'One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star'- Nietzsche
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The Harry Truman Show double-tapped the “Japs” in ‘45, not to end World War 2 ASAP, but to flourish the Yankee saber before the Ruskies at Potsdam and ensure they knew who the sheriff was in the new world order that followed, according to some accounts.  Like two ancient warrior tribes, the Anglos and the Vikings, say, the Americans have been rattling words and swords ever since, from Sputnik to Stuxnet, from Lee Harvey Oswald to Edward Snowden. They are inextricably linked in modern history and, like the synthetic product of a Hegelian dialectical struggle, have revolutionized the world together.  

You could draw a straight line from Sputnik to Stuxnet, from the early battle to control outer-space to the World War Cyber we are currently in.  Sputnik, the world’s first man-made satellite, was seen as a Russian warning shot across the bow of the growing American talk-soft-Exceptionalism-and-carry-a-big-nuclear-stick empire.  Out of the ensuing reactionary panic, the Pentagon developed the first internet (ARPANET), which was designed, in part, to be a Doomsdaycommunication system to ensure that American ICBM missiles could retaliate, should the Cold War get hot in a hurry.  

It was a long time in coming, but Stuxnet, like Sputnik, is a firing-across-the-bow, an American warning to the world, but especially to the Russkies, that it’s game on in cyber-space. Stuxnet was the first virus designed to take out not code but hardware: Iranian nuclear centrifuges overheated with a resulting system catastrophe. Imagine a virus that targeted the fan of your laptop, resulting an overheating that destroyed the motherboard. Now imagine the world of industry — electric grids, oil wells, and yes, military hardware, etc. — targeted by tailored viruses. That’s the world we live in now.

Tim Berners-Lee is not happy with what’s become of his beloved World Wide Web since its introduction transformed the Internet twenty-and-some-change years ago.  His vision of a free, open and universal access point for everybody to quickly obtain and share information — from the sciences through the humanities, and everything in-between — has been lost, as the result of the over-commercialization and “centralization” of the world wide web.  “Oh, the humanity,” Berners-Lee seems to cry as his once-buoyant vision goes up in flames and falls.

And who hasn’t noticed how the Web has become like so many chambers in a Russian roulette game, as more and more of our attention is absorbed by the likes of Facebook, Google and Amazon, and we pull the trigger on our consciousness?  Marketized and re-militarized, the Internet has become a place for the Masters of Algorithm War to move our data points around like poker chips in a game of Bullshit. Fake News (Voice of America or RT?), Black Friday mega-deals, the latest Trump tweets, what chum will we go for today? Oh, the humanity.

Ever since 9/11, when the War on Terror began in earnest, it was inevitable that the Internet would be re-militarized by the Pentagon and that they would re-assert the right to control the protocols and communications crossing these wires. In between downloading a book from Amazon, or buying a gift from eBay, or spraying our endless opinions on Facebook, checking out Google’s latest apps, a world war is going on between the precious interstices of our consciousness.  In 2012, before he fled (almost ironically) to Russia, Edward Snowden let the world know, with evidence so hard it was virtually whistleblower porn, that we live in a dystopic panopticon. Take Keyscore XL, the NSA’s secret browser which, according to Glenn Greenwald, can “listen to whatever emails they want, whatever telephone calls, browsing histories, Microsoft Word documents. And it’s all done with no need to go to a court, with no need to even get supervisor approval on the part of the analyst.”  

Interestingly enough, the Mainstream Media was aware of the NSA’s illegal eavesdropping on American citizens back in October 2004.  New York Times prize-winning journalist James Risen had a bombshell story quashed in order, said the Times 14 months later, when they finally published the piece, to avoid swaying the election with an “October surprise.”  George H. Bush won re-election without the public having any awareness of the Bush-ordered spy program. Somehow, it never occurred to the editors that such spying might have vital public interest information that maybe should have swayed the election. In essence, they opted to protect his administration’s illegal violation of the Constitution.

