HOLT UNCENSORED #73
by Pat Holt
Tuesday, July 6, 1999:
HEYDAY BOOKS AT 25: PART II
SIX MILLION NEW BOOKS
AMAZON VS. . . WALMART?
HEYDAY BOOKS AT 25: Part II
I've thought for many years that if Malcolm Margolin had done nothing but self-publish a Native American history called "The Ohlone Way" back in 1978, he would still be remembered by scholars and readers as one of the great independent publishers of Indian history.
This mini-classic - seemingly too regional, too esoteric, too remote and too narrow to warrant a large audience or national acclaim - has been selling steadily for nearly 25 years and represents that "inexpressible fertility" of land and animal life that existed during hundreds, possibly thousands, of years before the European invasion of North America.
Open this book to any page and you walk into a world where enormous grizzly bears loped around in packs; the sky was dark with eagles, giant condors, geese, ducks and seabirds. Mountain lions, bobcats and coyotes - so rare today - were a common sight, and whales surfaced and spouted in clear view of boats. Sea lions were so abundant "that to one missionary they seemed to cover the entire surface of the water 'like a pavement.' "
Margolin once said that when he researched this book, he was so struck by the material he uncovered that he had to leave the room. That was even before he discovered that the Ohlone Indians in their ordinariness behaved in much the same way as Native Americans throughout the country - with humor, spiritual connection to animal life, a "way" of sharing, a sense of the sacred in everyday life.
But instead of writing from a distance about the Ohlone, Malcolm invites us to picture ourselves as witnesses to their life. Thus we sit in the sweat lodges with the men, watch the women gamble, wait impatiently for the chief's instructions, participate in a hunt, prepare for marriage and birth. The Ohlone respect for the land and the seasons, their meticulous craft at basket-weaving and body decoration, their sense of balance with the environment, their artistic creativity and their way of governing without oppression "can provide us a with a vision," Margolin concludes, "of how a Stone-Age people, a people whom we have so long belitted, had in fact sustained a life of great beauty and wisdom.
"This realization leaves me feeling curiously rich, as if I had just inherited great wealth from a distant relative I scarcely knew."
Spreading such wealth around became Malcolm's guiding impulse in publishing others' works at Heyday Books, as we'll see next week when we skip to the present and witness the impossibly high standards he now brings to books that seem too regional, too esoteric, too remote nd too narrow to find a place in today's market - but do.
SIX MILLION NEW BOOKS
There's no doubt any longer that a lot of good books are getting lost in the shuffle during the current upheavals of the publishing industry. But is the answer to publish everything written, without regard to standards, just because it IS written?
Of course it is, says Xlibris ( http://www.xlibris.com ), which calls itself "the leading provider of self-publishing services in America." Certainly chills run down the spine as one reads the company's most recent announcement, timed for the 4th of July weekend, though these ain't thrilling chills or patriotic chills or let's-hear-more chills.
"Fifty-thousand new titles are published the traditional way each year," XLibris tells us, "but 500,000 manuscripts are written each year. There are one million unpublished authors in America and, by some estimates, six million unpublished manuscripts. The mission of Xlibris is to provide quality publishing for millions of manuscripts and fulfill the dream of publication and readership to everyone who wants it."
Oh my god, millions of raw manuscripts given "quality" publishing! It's the democratization of art!
But Xlibris is first and foremost an electronic publisher: It only LISTS the books, designs jackets, sets up print-on-demand, provides the author with one copy and stops right there until somebody wants an actual copy. Indeed, the policy at Xlibris is that "no book is ever printed until a reader orders it."
So that's harmless, isn't it? Considering vanity publishers that gouge the poor author for tens of thousands of dollars, Xlibris begins with a modest $450 charge to place the work in an Internet-accessible marketplace. It then offers the potential of printing one book at a time for family members and friends who want to be supportive and pay through the nose (about $25 per hardcover).
Of course, judging by excerpts from available titles on Xlibris' website, one has to say that many of these books are poorly written, full of embarrassing grammatical errors and pretty much missing in substance altogether.
Editors do not seem to be a component at Xlibris, and jacket illustrations appear to be stamped out of a machine. No one at the company has yet caught the hilarity of its promise that "each Xlibris book cover created in our Standard Cover Design Service is unique."
But so what, some might say: No trees are wasted, and who cares if the end consumers are authors themselves rather than readers? Posterity will hardly be offended.
That would be fine, maybe, if it weren't for the inevitable bottleneck. If you're serious about publishing, as Xlibris tells its authors, you've got to get your book registered with the Library of Congress and Copyright Office; you need an ISBN number and a listing in Books in Print; you ought to have a bar code (Universal Product Code) and sales representation in online bookstores.
Xlibris promises to take care of all that (for an extra charge of $300), including registration with Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and Borders.com. So if we're really talking about millions of books, this means a lot of information zinging around, which is not necessarily a problem if it remains electronic. But if Books In Print keeps publishing in hardcover, the next edition could provide a new foundation for all the houses on your block.
