Infighting: The Libertarian National Pastime

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Baseball is America's national pastime, or so the saying goes. I can say something similar for the libertarian movement. Not a day goes by that two well-known libertarians don't have a fight on Facebook or Twitter, each accusing and condemning the other and seeking to persuade the other to leave the libertarian movement entirely. On some days, in Facebook’s libertarian groups, there are entire wars — the military campaigns and attacks and counterattacks of masses of people fighting each other. All of these people self-define as "libertarian"!

Why does this happen? I think one explanation is that, to be a "libertarian," one must (probably) possess certain core beliefs about freedom, capitalism, etc., and have a certain attitude toward government and individual rights. The Non-Aggression Axiom is a nice summary of that attitude. But that leaves room for many positions, on many issues — which means that there are many issues about which libertarians have passionate feelings. Since core libertarian values don’t clearly define what your position on these issues should be, there are going to be many people in strong opposition, within the same tent.

In Facebook’s libertarian groups, there are entire wars — the military campaigns and attacks and counterattacks of masses of people fighting each other.

For example, a libertarian can be pro-choice or pro-life, can be minarchist or anarchist, can be for open immigration or closed borders, can be pro-GOP or pro-LP or pro-anarchy, can be pro-Trump or anti-Trump. I would even say that a libertarian can be anti-Union and pro-Confederacy (from opposition to centralized government) or anti-Confederacy and pro-Union (from opposition to slavery) — although it is curious that this quarrel is still considered relevant, more than a century and a half after the Civil War ended.

So, let's be frank. Take, for example, abortion. Pro-life people believe they are crusaders against the murder of babies. Pro-choice people believe they are crusaders for women's rights, and that the government’s taking control of a woman's body is the moral equivalent of rape. These people hate each other. But, within the big tent of libertarianism, both types of people exist, often in even numbers.

Because this issue is so important, fighting is inevitable. But note that libertarians, as a group, tend to be people who define their identity by means of their political positions. As such, libertarians will tend, not merely to argue, but to try to say that theirs is the position that should win, that it is the "one true libertarianism," that it is logically necessary from libertarian core principles (which it never is, because the core principles don't define these positions), and then kick everyone who disagrees out of the movement. To continue my example: the pro-life libertarians will accuse the pro-choice ones of being liberals who should go join the Democratic Party; in return, the pro-choice libertarians will call the pro-lifers closet conservatives who should call themselves such. And then, to each other, they will say GFY, GTFO, and other rude, insulting acronyms I only learned after spending some time on Facebook Groups.

A bunch of robots marching in unison is not what people seek in the spirit of truth and beauty that comes from political freedom.

And do you know what I think? I think this is necessary because of the structural foundation of the libertarian position itself. Liberty specifies a few core positions and then leaves gaps and room for individuals to think through their own beliefs on each specific issue. And you know what else? I think that this is how things are always going to be, and any alternative would be no better, even though this state of affairs has some toxic consequences.

What would be better? For some master leader of the movement to choose his position and impose it on every other libertarian, so that the movement could have ideological purity and unity? A bunch of robots marching in unison is not what people seek in the spirit of truth and beauty that comes from political freedom. And, in the absence of someone forcing everyone else to conform to one position, the diversity of positions will persist, and from them follows the necessary infighting.

But what are the toxic side effects? Libertarians can't agree on specific political issues, hence cannot rally around one candidate. If all the libertarians who are registered Republican, and all the ones who are registered Libertarian, and all sympathizers of both, could vote on one unity candidate, that might be enough votes to pose a threat to the establishment. But it can't happen, because there is too much disunity to unite around one candidate. With libertarian votes split between GOP, LP, and people who don't vote as a matter of principle, we just don't have the votes to elect our own candidates. Furthermore, constant infighting creates a militant, disrespectful culture, in which libertarians, who should naturally be friends, become their own fiercest enemies.

