NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #65
by Pat Holt

Friday, May 28, 1999

THAT 50%-OFF SUICIDE PACT
OUR SHAKY FIRST AMENDMENT
OUR SHAKIER FIRST AMENDMENT
THE AUTOPSY WARS
LETTER

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THAT 50%-OFF SUICIDE PACT

Remember those old gunslinger Westerns where the anti-hero gets the reputation of being the quickest draw and instead of enjoying Top Gun status becomes the target for every other gunslingin' fast-shootin' sonofagun who wants to kill him and be considered the best in the land?

Well, ta da! No sooner did Amazon announce its 50%-off price-slasher of bestsellers than Barnes & Noble and Borders followed suit, and Books-A-Million upped the ante to 55% (the fools), as you know.

Now in the last week SO MANY up-and-coming website-slinging sonofaguns have been slashing prices and GOING AFTER AMAZON as the top guy to topple that whoa: Customers are distracted! They get hijacked! Off they go to find better-than-50%-off-bestsellers AND ANYTHING THAT BEATS AMAZON.

So bye-bye branding, all hundreds of millions of dollars' worth. Comparison-price websites are popping up all over the place and sending shoppers to even deeper discounts, not only on bestsellers but on many popular special-interest books as well. (Wait, this benefits independents, too! See end.)

Type in the title you want at http://www.bestbookbuys.com or http://www.book-compare.com or http://www.bottomdollar.com and you'll see a dozen or so websites offering the book at the same or lower price than Amazon.

And here's the gunslinger mode in action: If you end up at, say, http://www.marketdepot.com , you'll see "AMAZON PRICE BUSTER" buttons everywhere because Amazon listings are used as the price to beat for financial and technical books. "Forget Amazon and all those on-line financial bookstores trumpeting their great prices," trumpets MarketDepot. On its "David vs. Goliath" website (gosh, there's a familiar refrain), "we keep our prices lower than all of our competitors in cyberspace."

Really? Well, as if to walk down dusty old Main Street with its guns ready and fingers a'twitchin', MarketDepot lists a book called "Advanced Options Trading" with the list price shown as $55, Amazon's as $38.50 and MarketDepot's as $37.25.

But then! Just as soon as MarketDepot names its price, here comes http://www.a1books.com offering the same book for a dollar less, $36.25!

Is anybody making money? No, they don't want to. They're Internet booksellers! Is this suicide for all concerned? Oh, let's hope so!

Even if they live through it, this kind of frenzied Me, Mommy! Choose ME! action makes these guys look like a bunch of bozos spoiling for a fight over a few pennies.

It makes the customer want to say, heck, I'm going to check into, say, http://www.bookpassage.com where they don't give discounts but offer FREE POSTAGE. Or http://www.codysbooks.com where they offer bicycle delivery within hours of your purchase if you live in the Berkeley CA area.

Or how about http://www.concordbookshop.com in Massachusetts with their great Current Events Recommendations (see this week's top 7 books on Kosovo). Or how about http://www.rainydaybooks.com with vunderbar author events in the Kansas City area (Bailey White! Frances Mayes! And . . . Richard Marcinko?) Then there's http://www.keplers.com where the buyers offer 15% off the gems they've discovered that make reading a great adventure.

The more these sites with real character (and real characters behind them) get out there, the more readers, weary from the silly price battles elsewhere, will welcome them with open credit cards.

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OUR SHAKY FIRST AMENDMENT

In my journalism days (as opposed to the present advocacy days) I used to call Peder C. Lund at Paladin Press every few years to talk to him about the state of the First Amendment.

Peder is the publisher of Paladin Press, whose "How to Kill" Volumes I-VI were so popular among comic-book readers and other fantasy survivalists that he made a nice living through mail-order catalogues and few bookstore sales. The "How to Kill" books were hilarious in their swaggering mercenary talk, though if you ever wanted to slice somebody's throat, the author's advice was invaluable (sneak up from behind!).

With books like that, Lund was sometimes threatened with legal action and always hauled out his nearly sacramental belief in the First Amendment as his first defense.

The courts, he knew, would back him to the end on the basis of free speech. Remember "the broomstick rape," when the defendants said they shouldn't be blamed for mimicking what they saw on TV? They were blamed.