Abusive surveillance by intelligence agencies has been going on in America for quite some time, as the Church Committee uncovered in the ‘70s, when it reported on the CIA’s secret and illegal domestic spying.  That spying continued and, it’s safe to say, continues still. Why not, when there’s no repercussions and “Terror” is on the loose? It wasn’t long ago that the CIA was spying on members of Congress, without redress — no extended hearings,no long-lasting outrage.  Just as after a group of baseball-playing Senators got shot up by a gunman in 2017, even when they were themselves the targets of criminal outrage, Congress demonstrated their fecklessness in the face of CIA abuses and did nothing. On the other hand, Julian Assange may have demonstrated recklessness when he published the entire hacking arsenal of the Agency last year, essentially declaring war on them.  For his trouble, he’s been “linked” with Russia and declared “a non-state hostile intelligence service,” with all that that implies.

It’s a panopticon out there and Americans are rightly rattled.  The security tentacles of Homeland Security seem to reach into every daily living activity — scans and pat-downs at the airport and train stations; facial scans at public events, especially at protest rallies; ICE at the borders; marijuana raids on legalized outlets; overzealous, militarized police.  But the real threat to privacy and what used to be called a ‘normal’ life has disappeared since 9/11, when a “Pearl Harbor-like” event brought America a national security ratcheting.  The fear is that, with a militarized Internet, we may be preparing for another Pearl Harbor-like event online that will result in a total lockdown of our activities. Whether you’re a conspiracy theorist or a conspiracy fearist, people in-the-know, such as Richard Clarke and Leon Panetta, have warned that we need to prepare.

But the panopticon is not just the national security apparatus that ostensibly has as its core value the protection of democracy and the American way of life, which one wants to believe only targets “terrorists” (an open-ended noun/verb, in our postmodern world), but includes the honeypot doings of the Good Panopticon — Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook.  With the promise of making our online experience more, well, bespoken, tailored to our desires, they absorb our data points into algorithmic dances choreographed around our spending habits. We voluntarily fill in field after field, from forms to emails and texts, and we tell them everything about us at a far deeper level than the government is allowed to do.

Google works with the NSA and others, and has, in the past, built a search engine for the Pentagon. They are the most pervasive and invasive of the lot: street and satellite views of our property (with coordinates); they save and scan every email we’ve ever written (even post-delete); they keep track of images, documents, and other files.  Currently, they are specializing in voice recognition software. They build a multi-faceted dossier on each and every user.  You would be surprised at the scope of their savings on you — who you called; what you texted and to whom; voice-print samples; where you went — yesterday, last year; what you searched for: https://myactivity.google.com/myactivity .  Sobering.  And while many people have expressed outrage at Google’s agreeing to build a search engine for the Chinese that blacks out references to human rights issues and sites, they are blind to the work Google does to undermine freedom and democracy at home, because all the activity above is made available to intelligence services.  

Amazon works with the CIA, building a database.  Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, often a first conduit of ‘highly-placed anonymous sources’ within the CIA and other national security agencies. And they specialize in facial recognition technology, which they enthusiastically share with law enforcement agencies. Apple and Microsoft have made system backdoors available to intelligence agencies.  As we know the hard way, Facebook sells personal data for huge sums of money to analytical companies for future exploitative processes; the data Facebook keeps is downloadable to you, but also to anyone who cracks your password. Add in The Internet of Everything that would connect all devices to the Internet and there will soon be virtually no place to find relief from the relentless data collection of our doings.  

Which brings up the battle for the last frontier — the space between our ears, the future of human consciousness.  The more we become dependent upon Internet feeds to our brain, and the more we build on our own data dossier, the closer we come to being our own panopticons. It’s an experience that has already translated into psychological damage (see my review of two relevant books): according to some psychologists, up to 25% of the people around us are ensconced in paranoia; and, strange new diagnoses are arising, such as the Truman Show delusion, a condition whereby individuals feel they are living in a reality TV show, everyone around them actors, cameras everywhere.  And that was a rising delusion even before the conspiracy-driven (“but not collusional”) Reality TV president was elected.

