Barry Eisler

Monday, April 13, 2015

Recently I had the good fortune to receive an advance reading copy of Charles Kaiser’s new book, The Cost of Courage, the story of the Boulloches, a French family living in Paris under Nazi occupation. The book is a knockout on every level: as history; as a wise and insightful meditation on human nature; and most of all, as the gripping true tale of three fascinating siblings who had to make the most difficult decisions under the most dire of circumstances, decisions with lifelong and even generational costs. I cried more times reading it than I care to admit (bad for my brand, I know)—especially at the beautifully resonant last line and the final photograph.


Part of what makes the story so compelling is how long it has remained untold, and how personal it is to the author. It’s not an exaggeration to say that if Kaiser hadn’t met and fallen in love with this remarkable family in 1962—through an uncle, Henry Kaiser, who stayed with the Boulloches as an American army lieutenant stationed in Paris in 1944—the details of what André, Christiane, and Jaqueline Boulloche achieved and suffered as part of the French resistance would never have been known. The siblings were determined not to speak of it, instead silently commemorating their losses with a private ceremony every year at the family plot at Père-lachaise, Paris’s largest and most celebrated cemetery, a ceremony that always included their children and grandchildren but also left the new generation feeling like outsiders, unable to really grasp the mystery of what André, Christiane, and Jaqueline had sacrificed and endured. But Kaisers long presence in the Boullochess lives and in particular his close relationship with Christiane won out, and the result is a Tiresias-like tale, told by someone with the access of an insider and the perspective of an outsider.
I have to add that Kaiser’s publisher, Other Press, has packaged the book beautifully. The cover art, jacket copy, photographs…everything distills, amplifies, and resonates with the story itself. In my experience, publishers tend to get these things wrong more often than they get them right, but when it happens this well, it’s really a pleasure.

I finished the book a week ago, and it’s been on my mind ever since. Sometimes consciously, where I’ll find myself thinking of certain scenes— André, shot by the Gestapo and unable to access his cyanide pill before he’s captured; several heart-stopping narrow escapes; a beautiful moment at the end, where Kaiser…well, you should read it yourself. But other times it’s more just a lingering sense, a presence you feel even if you’re not consciously aware of it. It’s a lovely feeling, and for me, one that only happens with the really great books. This isn’t a long story, yet upon completion it carries the resonance of something epic. I highly recommend it.
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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Some Thoughts on Self-Defense Training

I’ve written an article for Black Belt Magazine on some of the self-defense and related training I’ve been fortunate enough to have received over the years. The article appears in the April issue, on sale March 31, and if you’re looking for cost-effective ways of being safer in the world, I think the article is a decent place to start getting familiar with some of the great training out there.

The one course that seems to have gotten cut from the article is the Self-Reliance Symposium I did with Cody Lundin. But that one is now online, with links to the websites of the other training I cover. Check it out here and look for the article on news stands at the end of the month.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Why Everyone Should Care About Journalist Barrett Brown's Sentencing Today

Guest blogging today with Freedom of the Press Foundation:

"Journalist Barrett Brown is expected to be sentenced by a judge today in a highly controversial case brought by the Justice Department. The below excerpt is an adapted and updated version of the foreword to Barrett's most recent book, written by author Barry Eisler.

"If you don't believe America has political prisoners, you've never heard of Barrett Brown. Which would be a shame on several fronts, because you'd be missing out on one of America's most fearless and talented reporters, and on an object lesson regarding just how far the government is willing to go to suppress journalism and intimidate journalists.

"I first came across Barrett in a 2009 issue of Vanity Fair, where he had written an article called 'Thomas Friedman's Five Worst Predictions.' The article perfectly showcased what I subsequently learned were the Barrett Brown trademarks: iconoclastic insight; hilarious wit, ranging from the dry to the outrageous; a broad and deep frame of reference; incisive argument; complete fearlessness about offending anyone deserving of offense; an abiding sense of citizenship and patriotism.

"I was wowed by the article—both its substance, and, even rarer among political writers, its style. I sent Barrett an email..."

