Yesterday a link popped out at me on Facebook that had me shaking my head. It’s a Q&A with Harlan Ellison. I’ll admit feeling a wide range of emotions as I read it: incredulity, frustration, anger and once or twice agreement. But, more often than not, my head exploded, at least metaphorically speaking, on a couple of occasions. I know the man relishes his role as trouble-maker. But he also shows, in my opinion, just how out of touch he is not only with the current state of the industry but also with the reading public as a whole.
As you go through the interview, you’ll come to a question where Ellison is asked what he thinks about writers giving away their work for free. He had this to say:
I think any writer who gives away his work demeans himself, demeans the craft, demeans the art, and demeans the buyer. It is not only caveat emptor, it is caveat lector. I don’t mean to be crude when I say this, but I won’t take a piss unless I’m paid properly.
Yep, that boom you heard was my head exploding.
Don’t get me wrong. I want to be paid for my work. Writing is work, hard work, as anyone who is trying to make it in the business will tell you. But there are reasons to give away your work on occasion. It’s called promotion. It is a way to get push and push is a necessary evil in our business. From my own experience, I’ve seen sales increase after putting a title up for free for a few days on Amazon. Sure, I’d love to get paid for every free download. But I see the end result: all my titles selling better for at least a while after the give away of one title. More than that, look at the example of the Baen Free Library. That is an example of just how free can work to propel whole series.
Ellison goes on to say this:
. . . that’s what writers are supposed to do, afflict the contented. But most of them don’t. Most of them just want to tell a story, and I guess that’s a noble endeavour in and of itself, to tell a story. Storytellers can be teachers, like Aristotle, or they can just be storytellers like – I don’t know, who’s writing the trash these days? I don’t know who’s writing trash over there where you are, but whoever it is, you pick the name, put it in for me.
Aren’t we just full of ourselves? Under Ellison’s criteria, I write trash and am, therefore, a hack. Why? Because I’m not out there to cause trouble with my work or to “afflict the contented”. Not every book or story has to do that, at least not in my opinion. I’d much rather write an entertaining book with characters my readers care for — and, along the way give my characters traits that are admirable or, in the case of the villain, not so much — than to beat the reader over the head with some message. There are times when subtlety can be much more effective than a sledgehammer.
But then, I am one of those who write the trash Ellison condemns.
But, as with all things, there are levels of trash — or trashy. If you haven’t seen the latest in the dangers of having your work plagiarized, check out this post. And check out how the culprit reacted. Let me put it this way, she’s lucky she didn’t steal something of mine and put her name on it. If I’d have found out, being called out on Twitter and other social media sites would be the least of her worry. I have a lawyer and I’m not afraid of using him.
Finally, in the lowest of low trash — DRM — there is this story. As a reader, I hate DRM. I like being able to buy a book and loan it to my mother or my son. They have their own e-readers and their own accounts for the e-readers. I can buy a hard copy of a book and do that. So why can’t I do that with an e-book, especially when that e-book costs almost as much as the printed version?
As an author, this potential new DRM appalls me. The program will change words in the manuscript — yep, you got that right. It will change the words I wrote as the the author — to be able to track an e-book back to its original owner. One example given in the article is that the word “invisible” could be changed to “not visible”. That change could be huge, depending on the context and flow of the sentence and paragraph. It can make a sentence that flows into something clunky enough to startle the reader out of the story.
It can also change the order of words in a sentence.
Any publisher who applies this sort of DRM to a book deserves to be flogged not only by the readers buying the book but also by the author. So, authors, keep your eyes open and make sure your publishers are not going to this new tech. For the love of Pete, if you value your work, don’t let this happen to it.
And if anyone believes legacy publishers are finally beginning to see the light about DRM and understand that it is nothing more than an expensive but hated and ineffective means to prevent piracy, read the last paragraph of the article. Publishers have expressed an interest in this new technology because they’ve learned that standard DRM can be broken. So they want to find a way to lock down e-books even more.