HOLT UNCENSORED #76
by Pat Holt
Friday, July 7, 1999:
B&N'S STEPFORD WIVES PROGRAM
SELLING AND REVIEWING 'WHAT HER BODY THOUGHT'
B&N'S STEPFORD WIVES PROGRAM
Goodness, those active little pod persons over at Barnes & Noble have been busy! Having planted Barnes & Noble hyperlinks on thousands of "affiliate" websites throughout the country, these thoughtful strategists have located an even better target for domination: your email.
If you sign up for this program, Barnes & Noble places hyperlinks on your outgoing messages so the people you contact can just click on it and find themselves on the Barnes & Noble website. You get 5 percent of whatever sale results, or since you're just as selfless as Barnes & Noble, you can have the money sent to the Red Cross or National Wildlife Federation or Special Olympics.
As barnes&noble.com CEO Jonathan Bulkeley says so feelingly, "We're proud to introduce this revolutionary new program that will transform e-commerce into we-commerce." Isn't that great? Such a way with words! "We know that readers like to recommend books to their friends. Now they can do so via e-mail - as booksellers raising money for some important charities." Now this is a company with heart.
Of course once Barnes & Noble gets into your email, you can see what tremendous potential awaits. Soon you'll be given free tips from Barnes & Noble as to who among your friends buys more books and who - well, let's just say who might be avoided. Then for even greater commissions and surprise gifts, you can start collecting information FROM your friends - what they buy, how they vote, any current diseases and bedroom preferences!
And did we mention the uniforms that make you a walking Barnes & Noble hyperlink? Once you learn the attractive Barnes & Noble goose step and remember to salute when you walk by that Barnes & Noble brick-and-mortar store, the rest is easy. Every time you want to say something personal in your email, or voice a political opinion, or propose an original idea, Barnes & Noble will send happy representatives to wipe that irrelevant stuff right off your screen/brain.
But did we hear right? Is the name of the Internet marketing company that's going to do this for Barnes & Noble actually called Be Free, Inc.? Be FREE? What a concept! Even Holt Uncensored couldn't make that one up.
SELLING AND REVIEWING 'WHAT HER BODY THOUGHT'
A bounty of ideas continues to pour in from readers about bringing a "looser concept" to the idea of book reviews (see #75).
As many readers have pointed out, you can get book reviews in a lot of places. But if this column is a place to explore the way art and commerce work - when they work - it should also be a place to watch independent booksellers' innovative ways of spreading the word about good books that might otherwise be lost in the book industry's shuffle.
For example, recently A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco announced that opera singer Susan Ganundas would sing two arias from "La Traviata" at the store event for "What Her Body Thought" by Susan Griffin (HarperSanFrancisco; 328 pages; $24; order at http://www.bookstore.com ). The book, it should be mentioned, was not exactly about opera.
Griffin is the much-loved author of the feminist classic, "Woman and Nature," and a National Book Critics Circle nominee for her last book, "A Chorus of Stones." She faces a tough sell with "What Her Body Thought," a beautifully written but often painful memoir of her long bout with Chronic Fatigue Immune Disfunction Syndrome (CFIDS). There she describes the unrelenting misery she experienced trying to convince doctors of her illness while watching her bank account collapse.
But as her weight dropped to 100 pounds and she couldn't lift her head off the pillow, Griffin remembered a story repeated many times since the last century about a courtesan dying of a terrible disease who falls in love with an aristocrat. "Once a novel, then a play, afterward an opera, and finally at least four different films," the story is perhaps best known as "Camille" starring Greta Garbo, or Verdi's opera, "La Traviata."
Griffin allows that "tough realism lies at the core" of this "mawkishly sentimental story" in which the heroine, "though desperately ill, nevertheless claim(s) the right to live with full intensity." While reaching "into some fiery center for which no barrier exists to love," the story observes that "sin and sexuality are often symbolized by a woman's body." At the end, Camille lies dying in "her grand salon, which entertained so many lovers, filled now by her creditors waiting to profit by her death."