Read the whole post at Freedom of the Press Foundation.
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Friday, October 31, 2014

Literary Agent Andrew Wylie: Amazon Like ISIS (Really)

I find myself oddly encouraged that literary agent Andrew Wylie, at his International Festival of Authors keynote, actually compared Amazon to the jihadist group ISIS. The vapidity and intellectual bankruptcy of anti-Amazon reactionaries like Wylie needed no further proof, but still, the reactionaries have a lot of money and media behind them, with full-page ads in the New York Times and Publishers Weekly; suck-up stenographers like David Streitfeld; and keynotes at all the major publishing conventions all amplifying their message. So in some ways its a good thing their rhetoric has become this nuts. After all, even people not particularly paying attention are likely to roll their eyes when ostensibly respected pillars of the Rich Literary Culture establishment start comparing a retailer best known for its low prices and dedication to customer service to a group best known for kidnapping journalists and murdering them by hacking off their heads on camera.

In fairness to Wylie, he was only being astute in recognizing that, to bring further attention to himself, he had no choice but to crank the crazy all the way to eleven. After all, he was up against legendary sci-fi novelist Ursula K. Le Guin, who claims Amazon is trying to “disappear” authors and “dictate what authors can write;” megabestseller James Patterson, who claims that Amazon is making a “perilous future of books in this country,” is putting “the future of our literature in danger” and that the future “has to be changed, by law if necessary, immediately if not sooner,” and is “attacking writers” and trying to “ruin their families” and is fomenting a “religious war;” Authors United founder Doug Preston, who calls an Amazon offer to join Hachette in compensating authors “blood money” but assures you he is “not taking sides;” Authors Guild (really Publishers Guild) president Roxana Robinson, who claims Amazon is like “Tony Soprano” and “thuggish;” Authors Guild pitchman Richard Russo, who calls Amazon a “half man, half dog” that delights in “scorched-earth capitalism” and “burying your competitors and then burying the shovel;” and former Authors Guild president Scott Turow, who calls Amazon “nightmarish” and “the Darth Vader of the literary world.” Plus a whole host of similar such fear words, all intended to occlude clear thought and whip up panic, all (naturally) brought to you by the most august members of the Rich Literary Culture establishment—the same people, doubtless, who would argue that books are so important because they encourage people to really think, to ponder and excogitate and consider issues, not just emotionally and reflexively react to them.

Actually, Wylie isn’t just competing for attention against the kind of mad rhetoric quoted in the paragraph above; he’s also competing against his own public nuttiness. As I said in a previous post:

When Streitfeld quotes establishment literary agent Andrew Wylie saying, “If Amazon is not stopped, we are facing the end of literary culture in America,” what mysterious force prevents Streitfeld from inquiring, “What the hell does that even mean? What, specifically, do you think needs to be ‘stopped,’ and how do you propose stopping it? How do you define ‘literary culture’? How, precisely, will literary culture—whatever the hell that means—be ended by Amazon?”

Anyway. Whenever I hear novelists like the ones above bleating about how critical books are to our Rich Literary Culture (often they forget themselves and credit not writers for producing books, but rather publishers), I remember that lovely scene in Shakespeare in Love, when Ralph, who plays the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, is asked, “What’s the play about then?” and answers, “Well, there’s this nurse…”

Or to put it another way, whenever I come across writers like the ones above bloviating about books being the very foundation of Rich Literary Culture and Civilization Itself, I imagine a pot farmer going on about how without farmers, we’d have no food. Well, right, maybe not, but… you’re not that kind of farmer, amigo. And not that we don’t all appreciate a good buzz, but maybe the “Without farmers, we’d all starve!” lobbying should be left to the farmers who, you know, grow actual food?

But I digress. Really, I just want to ask Wylie and company this:

What’s preventing all of you from articulating a straight-up, coherent, defensible, reality-based argument about Amazon? What’s with all the vague and amorphous fear words? Don’t you decry fear-mongering when you encounter it in politicians? Then why are you using the same tactics yourselves? You admire careful thought, yes? Then why is almost everything you say calculated to occlude thought rather than encourage it?