Timothy McVeigh said he read "The Turner Diaries," but it was he, not the author of that awful book, who was tried for bombing the Oklahoma City federal building. And what about the prostitutes who testified they were forced to submit to the sexual assaults showing on videotapes in hotel rooms? Pornography itself, the world learned, could not be held responsible for the acts that men do.

Lund became an expert at all this, so you know times have changed when last week he agreed to pay millions of dollars to relatives of three people murdered by a contract killer who reportedly used Paladin Press's "Hit Man: A Technical Manual for the Independent Contractor."

Apparently the Jenny Jones case and the Littleton, Colorado, shooting have filled future jurors with outrage: "Several scholars and lawyers suggested that finding a sympathetic jury would have been difficult" for Paladin Press, says the Washington Post. (Do you believe that? Sounds like the kind of condescension that sure enough made the O.J. Simpson jurors furious, but that's a different matter.)

In a way, I wouldn't care what happens to Paladin Press books except for another event that perhaps demonstrates a weakening of standards about free speech. Read on.

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OUR SHAKIER FIRST AMENDMENT

A short-lived but telling First Amendment flurry erupted at Amazon last week when Wired News http://www.wired.com/ reported that "a book well known for angering the Church of Scientology" was removed from the Amazon website.

What was the reason Amazon dropped "A Piece of Blue Sky," British writer Jon Atack's 1990 expose? Wired did not know, except to say that Scientologists are "notoriously litigious." The implication was that Amazon might have been threatened by Scientologists and backed down.

Scientology lawyers have sued author Atack on a copyright-violation charge (a suit that went nowhere, apparently), and after a British woman won her suit charging that a paragraph in the book was defamatory, the courts banned distribution of the book in England. It is legal in the United States, however, and stocked by many independents, barnesandnoble.com, borders.com, booksite.com and others.

What did Amazon say about dropping the title? "Amazon spokeswoman Lizzie Allen would only say that 'under certain circumstances, for legal reasons, we need to stop selling a book. I really just can't comment any further,' " Wired reported.

Then, under the (quite glorious when you think about it) headline, "Amazon.com should change its name to Wimp.com," Michael Swain of Web Review http://www.webreview.com asked, using much the same language of the Wired article: "Could it be that Amazon.com just didn't want to risk being sued by the notoriously litigious Scientologists?"

We'll never know, because by that time, Amazon had the title back on its website. But that short period of apparent vacillation has its instructive side. After all, if you're going to be "customer centric," as Amazon keeps saying it is, you can't hesitate when it appears there may be consequences.

It's very easy to say you've got 14 million titles and call yourself the Earth's largest bookstore and look like a big supporter of the First Amendment. But the test of anybody's commitment to free speech comes not in stocking the books that are easy because everybody likes them; it comes in offering the books that are offensive to some part of the population, books that people are going to complain or get litigious or make threats about.

I'm sure in the future that Amazon will follow independent booksellers' never-wavering commitment to free speech. If it doesn't, heaven knows, on the Internet, customers are sure to notice.

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THE AUTOPSY WARS

What a surprise that HAVANA BAY by Martin Cruz Smith (Random House; 329 pages; $24.95) didn't soar to the top of bestseller lists the instant it was released.

Perhaps readers need to rediscover novelist Smith, author of that classic work of new-noir detective fiction, "Gorky Park," and if so, "Havana Bay" is a great book for it. Here he returns his cynical old softie, Moscow homicide detective Arkady Renko, to the murder-solving, political-backstabbing work he knows so well, this time in a novel with more twists and surprises than a Barnes & Noble IPO report..

One needn't have read "Gorky Park" or any of the sequels ("Polar Star," 1989; "Red Square," 1992) - though what a treat awaits in these mass market editions - to feel the immediate pull of Arkady's latest dilemma. Standing on the shore of Havana Bay in the dead of night, he watches Cuban police make a complete mess of retrieving a nearly decomposed body floating on an inner tube.

Divers grab for a leg and a jellified foot falls off. The face sinks into its own goo at a single touch. All around, "styrofoam bearded with algae shifted" in the floating garbage, and "water around the pilings began to show the peacock sheen of petroleum." Later, when the autopsy doctor begins his Y incision, "an expanding pong of rot took possession of the room."

