Archive for July, 2009

An Interview With Johanna Vondeling Editor of Berrett-Koehler Publishing

July 27, 2009

johanna2 (1 of 1)Johanna Vondeling is Vice President, Editorial and Digital, of Berrett-Koehler Publishers in San Francisco.   B-K is an independent publisher founded in 1992. In every aspect of its business, in its corporate organization, in its company culture, in its acquisitions, and in its relationship to authors, B-K has marched to the beat of a different drummer. Is there something that the rest of the book business can learn from their experience? One thing is for sure. Their business model has been extremely successful. They’ve published over 350 new books since BK was founded, and all but about 20 of these books are still in print.  More than 125 have sold over 20,000 copies, 31 have sold over 100,000 copies, and four have sold over 500,000 copies, including sales of all U.S. and foreign editions.

 Johanna, can you tell us something about yourself? How long have you been in publishing? Have you always been in editorial? Didn’t you come from a publishing family?

 My first paid job in publishing was with my hometown local weekly newspaper, Today’s Post.  I hit them up for a summer internship when I was 14, and they hired me when I was 15. (They didn’t know how young I was and told me later they probably wouldn’t have hired me if they had.)  I started out doing obituaries and pet stories, and I wrote and edited for them for several summers.  At Yale, I edited one of the university’s several literary magazines, and one summer I worked as an unpaid summer intern for the San Francisco-based ZYZZYV. After I graduated, I was lucky (in a very down economy) to get a job as editorial assistant in the college English department at W. W. Norton.  In 1998, Jossey-Bass hired me as an editorial assistant and eventually an editor, and I worked there for six years.  I’ve been an editor at Berrett-Koehler since 2004.  I’ve always been in editorial, but, as all editors know, the job also comes with a lot of marketing responsibilities.

 My father, John Vondeling, was an editor and publisher for 35 years with Saunders College Publishing in Philadelphia.  Growing up in a publishing household taught me a lot.  Firstly, I never had any romantic illusions about the industry; publishing is a bottom-line business, and your books have to sell.  Most importantly, I internalized the idea that your authors aren’t just business partners.  My dad’s authors were among his closest friends, and we spent a lot of happy times with their families socially.  When your authors are also your friends, fairness and transparency come naturally.  A publishing trailblazer and a real character, my dad passed away in 2001.  One of the perquisites of working in publishing is that I occasionally encounter former colleagues of his, who usually have interesting stories to tell about what a pain in the neck he was.

 Can you describe in your own words what is the modus operandi of B-K? It has always seemed a little elusive to me. Its values are progressive, but progressive doesn’t quite get to the heart of it. Can you elaborate on that?

B-K is a for-profit mission-driven company.  Our mission is “creating a world that works for all.” We believe that to truly create a better world, action is needed at all levels–individual, organizational, and societal. At the individual level, our books help people align their lives with their values and with their aspirations for a better world. At the organizational level, our books promote progressive leadership and management practices, socially responsible approaches to business, and humane and effective organizations. At the societal level, our books advance social and economic justice, shared prosperity, sustainability, and new solutions to national and global issues.

 So how do these values get translated in the day-to-day workings of the company?

 The company has an open, egalitarian structure of compensation and human resource policies.  We don’t have an executive compensation structure, and everyone knows everyone else’s salary.  Many decisions about the company are made at the monthly staff meeting, where everyone can add items to the agenda and everyone has a voice.  Overall, we are less hierarchical than other publishers.

 And the values account for your remarkable success as a business?

 Yes, I believe that our commitment to our mission and our stakeholder approach is a key competitive advantage.  Authors sign with us because they’re attracted to the mission, and they actively and enthusiastically recommend other authors to us—they’re our best scouts. Our various stakeholders are key partners when it comes to spreading the word about our books.

 What about your relationship with authors? Most authors I know are never quite satisfied with their treatment from the publisher they are working with. Unless the author is fabulously successful, there is always a feeling that the publisher never did enough. But you seem to have a happy stable of authors who return again and again with new projects.

 On average, B-K has the happiest portfolio of authors of any of the companies I have worked for.  Part of the “secret” (which other publishers are welcome to steal) is about setting expectations frankly from the start.  We work to educate authors about the realities of the publishing marketplace, so that they can be effective partners in the process.  For example, we share with them “The Ten Awful Truths of Book Publishing” and we’re clear about what we won’t do.  We’re straightforward about what we expect of them, and about what they can expect of us, as outlined in the B-K Authors Bill of Rights and Responsibilities

 One of our signature practices that foster happy authors is the BK Author Day.  All our authors are invited to visit our offices for a full day of interaction with all parts of the organization.  An author’s “day” ideally takes place at some point between the delivery of the draft and the delivery of the final manuscript.  Authors get to meet their editor in person, they talk to production about the internal design of the book, they strategize with marketing staff about the marketing plan for their book, and they make a presentation about their book over lunch to the whole staff and invited guests–it’s their first chance to pitch their book to the world.  I don’t know any other publisher who does this on a consistent basis, but I do recommend the practice.  If the author doesn’t have the opportunity to develop deep relationships with staff, there’s more potential for misunderstanding down the road.  If you sit down and explain early on how publishing works, you reduce the future likelihood of misunderstandings and conflict.

 B-K is quite clear about the fact that you don’t give advances. Is this an inflexible rule? Doesn’t that limit your opportunities for acquiring good books?

 B-K does not pay advances.  Our model is “shared risk, shared reward.”  Those who want the details can see our publication agreement . And I encourage your readers to check out this letter from our publisher and president, Steve Piersanti, explaining how we view the publication agreement as a reflection of our commitment to a stakeholder model of publishing No advances does mean that we work somewhat infrequently with agents, since their business model depends on money up front.  I’ve worked for houses that do pay advances, and, in comparison, I don’t believe the quality of B-K’s list is compromised in any way by the fact that we don’t pay advances.

 A lot of authors feel that advances are necessary to support them during the period that they are writing their book. Isn’t this a reasonable argument?

