Barry Eisler

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Publishers Lunch and Pernicious Anonymity

Yesterday, Michael Cader posted some interesting and important thoughts at Publishers Lunch. It’s behind a paywall, but I’ll excerpt the part I want to respond to. I’m going to address Michael’s position on anonymity; Joe Konrath addresses Michael’s thoughts on book pricing and other matters on his own blog.

Michael’s thoughts on anonymity are all set forth in the first sentence of his post:

As most of our readership has likely seen by now, on Tuesday afternoon the Amazon Books team put up another unsigned, closed to comment post (an exercise in what Barry Eisler ought to call shameful "pointless, pernicious, promiscuous anonymity") on the Kindle Forum.
First, I want to thank Michael for (finally) addressing, albeit obliquely, my periodic thoughts on the way he grants anonymity to sources quoted in his articles. The link he offered was to my blog generally, but I think the post he’s referring to is this one, where I said:
By the way, shame on Publisher’s Lunch for offering pointless, pernicious, promiscuous anonymity to the unnamed “Hachette executive” quoted in that article. Amazon’s executives are all on the record, and Publisher's Lunch offers anonymity to Hachette executives…. why, exactly? Are they whistleblowers? Do they fear retaliation from Amazon? This kind of anonymity is unworthy of anyone who takes journalism seriously.
But Michael might also have been responding to something I wrote in a conversation with Joe Konrath a few years ago (also available as a comprehensive, profoundly offensive free downloadable book called Be The Monkey) with regard to Publishers Marketplace, a service of Publishers Lunch. Here’s an excerpt—you’ll see that I challenge Publishers Marketplace to publicly account for their shameful habit of granting publishing executives anonymity:
Joe: I have to say on this topic that the two anonymous comments made in the Publishers Marketplace coverage of your defection irritated me. The “senior publishing executive” said: “[Eisler will] have to sell a hell of a lot more copies than he has ever before.” But that’s exactly backward—actually you can sell fewer books, and you’ll make more money, because you’re getting a much higher royalty on your own.
I hope this senior publishing executive isn’t in charge of accounting, because he/she apparently has no conception of numbers.
Barry: Yes, that was not a great moment in the history of anonymously sourced senior publishing professionals.
Joe: The other anonymous comment was: “Nielsen Bookscan figures show Eisler’s print book sales, which have always been driven by mass market editions, declining steadily from book to book.”
Well, duh. ALL print sales have been declining over the last few years. But apparently they weren’t declining to the point where a publisher didn’t want to give you half a million dollars. Also, your mass market edition for your last book isn’t even out, so there are no Nielsen Bookscan figures yet…
Barry: One of the most destructive, pernicious, slovenly aspects of modern journalism is the promiscuous use of anonymous quotes. Most news consumers are so inured to references to anonymous sources that they don’t even notice them. And though newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post have strict rules about the use of anonymous sources, they routinely ignore them—ignore their own rules.
Here’s the thing. The only time a journalist is justified in using an anonymous source for a quote is when that source is a whistleblower or otherwise faces a legitimate fear of retaliation if her or his identity is revealed. That’s it. That’s the only circumstance. Anything else is at best lazy and more likely corrupt. So while I don’t really care that what the two anonymous Publishers Marketplace sources said was silly, wrong, and misleading, or that the two people who asked for anonymity are cowards, I do care a lot that Publishers Marketplace would offer the individuals in question the protection of anonymity. Were these individuals afraid I would retaliate or something? Smite them with one of my all-powerful indie author thunderbolts?
Joe: More likely they were afraid to look stupid by saying stupid things…
Barry: The main thing, though, is that when a journalist asks someone for a quote, gives someone the opportunity to be quoted in an article, there needs to be a damn good reason for offering that person anonymity. If the person insists on anonymity in the absence of that damn good reason, a good journalist will quote someone else.
Seriously, I would really like Publishers Marketplace to answer these questions in public:
Publishers Marketplace, why did you offer anonymity in your piece? Do you think this sort of anonymously-sourced journalism promotes accountability, encourages accuracy, and fosters meaningful discussion? Couldn’t you have found sources who would go on the record with such anodyne stuff? Why didn’t you? Was this a mistake? Is it in keeping with your own journalistic guidelines and consistent with sound journalism generally? If not, what will you do to improve the quality of your practices going forward and ensure your reporters don’t do this sort of thing again?
Joe: You really think they’ll respond to that?
Barry: If they’re good journalists and care about the quality of their product and the trust of their readers, they will. If they’re not and they don’t, they won’t. But I hope anyone who’s reading this—anyone who believes good journalism is vitally important and that bad journalism is pernicious and destructive—will tweet Publishers Marketplace with a link to this piece and tell them we’re calling them out publicly and urging them to do better. @publisherslunch—let ’em know any way you like, or just cut and paste “@barryeisler and @jakonrath call out @publisherslunch for pointless and promiscuous grants of anonymity,” with a link to this discussion wherever you found it. And if you want to learn more about becoming a more active consumer of news and about why we should all call out reporters for shoddy practices, be sure to read Dan Gillmor’s excellent new book, Mediactive.
