Category Archives: Books

A Philosopher’s Blog 2017 Available on Amazon

A Philosopher’s Blog 2017, the complete 2017 essays from A Philosopher’s Blog, is available in Kindle and print on Amazon.

This book contains essays from the 2017 postings of A Philosopher’s Blog. The adventure begins in a time of post truth and ends with online classes.

The essays are short, but substantial—yet approachable enough to not require a degree in philosophy.

Available worldwide.

Kindle (US): https://www.amazon.com/dp/1976760860

Paperback (US): https://www.amazon.com/dp/1976760860

Kindle (UK): https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B078PTBS1T

Paperback (UK): https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1976760860

Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination now published

Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination
My new book, Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination: Visions, Minds, Ethics, has just been published by Springer in trade paperback and Kindle editions. You can find the book on Springer’s own site or via online retailers such as Amazon.

Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination does offer my own potted account of the nature of philosophy (in general) and of moral philosophy (in particular) in order to assist the argument. It does not, however, belong to the genre of pedagogical books that aim to introduce philosophy through science fiction. If anything, it is more an exercise in the history and philosophy of science fiction. More specifically it examines the intersection of science fiction and moral philosophy. Putting it another way, Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination examines ways in which science fiction novels, stories, movies, etc., engage with metaethical and normative ethical themes that are also of interest to moral philosophers. I hope to have discussed this in a reasonably lively, clear, and accessible way, but readers will have to judge that for themselves.

— Russell Blackford

[My Amazon author page]

Experience Machines

Experience MachinesExperience Machines, edited by Mark Silcox (and including a chapter by me) is now available where fine books are sold, such as Amazon.

In his classic work Anarchy, State and Utopia, Robert Nozick asked his readers to imagine being permanently plugged into a ‘machine that would give you any experience you desired’. He speculated that, in spite of the many obvious attractions of such a prospect, most people would choose against passing the rest of their lives under the influence of this type of invention. Nozick thought (and many have since agreed) that this simple thought experiment had profound implications for how we think about ethics, political justice, and the significance of technology in our everyday lives.

Nozick’s argument was made in 1974, about a decade before the personal computer revolution in Europe and North America. Since then, opportunities for the citizens of industrialized societies to experience virtual worlds and simulated environments have multiplied to an extent that no philosopher could have predicted. The authors in this volume re-evaluate the merits of Nozick’s argument, and use it as a jumping–off point for the philosophical examination of subsequent developments in culture and technology, including a variety of experience-altering cybernetic technologies such as computer games, social media networks, HCI devices, and neuro-prostheses.

The shame of public shaming

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

Public shaming is not new. It’s been used as a punishment in all societies – often embraced by the formal law and always available for day-to-day policing of moral norms. However, over the past couple of centuries, Western countries have moved away from more formal kinds of shaming, partly in recognition of its cruelty.

Even in less formal settings, shaming individuals in front of their peers is now widely regarded as unacceptable behaviour. This signifies an improvement in the moral milieu, but its effect is being offset by the rise of social media and, with it, new kinds of shaming.

Indeed, as Welsh journalist and documentary maker Jon Ronson portrays vividly in his latest book, social media shaming has become a social menace. Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (Picador, 2015) is a timely contribution to the public understanding of an emotionally charged topic.

Shaming is on the rise. We’ve shifted – much of the time – to a mode of scrutinising each other for purity. Very often, we punish decent people for small transgressions or for no real transgressions at all. Online shaming, conducted via the blogosphere and our burgeoning array of social networking services, creates an environment of surveillance, fear and conformity.

The making of a call-out culture

I noticed the trend – and began to talk about it – around five years ago. I’d become increasingly aware of cases where people with access to large social media platforms used them to “call out” and publicly vilify individuals who’d done little or nothing wrong. Few onlookers were prepared to support the victims. Instead, many piled on with glee (perhaps to signal their own moral purity; perhaps, in part, for the sheer thrill of the hunt).

Since then, the trend to an online call-out culture has continued and even intensified, but something changed during 2015. Mainstream journalists and public intellectuals finally began to express their unease.

