HOLT UNCENSORED #59
by Pat Holt
Tuesday, May 11, 1999:
MICHAEL KORDA'S EYE-OPENER
'IF YOU CAN TYPE, YOU CAN WIN'
THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST: PART XXVMIXXNLII
MICHAEL KORDA'S EYE-OPENER
Not only is Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief Michael Korda a veteran of nearly 50 years of the best and worst eras in book publishing - and he knows them intimately - he is also a great storyteller, as we learn in ANOTHER LIFE (Random House; 530 pages; $26.95).
If you aren't chuckling and turning these pages compulsively by page 35, well, you've got a chip on your shoulder, which I certrainly do (did), where Mr. Korda is concerned.
I've found his New Yorker reminiscenses of years past to be foppish and name-dropping in the extreme, but after a recent interview at KPFA - that bastion of radical politics in Berkeley where you'd think mainstream publishing would be the last item on the compulsive page-turner agenda - the two hosts brought out their well-thumbed advance copies of Korda's book and related one hilarious and telling anecdote after another.
Here's one they loved, and who wouldn't: One day Korda found himself confronting what may have been the first thoroughly scurrilous writer in trade publishing history, the unrelentingly pornographic Harold Robbins, about the fact that Robbins had written a book with an entirely different set of characters in the second half as appeared in the first half.
Hearing this, "every so often [Robbins] glanced toward [his agent, Paul] Gitlin as if to ask, Do I really have to listen to all this shit?" Korda: "[S&S editors] could make the necessary changes, I hastened to add, since his impatience was unmistakable - nobody was asking HIM to do it. We just needed to know whether he wanted to go with the people in the first half of the book or the ones in the second half."
After some thought, expressed in his usual one-note (F sharp) language, Robbins decided: "[L]eave it alone. . . I've been working my ass off to write these books for years, trying to figure out plots and characters. Let the readers do some work for a change."
So I thought I'd give Korda's book a try and I found myself on page 150 before lifting my head to see what time or planet it was. Like a good show biz autobio, "Another Life" doesn't require the reader to have any insider interest in the field under study: With a range and depth of detail that seem astonishing after half a century has passed and an affectionate though at times blistering scrutiny of industry traditions and foibles, Korda reminds us there was no Golden Age in publishing, Max Perkins notwithstanding (actually, Perkins was one who never "stood up for [his] authors," despite the mythology, Korda says).
Indeed, the Simon & Schuster that Korda remembers became successful in the last stage of the Gentlemen's Profession, when publishing procedures appeared more constipated and insular than creative and nurturing.
Therein lies the humor, the mixups, the funny anecdotes (hundreds of them!), all the isms (racism, sexism, etc.), the stars (Graham Greene, Joseph Heller, Irving Lazar, Kitty Kelley, Carlos Castaneda, Tennessee Williams, Joan Crawford, hundreds more!) - and the genius: Korda seems to have come into publishing just at the crest of the "revolution" that would see the old-and-outgoing (eccentric, hermitlike Max Schuster) and the young-and-up-and-coming (bold, hip, charismatic Bob Gottlieb).
Those who ARE students of publishing will find much to marvel at here. On the irony of returns, then and now (and he puts this in a footnote!), Korda writes: "More than 60 years after the Depression, unsold books are still returnable by bookstores to the publishers for full credit, an emergency measure that was intended to save booksellers from bankruptcy as the economy collapsed and remains in effect even though the big bookstore chains have long since become profitable giants, dwarfing all but the largest publishers, and have driven out of business just those small, independent bookstores that the returns policy was meant to protect."
Korda charts the beginning of book industry merger-mania not in the '70s but in 1959, when Donald Klopfer and Bennett Cerf first took Random House public, with S&S following soon after. He sees a sneakeroo Golden Age in the '70s anyway, just because "there was no thick layer of management and bureaucracy" causing editors to lie their heads off on profit-and-loss statements. This kept them separate from the commercialism and bottom-line thinking that so changed the marketing forces of every "owned" publishing house.
Of course the worst was to come, slithering in with pernicious timing: "It was always a common joke among publishing people that 'this would be a great business if it weren't for writers,' " he writes, "but by the mid-70s publishing was beginning to be run by people who at heart believed that and included editors as well." Today they'd even kick out the columnists.
