Barry Eisler

Thursday, October 16, 2014

James Patterson: Publishing Revolution a "Religious War," Entertains "Ban" on Books

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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Friday, October 10, 2014

Franklin Foer: "Stop Amazon, Keep Publishing Exactly As It's Always Been!"

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 this to the Foers of the world, but… the advance is one way by which authors have been compensated. It doesn’t follow, either logically or empirically, that it is the only way.

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 Gutenburg 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 untermenschen that 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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Monday, October 06, 2014

New York Times Rebukes Streitfeld for Joining Publishing Battle, Not Reporting It

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 publicly excoriating abusive and otherwise suboptimal legacy practices are everywhere. A guerilla group called AuthorEarnings is 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 possibly compare 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, its 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 distinguishing the 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 at 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 mightmightpass that test.

There’s a word for that kind of uncritical coverage. No, not journalism.

Stenography.

Or, as Orwell put it [thanks to everyone who pointed out that the following quote has been attributed to other people in addition to Orwell], “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 matters 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 culturewhatever the hell that meansbe 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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