My advice to these people? Try to find your inner logic, your inner reason. Because now that one of you has actually gone and compared Amazon to ISIS, the only other way to continue to bring attention to yourselves is logic, evidence, and reason, on the one hand… or comparisons to Ebola, Global Warming, and the Third Reich itself, on the other. And even setting aside the far more important question of what’s good for the public, what about your own reputations? Even with as much intellectual dignity as you’ve surrendered with your hysteria so far, do you really want to cash in whatever shreds of it might remain to you? Books will be written about the revolution in publishing. Is your behavior to date really what you want to be remembered for?
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Thursday, October 16, 2014

James Patterson: Publishing Revolution a "Religious War," Entertains "Ban" on Books

Joe Konrath and I respond to the latest Patterson crazy about the revolution in publishing...

"Well, James Patterson is at it again, issuing alarums from the sumptuous grounds of his bazillion-dollar mansion about how Amazon Must Be Stopped lest Jeff Bezos fulfill his evil plan to usher in The End of Days and yada yada yada. Joe’s been doing yeoman’s work for a long time in keeping up with these Pattersonian pontifications -- see here and here and here and here and here, so naturally I asked him to join me in tackling Patterson’s latest, a video interview with The Telegraph.

"In a weird way, this interview is probably Patterson’s most interesting outing to date because he actually goes full circle through the stupid and winds up demonstrating that he’s for everything he’s been saying he’s against..."

Read the rest on Joe's blog, here.
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Friday, October 10, 2014

Franklin Foer: "Stop Amazon, Keep Publishing Exactly As It's Always Been!"

I promised myself I wasn’t going to blog about Franklin Foer’s New Republic piece on how Amazon is an evil monopoly and must be stopped and we’re all enslaving ourselves by shopping there blah blah blah. None of it is remotely new or original or even coherent, and at some point I get tired of pointing out the same deficiencies in these clone articles. But there was one line of bullshit so breathtaking I just had to call it out.

Look, if Foer wants to claim Amazon is a “monopoly,” that’s just routine thoughtlessness, akin to a child being irrationally afraid of the bogeyman. But then he goes on to make a claim that can only be the product of shocking ignorance or brazen deceit:

That term [monopoly] doesn’t get tossed around much these days, but it should.

Holy shit, “Amazon is a monopoly” doesn’t get tossed around much these days?! Did Foer even read the George Packer piece he cites in his own article, in which Packer repeatedly plays the “Amazon is a monopoly!” fear card? Has he ever heard of the “Authors Guild” or “Authors United,” each of which has repeatedly, explicitly, accused Amazon of being a monopoly? Has he read David Streitfeld in the New York Times, or Laura Miller in Salon? I’ve seen countless posts with titles like, Amazon: Malignant Monopoly or Just Plain Evil? I’ve seen op-eds in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, all peddling the same tired, tendentious fear-mongering line about Amazon being a monopoly. Seriously, just Google “Amazon Hachette Monopoly” and see what you come up with.

I see three general possible explanations for Foer’s remarkably inaccurate claim.

1.  Foer is embarrassingly ignorant of the subject he’s trying to cover. He doesn’t read the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal; he’s never heard of the Authors Guild or Authors United; the blogosphere exists only in some sort of inaccessible parallel dimension; he’s failed to do even the most elementary online research… he just doesn’t have a clue regarding what he’s writing about.

2.  Foer is aware of how hoary the “Amazon is a monopoly” meme has become and wants to repeat it, but doesn’t want to admit he has nothing new to say. So he pretends he’s the first person to be possessed of this refreshingly original argument.

3.  Foer is aware of how hoary the “Amazon is a monopoly” meme has become, but believes no other activist, not even the Authors Guild or Authors United or the New York Times David Streitfeld, has been sufficiently alarmist about how close The Amazon Monopoly Is To Enslaving Us All (look at the first sentence of the article: “let us kneel down before” Amazon). So when he says, more or less, “No one else is talking about this,” he really believes it, because he believes no one else is adequately conveying just how terrifying it all is.

