Because Tim Kreider‘s writing is the gift that keeps on giving, I’m writing a series of posts in response to several issues that he raised in his op-ed in the New York Times called “Slaves of the Internet, Unite.” In Part 1, I discussed how trading free work for exposure isn’t always a con: Sometimes it’s just how the business works. In Part 2, I discussed some of the economics of pricing mental labor. In this third part, I’d like to discuss some of the other people involved in art besides the artist.
Kreider is upset that the artists don’t get enough credit:
This is partly a side effect of our information economy, in which “paying for things” is a quaint, discredited old 20th-century custom, like calling people after having sex with them. The first time I ever heard the word “content” used in its current context, I understood that all my artist friends and I — henceforth, “content providers” — were essentially extinct. This contemptuous coinage is predicated on the assumption that it’s the delivery system that matters, relegating what used to be called “art” — writing, music, film, photography, illustration — to the status of filler, stuff to stick between banner ads.
(Dude, publishers have been contemptuous of their artists since long before the internet was invented. See, e.g., the history of rock-and-roll.)
As for the word “content,” the internet revolution was changing many aspects of the publishing process — marketing, production, distribution — but it was not changing the intellectual process of creating the artistic content: The internet didn’t do much to make writing, composing, or performing any easier. Thus content creators were relegated to a small part of the discussion because they weren’t part of the new revolution.
I now contribute to some of the most prestigious online publications in the English-speaking world, for which I am paid the same amount as, if not less than, I was paid by my local alternative weekly when I sold my first piece of writing for print in 1989.
So why does he keep writing for these publications if it pisses him off so much? Or think back to that band he was talking about earlier, with the venue owner who wanted them to perform free for the exposure. I can understand how that’s frustrating, but bands still perform for free. Why?
Probably because they have to. The delivery system certainly isn’t the only thing that matters, but it certainly does matter.
If it weren’t for the venue owner, that band would have to rent a hall, buy advertising that appeals to potential concert goers, hire people to do sound and lighting, maybe hire a bartender and waitresses and buy some booze, figure out how much to charge for tickets, hire someone to work the door, figure out how to handle the money and pay everybody, and so on. Even then, they’d still have a hard time bringing in a big enough crowd to make money, unless they had been putting on these concerts long enough to establish a reputation for bringing in good bands.
Artists may not like being relegated to “content creation,” but unless they can do all those other jobs, they’re just one part of a system for selling art. None of the other work is easy, and all of those people work hard too, and they want to get paid as much as they can, which means that managing expenses is a challenge. And the audience doesn’t want to get ripped off either, so it won’t be easy to get them to part with money for tickets. Chances are, if bands tried to put on their own shows without the help of promoters and venue owners and managers, they’d probably lose more money than they make. By comparison, working for free is a bargain.
The publishing industry used to be the same way. Perhaps nobody but Stephen King could write a Stephen King novel, but he wasn’t the only person doing hard work. Other people had to copy edit the manuscript, design the book layout, hire the cover artist, typeset the book, print the books, transport them to the stores, and stock the shelves. And if they wanted the book to sell, they had to buy advertising and arrange for promotions. All of that work costs a lot of money and takes skill and knowledge, and none of it was optional. If we judge by how the money was paid out, the author wasn’t even doing the majority of the work: Authors’ royalties were rarely more than 15%, with the rest going to pay everyone else involved in the process.
But these things can change, and Kreider doesn’t care for that either:
Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.
That’s a funny thing to say, considering that we’re publishing more books and music than ever before. By reducing publication costs, the digital revolution has opened up the market to a lot of smaller artists, bringing much more variety to the market.
I’m a huge fan of Linda Nagata’s science fiction, but in the more traditional publishing environment of the late 1990’s she was unable to sell enough books to make it worth her while, and she dropped out of sight for a few years. But with modern ebooks and print-on-demand technology, the publication process is a lot cheaper, and Nagata has started publishing her own books. She has a lot more expenses these days, but she gets to keep a lot more of the gross. And I get to enjoy reading her new stories.
Another example is Toni Dwiggins, the self-published author of the Forensic Geology series (Badwater and Volcano Watch). Her books are far off the bestseller list, but they are very much the kind of stories I like to read: Mystery/thrillers set against an accurate scientific background. A lot of bestselling authors sell many times more books than Dwiggins does, but just because she has fewer readers doesn’t mean those readers enjoy her work any less.
While visiting her website as research for this post, I discovered that Dwiggins has released a new novella in the series (Quicksilver), and I am just as thrilled about that as I am about books that get a lot more publicity, such as Michael Connelly’s new Mickey Haller novel. However, under the old publishing model that Kreider is mourning, I probably wouldn’t be able to read Quicksilver, because its narrower appeal would have made it unpublishable. That would have been unfortunate for both Toni Dwiggins and for me.
It’s all part of the recent explosion in our ability to customize our lives: We can customize our Facebook page, our mobile phones, and our T-shirts. My local grocery store has five types of potatoes, twenty types of meat, and fifty types of wine. The local cineplex has 18 movies, my television has 100 channels, and I have millions of songs at my fingertips for download. And now thanks to the vast explosion of low-cost publishing, I’m no longer stuck with just a handful of highly-marketable authors. I can customize my reading by choosing from millions of published books.
As it turns out, Dwiggins is giving away the ebook version of Quicksilver for free. That’s just the kind of thing Kreider was complaining about, yet as a self-published author, Dwiggins has near-complete control over the price of her books — no one is making her work for free — so she must have made the decision herself. I emailed her, and she was kind enough to explain:
[…] It kind of boils down to: “I should be paid for my work” versus “How do people find my work?”
I sure want to be paid for my work but the reality is that there are well over a million ebooks available now, just in the Amazon store. One of the side-effects of easy entry to ebook publishing is that a lot of people are doing it. So the question becomes, how does one author get one book noticed?
For instance, you mentioned you noticed that Michael Connelly and I both had new ebooks out. […] By giving Quicksilver away for free, I get it on various lists that get it noticed by…people like you ;) I’m not a name like Connelly. People who haven’t already found my books and want to read more would never go searching for a Toni Dwiggins book. I need to shove my book under as many noses as I can. And then, if they like what they read for free, the theory is they’ll go on to pay for the next books in my series.
Not dissimilar to the free cheese samples at the grocery store.
In other words, she did it for free because — Kreider’s dire warnings not withstanding — she wanted the exposure. And I got a free copy of Quicksilver out of it.
I’m willing to believe Kreider when he says the new publishing reality is bad for him, but I’m not convinced it’s a problem for the rest of us. Just because successful artists like him are not doing as well as they used to is not a sign that the system is broken. They may be losing out, but other people are gaining. Authors like Linda Nagata and Toni Dwiggins get to sell books, and people like me get to read them.