NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #74
by Pat Holt

Friday, July 9, 1999:

OH BOY! ANOTHER WEBSITE ON BESTSELLERS
POOR HOWARD
A FLOOD OF RESPONSES, THANK YOU!
IT'S AN ARROGANT TOWN
THE ROLE OF A DICTIONARY
LETTERS

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OH BOY! ANOTHER WEBSITE ON BESTSELLERS

Just as the galaxy has become crowded with obsolete and abandoned satellite, so the Internet is getting junky with websites about bestselling books.

The latest in cyberspace is http://www.topbestsellers.com, not a supplier per se (of course it flaunts so many links to Amazon you have to shovel your way through it), but an "online source for bestseller news, reviews, analysis, and trivia."

That's just what America needs. Why, it could be called www.lemming.com and the effect would be the same.

The idea is that each week, topbestsellers.com will take a composite of nine bestseller lists ranging from the New York Times, Amazon, Publishers Weekly and the Wall Street Journal to the San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times.

"By averaging these different lists together, we create a democracy of bestseller lists," the site explains, "where each list gets a vote, and where the overall performance of each book can be seen at a single glance."

Sounds so nifty. Let's check in to a typical bestseller "democracy" and see what exciting new information we can learn about books we may want to read. Clicking over to "TopBestsellers of the 1990s" we anticipate the full range and variety of a decade of books, and by golly, it sure is revealing: Most of the books are by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Danielle Steel, Michael Crichton, John Gray and the rest you can add in your sleep.

So predictable are the general lists that for more variety, we might try a special interest field, where perhaps we'll see a different pattern. In the History TopBestseller List, for example, you could put a blindfold on and name the prominent authors: Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Bob Woodward, John Keegan, Tracy Kidder and - why here's a true surprise, Richard Marcinko! Yes, in his book, the former rogue warrior and prestigious historian describes "Navy SEALS, how they train, and how they fight in the four corners of the globe." Bestsellers guarantee such a happy common denominator that readers don't have to think or select. Thanks to TopBestsellers.com, they just have to buy.

One hopes all these bestseller websites will cancel each other out one day and put bestseller lists back where they belong - as a popularity contest in terms of the national lists and, locally, an interesting experiment in local tastes.

What is really needed is a national list from independent bookstores ONLY that is not driven by hype or chains or placement money of any kind - something that would have true diversity and a sense of discovery in each category, that could be taped up in bookstore windows and displayed on independent booksellers' websites and that over the years would gain the kind of customer trust that independents bookstores cultivate every day. Now that would be an example of democracy in action.

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POOR HOWARD

Did you see the headline on the Internet recently about Howard Schulz, the founder and CEO of Starbucks Coffee (http://www.starbucks.com)?

It read: "Starbucks CEO Sees No Soul in Web." Aw. The poor guy. Schultz, it turns out, spoke at an investor conference and said that success on the web has nothing to do with revenue or margins or market share.

"It's about building an environment," he insisted, according to http://www.CBS.Marketwatch.com. "It's about building a culture which you can be proud of."

How comforting to know that because Starbucks gives part-time employees health coverage and stock options, the chain has the lowest employee turnover in the retail and fast-food business, according to Schultz. So he can afford to be idealistic.

Marketwatch says the theme of the speech was: Embrace the human spirit! Schultz apparently didn't mention that he had to stomp and gobble up existing independent coffee houses in 2000+ neighborhoods to create a place for Starbucks' 2000+ outlets.

Of course, Schultz knows that "people moan upon hearing that another Starbucks is opening," according to this report, "in much the same way they complain when a Blockbuster Video or Barnes & Noble or another big-box, one-size-fits-all corporate retailer invades their community."

Heavens, look at that language: In the course of being objective and nonjudgmental, this news medium uses such words as "moan," "complain," "invade" and of course "big box, one-size-fits-all corporate retailer." Why, you'd think a backlash against mega-chain stores is indisputably underway, when only a few months ago, such words would never have sneaked into such coverage.

"It's true" about the moaning and complaining, Schultz agreed, and look at HIS language: "There's a natural tension between ubiquity and growth and maintaining an intimacy with our people and our customers," he said. Well, no shinola, Sherlock!

Intimacy, as Borders has discovered in areas where city agencies have declined its 25,000-square-foot stores, is impossible in when chainstore backlash can't be assuaged be feigned by free cinnamon sprinkles on lowfat decafe lattes.

And while it's true that for every home run Mark McGwire hits, Starbucks is donating $5,000 to children's literacy in the host city where the game is played, we should expect that kind of contribution from any corporate outlet that invades a neighborhood and gouges its customers. Certainly the total of at least $250,000 in donations that Starbuck's has promised is impressive: It ain't enough.