There’s no sign that the new call-out culture is fading away, but it’s become a recognised phenomenon. It is now being discussed more openly, and it’s increasingly questioned. That’s partly because even its participants – people who assumed it would never happen to them – sometimes find themselves “called out” for revealing some impurity of thought. It’s become clear that no moral or political affiliation holds patents on the weaponry of shaming, and no one is immune to its effects.

As Ronson acknowledges, he has, himself, taken part in public shamings, though the most dramatic episode was a desperate act of self-defence when a small group of edgy academics hijacked his Twitter identity to make some theoretical point. Shame on them! I don’t know what else he could have done to make them back down.

That, however, was an extreme and peculiar case. It involved ongoing abuse of one individual by others who refused to “get” what they were doing to distress him, even when asked to stop. Fascinating though the example is, it is hardly a precedent for handling more common situations.

At one time, if we go along with Ronson, it felt liberating to speak back in solidarity against the voices of politicians, corporate moguls, religious leaders, radio shock jocks, newspaper columnists and others with real power or social influence.

But there can be a slippery slope… from talking back in legitimate ways against, say, a powerful journalist (criticising her views and arguments, and any abusive conduct), to pushing back in less legitimate ways (such as attempting to silence her viewpoint by trying to get her fired), to destroying relatively powerless individuals who have done nothing seriously wrong.

Slippery slope arguments have a deservedly bad reputation. But some slopes really are slippery, and some slippery slope arguments really are cogent. With public online shaming, we’ve found ourselves, lately, on an especially slippery slope. In more ways than one, we need to get a grip.

Shaming the shamers

Ronson joined in a campaign of social media shaming in October 2009: one that led to some major advertisers distancing themselves from the Daily Mail in the UK. This case illustrates some problems when we discuss social media shaming, so I’ll give it more analysis than Ronson does.

One problem is that, as frequently happens, it was a case of “shame the shamer”. The recipient of the shaming was especially unsympathetic because she was herself a public shamer of others.

The drama followed a distasteful – to say the least – column by Jan Moir, a British journalist with a deplorable modus operandi. Moir’s topic was the death of Stephen Gately, one of the singers from the popular Irish band Boyzone.

Gately had been found dead while on holiday in Mallorca with his civil partner, Andrew Cowles. Although the coroner attributed the death to natural causes, Moir wrote that it was “not, by any yardstick, a natural one” and that “it strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships.”

Ronson does not make the point explicit in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, but what immediately strikes me is that Moir was engaging in some (not-so-)good old-fashioned mainstream media shaming. She used her large public platform to hold up identified individuals to be shamed over very private behaviour. Gately could not, of course, feel any shame from beyond the grave, but Moir’s column was grossly tasteless since he had not even been buried when it first appeared.

Moir stated, self-righteously: “It is important that the truth comes out about the exact circumstances of [Gately’s] strange and lonely death.” But why was it so important that the public be told such particulars as whether or not Cowles (at least) hooked up that tragic evening for sex with a student whom Moir names, and whether or not some, or all, of the three young men involved used cannabis or other recreational drugs that night?

To confirm Moir’s propensities as a public shamer, no one need go further than the same column. She follows her small-minded paragraphs about Gately with a few others that shame “socialite” Tara Palmer-Tomkinson for no worse sin than wearing a revealing outfit to a high-society party.

You get the picture, I trust. I’m not asking that Moir, or anyone else, walk on eggshells lest her language accidentally offend somebody, or prove open to unexpectedly uncharitable interpretations. Quite the opposite: we should all be able to speak with some spontaneity, without constantly censoring how we formulate our thoughts. I’ll gladly extend that freedom to Moir.

But Moir is not merely unguarded in her language: she can be positively reckless, as with her suggestion that Palmer-Tomkinson’s wispy outfit might more appropriately be worn by “Timmy the Tranny, the hat-check personage down at the My-Oh-My supper club in Brighton.” No amount of charitable interpretation can prevent the impression that she is often deliberately, or at best uncaringly, hurtful. In those circumstances, I have no sympathy for her if she receives widespread and severe criticism for what she writes.

