January 26, 2009 — 1,197 words
(note: parts I and II were in my head)
I am not sure if I want to be a professional writer. It's a side issue (since I'm so busy writing), but one that constantly nags at the back of my brain like a jar full of angry honeybees that keep getting shaken by mean-spirited kids.
The question I struggle with is this: "what defines a professional?" Dictionarily speaking, it's generally something like: "A person who earns his living from a specified activity" [ironically, from Wiktionary]. It's probably not perfect, but it's a good place to start.
Do I make my living writing? Well, in a broad sense, yes: I earn my living writing a TV show. But really, I'm looking at the question of my books, and whether I'm considered a professional author. As has been pointed out by various people (usually in unfriendly tones), I am not a professional author because I am not published by an established publishing house. So actually, the definition of professional is more like "A person who earns his living from a specified activity under the supervision of an established player". Which makes sense. It's a club, and you have to join, otherwise just ANYONE could go calling themselves a pro.
So the question (which I dealt with in part II of this series) is whether I should try and get published by someplace like Random House or the like. I investigated it briefly (using my meagre cred in the TV world to see if someone knew someone that knew a literary agent), contemplating a life of advances, hurried deadlines and book tours. Two things happened: first, it took forever for anyone to get back to me, and secondly, I looked at the publishing industry, and got cold feet.
This is how book publishing works (from what I gather): author pitches book. Book gets optioned by publisher, who pays author a chunk of money called an "advance" to write the book. Author writes the book, and after a few months (or years), the book is released. Author earns tiny pennies on every copy sold, largely never earns enough to cover the cost of their advance, and is either given another book deal or is thrown into the trash to wither and die. I would assume the trash bin is quite full at this point, but then again Jeffrey Archer is still writing...
In my opinion, this system is horribly broken. It's not sustainable for the authors, for the publishers, and probably not for the readers either. So I decided (and I realize this sounds very high-and-mighty) that I didn't want to help perpetuate a failing business model, even if it did stand to earn me some cash in the short term. That's what TV writing is for. I want my books to be important. Or something.
So I set out to create my own publishing company, which would work more efficiently by embracing new technologies and business models, and hopefully do some GOOD while trying to monetize verbage. I am proud to be a not-really-professional, in the same way that I used to be proud to be a freelance web developer: this ain't the easy route, kids... those of us that do this, we're INSANE! And we're comin' for ya! Look out!
But still, the question is whether I'm an amateur or not. Talking to publishing folks, they assure me that, since I still am not working under the auspices of the established hierarchy, I am most certainly an amateur. It doesn't matter that "The Pig and the Box" has already been read far more times than the average book (even some best-sellers)... I didn't get an advance for it, so I'm just a very lucky amateur.
Bah, says I. Humbug!
I don't have a big issue with being an "amateur" except for the baggage the word carries. And since I'm also apparently not a "professional", I am forced to adopt my own terminology, which I will use with reckless abandon until someone coins a better term: I am an authoring specialist. Fancier than an amateur, and quite possibly more qualified than a professional. I take this categorization very seriously, and I will tell you why...
Ideally, becoming established in your chosen field takes a certain amount of talent and a certain amount of hard work. More often than not, it also requires you to know the right people, and shake the right hands. That, at its core, is utter nonsense. These are not gatekeepers of quality, they are simply networking roadblocks, and it skews the pool of (here I go sounding bitter) "professionals" towards the half-talented-but-very-personable. One of the chief failings of Digg of late is how it mimics this dynamic, so stories doesn't rise on merit, but on the social undercurrents of certain top submitters. It's the antithesis of the internet revolution, and it's also a bit stinky.
Through my TV work, I know the people with whom I should be shaking hands to get ahead. I could probably transmute "RollBots" and the Pig book into a publishing deal and forget this ever happened. But if I do that, I'm ignoring the underlying problem: there are many talented people in this world that DON'T know the right people, and they would be suffering in obscurity while I'm sipping fancy mango cocktails by the pool of my sprawling 50-room mansion. I'd love that mansion, but I've suffered in obscurity myself, and I want to try and fix that problem first.
