HOLT UNCENSORED #60
by Pat Holt
Friday, May 14, 1999:
THE MEDIA'S SHIFT TO INDEPENDENTS
AROUND THE STORES:
'THE DECADENT READER'
LEARNING 'ULYSSES' AT MODERN TIMES: PART II
YOUR SAQs (SELDOM ASKED QUESTIONS)
THE MEDIA'S SHIFT TO INDEPENDENTS
Boy! What a treat it is to watch media rection to independent bookstores' new rock 'em, sock 'em, fighting spirit. "All of a sudden, the indies are beginning to look a lot like Amazon.com," writes Yahoo magazine. And that's a compliment!
No more this Goliath vs. Goliath baloney in which Barnes & Noble and sometimes Borders are seen as the only contenders to Amazon. Independent booksellers are now considered major players, thanks in large part to the movement of neighborhood bookstores onto the Internet individually through services like BookSite and en masse (1000 stores expected) through the American Booksellers Association's new Book Sense campaign.
"The [Book Sense] program will have its own bookselling Web site to compete with Barnes & Noble's and Amazon," writes Martin Arnold of the New York Times. This easy acceptance of what appears to be a fait a'compli, even though it won't be launched until August, is astonishing when you consider the acres of ink given to everything but independent booksellers in the very recent past.
Arnold's comment provides a nice conclusion to his fair-minded May 6 report about the letter from independent booksellers to Frank McCourt expressing their disappointment over McCourt's appearance in a television ad for Barnes & Noble.
One expected the Times to belittle this gesture, and Arnold does, but weakly, referring to a "melancholy fight" and "this wearisome book publishing melee." Beneath this issue, he concedes, "lie some serious concerns," which he states concisely and then gives space for Andy Ross of Cody's Books (who made the proposal at ABA to send the letter to McCourt) to say the not-so-obvious and very-much-worth-repeating message:
"My sense is that many authors are ignoring the fact that bookselling is becoming dominated by a few corporations which are putting out the idea that our culture is homogenous," Ross told the Times. "We were trying to make the point to Frank McCourt that we need diversity, multiplicity, and that it was reasonable to help enforce our independence and not be a pitch man for the chains."
Of course, a reader had already written to the Times to say that independents are headed for "extinction" if they keep "complaining" and don't do proactive things like get on the Web (ah ha, old hat, my friend!), but that just means people out there are truly engaged in this hugely important debate about survival and literature and free speech and the making of an informed citizenry.
In fact it's now almost fun to see how some people "get it" about independent booksellers and some don't. In the latter category, the letter-writer to the Times says: "With the electronic book just down the road and the on-line store already upon us, the ability to run a small retail outlet will be the least marketable of [independents'] skills."
Fascinating: This guy still thinks the personal touch, the human relationship, the turning of huge economies of scale into small and manageable size in one's very neighborhood can never be regained.
Compare this to what Yahoo says: "And what happens if the independents can match Amazon.com's encyclopedic selection and discount prices, in addition to offering the traditional advantages of the neighborhood store? Amazon.com might have to start thinking small." All right, then.
Of course, watch out for the silly high-tech terms the media use as they come lurching over to the independents' side. "Book Sense," writes Yahoo, "will create an online store that agglomerates the stocks of indie bookstores nationwide."
So get out there, you agglomeratin' Web crawlers, you back-from-the-dead Internetneers (now is that a word or what?). To paraphrase a slogan from the '60s: The whole world is WAITING.
AROUND THE STORES
If I keep saying the only hope for good books lies with independent booksellers, who spot them, buy them, display them and recommend them to customers regardless of publishers' support (and of course, thanks to the editors who acquired them and the agents who found them, not to mention - heavens, did I forget to mention? - the authors who wrote them and who end up paying all our salaries, such as they are in my case), it's time to celebrate this notion by pulling a few bookseller recommendations off the shelves and providing websites through which to buy them here.
