A New Approach to Commercial Publishing: The New LFB

Laissez-Faire Books was founded in 1972 when issues of intellectual property hadn’t been worked out in detail in the libertarian world. There was of course the Randian view, which took IP to the most absurd extremes. Then there was the Rothbardian view, which had a very strict view of what is and what is not property and because IP doesn’t pass this test, the Rothbardian perspective tended toward the open model.

LFB itself never questioned the statist conventions on this topic. In fact, it even went through a period in which its owner worked to send take down notices to sites for posting old books to which it claimed the rights. How well I recall my own disgust! LFB uses the state to stop the spread of libertarian ideas! That’s just incredible.

Well, Agora Financial took over the institution this year and it immediately became obvious that they were Kinsellaites on this question. While working at the Mises Institute, I had worked with the new LFB to do some co-publishing in the commons. So when I accepted the position as publisher and executive editor, I made it a condition that, wherever possible, we always publish into the commons.

Management readily agreed, and even wondered why I was making such a big deal out of this. After all, this is a gigantically successful company and they have learned that the most important way to sell a product is to market it as widely and broadly as possible. If by putting something in the commons, you stand to reach more people, isn’t this a great thing? Isn’t this what commerce is all about? And from a mission point of view, isn’t this what libertarian education is all about?

Indeed it is! I immediately felt that we would soon be running an important experiment: a large scale publisher in the world of commerce would soon be publishing with Creative Commons and eschewing copyright in every way. This is a massive step for the libertarian world and even for the world of publishing in general.

For now, our website is a legacy disaster, inherited from the previous owner. We have a wonderful new site that is in Beta for now, and we are looking at a roll out in 4 weeks at the latest.

Here is a little video I made of our plans. I must say that it has so far been an incredible thing to work with the smart and progressively minded people at Agora. I’m surrounded by people much smarter than I am, people who are crazy experts in their area of specialization. The demographic is young and the technical-digital expertise among the large staff is dazzling. The willingness to experiment is everywhere in evidence.

An Introduction to the NEW Laissez Faire Books from Agora Financial on Vimeo.

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  • That is what I call heroic.

  • Thank you Jeffrey for all you do to promote liberty.

  • I was asked today on Facebook what I thought of this article by Tucker. Here’s approximately what I said (with a few editing changes):

    What do I think of this? It comes across to me as a tad arrogant and self-important, and it smears LFB”s past heritage. [for readers who don’t know, full disclosure here: I am part of the past heritage of LFB; I was the co-founder and co-proprietor of LFB for 5 years].

    Tucker says: “LFB itself never questioned the statist conventions on this topic [copyright].” Excuse me, you are insulting us because our views were different from yours? I would never say that to *you.* I recognize without malice that libertarian views on copyright vary. I find this kind of self-righteousness to be a bit offensive. We believed in copyrights; I still do. At the present, IMO, the most effective way to protect individual copyright is through the government courts. It is no different than calling the police if someone breaks into your house, or if you are assaulted. They’re (virtually) the only game in town. I make no apologies for that stand and neither would John Muller, the founder of LFB. I would also add that we were hardly in the same position as the mega-music industry that currently abuses copyright. We were individuals protecting our labor and the labors of our authors, nothing more. We don’t deserve to be slammed this way.

    Then Tucker says: “In fact, it even went through a period in which its owner worked to send take down notices to sites for posting old books to which it claimed the rights.” This is a distortion at best. The incident occurred long after my involvement but my recollection is the organization in question didn’t just reprint an old book but used the *newly written* Introduction without the permission or knowledge of the person who wrote it or the company that published it. Sounds a little different when put that way, doesn’t it? IMO it is NOT OK, to expropriate what others have done without crediting them or asking their permission when they are still alive and a copyright has been invoked. If the organization had done that in the first place, LFB would have been glad to work things out. IMO the owners of LFB had every right to protest.

    BTW, speaking of protest, I found out early on that the current owners of LFB were using my name without my permission or knowledge to flog their new “product.” I have no problem with an organization quoting me –that falls under the fair use doctrine, but it went beyond that. Their phrasing copy hinted at approval of the new LFB (which I had not given) and incorrectly stated that I was the founder. No, John Muller was the founder. When I complained to the then manager, he passed it off as trivial. Then I complained to Joe Schriefer (a head honcho of Agora), and I will say he was far more diplomatic and took the offending comment down. But that was the last time I ever heard from anyone at LFB or Agora.

