Monday, September 21, 2009

The (writers) Eureka Stockade.

I belong to a novelist’s group and the other day the Google thing rumbled into the usual piracy war. And people holding out about copyright and theft... I’m not going to go into the whole piracy war again. You all know where I stand on it: that it is largely a self-inflicted injury, best solved not by DRM but by reasonable prices and reasonable convenience and availability. Your milage may vary.

What I am going to talk about is copyright and its purpose. Because that’s a debate I believe we have start again.

The purpose of copyright, plain and simple, is to allow the creators of duplicable intellectual property to make a living. To nuture and foster the arts in a better fashion than a patron or storyteller’s bowl did.

The purpose of copyright is NOT (and expressly NOT) to look after look after retail. Or to shelter distributors, publishers, movie production houses or music producers.
Amazon, Google, EMI, Microsoft and every publishing house out there SHOULD HAVE NO INTEREST AT ALL IN COPYRIGHT if it is serving its purpose. If they’re all trotting off with multi-million dollar suits about copyright and who owns it... something is very wrong. If that is all (or even principally) that it is doing: It’s a pointless, worthless law and needs to scrapped, struck from the statute books and buried like ‘patrons’ as having failed in its purpose. They need something that protects creators. The rest are effectively replacable and add little value to society.

And it has failed.

It’s purpose, remember, was to allow the creators of intellectual property -- the most valuable people in any society - without whom George Bezos has no business, and the directors of EMI are out selling vegetables -- TO MAKE A LIVING. To nuture and to foster the creators.
It’s failed and failed dismally. Copyright isn’t just there for JRR Tolkein’s heirs, or Disney or even JK Rowlings. It’s there to nurture the BOTTOM of the system too. None of the above are struggling to make a living. 95% of published authors, who are earning from copyright, are. Therefore, either they should not be in the ‘creation’ business, or there is a problem with how the law has fulfilled its purpose. In my opinion, it has failed almost completely. That’s why Rowena was talking about other ways of writers making a living. Talking about state support. Talking about taking second jobs.

That’s just wrong, gentlemen, ladies, and other animals. We have an international law intented for the purpose of selecting the best talent and letting it grow and flourish. That means that the governments of the world perceived the value of CREATORS. The law has failed, been subverted and perverted. It’s not doing it’s job and now, and with the electronic medium as a potential breakout area, all of the parties who have battened onto the income that was intended for the creators of intellectual property... are trying to keep the status quo, or in Google’s case, muscle in. Leaping up and down... and as the only shred of legitimacy they have for that claim is (hollow laughter) the public interest (See the Australian parallel importation debate, where the principal price drivers are claiming they want to give the public cheaper books) and the supposed interest of the creators. Which they are ‘protecting’, see (and maybe some of the publishers are. Baen can at least claim to be doing a better job than others - but it is still not enough to live on in many cases. And the rest of the chain really can't even say that much.) Telling us that even the crumb we have been left, will be taken away. And many of us are so frightened and desperate that we’re falling in with it.

We need to back off from this. Look at the ‘living’ we earn. Look at the way that copyright derived income is divided up (in most cases more than 90% goes to parties who are not the creators). Look, dispassionately, at the costs in the electronic arena. Look dispassionately at costs overall: Authors’ incomes are calculated as a ‘gross’ under the weird assumption that this is all ‘profit’ - that there are no staff who need to earn enough to pay their COL bills, no equipment, no office, no phones, no medical. Yet profit in every other step in publishing is considered as Nett -- profit after those things are taken off. You will frequently hear the loud protestation from the rest of the chain that they make scant profits...say 3 or 5%. But, if you make the assumption that as they’re all living off the proceeds of the law to allow the creator to earn a living... then surely the creator’s ‘profit’ should only be calculated from point at which they are making a living wage for the most valuable part of the chain. Most authors - 90% - would smile if their profit from the book they took a year to write was calculated from a nett position and that was only 3% -- even if they were being paid minimum hourly wage, and time and half for overtime (I’d be earning more than 50K a year - at minimum wage ;-). I wish I did - and I’d be very happy with 3% profit on that, let alone plus the costs of office, equipment, medical etc.)

There has to be a better way of doing this: either we divest ourselves of that chain, and hire the necessary part on a work for hire basis -- which has a lot going for it in the electronic field, or we consider letting the corporates have copyright to play ducks and drakes with (which is what to all intents and purposes for all but a small percentage they do now) and cop out of it, and just work for hire, charging the sort of rates per hour that other skilled professionals who work for hire do.

Or has anyone else got any other suggestions or modifications? Because as it stands, copyright is not succeeding in its purpose. Most of us are not making a living. And it’s not nurturing and fostering the creative arts.

Or do you think writing should be an amatuer, part-time profession?


Anonymous said...

VERY well put Dave. I think a lot of us would be glad of either part of your solution, we just don't see how to get there, yet.

"...we divest ourselves of that chain, and hire the necessary part on a work for hire basis -- which has a lot going for it in the electronic field ..."