So quickly and absorbingly and with thanks for your scrolling impatience, which keeps me zipping along, here are three beauts:
SLACKJAW by Jim Knipfel (Putnam/Tarcher; 235 pages; $22.95; http://www.booksmith.com): Well, you wouldn't think a memoir about going blind over 30 years' and drinking yourself blind in the meantime and starting off with a call to a suicide hotline that results in a wrist-slashing scene would be a rouser of a book, but this true story is. Author Knipfel is one "pissed-off" fellow - did I mention he also has inoperable brain lesions that "could" account for his increasing madness? - but with his rage comes a clarity and unorthodoxy with which to view the world that cuts through accepted insanity and is not-so-strangely uplifting.
Among many memorable scenes is this wrap-up session with an on-the-cheap grad student in psychology whose last bit of advice "saved my life time and again over the next few years - and almost ended it just as often," the author writes.
" 'Jim,' he said . . . 'You are not a terrible person. But the world is a terrible, HORRIBLE place. What you've got to do is take all that rage and all that hatred that's inside of you and turn it around. You've got to stop trying to destroy yourself. Turn that rage outward, go out and try to destroy the WORLD instead."
Now is that a sure-fire way to acceptance? Not exactly, Knipfel shows, but we certainly see a way of adapting to life in this funny and tragic memoir that we've never witnessed before.
THE DECADENT READER, edited by Asti Hustvedt (Zone/MIT Press; 1088 pages; $32; Diesel, 510-653-9965 -dieselbookstore.com is under construction)
It's probably no news to you that apocalyptic thinking smashes into every end-of-century period, ours included - in fact, our end-of-millenium is beyond smithereens - but the French, it turns out, exceeded all expectations at the end of the 1800s. Their obsession was over the decadence that would allow end-o'-life "crime, pollution, sexually transmitted disease, homosexuality, moral depravity, alcoholism, and tobacco and drug use" (hey! get that homosexuality out of there!), according to editor Hustvedt.
"Ironically," Hustvedt adds, "what is known as the 'belle epoque,' an era of progress and material prosperity, coincided with a widespread alarm about illness and decay." So even in our own time of economic strength and new freedoms on the Web, we feel the same sense of losing our belief in the very foundations that made us - and we want to knock those foundations off their pins to view the sordid creepy crawlies underneath.
With that frame of mind, what an adventure it is to see how writings of the perverse take on institutional thinking as two men leave a sermon at Notre Dame to follow the "indistinct figure . . . [of] a woman, and what a woman!" who leads them to a thorougly depraved part of town in an excerpt from "One Snowy Night" by Jean Lorrain. BUT in fin de siecle France, the question is, are they following a real person or their own desperation?
Or, speaking of "mad desire," how about Guy de Maupassant's story about a "deep and mysterious and terrible distress" that hasn't been spoken of in 50 years and suddenly emerges in . . . ta da! . . . "An Apparition" (the title does not give the story away).
Published in very small type, the book includes entire novels of delicious and unspeakable perversity and could thus be regarded as a perfect mirror of our times.
'THE INTUITIONIST,' Colson Whitehead (Anchor; 255 pages; $19.95; http://brooklinebooksmith.com)
This wonderfully inventive novel just keeps on selling, and thank heaven it does: Once you step into an elevator with Lila Mae Watson, the first black woman graduate of the Institute for Vertical Transport in a city very much like New York, you'll never forget the merging of mind and steel that takes place in the mind of Intuitionists - those inspectors who sense the state of mechanics in the elevators they examine - as opposed to that of Empiricists, who work only with physical evidence.
Of course, Lila Mae's flawless record is imperiled at book's opening when the elevator she approves falls to its doom, taking her career - and the hopes of this literally upward-bound African American - with it. Or does it? As Lila Mae launches her own investigation, novelist Whitehead not only gives us the intriguing story of her life, he introduces yet another twist, the existence of papers by John Fulton, founder of Intuitionism and a creator of a famous "black box" that holds the key to the future.
