Archive for the 'fiction' Category
As an avid short story writer in college, I became well acquainted with Courier New because most fiction magazines required you use the font when submitting manuscripts. Editors claimed that the font was easy on the eyes, but its geometrical rigidness was always offputting to me.
Well, Slate.com surveyed several famous authors, and it looks as if Courier is the font of choice.
Nobody could have predicted the breadth of the outrage.
At the bottom of a lengthy platform rant, Howard V. Hendrix, the current vice president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, wrote:
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.
Later in the essay, he labeled these webscabs as “Pixel-stained Technopeasant Wretch[s],” a name that would later come to haunt him.
The response was immediate. Within days, hundreds of websites, blogs and message boards had linked to the rant, and very few came to Hendrix’s defense. In an age when many writers publish their works in online magazines which are freely accessible, comparing such a person to a union worker scab allowed little room for mercy.
“What a bunch of bull,” one message board poster wrote. “[S]orry to say, but juxtaposed with his bio about driving a $50k car, living in old growth forest, having enough time to cut firewood all day for a toasty bath…and getting to snowshoe in the Sierra Nevadas whenever the whim strikes; I don’t have much sympathy.”
Neither did the rest of the writing community.
In the midst of all these outcries, Jo Walton, a 42-year-old speculative fiction writer from Canada decided to act.
“In honour of Dr Hendrix, I am declaring Monday 23rd April International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day,” she posted on her blog. “On this day, everyone who wants to should give away professional quality work online. It doesn’t matter if it’s a novel, a story or a poem, it doesn’t matter if it’s already been published or if it hasn’t, the point is it should be disseminated online to celebrate our technopeasanthood.”
Like the original webscab rant, the proposal was spread all over the web, fueled in large part when Cory Doctorow of Boingboing linked to it. Doctorow is considered by many to be the poster child champion of releasing your works for free, what with several novels and a collection released under a Creative Commons license.
After Technopeasant Day was all said and done, I asked Walton whether she had realized at the time of declaring it that it would become such a widely-adopted phenomenon.
“I wasn’t expecting anything like this level of response,” she said. “I thought some of my friends would go for it. I wasn’t expecting a mass movement.”
The date of the holiday — April 23 — wasn’t without significance. Walton originally planned to give her readers one day’s notice, but was eventually convinced by one of her friends to hold off. “So I looked at the calendar and saw that Monday 23rd was St George’s Day and Shakespeare’s Birthday, which seemed perfect,” she said. “The writer Laurence Schimmel lives in Catalonia and he had mentioned last year that St. George’s Day is called St. Jordi’s day there and is celebrated by people giving each other a book and a rose. That just seemed really appropriate.”
Though it’s hard to say for certain how many people participated in International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day, one site was able to track at least 71 writers who did. Authors posted everything from short stories to poems to audio recordings to full-length novels.
Jay Lake, a prolific short story writer and novelist, was one such participant. He has published dozens of short stories in free online magazines over the years, but his official Technopeasant contribution was titled “Glass: A Love Story.”
After Hendrix’s statements, there were murmurs within the writing community that his views were echoed largely within the New York publishing world, especially in light of the recent lawsuits against Google and its book scanning program, but Lake didn’t agree.
“Obviously I don’t speak for anyone in New York. I live almost as far from New York City as one can and still be in the continental United States,” he said. “However, given that Tor has done very well backing Cory Doctorow, Charlie Stross and John Scalzi, among others, with aggressive stances on e-publishing and alternative licensing and distribution schema, I have trouble imagining them aligning with the substance of Dr. Hendrix’s remarks.”
Lake, who’s an active member of the SFWA, believes that Hendrix falls within an “old boy’s club” in the organization, one that causes a sharp divide in every writerly argument ranging from the merits of posting your work online for free to whether selling short stories to small press magazines helps your career.
Sarah Monette, another novelist who played along on Technopeasant Day, seemed to agree with this notion.
“Not being a member of SFWA, I can’t presume to speculate on what they think about this matter,” she offered. “I do think it’s probable that younger writers are more likely to think about ways of promoting their work online simply because we’ve been exposed to the internet more at an earlier age.”
