NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #93
by Pat Holt

Tuesday, September 21, 1999:

BARNES & NOBLE'S QUEST FOR 'EFFICIENCY'
NO, CALIFORNIA, NO!
BOOK OF THE DAY

LETTERS

BARNES & NOBLE'S QUEST FOR 'EFFICIENCY'

For years, publishers have complained about being "blackmailed" into paying for various Barnes & Noble promotional programs as a way of getting books into the B&N system. Now comes an anouncement to B&N's many publishers and vendors about "an important change in policy" on the distribution side: This is called the "Efficient Receipt Program."

What an upbeat and positive term! According to the announcement from B&N, it's is "designed to minimize the amount of time it takes to receive your product into our warehouses and to facilitate making your product available for sale as soon as possible."

This would be a nice idea, except that couched in the letter are such terms as "enforcing compliance" and "issuing chargebacks for certain infractions." This means that many of B&N's "shipping and routing guidelines" have now become hard-and-fast rules: You break 'em, you pay.

Of course, fines or fees exist at other distributors when books need additional handling. Baker & Taylor charges 12 cents per copy if the ISBN bar code is missing and B&T ends up ticketing each book. But Barnes & Noble more than doubles that charge at 25 cents per copy. Ouch.

Both the amount of the charges and the arbitrary language of infractions have incensed some publishers. For example, "incorrect or incomplete order information on cartons and/or pallets" will cost you "$200 per shipment + 40/hr for labor." The same amount is charged if the pallets are not stretch-wrapped. The same for "incorrect or incomplete packing list information," and so forth.

And the charges keep climbing: If a shipment arrives with "concealed damages or defective merchandise," the charge against the publisher is "value of product + $200 per shipment + $40/hr for labor." Does it matter if the damages occurred in transit? Will it take a mountain of paperwork with the carrier and B&N to straighten it out? Will further charges mount up?

And what happens if the "product is received by B&N later than the expected arrival date printed on purchase order"? The publisher/vendor doesn't set or agree to the "expected arrival date" - it's computer-generated and could be 2 days, 2 weeks, or 2 months away.

Let's say it's 2 days, and B&N specifies UPS ground-service as the carrier. However UPS has a six-day minimum for ground service to the destination: So the publisher is already going to be late, and the charge is "$.05 per unit per day from the expected arrival date to receipt date."

No mention is made of the details that are often missing or misconstrued on one side or another and simply need to be ironed out in the normal course of receiving books. Apparently, EVERYTHING that isn't in perfect compliance is chargeable.

Of course, if you think an error has occurred on Barnes & Noble's side, just call a "vendor compliance associate," and - ta da! - a "mutually agreeable solution" will be worked out in no time! Such a helpful company.

But here's the loss for all of us: If the Efficient Receipt Program is carried out with any kind of enforcement, small presses will be especially and unfairly burdened by $200 fines here and $40/hr labor there. One couldn't blame them for giving up on "compliance" when they see a piece of their profit wiped out at every turn.

That will mean less variety at Barnes & Noble stores, of course, but the B&N folks don't seem to care. Compliance is everything! Enforcement is paramount! Getting rid of smaller presses - their creativity, their originality, their adventurism, their sense of mission - may be seen by Barnes & Noble as a GAIN when it comes to meeting the numbers. Creativity, when seen through this lens, just takes too much effort.

But perhaps the Efficient Receipt Program is a problem of bigness: Imposing fines for every possible infraction sounds like somebody's attempt to eliminate human error - or at least get paid for it. Or make a profit from it.

Publishers and vendors who feel the sting of the whip aren't liking it one bit. But customers who have sensed that Barnes & Noble is capable only of a "formula buy" may happily find another reason to return to independent booksellers.

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NO, CALIFORNIA, NO!

The state of California has led the nation in some pretty moronic thinking in past decades (thank you, Prop. 13), but one hopes the latest example of really backward legislation won't spread East as well.

This is AB84, the surprise end-of-session bill that prevents city and county governments from giving permits to stores 100,000 square feet or larger, 15,000 square feet of which carry nontaxable merchandise such as food and drugs.

