Barry Eisler's Blog

December 16, 2014

Guest blogging today with Freedom of the Press Foundation:

"Journalist Barrett Brown is expected to be sentenced by a judge today in a highly controversial case brought by the Justice Department. The below excerpt is an adapted and updated version of the foreword to Barrett's most recent book, written by author Barry Eisler.

"If you don't believe America has political prisoners, you've never heard of Barrett Brown. Which would be a shame on several fronts, because you'd be missing out on one of America's most fearless and talented reporters, and on an object lesson regarding just how far the government is willing to go to suppress journalism and intimidate journalists.

"I first came across Barrett in a 2009 issue of Vanity Fair, where he had written an article called 'Thomas Friedman's Five Worst Predictions.' The article perfectly showcased what I subsequently learned were the Barrett Brown trademarks: iconoclastic insight; hilarious wit, ranging from the dry to the outrageous; a broad and deep frame of reference; incisive argument; complete fearlessness about offending anyone deserving of offense; an abiding sense of citizenship and patriotism.

"I was wowed by the article—both its substance, and, even rarer among political writers, its style. I sent Barrett an email..."

Read the whole post at Freedom of the Press Foundation.
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Published on December 16, 2014 08:52 • 29 views

October 31, 2014

I find myself oddly encouraged that literary agent Andrew Wylie, at his International Festival of Authors keynote, actually compared Amazon to the jihadist group ISIS. The vapidity and intellectual bankruptcy of anti-Amazon reactionaries like Wylie needed no further proof, but still, the reactionaries have a lot of money and media behind them, with full-page ads in the New York Timesand Publishers Weekly; suck-up stenographerslike David Streitfeld; and keynotesat all the major publishing conventions all amplifying their message. So in some ways it’s a good thing their rhetoric has become this nuts. After all, even people not particularly paying attention are likely to roll their eyes when ostensibly respected pillars of the Rich Literary Culture establishment start comparing a retailer best known for its low prices and dedication to customer service to a group best known for kidnapping journalists and murdering them by hacking off their heads on camera.
In fairness to Wylie, he was only being astute in recognizing that, to bring further attention to himself, he had no choice but to crank the crazy all the way to eleven. After all, he was up against legendary sci-fi novelist Ursula K. Le Guin, who claimsAmazon is trying to “disappear” authors and “dictate what authors can write;” megabestseller James Patterson, who claimsthat Amazon is making a “perilous future of books in this country,” is putting “the future of our literature in danger” and that the future “has to be changed, by law if necessary, immediately if not sooner,” and is “attacking writers” and trying to “ruin their families” and is fomenting a “religious war;” Authors United founder Doug Preston, who calls an Amazon offer to join Hachette in compensating authors “blood money” but assures you he is “not taking sides;” Authors Guild (really Publishers Guild) president Roxana Robinson, who claims Amazon is like “Tony Soprano” and “thuggish;” Authors Guild pitchman Richard Russo, who calls Amazon a “half man, half dog” that delights in “scorched-earth capitalism” and “burying your competitors and then burying the shovel;” and former Authors Guild president Scott Turow, who calls Amazon “nightmarish” and “the Darth Vader of the literary world.” Plus a whole host of similar such Actually, Wylie isn’t just competing for attention against the kind of mad rhetoric quoted in the paragraph above; he’s also competing against his own public nuttiness. As I said in a previous post:
When Streitfeld quotes establishment literary agent Andrew Wylie saying, “If Amazon is not stopped, we are facing the end of literary culture in America,” what mysterious force prevents Streitfeld from inquiring, “What the hell does that even mean? What, specifically, do you think needs to be ‘stopped,’ and how do you propose stopping it? How do you define ‘literary culture’? How, precisely, will literary culture—whatever the hell that means—be ended by Amazon?”

Anyway. Whenever I hear novelists like the ones above bleating about how critical books are to our Rich Literary Culture (often they forget themselves and credit not writers for producing books, but rather publishers), I remember that lovely scene in Shakespeare in Love, when Ralph, who plays the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, is asked, “What’s the play about then?” and answers, “Well, there’s this nurse…”
Or to put it another way, whenever I come across writers like the ones above bloviating about books being the very foundation of Rich Literary Culture and Civilization Itself, I imagine a pot farmer going on about how without farmers, we’d have no food. Well, right, maybe not, but… you’re not that kind of farmer, amigo. And not that we don’t all appreciate a good buzz, but maybe the “Without farmers, we’d all starve!” lobbying should be left to the farmers who, you know, grow actual food?
But I digress. Really, I just want to ask Wylie and company this:
What’s preventing all of you from articulating a straight-up, coherent, defensible, reality-based argument about Amazon? What’s with all the vague and amorphous
My advice to these people? Try to find your inner logic, your inner reason. Because now that one of you has actually gone and compared Amazon to ISIS, the only other way to continue to bring attention to yourselves is logic, evidence, and reason, on the one hand… or comparisons to Ebola, Global Warming, and the Third Reich itself, on the other. And even setting aside the far more important question of what’s good for the public, what about your own reputations? Even with as much intellectual dignity as you’ve surrendered with your hysteria so far, do you really want to cash in whatever shreds of it might remain to you? Books will be written about the revolution in publishing. Is your behavior to date really what you want to be remembered for?
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Published on October 31, 2014 10:52 • 47 views

October 16, 2014

Joe Konrath and I respond to the latest Patterson crazy about the revolution in publishing...
"Well, James Patterson is at it again, issuing alarums from the sumptuous grounds of his bazillion-dollar mansion about how Amazon Must Be Stopped lest Jeff Bezos fulfill his evil plan to usher in The End of Days and yada yada yada. Joe’s been doing yeoman’s work for a long time in keeping up with these Pattersonian pontifications -- see here and here and here and here and here, so naturally I asked him to join me in tackling Patterson’s latest, a video interview with The Telegraph.
"In a weird way, this interview is probably Patterson’s most interesting outing to date because he actually goes full circle through the stupid and winds up demonstrating that he’s for everything he’s been saying he’s against..."
Read the rest on Joe's blog, here.
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Published on October 16, 2014 17:04 • 42 views

October 10, 2014

I promised myself I wasn’t going to blog about Franklin Foer’s New Republic piece on how Amazon is an evil monopoly and must be stopped and we’re all enslaving ourselves by shopping there blah blah blah. None of it is remotely new or original or even coherent, and at some point I get tired of pointing out the same deficiencies in these clone articles. But there was one line of bullshit so breathtaking I just had to call it out.
Look, if Foer wants to claim Amazon is a “monopoly,” that’s just routine thoughtlessness, akin to a child being irrationally afraid of the bogeyman. But then he goes on to make a claim that can only be the product of shocking ignorance or brazen deceit:
That term [monopoly] doesn’t get tossed around much these days, but it should.

