This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

February 4, 2002 — It's official:, formerly known as "the world's largest bookstore," has finally made some money.

As I've reported in this column for years now, Amazon has never made a profit since the company was founded seven years ago. But last week it announced it had finally come out ahead in the last quarter of 2001. In fact, Amazon's accountants didn't even have to calculate via the bogus "pro forma" method the company favors — a method that involves leaving out many long–term expenses. With no shenanigans, and thanks in large part to strong book sales during the holiday season, the company actually made a net profit of about $5 million, surprising me and a bunch of Wall Street analysts.

Of course, there is one little gnat in the ointment: the company is still some 2.15 billion semolians in long–term debt.

Following up on another MobyLives story, the $16.5 million lawsuit brought by the former executive editor of Arts & Letters Daily, Nancy Strickland, against ALD founder Denis Dutton and Academic Partners, the owners of Lingua Franca, the magazine that bought ALD, has progressed, sort of — Dutton and Academic partners filed a counter claim on November 26. They called Strickland's assertion that Dutton had cut her out of the reputed $1 million sale of ALD "a long–on–rhetoric and short–on–substance diatribe" that "enjoyed instantaneous press coverage," and "thus disclosed" her "true objective" was "publicity and the destruction of Defendants' considerable–reputation and goodwill in academia."

As I am, so far as I know, the only reporter in America who covered this story (although my coverage was, in turn, picked up in England, New Zealand and, I don't know why, Brazil), I resemble some of those remarks. But geez, if Denis Dutton had only answered instead of ducked my questions — like, say, the one I had about the report that Strickland's predecessor at ALD had also charged him with fraud and accepted a settlement for silence — then his side of the story could have enjoyed "instantaneous press coverage" too.

Anyway, both sides have now been directed by a judge to try to reach a settlement.

Meanwhile, in the related story concerning Lingua Franca, which announced it was suspending operations five days after the suit was filed in court: still no word on the identity of the "Mr. Big" that Lingua Franca head Jeffrey Kittay said had stopped funding the magazine, which he also claimed was the only reason it stopped publication. Since then, Kittay has also sold off another Academic Partners publication, University Business.

Readers may have also noted that Kittay attempted a rather classic smear of yours truly in the letters section of Jim Romenesko's MediaNews, impugning my reputation and claiming "Johnson has the story wrong in almost every respect." The mistakes he cites? Well, I called Lingua Franca's managing editor an editor and I called University Business a weekly when it's actually an almost–monthly. Also, Kittay implied I made up the "grossly exaggerated" $1 million price tag for ALD.

Well, the last time I looked, a managing editor was still an editor, although I'll grant that I was wrong on the University Business business . . . although why Kittay didn't just do the professional thing and correct it via a letter–to–the–editor is a revealing question. It is, after all, too minor a mistake to justify making a fool out of yourself with a big, public "Aha!" Beyond that, as for the $1 million — this isn't Stephen Ambrose you're dealing with here. I had a source, and I made it clear in my article, using quote marks, no less: Kittay's employee, Denis Dutton.

But one final note on that $1 million dollars — Dutton's lawyer now tells me the actual figure was $250,000. So what should we call Dutton's earlier figure?

And moving on to the hot topic of the day, historians in trouble, another, Michael Bellesiles, will any minute now publish round two of his response to the many critics who say he made up evidence in his book, "Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture." Bellesiles has insisted on responding via essays in academic journals, and the next is due out in February in the William & Mary Quarterly. But the Boston Globe was given a sneak peak, and reporter David Mehegan says, "In his response, Bellesiles concedes numerous errors, but seems to minimize their significance by saying his book is about culture, not statistics, and that in any case all statistics about early America are tentative."

Mehegan also says that three out of the four historians on a panel asked by the publication to respond to Bellesiles article "severely criticize" him. The history department chair at Emory University, where Bellesiles is a professor, has said the school won't take any actions until they see the William & Mary forum.

Finally, there's the story that seems to need a daily update: Jonathan Franzen. His "The Corrections" was nominated this week for a Book Critics Circle Award, but who cares about that — he's been speaking to the press again!

In England to promote the European release of his book, he told one talk show host that what really "pained me" about the whole flap over his Oprah Winfrey criticism was "the constant reproduction of an exceptionally unflattering photograph, taken by an 86–year–old photographer."

He also blamed the press for the contretemps, saying "You had to quote very, very selectively" to concoct "the ridiculous media image of me as some raging ivory tower elitist." "In fact," he continued, "'The Corrections' was a good Oprah choice because I have low taste myself . . . "

As for the invitation by the Lithuanian ambassador, angered by the portrayal of his country in "The Corrections," that the author visit the country, J–Franz said he may go because "Little countries interest me, because there's something comic to me about them."

He ought to know.

Last Week’s Column: THE MANLY LIARS CLUB Stephen Ambrose, David McCullough, and Joseph Ellis finally get a female companion in their liar's club . . .


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