When it comes to something like Moir’s hatchet job on Gately and Cowles, and their relationship, I can understand the urge to retaliate – to shame and punish in return. It’s no wonder, then, that Ronson discusses the feeling of empowerment when numerous people, armed with their social media accounts, turned on badly behaved “giants” such as the Daily Mail and its contributors. As it seemed to Ronson in those days, not so long ago, “the silenced were getting a voice.”

But let’s be careful about this.

Some distinctions

A few aspects need to be teased out. Even when responding to the shamers, we ought to think about what’s appropriate.

For a start, I am – I’m well aware – being highly critical of Moir’s column and her approach to journalism. In that sense, I could be said to be “shaming” her. But we don’t have to be utterly silent when confronted by unpleasant behaviour from public figures.

My criticisms are, I submit, fair comment on material that was (deliberately and effectively) disseminated widely to the public. In writing for a large audience in the way she does – especially when she takes an aggressive and hurtful approach toward named individuals – Moir has to expect some push-back.

We can draw reasonable distinctions. I have no wish to go further than criticism of what Moir actually said and did. I don’t, for example, want to misrepresent her if I can avoid it, to make false accusations, or to punish her in any way that goes beyond criticism. I wouldn’t demand that she be no-platformed from a planned event or that advertisers withdraw their money from the Daily Mail until she is fired.

The word criticism is important. We need to think about when public criticism is fair and fitting, when it becomes disproportionate, and when it spirals down into something mean and brutal.

Furthermore, we can distinguish between 1) Moir’s behaviour toward individuals and 2) her views on issues of general importance, however wrong or ugly those views might be. In her 2009 comments on Gately’s death, the two are entangled, but it doesn’t follow that they merit just the same kind of response.

Moir’s column intrudes on individuals’ privacy and holds them up for shaming, but it also expresses an opinion on legal recognition of same-sex couples in the form of civil unions. Although she is vague, Moir seems to think that individuals involved in legally recognised same-sex relationships are less likely to be monogamous (and perhaps more likely to use drugs) than people in heterosexual marriages. This means, she seems to imply, that there’s something wrong with, or inferior about, same-sex civil unions.

In fairness, Moir later issued an apology in which she explained her view: “I was suggesting that civil partnerships – the introduction of which I am on the record in supporting – have proved just to be as problematic as marriages.” This is, however, difficult to square with the words of her original column, where she appears to deny, point blank, that civil unions “are just the same as heterosexual marriages.”

Even if she is factually correct about statistical differences between heterosexual marriages and civil unions, this at least doesn’t seem to be relevant to public policy. After all, plenty of marriages between straight people are “open” (and may or may not involve the use of recreational drugs), but they are still legally valid marriages.

If someone does think certain statistical facts about civil unions are socially relevant, however, it’s always available to them to argue why. They should be allowed to do so without their speech being legally or socially suppressed. It’s likewise open to them to produce whatever reliable data might be available. Furthermore, we can’t expect critics of civil unions to present their full case on every occasion when they speak up to express a view. That would be an excessive condition for any of us to have to meet when we express ourselves on important topics.

More generally, we can criticise bad ideas and arguments – or even make fun of them if we think they’re that bad – but as a rule we shouldn’t try to stop their expression.

Perhaps some data exists to support Moir’s rather sneering claims about civil unions. But an anecdote about the private lives of a particular gay couple proves nothing one way or the other. Once again, many heterosexual marriages are not monogamous, but a sensational story involving a particular straight couple would prove nothing about how many.

In short, Moir is entitled to express her jaundiced views about civil unions or same-sex relationships more generally, and the worst she should face is strong criticism, or a degree of satire, aimed primarily at the views themselves. But shining a spotlight on Cowles and Gately was unfair, callous, nasty, gratuitous, and (to use one of her own pet words) sleazy. In addition to criticising her apparent views, we can object strongly when she publicly shames individuals.

Surfing down the slippery slope

Ronson discusses a wide range of cases, and an evident problem is that they can vary greatly, making it difficult to draw overall conclusions or to frame exact principles.

Some individuals who’ve been publicly shamed clearly enough “started it”, but even they can suffer from a cruel and disproportionate backlash. Some have been public figures who’ve genuinely done something wrong, as with Jonah Lehrer, a journalist who fabricated quotes to make his stories appear more impressive. It’s only to be expected that Lehrer’s irresponsibility and poor ethics would damage his career. But even in his case, the shaming process was over the top. Some of it was almost sadistic.