Holy shit, “Amazon is a monopoly” doesn’t get tossed around much these days?! Did Foer even read the George Packer piece he cites in his own article, in which Packer repeatedly plays the “Amazon is a monopoly!” fear card? Has he ever heard of the “Authors Guild” or “Authors United,” each of which has repeatedly, explicitly, accused Amazon of being a monopoly? Has he read David Streitfeld in the New York Times, or Laura Miller in Salon? I’ve seen countless posts with titles like, Amazon: Malignant Monopoly or Just Plain Evil? I’ve seen op-eds in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, all peddling the same tired, tendentious fear-mongering line about Amazon being a monopoly. Seriously, just Google “Amazon Hachette Monopoly” and see what you come up with.
I see three general possible explanations for Foer’s remarkably inaccurate claim.
1.  Foer is embarrassingly ignorant of the subject he’s trying to cover. He doesn’t read the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal; he’s never heard of the Authors Guild or Authors United; the blogosphere exists only in some sort of inaccessible parallel dimension; he’s failed to do even the most elementary online research… he just doesn’t have a clue regarding what he’s writing about.
2.  Foer is aware of how hoary the “Amazon is a monopoly” meme has become and wants to repeat it, but doesn’t want to admit he has nothing new to say. So he pretends he’s the first person to be possessed of this refreshingly original argument.
3.  Foer is aware of how hoary the “Amazon is a monopoly” meme has become, but believes no other activist, not even the Authors Guild or Authors United or the New York Times David Streitfeld, has been sufficiently alarmist about how close The Amazon Monopoly Is To Enslaving Us All (look at the first sentence of the article: “let us kneel down before” Amazon). So when he says, more or less, “No one else is talking about this,” he really believes it, because he believes no one else is adequately conveying just how terrifying it all is.
4.  Foer knows perfectly well that “Amazon is a monopoly” is about as ubiquitous a meme today as “Obama’s birth certificate was faked and he is a Secret Marxist Muslim Socialist” was just recently. But he also knows you can lend an air of false gravitas to bogus claims and conspiracy theories by implying the mainstream media is too cowed to Speak The Truth, while you are doing something bold, daring, and even dangerous by comparison.
I try to subscribe to the notion that we should never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity. But really, is it possible to write a 3000-word article—with references to articles that themselves claim Amazon is a monopoly—and genuinely believe “the term monopoly doesn’t get tossed around much these days”? I’d like to believe that Foer is just ignorant, and that the correct explanation is #1. But… wow. That’s pretty damn ignorant.
All right, what the hell, we’ve come this far. Just a few more thoughts on the rest of the article, though I don’t know why I’m spending the time, because anyone who claims no one else is accusing Amazon of being a monopoly has already disqualified himself from being taken seriously.
Sure, Barnes and Noble and other chains have long charged fees for shelf placement, but Amazon has invented a steroidal version of that old practice.

Let me translate that: “Amazon offers more value than B&N did, so charges more for it.”
In other breaking news: Janet Evanovich charges her publisher more for her books than I charge mine because she sells more copies, and she is therefore a monopoly. Somebody, get the government to break up Janet Evanovich so I can compete!
(I’ll have more to say below about the reactionary tendency to blame Amazon for the very behavior incumbents like B&N have long behaved in and continue to behave in.)
The New York Times has reported that Amazon apparently wants to increase its cut of each e-book it sells, from 30 percent to 50…

Somehow, Foer left out “but of course, no one really knows. And even if we did know, it would be incoherent to discuss hypothetical percentages if we don’t also have information about wholesale and retail prices.”
Random House joined Penguin to form a mega-house, which controls 25 percent of the book business…

A “mega-house”? That’s bad, right? Because now “the culture will suffer the inevitable consequences of monopoly—less variety of products”?
Hmm, apparently not. The New York “Big Five” cartel magically ensures variety. While the company that invented Kindle Direct Publishing, enabling all authors to publish whatever they want, is killing variety. Who knew?
This upfront money [the advance] is the economic pillar on which quality books rest, the great bulwark against dilettantism…

Indeed, every first-time novel—pretty much by definition written without an advance or even a realistic hope of legacy publication—was written by a “dilettante.” Good to know. Also good to know that authors don’t write quality books—the advances do that!
This is a classic case of one of the logical fallacies I find most interesting among people fearful of change: the tendency to conflate an important function (authors making money from their work) with the traditional means by which that function has been fulfilled (the advance). I can’t believe I’m still having to repeat to the Foers of the world, but… the advance is oneway by which authors have been compensated. It doesn’t follow, either logically or empirically, that it is the onlyway.
But no bank or investor in its right mind would extend that kind of credit to an author, save perhaps Stephen King.

Again, could somebody help me understand how all those first books get written? No advance, no credit, and yet…
And “no bank” would extend “that kind of credit”? Does Foer realize he’s talking about an average of $5000? No bank? Really? And “no investor”? Hmm, well, if only someone would invent a modern, web-based way of raising capital. Where someone could explain the project, solicit investors… and maybe they could name it, I don’t know, “Kickstarter,” something like that.
Or if only someone would invent a means of reaching readers that didn’t require gatekeepers and advances of credit in the unreachable average amount of $5000. Something that would enable authors to publish themselves. We could even call it… self-publishing!
Amazon might decide that it can only generate enough revenue by further transforming the e-book market—and it might try to drive sales by deflating Salman Rushdie and Jennifer Egan novels to the price of a Diet Coke.

Yep. Or it might try to drive sales by putting all its marketing muscle behind Snooki and 50 Shades of Grey.
Oh wait, someone else is already doing that. The guardians of rich literary culture, the bulwarks against dilettantism, the guarantors of a greater variety of quality books, etc.
But the tendentiousness in Foer’s argument isn’t even what’s most interesting about it. What’s implicit is even more so: that it would actually be bad if more people could afford to buy books by Salman Rushdie and Jennifer Egan. How is this view any different from the arguments that must have been made against the Vulgate Bible, or the Guttenburg printing press? “Tsk, isn’t this just going to make reading more accessible to the unwashed masses?”
If you haven’t read it already, I can’t recommend highly enough this article by Clay Shirky about the aristocratic, elitist, narcissistic worldview always inherent in the minds of people like Foer.
Or [Amazon] can continue to prod the publishing houses to change their models, until they submit.

Or even until they reform, perhaps by offering authors a more equitable digital split, and paying authors more often than twice a year, and permitting publication terms shorter than “forever,” and dropping the draconian rights lock-ups from their contracts, and by finding ways to give readers greater choice and access and lower prices, and all the other things they could do if they were interested more in competing and less in complaining.
Either way, the culture will suffer the inevitable consequences of monopoly—less variety of products and lower quality of the remaining ones.

To paraphrase David Gaughran, this would be a really interesting (and possibly even accurate) point if no one had ever invented digital books and self-publishing.
As for the notion that readers are so untermenschenthat they can’t determine for themselves what constitutes a “quality” book, again, you’ve got to read that Clay Shirky article.
This is depressing enough to ponder when it comes to the fate of lawn mower blades.

Not nearly as depressing as reading the same recycled, inaccurate, thought-free memes year after year after year.
In confronting what to do about Amazon, first we have to realize our own complicity.

