David Wellington (left) has been making his horror novels available online for the last three years, and it was based on the success of those ebooks that he’s been able to get publishing deals with Thunder’s Mouth for Monster Island and Monster Nation and Three Rivers Press for the almost-in-stores 13 Bullets. So when he heard about Howard V. Hendrix‘s scorn for webscabs, whom he described as writers “undercutting those of us who aren’t giving it away for free and are trying to get publishers to pay a better wage for our hard work,” Wellington felt more than qualified to write a forceful rebuttal.
“I’m so surprised at the bizarre notion he has of how publishing works,” Wellington began, “and how it should work. Writers of speculative fiction don’t comprise a union. They are in direct competition with one another, both for the attention of editors and publishers and also for sales to book-buyers.” He also found the use of the term “wage” odd, given that creative writers are actually paid advances against royalties. “Writers are on their own to get their own careers going, and to make their own rent,” he advises. “If giving away work for free online works toward that end I can’t recommend it enough.”*
Thus, Wellington is one of many science fiction and fantasy writers who will be taking part in “International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day,” named by Jo Walton in an ironic embrace of one of Hendrix’s other labels for writers who distribute books freely online. Come April 23, she urges, “everyone who wants to should give away professional quality work online. It doesn’t matter if it’s a novel, a story or a poem, it doesn’t matter if it’s already been published or if it hasn’t, the point is it should be disseminated online to celebrate our technopeasanthood.” Several prominent writers have filled out Walton’s comment thread agreeing to take part (including John Scalzi, who designed the logo).
*In fact, one industry insider familiar with Hendrix’s publishing history suggests he should have tried giving books away online. “Del Rey tried damned near everything to get his stuff to sell, and it just didn’t,” this source explains. “He’s a decent writer but he had no audience at all and I suspect this was in large part due to the fact that he’s never had much of a web presence. I would bet you that if he’d done what Peter Watts had done and tried to give away a free copy of The Labyrinth Key, he would have had a much larger audience for any subsequent book he may have published.” See also, in this context, M.J. Rose‘s assertion that the debate on free ebooks’ usefulness is over.
Meanwhile, I’ve been hearing back from other industry professionals on this subject. Janet Reid of the Imprint Agency agrees with the fundamental premise Wellington and others have laid out in response to Hendrix by pointing out that “writers are not employees and publishers don’t pay them wages,” and also reinforces the point that books aren’t fungible goods. “If you read one, you haven’t read them all,” she explains, “and thus if you read one on the web it doesn’t mean you won’t buy one or check one out of the library. To suggest otherwise demonstrates a perplexing ignorance of book buying habits.” Instead of insulting writers who publish online, she advises, Hendrix and other officers of the Science Fiction Writers of America “should support the artistic courage and confidence of writers who are willing to send their work out into the world without the balm of an advance and the enticing magic of the book design folks and cover art wizards.” (Two points worth remembering here: Hendrix defined his position as personal, and the issue of electronic publishing plays a major role in the current SFWA leadership debate.)
Eos editor Diana Gill concurs that “every book/author is different, so I’m not sure how one person’s work being available for free will hurt another author’s work, unless the stories are so close together readers can interchange the reading experience, in which case there’s a larger problem.” Like many of the pros who spoke to me, her experience confirms the idea that legitimate (i.e., non-pirated) free online distribution can lead to increased sales for print books. Meanwhile, Lou Anders, the editorial director at Pyr Books, reminded me that he’s not a member of SFWA and has thus stayed out of the current debate—but as to the question of whether access to free ebooks disinclines readers from paying for other books, he did have some personal testimony to offer, dating back to a prior job with Bookface.com, a company he describes as “a first-to-market, first-to-go pioneer in online publishing.” When he started at Bookface, Anders says, one bookcase was enough to hold his entire collection, but now he has “about fifteen bookcases, ten of them floor to ceiling and [am] in danger of running out of room. So online reading definitely bolstered my own physical purchases!”