NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #69
by Pat Holt

Tuesday, June 22, 1999:

BUT DO YE READ, RUPERT?
THE CUSTOMIZING BOOKSELLER
LETTERS

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BUT DO YE READ, RUPERT?

So Rupert Murdoch wants to buy William Morrow and Avon. What encouraging news for the book industry!

You've got to hand it to Murdoch, the man who's made tabloid journalism what it is today. He's done his darndest to bring the same standards to HarperCollins, the publishing house he already owns. Why, when HarperCollins got in trouble in 1997, Murdoch did what many publishers have longed to do - blame the authors! - by terminating 106 publishing contracts that stood between his News Corp. and taking over the world.

Now, after trying to dump HarperCollins for years, Murdoch finds that the Hearst Corporation has decided to dump ITS imprints, Morrow and Avon. Suddenly book publishing has that special glow again. Buying Morrow and Avon will pole-vault Murdoch right up the book publishing ladder as "the nation's second largest trade publisher, with worldwide revenues of more than $900 million," according to Publishers Weekly. So tidy!

What will happen when our generation's William R. Hearst buys the present Hearst corporation's wavering houses? Nothing visible for a while, though publishing consolidations have not been good for literary or mid-range books. Every pair of eyes or hands removed from the publishing process means less attention to detail, less respect for originality, less interest in risk, less in-house enthusiasm, less time for the overextended sales rep to sell it, smaller print runs, fewer ads and more books sinking like a stone.

The fascist element in Murdoch's case is also fun to observe. It wasn't so long ago that Murdoch made headlines by "ordering HarperCollins not to publish a book by the former governor of Hong Kong for fear of offending the Chinese government and hurting his TV business in China," as Fortune magazine put it recently. And remember the flap when Murdoch, in trouble with the Federal Communications Commission, was accused of buying influence after HarperCollins offered $4.5 million to Newt Gingrich for an alleged book deal? Not so tidy.

The situation is reminiscent of the recent James Bond movie in which a Murdochian empire-builder stands before a bank of television monitors talking to his editors from all over the world. Watch out for that inevitable time, the movie warns us, when a publishing mogul like this thinks, Gee, if I can cover the news and exploit the news and profit from the news and sell books about the news, why can't I CREATE the news and take over the world!

By the way it was Viacom CEO Sumner Redstone who was quoted as saying that "Rupert wants to rule the world, and he seems to be doing it," though Thomas Middelhoff of Bertelsmann has already taken the #1 spot in that mad race for global domination. Not so long ago it was Macmillan's Robert Maxwell, he of the rob-the-pensions-before-hitting-the-drink school of corporate management. On the sales side, of course, Jeff Bezos, already the "king of the jungle" according to several magazine cover stories, is not far behind.

It used to sound naive to ask this question: Why would anyone WANT to build such a huge book publishing empire - why would you, Bertelsmann, Viacom, Pearson, Holtzbrink and Murdoch - when publishing one good book, let alone hundreds in a year, requires so much care, an actual love of good writing, no futzing with the FCC, a respect for readers and a healthy but not megalomaniacal attention to profit?

Let's not yammer around about protecting the corporate position in this day of merger mania and global conglomerates. If you're out for money and power, follow the S.I. Newhouse example: Stick to glamorpuss magazines and slippery newspapers and leave literature to those who really do love it. After all, they're the only ones who want to take the risks.

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THE CUSTOMIZING BOOKSELLER

The latest movement thing on the Internet seems to be Customization, and this is great news for independent booksellers.

You'd think the reverse were true, that independent booksellers will never get a foothold online because they're late and can't dazzle and won't diversify as has Amazon, with its new partnership with Sotheby's and its existing forays into drug.com, pet.com, (and I always throw in harvestedorgans.com and stolenChinesebabies.com because you know more is to come). So the question is SUPPOSED to be, how can the independent bookseller compete?

But here's where this new Customization movement comes in. Did you hear the story (from the 6/17 Wall Street Journal) about a "data-mining" guy who sold his company to Amazon and gave each of his 45 employees $1,000 to spend on the Web?

The idea was to make sure his workers understood how to shop online, so "everyone had to 'use it or lose it' within 30 days and report on their visits to at least three sites," the story goes.

Well, the employees averaged visits to 10-15 sites and found specialization and customization to be wonderfully plentiful. One employee bought a set of throwing knives, an oscilloscope and conductive epoxy. As the WSJ reported, the group "plunged into retail categories well beyond those that Amazon.com is plunging into."

Ta da. The point is that Amazon for all its diversification looked to this group, and increasingly to millions online, like a kind of primer. It's the place you start, just to get geared up on your search; then it's a place to leave and see what is really "out there."

The best Amazon can do in customizing your needs is to see if you fit some kind of profile. If you've bought 2 mysteries in a row, for example, some computer toggle switches over and you get an email suggesting another mystery. But this, it turns out, is "mass customization" - one o' them self-negating words that used to be meaningless until the Internet came along - that simply forces people into categories.

Real customization on the Web appears when, instead of buying an assembly-line computer from Amazon, customers will soon be able to send their personal wish list to Dell and bingo! - a computer assembled to their exact specifications, and priced competitively, appears by return mail.

