In April of this year, Howard Hendrix <howardvhendrix.com>, then the sitting Vice President of the Science Fiction Writers of America <sfwa.org>, poked a stick into a metaphorical hornet’s nest. In the course of explaining why he had decided not to run for President of sfwa, traditionally a course that many VPs follow, Hendrix let loose with a rant <http://community. livejournal.com/sfwa/10039.html> about publishing on the web. He said he felt estranged from a segment of SFWA members: web enthusiasts who “claim they’re just posting their books for free in an attempt to market and publicize them, but to my mind they’re undercutting those of us who aren’t giving it away for free and are trying to get publishers to pay a better wage for our hard work.” In the course of making his argument, Hendrix used some inflammatory language which he later came to regret. He called these writers “webscabs” and wrote that they were “converting the noble calling of Writer into the life of Pixel-stained Technopeasant Wretch.” Hendrix later issued a less colorful clarification <mediabistro.com/galleycat/web_tech/exclusive_hendrix_clarifies_scabrous_remarks_on_web _publishing_57032.asp> of his thoughts on this matter in which he admitted that the term scab was “incendiary” and “has proven unfortunate.” Still he reiterated “My concern is that, in the long term, as more and more people become schooled to reading off the screen rather than from the printed page, free online whole-book posting may set a precedent of ‘why buy the cow, when you can get the milk for free?’ which in the end will benefit conglomerates rather than authors as a class.”
You will excuse me if I mention my own work here, but I am myself a card-carrying Pixel-stained Technopeasant. I have podcasted two novels and more than a dozen stories. I recently redesigned my website <jimkelly.net> so that, with a single click, you can download PDFs of an array of content including previously published stories from ’Mov’s, back numbers of this column, craft essays on writing, appreciations of various luminaries in our little corner of literature, and a clutch of poems. I’m an advocate of the Creative Commons license. And I’ve been giving my stuff away pretty much since the dawn of author websites.
Let’s pause here for an infodump on Creative Commons <creative commons.org>: Briefly, the Creative Commons license offers a middle ground between an author enforcing the sometimes draconian rules of copyright (You stole my work, swine. Now talk to my lawyers!) and the self-denial of releasing work directly into the public domain (Information deserves to be free and I don’t really need to eat, la, la, la!). Under Creative Commons, I grant permission for anyone to distribute my content for free to anyone they choose as long as they meet three conditions: They must attribute the work to me, they must not alter it, and they can’t charge anyone for it. I continue to reserve the right to cash in on my stuff for myself. End of infodump.
And yetand my fingers quiver over the keyboard as I type thisI wonder if at least some of the points Hendrix was trying to make might warrant further discussion.
But before I utterly sabotage my credibility online and call the fury of the blogosphere down on my head, let’s look at some of what was written in the aftermath of Hendrix’s rant.
The reaction was heated and swift. It should come as no surprise that several of the luminaries who have championed giving fiction away for free should take Hendrix to task in their blogs. Most made the point that they were using their freebies as marketing tools for specific books or as a promotional tool for their overall careers. The always-readable John Scalzi <http://community.livejournal.com/sfwa/11289.html> responded in depth, going through the impressive list of free work available on his site. “The fact is, I got paidwellfor all the writing on that list above. The fact is that other people got paid as well.” David Wellington <brokentype.com/davidwellington/2007/04/message_from_a.html> explained, “I published on-line, for free, to develop a readership.” Michael A. Stackpole <michaelstackpole.com> wrote, “The internet allows authors to provide samples of their work. It allows them to get readers and listeners excited about a story or some characters.”
But perhaps the most delicious retort in the Hendrix affair came from novelist Jo Walton <http://papersky.livejournal.com/318273.html>. “In honour of Dr. Hendrix, I am declaring Monday 23rd April International Pixel-Stained Tech-nopeasant Day. On this day, everyone who wants to should give away professional quality work online.” Writers of all stripes signed on to celebrate IP-STD. For example: Amy Sterling Casil <members.aol.com/asterling/amypage.htm>, William Shunn <shunn.net>, Sheila Finch <sff.net/people/sheila-finch>, Will Shetterly and Emma Bull <shetterly.googlepages.com/home>, Robert Reed <robertreedwriter.com>, Jennifer Pelland <jenniferpelland.com>, Matt Ruff <home.att.net/~storytellers/index.html>, Charles Stross <antipope.org/Charlie>, and Karina Sumner-Smith <karinasumnersmith.com>to name but ten of the over seventy writers who posted short stories, novelettes, novellas, novels, samples of novels, poetry, lyrics, non-fiction, audio, video, art, comics, and clothing. Clothing? <cafepress.com/technopeasant>.
