18 April 2007

When the revolution comes

Through Dichroic, I've learned of International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day.

The creation of this event was inspired by a statement by Dr. Howard V. Hendrix of the Science fiction and Fantasy Writers Association (described by him as a rant and linked from papersky's journal), and reading it is good for a boggle. It's one thing to prefer not to blog, visit forums, or otherwise express yourself online. Plenty of people don't want to do that, for a variety of good reasons which I can respect. Pushing back against that which one 'perceives to be destructive to their ways of life and their beliefs,' as he claims to be doing, is the right of the individual.

I am not in the least convinced, however, that characterising people who post their work free on the internet as 'webscabs' is fair or reasonable, or indeed even an accurate use of the word scab. I understand 'scab' to mean a strikebreaker, not someone who gives away what others sell. The American Heritage Dictionary backs up that understanding. A glance at the SWFA website does not suggest to me that the organisation considers itself a union, so even if Hendrix's remarks were aimed solely at SWFA members who post some work online, it's still inaccurate. Nevertheless the remarks about online posting seem to be directed, or at least apply, more broadly.

I can characterise myself as a professional writer, though I don't get a byline in the Federal Register when something I wrote is printed there. (Nor do I want one. I take pride in my work but the hassle of the public contacting me directly about a piece of rulemaking would be abysmal). I've even been paid for an individual piece of writing, my contribution to the Oxford DNB. Wasn't that much money -- about 70 quid for about 1000 words, if I remember right -- but I was paid for it.

Most academic writing -- journal articles and contributions to works like the DNB -- isn't paid. Print runs of scholarly books tend to be approximately 500 copies or less, so they're not money-makers either. Textbooks are the exception. It was a delightful surprise to be paid for my contribution to the DNB. So I'm not unsympathetic to the idea that making a living by wordsmithing is a precarious business, nor will I argue that people who write can and should be paid for their writing, if they choose to sell it (and if people are willing to pay for it, which is another matter). What I am not convinced of is that it undercuts those who do try to sell their work if I choose to give some of my own for free, or that your right to sell your work negates my right to give mine away.

I'm not even convinced that giving some of my own available for free would necessarily hurt my sales, were I trying to sell books. Consider the example of Stephanie Pearl-McPhee (the Yarn Harlot; link to her blog over in the blogrolls). Do bazillions of people visit her blog daily? Yes. Does she have the least trouble selling books? No. Her blog is like a never-ending book tour. Even if she didn't enjoy blogging (though I suspect she does), it's a useful marketing tool for the writing she does sell. And, since she blogs about other knitting writers she knows, she probably encourages her readers to buy their books too.

Neil Gaiman blogs. He doesn't seem to have any trouble selling books either.

Giving a little bit away probably actually helps sales in the long run. Grocery stores know this (The local Whole Foods often has someone with an electric skillet offering tidbits of something). Online gaming companies know this (I've tried out several RPGs via '10-day free trial' or open beta). Pharmaceutical companies know this. Even drug dealers of the illicit sort know this (first one's free ...). Give people a sample, let them see if they like it, and the ones who do will pony up the cash.

Continuing to reflect on Dr Hendrix's rant, I think I'm also somewhat ruffled by the undertone (overtone?) of 'I don't like this, so no one should do it.' If you would rather chop wood than blog, that is your prerogative. So too is it your choice to sell your novels or screenplays and try to earn a living thereby. But how dare you tell me what I should do with my time and my writings? This is my intellectual property, and if I want to post it on a blog, or, for that matter, hire a skywriter to write it in the air over Chicago, that is my decision, not yours.

May I also point out the linguistic irony of first calling people who give away their writing 'webscabs' (language drawn from the terminology of labour unions, and a rich shade of pink if not actually communist red) and then labelling them as 'technopeasant wretches'? Technopeasant wretches? How ... bourgeois. How very, very bourgeois.

I will find a way to participate in the festivities next Monday; I'm not sure how yet, but I will come up with something. Let the ruling classes tremble at the revolution. The pixel-stained proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. Technopeasants of all countries, unite!

1 comment:

  1. The other point several writers have made is that there is such a thing as work that readers get for free, but that writers are paid for, e.g. stories in Strange Horizons.


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