Writing in the Age of Piracy

I came across the following comment from a writer recently — which writer and where I found it I won’t tell you, for reasons that will become clear shortly. It regards the nature of humans, and the business of selling books, and of piracy:

“I think that the rise of mass-market print publishing created the opportunity for many writers to earn a marginal income from their writing, and that that paradigm is now doomed. I believe that 99% of the customers are cheapskates when no one is looking, for example, and so I believe we’re looking at a future where piracy will proliferate and where only a very few will make any sort of real money from writing fiction. I hope I’m wrong, but my goal for the moment is to try to preserve the old paradigm for as long as possible.”

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

Let’s translate that metaphorically, shall we? Book publishing is a sinking ship. The former passengers on the ship have given in to their feral instincts and are dismantling the ship board by board. The remaining crew are being wedged further and further back into what little of the ship remains above the waterline. Eventually the whole ship will disappear beneath the waves and all the crew will drown. The thought of possibly jumping off the ship apparently doesn’t occur to the crew; rather, their ambition is simply to be the last person to drown.

Screw ’em. Let them drown. Because here’s the thing about that “sinking ship:” Even if we grant it is sinking (which we should not), and that the passengers are scurvy pirates (which we ought not), this ship is sinking in about five feet of water and the shore is fifty yards away. And if you haven’t the wit to make it to shore, then by God, you deserve to die.

For now, let’s put aside the issue of whether publishing will survive as an industry. I think it will for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the people I’ve met in publishing are fairly adept capitalists who would prefer that their next gig does not involve asking people if they want fries with that. Nor do I think most people are thieving dickheads, despite the number of people recently trying to convince me otherwise. But for the sake of argument, let us posit the nuclear option: Rampant digital piracy has made it impossible to sell books. The entire publishing industry is out on the street. Editors are on the corners with signs that say “WILL EDIT YOUR ‘WILL WORK FOR FOOD’ SIGN FOR FOOD.” Art directors sit on crates drawing wee little dune buggy caricatures of passersby. Publishers have launched themselves from the windows of their corner offices to publish themselves on the pavement in splattery limited editions of one. And where are the writers? If they have any sense at all, they’re making a fair amount of money.

Listen to me now: Writers are not in the publishing industry. The publishing industry exists to handle the output of writers and distribute it in an effective and hopefully profitable way; however it does not necessarily follow that writer’s only option is the publishing industry, especially not now. Congruent to this: Books aren’t the only option. I write books, but you know what? I’m not a book writer, any more than a musician is an LP musician or an MP3 musician. The book is the container. It’s not destiny.

And this is where the schism exists among writers: Those who get these concepts, and those who don’t. Those who don’t are dead meat anyway; let’s thank them for their service to letters and shed a tear as their corpses rot (and not just because of the smell). As for those of us still standing, let me introduce you to what could be your next business model.

Meet Penny Arcade. Many of you already know it, of course. For those of you who don’t, here’s the concept: Two guys write a thrice-weekly comic strip about video games — a strip which, as it happens, is usually damn funny (often even if you don’t like video games). How much money do these guys make off the strip itself? Not a dime, as far as I can tell. But the comic strip draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to the site; the site sells advertising for a fair amount every week. They sell merchandise, from t-shirts to limited edition artwork (a recent artwork sale sold 500 art “cells” at $80 a pop in less than 12 hours: $40,000 gross for 12 hours isn’t bad). They have their own convention. They even have their own charity, Child’s Play, which in two years has raised half a million dollars in cash and goods for children’s hospitals across the country. And most importantly for the purposes of our discussion, this is their full time gig — it supports the two of them, their wives and families, and even a business manager to handle the stuff them creative types don’t want to both with.

Yeah, you say, but that’s a comic strip. I’m talking about writing, here. Well, listen up, funcakes: The point here is not the comic strip. The point here is what it’s used for: As the basis of several different revenue streams, all of which flow directly to the principals. What happens if the cartoon strip is pirated? Not much — it’s distributed for free, anyway. At the very worst, it becomes free advertising, bringing people around to the site. People visit the site; they enjoy it, they come back. That allows PA to sell advertising. Some become fans; this allows PA to sell merchandise. Some make it part of their lives; this allows PA to host a convention and fund a charity. What is at the heart of this business model is pirate-proof content: You can’t steal free content. And what Penny Arcade sells, it’s difficult to steal.

Can writers do the same thing? Well, in a universe where piracy kills the conventional publishing model, they damn well better get used to the idea, hadn’t they.

Personally, I find this formulation non-controversial because to very large extent it’s what I do now. I won’t get into how much of my writing income over the last four years comes directly and indirectly as a result of writing on this site, except to say it’s six figures and the leftmost number is not a “1,” and not nearly all of it comes from book sales. This is not bragging (or not only bragging, shall I say); the point to made here is that an ambitious writer can use a non-commercial presence to generate a non-trivial amount of income. In my case, the content here, like the content on Penny Arcade, is un-pirateable; I don’t charge anything for it, and I don’t care if you send it along to whomever you like. But it brings in thousands of people every day, some of whom would probably spend money on Scalzi merchandise. Like, say, a novel, however it is published.

Or not a novel, actually — why not a novella? The market for novellas is very small right about now, because most publishers don’t like them; they don’t fit into the mass-market publishing paradigm very well at all. But if I don’t have to worry about my publisher’s production albegra, maybe I could sell one. Or not sell it at all — maybe I’ll post it up on the site with its run subsidized by an advertiser. I have eight to ten thousand visitors on a daily basis; think there’s an advertiser out there who might be willing to shell out for 100,000 ad impressions over the run of the novella?

Point is, in a pirate age, I think I still stand a good chance of continuing to make a very good income from writing. Since I don’t think we’ll get to a pirate age, this is even better news for me, because I have the advantage of generating writer income the old-fashioned way as well as in this new way. Multiple revenue streams are a writer’s friend. Now, get this: I’m not particularly clever, and I’m awfully lazy. If I can do this, pretty much any writer can. Yes, it does take time and effort to generate a readership (seven years, in the case of the Whatever). Tell me how this is different from publishing today.

What if I’m wrong? Well, what if I am? It’s axiomatic that new formulations for generating writing income will arrive in our theoretical age of piracy; writers are creative people, and they also like to eat. I’m offering one potential business model here, mostly because I’m familiar with it and I know it works for me (and for Penny Arcade). If you don’t like it, make one of your own. Or, you know, drown. One less writer for me to worry about.

No, these new business models are not going to work for everyone. Guess what: The publishing model now doesn’t work for everyone, either. And guess what else: The group of Writers Making Money in the Pirate Age will not be the same as the group of Writers Making Money in the Age of Publishing. Why? Because some people can’t do it, and some people won’t do it. Furthermore, some people will make less money in this new age of piracy. But guess what again? Some people will make more, too. Will the per capita income be as great? Doubtful, since this pirate age model will encourage more people whose writing would have been laughed out the door in the publishing age to make a go at monetizing their work. But I don’t know how much time you need to spend worrying about the per capita income number. You have to worry about your income number.

Should you help other writers in this not entirely likely Age of Piracy? Absolutely: Karma is a good thing. Heck, you should help other writers today. But if all a writer can do is complain about how much better it was back then, and looks at his audience as if it would stab him and eat him the first chance it got, well, how much can you do? If someone demands that he is drowning in five feet of water, all you can do is tell him to stand up and point him in the direction of the shore. You can’t make him do either.