Thursday, July 10, 2014

Konrath and Eisler vs. Richard Russo: The Sequel

Think the Authors Guild really has all writers' best interests in mind?

Richard Russo, who in a previous Authors Guild letter tried to show he was attempting to win a second Pulitzer Prize, this one for Not Knowing What He's Talking About (I'm sure that's a category), is adding to his bowl of fail with this new letter, sent to Guild members.

So, contrary to what anyone could have possibly expected, Barry Eisler and I fisked it.

Russo in crazy bold italics, me and Barry in commonsense font.

Russo: The primary mission of the Authors Guild has always been the defense of the writing life.

Barry sez: One of my favorite things about Russo is the way his real priorities leak through no matter how much he tries to mask them in high-minded verbiage. Because yes, what Richard Russo and the “Authors Guild” want more than anything is to preserve a certain lifestyle -- the lifestyle that comes with being anointed by a legacy publisher, becoming a member of an exclusive club, and getting to write full-time from the proceeds. The lifestyle that’s theoretically available to everyone but that is in fact doled out to only a tiny fraction. And if that sounds familiar, it’s because it is. We’re talking about a one-percent economy, where the one percent’s lifestyle is achieved at the expense of the other 99%. I’m sure when Lloyd Blankfein argues for the merits of the system that landed him at the head of Goldman Sachs, he makes the same sorts of arguments Russo makes in all his missives to members of the Authors Guild. Because the worldviews are identical.

Russo: While it may be true that there are new opportunities and platforms for writers in the digital age, only the willfully blind refuse to acknowledge that authorship is imperiled on many fronts.

Joe sez: I would have liked it if he said something like, "authorship is sinking", which would have acknowledged he is indeed winking and nudging about how stupid that comment was.

But he isn't winking. He is, unfortunately, serious.

There is not a single front where authorship is imperiled. Not one. In fact, more people are publishing books than ever before (Bowker noted a 400% increase in the last five years). This is because every single one of those authors now has a chance to reach readers and make some money.

Richard, if you believe "authorship" is "signing your rights away for your lifetime plus seventy years to a legacy house" then use that precise definition. Because if every legacy publisher suddenly disappeared, authorship would still exist.

Last I checked, I wasn't blind, willfully or otherwise. It's interesting you use that term, because it perfectly describes your myopic confirmation bias. Barry Eisler just blogged about this very topic, namely the inability for those within an establishment (in this case, the legacy publishing industry) to rationally judge opposing viewpoints from outside that establishment due to psychological projection. You are the one who is willfully blind, Richard, and yet you are saying those who disagree with you are willfully blind. Who else but one blind would even suggest authorship is imperiled when more writers than ever are making money?

Barry sez: I just have to add… “While it may be true that there are new opportunities and platforms for writers in the digital age”...? Russo isn’t sure? This is just a hypothetical possibility he’s heard sing of from seers and psychics? What can you say about a person who thinks this “may” be true? It’s like someone saying the earth “may” be round.

Joe sez: You may be right.

Oh, wait. I mean you are right.

Russo: True, not all writers are equally impacted. Some authors still make fortunes through traditional publishing, and genre writers (both traditionally published and independently published) appear to be doing better than writers of nonfiction and “literary” mid-list fiction. (The Guild has members in all of these categories.)

Joe sez: And some authors are making fortunes, quitting their day jobs, paying bills (take eight hours and read through the thousands of comments from writers who signed our petition), through self-publishing (The Guild also has members who self-publish as well as publish traditionally, but apparently you haven't met any of them. Or spoken to them. Or care.)

Who again is being willfully blind?

Russo: But there’s evidence, both statistical and anecdotal, that as a species we are significantly endangered. In the UK, for instance, the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society reports that authors’ incomes have fallen 29 percent since 2005, a decline they deem “shocking.” If a similar study were done in the U.S., the results would be, we believe, all too similar.

Joe sez: I fail to see how I'm to be kept from reaching readers and making money. Perhaps because I'm not willfully blind.

Barry sez: I make this point again and again, even though I know the Richard Russos of the world will never understand it. That a way of doing things has worked doesn’t mean it’s the only way of doing things. An entity that has traditionally provided a function is not the same as the function itself, nor is that entity the only way the function can be provided. Again and again, Russo reifies the system within which he succeeded with success for writers generally. He’s convinced that if the legacy system evolves or is displaced, success will become impossible. This is logically absurd and empirically mistaken. Other than that, of course, it makes perfect sense.

Russo: On Tuesday, Amazon made an offer to Hachette Book Group that would “take authors out of the middle” of their ongoing dispute by offering Hachette authors windfall royalties on e-books until the dispute between the companies is resolved. While Amazon claims to be concerned about the fate of mid-list and debut authors, we believe their offer—the majority of which Hachette would essentially fund—is highly disingenuous.