 I am very sympathetic to the need to pay the bills while writing a book.  A no-advance policy obviously works better for, say, business book authors who have a steady consulting income independent of book sales, than it does for, say, full-time journalists who need to get paid for what they write.  We try to be creative in helping authors whose resources are limited.  I recently helped connect an author with a think tank and B-K partner organization that offered him a fellowship in part because they were excited about the book.  And we’re using our social networks and publicity contacts to support B-K author Deanna Zandt’s efforts to crowd-source and friend-raise her own advance.  We were thrilled when Publishers Weekly covered that story in a recent issue.  I think there’s a lot of promise and opportunity in social networking to help support authors whose financial resources might be limited.

  I’m relatively new to the publishing end of the book business. But by now I have had quite a bit of experience with editorial decision-making (mostly of the “rejection” variety). What is puzzling to me is that the calculations that seem to prevail in the decision for acquisition are confusing and contradictory. Example: If an author has a good book but limited platform, the book gets rejected because he has limited platform. If the author has a superior platform, the book gets rejected because the platform doesn’t overcome the weakness of the subject. Another example: If there are no other books on the subject of the submission, the book gets rejected because the publisher believes that this is an indicator that there is no market for the subject. But if there are lots of books on the subject, the book gets rejected because there is nothing new to say about it. I could go on. Can you lead me out of this hall of mirrors?

 At B-K, we get 1,000-2,000 proposals a year; we have resources to develop and market 35-40 projects.  Given the math, we’re forced to decline an enormous number of projects.  No doubt: this business is frustrating for aspiring authors and agents.  I do request that they get the facts about the industry and understand that, at the end of the day, the decision to decline a proposal isn’t personal.  I get paid to sign projects, not to turn them down.

 I can’t speak for other houses, but if we at B-K encounter a promising author with a “weak subject,” we usually work with the author to develop the project into something viable and distinctive.  If authors don’t have strong connections to the markets they’re hoping to serve, we coach them to develop a more robust community following and encourage them to come back to us at a later date. 

 If an author or agent is looking for a publisher to help get the book into bricks-and-mortar retail accounts, it’s important to understand that a lot—including the initial decision to sign–is influenced by what the numbers show about the author’s previous success in those accounts.  The first thing the bookstore buyers do when considering whether to stock a book is check BookScan and their own store’s records.  If the author has no history at all, the buy will be small, perhaps so small that it won’t make sense for the publisher to invest the resources necessary to develop the book in the first place. 

 On a personal level, I get annoyed when agents suggest that editors are slaves to BookScan.  We know BookScan is a limited tool, but we’re not the ones calling the shots in this dynamic.  Moreover, no one is taking this lying down.  We do everything we can to convince the buyers that they should stock our author’s books, regardless of sales history.  And, as an avid reader of the call reports filed by the reps, I am constantly impressed by how hard they fight and soldier on in such a brutal economy.  The upside here is that the marketplace is shifting in ways that mean lots of opportunities for selling books in untraditional venues—if the author is in a position and motivated to work those venues.  But that’s a story for another time.

 Describe the process for acquisition at B-K. How is it different from main line publishers? Why is it so successful?

 Steve Piersanti and I are the company’s two acquiring editors.  We both spend a lot of time working with authors to refine and focus their ideas before we share any project with our publications board.  The back-and-forth is sometimes a big surprise and a challenge for authors, but in the end they appreciate the value of the process.  Our publications board meets once a month, and any member of the staff—regardless of department–is invited to participate.  We send all our drafts to reviewers for their feedback, a big job that is artfully coordinated by our Executive Managing Editor, Jeevan Sivasubramaniam.  The reviewers really put their hearts and souls into their reviews, and they bring tremendous value to the process, often delivering lengthy and detailed feedback.  Authors are deeply appreciative of the reviewers, whose contributions are a big part of why so many B-K books have won awards.  

 Do you have any subjects that you are interested in that are new or emerging? Are you following any new trends?

 We don’t generally follow “trends” so much as communities.  We have particular communities we’re focused on serving, like organization development professionals, and we’re always talking to members of those communities to find out what resources they need.  We ask them to tell us who within that world has a growing following, who is doing interesting, ground-breaking work that should be published.  Right now, I’m hearing that several of the communities we serve are looking for tools to help them make sense of disruption in their industries and the proliferation of content—everyone is overwhelmed and needs help aggregating information, managing complexity, and seeing patterns as they emerge, before it’s too late to respond.  So I’m especially looking for authors with projects that serve those needs.

 I suppose in any interview one must bring up the question of electronic publishing. What percentage of your sales are for e-books now? How fast is it growing? What do you foresee in the short/long term?

This year, our digital sales are on track to be 5% of total revenues.  That’s growing quickly. We just started selling e-books last year, though we’ve had partnerships with digital content providers like Safari in place for several years.  We expect sales to grow at an accelerating pace, especially now that we’ve formed a partnership with Ingram Digital to help manage our digital assets and distribute them more widely.

 Sales of e-books seem to be concentrated in the hands of a few (one?) large entity. Is this troubling to you? Is there a way out?

 I think it’s always worrisome when too much power is concentrated in too few hands.  More options are always preferable.  I’d like to note that B-K’s digital revenues aren’t exclusively or even mostly Amazon; we’re seeing some healthy revenues through Books24x7, for example.  Last month, 45% of the content sold last month through our website was in digital format.  And we’re actively working with outfits like, which exposes tens of thousands of readers to our content and which just launched an exciting e-commerce function. BusinessWeek covered the B-K/Scribd partnership recently <;. 

 And does electronic publishing spell the doom of community bookstores? And what does this mean for the life of those communities?  C’mon, be honest about this.

 Community bookstores have a lot of perfect-storm pressures bearing down on them; the growing appetite for digital products is only a small part of the picture.  Here’s a recommendation I certainly didn’t invent: think and act like a service provider, rather than as a commodity vendor.  We’re seeing strong sales of print content when it is bundled with an immersive experience, like a keynote address or a training program. Bookstores that bring communities of interest together and provide a valuable experience might very well sell more books as a result.  I think it’s good to remember that go-local guilt is not a viable business plan. You’re not going to be able to compete on the basis of convenience (the Amazon customer experience is just too good) or inventory (you just don’t have the space).  So what’s it going to be?

 What is the thing that you like best about your work? What least?

 Best: talking to authors about interesting ideas.  Least: the fact that the volume of work means I’m always behind and having to apologize to people for not getting back to them earlier.

 Johanna, what have you enjoyed reading outside of work related projects?

