Scarcity Consciousness, Disintermediation, Piracy, and Being a Writer

This blog entry comes from an interesting discussion (both on and off-list) that has been going on the Broad Universe email list. It started with someone posting about a site that pirates ebooks. I'll start out by saying that I am not trying to make a living as a writer, and making money at writing was never my goal or intent. This is not to say that I would mind making a living being a writer. In fact, I'd very much like that. But I write because I am compelled to tell the stories that come through me, and my characters threaten me with all sorts of bad fates if I don't write them. I write science fiction that goes against the grain – there is not a ton of violence or serious kinds of blow-em-up action, and it's not work that non-progressive readers like very much (I know this for a fact.) Further, in these days of disintermediation, one has to spend a lot of time and energy into putting oneself out there if one is going to make a living writing (unless one is already a star.) I have zero (actually, an aversion, so that means less than zero) interest in dealing with those sorts of things on a regular basis, so barring miraculous circumstances (still waiting for one) I'll live my life scraping by on half-time work so that I can spend as much time as I can staying healthy and writing.

This fact may influence my thoughts on this, so take it with whatever grains of salt you'd like, if your situation is different. 

The idea is this, if people pirate my ebooks, that's a bad thing because I'll make less money on my ebooks. There are several flaws in this reasoning, from the macro, to the micro. First, the micro: very few people who will pirate my ebook would have spent the money on it anyway. Unlike movies and music, where it is often easier to see/hear something via a pirating method rather than one that you've paid for, with ebooks, it is the exact opposite. People who go out of their way to read pirated ebooks probably would not have spent the $ to buy mine.

Then there is the little bit more macro: does pirating really hurt artists? I think the jury is still out on that one. It has been said that the biggest enemy for artists is obscurity, and one could easily argue that my book in more hands is only a good thing. The sister/partner/uncle who hears about my book from the pirater is a sale I got that I would not have gotten otherwise. The most obvious entities that pirating hurts are the intermediaries. You know, the ones that make money off of artists. And artists are increasingly going directly to their fans, and this is not the sort of atmosphere that fosters pirating – pirating is fostered most in the atmosphere of limited and expensive distribution, and distance between artist and fan.

Then there is the issue of general attitude. I don't ascribe closely to a lot of new-agey stuff, but some of it has nuggets of useful wisdom. I don't go around accusing people of having “scarcity consciousness” because to my mind that concept has too much implicit “blame the victim,” i.e. if you don't have “abundance” in your life, you aren't doing it right. But I do think that the general model we have in this society for art is very much based on a scarcity consciousness, an idea of a zero-sum game. So if the pirates get my book, that's fewer people who paid – as if that's a very specifically finite resource.

I have definitely decided, in terms of my writing, to follow the maxim “be the change you want to see in the world.” I would like a world in which art (including writing, music, film, theater, visual art, etc.) is freely available to all, and all can partake of it as they'd like, and without regards to their financial capacity. And, the other side, is that artists are able to do their art, and be sustained in at least a reasonable fashion by making art. The second part of the equation I contribute to by contributing to a few Kickstarter campaigns and the like as I can afford to (and, of course, buying books.) I can contribute most, however, to the first part of the equation. Which is why even though my books are for sale, I also give them away free, and they are licensed with a Creative Commons license, which gives other artists the freedom to riff off of my work, as long as I am attributed. (I bet, if someone really likes my work, and makes a film from one of my books, I'm going to benefit big time, even if I didn't “sell the rights” to them.)

Also, by the way, there is at least one science fiction writer who does make a living from selling Creative Commons licensed books: Cory Doctorow. He might still be the exception that proves the rule, but I hope not forever.


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