Barry Eisler's Blog

May 13, 2016

Based on dramatic revelations from a post-Snowden whistleblower and written by Jeremy Scahill and other Intercept writers, The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government's Secret Drone Warfare Program provides a long-overdue window into America's vast killing machine: who makes the decisions on who will be killed; how those decisions are made; how the strikes are carried out; most of all, in a thoughtful foreword by Edward Snowden and afterword by Glenn Greenwald, the implications for a democratic society of all this due-process-free, non-battlefield killing.

In addition to its substantive appeal, the book is beautifully laid out and includes numerous graphs, photographs, and text inserts that render some of the more complex aspects of the topic (such as the communications infrastructure and other logistics of drone strikes) easy to follow.

The inserts on the Orwellian language of drone strikes were particularly good. Did you know the military laments the difficulty of killing far-away people as "the tyranny of distance"? It takes a special sensibility to refer to obstacles to killing people as a form of "tyranny," but those are your tax dollars at work. Also, when an intended target is killed, that's called a "jackpot," but when an unintended target is killed, that's called an "EKIA," or Enemy Killed in Action. So no matter who is killed, the government always wins. It's both amusing and dispiriting to consider that the people behind this "heads I win, tails you lose" nomenclature also probably roll their eyes at the notion of children getting a "participant" ribbon just for entering a competition, with no need to actually win anything.

I'm a little surprised the book has received only four Amazon customer reviews since coming out ten days ago. I have a feeling the relative paucity might have something to do with Americans not wanting to know about the tyrannical powers our government has arrogated to itself and now exercises in secret, with no accountability or meaningful public debate. The attitude seems to be, "Do whatever you think you must to keep us safe; just don't tell us the disturbing details, lest we have to grapple with the legality, morality, and effectiveness of these far-reaching policies, and accept responsibility for them." There are a lot of things that might be said about such an attitude. "Consistent with the long-term health of a democracy" isn't one of them.
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Published on May 13, 2016 09:26 • 174 views

March 4, 2016

Been a busy month promoting God's Eye. In case you missed these:

I did this "Five Questions on Publishing" interview with author Chris Jane at Jane Friedman's blog. We cover a lot of ground; here's just a sample:

By the way, another bit of establishment publishing propaganda is the notion that the publisher is losing money until the author earns out. This bit of bullshit is intended to make authors feel guilty and beholden about their advances. But it isn’t true, and here’s a quick logic experiment to prove it:

Imagine a scenario in which the author receives a 99 percent royalty. The author would earn out her advance very quickly, right? But the publisher would make almost no money and remain in the red long after the earn-out.

Conversely, imagine a scenario in which the author receives a 1 percent royalty. The author would probably never earn out the advance, but the publisher would quickly recoup its investment and make bank after that.

And in fact, superstar authors typically receive advances so large they’re designed not to be earned out, but function instead as a de facto higher-than-normal digital royalty rate (the technique is a way of evading the digital royalty “most favored customer” clauses that are common in publishing contracts). And even though these huge advances never earn out, the publisher still makes money.

So while there might be some loose correlation between the author earning out and the publisher making money, the notion that they’re one and the same is false and misleading. Publishers typically start to make money on a book before the author earns out, and even if the author never earns out at all.

Obviously, this is something the Guardians and Curators of Rich Literary Culture and Nurturers of Talent™ would rather we not know.

And an audio interview on God's Eye and more with Speaking of Mysteries:

And another audio interview with Author Link.

And now I better get back to writing the next book. :)
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Published on March 04, 2016 09:25 • 50 views

March 3, 2016

Last week, while on tour promoting  The God's Eye View , it was a thrill and an honor to appear on Democracy Now! and The Young Turks, two great shows that have had a huge influence on my political outlook. We talked about the Apple/FBI standoff; why abolishing the CIA isn't a radical position; why Clinton's rhetoric, votes, and policies qualify her as a Neocon; and why subsequent events so often prove my novels (depressingly) prescient. 

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Published on March 03, 2016 09:32 • 35 views

March 1, 2016

Yesterday, I gave a talk to the San Francisco chapter of the Former Intelligence Officers Association. In front of about a hundred former CIA, FBI, and NSA operatives, including former head of the CIA and NSA Michael Hayden, I talked about bulk surveillance, whistleblowing, and why intelligence professionals need to take especially great care not to let propaganda pervert their intelligence. I think the crowd was initially skeptical, but warmed as I went along. In the end, quite a few people came up afterward to thank me for my candor. The whole thing was fun and a little surreal, and if I got a few people to look at these issues in a somewhat different light, I’m glad. You can read the basis for my remarks at Freedom of the Press Foundation and Boing Boing.
Unfortunately, the format was such that no real debate with Hayden was possible. Which was frustrating, because, for example, at one point during his Q&A, Hayden opined that Iran is the world’s greatest purveyor of terrorism. If I could have responded, I would have wondered aloud, as I like to do from time to time, how I’d explain an assertion like that to a Martian:
Martian: We on Mars are confused by your General Hayden’s comment. He is speaking of Iran, is that correct? A country with the GDP of Finland?
Me: Uh, yes.
Martian: But didn’t your Martin Luther King say almost sixty years ago that the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today is America?

