pride themselves on how much detailed information they can accumulate about their customers, any investigator would probably be disappointed with the paucity of information in our records about our customers' reading habits.

Bill Petrocelli
Book Passage

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Like everyone else involved in the world of used books online, I'm very concerned about and B&N's deceptive spin.

I run a website called ( that seeks to address this. I'm a grad student at UC Berkeley, and a big fan of independents. I've put together as a single search engine that scans the inventories of just about all of the big used and rare book databases. I've tried to make something of a Consumer Reports for the online used, rare, and out of print book industry--a single source of accurate book information, with no hidden markups, no secret agendas, just unbiased information straight from the original dealer. The listings services we work with (all of them competitors) have been very supportive; they understand how crucial it is to put up a united front against consumer-unfriendly spin.

Anirvan Chatterjee

Holt responds: Can you give some examples of markups that you think are out of line?

Anirvan answers: Yes, B&N is very frustrating because they seem so consumer-friendly, and even independent bookstore friendly. Their used book listings give the name and city of the original bookseller (but obviously, no contact information; they wouldn't want you to avoid the middleman's fees by buying directly from the source, now would they?)

I was researching prices for some fairly commonplace out-of-print book searches, and was shocked by the level of markup they charge for the "service" of scanning a database:

Title: I Was a Second Grade Werewolf
Author: Daniel Pinkwater
Edition: softcover
Original Dealer: Book Rescue (Stony Point, New York) Price: $18.00
Barnes and Noble Price: $27.00
B&N Markup: 50% ($9.00 extra)

Title: Miss Temptation
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Edition: 1st Edition
Original Dealer: Library Books (Dallas, Texas) Price: $35.00
Barnes and Noble Price: $49.00
B&N Markup: 40% ($14.00 extra)

Title: Invisible Woman
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Edition: signed
Original Dealer: Antic Hay Books (Asbury Park, New Jersey) Price: $100.00
Barnes and Noble Price: $130.00
B&N Markup: 30% ($30.00 extra)

Holt responds: A book dealer has written to say that used/out-of-print book markups can be as much as 70-100% because of all the dealer has to do. When I said I think it's kind of obscene that Amazon (and B&N) then add ANOTHER fat markup, she says they do have to follow many steps to get the book. I gather you would disagree with that? Your examples don't show a huge markup on B&N's part.

Anirvan answers: The difference between your average local bookseller marking up a book 100% and B&N doing so is that the local bookseller is providing an actual service (in the literal sense of the term), while B&N isn't really.

B&N's approach to used book searching offloads the search to the user. Instead of having a smart professional searcher doing the searching, users end up doing it themselves. All B&N effectively "contributes" to the process is licensing a database and "allowing" customers to buy through B&N, rather than directly from the original dealer.

When independent booksellers mark up a found book, they're not marking up a book that the customer found, they're marking up a book that THEY found for their customers. If customers end up having to search a database manually, it's just as easy for them to search sites like ABE or, as it is to search B&N's licensed data base - except that in the latter case, they end up paying significantly more, even though they're doing no less work searching manually.

No matter how big the chains get, they simply don't seem to be able to scale to the point where they can reasonably compete either on price or quality against the hordes of wonderful specialized local independent booksellers. This doesn't mean that folks don't share some of the siege mentality that a lot of independent new booksellers are caught in, but the imminent threat of destruction on the online medium is somewhat mitigated by the success of all of the institutions (e.g. ABE, Bibliofind) that serve to pool together dealer resources to more effectively reach customers. Cooperation is a powerful thing.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I do a lot of work with groups and the media in my work as an author (just published my latest book, "Woman to Woman 2000---Becoming Sabotage Savvy"), and find that I am constantly telling people to go to your favorite local bookstore and ask for the book (rather than use chains or Amazon). Here in Denver, I have made a commitment to the Tattered Cover that all Colorado sales will be purchased from that store. This means I personally go buy my own book, get a 10-to-15% discount depending on how many I get and resell to my audiences. My accountant thinks I'm nuts ,but I want these bloodlines in our communities to survive. Do I have the ability to get the 40-50% discount? Sure, but it doesn't help the independents.

Another way: A group called me locally to do a fundraiser for them this a.m. I told them that I would donate my speaking fee back ($6000) IF they included a copy of the book in every participant's fee. They are hoping for a 500-1000 attendance, so I asked the Tattered Cover buyer to offer them a special discount.

I do lots of speaking in the healthcare field. Each Labor Day, we do the Confidence Working Cruise for three days, during which healthcare folks earn 12 continuing education credits. From 50 to 75 attend each year. This year, I referenced the cruise through my website and said that anyone who buys "Woman to Woman 2000" and sends me their receipt by fax or mail by June 15th will be entered in a drawing for this year's cruise.

Judith Briles