Barry Eisler

Thursday, August 07, 2014

If We Were James Patterson

Guest blogging with Joe Konrath today at Joe's blog. With the likes of James Patterson, sadly it's unlikely we'll ever run out of material...

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...

Read the whole thing here. Joe's thoughts in particular are hilarious -- and as insightful as always.
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