*Two blasts from the past posts in a week? Well, yes, I have guest posts, but as you know I hate posting those late, and yesterday was a day of getting nibbled to death by ducks. Tons of little things, none of them important, all of them eating my time. And this morning I woke up late, partly because allergies have my nose completely stopped. So forgive me. About the post below, now more than 4 years old, let me assure you that ALL IS PROCEEDING AS I’D FORESEEN.*
Set My Bytes Free – A blast from the past post of August 2011
A realistic guide to new publishing economics for the Idealistic, the Angry and the Fearful.
In one of my articles on another site, in response to comments about teens not reading (which made any teen reading it justifiably indignant) a – from spelling and word markings – very young woman yelled back that they read all the time, they just do not buy the books. They get them from torrents and friends because “information wants to be free.” She also informed us, in no uncertain – if clearly thumb typed – terms that this was the way of the future, and if we don’t like it, deal with it.
This of course, feeds directly into the fears of the majority of my friends and contemporaries, roughly described as between thirty and sixty.
And both the innocent young lady and my contemporaries are wrong.
Let’s start from the top – this is not a post seeking to prove the concept that information or data “wants” to be free. (Though the animist, not so say personifying statement makes me cringe a little.)
I believe any raw data, and to an extent data collected with governmental money and support, (with caveats on that*), should be “free” to access. This is not out of any deep redistributionist impulse but as a qualification of informed citizenry. For instance, if you hear that during superbowl most assaults by men on women occur, you should be able to trace that factoid and prove it or disprove it. (You’ll disprove it. Or at least you’ll prove it can’t be proven. Try it if you don’t believe me. Yes, tons of people say it, but the statistics don’t back it up. At any rate, it’s flawed psychology. If you believe that, you also believe every teen playing first person shooter games is a murderer waiting to happen. That is something like 90% of teens. [rolls eyes.])
However most books aren’t raw data. And I’m not setting out to prove it wouldn’t be “fair” to not pay for them because “blah blah blah.” Neither the idealistic young, nor the scared old pay the least bit of attention to those bromides, nor should they. “Fair” is a beautiful word and works great in kindergarten where the teacher can enforce the distribution of crackers. And appealing to people’s morality is always risky. Most of them might not have any. And some of it might be different from yours.
Instead, what I’m setting out to do is explain both to the idealistic and the fearful why this model cannot and will not apply to either fiction or researched-non-fiction books. Or if it does apply, it will be for a vanishingly brief time and then collapse under its own weight, and something else will succeed it. Because what this “system” is happens to be economic Marxism by another name. And Marxism, whether called that or “happiness” or “social justice” has never worked as an economic system anywhere, since the dawn of time to now.
I know, I know. Look, I was young once, too. Yes, I know it’s hard to believe, but I’ve got the pictures to prove it. And though I was always reflexively, knee-jerkingly anti-communist, I grew up in a society even more steeped in Marxist principles than ours, from the elementary school room on. And I thought that “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” was a lovely principle. And then I stumbled across the essential question “Who shaves the barber?” and was floored. Because the question that principle begs is “who decides?” Back then I was a teen, and I ran my nearest and dearest, the people who purported to know me best, through my mind. Who would I trust to decide what I could “give” and what I should “take” – my mom, the woman with whom I had knock down, drag out fights on the subject of what shoes I should buy? And how much housecleaning I could do while attending school? My brother, the sixties idealist who thought I could write great literature by the time I was sixteen? And who thought everyone should subsist on love and a crust of bread? My dad, the poet, who had the vague idea I should write whether anyone bought it or not and perhaps live in a garret and talk to the sparrows or something? (Eating them would be out of the question. Dad likes sparrows. And not on his plate.)
The absurdity of trusting even these people, more likely to have my best interests at heart than any bureaucrat could, to decide for me what I wanted and could do made the entire thing a ridiculous notion. I decided it would be a great system if we could get angels who could see into every heart to come and administer it for us. Until then we had to make do with what each individual knew he wanted, and what he knew he could give. And it was all arranged through this wonderful means of exchange – money – which seems to appear in every society large and complex enough to require it. With money as a reward of effort (not of want, because as the wise man said “you can’t always get what you want) and ability, the person being rewarded (or in the case of midlisters trust me, children, punished) with it can then provide for his or her own wants and needs. It’s not a perfect system – see the part where we’re not angels – but it is the best we can get. And now that I’m older and wiser, if an angel descended from heaven, who could look into every heart, determine everyone’s wants and needs, and undertake to govern us, the shield for minds and hearts and the assassination plot couldn’t come fast enough for my taste.
Now, after this digression to explain what’s wrong with the system, lets look at the whole information versus novels or investigative journalism bit, shall we?