After it became apparent that his fellow writers were rebelling against his statements, Hendrix performed a minimal amount of backpedaling, but for the most part remained firm in his original assessments. In a lengthy letter he submitted to the publishing blog Galley Cat, he said that he “may well be wrong” for labeling people “webscabs,” but that ultimately “I don’t feel that free online posting of whole novels for promotional purposes will in the end empower authors as a class.”
Two days after Technopeasant Day, I contacted Hendrix to see if he would answer a few questions to give more insight to the controversy. He immediately requested that I repost his original response (you can read it here).
In our back-and-forth conversation, he claimed that he hadn’t read the mass internet response, that most of it had been summarized to him in “email correspondence.”
“The term “webscabs” was a bit too broad, and definitely too incendiary,” he admitted. “We at SFWA have long been concerned about authors’ rights. If my comments got people thinking about authors’ responsibilities, especially to other authors, then I am content and more than willing to deal with the consequences.”
When I asked him about whether he suffered from the “old school” labeling that so many authors had given him, he denied such a thing. “As I have said elsewhere, I’m not opposed to blogs, wikis, chatrooms etc. per se. I have at one time or another been involved with all of them to some degree,” he said. “… My concern was with the implications of the fact that volunteer officers of a volunteer organization (SFWA) were increasingly expected to not only spend time on the SFWA listserves, but also on numerous “topics” on SFF.net, as well as an ever-proliferating number of member blogs. It was a recipe for burning out our volunteers, and I felt compelled to say something about it.”
Hendrix explained that his opposition to posting free works online is “rooted in a concern that, as more authors make use of this promotional technique, harms of aggregation will ensue.” To him, this isn’t a question of an author’s rights, but his responsibilities. He described Technopeasants as subscribing to a libertarian’s messianic-faith-in-capitalism idea, a naieve one as he sees it. He asserted that the SFWA has been competent in keeping up with the shifting media landscape, and the elected officials aren’t adverse to the internet and the new avenues it opens.
“As for being “progressive” and “adapting,” I think it’s appropriate to recall that Charles Darwin long ago taught us Change is not necessarily the same thing as Progress — and that applies to technological evolution, too,” he said. “‘Adapting’ should not mean serving as a doormat waiting to be trampled.”
Despite his claim that he didn’t read the blogosphere’s response to his statements, Hendrix admitted that it might have severely affected his place in SFWA. “I would love to continue serving the organization, but I’m afraid that my comment on LiveJournal has probably ‘burned that bridge before I came to it.’”
But most the writers I spoke to didn’t hold his statements against him as a person.
“I have never met Dr. Hendrix, or encountered him online, and I don’t have anything against him personally, I just strongly disagree with his right to tell other people what they can do with their own work,” Walton told me. “And the word ‘webscab’ didn’t go down very well. I come from the South Wales coal mining valleys, where ‘scab’ is very strong language. I’m very glad he took that word back, and understand it might not have quite the same level of meaning where he comes from.”
Lake also seemed to think the entire ordeal would blow over.
“I think Howard should have just smiled and waved and gotten on with his life,” he said. “He stuck his foot in it hard, without really meaning to in my opinion, and reached a point where there wasn’t really a graceful exit available to him. Sometimes you just have to eat a little mud.”
I had to laugh at this little item over at Wired. Jonathan Lethem met with Annalee Newitz for a Wired profile she’s writing, and he revealed that he wanted his fans to write slash fan fiction and cast him as a character:
I met up with Jonathan Lethem last week to talk about the joys of living outside copyright laws, and the award-winning nerd novelist revealed that he’d love to be in a slash fiction story. Whom would he want to be paired with? “I want to be surprised! I want to see ones I wouldn’t think of!” he enthused, eyes wide with anticipation — or possibly fear. Lethem believes he’s been “slashed” only once, paired with fellow geek novelist Michael Chabon in a “sublimated homoerotic comic by Patricia Storms that was just an inch away from being Kirk and Spock.”