Me: He did say that, yes. In 1967, during the Vietnam war.
Martian: And hasn’t America had innumerable additional wars since then?
Me: It has, yes.
Martian: But then America’s wars must not be terrorism.
Me: Right.
Martian: That is fortunate, for our understanding on Mars is that America spends more on its military than the next eight nations on earth combined—five of which are American allies.

Me: Yes, we do have a large military.
Martian: Do you not maintain over 800 military bases—more than any other nation in your planet’s history?
Me: Yes, that’s true.
Martian: Watching from Mars, we have always associated overseas military bases with what you on earth call “empire.”
Me: Americans don’t want an empire.
Martian: Why then do you maintain so many overseas military bases, as empires do?
Me: We just want to keep the peace.
Martian: By making war?
Me: It’s...complicated. But really, America is a peace-loving culture.
Martian: But you have more wars than anyone. On Mars, this does not seem peaceful.
Me: Okay, but it’s not terrorism. Terrorism is when, you know, you terrorize people.
Martian: But did you not, alone among the peoples of your planet, use atomic weapons against your fellow humans, when you bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Me: Only to end the war.
Martian: Did you not kill at least 600,000 civilians in your war in Vietnam?
Me: We did.
Martian: Did you not kill at least 100,000 civilians in your latest war in Iraq, and turn four million people in that war into refugees?
Me: We did.
Martian: And did not your former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declare that a half million Iraqi children starved to death because of American sanctions was “worth it”?
Me: She did say that, though she took it back afterward.
Martian: And is it not the case that—
Me: Okay, look, I get it. America does more wars and violence than anyone else. But it’s not about terrorizing people, okay?
Martian: But are not the people you kill terrorized? And what about the parents of dead children, the children of dead parents, and the burned, blinded, brain-damaged, crippled, maimed, and mutilated by your weapons? Our understanding of humans is that you are terrorized by such things.
Me: I guess so. But it’s not like we’re tryingto terrorize.
Martian: But did you not call your own tactics in your second war in Iraq “Shock and Awe”?
Me: Well, yeah. We were trying to, you know, shock and awe them.
Martian: Perhaps the problem is our imperfect renderings of Earth languages. In Martian, we cannot distinguish between terrorizing with bombs, and shocking and awing with them.
Me: Look, I see where you’re trying to go with this, okay? But we’re not like ISIS and other terrorist groups. I mean, you know what ISIS does? ISIS burns people alive. That’s terrorism.
Martian: But in your war in Vietnam, did you not use an incendiary weapon called Napalm, a kind of jelly gasoline that sticks to human bodies and causes horrific burning?
Me: I guess, but that was a long time ago.
Martian: But do you not currently deploy what your refer to as thermobaric weapons?
Me: I don’t know that word.
Martian: It is derived from two Greek words meaning “heat” and “pressure.” In English, it refers to a type of explosive that produces an exceptionally hot and powerful blast. The lucky victims are obliterated. The less lucky suffer terrible agonies before they die.
Me: Well, I’m sure that isn’t our intent.
Martian: But you have named one such weapon the “Hellfire” missile. Does this not mean you are well aware that the missile burns your fellow humans with fire? Was it not in fact designed to do so?
Me: I guess it just comes down to that terrorists want to kill innocent people. But America doesn’t. When we kill innocent people, we call it “collateral damage.” Do you know that phrase?
Martian: We do, but our translators have struggled with it. For a long time, we failed to understand why a people who are ordinarily so plain-spoken would devise such a vague phrase. Then we realized, you Americans find such a phrase preferable to something like, “the burning to death of innocent human beings, the blowing into tiny scraps of meat and bone ordinary people just trying to live their lives, the ripping asunder of the limbs of children, the blinding and mutilation of baby humans—”
Me: Right, I get it. But, yes, it’s not like we want those things to happen. When we do them, they’re tragic accidents. That’s the difference.
Martian: This is interesting. You mean terrorists want to kill innocents, while you Americans are mere willing to kill innocents.
Me: Something like that, I think. Yes.
Martian: Perhaps we Martians are simply dense. It seems that terrorists have goals for which they will kill. Is that not also true for your country?
Me: Yes, but again, the terrorists wantto kill innocent people.
Martian: It is difficult for we Martians to understand the difference. Presumably these people you call terrorists simply want to achieve certain geopolitical goals that they believe require killing innocent people. Presumably if they believed they had another way to achieve these goals, they would not feel the need to kill innocent people.
Me: I don’t understand.
Martian: I mean, perhaps terrorists are killing people pragmatically. In other words, for terrorists, killing people is a means, not an end.
Me: So what?
Martian: I am trying how to understand how it is different for you, given that you are the “good guys,” to use your Earth phrase. Do you not also, in all your wars, kill people as a means?
Me: But we don’t want to.
Martian: In such circumstances, it is sometimes difficult for we Martians to distinguish between the concept of “want” and the concept of “willing.” For in the service of the geopolitical goals you seek to achieve through the means of violence, is it not an empirical and historical fact that inevitably you will kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people, inflict the most horrific injuries on hundreds of thousands more, and turn millions of people into stateless refugees, with all the terrorizing that such events necessarily entail?
Me: I guess.
Martian: But this is not terrorism.
Me: No. Not when we do it.
Martian: I confess I am more perplexed now than when we started. I do not understand how the nation that commits the most violence and causes the most terror can claim other nations are the most terroristic. We Martians will have to study this question more closely.
Well, maybe they’ll invite General Hayden and me back. But we’d probably need a Martian to translate.
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Published on March 01, 2016 11:21 • 51 views