Apparently "the bill would impose a broader ban on superstores than initially believed," according to the San Francisco Chronicle. "Smaller format stores generally contain pharmacies and several aisles of packaged food that together can exceed the bill's allowable ceiling for nontaxable items." How much smaller than 100,000 square feet is not known.

The bill reflects a growing backlash against giant big-box superstores that represents an important grassroots response toward preserving independent neighborhood stores. But for heaven's sake, an across-the-board mandate like this looks and is dictatorial. It squishes under its thumb every municipal government within the state that wants to retain the right to choose the businesses it wants within city and county boundaries.

Further, because AB84 stops the planet-sized Wal-Marts, Supercenters, Costcos and Kmarts, it could inspire a backlash-against-the-backlash in which government agencies will bend over backward to allow not-mega but still-big-box stores like a typical Borders (25,000 square feet) or Barnes & Noble store when permits are necessary.

But don't discount a version of AB84 coming to your state. With strong union backing and supermarket support, this is the kind of legislation that could tie up state governments for years.

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BOOK OF THE DAY

IN THE ABSENCE OF THE SACRED, Jerry Mander (Sierra Club; 446 pages; $14 paperback; buy online at http://www.pratum.com/ )

Drawing from that "looser definition" of book reviewing readers have requested, let's look at a 10-year-old book that keeps selling as long as the bookseller who loves it sends the word out to customers.

Bookseller Todd Prather specializes in cosmology, hermetic philosophy, psychology and spirituality, yet he calls this 1989 book "our top seller of all time. We have sold HUNDREDS of Mander's book, and nothing has compared in our 18-year history."

No wonder. Ostensibly about "The Failure of Technology & The Survival of the Indian Nations," this mesmerizing book is so well-written in Mander's conversational style and so thick with ideas and remonstrations and challenges about American history and the future of the American way (there still is one!) that few readers will be able to put it down.

"A crucially important book," Prather writes in the store's catalog, "and one of the most confounding I've read in a long time . . . It will shock the most skeptical, informed critics of high tech, for it goes way beyond the usual timid questioning and hand-wringing . . . Mander, in seasoned uncompromising language, rips the happy face off Technotopia."

If you wonder what good it does for people to lambast technology when the computer revolution and its Internet component are already here and changing our lives so profoundly, Mander opens the door to a new kind of critical examination.

For my own part, just as it's important to witness the closure of independent bookstores and understand what is being lost in terms of the kind of literature that supports and enriches our culture, so does Mander demonstrate how bearing witness to technological transformations reveals what can and cannot be replaced in the next phase of civilization.

For example, there is no doubt in many people's minds that the Internet is replacing the news media, but as Mander indicates, we should know when we're being exploited as consumers, when the new technology is politically neutral (or not), how electronic communication can alienate us from (or contribute to) communities and neighborhoods. The same goes for the promises of technology's promises of a "biological utopia" in which humanity lives independently from all other living things, insulated within the womb of high technology

Mander's experience teaching Native American history to high school kids is wonderfully informative in this regard. In fact, as he follows Native American societies into the modern age we see a mirror slowly emerging that tells us much about what to expect when "megatechnology" becomes ever more anchored in existing systems and attempts to make deals with us in exchange for massive changes in private life.

Pratum writes, "I want to emphasize that Mander's book is no mere gloomy chronicle of bleak pessimism. Many chapters are judiciously punctuated with the fertile character of Mander's humanity and humor. He outlines concrete steps that must be taken. A high point in the book is the chapter titled, 'But Jerry, We Can't Go Back!' "

The fact that Mander wrote this book 10 years ago is astonishing; read it along with Susan Faludi's "Stiffed" and you'll be uniquely prepared for the new millenium, because in the end, the message of both is inspiring. Just as the Indians' fight to preserve land and culture is NOT over, and independent booksellers fight to stay in business is NOT over, and teachers and librarians' mission to bring literacy and literature to new generations is NOT over, so is it NOT true (yet) that technology in the hands of conglomerate powers has "stiffed" the individual once again.

