Barry Eisler

Friday, September 19, 2014

Policies Don't Just Have Benefits. They Also Have Costs

When people are evaluating a policy sanely, they instinctively know to weigh the benefits *and* the costs. Which is how you can identify the policies some people are so attached to they value them for their own sake. Drug prohibition is one; war is another. How can you know? Watch for people discussing those policies as though they offer only benefits and involve no costs. For example, you'll see a huge amount of the "no costs, only benefits" tendency now with regard to war with ISIS.

To me, it's really a question of applying common sense, imagination, and our understanding of human nature to try to divine what makes sense. Seeing how the attacks of 9/11 incited America into an orgy of retaliation that continues to this day, I surmise that being bombed causes humans to crave revenge. Then I try to imagine what it's like to be Iraqi, for example, and to have my country invaded and occupied by foreigners who kill over 100,000 of my innocent countrymen and turn another four million into refugees (out of a population of about 33 million)... and what it must be like to live under the shadow of flying robots that have killed thousands of my innocent co-religionists... and I think, "Well, if these people are anything like Americans and not instead innately wired for pacifism, they now probably crave revenge for what we're doing to them as much as we craved revenge following 9/11. And look what that caused..."

And even if the GWOT has solved some problems (I'm sure it has; what policy can't meet that low a bar?) there's the question of what those benefits have cost us and whether they could have been achieved more cheaply. I'm inclined to believe that with the risk of dying in a terror attack anytime in this century lower than that of drowning in a bathtub, we could probably handle The Very Scary Terrorists in a way that didn't end the lives of something like six thousand American military personnel; that didn't burn, blind, maim, cripple, and brain damage tens of thousands of others; that didn't kill tens of thousands of innocent foreigners (that's a lot of "collateral damage" for a policy to have to justify, no?); that didn't add $3 trillion to the national debt and siphon off money that could have been invested at home to blow it up over seas; that didn't lead to the rise of ISIS; and that didn't embody so much of what James Madison warned of when he said:

"Of all the enemies to public liberty war, is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other."

and

"The means of defence against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home."

and

"No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."

I think it would be reasonable to require politicians to point to some pretty astonishing benefits from a policy to justify costs like those.
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Friday, September 12, 2014

"Yeah? What do you propose instead?"

Imagine this: X proposes that we deal with ISIS by dropping nuclear bombs on Mecca and Medina. I respond that this is an insane idea. And X then says, "Yeah? What do you propose instead?"

Do you see how upside-down that framework is? What X proposes is insane. It's not a baseline, or default option, or otherwise something that ought to be done unless someone offers something better.

Because -- pro-tip -- when the new proposed policy is something as insane as yet another undeclared, indeterminate American war in the middle east against a "threat" that even the president who is waging it and even the head of the Department of Homeland Security acknowledge is in no way imminent, among the nearly infinite variety of better alternatives is the most obvious of all: *no* change in policy. Because *no* change in our current policy toward ISIS would be preferable to a horrendously *bad* change. And anyone who can't recognize that *no* change in policy is better than a horrendously *bad* change in policy is either attracted to war for its own sake or lobotomized by propaganda. Or both.
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Tuesday, September 09, 2014

If We Can't Bomb, What Are We Supposed to Do, Tea and Crumpets?

One of the most common (and depressing) false binaries I've seen regarding reluctance to launch another war in the middle east is "What are we supposed to do, offer them tea/say pretty please/make friends?"

I sometimes get a similar reaction in response to my protests against torturing terror suspects: "What are we supposed to do, give them a nice massage?"

A person who can't think of another way to deal with our adversaries other than torture and war has been virtually lobotomized by government propaganda. Of course, forcing people's mind into the box of "It's either war or the Black Flag of Isis flying over the White House!" and "It's either torture or a mushroom cloud over Los Angeles!" (the clear, scary imagery is always important) is precisely the purpose of that propaganda. What amazes me is how well it continues to work. I don't know what to make of that, other than that propaganda isn't very hard, or that people are awfully easy.  Or both.
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Thursday, August 28, 2014

ISIS Employed Lawful Enhanced Interrogation Techniques on American Detainees

I know ISIS is bad -- after all, our own Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has pointed out that they’re 

...as sophisticated and well funded as any group that we have seen. They’re beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess, they are tremendously well funded. Oh, this is beyond anything that we’ve seen, so we must prepare for everything...