February 9, 2016

Should the west launch yet another war in Libya? You might think not, given how calamitous the last one turned out to be—given, in fact, that the results of the last war in Libya have become the basis for the new one!—but fear not, you can always count on The Economist to assure you of why we need yet another war. You see, what it all really comes down to is that, “In a situation where there are no good options, doing nothing may be the worst.”
This is the kind of thing I’m starting to think of as Peak Economist—when the magazine can’t come up with an argument even marginally new, insightful, or useful about one of the wars it’s constantly calling for, and so defaults to the kind of sober- and serious-sounding but substantively vapid bromides that have become the trademark of its warmongering.
So let’s pause for just a moment—longer, apparently, than the Economist allotted itself before publishing that marvelous bit of self-important onanism—to consider a bit of what’s so embarrassingly stupid about it.
First, why should “doing nothing” be inherently suspect—especially when the only alternatives The Economist seems able to imagine all involve war? Now, in fairness to The Economist, war is only called war with regard to the “Libyan Civil War.” Western bombings and invasions are instead understood to be mere “intervention.” Seriously—“war” is used three times in the article, and only about the Libyan civil war. Intervention is used four times, and only about a western attack. In fact, I just decided on the spot to make “intervention” one of my favorite war-mongering euphemisms ever, reserved only for the noble actions of the beneficent west and denied to our adversaries such as the Iranians, who can only “meddle” in countries adjacent to them after the west has “intervened” there.
(For some of the best war euphemisms ever, including wars that aren’t wars but are instead merely instances of “marching” and “pressing forward” and “continuing,” see former CIA clandestine service chief Jack Devine and former “dean of the Washington Press corps” David Broder in The Definition of Insanity.)
Sorry, I digress…we were talking about why “doing nothing” should be inherently suspect when all The Economist’salternatives are so demonstrably awful. A question: is The Economist arguing that it would have been worse to have done nothing in Iraq rather than invading and occupying the country, killing well over 100,000 civilians and displacing another four million in the process?
(Think about those numbers for a moment. Even accounting for all our imperialistic privileges and American Exceptionalism and all that, you could argue that’s kind of a lot of human beings to slaughter and turn into stateless refugees, and that it might possibly have been better to “do nothing” instead.)
Or would “doing nothing” have been worse in Libya in 2011, when our war (sorry, “intervention”) destroyed the country and turned it into a breeding ground for ISIS? After all, if we’d “done nothing” last time, we probably wouldn’t need another war this time. Though in fairness to The Economist, which does seem excessively fond of war and frightened of what might happen if we were ever to Do Nothing instead, that last point might not be terribly persuasive.
We have a Hippocratic Oath in medicine. Why would the concept be applicable to medical interventions, but not to military ones?
I know, I know…they never really come out and definitively say “doing nothing” would be the worst option. Instead, it’s “doing nothing may be the worst option.” Sure, it might be! But it might be the best option, too. Or something in the middle. In the vacuum that passes for The Economist’s reasoning, who can really say? But for God’s sake, if you really don’t know, if something “may” be worse, or better, or whatever, what kind of sick mind would want war to be the default option?
Of course, this whole “war or nothing” framework is itself bullshit, driven either by ignorance or propaganda. Now, I don’t think the people who write these articles at The Economist are so dim-witted that they actually can’t imagine a way of conducting foreign policy other than War/Do Nothing. So either they’re so morbidly attracted to war that their desire for more of it is blunting their imagination and occluding their reason, or they know full well that a country as disproportionately powerful and influential as America has countless tools at its disposal—War and Nothing being only two of them—and are deliberately misleading their readers in the hope they’ll be able to gin up another of the wars they seem to crave.
Watch out, by the way, anytime someone tries to limit the discussion to only two crappy alternatives while positioning theirs as the marginally less worse one. I come across this with regard to torture fairly regularly—“Well, if we can’t torture them, what are we supposed to do, offer them tea and crumpets?”— because, right, no one has yet figured out a way to interrogate a criminal suspect or captured enemy that doesn’t involve either waterboarding, on the one hand, or finger sandwiches, on the other. Whether done cynically or clinically, the technique is just a way to pull you into the confines of the box that limits the other person’s thinking, and force a result that logic and reason would otherwise reject.
The final paragraph is like a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with the article itself. It quotes a couple of think tank people to create the appearance of balance and a modicum of thoughtfulness, and these people offer the kind of stunningly fresh insights that only a seasoned think tank denizen could come up with, such as that a western invasion of Libya might be “unwise and risky” (Really? Another western invasion of a Muslim country might entail some risks? Are you sure?), and even that the west might “need to proceed carefully” (Solid advice—thank you!). These “balanced” asides are served up not to persuade anyone that another war in Libya might not be such a great idea, but rather to steer readers to the gloriously sane, serious, sober, centrist option The Economist is hankering to make real—air strikes in support of small commando units.
Those are your only options, people: a full-scale invasion and occupation; the dreaded “do nothing” option; or some nice, sanitary air strikes and a handful of semi-secret troops. Which is it going to be—one of the two really shitty options, or the one that sounds a little less shitty by comparison?
If this all feels as manipulative as a game of Three-card Monte, it’s because it is. Pundits who want wars can’t get them unless they convince the public to go along for the ride. And if that involves subterfuge, well, it’s all for the greater good, right?
If The Economist gets its way and the west does another “intervention” in Libya, and the latest “intervention” produces results as horrifically counterproductive as the last one, and ISIS or an ISIS-successor bogeyman then pops up in Algeria or Egypt or wherever, there’s one thing I’m sure we can count on. The Economist will tell us yet again that “doing nothing” will be—sorry, “may” be—worse than yet another of their cherished “interventions.”
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Published on February 09, 2016 08:44 • 1 view

