Kickstart my art

Paul Raven @ 20-07-2011

The first of today’s set of posts with allusions to song titles in the header. This is offered largely without comment, except to note that – regrettably – there’s no data here for the number of failed Kickstarter projects per category. Found via This isn’t Happiness.

Successful Kickstarter projects by category

How will writers make a living in the future?

Paul Raven @ 12-07-2011

That’s Damien G Walter’s question:

It’s very likely, in fact I would argue almost certain, that the freedoms unleashed by the internet will bring almost unimaginable benefits to every person alive today and every person that comes after us. The society that emerges from today’s information revolution will be as far advanced from our society today, as our society is from the Dark Ages.

In that future society, it won’t be possible to make a living from writing. Even the idea of making a living from writing will seem strange. In much the same way we might think making a living from talking a little odd…although it seemed perfectly natural to the priest who read from the bible only he could translate to his Dark Ages congregation. But then, if we make it down the rocky road of change that leads there, the idea of making a living itself will seem a little odd…

I can see where Walter is going here, but the flaw in his logic is easy enough to spot… even more so now that I’ve underlined it, I hope. (*ahem*) I can think of loads of people who still make a living from talking and reading: lecturers, lawyers, performance poets and actors, to name but a few.

And as such I suspect that there will still be people making a living from writing for as long as we still have alphabets to write with. While I can imagine a post-text future for humanity, I think it’s a very long way off from now, and until the day when we all communicate in hyperdense ideoplasts that can compress entire schools of thought into a small yet intricate 4-dimensional shape, people who make widgets are still going to need to hire people with the skill to explain to potential customers why their widgets are (supposedly) better than all the other widgets available.

I’m being a little disingenuous here, of course, as Walter is more specifically thinking about the demise of the writer of fictions rather than the churners-out of ad copy. [The difference between most ad copy and ‘proper’ fiction is left as an exercise of the reader’s cynicism.] But as much as the novel or short story forms we know today may become impossible to monetise in a fully-digital cultural sphere, I still hold that the human desire for story will not vanish until the human itself vanishes… and even then, our posthuman descendents will probably want to tell tales about their simian meatbag forebears in order to understand (or mythologise, or both) themselves, and their place and purpose in the universe.

Walter’s distress – like that of many other writers, my own included – is understandable, but it is also rooted in the very limiting conception of story being something that is printed on thin sheets of compressed and dried wood pulp… which rather overlooks cinema, television, machinima and computer games as storyable media, not to mention the spoken word form that he mentions, and the media we still have yet to discover, invent or adopt. That said, my callously future-focussed big-picture attitude here probably isn’t very comforting for folk trying to pay the rent with the one skill they’ve honed over a lifelong career, and I wish there was a magic wand I could wave that would sort that particular problem out.

But it’s equally disingenuous to wring hands over the Sad and Inevitable Fate of Story: to be led, limping, out to the barn like Old Yeller. That’s a little like lamenting the demise of the buggy whip while completely overlooking the opportunities opening up for whip-makers to redeploy their leatherworking skills on luxurious car interiors… storytelling ain’t going nowhere soon. While there are still people with the drive to tell stories, there’ll be new ways of making the talent pay. Mark my words.

Looking a little less deeply into the future of fiction, however, here’s a piece from The Guardian‘s Robert McCrum in which he looks at the way publishing houses are finally getting to grips with the digital age… and not so much in terms of new technologies or platforms, but in terms of the sort of books they’re printing. The internet and social media may have their faults, but there’s no denying they’ve made it easier to find out what your audience wants… or at least what it thinks it wants, which – as the saying goes – is close enough for government work, though the government don’t seem very keen on using it. Naturally enough, McCrum arrives in closing at the same question as Walter above, but with notably less angst – how’s the economics gonna work out?

I don’t have the answer, more’s the pity, or I’d be raking in big bucks from publishers as a futures consultant (in which capacity, I might add, I am most certainly available for hire at this moment in time – all enquiries and downpayments to the usual address, KTHXBAI). But it’s certainly an important question, and – if you ask me – one best addressed with positivity.