    Full disclosure here: I also asked them why they didn’t re-order my new book “Standing Up to Experts and Authorities.” It was listed as “temporarily out of stock” for many months. Now it is not listed at all. Gee, call me naive, but I would have thought this highly relevant book by the co-founder of Laissez Faire Books would be something that they would *want* to carry. Not like the book was about knitting doilies, after all. BTW several people have told me that they requested to be notified when the book was available. So it’s not like LFB was never going to sell any. Hard to believe that it wouldn’t sell at all, don’t you think?

    I also suggested that since the 40th anniversary of LFB is coming up in 2012, it might be nice to have a big hoopla about it. No response.

    Tucker goes on to say: “For now, our website is a legacy disaster, inherited from the previous owner.” I happen to agree that the old website contents needed to be revised, though I would not characterize the website as a disaster. This seems self-aggrandizing to me. But what he doesn’t tell us is that it’s been over a year and they are just now getting around to fixing it. I gave them suggestions early on as to how to improve it. I didn’t even get a response, let alone see any changes. The changes could have been implemented relatively easily. I even offered to redo the catalog (which did need some serious improvement) but I was totally ignored. It’s not like they didn’t have the money to have *someone* redo the catalog, even if it wasn’t me. That’s what I would have done in their place and I wouldn’t have waited over a year to do it.

    Then Tucker says: “… the technical-digital expertise among the large staff is dazzling.” I am so not impressed. Why? For one thing, they didn’t have a clue how to operate the old OS Commerce version of the website, which BTW operated very well. The problem I had with the old website was the catalog and the categories, which were not under the webmaster’s control. The old webmaster had to be consulted extensively for months in order for the new tech people to figure out what they were doing. The old webmaster reported to me that they were very disorganized and always rushing ahead without giving careful thought to what they were doing. Since I know the old webmaster to be someone who is highly competent and careful in his work and a trustworthy honest person, I have confidence in his assessment.

    I have other qualms about the new LFB but I will reserve judgment until I see the new website. (I want to see what other books they take down, for one thing.) I would like to see the heritage of LFB continue. I put my heart and soul into that store; it still means a lot to me. But I remain uncertain that the new owners will carry on the intellectual heritage this historical store deserves. They still strike me as being a tad more interested in selling their financial advice products than in selling libertarian books per se. I hope to be persuaded otherwise but their actions so far leave me wondering…

  • What a fantastic turnaround for LFB — they now have a great and forward-thinking person working there in Jeff Tucker, and it sounds like everyone there has the same mentality. Fantastic!

  • Sharon Presley provided a needed counterpoint and historical perspective to Tucker’s commentary. I greatly admire Tucker as a writer, and have for years, especially in his accessible writing for the Mises Institute and in the service of sound economics. Yet I see his comments as being needlessly arrogant and trash-talking.

    It doesn’t help a new management’s confidence-building process with customers and observers to be this blithely dismissive, without providing context, of all that has come before. LFB has been through many ownership hands and been based in at least four states since Presley co-founded it in New York. They did manage, often on financial shoestrings, to keep it going for four decades, after all. They’re not going to have the same attitudes about sales, catalog, or promotion choices, let alone about matters of intellectual property and its propriety.

    I also am perturbed to see more of the self-righteous “authors are abetting the State” tone among some of those questioning copyright / IP. As it happens, I do so more each year, but even with 35 years in the libertarian milieu, it’s taken me at least a decade to comprehend and largely agree with the skepticism about and detailed critiques of IP. That institution has deep roots, both historically and in the misreading of history and political theory. An intellectual Rome of that magnitude (and as riven with crony “capitalism” as the banks) is not overthrown in a comparative day. Neither for an individual’s reasoning nor for a culture of ideas.

    I’d like to know more of what Tucker and Agora Financial actually plan to do. (The Vimeo video doesn’t play back well.) Proclaiming a clean slate in such sweeping terms doesn’t borrow much from, well, what a gentleman would do, to borrow a frequent Tuckerian meme. It’s far better to rely on accomplishments, rather than proclamations.