Well, it’s been three years, and Publishers Lunch is still granting anonymity to publishing executives for no legitimate journalistic rationale. And though again, I’m encouraged that Michael seems to at least be aware of my criticism, I’m concerned that he doesn’t understand it, because he seems to be conflating anonymity in an article with closed comments to an article. Both practices are problematic, but they’re not at all the same thing.
Let me start by trying to find some common ground here: I generally agree with Michael (and with top literary agent Ted Weinstein) that Amazon should have enabled comments on its post. Though I think there’s a bit of a difference between what one might reasonably expect from a corporation, on  the one hand, and what one might expect from an organization calling itself the “Authors Guild,” which bills itself as “the nation’s leading advocate for writer’s interests in effective copyright protection, fair contracts, and free expression” (my emphasis, because I love irony), on the other, let’s not quibble. Let’s just agree that whether it’s the “Authors Guild;” or Amazon; or James Patterson, Douglas Preston, Richard Russo, or Scott Turow, the failure to engage substantive critiques of your arguments (yes, that’s you, Douglas Preston of “Authors United”) is a disservice to the public and belies a lack of confidence in one’s own positions.
(Which, I have to emphasize, is why I’ve been so disappointed in the failure of Publisher’s Lunch to respond to my critiques of their pernicious habit of granting publishing executives anonymity. Michael, you’ve clearly read the critiques; is a misfired jab in response really all you think you owe your readers?)
All that said, to equate granting anonymity for sources quoted in a news publication, on the one hand, with a blog post closed to comments, on the other, is incoherent. Let’s talk about why.
Amazon’s post was issued on behalf of the corporation. It’s signed, “The Amazon Books Team.” Michael, if there’s some way you think the post would have been more transparent or more accountable if it had instead been signed, “Jane Doe, on behalf of Amazon,” I’d be grateful if you could elaborate. But either way, we would know the statement was made on behalf of Amazon and that Amazon stands behind it.
By contrast, the Publisher’s Lunch anonymous quotes I’ve addressed have been about (i) speculation regarding the basis for an author’s business decisions; and (ii) refuting Amazon’s on-the-record assertions about how Hachette has dragged its feet in negotiations. In this context, is there any question that transparency and accountability would be improved if the executives making these assertions allowed the use of their names?
Or to put it another way, why won’t they use their names? If Amazon is lying when it lays out the factual history of Hachette’s foot-dragging, wouldn’t a Hachette executive—wouldn’t the entirety of Hachette management!—want to go on the record to rebut? Of course they would. And that being the case, why doesn’t Publisher’s Lunch, in the interest of transparency, accountability, and accuracy, insist that any such official it quotes go on the record?
Look, if I publish my own blog post without enabling comments, I’m being small-minded and cowardly. But if I publish someone else’s comments without attaching his or her name to those comments, I’m potentially enabling score-settling, propaganda, and straight-up lying in the pages of my own publication.
So when the White House publishes bullshit on its own website, we know where the bullshit is coming from, even if we can’t directly respond. But when the New York Times publishes that same bullshit—attributed to “Senior Administration Officials”—we don’t know who to hold accountable. The official seems to be speaking on behalf of the government, but maybe she’s not. We can’t question her assertions or otherwise hold her to account because we don’t know who she is. We don’t even know if she’s speaking on behalf of the government, some faction of the government, or herself alone. It’s all deniable—with the newspaper’s complicity.
There’s a ton more to be said on this topic. Michael, I highly recommend the following:
1.  This excerpt from my novel Inside Out on “information laundering,” a term I shamelessly stole from Pulitzer-Prize- and Polk-Award-winning journalist and certified Rain fan Barton Gellman.
2.  This address by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, especially:
See what I mean? The insiders are worried about how their conference is going to “play” in the media. They are trying to make the story come out a certain way. Reporters grant them anonymity so these struggles can be publicized. But if today’s media report about politics is about how the media will be reporting a political event tomorrow, there’s obviously something circular in that. And this is how it begins to make sense to call the journalists “insiders.” Everyone is engaged in the production of media narratives. Journalists and politicians are both “inside” the story making machinery.
Eric Schmitt remembers being surprised when, as a member of a Times newsroom committee on reporting practices, he was given information about what bothered readers of The Times most. It wasn’t political bias, or factual errors, or delivery problems. The No. 1 complaint, far and away, was anonymous sources,” Mr. Schmitt, a longtime and well-respected national security reporter in the Washington bureau, told me last week. “It goes to the heart of our credibility...”
The heart of our credibility. Perhaps worth pondering.
Michael, in the end, maybe we won’t be able to agree on any of this. But even if your point that “Hey, Amazon does it, too!” were correct, would that absolve you when you fall short of your own journalistic benchmarks? Shouldn’t you set your own standards based on your own integrity and on what’s best for your readers, and without regard to what Amazon or anyone else does or doesn’t do in their own blog posts?

