NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #88
by Pat Holt

Friday, September 3, 1999:

GRAPPLING WITH FATBRAIN

END-OF-SUMMER TREATS
'THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN' (AUDIO)
'THE WHOLE WOMAN'
'RUSH FOR RICHES'

LETTERS

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GRAPPLING WITH FATBRAIN

Reading about Fatbrain.com's ideas for "the ultimate democratization of publishing" this week reminded me of a frenzied period in publishing history 20 years ago. At the time, a number of scholarly publishers realized with a start that personal computers were threatening journals and monographs.

If the best brains in science and academia could communicate with each other through a new kind of medium called "email," these publishers thought, why should they wait for a sluggish editorial process to hold them back?

For example, say the circulation base of a prestigious journal was as low as 600 or a thousand subscribers. It wouldn't be long before this tightknit community of scholars, whose very language and ideas might be understood only by each other, sought a faster, more personal and immediately inspiring way to communicate.

Scholarly publishers argued they should not: Without a formal editorial process of selection, peer review and editing, the great ideas of scientists and intellectuals would begin to sound like gobbledygook. The orderly preservation of valued documents would be lost, as would a system of determining the WORTH of such ideas, not only for immediate distribution but for posterity.

Today we know that both things have happened - scientists and academics regularly share ideas through email and look to scholarly publishing for formal scrutiny, evaluation and editing. At the same time, pressure has been enormous on scholarly publishing to speed up, clean up and streamline often arcane systems that can dovetail with electronic and traditional distribution.

In the meantime, falling through the cracks have been those in-between manuscripts of 10-100 pages - too short for books, too long for journals and magazines - that are now the means of making a buck for online technical bookseller Fatbrain.com

Don't you love the name? Fatbrain used to be called Computer Literacy, Inc., a respectable but dull-sounding company that languished in obscurity until it turned deliberately gross and nerdy, like a combined Jackie Gleason and Albert Einstein.

Last week, Fatbrain announced a program called EMatter that invites writers to place their works for sale on the Fatbrain site for $1 a month and 50% of of sales. With no selection or editing of the authors' documents, Fatbrain hopes to post some 10,000 documents by mid-October.

So this looks like the next big new thing, doesn't it? With other self-publishing sites for literary (and musical) works - XLibris, Yahoo's Open Mic, 1stBooks, MP3.com - Fatbrain "will empower a whole range of authors to go straight to the people," says to its chief executive Chris MacAskill, and "change the world of publishing."

Quite a prediction, even for Fatuousbrain, and the fact is this is hardly a new trend. "In the age of Xerox," Marshall McLuhan said in the '60s, "everyone can be a publisher," and how right he was. Self-publishing guru Dan Poynter said the same thing in the '80s about desktop publishing, and surely Gutenberg said it in his time.

But how inspiring to see self-publishing emerge with such might in OUR time. In the midst of massive and terrifying consolidation of power in mainstream publishing, and the closing of thousands of independent booksellers because of domination by chain bookstores and Amazon.com, the new plunge by authors into what CNET News.com calls "a churning sea of free expression" through online self-publishing is a glorious response.

Indeed, one has the feeling that all sorts of sticky-fingered entrepreneurs are waiting to make money off the purity of this impulse. As Wired News quotes a marketing manager from Adobe (the software encryption-maker working with Fatbrain), "people can buy the rights [to a book or magazine] forever, or for a single reading, or for only certain times of the day. There are a lot of possibilities."

So brace yourself for another cycle of self-publishing, this one certain to be quite an explosion of literary works - good and bad, memorable and not - hitting the Internet fan.

Heaven knows computer programmers will have a great time finding ways to categorize, cross-index, review, channel, sell, promote and distribute them all.

But let's not forget the one thing no one can upload. As even Amazon.com and the chains must be learning by now, you can computerize everything, right down to who's buying which books in any given community, but the crucial way word is spread about good writing comes down to actual people, a majority of them independent booksellers, hand-selling books to actual customers.

