NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #68
by Pat Holt

Wednesday, June 9, 1999:

NOTE TO READERS
NY TIMES BESTSELLERS: WHO WANTS THEM, ANYWAY?
LETTERS

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NOTE TO READERS: This issue of Holt Uncensored appears midweek as the staff disappears on vacation. We'll return June 22.

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NY TIMES BESTSELLERS: WHO WANTS THEM, ANYWAY

What a delectable dance is underway at the New York Times, that bastion of clarity, respectability, despotism and, in the case of Barnes & Noble, its "exclusive online bookseller," selling-out for money.

Perhaps you've heard that after Amazon declared a 50% discount of all books on the New York Times Best Seller List, and Borders and Barnes & Noble followed suit, the Times sent a cease-and-desist letter to Amazon and Borders, but - ta da! - not to Barnes & Noble.

The letter contains some gobbledygook about website republication of the NYT list as "unlawful use of our property." That accusation could be applied to Barnes & Noble except that the Times officially licenses its bestseller list to barnesandnoble.com; it does not to Amazon or Borders.

But what could be an historic battle over copyright law has degenerated into the silliest squabble to hit the book industry barnyard in years.

For one thing, Books-a-Million, an Alabama-based chain of 177 bookstores and online book service, offers a whopping 55% off New York Times bestsellers, but it has no license to use the Times list and didn't get a cease-and-desist letter from the Times.

Why not? Perhaps, BooksaMil president Terrance Finley told the Wall Street Journal, because his 177 stores report weekly sales information to the folks at the NYT who compile that selfsame bestseller list. "We don't charge them for our information," he said with the slightest of smirks on them happy BksaMil lips.

Now Amazon lawyers are suing the Times for the right to quote from the NYT Best Seller List under "fair use" protections. The WSJ, paraphrasing a smart copyright lawyer, says it's unlikely the Times will prevail because "Amazon's use of the list doesn't gravely undermine the Times' business and may actually help it."

One would think that's occurred to the NYT, whose sudden proprietary interest over its best seller list seems awfully late in the game. Amazon and Borders were using the NYT bestseller list for so long it's purty dumb to object to the 50%-off campaign as a new violation.

In fact, who do you think might be behind this little caper, hm? The thought is just too delicious that the New York Times has come to rue the day it ever made a devil's compact with Barnes & Noble over that "exclusive" online bookseller stuff.

Doesn't it remind you of the scene in that movie where the stuffy but naive Old Money family (NYT), having made a "business deal" with some questionable nouveau riche business interests (B&N), suddenly realizes the meaning of the term "Faustian bargain"?

You remember. It's the scene where these two thugs muscle their way into the Old Money office and say, "Hey pal, remember us? We're your 'exclusive' protector. You gave us a license to say so, and now we own you. So just sign this cease-and-desist letter we wrote to go out under your signature."

And the head of the Old Money family tries to bluff his way out by saying, "Just because you weaseled your way onto the premises doesn't mean you can run my company. Why, this is preposterous - a cease-and-desist letter? I wouldn't sign that if you paid me."

And the Two Thugs say, "Funny you should bring that up . . . "

So the poor head of the Old Money family realizes he better sign it or his knees will take a vacation ahead of him (that's how the Two Thugs talk). And voila - you got the kind of situation we're seeing around the book industry today: Muscle and money call the shots.

Still, the Big Bugaboo nobody at the Times or Amazon or the chains wants to talk about is that the NYT crippled its own bestseller list when it told independent booksellers to quit complaining about Barnes & Noble becoming the NYT's "exclusive bookseller."

Advised by the Times that its decision to sign B&N was "just business," independents throughout the country decided to stop reporting their own weekly sales reports to the Times' bestseller-list compilers. When the Times protested, the independents said, heck, don't worry - "it's just business."

Although some independents have resumed sending in weekly reports (having discovered how many publishers refuse to send authors to stores that don't report), the New York Times Best Seller List has gradually been reduced to a vapid, chain-store-driven, two-week-old commercial for celebrity bios and novels.

You want to fight over the New York Times Best Seller List, you squabbling barnyard chains and amazonks and NYTs? Go at it. Get out your muscle and money and lawyers. And leave the other side of the book industry - independent booksellers - in peace to sell real books to real customers.

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

After reading an article about the forthcoming Thomas Harris thriller, "Hannibal," I paid a visit to amazon.com, since I was curious what the book's sales rank was. I was quite amazed to discover that there were already several five-star reviews of "Hannibal" on the site, despite the fact that the book hadn't been released yet - as far as I know, not even review copies had been sent out!

I sent an e-mail to amazon.com questioning their policy, suggesting that perhaps the comments of people who haven't yet read a book should be kept off the site, and was informed by customer service representative Mark Hazelwood that "we do not discriminate with reviews even before the release. In this instance it may give some enlightening [sic] to individuals who are not greatly familiar with the works of Thomas Harris. They may be encouraged or uncomfortable purchasing a book with even a vague review. This of course depending upon the interpretation of the reader. We do want to give our customers every reason to purchase our books and be happy with their decision."