The haunting narrative is often humorously earnest and hopeful ("Who can resist the seductions of elevators these days, those stepping stones to Heaven, which make relentless verticality so alluring?"), sometimes dark and scary, always challenging us with its 19th-century attitudes and 21st-century leaps. What a gripper.
LEARNING 'ULYSSES' AT MODERN TIMES: PART II
So: How does a lone bookseller have the audacity to think he can direct a group discussion about James Joyce's "Ulysses," the book that those gadfly layabouts on the Modern Library committee have (probably rightly) called the best English-language novel ever published?
Well, here's one reason right off the bat. Probably the only job that James Joyce held over a long period of time was that of a Berlitz instructor, Michael Rosenthal of Modern Times Books in San Francisco explains. This was a time when the Berlitz approach to learning a new language was considered quite new and somewhat controversial.
Rather than memorize alien words on the page and painstakingly translate each one in the mind from, say, English to French before speaking, students were invited to plunge into the very foreignness of the new language and learn as children do, by the ear alone.
In this way, the language itself teaches the student its own its rhythms, styles, idioms and, of course its many meanings almost effortlessly, without requiring laborious study.
And this is what Joyce brings the reader, Michael says: not just a story but a whole new form of the novel, written with so many layers and a language all its own and thousands of literary references all cross-hatched that the only way to read it is to plunge, to surrender and to listen.
Approached this way, the great and seemingly impenetrable "Ulysses" yields up many of its secrets through the webbing of its own inner logic, its many unorthodox ideas and its constant roiling up of "foreign" words - the cat with "avid shameclosing eyes," the womb "oomb, allwombing tomb," waves from the lake "covering greengoldenly lagoons of sand."
So here we are again in the back room of Modern Times, about 20 of us on the first of ten Wednesday nights, sitting in a circle with our books open to the first chapters, having taken the plunge with the first few chapters. Michael has begun gently, with a simple question: "What is Stephen Dedalus wearing?" As we answer it - his clothes are black because he's in mourning over his mother; his floppy hat reflects affectations as a budding poet; his frayed sleeves reflect an impoverished state - other details and ideas of our own emerge.
We learn that "Ulysses" may be shocking and blasmphemous from the first page, where a shaving bowl is held up as a communion chalice and Christ mocked with giggly abandon ("For this, O dearly beloved, is the genuine Christine"), but what dazzles us from the beginning is Joyce's intricate weaving of the many threads involving Stephen's search for a father and, more important, The Father, as well as his frustration with the fatherland, which could be either the hated England or the devastated Ireland.
References to Hamlet and Odysseus and Aristotle are folded into hundreds of obscure (to us) literary and historical ideas and events. It's hard to believe, as Michael explains, that throughout this 700-page book, "every word will be linked to every other." Indeed, in the mind-exploding episode, Stephen "dumps" his brilliance on the page in a way that is so stupendous, so dense and so . . . so . . . IRRITATING that we have to calm each other down.
One thing stumps us - an odd juxtaposition of two nearly identical paragraphs about Stephen's dying mother. On page 5, Stephen remembers: "Silently, in a dream she had come to him after her death, her wasted body within its loose brown graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, that had bent upon him, mute, reproachful, a faint odour of wetted ashes."
By page 10, though, he remembers: "In a dream, silently, she had come to him, her wasted body within its loose graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath bent over him with mute secret words, a faint odour of wetted ashes." It's only slightly changed, but this time, as Stephen thinks further of "her hoarse loud breath rattling in horror," comes the single line: "Ghoul! Chewer of corpses!" To which Stephen replies, "No mother. Let me be and let me live."
So far, we have uncovered references to death from Swinburne to Homer (imagine: "the snotgreen sea"), but no amount of discussion reveals Joyce's intention with these two paragraphs. Of course at times "Ulysses" seems to be a work of such a sprawling, sloppy, upchucky genius that it's as if Joyce forgot to remove one of these, but of course that would be way too simple.