1889 Books is in alpha right now. The kinks need to be worked out, but I am taking meticulous notes about how it all comes together. What works, what fails... it'll all be recorded. When the bugs are worked out, I will be releasing the business model like an open source project, so that other authoring specialists can pick it up and make their own fortunes doing what they love. It will probably cost a lot, and involve a lot of false starts, but when I'm done, I think there will be a viable alternative to being a "professional" writer. A clear path for a talented amateur to take, rather than sending out fifty letters to literary agents who probably don't read half.
Wow, I got all manifesto-ey there, didn't I?
At any rate, that's where I'm heading. I am going to purposely avoid being a professional author, and now you know why. Stick around, if for no other reason than to watch me scramble to make it work!
[incidentally, the runners-up for the non-professional term were: novel developer and writing architect.]
Edit to add: If you have any ideas about how to run 1889 Books more efficiently than I seem to be doing, please feel free to tell me. The biggest obstacle is the issue of reviews and marketing. Most reviewers won't touch a non-pro book, and marketing depends on word-of-mouth, which is hard to ignite most of the time. So postulations in that area would be greatly appreciated.
January 23, 2009 — 1,219 words
One of the most common questions I get asked about my work is why I largely choose the Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial Share-Alike license over the more liberal, plain Attribution Share-Alike one. All books published by 1889 Books will be going the CC-NC-SA route, but I occasionally get emails from people who think I'm not fully committed to the ideals of open culture if I opt for the NC tag. It's a difficult question, and it's taken me the better part of two years to really feel comfortable with my decision.
First, a fact: according to recent stats, about 2/3 of CC-licensed works opt to be non-commercial. I think a big part of that is the artists' aversion to devaluing their work by saying it has no commercial value. Or if it does have value, that they can afford to part with it anyway. If you ask me to look at the issue on a purely emotional level, there's something about "Allow commercial uses of your work?" that makes me shiver. I'm guessing it does the same for a great many other people.
But I am trying to separate my emotional state from my thinking one (such as it is). When I first released the "The Pig and the Box" two years ago, I took a lot of heat for not allowing full and free access to the content, with people questioning my values on the subject. I take the concept of free culture very seriously*, so I reviewed my motives and decided it was actually in my best interest to ditch the NC clause. So I did. And I felt much better about myself. People could do whatever they wanted with my book, so long as they credited me.
But really, nothing changed. Those that wanted to re-use my work in other media still wrote to ask permission; people that wanted to print copies for friends still wanted to make sure it was okay. The book was used in a fundraiser in England, but not until I gave my blessing. In each instance, I was amused that, despite the clear license text in the PDFs and print versions, everyone wanted to run their projects past me first. A strange predisposition to common courtesy was foiling the purpose of the license, but it was more funny than anything. I was still earning some money from the sales of the book (plus scattered donations), and was by no means adversely impacted by the decision to drop NC.
However, you can't judge anything by one data point, so I decided to try other books with the NC tag back in place. I wanted to see what the difference would be if people knew they couldn't reproduce the stories for profit. Would there be any difference at all? Could it be that there were people doing massive print runs of the Pig book and earning big bucks from it, and just not telling me? (which was fully within their rights, I might add). Would adding NC change anything?
No. Nothing changed. Granted, the newer books weren't nearly as popular as the Pig book was**, but even still, I still got the same volume of requests to reprint or reproduce the new ones as I had before. All the emails were similarly friendly, and I was starting to think the whole idea of NC was a wasted effort... all things being equal, you get the same mileage one way or another. Why put the NC restriction on the thing if everyone you meet is too considerate to try and rip you off?
But then it happened. A few months ago, I received an email from an anonymous source at a small print-on-demand firm in the USA. This guy (who I will name Pete) was assembling a print run for a client, when he noticed it looked a lot like "Archimedes' Fish", which he'd read on my site. In fact, it WAS my book, page-for-page, minus the license, which had been replaced with standard copyright mumbo-jumbo. They were doing up 500 copies, and it was Pete's opinion that nobody did that many books for non-commercial purposes. He wanted to know if I had signed off on it before he proceeded.
After some coordination, I managed to chat with the client in question, who claimed my CC license gave him clearance to reproduce the book without asking permission. I tried to work towards common ground where he could still proceed with his print run and everyone would be happy, but it became apparent he wasn't a very happy person to begin with. So I had to put my foot down. He was barred from continuing, and I felt pretty crappy for a while. I don't like being cranky.