'IF YOU CAN TYPE, YOU CAN WIN'
So: Is it a pipe dream that independents are about to make the Comeback of the Century (see #57)? Is the honeymoon over for the chains and Amazon? Let's listen:
"By any measure, Barnes & Noble is a distant #2 on the web, and it's pretty obvious when you shop the B&N site why. It doesn't have the same energy or excitement [as Amazon]. Its 'Featured Title' doesn't tell me much except that the publisher ponied up to be the feature. [There's not the] same intuitive understanding about why people might want to buy the book. It's not really as busy a screen, but . . . maybe not as rich either."
So spoketh the marvelously wise and hip and humorous Gary Swisher, who conducted one of the best bookseller workshops at this year's BookExpo, this one sponsored by the National Association of College Stores. Part of the fun of BEA is buying the tapes of the panels you missed and driving around listening to them after the fact - and in this case taking furious notes off the three audiotapes of the NACS proceedings (available at 1-800-810-TAPE).
About Borders, said Swisher, "you see the same problem." Too dull, he felt. The site drives customers away. "Here I am in the card file of the library . . . just a lot of text, not a lot of options, not even intuitive. It's just not happening . . ."
As to Amazon, Swisher believes people no longer buy the baloney (my word) of "Customer Comments," which seem "powerful," perhaps because "Amazon believes it's building community, but they suck. They're terrible. It's great to envision this world of intelligent readers sharing opinions, but most of it is really babble . . .
"[I]f you want a treat, check out the hardcore science fiction titles: You'll find maybe 472 Customer Comments for one novel, but most of of them are like a flame war betwen two guys: 'No! No! You missed it!' 'No! No! YOU missed it!' So much for fostering community."
So the bloom is off the chains and Amazon on that selfsame Internet where independents have their greatest chance to succeed today, Swisher believes: "You don't need to know much about technology" to get your store on the web, he says. "If you can type, you can win."
Of course, Swisher was talking to college-store booksellers about the sales of general books, but many of his comments can be applied to trade stores as well: "We have a leg up on the web," he said. "We know what our customers want far better than the big-box Internet dealer who's got a zillion different customers scattered in all directions."
What is the "look, tone, mission, message" of your brick-and-mortar store? Put that on the web; make a relationship between the physical and virtual store; don't think of the website as a different business.
As to branding and marketing, here's a thought for trade booksellers to chew on: "College students are spending tens of thousands of dollars a year building an affiliation with the 'brand' you already have - the campus. You don't need a million-dollar branding campaign; you just need to [move into] the branding that's already going on."
That's probably true for every neighborhood in America: People know what makes their community distinct - its character, its atmosphere, its immediacy, its relevance. Amazon has spent millions creating that kind of faux presence on the Web; independent booksellers have that identity in spades every time they open for business in the morning.
"We're going to see a superstore fall-out sometime soon," Swisher predicted. "Maybe we're already seeing it now." Could it be that the growth area in bookselling is shifting, that it's returning to independent booksellers? If so, you're not alone, says Swisher. While he didn't know much about the American Bookseller Association's BookSense program for independents going on the web, as little had been revealed at the time of Swisher's talk, he gave good marks to BookSite, the other bookseller web service that's been operating for about eight months, and other models customized for bookstores.
Swisher's message was heartening, from whatever angle you heard it: What independents know best - how to select the best books from the widest range of titles - is the key to success in the virtual store: "You can provide a focus on the web. You can say, of the universe of books in this category, I'm giving you a slice that's smaller but more meaningful and appropriate for you. I look at this assortment strategy as a dialogue between me as a merchant and my customer. It's a very rich dialogue and the kind of communication I really enjoy." It can also mean everything to customers who return to both the "real" and the "virtual" bookstore.
THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST: PART WHATEVER IT IS RED AND BLACK GOES UNDER
It's closing night for Red and Black, the 26-year-old independent bookstore that has been a center of liberal traditions in Seattle, Washington, for so long that few of the hundred or so people crammed in the store - sipping wine and barking out bids - can imagine life in the city without it.
Not a book is left in the store. All the shelves and walls have been stripped bare of books and posters, save one - the front wall, on which notices and announcements of historic store events spanning nearly three decades has now become the center of attention.