Although I wear my pixel stains proudly, I do wonder about the future of giving fiction away on the web. First of all, let me say that there is no way to stop the practice, nor should there be. I intend to keep doing it myself. In my opinion, writers can ill afford not to have a web presence and I am convinced that offering free stories is essential to creating a website that is worth clicking. And I agree with those who say that we have an unprecedented opportunity to promote our careers by giving content awayfor now. However, one reason why this marketing tactic works for the moment is that there are comparatively few writers doing it. When Cory Doctorow <craphound.com> released Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom <craphound.com/down> for downloading under a Creative Commons license simultaneously with its publication by Tor, he was making copyfight <copyfight.corante.com> history. Since then, Charles Stross has released Accelerando <accelerando.org> and Peter Watts <rifters.com> has released Blindsight <rifters.com/real/Blindsight.htm> as Creative Commons textsand yet they are seen as indulging in risky literary behavior. By all reports, when these folks made e-versions of their books freely available, it actually increased sales of the paper versions. However, will this still remain the case once hundreds of writers adopt this tactic?
If the experience of the authors in the Baen Free Library <baen.com/library> is any indication, the answer would seem to be yes. Begun in 1999 and spearheaded by First Librarian Eric Flint <ericflint.net> and the late Jim Baen <david-drake.com/baen.html>, this bold experiment in electronic publishing would seem to have paid off handsomely for the dozens of writers who have posted their books there, free to download. Like those writers releasing their work under a Creative Commons license, participants in the Baen Free Library have seen their sales go up. Meanwhile, Eric Flint scoffs at the threat of on-line piracy that has given so many other writers pause. “Don’t bother robbing me, twit. I will cheerfully put up the stuff for free myself. Because I am quite confident that any ‘losses’ I sustain will be more than made up for by the expansion in the size of my audience.”
Currently, all of these writers make their money on the paper books that traditional publishers produce, which is how they can afford to give the e-versions away. But what of those writers who don’t have a book contract with Tor <tor-forge.com> or Baen <baen.com>? Some have argued that since readers of e-books have come to expect that they will be free, there will be no way for writers who are trying to publish digital-only versions to charge for their work. The waters here are very muddy, it seems to me. For one thing, e-publishing is still a small slice of the publishing pie chart, and absent the invention of a cheap e-reader that will replace the paper book, is likely to remain so. By the way, the Sony Reader <http://www.learningcenter.sony.us/assets/itpd/reader> is not that invention.
There is a way to monetize purely digital publications. Scott Sigler <scottsigler.net> has parlayed his podcast novels into a publishing phenomenon, with a multi-book contract and a movie deal. In 2005 Scott began podcasting his unpublished novel EarthCore <podiobooks.com/title/earthcore>. It was the world’s first podcast-only novel. Since that time Scott claims that fans have downloaded over three million files of his fiction. And now some of those files include advertising. This would seem to be a promising business model, as long as a writer can deliver eyeballs or eardrums in numbers sufficient to attract advertisers. It may well be that someday you will be reading the latest Connie Willis story courtesy of Microsoft HyperVista 4.0.
you get what you don’t pay for
And just why would you pay for science fiction when you could get it for free? Well, the easy answer is because you want to read the best writers. They tend to tell the most interesting stories, the ones with bold ideas and memorable characters and clever plots. The ones who can make marks on a pageor a screendance in your head. Say you go to some free website where writers who have just obtained their poetic licenses are practicing their craft. You can still have a science fiction experience, but it may not be of the quality you have come to expect here at ’Mov’s. But the thing isand don’t tell Sheila that I told you thisnot every story in this issue is going to be selected for a Year’s Best anthology or get nominated for a Nebula or Hugo or get displayed behind glass at the Science Fiction Museum <sfhomeworld.org>. Some misguided readers might assume that the “average” Asimov’s story is really not all that much stronger than the top story over at Astonishingly Free Science Fantasy Webzine. They would be wrong, of course, but it is not an unreasonable assumption. And therein lies a danger to all flavors of traditional publishing. Allocation of one’s reading time is a zero sum game. Every minute spent reading free fiction is a minute lost to reading fiction that some author got paid for. Yes, there are many, many circumstances in which writers will benefit from giving their stuff away, but in all things, a balance must be struck. It says here that in the turbulent times to come, that balance may be difficult to maintain.
Warning! I’m going to talk about myself some more.
It would be a shame if people dismissed Howard Hendrix on the basis of a few intemperate remarks. He volunteered to serve SFWA and I honor that service. He has opinions worth considering, even if I don’t agree with all of them. But I have a personal data point to offer with regards to the efficacy of giving fiction away on the web. I recently published a novella called Burn with Tachyon Publications <tachyonpublications.com>, a small press that gave me a small press print run. I was able to convince my editor Jacob Weisman to let me podcast the book, a chapter a week for sixteen weeks, beginning right around the pub date. Many, many more thousands listened to Burn than read it. I was astonished when it made the Hugo ballot and got the thrill of my career when it won the Nebula. Would my little book have gotten this kind of recognition had I not given it away for free?
I don’t think so.