NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #94
by Pat Holt

Tuesday, September 26, 1999:

UMBA, Part I: THE IMPORTANCE OF PLACE

LETTERS

UMBA, Part I: THE IMPORTANCE OF PLACE

It's 7:30 a.m. on a beautiful fall morning in St. Paul, Minnesota, where groggy-eyed booksellers are already laughing at one of those publishing stories you hear whenever authors and booksellers get together.

The story is told by mystery writer and novelist Marjorie Dorner, whose latest novel, SEASONS OF SUN & RAIN, has just been published by Milkweed (346 pages; $23.95; buy online at http://www.hungrymind.com - see Friday's column for review).

We're sitting at tables in the innards of the city's convention center during the first book-and-author breakfast of UMBA, the Upper Midwest Booksellers Association's annual Fall trade show. Please note the acronym is not pronounced "OOMBA" as though it were some rhumba-playing, dance-the-night-away fling to which rowdy Midwest book folks have a legendary bent.

This, rather, is UMBA, pronounced with the more dignified "UHMBA" as befits these hundreds of hardworking booksellers and the many authors, distributors, publishers, reporters and maverick columnist who have come to the convention from a dozen surrounding states.

The funny story is about the time Dorner got a strange reply after sending a manuscript to her agent in New York. "One of the clues in the book, a mystery, turned on the fact that an intruder gets into the heroine's apartment without breaking in, although the door is locked," she explains.

"The young woman begins to investigate by finding out who else might have a key to the apartment, since she and her mother have only recently moved in. The intruder has left something behind, so finding out who in the town has a key becomes central to the mystery."

Dornan is no stranger to the workings of mysteries - in fact, she sent her kids to college on the royalties of her mysteries, she mentions - so it was a shock, after sending the manuscript off to her agent, that she received a negative reply.

"The agent phoned me from New York and said, 'I'm sorry, this isn't going to work. Nobody will believe it.' "

" 'Why not?' I said.

" 'Because,' came the reply, 'when you move into a new apartment, the first thing you do is have all the locks changed.

" 'You do?'

" ' Yes. With new locks, there aren't any keys out there in the hands of people who could break in."

Dorner laughs at the memory. "I explained to the agent that I live in the Upper Midwest. You don't change the locks when you move into a new place here - in fact usually you get only one key to begin with. The former tenant says something like, 'You know, I used to have bunch of keys to this place, but I don't know where they are.' So you take the one key remaining and have it copied a dozen times. Then you hand it out to neighbors and relatives so they can water your plants or take care of things when you're out of town."

Everybody in the room is smiling and nodding at this, and it turns out the agent finally agreed. But the story, Dorner feels, brings up a point that Midwestern authors (and perhaps every other writer on the planet) have been grappling with for years.

"There is a sentiment in mainstream publishing that the only thing readers have any interest in are the two coasts," she says. "If the subject is California or New York, then the work is considered topical, 'with-it,' in. Everything else is just 'fly-over territory,' which is not much of interest to sophisticated people.

"Of course the truth that you know is that all writing is regional. It must be, because fiction is preeminently situated in place and time. Even a novel set in Manhattan is 'regional.' In fact, ONLY regional writing in fiction can be good writing. Unless writers have a good grasp of geography, meaning the entire ambiance of a place, they can't do it justice."

Everybody used to acknowledge this, Dorner indicates. "There used to be such a thing as pride in regionalism." Case in point: "One time I sent a story to a literary magazine in Colorado in which one of the characters lives on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. In this story, the character doesn't know if he should call the family dog a pet. His father says it's a 'cow dog.'

"At the magazine, someone circled this phrase so hard the indentation could be seen for the next couple of pages," Dorner says. "Written in the margin was 'CATTLE DOG!' Well, I just laughed. Maybe in Colorado it's a cattle dog, but I was raised on a Wisconsin dairy farm, and you don't have cattle, you have cows.

So you have cow dogs."

That IS pride in regionalism, and it's one of the reasons many booksellers prefer regional bookseller trade shows to national conventions like Book Expo, the annual confab of the American Booksellers Association.

At a regional you see huge national bestsellers take their place beside regional books with equal appeal, such as, in UMBA's case, "Jailhouse Stories: Memories of a Smalltown Sheriff," by Minnesotan Neil Haugerud, and "The Metcalfe Family Album" by Sallyann J. Murphey" (see Friday's column for reviews). In the latter book, the Midwest comes alive despite the fact that its British author is a former BBC producer who's "spent most of my life in cities."