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

A pal just sent me your piece on Amazon, which, as one of its freelance editors who quit in frustration, I can tell you is absolutely on target.

E-commerce in general has a basic flaw - if everyone ordered everything off the Internet and had it delivered at home, we would have so many UPS and Fed Ex and US Postal Service trucks clogging our neighborhoods that we'd have to give up our cars, and that's not going to happen, I think....A recent newspaper article explained why the information economy is essentially dragging our economy down the primrose path - it says that ditching and abandoning our manufacturing economy is essentially economic suicide. More Emperor's New Clothes fodder...

A former Amazon

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Dear Holt Uncensored,

I have been following your strings on sales taxes and Amazonian economics. Add to that the interesting letter from Sandy Jaffe at The Booksource.

As someone immersed in e-commerce (it really is here to stay) and with a past involvement in the investment banking community, I felt your economic analysis of the Amazon business strategy was akin to a Harvard Business School lecture. Your logic was pure. Amazon's strategy will continue to look good (selling product at a loss - who doesn't like a bargain?) until the money runs out. Amazon has already blown through all of the equity from their stock issue, and a good portion of the money from their Junk Bonds to cover past losses. They are continuing to lose money at a record pace.

But I also agree with Sandy Jaffe. This doesn't mean that Jeff Bezos is a bad guy. Nor does it make him a hero worthy of special exemptions from sales taxes. Let's save the hero issue for his shareholders to determine when the bills come due and support the ABA sales tax initiative in the meantime.

Quite possibly we should shift attention to more important matters. Maybe our fate is in our own hands, and our best strategy is for each of us focus on making what we believe in work.

Dick Harte
Booksite

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

Since you mentioned more than once the "dull and lifeless" home page that now exists on the Amazon.com site, here is my suggestion. Bookmark the "Books" page, which still looks pretty much as it did before, and bypass the mallish main page. Certainly reduces the aggravation level, as I recently found out.

Also, I agree with the gist of Sandy Jaffe's letter in issue #92. I have no objection to your viewpoint on Amazon.com and the rest of the online booksellers, but the vehemence of your words sometimes obscures the message. Take the onliners to task and point out their faults, but acknowledge that not everyone has access to a hometown independent bookstore or wants to make purchases there. There are good indies and not such good ones, and they all deserve to flourish or fail based on their merits, or lack of same.

As one who works for authors and publishers to make sure their books' information is correct at each online bookseller, I get a good look at how the online folks operate. I predict that many of the Web sellers will not be here next year, as a number of them are just not good merchants. They will weed themselves out, as brick and mortar stores have done over the years. Those who meet their customers' needs will remain, and the others will be cyberdust.

Charles Fleishman
BOOKS & WRITERS
charlesf@booksandwriters.com

Holt responds: Well, I'm glad to hear this, since Amazon's business model is hardly that of a "good merchant" and seems doomed to "cyberdust" as soon a the economy weakens and Amazon loses its only source of income. But my point about the "dull and lifeless" homepage of Amazon was simply to acknowledge the company's up-front abandonment of books as the company's lifeblood. Every time I try to tone down my "vehemence" I see what joy awaits booklovers who are discovering independent booksellers on the Internet. Right there on the homepage of many a'independent bookseller you can see and feel the character of the store, its love of books and its commitment to readers no matter how far the store may be from customers in "real" miles. And let's say for some reason you don't want to buy books from a store in your neighborhood; well, there are plenty of great independent bookstore websites to bookmark in your "Favorites" column.

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

I just have to respond to J.L. Bell's letter in #90 regarding Borders vs. Neal Coonerty's Bookshop Santa Cruz. Rather than taking his perspective of siding against local "bigwig" business owners (including automotive parts dealers), maybe we should be extending our sympathy for local bookstore owners to other local business owners struggling to compete against national chains. Not only is the income from local businesses kept locally, but they are accountable to a local community for their decisions and actions (far more so than a corporate office across the country which calls the shots). Our communities would be better off if we as consumers chose to support all kinds of locally owned businesses rather than the national chains.

A customer in the community

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