Well, no, we don’t. First we have to read all the good free advice people like Hugh Howey and Joe Konrath have offered publishers, and ask why it’s all been ignored in favor of collusion and non-stop whining.
We’ve all been seduced by the deep discounts, the monthly automatic diaper delivery, the free Prime movies, the gift wrapping, the free two-day shipping, the ability to buy shoes or books or pinto beans or a toilet all from the same place. But it has gone beyond seduction, really. We expect these kinds of conveniences now, as if they were birthrights.

Um, okay, I guess, but couldn’t you can say the same about antibiotics and flush toilets and ice cream straight from the freezer? Why isn’t Foer up in arms that people just expect they can drive to the supermarket for fresh milk, damn it, rather than having to get up in the cold and dark at 4:00 a.m. to milk their own cow?
I could leave that as a rhetorical question, but it isn’t really. There’s an answer. Which is: people like Foer are afraid of change. If Foer had been born in a different generation, he would have written similar screeds inveighing against the horrors of the cotton gin, the automobile, the telephone, etc. Foer’s mentality is always inherent in a percentage of the population; it just expresses itself slightly differently depending on what happens to be the latest devil of progress that’s poised to End Civilization And All That Is Good.
But while that meritocratic theory might be true enough for a search engine or social media site, Amazon is different.

Oh, yes. Every new change that terrifies people inherently afraid of change is different. Every single one, throughout history. I’m serious: name a single significant social or technological change ever, anywhere, that wasn’t accompanied by Luddites and other alarmists declaring, “Yes, but this one is DIFFERENT.”
Unchallenged monopolists have little incentive to disrupt industries they already control.

True! Which is why the New York “Big Five” has long been such a boiling cauldron of innovation.
Regarding the long section on how government intervention helped IBM and Microsoft, and allowed Google to grow… actually, it was my novels that helped all these companies. The third was published in 2004, and if you’ll check the timeline, you’ll see that Google’s stock price is built on my publication dates. QED.
Still, if we don’t engage the new reality of monopoly with the spirit of argumentation and experimentation that carried Brandeis, we’ll drift toward an unsustainable future, where one company holds intolerable economic and cultural sway.

How can someone write something like that… and not be referring to the New York “Big Five”?
Another seeming rhetorical question that actually has an answer. People who are fearful of change correspondingly worship the status quo—because the status quo, by definition, doesn’t change. It doesn’t matter whether the status quo is good or bad; what matters is just that it represents the absence of change, and therefore must be supported. So even though all the bad things reactionaries like Foer fear from Amazon in the future—too much power, too little variety, too little innovation—already exist courtesy of the New York “Big Five” cartel, Foer is as happy with the present as he is fearful of the future. Because if there’s one thing the Big Five has always stood for, it’s keeping things exactly the way they are. And if you’re possessed of a sufficiently reactionary personality, there’s no better narcotic than that.
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Published on October 10, 2014 11:18 • 39 views

October 6, 2014

New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan has a new article on the Times’ coverage of the Amazon/Hachette standoff—“Publishing Battle Should Be Covered, Not Joined”—in which, in her signature firm-but-fair style, Sullivan admonishes Times reporter David Streitfeld for his lopsided approach to the Amazon/Hachette standoff:
It’s important to remember that this is a tale of digital disruption, not good and evil. The establishment figures The Times has quoted on this issue, respected and renowned though they are, should have their statements subjected to critical analysis, just as Amazon’s actions should be. The Times has given a lot of ink to one side and—in story choice, tone and display—helped to portray the retailer as a literature-killing bully instead of a hard-nosed business.

  I would like to see more unemotional exploration of the economic issues; more critical questioning of the statements of big-name publishing players; and greater representation of those who think Amazon may be a boon to a book-loving culture, not its killer.

The whole article is well worth reading. Here, I’d like to add just a few thoughts about the nature of the Streitfeldian tendentiousness Sullivan criticizes.
As always when questioning the methodology behind the Times’ coverage of a topic, Sullivan gives the reporters and editors she’s reviewing a chance to explain themselves. Here’s how Streitfeld attempted to do so:
Mr. Streitfeld says his stories have been driven by one value: newsworthiness. When established authors band together against the largest bookseller, he says, “it’s just a great story, period.” And he says that 900 of their signatures mean much more than “a petition that’s open to anyone on the Internet.” To treat them as equal would be false equivalency, he says…  As for his own viewpoint, he says: “I am on no side here. I view my role as opening up these questions.”

Sullivan is unfailingly polite and charitable in her approach as Public Editor—so much so that I almost feel a little bad about what I’m going to say next. Which is:
Streitfeld is full of shit.
I don’t know whether he was lying to Sullivan or lying to himself. Probably some strange combination. But the most cursory examination of his claims reveals them to be embarrassingly indefensible. Let’s have a look and see why.
When established authors band together against the largest bookseller, he says, “it’s just a great story, period.”

True as far as it goes, no doubt, but it’s wrong to end that sentence with a “period.” Logically, there should be a conjunction, probably the word “and,” followed by something along the lines of, “jeez, now that I think about it, IT’S ALSO A GREAT STORY WHEN THOUSANDS OF AUTHORS ARE IN OPEN REBELLION AGAINST THE ‘BIG FIVE’ PUBLISHING SYSTEM!”
Think about that for a second. Even just five years ago, it was hard to find authors publicly criticizing publishers (though if you hung out at a writers conference bar, you’d hear little but). But now? Authors publiclyexcoriatingabusiveand otherwise suboptimallegacy practices are everywhere. A guerilla group called AuthorEarningsis providing data that’s never been available to authors before. So many authors are criticizing the establishment-revering “Authors Guild” for in fact being a Publishers Guild that the AG has taken to censoring comments on its blog. An entire shadow industry has sprung up and is rattling the legacy industry like nothing its ever known.
And Streitfeld won’t cover something this seismic… because it doesn’t involve sufficiently “established” players? One story is automatically great, and the other not even worth mentioning? Does that make any sense at all?
Well, maybe, in a twisted way. You see, if you want to understand the real nature of Streitfeld’s partisanship, it’s right there in that word: “established.”
Established by what? If it’s sales Streitfeld requires, he could have gone to Bella Andre, Hugh Howey, Joe Konrath, Holly Ward, or other self-published authors whose books have sold in the millions. If Streitfeldian “established” status requires some sort of Hollywood affirmation, that would be an equally easy hurdle.
So we can only surmise that by “established,” Streitfeld is referring to something more akin to a club. You know, the important authors, the well-connected ones, the ones Streitfeld quotes in the New York Times because… they get quoted in The New York Times.
(For more on the elitist and aristocratic assumptions behind the Streitfeldian establishment-centric worldview, I recommend this thoughtful piece by Clay Shirky.)
If there were a principle at work in Streitfeld’s attempted defense of his shoddiness, it could be summed up as, “I only cover what the establishment does, because that’s all that matters.”
This is a reporter who has strayed a long, long way from the fundamental notion that journalism is intended to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
But “My job is to cover only the establishment” wasn’t even the least impressive aspect of Streitfeld’s defense. This is worse:
And he says that 900 of their signatures mean much more than “a petition that’s open to anyone on the Internet.” To treat them as equal would be false equivalency, he says.

