Novelist Josie Brown
asked a ton of great questions—so 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
...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
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
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.