Murphey, another speaker at the UMBA breakfast, has written about small-town life in the Midwest before in "Bean Blossom Dreams" (Ballantine, 1995). When she moved with her husband and five-year-old daughter to Brown County, Indiana, "I was surrounded by families who knew their grandparents, great grandparents, and great-great grandparents. These were people who could tell you all about what their relatives were up to, which just amazed me.

"I didn't think people still existed who had that kind of gentle continuity from one generation to another without ax murderers and divorces and abuse." The more "normal" tradition in the modern world, she says, "is to live thousands of miles away from older relatives and have little sense of where we come from or what makes us who we are.

"What history we are taught tends to be a boring progression of dates, politics and economics but doesn't seem to have any real relevance to our lives. We live in the now and have forgotten that other generations might have something to say that would give us a clue about how to proceed."

It's comforting to sit inside this big block of a cement hall and think of the Mississippi River just outside, its trees and thick foliage on either bank exploding in Fall colors, its seemingly still waters churned by tugs chugging along in an idyllic, balmy stillness.

All of it serves to give UMBA a slower, more luxurious pace than one might find in regional trade shows on the "with-it" coasts. For those who fly in a few days early to do a little investigating, it turns out the mix of publishing, bookselling, book distribution and community support is unique in the nation, perhaps because of that luxurious reader's pace. See next week for Part II: Booksellers as Publishers, Book Reviews, Plaintiffs.

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored,

I was startled to read about Barnes & Nobles new "Efficient Receipt Program." One more example of chain-store clout that independents can't access.

Partly, I was startled because I have fantasized about a similar plan myself. I spend three weeks each year doing the receiving in our mid-sized independent store while our regular receiver is on vacation, and have been doing so for about five years.

In the last several years, I have watched the number of vendor shipping errors grow. This last summer, more than half of the boxes I opened contained some form of an error. The errors ranged from missing books ("They can't be missing, the box weighed the right amount," I was told), to carelessly packed boxes ("Yeah, we've been getting alot of complaints, we must have someone new in the warehouse"), to shipments that violated our instructions for minimum ships, to errors in discounts on invoices ("Gosh, we've just been having all these weird things happen in our computer, I don't know why, but I'll reissue the invoice"). I don't even want to talk about missing paperwork. I just held my breath and hoped for the best.

I spent well over two hours calling on the problems, and some were not ever resolved.

I don't think that B&N is doing the right thing, but I do wish that publishers would take some responsibility for seeing that their customers receive the kind of service that we like to provide our customers.

For the record, these were a range of publishers and distrubutors, not just the mega-corporate ones.

Fran Gardner, Manager
World Eye Bookshop
Greenfield, MA

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Dear Holt Uncensored

Have you ever worked receiving in a bookstore?

The mistakes that publishers make are mind boggling. We've had months when about half the shipments have one kind of problem or another. We've had vendors make mistakes -- sometimes the same mistake -- three, four, five shipments in a row (despite calls each time to discuss the error). And, what a coincidence, the mistakes are virtually always in the vendor's favor!

You may think I'm exaggerating. You might believe that it can't possibly be this bad. I invite you to hang out at our store for a week and watch us open boxes. Or, better yet, stop by my dining room table here at home to see the piles of paperwork representing billing and shipping problems that I need to resolve. I can show you the files of letters and faxes that I've sent, the notes about calls I've made to try to get problems resolved.

Deadly Passions is a small bookstore. I don't have the time or resources to deal with this stuff, so each error forces a decision: Am I going to eat this problem or fight it? I hate eating mistakes that I didn't create. But there are now whole categories of problems (especially poor packing and the resulting damage to books) that we've raised so often to no avail that we've simply given up on them . . .

What publishers are doing reflects systemic failure, and it causes them to make the same mistakes, over and over and over again. They hear our complaints time after time and they're still fouling up again and again.

As a pesky small bookstore owner, I realize that publishers have mixed feelings about me too. Sometimes they'd even be justified. But I do know that our relationship would be vastly improved if the publishers were a little more efficient, and I'd do a better job of doing what they want me to do -- i.e. sell more of their books, process their paperwork on time, etc. -- if I didn't have to spend so much time cleaning up their messes. Efficiency isn't necessarily a bad thing, Pat, especially if it gives me more time to be a better bookseller.

