Barry Eisler and I have a common denominator, a reason our paths keep crossing. That commonality is the amazing and talented Laura Rennert—my agent, Barry’s wife. That makes Laura almost as important to Barry as she is to me. So…Barry and I have shared a few conferences of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency variety, at that hideout lodge in the redwoods of Big Sur. And I definitely knew he was a writer, but I have to admit this: at first I was walking around with my head up my ass and not getting that he was this sort of…Mega-Writer…this legend in the industry. Probably just as well, because now he knows how I’d be treating him if he weren’t. The same. Basically.
I remember my first impression of Barry, as shared with Laura. I said, “He’s funny.” She said, “Yeah. He is funny.”
But somehow this has to morph into an interview, so I’d better start to pressure it in that direction.
Me: Barry, I still remember the day I read that initial conversation between you and Joe Konrath (which you later titled Be the Monkey, and made available for free download). It was shortly after you’d walked away from all that money at St. Martin’s, an event I still refer to as “The Shot Heard Round the World.” I read the whole thing, every word, then closed the web page and thought, “I’m saved. Everything is going to be all right after all.” I was in that classic author’s bind—I had the name, but not the right sales numbers in the right order, and the US publishers (I’m doing fine in the UK) weren’t wanting to take a chance, no matter how much they loved the books, and the industry was falling apart, and goddamn it this is how I pay my mortgage. I was in a box I thought I might never break out of. I wouldn’t have thought of Indie, because of its stigma. But you erased the stigma in one act. In one day. You leveled the playing field, making Indie an option for those who seek it, not just for those who have no other choice. Wow. Listen to me running off at the mouth, and I haven’t even found a question yet.
Here’s the question: I know you took, and continue to take, a lot of crap for the decision to go Indie—and the subsequent decision to go Amazon—with The Detachment. In fact, you seem to take a lot of crap in general, which I interpret to mean you’re flying high enough to draw some anti-aircraft fire. But do you also get sincere appreciation from authors (other than me) for changing the landscape in which they live and work?
We have to do an interview? I was so enjoying all the nice things you were saying about me!
At least let me return the favor: when I first met you, all I knew was that you were the writer whose manuscripts Laura devoured in a sitting or two; the ones where she had to make a second pass wearing her editor’s hat because the first time she was completely seduced by the story; the ones where, when I heard her crying over a manuscript, I’d say, “Ah, that must be Catherine’s new one,” the ones she would hand me tearfully saying, “You have to read this passage. It’s gorgeous.” And she was right. And I knew you’d written something like 18 books, and that one, Pay It Forward, had been made into a big movie, so I think I was semi-expecting a diva, and instead you were totally down to earth and funny and fun to hang out with.
Jeez, this is making me miss the Big Sur Writer’s Conference. We need to get back there.
But okay, your question… yes, I’ve taken a certain amount of criticism for some of my business decisions, and I think the reactions are interesting on several levels. First, I think it’s fair to say that my moves haven’t been welcomed in the legacy publishing world, but the reasons for that are pretty easy to understand. The more options authors have, the more competitive companies will have to become if they want to remain viable publishers. When every legacy publisher offers authors the same 17.5% of the retail price of a digital book, authors have to take it. When authors can make double that or more being published by Amazon, when they can make a whopping 70% per unit self-publishing, it puts pressure on legacy publishers to adapt and up their game. And, because they’re composed of humans, and because humans are inherently lazy, legacy publishers would prefer to avoid real competition and instead go on subsisting on monopoly rents.
The reaction of agents has been a little more interesting, and more revealing. As you know from reading Be The Monkey, I think agents have a bright future in the digital world, though they will have to adapt their business models and the range of services they offer. I would have expected this message to be warmly welcomed in the agent world—especially because there are a fair number of indie authors who are vocal in their opposition to agents taking any percentage at all of an author’s earnings—but a lot of agents have been deeply unhappy not just with what I’ve been doing with my business model, but even more so with my insistence on publicly discussing it. One well-known agent even approached me at a writing conference and told me tearfully that she and many other agents and publishing professionals felt I had betrayed them, and that they all hated me. Now, again, the reaction in publishing I understand (and shooting or hating the messenger is just a common, though admittedly illogical, human reaction, so I understand that, too). But among agents? That I didn’t understand, at least not right away.
But then I realized: many agents so conceive themselves as part of, and so identify with, the publishing establishment that they react to perceived threats to that establishment the same way the establishment itself does. You can see a similar kind of subornment at work among establishment journalists, by the way—they’re supposed to be holding the privileged and powerful to account, but instead come to sympathize with, identify with, and depend for access on the very people they’re supposed to be keeping honest. So there are many agents who are comfortable with the basic structure of establishment publishing, who profit from the system as it’s currently configured, whose status and self-esteem are dependent on their place in that system, and who are more invested in the preservation of that system than they are in representing their authors, and for such agents, someone who bucks the system, even if he believes and argues that agents have a bright future in new publishing, will be treated with hostility.