This won't be viable until POD costs drop, or very good e-readers are available and cheap. At the rate of tech advances, either is possible, Real Soon Now. Getting an advertising method that works may be the biggest challenge.

"...just work for hire, charging the sort of rates per hour that other skilled professionals who work for hire do."

But how do you persuade a publishing house that you can, indeed, write well, regularly, and reliably? And we'd all have to give up our stary-eyed dreams of being the next JK Rowling.

"...Or do you think writing should be an amatuer, part-time profession?"

I think this is still where it's going to have to start. I just agree that this isn't where it should end.

The first option is still thought of as the last resort, where not-good-enough-to-be-bought works go. Breaking that reputation through advertising is where the first change is going to have to happen, IMO.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Matapam: Getting an advertising method that works may be the biggest challenge.

Ori: No advertising method that is open to both Dave the-really-good Freer and Ori may-one-day-aspire-to-wannabe-status Pomerantz on an even footing would work. For good evaluation, you need to have commitment of real resources by a person competent to evaluate authors. When Toni uses up one of the six monthly slots Baen gets, that's a commitment of resources.

In the electronic world, there is no limit to the slots. Therefore, we need some other commitment of resources. When Eric Flint reads a first novel by a guy called Dave Freer, and decides to collaborate with him, that's another commitment of resources. There are two possible outcomes, both with pain for Eric Flint should this Dave Freer guy not be worth reading:

1. Eric Flint wastes valuable writing time, and gets 50% of the royalties for doing most of the work.

2. Eric Flint just lends his name in return for 50% of the royalties(1). If the book is not good, Eric Flint loses his brand name, which is what gets people to buy more Eric Flint books.

I believe we'll see a lot more collaborations between new authors and established ones in the future. It's a way for new authors to create their brand name is a world that is full of people who think they can write.

(1) Theoretical outcome. Eric Flint wouldn't do that. But other authors have been known to.

Anonymous said...

Shopping for books is different than buying groceries. 99% of all purchases are never-read-it-before. It's not like "Oh, I have a coupon for this other brand of pineapple, I think I'll give it a try."

We readers are out there looking for a new book or books to read. Discovering a new author that you love is enough to make your whole week light up.

So, how do we, electronically, do our shopping? Amazon has their recommendations, and "People who bought this book also bought" listings, which are helpful. There are plenty of revues, but you just about have to be looking for the book before you trip across them.

What will work in the future, if there's no bookstore to walk into.

An Ebook and/or POD version of the SF book club? Lots of people, critics, former publishers, agents with pages of ratings? Or just loud mouths who can get enough people to read their webpage? Or subscribe to "Suzy's Top Ten weekly SF/F picks."

MataPam pushing her own stuff won't work nearly as well as, say a co-op site featuring a dozen known writers and their recommendations. Collaberations are all well and good, but they have to be brought to the attention of readers, and there are a limited number of times that a known author can do one and still eat. Recommendations are much easier on the authorial pocketbook.

But this requires something like a webmaster/first reader who will have to make money on the deal. Else the writers are spending too much time reading slush.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Matapam: Shopping for books is different than buying groceries. 99% of all purchases are never-read-it-before.

Ori: I'm not so sure. We don't buy the same book twice, but we do buy the same brand (author, publisher if they have a really good track record, etc.).

Matapam: Recommendations are much easier on the authorial pocketbook.

But this requires something like a webmaster/first reader who will have to make money on the deal. Else the writers are spending too much time reading slush.

Ori: This is exactly the problem. Somebody has to be in a position where if they recommend you a good book, they benefit - but if they recommend a bad book, they lose. Otherwise, Joe more-money-than-sense-and-more-sense-than-talent Wannabe would just pay for promotion. I don't want to read Joe Wannabe.

It could be an author (I trust Eric Flint to have a good taste in books). It could also be a professional editor. But Eric Flint already has a brand that would make me trust him. Toni Weisskopf, until the became publisher of Baen, did not. I didn't know her, Jim Baen was the company's public face, so I wouldn't have known if I should trust her judgment or not.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

You've raised some big questions, Dave. Matapam and Ori have discussed some interesting alternatives.

I wish I could add something intelligent. To be frank, I am so busy making sense of my new job, lecturing on writing, researching for my new writing project and juggling my family commitments, I don't have the mental space in my head to come up with a brilliant solution.

Kate said...

Ori: I'm not so sure. We don't buy the same book twice, but we do buy the same brand (author, publisher if they have a really good track record, etc.).

That's not a valid analogy. Groceries, you know brand X widgets are always going to be brand X widgets unless they go New Coke on us and mess with what works. With few (and invariably awful) exceptions, authors produce a new "product" with every book. The analogy here is a work of art, not a product. There are skills involved in the creation of the work of art, some of which can be learned, but every piece is fundamentally different. You can't associate David Weber with space opera because he writes other things as well. You don't know if the next book David Weber writes will be a space opera, although the odds lean that way.