That is the nucleus from which all the energy radiates. It works because over time, the trusted word of an independent booksellers carries more weight than any computer program. Certainly people spread the word about good books in email all the time, but that's later. Time and again, the first word comes from those who consider it their business to find good books outside the bestseller lists - unhyped, uncommercialized, unpromoted - and at the earliest stages.

It's been ironic to me that independent booksellers for all their woes never wish for the demise of chain bookstores or Amazon.com or ebooks or online bestseller/booksellers. Perhaps part of being an independent bookseller is the belief that there's room for everybody in the book business because that's just the way democracy works.

So when the Fatcats say they're going to revolutionize publishing or when the chains or Amazon say they're the biggest booksellers in the book industry and everybody at that level is fighting everybody else with new superlatives, I find myself wishing they would all repair to the nearest independent bookseller. Who knows, they might find a book they'd actually read and pass it on to someone they love.

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END-OF-SUMMER TREATS

THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN, Simon Winchester (HarperCollins, 6 cassettes, unabridged, $29.95; 2 cassettes, abridged, $16.95; for sale or rental online at http://www.audiobookcentral.com )

This wondrous true story about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary is engrossing enough for its account of the scholarly contributions made by the mysterious Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon and Civil War veteran who turned out to be a murderer in a British asylum for the criminally insane.

But thanks to the relish with which author Winchester reads his book aloud on tape, American listeners get to hear this fascinating narrative read with the British inflections and pronunciations that the OED's famous editor, Professor James Murray, would have applauded for this gripping behind-the-scenes drama.

One expects a certain penchant in print for digressions about word usage, but it's a surprise somehow to hear Winchester stop for nearly a full side of the first cassette to explain why the word "protagonist" can be used in the plural.

Restricted to the singular for many years, "protagonist," he tells us, was gradually accepted as a noun that could include two people when famous writers (George Bernard Shaw was one) began opening up the word over the course of many years. As we wait for Winchester to describe the relationship between Dr. Minor and Professor Murray, we realize that the great deliberations of philological history are as much a part of this narrative as as the men he can now safely explain are the TWO progratonists of the book's title.

Similarly, Winchester's depictions of the Civil War torture methods that Dr. Minor employed (and which drove him insane) also seem a bit endless until we realize that this is a story of the most minute detail leading to the most horrendous act or magnificent triumph. At its core is the way language is witnessed, recorded and built from thousands of tiny notations, many of them from Dr. Minor, into the greatest English dictionary of all time.

The many twists of the narrative are a delight - for example, Professor Murray's first call for volunteers to help collect data for the dictionary was brought to Dr. Minor by the wife of the man Minor had killed. Also, what we expect to be the orderly and meticulous logging and sorting of tens of thousands of word-useage slips submitted by volunteers in the field turns out to be one of those great OED myths.

"[Murray] didn't allow as to how many of [the slips] had been nibbled at by mice or ruined by damp, nor did he reveal that one batch was found in a baby's bassinet, or that later slips beginning with the letter 'I' had been left in a broken-bottomed hamper in an empty vicarage, or that the entire letter 'F' had been accidentally sent off to Florence ..."

Aside from the wonderful luxury with which we join Minor as he discovers words like Buffoon, Bulk and Blab, one of the benefits of this tape is listening to Winchester slip effortlessly into the "finely modulated Scottish voice" of Professor Murray or a variety of American accents (though a bit heavy-handed, these are spoken with conviction).

And when we begin to think, as Winchester knows we will, that for Dr. Minor perhaps 20 years of having nothing to do but take down each book in one's personal library and reread it for the sake of redefining words alone could make a madman sane, the author inserts little reminders of Minor's continuing illness - that he covered the floors with sheets of zinc to repel kidnappers and kept a bowl of water beside the door "because the evil spirits would not dare to cross water to get to me."

As much fun as "The Professor and the Madman" is to read (just out in paperback from HarperPerennial; 256 pages; $13), it's even more fascinating to hear, especially for the informative and revealing interview with Winchester at the end of the unabridged edition conducted by John Simpson, the present editor of the OED.

