Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Scott Turow And The Politics of Cowardice by Barry Eisler

Joe sez: Here's an essay from bestselling author Barry Eisler, which I'm pleased to post here.

Barry: There are a lot of substantively interesting aspects of "Authors Guild" president Scott Turow's April 7 New York Times op-ed, "The Slow Death of the American Author." Indeed, you could write a long article debunking all the factual mistakes, legal errors, misleading claims, and failures of logic that comprise Turow's screed. Happily, Mike Masnick of TechDirt has done so, in a devastatingly well-argued and empirically based piece called "Authors Guild's Scott Turow: The Supreme Court, Google, Ebooks, Libraries and Amazon Are All Destroying Authors." I won't repeat what Masnick has already so ably pointed out, and will instead add just a few observations of my own.

First, look at the titles of Turow's and Masnick's pieces, and ask yourself which is the more accurate encapsulation of Turow's argument. Ask yourself, in fact, whether Turow's latest cri de coeur might more accurately have been called, "The Slow Death of Legacy Publishing."

In fairness, in misleading readers right from the title, Turow is doing no more than following the lead of the organization he represents, which given its consistent advocacy for the interests of legacy publishing has no business pretending it fundamentally concerns itself with what might be best for authors. But choosing a name that disguises your true purpose can confer certain tactical advantages. The "National Organization for Marriage," for example, isn't for marriage; it's against gay marriage. It doesn't want more marriage; it wants less, and they've cleverly chosen a name designed to sanitize their actual agenda. The advantages of a wholly misleading title are why in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the organization charged with torture and brainwashing was called the Ministry of Love; the organization charged with shortage and famine was called the Ministry of Plenty; and the organization charged with propaganda and historical revisionism was called the Ministry of Truth.

And it's why an organization primarily dedicated to protecting the interests of big publishing calls itself The Authors Guild.

Here's another one I like -- a small but a nice example. When a neighborhood near mine decided they wanted less car traffic on their streets, they campaigned to have the streets closed during rush hour. They called this campaign, "Traffic Calming." Brilliant! Who could argue against calmer traffic? But if you think about it, the more accurate name would have been "Traffic Diversion."  After all, that traffic didn't disappear, it was simply diverted to someone else's neighborhood. But, as is often the case in such matters, the honest title would have been a harder sell. Think about how much less effective the Authors Guild would be if it called itself something more accurate -- say, The Society for the Preservation of Legacy Publishing.

There are countless other examples (who wants to vote against The Patriot Act?), and I won't try to list them all. The point is, when you see a title -- whether for an organization, an article, or a concept -- that's at variance with underlying reality, you should recognize you are being bullshitted.

Another thing that interested me about Turow's piece was his reliance on theory and his refusal to consider real-world data. In fact, part of what makes Masnick's piece such satisfying reading is the way he cites actual studies, real-world evidence, and even the text of the Constitution (which Harvard-trained lawyer Turow gets wrong) to debunk Turow's theoretical claims. Now, don't get me wrong -- there's nothing wrong with theory, and in fact I have theories for all sorts of things (I even have one or two for what could motivate someone like Turow to continue to write such embarrassingly ignorant articles no matter how many times he gets publicly spanked for his sloppiness, but that's a separate topic). But once you have data you can use to test a theory, you have to use it. To argue exclusively in the realm of theory when there is abundant data you could use, too, isn't just lazy. It's fundamentally a repudiation of science itself.

So this is another thing to watch for. When someone tries to sell you on a theory but refuses to discuss available evidence that could support or repudiate the theory, it's another classic sign that you are being bullshitted.

A final thought.

Once upon a time, technology was such that the Great Guardians of Rich Culture and All That Is Good (AKA, the Establishment) could pontificate to the unwashed masses and there was no effective way for the masses to respond. In those days, anyone with access to a platform like, say, the New York Times had tremendous asymmetrical communication power. It's hard to argue that this kind of one-way communication was a good thing -- unless you believe that a lack of accountability, a lack of peer-review, and a lack of diverse pressure-checking is good for society.

Obviously, the Internet has in many ways leveled the communications playing field, and now, when the high and mighty speak down to the masses, the masses can -- and do -- respond. What's fascinating is watching the reaction of people like Scott Turow, who act as though we're still living in a world where two-way communication isn't a real possibility and the masses can be safely ignored. But what are we to make of this supercilious behavior? Read Masnick's article, then ask yourself why you should have any confidence in someone like Turow, who refuses to engage such a devastating rejoinder? Why you should respect someone who lacks the courage and even the minimal integrity to defend his own public arguments? Why you should trust someone who can't even back up his own claims?

