In the first installment of this series, I promised to lend my keen insight to a comparison between the old print publishing business and the new online publishing business. What qualifies me to perform this service? Well, I have limited experience in the traditional publishing industry, having garnered forty-two rejections on five short stories over a two year period, and I have a blog that’s all of two months old.
Who could possibly be more qualified to pontificate on the subject?
(Do rejected stories count towards publishing industry experience? Or is that just editorial experience? In either case, don’t worry, you will receive the benefit of my wisdom.)
Also as promised last time, and potentially of more interest, I’ll share the sad tale of hopes and dreams denied in the form of the rejection history of one of my stories. When I say “of interest,” I’m imagining more of the gruesome can’t-look-away-from-a-car-wreck kind of interest. (Don’t judge me for hosting the car wreck, rubbernecker. You’re the one gawking.)
My experience has been in science fiction and some of my comments will relate to that field, but I think they apply generally also. Aside from the obvious difference of physical printing and distribution of paper vs. transmission of transient bits to an electronic display, I think the main difference between old and new publishing comes down to filtering and payment.
Money, money, money, money
Not surprisingly, payment seems to be a big concern for people. How do creative people get paid when their work can be easily copied for free? So many imaginative people think about this and it’s odd that they can’t envision any other system than what we have now. The people making the money now want to continue making the same amount of money and maybe even more thanks to added control over the product of their work. Many people who are currently making no money want to preserve the system that gives them a chance–no matter how small–of making money. (I also get the sense that a lot of amateurs support the current system and onerous new control schemes because they like to daydream about the chance of hitting the intellectual property jackpot.)
There will be ways of making money. Maybe not millions for a select few authors, but I’ll be able to sleep at night if the most talented writers are able to simply make a good living instead of a fortune. Before moving on to my own inchoate thoughts, here’s something I ran across recently that gets at some of the key points of this move from old to new:
How inappropriate the concept of copyright is to computer communications becomes evident as we examine how the law has to squirm to deal with the simplest problems…. the process of computer communication entails processing of texts that are partly controlled by people and partly automatic. They are happening all over the system. Some of the text is never visible but is only stored electronically: Some is flashed briefly on a terminal display; some is printed out in hard copy….
The receivers may be individuals and clearly identified, or they may be passers-by with access but whose access is never recorded; the passer-by may only look, as a reader browsing through a book, or he may make an automatic copy; sometimes the program will record that, sometimes it will not. To try to apply the concept of copyright to all these stages and actors would require a most elaborate set of regulations. It has none of the simplicity of checking what copies rolled off a printing press….
One would like to compensate an author if a computer terminal is used as a printing press to run off numerous copies of a valuable text. One would not like to impose any control as someone works at a terminal in the role of a reader and checks back and forth through various files. The boundary, however, is impossible to draw. In the new technology of interactive computing, the reader, the writer, the bookseller, and the printer have become one. In the old technology of printing, one could have a right to free press for the reader and the writer but try to enforce copyright on the printer and the bookseller. That distinction will no longer work, anymore than it would ever have worked in the past on conversation. Those whose livelihood is at stake in copyright do not like that kind of comment.
They contend that creative work must be compensated. Indeed it must…. But the system must be practical to work…. in an era of infinitely varied, automated text manipulation there is no reasonable way to count copies and charge royalties on them…. It may be very unfair to authors. It may have a profoundly negative effect on some aspects of culture, and in any case, whether positive or negative, it may change things considerably.
If it becomes more difficult for authors and artists to be paid by a royalty scheme, more of them will seek salaried bases from which to work. Some may try to get paid by personal appearances or other auxiliaries to fame. Or the highly illustrated, well-bound book may acquire a special significance if the mere words of the text are hard to protect. Or one may try to sell subscriptions to a continuing service….
These are the kinds of considerations one must think about in speculating about the consequences for culture of a world where the royalty-carrying unit copy is no longer easy to protect in many of the domains where it has been dominant…. it is clear that with photocopiers and computers, copyright is an anachronism. Like many other unenforceable laws that we keep on the statute books from the past, this one may be with us for some time to come, but with less and less effect.
–Ithiel de Sola Pool, from Technologies Without Boundaries: On Telecommunications in a Global Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990), 254–59.
As quoted by Julio Cole at http://www.monografias.com/trabajos28/controversy-absence-copyright/controversy-absence-copyright.shtml.
The effect may seem negative, especially to those who lose their lofty positions and status, but overall I think it will be an overwhelmingly positive thing when we have culture that is free.
Further random musings below…
Filtering: There is a lot of crap out there. Traditionally we’ve had pre-publication filtering. Some wretch of an editor has the thankless job of combing through the slush pile, looking for something worthwhile to print. Or at least something that will help him or her sell magazines or books. With all the expense of the publication process, editors have incentive to find good writing. We benefit from their work in the form of the many good books that make it through the editorial/publishing process.
Payment: As mentioned, everyone cares about the money. Traditionally, the writer’s product didn’t get in front of the reader until it was paid for. The writer got paid (not very much, usually) because some editor decided to take a chance on their work and cut them a check. The author continues to receive royalties if the book continues to sell. When books and magazines came to us in paper form, there wasn’t really a reason to object to the copyright monopoly. Why should some other publisher get to print the books and make the money? As long as it had to be distributed as a physical object that had marginal costs associated with it, it made sense for one publisher to enjoy the monopoly to safeguard their investment.