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THE WHOLE WOMAN, Germaine Greer (Alfred A. Knopf; 373 pages; $25; order online from http://www.brigitbooks.com )

I don't know why a number of critics dumped on Germaine Greer's latest book when it came out a few months ago - oh well, of course I do: she's still so mad! Incisive, scathing and wickedly researched, "The Whole Woman" provides the kind of invaluable commentary that's been missing from Western discourse since - well, since Greer's famous breakthrough, "The Female Eunuch," was published 30 years ago.

Nobody cuts through that awful layer of societal propaganda we hear so often - that life for women is better than ever, that hysterectomies/estrogen/implants/Prozac/in vitro fertilization are safer than ever - better than Greer, who seems to start every conversation anew.

Who but Germaine Greer would acknowledge that people are so mixed up about women's bodies it's time to start all over thinking about breasts - what they are, why we have them, what they do. Along the way, Greer provides a savvy and often outraged point of view that is shocked at nothing, curious about everything.

Typical of her unorthodox treatment is Greer's investigation of a "curious line of argument" about the role of breasts in sex: "When humans came to feel so secure that they could give up the dog-fashion position and copulate face to face, the breast had to mimic the buttocks which had been the original visual stimulus to intercourse." Just as you hear yourself exclaiming, why, that's the most ridiculous idea I've ever heard, Greer not only makes a case for her line of inquiry, she makes you wonder why in most cultures "the primary purpose of human breasts is not to feed infants but to attract and keep a mate."

And who but Greer would have the courage to say, in her essay on testosterone, that she was wrong 30 years ago to insist that women could be modern-day Lysistratas by denouncing war and withholding sex with men who engage in it. (What women think about violence, she now believes, is irrelevant to what men do.)

Perhaps the best reason to keep "The Whole Woman" around: If someone in your family is facing mastectomy or depression, cervical cancer or motherhood, menopause or housework, you are going to want to know Germaine Greer's observations on the subject, right now and pretty much all the time.

If all of Western medicine is telling you prenatal ultrasound is harmless, listen to Greer ("the shock of the sound wave to the developing brain of the fetus may be destructive"). If you wonder why Caesarean births are increasing, hear Germaine Greer simply for the jolt she sends to accepted thinking. (It's not new but worth hearing again that we have so many Caesareans, she says, because we're living in an era of "manmade motherhood" - doctors manage female fertility because "women themselves cannot be trusted to manage it.")

And in the eurphoria over the new psychoactive drugs, listen especially to Greer, who points out that Prozac could be just another way to exploit female depression.

"If women's sadness can be considered biochemical and constitutional," she writes, "we can treat it with medication. We can put women on Prozac and they will think that they are happy, even though they are not. Disturbed animals in the zoo are given Prozac too, which rather suggests that misery is a response to unbearable circumstances rather than constitutional. The caged tiger is being treated not for the misfortune of being a tiger but for the misfortune of being in a zoo; female depression could as likely be a consequence not of being female but of an inhuman environment."

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RUSH FOR RICHES, J. S. Holliday (University of California Press; 355 pages; $55 hardcover; $29.95 paperback; buy online at http://www.universitypressbooks.com )

One needn't live in California to wonder what would have happened to the nation at large if gold had not been discovered in the Golden State in 1848.

As historian James Holliday indicates, we might have had a California few ever hear about today, one that would have evolved slowly from its 1847 doldrums as a sleepy, backward, lawless and impoverished territory. There discharged soldiers from the war with Mexico grumbled over long-overdue pay, "careless landgrants" were issued by "incompetent, transient Mexican governors," land-owning was chaotic and United States authority "drooped and sagged."

But the Gold rush did occur, and blam! The free-for-all began that Holliday shows would become "America, only more so" with its Yankee ingenuity in hydraulic mining accompanied by its shameful greed, corrupt politics and pioneer wreckage of rivers and forests.

