With omnivorous, omnipresent Web sites offering books at deep discounts, what's a little old independent book store to do? Fight e-fire with e-fire -- sort of.More and more book shops are creating Web sites that offer services to their customers, including online book purchasing. At last count, more than two dozen Washington-area book stores had Web sites. And two new enterprises -- BookSite and BookSense -- are helping book stores band together to battle the behemoths of online bookselling such as Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.com.
This dash to digital commerce raises several questions: Don't readers frequent book stores for reasons that go way beyond the desire to buy books? After all, it's hard to reproduce the smell, whispers and tactile excitement of being in touch with the Ancients using a keyboard and a terminal.
And can small businessfolks who are traditionally ornery and resistant to cooperation really rally together to slay the online dragon? "We certainly do feel that Amazon and Barnes and Noble online are real competitors," says Elisabeth Stockton, who helped create a Web site for Politics and Prose book store. "But as far as our Web sales competing with them, that's never going to happen."
The Politics and Prose site, she says, "serves as an information site, translating the atmosphere of the store onto the Web." The Connecticut Avenue store "is still banking on the fact that people still like to come in and talk to their bookseller and browse the shelves." Online sales is just one service the store offers on the Web site. "Sometimes we break even on Web sales, sometimes we don't," Stockton says. "It's not something we're counting on to be a money maker."
But there may be strength in numbers, argues Dick Harte, proprietor of Rutherford Book Shoppe in Delaware, Ohio, and creator of BookSite, an online consortium of independent book stores. And there may be hope. Harte has signed up more than 150 book stores to participate in the BookSite program. Politics and Prose is one of his clients; so are Olsson's stores and the book shop at the Pentagon.
By harnessing the large warehouse inventories of book wholesalers, such as Ingram and Baker & Taylor, BookSite gives small stores a large, searchable database of books. When a Politics & Prose customer orders a book online, for instance, she may really be ordering it from the book wholesalers.
This gives independent stores a lot more rocks to sling at Goliath. BookSite also provides stores with rudimentary Web design assistance and the ability to process credit cards. "It all boils down to this," explains Harte. "The Internet has been so overhyped. All the Internet is, is a telephone plugged into a computer. This provides free and open communication between merchants and their customers. It's a phenomenal tool for giving better customer service at a lower price."
The natural use of the Internet, Harte says, is to increase services offered by an established retailer. "There's no substance behind the Amazon approach," he says. "If there was anything behind an Internet-only approach, then these Internet companies wouldn't be losing astronomical sums of money. There is no evidence that customers prefer to shop on the Internet."
While Harte's site is up and running, its potential rival has had trouble getting off the ground. BookSense.com is the online creation of the American Booksellers Association. Initially planned for August, the site was still not up when this issue of Book World went to press. "I'm glad to have the competition," says Harte.
Show Them the Money
'Tis the season for awards and rewards. To catch you up, here are some recent prize winners. We told you that South African J.M. Coetzee won the Booker Prize for his post-apartheid novel Disgrace. Now here's the rest of the story: The short list included some other notable fiction, including Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai, Headlong by Michael Frayn, Our Fathers by Andrew O'Hagan, The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif and The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin. Each short-list writer won about $1,600; Coetzee pocketed $33,000.
The 1999 Lannan Literary Awards, which "recognize writers who have made significant contributions to English-language literature or who show potential for outstanding future work," were presented to poets Louise Gluck, Dennis O'Driscoll and C.D. Wright, to fiction writers Gish Jen, Jamaica Kincaid, Richard Powers and Joanna Scott, and to nonfiction writers Jared Diamond, Gary Paul Nabhan and Jonathan Schell. Each writer received $75,000. Poet Adrienne Rich was given a Lannan lifetime achievement award of $100,000.
Over the years, the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation has dished out more than $4 million to 150 writers of all types. Past winners included Alice McDermott, Stanley Crouch and Padgett Powell. The 1999 Whiting Writers' Awards were given to 10 "emerging writers of exceptional talent and promise." Each scribe took home $35,000. They were poets Michael Haskell, Terrance Hayes and Martha Zweig; fiction writers Ehud Havazelet, Ben Marcus, Yxta Maya Murray and ZZ Packer; playwright Naomi Iizuka and nonfiction writers Gordon Grice and Margaret Talbot. Essayist Talbot lives in Washington.
"Poor glutted smirking us," she wrote in an essay titled "Chicks and Chuckles," published in the 1998 Anchor Essay Annual. "We live in an age when pop culture is our history and history is our flea market. Kitsch never dies; it lacks the gravity to die; it just circles back, with a new price tag and a hopeful air. It turns out that no junk is junky enough to be consigned to the obsolescence for which it was intended . . . "
Next year there will be even more awards. PEN American Center announced last month two new prizes: the $20,000 PEN/Nabokov Award, which will honor the life and works of a living author, and the $10,000 PEN/Architectural Digest Award for Literary Writing for the Visual Arts. Both will be given in April 2000.
Not to sound too much like Murray Burns in Herb Gardner's contrarian play "A Thousand Clowns," but have we become a nation of, ugh, listmakers? We're not talking about the interminable millennial lists such as HarperSanFrancisco's "100 Best Spiritual Books of the Century." We're talking about CheckerBee Checklist Reference Guides, coming soon perhaps to book stores near you.
Each slender volume lists the complete works -- to date -- of a well-known writer. The Barbara Taylor Bradford checklist, for instance, enumerates the author's 16 novels, five children's books and nine works of nonfiction. There's a short bio in the front. There is a page or two devoted to each book, with a synopsis and a "reader's worksheet" for listing the date, your reactions and your one-to-five-star rating. There's even a little note at the bottom of some entries that tells you a tidbit of trivia or what the book is really about.
There are checklists for scads of bestselling authors -- John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Danielle Steel, Toni Morrison and others. However, there are none for George Eliot, James Baldwin or Sigrid Undset -- at least not yet.