Visit Citebite Deep link provided by Citebite
Close this shade

Barry Eisler

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 damn 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.
Bookmark and Share

Thursday, July 03, 2014

One-Percent Authors Want To End Destructive Conflict, Bring Order to the Galaxy

Just when I thought Amazon Derangement Syndrome couldn’t get any more acute, I woke up to this “letter to our readers” spearheaded by bestselling writer Douglas Preston and signed by 69 authors.  One day, historians and psychologists might manage to explain how various authors came to fear and revile a company that has sold more books than anyone in history; that pays authors up to nearly six times the royalties the New York “Big Five” lockstep rate; that single-handedly created the ebook and self-publishing markets; that offers more choice and better prices to more readers than anyone ever has before; and that consistently ranks as one of the world’s most admired companies.  But for now, let’s see if we can figure it out ourselves...

A letter to our readers:

Amazon is involved in a commercial dispute with the book publisher Hachette, which owns Little Brown, Grand Central Publishing, and other familiar imprints.

Unmentioned is that Hachette is part of the Lagardère Group, a French conglomerate with sales of something like ten billion dollars a year.  Not exactly David to Amazon’s Goliath.

These sorts of disputes happen all the time between companies and they are usually resolved in a corporate back room.

Indeed, Amazon and Hachette are just a retailer and a supplier having trouble coming to terms.  Something that couldn’t be more common.  Unless, unless...

But in this case, Amazon has done something unusual. It has directly targeted Hachette’s authors in an effort to force their publisher to agree to its terms.

This is misleading.  Not only has Amazon not “targeted Hachette’s authors,” it has offered to compensate them for any damage they suffer by virtue of their publisher’s dispute with Amazon.  Hachette has refused that offer.  Do the authors of this letter not know about Amazon’s offer to help compensate Hachette’s authors, and Hachette’s refusal?  Why don’t they mention it?

For the past month, Amazon has been:

--Boycotting Hachette authors, refusing to accept pre-orders on Hachette’s authors’ books, claiming they are “unavailable.”

Amazon is not boycotting anyone.  All books by all Hachette authors are available in the Amazon store.  In the face of this, to claim there’s a “boycott” is either ignorance or propaganda.

Not including a preorder button for a tiny percentage of titles isn’t a boycott.  It’s a shot across the bow, and a fairly mild one compared to what an actual boycott of all Hachette titles would look like.  As for “unavailable,” if a book isn’t published yet and you can’t preorder it, how else should its status be described?

--Refusing to discount the prices of many of Hachette’s authors’ books.

The prices of Hachette’s books are set by Hachette.  If the authors of this letter think those prices are too high — and apparently, they do — it’s bizarre that they’re blaming Amazon.

--Slowing the delivery of thousands of Hachette’s authors’ books to Amazon customers, indicating that delivery will take as long as several weeks on most titles.

When a retailer and supplier can’t come to terms — something the letter’s writers acknowledge happens “all the time” — what is the retailer supposed to tell its customers?

As writers—some but not all published by Hachette—we feel strongly that no bookseller should block the sale of books or otherwise prevent or discourage customers from ordering or receiving the books they want.

This is a bit rich.  My own Amazon-published titles are boycotted by Barnes & Noble and by many indie bookstores.  Tens of thousands of Indie-published authors face the same widespread boycott.  An actual boycott, as in, outright refusal to stock books written by these authors — not because of price or other contractual terms, but simply because the retailers in question don’t like these authors’ way of publishing.  Yet this is the first I’ve heard any of the letter’s authors express their strong feelings on bookstores preventing or discouraging customers from ordering or receiving the books they want.

What’s really weird, when you stop and think about it, is that if customers being able to read the books they want is really an important value for the letter’s authors, you would think they would love Amazon’s business model and find Hachette’s suspect.  After all, Hachette is a gatekeeper — their whole business model is predicated on excluding from readers probably 99.99% of manuscripts.  Amazon’s model is to let all authors publish and to trust readers make up their own minds.  If customer choice is the real value in play here, you can’t coherently support Hachette and decry Amazon.

