Free: The Future of a Radical Price

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Writing for Free

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This HuffPo writer is right. Not paying writers is not a business model. Or if it is, it’s not a sustainable model. She touches on many good points in this debate, namely that only those that can afford to write for free will do so, meaning that we’ll increasingly be hearing from the idle rich almost exclusively.There’s a voguish notion going around, espoused vocally by Chris Anderson as he stumps for his book Free but also creeping into job listings for any number of online publications, that you write for free in order to make a name for yourself and to get your personal brand out there. Once you’ve got sixty posts under your belt at HuffPo, the idea goes, you can take your “clips” and go find a paying gig or pitch a book or get speaking engagements.If you are a good enough writer, you can probably jumpstart a career this way (though if you’re good enough you probably didn’t need a jumpstart in the first place), but do not operate under illusion that when someone invites you to write regularly for free, you are anything more than a cog in their pageview-generating machine. Paying writers nothing is just a way to increase profit margin.Certainly, times are tough and its hard to make a living wage as a writer these days, but if a place fancies itself a business, then it can afford to pay you something, maybe not much, but more than nothing.If you can find no one to pay you to write, start your own website and write for free for yourself. You won’t feel like you’re getting ripped off, and any success you find will flow directly to you, not the pageview counters who cash the checks. The tools that let you showcase your own writing online are free, easy to use, and plentiful, so it’s worth putting out your shingle and seeing if anyone shows up.(This item also appears alongside responses from Eve Batey and Richard Nash at The Rumpus.)

Revisiting a Literary Throwdown: Zombie Books for Free

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It was a battle between an evangelizing visionary and a sage defender of the past, perhaps the first big tussle in the great sorting out of publishing’s new look in the digital age.This was 2006, when Wired Magazine technology evangelist Kevin Kelly wrote about the helter skelter future of books in the digital age. In the New York Times Magazine, Kelly looked at then still nascent book scanning efforts, and extrapolated a future that sent a shiver through writers, editors, publishers, and many readers:Turning inked letters into electronic dots that can be read on a screen is simply the first essential step in creating this new library. The real magic will come in the second act, as each word in each book is cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, remixed, reassembled and woven deeper into the culture than ever before. In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages.Later he added:[Authors] can sell performances, access to the creator, personalization, add-on information, the scarcity of attention (via ads), sponsorship, periodic subscriptions – in short, all the many values that cannot be copied. The cheap copy becomes the “discovery tool” that markets these other intangible valuables.At the annual Book Expo, keynote speaker John Updike responded, heaping scorn: The economic repercussions of this paradise of freely flowing snippets are touched on with a beguiling offhandedness, as a matter of course, a matter of an inexorable Marxist unfolding.Everyone reveled in the literary throwdown at the time (Gawker called it a Crossover Nerdfight). There was no “winner,” however, and neither Kelly nor Updike was proven right, but there are some interesting new developments to contemplate.When Kelly wrote of “remixed” books, many were aghast, envisioning zombified, soulless collages, based on the desecrated works that had been co-opted for