I had my first day at the races today when I went to Santa Anita and bet on the horses. The San Gabriel Mountains hover over the far side of the track. It’s a beautiful track and it was a good time, despite the fact that I lost some money. In fact my only winning bet of the day was a trifecta that paid $15.40. My excitment about this was much tempered by the old Filipino lady sitting behind me who was laughing her ass off at me about how small the pay off was. But it was a nice enough day at the races.
Film and literature are two vastly different mediums of communication, an argument best captured in the sentiments a friend wrote to me recently:”I identify books with age and place. It’s a nasty habit as it carries with it a certain sentiment that is not in the book itself, rather the impressions of habitat where and when I was reading a particular book, not to mention my desires at the time.”I replied to my friend that he had defined and distilled the reading experience. It’s those precise differences in approach that make the reading experience so monumental. No two people can read a book the same way, particularly people with different life histories.But film is a visual medium. Movies give us iconic images that last a lifetime. Or so I believed until recently.In early 2004 I wrote a series of 28 blithely interconnected short stories for L.A. Stories. One of the tales, “Bill’s Bottle,” is a first-person narrative that provides a voyeuristic look at the tragic death of film icon William Holden from the point of view of the fatal bottle of vodka that contributed to his passing.Immediately after “Bill’s Bottle” appeared on the fiction page at the L.A. Stories website I received perplexed e-mails from my readers, all asking the same question: “Who the hell is William Holden?””I just looked up his movies on the Internet Movie Database,” one reader wrote, “and I have to say that I am not familiar with the man or his work.”Not familiar with the star who appeared in a bevy of classic motion pictures? Consider just a small handful of Holden’s iconic roles: The struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Major Shears in David Lean’s epic The Bridge on the River Kwai. Max Schumacker in Paddy Chayefsky’s clairvoyant Network. Pike Bishop in Sam Peckinpah’s blood-soaked western The Wild Bunch.There was a time when Billy Wilder’s 1953 classic Stalag 17 – set in an Allied POW camp in World War II during one memorable Christmas, starring Holden as rough-hewn Sergeant Sefton – was a holiday perennial on television. Not anymore. This year I was compelled to rent the movie on video in order to add it to my plate of favorite Christmas movies.I purchased a previously viewed VHS of Stalag 17 at my local Blockbuster just a few days before Christmas. Pawing through the bin of discarded videotapes I discovered a virtual treasure trove of William Holden films being chased out the door for a mere $4.99 apiece: Picnic, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, the original Sabrina. (A further irony is that every title mentioned possesses either a theatrical or literary pedigree but that’s another matter entirely.)William Holden was an alcoholic for much of his adult life. Biographer Bob Thomas points out in his book Golden Boy that the ruggedly handsome actor was embarrassed to make a living as an actor, believing the profession to be not only unmanly but downright humiliating. Holden began having a snort or two before scenes, a shyness killer that would eventually kill the man himself in a most gruesome and embarrassing manner.Holden was no Olivier but he was one of the greatest stars who ever graced the silver screen. In 1995 – fourteen years after his death – Empire Magazine selected Holden as one of the 100 Sexiest Stars in Film History. Securing Holden’s lofty place in the often-strange intersection between literature and film is this interesting factoid: J.D. Salinger got the name for protagonist Holden Caulfield in the classic book The Catcher in the Rye from the movie Dear Ruth, which starred William Holden and Joan Caulfield.Today, though, William Holden, sadly, is largely unknown. I moved “Bill’s Bottle” to my website earlier this year and reading the site meter for that page provides an excuse to ponder where our culture is going and has gone. “Bill’s Bottle” receives less than two page views per month. On the other hand, “Dead Porn Stars,” a trade magazine piece I wrote for X Biz World exploring those in cyberspace who are cashing in on late, great porn stars, receives over 1,000 page views per week.One thousand page views for dead porn stars per week. Two page views for Bill Holden.You do the math.