What is the solution to this problem? As I see it, there isn't one, and if there were it would be worse than the problem. In a free-for-all, there is fighting, and unregulated capitalism is, among many other things, a free-for-all.

Constant infighting creates a militant, disrespectful culture, in which libertarians, who should naturally be friends, become their own fiercest enemies.

But, to conclude on a note of hope, the candidacy of Trump proves that charisma is far more important for getting votes than party unity. If the Libertarian Party would nominate a candidate with great personal charisma and a cult of personality, then he or she could win the White House. If Trump can win then anyone can. But until that happens, we'll just wait on the sidelines of politics and kick one another in the teeth for disagreeing about which color of mouthwash is correct for libertarian dental hygiene. And, of course, both sides will think that the color of their mouthwash is defined by the Non-Aggression Axiom or Ayn Rand or Murray Rothbard or Ron Paul, and that they themselves are obviously correct, and that everyone else can JGTFO.




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All the News that’s Fit to Tweet

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It case you’ve missed out on this, President Trump keeps making his tweets a subject of national controversy. Friends defend his messages as his way of breaking through the mainstream media’s circle of lies; foes denounce the messages as vulgar and stupid. Both sides are right.

I have a suggestion for Mr. Trump. If you want to hurt your enemies while bringing attention to your programs (not to your anger, about which everyone is fully informed), why not tweet some facts that might advance your agenda? Why not tweet things like the following (they’d be news to most people)?

It’s strange to me that Trump and his staffers haven’t thought of this already. But if he wants a stack of stuff he can use whenever his fingers get that 3 AM itch, I’ll be pleased to send it to him. It wouldn’t take much work.




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Alma Mater

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The New Cable

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“As a stranger give it welcome. / There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Or offered in your network TV listings. Strange things are afoot in home entertainment, and the made-for-Netflix series Stranger Things is a brilliant case in point.

If you’re tired of the endlessly inane sitcoms, crime dramas, talent shows and trashy pseudo-reality shows offered by CBS, NBC, and ABC, turn off your networks and turn on your Netflix. There you will find well-scripted shows with movie-quality production values streamed to you on your phone, your computer, or your Smart TV. And it won’t cost you the nearly $200 a month many are paying now for cable television throughout their homes. My Netflix account costs $9.99 a month — and I can even carry it with me when I travel and share it with family members in other states at no extra charge. I don’t need a cable box or even a digital video recorder, because Netflix provides all of its listings to me on demand, whenever I feel like watching it — no commercials, no interruptions, and no set schedule. All I need is an Internet connection. And the quality of the programming can be superb.

Great shows are driven by great scripts, and the dialogue in this show feels natural and unforced.

Stranger Things, an eight-episode sci-fi series made specifically for Netflix, is a great example. Set in 1983, the show begins with a group of 12-year-old boys playing Dungeons & Dragons. They’re a lot like the kids in Steven Spielberg’s Goonies — likeable and outgoing, but slightly off. One has cleidocranial dysplasia, a genetic condition that prevents his permanent teeth from growing in; another has a weak chin that gives his face a beaklike quality. All of them are a little nerdy, but their friendship overcomes any sense of inadequacy.

When the game ends, the boys jump on their banana-seat bicycles and head for their various homes. (My immediate reaction: “Yes! Geeky boys on bicycles! I’m in!”) One of them, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), encounters a strange beast that seems connected to a strange government installation on the outskirts of town. No one is home when he arrives there, and he goes out to the shed to investigate. The lights start flickering, an ominous predatory growl is heard outside, and suddenly Will vanishes.

The rest of the series focuses on finding out what happened to Will and uncovering the truths behind that secret government laboratory. The eight hourlong episodes are sharp and suspenseful, and each ends with a cliffhanger reminiscent of Fox’s phenomenally successful, movie-quality 24. I “binge-watched” the entire series in a single day.