The most surprising negative reaction I’ve received, though, has been from writers. And the reason this one has surprised me most is because for me, more choice is an inherently good thing. It’s just intrinsic and axiomatic to my personality—I want choice because it gives me greater flexibility, increased power, and a better likelihood of achieving the outcomes I want. And my fundamental message to authors is pretty simple:
“Hey, for the first time, we authors have real choices. We can stay with the legacy model, we can self-publish, and we can go with the Amazon hybrid or ‘new’ publishing paradigm, which is based more on direct-to-consumer marketing than it is on distribution. We can publish some of our works via one route, and other works via another. We have more choice, and that’s giving us more power. Isn’t that awesome?”
But I’ve discovered that not all authors find my message so awesome at all, and I think there are a few reasons for their reticence. First, with choice comes responsibility, and many people are comfortable with a lack of choice precisely because that lack confers the luxury of avoiding the responsibility that comes with choice. So when I say, “You have a choice!”, many authors hear, “Now you are going to be responsible for the outcome!” And they don’t like that.
There also exists among some authors some of the same establishment-revering psychology that you can find among agents, and for such authors, anyone who disdains and acts outside that establishment will be viewed with hostility. I don’t mean to be overly hard on such authors and agents, by the way: a reverence for establishments is far more common in human nature than is iconoclasm. If it were otherwise, establishments, oligarchies, royal clans and the like would never exist. The one percent didn’t create itself and couldn’t alone sustain itself. It exists because a majority of the 99% reveres and supports it.
And of course, even saying such things aloud engenders hostility, because no one wants to look in the mirror and see a person who’s afraid of taking responsibility, or to see some version of an establishment-worshipping stooge (just like no one can admit he’s a below-average driver—but someone must be). If what I’m saying here is ridiculous, people will laugh it off. If it makes them foam at the mouth, I can’t help but wonder what’s really causing them to protest so vehemently. After all, I’m not describing all authors this way; I’ve merely noted that the phenomenon exists among some. But I guarantee you, my argument will be mischaracterized by people who can’t find a legitimate way to address it straightforwardly.
One more reason my decision to go with Amazon was attacked by some of the same indie authors who praised my prior decision to self-publish: for many authors, publishing is an ideology, while for me it’s a business. Or to put it another way, my objective has never been legacy publishing, self-publishing, or Amazon publishing. My objectives, which I think I’ve been reasonably clear about in quite a few interviews, are essentially threefold: (1) a better digital split than the 17.5% all legacy publishers currently offer in lockstep, with resulting increased long-term profits; (2) control over business decisions, including packaging and pricing; and (3) faster time to market for digital (that is, no more slaving the timing of the digital release to the timing of the paper). Those are my objectives, and when I decided not to accept the SMP offer, it was because I believed self-publishing was a better way to achieve them. But then Amazon approached me with what I judged to be an even better way to achieve those objectives, so I went with Amazon (and I have to say, my experience with Amazon has been overwhelmingly positive, both the process and the results).
As a pragmatic businessperson, for me, the switch in tactics made perfect sense. But what I realize now is that for many indie authors, self-publishing isn’t a tactic in service of some other objective, it’s an objective in itself, and for that type of author, my switch to Amazon felt like a kind of betrayal (which is strange, because I now have four self-published works that are doing very well for me, so I am self-published, just as I’m Amazon-published and legacy-published. Authors are not living in an either/or world, nor should we be, but either/or thinking persists, I think in part because for whatever reason a binary reflex is part of human nature). Anyway, I think the more ideologically motivated indie author crowd didn’t understand that our objectives were different, and so they weren’t happy with my tactics. But if you think about it, it’s not really legitimate to criticize someone’s tactics if you don’t understand his objectives.
I’ve been dwelling on the negative reactions mostly because they’re the ones I find most interesting and most revealing of various aspects of human nature and of the times we’re living in. But actually, reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, and it’s gratifying to know that along with authors like Bella Andre, Blake Crouch, Lee Goldberg, J.A. Konrath, M.J. Rose, and many others, I’m helping to blaze a trail I believe will ultimately be a big boon to all authors.
I loved everything about that conversation except the title, Be the Monkey. Because, though I don’t want to be assaulted, I don’t want to assault, either. But I say that in an off-hand way, and with some humor, because I know a lot of people miss the core message and instead get hung up on some word or phrase, some detail. Like the “house slave” comment. And I’m not doing that. The message still comes through. Just so we can have a laugh about it, can you tell me, and my readers, a few weird things people have seized on as a way of drawing the conversation off track?