    • Thank you, Steve, for your comments. It seems to me that what Tucker said about the past of LFB was not very gentlemanly at all. I think it would be hard to justify the “trash-talk,” as you put it, by gentlemanly standards. I hope he has the grace to apologize for his attacks on the old LFB because I think they were beyond uncalled for. He can disagree, that’s fine, but the self-righteous tone you and I note is most certainly NOT the way to get off to a fresh start, much less be gentlemanly.

      I watched the Vimeo video. You’re right. He was kinder to the old LFB there. That would have been a more appropriate tone for the blog. Except that he kind of got his history wrong, which, frankly, turned out to be self-aggrandizing for the “new” LFB. He says–“now” it’ll be a “commercial venture.” While it is true that some of the previous incarnations were nominally under the aegis of “nonprofit” organizations, the store itself was in fact always intended to be profit-making. And then there’s the first few years with John Muller and me till Andrea Millen Rich bought it. Excuse me, but yes, it was in fact a COMMERCIAL venture, 100%. No donations, no back-up organization. Oops. So his implied claim that NOW it’s commercial, wowee, for the first time, just doesn’t work. Then he implies that LFB is going to do something NEW, like publish books. Excuse me, but LFB and its publishing arm Fox Wilkes under Andrea’s leadership, published a whole bunch of books. So even though the video is nicer, there is still an self-aggrandizing tone that grates. Tucker could have made his point about the new and fresh direction without distorting the past. Not very gentlemanly and not the best way to win friends among people who know better. Agora already is looked upon with suspicion by a certain segment of the libertarian movement. This kind of grand-standing isn’t going to help. And they don’t even need to do this. This is not the way to sell books on liberty. You can say “new and fresh” without distorting the past and pumping oneself up at the expense of the old LFB. Over-the-top claims just don’t cut it when you’re trying to sell liberty. Hey, guys, you’re selling intellectual books here, not pimping for financial advisers. Aren’t you?

    • Tucker is not being arrogant at all–he is announcing his plans to do something great with LFB. He acknowledged the role of LFB, praised it and its founders, and its origins. The digital, networked age has changed things, and he plans to resuscitate LFB in a way that works in today’s age. How any fan of LFB–and I am one, I probably bought 500 books from them in the 80s and 90s–or libertarian ideas, could criticize this is beyond me. This is a good thing and Tucker is to be appreciated, admired, and cheered on, not criticized and jumped on, for heaven’s sake.

      And yes, LFB did use state monopoly copyright threats against reprints of the literature of liberty, which is completely unlibertarian and wrong–see http://blog.mises.org/12500/laissez-faire-books-it-turns-out-is-not/#comment-684402

  • Tucker said: “LFB itself never questioned the statist conventions on this topic. In fact, it even went through a period in which its owner worked to send take down notices to sites for posting old books to which it claimed the rights. How well I recall my own disgust! LFB uses the state to stop the spread of libertarian ideas! That’s just incredible.”
    “For now, our website is a legacy disaster, inherited from the previous owner. ”

    This is praise? Sounds like more ” trash-talk” than praise to me. Perhaps you define praise differently than I do. How do you explain these comments, which strike a number of us as uncalled for and unnecessary and inappropriate trashing of the previous owners? And perhaps you overlooked the distortions of LFB’s past history that I enumerated above. I don’t think Tucker did this deliberately, by any means, but his puff piece was a distortion nonetheless.

    You all are free to have a different opinion about the appropriateness of using copyrights but if you’re going to be dogmatic about it and trash those whose views differ , as Tucker has done, you will get criticized. Believing in copyrights is a long-standing tradition within the libertarian community whether you people like it or not. We don’t attack your beliefs; I expect the same courtesy from you. The way to deal with differences is to discuss them in a civil manner, not call others names, which is what Tucker has done.