What's important with artists is not "brand", but "name" - If I say "Pratchett", most SF/F readers know exactly who I mean. They may not read his books, but they know who he is, and they know something about the kind of books he writes. More important, perhaps, they know he sells books by the trailerload and wins awards. He has "name".

Unfortunately, building name recognition is a feedback loop that's a hell of a thing to get going. Pratchett got his the old fashioned way - by writing books that people liked and told other people to buy, until somewhere around the fifth or sixth Discworld book he was a best seller, and by the tenth or thereabouts, the writing equivalent of a superstar - outside the US. Inside the US, people were getting his books mail order from the UK and his signing queues here still left the local talent for dead.

The model currently in favor, "Instant bestseller, just add push", usually generates good sales for the first book, after which it tapers off pretty quickly because the poor sod chosen for the attention usually doesn't have the ability to live up to the hype. Depending on how they got chosen to be an insta-bestseller, they could well build that skill, but after their sales start fading the industry won't touch them again unless they change their name and start the cycle again.

I don't think any kind of work for hire is going to get anywhere, because the current publishing establishment is used to having near-absolute power over authors and will fight any change with everything they have - whether it's counter-productive or not. Upstream, the distributors are used to having near-absolute power over publishing houses, and the bookstore chains near-absolute power over the distributors. This is why large amounts of the folding stuff change hands to get a book on an end-cap display, and why damn near everything in the industry is slanted towards the bookstores.

Lest anyone think I'm some kind of rabid pinko commie or something, the problem here is not any of the groups here wanting to make money. It's that the power is all on one side. It doesn't matter who has the power, if it's all with one side, there will be abuse.

The real issue here is whether - and if so, how - authors can take back some control in the whole process (not that they ever had much). It will take things like author cooperatives doing things standard publishing wouldn't dare consider, sometimes failing spectacularly. It may also take several generations to clean out entrenched corporate habit in some cases. And it will be an uphill road the whole way.

Anonymous said...

While we frequently buy and read books by the same author, I also regularly just jump in and read something completely new.

Sort of like suddenly deciding to learn to cook Indian stuff, when you've previously stuck to Italian, Mexican and meatloaf. How many times do you just see something at the grocery store and say "Hey, I feel like taking a chance today?"

It happens all the time in the book store or library. A cover picture or title catches your eye, and off you go. I've added new cuisines to my repertoire a few times in my life. I tried two new authors last _month_.

If known name authors band together for ratings lists and it's their recommendations, not "just anyone's" I think they could manage to jointly support a webmaster/slushreader. And by slushreader, I mean someone to pass along the two percent of submissions that are decent, to the authors, any of whom could recommend them, or not.

But even if that part would work, we're still back in the place where most people consider readers too expensive and hard on the eyes, and they want a paper book. And POD is simply more expensive than mass production.

Ori Pomerantz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ori Pomerantz said...

Good points. I guess I'm more conservative in my reading choices, probably because I lack money and time (four kids, ages 6-2).

Anyway, the question of "how does Joe Wannabe break into fiction writing" may be different from the question "how does Dave Freer make enough money writing fiction". Maybe we should worry more about the second.

So far the Save the Dragons storyteller's bowl collected about 5.5k$. How bad is that in proportion to getting published by Baen? Can we think of any premiums that might encourage people to donate more?

Chris McMahon said...

Very interesting discussion, guys. Each way I turn this thing I end up with someone in the position of judging someone else's work, that someone being in some position of power, whether they be a publisher, the holder of the promotion purse-strings or the resident guru of the writers co-op.

I think part of the dilemma come back to the qualitative nature of art in the first place. If we were all a bunch of plumbers we could get together and decide how much to charge for fixing a sewer pipe.

Writers taking back some of the control has GOT to be a good thing.

Dave Freer said...

I think the opening shots in this conflict have already been fired. As the authors we are outgunned, outnumbered, almost certain to get screwed, no matter who wins in the Google et al copyright wars.

So why am I even bothering to raise this? Because the entire legitimacy of copyright law rests not on Disney or Amazon or Google or B&N... but on the creators. At the moment there is no reason for the various big boys who claim to be representing our interests to give a toss (unless you're selling millions - in which case you really don't need them.) But a threat to withdraw that legitimacy is a dire one to all of them. We need to assert one thing, often. Copyright is there for Authors. It does not exist to protect anyone else's interests at all. If we ever let that fact be forgotten we're going to get screwed even more badly.

Dave Freer said...


I believe the time is coming very soon - hence all the activity to tie down electronic copyright. And yes, advertising is a problem, but I believe it can be beaten. It may be necessary to scapegoat the various large retail players to do this. Shrug. It's us or them, and they have done precious little to look out for us.

Work-for-hire - I agree with Mike Resnick on this one. Big corporates have used it before, and will again. The trick is not going to be getting in (where they'll hire at mnimum wage - which might still be better than many authors get now, but getting out and known as the actual author of xyz. As for the dreams of being the next Rowling... I fail to see why that should kill it... unless you're a one book wonder. Professional sportsmen 'work-for-hire' and if they're good, that hire is expensive.

