Thursday, August 07, 2014

If We Were James Patterson

Joe sez: Well, once again James Patterson has managed to leverage his celebrity into coverage in a major publication, this time the opinion pages of CNN. Naturally, Barry and I couldn’t help ourselves...

Barry sez: Okay, let’s just hit the highlights. There’s little that’s new or noteworthy in Patterson’s latest screed, but there are several themes that unintentionally reveal themselves again and again when the princes of legacy publishing opine in public, and Patterson’s CNN piece provides a good opportunity to tease out those themes and examine their real implications. So:

First, in the worldview of the publishing establishment, there is always reflexive support of and sympathy for legacy publishers, and never any meaningful criticism or calls for improvement. Here, the reflex reveals itself immediately, in the first paragraph of Patterson’s piece:

As you may have read, Hachette Book Group (my publisher) is experiencing challenges with Amazon, as a result of negotiation over new selling terms for ebooks.

That Patterson might frame his first sentence “Amazon is experiencing challenges with Hachette” is inconceivable. The baseline assumption is always that Amazon is doing something bad, while legacy publishers are doing something that, if not outright good, is at a minimum justifiable and understandable. To use just one example, can you even imagine Patterson taking a moment to note that Amazon has repeatedly and unilaterally extended Hachette’s expired contract, and that Hachette has been dragging its feet in these negotiations for over six months?

Second, the publishing establishment, convinced that everything is personal and nothing is business, consistently attributes to Amazon bizarrely malicious motives. Here it’s the suggestion that Bezos can’t possibly be concerned with “trying to make this a better world.” A more common variation is something along the lines of “Amazon is trying to destroy publishing/bookselling/all that is good.”

But really, does any of this make even a modicum of sense? Did Gutenberg invent the printing press because he wanted to destroy scribes who wrote with quill pens on papyrus? Did Henry Ford invent the Model T and the modern assembly line because he was bent on the destruction of the horse-and-buggy industry?

Or did Gutenberg simply perceive a better way to get books into the hands of more readers? And did Ford simply perceive a lower-cost, more efficient means of transportation for the masses?

Yes, doubtless innovation always has a disruptive impact on the legacy way of doing things. But to jump from this to “the reason for the disruption, the purpose, is they’re trying to destroy me!” is, at best neurotic.

Memo to all technologically disrupted establishments: it really isn’t personal. If you’re a small business, I can see where there might be some ego-gratification to be found in the notion that a multi-billion dollar company is obsessed with targeting you personally -- in much the same way a disturbed person achieves feelings of importance by believing the CIA is trying to penetrate his cranial secrets with radio waves that only a tin foil hat can prevent. But isn’t it more likely that, like Gutenberg, like Ford, like countless other innovators before him, Bezos simply believes he has a better way of getting more titles of more books to more readers at lower cost, and that the effect of his belief on the legacy industry is incidental?

Third, arguments in favor of the legacy industry are typically conducted in unexamined cliches and devoid of supporting evidence. So:

[Bezos has] put enough pressure on [legacy publishers] to clean their houses, to examine their internal hierarchies, and to jettison some particularly wasteful practices…

It’s fascinating -- and telling -- that Patterson doesn’t pause to enumerate even a single jettisoned wasteful practice. Not even one example of how those publishing houses have been cleaned, not even a mention of what rooms might have been subject to the cleaning. It would also be fair to ask what the hell an “examined internal hierarchy” even is or why it might be relevant, but I doubt Patterson has any idea himself. I guess it just feels good to him when he says it, perhaps because this sort of thing strikes him as an acceptable substitute for actual evidence in support of an argument.

The urtext of legacy-publishing windbaggery, or course, remains this hilarious Hachette memo on why legacy publishing remains relevant. But Patterson, a publishing insider if there ever was one, is certainly part of that rich tradition.

Fourth, the publishing establishment conflates the old way of doing things with the best way of doing things. So, without pausing to supply any evidence or even to apply a moment’s thought, Patterson simply claims as an article of faith that:

Obviously these publishers -- however inefficient and old-fashioned (did you know many of them quaintly still let their employees do half-day Fridays in the summer?) -- remain the best way to find, nurture, and invest in up-and-coming authors.

Given that Amazon has enabled tens of thousands of authors to reach readers for the first time ever with books that in the legacy system would never have even seen the light of day, Patterson’s expression of devotion to legacy publishing as “the best way” is stunning. When faith is strong enough, it can screen out limitless amounts of logic and evidence.

(Oh, and did you know that those “quaint” legacy industry practices include, among many other examples, paying authors only twice a year? They’re so quaint, it’s adorable!).

Part of what makes these claims so fascinating is that they typically come from people who are presumably well versed in literature. And yet it’s as though they’ve never heard of Voltaire’s character Pangloss, and therefore don’t realize that they’re parodying Pangloss’s absurd faith that “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” See also Theodicy, which Voltaire was lampooning in Candide:

Theodicy tries to justify the apparent imperfections of the world by claiming that it is optimal among all possible worlds. It must be the best possible and most balanced world, because it was created by an all powerful and all knowing God, who would not choose to create an imperfect world if a better world could be known to him or possible to exist. In effect, apparent flaws that can be identified in this world must exist in every possible world, because otherwise God would have chosen to create the world that excluded those flaws.