    As for Kinsella’s remarks: “And yes, LFB did use state monopoly copyright threats against reprints of the literature of liberty, which is completely unlibertarian and wrong”

    The claim that LFB used threats against the Mises Institute is false. I have read the email correspondence between LFB and MI (see report below) and I found nothing that contradicted Peron’s version. I have known Jim Peron for a long time. My differences with him concerning LFB (and I do have them) concerned procedural matters such as the catalog. I have absolutely no reason to doubt his integrity and his honesty. But based on what I have heard from others about MI and its many dogmatic stances, I have somewhat less confidence in them.

    Here’s Peron’s version:
    “It is a full out lie when they claim that LFB sent them “Take-down” notices for books for which the copyright was owned by LFB. They never got such a notice and can’t produce it. What happened was that they were asked if they wanted copies of The Market for Liberty, the rights to which belonged to LFB as the Tannehill’s sold them.

    They didn’t respond. A few months later they reprinted the LFB book. We didn’t say anything about that but sent them an email asking them if they wanted copies of the book as LFB was the owner of it and publishing it. They suddenly feigned that the previous conversation never took place, claimed they had no idea that the rights were owned by anyone and asked about pricing. We sold them 500 copies. Next thing we know they were making accusations that they were legally threatened.

    All such correspondence is still on my computer and they just outright lied about things. No threats were issues, no take-down notices were given (even though we did not agree with their revisionist view on copyrights). BTW: At the same time they were telling us that their new revisionist view of copyrights relieves them of even the decency of telling people whose work they were appropriating, they were publishing their own books with copyright notices in them.”

    As for the claim that those who believe in copyrights are “unlibertarian,” well, just how dogmatic and self-righteous are you willing to be, Kinsella? Many libertarians have and do believe in copyrights, even Lysander Spooner. Wow, I never would have guessed that he wasn’t a libertarian… How dare you tell thousands of us that we aren’t libertarians because we have a different view than you, one we can defend as libertarians. Disagree with us, discuss it with us but don’t call us names and tell us we aren’t “pure” enough. We’ve have enough of that kind of cultish and dogmatic self-righteousness in the libertarian movement already. We don’t need anymore.

    • Spooner was good on many things but he was god-awful on intellectual property, just as were Rand and Galambos. It’s a huge mistake. A statist one. Tucker was right on this. Spooner was out of his gourd. IP is in no wise libertarian. And now that it matters, libertarians are waking up to this.

      It is not cultish to oppose the use of statist aggression.

  • PS I clicked through to the link provided by Kinsella. I saw nothing there to change my mind. It essentially presents the same two sides as we see here. But others should read it and make up their own minds.

    I personally abhor feuds–what a colossal waste of time–but I am also unwilling to see both the old LFB and a considerable chunk of the libertarian movement get trashed by dogmatists. The comments here by Tucker and Kinsella are just really unnecessary. They do nothing to further the cause of liberty (dogmatism never does) and they just further the suspicions that many libertarians have about Agora and the new LFB. Dogmatism will win you few friends, certainly not the ones you want to have. Why, oh why, do you think your comments were necessary, Mr. Tucker? Do you think you are really helping LFB this way?

  • A (hopefully) final thought. I am actually quite thrilled that LFB has continued this long. I never dreamed that it would turn into the veritable institution it has become. Sometimes I think that my activities with it (selecting the books, writing the LFB Review and Catalog, arranging events, and promoting LFB) were my most important contributions to the libertarian cause. I wish the new LFB the best possible. In fact Jeff and I have actually already talked privately, trying to patch up our differences and discussing the future of LFB.

    It’s just that I was disappointed to see such a negative take on the old LFB. After reading the article at the other end of the link Kinsella provided, I realize it was just a reflection of a feud between Tucker and Peron. A petty one IMO.

    But I think of all the heroic efforts that went into keeping LFB alive–the struggles that John Muller (a truly unsung hero) and I had keeping an undercapitalized venture afloat; Andrea Millen Rich’s ability to turn LFB into a really classy bookstore, complete with lectures and book publishing; Anita Anderson’s skillful management, all the other smart and dedicated people in that incarnation, including Roy Childs and Jim Powell; Katherine in Arkansas bravely taking over; ISIL and Jim Peron keeping it going in tough times. Given all these wonderful and dedicated people, Tucker’s commentary just seemed mean-spirited and inappropriate. Not the most auspicious way to start a new venture.

    But now it’s time to move on.