What makes Stranger Things so compelling? First is the quality of the scripts and the acting. Great shows are driven by great scripts, and the dialogue in this show feels natural and unforced, reminiscent of my own son and his friends hanging out in the ’80s. My only caveat is Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers, mother of the missing boy, who is cloyingly, ferally crazed throughout the series, until her character suddenly and inexplicably ends up wearing lipstick, eyeshadow and false lashes with her hair combed out of her eyes in the last two episodes. (Winona must have seen the rushes and decided too much was too much.)

Prop master Lynda Reiss managed to recreate the ’80s with a budget of just $220,000 for eight hours of screen time.

Even more impressive than the script is the quality of the production. Netflix provided them a budget that allowed them to create a movie-quality show. But budget alone doesn’t lead to success; witness the nine-figure superhero films that have been dropping like flies at the box office this summer. The Duffer Brothers (twins Matt and Ross), who created the show and directed most of the episodes, know what they are doing. Much of their success (at least with semi-nerds like me) is in their skillfully crafted homage to Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, which is as impressive as J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 (2011). It’s a little bit E.T. mixed with Poltergeist, The Goonies, and Stand By Me (Rob Reiner) too, with nods to numerous Stephen King books.

Prop master Lynda Reiss managed to recreate the ’80s with a budget of just $220,000 for eight hours of screen time. She reportedly searched eBay, flea markets, rental companies and estate sales to find the vintage boomboxes, telephones, bicycles, cars, movie posters, clothing and home furnishings that give the show its striking ambience. The soundtrack too, is authentic ’80s, with the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” providing a particularly poignant recurring motif.

This is a show that could only be set in the ’80s, when boys could still ride their bikes around town without telling their parents where they were going or when they would be home (and without their parents being investigated by Child Protective Services for letting them do so). It’s a reminder of just how free life was less than a generation ago, when kids learned all by themselves how to solve problems, stand up to bullies, navigate relationships, and manage not to get killed while snooping around empty buildings or abandoned rock quarries. Without cellphones, it was also a harder time for parents in many ways. I love how often the characters have to look for a pay phone in order to contact one another, and the reminder of how a mother had to wait anxiously at home beside the landline phone to hear from a late or missing child. Worry and trust went hand in hand back in the ’80s; it was a magical time, and I hope filmmakers continue to remind us of what it was like when kids roamed free.

So how is Netflix able to produce great programming such as this on a subscription model of ten bucks a month for unlimited viewing with little-to-no commercial advertising? There was a time when “made-for-TV” was code for “don’t expect much” from a movie. I expected that would be even truer of “made-for-Netflix,” with its inexpensive business model. Stranger Things is no anomaly, however. Series like House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey and the wildly popular (and well-made) Orange is the New Black are just as impressive. I wondered how Netflix could afford such quality while the traditional network shows are becoming markedly worse. So I did some checking around.

It’s a reminder of just how free life was less than a generation ago, when kids learned all by themselves how to solve problems.

Netflix started as a home-delivery alternative to Blockbuster. Instead of driving to the local video store, wandering the aisles in search of something to watch on Friday night, and then paying exorbitant late fees when you inevitably forgot to take it back on time (after forgetting even to watch it), customers could create a list of films they wanted to see and have them delivered to their mailbox with a pre-stamped return mailer. When they finished watching the movie, whether it was the next day or two weeks later, they just set it out in the prepaid mailer for the mail carrier to take, and Netflix automatically sent them the next film on the list (or films, depending on their subscription plan). Eventually streaming replaced the need for physical DVDs, and instant gratification was possible.

Netflix had signed a deal with Starz that provided them access to a huge library of current movies, but when that contract ended about five years ago, their selection shrunk significantly overnight. They were still making a ton of money off subscriptions, but they needed to give those subscribers a reason to keep paying each month. Just as they had recognized that the video store model had to change, they realized that their new business model needed to change again. People weren't going to leave Netflix right away, but if their library stayed small and uninviting, Netflix would eventually lose their cash cow, the monthly streaming subscriptions.