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A FLOOD OF RESPONSES, THANK YOU

Thanks to the many readers who responded to my request in issue #73 for your thoughts about the mix of industry news, book reviews, author interviews and letters in Holt Uncensored.

It turns out that - ta da! - book industry people prefer more industry news and readers prefer more book reviews! In general most respondents say they like the mix and even the sometimes exhausting length of the column. (On the Internet, the power to scroll is much more sophisticated than people realize.) And just about everybody loves the letters.

I keep thinking of the Internet as is one big ball of conversation that rolls mightily along without chosen experts, critics or columnists. I may initiate a discussion, but people are out there who know much more than I do about any given subject and whose observations raise everybody's level of understanding. This phenomenon is one of the best aspects of the electronic revolution because there's no agenda, it works on its merits and it has more power than any multinational corporation could ever rein in.

The big lesson for me is that heavens, after doing this for nearly 10 months, I find that I've omitted a key component in presenting book reviews that has left readers in the dark. I have not stated my fundamental belief as a critic that it's not enough to SAY independent bookstores are discovering good books and protecting literature from falling by the wayside. It's the responsibility of this column to SHOW exactly how these unbelievably conscientious booksellers are doing this and to assist in the process by helping spread the word.

So each week my new assistant (yes, I do have one, and I thank her for pretending she doesn't need a salary so that she can "learn the business"), Penny Deleray, has been calling bookstores around the country looking for those titles that we like to say "define your store" - in other words, books that the staff has taken to heart so much they can't handsell enough of 'em, books that clerks and buyers and events coordinators and bookkeepers believe are the reason they're in the book business, books that no matter what happens to the store itself add so much in terms of enriching one's life that they make this lethal and exhausting era called "the bookstore wars" worth the struggle.

Penny and I take down these titles and call publishers for review copies, and when they come I try to give them a critical review, which is to say that if they don't stand up to at least some of standards of literary criticism, I pass 'em by, but if they're great books, even with flaws, even if they have only flashes of brilliance and originality and a lot of heart, I try to give them a succinct review (OK, sometimes they run on but the books are so good I can't help it). The idea is to include the website or email address of the bookstore that has alerted us to the book in the first place so that the column can inspire a few sales while alerting readers.

In this way the review is intended to be LIVING PROOF that the daily work of independent bookstores is so vital to the literature in the United States that everyone who reads it will want to contribute to the support of independent bookstores in any way possible. This means that when people like me say to readers, "give your business to the independents," we're not asking for charity but inviting readers to make a nuts-and-bolts investment in the future of good reading in America.

Well, it would have been nice if I had made some of this clear to you, wouldn't it? Then it might have been more apparent that books like "My Year of Meats" or "Burn This House" or recently that great independent bookseller find, "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams," are not only good books - they are discoveries. They have the potential of becoming the next "Angela's Ashes" or "Cold Mountain." But even if they don't make a bestseller list, reading them is akin to tapping into a literary heritage as profound in our culture as is the First Amendment.

Some books mentioned here I've found myself or are symptomatic of larger issues, such as the two books below, but in the future I'll be careful to bring the bookstore component, when applicable, far more forward so that the review itself will have a little more oomph than it has in the past. Also, thanks to reader Dorothy Bryant for suggesting a "looser concept" of book reviews for this column. More about that next time.

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IT'S AN ARROGANT TOWN

Everybody in the book biz is fascinated by what makes some books hit big and others fall flat, though sometimes the reasoning behind it can be a bit skewed.

Random House has spent a small fortune on a very good though often quite taxing novel called "Turn of the Century" by Kurt Andersen (659 pages; $24.95). Recently, New York Times columnist Martin Arnold wondered why this book isn't the "Bonfire of the Vanities" its publisher hoped it would be.

In this novel, Andersen satirizes American life in the year 2000 by slightly exaggerating the hysteria of a world dominated by promising young comers in Silicon Valley startups, Hollywood TV shows, Wall Street techno-crazes and mid-town Manhattan shark tanks.

Here ubiquitous cell phones, low-fat lattes, Absolut-shaped buses, bankrupt Web-design shops, berserk focus groups, anarchosyndicalists, "first-edition" Nike Air Jordans, "dramedy" (drama "with fun elements"), new ideas for covering the New Hampshire primary and thousands of everyday details are described in that transformative language of nouns-into-verbs ("how are your reports incented?") that would "incent" George Orwell to run for cover.

The story begins with an "extremely cool television" show called "NARCS" in which real people and actors are so alluringly mixed together that nobody knows the difference between fiction and reality. This compels the fey, fast-talking characters who run the show to reinvent themselves at every turn.