4.  Foer knows perfectly well that “Amazon is a monopoly” is about as ubiquitous a meme today as “Obama’s birth certificate was faked and he is a Secret Marxist Muslim Socialist” was just recently. But he also knows you can lend an air of false gravitas to bogus claims and conspiracy theories by implying the mainstream media is too cowed to Speak The Truth, while you are doing something bold, daring, and even dangerous by comparison.

I try to subscribe to the notion that we should never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity. But really, is it possible to write a 3000-word article—with references to articles that themselves claim Amazon is a monopoly—and genuinely believe “the term monopoly doesn’t get tossed around much these days”? I’d like to believe that Foer is just ignorant, and that the correct explanation is #1. But… wow. That’s pretty damn ignorant.

All right, what the hell, we’ve come this far. Just a few more thoughts on the rest of the article, though I don’t know why I’m spending the time, because anyone who claims no one else is accusing Amazon of being a monopoly has already disqualified himself from being taken seriously.

Sure, Barnes and Noble and other chains have long charged fees for shelf placement, but Amazon has invented a steroidal version of that old practice.

Let me translate that: “Amazon offers more value than B&N did, so charges more for it.”

In other breaking news: Janet Evanovich charges her publisher more for her books than I charge mine because she sells more copies, and she is therefore a monopoly. Somebody, get the government to break up Janet Evanovich so I can compete!

(I’ll have more to say below about the reactionary tendency to blame Amazon for the very behavior incumbents like B&N have long behaved in and continue to behave in.)

The New York Times has reported that Amazon apparently wants to increase its cut of each e-book it sells, from 30 percent to 50…

Somehow, Foer left out “but of course, no one really knows. And even if we did know, it would be incoherent to discuss hypothetical percentages if we don’t also have information about wholesale and retail prices.”

Random House joined Penguin to form a mega-house, which controls 25 percent of the book business…

A “mega-house”? That’s bad, right? Because now “the culture will suffer the inevitable consequences of monopoly—less variety of products”?

Hmm, apparently not. The New York “Big Five” cartel magically ensures variety. While the company that invented Kindle Direct Publishing, enabling all authors to publish whatever they want, is killing variety. Who knew?

This upfront money [the advance] is the economic pillar on which quality books rest, the great bulwark against dilettantism…

Indeed, every first-time novel—pretty much by definition written without an advance or even a realistic hope of legacy publication—was written by a “dilettante.” Good to know. Also good to know that authors don’t write quality books—the advances do that!

This is a classic case of one of the logical fallacies I find most interesting among people fearful of change: the tendency to conflate an important function (authors making money from their work) with the traditional means by which that function has been fulfilled (the advance). I can’t believe I’m still having to repeat this to the Foers of the world, but… the advance is one way by which authors have been compensated. It doesn’t follow, either logically or empirically, that it is the only way.

But no bank or investor in its right mind would extend that kind of credit to an author, save perhaps Stephen King.

Again, could somebody help me understand how all those first books get written? No advance, no credit, and yet…

And “no bank” would extend “that kind of credit”? Does Foer realize he’s talking about an average of $5000? No bank? Really? And “no investor”? Hmm, well, if only someone would invent a modern, web-based way of raising capital. Where someone could explain the project, solicit investors… and maybe they could name it, I don’t know, “Kickstarter,” something like that.

Or if only someone would invent a means of reaching readers that didn’t require gatekeepers and advances of credit in the unreachable average amount of $5000. Something that would enable authors to publish themselves. We could even call it… self-publishing!

Amazon might decide that it can only generate enough revenue by further transforming the e-book market—and it might try to drive sales by deflating Salman Rushdie and Jennifer Egan novels to the price of a Diet Coke.

Yep. Or it might try to drive sales by putting all its marketing muscle behind Snooki and 50 Shades of Grey.

Oh wait, someone else is already doing that. The guardians of rich literary culture, the bulwarks against dilettantism, the guarantors of a greater variety of quality books, etc.

But the tendentiousness in Foer’s argument isn’t even what’s most interesting about it. What’s implicit is even more so: that it would actually be bad if more people could afford to buy books by Salman Rushdie and Jennifer Egan. How is this view any different from the arguments that must have been made against the Vulgate Bible, or the Gutenburg printing press? “Tsk, isn’t this just going to make reading more accessible to the unwashed masses?”

