Fiction by Paolo Bacigalupi

Navigation Menu

Posted on Apr 20, 2007 in Blog, writing biz | 7 comments

Dr. Hendrix and the Unfortunate Firestorm

In a pair of posts, the current SFWA V.P. has created a firestorm by calling writers who give away their work online “webscabs” a term that he later regretted using and tried to clarify but which has stained the larger themes he was attempting to touch upon.

I actually have a fair amount of sympathy for Dr. Hendrix. Yes, he was rude in the way he couched his concerns and he’s been deservedly pummeled for it, but at root I think he was voicing real concerns and I wish that he had been more effective and less inflammatory when he raised them.

Here’s the major offending quote:

I’m also opposed to the increasing presence in our organization of webscabs, who post their creations on the net for free. A scab is someone who works for less than union wages or on non-union terms; more broadly, a scab is someone who feathers his own nest and advances his own career by undercutting the efforts of his fellow workers to gain better pay and working conditions for all. Webscabs 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.

The biggest argument against this in my mind is that authors and their writing are unique. Even if readers can get all of Cory Doctorow’s books for free, I assume that his writing being downloaded for free doesn’t necessarily set the value of my own digital content at zero. We will attract different audiences and satisfy different urges. Books are not a monoculture, and readers go to the content that satisfies their interests. This is why I think the webscab concept has a flaw.

The reason workers unionize is because on the individual level they are entirely replaceable. Only as a large group do they have bargaining power. I don’t think that’s entirely true in the writing space.

At a guess, free downloads of written content is a far less dangerous threat to the craft and profession of writing than are something like video games which provide powerful immersion and the illusion that the user is actually participating in the storytelling. When I lie awake at night thinking about the demise of writers and the craft of writing, it is video games and movies and ten-thousand on-demand channels of free TV that scare me most.

That said, there are some dynamics about giving away digital content that I find worrisome.

Many new writers feel that proffering online content for free helps drive their offline sales. But the concern may not be so much the technique works now, as that in the future, when we have decent media readers and can comfortably read a book in a digital format, (essentially when the difference between the print and digital experience shrinks to zero), when hardcopy publication disappears, that we may be setting bad precedents.

Currently, free digital content and hardcopy print content are apples to oranges comparisons. The real question is will people buy an authorized copy of an ebook, when they can get it for free from whatever the next version of Kazaa is, or will they have been trained to value digital products at zero because of a long history of authors giving away their online content?

Any book that I download right now doesn’t give me the same satisfaction as having the real physical product so I can be reasonably expected to still crave the print product (or to want to give the print product to a friend for Xmas or whatever), but I expect that technology will solve that problem, much as it’s solving the problem in the music industry.

With music, the result is that I have a lot of music on my computer that I didn’t pay for, and will never pay for, and yet nonetheless enjoy greatly. Would I pay for Britney Spears? Heck no. But she’s still fun to listen to, and I’m not deleting her, either. I’ve got her product, and I haven’t paid her a cent. And she’s not the only one. For video, I just watched every episode of Heroes (which is great, by the way) and didn’t have to watch the commercials or pay for the downloads. Yeehaa! Yeah, I’m an asshole, but that’s what a free-for-all digital landscape provides: an opportunity to act in amoral ways. So far, writers of entertainment have escaped this technology juggernaut, but our time will come.

Right now, when a print copy of a book is still the preferred method for entertainment reading, giving away content online looks like an excellent idea. But when a new generation of readers comes up — ones who don’t romanticize the experience of reading the printed page anymore than I romanticize vinyl lp’s — all of them equipped with digital readers that are lightweight, durable, easy on the eyes and hold zillions of books, and when a printed version of a book is both expensive and difficult to get a hold of (requires shipping or a trip to the bookstore which may or may not stockit), what will they expect to pay for a digital book or short story? Are we essentially, over the long haul, setting the value of a digital book at zero? And if that’s the future medium that we will all eventually be migrating to, is that going to be a problem? I think that this is the question that Dr. Hendrix was really attempting to address. He was saying that he is worried about where we’re all headed, and frightened by the changes which are already here. He didn’t ask for a dialogue and thoughtful discussion about these questions, but I wish he had. They’re worthy questions.

All of that said, in the larger sweep of things, I actually don’t think it matters what we do as writers. Keep it locked down. Give it away. Whatever. Technology is rewriting the way we live; art forms are going to change as a result. Books may just become one of those silly things that can’t be funded in a serious way because it will be impossible to recoup the cost of producing them, much as traveling play groups are few and far between these days but movies have replaced them. The technologies will sweep over us and some of us will adapt and some of us will stop writing.

Maybe someday, we’ll all be scripting adventures for people in a subscription-only videogame multiverse collecting $29.95 a month for our services and we’ll all be rich. Or maybe we’ll be funded for adding product placements to our freely available and wildly popular downloadable stories. Maybe we’ll look back and wonder why the hell we liked books so much anyway.