Meanwhile, the television entertainment model was changing too. For decades the three major networks had dominated entertainment television, with cable as the poor stepsister largely providing cheap local-access programming, infomercials and news shows. Then HBO realized they could make inroads into in-home entertainment by providing original programming. Shows like The Sopranos, The Wire,and Curb Your Enthusiasm provided top-quality scripts, actors, and production values, while also pushing against FCC rules regarding language and nudity that controlled network programming.

When their contract with Starz ended, Netflix programmers realized that they could continue to spend a ton of money buying existing content, or they could create their own exclusive content. They’ve done both, providing their customers with favorite old network series from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, but also commissioning great new programs.

CEO Ted Sarandos was dead set on creating shows on par with those being made for HBO, and he had enough surplus cash to do it. Their first production was House of Cards, an American remake of a British series of the same name, and they managed to land David Fincher (Fight Club, Gone Girl, Se7en) as director and Kevin Spacey as the star. (Netflix also greenlighted Fuller House, so the quality of their programming runs the gamut.).

People weren't going to leave Netflix right away, but if their library stayed small and uninviting, Netflix would eventually lose their cash cow.

The biggest difference between Netflix programming and HBO programming is that Netflix is straight-to-consumer and subscription based, while HBO continues to go through the local cable TV model and requires a premium upcharge. With cable companies now requiring that customers rent a separate cable box (at $10 or more) for every television in the house, in-home entertainment now costs more than $100 a month. Add the Internet service and landline telephone that are usually bundled into the cable service, plus premium charges for movie channels, sports and HBO, and before long you’re paying closer to $200 a month. Is it any wonder that so many households are ripping out their landlines and cable and opting just for Internet-based entertainment? Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime are all subscription-based, on-demand Internet streaming options that offer good quality programming at a more affordable price.

In response to the cable-free movement in many homes, most networks are now offering some form of streaming, including HBO. Of course, if you’re paying $9.99 for Netflix, $14.99 for HBO Now, $99 a year for Amazon Prime Video (a bonus with shipping perks) and a few specialty stations, pretty soon you’re back over $100 for in-home entertainment. Perhaps in the future some of these services will start rebundling, and customers will be able to choose the services they want at a reasonable price. Choice — what a novel idea!

What’s next? It’s hard to say. The Hollywood studios have made a conscious decision to focus entirely on blockbuster franchise films and ignore the smaller, script-driven movies, creating a vacuum that wants to be filled. Netflix has been responding to that vacuum, committing to a six-film contract with comedian Adam Sandler and winning a bidding war on a script called Bright from Max Landis, son of John Landis of Thriller fame and a super-hot screenwriter in LA right now. Bright has a reported $90 million budget, comparable to almost any Hollywood studio product.

Netflix is also experimenting with a new distribution model of purchasing independent films and releasing them in theaters and on Netflix almost simultaneously. Beasts of No Nations with Cary Fukunaga of True Detective fame is one example. It earned almost nothing in the box office — not surprisingly, since a single ticket, small popcorn, and small drink currently costs close to $25. I love the atmosphere of a movie theater, but at those prices I’m starting to think it’s time to convert the basement into a home entertainment center.

I’m also concerned about how this new model will affect the careers of fledgling directors, since my understanding is that they earn very little, if anything, from individual views on Netflix. How will new filmmakers be able to continue their craft in the future if “success” means a distribution deal with one week of ticket sales in the theaters and an eternity of streaming on Netflix? I have hope that the market will solve this problem, just as it is solving the problem of outrageously expensive monopoly cable service. In the meantime, if Orange is the New Black, then Netflix is the new Cable. And I think that’s a good thing.


Editor's Note: Review of "Stranger Things," directed by Matt and Ross Duffer. Netflix, 2016, eight 50-minute episodes.