After the sad news of Kurt Vonnegut’s death, I immediately emailed several bloggers and asked them to contribute their thoughts on the man and how he affected their lives. The response was overwhelming. Many of the bloggers who responded are novelists themselves. Several talked about their own personal encounters with the author, while others honed in on a specific work of his that had particularly touched them.
Below, you’ll find several of those responses I received. I’d like to invite anyone to contribute your own thoughts in the comments section (the comments will go into moderation but I’ll take them out shortly). Many bloggers have already provided tributes on their own blogs. The blogosphere is full of mini personal obituaries for Kurt Vonnegut. This will just be one of many:
Mark Sarvas (from The Elegant Variation):
I came to Vonnegut comparatively late in life. The common Vonnegut experience seems to have been to have encountered him in college but it wasn’t until my late 30s that I pulled out the dog-eared family copy of Slaughterhouse Five and, at once, saw what the fuss was about. My most vivid memories, however, turn on reading Mother Night, presented by Vonnegut as the confessions of an American Nazi spy named Howard J. Campbell, Jr., and merely edited by him. The book’s central question – spelled out by Vonnegut in the 1968 introduction added seven years after its release – that “we are what we appear to be” had all kinds of resonance, that stayed with me through the writing of my own book. Plus, he made me laugh with a novel dealing with Nazis, which made me uncomfortable but is impressive in its way. The Mark Twain comparisons are a bit overworked but seem, finally, apropos – it’s hard to bring to mind another writer who is so successfully engaged with the follies of our age with such sharp humor and, finally, compassion. His heirs are not apparent.
C. Max Magee (from The Millions):
I’m very sad to see Kurt Vonnegut go. His death was a surprise though not altogether unexpected considering his advancing years. It is comforting, though, that he lived a full life, even penning a surprise bestseller that put him back in the public eye in 2005. That was fun to see because, though Vonnegut may be one of the most important writers out there for me as a reader, most of his literary output came before I was born.
When I was a younger reader, I was a completist. I didn’t have knowledge of dozens of books and writers at my fingertips, so when I found a book I really liked, I would read everything by that author. And so it was that I read substantially everything that Vonnegut had written before I left home for college, starting with a late novel, Hocus Pocus, after finding it lying around the house when I was 14 or 15, and finishing up with Player Piano, Vonnegut’s first novel, on a long, late-summer car ride home from Maine, a few weeks before moving away from home. So, in many ways, Vonnegut was in the background through my teenage years, providing a vivid counterpoint to the mundanities of suburban high school life. His books are very important to who I am as a reader and a writer, so I’m sad to see him go.
Levi Asher (from Literary Kicks):
I had three real-life brushes with Kurt Vonnegut. The first was at Albany State, where I went to college. In fact, it’s entirely possible that I chose to study at Albany State because I had read about the school in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slapstick”. Kurt’s brother Bernard Vonnegut is a professor of atmospheric science at Albany, and there are some good bits in this underrated book involving Kurt’s relationship with his adult brother (who he likes, but never hugs, though he likes to hug his dog).
I guess I was hoping Bernard’s presence would draw Kurt in as a college speaker, and during my junior year Kurt finally did show up. I won’t bother saying that Kurt is quite a public speaker, because everybody already knows that. There was a reception with drinks and a cheese plate after his talk, and I lingered there as a few other students parried with Kurt about whether or not humanity was better off in our caveman past than in our present state (it seemed to be Kurt’s position that it had been mostly downhill since the invention of agriculture and fire). I noted that Bernard Vonnegut showed up at the reception (though not at the speech), and that the brothers shook hands warmly but did not hug.
My other two brushes with Kurt Vonnegut both took place in Manhattan’s East 40′s, where I presume he lived (though I never verified this fact, so I’m not sure). One fine day in February 1996 I was in a supermarket on 2nd Avenue when I suddenly spotted Kurt Vonnegut in the drink-mixers aisle, picking out a bottle of (I think) Tom Collins Mix. I was fairly blown away but I did not say anything or do anything. A writer deserves to buy a bottle of Tom Collins mix in peace.