  1. I haven’t been following the firestorm closely simply due to the fact I’m no where near the point where I could post my work online. But what you say makes a lot of sense. I just wonder how close that book-less future really is, or how far away…

  2. As an avid reader, I’d love to have a portable reader for ebooks. That said, that portable reader of the future will also have to be my laptop, and maybe even my phone. I would expect that the cost of an ebook for my magical future ebook reader will be less than or equal to the cost of a paperback. It has cheaper and easier for a publisher to produce a book in electronic format, right?

    Hey, maybe that will mean that the actual physical books produced will be of higher quality. Wouldn’t it be great if the spine didn’t break on the first read?

    I live in a fantasy world. Lemme be.

  3. Heroes is great, isn’t it?

  4. Yeah, Heroes is pretty fun.

  5. If ebooks and ebook readers become widespread and common and if as Cory Doctorow seems to assume (and you suggest) that there will be less of a market for print books and a tough market for for profit ebooks, I wonder if the problem will not be for the author but rather for the publisher.

    I, as an author (or a hopefully someday I will sell something author) will have the option of trying to market my book myself. Sure, I lose the power of the Publisher and I lose the glory of the Book Advance in a nice lump sum, but as an ebook I do not have to deal with having to earn back an advance. Even at $1 per copy sold (or $.50) I could quite possibly earn a SFF book advance for the average author. The market shifts to authors pushing their work and distributing from the Publisher.

    The trouble, of course, is that there will be so much chaff that finding the wheat may be difficult. If everyone is out there and there are few publishers, how do I find Charles Stross and John Scalzi? Where do I find Naomi Novik? The value of the publisher is pre-identifying works that are superior to the slush pile. I know when I read a book or story via Subterranean that I’m getting a quality work of fiction. As much as Author is always a Brand, some small publishers are Brands in their own right. Tor or Del Rey can be hit and miss, but Golden Gryphon and Subterranean and possibly Pyr…I know I’m getting quality.

    The point to the ramble? The market will shift…we just don’t know how or what the role of the publisher will be.

  6. Joe, I’ve heard this concern voiced before. Publishers, thanks to their manufacturing and (especially) marketing investment in a book are used as a proxy for quality at present. Without the publisher sorting system, unbranded/unknown writers may have a more difficult time gathering steam behind them.

    Then again, with a community of writers, and a del.icio.us or a Digg or Youtube-type ranking system, the problem may be solved. The internet already is developing tools that help guide people to “good” stuff. And I suspect in the future, there will likely be even more methods for creating buzz and attention.

    As you yourself point out, a publisher isn’t automatically a stamp of quality. In fact, their attention to the bottom line may actually prevent them from publishing some works of quality in favor of the next paranormal romance that has a safe and defined market and is eminently profitable.

    Come to think of it, Amazon already creates a set of sorting methods, from its sales ranking system to its “People who bought this also bought” which creates a pathway for affinity that is unmatched by a brick-and-mortar bookstore, or by publisher name-brand recognition.

  7. I just wanted to point out that although lots of us download music, videos, and software for free – however, these things have never been free (Heroes is a great show, isn’t it? That said, no one’s offering it for free!)

    They have always cost money, some a lot more than others- their current ‘free’ availability is really the issue of piracy. Even if writers were to guard the distribution of their books jealously, it would not stop ebook piracy when we reach that stage. I would argue it doesn’t have anything to do with the association of the reader with the price point of the product.

    Similarly, you and I both know that tv shows like Heroes aren’t really free, but cost a lot of money to license (hence, here in Singapore, we lag half a season behind). Lots of people use illegal copies of Adobe Photoshop- this doesn’t mean they think it’s free- of course we all know it costs $400 a copy.

    What I think overcomes the problem of piracy is the ability to generate ‘real fandom’. Real fans buy the genuine stuff. They buy the limited edition CDs and DVDs, the concert tickets, the signed hard copies. People like John Scalzi and Neil Gaiman do this amazingly well. This is one approach that works and pays off. For it to work though, you must first create exposure, so you can hook your fans. Isn’t that how it always is? We’re just extending this exposure online.

    I’m crazy about the works of a few writers myself, and in all the cases, I was first introduced for ‘free’ or minimal cost at the local library or rental bookstore. It wasn’t till I started working that I could afford the beautifully bound hard covers that I ordered through Amazon. It takes years to make a fan. For writers who haven’t the luck to have affordable paperbacks mass distributed, or to pollinate libraries, they need another way to create exposure- and the creative commons license provides that.

    But casual fans will always go for free downloads, and in numbers, they beat non-casual fans 9 to 1. It’s a piracy issue. Firstly, people have to first value intellectual property and the effort that went into the product, and secondly, the product has to be priced low enough and easily accessible (itunes does a good job with price point but not in convenience).


  1. Charles Stross, John Scalzi, and me on giving stuff away for free at Tobias Buckell Online - [...] You can see Paolo Bacigalupi wondering aloud about the negatives as well here. [...]