HOLT UNCENSORED #85
by Pat Holt
Tuesday, August 17, 1999:
BUYING THE BIG BIN BOOKS
A SELF-PUBLISHER IN THE WASHINGTON POST
BOOK OF THE DAY: 'LEAVING PICO'
BUYING THE BIG BIN BOOKS
Well, here's an exciting death knell for traditional publishing. Advanced Marketing Services, the company that buys best-selling books for the Costcos, Sam's Clubs and other price-discounting warehouses of the nation, has decided to disintermediate those pesky book publishers and is "developing its own publishing arm," according to the Wall Street Journal. Says Irving Kahn, one of the company's investors, Advanced Marketing is now "trying to identify specific areas like parts of children's books, art, horticulture, nutrition, where there's a chance to be smart and make a good selection of authors and get attractive margins."
You can see what potential lies ahead in filling those warehouse club bins with "smart" product - books with an actual author's name on the spine so they won't look like some cheapo mass-produced quick-buck BSO (or "book-shaped object," as a literary agent put it in #84).
After all, if you as a consumer want a book on horticulture or art, you can't go wrong picking something up from Costco, where quality is deliberately confused with price points because bargains are the reason people buy things there in the first place.
Remember when Walden Books thought all people wanted were generic books, so the chain started shoveling out its own nondescript genre lines and for some reason the experiment failed?
Well, maybe Advanced Marketing Services has learned so much about selling low-priced Alpine Lace swiss cheese slices or frozen flounder that it knows how to market flower books and nutrition how-tos with the same flair.
We know a market awaits because of a recent New York Times article about the latest trend in book buying - not novels, not children's books, heaven knows not histories or biographies, but books of sayings such as "Meditations for Meetings," "Get Motivated!" "Grace Notes," "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff" and all those inspiring go-get-'ems now called "devotionals."
The Times says this trend is more an "addiction" than even a "craze," and no wonder: Devotionals bring in $50 million a year and are grounded in inspirational Christian books such as "365 Saints," and the truly impressive "365 WWJD: Daily Answers to What Would Jesus Do?"
Of course, there's nothing wrong with books of sayings - many of them come from the heart. Others, however, come from the opposite direction, as we can see in this quote by Mark Tauber of HarperSanFrancisco, publisher of many devotionals loosely based on spiritual consciousness: "One of the things we look at: What's working? What's hot? Is Buddhism hot? Is Jewish mysticism hot? Is Jesus hot?"
That's the kind of marketing pizzazz that's so welcome on the literary scene. The chains, like the warehouse clubs, love the devotionals because they're 1) cheap; 2) slim; 3) easy to read; 4) seen as fun gifts. No one would ever think of them as literature, and perhaps that's the point. If, like popcorn, they take up the whole diet - if they have pushed aside "real" books of serious fiction, history or biography - well, the gut is going to react. The chains and Costcos are going to spew them back, and all the publishers are going to go around tsk-tsking at what a fickle audience American readers have turned out to be.
At the home of Holt Uncensored, we still have our five-pound jar of artichoke hearts from Costco proudly displayed in the basement. If we ever get the lid unscrewed, we'll know those artichoke hearts were a smart buy from Costco. Of course, artichoke hearts are so generic you just have to figure one five-pound jar is as good as another. At Costco, and increasingly in chain bookstores, it's the bulk of the thing that makes the difference.
One time I walked through a flagship chain store to see how deep the spread of serious books might be. I found a current book about Ronald Reagan in tables and shelves listed under such categories as New Releases, Biography, History, Foreign Affairs, Politics and Celebrities. This, it seemed, was the chain store's version of the five-pound jar of artichoke hearts - a big fat hors d'oeuvre substituting for the main course. High-calorie, high-fat crapola all over the place and nothing nutritious in sight. It's something at which Advanced Marketing may excel.