Unless, of course, all that happy talk about customer choice is a canard.

It is not right for Amazon to single out a group of authors, who are not involved in the dispute, for selective retaliation.

It wouldn’t be right if Amazon were doing it.  As explained above, they’re not.  What I’d like to know is why the letter’s authors apparently feel it is right when Barnes & Noble and other booksellers really do single out authors for retaliation?  Why are they upset about a fictional Amazon boycott, and sanguine about a real Barnes & Noble one?

Moreover, by inconveniencing and misleading its own customers with unfair pricing and delayed delivery, Amazon is contradicting its own written promise to be “Earth's most customer-centric company.”

I agree that it’s an inconvenience for customers when a retailer and supplier can’t come to terms.  But it happens, and it’s not that hard to understand why a retailer might feel compelled to hold the line in one discrete area to prevent its supplier from forcing it to charge higher prices across the board.  Think of it as a “lesser of two evils” dynamic a retailer might face with regard to what’s best for its customers.  Regardless, I’m not sure why the letter’s authors reflexively lay blame for the dispute and its consequences at Amazon’s feet while reflexively absolving (and refusing even to question) Hachette.  And I don’t see Amazon doing anything here that I would characterize as “misleading.”

All of us supported Amazon from when it was a struggling start-up. We cheered Amazon on. Our books started Amazon on the road to selling everything and becoming one of the world’s largest corporations. We have made Amazon many millions of dollars and over the years have contributed so much, free of charge, to the company by way of cooperation, joint promotions, reviews and blogs. This is no way to treat a business partner.

Under the circumstances, that last line sounds like projection.

Nor is it the right way to treat your friends.

I’m not sure what this means.  What does friendship have to do with a retailer and supplier negotiating terms?  Are they saying that in a contract dispute, you can’t allow your friends to become collateral damage?  Okay, but why is that message directed at Amazon and not at Hachette?

I know, I know... they really just want to end this destructive conflict, and bring order to the galaxy...

Bear in mind that no one outside of Amazon and Hachette even knows for sure the details or their discussions.  There’s been a lot of informed speculation in the blogosphere, and it seems likely that the essence of the dispute is that Hachette wants to return to “agency” pricing, which enables Hachette to keep the prices of ebooks artificially high, while Amazon wants the flexibility to charge less.  But in the face of no knowledge, or of the likelihood that Hachette is trying to force Amazon to charge higher prices, the knee-jerk anti-Amazon response isn't easy to understand.

Without taking sides on the contractual dispute between Hachette and Amazon, we encourage Amazon in the strongest possible terms to stop harming the livelihood of the authors on whom it has built its business.

Well, that made me smile.  I’m glad no one is taking sides!  In fact, reading their letter, I still have no idea which side the letter’s authors favor… :)

But seriously, I have to ask… do these people really not recognize that they’re taking sides?  Not that I think taking sides is wrong; personally, I think Hachette is a joke and I side with Amazon because I favor lower prices, higher royalties, and more choice.  But to write a letter like this and claim you’re not taking sides… are they disingenuous?  Or are they so psychologically wedded to legacy publishing that they think taking Hachette’s side is just being neutral?

For some reason it reminds me of the joke:  “If we’re not supposed to eat animals, why are they made of meat?"

But anyway… if the value in play here is that a company should "stop harming the livelihood of the authors on whom it has built its business,” I’m gobsmacked that these people aren’t demanding more from Hachette.  Hachette pays its authors 12.5% in digital royalties.  It keeps the lion’s share of increased ebook profits for itself.  It demands life-of-copyright (that is, forever) terms of license.  It inhibits its authors' ability to publish other works by insisting on draconian anti-competition clauses.  It pays its authors only twice a year.  It has innovated precisely nothing, ever, preferring to collude to fix prices with Apple and the other members of the New York “Big Five.”  That’s Hachette’s business record… and these authors, who purport to care so much about a company harming the livelihood of authors, have nothing to say about it?