So perhaps Xlibris is somewhere between an answer and a scam on the spectrum of what to do about good books that don't get published.
What is worrisome is its cavalier dismissal of a publishing process that at its best brings high standards of literature to every manuscript, that nurtures writers who are gifted and culls out those who are only hopeful, that believes in the discernment of readers and puts the weight of its reputation on the few works it selects.
Now in our "digital revolution," companies like Xlibris want to push that kind of process aside as doomed and obsolete. Replacing it today is the idea that you don't need to write well, work with an editor or understand why a submission process with certain standards exists in the first place. You just have to blather in print and pay a fee, and this company will make certain you're humiliated on the Internet.
And remember, the company's office in Philadelphia "is now located just a few blocks from where the Declaration of Independence was signed, an appropriate backdrop for Xlibris' revolutionary approach to the act of self-publishing." Oh, thank you, you modern-day Thomas Jeffersons! More chills up the spine!
AMAZON VS. . . WAL-MART?
Last week Wal-Mart, the nation's largest brick-and-mortar retailer, signed on Books-A-Million as its exclusive online bookseller in another "outsourcing deal" that is getting Wal-Mart on the Web in fast-and-furious fashion.
Now observers believe "Amazon.com and other e-tailers are sitting ducks waiting to get blown out of the water by Wal-Mart," presumably because the deal with Books-A-Million is going to steal a lot of customers, according to investment-news service The Motley Fool.
What a pair: Wal-mart, loathed in so many areas for its longstanding reputation of ruthlessly gobbling up the competition; and Books-A-Stupid, that pesky book chain that made a name for itself by snapping at the heels of Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Borders by upping their bestseller discounts of 50% to 55%.
Of course, Wal-Mart in many places has also developed considerable customer loyalty and could steal sizeable book sales away from the websites of the three dingbats. But blow them out of the water? As a concept, it's not even worth taking seriously.
What does intrigue is the kind of terminology that's being used. It's the Language of Taking Potshots one hears when consumers grow weary of supporting the guy (Amazon) who looked like a winner for a while but may soon get shot down as a loser.
Of course, looking for weaknesses of celebrities on top is a fine old shameful American tradition. But who knows how long it will be before the economy really does turn around and pull the Amazon rug out from under.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
This was posted on a prominent used-book mailing list. It might be of interest. The responses to the post so far have been speculative. The main speculations are that the books are to be used in Amazon's new auction site or that Amazon is stockpiling used and rare books.
"Does anyone know how many bookstores (or bookstore inventories) that Amazon.com has purchased? When on vacation and scouting, I spoke with a dealer in the Central Valley of California who told me that Amazon.com had indeed bought the stock of a local bookstore, which subsequently closed. I would imagine that such a trend (if true) would be the next logical step for the corporations."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I've now been perusing your column for 70 times . . . and wanted to share my thoughts vis a vis which parts I, Joe Public Non-bookseller, like. It's the reviews - that's what floats my boat - I just can't get into the independent vs. megalo battle because it doesn't affect me personally that much although I certainly try to frequent my local independent. But the reviews are great. I was wondering whether you have thought about doing an additional online magazine of just book reviews and that sort of thing. I would subscribe in a minute and I'll bet there are other review addicts, too.
Holt responds with NOTE TO READERS: So far there are no plans for an online magazine. I'm trying to mix more book reviews and author interviews into the column, but what are your thoughts? Would you like fewer items about the book industry and more reviews? And while I'm at it, do you think I should cut the LETTERS section (as it sometimes runs on and on)? Come to think of it, I worry that *I* run on too long - is length a problem or do you scroll through at ease? Be my focus group and you get a FREE SUBSCRIPTION. Thanks!
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Speaking of Rupert Murdoch, which you were in #69, I recall the New York Times business story months ago that reported Murdoch killed a TV movie treatment of the book about Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill because Thomas is not portrayed flatteringly by the Wall Street Journal reporters. Murdoch did not want to offend his friend in the high court, sources told the NYT.wjd
Dear Holt Uncensored,
Re your interview with Malcolm Margolin in Part I (#71). Not only do he and his dedicated staff have a commitment to quality publishing of significant books, but he takes the time to work personally on projects of the California State Library, the California Council for the Humanities and other organizations dedicated to public service.Al Bennett email@example.com
Dear Holt Uncensored:
A response to a letter suggesting that publishers commit to a promotion budget and stick to it: This ignores the reality that publishers guess wrong and spend a fortune on books that turn out not to be worth it. If they guess wrong and there are no subsidiary rights sales, no or bad pre- and post-pub reviews and a tiny first printing, would it really be a sound business practice to throw good money after bad?
An entrepreneurial fantasy: Expand the PW reviews to include all trade books, put the reviews online, and let subscribers pay for whatever reviews they want. I think publishers would be willing to pay $50 to ensure that their books are reviewed even if the reviews are negative. The big challenge: finding the reviewers.Mike Larsen