profit. They may have been right about the zombie part: At least one book remix has caused quite a stir this year. According to Publishers Weekly, there are “more than 600,000 copies in print of… Jane Austen mashup, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” A graphic novel version is in the works, as is a sequel, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Even though this recent example looms large, when you start thinking about it there is a rich history of literary remixes. At the Vromans Bookstore Blog, Patrick Brown recently compiled a thorough exploration of the topic in response to J.D. Salinger’s lawsuit over an unauthorized sequel to his novel The Catcher in the Rye. Though that remix is not looking particularly auspicious, Patrick notes the many venerable and successful remixes that have come before it, from James Joyce’s Ulysses to Gregory Maguire’s Wicked to a pair of recent books by Maile Meloy. Brown doesn’t mention it, but you can even go all the way back to the “first” novel, and look at Don Quixote’s second part as an inspired calling out of unauthorized “copycat” versions of the book. It’s entirely plausible to make the case that literary history is in many ways a history of literary “remixes,” and, as Kelly has suggested, current, ever-stricter copyright regimes are an artificial impediment to this free flow of ideas.Returning to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, silly as it may be, one wonders if the book’s success doesn’t prove there is an appetite – in our heavily remixed, mashed up culture – for freer rein to be afforded writers who want to experiment in this vein. It’s also clear that the public domain offers an unending font of material for those inclined to use it (for a more highbrow example, think of the relationship between Tom Stoppard and Shakespeare). Meanwhile, the Salinger case would seem to indicate that when it comes to books under copyright and the cross-linking, clustering, and reassembling that Kelly prophesied, we are still very much at the whim of the copyright holder.Kelly’s other point – that of a new business model for writers that relies not on selling the book but on using the book to sell “access” to the writer, has been taken up enthusiastically by another Wired guy, Chris Anderson, who has written an entire book on this topic, Free. Anderson is “selling” (read: giving away) the book under this model and his ideas have caused media types quite a bit of heartburn.Interestingly, the backlash to Anderson’s book seems to be resonating (to me, anyway) much more than the book itself. The unfortunate revelation that Anderson had lifted substantial passages for the book from Wikipedia suggests that in a world where writers don’t get paid for writing and information wants to be free, the writing itself is almost beside the point as compared to the ancillary, profit-making schemes that can surround the “author as brand” idea. This criticism would only seem to be confirmed by Anderson’s explanation that there was an oversight in citing the copied passages properly.With a new novel coming soon from our greatest literary recluse, I wonder too whether a flourishing of the idea that authors make money from selling “access” and not books would mean that we could never have another Pynchon or McCarthy or DeLillo whose works alone tower above any notion that they might experiment with alternative revenue models.In the end, there are some elements out of the Kelly/Anderson view of the future of publishing that remain compelling. The remixed book is an important idea that need not be villainized or trivialized, particularly as digitization provides new opportunities for experimentation. The notion of “free,” meanwhile, seems far more potentially damaging in that whole swathes of literary culture are not particularly compatible with the “authors selling access” model. However, if you believe that good writing is always worth something to somebody, you don’t have much to worry about.

