Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Technopeasant Revolt starts April 1

Slightly less than one year ago, then-VP of the Science Fiction and fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), Howard V. Hendrix, expressed a distaste for writers who give away their material for free. You can see the original blog post here. The entire post covers SFWA internal business, but the controversial bit is as follows:

I'm also opposed to the increasing presence in our organization of webscabs, who post their creations on the net for free. A scab is someone who works for less than union wages or on non-union terms; more broadly, a scab is someone who feathers his own nest and advances his own career by undercutting the efforts of his fellow workers to gain better pay and working conditions for all. Webscabs claim they're just posting their books for free in an attempt to market and publicize them, but to my mind they're undercutting those of us who aren't giving it away for free and are trying to get publishers to pay a better wage for our hard work.

Since more and more of SFWA is built around such electronically mediated networking and connection based venues, and more and more of our membership at least tacitly blesses the webscabs (despite the fact that they are rotting our organization from within) -- given my happily retrograde opinions, I felt I was not the president who would provide SFWAns the "net time" they seemed to want at this point in the organization's development, or who would bless the contraction of our industry toward monopoly, or who would give imprimatur to the downward spiral that is converting the noble calling of Writer into the life of Pixel-stained Technopeasant Wretch.

The response from the technopeasantry was predictably strong. I first heard about it in a podcast from author Scott Sigler. I later heard about it again from various other blogs and podcasts. The response prompted a clarification from Hendrix:

Although I don't spend much time in the blogosphere, I am aware—particularly through emailings from various SFWA committee members— that the use of the term "webscab" has touched off something of a firestorm.

The term itself is undoubtedly too incendiary, but I hope the discussion will prove salutary in the long term, not only to those of us who are members of SFWA or who write in the science fiction and fantasy fields, but for everybody who works in print.

My primary concern is that the webbification of publishing will increasingly disenfranchise authors—to the benefit of the big bandwidth barons, the media conglomerates. In the short term, free online posting of entire novels for promotional purposes may well strengthen the hand of those authors who gravitate to that promotional technique. My concern is that, in the long term, as more and more people become schooled to reading off the screen rather than from the printed page, free online whole-book posting may set a precedent of "why buy the cow, when you can get the milk for free?" which in the end will benefit conglomerates rather than authors as a class.

That issue still concerns the Luddite in me, who remembers that what the Luddites objected to was not technology per se, but technology which they viewed as potentially damaging to to their community and commonweal—their work and way of life. I believe I have the right to push back against technologies which I feel are potentially damaging to the community and commonweal of writers.

I may well be wrong. A number of folks have written to say that the very people I've called webscabs are those working hardest to prevent land-grabs by the big corporate congloms. I have a great deal of respect for organizations like EFF, EPIC, and Public Knowledge, but I don't feel that free online posting of whole novels for promotional purposes will in the end empower authors as a class.

I've had some very interesting emails from various people, and I'm learning from their points of view. My thoughts are not carved in stone on this. My use of the term "webscab" has proven unfortunate in that it distracted from what I was really concerned about in that posting—namely the "hypermediation" of SFWA business, where the officers and president are increasingly expected (almost required) to participate in scads of lists, blogs, and newsgroups, and to respond to every note of praise or blame that crosses the electronic transom. It's no way to run an organization, and threatens to run down and burn out the organization's officers.

Lastly, I want to clarify that I was not speaking for SFWA when I wrote that LiveJournal note. I was expressing my own opinion in what I considered a personal farewell comment to the organization and its members—rather like Eisenhower's warning of the "military industrial complex" in his farewell address as president (to compare great things with small).

I've been accused of "lobbing a bomb" by using the "webscab" term. Judging from the emails, it was a suicide bomb whose most likely victim is me.

This sort of reaction is, of course, what happens whenever technology changes a well established industry. Hendrix may well be correct in his concern for "authors as a class," as what exactly is the job of an author may soon change radically. The same goes for what it is to be a publisher.

April 1 may well mark the date of vindication for Sigler's chosen method for promoting his work. His novel, Infected, is slated to be released by Crown Publishing Group on that date. The book is being promoted as a major sci-fi thriller. It promises to be a big deal, as it has a major marketing campaign, and has the potential for a wide appeal. It has already been released as a free podcast, and Sigler is currently releasing an audio version of the soon-to-be-released print version now. It is a bold move, and likely alien to many authors. It is the move of an entrepreneur. Sigler is attempting to kick-start a business. I imagine many artistic people dislike the notion that they are, in fact, running a business, but facts are facts, whether or not they are acknowledged. If his business model proves successful, others will imitate it, and everyone will simply have to adjust to the new competition. Indeed Sigler's model suggests a good way for someone who is as prolific as he has shown himself to be. If an author is immensely popular, they could serialize their content, and get paid subscribers for that serialized content. For budding authors, the content would have to be free to attract readers, but there is no need for well-established superstar authors to so limit themselves. Indubitably, people far more savvy than myself will come up with even more ways to monetize the fruits of artistic talent.

P.S. I forgot to add the apology: I apologize for being a black guy writing about science fiction and geekery and not "keeping it real, yo."