Thursday, September 6, 2012

VanderMeer on Publishing

Over at the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America Web site, Jeff VanderMeer (Finch) dissects many of the myths floating around the Internet about the future of publishing. Excerpts:
For the past three or four years, the book world has been inundated with advice, predictions, and knowing winks about the next phase of what it means to be a writer. We're told to exploit social media, to cater to our fans, to turn to self-publishing through e-books, to eschew copyright in favor of giving readers material for free. But what value does any of this actually have? ...

I feel passionately that some of the information we are getting is increasingly wrong and motivated by selfishness and, yes, to some degree, a form of hyperbolic illogic. ...

The problem right now really isn't the "tyranny" of big NYC commercial publishers or an Amazon monopoly. The problem is the virus of mediocre and received ideas coursing through the collective brains of the book world, infecting too many of its writers, commentators, reviewers. It's a kind of fundamentalism at its heart, and we want to believe in it because it's easy to do so. Then we don't have to think for ourselves and we can also worship at the altar of a God of E-Plenty.
Read the whole thing. As you can probably tell from the above, VanderMeer doesn't handle progressive publishing shibboleths with kid gloves. Indeed, he goes at them with a verbal sledgehammer (and oft-salty diction), and few folks will find themselves in one-hundred-percent agreement with his conclusions. Personally, his view that "the ridiculous length of copyright in the US/UK right now ... is too long" somewhat horrifies me. Why shouldn't future generations continue to benefit from an ancestor's imaginative hard work?

Still, most of VanderMeer's thoughts strike me as spot on. "Self-publishing is a tool and like any other tool it can be used well or poorly." Yup. "All I can say is, if you think agents are evil sycophants who want to suck all of your money out of you and cheat you, feel free. I'll be over in this corner getting a lot more done for more money because of my agent." Seems fair. "Trad publishing offers something to the shy writer, the introverted writer, the writer who will *always* trip over themselves trying to yank at the levers of social media. And that thing is advocacy and support." Amen. Give it a gander and see what you think.

(Picture: CC 2009 by Philip Weiss; Hat Tip: @JRVogt)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

"Personally, his view that "the ridiculous length of copyright in the US/UK right now ... is too long" somewhat horrifies me. Why shouldn't future generations continue to benefit from an ancestor's imaginative hard work?"

Short Answer: the Constitution.

Article 1, Section 8, clause 8. "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."

Chestertonian Rambler said...

(Emphasis my own).

Long answer: because development and progress accrue much faster when information can be shared, *as long as it remains profitable.* The very existence of copyright and IP law is a compromise; ideas are notoriously shifty things. I like the fact that Cat Valente or C.S. Lewis can write about Monopods without paying copyright fees, or that a young Walt Disney was able to afford the (free) licensing on Sleeping Beauty. Marvel's Thor may be a ridiculously watered-down version of Norse mythology, but at least it can stimulate interest in these old subjects. And of course works from The Wasteland to The Once and Future King gain a ton of power by retelling old stories.

All of this, of course, would have been blatantly illegal if the Disney Corporation had been around in ancient times.

(Now I do agree with VanderMeer that we need copyrights. I want authors to get paid for their work, and I think that the free market represents a better solution than, say, medieval models of patronage--even though patronage is making a Democratized comeback through Kickstarter. But it is physically impossible to own an idea or character, since ideas and characters live, by definition, as they are spread from mind to mind. Therefore our current philosophy--where legal ownership is allowed "for limited Times" and only as a subordinate clause dominated by the need "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts" (note this is NOT about authors' God-given rights)--makes a lot of sense.

Loren Eaton said...

I'm not opposed to shuffling things into the public domain after a period. But the length of an author's life plus 70 years doesn't seem "too long" to me.

Loren Eaton said...

Darn it, you stealth posted!

You might find Mark Helprin's article on copyright interesting.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

The problem with 70 years plus the death of the author is that, 20 years ago, it was 50 years. 20 years before that, it was 30 years. This is an alarming pattern, but not incidental. Disney's lobbyists have a lot of money.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

The Helprin article on Copyright is interesting, but besides the point (as I see it). Though as an aside, I love his children's books and look forward to reading them to my son.

I've made it a point, pretty consistently, not to violate copyright. Oh, occasionally I will bend Fair Use by watching the occasional scene on YouTube, or letting friends have music files that are otherwise not to be found for love or money (because the copyrights are held by bankrupt companies), but I do defend copyright in the abstract, as a practical financial incentive to production.

What I do not defend, first of all, is the idea that an author "owns" their characters. The only way to truly own a character or an idea is to not speak it. I may find Neil Gaiman's "The Problem of Susan" offensive and disturbing, but that is because my attitudes related to Narnia are different than Gaiman's. (Sometimes. He himself has said that he "loves" the Narnia books and claims that "I don't actually know if it's ["The Problem of Susan"] any good.") Certainly, "The Problem of Susan" is an honest and thoughtful (if extreme) reflection on one reader's experience of Narnia, and the fact that Gaiman wrote it while fearing lawsuits from the Lewis estate is tragic.

(In fact, part of me feels that Gaiman's response is more faithful than the original movies. Gaiman understands that Lewis embraced the concept of Christian religious exclusivity, even if he is disturbed by it. The movies, licensed by Lewis's estate to its great financial profit, strip Narnia of all controversy and all power.)

The second thing I defend is, as stated above, the need of books to go into the public domain as soon as is possible while retaining author's financial incentive. On the one hand, I don't want to impose further financial hardships on authors, a lamentably underfinanced class of workers in our current economy. I stand with Tolkien on the side of "extending courtesy to living authors (at least)" in the form of royalties from book sales. But I think we are missing out on something important--the ability to re-work and re-write characters in a dignified, financially viable, non fanfic form.

The sciences understand this--patents expire after 20 years, a quite reasonable time.

Loren Eaton said...

This conversation may have exposed an oversight in my thinking. See, I typically view those who seek to weaken the length of copyright as being more or less dismissive of the entire enterprise. I guess that's not necessarily true. Also, I've seen copyright as safeguarding whole works (e.g. novels, short stories, films) rather than individual characters. That's less problematic than the so-called Disney approach. That being said, I'm not entirely convinced that radically shortening the current copyright period is a good idea. Like patented things, copyrighted things are protected assets; unlike patented things (which don't automatically lose all value when the patent expires), copyrighted things become immediately free at the end of copyright.

Really, I never thought this post would prompt such a discussion on this topic. I'm not that passionate about it.