I realize that what we’ll call for lack of a better term creative writing, like raw data, is composed of words, and that it can even convey factual information, as well as emotions, feelings and point of view. This doesn’t make it raw information.
I can give you most of the raw information about the novel currently holding me prisoner in one paragraph. “Man who has been confined for fifteen years to one of the most high tech and unbreakable dungeons humanity has created, escapes. He finds he’s the heir to one of the highest-power positions in his world. He also becomes convinced that the system under which his world is governed is both unfair, unjust and ultimately counterproductive at providing for most people’s needs, let alone wants. Spurred on by the fact a lot of his co-rulers want him dead, he finds himself getting involved in the coils of a revolution to overturn the system.” There. Now you don’t need to read the book, right? Oh, wait, silly me. I forgot a little bit. “There is also a love interest.” So, now you don’t need to read the book, right?
Oh, you do? But why? You already have the information.
The answer to that, of course, is that creative writing is not information. While it uses words as its raw material, its objective is not to convey “what happens” but to make you experience it, feel it. Well done novels (and some creative non-fiction) are the only way you can experience being someone else for a while. It is in fact an “entertainment experience.” The difference between te raw data that goes into the novel and what the author does with it, is the equivalent of reading the lyrics of a song, or hearing it performed by a talented singer.
“But, Oh Sarah,” say the most classically minded of my frightened colleagues, “what you define writing as doesn’t matter. These children think they can get it for free. They’ll steal it. They’ll break our DRM. They’ll read our books without permission and we’ll starve in the gutter and dogs will eat us.”
To which I say, take deep breaths, reconsider DRM and think the situation over.
DRM is at best an irritating barrier, and at worst an annoying one. No DRM will keep your books safe. So, ignore DRM. I don’t believe in it, and it’s never applied to anything of mine by my request. Some of my publishers insist on it, and I let them because there isn’t enough time in the world to talk everyone out of it.
It is not DRM that will keep your livelihood safe. It’s your talent and – yes – your craft. Why? Because no one has ever worked for free, while starving to death, with no expectation of ever being paid and created good crafts or art. Even those romantic artists of my dad’s imagination, starving their garrets for the love of creation, weren’t doing it without the expectation of ever being paid.
We do have examples of artists who were paid what their betters thought they should be (usually not much, unless you kissed the right #sses) and trust me, children, it is painful to see.
As part of one of my native country’s forays into socialist correctness, our TV played eastern European movies. A lot. Let’s say the only time they worked as entertainment was when my brother and I sat together and made a running commentary about the movie, ascribing the characters and events the most outrageous motivations.
And mind you, these artists were being sort of paid – with greater access to the stores, or with villas in the country, or… But the thing is they weren’t being paid to produce entertainment. They were paid to produce “messages” and it didn’t matter how painfully bad those were as entertainment. They got “paid” per message.
How does that correlate with working for free? And – say my colleagues, pulling their hair – how can you say that when you work for free? Like, all your Austen fanfic?
To which I say stop pulling your hair. Half of you are already bald anyway. Also, yeah, I do Austen fanfic for free. I also embroider for free. And I make stuffed animals for free and, occasionally – I don’t have as much time as I’d like to, these days – I draw or paint for free. However, the Austen fanfic, when done for free, is done at the same level as drawing or painting. It’s done as an amusement. Before Naked Reader Press published A Touch of Night, which was the most professional of my fanfics, they had to do extensive editing and chapters and clarifications had to be added.
Let’s just say I enjoy the heck out of writing fanfic because it is NOT my best work, it comes without the pressures of oh… self editing; fact checking; making sense… etc. It’s also highly targeted and I cater irrepressibly to the people who read that site. I use fanfic, in fact, to try out techniques and because of the ready comments, to see how they play to “normal” people defined as “people who don’t write for a living.”
It is no more serious than a professional seamstress doing cross stitch in her spare time. And the work is not the same as that of a professional embroiderer. It’s relaxing because it’s not being done for a living. And I can do it because I make a living elsewhere.
And here comes the rub. The idealists believe it is possible to have a “right” to other people’s labor because they’re by and large not supporting themselves. Their livelihood comes from elsewhere, in large measure parents or other arrangements. So it’s perfectly plausible to them to imagine a world in which “people just work if they want to.”
Of course, when you’re a college student you do a lot of that on the side, because you want to. But let me tell you, as someone who has had to work for a living (besides writing) that while many of my friends manage it they do it for extra money on the side and in the hope of one day quitting and writing full time. There is no one who writes forever, on the side, with no expectation of reward. EVER. And no status is not enough, not when you grow up and have kids and start thinking that this time could be better employed, perhaps, doing something you could sell.
