Who Gives Away Books Online?”Scabs,” Says Prominent Sci-Fi Writer

By Neal Comment

howard-hendrix.jpgDr. Howard V. Hendrix (left), currently winding down his term as the vice-president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, really, really hates it when his peers in the sci-fi community publish their works online and distribute them for free. So much so that he recently issued a short statement on the subject which was published on the SFWA LiveJournal, in which he referred to such writers as “webscabs,” and accused them of “rotting our organization from within.” He got more specific: “Webscabs claim they’re just posting their books for free in an attempt to market and publicize them, but to my mind they’re 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.”

As angry responses began to pour into the comments thread, Will Shetterly admitted that he was “just croggled by the notion that posting your writing for free undercuts the value of someone else’s work,” but had posted Hendrix’s remarks to give the net-shy author’s views a public airing. “I’d that some of the copy(far)right think filesharers are fools who are losing money,” Shetterly elaborated. “But I hadn’t thought any of them saw filesharers as direct threats to their own industry.” Peter Watts, one of many SF writers who has published free online versions of his work, including the Hugo-nominated Blindsight, understandably took the insult more personally. “I was actually unaware that Howard Hendrix had written the various novels, essays, and short stories posted on my website,” he wrote when contacted by email. “I could have sworn that I had written them, and that the only person I could be accused of undercutting would be myself.”

Several other writers, especially those with a background in labor activism, reacted fiercely to being branded as scabs; as Nick Mamatas observed, “There’s nothing about using one’s own electronic rights to put up a book… on the Web that is at all analogous to strikebreaking.” Non-leftists also found Hendrix’s language incendiary. “It’s appalling that a standing Vice President of SFWA is calling a rather large chunk of his constituency backstabbing scum,” responded John Scalzi, before explaining in meticulous detail how the work he’s published online has gone on to provide him and other writers (including, for a short story in Subterranean magazine, myself) with substantial financial compensation from publishers. “I’m willing to bet a nice chunk of change that there isn’t a single person he would point to that he can prove is undercutting themselves, other writers or the genre directly by using the online medium for promotion,” Scalzi concluded. “I, on the other hand, can very easily show you an entire group of people and entities who are using freely-available work online to build the genre.”

naomi-novik.jpgAs I asked around to see how other science fiction writers felt, I began to get a stronger sense of the economics involved. “What I would personally like,” suggested Naomi Novik (right), “is for publishers to stop panicking, get out of the DRM rat race, and start selling ebooks in simple, non-encrypted PDF files, for a price that reflects the substantially lower costs of production and distribution ($1-3 seems right), with a fair royalty rate on the order of 25-50% for the author.” Under the current system, however, she sees writers who believe in ebooks as forced to choose between the potential marketing value of free distribution online or the potential royalties from ‘legitimate’ electronic editions. “Since commercial ebook sales are pretty low,” she notes, “it’s completely rational for some authors to conclude that for them, the value of a free online edition outweighs whatever they’d get in royalties for the ebook sales.”

“To slur other writers with the label of scab in this situation is really tantamount to declaring oneself in the employ of a publisher,” emailed Paul Witcover, a member of the author groupblog The Inferior 4. “Any writer who sees him or herself as the employee of a publisher, rather than as an independent worker whose product the publisher is temporarily purchasing rights to, is more of a scab than the writer who exercises his or her freedom to dispose of their product however they see fit. That’s a disgraceful position for the vice-president of a writer’s organization to take.” Nick Mamatas took the argument further in his post: “If there is a class conflict between publishers and authors,” he wrote, “SFWA should clearly come down on the side of those writers who wish to be allowed to exercise their electronic rights as they see fit. To complain about ‘giving it away’ is to objectively bloc with the Big Five publishers that a matter of course claim full control over electronic rights without paying any more for books now than they did in the time before electronic rights emerged as a viable vector of exploitation.”

Elizabeth Hand (another Inferior 4 member) had some sympathy for Hendrix: “We’re in the middle of a paradigm shift,” she emailed, “and old-fashioned print media writers are in the position of livery stable owners shortly after the automobile was introduced.” (The metaphor was a popular one; contacted separately for a response, Charlie Stross—another Hugo nominee who gave his book away online—summarized the situation as “buggy whip manufacturer rails against new-fangled steering wheel makers.”) Then Hand stepped back from the immediate furor to consider the long view. “Our brains are wired for narrative, and as our technology grows more intricate and dazzling, so will our modes of storytelling,” she observed. “Ebooks and podcasting and the like are just the tip of the iceberg. So, um, get used to it.” Like many writers, she views the formats as potential tools for reaching out to new readers. “It used to take years, maybe decades, to build an audience,” she explained. “This happens much more quickly now, sometimes at head-spinning speed. The downside is more bad writing is making it out there onto the internet; the upside is that good writers can find an audience, too. The other downside, of course, is that you might not be making much money at it—but honestly, most writers never did.”