 I’m on a memoir kick this summer.  Right now, I’m reading Madeleine Albright’s Madam Secretary, and I recently finished Katharine Graham’s Personal History.  Memoirs are a new thing for me, and I’m finding that I love getting a history refresher mixed with a fuller picture of an intriguing person.  Plus, since many memoirs are about great leaders, it’s good homework for the leadership books I acquire.  I also love to cook, and I’ve been enjoying some great meals this summer thanks to the delicious recipes in cookbooks published in partnership with two restaurants here in Berkeley: Chez Panisse: Fruit (Harper Collins) and César: Recipes from a Tapas Bar (Ten Speed).


Wikipedia and Me

July 19, 2009

 Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

 -T.S. Eliot-

Did you ever get the  feeling  that Wikipedia was  a metaphor about everything that is wrong with the world? Or maybe just the virtual world?  You have to admit, at least, that there is something disturbing about a source of information, (one dare not call it knowledge)  that is based on the principle that everyone is an expert.

I started thinking about this again when the  controversy over Chris Anderson’s book, Free, became a topic of discussion. We have written about it before in “Ask the Agent”. It was one of those little tempests that occasionally engender contempt and derision in the literary world  and that is of little consequence to anyone else. Literary politics, like academic politics, is so vicious because the stakes are so low.

One of the  things that came out of this  shabby affair was that it was discovered that Chris Anderson lifted numerous texts  verbatim from Wikipedia  without attribution. He got caught with his pants down by the Virginia Quarterly Review, and made a number of mea culpa’s to Publishers Weekly and the New York Times. When he was interviewed on Fresh Air,   Terry Gross asked him to comment on his plagiarism. He very artfully sidestepped the issue and argued about how Wikipedia should be treated as a legitimate authoritative source. As I’m sure most of you know, any freshman in college who uses Wikipedia in his footnotes will get a failing  grade.

I decided to do my own research, anecdotal though it may be. Obviously I needed to analyze a subject of which I was an expert. So I looked at the topic on Wikipedia of which I was probably the world’s greatest authority. That would be Cody’s Books. After all, I owned it for 30 years.

So here is what I found. (BTW, some of the text  was so annoying that I changed it last week-end with the help of my tech savvy son, Robert. The article still isn’t very good, but it is much improved.)

Let’s start at the beginning. The first picture you see on the  Wiki Cody’s page is an image that is not exactly illustrative of the history of Cody’s. It is a photograph of the graffiti board of the men’s bathroom of the Telegraph store. See picture below.

Cody's public restroom grafitti board

Cody's public restroom grafitti board

Actually, it would be a good image for a story  about my 35 years as a bookseller. I  spent a considerable amount of time dealing with problems associated with plumbing, in general and  this restroom, in particular.  Information is unreliable  unless knowledgeable people filter out the bad information. Filtering is always a matter of judgment. And people with authoritative knowledge of a subject  are best at making those judgments. On Wikipedia, everybody is an expert.  And the reliability of the information will always be uncertain. Somebody should have pointed out that the picture of the lavatory graffiti was not authoritative information. It was, well, a picture of lavatory graffiti. Nothing more.  

The article  goes on to state  that Cody’s moved to Telegraph Avenue in 1967. This isn’t  true. Pat and Fred Cody moved the store in 1960 to a  Telegraph location now occupied by Moe’s Books. They moved again to the larger corner location in 1965. Several people interviewed me recently in blogs and noted  the 1967 date, which they had clearly picked up from Wikipedia. There is also a link to another Wikipedia article on independent bookstores that cites the 1967 figure. Internet gurus are always singing the praises of “viral information”. But bad information is just as viral as good information. Witness the  viral spread of articles on all things UFO and  the  vast conspiracy theories associated with Michael Jackson.

In the original Wikipedia article, there was very little  of substance about the history of Cody’s except for a sentence or 2 about the Rushdie Affair and how Cody’s was bombed as a result of our   selling the book. There was also passing mention of the anti-war protests on Telegraph and Cody’s involvement in this. Then there were some vital statistics (many incorrect or partially correct) about various openings and closings.  Here are some important facts about Cody’s that didn’t appear in the article:

1) Andy Ross bought the store in 1977. 2) Cody’s was primarily remembered as a store devoted to literary and scholarly titles. 3) There was no mention of opening the Fourth Street Store, only its closing. 3) No mention of the extraordinary author reading series that lasted for 30 years. The photographs of these authors have been posted in a number of places, most recently on this site. But, the authors of the Wiki article felt that the photograph of the lavatory was  a more significant image.

There are a lot of mistakes that are problems of detail. There are some vital statistics in a box at the top of the article. It refers to Fred Cody as the “founder”. Pat Cody as the “CEO” (She was actually the co-founder  and at the time of her work at the store, the concept of CEO was not in use even in corporate America.) Andy Ross was characterized as the “former president” which is correct. Hiroshi Kagawa was characterized as the “president”. (Actually, Hiroshi  was  CEO. And since Cody’s is closed, he would best be called “former CEO”) Ok, enough beating that dead horse.  But in aggregate, all these errors and omissions add up to sloppy research. And to dignify this Wiki article as authoritative is folly. In some cases, it would be a stretch to say they are providing “information”. Perhaps it would be most accurate to describe them as providing information-like material”.

One of the good things about Wikipedia is a kind of transparency. One can readily see  who made entries to an article and who changed them (although there seems to be no record of the changes that I made in the Cody’s article.) But here again, the transparency simply casts light on the fact that the authors of the article lack bone fides. Wiki posted a discussion that includes  a dispute about whether anyone  really knew that the bomb set off in 1989 was the result of terrorism or in any way associated with The Satanic Verses. This is a  valid point. In fact, we never learned who set off the bomb and what motivated the act.  On the Wiki discussion page, there was a heated discussion about whether this was an opinion or a fact. But the skeptic went on to say that the bomb (which was extremely sophisticated and destructive) might have been  the work of “opportunistic  juvenile vandalism”.   I don’t think so.

The discussion tab also shows who exactly are the authors of this entry. It indicates that the article is part of the “Wikiproject San Francisco Bay Area” (whatever that is) and with considerable work by “CKatz” (whoever he is). There is no obvious way to trace the identity or qualifications of these (I hesitate to say, people) entities.