In the end, I decided to keep the NC restriction on my books, because while it was MOSTLY useless, it wasn't ENTIRELY useless. I'm not afraid of a big media company stealing my work (they're paranoid about rights... they wouldn't want to take the risk), but the smaller players... they scare me. Chances are, they can fly under my radar 99% of the time, and I'd never know if someone out there is reading a copy of "Panda Apples" credited to someone else, paid to someone I don't know. But the important thing is: if I find someone trying to "rip me off", I can stop them. Without the NC clause, my options are limited***.
I said "rip me off" above, but in the end it's less about the control and more about the etiquette. I may be spoiled after two years of polite requests by email, but I would expect that if you want to use my work in a commercial setting, you're going to ask me first. It may be unreasonable, but it's what I've come to expect. It's fun seeing where my ideas end up.
Deciding on NC hasn't been easy for me, but I think it's the best choice. I don't think it'll crimp anyone's style.
I hope not, anyway.
* My free culture cred: I've been using CC licenses since they were first introduced, originally testing them out for my old show, "Dustrunners", which has all its guts CC-licensed so anyone can take them and create their own productions with what we made back in 2001. I've been a big "free" fan for a long, long time.
** The argument could be made that my other books weren't as popular as the Pig book because they had the NC restriction, but I tend to think it's because they didn't hit on impassioned themes like DRM. And weren't featured on Boing Boing
*** I also could have stopped "Archimedes' Fish" from being printed that time because they were removing the license and not giving me proper credit.
January 21, 2009 — 736 words
It was June 2006 when I read about Captain Copyright on Boing Boing, how Access Copyright was planning to brainwash kids in schools with tales about how to obey "proper" copyright rules. It drove me a little bit crazy. And when paired with first-hand knowledge of the kind of prison camp "Big Media" wanted to impose on the world, I decided to take action. I wanted to give kids an alternative to the one-sided argument they were going to be force fed.
So I created a book called "The Pig and the Box", about a pig that puts the equivalent of DRM (digital rights management) on some magic buckets to make his friends miserable. It was fun to write, silly to read, and ultimately extremely popular. Of the stats I can count, the PDF version of the story has been downloaded well over a million times. In fourteen languages, too, translated by people all over the world. It obviously struck a chord.
A few months later, I was writing an episode of RollBots called "The Do Right Module" about special modchips that interfere with the proper functioning of the main characters, and I remember saying to my wife: "Just think: when this thing airs in 2009, DRM could be dead, and nobody would get the joke." It was more of a wish than anything, but I thought it would be interesting to see where we are after two years of social evolution.
There have been some victories. Just recently, iTunes dropped DRM on all its songs. They still tag the files so they can trace them back to you, but that's a psychological deterrent, not a technological one. Apple's concession is a massive victory, and when it happened, I seriously thought my wish was going to come true. We were finally within striking distance of being DRM-free!
But then last night I put a DVD into my Mac Mini (acts as a media server, hooked up my TV) that we'd just bought from Amazon. Chug, chug, chug, goes the Mini... Then a warning onscreen: the disc won't play. Not a valid playback device. I ejected the DVD, tried an older one, and lo and behold! the drive was mangled! It was no longer a valid playback device at all! Luckily, I was able to kickstart the thing back into shape after an hour of research, and all was well.
Except I still had a DVD that I couldn't play. Some more research revealed that these discs used a new form of DRM that kept them from being viewed on certain computer-based drives. So I'd bought something that was utterly useless, all because the manufacturer believed their DRM would solve their problems.
A quick check on the Pirate Bay later, and I saw that was not the case.
I'm returning the disc to Amazon (it's defective, after all) and I hope the message gets back that these kinds of things will not be tolerated. It seemed to work with Apple, so maybe there's some merit in the belief.
Likewise, eBooks are a big nuisance to me because of DRM. I have bought books that (because of various connection glitches) became spontaneously de-authorized in the middle of reading, and I couldn't finesse the software to let me finish what I was doing. Most companies that deal with DRM have entire departments set up to deal with customer complaints when things go wrong. Entire departments. That alone should be a hint that there's something wrong with their business models.