Holy shit! This is the guy who compared a petition to Hachette in favor of “low prices and fair wages” with a petition to Amazon against “the sale of whale, dolphin, and porpoise meat”—thereby gifting the lexicon with the derisive new phrase, “Whale Math.” As I said at the time:
Really, it’s as though Streitfeld writes a whole article about the massiveness of some guy’s four-inch manhood, and then grudgingly, almost as an aside, mentions that, well, okay, there was this guy John Holmes, who was, admittedly, like three times bigger—but then immediately goes on to note that, of course, by comparison to the Washington Monument, which is over 500 feet, Holmes’s endowment wasn’t really all that…

And now Streitfeld sniffs that he couldn’t possiblycompare two competing petitions about the Amazon/Hachette dispute... because doing so would be to engage in “false equivalency!”
I’ve said it before: the only way to describe bullshit this shameless is by calling it Streitfeldian.
But here’s the irony: when Streitfeld says he couldn’t properly discuss the two Amazon/Hachette petitions due to his scrupulous concerns about equivalency, I think he actually might be onto something. Because yes, one of the petitions—the one that garnered only about 900 signatures—was amplified by a $100,000 full-page ad in the New York Times; by broad and fawning media attention (exemplified by Streitfeld’s own love letters to Authors United and Hachette); and through the efforts of establishment allies like the Authors Guild (better understood as the Publishers Guild). While the other letter—the one that has almost 9000 signatures—went out with no money, no brand names behind it, no Streitfeldian press agent at the New York Times helping get out the word, and no establishment allies. Its message spread via nothing more than grass roots social media and word of mouth, and even so it wound up with nearly 10x the support of the New York Times-backed, money-fueled anti-Amazon effort.
So agreed, it’s hard to say the two should be “treated as equal.” They certainly weren’t.
Of course, the whole “can’t treat them as equal,” “oh, that would be a false equivalency” line of defense is just a dodge anyway. Because the point here isn’t that X and Y are equal or even equivalent. The point is that context requires they be considered together.Sure, if you’re possessed of a sufficiently elitist worldview, you could claim that having relatively few establishment names on one petition gives that petition more weight than having relatively many non-establishment names on another petition. That would be distinguishingthe two petitions, which, even if reasonable people might disagree with the distinction, would be a coherent and logically defensible approach. What isn’t coherent or logically defensible is first ignoring one of the petitions entirely, and then comparing it (in the name of avoiding false equivalency!) with another petition on a completely unrelated topic.
Bear in mind, too, that this is the same guy who claimed in the Times that “Amazon defenders are greatly outnumbered by critics” (my emphasis), who ignored my request for evidence of that dubious proposition, who ignored Amazon’s #1 reputation ranking (a fairly astonishing achievement if Streitfeld is right that the company’s defenders are outnumbered by its critics), and who is now ignoring even more actual evidence demonstrating the reverse of what he claimed—because… False Equivalency!
I don’t know how to explain bullshit this breathtaking. Is it cynical? Or clinical?
Or here, let’s see how Streitfeld’s justification for his reporting fares in another context. Would he also explain exclusively quoting executives of Goldman Sachs, while ignoring the efforts of Occupy Wall Street, because OWS is “open to anyone”? Is that even a remotely coherent distinction for a reporter in determining what matters? Or is it a means of ensuring coverage only for the powerful and well-connected?
Let me try to put it one other way, on the remote chance that Streitfeld cares enough about his professionalism, or least the appearance of professionalism, to listen to his critics:
Has Streitfeld ever written anything about Authors United that Authors United would not itself have issued as a press release if it didn’t have ready access to a pet reporter at the New York Times? Out of all Streitfeld’s coverage of the revolution in publishing over the last six months, Joe Konrath has identified one article that might—might—pass that test.
There’s a word for that kind of uncritical coverage. No, not journalism.
Or, as Orwell put it, “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.” By this definition, is there a way to conclude other than that Streitfeld has been doing Authors United’s PR work?
Look, let’s try to be kind to Streitfeld here. Maybe what he means is, “the anti-Amazon letter was only open to authors; the pro-Amazon letter was open to anyone.” If that is indeed what he’s trying to say, he’s missing a pretty important point: while the anti-Amazon letter is written only by authors but purports to be about what’s best for readers, the pro-Amazon letter was expressly intended to let readers speak for themselves about what mattered to them.
So once again, if we do Streitfeld the courtesy of trying to accept that he actually means what he says, he’s arguing that only authors (and, again, only ones he considers to be “established”) matter. What readers (and non-establishment authors) might want can’t—by definition—be a “great story.” It’s doesn’t even qualify for baseline “newsworthiness.”
As for his own viewpoint, he says: “I am on no side here. I view my role as opening up these questions.”

Hilariously, “We’re not taking sides” is exactly what Authors United constantly claims, even as it takes out anti-Amazon ads in the New York Times; writes letters to Amazon’s board of directors; and urges the Justice Department to investigate Amazon for unspecified bad behavior. If that’s what Streitfeld means by “not taking sides,” I think I’m beginning to understand how he could make such a claim with a straight face.
As for the rest of the dodge, does Streitfeld really not understand that which questions he “opens up,” the way he asks them, and the context he does or doesn’t provide, mean everything with regard to whether he’s fundamentally being a journalist… or fundamentally a propagandist? How is it even conceivable a New York Times reporter could not understand something so axiomatic and obvious?
This, by the way, is the one place where I thought Sullivan went too far in her attempt to be compassionate to the subject of her criticism—in saying the word “‘propaganda’ is a stretch.” In fact, I defy you to read this Joe Konrath post exhaustively analyzing dozens of Streitfeld’s Greatest Hits and to conclude other than that Streitfeld is a propagandist.
Look, two quick examples, both from just his latest screed, though there are countless others. When Streitfeld quotes “established author” Ursula K. Le Guin saying Amazon is trying to “disappear” authors and to “dictate what authors can write,” what mysterious force prevents him from asking, “What do you mean, ‘disappear?’ After all, every one of those authors, and every one of their titles, is still available through Amazon. And if Amazon is trying to ‘dictate what authors can write,’ how do you explain Kindle Direct Publishing, which unlike anything in traditional publishing allows all authors to publish whatever they like?”
Oh, all right, just one more. When Streitfeld quotes establishment literary agent Andrew Wylie saying, “If Amazon is not stopped, we are facing the end of literary culture in America,” what mysterious force prevents Streitfeld from inquiring, “What the hell does that even mean? What, specifically, do you think needs to be ‘stopped,’ and how do you propose stopping it? How do you define ‘literary culture’? How, precisely, will literary culture—whatever the hell that means—be ended by Amazon?”
Or look, even if Streitfeld is too ignorant and/or thoughtless to come up with these obvious questions himself, what mysterious force prevents him from—at the barest minimum—contacting someone with a different viewpoint to pressure-check claims as bizarre and facially suspect as Le Guin’s and Wylie’s?
Come on. This isn’t “opening up questions.” It’s taking dictation.
Or, as David Gregory infamously put it in response to a question about whether the media did its job in the run-up to America’s 2003 Iraq war:
I think there are a lot of critics who think that… if we did not stand up and say this is bogus, and you’re a liar, and why are you doing this, that we didn’t do our job.  I respectfully disagree. It’s not our role.