Joe sez: As Eisler says, what if Hachette had offered to give its authors 100% of the income their ebooks generate on Amazon? Would that also be highly disingenuous?

I've played poker, Richard, and I'm sure you have as well. When I'm sure someone is bluffing, I call their bluff.

There was a very easy way for Hachette to find out if Amazon was indeed disingenuous. They could have accepted the offer.

Barry says: Amazon has been pilloried by people like Russo for “targeting” and “boycotting” and “hurting” authors. Then, when Amazon says, “Okay, let’s let those authors keep all the proceeds while we sort it out,” it’s disingenuous.

Okay, Richard, how about this: what do you propose? Outside outright capitulation to terms you don’t even know because they’re confidential, what from Amazon would satisfy you? What do you feel would protect the way of life you cherish and feel you deserve? Specifics, please.

Russo: For one thing, it’s impossible to remove authors from the middle of the dispute. We write the books they’re fighting over. And because it is the writing life itself we seek to defend, we’re not interested in a short-term windfall to some of the writers we represent.

Joe sez: Uh, Richard, when you're referring to "some of the writers we represent" you do know that those are the ones currently suffering? Perhaps, at the moment, you worry about them, and not all. Sort of like when, in an ER, you treat the patient with the knife in his head, not the asymptomatic one.

And as for "it's impossible to remove authors from the middle of the dispute" wasn't Amazon's specific offer intended to remove authors from the middle of the dispute?

Please go and read Barry's post, then see if you can figure out who is being willfully blind.

Barry sez: The “writing life” again, and defending it. It always amazes me when professional writers are this wooly-headed. What is this “writing life”? Richard, define it, please… extract it from the gauzy corridors of your emotions and explain to your audience in clear English the elements of the lifestyle you’re so desperate to preserve. If you can’t, or won’t do that, why should anyone take you seriously?

Also, “it’s impossible to remove authors from the middle of the dispute”? AG president Roxana Robinson said the same bloviating thing a couple days ago. What does it mean? It very much *is* possible to remove writers from the middle of the dispute -- by doing exactly what Amazon proposed. Amazon’s proposal would precisely result in all Hachette authors being protected from any fallout from the Amazon/Hachette impasse. Denying is like a visit to the Monty Python argument clinic.

Russo: What we care about is a healthy ecosystem where all writers, both traditionally and independently published, can thrive.

Joe sez: And I think it would be awesomely cool if I still had a Tower Records in my town, and a pet stegosaurus. But the world changed, and now there aren't any record stores, or
dinosaurs, anymore.

Bummer. But I moved on.

Russo: We believe that ecosystem should be as diverse as possible, containing traditional big publishers, smaller publishers, Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble and independent bookstores, as well as both e-books and print books. We believe that such an ecosystem cannot exist while entities within it are committed to the eradication of other entities.

Joe sez: I'll translate for those who don't speak Legacy Archaic: We don't want things to change even though they're changing, so we'll fight for the old way of doing things--you know--the way we're comfortable with that made us wealthy and feel special.

I'm all for diversity. I love having multiple choices as an author. But that's not up to me. It's also not up to any author.

It's up to readers. They are deciding how and what they want to buy.

For over fifty years, publishers have been able to control the situation. They decided which authors to publish. They decided which books would be read. They decided on the price. They released hardcovers a year before paperbacks to make as much money as possible. And they were able to give authors unconscionable contract terms. All because they were the only game in town. An oligopoly.

But since Amazon, an outsider, came along, the shadow industry of self-publishing has given readers, and authors, a choice.

The Authors Guild should be thrilled with this. But instead, they continue to act like the "Legacy Publishing Industry Guild" bravely defending the status quo.

And Richard? For the majority of authors, that status quo kinda sucked.

Russo: Over the years the Guild has often opposed Amazon’s more ruthless tactics, not because we’re anti-Amazon but because we believe the company has stepped over the line and threatened the publishing ecosystem in ways that jeopardize both our livelihoods and the future of authorship itself.

Joe sez: I gotta keep going back to Barry's post, because this is such a perfect example.

Amazon, which is doing more good for authors than any company in history, including legacy authors, for inventing the Kindle and creating the online bookstore everyone wants to shop at, has stepped over the line for doing more  good for authors than any company in history, including legacy authors, for inventing the Kindle and creating the online bookstore everyone wants to shop at.

I just don't see anything here other than blatant bias. Like AG President Scott Turow saying Amazon is destroying publishing by discounting books, and then Douglas Preston writing a letter, signed by Turow, saying that Amazon is hurting authors by no longer discounting books.