Absolutely, even the war against Nazi Germany, the Cold War we fought against a nuclear-armed Soviet Union… ISIS is beyond all of it. They are really bad. Really, really bad, and we need to be really, really afraid.

And I also know their murder of an American journalist in Syria — the only place they’re operating besides Iraq — proves that ISIS is a “global threat.” If you’re not clear how a local murder translates into a “global threat” that QED requires bombing two countries, try not to think too hard — Richard N. Haas is the guy who made that claim, and he’s the chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, a former special advisor to a president, and also uses a middle initial in his name, which makes some people think you’re smarter than you actually are, so it must be true.

I also know that when a group like ISIS decapitates a hostage, and films and uploads the footage of that decapitation to YouTube, it’s never, ever because the group is trying to provoke America into a disproportionate, military response. It’s not because the group thrives on the deaths of innocents that disproportionate, militarized responses guarantee. They’re just trying to scare America into isolationism, the way 9/11 did.

But as it turns out, despite everything, ISIS can’t really be that bad. Because today, The Washington Post reported that the group does adhere to lawful, enhanced interrogation techniques — such as the waterboarding they administered on various detainees such as James Foley. And we all know that subjecting detainees like James Foley to lawful interrogation techniques is one of the hallmarks of higher civilizations. Right?

Okay, forgive my sarcasm. I’ve just lost count how many times over the years I’ve asked torture apologists, “Would you say it’s not torture if it was Iranians doing it to captured Americans?”

Well, it’s not a hypothetical anymore. If it’s torture when ISIS does it, it’s torture when we do, too.

James Foley wasn’t a detainee. He was a prisoner and a hostage. And he wasn’t subjected to "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques." He was tortured. And while only ISIS is responsible for any of that, no one but the United States of America is responsible for the fact that we can't coherently object to it.
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Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Economist, Always Tumescent for Yet More War

Ah, The Economist, so serious, so sober, so centrist… and always so incredibly tumescent for more war. It was entirely predictable, and therefore probably not all that noteworthy, that the magazine would call for more war in Iraq—and in Syria, too. But the way they’ve gone about it is such a textbook version of everything George Orwell discussed in Politics and the English Language that I couldn’t help being fascinated. Are the people who write this shite so committed to propaganda that they don’t mind coming across as mindless tools? Or, as Orwell suggested, have they lost any such self-awareness?

I don’t know. But let’s have a look…
AMERICA’S last two presidents have got things wrong in Iraq in opposite ways. George W. Bush went into the country in 2003 guns blazing, with 148,000 soldiers and too little thought of how to stabilise it after Saddam Hussein had been defeated. The consequences were disastrous.
I guess the editors made a trip to the memory hole, because The Economist was gung-ho for that war, and offered no more thought than Bush about post-war stabilization. Though really, does anyone believe that with just a little more thought America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq would have been a success?

Actually, scratch that question. Of course The Economist believes that. If you’re infatuated with war, you only question whether a war might have been better executed, never whether there’s anything wrong with war itself.
Barack Obama took a different approach. Americans, he reckoned, were not capable of bringing peace to this complex, violent and distant place. He allowed the troops’ mandate in the country to run out with insufficient attention to what might follow, and then applied the same logic in Syria where he did little to support moderate opponents of Bashar Assad. His policy aided the rise of the Islamic State (IS), a Sunni terrorist group, that has taken territory in Syria and Iraq.
Whatever Obama’s other failings (and there are many), he isn’t the one who “allowed the troops’ mandate to run out.” That was his predecessor. Among things to which The Economist is addicted is the notion of balance, and they know in their bones that if a Republican did X, then a Democrat must also have done the mirror image of X. They know it so well they’ll see it even when reality is to the contrary.