The heart of the matter is the way that the article equates facts and judgments with citations and references without actually evaluating the authoritative nature of those references. Any story in a newspaper, blog or opinion piece  seems to have equal weight as an authoritative source. In Wikipedia a throwaway weekly has the same dignity as an authority as the news room of The New York Times.  Let’s look at some examples of the cited footnotes in the Cody’s article.

 Berkeley Celebrates a 40 Year Love Affair With Cody’s Books. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1996. Although I love the sentiment here, the article consisted mostly of information and quotes by me and a few by Pat Cody. Certainly both Pat and I are authorities. But when I have been  interviewed by the press, particularly for puff pieces, (which this article clearly was), I tended to go warm and fuzzy and play to the house. A good scholar would have recognized this, and evaluated my comments accordingly.

 An Historical Berkeley Landmark and Independent Bookstore Begins Archive at the Bancroft Library. This footnote was to document that Cody’s was a vocal opponent of the growing dominance of chain bookstores. This is a rather odd source of authority on the matter. It was from a press release by the Bancroft Library at UC announcing that we had turned over all of our recordings of author events to the Bancroft for an archive.

Cody’s Books to leave S.F. — ‘It just didn’t work’. This was another article in the Chronicle. It was written by the reporter who covered the retail beat. They built the story around a quote by me.  This was  a reference for the “fact” about the closing of Cody’s SF. When asked why we closed, I said “it just didn’t work”.   Well, of course. But  this is  a tautology.  It reads well and is poignant, but explains nothing. There were a lot of reasons why it didn’t work. Most of them are speculative. At the time of my interview, I was broken hearted  about the whole thing. I didn’t want to get into the details of Cody’s failures and read about it next day in the Chronicle. So I just dismissed the question with: “it didn’t work”.

SFist: Cody’s Books on Union Square. Well, this one is particularly rich. Who is Sfist? I have no idea. It appears that they are a blog that writes puff pieces about San Francisco retailers to draw advertising.  Are they an authority on anything? I don’t think so.

 Cody’s Books Closes Permanently.  This was by the East Bay Express. Not a bad giveaway paper. It was  a short,  emotional announcement.  An authoritative source? No.  But, listen, this is great. On the Internet blog version of this  story, the readers can make their own comments. Listen to this reader who had  his own way of understanding what killed Cody’s:

 ” Cody’s was killed by that neurotic pseudo-liberal yuppie and his hollow expansionist vision of turning Cody’s into a Whole Foods inspired chain. 4th street Berkeley was one thing but to open at 2nd/Stockton in San Francisco while closing the flagship store? Hmph! And why did he close the flagship store? Because he saw that as an opportunity to sell the business office space he owned next door to the rented space where the Cody’s books store was on Telegraph right before the property market tanked based on his inside information. …”

 Unless I am mistaken, I believe the above  quote was about me. (For the record, there are a number of inaccuracies and misrepresentations in the above.).

 I click on Wikipedia as much as the rest of you. How can you do otherwise? Any time you look something up, Wikipedia comes up first. It does a medium job on spelling and grammar. I learn some pretty good things about Hollywood celebrities.. It is an easy way of getting directed to other Internet venues. Some of which are good. Some bad.   I use it for dates and places, but I probably shouldn’t. It’s free. But I guess you get what you pay for.

 Let me tell you an inspiring story, a cautionary tale, really. One night 2 years ago, a number of students in the dorm at Tufts University decided to pull an inspired caper. They probably had drunk a little too much  cheap beer and were  bored and disappointed that they didn’t have anything better to do on Friday night. One of the students was my son, Robert Cole. Another was a foreign student from Bosnia, whom we shall call, “Hamid”.

 The guys decided to test Wikipedia by posting a story that was patently untrue. They created an entry about Hamid which stated that he was heir to the royal crown of Bosnia. They had a problem with the sources. Wikipedia will usually bounce a story that isn’t backed up with footnotes. Since Hamid was not, in fact,  heir to the royal crown of Bosnia, and since there was never even such a royal crown, the guys decided to put in spurious authoritative footnotes. Well, actually, they were real footnotes that were from real websites. All of them, though, were written in Serbo-Croation. What were the sites? Who knows? Maybe Bosnian dating sites, maybe UFO speculation in the Balkans, maybe movie reviews from the latest Sarajevo flicks. The guys figured out that likely  none of the Wiki “fact checkers”  would be able to read the citations. Clever thinking.

 Well, their item got bounced pretty fast. But I wonder how many other   items have been put up as college pranks? I will bet there are quite a few.  I don’t know whether the boys intended this or not, but they really attacked bombast and pretension with the most powerful weapon: ridicule.   Hamid, wherever you are, you will always be a  crown prince in my book.

 Somebody once said that you can get information that is either good, fast, or cheap. But you can only get 2 out of 3. You can get it good and fast by subscribing to the New York Times, but it’s  not cheap. You can get it good and cheap by going to a library. But it’s  not fast. Or you can get it fast and cheap by going to Wikipedia. – But it’s not good.

Amazon and Orwell

July 18, 2009

Is there anyone out there who hasn’t read the New York Times article on deleting 1984 and Animal Farm from all Kindles? Apparently Amazon had negligently purchased the rights to these titles from a vendor who was not a rights holder.  Amazon’s  solution to the problem was not to inform the good faith consumers that the books were sold in error and provide them an opportunity to get a refund and a copyright secure version.

No.  Amazon, always at the forefront of technological innovation, has a kind of delete  button that can instantaneously wipe out books on every Kindle extant. (It will wipe out all of the notes and underlinings associated with the offending books  available in the Kindle as well. A troubling issue, indeed.)   Does  this make anyone out there uneasy?  I am. Let’s ignore for the moment the remarkable irony that the books that were deleted  were by George Orwell, an iconic author associated with resistance of social power into the lives of individuals. I’m sure this will be talked to death.

According to the NYT, the purchase agreement of the Kindle “doesn’t appear to give Amazon the right to delete purchases after they have been made”.

Ask the Agent is generally supportive of the rights of copyright holders. Certainly, in a similar situation, a publisher should demand a recall of such books from the retailer and give notice to the purchasers that they should be returned.

