Cory Doctorow lays down his not-actually-a-manifesto

Paul Raven @ 06-10-2010

The more famous Cory Doctorow gets, the more people try to knock him down. I’m quite fond of him myself (he’s very charming in person, if somewhat perpetually part-distracted*), but while I’m not going to argue any sort of superhero status for the guy (I’ll leave that to Randall Munroe), when it comes to puncturing the poor arguments of his most vocal critics, he’s got undeniable flair. Witness his recent retort to an article that accused him and other net notables of profiteering from their “evangelism” of “free” business models for creatives, which also acts as a pretty good summary of the state of the artistic marketplace and the ongoing copyright wars. A few snippets:

What should other artists do? Well, I’m not really bothered. The sad truth is that almost everything almost every artist tries to earn money will fail. This has nothing to do with the internet, of course. Consider the remarkable statement from Alanis Morissette’s attorney at the Future of Music Conference: 97% of the artists signed to a major label before Napster earned $600 or less a year from it. And these were the lucky lotto winners, the tiny fraction of 1% who made it to a record deal. Almost every artist who sets out to earn a living from art won’t get there (for me, it took 19 years before I could afford to quit my day job), whether or not they give away their work, sign to a label, or stick it through every letterbox in Zone 1.

If you’re an artist and you’re interested in trying to give stuff away to sell more, I’ve got some advice for you, as I wrote here – I think it won’t hurt and it could help, especially if you’ve got some other way, like a label or a publisher, to get people to care about your stuff in the first place.

But I don’t care if you want to attempt to stop people from copying your work over the internet, or if you plan on building a business around this idea. I mean, it sounds daft to me, but I’ve been surprised before.

[…]

I understand perfectly well what you’re saying in your column: people who give away some of their creative output for free in order to earn a living are the exception. Most artists will fail at this. What’s more, their dirty secret is their sky-high appearance fees – they don’t really earn a creative living at all. But authors have been on the lecture circuit forever – Dickens used to pull down $100,000 for US lecture tours, a staggering sum at the time. This isn’t new – authors have lots to say, and many of us are secret extroverts, and quite enjoy the chance to step away from our desks to talk about the things we’re passionate about.

But you think that anyone who talks up their success at giving away some work to sell other work is peddling fake hope. There may be someone out there who does this, but it sure isn’t me. As I’ve told all of my writing students, counting on earning a living from your work, no matter how you promote it or release it, is a bad idea. All artists should have a fallback plan for feeding themselves and their families. This has nothing to do with the internet – it’s been true since the days of cave paintings.

I believe the appropriate phrase is “zing”.

[ * After appearing on a panel with Cory at Eastercon 2008, to which he managed to contribute more thoughts and ideas than the rest of us put together despite busily battering away at a netbook at the same time, a friend from the audience suggested a hypothetical version of posthuman bear-baiting: the game would simply involve installing Cory within a Faraday cage that blocked all wi-fi and phone signals, and then betting on how long it would be before he spontaneously combusted from sheer frustration… ]