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.