Barry: I admit I never expected the title of the piece to be controversial, but the controversy was interesting and I learned a lot from it. For anyone who hasn’t read the piece, the title is a reference to a YouTube video, viewed by close to 12 million people, of a monkey, um, taking oral advantage of a frog. [Interjected note from me: I didn't watch this video, because it didn't sound like any fun to me. I included the link above, but not as my way of saying, "Go, watch this. Have fun."] Joe and I referred to it in passing during our conversation, but then we decided to half-jokingly explain its inclusion by saying, “Hey, in publishing, if you have to be one or the other… Be The Monkey.” We thought this was funny (obviously) and most people seem to agree, but we’ve also received some criticism from people who accused us of advocating and/or being insensitive to rape. Presumably, if we had referred instead to publishing being a “dog eat dog” world, we would also have been accused of advocating and/or being insensitive to cannibalism. I mean, I don’t think animals are typically held to the same standards to which we hold humans. We don’t prosecute a lion, for example, for murder and cannibalism when it kills and eats a gazelle. And of course we humans aren’t prosecuted when we kill and eat animals ourselves, and we don’t get charged with slavery when we employ beasts of burden in farm work. So arguing that if I laugh at something a monkey did to a frog, it must mean I’m advocating rape strikes me as akin to arguing that if I don’t want to punish a cat for killing a mouse, I must be an advocate of murder.
Here’s what I’ve found so interesting about some of the angrier reactions to our title. First, I don’t think it’s in any way illegitimate to be offended by the video of the frog and the monkey. [Me, interjecting: glad to hear you say that, because...you know...not so much dudgeon as...ick.] Nor do I think it’s in any way illegitimate to find the video horrifyingly hilarious (as I do). Humor is an idiosyncratic thing, and I don’t think there’s a single subject that should be off-limits for laughs. Disagree? Let’s test my principle by immediately subjecting it to extreme fact patterns.
So: you might say that child molestation is so abhorrent it should absolutely not be permitted to be the subject of humor, and that anyone who would find such attempts at humor to be funny must be depraved and deserving of censure. But then you’d have to explain Peter Graves and Joey in Airplane:
All right, all right, but the Holocaust, right? There’s no way you can use the Holocaust as the basis for humor!
Whoops. Mel Brooks, Springtime for Hitler: [Me, interjecting again: Here, I have to say, Barry's and my sense of humor collide. I thought the old original The Producers was one of the best movies of all time.]
I could go on. I defy anyone to find any topic that can’t be the subject for humor. Religion, terrorism, mentally and physically handicapped people, war, famine, pestilence, homophobia, racism, sexism, death… it’s all been mercilessly exploited for laughs.
|Carlos Mencia - Special Treatment|
All right, you might say, but just because something can be a subject for humor doesn’t mean it should be. After all, many people find humor based on such subjects to be deeply offensive!
Okay, let’s clarify that principle, and consider it. The principle is, “If someone finds something offensive, you shouldn’t do it.”
But this doesn’t make any sense as an organizing principle if for no other reason than that it’s impossible to implement. Because what if I find your reluctance to cause offense offensive? What do you do then?
But even if the principle were possible to implement, it would still be undesirable. Comedians should push people’s buttons. They should reveal uncomfortable truths about uncomfortable subjects. George Carlin was hugely entertaining, yes, but his insights into the political use of language and the nature of society were at least as valuable as his hilarity.
I know, I know… “Barry, it’s offensive that you’re comparing yourself and Konrath to George Carlin!”
Remember, we’re talking about a principle. If the principle works, it has to work across all fact patterns. If the principle doesn’t work across all fact patterns, it isn’t sound and needs to be modified.
For me, what it comes downs to is this: it is perfectly legitimate to be offended by something. But equating your personal feelings of offense with an admonition that the other person shalt not do what you find offensive is silly and fundamentally childish.
Here’s a personal example I hope will shed some light on my attitude toward this topic. I’ve lost some close family members to cancer, including my mother when she was 51 and then my future brother-in-law when he was 19. I don’t want to overstate the case, but let’s just say that cancer has had a reasonably big and tragic impact on my life and my family relatively early on. Nonetheless, I’m just not wired to find cancer-based humor offensive—but even if I were, it would never occur to me to tell someone else that she can’t joke about cancer because I find such humor offensive. Doing so would feel appallingly illogical and narcissistic to me.
So to make the “It’s offensive” argument legitimate, I think you have to tweak it into something like:
“Barry, you might not realize it, but many, many people, including rape survivors, find humorous references to rape offensive, and therefore you’d be wise not to make such references. It’s like the word nigger… even if the word didn’t offend you yourself, would you use it anyway, knowing how many people it does offend?”
Now this is a question worth asking, and I think it’s been properly framed. To answer it, you have to consider your objectives and what the reference will either gain or cost you in achieving them. And since Joe’s and my objective with Be The Monkey was to expose as many writers as possible to what we think writers should know about the new world of publishing, we might have made a tactical mistake in choosing what turned out to be a controversial title. The title gave our detractors an opportunity to derail a conversation about a fairly complex subject with a cheap and simple opportunity for people to express dudgeon and thereby feel momentarily morally superior. On the other hand, maybe the controversy caused more people to become aware of the piece, and therefore caused more people to read it. It’s hard to say.
So some of the reaction to our conversation focused on our title. To the extent that reaction was cynical, opportunistic, and otherwise faux, I don’t regret our choice because I don’t know whether our choice served or detracted from our tactical goals (I suspect the former, though). But do I regret whatever actual offense our title caused?