Also: anyone who focuses on whatever Obama did or didn’t do that might have aided the rise of IS, without at a minimum also mentioning the, you know, invasion and occupation that destroyed the country before Obama took office, is, if not breathtaking ignorant, then again blinded by a neurotic addiction to war.
Now the prospect of a caliphate run by extremists bent on attacking the West has persuaded a reluctant Mr Obama that he cannot walk away from the Mesopotamian mess, and he is trying a new tack—combining modest military force with hard-nosed political brinkmanship (see article). Given conditions in the region, the chances of success are limited. But they are better than those offered by any other approach.
There you have it: military force, the tool that’s better than any other approach. The only appropriate question is, “How much military force?” But the notion that military force itself might be the wrong tool is, to The Economist, apparently inconceivable. Certainly the possibility is never even considered in their article.
A politically stable Iraq is needed, run by a government that is broad-based and popular… The one headed for the past eight years by Nuri al-Maliki, a member of the Shia majority, was nothing of the kind… Mr Maliki has been an awful prime minister.
Again, when a war doesn’t produce the results we want, it’s important to remember that the war itself could not have been the problem. The problem is always something else—often, the lousy local government the war installed which then shockingly proved unequal to the task of cleaning up the war’s horrendous aftermath. See also, Iraq, Vietnam, and Why US Foreign Policy Elites Won’t STFU. See also, The Definition of Insanity. See also, This Is Your Brain On War.
Mr Obama’s gamble has been to withhold all but minimal military support in order to force political change in Baghdad. That strategy has come at a cost.
Wars don’t have costs. Only policies short of war have costs.
There are dangers here: if American bombing caused many civilian casualties, the extremists would have more chance of portraying themselves as protectors of Sunnis against a hostile Shia-led government and its infidel allies.
Pro tip for The Economist: even if you don’t care about the innocent human beings your latest war cheerleading will blow up, burn, maim, cripple, mutilate, and orphan, (sorry, better to just use the dry term “civilian casualties,” as Orwell foretold), for form’s sake it’s a good idea to at least mention those horrors, even if only in passing, as one of the “dangers” you’re concerned about. Just so people won’t come away with the impression that you have a near sociopathetic disregard for the suffering of brown people.
The jihadists’ ambitions to establish an Islamic caliphate cannot be tolerated.
If The Economist really were as Serious a publication as they like to fancy themselves, this would have been the topic sentence of the whole piece and they would argue it with logic and evidence. Instead, it’s just a thoughtless and passing cliché.

Can’t be tolerated why? The west has managed to tolerate all sorts of “intolerable” things. And if such an outcome were in fact “intolerable,” it would mean the west must be prepared to do anything to prevent it, no? Is that what The Economist is arguing?

It’s almost... almost as though they deliberately prefer not to say!
But an all-out assault may bolster Sunni support for IS and risk the disintegration of Iraq.
Well, that doesn’t actually sound so bad. Because anyone paying attention knows Iraq has already disintegrated. Which is good news—it means we don’t need any more war to further it!
A break-up of the country could lead to bloodshed on an unprecedented scale.
Did you notice that the only time they use a word or phrase with any real emotional impact—bloodshed—it’s to argue that less war is what would cause it? I don’t think even Orwell saw that twist coming.

Also, it would have to be a lot of bloodshed indeed to exceed the hundreds of thousands killed by America’s war there. But why mention that? After all, everyone knows those deaths were all really the result of bad Iraqi governance.

Remember, war doesn’t kill people. Only too little war can do that.
In all events, Western leaders must prepare the public for a lengthy military engagement in this part of the world.
Ah, a “lengthy military engagement.” Well, preparing the public for that should be easier than preparing the public for something like, say, a “very long war.” War is an upsetting word and therefore best avoided when a magazine does its patriotic duty and assists in preparing the public. Military engagements are ever so much drier. I mean, after all, engagements, in other contexts, are actually happy things!

political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
Oh, well.
That raises an uncomfortable truth for Mr Obama. His judgment is that the jihadists can be properly dealt with only by creating long-term stability in Iraq. A similar situation exists in Syria. Yet the president has long resisted intervening there, and been backed in this by a war-weary American public and Congress as well as international lawyers. Still, in the long run America is unlikely to be able to destroy or even contain militant jihadism without involving itself in Syria.
Does bullshit get any more mealy-mouthed than this? What, other than an absence of candor and integrity, is preventing The Economist from plainly acknowledging that what they’re calling for is America to go to war with Syria?
Mr Obama’s new approach in Iraq seems to be working. But more decisive action against the jihadists will be needed. The Americans are back on the ground, and they will be there for a while.
I can’t figure out why this all sounds so familiar. Oh, wait:
When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases -- bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder -- one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity 
Here are a few questions for The Economist:

If an air traffic controller had, over time, crashed multiple jets into the tarmac, would you want him kept on the job? If a surgeon had killed dozens of patients in the operating room, would you want her to continue performing surgery? If a restaurant poisoned patron after patron, would you want them to go on serving food?

And if a magazine continually called for wars that again and again turned out to be catastrophes, would you take that magazine’s calls for yet more war even remotely seriously? Or would you surmise that the magazine in question is suffering from an unhealthily neurotic attachment to war itself, an attachment so profound the magazine can’t help resorting to breathtakingly Orwellian circumlocutions, along with frequent trips to the memory hole? And would you then surmise that the sane and dignified route for such a magazine would be—at a minimum—to write about topics on which the magazine is other than demonstrably unqualified to opine?


