HOLT UNCENSORED #79
by Pat Holt
Tuesday, July 27, 1999:
THE NEW ROLE OF BOOKSTORE NEWSLETTERS
THAT SERIOUS AND ERUDITE GOOFY FOOT PRESS
THE NEW ROLE OF BOOKSTORE NEWSLETTERS
I'll never forget sitting in the late Ethel Stevenson's office at Macy's the first time she got a call from an editor at the New York Times about the NYT's Best Seller List.
This was a long time ago, probably the mid-70s, when Macy's in San Francisco had one of the best book departments in California. In those days, the Times made calls to key booksellers who were late with weekly sales reports, as Ethel often was.
Ethel had a gift for gab, as she liked to say of herself, and saw no reason not to fib a little when it came to encouraging people to come to Macy's to buy books. She loved to tell a story about Julia Child, whose enthusiastic demonstrations of chicken recipes in Macy's auditorium, according to Ethel, often resulted in the chicken getting knocked off the table.
When the audience reacted in shock, Ethel said that Julia, pretending surprise to find the chicken on the floor, would pick pick it up, singing in her high-pitched voice, "No problem! Off you go!" and hurl it into the oven.
The story was meant to show how everyone in the book business fudged a little bit for effect. So when the phone rang and it was the New York Times asking for Ethel's weekly sales reports for its Best Seller List, Ethel made no effort to hide her response.
"Oh, yes," she said agreeably, picking up her ORDER reports, not her SALES reports, and reading titles she knew were stacked in quantity on the Macy's Book Department sales floor.
"Ethel," I asked when she hung up, "am I right that you've just reported books you haven't sold yet?" She gave me one of her brilliantly larcenous smiles. "Why yes," she said. "This way, the books get a little nudge, and believe me, they never check back."
The scene at Ethel's and others like it came to mind while I was reading Bill Petrocelli's essay in his recent newsletter for Book Passage Books in Corte Madera, CA, ( http://www.bookpassage.com ), about the continued and unconscionable romance between the New York Times and Barnes & Noble.
As readers may remember, this story began as the sell-out of the century when Barnes & Noble became the online bookseller for the New York Times, plunking its little electronic order buttons beside book reviews on the Times website and effectively stealing sales away from other bookstores.+
Nobody ever said the Times could not legally become an "affiliate" of Barnes & Noble. But it's galling to witness the insensitivity of the nation's so-called "book review of record" as it channels sales to a favorite bookstore - especially a chain store that has been driving independents out of business right and left.
Of course, independents then retaliated by withholding their own sales reports to the Times, thereby making the NYT Best Seller List dependent on bland chain store sales, which in turn are dependent on publishers' promotion budgets. The NYT list thus became as interesting as gray type on a page.
But then came an even dumber move on the Times' part that continues to this day: After years of asking booksellers to display its bestseller list to their customers, the Times demanded that Borders and Amazon and other booksellers - but not Barnes & Noble - stop displaying the NYT Best Seller List in their promotions and advertising.
The reason is supposed to be that the NYT list is an editorial service compiled with its own integrity just like a news story, and can't be used just by anybody to sell books (especially when Amazon and Borders and others use it to discount NYTBR titles at 50-55% off).
But the real reason is clearly quite different, and here Petrocelli couldn't say it better: "In defending its Best-Seller List, it seems, the N.Y. Times is not defending its journalistic integrity but rather admitting that it has sold such list to the highest bidder."
The Times's process of compiling its Best Seller List, he says, "resembles professional wrestling rather than journalism." The biggest problem is verification. "The N. Y. Times does no independent check of the numbers submitted to it. The Times gathers this information by the honor systen in a business where honor probably died with Bennett Cerf."
So true: Remember the time that Ed Koch, former mayor of New York City, wrote a book that miraculously made the NYT's Best Seller List despite a publisher's snafu resulting in few copies of the book West of the Hudson River? Some national list, booksellers grumbled.
More recently, Petrocelli points out, "Monica Lewinsky and Newt Gingrich share the distinction of having their books appear as number one on the NY Times Best-Seller List before it was statistically possible . . . " Also, he says, "books have remained on the list at a time when the publisher has already given up on them and decided to sell them as remainders."
Consequently, what Petrocelli calls the "haphazard" compilation of the NYT Best-Seller List, along with the Times' unprecedented partnership with Barnes & Noble, has struck this newspaper-of-record right in the kneecaps. New York Times news coverage of the book business, which certainly should bear the integrity of the editorial process, looks a bit thin as puff pieces are produced about Barnes & Noble and particularly about B&N chief Len Riggio (see #52).
"It has become a standing joke among booksellers to see how far down you have to read in an article about the book business to find the N.Y. Times's grudging disclaimer that it has a business relationship with Barnes & Noble," writes Petrocelli. "As far as we know, the Times does not have to do this with any other business or story that it covers."