Up to a point. I mean, the goal of my nonfiction writing is to inform, not to offend, though neither of these parameters is absolute and if they conflict, I’ll tend to try to inform even at the expense of causing offense. Besides, I believe the offense of offending has gotten blown out of proportion in America today. Here’s another way to look at things, from comedian Steve Hughs:
Anyway, the title and the video it referred to were the main things critics seized on to draw the conversation off track. But there was also, as you noted, my “house slave” reference, which Mike Stackpole ably addressed here.
Some of these negative reactions make me a little sad. Because the effect of such reactions is to render taboo analogies to certain topics, such as racism. And while I know some people believe that making racism taboo as a potential analogy somehow honors the unique evils of racism, for me the taboo deprives writers of an important tool for understanding human behavior.
Here’s a quick example. In Be The Monkey, Joe and I talked about how the New York Times’s refusal to allow self-published authors on the NYT “Bestseller” lists could be compared to the old Negro Baseball League. Now, in retrospect, I’m inclined to think our analogy was tactically inept because while it added somewhat to our overall point, it also provided a huge distraction for the dudgeon crowd, and our argument got drowned out by the resulting shouting. And our argument, I think, was a good one.
We weren’t saying that a self-published author being excluded from an establishment “bestseller” list is in any way as invidious in purpose or effect as being discriminated against for the color of one’s skin (my God, do people not understand that an analogy means “X can be compared to Y for the following limited purpose,” not “X=Y”…? And for the most part it’s writers who seem to be missing this fundamental point!). Instead, we were trying to show that human systems that seek to perpetuate the status and privileges of certain designated elites can be established and continue to exist even at the expense of the integrity of what they presume to stand for: the highest quality and most competitive baseball, for example, or an accurate accounting of what books really are selling the most copies.
Now, you can argue that our analogy was inapplicable or otherwise flawed. But to argue that such a limited comparison is ipso facto offensive? I just don’t understand that kind of reaction, though I recognize on a tactical level (will my argument aid or impede my objective of getting as many people as possible to read and consider my essay), I have to take it into account.
As for weirdest reaction, well, one person tweeted, “How dare you suggest that publishers “abuse” authors! My mother was abused!”
What’s weird about this, at least for me, is how attenuated was the perceived insult. The word “abuse” is used pretty broadly, and the claimed connection between my use and the offense it caused wasn’t even direct—it was a relative. But the example is also useful and instructive, too. If someone criticized me for using the word green, for example, because “a very bad thing once happened to my dog’s previous owner in a green room!”, I think most people would say, “Hmmm, I’m sorry, but your claimed offense just isn’t legitimate.” What this shows is that we all automatically and unconsciously weigh the underlying sources of the claimed offense and rate their validity accordingly. Disregarding some claims of insult and honoring others shows how subjective the exercise can be. And again, regardless of the truth of the claim of offense, the “therefore thou shalt not” which usually follows is, for me, inherently illegitimate.
One other interesting aspect of all this was one commenter on a blog who took us to task for our monkey/frog references, who said something like, “Hey Barry, a lot of us think you’re an asshole for your reference. And when someone thinks I’m an asshole for doing something, I think it’s a good idea to stop doing it.”
I found this fascinating because for me, whether a stranger on the Internet might think I’m an asshole for doing something is a very weak guideline to my behavior—almost an irrelevant one. I doubt that a single even semi-important thing has ever been accomplished in the world without someone believing fervently that the person accomplishing it is an asshole, and I’m certainly not going to let the possibility, or probability, that I’ll be greeted with such reactions deter me from doing what I believe is right. I’m more concerned with my own integrity than with what others, and particularly strangers, think of me. But I realize from this poster’s comment that not everyone thinks this way, and that’s helpful to me, because it’s as easy as it is counterproductive to assume everyone else shares your values and therefore must understand what you’re up to.
Me: That's a rather complete answer. And I appreciate the discussion. Quite frankly, I do wince at some of what's above. But, as you say, it's so subjective. I liked the last video best, the Steve Hughes one. It makes me turn it around and think of the Christian right, who tends to say, "I'm offended by your gayness. It's against my religion." Okay. You have a problem then, don't you? I think a current societal disease is the idea that we will be happy if only we can change those around us so they don't bother us anymore by being what they are.
But back to publishing.
I’m going to tell two stories of how authors are treated in the “Legacy” world, and then invite you to see, match, and raise them. One, I just got news from one of my publishers that a book has enjoyed another foreign rights sale, and that I’ll see the money in this royalty period! How exciting! Until you realize that this royalty period closes at the end of February, and pays in September. Now. Really. Can we all put our heads together and think of one other business where a paycheck is issued after the company routinely holds your money for half a year? This next one is better, though. Years ago, I audited a publisher, and learned that 10,000 copies were unaccounted for. “Maybe they were destroyed,” I was told. Maybe. Which means maybe they were sold, in my mind. But I had no recourse, and never received a cent. Last month I was having a conversation with a royalty auditor, and mentioned that situation. She asked me the press run. When I told her it was in the six figures, she calmly said, “That’s nothing. Ten thousand copies is nothing.” Apparently that’s well within the range they’re allowed to bungle. Well, to put things in perspective, that’s $35,000 in royalties. Which is not nothing to me. Wouldn’t be nothing to most of us, I expect. Bad enough? Maybe. But I bet you can do better.