It’s amazing that someone could self-identify as a journalist while simultaneously claiming it’s not his job to point out that the government is lying. It’s at least equally amazing that Streitfeld would proudly adopt the same philosophy the establishment media brought to bear on covering the bogus claims that led to catastrophe in Iraq. Is he stupid? In denial? Ineducable? Some combination?
I don’t know how else to explain to someone who seems so willfully myopic. Look, if Le Guin or whoever breathlessly claimed that Amazon was, say, “assassinating” authors, would it occur to Streitfeld to ask, “Hmmm, what do you mean by that?” Or would he just type it up, send it in, and go for a beer? Or, as Stephen Colbert so memorably put it at the whorefest popularly known as the White House Correspondents’ Dinner:
The President makes decisions. He's the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ’em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!

I’d almost rather that Streitfeld knows he’s acting as a legacy-publishing shill and is just trying to hide it. In some ways, it would be worse if he really believed all the lame excuses he trotted out to Sullivan. Worse, because the first step toward solving a problem is acknowledging its existence. Salute to Sullivan for providing at least a start on the intervention Streitfeld so badly requires. But it’s hard to be optimistic he’ll become a better journalist because of it.
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Published on October 06, 2014 08:08 • 21 views

October 3, 2014

Guest-blogging today with the awesome Freedom of the Press Foundation:

Okay, this is huge: a federal judge has ordered the government to release videos of Guantanamo force-feedings. Expect the footage to be sickening to watch.

Why is this so important? Because, as the saying goes, if the slaughterhouses of the world were made of glass, we'd all be vegetarians. And the only thing that enables most people to shrug at America's descent into torture and other abusive and illegal practices is the fact that they don't have to see -- and therefore acknowledge -- what's actually happening.

If it's true a picture's worth a thousand words, video is even more so. Imagine if there had been no Abu Ghraib photographs. There barely would have been a story, let alone an outcry, let alone reforms. This is why the CIA destroyed its interrogation videos. It's why the government works so hard to obscure...

The rest at Freedom of the Press Foundation here.
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Published on October 03, 2014 17:37 • 85 views

September 28, 2014

Updated Below

I was traveling much of the day yesterday, so I missed the news that romance publisher Ellora's Cave is suing Jane Litte and her blog Dear Author for "defamation." Jane reported on EC's apparent failure to pay EC authors royalties that were due, on authors calling for a boycott of EC-published books, and on related matters, and it seems EC responded the way powerful entities sometimes do when their abuses are exposed: they sued. For more on what's happening here and why it's so important that authors stand with Jane and Dear Author, I recommend in particular "Ellora's Cave Sues Dear Author: Hello Streisand Effect," at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

I've opined many times that we're living through a revolution in publishing, a revolution that promises more opportunities, freedom, and profits for authors, and better choice, convenience, and prices for readers. The publishing establishment is trying to impede that progress in a variety of ways: propaganda; marginalizing critics; calls for government intervention; and now, it seems, litigation designed to frighten and silence critics of entrenched interests.

(For a fascinating and disturbing look at this phenomenon in the context of the CIA aligning with establishment media to destroy a muckraker's reputation, don't miss this must-read from Ryan Gallagher at The Intercept: "Managing a Nightmare: How the CIA Watched Over the Destruction of Gary Webb.")

Jane says she's going to keep her readers updated about progress in the suit. She might set up a legal fund. If she does, I'll certainly contribute, and I hope so will anyone else who cares about authors, readers, and the importance of stopping corporate interests from using spurious lawsuits to chill free speech.


A response I wrote offline to some people quite fairly pointing out that Ellora's Cave is not an establishment publisher:

I think maybe our disconnect is that you guys are focusing more on individual distinctions, while I'm focusing more on higher-level commonalities. It's been my experience that different approaches like ours can sometimes cause argument, because depending on what you zero in on, any two things can be said to be different (apples and oranges look and taste different) or to be the same (apples and oranges are both fruit).

The post I wrote is about power dynamics in publishing. As I think should be reasonably clear from our discussions here (and my posts elsewhere), I don't trust asymmetrical market power anywhere I see it, and despise its abuses no matter how or in what system it manifests itself. This is why I make connections between politics and publishing, and between establishment publishers like Hachette and upstarts like EC. Of course it's perfectly accurate to say, "New York Publishing is not the Democratic Party/Republican Party/Wall Street!" Or "Hachette is not EC!" But it's the commonalities that concern me here, not the differences. Except as a straw man, identifying and examining those commonalities doesn't translate into "The Big Five=the Democratic National Committee," or "Ellora's Cave=Hachette," and it's a bit silly to suggest otherwise.

Mike said, "I'm reminded of the line about the guy with the hammer to whom everything looks like a nail." Indeed, and there's a corollary: a guy afraid of picking up a hammer will live in denial that nails even exist. Though I'm not sure argument by allegory is well calculated to shed light here rather than heat.

Let me put it this way. If EC doesn't believe its suit is going to cause a massive backlash and result in new authors being afraid to sign with them, it can only be because: (i) they're so desperate they think they have nothing to lose; (ii) they believe they have such asymmetrical market power that authors will submit new manuscripts to them no matter what; or (iii) both. These power dynamics are the connections and commonalities I see between EC and establishment publishing. I get that you don't see them, and that's okay. I'm glad we all agree that EC's behavior here is outrageous.
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Published on September 28, 2014 09:18 • 18 views

September 26, 2014


I’m a member of a list serv peopled by various prominent voices in publishing, and this morning I had an exchange with one person I thought was so illustrative of some of the worldviews at work in the revolution in the industry I wanted to reprint it here. The discussion started because of something Nate Hoffelder wrote about Authors United over at The Digital Reader:
So after not taking sides in taking out a $104,000 advert in the NYTimes, and after not taking sides in sending a letter to Amazon’s board of directors (and then revising it so it was even more insulting), Authors United is now going to not take sides by calling for Amazon to be investigated for antitrust violations... Tell me, does anyone else think it’s time to simply come out and call AU for what it is, a publishing industry astroturfing group?

Which led to this exchange. My thoughts in regular font; the other person’s in italics.
I think Authors United are just trying to do what they think is best for them, and I don’t really see why they should be blamed for that.

I’d like to substitute a few new subjects in that sentence to test the validity of its underlying principle:
“I think Goldman Sachs is just trying to do what they think is best for them, and I don’t really see why they should be blamed for that.”
“I think defense contractors are just trying to do what they think is best for them, and I don’t really see why they should be blamed for that.”
“I think gerrymandering politicians are just trying to do what they think is best for them, and I don’t really see why they should be blamed for that.”
So unless you are arguing that “just trying to do what they think is best for them” is an automatic shield against criticism, I think you have to modify what you said above. Something else is causing you to sympathize with Authors United (which is obviously fine), but I don’t think it makes sense to suggest that thing is merely “they’re just trying to do what they think is best for them.”
My own belief is that a group that’s trying to do what’s best for them at the expense of the wider society of which they’re part is indeed deserving of criticism, and this is precisely the root of my criticism of Authors United (well, that and the embarrassing disingenuousness).
It’s no more disingenuous than what various self-publishers are doing, taking the side that feels most beneficial to future careers.

