Rumours of publishing’s death etc etc etc

Paul Raven @ 20-12-2010

Apologies for lack of content here today; without going in to too much detail, I’ve spent much of the last 18 hours talking to unspecified Lovecraftian deities on the big white porcelain telephone, and as such blogging is somewhat off the agenda (along with most things that involve thinking clearly or moving around much).

But I thought I should at least pop in and mention Cory Doctorow’s latest Publisher’s Weekly piece, wherein he ruminates on what he’s learned from elaborately self-publishing his latest short fiction collection, With A Little Help.

With a Little Help has helped me realize something: whatever I do next, I don’t want to be in charge of all these moving parts. I can’t be both a Zen, let-it-all-happen-at-its-own-pace writer and an aggressive, deadline-pushing publisher. If I were realistically going to keep up this publishing stuff, I would need to outsource every task that requires the virtues inherent in agents, editors, sales, marketing, distribution and retail, especially that willingness to tithe a large portion of my working day to logistics, follow-ups, and calls.

Talks the talk, walks the walk, learns in public, shares the lessons. Could this be the same Doctorow who gets accused of advocating all artists give their work away for nothing, and of dismantling old business models with no thought to what will succeed them? I guess someone’s only hearing what they want to hear… and I look forward to the inevitable attempts to explain that it’s me. 🙂


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?


Fandom as the vanguard of the new cosmopolitanism

Paul Raven @ 04-11-2010

Interesting essay from Cory Doctorow over at Locus Online; I’m always a little leery of pieces that see science fiction fandom doing that pat-ourselves-on-the-back-for-being-a-little-bit-ahead-of-the-curve thing, but I think Doctorow may have a point when he claims that fandom – alongside many other modern subcultures, it must be said – can be typified by a sort of “gourmet cosmopolitan” attitude peculiar to the post-modern (altermodern?) networked world. In passing, he also makes some interesting points about a core philosophy of science fiction stories which I’d like to see further expanded:

… we tend to think of ‘‘cosmopolitan’’ as a synonym for ‘‘posh’’ or ‘‘well-travelled.’’  But that’s not what I mean here: for me, to be cosmopolitan is to live your life by the ancient science fictional maxims: ‘‘All laws are local’’ and ‘‘No law knows how local it is.’’ That is, the eternal verities of your culture’s moment in space and time are as fleeting and ridiculous as last year’s witch-burnings, blood-letting, king-worship, and other assorted forms of idolatry and empty ritual.

[…]

Which is not to say that cosmopolitans don’t believe in anything. To be cosmopolitan is to know that all laws are local, and to use that intellectual liberty to decide for yourself what moral code you’ll subscribe to. It is the freedom to invent your own ethics from the ground up, knowing that the larger social code you’re rejecting is no more or less right than your own – at least from the point of view of a Martian peering through a notional telescope at us piddling Earthlings.

[…]

Rule 34, the Amish, and fandom’s willingness to wear its sweaters inside-out are the common thread running through the 21st century’s social transformations: we’re finding a life where we reevaluate social norms as we go, tossing out the ones that are empty habit or worse, and enthusiastically adopting the remainder because of what it can do for our lives. That is modern, sophisticated, gourmet cosmopolitanism, and it’s ever so much more fun the old cosmopolitanism obsession with how they’re wearing their cuffs in Paris, or what’s on at the Milan opera.

Comments are open: what are your thoughts? (Unless they’re along the lines of  “Doctorow is an [x]!” or “sf fans are [y]!”; these are opinions you’re entitled to, but I’d request politely that you find somewhere else to share them.)


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… ]


South Pacific Fantasies

Lavie Tidhar @ 11-09-2010

Having lived in Vanuatu, I still retain a lot of affection for the place – I miss speaking Bislama, and keep in touch with several people in and of Vanuatu.

Vanuatu has also fed much of my recent fiction. My novella Cloud Permutations is a planetary romance set on a world, Heven, populated by Ni-Vanuatu settlers, and I explore Vanuatu in several short stories, from “The Solnet Ascendancy” in the Shine anthology to “How To Make Paper Airplanes” (Hao nao blong mekem old pepa eroplen) in the special Mundane SF issue of Interzone.

So when I saw Nalo Hopkinson tweet about a new initiative to take place in Vanuatu, I was intrigued… and then, as I began reading, also concerned.

The Vanuatu Pacifica Foundation and Tanna Center for The Arts is the brainchild of Paul D. Miller, AKA DJ Spooky, an American artist who has decided to establish, well, something, on the island of Tanna.

Now, normally I wouldn’t pay that much attention to something like this. But this project’s Board of Advisors includes, in no particular order, Cory Doctorow, Yoko Ono, Bruce Sterling and Jimmy Wales. (ETA: despite what this post originally says, Nalo Hopkinson is not a member of the BOA. My apologies.)

And suddenly, I became a lot more concerned.

Why?

To understand this, one needs to understand a little of Vanuatu itself: of its colonial history and its current politics and concerns. One needs to understand – or at least be familiar with – the concept of kastom, the old culture and the old way, and the tension that exists between it and outside influences.

One must also understand the very sensitive issue of land ownership in Vanuatu.

So just what is the Pacifica Foundation? And why are all these eminent Westerners on its board of advisors? And just what raises numerous red flags in my mind?