Griffin's book soon becomes a fascinating meditation on the nature of illness when "the issue of money is woven with shame, not only in the story but during Griffin's fight to recover. With Camille, and with Violetta in "La Traviata," redemption is possible after the heroine has been betrayed and must sacrifice her desire. In Griffin's life, a daily "shift from hope to betrayal" occurs as the medical community withdraws its care, leaving her feeling "like a lover who is seduced and abandoned."
What a great touch, then, to introduce Griffin at her bookstore signing with two very moving arias from "La Traviata," sung to the rafters as it mesmerized 85 people with that haunting mixture of eros and economic ruin, of grief and beauty, of decrepitude and ferocity taking on society's moral judgment in a single breath.
"What Her Body Thought" asks a great deal of readers. Griffin's attempt to describe her illness sometimes means we must endure lapses in both her health and writing style. However, her poetic gifts often leave us stunned as she stops her own narrative to explore parts of the body - say, a woman's eyes in the midst of love-making ("it is not a penetrating gaze I turn toward you; it is I who am entered through the dark openings in my eyes.")
Here, then, is not a great book but an awfully good reading experience, certainly a book of mirrors for anyone who has endured long illness. It is not an easily hyped or quickly promotable title - you can't stick it in a thousand chain bookstore windows or buy a placement on Amazon's "Recommended" list and expect it to sell. You have to find new ways, original ways, moving ways to introduce it and spread the word, sometimes with professionals to help you sing its praises. If "the bookstore wars" were over and the chains and Amazon "won," this is one of the books whose fate would be met with silence.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I am the bookbuyer for a largish independent book store in a smallish town in Washington state. As a bookseller I love handselling. I used to point out Barbara Kingsolver, who hardly needs the help these days. I also like a new writer, Maureen Tan, for people who love women mysteries but are growing tired of the regulars. Her "AKA Jane" came out last year, "Run Jane Run" this year published by Warner Books. It's a different twist as Jane is an international spy, and the books take place abroad and in the US. Tough but troubled, lots of action.
Also a great new book called "Rules of the Wild" by Francesca Marciano from Random. I've sold lots of Jo-Ann Mapson, especially "Hank & Chloe," "Loving Chloe" and "Shadow Ranch" published by HarperCollins, all paperback. Robert Ferrigno is an interesting, entertaining guy and I loved his book, "Heartbreaker," another from Random house. Jeffery Deaver is great too and should take off with the release of "Bone Collector" the movie staring Denzel Washington. Also a local (Oregon) author Gregg Kleiner has a lovely book called Where River Turns to Sky published by Avon. We've had him in the store several times. A young wonderfully sweet man.
Anyway, those are some of the books I like to pass on to my customers. Oh yes and "White Oleander" by Janet Fitch was a wonderful surprise. My Oprah books haven't sold as well as they first did. After I read this book I told everyone how much I loved it, got several employees to read it as well and it has started to sell for us. The power of handselling is amazing.Jan Warner-Poole
Dear Holt Uncensored:
The Amazon rankings don't mean much. A Wall Street Journal article from 1998 by Ron Suskind explained Amazon's rankings. He wrote the rankings "are updated hourly for Amazon.com's 10,000 top-selling titles, daily for the next 100,000 books and monthly for the rest of the pack."
Later he reveals "One sale a day can put a title in the top 10,000 sellers; a sale every few days can land a title in the next tier of 100,000. When the rest of the list is updated each month, rankings are determined by a complex mathematical formula based on the most recent sale and the time between sales."
The article concludes by showing even a small number of books ordered can have a big impact on the rank:
" ...wishing won't make it so, but action can work wonders. Lew McCreary saw his well-reviewed thriller 'The Minus Man' (Penguin Books, 1994) locked in Amazon.com's dark middle kingdom since the start of the rankings. He regularly checked the ranking over several weeks. It barely budged. Last week's slot: 680,281. 'I just want to know what to do to get under 500,000,' he said last week.
