NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #70
by Pat Holt

Friday, June 25, 1999:

JOE MCGINNISS AND THE STATE OF PUBLISHING
BOOKSELLERS & THE 'WE-ECONOMY'

BOOK REVIEWS: 'FRONT ROW AT THE WHITE HOUSE'
'LIE IN THE DARK'
'BURN THIS HOUSE'
LETTERS

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JOE MCGINNISS AND THE STATE OF PUBLISHING

A funny but tragic email to Sarah Crichton of Little, Brown from a more-than-disgruntled author, Joe McGinniss, has been circulating in the cyberspace winds of late and seems increasingly to be causing one of those publishing flaps that proves more scathing to the book industry in general than to the publisher in particular.

The book is "The Miracle of Castel de Sangro" (Little, Brown; 404 pages; $25), an engrossing story of the author's growing passion for soccer and the Little Team That Could Have Won Big in a remote Italian village.

The point of McGinniss's email - and articles about it in the New York Times and Publishers Weekly Daily - is that two weeks after publication, Little, Brown apparently gave up on the book, despite its investment of a $300,000 advance. McGinniss points to rave reviews, a timeliness few authors enjoy (U.S. women's soccer team is hot) and great media connections from past books ("The Selling of the President" was his first bestseller).

McGinniss's email chronicles a disputed jacket illustration, which the author has since described as "a cover that might go on a book of not-very-good Bulgarian Folk Tales for children"; unnecessary (to McGinniss) legal futzing over the last chapter, which explains how the team intentionally threw a key game; no meetings between publisher and author, ever; and no interviews booked by the publisher's publicity department, although a 12-to-14-city publicity tour was promised on the cover of advance reading copies.

But the importance of the email lies in what it tells us about the state of publishing vis-a-vis chain bookstores and online suppliers such as Amazon. For example, disputes about the jacket and last chapter caused delays that McGinniss says he was told caused Barnes and Noble and Borders to decrease their advance orders by 60 percent. As a result, "Little, Brown cut the first printing by more than half, from 100,000 to what I'm told was 45,000," he says in an email to me.

If this is true, the specter of a publishing house cutting its printing by almost the same percentage that chain bookstores cut their orders is alarming. McGinniss further doubts that a front-of-store placement promotion with Barnes & Noble, paid for by Little, Brown, ever happened.

However, when the publisher informed McGinniss's agent that she expected only 75% compliance from the chain, McGinniss again hit the roof, and ANOTHER email came spewing forward. "I am, once again, flabbergasted. Where did you come up with that number - 75 per cent? Is this all the industry ever expects from such placement deals . . . ?" Or are individual publishers expected to police each store to see if the books are placed where they're supposed to be?

Amazon performed little better, he says. Here again a placement deal for the book, paid for by Little, Brown, appears not to have happened, according to McGinniss. The publisher assures him it did but has not shown him any proof. It was the author's fury over this, he says, that caused Little, Brown to stop all promotion on the book.

Either way, the relationship between chain bookstores and Amazon with this mainstream publisher seems so imbalanced as to jeopardize the very book they are ALL trying to sell.

Perhaps more important - because it's used increasingly in the book industry to monitor sales performance - is the role played by Amazon's ranking system as a bellwether of sales at any given hour, let alone day or week.

I asked McGinniss, who quotes his book's Amazon rank throughout all emails, if he trusts the Amazon list, and here's part of his quite intriguing and (I think) convincing response:

"Within one 24-hour period the book went from the 6,000s to #50. Yesterday, [6/23] it fell from 260 to below 2,000, but what does that mean, in either direction? Five times so far since mid-May the book has moved from the 5-10,000 range into the 500 or better range, then back again, and with the regularity of a metronome.

"The New York Times story by Doreen Carvajal about my difficulties with Little, Brown appeared on Monday: The book jumped from 3,000 to 260. Forty-eight hours later, with no new publicity, it's back to 3,000. A hypersensitive list? Huge moves in Amazon ranking as the result of only a very slight change in rate of sale? That's sure how it seems to me . . .

"To me the Amazon list is like one of those vital signs monitors they have in cardiac units of hospitals when a patient has a second heart attack: Everything goes jiggedy-jaggedy all over the place, the needles are jumping off the graph paper and everybody goes on red alert. But there is this significant difference: The vital sign monitors accurately measure vital signs, and instantaneous deviations can be of critical importance.

"The Amazon list acts the same way but is all sound and fury signifying nothing. The very notion of measuring book sales at an hourly rate may be wonderfully clever self-promotion for Amazon but in terms of accurate reflection of national sales over time it's just a kid's toy for obsessive authors. Having been at either end within the past three weeks, I can tell you that the difference between #5,000 and #50 - in terms of actual books sold - is virtually negligible."