I guess that’s what they mean by “not taking sides."

None of us, neither readers nor authors, benefit when books are taken hostage.

Then why aren’t they telling Hachette to set their books free?  End agency pricing!  Let retailers discount!  Don’t collude!  Free those books!

(We’re not alone in our plea: the opinion pages of both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, which rarely agree on anything, have roundly condemned Amazon’s corporate behavior.)

I always mistrust this kind of assertion in the absence of links or other citations — especially coming from a group that has already made as many misleading claims as this one.  But let’s assume their claim about overlapping op-eds is true.  The New York Times and Wall Street Journal "rarely agree on anything”?  This is possibly the most thoughtless (or misleading) claim the letter’s authors have made yet.  I know it’s a bit discursive, but here’s Noam Chomsky on propaganda:

"One of the ways you control what people think is by creating the illusion that there's a debate going on, but making sure that that debate stays within very narrow margins. Namely, you have to make sure that both sides in the debate accept certain assumptions, and those assumptions turn out to be the propaganda system. As long as everyone accepts the propaganda system, then you can have a debate.”

Like the Democratic and Republican branches of America’s single political party, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have far, far more in common than they do in dispute.  Suggesting their concurrence on a topic is meaningful is exactly like suggesting that because majorities of Democrats and of Republicans voted to invade Iraq, the war was a good idea.

We call on Amazon to resolve its dispute with Hachette without hurting authors and without blocking or otherwise delaying the sale of books to its customers.

I know I’m repeating myself, but… it’s fascinating that these people — who are of course not taking sides! — are calling on Amazon this way and saying nothing at all to Hachette.  You’d think Hachette is a wholly pure and innocent child, lacking any autonomy at all in this business dispute.

We respectfully ask you, our loyal readers, to email Jeff Bezos, c.e.o and founder of Amazon,, and tell him what you think. He says he genuinely welcomes hearing from his customers and claims to read all emails from this account. We hope that, writers and readers together, we will be able to change his mind.

It’s sad.  Imagine the good that might be accomplished if mega-bestselling authors like Child, Patterson, and Turow were even fractionally more inclined to leverage their fame and fortune in calling attention to real injustices in publishing.  The pittance the New York “Big Five” (the cartel is right there in the moniker) pay their authors.  The industrial-level scamming of newbie writers by Penguin Random House-owned Author Solutions.  Harlequin setting up subsidiaries solely to screw writers out of their royalties.

Instead, these one-percenters consistently ignore the tremendous good Amazon has done for all authors, and allow misguided self-interest to distort their perceptions and their arguments.  They take full-page ads in the New York Times, they give interviews with an adoring press, they publish letters like this one… all to perpetuate a publishing system that is designed to create a one-percent class of winners and to exclude everyone else.

You want to know something else the New York Times and Wall Street Journal are going to agree on?  They’re going to offer a ton of coverage to this “letter to readers” because it was signed by a few superstars.  And they’re going to ignore a competing petition that in the few hours since it went live is already closing in on a thousand signatures, many of them submitted by the mom-n-pop, small-business, indie authors Amazon has enabled to earn a living from their writing for the first time ever.  This imbalance is the way establishments work, and the authors of the “letter to our readers” are nothing if not part of the publishing establishment they seek to perpetuate.

It’s all right.  The establishment has the names.  Freedom and choice have the numbers.  And the numbers always win in the end.

Oh, and that petition?  You can add your name here.

P.S.  Some further suggested reading on this topic.

Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Last Magazine -- A Subversive, Inventive, Electrifying Debut

When Michael Hastings died at 33, almost exactly a year ago, everyone who followed his work knew the world had lost one of its most fearless, uncompromising journalists.

What we didn’t know was that we had lost an outstanding novelist, as well.