"After some thought, Mr. McCreary, whose day job is editorial director of CIO, a magazine for chief information officers, rallied the magazine's staffers at lunchtime. He told them he would reimburse them for the book's $9.95 purchase price if they called Amazon.com and placed an order. Five hours later, 10 books had been bought, and Mr. McCreary was making a run for glory.
"By 5:35 p.m. his rank was 368. 'I feel like I have the bends,' chortled the author, preparing for a night of celebration. 'I surfaced much too quickly. I just hope I can stay up this high until morning.' "Steve Rhodes
Dear Holt Uncensored:
My literary career, satisfying if not hugely successful, is the product of the alternative publishing movement that burgeoned in the 1960s and '70s, and of the independent bookstores that supported it. My first books were published by New West Publications, Duck Down Press, Seven Buffaloes Press, Old Adobe Press, et al. Had independents like Kepler's, Small Press Traffic, Eeyore, and Cody's, among others, not carried those, I'd have had to mimeo and distribute my stuff, since I was determined to write.
Today I'm convinced that if we lose the indies we'll defintely lose the major channel for non-mainstream authors and uninhibited creativity. Young writers won't have the opportunity I had.
I recently wrote a book on country music in California, and while researching it, discovered the stifling effect Top-40 radio, with its interlocks to various music and recording companies, have had on that form: Hit slots are assigned before release to records by mainline artists (Garth Brooks and company); artists who don't fit the mainline model simply aren't played--no Kitty Wells, no Buck Owens, no Bill Monroe. Focus groups determine what's good--meaning saleable--and what ain't.
The analogy to the book business today was both obvious and horrid. Thank God alternative publishing and independent bookstores still survive.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
A quote sent to me today by a friend:
"How do I stack up against some other store? I don't see that at all. How do I stack up against Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King? These are the standards I aspire to." --Len Riggio (head of Barnes & Noble)
This from new issue of New York magazine--July 19.
"Almost makes (Amazon founder Jeff) Bezos seem cuddly." -- says my friend
(Note to readers: The following letter seemed so classic to me - an average customer walking into a chain store and thinking "what's not to like?" - and sparked such deep feelings that I thought I'd run the whole exchange, despite my overlong - what a surprise - response. If there's a more succinct way to get at the heart of this matter and help customers understand what's at stake for independent bookstores, I'd love to know. - Pat Holt)
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In regard to "Poor Howard" [Holt Uncensored #74], I have to confess I'm always a bit uncomfortable by knee-jerk chain-store bashing. While I'm no fan of Starbucks, I feel there's a place for well-run chains that provide something special.
Many of the chain bookstores of the '70s (Dalton's, Waldenbooks, etc.) were harsh plastic-and-florescent wastelands with limited selections. But I have to say Barnes & Noble is a very different experience: the stores have a wonderful selection, comfortable chairs that invite lingering, in-store talks by authors, and the best prices. What's not to like?
I have a suspicion that some of the antagonism towards chains stems from our cultural ambivalence about success. We love success in America, but we also resent it. It reminds me of the joke that anyone in the office who makes less money than you is a stupid schnook, and anyone who has a higher salary than you is surely a despicable, undeserving suck-up.
Somehow we have to be able to support both independent bookstores and chains because, in a democracy, chain stores are a fact of life. They're just the independent bookstores of yesterday that met with some success.
Holt responds: No, there's nothing wrong with chain stores per se, and even in the '70s, the chains you speak of (Dalton, Walden) brought bookselling into high-rent malls and suburbs where publishers used to say "housewives don't buy books," so these stores performed a valuable if limited function in that regard. Also, although I've seen a lot of sweet neighborhood coffee houses forced out of business by Starbucks, the arena of lattes-to-go is not the same to me as the arena of books, where chain stores have had profound and damaging effects on everything from American literature to the state of the First Amendment.