Let's say that it did, he muses. "The N.Y. Times wouldn't take a subsidy from the Democrats or Republicans and expect anyone to believe that it was covering politics fairly. But it seems to have no hesitation in this instance [with Barnes & Noble]. Some marketing genius has undoubtedly convinced the publishers of this venerable newspaper that a little conflict of interest - a little stain on the bib of propriety - doesn't really matter."
All right, then! - "a stain on the bib of propriety"! - now that's the kind of objective reporting to which we at Holt Uncensored aspire.
Petrocelli's newsletter is hardly the only one in the country to demonstrate that customers do want to know what's going on in "the bookstore wars." They want to know what is at stake when the Best Seller List at the New York Times turns into a snore. They want to know if the standards of news coverage that got squished in the Monica/O.J. debacles are also at stake when Barnes & Noble takes over a newspaper's website.
Independent bookstore newsletters also proved that average customers wanted to be informed and could take action during Barnes & Noble's attempted takeover of Ingram Book Co. Especially now, with so many independents going online, the voice and character of the bookseller and the community behind it can be carried to many more people much more quickly and inexpensively than ever before.
And there's that other little thing about First Amendment matters: The more independent booksellers' newsletters are sent out - via earth or email, on websites or on bookstore counters - the more we'll all be informed about things no longer covered in the conventional press.
THAT SERIOUS AND ERUDITE GOOFY FOOT PRESS
Independent publishers do the durnedest things, like calling their house Goofy Foot Press and expecting people to take the place seriously.
But what can you do, says psychoanalyst-turned-publisher Paul Joannides: If you think that existing sex-education books are so boring they put people to sleep instead of that other thing they might do in bed, why not write a humorous sex book that takes clinical terms out of sex and puts the oomph back in for all to share?
The question plagued Joannides until the mid-'90s, when he decided to write a book that would use the colorful slang of sex ("OK, so here we have Dick, more functional than a Sidewinder Missile . . . " ), tell women things they might not know about men ("you wouldn't believe how often the human male experiences a jolt of pain in his testicles") and men about women ("if wanting orgasms were the sole reason for doing a particular sex act, not many women would bother with intercourse").
Joannides drew from hundreds of resources and questionnaires, used explicit yet playful illustrations by Daerick Gross and brought a chatty and conversational tone ("[after childbirth] it might take the vagina a couple of weeks to heal after it's been stretched from here to China") to a topic about which he feels no subject is taboo.
The result is "The Guide Getting It On!: America's Coolest & Most Informative Book About Sex" (670 pages; $19.95 paperback; distributed by Publishers Group West), one of the funniest yet erudite how-to books about sex ever to hit general bookstores - or sex-ed classes (it's required reading in 25 colleges), or offices of clinical psychologists and psychotherapists (hundreds use it).
You've probably guessed that during the two years Joannides submitted the book to "all of the major American publishers," he got no takers. The few editors interested asked him to "soften the tone" or take the fun out of it because "our people in marketing have no idea how they can sell it. Is it sex - is it humor?"
So Joannides took the name Goofy Foot (a surfing name), published the first edition of the book in 1994 and has since sold about 75,000 copies. Sales have begun to plateau even as he plans the third edition. In large part he owes the sale so far to a mock-serious cover reminiscent of a Lichtenstein painting in which two cartoon faces are kissing romantically and a half-nude couple is facing each other with more than gardening on their minds.
However, the unorthodox cover seems to scare off the conventional press. Not one review of the book has appeared, Joannides says, and many top-rated print and broadcast media have cancelled features for fear of offending readers and viewers. Nevertheless, independent booksellers have sold the book steadily, especially around college campuses, and special sales have been brisk.
I wanted to write about it because the discovery of any well-made nonfiction book, especially one that's written with such conviction and authority and that fulfills its intention perfectly is always a thrill, whether it's about retaining walls or flower arranging or in this case, sex. The fact that it comes out of left field and takes a different approach than usual, one wants to think, shouldn't stop it from reaching an audience that will value it.
Yet the pratfalls are many for independent publishers of books like this one. For example, Joannides says, a regional chain was selling the book quite well, simply by leaving it on the New Releases table, until the chain itself was sold to a new owner. Then Joannides was informed he would have to pay for "product placement" on the same table. When he couldn't afford to pay up front, the book was moved, sales fell and inventory was returned.
Meanwhile, Joannides' wife, Toni E. Johnson, a criminal defense lawyer, decided to write her own book for teenagers, a true eye-opener called "Handcuff Blues" (206 pages; $10.95 paperback; distributed by PGW; readers can order at http://wwwboulderbookstore.com ). Johnson, a veteran of hundreds of court cases who also serves as a Judge Pro Tem and teaches law to high school students, has figured out a way to lure kids into stories about the kind of bad judgment that could land them in jail - and to keep them reading about the consequences before they make mistake #1.