Free is a Complicated Word, or, The Idea Coincidence

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Sonya Chung’s first novel, Long for This World, will be released by Scribner in March 2010. She is currently at work on a second novel, Sebastian & Frederick. You can learn more about Sonya and her work at’s how it happens: an idea, or a question, or a theme begins to take shape in your mind. There is a tipping point, when it moves from background to foreground. Then: you see it everywhere. You are wearing Idea-X-colored glasses, everything speaks to this idea; it is a prism through which All Can Be Considered and Understood.Lydia Kiesling noted a related phenomenon in her essay here at The Millions, “The Reading Coincidence.”Throughout my life as a reader I have noticed this thing happening over and over; a book I read after finishing a seemingly unrelated book turns out to be linked to the previous book in some way… Every book you read in a short period of time mentions one of the other books you just read, or a movie you saw last week, or even, like, a dream someone told you against your will? Doesn’t it? And isn’t it weird?… What is it called? Is there, perhaps, a pertinent volume of Remembrance of Things Past to which I should address myself?It is weird. And I don’t know either to whom or what we should “address ourselves” in order to understand. But following is the anatomy of my Idea Coincidence around the notion of free:June 11 – My blog response to Dan Baum’s twitter-essay about being fired from the New Yorker. I ponder the tensions between institutional sanction and intellectual-creative freedom.June 19 – A friend refers me to D.H. Lawrence’s “The Spirit of Place” from his Studies in Classic American Literature. “Men are not free when they are doing just what they like. The moment you can do just what you like, there is nothing you care about doing.” June 25-27 – I read Toni Morrison’s A Mercy. Jacob, an Anglo-Dutch trader, inherits New England farm land in the early years of the American slave trade. He and his English wife Rebekka, are orphaned (literally and emotionally, respectively), free from family ties; and they reject church-community ties, forging instead a life of untethered self-determination. “They leaned on each other root and crown. Needing no one outside their sufficiency. Or so they believed… Those [church] women seemed flat to [Rebekka], convinced they were innocent and therefore free.”Then, a week of being haunted by Rebekka’s fate: Jacob dies of smallpox, she contracts the same; her isolation engulfs her (her children have also died). Their makeshift family – a Native American bondswoman, two cast-off slave girls, two indentured servants, and a blacksmith (a free black man) – begins to come apart:They once thought they were a kind of family because together they had carved companionship out of isolation. But the family they imagined they had become was false. Whatever each one loved, sought or escaped, their futures were separate and anyone’s guessOn death’s door, in feverish lucidity, Rebekka asks, “Were the Anabaptists right?… [Was] her stubborn self-sufficiency outright blasphemy?… She had only to stop thinking and believe.” She recovers, then joins the church; her deal with God. The indentured servant Scully observes: “Mistress passed her days with the joy of a clock. She was a penitent, pure and simple. Which to him meant that underneath her piety was something cold if not cruel.” Was Rebekka, the only technically free woman in the novel, ever truly free?July 2 – In an effort to shake off some of Morrison’s (and Rebekka’s) haunting presence, a light movie rental, Waitress, by Adrienne Shelley. Protagonist Jenna Hunterson, played by Keri Russell, wants to break free of her tyrannical, dim, pathologically love-hungry husband Earl, but finds herself unhappily pregnant with his baby. In the end, she finds her freedom in the mother-child bond.July 5 – I read Adam Zagajewski’s heady essay, “Toil and Flame,” on Polish painter Jozef Czapski. For Czapski, freedom was a way of seeing, an inner disposition. “Seeing must be governed by one principle alone, the principle of ‘inner freedom'” – which, according to Zagajewski, is rooted in Keats’s negative capability, and a dynamic “not-knowing” that is essentially religious – “very strong faith and very strong doubt alongside a complete inability to stay fixed in one single, stable metaphysical conviction.” July 9 – Publishers Weekly article on the hoopla around Chris Anderson’s book Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Upon its release, angry readers accused Anderson of claiming that everything online should be free. Says Anderson: “… the book is not about how everything should be free, but about how the economics of free are developing in the increasingly digital world… I knew that the word ‘free’ was a misunderstood, confusing word, and it has triggered fear and longing in equal amounts. I’m now dealing with the consequences of just how complicated the word is.” July 14 – Bezalel Stern’s guest post at The Millions on Richard Ford’s Independence Day. Stern: “Real independence, Ford posits, is all about making connections. Independence is with people.”What does it all mean? The fulcrum for me is Morrison’s Rebekka. She is “free” – a white woman, living outside of religious institutionalism, unobligated to crown or lineage or patriarchy; free from the dictates of group or creed. Tied only to one person, one man, her kind (and equally untethered) husband Jacob. She has arrived at this station through a series of choices – in each case making a calculated determination to trade in the devil she knows for the devil she doesn’t:”…her father got notice of a man looking for a strong wife rather than a dowry… her prospects were servant, prostitute, wife, and although horrible stories were told about each of those careers, the last one seemed safest… marriage to an unknown husband in a far-off land had distinct advantages… America. Whatever the danger, how could it possibly be worse?Religion, as Rebekka experienced it from her mother, was a flame fueled by a wondrous hatred. Her parents treated each other and their children with glazed indifference and saved their fire for religious matters… It was when [the Anabaptists] refused to baptize her first-born, her exquisite daughter, that Rebekka turned away. Weak as her faith was, there was no excuse for not protecting the soul of an infant from eternal perdition.But then here is Lawrence, cautioning against a dangerous kind of “masterless-ness,” a specifically American version of freedom defined in negative terms, and by flight:Those Pilgrim Fathers and their successors never came here for freedom of worship. What did they set up when they got here? Freedom, would you call it?