February 2, 2016

Hi all, it’s launch day for  The God’s Eye View !

Based on the revelations of whistleblower Edward Snowden, the book has been well received so far: a boxed starred review in Publisher’s Weekly ("Eisler’s expert knowledge of spy craft and hand-to-hand combat combine with his ultra-deep distrust of government intelligence to propel this suspenseful yarn into the front ranks of paranoid thrillers”); ); a starred review in Booklist (“When Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove was having its run, service people left the theater muttering, 'That wasn’t a satire. That’s what they’re like.' So it is with Eisler’s fine thriller…”); kind words from people like imprisoned journalist Barrett Brown, imprisoned whistleblower Chelsea Manning, and many others.

Here’s a short interview I did about the book with Kirkus (which also had a great review):

And here’s an interview I did about the book and more with novelist Josie Brown for The Big Thrill, the magazine of International Thriller Writers.

Finally, here’s an article I wrote for Salon—Holy Smokes, This Stuff is All Real? How I Get My Best Thriller Ideas from the Good ol’ US Government

I’m excited to be talking to a number of terrific journalists and activists as part of the tourMike Masnick of Techdirt in San Francisco; Xeni Jardin of Boing Boing and Freedom of the Press Foundation in LA; Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept and Dirty Wars in NYC; Stephen Walt, Professor of International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, and a few other university people, in Boston. Details below and on my website (with updates as more events get added); hope to see you on the road!
Knowledge is power…and they know everything.
NSA director Theodore Anders has a simple goal: collect every phone call, email, and keystroke tapped on the Internet. He knows unlimited surveillance is the only way to keep America safe.
Evelyn Gallagher doesn’t much care about any of that. She just wants to keep her head down and manage the NSA’s camera network and facial recognition program so she can afford private school for her deaf son, Dash.

But when Evelyn discovers the existence of an NSA program code-named God’s Eye, and connects it with the mysterious deaths of a string of journalists and whistleblowers, her doubts put her and Dash in the crosshairs of a pair of government assassins: Delgado, a sadistic bomb maker and hacker; and Manus, a damaged giant of a man who until now has cared for nothing beyond protecting the director.

Within an elaborate game of political blackmail, terrorist provocations, and White House scheming, a global war is being fought—a war between those desperate to keep the state’s darkest secrets, and those intent on revealing them. A war that Evelyn will need all of her espionage training and savvy to survive. A war in which the director has the ultimate informational advantage: The God’s Eye View.

Tuesday, February 2, 7:00 PMKepler’s Books1010 El Camino Real
Menlo Park, CA 94025-4349650-324-4321
Wednesday, February 3, 6:30 PM
Conversation with Mike Masnick of Techdirt
Commonwealth Club of San Francisco
555 Post Street
San Francisco, CA 94102-9824415-597-6700
Monday, February 22, 8:00 PMConversation with Xeni Jardin of Boing Boing and Freedom of the Press FoundationWilliam Turner Gallery
Bergamot Station Arts Center
2525 Michigan Avenue
Santa Monica, CA  90404
Wednesday, February 24, 7:00 PM
Conversation with Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept and Dirty WarsKGB Bar
85 East 4th Street
New York, NY 10003
Thursday, February 25, 4:00 PMConversation with Stephen Walt, Professor of International Affairs, Juliette Kayyem, Lecturer in Public Policy, and Michael Sulymeyer, Director of the Cybersecurity Project, Harvard Kennedy School; and Yochai Benkler, Professor for Entrepreneurial Legal Studies, Harvard Law SchoolMalkin Penthouse, Littauer Building, Harvard Kennedy School79 John F. Kennedy StreetCambridge, MA  02138
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Published on February 02, 2016 05:41 • 74 views

February 1, 2016

In connection with tomorrow’s release of The God’s Eye View , I did an interview with The Big Thrill, the magazine of International Thriller Writers