Although, of course, End Times storm clouds on the horizon do make for a more dramatic hook for a story… 😉

Ten Commandments of Art Pricing

Paul Raven @ 05-07-2011

The title says it all. Created by this guy (though where on that site it might be found, I have no idea*; he may grok pricing models, but his website is a relic of the mid-noughties), found thanks to this blawg. Definitely applicable to writers thinking about alternative/indie publishing models, I’d have thought.

The Ten Commandments of Art Pricing by Robert Genn

Interesting to note that the list is published as an image rather than as HTML text; I presume this is to prevent wholesale cut’n’pasting, though it could just be part of the image-obsessed culture that seems to permeate Tumblr as a platform. I suspect the former, though, as it’s that much easier to post the image rather than type out the list. Certainly worked on me, AMIRITES?

Related: Cory Doctorow’s ideas on a “no endorsement”label for derivative works; send the IP creator a cut of your profits while simultaneously absolving them of the (potential) crapness of the derivative work in question. Still assumes that the creator will bother to acknowledge the source explicitly, of course, but still good to see someone thinking about ways to cope when physical items become infinite goods**.

[ * This highlights one of my numerous gripes with Tumblr, in that – despite the cascading tree of reblogging notifications and callbacks, which is in itself very annoying unless you’re working within the ecosystem of Tumblr itself – it can still be hideously difficult to find where the original poster found the original item. An infuriating circle-jerk of a platform, and one I hope fades from fashion very quickly. ]

[ ** Of course, the actual materials used to make the items are unlikely to be infinite, though recycling and cradle-to-grave spime-like approaches may address this to some extent… don’t mind me, just thinking aloud here. ]

My rejoinder to another rejoinder to Doctorow’s rejoinder

Paul Raven @ 19-11-2010

Serendipity striketh again, in the form of Helliene Lindvall’s response to Cory Doctorow’s response to her earlier piece  attacking advocates of free-content business models for creatives. The Guardian may be missing a trick, here; this could become some sort of central-court ideology-tennis match. Give ’em a slot each on alternating days, and see how long it runs!

(My money’s on it going the distance; I think the questions around artist business models are currently unanswerable because of the economic flux we’re surfing on. Which is why the debate is important; better to design and build a wall against the coming flood than to wait until the water arrives and provides you with precise design parameters.)

Hell, better yet: set up a video recorder, let ’em do a face-to-face debate, then put it out there for the people to see… right after a lengthy argument about whether to paywall it, natch. (I think there’s a certain subtle irony to Lindvall’s piece appearing in the staunchly free-to-air online version of The Guardian… )

Aaaaanyway, it’s a more reasonable piece than Lindvall’s first, despite a few scare quotes and caricatures (“media gurus”! – is it wrong that I conjure an image of a sadhu with a cellphone when I read that phrase?):

One argument against my stance was that there’s no point in trying to prevent copying, as it’s so easy to do – and is only getting easier. It is so easy to violate the artist’s choice, why bother respecting the rules that protect that choice? However, there are many things that are easy to do, yet are not legally or morally right – for instance, posting anonymous threats saying you’d like to kill someone.

I’m not sure exactly what the rhetorical classification of that riposte is, but I think it’s a little bit reductio ad Hitlerum; comparing the copying of digital media to sending death threats is not exactly proportional in ethical terms. An attention-grabbing way to begin, though, I’ll grant you.

Just because an illegal act is easier to commit on the web, in the comfort of an anonymous mob, than in the physical world where there is a greater likelihood of apprehension doesn’t mean that our laws and ethics should somehow be suspended.

The ease of duplication is little to do with the anonymity of the web, it’s a function of the infinitely reproducible and lossless nature of digital media. Thumb-drive  sneakernet party, anyone? Exactly the same problem arose from the proliferation of cassette tapes, albeit a slower and more lossy version thereof… and the music industry defeated that problem very neatly with the compact disc. Laws and ethics shouldn’t be suspended, no; nor should the need for businesses to innovate if they wish to stay profitable.

Producing a record – as opposed to writing most books – tends to be a team effort involving a producer (sometimes several of them) and songwriters who are not part of the act, studio engineers and a whole host of people who don’t earn money from merchandise and touring – people who no one would pay to make personal appearances.

