EXCLUSIVE: Hendrix Clarifies “Scab”-rous Remarks on Web Publishing

By Neal Comment

When I emailed Dr. Howard V. Hendrix to ask for his reaction to the debate sparked by his comments about free ebooks, especially the labelling of the authors of such works as “webscabs,” he was kind enough to send an extensive reply. Before honoring his request to publish that letter in full, I’ll simply note that Dr. Hendrix acknowledges with some regret that his choice of words has to some extent overwhelmed issues he was hoping to address concerning “technologies which I feel are potentially damaging to the community and commonweal of writers.” He also reminds readers that despite his status as the outgoing vice-president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, his comments are in no way intended as a reflection of that organization’s official stance on ebook publishing.

howard-hendrix.jpgAlthough 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.