What Amazon did was the equivalent of breaking into a consumer’s house and seizing the objectionable merchandise . This isn’t right. This really isn’t right.

When Amazon began marketing the Kindle, they portrayed it as a brave new world of technology. Seems to me it is more like 1984 .

Interview with Alex Beckstead — Director of “Paperback Dreams”

July 12, 2009


Alex Beckstead is the filmmaker who produced and directed the documentary, Paperback Dreams. The film is a powerful story of the rise and decline of 2 iconic independent bookstores, Cody’s in Berkeley and Kepler’s in Palo Alto. Alex filmed myself and Clark Kepler for  over 2 years. The film was shown on national PBS in the Fall, 2008. It was broadcast in most major  TV markets, screened at independent bookstores across the country, and was probably viewed by over 1 million people in its initial broadcast run. You can purchase the DVD of the film for $19.95 at:

Here is the trailer:

  Andy. Alex, when and why did you decide to make this film?

Alex. I’ve been a fan of bookstores for about as long as I can remember, and it’s kind of sad that I’ve been able to mark time by the closing of stores near where I lived at various times – Waking Owl in Salt Lake City in the mid-1990s, Printers Inc. in Mountain View after the dot com bubble, Black Oak Books this past year in the Inner Sunset where I live now – but in spite of all this, I thought there must be a certain class of bookstore that would always survive, that the right combination of location, population and character could keep a bookstore afloat in spite of the conventional wisdom.  Kepler’s and Cody’s both seemed like this kind of store to me.  When Kepler’s closed in 2005, I was one of the people who stood dumbfounded outside the door.  Here was one of the last independent bookstores on the Peninsula, 10 minutes from Stanford, in one of the best-educated, wealthiest zip codes in the country, and located in the closest thing Menlo Park had to a town square.  And it couldn’t survive.  That was a real wake up call to me, and that’s really what planted the seed of the idea for the film.  I got in touch with Clark Kepler, and learned that Kepler’s might be reopening, and a few days later I met you and heard what you were doing with Cody’s San Francisco, and those two stories started the ball rolling.

Andy.  So tell us some more about why you chose Cody’s and Kepler’s for Paperback Dreams?

Alex. It became clear pretty early on that these stores were going to be the main focus.  Kepler’s because I thought it was interesting that this town that had made a lot of money in technology was aghast at the idea of not having an independent bookstore.  In fact, at least one of the investors who helped rescue Kepler’s was also on the board of at one point.  I was interested in Cody’s because of the risk you were taking.  I know that a lot of people have said with folded arms and some sense of arm-chair safety that you should have known that Cody’s San Francisco shouldn’t have worked.  But I never thought it was doomed to fail, and obviously you didn’t either.  It was clear to me that it was either going to be a huge win, or a terrible loss, and I wanted to see what would happen.

Andy. But your movie turned into a lot more than just a documentary about the travails of 2  independent bookstores.

Alex. Once I had those two contemporary stories in mind, I started looking for historical context, and I found that most of what I think of as the rise and fall of the “independent bookstore” is the story of Cody’s and Kepler’s. Both were founded by intellectual strivers who were part of a new post-war middle class that was wealthier and better educated than ever before.  Both seized a business opportunity from the upheaval of paperback publishing (which was having an effect not unlike blogging and electronic media are today).  Both became places that lead to new ways of thinking in the 1960s and 70s.  And both were struggling in this modern digital world of ours.  It also didn’t hurt that the Cody’s and the Kepler’s knew each other and were inspired by each other.

Andy. Did you know at the beginning that the overarching theme of the film would be about the rise and decline of the Independent Book Store?

Alex. I think that was always going to be the arc, but the end wasn’t exactly clear.  And it still isn’t clear to me that “decline” will be the final modifier for the independent bookstore.  There’s a lot of reinvention going on, and I’m pretty confident that bookstores and book culture will be around in 100 years, in some form. 

The more I learn, and the more time I spend around bookstores and book people, the more I realize that what Malcolm Margolin says in the film may be the most prescient take on the beleaguered book business.  He’s more eloquent about it, but basically he says that the last 50 years or so have been a bit of a bubble.  Books have always been important, and for a while, in the heyday of stores like Cody’s and Kepler’s, they seemed like they might even achieve a kind of cultural dominance.  But the book didn’t quite pull it off, and is now sliding back to something more like its historical significance. But books aren’t going away, and neither are bookstores. 

Andy. As you were putting it all together, were you surprised that the film actually addressed itself to wider social issues? The struggle  of small business, the growth of the Internet, the  decline of literary values, books and freedom of speech? Have other people recognized the grand vision that you intentionally or inadvertently captured?

Alex. This was my hope for sure.  It’s the kind of thing that tends to happen in the kinds of nonfiction stories that I like, and I’m glad that you see it in Paperback Dreams.. I really felt from the beginning that this was much bigger than the story of a couple small local businesses, but it might be a bit much to try and say I was the architect of these themes. 

As far as people recognizing these themes, I did a series of screenings at independent bookstores around the country.  At each of these screenings, I did a Q&A with a local bookseller (or in some cases a panel of booksellers) and very quickly the questions shifted from the film to what was going on with the local stores.  More than one bookseller felt the struggle on the screen acutely enough to tear up, and the questions from the audience really suggested that people were starting to see how what in the moment in an incidental and minor shopping decision starts to rend the fabric of community if repeated too often.  I think that’s a pretty common take away from the film.  One of the most common comments I get from people is that the film made them rethink how and where they spend their money, which makes me feel good.  I really think those small choices can make a big difference. 

Andy. For everyone in the book business who saw this movie, it was an incredibly emotional experience. What kind of feelings does the film engender in you?

 Alex. I really can’t understate how important books and reading have been to me personally.  My dad gave me a book for Christmas every year when I was a kid – that was the one present that I knew was directly from him.  And I remember getting in trouble in the third grade for reading books during class. The official curriculum wasn’t engaging me, so I escaped into books.   I thought my mom would punish me mercilessly, but instead she went down to the school and read them the riot act.  It was the first time I ever got into trouble for doing the right thing, which was a pretty sophisticated ethics lesson for a 9 year old.