In the spirit of transparency, accountability, and engagement that (I think) we both agree on, I hope to hear from you in the comments. Mine are always open. :)
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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

So the Real Authors Guild is… Amazon?!

In case you missed it, today Amazon issued an update on its stalled negotiations with Hachette.  It’s a great read:  short, clear, and devastating to the meme that Hachette is in any way the good guy in this fight.  But if you want just the executive summary, it’s this:

Amazon wants most ebooks to be priced at below ten dollars; Hachette wants ebooks to be priced higher.


So far, so simple.  But what’s critical to understand is that lower ebook prices create more revenue — a lower price for the customer, and more income for the retailer, publisher, and author.  In other words, a win for everyone:

We've quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000.

The important thing to note here is that at the lower price, total revenue increases 16%.

This is what Hachette opposes.  This is what the “Authors Guild” and “Authors United” are fighting to prevent.  More money for authors.  And not just that:

This is good for all the parties involved:
  
* The customer is paying 33% less.

* The author is getting a royalty check 16% larger and being read by an audience that's 74% larger. And that 74% increase in copies sold makes it much more likely that the title will make it onto the national bestseller lists. (Any author who's trying to get on one of the national bestseller lists should insist to their publisher that their e-book be priced at $9.99 or lower.)

* Likewise, the higher total revenue generated at $9.99 is also good for the publisher and the retailer. At $9.99, even though the customer is paying less, the total pie is bigger and there is more to share amongst the parties.

For anyone who follows Joe Konrath’s blog, none of this is news — Joe wrote a post over two years ago laying out why The Agency Model Sucks.  Legacy publishers know — they have long known — that the sweet-spot price for most ebooks (the point at which per-unit price multiplied by volume maximizes revenues) is lower than what they insist on charging.

So why do legacy publishers insist on high prices for ebooks?

As I starting pointing out about three years ago, “The current business imperative of legacy publishing is to preserve the position of paper and retard the growth of digital.”  Why?  Because although the legacy industry offers various value-added services (at least in theory), the only critical service they’ve ever offered — the only one an author couldn’t get any other way — has always been paper distribution.  Paper distribution is the foundation on which the legacy industry built its agglomerated business model.  That is:  “You want distribution?  Then you’ll have to take all the services you could have outsourced for a flat fee elsewhere (editing, jacket design, etc) along with it, and you’ll have to pay 85% of earnings for the agglomerated package.”

But in a digital world, authors don’t need distribution services from publishers.  In digital, individual authors have exactly the same distribution reach as any corporate publishing partner, and for the same flat rate of 30%.  Digital is changing the role of publishers from something authors needed to something authors might, for reasons separate from distribution, merely want.

Having the nature of your business go from “I’m a business necessity and the only game in town to “If I can prove my value, authors might still want me” represents a cataclysmic change for legacy players.  Remove the criticality of distribution from the equation, and the entire nature of the publishing business model dramatically changes, with services that once upon a time could only be had as part of a mandated and expensive prix fixe meal now available as low-price a la carte items authors can order from the menu however and from whomever they like.

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because it is.  Forcing someone to buy an unessential item as the price of being able to buy the essential one is called tying and it is frequently illegal, especially in the context of intellectual property.  Or, for another example of tying, recall the pre-digital-distribution era way the music industry allowed you to buy the one song you wanted:  by forcing you to buy the entire CD along with it.  There are many other examples.  What they all have in common is that in whatever context it develops, tying can only exist in the presence of disproportionate market power.

There’s much more to be said on the origins and nature of the legacy publishing business model; if you’re interested, here are some thoughts I offered in a Pike’s Peak Writers Conference keynote a little over a year ago and in a follow-up piece I wrote for The Guardian.  And here’s some terrific analysis from Porter Anderson at Writing on the Ether.

But even if you don’t want to dive that deeply into this topic, the main thing to understand is this.  When legacy publishers choose the price of your digital book, they are not doing it primarily to maximize your revenue (in fact, they’re doing it with the full knowledge that their price will shrink your revenue).  Instead, they are choosing that price primarily in the service of their strategy to preserve the primacy of paper.

To put it another way:

The legacy imperative of using high ebook prices in an attempt to maintain the primacy of paper costs legacy-published authors money.

Otherwise known, in legacy-speak, as “nurturing authors.”

Now, the biggest bestsellers in the industry — say, James Patterson, or Doug Preston, or Richard Russo, or Scott Turow — sell the majority of their books in paper.  After all, they’ve won the distribution lottery and their books are available in every airport kiosk, Wal-Mart, drugstore, and supermarket across the land.  So their interest in retarding the growth of digital — where the same distribution is available to everyone — and in preserving the position of paper is identical to that of their publishers.  It stands to reason they would fight to maintain the system that has made them so rich.  But if you’re a legacy-published author whose sales are increasingly digital, you need to understand that the legacy strategy of pricing ebooks high is costing you money.  Is that really something you want to help perpetuate?  Yes, it works for James Patterson, but what is it costing you?