A SELF-PUBLISHER IN THE WASHINGTON POST
Dan Poynter has been a leader in the self-publishing world ever since he began writing and publishing his own books on hang-gliding, sky-diving, frisbee-throwing and others a few decades ago. Of his many books on self-publishing, "The Self-Publishing Manual" has 132,000 copies in print after 11 revised editions since 1979.
You can imagine Dan's ire when he learned that the book review editors of the Washington Post don't consider reviewing self-published books. They do, however, run thought-provoking articles about the matter and published Poynter's point-of-view piece on the Forum page at http://www.washingtonpost.com a weekend ago.
In it, Poynter names many best-selling books that started out from self-publishers, ranging from "What Color Is Your Parachute" by Richard Bolles to "The Elements of Style" by Strunk and White, and adds a list of self-published authors that should be taped up in the office of many a publisher, writer and reviewer:
"Deepak Chopra, Louise Hay, Mark Twain, Ken Keyes Jr., Gertrude Stein, Zane Grey, Upton Sinclair, Carl Sandburg, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Stephen Crane, Mary Baker Eddy, George Bernard Shaw, Anais Nin, Thomas Paine, Virginia Woolf, e.e. cummings, William Blake, Edgar Allen Poe, Rudyard Kipling, Henry David Thoreau, Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman, Alexandre Dumas, W.E.B. DuBois, and Robert Ringer."
But perhaps most intriguing is Poynter's take on the current publishing scene: "The large (New York) publishers are consolidating, downsizing and going out of the business while the self-publishers are proliferating," he writes. The numbers seem to support him: "According to the Book Industry Study Group/Publishers Marketing Association poll, 78 percent of the books published last year came from small presses. In the United States today, there are six large publishers, 300 medium-size houses and over 53,000 small ones. Last year, some 9,000 new publishing companies were established. A significant portion of them were self-publishers."
What a great way to break these numbers down! Poynter views the "six large publishers" on an equal plane with any other, perhaps because they're just bigger versions, after all, of the self-publishers who put out "The Joy of Cooking," "Mutant Message Down Under," "A Time to Kill," "The Celestine Prophesy," "The One-Minute Manager" or "The Beanie Baby Handbook," which sold into the millions with and without NY houses behind them.
Further, suggests Poynter, "Often, the self-published book is superior to the New York-published book. Self-publishers are closer to their markets. They may be skydivers writing parachute books or auto mechanics writing car-repair books. They know who the reader is, what the reader wants and, most important, where the reader is."
He notes, for example, that Wess Roberts marketed his self-published book, "Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun," so well that it sold 486,000 copies before it was sold to Warner Books. A great example from the '70s is John Muir's "How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive," which sold over 2 million copies and led to the establishment of a publishing company.
Well, so what, it could be said - these are just the few that made it. If 53,000 small publishers do exist, you know they're going to produce a lot of bad, lousy and mediocre books, and that includes self-published books.
So true. And the same can be said of the "six big publishers" whose combined imprints put out an awful lot of bad, lousy and mediocre books every season. Too often the only difference is that one publisher has more money to hype its titles than another. Ask any chain bookstore.
The Post responded that its policy against self-published books comes in part from relying on the "professional system" within mainstream publishing "by which those books come to us: in most cases, having been taken up by an agent, sold to objective acquiring editors, vetted by copy editors, and invested in by publishers, each of whom has made an independent judgment as to the manuscript's quality and likelihood of appealing to a general readership. Having crossed that threshold, such a book arrives with a basic presumption of merit, appeal and adherence to professional standards of research, writing and editing."
Well, that's a presumption that's hugely in doubt these days, and the Post's editors graciously acknowledge Poynter for writing a letter that "has got us thinking about these matters. As Poynter notes, self-publishing is a rapidly growing way of getting books out. Along with the many other changes going on in the publishing world, this growth may at some point warrant a change in our policies. In the meantime, the editors of Book World would be happy to hear other readers' views on this subject."
