In Hey, Tim Ferriss: Book banning isn’t a marketing gimmick at GigaOM’s paidContent, she writes:
So is Barnes & Noble banning The Four-Hour Chef because of its controversial content? Not so much. Ferriss’ book is simply one of several that Barnes & Noble will not stock in its stores because it is published by Amazon.
But Ferriss is talking right back to her:
I view things through a different lens. I think the implications of this boycott or ban — choose the word you prefer — are larger than people realize.
What we’re looking at is an interesting question. Yes, this corporate combat is playing out on the scarred battlefield of the digital dynamic: Barnes and Noble, like most booksellers, is struggling for its footing as Amazon’s digital supremacy and customer-service battering ram punch bigger and bigger holes in the fortress walls of old publishing.
But even if we all stood atop a clover-covered hill of peace at the moment, gazing down on a more cordial, pastoral colloquy between Owen and Ferriss, the issue would resonate with worthwhile urgency in our business-dominated era.
- What, actually, constitutes a “book banning?”
- If a bookstore refuses to sell on the grounds of a business dispute, as is the case here, is a “ban” in place?
- Indeed, what is being “banned” here is not Ferriss, not “Timothy,” as he’s known on his book covers, nor his writings or sometimes controversial lifestyle recommendations, nor his eagerly photographed 4-Hour Body, nor his assertion that one can be successful with a mere 4-Hour Workweek.
That’s the problem. There is no Girolamo Savonarola in the room. The Friar of 15th-century Florence might have burned Ferriss at a 4-Hour Stake at the first baring of those pecs and external obliques. But this “banning” is not ideological.
And Owen is questioning the use of the term by the wunderkind bestseller.
If anybody can rally BitTorrent’s 160-million-strong “people-powered network,” it’s the articulate Ferriss. At 35, he’s a guy’s guy whose eloquence doesn’t always jibe with his game-the-system shtick.
He writes to Owen, in answer to her article (she has included his response), first with a vision of more trouble in Digital City:
If this book fails due to a retail stonewall, I can tell you for a fact that more than a dozen A-list authors I know will hit pause on plans for publishing innovation for the next few years.
Next he follows with respect for our icons mentioned by Owen in her piece:
Is The 4-Hour Chef the same as Huckleberry Finn? Of course not, and I never implied that it was.
Then he declines to stand down:
But do I view stifling innovation and free speech (through distribution or otherwise) as a malevolent thing? Yes. Regardless of the motive (moral, economic, etc.), the outcome is the same: regress instead of progress. And regress snowballs quickly. At the end of the day, I want people to think about boycotting and banning, both historically and moving forward. The fact that you (Owen) wrote a piece about precisely that — raising awareness and stimulating conversation — is a great thing.That public discourse is one of my goals.
It’s good, really, to find a self-marketer of his magnitude waiting when someone as adroit as Owen comes looking for him.
She’s way too smart to leave home without her own rationale. Here’s her quick recitation of what normally rises (or falls) to the level of recognized “banning”:
Huckleberry Finn, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, To Kill a Mockingbird: Those are among the titles that schools and libraries have most commonly banned over the years. An Illinois school district banned a book this year because it included a reference to gay families. And Bibles and Korans are still burned by religious groups around the world.
Not a lot of folks would run at a phalanx of unassailable examples like that. But Ferriss does.
And Owen isn’t toying with her target here. She has perfect pitch for what sounds to her like a sales-gimmicky misappropriation of the term “banned.”
At the same time, you don’t have to agree with Ferriss to realize that for a guy launching a book on Tuesday subtitled “The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life,” this huckster brings a sweet intelligence to his own defense.
They’re a good match, these two, and we can thank them for the chance to think this out.
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Let’s look at how the Owen-Ferriss standoff developed Friday (the 16th of November), four days prior to the launch of Ferriss’ bookstore-“banned” book.
Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention, and a stalemate between Amazon and big retailers, including Barnes & Noble, over the sale of books from the online giant’s publishing imprint is giving a fillip to BitTorrent — once a hotbed of piracy, and now a straight-laced and legal content distribution network — as a platform for marketing books.
Lunden’s write-up, With Amazon Publishing Stonewalled By Retailers, Tim Ferriss Taps BitTorrent To Market His New Book, not only reminds us all that BitTorrent is no longer a pirate ship, but also that it characterizes its user-to-user network as comprising “more users than Hulu, Netflix and Spotify combined.”
If that doesn’t have you sitting up yet, try it this way: Lunden reports that BitTorrent claims to drive “between 20% and 40% of all Internet traffic.” Ferriss doesn’t play for pennies.
And BitTorrent, she points out:
…has been building up a marketing business it calls Bundles, in which it offers users content related to a recent launch of an entertainment or media brand. It looks like Bundles have mainly been used for music launches for groups like Counting Crows, Pretty Lights and Death Grips.
