NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #75
by Pat Holt

Tuesday, July 13, 1999:

HEYDAY PRESS AT 25: PART III
BOOKRESERVE: THE $40 EDUCATION
LETTERS

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HEYDAY PRESS AT 25: PART III

You needn't have known Dan Bellm's remote and tyrannical truck-driving dad to feel as though you're sitting with the poet in the first poem of "One Hand on the Wheel" (Heyday/Roundhouse; 63 pages; $12.50 paperback).

In "Hands," the son watches his father dying, "the two of us holding hands like little brothers, and though you don't hold mine back you can't pull yours away."

A lifelong struggle between the father and son becomes immediately apparent - "it's me, Dad, your mortal enemy and friend" - yet while the details of their relationship seem chiseled into the page, it's the universality of this experience that blindsides the reader.

". . . any baby, first thing, will grasp at a touch and hold on but I feel your hands now working themselves away, unfathering me - What an accident of death that they begin to look like infant hands, as if you will live again."

"Unfathering me" - this wrenching truth as father and child separate distinguishes Bellm's strong hand as poet, as witness, yet it's one tiny piece of the greater mosaic that makes "One Hand on the Wheel" a strong first entry in Heyday Books' new California Poetry Series.

But right here we might as well stop at the oddity of the series label, since many of the poems in Bellm's book are set in Wisconsin, Illinois, Arizona, Tennessee and Yellowstone. California is certainly a presence, but why, Malcolm is asked, should it stamp an identity on this book? Why not call this a plain old Poetry Series? Why stick a regional label on it and limit sales east of the Sierras?

(Some readers wonder why I haven't described Malcolm's physical appearance earlier - his rocklike bald head, his long, craggy beard with whiskers falling in reedy fields of gray and black, his shining coins of reverse-telescope glasses and a body of denim-covered sinew that would look ridiculous in a suit and tie.

But it's not until he's questioned about a publishing decision that Malcolm gets The Look of the Independent Publisher Explaining. Somehow this gentle intellectual steps forward with his whole ferocious being, blinking hard and sputtering as if appalled that he of all people should be required to explain a procedure that for all we know is keeping his house alive.)

"I use the name California Poetry Series because you can't just publish a skinny little book by itself," he says, holding up Bellm's 63-page volume. "For each book in this series to make it, there has to be cohesion, a theme that's identifiable."

Bellm's poems, after all, lead the poet to a state of mind that is California, a place in his own geography where can then go back to "find" his father anew, even if imagined, even and especially in death.

Most important, says Malcolm, "the place where my mind always turns is toward region. I've been struck for some time by the fact there are so damn few houses that publish poetry. I think - I know - the material is out there. I'm fascinated by taking all these different books and putting out something comprehensive. After 100 years, this is going to be a hell of a series. Each one coming out quarterly will mean 400 books creating the finest century of California poetry. That 100th anniversary party is really going to be something, because there's something real in this series."

The book is barely out, the first poem of the first book considered by one critic, and already Margolin has envisioned the effect on history and culture of the series a hundred years from now.

This is what you get to do when you're an independent publisher. You have the luxury of the long term, the motivation of an underlying vision, the freedom to name the damn thing whatever you want - and of course, the responsibility for every single mistake along the way.

But like many independent publishers, Malcolm has learned to hedge his bets. Heyday is hardly a profitable enterprise, but it operates with a combination of grants and sales that have kept it afloat in impossibly lean years. This year it's established a nonprofit entity called the Clapperstick Institute and has obtained funding to create a new imprint, The Roundhouse Press, which is co-publishing the California Poetry Series with the Berkeley-based publication Poetry Flash.

But perhaps what is most impressive in this time of very few poetry books from any house is that Heyday will publish 3,500 copies of each book in the California Poetry Series - certainly as many as mainstream publishers could put out - and sell every one of them.

Consortium, the trade distributor for Heyday, has taken 1500, and Malcolm is hard at work on creating something new for Heyday - and as old, he knows, as them literary hills - a list of subscribers to the full series that will build up to a couple of thousand. (To subscribe, contact Patricia Wakida: email roundhouse@heydaybooks.com ).

Meanwhile Heyday continues to publish anthologies, histories, artbooks, memoirs and Malcolm's long-running "News from Native California," the highly praised magazine written in large part by Native Americans with "an inside view of the California Indian world."

These books offer the kind of quietly eloquent reading experience that is so valued by readers yet so difficult to publish by mainstream houses. Once "out there," they can sell steadily for years and provide a heartening contribution to the shelves of any bookseller, independent or chain.

One might say that Heyday's 1996 title "The Fine Art of California Indian Basketry" by Brian Bibby, published with the Crocker Art Museum, is a "small" book compared to a history by Tom Brokaw or Peter Jennings. But in t erms of bringing Native American artists to the forefront and interviewing them about their own basketry and the legacy they see handed down to them for centuries, this book transcends notions of size or current interest. It is a book for posterity, one that is invaluable. It deserves tremendous support and respect, as do so many titles coming out of independent publishers, yet too often the response of mainstream publishers is to poach authors from the more successful streams of independent publishing and scoff at or ignore the rest.