Other victims of public shaming are more innocent than Lehrer. Prominent among them is Justine Sacco, whom Ronson views with understandable sympathy. Sacco’s career and personal life were ruined after she made an ill-advised tweet on 20 January 2013. It said: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” She was then subjected to an extraordinarily viral Twitter attack that led quickly to her losing her job and becoming an international laughing stock.

It appears that her tweet went viral after a Gawker journalist retweeted it (in a hostile way) to his 15,000 followers at the time – after just one person among Sacco’s 170 followers had passed it on to him.

Ronson offers his own interpretation of the Sacco tweet:

It seemed obvious that her tweet, whilst not a great joke, wasn’t racist, but a self-reflexive comment on white privilege – on our tendency to naively imagine ourselves immune to life’s horrors. Wasn’t it?

In truth, it’s not obvious to me just how to interpret the tweet, and of course I can’t read Sacco’s mind. If it comes to that, I doubt that she pondered the wording carefully. Still, this small piece of sick humour was aimed only at her small circle of Twitter followers, and it probably did convey to them something along the lines of what Ronson suggests. In its original context, then, it did not merely ridicule the plight of black AIDS victims in Africa.

Much satire and humour is, as we know, unstable in its meaning – simultaneously saying something outrageous and testing our emotions as we find ourselves laughing at it. It can make us squirm with uncertainty. This applies (sometimes) to high literary satire, but also to much ordinary banter among friends. We laugh but we also squirm.

In any event, charitable interpretations – if not a single straightforward one – were plainly available for Sacco’s tweet. This was a markedly different situation from Jan Moir’s gossip-column attacks on hapless celebrities and socialites. And unlike Moir, Sacco lacked a large media platform, an existing public following, and an understanding employer.

Ronson also describes the case of Lindsey Stone, a young woman whose life was turned to wreckage because of a photograph taken in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. In the photo she is mocking a “Silence and Respect” sign by miming a shout and making an obscene gesture. The photo was uploaded on Facebook, evidently with inadequate privacy safeguards, and eventually it went viral, with Stone being attacked by a cybermob coming from a political direction opposite to the mob that went after Sacco.

While the Arlington photograph might seem childish, or many other things, posing for it and posting it on Facebook hardly add up to any serious wrongdoing. It is not behaviour that merited the outcome for Lindsey Stone: destruction of her reputation, loss of her job, and a life of ongoing humiliation and fear.

Referring to such cases, Ronson says:

The people we were destroying were no longer just people like Jonah [Lehrer]: public figures who had committed actual transgressions. They were private individuals who really hadn’t done anything much wrong. Ordinary humans were being forced to learn damage control, like corporations that had committed PR disasters.

Thanks to Ronson’s intervention, Stone sought help from an agency that rehabilitates online reputations. Of Stone’s problems in particular, he observes:

The sad thing was that Lindsey had incurred the Internet’s wrath because she was impudent and playful and foolhardy and outspoken. And now here she was, working with Farukh [an operative for the rehabilitation agency] to reduce herself to safe banalities – to cats and ice cream and Top 40 chart music. We were creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland.

This is not the culture we wanted

Ronson also quotes Michael Fertik, from the agency that helped Stone: “We’re creating a culture where people feel constantly surveilled, where people are afraid to be themselves.”

“We see ourselves as nonconformist,” Ronson concludes sadly, “but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age.”

This is not the culture we wanted. It’s a public culture that seems broken, but what can we do about it?

For a start, it helps to recognise the problem, but it’s difficult, evidently, for most people to accept the obvious advice: Be forthright in debating topics of general importance, but always subject to some charity and restraint in how you treat particular people. Think through – and not with excuses – what that means in new situations. Be willing to criticise people on your own side if they are being cruel or unfair.

It’s not our job to punish individuals, make examples of them, or suppress their views. Usually we can support our points without any of this; we can do so in ways that are kinder, more honest, more likely to make intellectual progress. The catch is, it requires patience and courage.