Although every page is loaded with snorts and chuckles, the humor is often so coldly preening that we tire of it rather than feel hungry for more. Bruce, for example, is a "former morphine addict with a trust fund; he dresses like a square, a perfect 1965 WASP square, not exactly in a spirit of parody but as a function of his deep native sense of decorum, expressed . . . was it ironically? 'No, um - maybe allusively,' Bruce said."

Uh-oh, what does that mean? This kind of sophomoric posturing is everywhere in this novel, and at times Andersen even gets in the way of his own smart-alecky writing. A character talking on a speaker phone mentions that a man named Tranh is giving her a massage. When she changes the subject, she says, "So. (Thanks, Tranh)." Those parentheses distract us from the substance of the novel to the form of the author's style, and are just too coy to be believed.

Still, the book's acrobatic writing has earned it many good reviews, so why didn't it sell beyond 70,000 copies and hit the NYT's bestseller list? Arnold wonders if perhaps the title is misleading - if maybe "Turn of the Century" sounds more like a boring end-of-millennium essay than a good novel. (True.) Or perhaps it's the length, nearly twice that of most novels. Or maybe it's the jacket illustration, in which the New York skyline is "turned," as in "Turn of the Century," upside-down.

Or, finally, Arnold says, perhaps it's this: "The subject of the novel is too inside-y, too geared to the knowing of the New York, Washington and Los Angeles and their satellites. They are interested in media types, but how many care in North Carolina or Iowa?"

Oh dear, did we hear right? Did he mention people so elitist they are called "the knowing of New York"? Why, those savvy darlings! Where would the rest of the country be without such moxie dilettantes to set our cultural trends?

It's too bad publishing in New York still remains so inbred and "inside-y" that it has rarely attempted to decentralize or relocate anywhere else. Well, everyone knows that New York is often struggling to catch up with the rest of the country, but how many publishing types care on the East Side or in Midtown?

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RANDOM HOUSE WEBSTER'S COLLEGE DICTIONARY; 1571 pages; $24.95

I like dictionaries that take a stand on word usage, and I don't blame the editors of the "Random House Webster's College Dictionary" for boasting about "the most clear-cut, unambiguous treatment of offensive terms ever seen in an English language dictionary."

As many as 300 frigging terms are listed with degrees of offensiveness and tricky conventions that keep words going in and out of fashion. For example, "the term 'nigger' is now probably the most offensive word in English," the dictionary says, though some African Americans may use the term "in a neutral or familiar way."

This may seem obvious, but it's stated in a succinct and precise manner that avoids a preachy tone about choices in usage. Another example is the word "queer," only a few years ago considered a disparaging word for gay people. Today it's used by gays with pride and even seems to transfer pride to straight people if they use it (correctly).

Dictionaries tend to fall into two categories - those that reflect usage whether it's correct or incorrect, and those that instruct us about what usage is correct (American Heritage, for example). At least that's the case with grammatical usage. But rarely have dictionaries gone as far as the RHWCD to instruct readers about offensive terms. As editorial director Wendalyn Nichols says, "Why not make the warning explicit? Why dance around the subject? For the first time a major American dictionary is sticking its neck out over offensive terms; I'm proud of us for doing it."

But there are times when even a good risk-taking dictionary can go too far, and unfortunately this has happened here with such words as "chink" and "Holy Roller." It's helpful to warn the reader that "chink" is "extremely disparaging and offensive" and that Holy Roller is "offensive." But the first thing each definition tells us is that "this term is a slur that must be avoided."

It sounds like something out of She Who Must Be Obeyed. A certain finger-wagging tone emerges that's unseemly for a dictionary. Since changes in the usage of offensive language often depend on who uses it, the dictionary's job here is to lay off the directives, to define words and let us decide how we want to use them. Then as the words continue to be exchanted, WE collectively tell IT how to define the terms in the next edition.

At the same time, a dictionary admonishing readers about one word can hardly close that censorship door on other words that are just as bad. There's a "c" word I can't even write down that is labeled "disparaging and offensive" but not a "slur" and not to be avoided. Does that mean there is ever a time when the "c" word is acceptable?

Even with the "n" word, a term given the dictionary's worst label, nothing warns readers that outside idiomatic use by African Americans, the term "must be avoided."

Otherwise it's a great dictionary, and what fun to see how much the electronic revolution has influenced many of the new words. "FAQ" for Frequently Asked Questions is in there, as is Java (not the coffee), ISP (Internet Service Provider), SVGA (super video graphics array) and that great invitation to get together, "face time," which means a face-to-face meeting with a person known only by email or phone conversation. You just can't get any more formal or respectful than "face time," can you? It's almost as good as "suck face" (which doesn't in this dictionary), another term that MUST be avoided at all costs.