I imagine you could find individual instances of various self-published authors who’ve said disingenuous things. If you can find anything as consequential and prominent as a group like Authors United claiming not to take sides even as it urges the DOJ to investigate Amazon, I’d be curious to hear about it. Certainly I have my own biases, and it’s possible I’m missing something, but I just can’t imagine what you’re referring to here. 
Astroturfing is a very specific thing, and as an accusation it can only be stood up if there’s evidence that the group is being funded by, manipulated by, or organised by someone within the industry. The fact that their aims fit in neatly with the publisher’s aims is not, by itself, enough to make the accusation of astroturfing stick. It just means they happen to have similar aims - and afaik, for Authors United, that aim is to get Amazon to stop penalising authors for Hachette’s actions.

As I’ve said before, I agree with all of the above -- except for the notion that Amazon is “penalizing” authors. More on this below.
Personally, I think the sanctions are a shitty thing for Amazon to do. Whether Amazon or Hachette are “right” is anyone’s guess - I’ve no idea of the details of their negotiation, pretty much like everyone else, so it’s very hard to make a call. But deliberately damaging someone’s sales is a nasty tactic...

If anyone has a suggestion for how a retailer could exercise any negotiating leverage against a supplier without at some point reducing or refusing to stock the supplier’s inventory, I’d like to know what that thing could be. I’ve asked this question many times and no one at Authors United has proposed anything. And if Amazon is deliberately damaging Hachette author sales, why has Amazon proposed three different ways to fully compensate those authors for any damage they incur as a result of the Amazon/Hachette impasse? Three different ways that were all immediately dismissed by Authors United and Hachette with no counterproposal other than “capitulate to whatever Hachette is asking of you.”
Part of the disingenuousness that so fundamentally characterizes Authors United is precisely this “targeting authors” and “sanctioning authors” line of rhetoric. You can make a good case that authors are collateral damage in the Amazon/Hachette dispute. In fact, I wouldn’t know how to argue otherwise. But to suggest that Amazon’s aim is to damage authors directly makes little sense (with all the media sympathy garnered by the plight of these authors, I think you’d be on firmer ground arguing that Hachette is deliberately using them as bargaining chips). You’ve imposed a quite stringent burden of proof for accusations of astroturfing; why are you so comfortable with your certainty that Amazon is “deliberately damaging someone’s sales,” when there are other -- and far more plausible -- explanations easily available? How could Amazon’s attempts to compensate those authors -- again, attempts all rebuffed by Authors United and Hachette -- coherently be said to be further evidence of Amazon’s desire to damage those authors’ sales?
I think what’s sad is that this has turned into a mess of identity politics, which is causing much more, and much uglier, conflict than there needs to be. It is a shame because there are some important issues that need broader discussion, but that discussion has now mostly been poisoned by ego.

To me, this feels like decrying the quality of online discourse generally. Sure, probably 99.9% of it is puerile, but that still leaves more great stuff than anyone will be able to follow in a lifetime. So sure, there’s a lot of ugly, ego-driven heat on this topic, but there’s still more than enough light. I like to think we’re enjoying a more-light-than-heat conversation right here, no? :)
Another of countless examples: there’s a terrific conversation going on right now between Lee Child and Joe Konrath over at Joe’s blog. Check it out.
What is also deeply disturbing to me is the marginalisation of dissent that has been slowly blossoming in self-publishing and which is now in full flower.

I’m not sure what this means.
Traditionally published and self-published authors should not be in conflict.

Why not? To me, this is like saying, “Democrats and Republicans shouldn’t be in conflict.” When two groups have two competing visions regarding how and for whose benefit a system or society should be designed, of course there should be conflict! In fact, my “Democrats and Republicans” example is really an opposite kind of proof, because so much of what ails America is the result of a lack of conflict between the two parties (which on most issues are really just wings of the same party). The whole country would be better off if Democrats and Republicans were in conflict. If they were, then for example right now Obamawouldn’t be bombing his seventh Muslim country (Bush only managed four). Perhaps bipartisanship and conflict avoidance isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?
But I digress. I just don’t know why anyone would argue that conflict between competing visions is bad. I think the opposite is true.
You all write books. You all want readers to read and be happy. You just have a different methodology for achieving that. And that really is it. It’s a shame that the rhetoric has to get so heated. But then, identity politics does that.

I agree that it’s useful for competing groups to keep in mind the important things they have in common, as doing so helps keep perspective. But again, I’d like to substitute just a few words in the paragraph above to test the underlying principle:
“Wall Street and Occupy Wall Street, you all love your country. You all want people to be happy and prosperous. You just have a different methodology of achieving that. And that really is it...”
That really is it? I don’t think so. I think that taken too far, this “With all we have in common, can’t we just agree?” mindset is an artifact of an attachment to our own politics. Because of course my politics aren’t politics at all; they’re just common sense. So if you don’t agree with me, it must just be identify politics at work...
I will also add that as someone who’s dabbled in self-publishing, I’ve been really put off engaging further with the community because of the aggression, the identity politics, and the lack of impulse control shown by some of self-publishing’s louder voices.

LOL... I get it. I feel the same way whenever Doug Preston claims not to be taking sides, or when Hachette claims its all about “nurturing” authors...
But then I remember it’s exactly the most aggressive, the most identity-politics-driven, and the most impulse-control-challenged among legacy publishing’s louder voices who could benefit most from my thoughts and my example. So I continue to engage.
I made the active decision to stop blogging about it, because the shitstorm that comes down on anyone who doesn’t toe the self-publishing line is deeply unpleasant, not to mention entirely unnecessary.

Hey, at least those loud self publishers are engaging you! If you ever figure out a way to get Doug Preston, Roxana Robinson, Richard Russo, or Scott Turow to engage their critics, please tell me what it is. Personally, I think rough-and-tumble discussion is a hell of a lot better than no discussion at all, and it’s precisely that willingness to engage that’s one of the things I admire about indie culture, as its opposite is one of the things I decry about legacy culture.
If anything, I have become more sympathetic to publishers now than I was 4 or 5 years ago, not because my views have changed regarding how terribly they are coping (rather, failing to cope) with change, but because I understand how embattled they are probably feeling.

I’d sympathize more if their solutions to feeling embattled weren’t always about higher prices for readers and lower royalties to authors.
Instead of being a force for change, self-publishing appears to be a force that creates conflict, makes people feel defensive or unwilling to speak publicly, and is, I believe, getting in the way of change. And that, too, is a shame.