Is there a way for Heyday Books to pull the best out of the mainstream instead of the other way around? Quite possibly: Three years ago he hired a consultant, George Young, formerly of Ten Speed Press, to visit Heyday every two months and "teach me how to be a publisher," he says. "Somehow, going from two books a year to 20, I've never learned how you structure a publishing company."

What kinds of things is Malcolm learning? "Well, George is helping set out the pace and the timing. He has the publishing history to know how to do this. He's shown me how to think about accounting, marketing, that sort of thing. In fact it was a revelation to me," he adds with a smile, "that you don't acquire your Fall books in February."

One thing is certain - Heyday will never grow too big. "I learned a very important lesson from Jack Shoemaker of North Point Press years ago. He said that it wasn't the bad years that get you in trouble but the good years. During the bad years, you batten down and creak along. In the good years, if a book really makes it, you say, hey, we've finally arrived! You take that money and instead of 10 books the next season you're going to do 16 books; and that person who's been slaving away at $8.50 you can raise to $12.50; and that overworked editor can finally get an assistant, and the office a new computer. But then the next season you get some returns, your big book bombs. Now it's very hard to turn that dial down, to take the editorial assistant away, to return the computer, to cut back the number of titles."

Of course, Heyday doesn't publish that way - there's never a dependence on big books because there aren't any big books. There are only steady sellers. "That's true," he says, "but increasingly I've been supported by independent booksellers, and by the chains too - they've been cautious and caring. I would say Heyday has been very lucky in that regard."

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THE $40 EDUCATION

Boy! Remember when calculators were big and bulky and cost hundreds of dollars but gradually got smaller and inexpensive and finally went the way of - well, the way cellphones are going?

Well, now through a new program called BookReserve ( http://www.bookrserve.com ), it seems that websites for independent bookstores, which used to cost thousands of dollars to design and maintain, are available with a full 500,000-title database for only $59.95 a month.

"This is for smaller bookstores doing $100-200,000 in business a year," says Dick Harte, the Ohio bookseller and founder of BookSite, which provides more sophisticated websites for larger independent booksellers around the country.

Compare the American Booksellers Association's own BookSense website service (basic fees: $500 setup plus $200 a month plus 4.5% of each sale) and BookSite's fees ($350 setup plus $160 month), and the advantages seem obvious of starting far more simply with BookReserve at $59.95 (no set-up fee or percentage costs).

Readers may remember that Holt Uncensored pretended to be a bookstore last Fall and got on the web in 5 minutes just to see how easy it was to create a web presence with BookSite.

Now with BookReserve this same process takes all of 30 seconds, as Holt Uncensored Bookstore found out yesterday, and even though the website itself is a bit skimpy and the address unwieldy (for me it would be http://www.secure-page.com/holtuncensored ), the potential for service to customers is tremendous.

The only real drawback is that the customer must pick up the books ordered at the store, but that seems like a small matter if the customer is roaming around the Web at 2 a.m. and can just as easily search the neighborhood bookstore's BookReserve system as Amazon's - and of course when the customer does pick up the book up locally there's a saving of nearly $4 right there.

Harte's hope for BookReserve is to give the smaller independent "a good place to start." It will help booksellers to "build up your marketing programs and an understanding of the Internet before moving on to more elaborate services" such as BookSite or BookSense. Even as simple as it is, BookReserve, he adds, offers "a large selection and a site to be proud of."

All well and good, but customers are going to compare Amazon with independents' websites and frankly, they're going to find Amazon.com or even the dreaded Barnesandnoble.com snazzier, more lively and, even, more fun.

To this Harte visibly winces (yes, you can see it over the phone). "If customer purchases are driven by snazzy website content," he says, nostrils flaring (this you can HEAR over the phone), "then the ball game is over. According to the old paradigm about economies of scale, there's no way an independent bookstore can come close to matching the investment that Amazon has made."

But as to Amazon, he adds, "Why is it that discounting books at 50%, spending unbelievable millions each month on advertising and giving service beyond comprehension - to the point of losing 30 cents per dollar of every transaction - doesn't bring Amazon any more than 3% market share of total book sales? Why doesn't it have 90%?

"I'll tell you," he says in answer to his own question. "There are three reasons that people buy books from Amazon: price, convenience and confidence. BookReserve is meant to address the convenience and confidence factors. It gives independent bookstores one more tool to increase customer service. It offsets the pricing situation that can't be rationally addressed because there re is no way that independents can match the price until Amazon is required to generate a profit like the rest of the world.

"So BookReserve is not going to try to copy Amazon - everybody who follows that model will lose, especially when it comes to pricing. But it will certainly help independents surpass Amazon when it comes to helping customers deal with a bookstore they know and trust, run by people in their own community."

Perhaps more fundamental, says Harte, is the way we think about online sales. "The Internet is not our enemy," he says. "The Amazon model - knowingly selling product at a loss - is our enemy. If Amazon wins, it wipes everybody out. But the Internet is our ally. Make it an integrated part of business, and we're all going to prosper."