Barry: Oh God, I don’t even know where to start.
First, a theoretical basis. There’s no question in my mind that massive underreporting exists in publishing. This isn’t because I believe publishers to be exceptionally dishonest. Instead, it’s because publishers are human, and humans respond to incentives, and in legacy publishing, the normal incentive to cheat is coupled with a near-absence of accountability and other enforcement mechanisms. Do you believe that national secrecy metastasis conceals massive governmental corruption and ineptitude? If so, you should also believe that the structure surrounding publisher royalty payments conceals gross underpaying.
Legacy publishing’s lockstep 17.5% digital royalty rate, along with their twice-yearly royalty payment schedule (with payments arriving six months after the close of the applicable six-month period), along with impenetrably opaque royalty statements, are all evidence I’ve frequently cited as evidence of how legacy publishing functions as a cartel or quasi-monopoly. In a system characterized by real competition, such outcomes would be impossible. In legacy publishing, they are the longstanding norm.
I don’t blame the legacy publishing world for these practices, by the way. The reason we need competition is that in the absence of competition, humans tend toward laziness. How many times have we sat down and then realized we forgot something—at which point, we call out to our spouse or roommate, “Hey, can you bring me the remote?” We’re so lazy we can’t even get back up to grab the TV remote? Yes, that’s humanity. But if the house is on fire? You’ll get up right quick. Competition is like that fire, lit under the ass of a complacent company or industry. New York has never had it, so they’ve been doing what humans do by default, which is as little as possible. Now they do have it, in the form of self-publishing and Amazon, and here’s hoping they’ll do better as a result.
As for specifics, well, for sheer, breathtaking publisher ineptitude, here’s an open letter I sent my French publisher, Belfond, after they outdid their previously dismal efforts and decided a close-up of an olive-green garage door would be the right cover for one of my books.
Here’s another example, where my previous publisher, Ballantine, wanted to start my author bio with the guaranteed-to-massively-boost-sales fact that I was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1964.
By the way, for anyone who’s interested, I’ve tried to learn from most of my various publishers’ screw-ups and to pass on what I’ve learned on the For Writers page of my website.
I’m sure some people will think I’ve breached decorum in actually naming the publishers behind the incompetent episodes I’ve recounted here. Perhaps I have. But I believe that accountability is impossible without pointing out who is responsible for the behavior we seek to improve, and that too many writers enable continued publisher incompetence by refusing to shame publishers for it. I recognize that publicizing such incompetence can be risky because publishers don’t like it (how could they?), but if we writers want things to get better in the system in which we find ourselves, we can’t just be servants of that system. We have to try to reform it, even if reform entails risk. And this approach applies not just to publishing, obviously, but to other systems of which we’re a part, as well.
Me: I’ve been quoting you a lot lately. Because you said something on Twitter that I found insightful. You said (possibly paraphrasing) “For some, high dudgeon is its own reward.” Holy shit, is that ever true, Barry. Reminds me of my novel Electric God, which is about this angry guy who goes around breaking people’s jaws and getting thrown into jail. My point was that people who have wars going on inside don’t stay home and fight with themselves. They wait for the first person to cross their path and look at them just the wrong way, and it’s on. They always find a way to externalize what’s already there. Some of these Internet trolls (or the Minions of Darkness, as I call them) are not only powder kegs, but seem genuinely happy when anyone or anything lights their fuse.
But, again, I have to get a question out of this. So here it is: it’s so clear the dudgeon is about them, not about you. Yet I find, in my own life, it’s hard not to feel the sting of that amazing vitriol, at least for a time. Have you conquered that? Does this stuff really roll off your back? Or are you only human in this regard, and do you have to process stuff before it will roll?
Barry: Heh. I like that quote, too. Thanks for remembering it.
Let’s talk about dudgeon for a moment. Given the behavior’s essential illogic and childishness, it’s worth asking why people like to jump on the “How dare you, thou shalt not!” bandwagon. I think a few things are going on.
Some people are just being opportunistic. They can’t or don’t know how to attack the substance of the message, so instead they look for a way to attack the messenger. In law, this approach is taught as, “When you can win on the law, argue the law; when you can’t win on the law, argue the facts; when you can’t win on the facts, argue policy; when you can’t win on policy, attack the credibility of the witness.” So if you can’t address the writer’s substantive argument, then accusing him of racism or of advocating or trivializing rape etc. can be a useful tactic.
Also, for some people, expressing dudgeon is just inherently emotionally satisfying. Implicit in the expression of dudgeon is the notion that the person expressing it is morally superior. Feeling morally superior is pleasurable. In this sense, public expressions of dudgeon are as easy to understand, and probably about as common, as private acts of masturbation.
(Oh shit, did I just offend someone? Noooooo…!)