What's the upshot of all this? Well, let's just thank our lucky stars that independent bookstores are still out there, with real numbers you can measure and real people who like good books and websites that don't play God and bestseller lists that mean something. As to McGinniss's book, it's pretty good, and a lot of independents like it, and that, in the end, may give this title a healthy sale after all.

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BOOKSELLERS & THE 'WE-ECONOMY'

Taken together, independent booksellers do much more to keep those nearly extinct mid-range books and unknown literary works in stock than any other retail outlet in the trade. But how can these booksellers hope for customer loyalty when the chains down the street or hotshot Internet services offer huge discounts with every intention of stealing all the customers?

Well, let's leave e-commerce behind and welcome "WE-commerce," the latest concept to come out of the Internet in which two companies, Accompany ( http://www.accompany.com ) and Mercata ( http://www.mercata.com ) "are pioneering an online version of the old buyers' co-op idea," explains Don Pepper, a marketing guru who's written a piece about the practice called "Buying Power on the Web" ( http://www.1to1.com/articles/i1-061799/a1.html ).

"By aggregating customers' purchasing power, they're giving online shoppers the ability to buy at the 'volume discount' prices only large-volume retailers can achieve," he writes. These are companies that negotiate with a manufacturer of a product - let's say a computer - for the lowest price they can get, then list the retail price next to the pre-negotiated discount price on their website.

Within that range, customers who want to buy the item state the price they want. The more customers who sign on to buy it, the greater their collective purchasing power, and the lower the price goes.

It's an old-fashioned way of tapping into bargain-conscious audiences, except that the bargain is made by the audience tapping into IT. "Because this is 'we-commerce,' the price spirals downward incrementally as other interested buyers also place their orders over the course of a day or two," writes Pepper.

Of course, a good bargain on the Internet should never be a secret. Once you hear of an item offered in this way, "you can email all your friends and tell them to get online and drive the price down!"

The practice is seen as "an open, cost-efficient channel for suppliers to reach small markets of individuals who are often the most difficult and expensive to contact," writes Pepper. Aha: Did he say "small markets of individuals"? That seems to be the definition of many book readers.

So far, to get any kind of "relationship marketing" contact with Amazon or the chains online, you have to fit a profile - you have to be a mystery fan as they define it or a cookbook buyer or a person who buys religious books such as "The Testament" by John Grisham or "The Poisonwood Bible" or "A God in Ruins" by Leon Uris. And if they mistake you for a religious person rather than a fiction buyer, oh well, these things happen.

Independent bookstores have a hard time making a mistake like that because building customer trust is central to staying in business. How exciting it would be for independents to spread the word about "buy-cycles" (Accompany's term) that would get the price down on, say, guides to your state or region, or a local writer's first book, or a novel the independent bookstore's staff loves so much they're finding a way for you to buy it at a great discount.

Call it "we-commerce" or old-fashioned neighborhood shopping, but independent booksellers are experts at this kind of thing, even if they've never stepped into this particular arena before.

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FRONT ROW AT THE WHITE HOUSE, Helen Thomas (Scribner; 415 pages; $26)

Helen Thomas has made presidents' faces fall flatter than the White House lawn by asking the biting questions that have made her a Washington, D.C., legend.

But after covering every president from John Kennedy to Bill Clinton, veteran UPI reporter Thomas, now 78, seems to have mellowed: Her on-the-front-lines book, though absorbing, appears to be more careful than tough-minded, often succumbing to niceties and generalizations ("[LBJ] cherishes his membership in the world's most exclusive club - the presidency of the United States").

Still, on occasion, Thomas hauls off with an inside tidbit that's a stunner - how Lyndon Johnson gutted Air Force One of everything from presidential china to toilet paper at the end of his administration; how Nancy Reagan once stopped two KGB agents from dragging Thomas off a Moscow street by grabbing Thomas' coat and yelling "She's with us!" and (not surprisingly), "You owe me one, Helen."

Perhaps Thomas' best anecdote describes Ronald Reagan after the invasion of Grenada extolling "Thomas Jefferson's ideals regarding the need for a free press. But when reminded that he [Reagan] had conducted the invasion in secrecy and that reporters and photographers were barred from the island for about 10 days until the operation was completed, Reagan said Jefferson was 'wrong.' " Attaway, Helen.

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LIE IN THE DARK, Dan Fesperman (Soho; xxx pages; $xx.xx)

It would seem almost impossible for any writer to do a "Gorky Park" in Sarajevo, but Baltimore Evening Sun correspondent Fesperman has beautifully accomplished just that. He has created that perfect combination of cynical idealism in homicide detective Vlado Petric, a half-Muslim, half-Catholic who persists in investigating murders even as continued shelling and wartime atrocities reduce his beloved city to ruins.