Yeah, sure, some say: Name one bookstore that's making a profit on the Web. Well, there aren't many, it's true, but look at it this way, says Harte: "Even if you spend $60 and earn only $20, it's a way to get started; it's a $40 education."

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

. . . I closed a small bookstore (used books) last October because I just couldn't make a go of it. I now sell exclusively over the Internet and am doing considerably better. Fortunately, when it comes to used and collectible books, the little guy can compete quite well, on the Internet. . . as long as you close your shop, ha! (Read that as very sad humor.)

Sally Sanders

Holt responds: If you have a quick moment, could I ask how you are doing better on Internet than you did in the store? I keep hearing that the Internet SOUNDS fine but making money off it is far in the future.

Sally Sanders answers: First of all, our shop was located in a small town in Northern California - very picturesque but very "cowboy." It was a great place to buy books because the ancestors of the residents seemed to have both read good books and saved them to pass along. Their children and grandchildren preferred movies and rodeos and would sell me grandad's books.

However, that left me with nice books but few local readers (translate: customers), forcing me to depend on tourists, which were in short supply. I had a mortgage on my building, as well as utilities and regular business costs to pay. I never even broke even. Desperate, I tried selling online and immediately exceeded my in-store sales. Fine, supplement the shop with online sales, you say? Working six days a week, 12 hours a day (couldn't afford to hire help) didn't allow the time to do both successfully. Additionally, online costs were under $100 per month! As you can see, this was quickly becoming a no-brainer.

I sold the building, closed the shop, and began selling exclusively online. That was 9 months ago. Now, with the added time to research and seek out quality books, my gross sales are 20% higher and, with very low overhead, net sales considerably higher! Since my costs are quite a bit less, I can pass on the savings to my customers. I had a charming shop in a beautiful old Victorian building. . . and it was sad that I had to end what had been a long-time dream of mine. I'd hate to think that other shops could be forced to close also, but the majority of people today are living such busy lives that all they want to do is punch a few keys and have a book they've been looking for show up on their doorstep a few days later . . . But there is no pat answer. Forgetting the money issue. . . I now have time to READ!

Sally Sanders

Dear Holt Uncensored,

[What do] the Amazon.com sales ranks actually mean? I'm really curious. My first book, which hit the stands in October 1998, was ranked 72,393. My second book, which came out about ten minutes ago, stands at 45,837. (Both figures are as of July 9.)

If the ranking runs like I thought it did (the closer to #1 you are, the better you're selling), then it seems my second book has already outsold my first. Ridiculous! And if it runs the other way (the higher the number, the better the sales), what's the highest ranking? The term "rank" usually indicates a finite number.

Amazon just gets weirder and weirder.

Steven Piziks

Dear Holt Uncensored:

[Regarding the letter from Claudia Sternbach, author of "Now Breathe: A very personal journey through breast cancer," who said:] "I did a 'keyword search' [of Amazon.com] 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?"

A title keyword search on the MUZE kiosk brings up a very manageable and accurate list of 53 books on breast cancer and related issues for women with cancer. This list can be re-sorted by topseller, pub date, price, format, publisher, author, title, time period, or location. This kind of search can be found only on the MUZE kiosk. In addition, you can do a keyword search on subjects and find categories like "Female-Cancer" and "Breast Cancer." And, yes, this does bring up Claudia Sternbach's "Now Breathe."

Need I say more?

Peter Krause MUZE, petkra@Muze.com

(Note to Readers: MUZE provides the Books in Print data base that will be used by booksense.com in independent bookstore websites this Fall.)

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I went to Amazon.com to see what was happening with my book, "365 Views of Mt. Fuji," and on the page for my book I found these items listed under "Our auction sellers recommend" (sic):

MOUNT FUJI a set of 3 Framed japanese Prints (Current bid: $15.00) The Fuji MX600 Digital Camera - Brand New!! - (Current bid: $107.50) W.W. II JAP COLLAR INSIGNIA (Current bid: $9.99)

Todd Shimoda

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I wanted to clarify a comment from Susan Vogel's letter in which she says: "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.

On the first point, work is copyrighted when created as part of copyright law revisions in the 1970s. [Here's a quote] from the US Copyright Office's Frequently Asked Questions ( http://lcweb.loc.gov/copyright/faq.html ): "Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form so that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device."

This is a very powerful right. It means that any original work has protection *instantly* when it is written down, recorded, notated, turned into a set of symbols, whatever.

On the second point, registering a work does not just give you proof - though it is a useful tool. A notary public can also provide evidence, as can actual publication in some forum. However, if you want "statutory" damages (which I believe means triple actual damages) and attorney's costs paid, registration provides this benefit. Again, from the US Copyright Office's FAQ:

Registered works may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney's fees in successful litigation. Finally, if registration occurs within five years of publication, it is considered prima facie evidence in a court of law.

Glenn Fleishman

http://www.glenns.org