Then, in the summer of 2002 I was walking down 2nd Avenue when I saw a literary countenance bearing down upon me in the opposite direction. It was Kurt Vonnegut, strolling down the sidewalk, and the only thing I noted was an intensely sad expression on his face. Again, I did not bother him. A writer deserves to be sad in peace. I hope he went home and had a Tom Collins and hugged a dog and felt better.
Kassia Krozser (from Booksquare):
This is actually a tougher question to answer than you realize
. I’ve been thinking back to his appearance on The Daily Show when he was promoting Man Without a Country, and (I will paraphrase), he noted that we’ve done our best to destroy this world we inhabit and now the planet is fighting back. This was post-Katrina and it was one of those “Yes!” moments. Over these past years, we have been asked to pretend that killing people prevents killing people and that war is the answer to questions that weren’t properly asked. Kurt Vonnegut reminded us — many times — that war is not without sacrifice and should never be treated with casual disregard. I would have loved to see him debate Cheney, but that’s because I have a secret penchant for seeing bullies cut down to size.
Also, sadness is the greatest source of humor — and once you can find the humor, you know it’s all going to be all right.
Kurt Vonnegut was that rarest of writers in that he was widely, nearly universally read thanks partially to high school requirements, but also had a devoted cult of enthusiastic readers, and he was, until the other day, alive.
Most writers just get the last bit, and only for a while.
Cult fictions generally don’t last once they get institutionalized, and they do all the time. High school English teachers tend to be dorky misfits with a secret plan…turn the world into a haven for dorky misfits and thus save the whales, clear the skies, and reverse their past personal tragedies. The apparatus through which they hope to affect this change is the fiction of their own youths. Thus the generation that loved THE CHOCOLATE WAR, for example, ruins it by assigning it to a bunch of sullen teens their age. Good job, feeding a book about a boy standing up against mob rule to the mob that rules. Now they know our secret hopes and revenge fantasies!
I tease. Most people just fake their way through THE CHOCOLATE WAR.
Vonnegut is hard to fake one’s way through, because if you so much as glance at a page, you’ll start reading. His voice is avuncular, conversational, and just so much more compelling than that of the average high school English teacher. So you get hooked, quick-like.
Vonnegut’s fiction has also lasted simply because it is superior to most other cult fiction. Cult fiction is that fiction that is about something Ã¢â‚¬â€ but generally only one thing Ã¢â‚¬â€ which is what makes it very teachable on the high school level. “The theme of THE CATCHER IN THE RYE IS ______.” And you can fill out that Ad-Lib with any of Vonnegut’s work as well. But there’ more to it.
Most fiction isn’t about anything at all but giving you something to do while in a plastic chair so you won’t have to talk to your fellow passengers or patients. Cult fiction is, as I’ve said, about one thing. The greatest works of literature are about many many things, which makes them very handy for making sure that generations of doctoral students have something to write about.
Vonnegut’s stuff? It’s about two things. It’s about how miserable you feel within an absurd world, and about being glad to be alive anyway. And there are two ways to be introduced to Vonnegut: you can be assigned Vonnegut, or you can be surreptiously passed a worn paperback by an older relation, friend, or nervous teacher.
If you are in the former group, you’ll be sad today because Vonnegut died, but you will soon go back to your abiding pastime: watching the TV news with clenched fist and fuming nostrils, so upset and perplexed that someone somewhere might have gotten slightly more than you think they deserved.
If you’re in the second group, you’ll be able to answer the question at the end of this anecdote.
In high school, I had a crush on a girl named Loryn Picard. (I hope she’s still alive and Googles herself occasionally! Hi Loryn!) She was one of those quirky types, perhaps a bit troubled. Played the flute. Dressed like Molly Ringwald, I swear. Played the flute, but only for herself, not in the school band or anything. Didn’t come to school much. (Troubled, she was troubled!) Was in some honors classes, some not.