As after the Sputnik launch, no one knows where we are heading next, but as we hurdle toward the singularity of biology and the digital, it promises to be transformational, and even an evolutionary paradigm shift.  Darwin, Lamarck, choose your poison. And blame the Russians.

Generally speaking, I regard my approach to unravelling the vast complexities of reality (if there even is such a thing) as intrepid and, for the most part, fearless. But there are two ideological holy lands that I enter clutching my commentary with some degree of fear and trembling. 

The first is Israel, the sense of bracing for the worst reactionary outbursts whenever I gather the largely pointless courage to criticize Israeli policies, especially those designed and implemented by the radical Zionists who dominate decision-making there, such as with the relentless and merciless settlement expansions and the genocidal war criminality. You quickly learn that the IDF does not merely physically invade other states, but also has Minuteman-like cyber reactionaries — let’s call them muscle-toughs — at the ready who pounce on any and all criticism of their ways and means. That is, if the article about Israel’s latest arrogance even has its commentary section turned on.

The second tread-lightly zone is in the Untamed Territory that is the commentary section of Glenn Greenwald’s blog. Dissenters know all too well what will happen if they too tightly question a claim or fail to exhibit the appropriate level of hagiographical devotion. Like some of the sceptical animals with questions for Napoleon in Orwell’s Animal Farm, you find you have to get through the dogs first, always mindful of what happened to that working class hero, Boxer, who, you might say, was the glue of the community.  The irony is, and the cult of Greenwald sure does like its irony feeds, you can look left at the righty wingnuts of Zion, and then right at the lefty flywheels of Sion, and totally not know the difference.

I believe Glenn Greenwald has provided some excellent analysis as the national security state has grown. He has been especially effective in extrapolating on the ramifications of executive office abuses under Bush and Obama, and the precedents they have set for deeper abuses by future executives, who may not have the humanity our present and last president have exhibited.  Like many people, I applauded when he went from Salon to the Guardian, not only because it was a no-brainer, but because I felt he had a chance to immensely influence beyond his long-time cultish followers – to open many more mainstream hearts and minds to the unpleasant truths thrust upon us all since the towers came down on 9/11. And though I had stopped reading his blogs at the Guardian for quite some time, I was still disappointed that he gave up his growing influence on everyday readers by jumping, as he put it, at the opportunity to work for a billionaire – a neo-liberal “philanthropist” with a business model where a moral compass should be.

I don’t read Greenwald’s revelations at his new venture, The Intercept. I don’t really feel there’s much more he can ‘teach’ me – a metaphor he often invokes when he gathers his children of the corn around for the latest “lesson” to be drawn and chalkboarded that day.  Nevertheless, while reading a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review yesterday, one link led to another, until I saw in a search engine the headline for an Intercept piece that appeared on August 12, “NPR Is Laundering CIA Talking Points to Make You Scared of NSA Reporting.” So, out of morbid curiosity, I checked it out.

It didn’t take long to figure out where it was heading and how it would end up.  Greenwald has a hard-on for Dina Raston-Temple following a confrontation they had a couple of years ago, when Raston-Temple claimed to have been made privy by the Obama administration to classified information that convinced her that drone-killing Anwar al-Awlaki without due process was justified, a view she disseminated on her NPR program, no doubt influencing countless middle class commuters looking for an excuse to remain comfortably numb. Greenwald rightly pissed on her parade for seeming to hoard information, which he argued should be released because it was in the public interest.

