by Pat Holt

Tuesday, May 4, 1999:




What may be the Comeback of the Century shot off like a rocket at the American Booksellers Association's annual confab, Book Expo America, held last weekend in Los Angeles.

Compared to the awful panic and paralysis that dominated last year's meeting ("The window is closing!" booksellers lamented desperately), an atmosphere of confidence and purpose filled the vast halls, bringing collective lift-off to the thousands of independent booksellers, publishers, agents and authors in attendance.

It's a comeback because these beleaguered booksellers, their market share down by half, their number down by a third, their shared Internet presence zilch and their capacity to compete against the chains and Amazon worn down to ditto, have found their fighting spirit at last.

It's not money or inventory or (god knows) sympathetic publishers that are making the difference but an Internet service and marketing campaign called BookSense, a 1.6-million-title data base that can make every independent bookseller who uses it competitive to and just about any other Internet book outlet.

Beginning August 1, a thousand independent bookstores will offer websites in which customers can order from a database of 1.6 million titles - that's just about every book in print (in fact it IS "Books In Print") and fully competitive with any Internet presence.

Think of the exciting possibilities: When you go searching for a book, instead of clicking over to distant, impersonal we'd-recommend-the-dog-if-you-paid-us Amazon, you can click on your local store, find the book easily AND learn about authors, book clubs, writers' groups, and literary conferences coming to your own neighborhood.

And here's the double-kabammy: Maybe not everyone in America is aware of the "bookstore wars" or what's at stake as independents close down. So BookSense is also a publicity campaign to educate Americans about independent booksellers as the place (physical and electronic) to bring your business, and why. This message will be going out as TV ads (watch the Tony Awards, for example), print ads, posters, tote bags, bookmarks and so forth.

The only fear about BookSense's book-ordering service, and it's a big one, is that it can't deliver all those 1.6 million books, because the distributors it will use won't have that many in stock - in fact, they won't have half those books available. So it's possibly going to look a bit shabby if, time after time, customers find the books they want listed "available in 2-3 weeks" instead of the 24 hours they expect.

At BookSite, the other website service for independents (founded and run by an independent bookseller) that's been up and running for eight months, independents claim half-a-million titles on their database and rarely if ever disappoint customers (see below).

So who cares if BookSense is a bit behind,, and dozens of other Internet book outlets? To the booksellers who've had no clue about serving customers on the Internet, this ABA-sponsored program is on fire. As described, it is distinctive; it respects the customer, and like BookSite, it offers access to your local store AND to a huge database of titles.



So the mood was upbeat and the energy so proactive that many of the old adversaries were now regarded as victims-to-be: At two lively and convivial (not contentious, as in the old days) membership meetings, independents decided to go on the attack in a multi-pronged assault against the following:

1) what they rightly see as fraudulent advertising by the chains and Amazon on Internet search engines (see "Search Engine Gluttony," Holt Uncensored, #43),

2) the ridiculous moratorium against sales tax on the Internet that is giving a hugely unfair advantage to,, and others;

3) authors like Frank McCourt ("Angela's Ashes") who publicly acknowledge that independent booksellers have saved their books from obscurity, then turn around and appear in TV ads for Barnes & Noble.

(McCourt, singled out because he won the ABA's book award, the ABBY, will be sent a letter from the ABA about independents' disappointment in his support for Barnes & Noble. Informed of this, McCourt told the Associated Press that his publisher had asked him to do the Barnes & Noble TV ad, an admission that further rankled many booksellers at the convention - after all, they could conceivably have forgiven McCourt, who might not have known better.)



So you could feel the energy building as soon as the doors opened, and nobody complained when the attendants used electronic guns with flashing red lines to zap the coded badges of people coming in.

The idea of this practice was to collect data on traffic patterns and attendance. Apparently the flashing red line is so powerful that next year, those leaving the hall will be handed results of mammograms, thyroid tests, tax audits, and future voting tendencies.

Of course, the ABA/BEA is much more conservative than it used to be. A few stuffed animals were seen around the booths, but no walking artichokes or multi-colored waterfalls gave the place its once-celebrated gone-to-hell feel.