Borders’ plan to display more books face-out and, as a result, to stock fewer titles has generated quite a bit of discussion. On our own post about the plan, we received several interesting comments, but I was most intrigued by what commenter Matthew had to say:The Froot Loops example is classic thinking from retailers who enter bookselling from another retail environment.The next time I go down to my local chain Cerealseller to choose my cereal for this week from among the 150,000 cereals on offer Mr Froot Loop can come and offer me some buying advice.Finally, the point of facing out is to attract attention to specific titles from the larger product range. The larger product range sells fewer copies of individual titles, but sells well by total volume… it also serves to attract serious bookbuyers and lend kudos to the bookstore.If chains chose to employ staff with knowledge (and local control) of that enormous range then they’d have a most effective sales tool. These retail gurus need to spend less time in supermarkets and more time at beauty counters and in cell phone stores. Books are a knowledge product requiring retail guidance and salesmanship… do these guys spend as long with their Wheaties as they do with a novel?Emphasis mine. What Matthew has so deftly put into words is something I’ve mulled over since my bookselling days but never quite found the right words for. I’ve always known that knowledgeable booksellers are a huge asset to any bookstore – I was lucky to be surrounded by many when I worked at one – but I had never fully grasped what it means to sell a “knowledge product” as opposed to a “commodity product,” nor had it occured that generally products can be described as one or the other.What’s key here is the distinction between how knowledge products are sold versus commodity products. To use Matthew’s example, when buying a cell phone or going to the beauty counter, you are confronted with many dozens of choices offering an array of specific features suited to a variety of specific needs – bluetooth or dry skin, for example. When it comes to breakfast cereal, you don’t need the guidance as much. The product is cheaper, “wrong” choices cost less, and cereal box mascots aside, one type is generally as good as another.Viewed in this light, it’s crazy to try to sell books as a commodity product because, (and this is just a guess) out of all the retail categories out there, bookstores by far offer the widest array of products, and therefore would require the most guidance and the best systems to help customers find what they are looking for. Undoubtedly, there are many knowledgeable booksellers at chain stores, but if the chains continue to view books as commodity products, their booksellers’ efforts will be futile. It’s also clear why Amazon has been so hugely successful. The site is the ultimate resource for selling knowledge products, with a wealth of information at the ready for anyone looking for a book. It’s possible that, thanks to the internet, the costs are simply too high for chains to go the knowledge-product route, but running in the other direction, towards Froot Loops, hardly seems the answer.For those still interested in this issue even after all this, check out these links:GalleyCat wonders if face-out books will put more emphasis on cover design and follows up with further questions about the co-op payment aspect of this.The Stranger guesses we’ll see more extremely popular and/or bad books face-out at the expense of those hidden gems.A dissenting opinion
After some email discussion, it appears that the consensus is that Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is the lone book by a young writer from the past few years that will have the staying power to last generations. [Embarrassing author’s note: due to an unhealthy aversion to hype and a disproportionate dislike of Franzen because of his self-involved non-fiction, I have until now held out against reading this book. Now chastened, I will begin reading it by Monday] Meanwhile a couple of folks followed my lead to add some names to the slightly older than 50 category. Garth suggests Salman Rushdie (age 56), who is undoubtedly a highly skilled writer, but one who I think may be better remembered for his role as a pawn in the Ayatollah’s dalliance with contemporary literature, and less for any of the particular novels he has written. He does have an incredibly attractive wife though. Brian meanwhile suggested that the late W. G. Sebald (dead at age 57) is sure to be considered an indispensible, classic author one day. As is often the case, his already stellar reputation as a writer jumped up a notch as eulogizers strained to deliver Sebald the praise that he surely would have recieved, parcelled out over the remainder of his years, had he not died. As so often happens, Sebald’s untimely death may boost him towards immortality in the eyes of readers. His reputation aside, he is undoubtedly worth reading: both Austerlitz and The Emigrants are highly recommended.
Oprah and her minions must read my blog because a little bird told me that her next book club selection is a book that also happens to be on my reading queue. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is a somewhat forgotten classic by Carson McCullers. From what I’ve heard, the book resembles To Kill a Mockingbird and several other works of fiction by Southern women authors. And now it will be a bestseller. If you are one of those people who gets annoyed about the Oprah logo, hurry and get one before they run out of unbesmirched copies.
Last week, online used book retailer Alibris announced a new program called Alibris Basic targeting “small and moderate booksellers,” i.e. non-professionals. The program appears to differ from Alibris’ main offering in terms of pricing:You can list up to 1,000 items for sale, and you only pay $1 plus a small commission for each one that you sell. If you don’t sell anything, you don’t pay anything except the annual subscription charge of $19.99.This compares to the flat monthly fee (plus commissions) that larger scale booksellers are required to pay. For folks who have a lot of collectible books, the Alibris program is probably worth checking out, as the site specializes in this sort of inventory. As much as Alibris would like people to list all of their books for sale, however, there are better options for readers who are looking to unload their old non-collectible books.Amazon lets you very easily list your books for sale in just a couple of steps through their “Sell Your Stuff” page. Amazon charges 99 cents plus a 15% commission on the books you sell. The main upside of going with Amazon, as I see it, is that it probably has the widest reach of all the bookselling programs out there.Still, creating and managing listings for dozens of different books can be time consuming, and one must also deal with shipping off books that get sold to various individual buyers. If this sounds like a pain, then Barnes & Noble’s book buying program might be a better bet. You need only enter the book’s ISBN to get started. B&N will tell you if it’s buying that title and how much it’ll pay. After you’ve entered your books into the system, you print out an invoice and shipping label that allows you to send the books off to B&N for free. A few weeks later you get a check in the mail. I’ve tried B&N’s program, and I found it remarkably simple. You may not be getting the best price for your books, but it’s a lot easier than the other options. The main drawback I found is that B&N is somewhat limited in the books it is willing to buy. Textbooks are the best bet, and it’s a good way to try to unload any older ones you might have lying around.Beyond the above programs, there’s always eBay, which in the realm of non-collectible books is more trouble than it’s worth (though I have had luck putting up a few dozen books at once, charging $1 a piece to start, and cross-promoting across all my other listings as a “$1 book sale.”) And then there’s the local used book shop. Buying policies at these stores vary greatly, but some pay well – and often much better if you’re willing to get paid in store credit. Of course, these “trade in” policies are how many of us ended up with such big collections of books in the first place.Feel free to share any basement bookselling tips in the comments.