Saturday, March 19, 2011

It worked for Michelangelo ...

Two and a half recent events have me thinking about my career as a writer and the writing industry in general. This is not completely new territory for me, if you check my archives you'll find one or two previous forays, but I've been wandering a bit farther afield of late.

The first full event was a long and at times impassioned series of conversations with a person I respect who strongly supports internet underground organizations like Wikileaks and Anonymous. (Being of my generation, he lacks the cyber savvy or networking feng shui to be part of either; it was an essentially intellectual debate.) Our differences were not so much political as they were philosophical: what is information and who has the right to control it. His view – which is widespread across the internet and gaining traction in more spheres than I'd like to think – is that any datum is essentially a found object. Information has no owner and should be universally available without cost. At the crux is what form that information takes.

There was an earthquake in Japan. That's a fact that should not cost you anything to know. But what about an analysis of the effects of that earthquake on a major Japanese nuclear facility and the potential for radioactive repercussions? Or a series of articles describing the selfless acts and heroic rescues as ordinary folks united to save each other in the face the natural disaster, complete with extensive interviews of the people involved? Or – looking a few months and years into the future – a novel or movie about one family's survival? Or a whodunit in which a murderer uses the opportunity of the tsunami to cover her crime? Or a science fiction story about a giant fire-breathing lizard spawned from the ocean by the uncontrolled radiation terrorizing Tokyo? (Wait, I think that last one's been done.) In the mind of my friend: free, free, free, free, and free.

Not surprisingly, he's among the millions who applaud efforts to have all books – even currently copyrighted books – transcribed to the internet so everyone can have free access. Printed material should no longer be available only to those with the excess income to invest in paper products that are going to end up in a landfill anyway. He, like many people, is convinced 90% of a book's cover price is corporate profit. (He cited remainders tables as proof publishers can make money selling books for $1 each.)

He did concede that in the examples from Japan above the reporter who may have risked her life to interview the survivors and – to a lesser extent – the writer who converted the raw data presented by scientists and engineers into prose the general public could understand had performed services for which they should be paid. He was less sure about the fiction writing (like most nonwriters, he perceives the process of creating fiction to be a combination of lucid dreaming and automatic writing requiring little actual effort). When I pointed out I write fiction, he responded: "Yeah, but you have a job." In his mind the latter covered any expenses of the former.

The second full event was getting word that a story I'd sold would be printed. This was a write-for-hire project; a 10k magical mystery tale for an anthology of short fiction linked to a role-playing game. I wrote the story three years ago and been paid for it over two years ago, but due to legal and fiscal issues involving the game and its developers, the anthology had been scrapped. That the project had been resurrected, and that the story might actually see print in time for the con season this summer, came as a surprise.

The half event was a brainstorm (more like a brain partly cloudy) I had watching a Bud Lite commercial that spoofed product placement. I noticed the ad ends with a graphic that said "Enjoy responsibly." US law requires ads for alcoholic beverages to promote moderation, and the industry buzzword for "don't get stupid when you're drunk" is "responsibly." Every commercial ends with some variation of "please drink responsibly" whether as part of the voiceover or in text large enough to read. I proposed to my son that we start a microbrewery named "Responsibly." That way every other beer and spirits producer advertising in the USofA would end their commercials by advising people to drink our product. (He's out eagerly seeking investors even as I type. I'll feign surprised disappointment when he discovers you can't trademark a word in common usage.)

So what does this have to do with my career and – of more interest to most of you – writing in general? I am coming to suspect that my decision to step away from media tie-in writing for hire and go all original may be contrary to both my best interests as a writer and market trends in general.

Last year Scott Adams wrote a column envisioning a future in which writers published their stories on the web free of charge, but with a PayPal button so readers who liked their work could make donations. Income would be dependent on popularity and quality (as well as self-promotion skills) would determined who survived or failed as a writer. There's a lot wrong with that model. More plausible to me is the idea that when the all-writing-must-be-free philosophy matures from radical movement to accepted cornerstone of our culture (Remember when drinking trendy bottles of water was an affectation of the rich and fatuous?), fiction writing will become almost exclusively write-for-hire. People will always want entertainment, ways to escape their lives or explore others. Though critics may bemoan trends and quasi-reality formats blur the boundaries of truth and encroach on fiction's domain, novels and short stories will never go away. However they will become free to the public as the purpose of publishing fiction changes.