Holliday 's book from the early 1980s, "And The World Rushed In" (still in print from Simon & Schuster, $17 paperback), remains one of the best treatments of the heartache and hardships people went through just to get to those gold bricks lying all over the streets.

He brings the same authority and detail to "Rush for Riches," a gorgeous illustrated book that drops us right into an American destiny-in-the-making with haunting text and photos that follow you around long after book's end. This is a great gift for the holiday season if you're up to shopping far in advance - that way you get to read it first and still give it away, although you'll probably end up buying two.

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Years ago, and quite naive, I worked in shipping and receiving in a small Waldenbooks mall store. I was appalled to learn that bookstores are reimbursed for unsold paperback books by tearing off and returning the covers. The rest of the book is tossed in the dumpster — and it is as much a crime to retrieve one for reading as it is to steal it “whole” off the store's shelves. Worst of all, due to corporate Waldenbooks' book-by-book directions for shelving and retrieving stock, we were completely filling the dumpster with “returns” about three times a week.

The store manager encouraged me to write to an executive about my concerns. I wondered if there wasn't anything else we could do with the books, or at least a way to minimize the waste. I was shocked to receive a blunt and angry response from him, in which he told me to mind my own business and my own job. He said that books were not the point, that sales was the point, and I obviously needed to reconsider my job as a worker and not as a reader.

I have not bought a single book from a chain bookstore since that day. It was from the executive's letterhead that I learned that Waldenbooks was owned by KMart, and way back then I thought that was the only problem.

One of the lines of books we carried were treated as periodicals, with four or five being published every few weeks. They may very well have been from the line Waldenbooks published. They were what we called “bodice rippers” but the authors and cover art were unfamiliar and they were pretty cheaply put together. Women were always calling to find out when they would arrive and when they would be unpacked. On the day of arrival, they came in droves, dragging in crowds of small, whiny, sticky children. I remember thinking that they looked like junkies waiting for a fix. I must say, these were not the books filling our dumpster!

Any kind of books and any kind of reading are okay with me, but I am eternally grateful to the writers, editors and publishers and bookstores that are run by serious readers who recognize that there are enough of us to constitute a “market.”

Alice

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Here's my story about the "pleasures" of abridged books on tape. Not yet having read Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes," I bought the (abridged) audio and listened to it on a long road trip from Boston to Rochester, NY. I loved McCourt's voice (he read on the tapes) and his singing, but when I got to Rochester, I had to ask my friend, who had read the book, why it was called "Angela's Ashes," since there was nothing about ashes, or dear Angela's fate at all!

Unabridged Only From Now On

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Here we are about two months away from the unveiling of the ABA's (high priced) Booksense on-line stores for independents to compete with Amazon and B&N and the ABA sends out a taxation kit to all member stores asking them to contact local and state governments to demand that sales tax be collected on all internet sales.

It reminds me of the federal government supporting tobacco farmers and at the same time funding anti-smoking campaigns.

It seems to be an obvious attack on Amazon.com and BN.com to reduce any advantage they have on internet book sales but for the small book store trying to get onto the net, this increase in government paperwork will crush the little guy while Amazon and B&N will merely hire additional staff to handle it.

In my state I have to account for more than one hundred counties and each of them has a different tax structure/rate. And, all business owners have to file a monthly tax form even if you have zero sales. Other states have a jumble of rules on who files and when to file. What a nightmare to have to account to 40+ states each month.

Even the ABA sells items across state lines to members and only collects tax in the main office state. Perhaps if the ABA started collecting tax from all interstate sales they make they would get a small idea of what they are about to unleash on their membership.

Am I the only person on the planet that sees this as a "let's shoot ourselves in the foot" plan? Perhaps they need to rename the Booksense.com site to NoSense.com.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Your trouble, dear Pat, is that you're too easy on these guys. Why not come right out and say that the Amazon guy ATE HIS OWN CHILDREN? Why not admit, however reluctantly, that the B&N guy tortures small, furry animals JUST TO HEAR THEIR SCREAMS? I love it when you're angry.

Jules Older
Albany, Vermont

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.

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