Look, I'm going to take a little detour and say that I really do understand your bias, Richard. I'm inclined to have a bias toward Amazon, because they've helped me make so much money, but I criticize them when they do things I don't like (marginalizing erotica on their site, removing reviews, recent contract additions) both in public and to them directly.

Why hasn't the Guild, or any prominent Guild member, criticized Hachette?

I'll opine. People tend to value rarity and exclusivity and clubs that don't allow everyone in. Clubs like legacy publishing. It makes them feel special.

Amazon is making something that was once an exclusive club into something that is no longer special. That's a beef the Authors Guild has but won't admit. It's a beef also held by the MWA, HWA, SFWA, and other writing organizations.

I can admit to feeling special and privileged when I signed my first legacy deal. I'd gotten the key to the executive washroom. I felt like I'd finally made it. And that feeling wasn't easy to shrug off.

I didn't feel special the first time I self-published, at least not in that way. Instead of feeling entitled, like I deserved success, years of legacy publisher abuse changed my mind about what was truly important in this business. Namely, control.

Control over my IP gave me a sense of empowerment that was greater than the sense of belonging I had with the legacy system.

So does this sense of empowerment make me defend my new self-pubbing business partners?

Actually, no. It makes me question everything, because I'm now the captain of my own ship.
I'm grateful to Amazon. I was grateful to my legacy publishers. But I don't feel beholden to

Amazon as I was to Hyperion or Hachette. I've become anti-establishment, and no longer fully trust anyone other than myself.

One more quick, related analogy.

How happy are we when, as children, our parents hang our school art on the refrigerator?

We're proud. We got approval. Recognition. A pat on the head. A gold star.

It's a powerful motivator, to have this honor bestowed upon us.

Now if, instead, we'd hung our art on the fridge ourselves, would it make us feel as special?

No. We wouldn't really feel anything.

That, right there, explains the difference. Some people spend their whole lives striving to get that validation, and it is tough to separate personal self-worth from what others say about us.

I'd argue that the healthier perspective is to hang your own art.

Barry sez: Amazon “has stepped over the line and threatened the publishing ecosystem”... this is Russo being unintentionally honest again. Yes, this is exactly Amazon’s heretical offense: it doesn’t respect the cozy club Russo loves and depends on. It insists on actually competing with that club, not joining and enabling it. This is what Russo calls “eradication” -- a refusal to collude and collaborate; a determination to do things differently and to do them better; a willingness to pay authors more and charge readers less. That’s all just an evil campaign to eradicate the cozy club.

I’ve said it before: it reminds me of the joke: “If we’re not supposed to eat animals, why are they made of meat?” People like Russo are so deep inside the box, they can’t recognize there’s a reality outside it.

Russo: There’s no need to rehash our disagreements here. But it is worth stating that we are not anti-Amazon, or anti-e-book, or anti-indie-publishing. Amazon invented a platform for selling e-books that enriches the very ecosystem we believe in, and for which we are grateful. If indie authors are making a living using that platform, bravo.

Joe sez: You don't mind Amazon enriching the ecosystem. But you fear them fundamentally changing it. Even if tens of thousands of authors' lives are improved.

Russo: Nor are we taking Hachette’s side in the present dispute. Those of us who publish traditionally may love our publishers, but the truth is, they’ve not treated us fairly with regard to e-book revenues, and they know it. That needs to change.

Joe sez: Exactly! Bravo! Which is why you wrote this letter, to finally take a stand and tell legacy publishers you'll no longer accept low ebook royalties! I now feel silly for taking you to task, since your motives are obviously in the interests of all authors and...

Oh. Wait a sec.

This isn't a letter to legacy publishers demanding higher ebook royalties.


So what are you demanding, Richard?

Russo: If we sometimes appear to take their side against Amazon, it’s because we’re in the same business: the book business. It may be true that some of our publishers are owned by corporations that, like Amazon, sell a lot more than books, but those larger corporations seem to understand that books are special, indeed integral to the culture in a way that garden tools and diapers and flat-screen TVs are not.

Joe sez: So you're saying that books are special snowflakes. Because of culture. And should be treated like rare, hothouse flowers in need of special love and attention.

Yeah, we already debunked those silly memes in the links above.

Barry sez: I call BS. Richard, even with an Internet connection and a hundred-dollar bet, I doubt you could even name Hachette’s parent corporation or any other publisher parent corporation, much less describe what they sell, much less offer a meaningful opinion about anything they’ve ever done or said that would indicate they understand books are special and culturally integral and all the rest. I’m sorry to be rude, but we both know you’re just making this stuff up because you like the way it sounds.

Seriously. Pause and honestly ask yourself what you know about any publisher parent company that would serve as evidence for your assertion. There’s nothing. Like a man dying of thirst seeing mirages in the desert, you believe these things exist because your worldview depends on that belief. But that doesn’t make any of it real.