Yes it acceptable to start as an amateur at the first, but those who love reading need to be aware that it can't stay there if they want their favorite, often and improving.

Dave Freer said...

Ori, I think a co-operative - where names draw readers to a site, is more likely than collaborations - simply because outside of Baen a lot of readers have been burned.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Like you I read a lot and voraciously. And I often feel like something different. The problem, right now?

Well, my darlings, on what Kate said -- the power thing -- the problem isn't even that power is all on one side. It is that the people working at all levels are more invested in the power than the money. Which is why continuously-falling distribution/sales rates are "corrected" by "more control."

I'm going to except Baen from this -- except where the rest of the sales chain hits it (and hard, trust me) -- because Baen is doing things the old fashioned way: for money. Part of this it's because it's any many levels a family enterprise. Toni wants the books to sell because that's her pocket book and -- eventually -- her descendants well-being.

So, looking at the other publishers, we can start on that end of the chain to see "what went wrong." The mergers of the eighties would be a big place to pick at. MOST of the people working in NYC publishing are not affected by the bottom line on a book. There's always tons of excuses on why it didn't do well that don't involve THEM. They are, however, affected by letting go of any crumb of their power. If they do that, they'll never get it back.

I know the average salary for an assistant editor -- living in one of the most expensive cities in the world -- ten years ago was about what a secretary makes in my little back water rockies town. I don't know how much senior editors make, but I think it varies. Plus, they're always on the verge of layoff, the way the industry is now.

The ONLY thing they get out of the job, most of the time, is control over their list. And it's their only protection too "See, how indispensable I am? I picked this guy and he really became a bestseller. I didn't invest any money in these, and they didn't."

So, you say "It's always been like that." Yeah, but there used to be... checks and ballances. The publishing industry might have been like that for a while, but it was still possible to break out of the chains, to have a "surprise hit". How you say?

Well, see, bookstores were mostly labors of love. No one was getting rich from them, but the people who ran them were readers who loved the books, loved the people they met, loved finding new authors and sharing. A lot of them were store owners or lifetime bookstore managers.

It's no longer like that. Most bookstores in the US are chains; most are part of a distribution system based in another state. Most managers don't read or read very little, because "bookstore" is just another "retail job" which attracts either people who don't have any particular vocation/training, or people who are very young. In either case, neither group tends to read a lot. Which is why book-trends on what gets shelved is now driven by: comics, movies and how much sex the book has.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

My local bookstores don't carry my books. In fact, I think very few bookstores carry my books. If we ask about it, we get told that they have limited shelf space. Which is usually taken up with a hundred copies of the same celebrity tell-all.

This cuts out an avenue of discovery for readers like Pam and I. I mean this as a reader -- I haven't gone into a bookstore in YEARS. Why? Well, because the last time I went all there was on the shelf was Da Vinci code knock offs and sex-in-the-city disguising as fantasy. I don't read those, so what's the point, exactly? But it's what's stocked because it's what some manager in Kansas -- possibly a very young one -- who has the job of stocking for my area, which he's never seen, thinks is "sexy" and "will sell."

This leaves as the only area of potential breakthrough in sales "word of mouth". Don't discount it. It's how I find new books these days. "You simply must read..." But the problem is this: I'm now getting the most fan mail ever for my musketeer series. One teeny problem. First book came out three years ago. The entire series is now out of print. Note that Baen doesn't do this. They're not zany and they're in it for the money.

Other publishers do this because control is more important than the money. You have to control your inventory. If one of the books you "downlisted" is now suddenly ascending to bestseller status... well, it proves you're not a good a picker of winners and layoff might loom.

This makes breakout completely impossible. Kate mentioned PTerry. She didn't mention that before his queues were huge with UK books, he had a tour -- I think he said in 90? -- where the greatest attendance at a signing was... FIVE. This my dears while he sold boat loads of books in the UK and OZ and the rest of the English speaking world. When he told that story I felt much better. If the screwed up system can keep PRATCHETT as a great unknown in the US, then, duh, of course it can do the same to me.

His breakthrough was word of mouth. He was still in print in England, see? So people who were told about him started buying him from there. (I did, after discovering Equal Rites in my used bookstore. Since at the time we were living off vegetables and rice, this meant some pancake dinners, but it was worth it.)

This is the other end of Dave's view -- most of the people ferociously holding on to copyright are publishing houses and distributors. Even though copyright has nothing to do with THEM. Because it's control, and it's all they get.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I think that's the same point -- again, Baen excepted -- of keeping electronic books prohibitively expensive. I got a kindle for xmas and I've been doing a lot of my buying electronic. Have to or buy another house for the books. Some of the purchases are reasonable. But most cost hard cover prices. I will buy them if I need them or they're specialized research, or I want to take them on a trip to read (electronic is easier) but other than that I still buy the paper version because "at least you get something." Why are electronic copies so expensive. Well, otherwise they might take off and the chain above would lose all control.