All right, then! Considering a change in long-established policies AND opening up the discussion to readers are two magnificent responses that seem almost Internet-inspired! You can send your responses to the Post at firstname.lastname@example.org .
BOOK OF THE DAY: 'LEAVING PICO'
If you've ever been to Provincetown at the very northern tip of Cape Cod and tried to look through the crust of touristy sailing motifs to the way this fishing village really began, "Leaving Pico" (University Press of New England; 211 pages; $24.95; order online http://www.brooklinebooksmith.com ) by Frank X. Gaspar is the book for you.
It's supposed to be a coming-of-age novel, but it's got too many sly winks and historical hijinx to stay on that simplified plane for long. Even its characters are Dickensian - Manny Buckets, Johnny Squash, Sheika Nunes, Squid Dutra - and its young hero, Josie Carvalho, whose Portuguese family hails from the Azores, tells his story with the rich and colorful language (quahogs, sluicegates, trapboats, rhumb line, gaff) of fishing families that seem to have existed for centuries.
Along the seawall we can smell and hear the receding tide as the boats empty their loads onto a trolley that "shugged up and down the wharf along its rusty tracks, pulling the hoppers of fish up to the tramhouse at the wharf's head." Gaspar, who grew up in Provincetown in the same post-World War II era as Josie does, luxuriates in the details of fish loads emptying "from the tramhouse tank into the big wooden bucket that ratcheted empty down the trestles, was filled when the men opened the gate, and ratcheted heavily back up to the top story of the Cold Storage building."
In the late '40s and early '50s, Provincetown already has its share of summer tourists - the "people from away" who appear to Josie "like a carnival" in their flowery summer clothes. Walking among them makes him feel as though he's "swimming under water, holding my breath and moving in a world that was not fully my own. It was hard to understand how we all breathed the same air. Surely one of our worlds would have to perish."
Constant and often hilarious hostility creates a split between the snooty families from the mainland of Portugal called the Lisbons and the more down-to-earth people of the Azores called the Picos. And wouldn't you know, Josie's family is Pico and the new man in Josie's mother's life, Carmine, is Lisbon. What happens between these two - a very heady and adult thing for Josie - is offset by the antics of Josie's raucously religious Great Aunt Theophilia and his grandfather John Joseph, one of the great drunken storytellers of fishing history.
When John Joseph sets about revising history to keep Josie absorbed by an ancient story within this story, we learn just how possible it was for Columbus to have been scooped by a Portuguese explorer who happened upon the New World in 1491 - and happens to have been Josie's ancestor, Francisco Joao Matta de Jesus Carvalho. This great drama of seafaring betrayal and triumph would be a bit wearying at times if it weren't for the author's ability to keep our attention distracted in several directions at once by Josie's outlandish extended family.
Gaspar, an award-winning poet and professor of English, has created a novel of surprising range and authority - and wonderfully sneaky humor - for a first effort in fiction. "Leaving Pico" may be a big hand-seller among New England independent stores, but it deserves and can earn an audience that's nationwide.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Your comments springing from John Baker's book, "Literary Agents: A Writer's Introduction," would have sent a cold chill and a sense of doom through me if I hadn't been in this business for as many years as I have. In that time I've had nearly 40 books published with seven publishers and already know that every word you wrote is absolutely true. It's even more so now than when I began because of corporate structuring, consolidations, bean counters, etc. I both sympathize for the new or mid list writer and vow to redouble my efforts to dance as fast as I can.
Perhaps you're right (I'd like to believe you are) that a clear direction for the industry will come from small publishers with the flexibility, independence, and energy to forge new trails. That said, the same is true of independent booksellers who aren't hampered by layers of corporate structure. Thank you for a solid article on where not just agents but all of us stand in this business I love so much.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Just a quick followup to the letter from Alyce Cresap in Holt Uncensored #84. She recommends that folks take a look at www.bookfinders.com. She was probably referring to BookFinder.com (we have no "s" at the end of our name); we're proud to offer easy search access to the inventories of over 15,000 independent booksellers on our site.