Our public culture needs more of this sort of patience, more of this sort of courage. Can we – will we – rise to the challenge?

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

[My page at Academia.edu]

A Philosopher’s Blog 2015 on Amazon

A-Philosopher's-Blog-2015-CoverThis book contains essays from the 2015 postings of A Philosopher’s Blog. The topics covered range from robotic assassins to the ethics of performance based university funding. Side adventures include the ethics of “bathroom bills” and technological immortality.

Available on Amazon in Kindle format for 99 cents.

A Philosopher’s Blog: 2014 Free on Amazon

A-Philosopher's-Blog-2014A Philosopher’s Blog: 2014 Philosophical Essays on Many Subjects will be available as a free Kindle book on Amazon from 12/31/2014-1/4/2015. This book contains all the essays from the 2014 postings of A Philosopher’s Blog. The topics covered range from the moral implications of sexbots to the metaphysics of determinism. It is available on all the various national Amazons, such as in the US, UK, and India.

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Review of Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy

Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy

Christopher Robichaud (Editor) $17.95 August, 2014

As a professional philosopher, I am often wary of “pop philosophy”, mainly because it is rather like soda pop: it is intended for light consumption. But, like soda, some of it is quite good and some of it is just sugary junk that will do little but rot your teeth (or mind). As a professional author in the gaming field, I am generally wary of attempts by philosophers to write philosophically about a game. While a philosopher might be adept at philosophy and might even know how to read a d4, works trying to jam gaming elements into philosophy (or vice versa) are often like trying to jam an ogre into full plate made for a Halfling: it will not be a good fit and no one is going to be happy with the results.

Melding philosophy and gaming also has a rather high challenge rating, mainly because it is difficult to make philosophy interesting and comprehensible to folks outside of philosophy, such as gamers who are not philosophers. After all, gamers usually read books that are game books: sourcebooks adding new monsters and classes, adventures (or modules as they used to be called), and rulebooks. There is also a comparable challenge in making the gaming aspects comprehensible and interesting to those who are not gamers. As such, this book faces some serious obstacles. So, I shall turn now to how the book fares in its quest to get your money and your eyeballs.

Fortunately for the authors of this anthology of fifteen essays, many philosophers are quite familiar with Dungeons & Dragons and gamers are often interested in philosophical issues. So, there is a ready-made audience for the book. There are, however, many more people who are interested in philosophy but not gaming and vice versa. So, I will discuss the appeal of the book to these three groups.

If you are primarily interested in philosophy and not familiar with Dungeons & Dragons, this book will probably not appeal to you—while the essays do not assume a complete mastery of the game, many assume considerable familiarity with the game. For example, the ethics of using summoned animals in combat is not an issue that non-gamers worry about or probably even understand. That said, the authors do address numerous standard philosophical issues, such as free will, and generally provide enough context so that a non-gamer will get what is going on.

If you are primarily a gamer and not interested in philosophy, this book will probably not be very appealing—it is not a gaming book and does not provide any new monsters, classes, or even background material. That said, it does include the sort of game discussions that gamers might not recognize as philosophical, such as handling alignments. So, even if you are not big on philosophy, you might find the discussions interesting and familiar.

For those interested in both philosophy and gaming, the book has considerable appeal. The essays are clear, competent and well-written on the sort of subjects that gamers and philosophers often address, such as what actions are evil. The essays are not written at the level of journal articles, which is a good thing: academic journals tend to be punishing reading. As such, people who are not professional philosophers will find the philosophy approachable. Those who are professional philosophers might find it less appealing because there is nothing really groundbreaking here, although the essays are interesting.

The subject matter of the book is fairly diverse within the general context. The lead essay, by Greg Littmann, considers the issue of free will within the context of the game. Another essay, by Matthew Jones and Ashley Brown, looks at the ethics of necromancy. While (hopefully) not relevant to the real world, it does raise an issue that gamers have often discussed, especially when the cleric wants to have an army of skeletons but does not want to have the paladin smite him in the face. There is even an essay on gender in the game, ably written by Shannon M. Musset.

Overall, the essays do provide an interesting philosophical read that will be of interest to gamers, be they serious or casual. Those who are not interested in either will probably not find the book worth buying with their hard earned coppers.