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Confused on the Concept

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is one of those “liberals” who cannot resist the temptation to invent new rights (for government) and destroy old ones (for people). In response to the latest round of terror conspiracy charges, she has issued a public statement, which reads as follows:

I am particularly struck that the alleged bombers made use of online bombmaking guides like the Anarchist Cookbook and Inspire Magazine. These documents are not, in my view, protected by the First Amendment and should be removed from the Internet.

I am particularly struck by the senator’s inability to distinguish reading about something from doing it. Perhaps she believes that no one should know the chemical composition of dynamite, because such knowledge might be used to destroy a public building. Perhaps she believes that Hitchcock’s movies should be banned, because they show how to kill people with knives, scissors, and birds. Perhaps she is accustomed to rushing on stage to keep Macbeth from killing the king.

Or perhaps she is merely a typical American politician, busy about her work of ruining concepts she is incapable of understanding.




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Having Fun with Hillary

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There were a lot of laughs in Mrs. Clinton’s press conference on Tuesday.

I enjoyed her holding the conference at the United Nations, as if that would increase Americans’ respect for her. I enjoyed her starting the conference by accusing 47 Republican senators of consorting with America’s foreign enemies. I enjoyed her taut, contemptuous grin. I enjoyed hearing an average of three or four “uhs” per sentence, surpassing even President Obama’s remarkable off-script performances. I enjoyed the first questioner, a gentleman from Turkey, who was recognized to ask the bold and challenging question, Do you think you’re being treated differently about this matter than a man would have been? I enjoyed her steady refusal to concede that she could have made a mistake, preferring to allow that, looking back on it, it might have been better to have done something different, although everything was perfectly all right anyway. New and interesting light was shed on Mr. and Mrs. Clinton’s odd, very odd relationship when she claimed that she didn’t want to let anyone else see emails between her and her husband, just after said husband revealed that he had sent only two emails in his life, neither of them to her.

I was even more impressed by her repeated assertion that she didn’t want to be inconvenienced by having to use two email accounts, one private and one governmental, and therefore two phones. We’ve always known that the Clintons have utter contempt for everyone but themselves, but what takes the cake is Mrs. Clinton’s lunatic idea that she is smarter than everyone else. Look, we all have cellphones! Lots of us have more than one email account! Accessible from the very same phone! Most of us do! Are you telling me that the secretary of state couldn’t find someone who could enable her to read government email on the same phone on which she read her Yahoo mail?

She claimed that she didn’t want to let anyone else see emails between her and her husband, just after said husband revealed that he had sent only two emails in his life, neither of them to her.

But the best thing was her contention that she could be sure that all her job-related emails were preserved, because the US government officials to whom she sent them were using their own government email service. She actually expects us to believe that as secretary of state she didn’t send emails to (1) the private accounts of US government officials, (2) the accounts of American constituents, experts, and so on, (3) officials of NGOs, (4) officials of the United Nations, (5) officials of foreign governments. Or does she expect US archives to go looking for accurate copies of her emails in the files of, say, the government of Iraq? Afghanistan? Syria? Russia? China?

Oh, I forgot. China probably got her emails, several years ago. All of them.




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Imagined Community

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Fudan University, Shanghai: Photograph by Joseph Ho

Fudan University, Shanghai: Photograph by Joseph Ho




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The Road to Potential

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How I hate the word “potential”! While acknowledging innate abilities with faint praise, it reeks of withering disappointment, talents wasted, opportunities lost.

Transcendence is a film with tremendous potential.

It begins with a talented cast of discriminating actors that includes Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman, and Paul Bettany. (OK, scratch Morgan Freeman from the list of “discriminating actors.” Freeman is a fine actor, but he has become as ubiquitous as Michael Caine.) Add a postapocalyptic setting, an army of zombified robotic post-humans, a love story that transcends death, and the time-honored “collision between mankind and technology.” Mix in some dialogue about challenging authority and questioning the meaning of life, and create a metaphor suggesting the thirst for power in the form of the World Wide Web. It seems like the perfect formula for an exciting sci-fi thriller.