I ask because, if you can manage to take the personalities out of it, you’ll see the magazine in question is you.
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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Keanu Reeves John Rain Television Series

Okay, a little off the beaten track from my usual focus on politics and publishing, but I’m pretty excited about Keanu Reeves being attached to play John Rain, so I wanted to mention it here. Plus I’ve been getting a lot of questions and feedback via Facebook and Twitter, and it seemed like a good idea to respond in one place. So…

There’s a ton no one yet knows because the project is still in the relatively early stages of development. I don’t know what network would/will buy the series; I don’t know anything about casting (so I can’t help yet with all those Dox and Delilah questions! ;) ); I don’t know what countries it would show in. All I really know at this point is that Keanu is attached, which is obviously huge in general and thrilling for me personally, and that good people are behind the project and are trying to move it forward. As far as I know, pretty much everything else is still up in the air.

Also, I don’t know whether or how I’ll be involved. I’ve met and had a few discussions with Keanu and the business people (Jaysus, I almost said business “folks,” but Obama has ruined that word as effectively as Hannibal Lecter killed “fava beans”), and I’ve made clear that I’m prepared to help with the project anyway I reasonably can. If they think my involvement will be useful, I’m sure I’ll be involved. Otherwise, I’m looking forward to making popcorn and enjoying the show like everyone else. Either way, I’ll be happy.

Okay, one thing I’m pretty sure of: with 87Eleven involved, the action should be awesome. What these guys do on-screen is just insane.

Most of the feedback I’ve received so far has been of the, “Holy shit, Keanu as Rain… awesome!” variety, but there’s been some hesitation, too, mostly along the lines of, “But Keanu isn’t half Japanese,” or “But Keanu is younger than Rain.” So a few thoughts on adapting a novel for the television or film:

In general, it’s important to remember that not only can you make certain changes when adapting a novel for the screen, but you should. The novel isn’t a story any more than TV is a story. Rather, each is a vehicle for telling a story, and the trick when you’re adapting is to distill out the essence of the story as configured for the novel and reconfigure it so retains its emotional and dramatic impact in the new vehicle. If you’re interested, here are a few more thoughts on this topic I wrote in an essay a few years back.

More specifically, in the books, Rain was born in 1952, making him about twelve years older than Keanu. But the first book came out in 2002, when Rain was fifty—roughly the same age Keanu is today (coincidence? I think not!). So change the Vietnam backstory (a history of violence is essential to the character, but a particular conflict is not), and, presto, we have Rain at the right age.

In the books, Rain is half Japanese, half Caucasian-American, but looks mostly Japanese (in part because of a little long-ago plastic surgery around the eyes, intended to help him blend in Tokyo). Certainly there’s some Asian heritage in Keanu’s features, but he’s not going to pass for Japanese the way the Rain of the novels does. But that’s okay: what’s vital to the character, IMO, is his sense of dislocation, his alienation, his longing to belong coupled with his inability to do so. In the books, I can convey this through (among other things) Rain’s thoughts. For the screen, I think it’s actually an advantage to be able to convey it in part through Rain’s appearance.

I guess the overall question is, what is essential to the character, and what is a variable? With regard to any specific character, reasonable people will probably differ. I remember some people freaking out online when Daniel Craig was cast as James Bond because “Bond is not blond!” Whereas personally, I can’t think of something less essential to Bond than the color of his hair. And there was a lot of spirited debate over whether Tom Cruise could play a character as physically massive as Jack Reacher. Reacher’s creator, Lee Child, thought yes (“Reacher’s size in the books is a metaphor for an unstoppable force, which Cruise portrays in his own way”); not everyone agreed. Personally, I think Reacher’s size, though certainly central to the character in the books, is more of a variable than an essential quality (imagine by comparison trying to remove Reacher’s adeptness with violence or investigative excellence—if you did, you would destroy the character). Overall, I think the question to ask is, “If we change this quality, do we still have the character?” If the answer is yes, the quality isn’t, by definition, essential. If the answer is no, it is.

Anyway, with regard to Rain, I don’t think the character’s age, face, or specific military background is at all essential, but that’s just my opinion and isn’t really something that’s susceptible to proof. I guess we should just let Keanu settle the argument by being an awesome John Rain… :)

Last thought: I’ve seen some tweets that say something along the lines of, “Keanu Reeves… could there be better validation for indie publishing?”