For those doing gift shopping for a friend or relative who is interested in philosophy and gaming, this would be a reasonable choice for a present. Especially if accompanied by a bag of dice. As a great philosopher once said, “there is no such thing as too many dice.”

As a disclaimer, I received a free review copy from the publisher. I do not know any of the authors or the editor and was not asked to contribute to the book.

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A Philosopher’s Blog: 2012-2013

A-Philosopher's-Blog-2012-2013-CoverMy latest book, A Philosopher’s Blog 2012-2013, will be free on Amazon from October 8, 2014 to October 12 2014.

Description: “This book contains select essays from the 2012-2013 postings of A Philosopher’s Blog. The topics covered range from economic justice to defending the humanities, plus some side trips into pain pills and the will.”

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13 Reasons to Doubt

Reasons to DoubtThe long-awaited (yes, it’s been in the works for some time) anthology from bloggers at the Skeptic Ink Network, 13 Reasons to Doubt, has finally appeared. It is published by Onus Books and is currently available in a Kindle edition, though other formats will also be appearing.

13 Reasons to Doubt is described in this way by its back-cover blurb:

Extraordinary claims and extraordinary evidence.

The mainstream and social media feed our minds a diet of fringe science and outright pseudoscience. They relentlessly stream paranormal, supernatural, and otherwise extraordinary claims. Where do all these come from? They’re spread by shysters and charlatans, by corporate propagandists with cynical eyes on the bottom line, by priests and preachers of all kinds, by axe-grinding cranks and ideologues, and frequently by well-meaning dupes.

This may be a scientific age, but all too often, science, well-grounded scholarship, evidence, and logic are ignored—or even denied.

Scientific skepticism offers a corrective: skeptics defend science and reason, while demanding the evidence for extraordinary claims.

In this volume, we offer you thirteen ways to scientific skepticism: thirteen reasons to doubt extraordinary claims. The authors discuss groupthink and cognitive biases, science denialism, weird archeology, claims about religion and free will, and many other topics. Within these pages, there is something for anyone who wants to avoid biases and fallacies, cut through the masses of misinformation, and push back against fakers and propagandists.

13 Reasons to Doubt includes my chapter entitled “Skepticism in an Age of Ideology” – this is an original piece, especially written for the book, although it draws on my talk at last year’s TAM (the Amazing Meeting) among other things.

The following is a complete table of contents:

INTRODUCTION

A BRIEF HISTORY OF DOUBT: GREAT SKEPTICS FROM ANTIQUITY TO THE RENAISSANCE
Peter Ferguson

SKEPTICISM IN AN AGE OF IDEOLOGY
Russell Blackford

ARE YOU A SKEPTIC?
Maria Maltseva

WHY YOU CAN’T TRUST YOUR BRAIN
Caleb W. Lack

BEING SUSPICIOUS OF OURSELVES: GROUPTHINK’S THREAT TO SKEPTICISM
Jacques Rousseau

SCIENCE: A MECHANISM FOR DOUBTING; A SOURCE OF RELIABILITY
Keven McCarthy

SCIENCE IS PREDICATED ON THE NON-MAGICAL NATURAL WORLD ORDER
John W. Loftus

THE POWER OF HUME’S ON MIRACLES
Zachary Sloss

ON DOUBTING THE EXISTENCE OF FREE WILL, AND HOW IT CAN MAKE THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE
Jonathan M.S. Pearce

PSEUDOARCHAEOLOGY: SEVEN TIPS
Rebecca Bradley

THE NEW WORLD ORDER IS COMING FOR YOU!
Staks Rosch

WHY BELIEFS MATTER
David Osorio

SCIENCE DENIALISM AT A SKEPTIC CONFERENCE: A CAUTIONARY TALE
Edward K Clint

APPENDIX: SCIENCE DENIALISM AT A SKEPTIC CONFERENCE

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHIES

I haven’t yet read the entire book, but I’ve certainly read most of it (and even pitched in to help with the copyediting!). I can say that there is much strong material here, not least in Caleb Lack’s superb piece on why you can’t trust your brain (alas, your brain comes complete with all sorts of cognitive biases).