I’m sure there’s a lot of editors, agents, proofreaders, copyeditors, cover artists, layout geeks and beta readers who’ll be astonished to realise that their contribution to the production of a novel is effectively negligible. But then they’re mostly busy trying to figure out how to make their careers survive the transition to digital, so perhaps we can forgive them that oversight.

Many songwriters and producers I know have been excited about getting their songs recorded, only to see it given away as a free digital download by the artist or label. Though it may help promote the artist it does nothing to promote these writers and producers, as downloads don’t display any credits.

Surely that oversight is the fault of the label’s implementation of the free give-away, rather than the free give-away itself? The producer or writer chose to sign the contract that allowed the label to do it, right? Caveat creator; if you choose to go to bed with the money-men, you must live with the consequences. Likewise, if you make your own choices about whether to give your stuff away, you must sleep in the bed you made for yourself. Take responsibility for your own career, or don’t; simple choice, really.

Another argument used by proponents of the “free” business model is that record labels have mistreated artists for decades and so deserve to go out of business – so to them I guess two wrongs make a right.

Not sure I see where that second wrong is, here; in fact, it strikes me that the collapse of the record labels is a consequence of their own failure to act. No one is actively threatening the record label business model, it’s simply failing to adapt to a changing environment. Evolve or die. I’ll certainly cop to feeling a certain amount of schadenfreude over the demise of the big labels, but that’s probably because I’ve listened to sermons in the Church of Albini. Your karma just ran over your dogma; it’s not two wrongs making a right, it’s cause and effect. Lose public trust, lose your business.

I signed my first publishing deal almost 10 years ago with BMG, who ended up being bought by Universal. Sure, I’ve had my issues with them through the years. Yet I don’t regret signing with them as they provided me, an unproven songwriter, with the means to write music full time (I’m sure authors can relate) and develop my craft.

“I got a great deal out of my signing, therefore all signings are fair.” I refer the honourable lady once again to the Church of Albini. Perhaps his numbers there represent an equally rare but opposite polar extreme… but having spent most of my adult life around working and/or aspiring musicians, I rather suspect it isn’t.

They’ve even agreed to give the songs that haven’t yet been covered back to me – despite not having to, contractually.

Very rare, if I’m not mistaken, and a comparatively recent development; music history is littered with lawsuits by bands and songsmiths great and small who fought – often unsuccessfully – for the ownership of their own material (paging Jello Biafra). But bravo, BMG; perhaps this will become a blanket policy for all artists you sign, and all the artists you’ve signed before?

… others would argue that the principle of CC licensing is simply to give creative works away for free in what Lessig calls the “hybrid economy”. Giving away the works benefits the owners of the distribution platform, such as Flickr, YouTube or Google, not the individual creators licensing their works under Creative Commons.

And selling the works of musicians benefits the shareholders of the record companies – so where’s the difference? No one is forced to license their material as CC; no one is forced to use any particular platform to store and share their work… and there’s the difference. There’s a lot less choice once you’ve signed your contract with Sony BMG, I’m guessing. They get to make all those decisions on your behalf… and I’m sure they’ll have your best interests foremost in their minds as they do so.

And there are other issues. For instance: what constitutes “non-commercial”? Selling YouTube for $1.65bn? Selling Flickr for $35m?

“Web-based media sharing platforms in profit-making shock horror probe!” I’m pretty sure HMV and Tower Records and Amazon were always pretty interested in making a profit, too… but again, the artist didn’t get a choice about where their material ended up being sold (and, subsequently, who ended up getting a cut of the sales price). It’s a bit weird to argue for art as a commercial endeavour and then criticise proponents of a different model for using commercialised distribution channels… how shameful of them to compromise with the capitalist world around them in a way that lets their work be seen on their own terms! Hypocrites!

I believe a successful future for content creators consists of a combination of solutions, one of them being unlimited ISP music subscriptions bundled in with their broadband access deals.

I have some sympathy with this idea, as it happens, but it has all sorts of potential loopholes through which record labels can get themselves back to steady-income business-as-usual; I believe this is a process commonly referred to as “protectionism”. And hey, wait a minute – some of those ISPs are big profit-making businesses! So they’re exploitative middlemen in exactly the same way as YouTube and Flickr, are they not?