If you haven’t read it already, I can’t recommend highly enough this article by Clay Shirky about the aristocratic, elitist, narcissistic worldview always inherent in the minds of people like Foer.

Or [Amazon] can continue to prod the publishing houses to change their models, until they submit.

Or even until they reform, perhaps by offering authors a more equitable digital split, and paying authors more often than twice a year, and permitting publication terms shorter than “forever,” and dropping the draconian rights lock-ups from their contracts, and by finding ways to give readers greater choice and access and lower prices, and all the other things they could do if they were interested more in competing and less in complaining.

Either way, the culture will suffer the inevitable consequences of monopoly—less variety of products and lower quality of the remaining ones.

To paraphrase David Gaughran, this would be a really interesting (and possibly even accurate) point if no one had ever invented digital books and self-publishing.

As for the notion that readers are so untermenschen that they can’t determine for themselves what constitutes a “quality” book, again, you’ve got to read that Clay Shirky article.

This is depressing enough to ponder when it comes to the fate of lawn mower blades.

Not nearly as depressing as reading the same recycled, inaccurate, thought-free memes year after year after year.

In confronting what to do about Amazon, first we have to realize our own complicity.

Well, no, we don’t. First we have to read all the good free advice people like Hugh Howey and Joe Konrath have offered publishers, and ask why it’s all been ignored in favor of collusion and non-stop whining.

We’ve all been seduced by the deep discounts, the monthly automatic diaper delivery, the free Prime movies, the gift wrapping, the free two-day shipping, the ability to buy shoes or books or pinto beans or a toilet all from the same place. But it has gone beyond seduction, really. We expect these kinds of conveniences now, as if they were birthrights.

Um, okay, I guess, but couldn’t you can say the same about antibiotics and flush toilets and ice cream straight from the freezer? Why isn’t Foer up in arms that people just expect they can drive to the supermarket for fresh milk, damn it, rather than having to get up in the cold and dark at 4:00 a.m. to milk their own cow?

I could leave that as a rhetorical question, but it isn’t really. There’s an answer. Which is: people like Foer are afraid of change. If Foer had been born in a different generation, he would have written similar screeds inveighing against the horrors of the cotton gin, the automobile, the telephone, etc. Foer’s mentality is always inherent in a percentage of the population; it just expresses itself slightly differently depending on what happens to be the latest devil of progress that’s poised to End Civilization And All That Is Good.

But while that meritocratic theory might be true enough for a search engine or social media site, Amazon is different.

Oh, yes. Every new change that terrifies people inherently afraid of change is different. Every single one, throughout history. I’m serious: name a single significant social or technological change ever, anywhere, that wasn’t accompanied by Luddites and other alarmists declaring, “Yes, but this one is DIFFERENT.”

Unchallenged monopolists have little incentive to disrupt industries they already control.

True! Which is why the New York “Big Five” has long been such a boiling cauldron of innovation.

Regarding the long section on how government intervention helped IBM and Microsoft, and allowed Google to grow… actually, it was my novels that helped all these companies. The third was published in 2004, and if you’ll check the timeline, you’ll see that Google’s stock price is built on my publication dates. QED.

Still, if we don’t engage the new reality of monopoly with the spirit of argumentation and experimentation that carried Brandeis, we’ll drift toward an unsustainable future, where one company holds intolerable economic and cultural sway.

How can someone write something like that… and not be referring to the New York “Big Five”?

Another seeming rhetorical question that actually has an answer. People who are fearful of change correspondingly worship the status quo—because the status quo, by definition, doesn’t change. It doesn’t matter whether the status quo is good or bad; what matters is just that it represents the absence of change, and therefore must be supported. So even though all the bad things reactionaries like Foer fear from Amazon in the future—too much power, too little variety, too little innovation—already exist courtesy of the New York “Big Five” cartel, Foer is as happy with the present as he is fearful of the future. Because if there’s one thing the Big Five has always stood for, it’s keeping things exactly the way they are. And if you’re possessed of a sufficiently reactionary personality, there’s no better narcotic than that.
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