Anyone who makes books accessible has my respect, but I hold a special place in my heart for booksellers. They take greater risks than libraries, without the potential returns of a publisher or the possible fame and admiration some writers achieve.  I think good booksellers really believe in the value of books, and quite provocatively put that belief to the test by jumping into the bloody fray of capitalism.  In her books about their years running Cody’s, Pat Cody quotes Fred on this subject, and the idea has stuck with me all through the process of making and screening the film:

“In America today we usually measure the success of things by whether or not they are earning their way.  And the point about a bookstore as distinct from a library is that in the bookstore the books are there to be bought.  They are out there in the thick of it competing with all the other goods on sale in an enormously productive and competitive economy. ‘There,’ says the student as he buys the book, ‘goes my lunch money.’

“All of this perhaps sounds rather exaggerated.  Yet I think that most owners of small bookstores have something of this far back in their minds as they take care of the daily mass of detail.  Most of them have a belief in books, some faint idea that books are still a vital force in people’s lives, and that bludgeoning people into buying them amounts to something more than a crass commercial transaction.”

Andy. I have to tell you, Alex, that to this day I cannot watch this film. It seems as though it documented every mistake that I made in the last 5 years. My wife, Leslie, tells me that most people don’t see it that way. Do you agree with Leslie or with me?

Alex. The short answer is that you’re not likely to go wrong listening to Leslie.  She’s very smart.

But the long answer is that you’re both right.  One of your traits that I came to admire making the film was your honesty and willingness to let us in at what were some pretty fragile moments.  In the last interview we shot with you, I was floored when you said that the San Francisco store was an act of hubris.  That’s some pretty naked truth, and I give you a lot of credit for owning up to it.  I think that takes character. 

I also think that hubris and courage aren’t that different, the final distinction between the two often can’t be made until the outcome of one’s actions is revealed It seems to me that you had a choice between watching the company atrophy (and I can’t help but think that had you not expanded, the current economic decline may have done Cody’s in anyway) or making an aggressive attempt to get growing again.  Had your gamble paid off, opening the San Francisco store would have looked like an act of brave genius.  But the truth is that would have been the same decision for the same reasons that you made it.

For what it’s worth, I think Leslie is right about the way most people see you in the film.  Based on what they say to me, people are sympathetic more than judgmental. And when they are judgmental, I don’t think that they’re particularly fair.  Everyone has a theory – Telegraph became seedy, the street level part of the San Francisco was deceptively small, Union Square was not a bookstore friendly neighborhood, new books are too expensive, etc.  And there’s an element of truth to all those theories.  But I don’t think you can pin the end of Cody’s on any of them.  Large independent bookstores simply are not a viable model right now, and that’s not because of any mistake you made in the last 5 years.  I think most people get that.

The failings of Andy Ross are part of the story of Cody’s, but so are your victories and your positive traits.  As I told you when Cody’s closed for good, I think that we tend to look at the end of a story and extract the meaning from the resolution, but a wiser storyteller than I once said that the end of a thing is not the meaning of a thing, and the aggregate joy and good that came from Cody’s ultimately outweighs the sadness of its demise.  In fact, the sadness is only so strong because it’s cast into relief by what we all loved about Cody’s, and you and Pat and Fred and Leslie made Cody’s what it was.  People who knew they store get that, and people who only know the store from the film seem to get that, too.

Andy. Alex, it has been really hard for me to think about Cody’s during the past year. Even harder to watch your movie. But I’m beginning to be able to think about it again. Somebody interviewed me the other day. And asked what it all meant to me. And I remembered the last unforgettable line by Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. He said “the struggle itself is enough to fill a man’s heart”. I think that is sort of what you are saying and what I am feeling.

Have you spoken to anyone from the big chains or the Internet booksellers about this film? How do they react?

Alex. I requested interviews with representatives from Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.  They all declined or didn’t respond.  None of them have responded to the finished film.  Not to be snarky, but I don’t really think they’re in the business of responding to human beings who are concerned about the cultural implications of their operations.  It just dignifies our concerns and that’s not good for them.

Andy. What about people in publishing? Do they have the same feelings as the booksellers? Or do they just believe that the decline of the small businesses are just a fact of history; and your movie, an exercise in nostalgia?

Alex. I think publishers know that they need good independent bookstores.  There’s still no better way to cut through the clutter and make the market for a book than word of mouth, and the most passionate readers who are likely to try something new and then champion it are working or shopping at independents.  But publishers need the chains, too.  And to be fair, as Morgan Entrekin says in the film, the chains don’t make perfect villains.  They sell a lot of good books, and in some communities, the arrival of a Barnes and Noble or Borders was a leap forward for book culture. 

We also interviewed a few other publishers and writers (Jonathan Galassi, Peter Mayer, George Saunders) who were cut from the film for time reasons, not because they lacked insight, and on the DVD there’s a 15-minute piece featuring some of those outtakes that is probably the best answer to this question.

Andy.  Alex, it was an amazing experience working with you over the years. I really admire the tenacity you showed throughout. But I also want to thank you for your incredible sensitivity. You were around during some pretty tough times. And I never felt that you ever exploited the situations. I guess they were dramatic enough without your help. And the movie turned into something much larger than the sum of the parts.

You can buy the DVD of Paperback Dreams for $19.95 at:

Chris Anderson’s “Free” — A Case of Plagiarism

July 7, 2009
Free by Chris Anderson
Free by Chris Anderson

Some of you may have been following the mini whirlwind around the publication of Chris Anderson’s new Book: Free: The Future of a Radical Price. There is a great review of this silly book in the New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell.  Anderson is editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine .  In Free, he appears to be arguing against artists, musicians and writers who are so  insolent, audacious and out of step with the values of the  New Economy and Web 2.0,  that they continue to use the outdated paradigms of  actually expecting to be  paid for their work.  He seems to believe that intellectual property inexorably is moving toward being free. 

Well — apparently Mr. Anderson practices what he preaches –plagiarism, that is. After all, it is free. There is an article and a review in the Virginia Quarterly from June 23 that shows that Anderson included material without attribution that was lifted  (mostly)  from Wikipedia. The reviewer, Waldo Jaquith, found several dozen examples of direct and unattributed material.

Anderson wrote a rejoinder to Gladwell in his Wired Blog. He was shocked that Gladwell could simplify his thought so. In the blog, he didn’t mention his reliance on unattributed sources (if you can even call Wikipedia a source).

