Holt Uncensored: The Beginning

Holt Uncensored began in 1998 as one of the earliest Internet columns (no blogs then) about book publishing. Its job was to take a critical look at books and the book industry.

I had just left The San Francisco Chronicle after 16 years as book review editor and for the next 10 years pounded away on the Internet at issues that I felt were dramatically changing the publishing landscape and needed a witness.

What were the issues? Corporate bigness and foreign ownership in publishing; predatory attacks by chain bookstores on independents; a growing tyranny at Amazon.com; the democratization of publishing; the displacement of authors from the top of the heap (once honored because for one thing, they pay all our salaries) to the bottom, where they’re treated as replaceable and irrelevant.

Where Did All The Good Books Go?
The genesis of the column began when I worked for the Chronicle as Book Review Editor in 1982-1998.

Every year the department received about 15,000 new titles for review, so books were piled up everywhere, most of them commercial entertainments. I noticed each year that it was getting harder to find serious nonfiction or literary fiction titles. Amusingly, the few candidates that did come through fell into trends and cycles of trends. Napoleon was big in the history category, Truman in biography and black holes in science. Good midlist fiction (Jane Hamilton, Wally Lamb) had been struggling until Oprah Winfrey resurrected it, but how could that be? Why had an entire publishing establishment, hundreds of years old, made itself dependent on a single TV star to establish literary standards?

[Of course if there has to be a single TV star who’s spreading the word about good books, aren’t we glad it’s Oprah Winfrey? She (or her committee) has made some terrific choices (Toni Morrison, Jeffrey Eugenides) even though she doubts herself as a critical reader. It was a tragedy to see Jonathan Franzen, that snooty, self-aggrandizing author of The Corrections, refusing to go on her show as though Oprah and her viewers were beneath him. The fiasco so unhinged Oprah that for many years she stopped selecting current books and instead restricted the book club to safer classics. The point needs to be made repeatedly that Oprah Winfrey should be allowed to make choices not everybody agrees with. Controversy stimulates discussion and makes books come alive, as anybody in a book group – including Oprah’s- knows so well.]

Merger Mania
I felt that in its coverage of “merger mania,” that very-American process in which conglomerates took over mainstream publishing houses, the media kept missing the point. We weren’t just seeing more and more commercial books aimed at best-seller lists. We were seeing fewer and fewer serious books.

The dominoes fell very quickly. From the 50 or so independent publishers that existed in the mainstream industry in the 1960s, when I started work in publishing, today a half-dozen companies publish the bulk of mainstream books. This awesome consolidation of power is having a disastrous effect on the kinds of choices readers are offered – and by extension on the very health of the country’s democracy.

Not only are high-turnover, “no-risk” books replacing serious literature, an invisible censorship is taking hold of the industry as more and more decisions about what Americans can read fall into fewer and fewer hands.

[Granted, the output doesn’t look skimpy, even today. When you walk into a good bookstore or browse online, you confront wall after wall of books that appear intelligent and important but turn out to be light fluffy nothings to trendy look-alikes and spinoffs of bestsellers. Add to this the democratization of publishing that has exploded on the Internet and its resultant chaos (refreshing though it is), and we get a big banquet of fatty desserts and very few nutrients or real fuel. I don’t mean there aren’t many good books out there; I mean there aren’t enough of them, not by a long shot. Whenever you hear a publisher defend the present system by saying, “No good book goes unpublished in America,” don’t believe it.]

Corporate-owned publishers like to say that small presses are picking up the slack, but what an unfair burden that is to place upon these struggling and innovative independents. These houses are maligned as fringe mavericks and almost always dependent on sales or grants to pay the bills, rarely on stockholders or venture capital firms.

Enter the Chains
At the same time, the appearance of chain bookstores, beginning in the 1970s, has been devastating to independent booksellers. Despite deep corporate pockets supporting Barnes & Noble and Borders, independents with their (by comparison) paltry profits found that they could, and did, compete successfully against the arrival of a big chain bookstore store that happened to locate down the block or across the street.

But they could not survive against two chain stores that “happened” to locate in the same mall or neighborhood, let alone three or four or, in an increasing number of cities and suburbs around the country, five and six. This was not healthy competition; it was opportunistic and predatory. While chain bookstores ended up strangling the future of many independents, what astonished me were the tough and visionary booksellers who kept their stores alive.