Novelist Josie Brownasked a ton of great questions—so many that TBT felt some of the conversation had to be cut. Here’s what didn’t make it in: my thoughts about what we the people can do to safeguard our rights in the face of continual governmental overreach, and on why the whole book ecosystem would be healthier if organizations like the “Authors Guild” would stop pretending to be other than lobbying arms for establishment publishing. Enjoy.
Your background gives you keener insights than most on our government’s geopolitical realities and political fallacies. What do you feel is the future of the US government’s surveillance? What role do you feel the public needs to take in order to safeguard its rights?
...So what is the future of a dynamic wherein the people know less and less about the government and the government knows more and more about the people? That depends on us. If we let propagandists stupefy us with stories about how The Terrorists™ are going to kill us all in our beds unless we surrender even more of our civil liberties (and really, given how much liberty we’ve given up since 9/11, if the “less liberty=more safety” equation had anything to it, wouldn’t the big bad Global War on Terror have long since been won?), the future will be increasingly jingoistic and authoritarian, with the Constitution more and more “just window dressing now, the artifacts of an ancient mythology, the vestments of a dead religion,” as one of my characters put it in Inside Out .
What can we do if we want to maintain the government as the servant of the people, with limited powers? Speak up. Support organizations like the ACLU, EFF, and Freedom of the Press Foundation; independent journalism like Democracy Now and Wikileaks; whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning. Don’t be taken in by “lesser of two evils” bullshit designed to get you to always vote for one or the other wing of the war party (or by the notion that we need a “third party”—sure, maybe, but to start with we could use a second). You’re not “throwing your vote away” if you cast it for an independent. You’re throwing it away if you cast it for one of the two relatively interchangeable candidates America’s oligarchy wants you to believe is your only real choice.
Don’t believe what the government tells you. I.F. Stone said, “All governments lie,” and can anyone deny this is true? When we encounter a liar in our personal life, we know to discount everything he says that hasn’t been independently verified. Yet we continue to uncritically accept the same government assurances, mostly having to do with how we have to give up more freedoms and drone, invade, and occupy more countries, no matter how many times the government is caught lying. But shouldn’t we at least be cautious when someone urges a course of action by which he stands to benefit? When a salesman on commission tells you a suit looks great on you, you know to be suspicious. And yet we’re infinitely credulous when the government tells us how we need to be afraid—even though fear increases government power and frequently leads to war, where fortunes are made by the very people agitating for hostilities. In any other context, fear-mongering and war would be instantly and rightly recognized as a racket. But it’s psychologically painful to accept that the interests in control of your country are other than benevolent, so we shy from the obvious truth and cling to comforting lies.
If there were one (or two, or three) things you could change about the publishing industry and the novelist’s role within it, what would it be?
The first thing I’d like to change is the popular perception that organizations like the Authors Guild and Authors United primarily represent authors rather than establishment publishers. I have no problem with organizations advocating for publisher interests, but the dishonest way in which the AG and AU go about their publishing industry advocacy misleads a lot of authors. I could go on at length about this topic and in fact I have—so for anyone who wants to better understand the real agenda and function of these “author” organizations, I’d recommend starting with this article I wrote for Techdirt, Authors Guilded, United, and Representing…Not Authors.
But isn’t it true that the AG speaks out on various topics of concern to authors , like unconscionable contract terms?
Hah, the AG going after publishers is like Hillary Clinton going after Wall Street. I’ve had a lot to say about this, including the comments I wrote in response to this post at The Passive Voice. For anyone who’s curious, just search for my name and you’ll find the comments, the gist of which is, when the AG wants to accomplish something, it names names and litigates; when it wants authors to think it’s trying to accomplish something but in fact isn’t (or, more accurately, when what it’s trying to accomplish is maintenance of the publishing status quo), it talks.
When the AG talks, it’s a head fake. The body language is what to look for in determining the organization’s actual allegiances and priorities.
Another thing I’d like to change is the generally abysmal level of legacy publisher performance in what at least in theory are legacy publisher core competencies. Whether it’s cover design, the bio, or fundamental principles of marketing, legacy publishers are content with a level of mediocrity that would be an embarrassment in any other industry. I’ve seen little ability within legacy publishing companies to distill principles from fact patterns (particularly patterns involving failures) and then apply those principles in new circumstances. Institutional memory and the transmission of institutional knowledge and experience are notably weak in the culture of the Big Five. My guess is that the weakness is a byproduct of insularity and complacency brought on by a lack of competition.
Agreed. Having spent fifteen years in advertising before becoming a novelist, I was abhorred as to what passed for “marketing and promotion.
I'd also like to increase awareness of the danger a publishing monopoly represents to the interests of authors and readers. No, I’m not talking about Amazon; “Amazon is a Monopoly!” is a canard and a bogeyman. I’m talking about the real, longstanding monopoly in publishing (or call is a quasi-monopoly, or a cartel), which is the insular, incestuous New York Big Five. An important clue about the nature of the organization is right there in the name, no? See also the Seven Sisters
Okay, another thing (and then I’ll stop because I could go on about this stuff forever): I’d like to see more choices for authors; new means by which authors can reach a mass market of readers; and greater diversity in titles and lower prices for readers.
Wait, that last set of wishes is already happening, courtesy of self-publishing and Amazon publishing—the first real competition the Big Five has ever seen, and a boon to the health of the whole publishing ecosystem.
Read the full interview at The Big Thrill.
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Published on February 01, 2016 10:32 • 42 views
Here's an article I wrote for Salon -- Holy Smokes, This Stuff is All Real? How I Get My Best Thriller Ideas From the Good ol’ US Government.

