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May 15, 2013 BOOKLIST
Find more The Booklist Interview
In 2009, Cory Doctorow, best-selling author and coeditor of the august and exalted Boing Boing blog, embarked on an unusual experiment. He would release his new book of short stories, With a Little Help (2011), not only without the assistance of a traditional publisher but also with a few other fairly radical ideas thrown into the mix. Take this, for example: if you wanted a copy, your payment options ranged from $10,000 to free.
The plan was a little less insane than it sounds. Doctorow offered free e-books in a variety of formats; free audiobooks in a variety of formats; print-on-demand paperbacks from Lulu.com at about $12; super-deluxe hardcovers limited to 250 copies at $250 each; lightly solicited donations; and, finally, the offer for a single person to commission a story for the fee of $10,000. Because print-on-demand allows for continual revisions, Doctorow not only planned to experiment with single half-page ads but also had the luxury of fixing errors caught by readers—and thanking the reader right there on the page in later editions. And all of this would be transparent, disclosed in a series of columns in Publishers Weekly, where Doctorow has been unfailingly frank. (From a February column: “Paperback sales have been rotten.”)
Safe to say, authors and publishers—and Booklisters, too—have watched with equal parts fascination and trepidation. We checked in with Doctorow to take his current temperature on self-promotion, reaching libraries, copying, and taking up arms against the well-armed giants of Google and Apple.
In my review of With a Little Help, after listing all of the formats, evolving revisions, and so forth, I wrote, half-jokingly, “A standard review feels almost passé.” Is it?
DOCTOROW: I think reviews still matter. All the other stuff—multiple formats, open financials, frequently revised texts—are reasons to love a good book even more, but they don’t actually tell you if the book is any good! Readers want to buy good books, first and foremost, and then know that they’re participating in a daring experiment, etc. But the book has to be good, and that’s what a reviewer can tell you.
What were some of the biggest surprises or challenges that arose when trying to essentially be your own publisher and publicist?
DOCTOROW: The biggest challenge is that anything I don’t personally watch and follow up on just doesn’t happen. Every single entity involved in the production and marketing of the book needs nudging and prodding, whether paid or volunteer, and that means that I tithe part of every week to the delicate task of saying, “Hey, have you done that thing yet?” to about 20 people. The surprise is that I was wrong about everything I assumed—everything I didn’t know for a fact. For example, I know a bunch about libraries, but I assumed that they could just order books from Lulu or Amazon or whatever; I hadn’t considered the bureaucratic load associated with establishing new vendor accounts to get a single title. I was absolutely correct about the time burdens and pitfalls associated with everything I knew and had done before and wildly off about everything I was just inferring about.
Getting the attention of libraries as a self-published author definitely isn’t easy. Despite your name recognition, that process has still been difficult?
DOCTOROW: Well, I’m just starting now, because it took all summer long to get the Ingram Lightning Source account set up—a slow and bureaucratic process that was nearly totally opaque for a first-timer. So now that libraries can order, I’m hoping they will.
With all the time it must have taken, will you be embarking on such an endeavor again?
DOCTOROW: Having done this once, I think I’ve decided that I won’t be trying print-on-demand again anytime soon. On the other hand, I’m really excited with how well the limited editions have performed. I’ve sold about 80 of these in nine months, at $150 profit each. I’m thinking that as soon as I’ve got another gap in my writing schedule, I’ll do some more for my backlist. It’s a really fun crafts project for me, my readers love it, and it pays well. Win-win, as they say.
One of the things that always strikes me about your fiction is how fearless you are in naming names. Case in point, you don’t bother to assign Google an alias in the story “Scroogled”; you go right after them as the villains in a fictional story. Does this ever give you pause? Any stories of companies releasing the hounds after you?
DOCTOROW: Naw, there’s no law that says it’s illegal to make fun of companies in fiction—after all, I’m not saying “Company X did this,” I’m saying, “This is a made-up story in which Company X does this.” A lot of writers and publishers are skittish about this, but they don’t need to be—I’d welcome the publicity from a groundless legal threat from a big corporation! The last time I got a serious threat from a company was when Ralph Lauren threatened to sue Boing Boing over a post my coeditor Xeni Jardin did about the obvious skinnifying photoshopping in one of their ads. I wrote a post mocking them, and we got millions of hits—it was on CNN, the BBC, everywhere. Made us big money, and Lauren dried up and blew away. So bring it on!