There’s another reason for the behavior, too, this one also emotion-based. Expressing dudgeon by yourself just feels good. But when you join a dudgeon-based mob, you don’t just feel good, you feel powerful. Suddenly, a public figure—someone you might perceive to have more money or status or clout than you—is back-peddling, running, apologizing, trying to appease you! Humans by their nature abhor powerlessness and delight in power. Think of what intoxicates a mob in the physical world as it roams the streets, committing crimes, watching the police fall back before it. Think about how the attraction of the mob causes people to disregard inconvenient facts, distort other ones, and otherwise suppress their superegos so as to enable themselves to engage in antisocial behavior (anyone who’s seen the movie Unforgiven will know what I’m talking about). The same dynamic exists in the online world.
There’s also a form of power to be found in using political correctness norms to bend others to your will. Even among people who really are offended (rather than cynically so) by something said on the Internet, the “therefore thou shalt not” part is a means by which such people can feel powerful.
As for my own reactions to the dudgeon demons, I don’t mind that people try to unite and enforce their notions of community standards. I just hope they don’t mind that although I certainly do consider such admonitions, I won’t always be persuaded by them. But I think my hope is probably in vain, because, as you point out, these people are usually motivated by other than what they think they are.
Mostly when the dudgeon demons descend, it bothers me about the same way a bad review does—which is to say, not very much. I try to consider the reaction as honestly and openly as I can, learn what I can from it, and adapt accordingly. The one time I was a bit thrown by reactions was in the immediate aftermath of my “house slave” reference. Here’s how I addressed it:
I thought I was being pretty clear, complete, and sincere with my explanation and apology, and I made sure to tweet and otherwise link to it in other places where people were expressing their outrage. But for the most part, people just kept piling on. A typical response to my explanation was, “Oh come on, Barry, you’re too smart to have made such a mistake. What’s really going on with you? How can you be so insensitive?”
That’s when I realized I was being naïve in assuming most people who were firing up their inner dudgeon were transparently motivated. If they had been—if they had been motivated by an honest desire to educate, my explanation and apology would have been more than satisfactory. But instead, what they really wanted was to punish, and in this regard my explanation and apology were not satisfactory at all. This is the difference between education and reeducation: in the former, the lesson ends with learning and enlightenment; in the latter, it ends with punishment and humiliation. You don’t get sent to a reeducation camp to learn a substantive lesson; you get sent so you learn about relative power (and as an example to others). Most dudgeon, I realized, isn’t about education, but rather reeducation, and once I realized that, I realized I’d misunderstood what was going on and had wasted my time (and possibly even emboldened my critics) in trying to explain. But I wasn’t sorry, either, because the apology was sincere. Also, once I understood what the whole episode was primarily about, I felt better. Until then it had been a little confusing.
Me: I’ve been hearing lots of news about Amazon lately. Their tactics, and their objective. And, I promise you, Barry, this is not a loaded question. I totally support your decision to go with Amazon for The Detachment. I’ve gone with them in some smaller ways myself. So no judgment. I just want to know. Does the potential future of Amazon scare you a little?
Barry: It doesn’t.
Now, some people will say I’m just saying that because I’m a shill for Amazon. To that, I would respond by noting my own track record in calling things as I see them, even when doing so is against my pecuniary interests. But regardless, here’s the substance of my reasoning.
First, I can’t do very much about Amazon’s growing power, or about that of any other huge company. When a possible event is largely outside my control, what I try to do is protect myself from the potential downside of that event as much as I can and position myself, to the extent possible, to benefit from it. After that, I stop worrying. For example, Laura and I live in earthquake country. So a few years ago, we had the house retrofitted to make it more earthquake resistant. I have a lot of food, water, and related items sensibly stored in the house and in our cars. I took a few other precautions, too. And then I stopped worrying, because there’s nothing more I can do to make sure we’re protected.
The main fear I hear expressed about Amazon, at least among writers, goes something like this: “Sure, it’s great that Amazon is offering self-published writers 70% of digital retail today. But tomorrow? After they’ve achieved world domination? Guaranteed they lower that rate and screw authors.”
To which my standard response is… “Dear God, do you think they might lower digital royalties all the way to 17.5%? Because that would really suck! Oh, wait a minute…”
(I wrote more about this in a guest post on J.A. Konrath’s blog called The Bogeyman and The Axe Murderer. But before anyone clicks on the link, I should include an advisory: this is a post that offended a lot of people, and if you read it, you could suffer afterward from feelings of being offended, which many people find troubling.)
The more general fear about Amazon is that they’re just getting too powerful—a kind of online Wal-Mart, with the store being in every house or even, in the case of the Kindle, right there in every consumer’s hands. I think this is a legitimate concern, but I’m not unduly worried because: (i) so far, Amazon’s whole business model has been built on providing a better customer experience, and for this to change, you’d need a pretty fundamental change in their culture; (ii) regardless, I expect Amazon to face sufficiently tough competition to keep them honest; (iii) regardless, I’m willing to risk the downsides of potential future monopolistic behavior in exchange for the kind of innovation and competition Amazon has already brought and continues to bring to reading, publishing, bookselling, and shopping in general.