Maybe that question is meant rhetorically, but I think the answer is… Yes, there could be, and there is. Here’s why.

First, I’m not an ideal example of indie success. I started off in the legacy world, and now do a mix of Amazon- and self-publishing. In fact, the first six books that will form the basis for the series were all published initially by Penguin Putnam before I got my rights back and self-published them; and the seventh and eighth books that will form the basis for the series are published by Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer. So probably a better example of indie books getting a big-time film/TV option would be Hugh Howey’s Wool, optioned by Ridley and Tony Scott.

More importantly, for anyone who’s wondering whether indie is a viable means of publishing, I think a better metric than “Is Hollywood interested?” is “How many authors are making how much money and achieving how much happiness through indie publishing?” After all, a movie or TV show is about the rarest and luckiest thing that can happen to an author. Making a living doing what you love is a much more manageable and achievable goal. For more, I recommend the series of posts on “Indie Authors Quitting Their Day Jobs” at The Passive Voice, along with the groundbreaking analysis of how much money is being made through indie publishing over at AuthorEarnings.

Hmm, I guess I couldn’t do this post without at least a couple political or publishing asides… :)


So that’s the latest. I’ll have updates as I learn more. In the meantime, keep your fingers crossed… this should be a lot of fun and so far I think we have all the elements of a great television series!
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Monday, August 11, 2014

See? Amazon *Does* Think Books Are Special Snowflakes!

Today I found myself ruminating over what might be summed up as the “Books Are Special Snowflakes” argument, much loved among a class of patrician writers. For example, “Authors Guild” pitchman Richard Russo even demanded that Jeff Bezos take a pledge on the topic:
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.
And founder of the reactionary group “Authors United” Douglas Preston puts it like this:
For [Amazon] to treat me as if I were a poster or computer cables or a TV set is really hurtful.
I have to admit, the Russovian Pledge notion feels weird and totalitarian to me (also hypocritical—does Russo have links to those “clear and unequivocal traditional publisher statements, or did they come about in a more, shall we say, imaginative way?). And Prestons hurt over apparently being confused with a TV set made me smile.

But then I realized: Amazon is giving books special treatment! After all, they’ve gone on selling Hachette’s books since February, when the Amazon/Hachette contract expired.

How special is that? Richard and Doug, do you think if Amazon can’t come to terms with the wholesaler of any other product (is it okay for me to call books “products”? You know what I mean), they’ll just go on selling it regardless? You think if they can’t work things out with the supplier of the Three Wolf Moon Tee Shirt, they’re going to keep that gorgeous example of apparel on their shelves? You think if the contract for Haribo Gummi Candy Gold-Bears (5-Pound Bag) expires, Amazon won’t immediately yank those bad boys (and save customers a hell of a wild gastrointestinal ride in the process)? And continuing to sell Tuscan Whole Milk (1 Gallon, 128 fl oz), without a contract? Fuggedaboudit!

But books? Totally different story. With books, you have a Hachette contract that’s been flat-lining for something like the last six months, and yet Amazon just keeps on performing CPR. No contract, yet the supplier’s wares are still available in the retailer’s store? Who else but a publisher receives heroic measures like these?

You see? If Amazon really did think books were just like hemorrhoid wipes and duct tape or even the AutoExec Wheelmate Steering Wheel Attachable Work Surface Tray, you wouldn’t expect them to try to discourage Hachette from contract-renewal-foot-dragging merely by removing a few preorder buttons. You would expect them to just take all those books Doug Preston claims are “hostages” and… well, free the hostages, so to speak.

But they don’t. I don’t know what to conclude from this other than that Jeff Bezos is mad for books. That he loves books, demonstrably loves them more than he loves anything else Amazon sells. Certainly that he loves books more than he’s irritated by all the crazy accusations about his lust for retaliation. Otherwise, he actually would retaliate, and drop any books for which a supplier won’t enter into a new contract. But instead, no matter what, he just won’t stop selling the damn things. If that’s not love, if that’s not “books are different and special and can’t be treated like other commodities”… I ask you, what is?

Well, there is one other possibility. Yes. One other.

It could be that Bezos is in fact secretly dying to treat books the way he’d treat any contract-expired hamster wheel… but he knows he can’t. There would be too much fallout and he wouldn’t be able to get away with it. So he has to keep selling those damn books—which to him are nothing more than interchangeable widgets!—even though his supplier won’t negotiate a new contract with him.