"AND NOW, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: HOW MUCH AM I OFFERED FOR THE HISTORIC, THE UNIQUE, THE UNDENIABLY VALUABLE ALICE WALKER POSTER?" announces Nancy Shawn, a member of the collective that ran the store during its last struggle to stay alive. Despite the spirited auction, a cloud of sadness envelops the crowd as a bid for $75 wins, and down comes the poster of a very young Walker to much applause, some tears and a sense of emptiness much larger than the unfaded yellow paint underneath.
"Red and Black Bookstore Collective was started in Seattle's university district in 1973 by five men and women with a little cash, some books and the dream of political commitment of providing books by unrepresented voices," collective member Karen Maeda Allman wrote in a recent International Examiner, a pan-Asian American community newspaper.
"At the time, most books were purchased at department stores and at smaller chain stores like B. Dalton's and Waldenbooks, not exactly the place to find very many books by women writers, nonwhite writers, and lefties."
Although it carried the stigma of "that Communist bookstore" for a long time, Red and Black changed with the times, losing its leftwing image and becoming "a great source of information," Maeda Allman recalls, "on domestic violence, new literature by Native Americans, multicultural children's literature, African American books, Spanish-language materials, Asian American literature and lesbian, gay and transgender books."
Karen became the store's "tabling" specialist, driving carloads of books around Washington state to women's prisons, migrant laborers, domestic violence meetings, gay pride events, sexual assault conferences. "You can't imagine the gratitude of people who don't see any books at all when they find a whole stack of books especially geared for their interests and needs," she recalls.
The store soon became something of a community center. "People used the store [phone] number as a hotline for all kinds of resources they couldn't find elsewhere," Nancy recalls.
"Even now I frequently meet young people who have no idea of the number of great new and classic Filipino American writers we stocked here, or that there's currently a small surge of publishing Hapa writers of various Asian ethnicities, including, say, Peter Ho Davies, Aimee Liu, Nora Okja Keller and others," says Karen. "I certainly did not know about any of this until I was nearly 30, when I moved to Seattle. I read none of these books in school, saw none in the chain stores . . . Consequently, much of our promotional energy went to customers who were elementary, secondary and university teachers."
The collective did everything it could think of to keep the store going - discounts, sidelines, benefits, author signings, in-store events, children's programs, multicultural curriculum kits (selling for $550 each), Spanish-language materials and so forth. But with chain stores moving in and Amazon in its back yard, Red and Black's days were numbered.
Nancy has a theory about the lure of order in the midst of seeming chaos. There's something messy about stores like Red and Black that seem to exist on the fringe, something alluring about cleaning up the mess they make. "Some people believe efficiency is the way to go," says Nancy. "For example, wouldn't it just be easier to order from seven publishing conglomerates instead of having to worry about a whole lot of publishers?"
Of course, creativity rarely rises from sanitized, no-risk conditions; often it comes out of adversity and challenge. Certainly there was nothing streamlined about Red and Black; its aisles were crowded and lighting bleachy; the collective often fought within itself ("What's the matter with the lighting?" Nancy remembers some members complaining. "You can read! Let's go on to something important.")
But Red and Black made it its mission to find good literature that would have remained unseen otherwise, and to serve a population that now has nowhere to go for books it needs. For that, the loss of the store is incalculable. Certainly there were options the collective could have pursued: Had they gone on the Web, formed a nonprofit service, created a Friends of the Store group, "found a sugar mama," Nancy laughs, maybe things would have been different.
"But let's not kid ourselves," says Elizabeth Wales, a literary agent in Seattle. "Very few 'niche' stores can run on profits of the books alone any longer. The competition from the chains and Amazon is just too stiff. You have to raise money on the side to pay people. You have to carve out the part that ran the community service. You can't do that when the debt is closing in."
So goodbye, Red and Black. It's always important to remember that whenever an independent store closes, NOTHING can replace it. "In any city there's going to be a segment of the population that is totally underserved by popular culture," Liz Wales adds. "which is basically what the chains and Amazon are." Certainly few booksellers are left to carry on the legacy of a store like Red and Black.