This part is especially hard for me to understand. Because when there are no alternatives, of course there is no conflict! Up until recently, legacy publishing had all the leverage, made all the rules, and ran the entire industry with cartel-like power. Under those circumstances, where could conflict have come from? You know where else there’s no conflict? North Korea! Yes, I know this is an extreme example, but it illustrates the point. In human systems what might superficially resemble harmony is much more likely to be evidence of an extreme imbalance of power.
Reading through all your thoughts here, I’m getting the feeling that you almost feel conflict is inherently bad. I think that’s a hard position to support. You say conflict is getting in the way of change. No, it’s more than that -- you say that self-publishing isn’t a force for change because it’s causing conflict. But does that make sense? Can you tell me what change we ever saw in the publishing industry before there was conflict? That’s not a rhetorical question; if I’m missing something, I really want to know.
Is it possible you have things precisely backward? Is it possible conflict doesn’t obstruct change, but in entrenched situations is rather the only thing that causes change? At a minimum, can you identify any significant social or industry change that has ever occurred, if not by conflict, than at least while not being accompanied by it? Again, not a rhetorical question; your views are sharply different from mine and if I’m missing something, I want to know.
What I really think is a shame, as you put it, is that you would point to the very conflict that’s causing reform in publishing -- or that at a minimum is inherently accompanying that reform -- as something that “makes people unwilling to speak publicly.” Look, anyone who wants to speak up but doesn’t isn’t being “made” to do anything. That’s a choice, not a condition. Again, having to repeatedly point out embarrassingly remedial concepts to legacy propagandists isn’t the most fun I can imagine, but I choose to do it because in doing so I believe I’m doing my tiny part in making the world a better place. Of course we all have to make such decisions for ourselves and I don’t think there’s any one-size-fits-all answer, but nor do I think it’s useful to pretend that these decisions are somehow being made by self-publishing and not by we ourselves.

Change is always accompanied by conflict. To decry conflict is therefore to decry change. Which is why establishments purport to hate conflict. Let’s not unintentionally aid them in their propaganda.


Literary agent Ted Weinstein and I were going back and forth on this on the list serv, and Ted’s questions were (as usual) so interesting and provocative I wanted to reprint them here. As I say in the comments, if this is an example of “conflict,” I hope to see more of it!

Ted said:

How does anything that AU is saying or advocating affect any  self-published author?

Hi Ted, I’ve addressed this question a few times:
“All this power, and it doesn’t even occur to them to say to Hachette, You want us to back you up in your fight with Amazon? We want a press release from you promising to change the following policies for all authors by X date. No press release? No support.’ That’s the kind of behavior you’d expect to see from an ‘Authors Guild’ even remotely worthy of the name.
“But you don't see that. Instead, a bunch of plutocrat authors are going to drop a hundred grand -- about the equivalent of anyone else buying a cup of coffee at 7-Eleven -- to take out a New York Times ad castigating Amazon. That’s how they’re using their ‘power’ on behalf of all authors.”
“Like a Democrat effectively saying, ‘Vote for me or I’ll turn the keys over to John McCain and Sarah Palin,’ the Big Five and their supporters are effectively saying, ‘Support us and our cartel-like business practices because Amazon could become even worse than we’ve been.’ I don’t buy that bullshit when I hear it from Democrats, so why would I buy it from legacy publishing?  I’m willing to take that risk, recognizing the only way things might get better is if I’m willing to ignore self-interested threats to the effect that ‘Without us, it might get even worse.’
“To put it another way: the Big Five and its supporters in Authors United and the Authors Guild are playing a game of chicken with the 99% of authors who have been ill-served by the business practices the establishment refuses to reform. I’ll be damned if I blink first in the face of that.”
More here:
And here:
Ted said:
You haven't answered the question at all, here or in any of those links. How has what AU said or done DIRECTLY AFFECTED the ability of any self-published authors to continue to self-publish, via Amazon, Smashwords or any of the other self-publishing outlets?

Ted, before you asked, “How does anything that AU is saying or advocating affect any self-published authors?” That was a different question, and if you don't think I answered it in the quotes and links I provided, it's okay, we can just agree to disagree.
If, on the other hand, what you meant to ask was your new question, the answer is: I don't think it has.
But do you see the important differences in your two questions? The first asks about a global effect -- current and potential -- and on self-published authors generally, not just on their ability to self-publish. The second question focuses more on how what Authors United is doing affects self-published authors right now, and only with regard to their ability to self-publish. I think these are subtle but quite important differences.
It might be that we're not seeing eye-to-eye here because you’re looking at legacy-published and self-published authors as discrete classes. In other words, right, for someone who would under no circumstances ever consider legacy publishing and is certain only to self-publish, groups like Authors United probably don’t merit much more than an eye-roll (at least to the extent that such authors are motivated purely by self-interest and not by concern for authors generally). Bob Mayer, for example, often makes this case, and makes it well.
But for self-published authors who are hybrids, who are considering the legacy route, or who might consider the legacy route, of course what Authors United is doing matters a lot -- because, as I’ve said many times including in the links I provided, Authors United is fundamentally trying to maintain the legacy system with all its flaws, rather than seizing a great opportunity to help improve it.
I might be misunderstanding you, but it seems like the basis for your questions is the assumption that self-published authors only care about the larger publishing ecosystem insofar as that ecosystem directly affects their bottom line. This hasn’t been my experience. Certainly some people are motivated purely by self-interest, but people do also have larger concerns. I’m reasonably active against torture, warrantless surveillance, and drone strikes, for example, and not because I’m unduly concerned that I myself am likely to be tortured, droned, or surveilled. I’m passionate about gay marriage, too, even though I’m not gay and I am married and therefore unlikely, as you put it, to be directly affected by the ability or inability of gays to marry.
In fact, we could broaden things even further and ponder MLK’s dictum that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” But I don't think we need to go that far to understand why a lot of self-published authors are unhappy with Authors United.

Anyway, even hewing closer to the “Where’s the self-interest?” assumption, I think the better way to understand the reactions of so many self-published authors to Authors United is to recognize authors as part of a larger, common ecosystem, rather than as inhabitants only of discrete segments with no existing or potential overlap with, and unaffected by events within, other segments. Does that make sense?

Ted said:

Every one of your points for why self-published authors might care about the larger publishing environment can be turned 180 degrees to explain why AU and any other traditionally-published author might care about (and not share all your views on) what Amazon is doing in their self-publishing offerings, let alone their larger book retail business.

I don’t doubt that when Doug Preston looks in the mirror, he sees someone who stands for the good of all authors looking back at him. But then I keep returning to my questions about why nothing about lockstep royalties, why nothing about twice-a-year payments, why nothing about life-of-contract terms, why nothing about draconian non-competes, why nothing about B&N and S&S and brick-and-mortar and Amazon-published authors, which unlike Amazon/Hachette was and are real boycotts... why nothing about any of the things that affect 99% of authors a great deal and Doug Preston not at all?
The most vocal members of the Axis of Indies (you, Howey, Konrath, etc.) are like Americans several generations after the Revolutionary War.

