You might've read about Macmillan Publishers having all of their titles pulled (which include imprints such as Tor and Thomas Dunne Books) from Amazon.com over a price dispute. And if you didn’t you might have noticed the sudden disappearance of thousands of popular titles from Amazon. Or maybe this is all new and irrelevant to you and you just want to know when new episodes of American Idol
air, I don’t fucking know.
Anyway, it’s a big prick-measuring dick fight and the yard stick is made of dollar bills. That’s just about par for the course when it comes to the publishing, or pretty much any other industry. I checked out the New York Times article, and then I hit up BoingBoing.net to read Cory Doctorow’s commentary on the situation. After a brief summary of that situation, he segued into the post proper with this:
“If the NYT's report is true, then this is a case of two corporate giants illustrating neatly exactly why market concentration is bad for the arts.
I had a hard time getting past that point, and past the reader-intensive focus of the post. I am well-versed enough in the issues and in Doctorow’s position that I knew what pitch was coming. I even agree with much of his argument. Yet I had this taste in my mouth. This briny, metallic taste. I realized there was a central fallacy in his post, a fallacy that is prevalent throughout debates of this nature on the side of the authors/artists taking the offensive. I see it a lot these days, particularly from the more successful creators down for the digital cause.
Here’s the fallacy: The “market” in question, any market, is bad for the arts.
The publishing industry is not essential to creating art or even distributing it, not anymore. It is essential to us, the creators, getting paid for it. Cory Doctorow is a cool guy with a lot of good points who writes some pretty wicked fiction, but he also doesn’t want to wear a Kinko’s apron every day. None of us do. Look, lifers don’t write as a business decision. We write because we are compelled. I was driven toward storytelling long before I had any concept of money at all. But then we grow up and it’s time to get an unrelated day job, and many of us decide we’d prefer not to. There’s nothing wrong with that. We have a specialized, marketable skill producing content for a variety of viable mediums. We’re the backbone and nerve center of the multi-multi-multi-billion-dollar entertainment industry. Movies, music, television, everything relies on writing. We should be getting paid competitive wages, at the very fucking least.
But none of that, absolutely no part of that equation, has anything to do with art or artistic appreciation by the masses. I find there are key phrases missing from the rallying cries of this whole movement, e.g. “I WANT MY CONTENT FREELY AVAILABLE TO THE MASSES [who will pay for it in one form if not in another]!”
A large audience appreciating your art does not affect the art itself. It just makes you feel really, really good and in the appropriate consumer context allows you to make fat, sweaty bank selling your artistic wares. In that context, I don’t want to get screwed by a studio or a publisher or any other company that is going to profit from the sale of my work. I want my fair cut, and I want the freedom and flexibility to ply my trade and my wares without being limited by one entity’s stranglehold control over the content in question.
*That* is why I give a shit about DRM, about the huge gaping cracks in the professional and creative philosophies of the publishing industry, and about Amazon. The authors who were arbitrarily removed by Amazon and even more arbitrarily sacrificed as pawns by Macmillan in support of their bottom line haven’t had their art assaulted, they’ve had their livelihoods fucked with. Their art itself hasn’t been affected. The books, the work, has not been altered or censored or changed, their ability to generate revenue from that work has. Severely.
These are issues that should and need to be addressed by the author from a business standpoint of, “Hey, publisher/distributor, your huge-ass tower is built on and sustained by bricks of my creation and it’s unfair to make decisions at the top of said tower that take a sledgehammer to those bricks.”
In essence: No taxation without representation. Bitch.
Hey, I’m also a reader. I want control over my purchased content. But I am not the guy to advocate the position of the reader because I am a greedy, self-interested prick and the readers’ choice equals my fucking dollars. Dollars I am actively chasing and for which I am scamming the readers’ pocket. And Amazon has become desperately, obscenely important in terms of dollars, especially to publishers and by proxy novelists. We depend on Amazon for sales, for revenue, for inclusion in new and popular technologies.
Amazon was a great idea upon its inception. But then MTV was a great idea once upon a time, as well. When great ideas become successful, when they become publicly traded companies, they cease to hold any expectation of artistic values. DRM sucks, but taking Amazon to task on some kind of artistic moral ground is absurd. They are like any other corporate entity in our capitalist, monopoly-tolerant society. They want to own the most toys. They want to win. They could give a diarrheic monkey crap about how their strategy to do that impinges art. Should they care? Fuck yes. Everyone should. But the point of this is that as we’re trying to make a living from these artistic endeavors, we have to deal in practicality and realism.
There’s a lot be said about copyright law from myriad angles, but Amazon is not going to topple this mythic unspoken covenant between readers and authors with the Kindle. The internet aside, if you’re a profitable author your books are being knocked off in Hong Kong and sold on the street right now. And frankly I think those guys are making a more meaningful contribution to the battle against market concentration than we ever could. But we’re not getting our cut so it doesn’t count (don’t worry, Harlan Ellison just snorted eight pounds of Bolivian coke and is swimming across the ocean to chew on the Achilles tendons of those pirates right now).