So where do we stand after all this time? Are companies any closer to realizing that DRM stinks? Will my kids grow up in a world where the words "not authorized" are a foreign concept? Hard to say. We're making progress, but we're not there yet. Maybe give it a few more years, with a healthy dose of customer backlash, and we'll be all right.
On the plus side, the book and episode are still relevant!
January 20, 2009 — 607 words
This year is going to be full of new books from 1889 Labs, and part of that process involves getting them out through as many channels as possible. I've recently made a half-switch to Lightning Source for the actual printing process, which is working out great so far. But one angle that isn't fully developed is the notion of eBooks. I'm experimenting with formats and processes to turn most of my catalogue into digital bits, but it's not as seamless a process as I would like. But by far, the biggest issue is with delivery.
What I'm looking for is a central place for publishers to release their books in eBook formats, where users can browse and download them easily. Get the new John Grisham novel for $3.99, or Kipling for $1.99. Sync them to whatever device you like, and you're done. Transactions handled by the site maintainer, and a cut given to the publisher. Everyone is happy, and the world is a better place.
The closest I can find is a site like Fictionwise, which I love for many things, but in this regard they fall flat on their faces. Rather than taking the iTunes model and opening up the process for as many people as they can, they insist all publishers have at least 25 titles by 5 different "professional" authors.
(the question of what constitutes "professional" and how much it matters is a whole other post for some later date)
Even at the end of 2009, if all goes according to plan, 1889 will only have 17 books in its catalogue, which wouldn't meet the minimum requirements; nor will they be from five different authors. So what Fictionwise is doing is saying they're not interested in earning a cut of books we'd sell. It seems like a pretty silly stance, given the nature of their business. But I suppose I can see the reasoning (cost of setup vs potential returns). I just don't agree with their approach.
So the alternative is to sell the eBooks from 1889.ca itself. That's not a big issue... coding that kind of storefront wouldn't be too hard for me. But the trade off is that we maintain our obscurity through that method, and don't gain any new exposure. If you didn't know we existed before, you still won't. Not ideal. But I guess that's what we're left with, in the end.
The other issue (and the real issue I started on this rant) is that I was thinking the publishing world could benefit from the idea of "singles", the way the music industry (reluctantly) does. I'm polishing a short story right now (roughly 10K words), and I thought for a time it would be fun to release it as an eBook for $0.75 or something. There are tons of short stories written every year, and some of them are really great, and definitely worth the money. It might not be a massive windfall for the writers, but as a business model, I bet any aggregator/seller would make a killing selling mountains of short fiction.
Then again, it might be that short stories are best used as promotional tools, and selling them is counter-productive. In which case, the iTunes App Store would still be a great model to follow. Use some kind of web 2.0 social thingamabob to handle rating, ranking and recommendations, and let the marketplace decide the rest.
Really, there are competitors in this space, but nobody is doing it even half-right. Some laid-off tech worker should give it a go. How hard can it be?
January 13, 2009 — 426 words
Last week, I submitted a short story I wrote to the online writing workshop called Critters. I've had 10 people review it so far, sending me insanely useful notes about how I could improve the writing. The good news is that they all seem to enjoy the style and the characterizations. The bad news is that none of them got the twist at the end.
This is something I've been struggling with for a while: the notion that you put layers of hints into your stories that when taken on their own, don't make sense. For instance, there's a line in episode 2 of RollBots that you won't appreciate the relevance of until season 2, but it's there anyway. "The Vector" has dozens of leads and mis-leads that eventually assemble to give the ending context. Things that happen in the Dustrunners books directly relate to two other series, in ways you'd never imagine. Hell, even the next Duck book has a certain amount of that going on.
The trick is the balancing act. In my short story, I was incredibly nervous that giving any of the requisite hints too much spotlight would immediately spoil the ending. So I went too far the other way, and trimmed the foreshadowing back so far that it seemed like I was making the twist up on the spot without any foundation. But even while fixing it, I'm worrying about ending up like those Hollywood movies you see where you know the ending after 15 minutes, and spend the rest of the time hoping you're wrong. Finding the proper balance between "clever twist" and "duh... whaaa?" is not an easy thing to do.