After the Virginia Quarterly exposed him, of course he cried crocodile tears and made his mea culpa. See New York Times.

 You can download his entire book for free off of Scribd. He will be doing this until August 10. Nice guy, huh? A man who practices what he preaches.

 Well, not exactly, no. Think about it. He isn’t giving it away for free. He has already been paid. According to Publisher’s Marketplace, Anderson received an advance of $500,000 for his previous book, The Long Tail.  The advance for Free is not recorded in the data base. Presumably, the advance was significant. So Anderson has nothing really to lose by posting it for free on Scribd. He has been paid and probably, a pretty penny. 

 Since Anderson believes that ideas should be free, and since  he has sold his ideas for considerably more, perhaps he should contribute some of this surplus and undeserved income  to –hmm — maybe  The Author’s Guild. After all, writers have a right to be paid for their work, don’t they? 

Books Not Recommended for Summer Reading

July 5, 2009

Below is a very personal and idiosyncratic list of books that are best left to seasons other than Summer, if at all. If you have other recommendations for this list, Ask the Agent invites your participation.


Lord Aberdeen

 Jokes Cracked by Lord Aberdeen. This book  is perhaps the greatest oddity in the history of the printed page. It  was originally published in 1925 and has been long out of print. The author  of the book is either the 4th or 5th Earl of Aberdeen. It is not entirely clear. From the appearance of the dour visage on the cover, one questions whether His Lordship made any significant contribution to the world of Tomfoolery of the late Victorian  period. Indeed, one would question whether the concept of “crack a joke” would even enter the same universe of discourse occupied by Lord Aberdeen.



Foundations of a Complete Science of Knowledge (Grundlage der Gesammten Wissenschaftslehre.) Johan Gottlieb Fichte. Once a towering figure in German Idealist philosophy, now happily  forgotten. Unfortunately for me, when I was 25 and a graduate student in German history, I foolishly picked Herr Fichte’s thought as the subject  for my master’s thesis. I was required to read the entire  660 page work in its original German. The number of expressions in German that I knew at the time was  limited. I believe I could give a pretty  good rendition of: “Wanna go back to my place?” and also “Shut up, you Nazi”.

I will never forget the impact of those first words upon my mind.  (Roughly translated): “X  is in the Ego, and posited through the Ego, for it is the Ego which asserts the above proposition, and so asserts it by virtue of X as a law, and must therefore, be given to the Ego;…”

At the time I was doing considerable experimentation with certain (how shall we say) mind altering drugs and attempting at the same time to win my girlfriend back from a free love commune. Fichte’s immortal words restored my hope and gave a new sense of purpose to my life.



The Collected Works of Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Several years ago, I had a quintessential Berkeley experience. I was having dinner at my local hamburger place and was informing  my companion that I was to give an introduction to Salman Rushdie later that evening at Cody’s.  A stranger at the next table turned around and said “Salman Rushdie will be remembered as the Edward Bulwer- Lytton of the twentieth century.”

This audacious and entirely uninvited judgment peaked my interest in this great, but forgotten   Victorian novelist. He is most remembered now for the  first sentence of his novel Paul Clifford, “It was a dark and stormy night”. There is a general consensus amongst critics that this is the worst first sentence penned in all of English literature. He is also remembered for the hackneyed and ponderous expression: “The Pen is Mightier than the sword.”  I would not begin reading these collected  works this summer or any other season for that matter. For those who will not read Bulwer-Lytton’s works, I also recommend that you not read: The Letters of the Late Edward Bulwer-Lytton to his Wife.




Canterbury Tales.  Geoffrey Chaucer. I recommend not reading this masterpiece as it is written in original Middle English.  Unlike the first sentence penned by Bulwer-Lytton above, Chaucer has written one of the most memorable first sentences in all of literature 

“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote, /The droughte, perced to the roote, /And bathed every vein in swich licour / Of which vertu engendred is the flour,…”

It is doubly remarkable in that it appears to be utterly meaningless and with numerous misspelled words to wit (or should I say to witte?). Not unlike my daughter’s first grade homework assignment: “What Daddy and I did on the weekend”.



The Book of Numbers. There have been periods of my life when I have felt the darkness of doubt come over me. And I have turned to scripture to be restored and renewed. And in these dark times, I have always found profound consolation in the  Book of Numbers.  I cannot overstate the deeply moving and profoundly spiritual qualities of this great book of the bible. To my knowledge,  there is no  text in world literature  that truly captures at once the heroic and tragic quality of the human endeavor  as in Numbers 25:1

” And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab.”

Gentle Reader, I humbly present for your consideration – The Book of Numbers. 





Audacity of Greed Part 3 – Amazon. Com and the Governor of California

July 3, 2009
 Well, apparently’s threat to shut down their affiliate programs in states that are cracking down on Internet sales tax evasion is succeeding. On July 1, Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed the budget bill that included the provision for Internet merchants to be required to collect the same sales taxes that are required of local merchants.

In doing so, the Governor made an additional comment addressing specifically  his position on sales tax collection on Internet commerce. He spoke of, a shabby, bottom-feeding  Internet company which, like,  is also threatening to cut off their California Affiliates.

Here is what he said:

“Governor Schwarzenegger Remains Committed to No New Taxes, Announces Will Continue to do Business in California


“After passing the largest tax increase in California history, it makes absolutely no sense to go back to the taxpayers to solve the current shortfall – that’s why yesterday I vetoed the majority vote tax increase passed by the legislature. With unemployment at an all time high, we should be doing everything we can to – keep jobs and create jobs – in California. That is why my Administration immediately contacted when we learned of this news and, I am pleased to announce has reversed its decision and will continue to do business with affiliates here in California. I will continue to fight to keep jobs and businesses in California.”


The Governor has really jumped down a rabbit hole on this one.


The Governor’s statement implies that his opposition is due to his unwillingness to have a tax increase. He knows very well that the Internet sales tax issue is one of collecting an existing tax that is being evaded by Internet merchants like The sales tax  is not a new tax. It has been on the books for half a century.


The Governor also says that he reassured (and presumably  that he would continue to support their tax evasion [my words, not his] in order to  to protect California jobs. But neither nor employs workers in California. Instead he is giving them a tax advantage over local companies and depriving those companies that do create jobs in California to compete on a level playing field.