Also, for the “Books Are Special Snowflakes” crowd:
Keep in mind that books don't just compete against books. Books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more. If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.

My favorite part of the update was this:

So, at $9.99, the total pie is bigger - how does Amazon propose to share that revenue pie? We believe 35% should go to the author, 35% to the publisher and 30% to Amazon. Is 30% reasonable? Yes. In fact, the 30% share of total revenue is what Hachette forced us to take in 2010 when they illegally colluded with their competitors to raise e-book prices. We had no problem with the 30% -- we did have a big problem with the price increases… While we believe 35% should go to the author and 35% to Hachette, the way this would actually work is that we would send 70% of the total revenue to Hachette, and they would decide how much to share with the author. We believe Hachette is sharing too small a portion with the author today, but ultimately that is not our call.

It’s going to be fascinating to see how the “Authors Guild” and “Authors United” try to spin this.  Fascinating in no small part because Amazon is taking the very position on digital royalties you would expect — indeed, you would insist on — from any organization worthy of inclusion of the word “Authors” in its marquee.  Instead we have Amazon championing authors, and “Authors” championing publishers!


Imagine what the “Authors Guild” and “Authors United” could accomplish if they caught the pass Amazon just threw them and drove toward the end zone.   Instead, expect them to run in the opposite direction, as confused and frightened as creationists fleeing from carbon-dated dinosaur bones.

Look, I’m not saying anyone here lacks self-interest.  Of course businesses are self-interested and that’s not the point.  The point is, there’s enlightened self-interest… and selfish self-interest.  A guy who steals a car and a guy who buys one aren’t the same because, hey, each just wanted a car.  And in publishing, we have one camp that seeks to profit by keeping consumer prices high and author incomes low, and another camp that seeks to profit from lower prices and higher incomes.

Which side is deserving of your support?

Over to you, Authors Guilded and United...
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Friday, July 25, 2014

The Ministry of Authors United

Shoveling back the bullshit peddled by the "Authors Guild" was already a full-time job; and now there's "Authors United" to add to the load. But Joe Konrath and I do what we can, including a new post over at Joe's blog. Here's an excerpt...

Here’s what we know.



1.  Legacy publishers are enjoying record profits. And those profits are “coming entirely off the backs of authors” because they’re being driven by digital sales, in which publishers keep even more per unit and share with authors even less.


2.  Even “Authors Guild” pitchman Richard Russo has grudgingly admitted that, you know, um, maybe 17.5% might be a tad low for authors, and that “this needs to change” (though apparently, it will have to change all by itself, not because of anything Russo et al might do about it).


3.  “Authors United” progenitor Douglas Preston has boldly stated thatWe have many loyal and committed readers. They listen when we speak. That represents power; perhaps even enough power to face down one of the world's largest corporations.” Let’s leave aside Preston’s possible conflation of people enjoying what he writes and caring about what he says: regardless, he clearly believes Authors United has the power to face down enormous corporations.


So… the Authors Guild and Authors United (so many organizations with “Authors” in the title! I’m concerned the Ministry of Love and Ministry of Truth will be jealous) are going to use that power to demand better terms from their publishers on behalf of all authors, right?


Apparently not. Nothing more than the odd mealy-mouthed and pro forma acknowledgment of legacy publishing’s ongoing royalty landgrab in digital (and on legacy publishing’s various other abusive terms -- the length-of-copyright terms; the twice-yearly payments; the prohibitions on authors publishing other works -- not a word). How can that be?


To understand why the mandarins of the Authors Guild and Authors United don’t give a damn about the crappy terms legacy publishing doles out in lockstep to the majority of authors, you have to understand one simple thing. Which is that:


A tiny percentage of authors gets a significantly higher defacto digital royalty rate than everyone else.


Ace legacy-publishing shill Scott Turow himself, in a rare moment of clarity and candor, acknowledged as much:


Best-selling authors have the market power to negotiate a higher implicit e-book royalty in our advances, even if our publishers won’t admit it.


(By the way, to see how just about everything else Turow said in the linked article is cringe-worthy nonsense, you have to read this terrific TechDirt takedown.)


What Turow means is that the vast majority of authors receive an advance that their publisher wants and expect to earn out. But a select few receive an advance so large it’s understood it will never earn out. If you never earn out, it doesn’t matter what your nominal royalty rate might have been; the multi-million-dollar payout you receive upfront becomes your full payment for the book.


