by Pat Holt

Tuesday, August 31, 1999:




Good grief, no sooner does a person try to take a vacation than pulls one of its hilarious bloopers.

Well, I should say it would be funny if it weren't so outrageous and terrifying, because this time Amazon has tried - and we have to say pretty much shot itself in the foot halfway through - to compete with independent bookstores on their own turf.

The call went out August 20 sounding something like this: Hey, you want a sense of community? You want neighborhood? You want to know what your peers, colleagues, friends are reading? Well, you don't need to go into an independent bookstore for that. Just click over to, where with a flip of a button we'll give you - ta da! - "Purchase Circles," a tarted-up name for special-interest bestsellers.

Designed to appeal to the lemming in us all, Purchase Circles are created when Amazon "aggregates anonymous sales data and applies an algorithm that constructs bestseller lists of items that are more popular with each specific group than with the population at large."

This is Amazon being warm and fuzzy in a press release defining Purchase Circles as bestseller lists for "Hometowns, Workplaces, Universities, and More."

Note the "hometown" reference, which is supposed to make independent booksellers' close ties with actual hometowns and workplaces pale in comparison to Amazon's superior data collection. Your neighborhood bookstore may have its own bestseller list, Amazon says, but we offer you THOUSANDS of other possibilities by zip code, by company, by field of interest.

Of course, the very term, "Purchase Circle," has such a massaged focus-group patina that you know you're being manipulated within some giant marketing scheme, but Amazon tells you not to care.

After all, isn't Amazon the hip and snazzy leader of Internet innovation? Don't you want to be the first in your zip code to have "fun" - that desperately overused word in the Amazon lexicon - exploring Purchase Circles while supplying personal information about yourself as a customer? Remember, you can also peek at other people's buying habits through THEIR zip codes, companies, think tanks, government agencies, the military . . .

And then, blam! Out from everywhere came the now-famous "privacy uproar," as Yahoo News calls it, "pointing out that Amazon didn't ask anyone's permission before collecting and aggregating the purchasing data." Well, goodness, a ruffled at first reacted, what is all this fuss about privacy! It isn't as if Big Trade Secrets were being let loose on the world, you know! But some thought they were.

As Wired News reported, "Some examples include evidence that Intel engineers are busily buying up books on Linux device drivers, that Netscape programmers are building certain protocols into future products . . . [and that] according to the Institute for Global Communications profile, its subscribers are devotees of the socialist manifesto 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed.' "

Backpedaling fast (so practiced at it by now!), said all the conciliatory things: "Privacy is of utmost importance to our customers and to us" - so true once the information is extracted and exploited - and as of this week, companies and individuals can now decline to be part of Purchase Circles by writing directly to

But even as the flap dies down, what does it tell us about the current status of "the bookstore wars"? First, so many people are using their company's email to buy books for personal use that most Purchase Circles have already become meaningless, dominated as they are by general bestsellers ranging from "Hannibal" to "Sugar Busters!"

When we do learn something, the information is negligible. Judging by the Purchase Circle at Nabisco ("Protein Power," "Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution," "Dr. Atkins' New Carbohydrate Gram Counter"), one can only conclude, for example, that the folks who work there eat too many crackers.

Of course, it may be significant that Levi Straus employees are ordering "Strategic Brand Management" and "Building Strong Brands" because the company is "intently focused on revitalizing the brands here," as a company spokesman confirmed to the New York Times. But even here the message is superficial and unsatisfactory. Every company should "revitalize" its brands once in a while, right booby? And I bet that word was already out in Silicon Valley about Intel engineers' interested in Linux device drivers long before Purchase Circles told the world what books those guys were ordering.

As to the potential threat to privacy, you can be sure that is not going to stop "aggregating" (jeez, what a horrible word; wonder why it looks like AGGRAVATING) data from its alleged 10.7 million customers nor worry about matters of privacy unless, as with Purchase Circles, it gets caught not worrying.

While it's true that you can instruct Amazon to stop collecting your purchasing data, as the New York Times observed yesterday, customers "are unlikely to see that opt-out information or know they have a choice about how their purchasing data is used."

And since Amazon has compromised ethical constraints before by selling spaces on its Bestseller List and "Destined for Greatness" box (among others) without telling its customers, it doesn't sound as though the company will ever stand up against a government prosecutor like Ken Starr when he comes a'calling for the records of purchases of any Amazon customer.

But most of all what the Purchase Circle fiasco tells us is that Amazon thinks its customers want the Internet to replace their real hometowns, real communities, real neighborhoods and real independent bookstores with virtual "community features" and "fun" online lists.

Why, with our vast banks of "aggregated" data acting as your cyber neighborhood, Amazon seems to say, you'll never need to go to a bookstore or have a conversation with another human being again.

The fact is that American book readers want it all - we want to buy online and in the store; we want to zip around the Internet and browse at our local independent bookseller; we understand the value of automated numbers but never as a substitute for human interaction; we like to peek but not to be peeked at. So cut it out with the Purchase Circles, Amazon, or, don't worry, people are going to give up on this short-lived little fad soon enough.