The stories she writes are about real people "who are a lot more like you than you might want to believe," she tells the reader. Her ability to put us in the shoes of each of her protagonists is astonishing as she describes the girl who sneaks a few beers before the prom and winds up in jail with impounded-car fees of $400 and license revoked until she's 21; the boy who drives 10 miles over the speed limit and ends up killing his passenger, losing an arm and a leg and finding himself charged with vehicular manslaughter.
Other stories tell us about shoplifting girls who get caught, a pre-teen boy whose gang initiation leads him to shoot a baby; a girl who hides her boyfriend's drugs; a computer whiz who hacks into the school records; a boy who doesn't challenge his boss when asked to dump toxic waste illegally.
All of these stories chill the spine, especially when the reader sees how little public defenders or defense lawyers can do to defend these kids, what jail and prison are really like, how often teenagers can be tried as adults and the awful price parents have to pay, often selling their homes and spending retirement money to pay restitution to victims. And the book is effective for everyone who reads it, making this 55-year-old to swear never to drive over the speed limit or take any kind of illegal chance again.
"Handcuff Blues," published a few months ago, is another Goofy Foot title that is a thrill to discover because it, too, lives up to its intention right down to the size and leading of the type (easy to read for young adults) and effective cartoon illustrations by Daerick Gross. While it's not a title that can sell itself as easily as "The Guide to Getting It On," it's an important book that independent booksellers - especially those with connections to middle and high schools - can merchandise creatively.
Then there is the question: Should Paul and Toni change the name of their press because Goofy Foot doesn't sound as serious as, say, Random House or Simon & Schuster? Should they make the titles of their books more weighty and important-sounding than "The Guide to Getting It On" or "Handcuff Blues"? Should they stop using cartoon art and create a more streamlined design?
These are questions faced by every publisher at one point or another. For critics, I've always felt it's none of our business how or why anybody in publishing makes such decisions. Goofy Foot books exist, they're good, and it's our job to spread the word. Happily, it appears that customers don't seem to care about how a book looks or who published it or what marketing schemes and design approaches were used. They do seem to know that their chances of finding the unpredictable, the different, the diverse and the disparate are better in independent stores than in chains, and perhaps that's what matters for now.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
[Regarding the column about an inexpensive website for independent booksellers called BookReserve at http://www.bookrserve.com :]
Hey, look what we got for $65 a month at http://www.paperbacks.com . BookReserve looks pretty weak to us by comparison. BTW, we could have a shopping cart setup easily on our site, but since we don't take credit cards, didn't feel the need to. And we're low-graphics by choice. But everything else is there, including a number of fun side projects (http://www.paperbacks.com/poetry/) (http://www.paperbacks.com/mortuis/) (http://www.paperbacks.com/bookmob/) (http://www.paperbacks.com/links/)
We support ourselves completely off of our site, and we only have 5500 books listed, at pretty reasonable prices...Steve, All-Electric Paperbacks
Holt responds: This is not only a good-looking website for used books, it's part of a "Bookmobile" of websites for many book dealers, all very different and attractive. The All-Electric Paperbacks site looks very snazzy. But do you have a database of more than your own inventory? BookReserve offers 600,000 titles and BookSense will offer 1.5 million, but would that be something you want?
Steve answers: Actually, the point I was trying to make is that anyone can have a snazzy (and extremely personal!) website hosted for $60 or so. Most sites I know cost much less, and plenty are hosted for free... As far as our database goes, it is just our inventory, but we're a used bookstore, and are not really interested in doing new titles. Have considered it, but it's too much work for now...
The Bookmobile is a webring for online used bookstores that we started about a year ago. It now has over 100 stores as members, and is free to join and use. No Amazon or B&N affiliates allowed!
We are firm believers in the "more is better" approach to used bookstores, that is, that competition and proximity helps us all. With a stock of only 5500 books, we are more than happy to suggest other stores that a would-be customer might try to find their book...
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I use Amazon frequently as a reference to find out authors, titles, etc. Recently, I have run into some stonewalls, even when doing simple searches. My recent search for John Updike turned up the following:
1/93 Playboy: Barbi Twins / John Updike --
Current Bid: $2.95 -- Ends in 2 days, 00:38:02
A Prayer for Owen Meany -- John Irving; Mass Market Paperback
Now, if only B&N and Borders would follow in Amazon's footsteps...
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, headquarters of Borders Books and where Barnes & Noble has recently opened two stores. When my first novel, "In the Company of Mind" (Baen), a science fiction title, came out, it hit the shelves simultaneously with a friend's. I went to Borders and asked them if they were interested in having not one, but two science fiction writers in for a signing. My friend and I, I told them, have done dozens of public appearances together and are very good at entertaining an audience. We'd love to do a reading and/or discussion, I concluded. Patrons would love to come meet local authors.