As Michael explains, "Ulysses" is also about the creation of art. The budding poet, Stephen, has caught himself working over the stuff of life - in this case his own mother's death - for a future poem. Not satisfied with the thought about his mother as he envisioned it in writing on page 5, he finds himself reworking the material unconsciously on page 10 until he snaps to and, through his mother's voice, berates himself as a "Ghoul! Chewer of corpses!" And so he is.
It is our first glimpse that Joyce is more than the most brilliant show-off of the 20th century (some were ready to concede that even that distinction would make reading "Ulysses" worthwhile). But in this early session our greatest discovery lies in the resources and wisdom of group discussion. Somehow what Joyce intended with "Ulysses" is within our power to know (at least on the top layer). As to whether the book will enrich or fulfill us, or god forbid change our lives, at this point we'd have to say, Nah.
Next week: The Minds Change
YOUR SAQs (SELDOM ASKED QUESTIONS)
"Will you ever publish your book industry spoof, 'Remainders of the Day'? " There seems to be great interest in polishing up this parody for a snazzy and affordable trade paperback, sold only by independent booksellers as a " 'Tales of the City' for the book industry!" -- Patricia Holt, former book editor of the San Francisco Chronicle (and pseudonymous author of guess what) or "Scathing, funny and all too true!" -- Patrick Patriarch III, publisher, Patrick Patriarch Sons, Nephews and Male Cousins and character in said story.
However, one of the things I've learned from writing for this big ball of constantly changing discussion called the Internet is a new respect for the "permanence" (this word is still in use however temporarily) of print-on-paper-between-covers. Is "Remainders," which began as a way to have some fun with the gloomy direction of bookselling and turned into a soap opera that could have gone on for years if the characters hadn't created their own climax and thus their own denoument and end, really worth the trees it would devour to get into print?
And could independents sell enough to pay for a printing? Well, here's a new idea: If you're interested in selling this book, let me know how many you would buy, and then, once I get, say, advance orders for 3,000 or so, I'll just go ahead with it! Not such a novel idea (but a nice idea for a novel).
What do you think would be the best price? It's not something I can ask very many publishers to take on as a viable project since chain and Amazon distribution would be out of the question. (As for now, hey, how about a sequel? This time a love story set during Verschleppen's sales conference for all 5,278 of its imprints in the remote Splotzdale, a "new" country created with landfill from the last Manhattan garbage strike that is now one entire golf course and an airstrip . . . well, great, let's just give the plot away before even writing it). In any case, all ideas welcome and please send to me directly at email@example.com.
NOTE: Thanks to the many readers who wrote to say that Oregon has no sales tax, and that Amazon is located in Washington state, not Oregon.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I was amused by the comment in Tuesday's column about the reviews on Amazon.com. It is true that they are not always enlightening. My pal Bernice Kliman wrote a marvelous performance history of Macbeth titled "Shakespeare in Performance - Macbeth." There are about 10 Amazon reviews. The only one about Bernice's book is mine. The rest are reviews of the play or a children's adaptation of "A Midsummer Night's Dream"! Both Bernice and I have written Amazon, but despite their promises, they have not yet amended the site. What a joke.
In light of someone's suggestion a couple months back that many of the reviews are written by the author's friends and relatives, I wonder how they can know that? In light of my statement above, I want to defend my reviewing Bernice's book. I wanted to bring up the number of stars testifying to the book's quality, since the relatively low grade was caused by disgruntled students who resented having to read the play. And while Bernice has become a friend, I do have some credentials. Shakespeare Bulletin asked me to review the book when it was published.
Also, my own book on Alzheimer's disease has a 5 star Amazon rating [Editor's note: the title of the book is "Alzheimer's: The Answers You Need"]. With one exception, the reviews were written by Alzheimer's professionals. The exception was Patricia Smith who interviewed my co-author and myself for the San Jose Mercury News and believed in our message.