One time, as we were shuffling out of Spanish class, she asked the teacher, Mrs. Henry, “Do you like the works of Kurt Vonngut?” and Mrs. Henry said, “Yes, yes, I do” and then reached an arm out to tug on my shirtsleeve. The teacher knew that I was a Vonnegut reader Ã¢â‚¬â€ genesis: my uncle Peter, the book was SLAPSTICK, and is still a sentimental fave though even the author gave it a D Ã¢â‚¬â€ and thought that the three of us could have a wonderful conversation about Unca Kurt in the two minutes between classes. But I rolled my eyes and twisted my mouth like she’d squirted sour orange juice up my nostril, and quickly turned the corner and escaped.
Keith R.A. DeCandido (science fiction author):
Oddly, my strongest memory of Vonnegut doesn’t come from anything he did — exactly.
Years ago, I worked for the late Byron Preiss. One of my colleagues, Howard Zimmerman, was editing a comic book adaptation of SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE, with art by Christopher Bing, a very talented (if slow) artist. On Howard’s birthday one year, his assistant, Ken Grobe, gave him a page of artwork by Christopher from the adaptation, which included three panels of Howard and Kurt Vonnegut having a conversation at a party.
Howard absolutely loved it, as he was a big fan of Kurt’s and was thrilled at the chance to work with him. (Sadly, the graphic novel never actually saw the light of day….)
David Louis Edelman (author of Infoquake):
The news of Kurt VonnegutÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s death today hits me particularly hard. For me, Vonnegut was the novelist. He was perhaps the first Ã¢â‚¬Å“adultÃ¢â‚¬Â novelist I read seriously, the first novelist I fell in love with, and undoubtedly the novelist who got me through high school. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m sure there are millions of people out there who can say the same thing.
My first exposure to Vonnegut was through his seminal collection of short stories, Welcome to the Monkey House. I was probably around 13 or 14. Up to that point, my reading had consisted mostly of straightforward, unironic science fiction and fantasy: J.R.R. Tolkien, Piers Anthony, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov. My other recent obsession at that time was Douglas Adams, who strove all his life to achieve Vonnegutdom with mixed (albeit funnier) results.
Then my sister brought Welcome to the Monkey House home and it quickly swept through the whole family. I was stunned. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d never read anything like these stories. Cynical, yet wondrous; funny, yet deadly serious; childish, yet crammed full of adult insight.
VonnegutÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s lessons are the lessons that I think all teenagers should be required to absorb. TheyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re the lessons that saved me from completely withdrawing into my shell.
These are, I think, the main lessons of VonnegutÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s work:
* Adults take many things too seriously.
* We all get buffeted around by powerful forces we donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t understand.
* Religion, art, politics, and careers are largely full of shit.
* Just because something is full of shit doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t mean it canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be wonderful or useful.
* Be nice to each other. WeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re all trying the best we can.
Kurt Vonnegut is dead. The world has lost one of its brightest literary talents. So it goes.
I never met Kurt Vonnegut. Never passed by him on the street, never spotted him on the subway, never sat at the next table in a restaurant. I never attended a reading or lecture given by him. I never sent him a fan letter, although I now know he probably would have answered it.
My first exposure to the late great master of American letters was a five-second cameo that he did for the Rodney Dangerfield film Back to School, in which he played, naturally, himself. This was sometime during middle school, and I felt like I’d get in trouble watching it because of a very brief female nude scene the very beginning of the movie, but it was a movie I enjoyed, and Vonnegut’s cameo never left my mind.
And that sort of sums up my experiences with the man and his work: tangentially, ephemerally, a glancing blow. I read Slaughterhouse-Five a few years later while in high school, and while it was like an armed claymore to my pubescent brain, I didn’t read his words again until much later (Timequake and A Man Without a Country). I bought three of his other books in paperback (Cat’s Cradle, Galapagos, and Welcome to the Monkey House), but never got around to reading them, and ended up selling them before my recent move to Singapore.
However, his words have always stuck with me, and his philosophy, summed up from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater — “God damn it, youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve got to be kind” — is one that I took to heart early on, and will continue to do so. And so, even though I never met the man or shook his hand, I will miss him as much as if I had.