As Tennessee Williams famously said: “I smell the smell of mendacity in this room”.


An Interview With Paul Krassner

July 2, 2009


                                                    Paul Krassner

Who's to Say What's Obscene? Order here from Book Passage

I’m especially happy to have this interview on Ask the Agent.  Who’s to Say What’s Obscene  is the first book that I have contracted as an agent that is being published. And by City Lights, the right publisher for this book. One of the things I like about my job is waking up in the morning to big surprises. So one morning I logged on to my computer. And here is an email from the guy who was one of my heroes 40 years ago. I’m not sure that I can say that the Disneyland Memorial Orgy had the same impact on my intellectual and moral development as Tolstoy or Camus, but I suppose it was right up there.

Paul is having a tour for his new book. He will be appearing at the following venues:

I hope you can be there to see him.

Andy: Well, since you have undoubtedly been asked about this in every interview for the last 40 years, could you tell us about the
Disneyland Memorial Orgy?
Paul: When Walt Disney died, it occurred to me that the characters created by their Intelligent Designer who were suddenly in a state of
suspended animation could be released from their decades-longinhibitions and participate in an old-fashioned Roman Orgy.

Disneyland Memorial Orgy

Disneyland Memorial Orgy


Andy: Looking at it now, it really doesn’t seem that shocking or obscene. Irreverent, yes. What would you do today if you were designing it that
would be different?
Paul: I assigned Mad magazine artist Wally Wood to draw the center spread for The Realist, my satirical magazine, and the ultimate design was
strictly his. If it were done today, I suppose that genitalia would be shown. More importantly, female characters would be more assertive.
Andy: Ok. So you have a new book out. It is a wonderful collection of your thoughts on humor and politics. Can you tell us some more about it?
Paul: “Who’s to Say What’s Obscene: Politics, Culture & Comedy in America Today” is a collection of my articles and columns over the last few
years. Things have been accelerating at such an increasing rate that I had to keep updating events until the very last minute.
Andy: You must have had a pretty good agent?
Paul: Yes, Andy had my interests at heart and consistently responded to my e-mails without delay.  The problem is, he answered questions that I never asked…and they were the wrong answers, too.

 Andy: Hey, you weren’t exactly a walk in the park, yourself, bub!

You have been involved with comedy since the Fifties. Isn’t that
right? You were a friend of Lenny Bruce. Can you say something about how humor has changed over the years?
Paul: Lenny was a pioneer in breaking the taboos not only in language but also comedic concepts and satirical targets, talking about teachers’
low salaries instead of spouting mother-in-law jokes. Now irreverence for its own sake tends to trivialize but that’s the risk of free speech.
Andy: Am I to understand that you were a classical violinist? A child prodigy even? Isn’t this a little strange.
Paul: It wasn’t strange to me because I wasn’t aware of any options. At the age of six I became the youngest concert artist in any field ever to
perform at Carnegie Hall. But, though I displayed an advanced technique for playing the violin, my true passion was to make people
Andy: Do you still play the violin with virtuosity? Who is your favorite classical composer?
Paul: I was relieved to quit playing the violin when my teacher died. My musical tastes are eclectic, and I like rock’n’roll better than
classical music, although when I accompanied Groucho Marx on his first and only LSD trip, I really appreciated the Bach Cantata #7.
Andy: How did you get Arianna Huffington to write an introduction to the book?
Paul: She’s a friend, and I’m a contributor to Huffington Post, so I simply asked her and she came through. You can google my home page on and click on her foreword.


More on

July 1, 2009

I just received a comment by a friend in the book industry He said:

“I hate to jump into the frying pan, but if my memory of living in California [pre-Amazon] serves me at all, I think Prop 13 is far more responsible for the mess the state is in now than tax on Amazon……”

It is a good question. Here is my response.

I’m glad you asked. Actually the economy is the most responsible for the mess, but you are right. Prop 13 has reduced the tax base dramatically.

That said, sales tax accounts for about 25% of the general fund, most of which goes to education and services to state and local. Amazon has been evading this tax for years now in spite of the fact that they have a clear physical presence in the state in the form of these associates. They promote Amazon very heavily and drive sales to Amazon and receive generous commissions.

In aggregate, lost taxes due to this have cost the state many billions of dollars. And the arrogance of A.C is startling. What they are really doing here is attempting to enlist their associates, many of which are schools and PTAs to support their tax evasion under threat of losing their Amazon revenue stream. They aren’t pointing out that the tax evasion practiced by Amazon is, itself, depriving the same schools of needed revenue.

Audacity of Greed Pt. 2. seeks to hijack California tax policy

July 1, 2009

There is beginning a backlash against Amazon’s efforts to  intimidate Calfornia into  maintaining a tax break that is probably illegal. I am quoting a statement from Kristen McLean, executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children. She makes a telling point.

An Alternative for Ex-Amazon Affiliates Jun 30, 2009

The following “open condolence letter to former Amazon affiliates” comes from Kristen McLean, executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children:

Boy, it sure sucks to be dumped.

There you are, doing a great job of recommending awesome books, handing Amazon the sales, and they just up and leave the party.

To add injury to insult, I’m sure it didn’t feel good to hear from the Wall Street Journal that collective sales from your sites only “account for a relatively small slice of Amazon’s traffic, so the move isn’t likely to cause major damage to the company’s business.”

It’s like the morning after the prom, when in wrinkled dress and wilting corsage you realize they’re just not that into you. At least, not when they may have to collect millions in state sales tax that could help fix bridges, keep schools open and fund libraries at a time when your states are truly suffering.

And they seemed so nice.

Well, I want to invite you to the indie party. While the flashy prom has been happening at the country club, we’ve been holding our own get-together in the gym. What we lack in glamour, we make up for in charm. Like you, we love to recommend books. We think it’s cool that you’re recommending books, and with us there’s no such thing as too small. We won’t marginalize you. And we all pay our local taxes.

Best of all we have an affiliate program too! It’s called IndieBound, and we’d love to have you be a part of it. You’ll get a reward for using it, your readers can keep getting their books off your site, and your state will benefit in the end. Everyone wins.

Again, we’re sorry that you lost your date. (We never really liked them anyway.) We promise we won’t leave you hanging.