From a business perspective one can expect tales that promote the mystique of upscale products (a dashing romantic lead, captain of a racing yacht who's able to win the race and rescue the maiden thanks to the uncanny accuracy of his Tag Heuer) or more mundane attributes of everyday items (the hard-working single mom who loses custody of her daughter when wrongly accused of a crime is able to bring the wrongdoer to justice and regain her child through the clever, but safe, use of a variety of Johnson & Johnson products).

More insidious – and perhaps more likely – will be the political agendas. More subtle than Thomas Dixon and Ayn Rand, the new breed of political tie-in writers would present ideology covertly; as fundamental givens of a culture and guiding principles that allow the protagonists to overcome. Will this affect the quality of fiction? Probably not. Don Quixote, Gulliver's Travels, Fahrenheit 451, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – there are hundreds of excellent works written to promote values and beliefs.

In centuries past artists of all stripes were supported not by sale of their works, but by patrons. Patrons who paid not for art, but for the way supporting the arts enhanced their reputations. I suspect that in the near future fiction writing will be circling back to its roots.


Charles Gramlich said...

It's just hard to imagine anyone of high intelligence actually thinking the "all writing should be free" idea is a reasonable approach. material that is produced through the work of one's mind and body needs to be paid for so that there is incentive to work at all. If all writing should be free, then all food should be free. Who cares how much work the farmer puts in growing it? All furniture should be free. All houses should be free. All automobiles should be free. No doctor should charge for their services. No lawyer should charge. I mean, it's just, frankly, a ridiculously idiotic idea.

KeVin K. said...

It stems from the idea that writing does not involve actual work. It's closely related to the idea many people have that the only reason they haven't written a bestselling novel is they don't have the time.

Liane Spicer said...

networking feng shui - love that!

[Wrote my response before reading Charles's. He said what I mean far more concisely and politely. I'll post mine anyway.]

You've really pushed my buttons this morning. Take a look at the smoke billowing from my ears right now. I'll decline to say what I think of your friend, but will venture that intellectual debate is far too often inimical to common sense. The traditional publishing model sucks and cannot be sustained, but stealing people's hard work is not the solution.

Information has never been free: you pay for the media to access it, whether it's paper or a digital screen. You pay an IP provider to access the 'net. Advertising dollars pay for much of the content we view as 'free'. The advertising cost is built into the prices we pay for products. Not free! As for the journalism, novels, screenplays and movies: all people's intellectual property, or people's WORK. No one argues that tomatoes or paintings should be free. Why should the hard work of writers be free? If I venture onto the farmer's field and steal his tomatoes, that's theft and I'd be jailed for it; I walk into a gallery and help myself to a painting or two, same thing. Walk out of a bookstore with the latest Stephen King under my arm: ditto. How is violating my copyright and posting my novel on the 'net any different? (FYI, I had to go back and delete the profanity between 'how' and 'is'.)

"Not surprisingly, he's among the millions who applaud efforts to have all books – even currently copyrighted books – transcribed to...": Writers are taking too much sitting down, starting with the Google Books madness. NOTHING should be required of me to safeguard my books from Google - except litigation if I want to go that way. As far as I'm concerned, the associations representing writers in this matter have SOLD OUT and do not represent writers' best interests.

"Printed material should no longer be available only to those with the excess income to invest in paper products...": Food shouldn't be available only to those who can afford to go to the supermarket either, but that doesn't give me the right to steal those tomatoes from the field and drive around poor neighbourhoods handing them out.

"...but with a PayPal button so readers who liked their work could make donations...": Just because we can read books on a screen doesn't change the fact that they are commodities. The only way I'd support this is if I could consume commodities across the spectrum (food, shoes, makeup, perfume, hairdressing services) and when they're good and done, pay if I liked them.

To get back to your central issue: I'm seeing that bird in the hand thing at work here. Writing original fiction is a crap-shoot. If you can do both then fine. Giving up the work that you've been selling consistently for years doesn't sound like the best decision to me in the current climate.

Shauna Roberts said...

I wrote a comment about as long as Liane's but Google ate it.

To summarize, I enjoyed your post and agree with with Charles and Liane. I wrote a lot on the patronage system and how it might be implemented in modern America. Maybe I'll come back later and try to recreate it.