I certainly believe the Amazon reviews are screwy in some ways, but I also believe that sometimes they are deeply considered and helpful. The trick is figuring out which is which. So far, the spurious reviews I have seen are obvious. That may change.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I'd never heard of "the marvelously wise and hip and humorous Gary Swisher" (#59), but I chuckle to see that he has to illustrate his point about the crassness of Amazon "reviews" with the example of (unspecified) hardcore science fiction novels. Yes, I can easily come up with books that incite flame wars. So what? I've just been on Amazon to decide which Walter Mosley novel I should next buy (elsewhere); the reviews are mostly slapdash, but a quick skim also reveals enough to be helpful.
Reviews, favorable and unfavorable alike, of a book on homeschooling (Blumenfeld, "Homeschooling : A Parents [sic] Guide to Teaching Children") reveal what the publisher doesn't: that it's written from a Christian (creationist, etc.) standpoint, enough for me to lose my interest in it, perhaps enough for others to want to buy it. And a sizable number of the reviews on Amazon are perceptive and literate . . .
Thus I infer that Amazon's review system, open to abuse though it is, is a Good Thing.
You also quote the marvelously wise (etc.) Gary Swisher as saying, "You don't need to know much about technology" to get your store on the web. . . . "If you can type, you can win."
Well, yes, any dimwit (myself for example) with access to a computer connected to the net can make and post a web page or three. What Joe Shmoe and I can't do without either (1) paying a lot of moolah for professional assistance or (2) "studying" is to create a website that (via the ability to attach comments, etc.) attracts as much attention as - danger, heresy ahead! - Amazon's website would even if Amazon didn't advertise. Rather than imbibe either gloom 'n' doom or boosterism, your interested and ambitious readers might read http://photo.net/wtr/thebook/ (ignoring the plugs for Amazon).
Peter Evans, http://www.gaminator.com/peter/
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Michael Korda's book (#59) is bound to be lots of fun. In my early days as an author-squiring Honda driver I had Mr. and Mrs. Korda in town for an author tour. The best moment was probably when the hosts of a prominent TV talkshow (two well-know perky blondes) came smilingly in to the Green Room. Korda exclaimed, "Oh look! It's the Aryan twins!"
The anti-author attitude held by publishers is not, by the way, exclusive to that industry. A doctor friend is sure that if her hospital could figure out a way to operate without doctors, it surely would. It'd sure be a lot cheaper and not nearly so much trouble!
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I find it puzzling that any independent book store would oppose a fair and consistent application of sales tax to Internet commerce. The legalized evasion of sales tax has been engineered by the Internet industry to unfairly compete against independent and place based businesses.
The issue of the complexity of record-keeping is a serious issue but not one that is unsolvable. Computer programs already exist that can sort out this kind of record keeping.
I believe that it is scandalous that the Internet industry has succeeded in evading its responsibilities for collecting billions of dollars of taxes that go to local communities. These taxes support education, roads, welfare and local services that create the possibility for the orderly markets necessary for Internet commerce to exist in the first place. The Internet corporations are taking money from communities and returning nothing. They are ruining local businesses, which do collect sales, hire local employees and purchase goods and services from other local businesses which in turn purchase more goods and services in communities.
The internet advocates in Congress have passed a moratorium on new taxes for Internet commerce. They have created a snappy slogan that we do not need a tax on knowledge. Sales taxes are not taxes on knowledge but on commercial transactions.
In my state of California, I am required to collect 8.25% sales tax on all Internet transactions within California. Barnesandnoble.com and Borders.com do not collect this tax even though they have a huge physical presence in the state. This is wrong.
When I sell a book in my community, California requires me to charge 8.25% more than Amazon is required to charge. Thus California discriminates against California businesses in favor of non-California businesses. Does this make sense?
When I evade the collection of sales tax, I have my doors padlocked. When Michael Dell of Dell Computers evades his tax, he is invited to the White House.
Andy Ross, Cody's Books firstname.lastname@example.org
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Regarding the person who wrote: "I'm afraid Jim Huang misunderstood the import of the sales tax issue, I'd like to elaborate just a bit [on this question of what constitutes a "nexus"].