The same goes with buying airline tickets online by stating your needs up front and letting the universe supply you with the tickets you want and can afford. Similarly, why buy a dumb old one-way television when you can now "create customer channels based on your favorite shows" with the new customized-to-you ReplayTV?

It's a movement that opens doors for independents because booksellers are masters at customization. Every day they gear their inventory of books to the tastes and interests of customers. Every minute they answer questions that match books and readers so perfectly that price becomes irrelevant.

Online, we are told, the human voice must take a back seat to the snazzy but suspect "recommended" lists and programmed messages and electronic profiles that come at us from mass-oriented websites like Amazon. But independent booksellers seek personal relationships with customers; they can't help but communicate in a human voice.

"Learning to speak in a human voice [online] is not some trick, nor will corporations convince us they are human with lip service about 'listening to customers' " says a marvelously revolutionary website ( http://www.cluetrain.com ) about the transformational nature of the Internet. "Companies attempting to 'position' themselves need to TAKE a position . . . [about] something their market really cares about . . . To speak with a human voice, companies must share the concerns of their communities. But first they must belong to a community."

How fortuitous! The customizing bookseller takes to the Web just at the time the Internet approaches its Era of Customization. All the customers need now is to know where to go

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Borders recently acquired Sprout, Inc., the on-demand book production system that provides single-copy production of perfect-bound, paperback books. With it, Borders will be able to provide the service of on-demand printing to its customers for titles that are not carried by the store and are hard to get.

I know Borders is a business, but there's something horribly short-sighted and irresponsible at work here. It could be that keeping something in print-on-demand violates the "in print, anti-rights reversion" clauses in authors' contracts, but I suspect that may change if authors aren't quick and smart about it. Publishers would love to keep the rights on something but not actually have to take on the costs of printing and warehousing the titles. The only legitimate use of this technology is to keep out-of-print books available. Anything else dooms the browsing process, kills marginal titles . . .

If [a Borders administrator] ever gets the bright idea of taking a look at the turn reports and dictating a cut-off, kiss lit crit, philosophy, historiography, psych, anthro, and most of the other cool subjects that Borders buyers pride their stewardship of, the big goodbye. It's not too hard to imagine reducing an inventory to half the size of a Walden's, stocking only hardcovers and a very select few paperbacks and then putting the rest onto a disc and printing on demand.

A former Borders buyer

Dear Holt Uncensored: While we are talking about reviews on Amazon ...
  1. Lots of computer books tend to have reviews before publication
  2. I've noticed some that have identical reviews. ie. the publisher goes in and posts its own anonymous third-party review and then gets lazy and posts the same review for all of their titles.
  3. I've even seen a review slamming a book where it turns out it was an author who was set up as a "co-author" of a book -- didn't do any of the work and was fired by his "partner" and then came back and did an anonymous drive by shooting of the book.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I was a bookseller for almost twenty years. In the closing of my own stores, strong independent stores in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Edina Minnesota, I had the opportunity to get to meet with many of the principals of the chains, including the Border brothers, later Bob DiRimualdo, and Leonard Riggio. Way back in the early seventies, I helped the New York Times set up what I believe remains the core of their systems for their best seller list. Prior to that time the NYT list was very New York oriented, anecdotal instead of objective, and parochial. The Times wanted it to be national and much more objective. And, I believe, it became so.

What I received from that, as I only much later realized, was that as a contributor to the New York Times list, I was more likely to "get" an author on tour or other promotional help with a book or a publisher. My sales during an autographing of hundreds of copies of a title went into the system and presumably had an effect.

I later was involved in the FTC examination of the chains and the large publishers as a prospective expert witness and as a provider of information, at one point sending off to a lawyer a truckload (literally) of paperwork (that they then sent back after requesting it---yet another illustration of "be careful what you ask for"). My stores eventually were all closed, in large part due to the aggressive nature of, particularly, Barnes & Noble.

I must say I found many of the individuals in the chains honorable, smart, gentle and understanding. Most of them, almost all, were good human beings. Certainly the booksellers were, but so were the likes of Bob DiRimualdo and others.

Yet something happens, and the industry becomes competitive and the odd situations such as the one you describe in #68 in regard to the Times Best Seller list become a part of our industry folklore. People get aggressive and nasty. They want "market share," and each seems to now consider the other stupid and mean and badly intentioned. As a consultant for independent stores, I found many of them to be also self-centered, often foolish, and holding a kind of arrogance and "holier than thou" attitude that they felt made financial success their due. Many too were incredible booksellers, professional and sincere and knowledgable, filled with a love of their work and of the book as an object and as an instrument that changes lives. Now as an incipient publisher, I find myself glad to be out of the retail competitiveness and nastiness that seems to now be endemic to the profession . . .

I'm sorry for the way it cheapens the souls of the booksellers at all levels and begins to eat at the edges of the First Amendment of the Consitution [when] many books of merit that aren't viable in this marketplace of six publishers and three booksellers. And customers who are excited by it all, but who have to realize that they are more than spectators in the process. They have to choose where they purchase their books and, just as importantly, what they purchase. They will make this system of the not-so-bad-after-all Adam Smith work if they make their decisions with discrimination and discernment.

Dan Odegard

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