Whenever people ask where I get ideas for my thrillers, I say, “Direct from the US government.”
They laugh, but it’s true—in a time of indefinite imprisonment without charge, trial, or conviction (“detention”); torture (“enhanced interrogation”); extrajudicial assassinations (“targeted killing”); and, of course, the unprecedented bulk surveillance revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, third-party villains like SMERSH and SPECTRE and the rest can feel a bit beside the point. Indeed, when the NSA, in its own leaked slides, announces its determination to “Collect it All,” “Process it All,” “Exploit it All,” “Partner it All,” “Sniff it All” and, ultimately, “Know it All,” it’s safe to say we’re living in an age of “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Does that claim sound extreme? Have a look at this National Reconnaissance Office mission patch. What is this Octopus doing to the earth?

Read the rest here.
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Published on February 01, 2016 09:56 • 41 views

January 15, 2016

Joe Konrath and I have some fun over at his blog with the notion that “Big Five” dominance is better for freedom of expression than any author being able to publish any book for any reader. My portion here; the whole thing over at Joe’s blog
* * * * *
I just learned about an event put on by an organization called New America(formerly The New America Foundation): Amazon’s Book Monopoly: A Threat to Freedom of Expression? Ordinarily, propaganda is something that concerns me, but when it veers this far off into parody, I sometimes welcome it as a comic diversion.
Because, come on, putting your tendentious conclusion right there in the title and disguising it as a question, while an impressively textbook instance of question-begging, in this context is also pretty funny. Because, “Hey, we’ve already established that Amazon is a monopoly; we’re just here to determine how much of a threat the company poses to Freedom and All That Is Good. Is it an existential threat, like Roger Cohen said about ISIS? Or merely an extremely threatening threat?”
And who knows, maybe they’ll answer the question, “No,” right? Maybe the panelists will decide that Amazon’s “book monopoly” is actually a benefitto freedom of expression, as monopolies often are. It’s not as though they’ve structured things so that the question answers itself, and I don’t know why anyone would suspect this panel might be anything other than a diverse collection of open-minded people honestly engaging in free inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge wherever the facts may lead!
Thanks to the efforts of serious-sounding organizations like New America (and if that vague but happy-sounding name didn’t cause your bullshit detector to at least tingle, it should—see also Americans for Prosperity and the Center for American Progress), this “Amazon is a Monopoly” silliness is so persistent that Joe and I dealt with it in our inaugural post on zombie memes—“arguments that just won’t die no matter how many times they’re massacred by logic and evidence.” Half the purpose of the Zombie Meme series is to save Joe and me from having to repeat ourselves, so if you want to have a laugh about why, despite its persistence, “Amazon is a Monopoly” is so embarrassingly dumb and misguided, here’s your link.
But here’s the amazing part: “Amazon is a monopoly” is actually the cleverhalf of the event’s title. The really funny part is what follows: that Amazon poses a threat to freedom of expression!
As I said in a previous Techdirt guest post called Authors Guilded, United, and Representing…Not:
Given that Amazon’s self-publishing platform enables all authors to publish whatever they like and leaves it to readers to decide what books they themselves find beneficial, while the New York Big Five (no concentrated market power in a group with a name like that!) has historically rejected probably 999 books for every one they deem worthy of reaching the public, a few questions present themselves. Such as:
•                Who has really been “manipulating and supervising the sale of books and therefore affecting the exchange of ideas in America,” and who has really “established effective control of a medium of communication”—an entity that screens out 99.9% of books, or one that has enabled the publication of any book?
•                Who has really been running an uncompetitive, controlled, supervised, distorted market for books—a company dedicated to lower prices, or a group calling itself the Big Five that has been found guilty of conspiracy and price fixing?
•                Who is really restoring freedom of choice, competition, vitality, diversity, and free expression in the American book market—an entity that consigns to oblivion 999 books out of a thousand, or one that enables the publication of all of them?
•                And who is really ensuring that the American people determine for themselves how to take advantage of the new technologies of the 21st Century—an entity responsible for zero innovation and dedicated to preserving the position of paper, or one that has popularized a new publishing and reading platform that for the first time offers readers an actual choice of formats?
Think about it. This “New America” organization has put together a panel dedicated to persuading you that there was more freedom of expression when an incestuous group of five Manhattan-based corporations held the power to disappear 999 books out every thousand written, and indeed performed that disappearance as the group’s core function (they call this “curation”). And that, now that Amazon’s KDP platform has enabled all authors to publish virtually anything they want, freedom of expression is being threatened.
 For an organization calling itself “New America,” these jokers sure seem wedded to the old version.
In fairness to New America, I should note that their worldview is hardly unprecedented. The notion that the traditional way of doing things is ipso facto the best way of doing things was lampooned by Voltaire over 150 years ago through his character Dr. Pangloss, who was convinced (before experience in the world introduced doubts) that “All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” And Pangloss was himself based on the religious philosophy known as theodicy—a word coined over 300 years ago to describe a kind of faith that’s doubtless as old as the human race (and a word I admit I like because it sounds a bit like “idiocy”).
In fact, it was as recent as, say, the 1950s that a group of tweed-jacketed, straight white male college professors were genuinely convinced that the collection of books they deemed the most intrinsically worthy—all, coincidentally, written by other straight white males—represented the maximally possible amount of valuable expression, information, and ideas. They even called their collection the “canon,” which I admit did tend to make their subjective choices sound important and even divinely ordained. As people came to question the absence of women and minority writers from this collection selected exclusively by straight white males, I imagine the straight white males genuinely believed that broadening the “canon” to include women and minorities was a threat to freedom of expression and all that. This is just the way a lot of people are wired, especially when status and privilege are part of the mix.
And really, you do have to take a moment to applaud the mental gymnastics required of otherwise presumably intelligent people to say shit like “more authors writing more books reaching more readers is threatening freedom of expression, the flow of information, and the marketplace of ideas.” It’s War is Peace/Ignorance is Strength/Freedom is Slavery level doublethink. On the one hand, it’s sad, but on the other hand, in all the universe could there be a race as capable as humans of clinging so resolutely to faith in the face of so many contrary facts? Seen in this light, there’s something tragically beautiful about it.