Benefits: (To both the writer and to us readers.) I think one benefit of this process to the writer is that it makes them a better writer. You have to improve if you’re going to get out of the slush pile. You also benefit by improving your work before many people see it. We all form opinions, usually quickly and harshly, and if we see some so-so work from a writer we may be disinclined to give them another try later. Traditionally, and hopefully, by the time a writer breaks through and becomes published, they have benefited from years of work at their craft. They also benefit from all the editing, of course. The benefit to readers is that the process discourages many bad writers and filters out a lot of the junk, leaving us with only the best work (theoretically).
Drawbacks: The old way doesn’t always leave us with the best work. We know that crap still gets through, and we know that good stuff is sometimes missed or stifled, maybe because it didn’t fit in to a niche. We may just get more of what has a good chance of selling, which isn’t always the best.
Everything changes. And stays the same. We can’t hold on to the past just because some people think it was better. The only question to me is how long the established copyright interests will be able to hold us back with DRM and other nonsense.
Filtering: No pre-publication filtering. Any idiot with a web browser and a connection to the Internet can publish their self-serving and incoherent trash. (I just did, didn’t I?) I much prefer this model, even though now we’ve just created the biggest slush pile ever and it will continue to grow, forever. There will be ways to find the good stuff. (You found this web site, didn’t you? :-)
Wouldn’t you rather have a system where everyone gets to have their say? (Except those abominable spammers. They need to be publicly and painfully punished. I watched the beginning of Pirates of the Caribbean this weekend and the idea of hanging their skeletons as a warning to others seems like a good start.) It’s not to say that everyone should be heard. That’s what the filters are for.
Payment: Well now, this is the big question, isn’t it? How are we going to make money in this new world where information can be copied perfectly at no cost? That’s one of the big questions to be answered and one of the things I’m trying to do on this site. For now I’ll sidestep it because this post is growing way too long as it is. There’ll be ways for people to make money if their work is good. I don’t think it will be necessary to have harsh control mechanisms. There will be (sooner or later) fundamental shifts in how things work. I’m not concerned about the ways this will turn everything around and who the winners and losers will be. We’ll all be better off in a free society.
I guess I can mention one model. If you’re a new writer (or musician or other kind of artist), you’re a nobody. You just want someone reading your stuff, even if for free. For the SF magazines, you might make one to three cents per word, if you’re lucky. A salable length for a newbie is generally about four thousand words, so you might make about $100 on that big sale. With the number of markets and other writers out there, it’s going to be pretty hard to sell enough short stories to live on. The idea is to move on to novels, but with the standard $5,000 advance (standard when I was reading more about the subject), that’s going to be a tough gig also. I’m just trying to point out that there’s hardly any money for most people in the traditional model, so that we don’t have to demand huge profits from the new system either.
No matter what, you need to get exposure first. People have to know about you. And then, if you’re good (the old way or the new way), you might make some money. But how will this happen with free culture, if I insist that everything should be copyable for nothing? One possibility is that once you’ve built up some readership–and again you have to be good–maybe people will be willing to pay in advance for your work. A third-party intermediary collects pledges up to the amount you require, and it is paid when you deliver. If you don’t deliver, the money goes back to the “investors.” As I mentioned earlier, this may not make as many people millionaires, but they may make a comfortable living. Do you think Stephen King only does what he does because he makes so much money? I think he would have done the same for a decent living.
Here’s (kind of) an example of this sort of thing, an anti-DRM children’s tale called The Pig and the Box. Crosbie Fitch also works on and discusses ways of paying for free culture at his Digital Productions web site.
Benefits: I’ve already mentioned that I think it’s good if anyone can publish anything and be read by potentially everyone in the whole world. We just need good filters to find what is worth reading. I think it’s a hugely good thing if information and art can be copied perfectly at no cost. This is a feature and not a bug. (I’m not going to try arguing that point here, though.)
Drawbacks: For the writer, I think the new system can be dangerous. I mentioned that you are putting your work out there for the harsh judgment of the collective. People may form opinions that are hard to overcome later. Not many people will read your early work, but later it will still be around to haunt you.
My Science Fiction Short Story
At last, we get to the fun part. Or desperately sad part. Maybe burying it here at the end of yet another too-long post is the way to go if I want to have a chance of hiding my shame.
(Science fictiony update: I’ve edited and moved this six years into the future to create a new post, “Tales from the Slush Pile.”)
Next up in the series, the exciting publication of this veteran reject! With new, original art by Gary Mitchell!
A big thank you to the University of Southern Florida’s Center for Instructional Technology (FCIT) for giving me permission to use their excellent clipart on movingtofreedom.org. Check out the collection at Clipart ETC (http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/). I emailed to ask permission to use the clipart here and suggested that a Creative Commons license would be suitable for the mission of a University, and was pleased to hear back that they think it makes sense, but they are constrained from doing it for various reasons right now. But they are quite generous about granting permission.