God loves a cheerful giver

This is one of those posts where lots of separate strands of thought are whirling around and I need to write them down to see what I actually think. So, in no particular order and not in a way that maximises coherence:

A simple Google search to seek out the meanings of what I’m sure are very clever German jokes in Unseen Academicals led me to a Russian site with the full text of the book on it, copyright page and all. It’s an Adobe Digital Edition, September 2009, ISBN 978-0-06-194203-7, but I will bet at least a fiver that it’s not supposed to be on that particular site.

Hugh Cornwell, ex-frontman of the Stranglers, advocates giving away creative content for free online, as it will only stimulate sales. And he has some quite convincing statistics of follow-through sales to back it up. It’s scary to think that the Stranglers could now be the kind of thing listened to by the parents of a generation old enough to vote – Hugh Cornwell and Val Doonican are in the same box – but his logic is sound: there’s a whole generation now that could enjoy his music but probably hasn’t heard of him, so how best to get in touch?

There is surely – isn’t there? – a difference between me giving you something for free, and you taking something of mine because you like the look of it and for which you may or may not subsequently choose to pay. With anything other than creative online content, the latter behaviour would be theft, pure and simple. The only reason it isn’t automatically theft here and now is … well, what? Perception? Possibly.

The matter has been bouncing around the world of publishing for some time now, always given a little extra impetus by the like of Cory Doctorow, who is probably the leading advocate of “give it away for free and somehow make money from it too”. It certainly works in his case: he seems to make an adequate living from doing just that. Or rather, perhaps, he makes an adequate living from being Cory Doctorow – a man of immense talent and energy with multiple income streams. Not everyone is gifted with being Cory Doctorow. Or Hugh Cornwell.

I am contributing to this in my own small way, though I don’t think I’m big enough for my experience to generate reliable data one way or the other: my short stories areavailable, for free, online. My logic was that I had got all the money I was going to get from them, so why not? You can, if you want, buy them in a separate volume with value added in the form of authorial endnotes: for that you have to pay, but only enough to cover the cost of printing the thing in the first place. Likewise, His Majesty’s Starship is (currently) available at cost only.

Of course, I don’t need to be paid: I have a reasonably salaried job which I would probably want to hang onto even if the writing income suddenly skyrocketed. However, it would be interesting to see Mr Cornwell’s reaction if young fans, having got hooked on his free downloads, started turning up at his gigs with the expectation of getting in without paying. The money that pays for the venue hire, for the equipment, for the salaries of the stagecrew and other staff … well, that just comes from somewhere, dunnit?

Yup, it comes from you. Likewise, books and movies don’t magically appear out of the ether. They are all the result of the work of many people. All those people need paying.

But always, always, always we hear that people expect stuff to be free … A lot can come of expectation in the face of what established authority would like you to have. Magna Carta. The separation of power in democratic government. Things like that.

At the moment the governments of the UK and the US are tackling the matter: us with the Digital Economy Bill, them with the DMCA. This isn’t the place to debate the rights and wrongs of these acts – see links at the end for that – but in terms of nutcracking they are both towards the sledgehammer end of the spectrum, and they are both far too friendly towards the big industry interests rather than the little guy. Put another way, they think little to nothing of criminalising innocent users as long as their income doesn’t suffer. To the Mandelsons of this world that is a perfectly reasonable point of view. Further down the ladder, however …

Let’s go back to Magna Carta. No country has ever had a revolution out of perversity or because the people felt bored. Revolutions happen because of grievance. Those regimes that adapt to the revolutionary demands, by and large, continue, though with reduced power. Like, us, after the Restoration. Those regimes that don’t adapt, don’t even budge, fail. Like, the French monarchy. To retain overall control, you have to let go of a little of it.

So, I’ve finally decided what I think. It is right that publishers and other rights holders should make a profit from their activities – obviously. It is right that artists also make money for their endeavours – obviously. But, no one actually owes those artists a living, either. Harsh but true. If the creative income isn’t keeping you alive: sorry, get a real job.

I’m not – yet – going to make my currently in-print novels freely available. However I won’t rule it out as a future course of action if that finally, irrevocably seems to be the way the industry is going; and if my publishers decide to do it as some kind of promotional strategy, I won’t stand in their way either. Let’s be the Republic, not the Ancien Regime.

Further reading