NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #77
by Pat Holt

Tuesday, July 20, 1999:

AMAZON VS. SHAMBHALA
LETTERS

---------

(NOTE TO READERS: The column is a bit abbreviated today because we've had some VIPs from the East touring the office, and at 11 and 12 years of age they've proclaimed Holt Uncensored far too tame for "the bookstore wars." Leaving a trail of Cheez-its on the publisher's desk they've convinced us to close up and go to the Exploratorium. We'll see you Friday, if still alive.)

---------

AMAZON VS. SHAMBHALA

I'm not a customer of Amazon.com as you might imagine, so I'm grateful to the many readers who sent a copy of the letter from Jeff Bezos last week announcing that Amazon is now selling toys and electronics as well as books, music, drugs, sportsgear, pet supplies, nerve gas, liver transplants, refugees and automatic weapons.

Just about everyone appended a note that said something like, "pardon me while I gag," because of the letter's unctious tone. Clearly, Jeff Bezos wishes that Amazon, which has grown so fast its employees might inhabit a mid-sized country, to appear as intimate and family-like as it was in those early days of yon past, when a bunch of computer-savvy kids sat around a Seattle warehouse kicking around ideas for selling stuff on the Web with Jeff.

"Everyone here has worked extremely hard to bring you these new stores, and we're very proud of them," writes Bezos, just like Dad smiling proudly at his Junior Achievement kids.

As PW noted recently, if you go to Amazon's home page, the focus on books is gone. All the other products vie equally for our attention, with books a short journey away. Of course in a postscript to his letter, Jeff reminds us of the first book Amazon ever sold and how much he loved it, to remind us that he's a reader just like you and me. And as always, the media is right there to enhance that image of Jeff Bezos as an unassuming "billionaire in rumpled chinos" (Wall Street Journal) who's leading us all into a brave new world wide web.

But after a while a certain tolerance for this upstart guy with a great idea 5 years ago begins to wane. About the same time his letter was sent, Bezos told WSJ that thanks to e-commerce, "physical stores . . . will get better. They will be more entertaining and cleaner." Thank heavens he's pointed that out. All these dull old rat-infested independent bookstores have got to go.

Then, too, we are asked to pretend that the emperor has all his marbles when he tells WSJ that Amazon's new policy of selling 50%-off bestsellers "is possible because of the efficiencies of scale" that have made Amazon "a business model that makes sense." Goodness, it's Thorazine time if you think a company whose losses increased by an astounding 384% last year comes anywhere near a good business model.

But then, until the economy weakens and day traders abandon Amazon, the romance of Jeff Bezos is going to continue. It's nice to see that WSJ interviewed Andy Ross of Cody's Books ( http://www.codysbooks.com ) in the same issue, but the assumption is notzo nize: The key role that independents like Cody's play in the distribution of good literature is missed completely except when Andy Ross brings it up, and even then his opinion sounds like the contrarian view.

Happily, Bezos' continued insistence that Amazon is "the most customer obsessed company" in the land only points out what his company can NEVER do for its customers.

It can NEVER be the kind of business model that Shambhala Booksellers of Berkeley ( shambhalabooks@california.net ), for example, has been for decades; it can never listen to its customers nor provide personal attention beyond computer programs nor send out Letters That Are Meaningful as Shambhala did recently.

Here is only one paragraph (broken up by me to ease reading in email format) from this four-page letter (#2 by Philip Barry) that I felt really hits home because it's not intended to mollify. It's intended to make us think.

"Shambhala Booksellers is a business, and we will succeed or fail on that basis. We strive to be content-driven, not market driven. The chains, the mergers, the Internet are all seriously hurting and dehumanizing the book business. Amazon et al want to accommodate you, the consumer, not challenge you. They want you to feel safe, stay home, relax, and buy.

"But the kind of books we at Shambhala sell are not intended as safe entertainment. The great traditions are demanding and challenging, as well as compassionate. They call us to waken our responsibility to a level of commitment and effort that is not haphazard.

"Here at Shambhala we try to aid our customers in clarifying or fulfilling their intention, to enable our customers (and ourselves) to find that ground where wisdom and compassion and our everyday lives intersect. These books are not simply meant to be read; they are meant to be lived."

-------

LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Reference to your comment: "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."

That is what BookSense and BookSense.Com [from the American Booksellers Association] plan to do their independent bookseller network - both in-store and on-line . . . Carl Lennertz' BookSense 76 (or whatever the number will be) intends to create a monthly recommended list of titles that grows out of the "passions" of independent bookseller. ForeWord Magazine will have a feature by me on BookSense in its August Issue. But one can track progress on ABA's BookWeb.Com as well as glimpse the web site in process at BookSense.Com.

Although publishers will be invited to co-op on additional promotion costs, the books will be selected prior to any such invitations. Personally, I don't have any problem with this (it does cost money to promote and maintain a web site after all), and altho some independents may have limited promo budgets, the exposure and resultant sales will more than compensate I'm sure.

In any event, I think BookSense will give more authors and titles more exposure as an alternative to the predictable maintream bestselling lists.

Gene Schwartz

Dear Holt Uncensored:

FYI: Barnes & Noble are not the first to pay a commission to people who provide a link from within Email. A1 Books ( http://www.a1books.com ) have been doing it for at least a year, I think probably a lot longer.

Davina Morgan-Witts
http://www.bookbrowse.com

Holt Responds: I know it's been implemented by others, but Barnes & Noble's use of the practice seems particularly egregious and insulting to readers. The announcement that it's a great way to spread the word of good books and will be used primarily for charity is so phony that one wonders who's at the helm at this place. If you're going to say: Make money by using our hyperlinks, do it. Don't hide behind this baloney announcement about giving money to charity as though Barnes & Noble itself weren't focused on the PR value of this kind of email invasion and inevitably on its own bottom line.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Just a minor correction: the singer who sang at Susan Griffin's reading is named Susan GUNDUNAS. I know this not because I was there, but because she is an old friend--and fellow opera singer--of my husband. (By the bye, I think that whole event was lovely, and have another personal connection, in that Susan Griffin was a visiting professor at Mills College when I was getting my MFA there in the early 90's. She transformed my writing in a semester--got me tapped into "the voice"--and I will be forever grateful to her.)

Rebecca

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Thought you might get a kick out of this. While looking through Amazon for reviews of books from our Spring '99 season, I checked out the book *Out Takes: Essays on Queer Theory and Film* by our author Ellis Hanson. Underneath the review section was this message: "Our auction sellers recommend: Hottest!!! Hanson Poster **FREE SHIPPING** (Current bid: $7.99)."

Michael, Duke University Press
taeckens@acpub.duke.edu