I prefer to think of us as more of a Galactic Empire than a mere axis, but... okay. :)
You won. The rest of us wonder why you can’t go and enjoy your independent country, instead of continually hollering “England is a Monarchy! The Magna Carta is not a real constitution! And the tax rates are too high there!”

I think it must be because self-published authors identify with and feel more affected by what’s going on in publishing at large than Americans do by what’s going on in England.
I share your disdain for AU’s unconscionably illogical, ill-informed stances and sloppy use of language. And I share your frustrations with the traditional publishing world, who ill-serve many of the authors they publish. And I also think that Amazon putting a banner on top of an individual Hachette author’s individual book page saying “would you maybe like to buy a different book?” is fucking sleazy, as is “it won’t be available for 3-4 weeks” when it can be delivered from Ingram or B&T in 24-48 hours regardless of the status of Amazon’s contract w/Hachette. I don’t defend ANY of these parties. I’m surprised you do.

I don’t really think my stance is so hard to understand. Again, as I wrote just yesterday:
Which is why my attitude toward the legacy industry is, “If you want a shot at my support, immediately double digital royalties to all authors; immediately begin paying all authors once a month instead of twice a year; immediately eliminate rights-of-first refusal, non-competes, and other draconian clauses from your contracts. Short of that, I’ll know the only thing you’ll respond to is pressure — and I’ll be sure to support the party that’s applying it.”
If Authors United would adopt a similar attitude, I think it would benefit far more authors (and readers) than their current stance.

Agreed on all of that, as I have said frequently in many forums. But  I’m still waiting to hear a word of public criticism for Amazon from  you.
 Here you go:
This is probably a good place to explain what I mean when I sometimes refer to “Amazon Derangement Syndrome.”  I’m not referring to all criticisms of Amazon, or even to most.  For example, I think Amazon’s cutting off Wikileaks from Amazon Web Services at Joe Lieberman’s request was pernicious, shameful, and cowardly.  I’m glad there’s media scrutiny of conditions in Amazon warehouses.  And while still far better than anything I’ve ever seen in the legacy world, Amazon Publishing’s contracts are showing increasing legacy-like lard and legacy-like author-unfriendly clauses.  Certainly I don’t think these criticisms are deranged — after all, I’ve made them myself...

Okay for now? I seriously have to get back to the new novel... :)
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Published on September 26, 2014 10:25 • 13 views

September 25, 2014

If you haven't seen it already, don't miss this discussion between Joe Konrath and Lee Child about the causes and consequences of the battle between Amazon and Hachette. The topic interests me a lot, and here I'd like to take a probably thankless stab at getting to the heart of what’s going on between publishing’s establishment and publishing's revolutionaries…

Writers like Lee believe that fundamentally the legacy publishing industry is good, and therefore that anything threatening that system must be fundamentally bad.

Writers like Joe believe that fundamentally the legacy publishing industry is oppressive to readers and writers; propagandistic (all that hokum about “nurturing”); and cartel-like, and that anything tending to force that system to engage in more enlightened business practices must be good.

Lee perceives Hachette and the other “Big Five” (the cartel is right there in the name, no?) to be under threat, and wants them protected — “Apres moi le deluge.” Joe perceives the Big Five as already being protected by their paper oligopoly, and in need of real competition for the sake of readers and writers.

Obviously I’m with Joe on all this, but that’s not the point. The point is, if you believe legacy publishing needs to reform, what might bring that reform about?

The debate reminds me of a discussion I sometimes get into with Democrats who support Obama, most of whom have been forced over the course of two terms to acknowledge something along the lines of, “Okay, he sucks—but a Republican would be even worse.”

It might be true that a Republican would be even worse (given Obama’s record, I don’t think that’s an easy argument to make—for example, Obama has bombed seven Muslim countries so far, while Bush bombed four—but leave that aside). My concern is that whenever you signal to an incumbent that you will back the incumbent *no matter what*, you have surrendered all your leverage.

Which is why my attitude toward the legacy industry is, “If you want a shot at my support, immediately double digital royalties to all authors; immediately begin paying all authors once a month instead of twice a year; immediately eliminate rights-of-first refusal, non-competes, and other draconian clauses from your contracts. Short of that, I’ll know the only thing you’ll respond to is pressure — and I’ll be sure to support the party that’s applying it."

Like a Democrat effectively saying, “Vote for me or I’ll turn the keys over to John McCain and Sarah Palin,” the Big Five and their supporters are effectively saying, “Support us and our cartel-like business practices because Amazon could become even worse than we’ve been.” I don’t buy that bullshit when I hear it from Democrats, so why would I buy it from legacy publishing?  I’m willing to take that risk, recognizing the only way things might get better is if I’m willing to ignore self-interested threats to the effect that “Without us, it might get even worse.”

To put it another way: the Big Five and its supporters in Authors United and the Authors Guild are playing a game of chicken with the 99% of authors who have been ill-served by the business practices the establishment refuses to reform. I’ll be damned if I blink first in the face of that.
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Published on September 25, 2014 10:15 • 9 views

September 19, 2014

When people are evaluating a policy sanely, they instinctively know to weigh the benefits *and* the costs. Which is how you can identify the policies some people are so attached to they value them for their own sake. Drug prohibition is one; war is another. How can you know? Watch for people discussing those policies as though they offer only benefits and involve no costs. For example, you'll see a huge amount of the "no costs, only benefits" tendency now with regard to war with ISIS.

To me, it's really a question of applying common sense, imagination, and our understanding of human nature to try to divine what makes sense. Seeing how the attacks of 9/11 incited America into an orgy of retaliation that continues to this day, I surmise that being bombed causes humans to crave revenge. Then I try to imagine what it's like to be Iraqi, for example, and to have my country invaded and occupied by foreigners who kill over 100,000 of my innocent countrymen and turn another four million into refugees (out of a population of about 33 million)... and what it must be like to live under the shadow of flying robots that have killed thousands of my innocent co-religionists... and I think, "Well, if these people are anything like Americans and not instead innately wired for pacifism, they now probably crave revenge for what we're doing to them as much as we craved revenge following 9/11. And look what that caused..."

And even if the GWOT has solved some problems (I'm sure it has; what policy can't meet that low a bar?) there's the question of what those benefits have cost us and whether they could have been achieved more cheaply. I'm inclined to believe that with the risk of dying in a terror attack anytime in this century lower than that of drowning in a bathtub, we could probably handle The Very Scary Terrorists in a way that didn't end the lives of something like six thousand American military personnel; that didn't burn, blind, maim, cripple, and brain damage tens of thousands of others; that didn't kill tens of thousands of innocent foreigners (that's a lot of "collateral damage" for a policy to have to justify, no?); that didn't add $3 trillion to the national debt and siphon off money that could have been invested at home to blow it up over seas; that didn't lead to the rise of ISIS; and that didn't embody so much of what James Madison warned of when he said:

"Of all the enemies to public liberty war, is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other."


"The means of defence against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home."


"No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."

I think it would be reasonable to require politicians to point to some pretty astonishing benefits from a policy to justify costs like those.
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Published on September 19, 2014 10:55 • 15 views