The manager was not interested. Local or not, our names weren't big enough. I then contacted the local Barnes & Nobles to make the same offer. Although they would be happy to have me sign stock, the manager said, they weren't interested in scheduling an appearance. Local or not, my name wasn't big enough.
All right, I told myself. I'm in Ann Arbor. Around here there are so many authors per capita that if you step on someone's foot they swear in metaphor. So I called the Barnes & Noble up in Saginaw, my home town. The only author who ever came out of Saginaw was Ted Roethke, a poet almost no one but high school English teachers has ever heard of. B&N is (and has been) the only bookstore in all of Saginaw except for a mall Waldenbooks.
The B&N in Saginaw was happy to schedule a reading AND a signing. When I arrived on the agreed-upon day, however, my heart sank. According to my parents, there had been no notice in the local newspaper about the event. Only a single small poster by the door proclaimed that I was coming . ..
My table, piled high with copies of my book, was set up toward the back of the store. Despite the fact that I was supposed to do a reading, there were no chairs set up for an audience. When I asked the assistant manager about this (the manager who scheduled me had the day off), she looked at me as if I were a Martian. "Reading?" she said. "We don't do readings here."
I asked her if she would announce on the loudspeakers that I was here and signing books. She did, but I could barely hear her over the muzak. I told her about the problem, but she said she didn't know how to turn the music off. Later, I wrote a more interesting announcement and asked her to read it, and louder. She did so, but only reluctantly. I still could barely hear her.
I signed four books in two hours. One person told me he thought I was a clerk because there was no sign nearby to tell anyone who I was or what I was doing there. I left after that, refusing to have anything to do with B&N again.
Around the same time, I asked Shaman Drum, an independent bookstore right across the street from Borders, if they were interested in a reading/signing. Were they ever! They advertised all over the store, on their website, and in local newspapers. They had wine, punch, cheese, crackers and cookies, an audience area, and a nice stock of books to sign. The reading was well-attended and went beautifully. A great time was had by all.
I am not a rich and famous author, but I figure one day I'll get a decent enough reputation. Perhaps I'll even be popular enough to get noticed by the chain bookstores. Too late, though. I'm never, ever going back into one.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I want to comment on your article about the plight of feminist bookstores, or am I just getting old injuries off my chest?
I have long felt that if feminist bookstores could broaden their customer base they would have a better chance of survival and the world would be a better place. Like all niche stores, they have a limited customer base, but does it make sense to chase away customers?
Despite being male, I embraced what I consider to be the fundamentals of feminism a long time ago. Since that time I have ventured into three feminist bookstores hoping to stay informed on current issues and directions. Every time I was met as soon as I walked in by an employee who was not subtle about telling me that theirs was a feminist bookstore and I probably would not find anything of interest. They were basically showing me the door.
I was annoyed the first time this happened, but insisted on returning to the store to check out new titles from time to time. I always felt unwelcome and eventually stopped visiting. I was actually told that every book I bought was a book a sister could not read. It was a long time before I tried again. Eventually I did. Different store, same result . . .
I can see another point of view. For the last two stores, I suspect making me feel unwelcome was an attempt at kindness handled badly. I imagine men regularly wander into feminist bookstores expecting a general bookstore. Letting them know the store's niche probably saves the men time and the clerk trouble. If that is the motive, I appreciate it.
In my case it was never handled well. If I want to read the latest, I'll go to a general bookstore. If I want to read a feminist critique of Shakespearean scholarship, I'll go to Stanford Bookstore.
In fact, when I went to bookstores to research books on Alzheimer's disease, I didn't bother to check the feminist store a short walk from my apartment. They may have had something addressing women's aging problems that would be useful, but it didn't seem worth the hassle.
By making me feel unwelcome these stores not only deprive themselves of profit, but prevent myself and others from being exposed to ideas that may be good for us. I find it very sad. I hope my experiences are isolated and unusual, but 100% of my experiences with feminist bookstores have been bad.
Holt responds: I'd rather look at it this way: A great lesson has been imparted from your experience to all of us about the long-range value of this kind of independent bookstore. I'm sure you know it's taken decades for many feminist bookstores to create the kind of safe and reliable place their customers seek, not only for a free exchange of ideas but also for referrals to shelters, medical help, legal protection, children's services and political sanctuary. I know I tend to be a bit dramatic, but lives truly are saved in these places, and if the booksellers who run them believe keeping men out helps them serve their target customers better, why be mad at them? Why not wish them well? Thank heaven, as you note, the independent bookstore community is still healthy enough to provide other bookstores that can serve your interests and do want your business.\r