Publisher Lobbyist “Unprecedented Joint Action!”
Life is too short to continually respond to self-serving publishing establishment bloviation, so I was going to ignore this American Booksellers Association “interview” of Mary Rasenberger, the Executive Director of the Authors Guild. It’s such a regurgitation of long-since debunked legacy publisher talking points that the most useful thing you could do with it is play Bullshit Bingo: Amazon a Monopoly…Devaluing Books…Free Flow of Ideas…Engine of Democracy…Bingo! Besides, Nate Hoffelder and Joe Konrath have already performed the thankless task of acting as this week’s bucket brigade and responding to this latest cycle of the same old publishing establishment bullshit.
But then I realized: the piece is such a purified expression of publishing propaganda that even apart from the tired, repeatedly debunked substance (a charitable word, under the circumstances), there were a few propaganda aspects worth noting.
First, though the answers Rasenberger provides are entirely predictable (and indeed, have been debunked so many times they’re not worth addressing with anything more than a link or two), the questions themselves are revealing. Here’s a sample:
How has Amazon’s abuse of its dominance in the book industry directly affected authors?
How have Amazon’s punitive actions against publishers, such as Hachette during their 2014 contract dispute, impacted authors?
According to some news reports, self-published authors who once thought of Amazon as their ally are now feeling victimized. Why is that?
As Amazon continues to sell huge numbers of titles below cost and uses them as loss leaders to entice sales on other segments of its website, what will be the long-term effect on a thriving and robust literary marketplace?
Holy “When did you stop beating your wife,” Batman!
If you were a legacy publisher…if you were an Amazon competitor…if you were any one of the unprecedentedly joint actors…indeed, if you were a clone of Mary Rasenberger, Executive Director of the Authors Guild, interviewing yourself!—would you phrase even one of these embarrassingly loaded questions differently?
Assuming you had an exceptionally low shame threshold, you wouldn’t. The questions would all be the same.
Which brings us to the second revealing aspect of this propaganda-masquerading-as-an-interview drill. You see, in the standard “blow-job masquerading as interview” gambit, it’s generally enough to hope the reader will just assume the interviewer and interviewee are working at arms-length. Making the point explicitly isn’t really the done thing. Here, however, perhaps not trusting readers to be sufficiently gulled, the ABA and AG are at pains to describe the “unprecedented joint action” of the AG, Authors United, the ABA, and the Association of Authors’ Representatives in going after Amazon for monopolizing the marketplace of ideas, devaluing books, and generally crushing dissent, democracy, and all that is good. The impression they’re trying to create is, “Wow, if so many separate organizations hate Amazon, Amazon must be doing something bad.”
But what’s critical to understand is that the most fundamental purpose of the Authors Guild, Authors United, the American Booksellers Association, and the Association of Authors’ Representatives is to preserve the publishing industry in its current incarnation. Whatever marginal differences they might have (I’ve never actually seen any, but am happy to acknowledge the theoretical possibility) are eclipsed by this commonality of purpose. Under the circumstances, the fact that these four legacy publisher lobbyists agree on something is entirely unremarkable (indeed, what would be remarkable would be some evidence of division). But if people recognize the exercise as a version of “No really, I read it somewhere…okay, I wrote it down first,” the propaganda fizzles. And that’s why these propagandists have to nudge readers with the bullshit about the “unprecedented joint action.” Otherwise, when Authors Guild Executive Director Mary Rasenberger cites Authors United pitchman Doug Preston as though Preston were a separate, credible source, people might roll their eyes instead of nodding at the seriousness of it all. They might even giggle at the realization that all those “When did Amazon stop beating its wife?” questions were functionally being put by Rasenberger to herself.
So no, this wasn’t remotely a cross-examination, or even a cross pollination (indeed, publisher lobbyists are expert at fleeing anything that offers even the slightest whiff of actual debate—which does make their alleged devotion to the Free Flow of Ideas and Information as the Engine of Democracy worthy of a smile, at least, if nothing else). It was just a stump speech lovingly hosted by someone else’s blog. The sole reason for the exercise was to create the misleading appearance of multiple, arms-length actors when functionally there is only one.
In fairness to the aforementioned Unprecedentedly Joint Actors, there is a rich heritage behind this form of propaganda. For example, in the run-up to America’s second Iraq war, Dick Cheney would have someone from his office phone up a couple of pet New York Times reporters, who would then dutifully report that anonymous administration officials believed Saddam Hussein had acquired aluminum tubes as part of his nuclear weapons efforts…and then Cheney would go on all the Sunday morning talk shows and get to say, “Don’t take my word for the aluminum tube stuff—even the New York Times is reporting it!”
So leave aside the fact that the “joint action” in question is anything but unprecedented—that it is in fact publishing establishment SOP. Anyone familiar with the record of these organizations will instantly realize that the “unprecedented joint action” in question is a lot like the “joint action” of all four fingers—plus the thumb!—of someone throwing back a shot of tequila. Like that of a little boy pleasuring himself—with both hands!—and trying to convince anyone who will listen that the Unprecedented Left and Right Action is proof that “Everybody loves me!”
The third aspect of this publisher lobbyist propaganda worth mentioning is the standard “we’re just disinterested, non-partisan, democracy-loving onlookers” dodge. Authors United, one of the partner organizations cited by both the ABA and the AG in the piece (they all work so hand-in-glove and cite each other so promiscuously they can be hard to distinguish) is particularly shameless in this regard, repeatedly proclaiming “We’re not taking sides” even while buying $100,000 anti-Amazon ads, sending complaints to the Amazon board of directors, and lobbying the Justice Department to break up Amazon. I’d ask Author United’s Doug Preston what more he would do against Amazon if he were taking sides, but these organizations never engage their critics (a tactic that could fairly be cited as its own form of propaganda).
ABA AG is careful to issue the standard
“We’re not anti-Amazon!” disclaimer—a disclaimer that serves as its own punch
line given the surreally tendentious questions that follow it, and given that
the very title of the piece is “Why Amazon Deserves Antitrust Scrutiny.” It’s
like the old French joke about Germany—“We love Germany so much we think there
should be two of them.” The jointly-acting, non-side-taking, non-anti-Amazon
ABA, AG, AU, and AAR actually love Amazon—so much they want the company broken
into multiple bite-sized chunks!
You know what, though? I doubt even the Unprecedented Joint Actors believe their own storyline. Because a resort to this type of crass propaganda isn’t a sign of confidence or strength. It’s a recognition that people aren’t buying your bullshit. That doesn’t mean the Unprecedented Joint Actors won’t prevail—after all, Cheney did, so we know that sometimes the propagandists win. But this is why it’s so important that their tactics, as well as their aims, be constantly exposed.