Perhaps the big lesson here is that the more you try to automate community, the closer you get to violating people's privacy. There is very little grey area in between, and when it comes to literature, all the warning flags go up immediately. Any exploitation of book-reading other than personal use is ALWAYS going to jeopardize somebody. Even Bill Clinton wasn't immune to it during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which certainly doesn't bode well for the vulnerability of you and me.

The fact that independent booksellers know and respect these boundaries has always been a staple of life in the United States. Their support of true communities and neighborhoods; their connections to libraries and schools; their store events and literary outreach are all so vital to commerce and art that one hopes Amazon will for once quit trying to dazzle its customer base and take a look at what real bookselling is all about.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

I felt the need to write to let you know how delighted I was to finally see a refreshing article about the motivation behind the philanthropic deeds that chain bookstores so proudly publicize. It was nice to read a piece which weighs the price of receiving such rewards, regardless of the benefactor's possible intentions.

Your article struck a chord with me because I was an employee of a chain bookstore for many years. During my time with the company, I found myself in a number of various management positions. I worked in several different locations, but no matter where I was, each day I found it increasingly difficult to look at myself in the mirror and be happy with what I saw. Each time I received a promotion, I saw a change in my personality that I did not like -- a transformation into a corporate slave.

I accepted unsanitary work conditions, limited resources and lack of support because I believed that with a little ingenuity and lots of hard work, I could prove how dedicated I was to the company. I worked tirelessly to promote the chain and its services wherever I went. Looking back, I was very naive. I believed all the propoganda the company put forth. By the time I no longer worked for the company, I was incredibly stressed out and burnt out.

I have considered writing my own article from an insider's perspective on the unethical and unfair practices which go on every day in those stores that the public feel are ever so wonderful. I could talk about how racism and sexism abound. I could discuss how promotions are determined by one's social skills versus their ability and book knowledge and by racial profiling.

I could talk about how a large percentage of their own employees can't even recognize a piece of literature if it is thrown in front of them. I could mention how it is that one store can proudly display Gay Pride books and another store has to stop a special Gay & Lesbian series due to public pressure. I could talk about how most of management has no idea what it is like to work in a store for $6.00 an hour and try to support a family. About how the company closes down its smaller stores before the holidays, leaving countless employees up in the air about their next move. The list goes on and on.

In my opinion, shopping in a chain bookstore for convenience is what the company thrives on and what feeds its pompousness. Most people have no idea what they are supporting when they step into a store. They have no clue as to how the employees are really being treated or what the employees are thinking when they see the customer. The chain counts on people who prefer convenience and price over ethics. I know first hand that while the chain touts that there is room for everyone, the company's strategy is to eliminate the need for anyone to go elsewhere.

We participated in big-name events for media coverage, while hundreds of smaller requests from schools and organizations are denied at each store, each year. We claimed that the company had no funds for advertising, knowing we could get free advertising simply because organizations needed to have a name like us behind them. We participated in events that we knew were unethical, simply to make a quick buck on the side. When I look back, it makes me sick and I am so glad to be away from such a hostile work environment. Believe me, the only people at the chain reaping the rewards are the upper management.

A Chain Bookstore Ex

Dear Holt Uncensored:

As an avid and long-time "road reader," I most definitely agree with your appreciation of audio books. I have found them to be wonderful company and full of delightful discoveries while driving long hours. I've even listened to the entire Moby Dick and enjoyed it (something I never thought possible)!

I have listened to books from both Books On Tape and Recorded Books. Personally, I prefer the recordings from Recorded Books ( ) I find the readers to be much better prepared and much more professional. They put more life into each book -- and ALL their recordings are unabridged (which I very much appreciate).

Ronya Robinson

Dear Holt Uncensored:

How can you champion abridged audiotape versions of "Jane Eyre" and the "Aeneid"?! I've listened to two abridged book tapes and found them utterly unsatisfying. It's like reading the Cliff Notes versions -- all the subplots and much of the descriptive texture have been hacked away, and neither the intentions of the author, the beauty of the language nor the intricacy of the plotting remain whole. I commute 100 very rural miles each way to work and rely on book tapes to keep me awake and involved while driving. Unabridged audiotaped versions are the only way to go.

Euan Bear,
Safer Society Foundation/Press

Holt responds: I remember similar frustrations many years ago listening to Toni Morrison's magnificently husky, velvety voice slice one of her own novels into little pieces that somebody tried to patch together by making announcements such as "30 years pass" every 15 minutes. Still it happens that many people don't commute "100 very rural miles" and that they do listen to audiocassette abridgements, often as a way to determine if they want to go on to the full-length print or tape version. I'm also amazed at how sensitive audiotape editors have become these days in deciding what can be snipped rather than brutally hacked out of 2- or 4-cassette versions. While abridgements will never substitute for the whole book to my mind, they are certainly worth critical review.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

When reading your piece on Ernest Hemingway shooting wild animals I was reminded of a quote from P.G. Wodehouse. "He died as a result of a difference of opinion between himself and a lion. He had thought the lion was dead. The lion had thought that it wasn't."

Nancy Ward

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.