The Bookstore Wars . . . and Amazon.com
To understand the incredible resilience of independent bookstores, I often remind myself that “the bookstore wars” encompass a struggle of not one but three decades.

Those independents who survived the Dalton/Waldens in the 1970s were challenged again by heavy discounters (Crown and SuperCrown), cheapo department stores (Target, Wal-Mart) and price clubs like Costco in the ’80s.

They faced even tougher competition from the big-box superstores (Barnes & Noble, Borders) in the early ’90s, and by Wall-Street-backed online booksellers like Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com in the late ’90s and first years of 2000.

Yet stories about “the bookstore wars” in the media did not follow independents persevering against rapacious chain bookstores and market-share-stealing Internet retailers; these articles were about the big chains trying to survive against Amazon.com. Over and over, these “Goliath vs. Goliath” headlines seemed to dismiss or malign independents as poor players in a fast-paced, high-stakes game they could never win.

The Independents as Models
But even as their numbers were falling by the thousands, the independent bookstores that remained proved to be models of good business.

They succeeded on the basis of sales and bank loans, not junk bonds and Wall Street popularity as did many online retailers. They paid their bills on time, kept their returns low and gave their staffs fair salaries, unlike chain bookstores.

Best of all for their communities was that money made by local independents stayed local – it was not channeled into a far away headquarters. And independents contributed to surrounding neighborhoods with programs linked to schools, libraries, literacy, writing groups, book clubs and civic events.

In the Larger Scheme of Things
When I hear about publishers’ marketing departments dismissing independents as small and powerless, I can’t believe they’re thumbing their noses at the last place on Earth where they can successfully launch new writers. It’s been an unassailable fact in the book industry for decades that independent bookstores discover and nurture serious titles that chain bookstores and Internet retailers often miss.
Knowing how to support unknown writers and to cultivate audiences of readers and writers is an art publishers should cherish. Every independent store has clerks and owners and managers who have developed a priceless expertise by devoting themselves to selling books one customer at a time. Of course they like selling bestsellers at high volume as much as anybody in retail. But that’s akin to pushing a button, something the chains do best.

And when it comes to building and investing in the market by slowly spreading the word about good books, independents know they have to be reliable and consistent. That’s why they don’t often accept payment for placements of books in windows, or end-of-aisle displays, nor put out the kind of phony lists called “staff favorites” that bring Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and Borders hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Finally it’s still true that independent bookstores offer a wider range and variety of titles than do all chain stores put together. Indeed, independents’ ability to sponsor book clubs and to single out books they consider worthy makes them far more powerful than any online or chain book outlet. They are in the business of introducing and sustaining books that contribute to the core of our literary canon – books that would otherwise die a quick death in the avalanche of corporate marketing for commercial bestsellers. This ability to bring many different books to many different audiences has ensured the kind of literary diversity that is essential for a free exchange of ideas in any healthy democracy.

The Purpose of Holt Uncensored
This column is a place for critical commentary about books and the book industry. Its aim is to provide an exchange of ideas that will contribute to the shape and future of literature in the United States.
It’s also a place to have a little fun with publishing through irreverent looks at corporate dominance on and off the Internet, interviews with authors, book reviews, bookstore anecdotes, news scoops hot tips, obits, links and a serialized spoof called “Remainders of the Day.”

With letters from readers throughout the world, the column has also become a forum for controversy and opinion that can be invaluable in this time of conformity and commercialism in the book industry.

On The Internet
The wonder of writing about all this on the Internet is that a larger expertise is not just out there but accessible, with the ability to grab hold of every story and run with it. On the Internet, there is no such thing as The Designated Critic or Reviewer providing Received Wisdom to audiences that can’t go anywhere else.

On the Internet, the audience sits a breath away from the writer and contributes equally to that great ball of conversation that rolls throughout cyberspace wherever it wants to go. The Internet more than symbolizes the kind of discovery that is still the core of literary life. It has become the heart of creativity itself while giving every individual a voice. For me, it’s as much a privilege to participate in this brave new world as it has always been to work in the book industry.