And while I admit that New America’s “day is night, black is white” bizarro worldview isn’t easy to parody, I can’t resist trying. So…
Coming up next from New America: The Internet’s Dictatorial Grip: Impeding Access to Information? And The Tyranny of the Cell Phone: Shutting Down Communication? And Our Addiction to Paved Roads: A Threat to Freedom of Movement?
One more thing about this event that’s unintentionally hilarious, and then I need to get back to something worthwhile (AKA, the new manuscript). Take a look at the guest list. If you hired a team of NASA scientists to design the most rabidly, incestuously anti-Amazon panel possible, this is pretty much the group the team would propose. Though I doubt even the scientists (assuming they had a little dignity) would have gone to far as to bring in Douglas Preston and his literary agent, Eric Simonoff. I mean, this is getting pretty close to just adding clones of existing panelists and eliminating the last fluttering fig leaf of diversity.
They also have the dean of the Amazon Derangement crowd, Scott Turow. And Franklin Foer, who in fairness should be disqualified from even being on this panel because of his claim—in his much-derided “Let us kneel down before Amazon” screed—that “That term [monopoly] doesn’t get tossed around much these days, but it should”!
By the way, I wouldn’t be surprised if Foer makes the same cringe-worthy claim again, on this very “Amazon is a Monopoly” panel. The anti-Amazon crowd has never been particularly educable.
Also present will be Mark Coker, the head of Smashwords, an Amazon competitor. And author Susan Cheever, a member of Authors United, an organization that represents pretty much the platonic ideal of Amazon Derangement Syndrome. A couple of anti-trust lawyers to provide a veneer of legal gravitas (and to troll for clients, no doubt). And a second-year law student named Lina Khan who has argued that Amazon “should alarm us.”
And that’s it. That’s as diverse and wide-ranging as the lineup gets. The full gamut of viewpoints, from A…all the way to B.
Although really, even that feels a little generous.
Oh, by the way, Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google, another Amazon competitor, is the chairman of New America’s board of directors, too. No conflict of interest there. Nothing to disclose to anyone who might think this is some sort of disinterested, scholarly event.
So yeah, it’s really that much of a hive-mind lineup. But that’s not even the best part. The best part is, this remarkably insular and incestuous exercise in groupthink has been assembled to speak out against a purported threat to…freedom of expression! The flow of information! And the marketplace of ideas!
None of this is an accident, by the way. It isn’t just stupidity and incompetence. There’s a reason organizations will try to take a narrow outlook and propagate it through multiple mouthpieces: doing so can create the impression that a rare and radical notion is in fact widely held—held even by ostensibly disparate groups—and therefore more trustworthy. Indeed, this form of propaganda is a favorite of some of the same reactionary groups New America is showcasing on its panel. As I said recently about the supposedly “unprecedented joint action” of some booksellers, authors, and agents complaining together about Amazon:
Which brings us to the second revealing aspect of this “propaganda masquerading as an interview” drill. You see, in the standard “blow-job masquerading as interview” gambit, it’s generally enough to hope the reader will just assume the interviewer and interviewee are working at arms-length. Making the point explicitly isn’t really the done thing. Here, however, perhaps not trusting readers to be sufficiently gulled, the ABA and AG are at pains to describe the “unprecedented joint action” of the AG, Authors United, the ABA, and the Association of Authors’ Representatives in going after Amazon for monopolizing the marketplace of ideas, devaluing books, and generally crushing dissent, democracy, and all that is good. The impression they’re trying to create is, “Wow, if so many separate organizations hate Amazon, Amazon must be doing something bad.”
But what’s critical to understand is that the most fundamental purpose of the Authors Guild, Authors United, the American Booksellers Association, and the Association of Authors is to preserve the publishing industry in its current incarnation. Whatever marginal differences they might have (I’ve never actually seen any, but am happy to acknowledge the theoretical possibility) are eclipsed by this commonality of purpose. Under the circumstances, the fact that these four legacy publisher lobbyists agree on something is entirely unremarkable (indeed, what would be remarkable would be some evidence of division). But if people recognize the exercise as a version of “No really, I read it somewhere…okay, I wrote it down first,” the propaganda fizzles. And that’s why these propagandists have to nudge readers with the bullshit about the “unprecedented joint action.” Otherwise, when Authors Guild Executive Director Mary Rasenberger cites Authors United pitchman Doug Preston as though Preston were a separate, credible source, people might roll their eyes instead of nodding at the seriousness of it all. They might even giggle at the realization that all those “When did Amazon stop beating its wife?” questions were functionally being put by Rasenberger to herself.
So no, this wasn’t remotely a cross-examination, or even a cross pollination (indeed, publisher lobbyists are expert at fleeinganything that offers even the slightest whiff of actual debate—which does make their alleged devotion to the Free Flow of Ideas and Information as the Engine of Democracy worthy of a smile, at least, if nothing else). It was just a stump speech lovingly hosted by someone else’s blog. The sole reason for the exercise was to create the misleading appearance of multiple, arms-length actors when functionally there is only one.
In fairness to the aforementioned Unprecedentedly Joint Actors, there is a rich heritagebehind this form of propaganda. For example, in the run-up to America’s second Iraq war, Dick Cheney would have someone from his office phone up a couple of pet New York Timesreporters, who would then dutifully report that anonymous administration officials believed Saddam Hussein had acquired aluminum tubes as part of his nuclear weapons efforts…and then Cheney would go on all the Sunday morning talk shows and get to say, “Don’t take my word for the aluminum tube stuff—even the New York Times is reporting it!”
So leave aside the fact that the “joint action” in question is anything but unprecedented—that it is in fact publishing establishment SOP. Anyone familiar with the record of these organizations will instantly realize that the “unprecedented joint action” in question is a lot like the “joint action” of all four fingers—plus the thumb!—of someone throwing back a shot of tequila. Like that of a little boy pleasuring himself—with both hands!—and trying to convince anyone who will listen that the Unprecedented Left and Right Action is proof that “Everybody loves me!”
Okay, I apologize for the multiple excerpts from previous posts. But what are you going to do? These bloviators keep vomiting up the same tired bullshit, no matter how many times it’s debunked. It just saves time to refer to the previous debunkings rather than typing it all out again.
My advice to New America? If you’re more than just a propaganda operation—if you really do care about freedom of expression, and the flow of information, and the marketplace of ideas—you might want to add at least a token panelist with a viewpoint that differs even just a tiny bit from that of the nine Borg you’ve assembled to intone that Amazon Is Evil and Will Destroy All That Is Good. Otherwise, your event is going to feel more like a circle jerk and less like sex. And, doubtless, with similarly productive results.
Read the rest over at Joe’s blog.
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Published on January 15, 2016 11:12 • 1 view