Dear Holt Uncensored
I have been an online used book dealer for about 2 years. The [sale of Bibliofind to Amazon] is another step in an unsettling trend that includes the conversion of Interloc into Alibris and the Advanced Book Exchange/Barnes & Noble agreement.
It appears that the online used book community is experiencing the same trend that the brick-and-mortar new bookstores have seen. Consolidation of the business into the hands of a few major players scares all of us small folk.
This latest move has spurred the formation of two small groups of online dealers. Both of them are looking into setting up search sites that are cooperatively owned by the dealers who list on them. It appears that they are heading in two different directions. One is probably going to be a listing service like ABE that simply passes customers on to the dealer with the book. The other is considering ways to become a low cost competitor to Amazon and Barnes & Noble. This CoOp site would become a "brand name" that takes the order and the payment, then passes them both along to the dealer who ships the book directly to the customer.
A couple of comments about the information in this week's letters.
1. the average price to the used book dealer is nowhere near $25; it is probably more like $12.
2. Amazon didn't actually pay anything for Bibliofind; it gave them outrageously overinflated stock. The only way the owners of Bibliofind will see any money from the deal is if they sell it before the stock crashes to its real value ($10 to $15 per share would be a good guess, and that assumes that someday Amazon will stop losing money).
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Just a comment on Frank McCourt's two-facedness.
In the New York Times, he said something on the order of, I am what I am, I've never apologized for anything in my life. In the Publisher's Weekly Daily for Booksellers, he recounts how, at a reading somewhere at an independent bookstore, he apparently insulted Barnes & Noble. At his publisher's request, he wrote a letter of apology to Len Riggio.
I am not as outraged at his appearing on the barnesandnoble.com commercial as I am that he is so ready to modify reality, a complaint made about his book's nonfiction tag as well.
Glenn Fleishman, http://www.glenns.org
Dear Holt Uncensored:
[About BookSense, the campaign to raise the consciousness of consumers about independent booksellers, and booksense.com, the website that is intended to make independents competitive with Amazon and other Internet book suppliers,] I think that this is the biggest weakness of the entire campaign. Consumers on the whole are self-absorbed (at least insofar as their purchasing habits are concerned). The most effective advertising focuses on the benefits to the consumer, and this strikes me as the complete opposite.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Jim Huang's letter in #58 [about the lack of a sales tax on the Internet] has hit the nail right on the head. This could be another nail in the coffin of independent stores for nationwide shipping because of the administrative costs of handling sales tax for a myriad of taxing authorities. The sales loss because of sales tax is nothing but a smokescreen. The real problem is the amount of advertising and deep discounts that Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and Borders can afford.
Around the Corner Books
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I'm afraid Jim Huang misunderstood the import of the sales tax issue. If Jim has a single store, he is required to collect sales taxes only for those mail/phone/internet orders that are shipped to an address within his own state. He is NOT required to collect (nor to pay) sales tax to any of the other 49 states. If, however, he has stores in three states, then he's required to collect sales tax on sales to any of those three states.
In the case of amazon.com, they have a "nexus" (a business relationship) only in two states at present -- Oregon and Delaware. Since Delaware has no sales tax of its own, amazon.com is obliged to collect sales taxes only on sales delivered to Oregon addresses.
Barnes & Noble, however, has a presence (i.e., a retail store) in virtually every state, thus creating a nexus that would require them to collect and pay sales taxes in every state. It appears they may be claiming that barnesandnoble.com is separate from the parent company which operates the retail stores, but I believe state treasurers will take a dim view of that argument.
Barnes and Noble also claims, "If we don't have your book, nobody has it." Apparently they think they are immune to truth in advertising laws as well as sales tax requirements.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
It appalled me to hear that a mother was forbidden to breast-feed her baby in a Borders store. Not two weeks ago, while helping a customer, I came across a mother breast-feeding her baby in the best comfy chair in the bookstore. It was in a prominent location in the store and right at the entrance of the children's section. Not only did no one bat an eye, but I felt a sense of pride and happiness that she and her family felt comfortable enough in our independent bookstore to do so. (I would have said so to her at the time but I didn't want to disturb such a perfect moment.)
Eagle Harbor Book Co.
CORRECTION: My apologies to Walter Carr and Ron Sher for misspelling their names in the recent story about Elliott Bay Book Company.