The folks who run the bookfinders (plural) site are unrelated to us; unfortunately, small typos can lead users to completely different websites (this plagues even giants like Amazon.com; www.amazom.com leads to an affiliate of their competitor Books.com).
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I'm writing from Old Harbor Books in Sitka, Alaska, with an unusual request. We have just discovered that the paperback of "The Woman Who Married A Bear," the first in a series by our local author, John Straley, is out of stock at our usual suppliers (Koen, Ingram, Partners, Bookpeople) and at the publisher. We know there must be copies out there, in warehouses or chain store back rooms or wherever. We need these books - we sell tons of them - and are afraid they are sitting there, waiting to be stripped of their covers and returned. Do you know of any way we can get the word out, so we can buy up the remaining copies? ISBN is 0451404211, publisher is NAL, 1994, mass market paperback, 240 pp., $4.99.
Old Harbor Books
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Many of us in the book industry have been defending the local independent bookstores against the clever and thorough PR of the chains. As you know, the issues are so convoluted and complex, the average citizen has neither the time nor the patience to really hear the whole story let alone comprehend the issues. For years now i've been frustrated that what seems to me to be one of the most tangible and meaningful points to be made with consumers about the problems with corporate booksellers is consistently overlooked: Inflation of the cover prices of books.
Before 1996, most publishers, when publicly queried about the reasons that book prices were inflating at a rate that exceeded the inflation rate, would answer that it was the result of rising paper costs. While there is a tiny bit of the cause in the paper costs, I'm certain the more significant cause is the excessive returns rates in the 1990s. When the chains expanded at a rate that was much faster than the actual growth of the book market, publishers were faced with larger orders necessitated by all the new retail space.
It's no secret that between 1991 and 1996, returns rates either doubled or tripled, depending on whose numbers you use. In either instance, it seems obvious to me that all returned books translate to waste at the publishing level. It also seems obvious that if waste increases, a company must do something to stay profitable. No one who's sold books for the last decade would deny that books have gone up in price at an exaggerated pace. I must add, that as early as 1995, I was sharing my analysis of the rising prices with some of my publisher friends and they uniformly, but cautiously, confirmed my suspicions.
Is my judgment wrong? Why is it that this is such an unreported aspect of the book wars? For the record i have to also mention that after the dismal financial publishing year of 1996, it seems to be no coincidence that so many publishers were put up for sale. Most of them were bought by big media conglomerates who were shocked to find that the margins on books were so much slimmer than, say, on magazines, television, radio, Internet, etc. Their solution to this seems to have been to increase focus on the blockbuster bestsellers which lead to bidding wars among publishers for the next National Enquireresque Monica or OJ title.
So, I'm concerned. The publishers have been criticized a bit for their simpleminded focus on the quick buck. Some have even connected this to the price of books. I'm still waiting for the proportionately appropriate amount of blame to be placed on the chains for their role in the inflation of book prices due to the discrepancy between their expansion and the actual market for books.
Tony Weller, email@example.com
Sam Weller's Books
Salt Lake City
Dear Holt Uncensored:
While reading #84, "Literary Agents Speak Out," I was struck with what appears to be an amazing opportunity that exists within the adversity facing the mid-list author/editor, small press publisher and the independent bookseller. With the major houses seeking the next "formula" books by the big name writers or enticing the "celebrity du jour" to lend their name to a sure bet for the masses, writers and editors of works of true merit are ignored and left seeking outlets for their expression. What a great opportunity for individuals with a record of good work to get together with the smaller houses and the independent booksellers. Everyone benefits: the writer gets published, the editor is taken seriously, the small publisher gets an author of proven merit, the independent bookseller gets good books to handsell, and customers get books that they will enjoy and treasure.
What a future! The chains as purveyors of tripe and drivel (all at 50% off and overpriced at that) and independents as the source for literature. I think the public would recognize the difference.
Books at Stonehenge
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.