December 14, 2015

So I saw Chi-Raq yesterday. I went to bed still thinking about it, woke up still thinking about it, and though I need to keep cranking on the new novel, I can see I’m not going to get much done until I exorcise these Chi-Raq thoughts.
CHI-RAQ Trailer from 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks on Vimeo.
First, let’s just get out of the way that the movie is extraordinary. On a variety of levels, but maybe most of all in the range of its tone. It moves repeatedly and effortlessly from satire, camp, and fourth-wall-breaking sequences, including some almost hallucinatory dance numbers, to gut-wrenching, cinema-vérité style human drama. I’ve never seen a movie that had me alternately laughing so much at its antics with language and imagery, then crying so hard at its tragedies. I think part of the reason it affected me so much is that the satire was making me drop my guard. And every time I went for the over-the-top head fake, Spike Lee launched an incredibly real shot right up the middle that landed like a blow.
So yeah, Samuel L. Jackson is a scenery-chewing joy as a one-man Greek chorus, and the poetry of the dialogue is exuberant, and David Patrick Kelly’s out-of-the-blue nod to Dr. Strangelove is crazy and hilarious…and then you watch a lone Jennifer Hudson sobbing while she tries to scrub her recently murdered daughter’s blood from the pavement; or listen to John Cusack’s tremendous centerpiece as a Chicago pastor whose oratory channels tragedy into outraged determination; or see Angela Basset’s face dissolve in grief and fury at an insurance salesman’s attempt to capitalize on Chicago’s murder demographics; or realize from the look in his eyes that Nick Cannon’s conscience is belatedly asserting itself…and you just go to pieces.
Pray 4 My City (explicit version) - Nick Cannon from 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks on Vimeo.
Not that the movie’s aim and impact should be so terribly surprising: it clearly and powerfully signals where it’s going right from the opening credits, via a giant blinking all-caps red message on a black screen: THIS IS AN EMERGENCY. THIS IS AN EMERGENCY. Yes, it is. And it’s mind-blowing that a society could treat tens of thousands of annual gun deaths as anything but.
Overall thoughts: the writing, especially the poetry, is incredibly inventive; the direction, from an initial tracking shot following an L train down to neighborhood street level and into a nightclub, is virtuoso; Teyonah Pariss’s performance is a jaw-dropping tour de force (and that God); the theme song, Pray 4 My City, is still in my head…but these already impressive pieces add up to something much larger than the sum of their parts. More than anything else, Chi-Raq is a political movie, a story about the human impact of gun violence, societal neglect, and fucked-up governmental priorities. Some people won’t approve of that. I wish there were more movies like it.
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Published on December 14, 2015 10:25 • 107 views