… They came largely to get away… That’s why most people have come to America, and still do come. To get away from everything they are and have been… Which is all very well, but it isn’t freedom. Rather the reverse. A hopeless sort of constraint. It is never freedom till you find something you really positively want to be…Zagajewski/Czapski bring Morrison and Lawrence together for me: Rebekka possessed some strain of Czapski’s inner freedom, a dynamic not-knowing; her “weak faith” was her faith – faith and doubt together. Partnered to Jacob, she was able to sustain a living doubtful faith, her own version of what Lawrence terms a “deep, inward voice of religious belief” to which an individual must be “obedient” in order to be truly free. One of my favorite moments in the novel is this exchange between Rebekka and the Native American servant Lina, Rebekka’s closest confidante:R: I don’t think God knows who we are. I think he would like us, if He knew us, but I don’t think he knows about us… He’s doing something else in the world. We are not on His mind.L: What is He doing then, if not watching over us?R: Lord knows.The strength of Rebekka’s doubt-faith only fails her after Jacob dies; her essential solitariness, and the demons of her cut-off past, are no longer counterbalanced by her flesh-and-blood life of goodness and freedom with the man on whom she bet everything. Morrison paints her as a tragic figure – strong enough for a free, uninstitutionalized life only as long as a man anchors her world; in his absence, the thin-threaded ties that have bound her to her motley household of strays fray and unravel abruptly.Morrison’s socio-historical context is specific; but the implications may echo into the present universal. Where does our freedom, our “masterless-ness,” leave us in the end? For modern, ambitious urban-dwellers, for instance, who’ve fled constraining or otherwise unfamilial families, the tenuousness of patchwork community and makeshift family simmers uneasily beneath busy lives of creativity and/or career. Will these new and sometimes unconventional threads hold? Perhaps independence is indeed about “making connections,” as Ford’s Frank Bascombe comes to realize (according to Bezalel Stern); but the nature and context of those connections matters. Not all of them will endure. And true freedom seems to be a condition that reaches for both depth and permanence.Is it the parent-child connection that is, in the end, The Profound and Enduring Bond which engenders a true inner freedom? Both Morrison and Adrienne Shelley posit motherhood as a miraculous road to freedom – as if childlessness is a woman’s specific version of Lawrence’s masterless-ness. The slave girl Sorrow in A Mercy gives birth to a child and then renames herself:She had looked into her daughter’s eyes; saw in them the gray glisten of a winter sea while a ship sailed by-the-lee. “I am your mother,” she said. “My name is Complete.Waitress’s Jenna Hunterson also looks into her newborn daughter’s eyes and is instantly endowed with clarity, courage, a moral center. No longer desperate to flee, she finds liberation right where she is, in the identity of mother. (Hmm… Maybe this is a “Mom Book” question.)”Free” is a complicated word indeed, Chris Anderson. And while at first the commercial use of the word may not seem relevant, it does raise relevant questions: free equals something for nothing, in the parlance of commerce. At no cost. But it seems clear that true freedom does indeed come at cost. The uproar over Anderson’s book reveals a fear that the cost of “free” would be borne disproportionately by media organizations, artists, content providers. For Dan Baum, the cost of creative freedom was a burned (or at least singed) bridge with a powerful cultural-media institution, as well as the financial stability that I would guess “freed” him in many ways. Fellow freelancers out there may feel the cost of your freedom from institutional-employment daily: isolation, financial worry, wide swings in self-esteem (my attitude toward my freelancer’s freedom has been known to shift by the hour, depending on what does or does not arrive in my email box).In the end, I address myself to you, thoughtful reader. “I would rather start a conversation about free, even in wildly misinformed, polarized, noisy ways, if it gets people thinking,” Anderson said about his book.Perhaps to start we can embrace our dynamic not-knowing – all that we might be fleeing and whatever doubt-faith undergirds our present freedom. We can wonder if we are on God’s mind, if self-sufficiency is really a virtue; if we should have children (or not) or live closer to (or further from) our biological families; if we should keep freelancing or take a real job; what free means and what it really costs. Suspended between drudgery and flame is what Jozef Czapski called his work, implying perhaps that only in the liminal state can we fully experience the process of freedom – living out choices and circumstances, forging and casting off various ties that bind – all of which ultimately teaches us what it means to be free.

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