And now you know why the “Authors Guild” and “Authors United” are utterly uninterested in taking on the Big Five over the cartel’s astonishly low lockstep 17.5% digital royalty rate. For the people who boost these organizations, that low rate doesn’t apply. They get a special, under-the-table rate; the low rate applies to the rest of us. And those vintage 17th-century twice-yearly payments (by contrast, Amazon pays its authors every month)? They don’t care about those, either, because the one-percenters aren’t paid in royalties -- they receive a monster cash bolus upfront. And the forever license terms, the non-competes? If someone were paying you millions upfront for a book, you might not care about those, either.


Now look. I make a good living from my writing and I don’t begrudge anyone who’s making even more. Good for them. What does irritate me, though, is when these perfumed princes posture as advocates of the rank and file. That’s nothing more than self-serving, propagandistic bullshit. They say the system needs to be reformed, they say they have the power to reform it… and what do they do? They cavalierly dismiss Amazon’s offer to create a pool to compensate Hachette authors who suffer losses because of the ongoing Amazon/Hachette dispute. They dismiss a follow-up Amazon offer to give Hachette authors 100% of revenues until the dispute is resolved. They dismiss yet another Amazon offer to take those revenues and give them to the literacy charity of Authors United’s choice. They ask nothing of Hachette, ever, nor of any other legacy publisher. They never even attempt to address the fact that Hachette has been dragging its feet in the negotiations since the beginning of the year.


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.


It’s as though these people don’t recognize something fundamental: they sell through Amazon, but they sell to the Big Five. It’s the latter where they could have real influence -- if they wanted to exercise it. But it’s so much easier to pretend to be doing something on behalf of all authors… by bashing their publishers’ customer rather than standing up to their own customers.


Or, if these authors really do think Amazon is so bad, they could publicly call on their publishers to remove their titles from Amazon. It wouldn’t hurt Amazon directly, but a small demonstration of the courage of their authorial convictions would enable people to take them a little more seriously.


But why should we expect anything other than what they’re doing? The legacy system has served these people well; it would be betting against human nature to expect them to want to change it, let alone to actually try.

When James Patterson and Douglas Preston and Richard Russo and Scott Turow tell you they’re trying to protect your interests, they’re conning you. Whether they’re also conning themselves, I don’t know. Don’t judge them by their rhetoric; judge them by their behavior. And by their behavior you can see they have no interest at all in improving publishing for everyone. Only in preserving it for themselves.


Read the whole thing at Joe's blog...
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Saturday, July 19, 2014

AuthorEarnings.com Gets Unintentional Boost from Critics

The logical flaws, tendentiousness, and other weaknesses of attacks on @authorearnings are a powerful endorsement of the site’s accuracy and importance for authors. Had fun examining this today with J.A. Konrath over at his blog...
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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Richard Russo Strikes Again!

Once again, Joe Konrath and I are grateful for the window Richard Russo provides on how a luddite personality and establishment insider views changes in an industry. Here you go...
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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Amazon Cancer Cure a Stunt to Separate Patients from Healthcare Providers

From the beginning, the Amazon/Hachette dispute has functioned as a kind of inkblot test.  The parties’ negotiations are subject to a confidentiality agreement, so no one outside Amazon and Hachette knows for certain the details.  But vagueness and ambiguity hasn’t much impeded the reflexively anti-Amazon crowd from being certain that Amazon’s tactics are “bullying,” “monopolistic,” “malignant,” “evil,” etc.  Most of all, in the face of confidential negotiations about which the outside world can only speculate, how many people have been certain that it was Amazon’s position and tactics that were hurting authors, while never even considering the possibility that the other party to the negotiation might bear at least some degree of responsibility, as well?

The reflexive anti-Amazon reaction is even stranger when you consider that, based on everything we know about their business strategies, it seems likely that in general Hachette has been holding out for the ability to maintain higher ebook prices, while Amazon has been holding out for the ability to discount.  Higher ebook prices aren’t just bad for readers; they tend to hurt authors, too.  In the face of (1) we don’t really know what the dispute is about; and (2) it’s probably about Hachette doing things that are bad for readers and writers, a martian might be perplexed about why some authors and a lot of the media would reflexively cheer Hachette and vilify Amazon.

(In fairness, though, it seems that Amazon has over 12 times the number of supporters in this dispute as Hachette -- the petition to Hachette now has just shy of 7000 signatures, to about 550 for the one to Amazon.) 

The answer, I think, has to do with establishments and how they view opposition.

Establishments are actually pretty tolerant of opposition — as long as they sense it’s opposition within the establishment.  Opposition to the establishment is another matter.  I think this dynamic explains, for example, the quite different establishment reactions to the journalism of Bart Gellman and Glenn Greenwald.  Both have broken huge stories on the NSA’s blanket warrantless surveillance on American citizens, yet Gellman is extended various journalistic courtesies while Greenwald is attacked as an activist, advocate, blogger, enabler, porn-spy (no, I don’t know what that means, either), co-conspirator, enabler, collaborator, and traitor.  I think the difference can be explained by the establishment’s sense (right or wrong) that Gellman offers opposition within the system, while Greenwald is opposed to the system itself.  The first can be tolerated.  The second cannot.