So here he was again nailing Raston-Temple, who was once again barking for her master, Obama and the national security circus. The silly 5-minute  chicken nugget all dipped in Dina’s honeyed voice made its debut on the NPR drive-time drive-through menu on August 1, and, as Greenwald rightly pointed out, it was essentially the passive regurgitation of an unchallenged allegation made by the CEO of a company not far from Harvard Square called Recorded Future.  Says D R-T, “He had heard the Obama administration say that terrorists had changed the way they behave because of the Snowden leaks. He wanted to see if it was really true.” She then spends most of the segment seemingly vocalizing a company press release detailing how they confirmed Obama’s suspicion that the Snowden leaks had aided the enemy. As with her previous al-Awlaki hit piece, she was casually setting Snowden up for a death sentence. After all, if al-Awlaki  (and his innocent son) could be droned by executive order for expressing sympathy for the plight of jihadists, then surely a man who actually provided information to the enemy that caused them to alter their tactics, consequently putting US lives at risk, was certainly eminently drone-able, right? So Greenwald pounced. 

Among the important things Greenwald pointed out was that Recorded Future had been funded in its start-up by Q-Tel, the “independent” venture capitalist arm of the CIA. Though Greenwald provides one of his typical links to an article detailing this arrangement, it’s from 2010 and one wonders why he hasn’t written about Recorded Future before (certainly he has received prods to do so from members of his commentariat). Because it doesn’t take much of a perusal of the Recorded Future web site to see that, like Booz-Hamilton, the NSA contractor Snowden worked for, that they were offering disposition matrix and predictive analysis features (the company name says it all) that easily could be the user-friendly GUI end of CIA/NSA cyber spookery. It’s also notable that NPR is one of the featured news outlets displayed at the bottom of the website.  Hilariously, in one of Recorded Future’s YouTube video demonstrations, they feature Barack Obama as a demonstration model for how targets and their associations are monitored. Which I found not so much ironic, as, you know, maybe a reminder to the president of what they know.

But D R-T is small fry, and, as it turns out, not the whole story by a long shot, and it defies credulity that Greenwald missed it.

Just two days after NPR spread their fool’s gospel to the goldfish, a piece appeared in the Washington Post written by one Stewart Baker, “As evidence mounts, it’s getting harder to defend Edward Snowden.” This piece is interesting for a number of reasons:

* Baker cites the same Bruce Schneier blog Greenwald does, but, unlike the Interceptor, he attacks Schneier’s credibility with respect to his assumptions about al Qaeda cryptographic adaptations. Schneier, a cryptographic analyst, argues that Snowden’s revelations provided no technical assistance to al Qaeda operatives and debunks the notion that they re-jigged their encryption coding. Baker essentially libels Schneier as a lackey for muckrakers like Greenwald. Ordinarily, this is not a sling Greenwald would allow to go unchecked. Yet in the week or so between the Post piece and Greenwald’s blog, no one seems to have brought it to his attention. It gets better.

* Baker is not a journalist but a former counsel for the NSA and the Department of Homeland Security, as well as a current principal champion of Obama’s machinations. He provided important testimony to the 9/11 Commission in 2003, where he pointed out with wrung hands that ‘if only we’d had predictive analytics the horror, the horror might have been averted.’ Baker’s own blogging on the group blog site, the Volokh Conspiracy, where he often cites legal cases in defense or clarification of NSA shit, would be, I put forth, a natural place for Greenwald to have planted one of IEDs (improvised expressive device: usually I mean by that a pun, but a blog can go boom, too).  Of course, if you go to Baker’s blog now, you’ll be re-directed to WaPo, “as part of a new joint venture with the Post.” This escaped Greenwald.

* WaPo is owned by Amazon (Bezos) and Amazon is building a special database for the CIA, which, among other things, suggests a conflict of interest for reporting anyway, let alone a piece written by an intel counsel (a fact not mentioned in the piece). So you have a company–Amazon–building a CIA database out one orifice and allowing penetration by another spook into another, and yet Greenwald does not find this worthy of mention in his D R-T slap down?  Why not? Could it be (I’m being cynical) because he has his mother lode Snowden book listed with Amazon? But Greenwald is not merely selling his book on Amazon, he has entered a special arrangement. Just under his book listing on the site is a special offer to readers: If they apply and are accepted for an Amazon.com Rewards Visa they could get his book on the surveillance state for free (!). Look:

When you delve further, you discover that the card is issued by one AGI gift cards, which Amazon, in typical deceitful fashion, describes merely as “a Washington corporation,” totally neglecting to mention that AGI is in fact a subsidiary of Amazon.  Nor do you discover before beginning the application process for the Rewards Visa that your information will be processed by JP Morgan’s Chase bank, with them clearly receiving data from a very specific group of readers (dissident types) that certain collectors would love to know more about. And it’s because they would be specially filtered through this deal with a Greenwald purchase that a certain question of integrity arises.  One notes rather quickly, by searching, that Thomas Piketty has no such special come-on associated with his Capitalism in the 21st Century

Greenwald has of course railed against the abuses of JP Morgan Chase in the past, not so much because of their prominent role in the sub-prime mortgage debacle and other assorted shystery, but because of the special cosy deal they worked out with the Justice Department to get off rather lightly for their horrid abuses.

Amazon is one of eBay’s principal competitors (according to Forbes magazine, only about 7% of Amazon’s total revenues comes from book sales; the rest is from selling other stuff, just like eBay. Maybe Greenwald felt conflicted by this awful potential blip in his bestseller sales and could not bring himself to delve. But it’s embarrassing, to say the least, for someone who polishes his integrity to such a high sheen, and so passively works with a company like Amazon, which, aside from working with the CIA, is known to treat workers with contempt; which sniggily responded to widespread drone fears by suggesting Amazon might deliver books that way; which uses very intrusive algorithms; which DRM locks its e-books that you unknowingly don’t really buy but lease; and which has alienated writers and the publishing industry with mean anti-trust-like tactics.

*Looking back, a further cause of alarm is the claim last year by the New York Times and the Washington Post that they were hacked by “Chinese” spies. Seems plausible at first. But then the two papers coincidentally hired a company called Mandiant to come in and determine what data was stolen and how it was done. Kevin Mandia, for whom the company is named, spoke before the US House select committee on intelligence in February and made this telling remark:

“While many industry players have extremely capable security programs, the majority of threat intelligence is currently in the hands of the government. Indeed, about two-thirds of the breaches Mandiant responds to are first detected by a third party – usually the government – not the victim companies. That means that a majority of the companies we assist had no idea they had been compromised until law enforcement or a business partner notified them.”

But what’s equally telling though is the degree to which Mandia’s online biography has been scrubbed. You have to do some digging to discover that Mandia, a Lafayette University graduate, started out his cybersecurity career in the Air Force and was “a computer security officer in the 7th Communications Group at the Pentagon,” a fact that you’d think he’d be prominently displaying, and yet it is buried and unelaborated upon.  The government hacking of corporate computer systems, followed by offers to have Mandiant fix it, sounds like, a form of protection to me.                 

Mandiant said all usernames and passwords for all journalists at both papers were poached. Bad, sure, but worse is that it turns out that the directors of Mandiant have roots in the spook community and actually came over from another company called Man Tech Inc., which boasts such old school spooky luminaries on its board as Richard Armitage, Richard Kerr, and Lt. Gen. Kenneth Minihan. 

In another instance of deep irony that Greenwald would have appreciated had he looked into it, one industry article on Mandiant describes how they modelled their facilities after Star Trek motifs, including having a control room that was a mock bridge from the Enterprise – just like the control room NSA head Keith Alexander operates from, and with which Greenwald took such delicious issue. What a coincidence.

Not terribly long after the “Chinese” breach, the Washington Post went up for sale, with none other than eBay’s Omidyar and Amazon’s Bezos bidding on its holdings. Omidyar opted to pursue an information empire by corralling “the best and brightest” adversarial journalists, while Bezos decided to do so by building and expanding on a name brand. It’s almost like they were the two rich brothers in the film Trading Places, and Glenn Greenwald was Eddie Murphy.