(And we won't even go into the bookstores "protecting" us from seditious material. You go into an average chain store and ask about Baen books. You'd think you were trying to buy Mein Kampf. Heck, even POLITICAL content baen books aren't that extreme, really, and in my case... well... if they're arian shape shifters or energy thieves, I'm not touching them. Part of the reason this is raw is the bookseller at the con last weekend had ONE book of mine. It was Barnes and Noble, see. Their system only showed three books -- bantam, not Baen, natch -- and so they chose the latest. Which is, of course, book three in a series. Even though the con was mostly Baen fans, there was none of my Baen books. Simply not in their system.)

So, what do we do about it? Search me! I continue to write, because I can't stop. And because if I work myself into the ground -- and I do -- I can sort of make a living wage. If you squint.

And because as long as I stay in the game, there's a chance. It won't be an instant breakthrough -- though I bet you it will still shock my publishers -- but I AM acquiring more fans. One by one like Juan Valdez. Word of mouth. Readings at cons. Snippets posted at various places.

Things I'd like to do/am studying: Booklets, even thick ones are relatively cheap. Baen has a great "boots on the ground" fandom. I'm wondering if I get say three Baen authors and we do a booklet of excerpts of our work then ask our fans to place them not just at cons, but at local coffee shops and other places where "free" reading material is available, this might help. It did for my first series, which, without it, would not have sold at all. I just think a cooperative effort would be cheaper for all involved, and possibly more rewarding in terms of readers being more curious.

I'm also going to be starting a blook online soon. Not even for the donations -- haven't decided if there will BE a button for that -- but for the publicity. It will be of necessity an episodic endeavor, a story composed of many smaller segments, most of them probably novellette sized. The overarching story will start in Alexandria and will -- probably in five years -- end in present times. For those of you in the diner, the title will say all "Fallen from Haute -- the adventures of a succubus accidentally fallen into grace." The CHARACTER will technically be blogging, and answering the reader. It's an experiment and mostly for publicity. We'll see how it works. If it does, it will be the equivalent of a "loss leader" "I give away these canned peas, so you'll consider buying the beef."

There have to be other ways. And yeah, we're thinking about them. On the matter of the copyright -- it will tell you something that I -- a working writer, who does make at least a partial family income from this -- paid no attention whatsoever to the whole google books flap.

I agree with Dave. Right now the law doesn't serve its purpose. Will it in the future? Who knows? For now, I have books to write.

Dave Freer said...

Rowena, although family and writing always conflict, and you'll be a great and inspiring lecturer, the point is somone of your talent should be able to choose to do the latter... not relieved because of money considerations. The sales of your work make 'this is my sole way of earning living' contributions to every other step of the publishing process. It should - after the first few - be able to do so for authors. Farmers, for example, are often faced with retail and wholesale and distribution taking far more of a profit and living than they do... but no one suggests they should be hobby farmers with another job teaching farming to make a living. It's wonderful if they do - they're the best teachers. But the entire idea of them having to is a little bizarre. If it reached that point - there would not be enough food, and the price of food would have to rise - or at least the price to farmers.

Dave Freer said...

Ori, to answer your question - that's about half of the advance I could expect, and about 1/3 of what a book will eventually earn. I need two books a year just to survive, basically. And I'm doing _better_ than average midlist because Baen does look after me. Other than that - a few indy booksellers bother.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Two more things: Alvin Toffler whom I have found had a handle on things at least with Future Shock claimed we'd enter an era of Prosummers. People who made stuff AND consumed stuff. All of it for free. This is best illustrated by the fanfic model. Say, where I both write and comment on stories.

HOWEVER he postulated this would happen in an era of super abundance where if people still worked at all it would be some hours a month, the rest of the time being devoted to this type of pursuit that "gave meaning" to life.

Clearly we're not there, yet. Will we get to that "superabundance" state? May I be frank? I doubt it. Frankly, if you wanted to live like your medieval ancestors, right now, you probably could do it on three hours a month or so. Bread is cheap. So is rice. And a little plot of land with a hut on it is a one-time purchase. But we work probably MORE than our ancestors. Because our definition of "needs" has changed.

So, in this I think old Toffler was wrong. I think if writing becomes an amateur endeavor the readers will become discouraged after a while. Take fanfic. I read it in spurts. And I do a lot of skimming. And the average "career" of a contributor is about four years, I think. People simply find other hobbies. This means as a reader I'm ALWAYS having to find new "providers"

Write for hire -- this might work if the entire system weren't collapsing, from the bookstore upward. (In many ways publishers are the most with-it.) To an extent that's what our books are treated as, now. And there's a lot more of it going on than you think, even now.

PS - Ori, let's just say what Dave has got so far in storyteller bowl is more than a beginner writer's average advance and more than a friend of mine who was published by a major house ever got.

Dave Freer said...

Kate - unfortunately the system of reader assessment and word-of-mouth got killed by in-store order/re-order policies at most of the chains. For it to work the playing field had to be mostly level. It really battles to even think about working work if the book isn't even in the store. It really struggles if the book is not being re-ordered once sold. If customers have to actually order a book -- and then it may not even be on computer at the store (Baen suffers from this, ask Amanda). The end result is a highly obscured 'real popularity' - which leads to the delusion that you pimp anything into bestsellerdom - a process which has damaged publishing and reading.