Yet Transcendence barely gets off the ground. The story, about terrorists who attack the world’s computer hubs simultaneously in order to stop the Internet, should be powerfully engaging, but it lacks any building of tension or suspense. Instead it is a dull, slow-moving behemoth emitting loud, unexpected bursts of explosive violence.

Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is a computer programmer working on ways to heal the planet through nanotechnology. When terrorists attack his computer lab and infect him with deadly radiation poison, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and his research partner Max (Paul Bettany) convince him to let them upload his consciousness onto a hard drive that will allow his sentient self to continue to live within the machine. It’s an interesting concept that ought to cause one to reflect on what makes us human: is it the physical body of flesh and bones that can move and act? Or is it the non-physical collection of memories, thoughts, and personality? Many people have had their heads cryogenically frozen after death, in hopes that someday their minds can be restored within a synthetic body and they can regain life. But that isn’t what this movie is about.

“Transcendence” is a dull, slow-moving behemoth emitting loud, unexpected bursts of explosive violence.

The plan works, and Will speaks from the computer screen after his death. However, Max immediately and inexplicably regrets having uploaded Will to the machine, so he joins forces with the terrorists (who also join forces with the government — it’s hard to keep all the factions and their motivations straight) to stop Will from doing what he was uploaded to do. Meanwhile, Evelyn joins forces with Will and together they build a solar power grid in an isolated Nevada desert to give Will enough juice to mingle with every scintilla of the Internet.

Yes, this makes Will omniscient, omnipresent, and all-powerful. And that’s a definition of God, right? Will is treated like God’s evil twin, set on sucking up all the power in the universe (there’s that metaphor of the power grid.) But he doesn’t do anything evil. He doesn’t steal power from others; he creates his own from the sun — and he pays the Nevada residents a good wage to work for him. He doesn’t kill anyone, destroy anything, or even growl menacingly. In fact, he uses his power to refine his work in nanotechnology, and soon he is able to heal the blind, make the lame walk, and restore life to those who have been killed. (In case you hadn’t noticed, this is godlike too.) As they are healed, his new followers become like him — imbued with the Internet and able to communicate with Will through his spirit — that is, the Cloud.

This storyline has the potential for being eerie and scary, à la Invasion of the Body Snatchers; but Will’s followers don’t do anything wrong either, and they aren’t at all zombie-like. They are just humans who once were disabled and now can see, walk, lift, run, hear, and produce. How is that different from living with a pacemaker or a titanium hip, and carrying around a smart phone that keeps one constantly connected to the Internet? Nevertheless, the government is determined to take them out, simply because they are now created in Will’s image and have the ability to communicate worldwide.

All of this has the potential for philosophical discussion, but I had to use all my creativity as a literature professor to reach the potential message I’ve described here. The message is beyond subtle — so subtle, in fact, that I think it went over the director’s own head. I’m not sure what he intended to suggest, except possibly that the collision between mankind and technology is usually good for a studio green light. I doubt that he was even aware of the potential metaphor or deeper meaning of the film he created.

Ah. There’s that word again. “Potential.” A film that had transcendent potential is instead fraught with withering disappointment, wasted talent, and lost opportunities. Insomniacs will love it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Transcendence," directed by Wally Pfister. Alcon Entertainment, 2014, 119 minutes.



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The Wave Breaks

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Kathleen Sebelius’ tardy and reluctant, oh so reluctant, release of the numbers of consumers who have affiliated themselves with Obamacare offered few surprises. For several days, the administration had been leaking estimates (which it then disavowed in public), in an attempt to remove the element of surprise — nay, shock — from the announcement of how few customers have shown up.

The administration now claims that 106,000 of these people have appeared, 27,000 on its own website and the rest through mechanisms set up by the states. The total is said to be one-fifth of those anticipated by the administration, which in early October had celebrated the alleged materialization of “millions” of eager Obamaites.