But there’s more.  The Post was sold in October 2013, and, as if by modus pollens, Mandiant got bought out shortly thereafter, in December, by a company called FireEye. And, of course, FireEye ends up being venture capitalized by Q-Tel, just like Recorded Future. Which raises the question of what happened to Mandiant data captures, including usernames and passwords of reporters and editors, from the NYT and WaPo expeditions? Maybe Greenwald will get around to that, although he was prodded about the Mandiant connection more than once without any response of interest.

Back in March, Counterpunch’s Chris Floyd discussed at length eBay owner Pierre Omidyar’s role in helping to fund the corrupt but democratically elected Ukrainian government, a success which has brought the world closer to another catastrophic war. He was assisted in his doings by USAID, the old soft shoe of the CIA. Greenwald is not fazed by this.  He’s not fazed by Omidyar’s cooperation with the NSA, tweeting at one point, “I don’t doubt PayPal cooperates with NSA….” Until some of his long-time followers expressed alarm, he wasn’t fazed that the website he built from scratch was employing Google Analytics and Amazon algorithms, and others, to track and store data on visitors who showed up at Intercept, nor fazed that Intercept’s TOS was not exactly visitor friendly.  He’s unconcerned that his readers who take advantage of the special offer on the Amazon website may, trusting his judgement, divulge personal data to authorities that risks their becoming persons of interest by virtue of their connection to Greenwald. And he’s unconcerned that some readers see his document-hoarding as not much better than Dina Raston-Temple’s gatekeeping role-play.

What Greenwald’s doing may not be technically wrong, from a neo-liberal point of view, but it sure raises some serious questions from a progressive point of view. But no one seems to have the cajones to ask. Greenwald’s authority now, and we know how that goes.

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia. His articles on politics, pop culture, and literature have appeared in publications in the US, Australia and Europe. He can be reached at sprockethawk@roxxmail.ch 

Ordinarily, the Amazon-Hachette battle over revenue streams is not something I would take much interest in, because no matter how the fight is framed by the mainstream media the fact remains the bottom line is all that counts for these corporate entities. But I have been drawn into the fray by happenstance, having recently received from my younger brother his memoirs of his glorious bank-robbing years, along with a request for me to edit the manuscript and see to its publication. As my brother is not a well-known figure, except in his own outlaw circles, it was clear that self-publishing was the most viable avenue to travel, and that, as far as I then knew, Amazon was the best option for uploading and marketing his book.

I was willing to employ Amazon’s services for my brother’s sake (he’s somewhat apolitical), but I didn’t like knowing I had so little choice. Just a couple of months ago I had cancelled my Amazon account – a feat which took me almost a week to complete, as the cancel function is nearly impossible to locate at the Amazon site and one is required to submit time-consuming requests, and hit special buttons, etc – because I was fed up with the Amazon attitude. I mean, there is abundant reason to shy away from the book-selling collossus, starting with the horror stories surrounding their workplace practices; their nose-tweaking insolence and just plain silliness regarding the use of drones to deliver books; their collaboration with the CIA in building a database – after the Snowden revelations; the creepy privacy intrusions of their algorithms; the nuissance DRM locks they place on e-books to prevent copying and conversion to other reading formats; the shock revelation that you are, in essence, not purchasing, but renting, a book from Amazon, which you may discover the hard way after you cancel your account. And I personally know an on-line entrepreneur from Perth who has spent upwards of $250,000 to defend against Amazon’s hostile attempted hijacking of her domain name.

So if corporations are now people, Amazon can seem to be what you might call a thug.

But the question remains, in this battle with the major publisher, Hachette, what is the battle about, and are their any victors other than the bottom-liners? Do readers benefit? Will writers be better off when all is said and said and said?