Dave Freer said...

Chris the question of power/control/gatekeeper surely needs to fall to the buyer in long run? But yes. The more control to us, the better.

Dave Freer said...

Sarah, and you need to remember that Sir pTerry ALSO had a vey long non-recognition in the UK. And his early books - Strata, the Dark Side of the Sun, Carpet People, were still something fantastic and new. It took a large publisher and great covers to get him noticed... and then the process started. He didn't change. The marketing and distribution did.

Dave Freer said...

Oh and appros of Matapam's comment

Ori Pomerantz said...

Dave: Ori, to answer your question - that's about half of the advance I could expect, and about 1/3 of what a book will eventually earn. I need two books a year just to survive, basically. And I'm doing _better_ than average midlist because Baen does look after me. Other than that - a few indy booksellers bother.

Ori: So ramen profitable for you is two normal publication books, or about six storyteller's bowl books.

I assume that Baen is filled to capacity, because their limiting factor is distribution. IIRC, they are usually limited to six books a month. Therefore, any additional revenue will have to come from non traditional publication.

You have the brand name. I bought some issues of Baen's Universe only because you had a story in them, and I am going to donate to Save the Dragons(1).

Maybe we can improve revenue by tuning the Save the Dragons model. OK, a few questions to people who read this and have spare money:

1. Would you donate more for premium items with "Save the Dragons" on them(2)? Mugs, t-shirts, you name it.

2. Would you donate more for bound books, which you'll get even if Dave doesn't get Save the Dragons published? We can create them on Print on Demand.

3. Would you donate to a "what should Dave write next" auction? Professional authors write a number of book proposals that don't get taken by a publisher. If we want to see those books, we can try to pool money together and get Dave the money he'll need to write the book. An auction would be a way to do this. Also a way to prove to a publisher that the market for the book is there.

4. Print on demand book "the short fiction of Dave Freer", with whatever he wrote for Baen's Universe and a few additional shorts(3). Would you buy this? For how much?

(1) Hasn't done that yet, we're in financial difficulties at the moment. Sorry, but baby needs new diaper. Or at least toddler needs to learn potty training.

(2) Dave, if you can get me the artwork, I'll do those. That would be a way for me to donate to the "keep Dave writing" cause.

(3) IIRC, you wrote once that you write shorts as an exercise in brevity - so hopefully you have some unpublished goodies for us.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Dave: Farmers, for example, are often faced with retail and wholesale and distribution taking far more of a profit and living than they do... but no one suggests they should be hobby farmers with another job teaching farming to make a living.

Ori: That's because if farmers couldn't make a living farming, there would be a shortage of food. If authors couldn't make a living writing, well, ask Rowena what they'd do. There might be less good books, but books would still be there.

From what I read, writing is addictive. It is also prestigious (not among literary critics, but among people whose opinions you're more likely to respect). This means that we, the reading public, can get by with paying a lot less. When I check out at a book store I often feel like I'm getting away with something, by paying a lot less than the book is worth to me - but that's the way it is.

Kate said...


A "prestigious" field is not one where every man and his dog thinks he can do what you do and make a fortune. Nor is it one where someone who is doing well is just barely above the poverty line.

The only prestige attaches to the myth, not the reality of - among other things - contracts with eternal servitude clauses (almost certainly illegal, but no author dares to fight them because then they get blacklisted), payment levels that make slavery look good (Let's see... months of intensive work in return for 10,000 if you're lucky, and then you lose at least half that to a tax setup that assumes you're made of money vs guaranteed food and housing in return for much less stressful work. Gee. Which would you choose?), a level of secrecy that would make KGB proud and guarantees that someone is getting ripped off (probably just about everyone, actually, since no-one at any level of the chain appears to make any profit out of this mess. Stuffed if I know how it works)

And that, Ori, is just what I, an outsider with a few friends in the industry, know about. I suggest you take a good long look at Scrivener's Error and link-surf from there. It's not a pretty picture.

Prestige? The description I'd use involves four letter words, explicit metaphor, and is not fit for public consumption.

Now, if you can tell me how to fix all this, I might give you a little more credit.

(If I sound a wee bit bitter, then yes, I am. I'm holding back. You do not want to see full rant.)

Ori Pomerantz said...

Kate: Prestige? The description I'd use involves four letter words, explicit metaphor, and is not fit for public consumption.

Ori: Prestige is something we give in lieu of payment. I got that idea from Paul Graham, the part about Sirens. It makes sense that all other things being equal, people will accept less money for a job they consider more prestigious.

Kate: Now, if you can tell me how to fix all this, I might give you a little more credit.

Ori: I'm trying (see my comment from September 23, 2009 10:43 AM). It won't change until the distribution model changes, and that won't happen until we find a way for midlist authors to make enough money without being in book stores.

Dave Freer said...