The Last Magazine is so many things:  a horrifying and hilarious parody; a you-are-there corporate thriller; a strange and touching love story.  Most of all, it’s a gripping bildungsroman (always wanted to break that word out in a review, and I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity).  Hastings nails it all:  the confusion and terror of combat; the funhouse-distorted ambivalence of sexual addiction; the grubby machinations of office politics in the corridors of a major weekly news magazine.  The shallowness, the self-centeredness, the soullessness of the crabs-in-a-barrel culture Hastings deftly and scathingly depicts reminded me of the dark comedy In The Loop — these are people whose only care about the world catching fire is whether their profiles will be attractively lit by the flames.

If you've read The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, you know that part of what always set Hastings apart was his voice (at times in The Operators he almost seems to be channeling James Elroy).  That voice informs everything he does in The Last Magazine, including a wonderful series of breaking-the-fourth-wall “interludes” such as, “Why I Write” (the narrator — or is it the author?  Both are named Michael Hastings — explains that his magazine’s no-outside-reporting policies necessitate that he disguise this true tale as a novel) and “I’m Very Sorry” (an apology to his colleagues, and again you don’t know whether this is coming from the narrator or the author) and “How a Magazine Story Gets Written” (shades of Moby Dick!).  The result is that from the first sentence you’re caught up in the meta and you don’t know where to look for the line between fiction and fact, between Hastings the narrator and Hastings the author.

But I think the location of that line is of secondary importance.  Because wherever the line lies, it animates truth.  Over and over again as I read this story, the thing that struck me most was how searingly honest it is.  Honest in its portrayal of human frailties; honest in its portrayal of what’s rotten and corrupt in journalism; most of all, honest in its portrayal of its young narrator, Michael Hastings, and of the other major character, veteran foreign correspondent A.E. Peoria (some version of an older Hastings?), both of whom suffer from many of the same weaknesses that afflict the characters around them.

This is just a great, great book, and a fitting testament to the talent and drive of an exceptional person who left the world much too soon.  I can’t help but be sad right now at the thought of all the other novels Hastings might have written, but now never will.  But at the same time, damn, I’m just glad he wrote this one.  It’s that good.
Bookmark and Share

Friday, June 13, 2014

Iraq, Vietnam, and Why US Foreign Policy Elites Won't STFU

With Iraq splitting into three (eight years ago, I explained why this was going to happen and why the US should get behind it), I wondered whether any establishment media outlets would refer to a civil war there.  I did a search for the applicable terms, and came up with… not much.  Apparently, if it’s happening in a Designated Enemy Country like Syria it immediately gets called a civil war.  But if it’s happening in a country we ourselves destroyed, we can't bear to be overly accurate and descriptive in our nomenclature, so it’s just "militants."

I also searched for “Iraq Vietnam.”  Because you don’t have to be a historian to remember that this sounds an awful lot like the endgame in Vietnam:
White House officials said the president did not envision any circumstances in which ground troops could return to the country. Air strikes, however, are under active consideration. On Thursday the US began airlifting planeloads of its citizens from Iraq.

Here, I was intrigued to see that my search returned one big hit:  a Daily Beast article by the ultimate foreign policy insider:  Leslie Gelb.  According to the headline, "Iraq Is Vietnam 2.0 And U.S. Drones Won’t Solve The Problem."  I thought, “Huh? That sounds reasonably insightful and even minimally sane.  What’s going on?”

And then I read the article.  Really, it is remarkable.  Not for anything it intended.  But rather as a perfect microcosm of the horrific failings of America’s inbred, immoral, ineducable foreign policy elite.

It starts immediately after the headline, when Gelb explains that “The problem is the Iraqi government.”  I thought, “Holy shit, that is exactly what the foreign policy establishment kept saying about Vietnam, all the way to the bitter end!  Is Gelb channeling Colbert?  Demonstrating why Iraq is like Vietnam by saying the same incredibly stupid and self-serving things insiders once said about Vietnam?  A kind of performance art, maybe?"