Russo: To our knowledge, Amazon has never clearly and unequivocally stated (as traditional publishers have) that books are different and special, that they can’t be treated like the other commodities they sell. This doesn’t strike us as an oversight. If we’re wrong, Mr. Bezos, now would be a good time to correct us. First say it, then act like you believe it. We’d love to be your partners.

Joe sez: First of all, Richard, if you want to be Amazon's partner, buy some Amazon stock. Because you are owned for your lifetime, plus 70 years, by your publishers.

Second, when you say books need to be treated as different and special, I'm guessing what you're actually saying is publishers should be allowed to control prices, and keep those prices high, since that is the stance the Authors Guild has been supporting.

Third, you asking Jeff Bezos this reveals your complete lack of knowledge of Amazon's beginnings.

After reading a report about the future of the Internet which projected annual Web commerce growth at 2,300%, Bezos created a list of 20 products which could be marketed online. He narrowed the list to what he felt were the five most promising products which included: compact discs, computer hardware, computer software, videos, and books. Bezos finally decided that his new business would sell books online, due to the large world-wide demand for literature, the low price points for books, along with the huge number of titles available in print.

Again, I ask: who is being willfully blind here? Would you demand a cheetah admit that the vegan lifestyle is better, and its spot are illusions? First say it, then act like you believe it.

Barry sez: Wow, if I made this stuff up, people wouldn’t believe it. Russo wants certain companies to take… what, a Pledge of Allegiance to the Legacy Way of Doing Things? As parody, it would be funny. As reality, it’s pathetic. But it is an interesting window into the mindset of an establishment insider. I wrote about this in the blog post you’ve been referring to. Joe. Russo believes in his bones that the legacy way is the best way, indeed, the only way, and that anything that doesn’t buy into that way is inherently suspect and illegitimate.

Religious references from Preston, now Pledges of Legacy Allegiance from Russo. Seriously, you couldn’t do better as parody. But this is really who they are.

Joe sez: Seriously, Richard, you're showing you really don't have even the wisp of a clue what is going on in the industry, in the Amazon/Hachette dispute, or even with what your own Authors Guild (hint: the group you belong to and wrote this letter for) is doing. You just claimed you aren't taking Hachette's side in this dispute, when AG President Roxana Robinson just said:

"Having the government step in would be one way. I don’t know the legal definition of a monopoly, but when a single company (Amazon) has so much power, that would be a situation in which legal intervention would make sense."

That isn't taking Hachette's side? Really? How about:

"If they (Amazon) really wanted to benefit mid-list authors, they could have refrained from taking them off the site in the first place. Or they could have offered single-handedly to give up its revenues from e-books."

Why hasn't the Authors Guild mentioned the negotiation delays Amazon accused Hachette of?
You know, the ones Hachette hasn't denied?

Also, when did Amazon take any books off their site in this dispute? They removed pre-order buttons. Why keep insisting it's a boycott when it isn't? And you still insist you aren't taking sides?

Maybe, as Amazon recently said about Robinson:

"Given her position as the head of an author's advocacy group, it is hard to believe she could be against such an offer," the company said of Robinson. "She's the leader of the Authors Guild, not the Publishers Guild."

I agree with this. Not because I'm part of the Amazon bias club. But because it's a correct assessment of the situation.

But then, I'm not willfully blind, so I have an advantage you do not.

Coming up next: On the Internets, more willfully blind authors defend Russo without explaining why, and then call Eisler and Konrath names but won't fisk us. To those authors: take a good, hard look at why you're defending someone who can't make a coherent point, and why you despise the authors who bring that point up.

The Fox

One day I was walking through the woods, trying to mind my own business, and I came across a fox with his paw caught in a trap.

It was one of those Acme Fox Traps. Impossible to get out of. Extremely painful. It was made to hold onto the fox until it died, so then it could be skinned and its pelt sold.

I immediately opened up the trap. "You're free now. And I suggest you move to the other side of the forest. There are a lot more things to eat, and no Acme Fox Traps."

The fox gave me a look, then went bounding off.

The next day I'm walking through the same woods, and I come upon the same fox, in the same Acme Fox Trap.

Once again I freed it. "It's dangerous here. I know it's probably your home, and what you're used to, but you'd really be better off on the other side of the forest where no one is trying to kill and skin you. Trust me, you'll like it. There is a ton of food there, and it's really quite nice."

The fox gave me a look, then went bounding off.

The next day I'm walking through the forest. You know what I saw. The same fox, stuck in the same Acme Trap.

I immediately went to free it, and the fox bristled and said, "Hey, asshole, I got two thousand shares of Acme stock! Quit trying to fuck with my future!"