Your new collection of essays, Context (2011), offers up a lot of tips for writers: how to think about writing for teens, how to limit (or not) Internet distractions while you write, and so on. I’d wager, though, that the scariest thing for most authors is your advocacy for releasing free Creative Commons e-books simultaneous to the printed versions. My own novels come out from a major publisher, and while I know their strategies are imperfect, I also figure that this is what they think about all day long, and I should generally trust their judgment. Want to try to open my eyes?
DOCTOROW: At this stage, and forevermore, e-books being copied without payment can no longer be seen as a problem—this is now a fact on the ground. There is no way to stop people who don’t want to pay for a book from copying it without payment, period. And it’s just going to get easier. So the question isn’t, “Do you let people copy your books or don’t you?” The question is, “What do you do about the copying?” I figure the CC licenses work for me in this reality in three ways.
1. Artistically. I’m writing science fiction. It’s contemporary (if not always futuristic) work. It’s not supposed to be anachronistic or retro (steampunk notwithstanding). Producing a creative work in 2011 without the intention of it being copied is like being a civil war reenactor or playing blacksmith at some pioneer village. It’s cute, it’s historically interesting, but it’s not making contemporary art.
2. Morally. I copied my ass off all my life. Artists have always copied one another. My adolescence would have been entirely celibate if not for mix tapes. Culture involves copying—reproduction. To call it “cultural discourse” when I do it and “theft” when everyone else does it is silly and hypocritical. Acknowledging the benefit of copying lets me sleep well.
3. Commercially. So long as there are more people who are enticed to pay for a book through the CC license than people who treat it as a substitute for the commercial editions, I’m ahead of the game. I want to make sure that everyone who might give me money gets a chance, not make sure that everyone who gets a copy of the book gives me money in exchange for the deal. I think that being a reasonable and understanding guy about copying puts people in a cooperative frame of mind when it comes to doing things that earn me money, like buying copies of my book in print or online.
BKL: Context includes an essay entitled “Why I Won’t Buy an iPad (and Think You Shouldn’t, Either).” I’m going to step up here and say I freaking adore my iPad. Just a scattering of things I love: downloading public-domain books in an instant, seriously enjoying the New York Times for probably the first time in my life, playing games with friends around the world, and, well, comic books, which, in my opinion, have never looked so spectacular. Tell me how an average Joe user like me is going to get bit in the ass by relying on this machine.
DOCTOROW: The important thing about the iPad isn’t how well it works (beautifully); it’s how badly it fails (miserably). There’s not really any such thing as an “iPad”—the gadget in your bag will be landfill in 18 months. The enduring, immortal spirit of the iPad is its ecosystem: the App Store and the deals it entails with carriers and software authors. Apple has decided that it should be the only entity in the world that can approve software to run on your iPad. If you want to buy an app from me, and I want to sell an app to you, it’s literally illegal for us to do that unless Apple blesses the transaction (and takes 30 percent as part of the bargain, as well as 30 percent of all the money you spend through the app after you buy it). No entity is well situated to be the arbiter of all the content and experiences and communications you’re allowed to undertake on your all-purpose communications device.
Apple routinely makes mistakes in which apps it lets in and which ones it keeps out. For example, they told Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist Mark Fiore that he couldn’t put his cartoons in the App Store because they “disparaged public figures.” They blocked an app that accessed Project Gutenberg’s repository of public-domain books because the Kama Sutra was included. In both cases, they changed their minds because of the public outcry, but we don’t (and can’t) know all the times they haven’t reversed themselves, and, besides, as a model of governance, “We’ll censor whatever we feel like, and if you don’t like it, you have to embarrass us sufficiently, otherwise tough noogies” is a crummy substitute for a free market.
What’s worse is that this lock-in means that every dollar you spend in the iPad ecosystem is a sunk cost you can’t recover if you switch to another ecosystem. None of your iPad content will make the jump with you to a competing platform like Android, because it’s illegal to provide you with tools to unlock and convert that stuff. This is bad news for customers—the only reason to pursue a dirty lock-in strategy is to charge higher prices. And it’s bad news for developers—the narrower the distribution bottleneck, the worse the deal is that artists get. Growing up with open PC hardware—Apple II Plus—taught me that the information society was hackable and configurable, that I could learn to make computers serve me and do my bidding. Growing up with an iPad, the lesson is, “You can make your computer do anything, provided one of the largest corporations in the world likes you, and if they do, you may be able to give or sell your creations to your friends.” I know which lesson I want my kid to learn.
All right, let’s turn the tables. What, to your mind, should a review journal like Booklist be doing differently than it is now?
DOCTOROW: I wouldn’t presume to give you advice! I know that the library community is way ahead of most of the world on this stuff.