by Pat Holt

Friday, May 21, 1999




Well! I almost sent out a SECOND Special Issue as readers excitedly responded to the truly rotten idea - posed and disowned at once - in #63, Our First Special Issue.

That idea called for independent booksellers to cease buying bestsellers from publishers or wholesalers and take advantage of the much niftier loss-leader discounts (offered at an astounding 50%) just announced at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-A-Million (55%!) and apparently every Internet address from to

The more that independents buy these loss leaders, this scurrilous strategy suggests, the more money they save and the deeper the losses are for Amazon, Azusa and Cucamonga. But why stop there? readers now inquire.

"Consider the idea of these independents becoming 'Affiliates' of Amazon or 'Associates' of Barnes & Noble," one reader suggests. "They can buy their New York Times bestsellers at 50% off AND get another 15% kickback, unless there is some 'no commission' clause on these items." This 15% "kickback" is the commission that "Affiliate" or "Associate" websites get for every book order they send on to Amazon or Barnes & Noble, et al.

After all, one reader points out, "buying from an online bookstore at 50% off means immediate payment via credit card, plus you pay their shipping fees. Also, buying at 50-off complicates returns, no?

"However, if you simply become an Associate or Barnes & Noble Affiliate - set up a page or two on dog fancying or something and use that to link to books you want to buy - you could have someone not registered as the affiliate buy 20 books and get 15% back as affiliate fees in addition to the 50% off.

"So let's do the math for, say, 25 copies of John Grisham's 'Testament.'

"Ordinarily you'd buy from a wholesaler like Ingram, and say the discount is 40%. Multiply the list price of $27.95 times 60% and you get $16.77 per copy - multiply by 25 copies and the total is $419.25.

"By contrast, here are the figures for with associate 15% direct link commission: list $27.95 x 50% = $13.98 x 25 copies = $349.50 minus 15% commission (doesn't get paid until 30 days past end of quarter) of $52.42 = net $297.08 + shipping of $3 + .95 x 25 ($26.75) = $323.85.

"Oh, and charge this on a credit card that gives you airline miles, and get another 1.5% rebate in the form of free tickets (air miles are worth between 1.5 and 2 cents a mile, and most airline affinity cards give you 1 mile per dollar).

"Just make sure that the affiliate and the buyer aren't the same person. There's no way to police this, of course, but best to not share a name with the purchaser."

Tsk tsk - just a terrible idea, so vindictive, so unprofessional, so time-consuming, so wonderfully subversive. Nobody doubts the chains and Amazon would love to sabotage independents' business, and ahve contributed mightily to that end. But for independents to turn the table? I guess we'll never know.



Well, something is getting through, at least to Hollywood, it seems: Independent booksellers, once the last to be mentioned (if at all) in the "Goliath vs. Goliath" (Amazon vs. Barnes & Noble) stories of only a few months ago, are suddenly IN.

Despite the loathesome message of "You've Got Junk Mail," aspects of the modern hero graced Meg Ryan's portrayal of the doomed bookstore owner. Now it appears the key to romantic flames in a new movie called "The Love Letter" is a quiet bookstore owner played by Kate Capshaw. And in "Notting Hill," the answer to Julia Roberts' dreams is Hugh Grant, another Mr. Sweetie Pie of a bookseller.

Now all we need is a bookstore-on-the-'Net movie with struggling bookseller Sandra Bullock hacking her way into chainstore owner Tom Hanks' data base to discover he's targeting her store for termination unless she sets up a creative Book Fence program for illegal reviewers' galleys before Hanks and turns all his stores into homeless shelters offering free dental care in "Retainers of the Day."



Here we are back again in the receiving room of Modern Times Bookstore, listening to co-owner Michael Rosenthal lead the discussion of "Ulysses" by James Joyce.

Since this is a nonacademic environment, Michael doesn't want to bog us down with intellectual baggage that might sound oppressive or lecturish to our group of after-work readers. He believes in the power of minds interacting and grappling with great literature, not Greatness telling readers how to think. (One day we will believe that's very Joycean of him.)

Instead of asking, "What are the themes explored in this chapter?" or "What is the symbolism in this reference to Aristotle?" he wants us to read each chapter for the pleasure of the words on the page - for the sound, the shock, the fun of Joyce's use of language, for the story (yes, there is one), and for the blistering commentary of Western civilization that pertains even and especially to the modern reader.

Take the way Joyce skewers Irish nationalism from every angle, mocking the kind of gassy tribute-to-greatness that lards every country's attempt to create epic personalities out of adolescent imagings: "The figure seated on a large boulder at the foot of a round tower was that of a broadshouldered deepchested stronglimbed frankeyed redhaired freely freckled shaggybearded wide-mouthed largenosed longheaded deepvoiced barekneed brawnyhanded hairylegged ruddyfaced sinewyarmed hero."