And then I read on and realized that no, Gelb really is this blind.  He’s not playing parody.  He is parody.

So what’s the problem? The problem is not that these Iraqis weren’t well trained and equipped, it was they did not have a government worth fighting for. The Maliki government is Shiite, exclusionary and anti-Sunni. It is corrupt and inefficient. In sum, like most of these great freedom-fighting government we’ve backed over the decades—corrupt and inefficient. And certainly non-inclusive in its politics, certainly not welcoming of potential opponents, certainly ill-disposed to give non-Shiites a legitimate share of power. So the Iraqi troops throw down their arms and run away.

Look, Gelb supported the war in Iraq.  He was part of it.  He lent it triple-distilled establishment cred.  So how incredibly psychologically convenient for him that “the problem” isn’t the war he supported, the war that killed up to 500,000 Iraqis and turned another 4,000,000 into refugees (in a population about 20% the size of America’s), the war that destroyed whatever infrastructure was holding the country together.

No, the only problem is the Iraqi government.

And it actually gets worse from there.

The U.S. fights in Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya and Vietnam and other places (maybe next in Syria), provides billions of dollars in arms, trains the friendly soldiers, then begins to pull out—and what happens? Our good allies on whom we’ve squandered our sacred lives and our wealth fall apart.

Our lives are sacred.  But those far-away, brown-skinned lives?  The hundreds of thousands of them in Iraq?  Not only are they not “sacred,” they’re so meaningless they’re not even worthy of mention in a magazine article.

And this notion that when America “squanders” (rare moment of honest nomenclature there) the lives of its soldiers in foreign wars, we’re doing it for the good of the people of the countries we invade, rather than for our own selfish ends?  It’s the psychological gift that keeps on giving, enabling people like Gelb to go on supporting America’s wars because America’s wars really aren’t wars at all, no, America's wars are in fact simply the magnanimous gifting of freedom and democracy to poor benighted peoples overseas, bestowed in beneficence by a generous, loving, enlightened people.  Gelb’s subtext is right there, though it would be considered uncouth in his circles to say it plainly:  You're welcome, Iraq, you fucking ingrates.  Now no more freedom gifts for you until you show us you’re mature enough to use them responsibly.

Actually, I think Lyndon Johnson said it better:  "We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”  Another unintentional bit of ironic Gelb performance art, doing his part to cement the parallels between America's premier foreign policy disasters.

Either our super foreign policy elite hasn’t read Reinhold Neibuhr, or they can’t understand him:

Perhaps the most significant moral characteristic of the nation is its hypocrisy.  Self-deception and hypocrisy is an unvarying element in the moral life of all human beings.  It is the tribute which immorality pays to morality; or rather the device by which the lesser self gains the consent of the larger self to indulge in impulses and ventures which the rational self can approve only when they are disguised.  One can never be quite certain whether the disguise is meant only for the eye of the external observer or whether, as may usually be the case, it deceives the self.

Also impressive is Gelb’s understanding of the complex motivations of people fighting civil wars in far-off lands.  They are nothing more than "militant, crazy and dangerous jihadis” and "crazed jihadis.”  Not a word beyond that of what might motivate human beings to fight and die.  Is this guy Sun Tzu or what?  With razor-sharp insights like these into the motivations of America’s adversaries, is it any wonder all of America’s wars turn out so splendidly?

The dissonance in Gelb’s psyche produces some contradictory results:

The South Vietnamese had a million and a half men under arms and despite the unconscionable Congressional cutoff of future aid, these armed forces had plenty to fight with. But they gave up too.

But Gelb's whole argument is premised on the notion that the US is right not to “squander” its blood and treasure on governments “not worth fighting for.”  He helpfully explains that South Vietnam was one such government.  So how could a congressional cutoff have been unconscionable?  Isn’t a cutoff exactly what Gelb is proposing in Iraq, and for exactly the same reason…?