Perhaps more harrowing was the sense of looming conglomerates taking over independents' consciousness. The biggest booth contributing to this legitimate paranoia was that of Random House, which now includes Bantam, Doubleday, Dell, Broadway, Delacorte, Random House, Pantheon, Crown, Knopf, Vintage, Ballantine, Fodor's, Times, half of Australia, Harrison Ford's back 40, the rings of Saturn and John Glenn's cryogenics contract.

One had to smile at Random House chairman Peter Olnos' statement about parent company Bertelsmann during a panel called "Bookselling in the Next Millennium." "A couple of years ago there was a great deal of gloom and doom in the book business," he said. "A year ago, when Bertelsmann announced the acquisition of Random House, there were even magazine articles that questioned the sanity of our Bertelsmann CEO for investing so much money in a book publishing business."

Gee, is that why they questioned his sanity? Those who thought the owner of one big publishing house (Bantam Doubleday Dell) was insane to the point of megalomania to buy another huge conglomerate might have had their doubts, too. Or perhaps the business is simply going insane, as many believe.

But back to the upbeat mood. It was fun to go into the "pouting booths" in the back where you'd find mainstream publishers that had once exiled themselves from ABA participation because they had been sued or somehow felt alienated. Now they were back, but sort of: Still reluctant to take a large exhibit space, they crowded their displays into steamy little prefabricated booths where they still looked pouty but persevering while presenting the lists.

This year the smaller presses were again tucked away in other halls, thus contributing to the sense of very large, very commercial, or very specialized (foreign, technological, audio/video, religious) publishers overwhelming the convention. Perhaps one day, just as BEA likes to spread the bigger houses around to keep circulation flowing freely, these small houses, which so heroically insist upon publishing in the face of conglomerate domination, won't be so hard to find, either.



The best part of ABA every year lies in realizing that however catastrophic the upheavals of the book industry, a wonderfully eclectic quality still permeates the lists of authors coming to publication. It doesn't matter if you like or dislike the writing of coming books - what counts is the range and diversity of writers who appeal to the many different audiences (not one big homogenous blockbuster mass, you see) with thousands of different interests.

You know it's going to be a big season this year with nonfiction books by such authors as Jane Goodall, Michael Lewis, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Susan Faludi, Elie Wiesel, Jamaica Kincaid, Frances Mayes, Tom Keneally (history of the Irish) Larry Bird, William Least Heat-Moon and Germaine Greer.

Add to that more nonfiction from Simon Singh, Spalding Gray, Grace Paley (poems), Edward Said, Gina Kolata (1918 flu), Julia Child, Hilton Als, Gail Sheehy (Hillary), Jeffrey Toobin (Bill), Ian Frazier, James Gleick, Simon Schama, Monty Roberts, Mike Shanahan, Alice Waters, Thomas Cahill, Jorie Graham, Desmond Tutu, Nicki Giovanni (her first poetry collection in 15 years), architect Paul Johnson and "sexpert" Susie Bright.

It will be great to see returning fiction writers (not enough of 'em!) Scott Turow, Isabel Allende, Walter Mosley, Susan Sontag, Barry Unsworth, Gunter Grass, Alice Mattison, Michael Crichton, Stephen King, Ron Hansen, Ana Castillo, Albert French, Charles Baxter, Helen Yglesias, Ward Just, Gail Tsukiyama, Jane Kenyon, Tim Gautreaux, Abby Frucht, Alice Mattison and Diane McKenny Whetstone

Speaking of a wide-ranging interests, look at these candidates in the Star Autobio category: Rosemary Clooney, Isaac Stern, Muhammed Ali, Dan Quayle (well you couldn't put him in Politics), Aretha Franklin, John Glenn, Neil Simon (the sequel to "Rewrites"), talkshow host Mike Douglas, Joe Torre (coaching advice), Patti Smith, Eddie Fisher (every chapter a wife!), Merle Haggard, Barry White, Suzanne Somers and Jewel (no last name but children know her).

Watch out for confusion regarding two books by similarly named authors about legendary late comic Andy Kaufman, one by Bob Zmuda, "Andy Kaufman Revealed," and one by Bill Zehme, "Lost in the Fun House."

Essay collections look good by Pam Houston, Larry McMurtry, Nadine Gordimer, Mary Gordon, John Updike and others. Iyanla Vanzant hits the ground running with the book it took her 13 days to write (so long this time?), "Yesterday I Cried."