This is a radically innovative company that has entered a notably non-innovative industry—publishing—and is dramatically improving that industry for readers and writers. Is there a danger that legacy publishers, grown soft from a lack of competition, will die rather than adapt and thrive? Yes. Is that risk worth it to me to inject innovation and competition into a moribund industry? Yes. But I recognize that my values in this regard won’t be shared by everyone, and that I might even be in the minority.
Me: I’ll call this the Green Garage Door question. A few weeks back I had a talk with Christopher Moore on this blog about, among other things, bad covers. I’ve fought hard for good covers, partly at his urging. I’ve lost two or three times, and gotten bad ones. And those books have tanked. I mean, really. Tanked. Now, maybe they tanked because of the bad covers or maybe the bad covers and the bad sales were all part and parcel of the publisher no longer giving a flying we-all-know-what about the books.
But…right…a question. Two parts. One, can you give us some stories of good and bad covers? The ones you fought for and won, the ones that still make you wince to this very day. And, two, can you reflect a bit about how it feels when a publisher has sovereign power to make lousy decisions about your book, hurting you at least as much as they hurt themselves?
Barry: Heh. I’ve already linked to my thoughts about the dreaded Green Garage Door, as it shall be known in infamy, so that’s the story of a terrible cover, and one I hope will be representative and therefore instructive, too.
The best examples I have are all the ones I’ve commissioned and controlled myself: The Lost Coast and Paris Is A Bitch, which are my self-published short stories; The Ass Is A Poor Receptacle For The Head: Why Democrats Suck At Communication, And How They Could Improve, which is my self-published political essay; and of course the cover of the notorious Be The Monkey: A Conversation About The New World Of Publishing. And The Detachment, the cover of which Amazon was comfortable letting me commission and control but which also benefited from their smart input.
Now, of course it’s probably natural that I would prefer covers I’ve commissioned to ones others have commissioned without my input. But my own preferences one way or the other are barely relevant here; what people should focus on instead is the principles of what makes a book cover effective. I can defend my covers by reference to objective principles. There is no way to objectively defend the green garage door. And this is what all marketing professionals should strive for: the ability to screen out subjective questions of taste and to focus on the objective strengths and weaknesses of a given approach. Such an approach has to start with an understanding of what a book cover is intended to accomplish (it might not be what you think), and for that, my open letter to Belfond is a good place to start.
As for a story about the creation of a bad cover, that’s easy—because for most of my covers, I haven’t been consulted. And publishers are demonstrably not very good at understanding the principles behind effective book covers and executing on those principles. That’s bad enough, but worse, they think they are good. It would be bad enough to be operated on by an untrained surgeon. But to be operated on by an untrained surgeon who fancies himself an expert? You’ll be lucky to survive the operation.
Okay, good cover stories: Well, Random House did consult with me for Inside Out, and I thought the result was effective. And here’s a story I think other writers might find useful when they’re negotiating with a recalcitrant publisher…
The publisher of my first six Rain books in the UK is Penguin/Michael Joseph. And they did a terrible job on the first three books (see for yourself below). And sales reflected their efforts.
Their efforts were so awful that as much as I knew they liked my books and, I believed, wanted to support them, I had decided not to do the fourth, Killing Rain, with them. But Nat Sobel, my agent at the time, wisely persuaded me to meet with my UK editor, Rowland White, before pulling the plug. So I flew to New York and brought all the UK books (along with those of various other publishers) with me.
Rowland and I met in a bar (he must have wondered about the box I was carrying, but didn’t ask). He had just finished reading the manuscript for the new book, and raved about it: “The realism of the action! The complexity of the character! The exotic locations! The steamy sex!” I thanked him for all that, and told him I understood that these elements were why he wanted to buy the rights to my books, right? He confirmed that these elements were indeed the reasons he loved and wanted to buy my books. At which point, I held up his latest cover and said, “And now, Rowland, can you tell me where even one of the sales hooks you just mentioned is present in this cover?”
A long moment went by. Then he nodded and said, “I see what you mean.”
After which, Penguin UK completely redesigned the covers. You can see the results here. You might not subjectively like what they did (I think they’re brilliant), but I don’t think you can argue that the new covers were a thoughtful attempt to go after a clearly defined market segment using appropriate sales hooks. And perhaps it was a coincidence, perhaps it happened despite the new covers and not because of them, but my UK sales went ballistic when the repackaged books were made available.
As for how it feels to me when a publisher has sovereign power over packaging decisions: I hate it. When a publisher screws up the packaging and tanks the sales of a book, for them the dismal results are, within their overall portfolio of books, a rounding error. For the individual author, though, the results are devastating. Like you and like many other authors, I have the scars to prove it, and I can’t see an offer that would get me to acquiesce to that particular vulnerability again.