I believe it’s detrimental to suggest that creators should be defeatist and not participate in this evolution – that what they’ve created has no value so they may as well give it away.

While there’s a lot of ways to interpret Doctorow’s stance, suggesting that he’s telling creators to “not participate in [the] evolution” of the markets in which they wish to place their work is not one that I can reach with any logical train of thought; quite the opposite, in fact.

Indeed, I’d have thought that saying “leave it to the labels, the ISPs and the government to fix” was much closer to that doctrine… but hey, I give my work away on the internet, so I doubtless got brainwashed long ago. *shrug*

Y’all enjoy that new Girl Talk mash-up album, won’t you?

Will ebooks vindicate vanity publishing?

Paul Raven @ 03-06-2010

Still plenty of flux in the publishing industry, and I doubt it’s going to settle any time soon. Here’s the latest development: Amazon has raised the percentage of cover price it pays to self-published authors using the Kindle store [via PD_Smith]:

This month, Amazon is upping the ante, increasing the amount it pays authors to 70% of revenue, from 35%, for e-books priced from $2.99 to $9.99. A self-published author whose e-book lists for $9.99 on Amazon’s Kindle e-bookstore will receive about $6.99 for each book sold. The author would net $1.75 on a similar new e-book sale by most major publishers.

The new formula makes digital self-publishing more lucrative for authors. “Some people will be tempted by the 70% royalty at Amazon,” Mr. Nash says. “If they already have a loyal fan base, will they want 70% of $100,000 or 15% of $200,000 for a hardcover?

That’s a pretty enticing slice of the profits… at a first glance. Consider, though, that any author with sense will still need to hire an editor, get the script copyedited and proofread, converted to the correct file format and so on. They’ll also need to eat up the publicity and promotional costs themselves as well, except in those rare cases (Stephen King, say) where news of a new book will spread itself with little help… so it’s far from a universal panacea, especially not for a new author.

And as P D Smith remarks:

But if all the big names self-publish e-books via Amazon, publishers will have less money to take a gamble on less well-known authors. Hmm.

Indeed – there’s a good argument to say new authors should be worried by this development in equal measure to being excited about it. Change cuts both ways, and easy fixes are rarely what they seem. The initial financial outlay for self-publishing may be much smaller these days, but that doesn’t guarantee you a ticket to the big leagues any more than vanity publishing ever has. Indeed, now it’s so easy and cheap to step onto the playing field, your competition is that much bigger (at least in numerical terms).

Question is, will that change? If the gatekeeper authority of publishing houses is undermined sufficiently, will new crowd-sourced curatorial systems emerge in response, alongside independent gatekeepers who carve out a reputation for themselves? (I’m sure Amazon would very much like to become that curatorial system, and I expect that’s one of the many reasons they’re cutting deals like the above.)

A lot of the stigma against vanity published works comes from the fact that a great deal of them are self-published because they’re simply not very good (e.g. Mister Riley and his cash prizes for readers). But is the desire for quality literature (a deliberately nebulous concept) something that we’ve been trained up to by the perfectionism and foibles of commissioning editors and publicists over the years, or is there something measurably objective about it? Will ubiquitous self-publishing produce a “race to the bottom” in writing quality?

I certainly don’t see that happening in the music world, which is probably as close to a test-bed of the situation as we’re going to get. As a music reviewer, I certainly see a lot more self-released albums from bands who simply aren’t up to the job than I used to just a year ago… but the playing field has widened enough that amongst the blatantly amateur, there’s a lot of very talented people releasing work that would have been considered too marginal for a record deal a decade ago. I guess I’m still fairly sold on certain aspects of Chris Anderson’s Long Tail theory – not necessarily the hard numbers side of it, but the notion that the age of the hit and the megastar is over, and that the lowering of economic barriers to entry at the niche end of the graph is letting a lot of marginal creators find their audiences, no matter how small that audience might be. Might the same happen with novels, short stories? Perhaps the rapid colonisation of web publishing by genre fiction (itself an inherently niche industry) is a sign that things will move that way for subcultural literature…

… unless you want to be a real pessimist, in which case you might say that genre webzines are just rats leaving the sinking ship and clinging to whatever flotsam they can find. I don’t believe that, obviously – I wouldn’t be running this site otherwise. But what do you think?

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