Big-name mysteries and thrillers are hot this Fall from Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Richard North Patterson, Dashiell Hammett (good old Dash! - he never forgets!), Michael Connolley, Thomas Perry, John Ridley, Jonathan Lethem, Stuart Woods (just dreadful I'm sure), Jonathan Kellerman, John Lescroart, Linda Barnes, Charles Palliser.

And then, what fun: Frederich and Steven Barthelme team up to describe their disastrous gambling rampage in the deep South; actor Edward James Olmos writes about Latino life in the United States (up close, that guy has a face that explodes with life experience). Editor Patricia O'Connor of "Woe Is I" fame confesses this time that "Words Fail Me" (uh huh - perhaps in the year 3000).

Beverly Cleary's first Ramona Quimby book in 15 years, "Ramona's World," is certain to hit a grateful audience of all ages. Stephen Hines, the Nashville researcher who's discovered unpublished works by Laura Ingalls Wilder before, offers a newly uncovered work by Louisa May Alcott, "The Quiet Little Woman: A Christmas Story." Donald Bogle examines the fascinating and controversial story of African Americans on TV in "Primetime Blues."

Finally, two books have been written about Celebration, the Walt Disney gated-in-your-head community where nobody in his right mind would live except maybe New York Times writer Douglas Frantz (with his whole family!); the other book is by Princeton professor Andrew Ross.



And my, my, my, what fiascoes have been visited on Borders, that repeatedly offensive chain store that has had the audacity to stuff books by black authors in its African American section, thus leaving its New Releases, Fiction and many nonfiction categories as white as the lilies of your valley.

That story was covered by the press just as BEA convened. Then out of the L.A. Times came news that a woman nursing her baby under folds of clothing in the children's section was asked to stop by a Borders clerk who said, "You can't do that in here. There are children present."

The woman, novelist Kerry Madden-Lunsford, whose other two children were also present, writes that she said, "That's ridiculous, I'm feeding a baby. You can't see anything."

The clerk replied in one of those approved-beforehand linguistic terms that make such episodes so memorable, "It's a comfortability issue." When the store manager and a male employee ("hovering bouncer-like nearby") attempted to move Madden-Lunsford to the bathroom, she (Madden-Lunsford) collected her family and left, the manager trailing afterward, cooing, "Oh, isn't your baby cute! She's so cute! What a beautiful baby!"

Well, too late. Madden-Lunsford discovered that "what [Borders] did was illegal" (Civil Code Section 43.3: " . . . a mother may breast-feed her child in any location . . . ") and learned that the practice of kicking out nursing mothers is more prevalent than she realized. So she decided to sue, lamenting, "I wish that . . . it could have been any place other than a bookstore my family goes to all the time."

The point to this story and to the one about segregating books by African American authors? Had they happened in independent bookstores (fat chance), the response by customers and authors would have been vocal and immediate. Because independents enter into conversations like this with readers and writers all the time, the idea of changing store policy wouldn't have been so weighty.

The Borders' incidents reveal one consequence of institutionalization on the mass level - everybody's an enforcer, nobody a listener; everybody's dictated to, nobody can change a thing; workers, authors, customers, kids are all expected to obey a system that outweighs all other concerns. If that's the approach that crushes difference and dissent in the above episodes, it's hard to believe it isn't in effect in the buying and selling of books by formula that has little to do with people who stock or read them.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

Amazon's acquisition of Bibliofind could be a disaster for the book independents. Obviously, Amazon can massage the database and turn it into the priemere out-of-print database in the world. It will have that done before the ABA's BookSense sees the light of day. It will also have the inside track on the used-book clearning-house field.

The real significance of the Bibliofind deal is that with it, Amazon just acquired the New Age version of a 6,000-store chain for next to free. Think of Amazon as a supplier. Now they can offer people the ability to order just about anything and pick up their orders at any of the affiliates. They can have a 6,000-store network in local communities hawking the virtues of Amazon to drive word-of-mouth business. The hucksters will be "independent stores" themselves, so what's the defense?