Or how about the way he appears to go completely overboard (of course, Joyce never goes overboard) in his long lists of Irish heroes? Here we expect to see Yeats' Cucholin and some tribal figure called "Conn of hundred battles," but somehow the list also includes Captain Midnight and the Last of the Mohicans, The Man that Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, Jack the Giantkiller, Lady Godiva, Adam and Eve, Peter the Packer and the perfectly described The Woman Who Didn't.

Reading these passages out loud, we find ourselves laughing and snorting at Joyce's hilarious way of dismembering every phony use of language he can throw at us from the autopsy table in 700 pages. At the same time he reveals his two unlikely protagonists, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, as extremely complicated men who become entangled in the best and the worst of Western civilization.

Who can disagree with the view of Leopold Bloom, that sensitive outcast who quietly endures the boorish cruelty of antiSemitic Irish men, when he steps into a well-known pub/restaurant and takes in the entirety of "men, men, men" at lunch.

"Perched on high stools by the bar, hats shoved back, at the tables calling for more bread no charge, swilling, wolfing gobfuls of sloppy food, their eyes bulging, wiping wetted moustaches. A pallid suetfaced young man polished his tumbler knife fork and spoon with his napkin. New set of microbes. A man with an infant's saucestained napkin tucked round him shovelled gurgling soup down his gullet. A man spitting back on his plate: halfmasticated gristle: no teeth to chewchewchew it. Chump chop from the grill. Bolting to get it over. Sad booser's eyes. . . His gorge rose. Spaton sawdust, sweetish warmish cigarette smoke, reek of plug, spilt beer, men's beery piss, the stale of ferment. . . . He gazed around the stooled and tabled eaters, tightening the wings of his nose."

From time to In time Michael will indeed ask us what we think this all means, but for many weeks we allow ourselves to that this all means and even begin to cross-hatch references to Swinburne to

We find it astonishing that Joyce dashes off this kind of expositional writing with fantastic flair; that he compresses as much meaning in impenetrable throwaway lines such as "Hoopsa, boyaboy, hoopsa! Hoopsa, boyaboy, hoopsa! Hoopsa, boyaboy, hoopsa"; that he is sympathetic to the plight of women in daily life, from the restricting clothes they must wear to the nonexistent public bathrooms they cannot use to the barbarous attitudes about childbirth they must endure to the sexual drives they dare not express.

And every once in a while, as we grapple with nearly undecipherable words that refuse stubbornly to transport us (as we feel a good novel "should"), someone comes up with an interpretation that is so original, so fresh and so stunning that Michael looks up, wide-eyed and nearly gasping. "You see?" he says delightedly. "This is why a group like this works so well!" and we are off again to the next word, and the next and the next and the next.

And in that moment we know: It isn't so audacious of this bookseller to think he can teach James Joyce of all people in the back of his store. It's rather the audacity of the artist to begin with that is traveling through the rafters of this independent store, through this welcoming environment, through this notion of independent thought and intellectual adventure, that makes this best-of-all works of Western literature come alive in our hands.

I once asked Michael what he got out of this, knowing the many hours he spent in preparation, the study guides he created to make the 2.5 hours of discussion so engaging every Wednesday night. It certainly wasn't money - in the beginning he didn't charge a fee and made very little off the sale of "Ulysses" (participants brought their own copies). He wouldn't record it (too many hours) or videotape it (too distracting to the participants) or even write about it ("more books, many of them bad, have been written about Joyce than about Shakespeare," he says with a shudder).

So what did he get out of it? "Well, I guess, when you come down to it, the 2.5 hours," he said with a smile. Uncapturable, unsaleable, uncommercializable, that 2.5 hours a week were memorable to him, certainly life-changing for us, yet ordinary and even routine when it comes to the kind of experience that independent bookstores make available all the time.

In the midst of writing this, I receive a call from a reporter at the Boston Globe. He says that Waterstone's, one of the best independent bookstores in the area, is "pulling out," leaving the Boston-Cambridge region "with yet another hole." How to say to Globe readers, how to express to a national audience - especially to those smug corporate "players" who think they're winning a game of dollars and cents when so much more is at stake - that a loss like that is incalculable for us all?



Dear Holt Uncensored:

I wanted to read Jason Goodwin's "On Foot to the Golden Horn"; it's out of print, and my local library (Santa Fe, NM) doesn't have a copy. So I got on ABE and, with a few mouse clicks, had ordered a copy for $3.99 from With shipping ($2) and handling ($1), it came to a princely $6.99. I sent in the order on May 4, it was shipped the next day, and I got it in a week. Out of curiosity, I decided to see what would do with this, so I ordered the book from them. They got back to me the next day (surprise, surprise) with the information that the book would cost me $15.99, which, with the $3.95 shipping and handling charge, would run me $19.94 -- for the VERY SAME paperback! I promptly cancelled the order ...