I have to ask:  does anyone edit these things?  Subject them to even the most minimal checks for internal consistency?  Or does the Daily Beast think Leslie Gelb is one of those magical people who automatically alchemize gibberish into wisdom?

If our “good guys” can’t supply this motivation for themselves, Americans should have learned by now that we in our goodness and kindness and sacrifice cannot supply it for them. That’s the central lesson of warfare for more than half a century. That’s the essential moral Americans can’t seem to learn.

More pure American beneficence!  More foreign ingrates!

And… I’m sorry, but holy fucking shit, that is "the central lesson of warfare for more than half a century”?  That is "the essential MORAL Americans can’t seem to learn”?  That America is good and kind and sacrifices selfishly, but that’s not enough to supply foreigners with the proper motivation?

That someone can say something like this out loud while maintaining a brand as a Serious Foreign Policy Expert rather than being castigated and shunned as a moral monster is stunning.

But also, for America’s foreign policy elite, entirely routine.

Again, Washington should be prepared to help the “good guys” who are fully willing to help themselves. I’m not against that at all. I am against making these American wars because it simply does not work.

Get it?  To someone like Gelb, war is fundamentally a tool.  That in just a single instance of the use of that tool it ended the lives of hundreds of thousands of people is simply not part of Gelbian math.  It’s irrelevant, a non sequitur.  All that matters is whether we’ll be able to install a stable, pliant government.  If yes, war is good.  If no, war is bad.  That’s the whole equation.  Nothing else enters into it.  Literally nothing else.  If I’m wrong, find me a sentence, even a word, in Gelb’s piece that makes even the barest fig-leaf of a nod to the human costs of his wars.

This is part of what’s amazing about people like Gelb.  It’s not just that they’re moral monsters.  It’s that they’re so blind to their monstrousness they don’t even realize they should try to issue a weak disclaimer, obscure it even a little, inject a little deniability into the mix.

Well, why bother?  They still get published, interviewed, lauded.  Their brands are impervious.  Lacking a conscience or even minimal insight, what else would matter?

It’s fascinating to consider that following his support for the war in Iraq, Gelb admitted this:

My initial support for the war [in Iraq] was symptomatic of unfortunate tendencies within the foreign policy community, namely the disposition and incentives to support wars to retain political and professional credibility.

So at some point, in a rare moment of lucidity, Gelb realized he supported something that led to the destruction of a country and the deaths of up to half a million innocent people… all so he could maintain his precious credibility.  But the insight must have been too psychologically uncomfortable to maintain.  Certainly he seems to have learned nothing lasting from it.

Before the United States jumps off another cliff, let’s simply stop and take note of the bloody realities of more than fifty years.

Well, that’s one way of putting it.  Here’s another.  How about if foreign policy “experts” like Leslie Gelb, who have never adequately apologized for or even meaningfully acknowledged their grotesque errors regarding one of the worst foreign policy catastrophes in US history—a catastrophe that destroyed a country, killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and caused immeasurable suffering—how about if people like that take a permanent vow of silence as atonement for what they’ve done?

Martin Luther King said that "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."  Obviously, the notion of spiritual death is not confined to nations, but manifests itself in individuals, too.

Gelb claims to care about "the interest of a great majority of people in these countries who suffer from these wars.”  If that were true, he would recognize that his “expertise” has harmed far, far more people than it has helped, and that the least he could do, the baseline minimally decent and dignified thing, would be to Just. Stop. Offering. His wisdom.

There really ought to be a Hippocratic Oath for Serious Foreign Policy Experts.  But there’s not.  There’s just always the next war.  The next one they’re always going to get right.
Bookmark and Share

Friday, May 30, 2014

TOR-RENTIAL RAIN: A John Rain and Edward Snowden Adventure

A journalist I'm friendly with online sent me this the other day. It was inspired by a series of guest posts I did recently with the Freedom of the Press Foundation -- and, of course, by John Rain. I thought, "An assassination/martial arts/journalism mashup? All my favorite topics in one short piece of fan fic!" It's a little short for Kindle Worlds, but I told the journalist I'd be happy to post it here on deep background. And so here we are...

