Monday, December 29, 2008

Pay for Play Book Scams

Drawing parallels between selling books and selling senatorial seats has led me to certain conclusions, since "Pay for Play" exists in both instances. When it occurs in the political realm, it creates Moral Outrage, and justly so. But when it occurs in selling books, it never causes indignation, for it's simply seen as Good Marketing. Yet, it seems to me, that anyone interested in making sure that good candidates and good books rise to the top of the charts will conclude that Pay for Play does society a disservice.

Walk into any of the chain stores and you will find up-front tables and counter space filled with large displays designed to catch the eye of wandering customers. "These are the worthwhile books," is the implication. Well, perhaps that might be true on occasion, but much more often than not, these titles are prominently displayed because the publisher "pays to play," by paying money to Borders or Barnes & Noble. This is a significant expense and forecloses exposure for titles published by any small press (of which there are thousands) who, if they are lucky enough to have a book in stock at a chain store, will have it on a shelf, spine showing, under whatever category it fits into.

The moral outrage frequently found in the book business usually has to do with how the chains have forced independent booksellers out of business. Or how has also put pressure on all bookstores. But I would like to offer a different point of view, namely applause for both and the independent stores for leveling the playing field, and welcoming the fact that Borders is close to bankruptcy and hoping that Barnes & Noble, which is also facing financial pressures, will not be far behind. Nothing would please me more than seeing a consumer boycott of these chains to hasten this process. It would also help restore the ailing independent bookstores that now account for less than 25% of book sales, where a few decades ago they accounted for approximately 75%.

When a book buyer goes to and hits a button for a book they've heard about, there is no pile of up-front competing books to distract them, nor are they tempted to buy something else because Amazon always has stock of titles that are not widely known even if they are well and widely reviewed. Also, the independents--members of the American Booksellers Association--are far more likely to cater to a more demanding clientele, reflecting the taste of both owners and staff. The "Indie's" have also set up their own program to bring quality books to the public through their Indie Next List (earlier called the Book Sense Picks List)--titles chosen from pre-publication copies made available to these stores from which they select 40 books a month from the hundreds submitted.

For the past 30 years we've been publishing one book each month, and in that time have earned as many honors per book as any publisher in America. Since October we've had a series of six excellent reviews in Publishers Weekly--the bible of the book business. Three were for novels already released: Roccie Hill's tale of the rock scene in the early 70's, Three Minutes on Love ("A wonderful debut"), Lucia Orth's starred review set in the Philippines, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop ("A stellar first novel"), M.F. Bloxam's eerie The Night Battles, set in Sicily ("Fine literary horror") and for three yet to come: Efrem Sigels tale of the parents reaction to the disappearance of their fourteen year old son, due out in February, The Disappearance ("A powerful and elegantly crafted novel"), Daniel Klein's The History of Now, due in March ("A charming philosophical lesson of destiny and history colliding"), and Ivan Goldman's The Barfighter, due in April ("Brings to life the sleazy underbelly of professional boxing"). You are not likely to find them in Barnes & Noble, however, for we haven't paid that piper his fee for playing. But you will be able to see them and order from and, perhaps, your local independent, or read about them and order directly from The Permanent Press website

And here is my take on the economy: Last week the Federal Reserve said they would be printing money, as much as needed, to stimulate the economy. This goes beyond borrowing through bonds or from China, for why would anyone lend money to a country that is constantly increasing its astronomical deficits and whose politicians insist on tax reductions that only worsen the situation?

The problem with this latest "fix" is that it's reminiscent of what happened in the Weimar Republic in Germany between the two World Wars, where printing money without real reserves led to hyper-inflation, with citizens having to take wheelbarrows full of German marks to the grocery story to buy a few bags of food. Or, more currently, the run-away inflation in Zimbabwe. This printing of money without backing-up its value is fraught with danger. If one dollar in today's currency will be valued at $500 some time in the future, it's easy for the government to pay back its loans: $200 dollars--value-wise--in today's currency would have a face-value of $100,000, an easy way to pay off debt. But it will be hell for those citizens who thought their money was safe if they put it in a bank as opposed to buying securities.