So let me just respond to your letter by mentioning three areas where the problems of chain bookstores are very worrisome.
1): I'm wondering if you're aware of several successful lawsuits that have accused publishers and chains of illegal discounts, under-the-table deals and antitrust practices all designed to drive independents out of business. In each case so far the courts have agreed with independents that illegal practices do exist, but even when publishers have signed consent decrees stating they would not continue, violations have occurred. One publisher that got caught - Penguin - had to pay $25 million in a settlement to the independents through the American Booksellers Association, which distributed the money to independent stores. The current lawsuit has been brought by the ABA directly against Barnes & Noble and Borders.
2) Each independent store may not appear to compare favorably to the kind of chain store you describe, but taken together, independents stock a far wider range of books and offer customers infinitely more choices than do chain stores. I am a book critic by profession and have worried for years that good books are falling by the wayside in the midst of publishing mergers and "the bookstore wars." One of the few places where I see quality American literature preserved and protected is the independent bookstore; where it is being overlooked and uncared for or dismissed altogether is the chain bookstore.
3) Today it may appear that chain superstores have a wide-ranging inventory (some chains say they carry 100-250,000 titles in each store) and that may be true when they first open, but usually within a year the inventory shrinks to a formula buy out of Ann Arbor or New York that depends on high turnover of commercial titles . . . I'm sure you know this means that the decision about what customers can read has gone from many different buyers to very few (a handful of buyers ordering for thousands of Barnes & Noble and Borders stores). So if these chain-store buyers miss a good book, and don't buy it for their stores, the publisher has no recourse, whereas if an independent buyer misses a book, there are 3300 others who might feel differently. Independent booksellers discovered and kept selling the books of Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison, Frank McCourt, E.L. Doctorow, Amy Tan, Charles Frazier, Cormac McCarthy and hundreds of others whether these books sold or not; had chain bookstores been the only stores in existence, these writers would not be known to us today.
So when you say "what's not to like?" about a chain store, I'm hoping you'll look beneath the surface of streamlined comfort and the appearance of a large inventory to the question of what's really at stake in "the bookstore wars." I have interviewed the head of Barnes &Noble and have testified at City Planning Commissions and City Councils that ultimately turned down petitions by Borders and I know that these chains believe they can only "win" by driving independents out of business. And up to now, they have been successful: In recent years 2000 independent stores closed down in the face of this competition. The chains then used the millions they gained through illegal means to discount books so heavily (now at least 50% off bestsellers) that they just have to wait until independent stores go under.
Perhaps the greatest irony is that independents keep finding good books that aren't bestsellers and recommend them to customers, who as word spreads begin to buy these books in such volume that the titles start hitting bestseller lists, at which point the chains come in and discount the books and steal those sales, too, from the independents who discovered them.
As you say, in a democracy, chain stores are a fact of life. And because this is a democracy, chain stores have to compete on a level playing field just like everybody else. That is all any independent bookstore or its association has ever talked about - competing equally. All the chains (and we haven't even gotten to Amazon!) talk about is beating out the competition and winning the war. What has riled me beyond expression (and I truly will stop now) is the condescending attitude of chain bookstore representatives who say that independents are bad at business and that's why they're going under, when the chain bookstore (look at Crown, now in bankruptcy court) is one of the worst business models in existence (until Amazon!).
Well, Joe that's way more than you bargained for, but it's because you expressed your laissez faire attitude so well that I felt compelled to respond in this windy manner. You appear to be one of many customers who walk into a chain bookstore thinking "what's not to like?" so here's one final thing: Last year, Barnes & Noble attempted to buy Ingram, the giant book distributor that services most of the independent bookstores in the country. This merger would have meant that the independents' most lethal competitor would own the distributor whose service could make them or break them. Thank heaven a massive protest moved the FTC to oppose the sale, at which point B&N backed out. I hope you will join the many readers who now see "what's not to like" about these chains and stop giving them your business. They do not want to live in the democracy you and I envision.