John Rain had only a few seconds of air left. Former Crossfire host Michael Kinsley was sucking all the oxygen out of the room as he bloviated about Glenn Greenwald's personality defects. Rain couldn't tell if he was going brain-dead from oxygen deprivation or exposure to Kinsley's toxic fatuousness. He'd have to ponder that question from the afterlife.



John Rain was a lethal martial artist and a pretty good lover. Or maybe it was vice versa (in the ultra-high-stakes realm of political intrigue and assassination, screwing and killing co-mingle fairly often). Regardless, both skills were in desperate need of honing. Like a sword sitting idly in its scabbard, John felt his edge beginning to dull. He hadn't made sweet sweet love in days and, worse, he hadn't snapped some asshole's neck in weeks.

Violent analogies aside, Rain couldn't afford to be choosy with his next assignment (or his next romantic encounter) if he wanted to stay rust-free. Which is why he ignored his better judgment (the one the CIA spent many years and many dollars augmenting) when he accepted a mission from the world's most shadowy private intelligence organization: the Pulitzer Committee.

The reach of the Pulitzer Committee's suction cup covered tentacles are matched only by the black inky-ness of its secrecy. Metaphorically, it was pretty much an evil squid- with one of the tentacles holding a ninja star, just because. The Pulitzers make the nefarious Military Industrial Complex look like the Breakfast Industrial Complex (the slightly-less nefarious group responsible for fooling Americans into believing Coco Puffs are part of a “balanced” breakfast). If they were ever careless enough to leave fingerprints (assuming squids can leave fingerprints), said tentacleprints would be inking up pretty much every conspiracy pie: Foreign debts, homeless Vets, AIDS, Crack, Bernie Goetz (basically everything listed in Billy Joel's “We Didn't Start the Fire)- plus the Pink Panther remake.

What the hell was Steve Martin thinking? thought Rain.

Whenever a journalist with the audacity to express deeply held personal views gets a hold of national security secrets, the Pulitzer People get together and vote on their fate. There are only two choices. Option one is to lock the journalist up and throw away the key. Option two is to award the journalist's organization a gold medal. It was never a simple choice. It wasn't up to Rain to decide- he was just the muscle. The target: Brazilian Porn-Spy Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden's handpicked chronicler of the NSA leaks.

It should have been an easy job; Greenwald was a marginal martial artist at best, though a surprisingly solid tennis player, albeit with a weak serve and no net game. While his debate skills were formidable, Greenwald's words wouldn't offer much resistance to a patented John Rain karate kick to the solar plexus. Plus Glenn was typically quite gracious when receiving accolades. All in all, an honest day's skulduggery. Only Rain didn't count on the Gray Lady getting involved.



Arthur Sulzberger Jr. was literally a cauldron of hot rage. But literally literally, he was the middle-aged publisher of the New York Times). Word on the street was that The Guardian and The Washington Post were to receive Pulitzer prizes. The hell they were! Sulzberger was assured they were all headed to prison, leaving the Times the only game in town. His top henchperson Jill Abramson had promised him total domination of the news. If Sulzberger was known for one thing, it was his silly nickname, “Pinch.” But if he was known for a second thing, it was probably his extreme intolerance of incompetence. Pinch summoned Abramson before him.

What happened?! he snarled.

I'm sorry, milord! Abramson stammered. The Pulitzer People are so terribly mysterious! No one could have predicted they would decide to give them all prizes instead of draconian prison sentences.

Abramson had failed. Failure was bad, unacceptable even. Sulzberger activated the trap door beneath the very first female Editor-in-Chief of the history of the Times, sending her to a blazing pit of hot death/ unemployment. Good thing we never paid her commensurate with her male peers, he thought.