With the death of Kurt Vonnegut the world, and more specifically, America has lost yet another sane voice, another clear head, another person of integrity. Since the turn of the century, and as the US has gone stark raving mad, there have been many similar figures snuffed out by disease, despair, or simply the unyielding impact of time’s passage. Susan Sontag, Octavia Butler, Joseph Heller, Robert Sheckley, Arthur Miller, and Kurt Vonnegut are all up in Heaven now.
But before we move on to the next thing, and the next, we would be wise to take a close look at what Vonnegut decided to do after he turned 80 in 2002. This man who had wanted to quit writing when his book “Slaughterhouse Five” turned out to be a smash, a man who had been filled with despair over the human condition since highschool, whose mother committed suicide in 1944 and who often wanted to follow her example, who threatened to sue the manufacturers of Pall Mall cigarettes because their product had failed to kill him in a timely manner, spent his final years writing political essays for a socialist magazine out of Chicago called “In These Times.”
Let me say that again: Kurt Vonnegut, a sane man who understood how horrible and humiliating life could be, spent his final years writing for a socialist newspaper and considered himself a socialist. This, to me, is perhaps the most significant fact about good old Kurt. He proved, over and over again, that the sane and rational thing to do in the face of the horrors of the 20th and 21st century, is to have hope, to be kind, to try to be better. This was his message.
Kurt Vonnegut is up in heaven now. He’s up there where, in the words of his character Wanda June (a little girl who was hit by an ice cream truck), “Everybody is happy–the animals and the dead soldiers and people who went to the electric chair and everything. Nobody is mad. We’re all too busy playing shuffleboard.” I’m sure that Kurt is happy as a clam up there too, grateful for his the way he stumbled and fell, and ultimately thrilled with the brain injuries that took his life.
He’s up there where things are good, and we’re down here.
So it goes…
When Nick Mamatas’s novel, Move Under Ground, was first published, he had the kind of publicity that most small press authors don’t get. A major men’s magazine printed the first chapter as an excerpt. He had positive reviews in The Village Voice, Booklist, and The Believer. He ran a semi-popular blog to give its release extra press. But despite all this, the book only sold moderately well, and when the trade paperback later came out from Prime Books, a major chain backed out of ordering any copies.
Mamatas knew he had to find another venue to spark sales. A month earlier, another author named Peter Watts was suffering from a similar predicament. His novel Blindsight wasn’t even going to make it past its first printing, and things were looking bleak. But then he decided to release it under a Creative Commons license, and after the popular blog boingboing linked to it, word spread until he had sold enough copies to push the book into its second printing.
Watts noticed that Bookscan numbers nearly tripled afterwards, and it was recently announced that the novel was nominated for a Hugo, something he said likely wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the CC release.
A Creative Commons (CC) license allows artists to release their works under less-restrictive guidelines than traditional copyright law. Though it has many different forms, a typical CC license permits users to distribute a piece of creative work freely as long as it’s not for commercial use.
(Caption: Nick Mamatas)
Mamatas was enrolled in an MFA class on technological and editorial processes, and he needed to complete a research project on this topic. With all these combined factors weighed in his mindÃ¢â‚¬â€œ the mediocre sales, the success of Blindsight, the opportunity for a research topicÃ¢â‚¬â€œ he eventually decided, like Watts, to release Move Under Ground under a Creative Commons license as well.
“We [had] about 2500 downloads [Editor's Note: That number is now 3,200],” he said in an email interview, “ranging from featurettes by John Scalzi and the publishing blog Galleycat, to people on Livejournal and myspace leaving comments saying ‘Check this out!’”
But in this case, one blog didn’t give him the link that he was hoping for: Boingboing. And both Watts and Mamatas agreed that the success of a book released under a CC license hinges off this crucial factor.
“The thing is, there’s a confound here,” Watts explained. “It wasn’t the CC release per se that gave me the boost; it was all the people talking about it. Boingboing doesn’t pimp every novel that comes down the pike. It has to be newsworthy in some way, and an author giving his work away is, for the time being, newsworthy. It attracts attention.”