This time instead of music, it’s Bundling Ferriss. Lunden writes:
According to a BitTorrent blog post announcing the news, to coincide with the book being launched on November 20, BitTorrent users, “will get exclusive access to media from Tim: content from the book, as well as unpublished material. We’ll be distributing the writer’s process: the photos, drafts, videos and recipes that shaped Tim’s journey. And we’ll be asking users to support Tim and the Amazon imprint.”
In an important clarification for the many Amazon-bashers of our realm, Lunden writes:
A BitTorrent spokesperson says that this deal is directly with Ferriss himself, not Amazon, so it’s not clear whether there will be more Amazon books coming through this particular marketing channel.
So, no, this isn’t Seattle’s work. Nevertheless, if we go back one quote, we can hear that call-of-the-charities language that has triggered Owen’s alarm: “Support Tim and the Amazon imprint.”
It has that “come on out” tone we’re going to hear soon from Toys for Tots, right? It’s really another way of saying “buy my book.”
And that’s what has Owen donning her flak jacket.
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In her write at paidContent, she goes back to the original announcement from B&N of its intention to keep books from Amazon’s fledgling New Harvest imprint off its shelves. As she reported in February, in Barnes & Noble: We Will Not Carry Amazon Publishing Titles in Our Stores, the big bookstore chain stated:
“Our decision is based on Amazon’s continued push for exclusivity with publishers, agents and the authors they represent. These exclusives have prohibited us from offering certain ebooks to our customers. Their actions have undermined the industry as a whole and have prevented millions of customers from having access to content.”
What’s more, Owen writes:
Readers can still order Amazon titles from Barnes & Noble’s website and most independent bookstores will order them if readers ask.
To Owen, Ferriss’ BitTorrent “project” is a wrongful use of censorship’s image for the purpose of getting people talking.
Ferriss doesn’t dodge her point. He turns it around and marches it right back to her:
I’d be remiss not to point out: booksellers use banned books as a marketing gimmick every year as a matter of course. Yes, I’m using the media to highlight what I view as a serious fork in the road for content creators.
And that’s a worthy point, too. How does a bookseller — Barnes and Noble or another outfit — account for the fact that refusing to carry certain books in a business protest actually hurts the authors through lost sales? We may not need to cry for Ferriss, who’s more than able to take care of himself. But what of other less successful authors caught in the crossfire of the B&N-Amazon skirmish?
And what of readers? Of customer service? Owen’s right that you can order the Ferriss book online from B&N. But what of consumers who head down to the local store to pick it up? They hear, “Oh, we’re not carrying that book.”
Do staffers on the floor at a B&N tell customers why The 4-Hour Chef is not in the store? If so, how do they characterize it? Do they explain that the author is not the problem? That Ferriss is caught in a fight with another retailer, a contretemps not of his making?
In closing her sally, Owen raises the fearful image of Bebelplatz in Berlin. It’s the site of the May 1933 burning by Hitler’s SS of what is said to have been some 20,000 books, something many of us can’t imagine without thinking of Fahrenheit 451.
Owen cites the text chosen to memorialize the Nazis’ fiery stupidity. It takes its line from Heinrich Heine. As Fra Savonarola could have told them:
“Where books are burned, in the end people will burn.”
And Owen then takes one last look at the Ferriss-BitTorrent effort. She sees no comparison:
The disruptors who do speak out for Ferriss won’t be risking personal harm. They won’t be standing up against free speech. Ferriss approached Amazon for a book deal and in four days, it will be published. That’s not exactly censorship.
Ferriss hasn’t run out of stones to throw, either, however:
If anyone is guilty of using “banned books” as a gimmick, it’s booksellers themselves.
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A quick look at comments on Owen’s post shows what a joyless, even bitter environment surrounds this debate.
“Nothing is more irritating than faux victim-hood,” writes one.
“I would think the best response to a stupid marketing gimmick would be to ignore it,” writes another commenter, publishing blogger Nate Hoffelder. “Any post on this topic is a win by default for Ferriss.”
Owen responds: “It’s not really my job as a journalist to either help or hinder Ferriss’ sales. I’m sure this post could lead to some people buying his book and some people not wanting to (and I doubt it’d change a lot of minds on either side). Regardless, it’s worth writing about because it exposes a major rift in the publishing industry right now, and it’s my job to report on that. So I did.”
Another reader widens still further the term “ban”: “Amazon ‘bans’ books all the time. When publishers don’t agree to their burdensome terms they remove the buy buttons.”
And so now, Ethernaut, we turn to you.
Maybe in a society so fixated on economic issues, a retail move against a given product can be called a banning. Or maybe to call it that is simply trading one sales ploy for another and trampling a more important concept in the process.
What do you think? Can a corporate-competitive move like Barnes and Noble’s refusal to carry Amazon New Harvest print editions be called a form of book banning, as Tim Ferriss asserts? Or is Laura Hazard Owen right that the term’s association with censorship in culture and history is too important for it to be applied to a commercial shakedown?
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