California, which has its own signup procedure, managed to get 35,000 people enrolled. Meanwhile, one million insurance policies were canceled in the state. Nationwide, over five million policies have been canceled — 50 times more than the 100,000+ customers reported by Secretary Sebelius.

And of course, the administration’s figures are far from wholly truthful. They include in the category of “signups” everyone who has merely “selected a plan,” whether the plan has been purchased or not. Even “Greg Sargent’s take from a liberal perspective” in the Washington Post warned the White House against obscuring the real numbers in this way, but the White House never resists a temptation.

Nevertheless, Sebelius actually had the nerve to say about the ridiculously small success of the program she administers, “The promise of quality, affordable coverage is increasingly becoming reality in this first wave of applicants. We expect enrollment will grow substantially throughout the next five months.”

King Canute amused the world by stationing himself on the seashore and demanding that the waves retreat. Kathleen Sebelius, the servant of King Obama, now stations herself on the shores of the Potomac and commands a “wave” of helpless people to struggle toward her waiting arms. It is a peculiarly repulsive spectacle.




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The Indie Revolution

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I would like to give Liberty’s readers an update about technological progress regarding a device that some thought would never change: the book.

A number of years ago Amazon.com, the huge online bookstore, developed an invention, the Kindle, which was a mini-computer (what would now be called a “tablet”) for reading books. Once the technology was perfected, the Kindle represented a paradigm shift in the book publishing industry. Previously the price of a book had been deeply connected with the cost of printing it. The bigger the print run, the more the publisher could achieve an economy of scale and lower the per-book marginal unit production costs. This meant that in order to be cost-effective a print run had to be large. And because of this a small group of highly successful publishers came to dominate the book publishing industry.

This group, sometimes called the “Big Six,” was, for aspiring authors, “both the gatekeeper and the gate.” If you found a literary agent who had connections to editors then you could get your foot in the door and get published and get into bookstores. If not, you were shut out. Self-publishing developed a horrible stigma, but this is simply because it was not cost-effective and there was no economic impetus to change popular perceptions.

Enter Kindle. The Kindle works by downloading electronic files from Amazon.com, which can then be read on the device itself — no printing costs. This made Kindle ebooks much cheaper than print books. Amazon.com began by instituting a practice of dramatically slashing the retail price of its ebooks, such that most of them cost $0.99 to $3, whereas comparable print books cost $10 to $14.

The Big Six rebelled. They used their pressure to switch ebooks to the “agency” pricing model. Under the traditional pricing model the publisher sets the list price, which is basically the wholesale price that the publisher receives, while the retailer sets the retail price, which is the price that consumers actually pay. Under the agency model, the publisher, not the retailer, sets the retail price. The agency model enabled the Big Six to force Amazon to sell ebooks at prices roughly comparable to paper books. The Department of Justice and FTC recently launched an antitrust lawsuit arguing that the Big Six were trying to prevent Amazon.com from competing on price. Several Big Six publishers have agreed to settle the antitrust litigation, although a few of the Big Six continue to fight in court. The antitrust litigation is interesting and complicated, and it also involved Apple, which used its iBooks store to help the Big Six exert pressure upon Amazon. It is still unclear how ebook pricing will look in the future.

Self-publishing once carried a horrible stigma, but this is simply because it was not cost-effective and there was no economic impetus to change popular perceptions.

Kindle instituted another major change. Now, with no production manufacturing costs, you can self-publish on a zero-dollar budget. In 2010 a young woman named Amanda Hocking wrote a “paranormal romance” novel (half fantasy, half romance) and self-published it on Kindle, using Amazon’s newly developed self-publishing program, “Kindle Direct Publishing” (KDP). She was working as a waitress at the time, and put her novel up on Kindle after many rejections from agents and publishers. She didn’t spend any money to promote her book, which she titled “Switched.” She just sent review copies to a handful of book blogs. Initially she sold several thousand copies, and she considered this a success.