The state of the body reflects the decayed relations between Arkady and the Cubans, who so loathe Russian officials they hardly speak to him at all. Worse, Arkady can't speak Cuban Spanish and relies on an interpreter who tries to kill him. He's feeling more depressed than usual after his wife's death, even contemplating suicide, and isn't certain that investigating the death of his KGB friend Pribluda (if indeed that's who the dead guy is) is worth the huge effort it's going to take.

What happens when Arkady's deductive instincts pop into gear and he becomes, again, One Man against The System (with Help from an Unexpected Romantic Interest) keeps these pages a'turning. Smith sustains his mastery of inventive language throughout, and we learn so much about modern Cuba - the beautifully pastel-colored buildings crumbling to ruin everywhere; the droll humor of politically approved impoverishment - that we never want the book to end.

But now let's look at DEATH DU JOUR by Kathy Reichs (Scribner; 381 pages; $25) to ponder what seems to be be an escalating autopsy war going on in the wake of Patricia Cornwell's crime fiction series featuring Virginia medical examiner Kay Scarpeta.

Fans of those great skull-drilling, innard-plopping, heart-fileting scenes at which Cornwel excels will find themselves reeling a bit as Arkady Renko watches a body "in an advanced state of putrefaction" spew its "flatulent spray" of liquefied matter and reveal a brain "rotted with worms that reminded Arkady of the macaroni served by Aeroflot." Goodness. Hold on to your lunch (Arkaday doesn't).

Now forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs, no stranger to maggots falling off the autopsy table like heavy rainfall in her first book ("Deja Dead," 1997), begins her second mystery starring alter ego Temperance Brennan with the hideously charred body of a burn victim.

Burned flesh, split skin, flaking bone and burst skeleton (from an exploding propane tank) would distract a lesser doctor from the gunshot wound to the skull that makes this a murder case compounded by arson, rather than the other way around. But not our Tempe, the North Carolina professor who's shocked to her own bones by the subzero weather of Quebec, where she confronts misogynist firefighters as routinely as excavating the remains of bodies from lost graves.

If there is an autopsy war going on, it's interesting to note the difference between Tempe Brennan and Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta, since the two are so often compared (and really shouldn't be).

Tempe, a former alcoholic and single mother, is more glib and easygoing than Cornwell's starchy and removed Kay Scarpetta, one of the first all-encompassing, grandly drawn female heroes in popular modern fiction.

Cornwell keeps Kay - so formal, so expert, so correct, so backboned - at a distance from us mortals so that we can regard her as we would a superwoman or a female James Bond or any Force against Evil we might see as an ideal. While Tempe finds herself in danger, Kay is beset with a huge and legitimate paranoia that something is "out there" to get her - a familiar feeling to women who well know how quickly that something can rise up out of nowhere on an empty street.

Tempe and Arkady will probably remain at the level of various autopsy tables where they or their colleagues will be carving and squishing and weighing and plopping away for years. But perhaps the point to Patricia Cornwell's series is to see if she can continue to build her own mythology - when Kay begins the Y incision, you know there's going to be something more than spilled guts on a scale to keep the pages turning.

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LETTER

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Just to clarify a point in my letter in #63: When you order out-of-print books on Amazon, they get back to you with a price, and you then have the option of canceling or accepting the order. (After reading about the experience of your correspondent in Mexico, I wonder how soon they'll catch on to the lucrative possibilities of NOT giving you that option!)

Actually, from my few experiences ordering from Amazon (gift certificates), I have no complaints with their service: My order was filled promptly, and on the one occasion when I returned a book (on the grounds that it was a piece of cr*p) they took it back without giving me any guff.

For those booksellers who are setting up web sites, I have a piece of advice: Emulate the features that make people LIKE to use Amazon. I don't mean cute and colorful; I mean convenient ordering, good search capabilities and lots of useful information (staff recommendations, reviews, synopses, etc.). Case in point: I have a birthday coming up, and, since my favorite local bookstore recently set up a website, I thought I'd direct my family (who are responsible for those Amazon gift certificates alluded to above) to that site. Fortunately I checked out the site first, and discovered that its ordering process is Byzantine and there's NO easy way to buy a gift certificate -- a sure way to discourage my shopping-phobic relatives.

Paula Lozar