Friday, March 30, 2012

Establishment Publishing Kabuki

Today I learned via a mass email from Michael Pietsch, Executive Vice President and Publisher of Little, Brown, that Authors Guild President Scott Turow has an op-ed in Bloomberg on Amazon and the legacy publishing industry. The op-ed is mostly a cut and paste of an open letter Turow posted earlier on the Authors Guild website, and because Joe Konrath and I have already fisked the letter, I won't repeat our arguments here (David Gaughran also had a typically excellent response). Instead, I'd like to point out just one thing I think will be of particular interest to readers of HOTM.

At one point Turow writes, "It may seem strange to hear the president of the Authors Guild expressing sympathy for the plight of American publishers." Well, Turow is expressing more than just sympathy; he's adopting and advocating establishment publishing's philosophy and business practices in a manner indistinguishable from the manner in which establishment publishing executives themselves so advocate (indeed, as I note above, the EVP and Publisher of Little, Brown heartily endorsed Turow's op-ed in a mass email earlier today). But yes, Turow is fundamentally correct: it's as unseemly for the head of an author's guild to defend legacy publishers as it would be for the head of, say, the Pilot's Union to defend United. And Turow is apparently sufficiently aware of, and concerned about, the appearance of his questionable role as legacy publishing spokesperson to call it out.

But here's the reason Turow says you should not only accept his unlikely role as legacy publishing flack, but should in fact find it desirable: you see, the Authors Guild and legacy publishers "have been at each other’s throats since the guild came into being a century ago, and we still have serious differences."

This dodge -- the pretense of a real divergence of interests -- is so significant and widespread I wanted to call it out here.

No establishment wants to present itself to the public accurately -- that is to say, as a monolith. If it did so, people would correctly understand that the utterances of every part of the establishment are merely self-serving, and would discount them accordingly. So what establishments work hard to do instead is to create the appearance of conflict, competition, and a divergence of interests. In this way, for example, The New Republic can be used by conservatives, as in, "Even the liberal New Republic says…". Similarly, Blue Dog and other corporate-serving Democrats can be cited by Republicans as "Even Democrats acknowledge that…". And now, as we see, the Publisher of Little Brown gets to say, "Even Authors Guild President Scott Turow says…".

I've written about this phenomenon before as it exists in the establishment media. The apparent divergence of views among NPR and other such "leftwing" media, on the one hand, and the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and other such "rightwing" media, on the other, is intended to distract from the much more important commonality of interests among these establishment media outlets (and here's Glenn Greenwald with a recent piece on what these interests are). I call this kind of competition Kabuki Competition, and not coincidentally, it's the same kind of "competition" that exists among legacy publishers. Yes, they battle over author and employee talent, but these battles are vastly outweighed by the areas in which they cooperate: author royalties, means of distribution, and all the other fundamentals of maintaining their privileged station in the world of books. Remember, Europe's royal clans once fought real battles, too, but what they agreed on was much more important than what they fought over. And what they agreed on was the entire feudal system that was the basis for their profits, their position, and their power. They agreed on their place, and the place of the peasants, and all their battles were fought within those bounds.

So don't be misled: despite what they would have you believe, players like Turow and Pietsch are not fundamentally adversarial. They may differ, and they might actually fight, over how the system's spoils should be properly divided. But on the preservation of that system itself, they are of entirely the same mind and have entirely the same interests.

P.S. Michael, in your mass email praising Scott's latest, you said, "These are interesting times for all of us and I welcome your questions and thoughts about the issues facing our industry. I hope you agree that our open exchange of ideas is critical for continued success." I do! Which is why I've taken the trouble to respond to Scott and now to you, too. Won't you do the same? If not, then particularly given Scott's failure to address any of the numerous thorough and cogent responses to his arguments, which you have now publicly endorsed, people might start to feel that what interests you isn't in fact an open exchange of ideas, but instead a one-sided coordinated campaign of self-serving propaganda.


Unknown said...

The more I think about this letter from Mr. Turow, the more I wonder what his investment could possibly be. I think the most likely answer is that Mr. Turow is defending the industry that made him what he is.

I hear, though, the Authors' Guild is planning to change its membership requirements to include any author who has sold over X dollars worth of their books. If this is the case Mr. Turow will certainly have a hard time retaining his seat. Then again, non-legacy authors don't currently have much need for the AG.

Thanks for the post, Barry.

Gordon Kessler said...


Your insights into the ePublishing vs. traditional publishing industry have been invaluable to me--a long-time thriller writer, and a new eBook "indie" author. I appreciate your selfless work in exposing and analyzing the behind the scenes craziness that goes on.

I've mentioned and linked you and Joe Konrath in a blog post I call EBook Sales in the Tank? There's Hope! I hope you can find the time to drop by and maybe even add a comment: tell me how I'm thinking wrong/right/need to look at something else.

Again, thanks for all you do!

Jon Olson said...

I second J.A.'s comment. What is Turow fighting about? It's like there's some unarticulated animus that drives him.