If my theory has any merit, it might explain why Amazon is being pilloried for a “boycott” that’s not even a boycott, while B&N largely received a pass for using similar tactics a few years back against S&S authors, and while few people even question the very real boycott B&N and indie booksellers impose on tens of thousands of Amazon-published and self-published authors.  When B&N (ironically, yesterday’s villain, but today we’re at war with Eastasia) does it, it’s rough tactics but within the system.  Ditto indie booksellers.  But if you’re perceived as oppositional to the system rather than fundamentally supportive of and dependent on the system, then almost everything you do will be interpreted with unique suspicion and hostility.

I know all this, but even so I was astonished the other day at the hostility from some quarters that greeted Amazon’s offer to try to compensate Hachette authors for whatever damage those authors have suffered during Amazon’s and Hachette’s contentious contract negotiations.  Amazon has been widely blamed (without a sound basis, as I’ve argued) for using Hachette authors as negotiating pawns and turning them into collateral damage.  Amazon has repeatedly expressed regret that any authors might suffer from the Amazon/Hachette impasse, and proposed that Amazon and Hachette give all revenues from Hachette ebooks to Hachette authors until the impasse is resolved.  On its face, it seems a pretty elegant solution:  not only protection from collateral damage, but an outright windfall for Hachette authors; an ongoing loss for Amazon and Hachette that would incentivize the companies to come to terms more quickly.  But Hachette instantly rejected the offer out of hand (as they did Amazon’s previous offer to contribute 50/50 to an author compensation pool), and the offer was dismissed by Hachette’s defenders as at best an Amazon PR stunt.

So… I have a question.

What if Hachette had proposed the very same thing — all digital revenues to Hachette authors until we resolve this thing — and Amazon had rejected it?

Of course I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure the reaction among the reflexive anti-Amazon crowd would have been, “Hachette proves how much it cares about authors, while Amazon continues to use authors as mere pawns and collateral damage!”  “Hachette is trying to shield its authors with its own body but Amazon won’t stop shooting!”  And other such interpretations.  Sometimes I think it’s reached the point where if Amazon invented and gave away for free a cancer vaccine, the establishment soundbite would be, “Amazon Cancer Cure a Ploy to Separate Patients from Healthcare Providers."

I don’t know the formal name for the logical fallacy whereby X is proof of Y and the opposite of X is also proof of Y (if you do, please tell me in the comments).  But if you decry something when Amazon does it but would cheer for it if Hachette does it, it might be worth taking a step back and reflecting on where your opinions are really coming from.

Obviously, the kind of double standard I’m talking about isn't limited to publishing.  In fact, it’s much more common in politics, where many “conservatives” were against foreign nation-building until Bush decided he would be a nation-building president, and many “liberals” were against warrantless surveillance, indefinite imprisonment, and imperial wars until Obama adopted those policies as his own.  One of my personal favorite examples of the mentality was a guy I engaged about a year ago on Twitter.  He claimed Snowden leaked the NSA documents because he craved attention for himself.  I responded that Snowden had refused to give even a single interview beyond the first one with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, despite having been invited by every top-rated television host in the world.  "Oh no," the guy responded without missing a beat, “that’s his strategy.  Hold it all back, and then later it’ll be like a dam bursting.  Super mega attention.”

Do you see the problem with that?  If Snowden gives interviews, it proves he craves attention.  If he doesn’t give interviews, it proves he craves attention.  Logically, one of these things could be proof of the “he craves attention” hypothesis.  But not both of them.

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.

Instead, I’m talking about a species of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” criticisms.  A quick example:  a few years ago, the Seattle Times ran a series of articles that I thought were, if not deranged, then at least seriously unbalanced.  In one, the reporter observed that Amazon had purchased lots of downtown office space, but had nefariously hidden the purchases by choosing not to put Amazon signage on any of the buildings!  I chuckled when I read it, because I was pretty sure that, had Amazon put out the nefariously missing signage, the headline would have read, “Amazon Flaunts New Dominion of Downtown Real Estate.”

What does that mean?  It would seem to mean that no matter what Amazon does, it’s proof of the company’s evil.  No matter what might be at issue (and again, with regard to Hachette, we don’t really know), if Amazon has a dispute with a legacy publisher, Amazon must be wrong and the legacy publisher must be right.  And the only thing Amazon can do to become right in turn is to toe the legacy line.

That’s not logical thought.  It’s religious dogma.  Probably not a coincidence, then, that Hachette defender Douglas Preston describes a business dispute with a “blood money” religious reference, or that an unhinged Panda writer outright called Amazon’s offer “30 pieces of silver” with authors as “Hachette’s personal Judas.”  I’m not saying these people view Hachette authors literally as the apostles and Hachette literally as Jesus Christ.  But they do seem to think the author/publisher relationship properly goes far beyond just business.  For the references to be coherent, there has to be a perception of a substantial degree of intimacy, even of sacredness, in these relationships.  Meaning, apparently, that by not buying into the faith, Amazon must be committing heresy.