One show that I saw recently that did the hints well was "Ryuusei no Kizuna", a Japanese drama about three kids having their parents killed and growing up to take revenge on the culprit. There were so many mis-directions and side-tracks in it, but when you finally got to the last episode, if you had been paying any attention along the way, there was a moment where it all made sense. Perfectly-executed hints, with a satisfying conclusion. That's the ideal. But it's not the norm, and I'm sure it's going to drive me batty trying to emulate it.
I'll probably be releasing the short story here (or somewhere easily accessible in the next few months, so you can see it for yourself. Hopefully I can iron out the kinks completely beforehand.
(PS: just about every ep of RollBots has some series arc hinting in it, so keep your eyes and ears peeled...)
January 11, 2009 — 196 words
This post's subject is of the narrowest kind, and I apologize to anyone but the 3 people over the next 50 years that find it useful.
I sync my GMail to Apple Mail using IMAP, which has been wonderfully useful. Everything gets backed up, but I can still work with my old-style workflow as if it's still 1999. Happy days. But here's the thing: when you discover a message in your Junk mail folder that you want to un-spam, if you use the "Not Junk" button in Mail, it moves the message to your inbox without a sender, subject line or other valuable metadata. You can still read it, but in the list it's like a black hole. Somewhat annoying, especially if you have several false-positives in the space of a few days.
The solution, I discovered, is to go into the GMail web interface, find these messages, and un-spam them THERE. GMail will move them into your inbox for you, and lo and behold, they've got their subject lines back! Woo!
This isn't a perfect solution of course, but it's far better than anything else I could find. Hopefully it can help somebody out, somewhere along the line.
January 6, 2009 — 851 words
Lately, I've spent a good amount of time wondering about page counts (or word counts) for the things I write. The general anxiety about the subject got worse the other day when I read this post by Charlie Stross, basically pegging SF novels at 100K+ words each, which is (I'm not ashamed to say) about 15K longer than what I'm working on now. And it got me to wondering — in the context of going the "unconventional" route — what the rules about the length of my writing should be.
To back up a bit: when I started writing RollBots, I was the newbie onboard. There's not a single word written that our story editor, Vito, didn't fix for me. I was aware of format and act breaks, but there was so much stuff in the nitty gritty of writing a script that I'd learned about, it's truly mind-blowing how dumb I used to be. Over the course of six or seven episodes, I think I got the hang of it, to the point where I'm confident I can (at the very least) craft a new 22-minute episode without too much stress or rework.
You hear the idea about 1 page of script = 1 minute of screen time (thusly a half-hour would be 22 pages). That doesn't tend to work out for an action series like RollBots, because things move fast and there's less time for it to average out. The early episodes of the series were glued to a 25-page rule, because there was a concern early on that the shows would go overlength if we expanded out beyond that. As time went on, we discovered that we could push that to closer to 28-29 pages without much trouble (makes for some crazy-intense pacing). That said, anecdotal evidence suggests 30-38 pages would also work for a series like ours (we adlibbed a lot of action with our fancy VR camera thingy).
In the end, it all depends on the director, I think. If they want 38 pages to cram into 22 minutes, you're best doing what they want, or there'll be slow parts, and nobody wants that. It's an exercise in packing, and the real challenge is in writing exciting sardines to fit in that can.
It seems to me that writing books should be somewhat similar, but isn't. I've read more than one book lately where the author seems to go off on a description tangent to explain this or that, for no other reason than to pad their word count. I mean, I'm trying to desperately to pretend that's not the case, but sometimes it's just obvious that the content being revealed in this four-page passage has already been inferred earlier in at least two places, and it's only being repeated a third time because the writer saw it was a prime location for expanding the novel a bit to hit some arbitrary mark. And it's during those long passages that I tune out, and find myself knee-deep in some major plot five pages later, because I'm psychologically averse to laziness or something.
"Laziness" is a mean word. I don't really mean it like that. I can imagine there are pressures to hit the 100K word mark for most authors these days. I've read countless comments around the web from people that say they don't like books that aren't big and fat, because anything shorter isn't worth the effort. That's got to scare publishers into insisting on longer content. And maybe it's true that people prefer longer books, but maybe it shouldn't be? Is there something to be learned from the screenwriter craft? Packing those sardines?