"Why bother, [friends] would ask. Why not just leave it all until the end of the war. By then all your suspects will be dead anyway." Fesperman so deftly inserts the kind of existential questions that lie behind all murder mysteries that we're not even aware of how quickly we identify with Vlado, his dogged survivalism and his belief in the meaning, even the importance, of his work.

"In the way that an epidemiologist knows that a single autopsy can provide the key to a pandemic, Vlado clung to a belief that, now and then, one murder offered a portal to machinations far greater than the pulling of a trigger or the plunging of a blade."

Of course the stakes are unbelievable in this hugely complicated war, with its many race-hatreds, its smugglers and snipers, every army's own profiteers, its rampant starvation and black marketeers, many civil targets and, of course, weapons everywhere - "battered models from Iran and Afghanistan with ammunition clips curling like bananas, sleek Belgian automatics from the tidy gunshops of Switzerland, ancient and hulking old Tommies . . . and every cheap Kalashnikov ripoff ever made in the Eastern Bloc."

Only when we feel the now-mundane risks of survival, the isolation of Vlado himself, having evacuated his wife and daughter to Berlin (the army forces young and middle-aged men to remain), and now living in a shell-shocked apartment, itself tangled with illegal cords and gaspipes, its furniture all crammed into the center of its small rooms, away from dangerous windows, does the actual murder mystery begin, and it is a pip.

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BURN THIS HOUSE, edited by Jasminka Udovicki and James Ridgeway (Duke University Press; 337 pages; $16.95 paperback)

Thanks to Midnight Special ( http://www.msbooks.com ), that great Santa Monica political bookstore whose two bestselling titles are the U.S. Constitution and the Communist Manifesto, for tipping us off to this book of immensely accessible essays, written by Serbian, Croatian and Muslim journalists and historians, about "the making and unmaking of Yugoslavia."

The early chapters make the impossibly dense history of the Balkan peninsula clear at last, while fresh insights abound about Yugoslavia's birth "in the chaos and blood of World War I" and about the Tito regime during and following World War II. By the '70s, we read, the famous dictator "ceased to be simply the head of state; he now was the state."

By the time we get inside the present-day Balkans, we've learned how to see past the nationalist slogans of politically controlled media and into the kind of ethnic cleansing only those who live there can adequately describe. An entire chapter on a courageous press and protests of the resistance movement heartening. Other chapters' revelations of the easily manipulated United Nations and NATO shock us into understanding why an Allied invasion was perhaps inevitable.

If the writing is a bit dry at times, read this book in tandem with the mystery mentioned above it and you'll know why this war is never going to be "over." As co-editor Udovicki writes, "Even if peace holds in Bosnia, and a revival takes place in the former Yugoslavia, moral catharsis is unlikely in the short run."

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

In the last issue you noted the Murdoch-esque media baron at the heart of "Tomorrow Never Dies" and boldly predicted "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!"

I'm not sure he took over the world but William Randolph Hearst certainly learned how to create the news. The Spanish-American War was fought in large part because of Hearst's newspapers and his competition with the Pulitzer papers. Hearst's famous reply to artist Frederick Remington, sent to Cuba to draw pictures of the supposed Spanish atrocities and battles in Cuba, after he found very little to draw was, "you supply the pictures and I'll supply the war." This is actually quoted by the evil media baron in "Tomorrow Never Dies."

Let's hope that Murdoch is NOT our generation's Hearst!

Ed Dravecky
dsheldon@netcom.com

Dear Holt Uncensored:

FYI, Malcolm Frazer was elected Prime Minister of Australia some twenty years ago. In the morning he got the election result and in the afternoon he went and saw Rupert Murdoch.

Simon Warwick-Smith
sws@vom.com

Dear Holt Uncensored:

You wrote in #69: "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.

Don't look now, but that day has already dawned. In February I did exactly that, and got my custom computer in less than the week they said it would take. I got all the features I wanted and lots of software, as well.

Linda, happy with her new toy

Dear Holt Uncensored:

As a catergory chair for one of the nation's respected literary contests, I must respond to the recent letter from Sue Trowbridge of Albany CA. Expert reviewers that I work with rarely agree on the quality of the literary entries that they rate. Even from the same manuscripts, scores vary widely depending on the preferences of people performing the assessment. So if experts can't agree, how can we fault amazon's policy of giving voice to any reader?

Of course, nobody can condone authors or publishers writing their own reviews, but every book jacket or back cover already contains just such "critiques." Read amazon's page for "Cold Mountain" and compare the variety of comments there with the barrage of glowing superlatives that recipient of the National Book Award has put on its own dust jacket.

How do we select our reading without risk of running into an unsatisfying experience? The short answer is we don't. A longer answer is we survey all the comments we can find and talk to like minded readers. Certainly no one should depend solely on the often slanted reviews of radio and TV commentators, newspaper literary editors and other professional critics.

Amazon may have faults, but openness to reviews by all readers is not one of them.

Paul Meyer, Seattle