I have to add at this point… it’s a little weird under the circumstances that I get accused of being an Amazon “shill” or of harboring “unconditional love” for the company or of supporting the company because “Amazon feathers my nest.”  Unlike, say, James Patterson, who profits enormously from the establishment publishing system and so might be expected to want to preserve it out of self-interest, I don’t have much of a dog in the Amazon/Hachette fight.  I’ve gotten back the rights to all my legacy-published books, so everything I have is now either self- or Amazon-published.  Meaning that, however the Amazon/Hachette standoff ends, the outcome doesn’t affect me.  If anything, you could argue that self-published authors, were they motivated by self-interest, would be cheering for Hachette, because Hachette stands for higher legacy prices which indie authors can more easily undercut.  If you look at the rhetoric and the incentives, it's pretty hard to make a coherent argument that Amazon- and self-published authors are motivated by self-interest here, but easy, if that's your bag, to make such an argument with regard to, say, Doug Preston and James Patterson.

So some of the “You’re an Amazon shill!” stuff, doubtless, is projection.  But some of it is a fascinating reflection of one of the essential qualities of any establishment:  privilege.  Let’s talk a little about that.

The essence of any establishment is a sense, sometimes conscious but usually not, of privilege.  Of course there are different rules for the establishment class and for everyone else; that goes without saying.  But to the establishment these different rules don’t feel like a double standard because the establishment deserves and indeed requires different treatment.  Often, these “differences" get their own distinct nomenclature.  So, for example, they torture; we employ enhanced interrogation techniques.  They have gulags; we have detention centers.  When we invade a country halfway around the world, it’s called “Iraqi Freedom;” when Iran funds an Iraqi politician next door, it’s “meddling.”  Leaks that serve power are "news;" leaks that challenge power are "treason" and prosecuted under the Espionage Act.

(You could write whole books on this and related topics, and indeed, Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi have — I recommend With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful and The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap.)

I’ve written about this kind of mentality before — once, in response to some criticisms that my novella London Twist was too “pro-gay” because of a lesbian sex scene (alas, I’ve yet to be criticized for being too pro-straight because of my straight sex scenes); another time, in response to NPR’s insistence that I not name any establishment figures in an article about the continued relevance of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.  The implicit outlook might usefully be summarized as "Your politics are political; mine are just pragmatism and common sense."

Obviously, double standards that don’t feel like double standards are to one degree or another widespread, and probably even universal.  We’re just wired as humans to give ourselves and our in-groups the maximum benefit of the doubt.  I don’t think it’s a tendency that can be eradicated, but it can be mitigated with logic and honest reflection.  Which is why I’ve written this post.  Doing so helps me examine my own biases; and, hopefully, will encourage others to do something similar.  To that end, may I ask a few respectful questions of anyone who immediately criticized Amazon’s compensation offer the other day?

1.  If the offer was just a PR stunt, why didn’t Hachette call Amazon’s bluff?

2.  If you believe Hachette can’t afford to temporarily give all its Kindle revenues to its authors, have you considered that Hachette is part of the Lagardère Group, a multinational with something like ten billion dollars a year in sales?  That Kindle sales represent only one percent of Lagardère’s annual sales?  When someone tells you she can’t afford to temporarily forgo one percent of revenue, do you typically interpret that “can’t” as a “won’t”?  And if so, why are you so quick to take Lagardère’s “can’t” at face value?

Also, would you offer Amazon the same immediate benefit of the doubt if the shoe were on the other foot?  If Hachette had made this offer and Amazon had instantly responded, “Sorry, our margins are extremely slim and we can’t afford this,” would you shrug and say, “Makes sense to me?”  If not, why the different standard for Hachette?

3.  If you thought the offer was unfair because only 30% of the burden would fall on Amazon and 52.5% on Hachette (people claiming that 70% would fall on Hachette were overlooking the fact that Hachette pays its authors 17.5% digital royalties, but still, yes, 52.5% is more than 30%), why haven’t you encouraged Hachette to counteroffer?  Indeed, why haven’t you encouraged Hachette to accept Amazon’s previous, 50/50 offer?  Did you even know about that earlier offer?  Do you think Hachette might in fairness have at least apprised its authors of the offer's existence?

4.  In its offer, Amazon described in great detail how long Hachette has been dragging its feet in negotiations.  Do you think any of that is noteworthy?  Do you think Hachette’s delay tactics are well-calculated to protect its authors?  Would you feel differently about those tactics if Amazon were the one engaging in them rather than Hachette?  If so, why?

5.  If you believe Amazon’s offer is disingenuous because Amazon has less to lose, have you considered another way of looking at it?  Namely, Amazon has little to lose per book because it offers such steep discounts to its customers, while Hachette has more to lose per book because it takes such a steep share of digital revenues from its authors.  An imbalance might exist, so far as it goes, but is it one you think ought to be used as an excuse for Hachette’s refusal of Amazon’s offer?