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Regarding your concerns about XLibris [the website for self-publishers described in #73]. First a few clarifications: A Library of Congress number is required only if you plan to sell the book to libraries. Nor does a book need to be registered with the U.S. copyright office. Books are copyrighted when the copyright symbol is placed in the book with the date and the name of the person who holds the copyright. Registering would just give you proof if you prosecuted a copyright violation, which XLibris-type authors likely would never have to do.

It is indeed easy to set up a publishing business but very difficult to make money. Most self-published books will never be sold. And so what? In these days of increasing illiteracy, it's great that people are writing. They should be encouraged. And if they want to pay to have their book published, so what? No one is going to be fooled into thinking that they went through the seemingly impossible process of shopping their manuscript around to the big publishing houses, who, as you continually note in your column, choose manuscripts by who-know-what arbitrary standards.

I just published a collection of short stories written by a class of 6th graders and hope next year to do one written by a class of high school students. These are not "publishable" works, and I would never have published them but for my interest in teaching kids about the writing and publishing process. Yes, the books are clogging up Books in Print and unnecessarily using up ISBN numbers. However, we sold books (yes, to parents) THROUGH AN INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORE! I consigned all 100 books with The King's English in Salt Lake City; the owner agreed to host an evening book signing and to sell the books. It was standing-room-only; the press came, and more than 70 books were sold.

Kids who previously were interested only in electronic fun, are now vying to be poetry editors for next year's publication! (Many of the parents and kids did not know the difference between chains and independents, and this project, I believe, taught them--who else would give them input on designing, pricing, and marketing the book--which the bookstore owners did--host an event on two days' notice, and take 100 kid-written books on consignment?)

So my point is that writing should be encouraged; the self-publishing process encourages the love of books and bookstores; and more listings in Books in Print is a small price to pay . . .

Susan Vogel
vogel@pince-nez.com

P.S. Last weekend, I shopped around two alternative cover designs for a new book to several San Francisco independent bookstores (Books Inc, Christopher's, Solar Lights) and got some great suggestions. (Ti at Christopher's gave me wonderful idea for a new book--something in line with my others, but on a subject I'd never considered.) What a fabulous resource the independent bookstores are for a publisher trying to meet the needs of the local community!

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Please, do tell me where "at its best," [#73] publishing is being pursued today so that I can send all my work there immediately! Having sold books to Viking, Holt, and Dell -- and having to get back the rights to every one to keep my work alive under my own imprint -- the only "cavalier dismissal" I have experienced was at the hands of my august publishers. And I am surely not the only writer "gifted" enough to discover that self-publishing is the route I must pursue if I want to hang onto a shred of self-respect in the lit biz.

XLibris may be little more than old-style vanity publishing in a new guise, but to accuse them of greed , exploitation of "hopeful" authors, or apathy about the quality of literature is laughable in the face of what's going on in the New York houses. Of all the things to worry about in publishing, the potential weight problem of Books in Print is pretty far down my list!

D. Patrick Miller
FEARLESS BOOKS, Berkeley
http://www.fearlessbooks.com

Dear Holt Uncensored:

The six-million-book figure used by Xlibris makes it sound as if it's a new holocaust, and it will be if it indeed makes authors of people not even considered worthy enough to be published by Vantage Press.

Every day we receive at least a dozen manuscripts or queries for possible publication, and at least a couple hours a day are used to look at these things and get these promising authors a reply. (Thinking back, I believe we've only published one from these multitudes of unrequested book proposals.) Now, instead of spending five to ten grand on Vantage Press, these wannabes will only need spend a few hundred dollars to make LMP and Books-in-Print a laughable proposition.

When I started publishing about twelve years ago there seemed to be a call for books that the NY insiders wouldn't consider, and there must have been since I'm still in business. But as the self-help genre proves, there's no business like the ego-stroking business. Horrors!

Adam Parfrey
Feral House

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I was just clicking around on Amazon.com checking on the presentation of one of our books ("Now Breathe: A very personal journey through breast cancer" by Claudia Sternbach.)

I did a "keyword search" using the words WOMEN and CANCER. The top match returned for my query was "THE PROSTATE- A guide for men and the women who love them."

Need I say more?

Claudia Mauro
Whiteaker Press, Seattle

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I doubt that Amazon.com is much worried about Wal-Mart's online presence [#73]. Wal-Mart has been clueless about the Web in general and too slow to implement anything. Jeff Bezos is nimble, if nothing else. Who knows how long his Internet Ponzi scheme can continue before reality sets in?

Wayne Douglass
mailto:wayned@verity.com