For my novel, I've been stumped by an issue for a few weeks now: if I'm clocking in at a bit under 90K, should I expand? If so, where? Descriptive text? I don't really want to, because the pace of the book is so tight already, anything that slows it down will probably derail the experience. Should I add another subplot? Early reader reviews say no... the story is already full enough as-is. And likewise, more twists would probably screw up the interconnected nature of the threads. So should I be worrying about inflating my word count, or should I just accept that it's an 85K-word novel, and proceed as planned? Based on a re-read yesterday, I figure this is the equivalent of a 40-page RollBots script: super-packed plots. I don't think it's TOO packed, and I'm not sure I buy into the idea of fluffing for the sake of page count.
So there you have it. A long post that ends with a question: given that I have complete freedom to control my end-product, should I give this any more thought, or should I do it the way I want? Is there any truth to the conventional wisdom that longer is better? I tend to not take conventional wisdom at face value, but sometimes it really IS right.
An open question. I will contemplate it for a few more weeks, I'm sure.
January 1, 2009 — 456 words
As I noted on Twitter yesterday, I spent nearly all of 2008 preparing for 2009. Between "RollBots", "The Vector", "Cookies for Christmas" and "Dustrunners: Typhoon", I haven't done much in the last 12 months that hasn't been put on a shelf for later exploration. It's mind-blowingly frustrating having to sit on things that long. Even if you're actively working on them (as with RollBots).
That said, this year is looking exciting already. I've got a calendar of the next 12 months mapped out with deadlines, process schedules and release dates to make your head spin. I'm pretty sure I'll slip on at least 50% of these things, but I'm going to try. So the things to note for the next 3 months, in chronological order:
Pig and the Box Version 2: The revised version of The Pig and the Box will be released January 28, complete with a new cover, a fantastic quote from Cory Doctorow, and a few text revisions that I'll yak about later. With any luck, this new version will be purchasable in most countries around the world, rather than just from the US Amazon, which has been bugging me.
RollBots Premiere: I will be attending the official premiere in Ottawa on Feb 1, which I understand will be more fun than you can possibly imagine. I will do my best to post photos and/or notes about the proceedings shortly thereafter.
RollBots Premieres: On Feb 7 at (I am told) 7:30am, RollBots will premiere on YTV in Canada. I'm not sure about the US airdates, but I will update you when I know. For each episode that airs, I'll be posting a behind-the-scenes entry about the going-on with that particular story. It's not going to be nearly as interesting as reading the same kind of thing about "Lost", but I'll do my best to be entertaining.
Poke of the Titans: On Feb 25, the third book in the SteamDuck Chronicles will be released. It's a different form factor (48 pages in paperback size, rather than large and square and 32 pages). I think it's the best one yet, but I tend to say that about everything.
TorrentBoy: Zombie World!: On March 25, I'll release my first chapterbook for kids. I can't say much more about this yet, but early reaction has been very positive, and I'm excited to be doing something very popcorn with such a serious social undertone. I mean aside from the other stuff I do.
That's all that's in the calendar for Q1 2009, but there may be more to announce soon. My objective is to have as little free time as possible for the next year, and I hope I can make things interesting for y'all as I do it.
Wish me luck!
December 17, 2008 — 102 words
I don't typically post links to videos I like, only because it seems vaguely tacky (I email them en masse instead). This, however, made me choke on a cough drop, so it gets special treatment.
If you haven't seen Zero Punctuation before, do so now. It's for video games, but I can say with 100% certainty that you will find it entertaining regardless. Yahtzee = genius. Evil genius, perhaps, but genius nonetheless.
Edit: Bah, I guess there's a reason I don't typically post videos. The embed failed. Try clicking here instead.
December 10, 2008 — 98 words
Today is a big day for RollBots... the first iteration of the RollBots Online Experience (not my title) launched! Woo! It's done by Xenophile Media, who made the ReGenesis site and the Fallen ARG. The site is opening up properly in January, but it's already a very big hit with my kids, who like shooting balls at Captain Pounder.
Check it out at RollBots.com!