Barry Eisler

Monday, February 01, 2016

The Big Thrill, Unexpurgated

In connection with tomorrow’s release of The God’s Eye View, I did an interview with The Big Thrill, the magazine of International Thriller Writers

Novelist Josie Brown asked a ton of great questionsso many that TBT felt some of the conversation had to be cut. Here’s what didn’t make it in: my thoughts about what we the people can do to safeguard our rights in the face of continual governmental overreach, and on why the whole book ecosystem would be healthier if organizations like the “Authors Guild” would stop pretending to be other than lobbying arms for establishment publishing. Enjoy.

Your background gives you keener insights than most on our government’s geopolitical realities and political fallacies. What do you feel is the future of the US government’s surveillance? What role do you feel the public needs to take in order to safeguard its rights?

...So what is the future of a dynamic wherein the people know less and less about the government and the government knows more and more about the people? That depends on us. If we let propagandists stupefy us with stories about how The Terrorists™ are going to kill us all in our beds unless we surrender even more of our civil liberties (and really, given how much liberty we’ve given up since 9/11, if the “less liberty=more safety” equation had anything to it, wouldn’t the big bad Global War on Terror have long since been won?), the future will be increasingly jingoistic and authoritarian, with the Constitution more and more “just window dressing now, the artifacts of an ancient mythology, the vestments of a dead religion,” as one of my characters put it in Inside Out.

What can we do if we want to maintain the government as the servant of the people, with limited powers? Speak up. Support organizations like the ACLU, EFF, and Freedom of the Press Foundation; independent journalism like Democracy Now and Wikileaks; whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning. Don’t be taken in by “lesser of two evils” bullshit designed to get you to always vote for one or the other wing of the war party (or by the notion that we need a “third party”—sure, maybe, but to start with we could use a second). You’re not “throwing your vote away” if you cast it for an independent. You’re throwing it away if you cast it for one of the two relatively interchangeable candidates America’s oligarchy wants you to believe is your only real choice.

Don’t believe what the government tells you. I.F. Stone said, “All governments lie,” and can anyone deny this is true? When we encounter a liar in our personal life, we know to discount everything he says that hasn’t been independently verified. Yet we continue to uncritically accept the same government assurances, mostly having to do with how we have to give up more freedoms and drone, invade, and occupy more countries, no matter how many times the government is caught lying. But shouldn’t we at least be cautious when someone urges a course of action by which he stands to benefit? When a salesman on commission tells you a suit looks great on you, you know to be suspicious. And yet we’re infinitely credulous when the government tells us how we need to be afraid—even though fear increases government power and frequently leads to war, where fortunes are made by the very people agitating for hostilities. In any other context, fear-mongering and war would be instantly and rightly recognized as a racket. But it’s psychologically painful to accept that the interests in control of your country are other than benevolent, so we shy from the obvious truth and cling to comforting lies.

If there were one (or two, or three) things you could change about the publishing industry and the novelist’s role within it, what would it be?

The first thing I’d like to change is the popular perception that organizations like the Authors Guild and Authors United primarily represent authors rather than establishment publishers. I have no problem with organizations advocating for publisher interests, but the dishonest way in which the AG and AU go about their publishing industry advocacy misleads a lot of authors. I could go on at length about this topic and in fact I have—so for anyone who wants to better understand the real agenda and function of these “author” organizations, I’d recommend starting with this article I wrote for Techdirt, Authors Guilded, United, and Representing…Not Authors.

But isn’t it true that the AG speaks out on various topics of concern to authors, like unconscionable contract terms?

Hah, the AG going after publishers is like Hillary Clinton going after Wall Street. I’ve had a lot to say about this, including the comments I wrote in response to this post at The Passive Voice. For anyone who’s curious, just search for my name and you’ll find the comments, the gist of which is, when the AG wants to accomplish something, it names names and litigates; when it wants authors to think it’s trying to accomplish something but in fact isn’t (or, more accurately, when what it’s trying to accomplish is maintenance of the publishing status quo), it talks.

When the AG talks, it’s a head fake. The body language is what to look for in determining the organization’s actual allegiances and priorities.

Another thing I’d like to change is the generally abysmal level of legacy publisher performance in what at least in theory are legacy publisher core competencies. Whether it’s cover design, the bio, or fundamental principles of marketing, legacy publishers are content with a level of mediocrity that would be an embarrassment in any other industry. I’ve seen little ability within legacy publishing companies to distill principles from fact patterns (particularly patterns involving failures) and then apply those principles in new circumstances. Institutional memory and the transmission of institutional knowledge and experience are notably weak in the culture of the Big Five. My guess is that the weakness is a byproduct of insularity and complacency brought on by a lack of competition.

Agreed. Having spent fifteen years in advertising before becoming a novelist, I was abhorred as to what passed for “marketing and promotion.

I'd also like to increase awareness of the danger a publishing monopoly represents to the interests of authors and readers. No, I’m not talking about Amazon; “Amazon is a Monopoly!” is a canard and a bogeyman. I’m talking about the real, longstanding monopoly in publishing (or call is a quasi-monopoly, or a cartel), which is the insular, incestuous New York Big Five. An important clue about the nature of the organization is right there in the name, no? See also the Seven Sisters

Okay, another thing (and then I’ll stop because I could go on about this stuff forever): I’d like to see more choices for authors; new means by which authors can reach a mass market of readers; and greater diversity in titles and lower prices for readers.

Wait, that last set of wishes is already happening, courtesy of self-publishing and Amazon publishing—the first real competition the Big Five has ever seen, and a boon to the health of the whole publishing ecosystem.

Read the full interview at The Big Thrill.
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