But if that’s the explanation—if Bezos wants to retaliate, but knows he can’t—well, then, it’s almost like… almost like Amazon doesn’t have quite the despotic market power its detractors constantly claim.

I can’t figure out which it is. If Bezos doesn’t especially love books, then he must not be all powerful. But if he is all powerful, he must especially love books.

Maybe that’s why Bezos won’t take the Russovian Pledge... he wants us to figure it out for ourselves?

Okay, okay, enough teasing Preston and Russo (though obviously I’m not being entirely facetious). Let me add in all seriousness something I hope we can all agree on: that anyone who decides to get into the book business—as a writer, editor, bookseller, whatever—probably didn’t do it for quite the same reasons that motivate someone to choose, say, a life of investment banking. We all love books, obviously. We all think they’re special. The problem is that Preston and Russo et al conflate this axiom with the dubious notion that therefore the optimal, and perhaps the only, way for books to be published and sold is the legacy route they’re accustomed to and from which they’ve personally benefited. Such a notion is without logical or empirical support and has more in common with theodicynarcissism, and cargo cults than it does with rational thinking (see also my thoughts on Candide and the “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds” mentality in this post on James Pattersons own Norman Rockwellesque vision of publishing and bookselling).

So yes, books are special. But might it be unwise to get unduly emotionally attached to the notion that books are specially special? With regard to pricing, for example. As I discussed in an earlier post here:
There’s a widespread meme that high legacy prices create an opportunity for indie authors to sell their books for less. But there is another possibility I think is worth considering: that more readers would spend more money on all books overall if more individual books cost less.
To put it another way: if I had a choice between selling my books at $5.00 into a market where all other books were priced at $15.00, on the one hand, and selling my books at $5.00 into a market where all other books were priced at $5.00, on the other hand, I would prefer the second market because it would be so much bigger.
One other way of looking at it: among people who go into a bookstore thinking to buy one $20 hardback, and discover the store is having a three-for-the-price-of-two sale, how many wind up spending $40 and leaving with three books?
The point is, you can grow a market with low prices in such a way that individual sellers make more money in the bigger low-price market than they would have made undercutting prices in the smaller, high-priced market. When perceived value goes up, consumers spend more money. The market thereby grows, and individual sellers, even if the percentage of their slice of that market remains constant, make more money.
I’ve done no empirical studies on the book market and have only my own experience in the world (and my own pricing experiments with my own books) as a guide. So I could be wrong about the book market generally—but as a matter of logic, it seems a mistake to to treat as an axiom the assumption that lower across-the-board book prices must necessarily hurt indie authors’ bottom lines. After all, we know people hoard. But how much? For what products? And why?
In response, literary agent Ted Weinstein lampooned my argument like this:
If Amazon drives down the price of soap then everyone will take more showers and soap makers will make more money!
This got me thinking…

I liked the soap analogy, but felt it was missing something. And then I realized what it is: there’s pretty much only one way to get clean every day, and that way involves soap (maybe I’m not being creative enough, but still). So soap doesn’t face any external “cleanliness” competition.

Which raises an important question: do books face any external entertainment or information competition?

I would argue that, in general, books aren’t just competing against books, but also against other relatively fungible forms of entertainment and information. Amazon makes this point regularly, and I don’t think it gets enough attention. Because if it’s true that there’s a degree of fungibility in the minds of consumers between books, on the one hand, and other forms of information and entertainment, on the other, then the limiting factor on the growth of the book market isn’t just “people can’t read any more than they already do so they wouldn’t buy more books at any price.” The limiting factor might also have to do with pricing, with high prices bleeding off potential buyers into other entertainment venues where they believe they get better value.

I don’t know the answer, but I find the question extremely interesting, and it would be cool if someone could supply some real-word data. For now, the only such data I’m aware of comes from Amazon and Author Earnings. But I’d love to see more.

Anyway. I’m hoping the Russo/Patterson/Preston crowd will recognize, if only privately and grudgingly, that Jeff Bezos really does seem to recognize books are special. I also hope they’ll ponder the possibility that some significant segment of the marketplace might not entirely agree. Because if a significant number of consumers finds anything at all about books interchangeable with other forms of information and entertainment,  the consumers in question might decide they get better value for their information and entertainment dollar elsewhere. In which case, a dogmatic devotion to high book prices might be shrinking the market for books generally. For anyone who feels books have a special place in culture and society, that would seem a shame.


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