An even more amusing story: I'm planning a trip to Ireland, and a couple of months ago I decided to buy a copy of O'Connell's "The Book of the Burren" (an area in Co. Clare with fascinating geology/archeology/plant and animal life/etc.). listed it for $28.95, plus, of course, shipping and handling. Instead, I sent for it from Kennys Bookshop in Galway, Ireland (which, incidentally, was selling books online long before Jeff Bezos had his Bright Idea) -- and got it for about $5 less! The mind, needless to say, boggles.

Paula Lozar

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I have just read something very, very interesting and I'd wondered if you heard about it: Yahoo!, LookSmart and several other search engines are thinking of going into radio - on-line radio, that is. This could change the way we think of radio, and it could have some impact on the book industry. Amazon and B&N already have a great deal of advertising on the search engines, but what if they sponspor on-line radio? It's one thing to have advertising on regular radio, but with on-line radio, the buying is really just a click away.

Wouldn't it make sense for Book Sense to get in on this first?

1 I am a cruious book lover and radio talk show host ("Strictly Books") who, just having talked to people at the BEA, love the idea of Book Sense. However, if Book Sense doesn't move quickly with the times, (let's face it - acting slowly has cost independents a lot of local bookstores) it could lose an edge. What do you think?

If Infoseek follows suit to what Yahoo and LookSmart intend to do, think about how it would impact sales for Hyperion - and Disney books (since Disney is looking to buy out Infoseek).

Things are getting "curiouser and curiouser" in the world of books!

Dan Vojir, "Strictly Books,"
Talk America Radio Networks

Dear Holt Uncensored:

This is a cautionary tale.

I am a small press publisher, the press being Potes & Poets Press, specializing in experimental and Language poetry. I just would like to report an incident with Barnes & that shows their lack of consideration of the small publisher as well as perhaps my own naivete.

About 6 months ago, I got a call from a fellow there, who said that they needed instantly a copy of our flagship book, 'The Art of Practice: 45 Contemporary Poets'. I said 'Sure. Send an invoice and I'll be more than happy to send you a copy.

Never got anything from them.

Then about 2 months after that, I get the same call from the same fellow, whose name I unfortunately didn't take down. Need the book instantly. In my eagerness to get the $$$ for the book, I said, 'Listen, I'll just send you the book. You need not send an invoice prior to my sending the book.' He assured me they'd be pay within a month and thanked me profusely.

To sum up, I think you might already know the result of the interchange. I send the book the next day at first class rates and do you think I've seen any $$$ or even heard from them?


Peter Ganick

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Are you aware of a new postal law which forces all "private mail box"
services to have all their customers change their address? For example,
our old mailing address was:
Feral House
2532 Lincoln Blvd. #359
Venice, CA 90291

Now, the new address must be:
Feral House
PMB 359
2532 Lincoln Blvd.
Venice, CA 90291

October is the deadline. If customers, or anyone else, addresses their mail to us, as it is printed in our books and any of our catalogues, they'll be returned to sender. That's right! Returned to sender!

The reason we have a private mail box instead of a PO box is that the mail service accepts UPS, Fed Ex, and other private mail delivery systems. Now the dozens of letters we receive each week from people who get the address from our books, will be returned, as if we've gone out of business. And as you can see, it's the same damn address. Same place!

This law, once it get underway, will hurt us. And it will hurt many others. It's outrageous.

Adam Parfrey
Feral House

Dear Holt Uncensored:

The National Governors Association passed a very sensible resolution regarding a national sales tax on ecommerce. The preamble states that "such action is necessary to restore fairness to competition between local retail store purchases and out of state mail transactions..."

The resolution includes the following recommendations:

1) 1 sales tax rate per state. States to continue to have the option of not imposing sales tax.

2) Uniform structure and simplified compliance across state lines.

3) Expanded duty to collect tax only if national sales are above a de minimus level and only if sales to a given state are above a de minimus level.

4) They also included an idea that standardized pre approved software could be provided to internet businesses and that receipts could be sent to pre approved clearing houses.

This is a very sensible approach that is not rocket science. It is interesting to note that the largest market and therefore the largest beneficiary of this approach would be the state of California. In a supreme act of political venality, Governor Gray Davis of Calif. voted against the resolution. Clearly he is more interested in protecting the narrow interests of the internet industry than the broad interests of the people of California.

The power to tax is the power to destroy. America believes in fairness, and it is inevitable that this unfair advantage afforded the internet industry will end some day. One hopes it is ended before main street businesses are crushed, downtowns are boarded up and communities lose the much needed revenues to provide local services.

It is a disgrace and a national scandal that some businesses are taxed providing the same goods to the same people as other businesses which are not taxed.

Andy Ross,
Cody's Books