Please consider!

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Amazon vs. Hachette

Cover of "Kindle Wireless Reading Device,...

Cover via Amazon

As this is being written, Amazon is involved in a dispute with the publisher Hachette. While the dispute has gotten considerable media attention, my main concern is not with the specific battle but with the general matter of the changing nature of publishing and selling books.

I, as shown by my Amazon author page, have published many books through Amazon’s Kindle and Create Space. While Amazon has been subject to some criticism, my experiences as an author have been positive. As I see it, Amazon (and similar open publishers such as Paizo and DriveThruRPG) has some important positive features. The first is that such publishers are open to everyone—this allows independent authors to bypass the elite circles of the self-proclaimed curators of culture and make their work available to the public at no cost to themselves. This sort of open publishing is revolutionary. Second, these publishers general pay very good royalties. For example, authors selling through Amazon can get as much as 70% of the cover price. However, arguments have been advanced in favor of the traditional publishers and these are worth considering.

One stock argument in favor of traditional publishing is the quality argument. This argument does have some appeal.  Since Amazon and other such publishers do not put books through the sort of editorial process followed by the traditional publishers, the books published by independent authors will tend to be inferior. Thus, traditional publishers are needed to protect the quality of books.

There are two obvious replies to this. The first is that the traditional publishers publish significant numbers of books that are not good (such as 50 Shades of Gray and the Twilight series). The second is that independent authors do produce some excellent work. As such, the traditional publishers cannot claim a decisive advantage here. They do, after all, churn out a lot of crap.

Another stock argument in favor or traditional publishing is that it provides extra value to the author. This extra value includes such things as editorial review, layout & design, promotion and other such services. Of course, an independent author can pay for these things herself—after deciding whether or not they are worth the cost.

One thing that is not always mentioned but is of critical importance is that the top traditional publishers enjoy strong connections to the other curators of culture—those that review books, those that interview authors and so on. It is no accident that the authors who are part of the stable of an elite publisher get the media attention that is rather important to having a successful book. It is also no accident that I will never be interviewed on NPR by Diane Rehm or by Stephen Colbert on his show. After all, I am just an independent author with no connection to the curators of culture. This is not to say that an author cannot break through on her own—I have enjoyed surprisingly good sales and some independent authors enjoy amazing success. But, the support of the cultural elites provides a great advantage.

As a final point, I will consider one of the specific points of the Amazon-Hachette dispute. Amazon, obviously enough, wants to sell books at low prices. Hachette, and other publishers, also want to make money. So, the heart of the contention is over the money—if Amazon charges less for Hachette books, Hachette makes less money. If Hachette gets a larger percentage of the sale price, then Amazon gets less. One argument advanced in favor of the publisher getting more is that the publishers can then pay authors more and this is essential in order to keep the top writers writing. This is, of course, based on the assumption that authors are motivated primarily by money.

One obvious reply is that most authors do not make much money, yet they keep on writing. In some cases, the authors are not making much money because (to be honest) the books are not very good. In other cases, the authors are writing for a small audience: academics, gamers and other niches. Since these folks write for little (or no profit) it is clear that authors will write for little (or no profit).

Another obvious reply is that (as noted above) publishers like Amazon offer very generous royalties—so an author could do very well indeed selling through Amazon rather than working with a traditional publisher.

The obvious counter is that while “amateur” authors like myself will keep cranking out books regardless of the profits, the “elite” authors will cease to do so if they are denied large advances and fat paychecks. This would, one might argue, be a great loss to culture. As such, the traditional publishers serve a vital role and need to claim a significant portion of the sales price on books sold through Amazon and other merchants.

One obvious reply is that these authors would still presumably make rather good money even if their publishers made less. Another reply is that these authors could jump ship for Amazon and perhaps make even more money. A third response is that if the “elite” authors quit, there would still be a vast army of independent writers and from their numbers would emerge, as has always happened, a new “elite.”

In closing, I have worked with traditional publishers and with the new model, that of Amazon and other companies. While traditional publishers certainly still have a place, the landscape has been shifting and the traditional publisher might soon go the way of the manual typewriter.

 

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