Then in late 2010 and early 2011, her sales rose to several hundred thousand copies. From 2011 to 2012, estimates are that she sold over one million copies of her novels. Her books, priced from 99 cents to about $3, have made her a self-published millionaire. I have read what Hocking wrote about her success, and I don’t think even she knows how she sold so many copies, other than by writing a high-quality novel in what was then a wide-open market. These days the many thousands of novelists (me included) who have been rejected by the gatekeeper Big Six and their literary agents have been lured by the Amanda Hocking dream into self-publishing. We don’t even call it self-publishing anymore; we call it indie publishing, “indie” meaning “independent.”

When I decided to self-publish my own novel, Rob Seablue and the Eye of Tantalus (which can be found on Amazon), the selling points of going “indie” were simple. You make a royalty rate per sale of about 65%, in contrast to the Big Six’s typical 25% or less (not including the literary agent’s cut), you get published immediately instead of waiting three years for your book to come out (6–12 months to get an agent, 6–12 months for the agent to land a book deal, and one year of pre-release publicity), and you have a very tiny possibility of success either way. You typically have to do your own book promotion, even if you can get a Big Six book deal, because the Big Six care mainly about their established bestsellers, not their unproven debut authors. Within the last two years I estimate that at least 10,000 books have been indie published, and the number grows every day.

The Big Six are very much afraid of losing the “browse” effect. Most book sales used to happen, so it was said, from consumers browsing through shelves in a bookstore. Browsing’s ebook replacement is the book blogging community: there are now over 2,000 book blogs, where bloggers write a constant stream of reviews. The Big Six have some advantage in promoting their ebooks, but the book bloggers don’t favor them as heavily as the browse effect did.

Most successful indie authors write romance novels. The frequency with which e-readers like Kindle are used for this genre has prompted some to speculate that women feel less embarrassed reading soft-core erotica on Kindle than reading a print book with half-naked men on the cover. But indie fantasy and science fiction (which is what I write) are also growing. Hocking herself has said she thinks book publishing is moving toward a model in which most debut authors go indie, then successful ones attract the attention of the Big Six and sign major book deals, leaving the many unsuccessful authors to fade away. Hocking herself signed a major book deal, although she still uses an indie format for some of her books.

A postscript: enjoy your local bookstore while it still exists. After Borders went bankrupt, Barnes & Noble emerged as the only major chain bookstore left. B&N has come out with an e-reader, the Nook (which is very nice, but doesn’t sell as well as Kindle). It has a self-publishing program called PubIt, although it doesn’t yet care about PubIt as much as Amazon cares about KDP. Barnes & Noble’s fate is deeply connected to the Big Six, and to the public’s continuing to go to “brick and mortar” retail stores to buy books made out of paper. B&N is caught in a tight spot between clinging to the paper book business model and getting 100% behind Nook and the e-reader business model. I go to my local Barnes & Noble a lot, mainly to drink coffee and look at magazines, and the place still looks as if it does a lot of business in-store. But Barnes & Noble is in danger, and knows it: it has hedged its bets by promoting the Nook heavily within its stores.

Your local library won’t be around forever, either. The Google Books Project has tried to scan every book in ten libraries, so as to create a huge digital and searchable public library. Google ran into legal trouble about the copyrights of old books and is stalled by ongoing litigation, but it is only a matter of time before paper libraries are replaced by more efficient online digital ebook file repositories.

As for book publishing, it isn’t clear what the future will look like. But I think the indie movement and ebooks are not going away. The summer of 2012 might be looked upon as the birth of the indie movement. History has shown that technology and economics are two hugely powerful forces behind social change. So don’t be surprised if a dramatic shift happens within the next five to fifteen years, not unlike the “dotcom” shift of the 1990s, when the internet took off: the Big Six and paper bookstores will collapse, and the book universe will consist of hundreds of thousands of indie titles, all available for 99 cents with the push of a button.




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