Ori - ramen profitable - That's actually very hard for me to calculate as a South African. I hope it'll be easier an Australian, as the currency is more stable. (for example my COL bills here are in the order R316 K a year (yes I have 2 kids in college, and the costs of medical and other insurance - unavoidable in SA). That's nearly 3 times what my basic COL was eight years ago, as SA is not a cheap country to live in any more. And here is the difficulty - you can live on the ramen level for a year. Maybe 2-3. But sooner or later major expenses have to hit you. The model they were talking about is short term. For many authors (and I am better off than many, which is scary, they stay at that level) Of course I actually make less on a co-authored book - which adds another scary dimesion. But in December - when I did my budget the exchange rate was R10 - R11 to the US. I was going to break even, maybe make a little ground if nothing went wrong. Of course in the nature of publishing payment is always late... And now the exchange rate is R7.38. So I need to sell more! That's not the publishing industry's fault (except the 'late' which has cost me dearly).

Ideas 1, 2 and 3 would all work to some extent (I have some fantastic art coming for STD) 4 is in the pipeline. I have a fair number of unpublished shorts (and even books) and we'll talk about Tshirts and mugs etc. But time is not on my side! And Ori - family (and diapers) first.

Dave Freer said...

Ori said:

"From what I read, writing is addictive. It is also prestigious (not among literary critics, but among people whose opinions you're more likely to respect)."

you're right... but the situation fairly rapidly arises where you have writers needing to do day jobs. And that means they write less.

Dave Freer said...

Kate said: "a level of secrecy that would make KGB proud and guarantees that someone is getting ripped off"

Which is why I have said repeatedly that secrecy does not serve authors well. Which is why I am open my earnings.
(but then, "a rebel I came, and I am still the same ;-)" Probably not clever. But me.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Ori -- two misconceptions:

First the job is not perstigious. Yes, yes, people MIGHT -- sometimes -- fawn on us at cons, but that's at cons. Our neighbors think we're plain weird writing that sf/f stuff. And the yard being full of weeds (working 16 hours a day seven days a week DOES that.) doesn't help. We don't dress well. We don't vacation abroad unless we're one of ten people at the very pinnacle of the field. Also, perstige MIGHT weigh in if I were making a million per book. A million and schlock, versus seven hundred and fifty thousand and "good" might sound good. But when it's subsistence, perstige doesn't weigh in. ALSO if you write science fiction, fantasy or even to an extent mystery, there is NO perstige. The books that win awards and get mentioned are main stream. By awards I mean big ones, not field-specific.

Misconception number 2 - that you pay less because the author gets paid less. Ah! Even if I got 50k (I keep telling G-d it wouldn't spoil me!) per book, that would be such a small drop in the bucket of what goes into making a book it would make no difference. In fact, going from manual to digital typesetting did NOT change the price of the book. Which means either someone is getting ripped off (likely) or the whole thing is much more expensive than we think. At any rate, I know people who do get 50k and their books are no more expensive than mine. In fact, in publishing the more you print, the cheaper the individual book, so paying the author more and distributing more heavily SAVES money.

So, please, don't go imagining that if Dave and I doubled our advances, you'd be paying $40 a book. The writer is a small and "unimportant" part of the production chain as far as the business is concerned.

As for its being addictive. Maybe. But you know what, I can write and put it up for free on line, and get nice comments from an addicted public. I do that at There's no editting. No dealing with schedules. None of the icky stuff. The downside? It will never reach as many readers. The dream of eventually having an audience will be gone.

Also, right now, I need the money I make from this and various circumstances forbid my getting a job to do the same. So I limp on. For now. Till things change one way or the other. A lot of us do. But a lot quit every year. There are authors whose first three books I loved, who showed spectacular promise, who disappeared forever.

It can be done. And the field is FAR poorer for it. Part of this is the belief that "anyone can write a book". To an extent this might be true. But not anyone can write a good book. And not everyone can GROW in writing to become a bestseller. One of the real ones, at Pratchett's level. Heinlein. What the system is doing today is eating its seed corn. Never a good idea.

Dave Freer said...

Actually Kate to pick up on another point you made - I suppose that personally prestige - or rather, respect, does. It definitel y pushed me toward writing because certainly in my family authors of the books we loved were the social apogee of great people. To be honest I am proud to be someone that at least the sector of society that I respect, respects ;-). It meant a lot to me that Australia would have me for my profession. It also meant New Zealand - who would have me on my wife's profession but not mine, was out of the running (bar emergencies)the moment they said that. And yes, I can be petty and vindictive. I'll do my best to reward Australia for that repect. And make nasty sheep jokes about New Zealand. We're sadly tied into a system where money (and the visible signs thereof) = respect. Give me a choice of being as rich as the former head Lehman brothers - and as worthy of self-respect as Mugabe, or scrape and bounce, and I'm not going choose the money. That's me. Give me a choice of a respectable income and modicum of self respect, and right now I think I'd take that, rather than being a writer. Which is quite sad, really.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Oh, and Ori, before you say something about my only being in it for the money. No. Storyteling NEEDS to be heard. I'm in it for the largest audience. Of course I want to be paid. I served my apprenticeship -- for thirteen years, before I sold anything -- and my journeymanship -- the last ten years -- and TRUST me on this, it's hard work. We study all the time to improve. Our lives get overruled by this work. We do it because we love it. BUT "the workman is worthy of his pay."