6.  If Doug Preston feels as he claims that he has a moral obligation to share his revenues with Hachette and so can’t accept Amazon’s “blood money,” why not encourage Hachette to accept the offer and then voluntarily share the windfall with Hachette?  There would be more money for everyone:  Amazon would offer full discounts again, would reinstall preorder buttons, and would stock full quantities of paper books.  Best of all, there’s precedent:  the Sanhedrin priests decided it was moral to accept Judas’s return of his blood money as long as they used it to purchase the potter’s field.  If it was good enough for the high priests, surely it’s good enough for Hachette authors?

7.  More broadly, is there anything Amazon could do in its dispute with Hachette, short of outright capitulation to whatever Hachette is demanding, that would satisfy Amazon’s critics?  Preston has proposed nothing.  Watch him here, and listen to his description:  “We don’t know exactly what the dispute is [which is itself pretty amazing, considering the opinions he’s nonetheless willing to offer]… All we’re saying is please don’t hurt us… Please, Amazon, can’t you resolve this dispute like two large corporations without involving and hurting authors?  We’re not for Hachette, either [that’s why all my pleas are all directed exclusively at Amazon]… We just want Amazon to stop targeting and retaliating against authors…"



So Preston “just wants Amazon to stop targeting and retaliating against authors.”  Amazon offers to turn over all its revenues to those authors.  And Preston responds that this won’t work.  Okay, fine, then what will?  The “Authors Guild” has proposed nothing.  In fact, "Authors Guild" president Roxana Robinson opined that the Amazon offer "seems like a short-term solution that encourages authors to take sides against their publishers.  It doesn't get authors out of the middle of this – we're still in the middle.  Our books are at the center of this struggle.”

Respectfully, what does that even mean?  If your books are in the middle and that’s a problem, wouldn’t Amazon’s offer be a solution?  But Robinson doesn’t address this question.  She just talks around it.

(By the way, shame on Publisher’s Lunch for offering pointless, pernicious, promiscuous anonymity to the unnamed “Hachette executive” quoted in that article.  Amazon’s executives are all on the record, and Publisher's Lunch offers anonymity to Hachette executives…. why, exactly?  Are they whistleblowers?  Do they fear retaliation from Amazon?  This kind of anonymity is unworthy of anyone who takes journalism seriously.)

And Hachette has proposed nothing, either.  Can anyone here do better?  The 50/50 compensation offer was ignored, the “let’s just turn over all digital revenues to Hachette authors” is inadequate… what, aside from capitulation to terms that he admits he doesn’t even know, would satisfy Preston?  If anyone has a more creative approach than what Amazon has already proposed and the ciphers emerging from Presont, Robinson, Hachette, and the rest of establishment publishing, I’d be curious to hear it.

Here’s about the fairest way I could describe the pro-Hachette position if I were to ignore Hachette's foot-dragging and some other aspects of the dispute:

“Look, Barry, it’s true that Hachette might have accepted Amazon’s previous offer or its most recent.  Or it could have treated those offers as opening gambits and tried to negotiate something even more favorable rather than automatically rejecting them.  And yes, it’s true that had Hachette done so, its authors would have been better off — but only in the short term.  Because in accepting Amazon’s short-term offer, Hachette would have been eroding its long-term negotiating position.  Which would mean that in the long term, Hachette’s authors would be worse off.  So Hachette had to make the difficult choice between the lesser of two evils:  refuse an offer that would have been a boon to Hachette authors today in order to protect them tomorrow.”

I think that characterization is exceptionally charitable to Hachette, but it’s not crazy, either.  But in fairness, doesn’t it apply to both sides?  There’s no question that in the face of Amazon’s latest offer, Hachette is taking a position that results in short-term harm for its authors as the price the company feels it has to pay for a longer-term gain.  Similarly, Amazon would prefer to come to terms with Hachette quickly to prevent any harm to Hachette authors, but believes that capitulating now would result in a longer-term loss.  How can you excuse Hachette from being willing to place authors in harm’s way in the service of some strategic gain, while castigating Amazon for at worst the very same thing?

You can only do so if on some implicit level you believe Hachette’s tactics are somehow sanctified by Hachette's insider status, while believing Amazon’s are illegitimate because Amazon is a publishing outsider.  As in usual in these matters, the people who hold such views don’t recognize them as double standards.  Which only makes them more insidious.

I guess what it comes down to is this.  Online book-selling and digital books have fundamentally changed the publishing industry.  There are people who welcome that change.  And there are people who are intent on stopping it.  The people who welcome the change don’t look at one side or the other as more or less legitimate.  The people who are trying to stop that change are a bit less even-handed.  But that’s to be expected — the essence of establishment privilege is blindness to its existence.
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