One can only hope that the incoming Obama administration will do something to rectify this situation as, for all the talk about our being in recession, the fact of the matter is we seem to approaching the cusp of the next "Great Depression."

Marty Shepard

Sunday, December 14, 2008

My wife made me do it!

Judy, my wife and co-publisher at The Permanent Press, has been after me for months to start a blog--something I have always resisted doing. My reasons? With a million blogs out there, why would anyone be interested in reading the millionth and first?

"You could talk about our books," she says. "Okay," I answer," but The Permanent Press already has a website." "Then talk about politics." My answer: "Why bother: Frank Rich at The New York Times does that better than I can."

So far, so good in avoidance techiques. But then she trumped my objections by declaring: "Here's what I want for Christmas: paint the front of the silverware drawer in the kitchen, which looks too shabby, and start your blog," following which she called our son, Caleb, who lives next door -- and who is most knowledgeable about setting up these things. Half-an-hour later he was here, so there were no excuses left.

To find a title, I phoned Daniel Klein, who co-authored the Best Seller Plato and Platypus walked Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes. We're publishing his novel The History of Now in March. He came up with The Book Stops Here for a header, and when that was unavailable for a URL, Chris Knopf, who has written the acclaimed Sam Acquillo/Hampton mysteries (his fourth in this series, Hard Stop, comes out in May) came up with TheCockeyedPessimist. Which brings me to the "Book Part" of this initial blog: sharing a series of coincidences that reads like the beginning of a Rod Serling Twilight Zone episode:

On Monday, December 8th, Publishers Weekly reviewed both Danny's novel and our February novel, Efrem Sigel's The Disappearance to excellent reviews, which you can view on The Permanent Press website, . It also turns out that both Danny and Efrem went to Harvard, both live in Great Barrington, both novels are set in Great Barrington, and both have wives named Frederica... and neither had ever known or heard of one another. Of course, if the stars are so much in line, might both books also gain wide readership? Who is to say in The Twilight Zone, though I can tell you that both are eminently deserving.

One last book comment before going on to politics: I plan on asking individual authors to write columns on future postings.

And now on the the surreal aspects of politics, brought on by reading the Sunday, December 14 issue of The New York Times. The first page alone would warm the heart of Will Rogers or Lenny Bruce. If you haven't seen it, here's the essence of it all: Chuck Schumer, a member of the Senate Banking and Finance Committes, a so-called "populist" Senator from New York has clearly been the front man for Wall Street interests going back for 13 years, pushing for less regulation, lower taxes, less oversight, preventing limits on executive pay, blocking the policing of the credit rating agencies that overestimated the strength of corporations and banks, and has worked his magic in ten major bills over this period of time. "A Champion of Wall Street Reaps the Benefits" was the headline. And, in the text, it reported that Schumer reaped more money in donations than any other Senator, with the exception of, surprise, surprise, another "populist," John Kerry. The further irony is that members of the George Bush's Securities and Exchange Commission were pushing for regulation as they attempted to protect investors and the public from potential fallout.

What does it all look like from here? Take nothing for granted! The Democrats, supposedly that party of Main Street, protected Wall Street while some Republican appointees, from the party of Wall Street, were trying to protect the public. So here's another question to ponder. Who is more venal, Governor Rob Blagojevich with his penny-ante, crude attempts to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars with his personal "pay for play" demands, or Senator Schumer's raising hundreds of millions of dollars from Wall Street for his own campaigns and those of Democratic Senatorial candidates? While Schumer has not, as far as we know, pocketed this money for his own personal nest egg, he far outranks the Illinois Governor on the damage done to this economy and the costs to tax-payers for his support of Wall Street deregulation and bail-outs.

It seems to me that Schumer is part of a grander "Pay to Play" system, and that the major differences between him and Blagojevich have more to do with style than substance.

Marty Shepard