On the surface the issue seems fairly clear-cut. Hachette, like all the other hard copy publishers, wants to sell their e-books at a substantially higher rate — $14 –$ 20 a pop – than Amazon’s set policy price of $10. Hachette justifies its higher rates by pointing to its substantial overhead and to costs associated with discovering and promoting new writers. The extra revenue is, all in all, in support of the publishing industry’s so-called ‘ecosystem’ of manufacturing and distribution. Hachette does not deny that e-books themselves have relatively very little production costs compared to hard copy books, they just see the extra funds generated by inflated pricing as a form of subsidization of the corporate entity.


But this seems to be a real sticking point for Amazon. Aside from the fact that they don’t really give a shit about the woes of an anachronistic publishing industry who they see as competitors anyway, Amazon points to stats that seem to support their argument that lower prices are better and that higher pricing is actually counter-productive. For instance, Amazon told the bookseller.com, an industry newsletter,

We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated

measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book

would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99.

So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a

particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000

copies of that same e-book at $9.99.

Thus, according to this measurement, everyone wins, because more volume means more revenue generated for Amazon, the publishers and their authors. And it is easy to see how more fluidity among e-book sales would create a ripple-on effect in the sale of hard copy as well, since there would be more familiarity with the works out there. Hachette, or any other publisher, really cannot argue this point.

But here’s the thing. The book publishing industry has always been different than other corporate enterprises, in that there has never been an expectation of high profit yields, and many would argue that industry is still largely devoted to the continued dissemination of culture and that it implicitly pushes the meme: Books are important. It is this cultural aspect, the protective layer for art and culture, even amidst business principles, that Hachette uses to bolster its claim to keeping its eco-system intact in order to continue delivering that Greater Good.

However, people like bestselling author Richard Russo, who also heads the Author’s Guild, whose job it is to protect the interests of writers, worries that Amazon, though seeming to offer good deals to readers and writers alike, has no interest in supporting the culture that is the backbone of the publishing industry. Says Russo,

We want Jeff Bezos to say, “We share your beliefs, we’re all

in this together.” Yet even that simple statement—which

would mean so much—hasn’t come. We’ve heard nothing.

Just silence.

But the shocking fact is, Amazon doesn’t necessarily care any more about the books it sells than any of its other purchaseable commodities. Why would it, asks Jason Diamond of Flavorwire, “when you consider that books don’t even make up ten percent of Amazon’s $75 billion in total yearly revenue.” The reality is that Amazon is more closely related to what eBay does than what book publishers do.

In the end, it is the projection of attitude that most offends. When Amazon released an app that allowed consumers to go into a local bookseller’s shop and read the barcode

off shelved books and compare to Amazon prices, many were deeply offended by the underlying message of this tactic. As the New York Times weighed in, the battle with Hachette has led Amazon to engage in behavior that engages it critics’ worst suspicions:

Now Amazon is raising prices, removing ordering buttons,

lengthening shipping times and monkeying with

recommendation algorithms. Do these sound like the moves

of a man who cares about customers above all else?

No, it sure doesn’t. And since those delays and tactics slow sales and turn off readers, they hurt writers as well. Even my brother is offended by these predations and wants to take his memoirs elsewhere. Luckily, there are alternatives, like draft2digital and ganxy, where he can flout his comparably honorable days of fleecing the banks.


Ordinarily, the Amazon–Hachette battle over revenue streams is not something I would take much interest in: no matter how the fight is framed by the mainstream media, the fact remains the bottom line is all that counts for these corporate entities. But I have been drawn into the fray by happenstance, having recently received my younger brother’s memoirs of his glorious bank-robbing years, along with a request for me to edit the manuscript and see to its publication. As my brother is not a well-known figure, except in his own outlaw circles, it was clear that self-publishing was the most viable avenue to travel, and that Amazon was the best option for uploading and marketing his book. Or so I then thought.