For one thing, there are no Man Tanna (people of Tanna) on the BOA, with the sole exception of the land owner, Isso Kapum. Most worryingly, there is no mention of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre (kaljeral senta blong Vanuatu), the incredible people who work tirelessly to protect, preserve and invigorate kastom. Can DJ Spooky work without the Cultural Centre? Has he made contact with them? Do they approve this resort?

DJ Spooky sets to build an “artist retreat” on Tanna. “artists, writers, composers, theoreticians, and creatives from all disciplines will be invited to explore sustainable art practice … in a spirit that celebrates the unique qualities of being located in the South Pacific.” I’m not quite sure what those are, exactly, but “The Vanuatu Pacifica Foundation is building this artist retreat as a way to keep the cultural legacy of Tanna vibrant and alive.”

How? How would foreign artists on a retreat possible help preserve or even understand the culture of Tanna?

Many of the Tannese have resisted change for centuries, but now feel the call to engage with the outside world. The younger generation has begun to leave the island, and “they get into trouble,” says Esso Kapum who gave the use of his land on Tanna for the venture. “We want to give them a reason to stay.”

There are so many problems with these contradictory statements I find it hard to know where to begin. Let’s begin with land ownership, possibly the most important thing in Vanuatu. Land cannot be sold so much as leased on a 99 year basis. Land disputes are the number one cause of strife, prolonged trials and topics of conversation. Today’s situation sees much traditionally-owned land being “sold” to foreigners, mostly Australian land speculators, to develop as housing for the rich or as resorts. The situation is desperate on the island of Efate (Vanuatu’s main island) and is spreading rapidly, to Tanna and even the remote Banks islands, where I lived.

At its most basic, DJ Spooky and his board of directors, wittingly or not, are contributing to the parceling of traditional land away from its traditional owners.

Worse than that, there is no sign of how, or why, this project will assist kastom kalja. No kastom jif is on the board of directors. Tanna kastom is strong (for a fascinating exploration of kastom on Tanna check out The Tree and the Canoe) but such a retreat will not serve it.

Construction on the island is typically done with imported labor and imported materials, but we’d like to use local talent and the abundant resources as much as we can. … With proper funds we can fly in bamboo construction experts and purchase equipment, but are also open to volunteers who can fly themselves to the island and help with construction and cultivation. Our goal is for the retreats and residencies to be free of charge, thus we will need to find ways to be self-sufficient. Individuals able to help us cultivate the land to grow our own food and possibly export are a high priority. We also wish to empower the local population and decrease gasoline usage so experts in diesel to vegetable oil conversion are needed.

I don’t know how to characterise that paragraph apart from saying it is complete and utter nonsense. Importing bamboo? Most construction is done with imported labour? Imported from where? kastom buildings on Vanuatu are fantastic, sharing their construction with their South East Asian progenitors (see the Lapita), built from local trees, bamboo and material. See my hut for an example – technically, it is what’s called a semipermanen, or semi-permanent structure, due to its concrete base, which is not usually present. The electricity wires leading to the roof, needless to say, did not lead any electricity – there had been a generator on Vanua Lava a few years ago but it had not lasted long. A resort of Tanna for foreign artists would require electricity, running water, refrigeration – none of which we had on Vanua Lava, nor did we need them. Everything was locally built, from local material – notice the natangura roof and the bamboo weave walls.

Of course, according to DJ Spooky, the conditions are “very primitive”. Not a word I would particularly like to use, or that inspires much confidence in me.

Even the simple things like going online, or getting cash or getting eggs is a big production and often ends with the need tom try again another day! Often i have no idea what is going on – Bislama, the pidgeon English, is still hard to understand and folks are not very good at explaining things!

Again, where do you stat? Perhaps one should learn Bislama? “I have started to teach Isso’s daughter English.” So far, then, the cultural exchange is going exactly one way, isn’t it?

As for getting cash – a large part of the point about Vanuatu, and the tireless efforts of the guys of the Kastom Ekonomi team at the Cultural Centre, is that cash is a foreign concept, and Vanuatu does not need to engage with the cash economy but rather use its – very successful – traditional, or kastom, economy, based entirely on self-reliance and growing and catching your own food. The cash economy is forced on Vanuatu to a large extent by well-meaning foreign aid agencies, and to a large extent is redundant. (Try and visit Hu, the last island in Vanuatu, in the Torres Islands, which is a perfect embodiment of the kastom ekonomi).

So what is DJ Spooky doing? I am not sure. And normally, I would not care a great deal – many dreamers come to Vanuatu, and many dreams hatch and fade with the sitsit blong solwota. What does concern me is the large number of influential, well-meaning people on the Board of Directors – including Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow, writers in my field who I respect a great deal – who seem to sign their name, with all good will, to something they should not, perhaps, be supporting.

I think, worse of all about this, is that a small but dedicated group of people, in and outside of Vanuatu, really are doing great work, with an understanding of the unique culture of the islands – people working to fight off the cash economy, to record and preserve vanishing languages and customs, and those are the people who should be supported. And sometimes, to do just that, one should do nothing at all.

Lavie Tidhar is the author of The Bookman (Angry Robot Books) and follow-ups Camera Obscura and Night Music, both forthcoming from the same publisher. His latest book, novella Cloud Permutations, is just out from PS Publishing in the UK. His story In Pacmandu is this month’s featured fiction on Futurismic.


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