You note that small publishers would be hit especially hard by B&N's proposed penalties, but based on my experience, I'd guess that most small companies won't get into trouble in the first place: They tend to be far less error-prone, and when they do make mistakes they tend to resolve them quickly.

I'm no fan of Barnes & Noble, but if it takes a big customer to push publishers into improving their systems and their service, then I'm all for it.

Jim Huang (jim@deadlypassions.com)
Deadly Passions Bookshop

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

I applaud the B&N effort to clear out all the little publishers who can't get it right. Maybe now they will understand that when I hear how B&N carries their book or books I want to say, "good riddance." Maybe now they will understand that sending their authors to a B&N in the same market place as an independent pretty well kills any reason for the indie to promote their author or their books. And maybe their authors will understand that getting a reading at a nearby B&N is the kiss of death as far as I am concerned, since I have one sitting a scant mile away from me here in little old Winooski, Vermont. (Next door to Burlington, host to Borders and Walden Books, and next door to South Burlington, home to B&N and Walden Books.)

All my nastiness having been spent, let me say that I love the small presses; they lend my store a large part of its charm and distinction and certainly serve to differentiate us from those ugly chains. And we love to hand-sell the many excellent titles they publish (we are a small small publisher too, so I am truly sympathetic to the plight of truly small presses). But if you do business with the devil you better expect to get burned sooner or later. Slowly but surely those companies are revealing their true character, and I believe that there is an ethical problem with dealing with these people. They are not trying to help publishers of any size or the communities in which they locate their stores, and I wish the public would wake up to this fact.

With more sincerity than politeness,

Michael DeSanto
Bookstore owner and book publisher.

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

In Holt Uncensored #92, Ken Sanderson wrote: "Isn't the term 'biggest market share' just a euphemism for monopoly? It seems to me that the logical goal of trying to increase 'market share' in any business is eventually to have the WHOLE market -- that is, to have a monopoly and to drive all 'competitors' out of business."

Legally, a monopoly is a single entity that controls a vast market share, not simply the biggest share. What defines "vast" differs by circumstance, but it's usually more like 90% than 50%. Such a monopoly isn't illegal per se, but trade rules forbid it from competing in the same way as smaller companies.

Independent booksellers don't face a monopoly because the large companies Barnes & Noble, Borders and Amazon are separate and competing entities. Similarly, though there's been a concentration of large trade-publishing imprints in a few corporations, there are still enough of them that none is a monopoly. As fiercely as they compete, it's unlikely any of these firms will drive all others out of business. Barnes & Noble's attempt to merge with the wholesaler Ingram was a true step toward monopoly in bookselling, and it was rightly squelched.

Rather than speak of a monopoly, it seems more accurate and productive for booksellers to speak about keeping the playing field level. Special discounts or "co-op" money from publishers, not collecting taxes on online sales, exclusive access to the NYTBR best-seller list--those are unfair advantages that bookstores and the ABA have rightly challenged.

J. L. Bell
Newton, MA
JnoLBell@compuserve.com

Holt responds: I wish the larger picture could be addressed with the same logic and accuracy, as well as, perhaps, a little heart. The "bookstore wars" involve a takeover of the market by three not-so-disparate corporate forces (Borders, Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com) that act like a single monopoly. While independent booksellers believe there is room in this market for everybody, including chains and online booksellers that compete fairly, Borders, B&N and Amazon are clearly out to win the "game" at the expense of their competitors. Customers are beginning to understand what's at stake if independent booksellers go under; they now know that the most important way to support independents is to stop patronizing the chains and Amazon.com as if these three constituted one company.

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re Jerry Mander's IN THE ABSENCE OF THE SACRED.

Don't overlook Mander's earlier book, FOUR ARGUMENTS FOR THE ELIMINATION OF TELEVISION. He makes the point quite convincingly that the problems we associate with television (and by extension technology) are inherent in the technology. They are not caused by insensitive programming or misguided commercialism, but by the very way the technology of television works on the mind. People I know in the communications industry so hate the book that their mouths foam whenever I bring it up.

Robert Goodman, rg@silvercat.com Silvercat, communication and publishing services