This nonsensical statement, along with a recent Salon.com piece in which an author admitted writing several five-star reviews of his own book and posting them to amazon.com under different names, proves just how much the "reader reviews" on the site are worth -- zilch.

--Sue Trowbridge, trow@slip.net
Albany CA, www.interbridge.com

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Just finished a huge midwest and west tour for the paperback of my book. How I love indies! BIG love. The difference between giving a reading at a chain and a much-loved personally-cared-for-populated-with-readers-independent is unbelievable. Night and day doesn't even come close to describing it. (You know you're in trouble when they annouce you at a big chain and nobody even looks up from their latte.)

Hooray for Left Bank Books and Hungry Mind Books and Capitola Books and Readers and Rainy Day Books....Hooray hooray hooray.

Dear Holt Uncensored,

I agree that it's a great idea to encourage customer access to Books in Print in bookstores. As far as the searchable database at Amazon.com, well, it's always worth a look but don't count on finding what you need. Very few of the best titles for multiracial/interracial people, especially books for children and even more especially about people who are other than black/white multiracial, for example, are easy to find on their database. Most of these books are published by smaller presses (or are imported from Europe by Kane Miller). I'd still take the advice of a knowledgeable bookseller, especially one with a reciprocal relationship, or even membership in that community. Same goes for looking for books by Asian Americans and African Americans . . .

Karen, Ex-bookseller, Seattle

Dear Holt Uncensored:

RE: Amy's letter in #67 about having Books in Print available to customers - NOTHING can surpass a knowledgeable, interested sales clerk/owner in an independent bookstore. I finally broke down and rented a copy of the movie "You've Got Mail," and one of the most moving moments to me was when Meg Ryan was sitting in the huge Fox [chain] bookstore's children section crying, and overhears a store clerk (who has NO idea what he is doing) try to advise a customer - and she pipes up with all the information needed.

That is what independent booksellers are all about. Having access to Books in Print is no biggie for customers if they are dealing with a bookstore and/or clerks who care about books, know their stock (and yep, we do know what book was on Oprah last week.... or what the new book by Terry Pratchett is... or the first book ever written by Agatha Christie or Stephen King....) and care about their customers.

We decided when we opened our store in September 1998 to offer used books, new books, book accessories, crafts etc. whatever it took to stay open and be a viable force in our community. The love of books is the root of the whole thing. And so it should always be.

Laura, Twice Told Tales Waverly, TN

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Bookseller Amy's justification for denying customers access to Books in Print irked me. She seems to presume that all readers are . . . incapable of either deductive logic or asking for assistance . . .

Amy fails to understand that the search itself can provide joy and satisfaction. I am shameless in my exploitation of amazon.com: While I have never bought and will never buy a book from Amazon, I surf the site because it allows me to explore new ideas, act on whims and hunt down old "friends." When I need help beyond what it provides, I know enough to ask for it. Wouldn't it be wonderful if I could do the same thing on the premises of my independent bookseller?

Gayle Gribble

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I just want to point out a web site done by J. Alec West from the DorothyL mystery group, http://alecwest.com/bsp/ . It is a fledgling site called "The BSP Page" (for Blatant Self Promotion of books) that could be really good if more booksellers, authors and buyers knew about it.

The focus is crime/mystery, and the purpose is appealing. Book sales are offered by independent bookstores only. The opening page has a slogan prominently placed: "Break the CHAINS! Buy INDEPENDENT!"

In the guidelines for authors who want to become part of the site, there is the following restriction: "If your current book is available for purchase through Amazon.com, chances are it qualifies to be BSPed on this site. I use the 'chances are' qualifier for a reason. Nowadays, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other large stores have been known to sign 'exclusive' agreements for books. These exclusive agreements are like nails in the coffins of independent booksellers and won't be tolerated on this site."

The website is free for all who fit the qualifications and can increase the web presence of stores and authors with very little time and no money. One more time, it is free. He does not accept advertising and does not charge anyone to add their name or store to the list.

Kara Anderson

Dear Holt Uncensored

On Wednesday night our store was burglarized by someone familiar with the book business, the rare part especially. We lost about 400 titles including a 3-volume set of Mandeville's price guides, and we probably won't know all the titles lost until we go to the shelf to try and locate one. A few of the speciality titles might show up at someone's store to sell, and if you list these titles it might help catch whoever took them. To wit:

1. Dreiser: Moods Cadenced & Disclaimed, 1st ed., with DJ
2. Michener: Firstfruits, 1st, with DJ
3. Chittenden: The American Fur Trade of the Far West, 2 volumes in white leather, 1954 reprint.
4. Fabre: Fabre's Book of Insects, 1921 7th printing in the original box with colorplate pastedown.

Contact the Washington County Sherrif's Office, (503)846-2585 Case #99-10171, or email the sheriff at JHBROECKEL@AOL.com.

Harold Walkup, bookink@mail.teleport.com
Author's Ink Books
Portland OR