My single store is located in just one state. So, yes, at this moment, I collect and pay sales tax to just one state -- Michigan. My store operates a website, which is located on a server in Alabama. Is this a nexus?My store operates a mini-e-outlet selling recommended titles, which is
Mail from each of these three separate sites is routed to my through my local internet service provider, Ameritech -- which operates here in Michigan and also in several other states (soon to be many more, if Ameritech's proposed merger with another Baby Bell is approved). Have I created another nexus here?
Again, my point is simply this: the current status quo is good for businesses like mine. While the sales tax issue is a serious one, all I'm arguing is that the interests of little stores are unlikely to be at the forefront of any new legislation. Independents need to be careful of what they wish for.
Deadly Passions Bookshop
[A note from Hut Landon of NCIBA:]
Dear Jim Huang:
Regarding your note to Holt Uncensored about Internet sales tax, a quick clarification. Here's an example of nexus: Barnes&Noble.com selling on the Internet and allowing customers to pick up or even return books purchased via that site in bricks-and-mortar stores in any of the 50 United States. Doesn't matter whether B&N and B&N.com are "separate" companies -- nexus is clear and sales tax should be charged on Internet sale.
Hut Landon, email@example.com
Northern California Independent Booksellers Association
Dear Hut Landon:
Your argument may be fine as far as it goes. I'm no fan of B&N, so I don't really want to take up their cause and refute it - they seem to do fine, unfortunately, without my help. My real concern is for my own business, and how states might decide to treat what I'm doing (as I outlined in my email) as operating in more than one state. As I ship more and more packages out to other states -- as a result of working the web as we do -- it's harder and harder to think of ourselves as just a Michigan business (though for all legal intents and purposes we clearly are).
The basic problem, of course, is that having separate state sales tax collections no longer makes sense in this internet era. The laws already didn't make sense for out of state mail orders, but the problem wasn't significant enough to worry about in the past. The problem is significant now, and clearly growing. I am very fearful of what new legislation might do, and believe that it's more likely that my store will be the victim of new laws rather than the beneficiary. That might be an overly pessimistic forecast, and I'd be happy to be proven wrong here.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
The importance of the local sales tax exemption on Amazon's ability to bleed sales from independents cannot be overemphasized. I have noticed the word "nexus" mentioned a number of times. It is my understanding that "nexus" in this context means if a company has operations in a state, all sales to residents in that state are subject to that state's sales taxes.
So just what is "nexus" in the information age? Its roots lie in brick and mortar. It is easy to see a brick and mortar store and to define it as an operation. But I would suggest that there is a different form of "nexus" related to Internet sales.
I have discussed purchasing practices with a number of Silicon Valley types. They are big buyers of computer books and big users of Amazon. The most often mentioned reason is the avoidance of California sales taxes. "Why get books from Kepler's or Computer Literacy when I can avoid the tax with Amazon?" Pretty good question.
I would bet a dime to a donut that the biggest source of sales for Amazon is Yahoo. Right around the corner from these guys, and probably what the Silicon Valley folks use to reach Amazon. There would be no Amazon if not for Yahoo. So why is this not nexus?
The brick-and-mortar merchant across the street can join as an Amazon Associate to sell the same book to the same customer through Amazon with no sales tax that the independent bookseller must sell with sales tax. Why wouldn't that Associate's storefront establish nexus for Amazon?
Amazon just bought Bibliofind (a Massachusetts company) and two California based companies. Will these operations establish nexus for Amazon in those states? My bet is you won't see Amazon charge sales taxes in MA or CA even now.
Amazon has 200,000 associates, spends $20 million a month on Yahoo type relationships, and has announced plans to make many more acquisitions. Why does a 30 cent brick surrounded by 3 cents of mortar constitute nexus, and a $10 million electronic version of the brick, NOT?
It would be funny if it were not so tragic. Our own government is in effect subsidizing Amazon to take sales away from Independents. This is one government subsidy that seems to be working great.