You can’t change the consumer relations policy of the publishing industry without taking a kerambit to the very fabric of corporate America, shredding it to pieces, and re-stitching the entire tapestry into something that is not looking to fuck the lower 99% of creators, inventors, workers, consumers, basically everyone not on the executive board. What is wrong with the publishing industry is what is wrong with business in a much broader sense. And while it’s fine and logical to focus on our own industry, using the pretext of “art” and some illusory holistic bond between artists and humanity to sell your position is not only unrealistic, its ineffectual to what you’re trying to accomplish.
You don’t get a pass in a business-oriented environment because you’re a fucking artist. You can go create art in a basement without a contract. Henry Darger was a janitor for fifty years, and if he were alive today he could give a camel’s hump about digital rights management. There’s no art in selling. You’re an artist when you’re writing. When you’re selling you’re a barker. You’re a pitchman. You’ve dressed your artistic creation in eight-inch clear heels and are forcing it to dance in a tent while sweaty coal miners throw nickels at it. It doesn’t mean you can’t have integrity or make integrity-based business decisions. No issue is black and white, save for child molestation and my belief that Michael Bay movies are cultural pollutants taking a higher psychic toll than we’re aware.
But they will *always* be business decisions, not artistic choices.
When art and industry start fucking they make flipper babies. When you start arguing business from an artistic and/or altruistic point of view you are that flipper baby. You simply cannot fight for consumer rights when you’re making your nut off the consumer. I can scarcely imagine a larger conflict of interest than that. To reiterate, you don’t get exemption by flying the flag of an artist, or with the snazzy war cry of, “I will *SHOW* you how wrong you are, industry.” Traditionally industry does not learn, and when/if it does it is not going to concede *any* type of control to you, the individual, upon showing them the error of their ways.
It’s cool to worry about your fanbase and their rights. You can’t exist as a publishing entity without them. But shit like this is affecting their ability to purchase your work. It’s affecting your sales. It’s dishonest to bury that lead, regardless of how much you genuinely care about free market publishing. Besides which you’re not doing the vast majority of readers any favors. Right now the mass consumer wants their shiny toy more than they want to read your story. It’s that simple. You are not that significant.
If we really wanted to reverse the polarity of the publishing industry, if our basis was solely the preservation and distribution of art, our collective war cry would become, “It is wrong, therefore I will work at Jersey Mike’s Subs and give *ALL* of my work away for free!” Money would not enter into it. Selling would not enter into it. But that’s absurd, right? Not only is this model of selling books too deeply ingrained in the American consciousness to be overturned, no professional author would come along, leaving you with no leverage.
So we get authors, very vocal and very charismatic and very convincing, raising a symbolic torch of free fiction with one hand while jerking off their publisher for that sweet treasury-green jism with the other. As long as they’re cashing a check, that torch is just that: symbolic. It can be dangerous and detrimental to take it literally. That cry of “GIVE US FREE!” can and does become intoxicating to the uninitiated and the unestablished who don’t realize how much toil and obscurity it took to get a single author to that point, and how easy and usual it is to never reach that point yourself. It’s a dangerous tightrope to encourage others still establishing their careers to walk, for a few reasons.
As long as dollars are involved, half-a-dozen corporate giants will rule the realm in any given artistically-driven industry. They’re also not as dumb as everyone, including myself, make them out to be most of the time. Look at ventures like Hulu and Vevo and industry models like Amazon and the Google hive-mind. Everyone is consolidating for strength and control. DRM was just the beginning. More and more corporations have moved from fighting the digital distribution of content toward taking steps to own it. Because the spice must flow. Authors are the fucking Fremen in that analogy. The only rub is that Cory Doctorow is not the Kwisatz Haderach that’s going to lead us on a universal Jihad against the evil empire. That mythic motherfucker does not exist.
The prevailing consciousness of the audience is and has ever been the only liberating force in these mediums. For that reason content creators should be integrating themselves into this process rather than blindly banging their skulls against its hard candy shell. I’m not going to fall back on retro-boomer bullshit like “Change the system from the INSIDE, man!” But while bringing down the mountain by chipping at its base with a pick-axe isn’t impossible, it will take several thousand years and I need to afford rent, food, and heat now. Your terms are only negotiable once you have numbers to back them up.
It’s always easier to hard-line at the top. Authors like Cory Doctorow and Scott Sigler and John Scalzi are flashpoints for the digital medium, for Creative Commons and copyright liberalization. As authors with the same goals, our instinct is to rally behind them and their positions and ride the high and beautiful wave of their making to glory. But again, you have to be aware of the central fallacy. These are rare, singular cases. They are popular authors who are going to make money whether their altruistic battles are won or lost. Whatever work they’ve done (and it was hard fucking work, I take nothing away from how any successful author got to their current position) they now have the luxury of fighting the noble artist’s fight while still carving out a living and a legacy with their work. I don’t begrudge them that success or their ideals, but the package they’re selling you, unintentionally or otherwise, comes with a simple disclaimer: Your Mileage May Vary.
I got a little sidetracked from the main point, so let me bring it back home for you. There has to be a cut-off between the artist and the salesman, or rather you have to recognize that cut-off, because it’s there whether you like it or not. Don’t go into a battle of business wearing an artist’s beret. You’ll look like a full-of-shit douche nozzle and you’ll be unprepared.
Sun Tzu wouldn’t approve, and neither do I.