Sulzberger summoned his groveling third-in-command: Where is my minion, Baquet!?

Dean Baquet slithered into Sulzberger's throne room.

Yes, my liege?

Abramson failed to destroy Glenn Greenwald and to adequately address the challenges of transitioning a legacy print organization to the digital era. You are now Editor-in-Chief. How do you plan to make sure no one ever takes Glenn seriously?

It's already being taken care of. I've retained Michael Kinsley to write a review of his book.

How deliciously vicious! Also, make sure you implement all of my son's recommendations as outlined in this digital innovation report.

Of course. I will not fail you.

I hope you don't. You'll be needing a raise. How's 80 thousand dollars more than whatever Jill made?

Exceedingly generous, sir.

Ok, you twisted my arm. 100 thousand more.



Rain had managed to infiltrate Greenwald's lush jungle fortress in the mountains of Rio de Janeiro. It was like Jurassic Park, only instead of velociraptors it was 12 mutts of varying degrees of manginess. But getting close to Glenn wasn't going to be easy- standing between them and the blogger's husband of nearly a decade, David Miranda. Miranda was a hulking five foot ten (and a half) tall Brazilian braggadocio with muscles and attitude to spare. What he lacked in real-life combat training he more than made up for in Call of Duty skills on the Playstation 4. A direct confrontation would be a risky proposition at best. Fortunately the CIA never taught John Rain how to fight fair. Rain glided down from his perch and knocked Miranda's legs out from under him with a sweeping karate kick. Before the behemoth could mount a counterattack, Rain had already stuffed the Brazilian's pockets with Snausages. The feral dogs piled upon Miranda in an instant. That'll keep him busy for a while.

Glenn glanced up from his computer with annoyance. He was too busy arguing with some random asshole with only 17 followers on Twitter to pay much attention to Rain, let alone the other assassin in the room...



Just as Rain was losing consciousness due to Kinsley's verbal asphyxiation, a mysterious figure appeared out of the mist holding six full-disc encrypted laptops and a kitana sword.

Why is it so misty in here? John would have thought if he were inclined to point out such an odd but ultimately trivial detail.

The mystery man threw one of the laptops and struck Kinsley on the head with a glancing blow. Suddenly, everyone word out of the pompous shitheel's mouth was just random letters and numbers. The oxygen flowed back into the room and into Rain's ragged lungs.

What the fuck did you just do to him? Rain asked.

I encrypted his communications.

---BEGIN PGP MESSAGE--- hQEMA2R0hT5KocvGAQf+MWcINOqB, said Kinsley.

The mysterious figure stepped out of the mist and revealed himself to be former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Well, not exactly. Technically it was a robot with a computer monitor for a head streaming Snowden live via Google Hangout.

With Kinsley rendered as voiceless and impotent as those unwashed masses who lack the sophistication and savoir faire to read Vanity Fair, Rain was finally within striking distance of Greenwald. Like one of those cool bolos that the Ewoks used in Return of the Jedi, Rain flung the gold Pulitzer medal as hard as he could at Greenwald. Without even looking (and still fully engaged in his Twitter-spat), Glenn snatched the prize out of the air and nonchalantly tossed it to a local capuchin monkey named Fábio in exchange for an overripe banana.

Banana? Glenn offered.

No thanks, Rain replied.

I was talking to Snowden.

But he's a robot.

He's a whistleblower.

There was no upside to arguing with Glenn Greenwald. Rain moved on.

Thanks for saving my life Mr. Snowden.

You can call me Ed. I was put on this earth to kick ass and secure the fundamental right of human privacy, and I'm all out of ass. Say, would you like to learn about the benefits of the Tor browser? I've prepared a 12-minute Youtube tutorial.

I'll take a Rain check, said Rain, winking.

Rain and the Snowden-bot exchanged knowing glances and jazz music recommendations as Glenn and David riffed on their air guitars to the tune of Rage Against The Machine's “Bulls on Parade.”

Bookmark and Share