What I'm saying is that if I didn't need the money and if getting it otherwise were not a problem because of other circumstances, there were times when my heart broke enough that I would have walked away.

Much of the profession resembles aversion therapy. Right now, if Baen didn't exist, I'd probably have given up -- just no more "there" to pull from. Beaten. Baen gave me the diner, which is a support group. And Baen gives a d*mn, which makes a difference. I'm not just a cog. A fellow writer told me "Oh, you're with Baen now, you'll be okay" even though she only marginally works for Baen.

And baen helps. But the system is screwing Baen too. And sometimes your heart just breaks. To create you need to be fairly sane mentally. Fairly healthy physically. Right now the system attacks both.

I'm not "threatening" to walk away if I don't get more money. I'm saying I can see the circumstances under which that would happen. As it has happened to others.

Dave Freer said...

Sarah said:
"What the system is doing today is eating its seed corn. Never a good idea."

That is both pithy and 110% accurate. It's already cost the industry dearly in what should have been a total boom-time.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Sarah: Oh, and Ori, before you say something about my only being in it for the money.

Ori: I would never say that, for two reasons:

1. I don't see being in something for the money as evil. A starving Sarah wouldn't do anybody any good.

2. I don't think you're that stupid. I've been here, and on Baen's bar, long enough to know that writing fiction is a difficult, high stress job for smart, highly educated people who could have made a lot more money by other means.

I still feel like I'm getting away with something by paying so little for books. I don't worry that if you were paid what your work is worth my books would be more expensive - I just feel that at current prices they are extremely cheap for the value.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Dave: Give me a choice of a respectable income and modicum of self respect, and right now I think I'd take that, rather than being a writer. Which is quite sad, really.

Ori: As a reader, I'd hate for that to happen. As somebody who has benefited from your hard work over the years, and who feels he owes you, I wouldn't try to persuade you you have to suffer for me to get your art.

I suspect the current distribution mechanisms would have to die before the industry could be reborn.

Kate said...


We writers are a weird bunch. Who and what we respect usually doesn't bear much resemblance to the rest of the world. Doubly, or possibly even more so, for we genre writers.

That said, Australia is on the right path with the "cultural asset" visa - a society that doesn't value its creators will be intellectually and ultimately totally sterile, while one that doesn't value its workers will have crappy plumbing. The US is well on the way to sterility with crappy plumbing, if not already there.

This could have something to do with the number of potential creators being metaphorically flushed by the system. Okay, you'd have a time finding a system that didn't do that at least some of the time, but I'd appreciate it if those doing the flushing would stop sitting on the pot and dumping their load before they send us down the s-bend.

Ori, the suggestions you made for Save the Dragons are good, as far as they go. While you're busy claiming that authors are swallowing low advances for the prestige, ideas like that tend not to go places because there's a lack of understanding of the unpleasant facts of the industry.

A data point: one of the newer ebook lines proposed by a major publisher is looking at offering zero advance and 5% royalties. By comparison, ebook-only presses routinely offer zero advance and thirty to fifty percent royalties. Another: in the last 20 years, author advances have decreased. I'm not talking the high-end superstars, I'm talking the new authors and the struggling midlisters. Have book prices decreased in that time period? A third: boilerplate contracts for at least some major publishers now includes a clause that expressly forbids the author from selling elsewhere, even under another name until all contracted books are published.

Why don't you hear authors making a fuss? Because this is an incestuous industry that runs on rumor tumbling through a hamster ball and making a fuss might win you a victory now, but you'd have a hell of a time selling anything else, ever.

Oh, and just in case you're thinking no-one could be that stupid, consider John Norman and his very popular (and endless, and bloody dreadful) Gor books. The series was killed despite being very profitable for the publisher, and if he's published anything since it's under deep cover because no-one will touch him.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Kate: Why don't you hear authors making a fuss? Because this is an incestuous industry that runs on rumor tumbling through a hamster ball and making a fuss might win you a victory now, but you'd have a hell of a time selling anything else, ever.

Ori: This is precisely because distribution is such a choke hold. Gargantua Publishing knows they'd lose some money by not publishing Joe Wavemaker Midlist. But they'd lose even more if authors thought they could make waves, cry foul, and so on.

I doubt there's much of a way through this system. The best way would be around it. It won't get fixed until the powers that be see that the roundabout path is eating their lunch.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I didn't mean to bite your head off. It's an odd day. :)


Ori Pomerantz said...

Sarah, if this is your version of biting my head of, then you're a much nicer person than I could ever hope to be. I didn't get the feeling you were upset with me at all.

Kate said...


Agreed. It's finding the flipping way around that's proving to be a right bastard. Perhaps the most frustrating thing is being able to see parts of the answer floating around here, there, and everywhere, but never all in the same place at the same time.