Me: You’re very open about your politics on your blog, and on the social networks. Which I support 100%. Which, of course, means that your politics and mine match 100%. So… you go, Barry. I’m also pretty open, in that I make it clear I support the Occupy Movement (with such cryptic hints as blog posts entitled “I Support the Occupy Movement”), LGBT rights, and economic equality. I make no bones about the fact that Obama is far too Republican for my tastes. But I know I have some religious and conservative readers, mostly brought my way through the whole Pay It Forward phenomenon. I play no games for them, but I do try to strike a balance in which I talk about non-political issues often enough that they don’t feel forced out. Do you try to strike a balance? Or do you just let it fly?
Barry: The balance I strike is mostly about keeping a respectful tone, which I talk about in the Welcome comments of my blog, The Heart of the Matter. As for the substance, if I think a topic is important and that I have something useful to say about it, I say it. I think overall this has been good for sales, but that’s not the point for me, and I’ve certainly received plenty of “I’ll never read anything of yours again!” mail, mostly from authoritarian types but also from liberals laboring under the illusion that Obama is a liberal, too. I have a series of principles on issues like war, civil liberties, secrecy, and the rule of law that I apply without regard to which party’s politician is occupying the White House, which means I pissed off Bush supporters before and am pissing off Obama supporters now. But as with all things, if you’re honest with yourself and believe that what you’re doing is right, the criticism rolls off pretty easily. Besides, since I would never take money to stifle my political opinions, how could I self-stifle in the hope of thereby increasing sales? What would be the difference between the one and the other? So yes, I guess I just call things as I see them, and hope that in doing so I’ll change a few minds and also encourage other authors to do the same.
Me: Okay, I tricked you. I was all, “Come visit my blog and talk about the state of publishing.” And then I lulled you into a false sense of security with the writer stuff. And now suddenly you find out what I really want to know about. Lola. I run a very doggy blog here. I even did a months-long feature spotlighting my readers and their pets. So now that I have you where I want you…please, a little about Lola.
Barry: Ah, Lola the Chihuahua… five pounds of rage and fury, and fits in an overhead airline compartment, too. I’m not really a dog person, but my girls waged an extremely effective emotional campaign and eventually I caved. For a while (including the time I stepped into a warm, squishy pile of puppy shit upon exiting the shower), I thought she was the worst purchasing decision I’ve ever made. But seeing how happy she makes my girls, I’ve come to realize she was actually the best decision ever. And I admit I’ve become pretty fond of her myself. She’s sweet and has a lot of endearing traits. None of which I’m going to mention here, because I still believe that along with, “Wow, I had the weirdest dream last night…”, the most horrific conversational gambit ever devised is, “Oh my God, you have to hear about this hilarious thing my dog did!”
Me: Ahem. Don't read any of my earlier blog posts. (Kidding. Mostly.) Now. Please look into the future of book publishing ten years, to 2022, and tell me what you see. I won’t hold you to it if 2022 comes around and you didn’t get it exactly right. I think we all know the industry is ripe for surprises. I’m still interested in what your crystal ball has to say.
Barry: Ten years from now, 80% of books will be read digitally. There will still be bookstores, but only those few that have figured out how to offer customers an experience they can’t get online. This isn’t impossible: people still eat in restaurants even though they have kitchens at home. The reason paper will persist as a niche market is the same general reason candles have persisted even following the advent of the electric light. Electric lights offer all the everyday benefits, but there’s still nothing like candlelight.
To the extent legacy publishers are still around, it will be in a radically smaller and different form. They’ll be forced to pay authors no less than 50% of retail in part because their primary traditional value-add, paper distribution, will in 2012 be only a niche market, and in digital distribution, there’s nothing distribution-wise for a publisher to offer that self-publishing doesn’t already provide. The transition, even for those who manage it, will be financially and emotionally brutal, but then things will stabilize.
Many agents will have left the business because of a refusal or inability to adapt. Those agents that can adapt their business models into something more resembling management than agenting will be providing more value and making more money than ever.
Writers will have more choices, power, and cash flow than ever before.
Readers will have more selection, greater convenience, and lower prices than ever before.
It’s not a coincidence that the future is brightest for the only two players who are essential in any publishing ecosystem: readers and writers. Everyone else is a middleman, and will have to work hard to adapt.
Me: Barry, please write your own question, and answer it.
Barry: Do I have to?
Seriously, your questions were terrific and I think my answers were already too long! Thanks very much for this, and I hope people will find it useful.
No, you really don't, Barry. You didn't have to do any of this, which is why I was so honored and pleased that you did. I really include that last question in each interview for two reasons. In case I totally miss what the author was hoping to say, or in case they take me up on my offer of deleting unwanted questions so many times that there's no interview left. In this case, I think it's fair to say there's some interview left. And I really thank you for it. Probably more than I can get across in a standard wrap-up paragraph.
For those who want to know more about Barry (let's just pretend for a minute that someone is reading this who doesn't know lots about Barry) you can check out his website, his blog, and of course following Barry on Twitter is an opportunity not to be missed.
Next Friday I'll be interviewing Swati Avasthi, author of the stunning debut YA novel SPLIT. We'll talk about Split, cold winters, author support systems, what she's working on next, name pronunciation...and maybe a little something about dogs. (You think?) Hope you'll stop back.