Unlike February of 1998, when Amazon could be stopped (value of $1.5 billion/ half of Barnes & Noble), by May of 1999 they can't. Their $30-billion valuation presents too much buying power. They can buy whatever they want of the industry.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I have a virtual storefront on the web, specializing in used, unique and rare books. I also work in an independent bookstore downtown. It is a pleasure to be a part of the bookselling community. (After all, isn't it the "Noblest" profession?)

I list books at Bibliofind and ABE, and was pissed when Barnes & Noble moved into ABE and demanded a "resale" discount from the independents! It's like a sucker punch! ABE members were not required to sign the "contract" with B&N. Now, ABE just raised all their rates, 100% for people who have less than 500 books listed! Another way of bumping out the little guy?

Now Amazon has bought Bibliofind... But haven't the indies sold books to Amazon before? I have. How much does Amazon mark up the book when they get it for their customer? Since I work in a retail area, whenever someone tells me they tried to find an out of print book and were unsuccessfull, I tell them about Bibliofind and ABE. I may as well say "try Amazon again" now. It comes down to a moral vs. money issue. Are we going to bitch and moan that another corporate has moved in and acquired? The most we could do is say we won't sell through their "services." It seems like true booksellers don't mind sitting on a book for a while.

Daniel Waller

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re: Borders' separate section for Black/African American literature. It follows there should be a separate section for Yellow/Asian American writers (Amy Tan), etc. The rest of the books need be labeled "Literature by White Majorities All Over the World." This is ludicrous.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Overheard at a local diner:

Busboy: What's that you're reading?
Lady: It's ______ , the one I told you about. It's out in paperback now, you know. Busboy: Do they have it at Stacey's? I like that store, Stacey's.
Lady: Yeah, that's a good store, but I go to Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books.
Busboy: Yeah, Stacey's is a good store, all right. They're both good, but I like Stacey's.
Lady: Barnes and Noble has music and coffee and everything, but I don't like it.
Busboy: I hear the chains are going downhill, that's what I hear.
Lady: But they just opened up that big Borders in Stonestown.
Busboy: I know, but I like Staceys. Those chains, they're going downhill.
Lady: I like Clean Well-Lighted. I don't like Barnes & Noble.
Busboy: Yeah, they're goin' downhill, goin' downhill.

Dear Holt Uncensored,

I want to comment on Jules Older's description of "Distinct Society" as a "cattle prod" that causes most Canadians to lose their ability to think:

He says that "every Canadian knows it and has a visceral reaction to it. 'Distinct society' has come to symbolize the Great Canadian Issue: Should Quebec separate from the rest of the nation? And you can't say the phrase 'Distinct society' without automatically turning off most Canadians' ability to think. It's a cattle prod."

It seems to me that Older is using the media/politician/lobby group-driven paper tigers of "Distinct Society" rather than finding out just what Canadians and Americans really do feel about "Distinct Society" and "gun control." I have traveled through much of Canada and the U.S. and find that North Americans everywhere have a "distinct society" attitude about their home places but, at the same time, they easily recognize and share common concerns with people from away.

If anything, Older's cattle prod metaphor should be directed to media types and politicians who are too lazy and/or too self-serving to expose the paper tigers and cattle prods of their own creation. It is very easy (and lazy) for Older to use the terms "most Canadians" or "most Americans" without any evidence to support his generalizations. It is even easier and lazier to copy some other journalist's unsupported generalization.

The "cattle prods" Older speaks of have turned off the thinking capabilities of the media and media-dependent politicians. The sooner Older and the rest of the media get out of co-dependency roles with politicians and lobby groups and get down to the job of investigative reporting, the better off we'll all be.

Neil Aitken

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Your comments about real families and "family values" hit home, especially combined with "defining terms" in the previous paragraph. A friend of mine writes about completing a form in which Single and Married were the only two choices. Angrily he drew a third box, labeled it Domestic Partner, and checked it.

The upcoming census is going to present us with more of these predicaments, where the gummint will tell us what it expects us to be -- racially, socially, etc. Not long ago I learned quite by accident that in Germany I would have been considered bi-racial or passing while in America I am not. Race, when it comes down to it, is in the eye of the beholder. Domestic Partner is a legitimate legal category, but not quite ... what?

Limited multiple choice is the way to go. "We make it easy for you." Just like slave- owners giving slaves appropriate names, regardless of their real names, letting them jump over brooms but not marry. Made it easy for the owners.