Amusingly, twenty-four hours ago, I posted this, with a link to Masnick's piece, in the comments section to the Authors Guild link to Turow's New York Times article:

"That Scott Turow refuses to respond to this demolition of his facts, his knowledge of the law, and even his baseline logic tells you all you need to know about his integrity. And about the true function of the "Authors Guild" of which he is president."

I received a message that my comment was awaiting moderation. And not only did the moderators not run the comment -- they then closed the comments section entirely! Ah, the "Authors Guild," such a wonderful forum, where authors can freely express diverse opinions on all the important authorial matters of the day…

In fact, there were no comments at all on Turow's piece on the Authors Guild site. Anyone want to take any bets about how many critical comments the moderators deep-sixed before stepping in to censor debate? Think mine was the only one? Again, what can we conclude about an organization that purports to represent authors, but which is in fact afraid to allow authors to express themselves?

So: bullshit tell #3. When someone tries to pontificate to the masses, actively shuts down commentary, and refuses to respond to his critics, you can be confident you are being bullshitted.

What's so satisfying about all this is that you can't successfully ignore technology. Or facts. Or ideas. Denial has no survival value. When you stick your head in the sand, if you're lucky, the world will just pass you by. More likely, you'll get eaten. And that's what's happening to Scott Turow and the "Authors Guild." All the bullshit in the world can't change it.

Of course, Turow could easily prove me at least partially wrong about his lack of balls and integrity. Are you there, Scott? All you need to do is respond to Masnick's piece. His comment section is still open. So is mine. We don't censor debate. Why do you?

Joe sez: I don't have much to add to Mike or Barry's posts, other than to be grateful that they did such  good jobs, (as did David Gaughran here because Turow's NYT piece was gnawing at me, begging for a response.

Turow, like many bestsellers, lives in a gilded cage. He doesn't seem to understand anything about his fellow authors, and doesn't seem to want to learn.

So rather than comment on his piece, I'm going to address Turow directly, and try to help him out.

Are you reading this, Scott? Here are some things you need to know to get you up to speed:

1. The vast majority of authors have gotten screwed by legacy publishing. The legacy system has treated authors like you well, but most of us have been taken advantage of. This includes most of the members of the Guild you represent. Listen to their stories of rejection, poor royalties, broken promises, unconscionable contracts, rights grabs, terrible covers, orphaned books, undereported sales, shrinking advances, and how the legacy system you endorse is treating them worse than ever.

2. Digital media is here to stay, and it will eventually make analogue obsolete, or at best, niche. This has happened repeatedly, in various industries, and bemoaning it won't change anything.

3. For the first time ever, authors have the chance to control their careers. They can make money, many more than ever before, while also retaining their rights. The American Author (and World Author) is finally able to thrive without requiring the thumbs up or down from middlemen who take a huge cut.

4. There is no conclusive study that shows piracy hurts sales. My own experiments have shown it helps sales. I'm widely pirated (search any bit torrent site or file locker for my name), but I still made $137k in the last six weeks. That may not come close to what you're making, but it beats the hell out of the $40k a book I made when I was being legacy pubbed. As I've said, ad nauseum, the way to compete with piracy is with cost and convenience. I knew this years ago, and have been proving my point with my continued earnings since then.

5. Readers matter. They don't like to buy the same book over and over again in different formats. They don't like DRM. They don't like high prices. They don't like windowing. They like libraries. They like used books. They like lending books to friends and family. And, in some cases, they like piracy. Instead of treating readers as the enemy, listen to their needs and treat them as what the are: the ONLY ESSENTIAL component to any author's success.

6. The war against drugs failed, because it is contrary to what people want. The war for copyright is also failing for the same reason. You can't police a digital world. People will always file share.

And yet you're still making money.

So is your publisher. So is Hollywood. So are app developers. So are videogame creators. So are musicians. So are networks.

With all of this worldwide piracy and sharing, IP holders can still make money. Some, more than ever before.

The Internet was created to share data, and human beings are genetically wired to share information. Accept it, and what those irrefutable facts mean for copyright. Because copyright law will have to change according to what people want to do, not the other way around.

Change is scary, Scott. I know. But it comes anyway, no matter how much you want to argue with it, deny it, ignore it, or cling to the past.

Also, while I certainly understand and respect rushing to the defense of those who have done you a solid (in this case, the publishing industry that helped you earn a lot of money), that should be your agenda as Scott Turow NYT Bestselling Author, not Scott Turow President of the Authors Guild.

The Guild purportedly exists to help authors. For over a year, I've seen you do the opposite, spreading BS that hurts those very authors you and the Guild are supposed to be championing.

I don't expect you to change. Nor do I expect you to step down. But this blog gets more traffic than the Authors Guild website, so my next request is to all Guild members reading this.

Quit the Authors Guild.

Quit right now, with an email explaining that the organization is not looking out for your best interests.

That's the only way to effect change.