I was willing to employ Amazon’s services for my brother’s sake (he’s somewhat apolitical), but I didn’t like knowing I had so little choice. Just a couple of months ago I had cancelled my Amazon account – a feat which took me almost a week to complete, as the cancel function is nearly impossible to locate at the Amazon site and one is required to submit time-consuming requests, and hit special buttons, etc – because I was fed up with the its attitude. I mean, there is abundant reason to shy away from the book-selling collossus, starting with the horror stories surrounding their workplace practices; their nose-tweaking insolence and just plain silliness regarding the use of drones to deliver books; their database collaboration with the CIA – after the Snowden revelations; the creepy privacy intrusions of their algorithms; the nuisance DRM locks they place on ebooks to prevent copying and conversion to other reading formats; the shock revelation that you are, in essence, not purchasing, but renting, a book from Amazon, which you may discover the hard way after cancelling your account.

So if corporations are now people, Amazon can seem to be what you might call a thug.
But the question remains: what is the battle with major publisher Hachette about, and are there any victors other than the bottom-liners? Do readers benefit? Will writers be better off when all is said and done?
On the surface the issue seems fairly clear-cut. Hachette, like all the other hard copy publishers, wants to sell their ebooks at a substantially higher rate – $14–20 a pop – than Amazon’s set policy price of $10. Hachette justifies its higher rates by pointing to its substantial overhead and to costs associated with discovering and promoting new writers; ultimately, the extra revenue supports the publishing industry’s ‘ecosystem’ of manufacturing and distribution. Hachette does not deny that ebooks themselves have relatively very little production costs compared to print books, they just see the extra funds generated by inflated pricing as a form of publishing subsidisation.

But this seems to be a real sticking point for Amazon. Aside from the fact that they don’t really give a shit about the woes of an anachronistic publishing industry who they see as competitors anyway, Amazon points to stats that seem to support their argument that lower prices are better and that higher pricing is actually counterproductive. For instance, Amazon told The Bookseller:

We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99.

Thus, according to this measurement, everyone wins, because more volume means more revenue generated for Amazon, the publishers and their authors. And it is easy to see how more fluidity among ebook sales would create a ripple-on effect in the sale of print copies as well, since there would be more familiarity with the works out there. Hachette, or any other publisher, really, cannot argue this point.
But here’s the thing. The book publishing industry has always been different than other corporate enterprises, in that there has never been an expectation of high-profit yields. In fact, many would argue that the industry is still largely devoted to the continued dissemination of culture and the idea that books are important. It is this cultural aspect – the protective layer for art and culture, even amidst business principles – that Hachette uses to bolster its claim of keeping the eco-system healthy in order to continue delivering the Greater Good.

However, people like bestselling author Richard Russo, who also heads the Author’s Guild, whose job it is to protect the interests of writers, worries that Amazon, though seeming to offer good deals to readers and writers alike, has no interest in supporting the culture that is the backbone of the publishing industry. Writes Russo:

We want Jeff Bezos to say, ‘We share your beliefs, we’re all in this together.’ Yet even that simple statement—which would mean so much—hasn’t come. We’ve heard nothing. Just silence.

But the shocking fact is, Amazon doesn’t necessarily care any more about the books it sells than any of its other commodities. Why would it, asks Jason Diamond of Flavorwire, ‘when you consider that books don’t even make up ten percent of Amazon’s $75 billion in total yearly revenue.’ The reality is that Amazon is more closely related to eBay than book publishers.

In the end, it is the projection of this attitude that most offends. When Amazon released an app that allowed consumers to go into a local bookseller’s shop and read the barcode off shelved books and compare to Amazon prices, many were deeply offended by the underlying message of this tactic. As the New York Times observed, the battle with Hachette has led Amazon to engage in behaviour that engages it critics’ worst suspicions:

Now Amazon is raising prices, removing ordering buttons, lengthening shipping times and monkeying with recommendation algorithms. Do these sound like the moves of a man who cares about customers above all else?

No, it sure doesn’t. And since those delays and tactics slow sales and turn off readers, they hurt writers as well. Even my brother is offended by these predations and wants to take his memoirs elsewhere. Luckily, there are alternatives, like draft2digital and ganxy, where he can flout his comparably honourable days of fleecing banks.