Sound familiar? You see, legacy publishing (maybe we should rename it Best Possible System of Publishing) really is part of a rich literary tradition…

Fifth, legacy insiders believe that what’s best for society is corporate management, not human freedom. They would never say so explicitly, of course -- these days, overt support for aristocratic management of human affairs tends to be frowned upon -- but their real views always leak through. So:

We are going to have fewer great books and writers discovered in the coming years if there are fewer curators with the financial wherewithal to nurture them. And, no way around it, fewer publishing houses equals fewer curators. It's not a money thing, it's a diversity-of-perspective thing. One company -- no matter how high-minded and cleverly structured it is -- will offer fewer perspectives than many companies will.

The good news is, Patterson recognizes that when it comes to books, more perspectives is a good thing. The bad news is, he believes the best way to achieve that aim is at the corporate gatekeeping level rather than by empowering more authors to reach more readers, which is precisely what Amazon and the rise of self-publishing have wrought.

Or, to put it another way, the publishing establishment believes that the way to generate more perspectives is to have fewer published books.

In fairness, though, this is the same establishment claiming that by selling more books than anyone ever, Amazon is destroying bookselling. So at least there’s a certain… consistency.

Sixth, legacy insiders almost always use their celebrity to broadcast their views to the masses while avoiding any actual engagement with their critics. This is a sin of omission rather than commission, so I can’t quote Patterson’s words to prove it, only note his consistent failure to respond or even to mention the many public drubbings he’s taken for his reactionary views. Similarly, Scott Turow’s cravenness has practically become part of his brand, and if Doug Preston stays in hiding much longer, someone probably should file a missing person report. And the “Authors Guild,” which claims to be “the nation’s leading advocate for writers’ interests in… free expression,has become notorious for censoring and shutting down author comments on its blog.

Of course, maybe I’m wrong on that last point. Maybe James Patterson, and Douglas Preston, and AG president Roxana Robinson, and Richard Russo, and Scott Turow, and all the other pontificating pundits of legacy publishing really do have the courage of their convictions, really do believe they have the better arguments, and really do care about readers and writers enough to want to rebut all the ridiculous points I and many others have raised in public lest anyone take those points seriously and be damaged in the process.

If so, all they have to do is show up here in the comments. I’d be the first to congratulate them for it.

If not, it will be further proof (as though any further proof were needed) that despite all their chest-thumping protestations, establishment insiders care nothing about improving publishing for everyone, and are instead intent only on preserving it for themselves.

Joe sez: Now for confession time: I spend way too much time daydreaming about being James Patterson.

It's not that he's more successful than me. Or richer. It's not that he's more prolific. Or that he's able to get the media to run whatever nonsense he spouts. It's not even his mind-boggling revenue stream. (I'm frankly boggled at my own revenue stream -- though it is just a stream next to his mighty rain forest river.)

It's that I keep thinking about what a hero I could be, were I he.

I think about how I, James Patterson, could use my fame, wealth, and power, to help other authors.

How I could pressure legacy publishers into giving all writers better contract terms and higher royalties simply by threatening to self-publish if they don't.

How I could actually change things for the better, rather than spend so much time and energy and money (those NYT ads ain't cheap) to preserve the status quo.

But, at the same time, I think about how I, James Patterson, am so entrenched in the very system that made me rich and famous, that I can't possibly even slightly entertain the smallest thought that things might change.

You see, I, James Patterson, cannot see further than my self-interest.

I, James Patterson, above all things, firmly believe that books -- great books, and the producers of those books -- are of paramount importance to humanity's salvation.

But I do not believe that great books can exist without publishers. That's how narrow-minded I am. How out of touch with reality.

I truly cannot fathom a world without curators, without sifters, without the nurturing of gatekeepers. Because deep down, I believe those corporate bloodsuckers who drain 52.5% of royalties -- not actual writers! -- are the ones who are really responsible for books.

And I, James Patterson, wrongfully believe it is Amazon that is hurting those gatekeepers at whose nurturing teats I suckle. Those poor, bullied publishers, forced to compete with Amazon (when they never had to compete, or innovate, before) are doing what all embattled higher organisms do: They are joining forces by illegally colluding.

So, starting today, I am going to stop criticizing Amazon for changing the industry and for giving all authors a fair chance at finding readers. I'm going to STFU instead of defending my corporate masters, and start a movement to force legacy publishers to increase ebook royalty rates up to the levels Amazon already offers so authors can make, perhaps not as much as I do, but at least a little bit more. I'm going to pressure Hachette to match Amazon in compensating authors harmed financially due to these negotiations, on which Hachette continues to drag its feet because they want to control ebook pricing and because they don't want to lose their paper oligopoly, as Konrath, Eisler, et al have shown again and again and again.

And I'm going to do all this because I'm James Patterson and not only am I pretty legendarily smart, but I'm pretty wise, too.

Aren't I?

And then a marching band of monkeys playing "My Gal Sal" is going to parade out of my ass.