In Watts’s case, Boingboing was the only blog he contacted after releasing the book online. After the site linked to him, it created a ripple effect and more bloggers piled on.
“Very, very few people came across the release by reading about it on my site,” he said. “Thousands upon thousands saw it on Cory’s, Kathryn‘s, and John’s. They gave Blindsight the kind of push money can’t buy (at least, not the money I had to spare)”
(Caption: Peter Watts’s Blindsight)
Sean Wallace is the editor and publisher for Prime Books, and he has been tracking Move Under Ground‘s sales closely through Bookscan. Mamatas owned the e-rights to his book, so he didn’t need his publisher’s permission–but Wallace quickly showed his approval and contributed the final text.
“The effects are largely reliant on how much word is gotten out, I think,” he said. When Wallace checked the Bookscan numbers after Mamatas released the CC novel, he saw that there was only a “minimal uptick.”
But direct book sales, he said, are only one factor to measure success. “There may be associated results,” Wallace explained “Like people buying other books by Mamatas.”
Though it’s hard to track those kinds of indirect effects, Mamatas agreed with this assessment.
“Anecdotally, a number of people have told me that they bought Under My Roof after reading Move Under Ground for free,” he said. “And a couple of newspapers have given Under My Roof some good ink, it seems after hearing about it through the publicity surrounding Move Under Ground.”
Most authors will tell you that it’s extremely difficult to measure how effective a particular form of marketing can be, and the authors I emailed who released their works under CC licenses were hard pressed to produce concrete numbers.
And though both authors reached relative success after they used the CC license, they were skeptical of its overall ability to sell books.
“So what happens when this catches on?” Watts said. “What happens when everybody releases their work through a Creative Commons licence? Then it’s no longer newsworthy, and while it will certainly continue to make my work more accessible to people who already know of my existence, it certainly won’t lure in any new readers the way the Blindsight campaign has done. It’s a niche strategy, in other words. It only works as long as most artists aren’t doing it– and as long as that’s the case, I’d certainly consider releasing my future books under a CC license.”
Over the past few years, publishers have become more willing to allow their authors to release their books this way. Watts’s publisher, Tor, printed several novels by Cory Doctorow, one of the early champions of less-restrictive copyright.
“Doctorow has set all of his stuff free with Tor’s blessing,” Watts said. “Granted, there had been some inconsistency in Tor’s perspective in the past– back when Cory was offering his first novel under a Creative Commons license, Tor was absolutely forbidding me to do the same thing– and in fact they even tried to stick a clause in my contract stipulating that I couldn’t even post excerpts on my website of more than 1700 words.”
But despite these early attempts he persisted until the restrictions were removed, and when Watts went to his editor for permission to release his book for free, he was told to wait a month and then to go ahead.
Mamatas and Watts agreed that there were few pitfalls to the CC license. Neither had any trouble selling foreign language rights to their books. Watts has offers from German and Spanish publishers, while Mamatas has had a German version of Move Under Ground published already.
Two months after Mamatas released his book for free, I asked him if there was a particular medium (other than books) more likely to benefit from the CC license.
“Well CC isn’t really for books,” he replied. “it works much better when the source being opened up is more easily adjustable, as software is. For books, stuff the nerd crowd likes: SF and fantasy, will work best. Also, various experimental texts may also work. I wonder if Douglas Rushkoff’s Exit Strategy, which involved reader-generated footnotes, would have been more successful had it been made totally open to remixing. Something short but very open-ended, a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book with an infinity of choices, would likely be very popular CCed.”
But in the end, despite their skepticism of the long-term benefits of the license, both said they’d likely try it again.
“I guess I’m in for the duration,” said Watts. “And when the novelty wears off I’ll just have to find some other way of getting attention. Perhaps I could get some fan to climb up a clock tower and start shooting random pedestrians, all the while shouting ‘Peter Watts’s Blindsight made me do this!’ I bet that would increase my sales even more than a CC release. And I wouldn’t have to give anything away.”
Jonathan Lethem’s short story, “Lucky Alan,” is live at the New Yorker