Yes, I’ve heard the utopian nonsense about a society that provides the basics for everyone and where people can work or not. Even if it were possible – it’s not. These are dreams of academics and white collar workers who’ve never been near enough to a farm to get cow muck on their toes. Yes, I can explain it one of these days, but not now – this society would last maybe a generation. We are not angels. We’re creatures designed by evolution. To a vast – and possibly sanest – majority of us “basic needs provided for” translates to “do nothing, wallow in your own favorite vices, get bored as heck, get suicidal.” At the very least it translates to no reproduction. Those people that survive will not be the contented aesthetes people who write about this tend to imagine, but nasty, brutish and short lived. And barbarism will come shortly after.
Yes, I’ve also heard “So writers stop writing. Big deal. We still have nineteen centuries of literature.” Right…. Look, chilluns, if you think you can pleasurably read anything pre-Shakespeare, power to you. I can, but I was trained. (Not for free.) And even I don’t do it for a lark.
If you think you can read nineteenth century fiction for fun the same way you read the latest Urban Fantasy, you’re either highly unusual or you haven’t read much of that.
Science fiction ages, of course. Quickly and badly. Heinlein is now alternate history (and others, more recent, are worse.) But – you might not realize this – fantasy ages just as badly. No, seriously. A lot of it (granted not all) is near unreadable now, because the language feels “stilted” and this is less than 30 years old. Mystery? Well… A lot of it has also aged badly. I know, I know, but mystery when contemporary is steeped in the moment. Even to me references to phone booths, let alone phone books, and encyclopedias, feel odd and stilted, and I have to put myself in an “historical” frame of mind to read that. Only it’s not written as historical, with support and cluing of the anachronisms, so it’s harder work. Romance? Well… Let’s put it this way: I love Heyer. Do I love other romance writers from her day? Children, I can’t even read romance writers from the sixties, for the greatest part. The way people interacted in the sixties taints even the historical stuff. And since I spent the sixties learning to walk and getting potty trained and, at the very end of it, learning to read and write, it also feels stilted and weird to me. And much as I love Austen, I can’t stand the Brontes, let alone any of their lesser contemporaries. I’m not alone in this. If I were, Gutenberg would be a SERIOUS challenge to Amazon. Particularly in these days of tight funds. (And heck, I’ve been known to buy books on Amazon that I KNOW are on Gutenberg, because they’re better formatted or have an active index on Amazon.)
So, let’s suppose the idealists managed to make all “data” to include artistic performances, such as novels, “free” – what then? Well, I predict within a very short time – probably within a year – some writer a lot of people want to read and who has stopped writing to work as a cashier in the local store, will be accosted and offered money to finish the next book in a well loved series. And then the old system will be back.
So, to the frightened I say, Stop pulling your hair! Wipe your nose! Wash your hands before you touch that keyboard. And don’t be afraid. Economics is a natural system (natural to humans, at least) and can’t be abolished by fiat. If you have something worth the selling, people will pay your for it. There might be some lean months or years, but eventually you’ll get paid. Will the pay be commensurate with your effort, craftsmanship and talent? Who knows? There’s a factor of luck in all this. But at least you can try and don’t have some know-it-all angel (or – shudder – bureaucrat) dictating what you can do, and how much you can get.
To the idealist I say, go ahead. Pirate that book. Steal that entertainment. You’re young. We were all young once. (Except my older son, who was born at the age of fifty three.) And you’re broke. We were all broke once. (Some of us have been broke for years. We’re EXPERTS.) And you really don’t have a clue what it’s like to be responsible for your own survival, your own comfort. Worse, you don’t have a clue what it’s like to be responsible for the survival and comfort of creatures – cats, kids, dogs, etc – wholly dependent on you.
So steal those books. Get hooked on them, now when you have tons of time to read. Please do. Because in five or six years, you’re going to want more. And then you’re going to realize you’re not entitled to having someone work for you for free. That’s called slavery and it’s illegal. And you’re going to realize that no one does their best work for promises and prestige.
And then you’ll buy the books.
* Note – The caveat on any data gathered by government programs being free is that some of that data can endanger innocent lives and also that (for continuing research) other data can rob the people who gathered it of their reward. Suppose scientists have been working for years, tracking a gene that allows humans to be far smarter. If all data is published as collected, then someone else can come in at the last minute and scoop them, rendering all their work useless. Why would anyone – government or not – pay for research only to be “scooped” at the last minute. The same caveat applies to proprietary systems and discoveries. If people won’t be rewarded for them, everyone will lose because this type of research just won’t happen. Sorry. “All data should be free” is a fantasy. A pernicious one that – in the end – means “wha, wha wha, why can’t I have a right to other people’s work?”