Authors: All About the Money
Today, I have published my first Solis Invicti short story on Channillo.com.
"What is Channillo?" I hear you cry. Well, reader, Channillo is a web platform that charges a monthly subscription fee (the cheapest is $4.99 per month) for users to access serialised literature, whether novels or series of short stories. Think Netflix, but for serialised books not serialised television. That's right: Dick did it, Lovecraft did it, hell, even Dickens did it. So now I'm doing it too, in a slightly more modern medium.
The only problem is that the site relies on authors to do their own promotion for their stories. Since my awesome promo machine currently consists of me in my pyjamas and a cat who likes to drool on my keyboard, I'm not sure it's going to be a very successful platform for me. That being the case, why write for Channillo? I can largely answer that question in one word: Wattpad.
I have a problem with Wattpad. Wattpad makes me angry. So angry that I'm not quite ready to talk about it yet, so I'm going to build up to it slowly. Bear with me.
There's been a lot of press this year about how artists (and authors in particular) are struggling to get the financial value of their work recognised. I think it's true that this issue has always been around, and that I'm just more aware of it now because I'm taking writing more seriously as a potential sole profession. Nonetheless, I still think it is an issue of which awareness is growing more generally, and that applies to all creative types, not just authors.
The overriding point is this: if we, as a society, want to promote the arts, we have to be prepared to pay for them. Artists, authors, thespians and musicians do their best work when they're not juggling two jobs and living on toast. That being the case, to get great art we need to pay artists enough to give them a living wage.
Simple, right? Apparently not.
Some of the difficulty here is about the industry, but some of this is about authors undermining ourselves by (a) devaluing our work; or (b) being too gosh-darned nice about the whole dang thing. Let me illustrate.
Something for Nothing
Part of the problem here is endemic in our culture. For some reason, people don't think pirating music or film or anything digital is a bad thing. Yeah, it's a crime, but it's not a proper crime. Everyone does it, right? So I'm just going to say this: NOT COOL. The law might have been a bit fuzzy on this issue in the past, but it's not anymore. It's copyright infringement, and it damages the artists who create what you pirate. That's not only criminal, it's disrespectful. So, if you do it: stop it now.
Honestly, and sad though it is, I think a lot of people simply don't recognise the value and enrichment that the arts bring to society. Moving away from individuals, I think businesses find it hard to justify spending money on such things in these times of austerity, even when they can afford it and actually paying an artist would give them good press for supporting the local community (witness the Sainsburys advert opposite, which was thoroughly derided in May). Businesses can't monetise these things, so they vilify them and end up with foot stuck firmly in mouth.
There also seems to be an assumption that those who work in the creative industries should be willing to give their time for free in return for nebulous, and in some cases questionable, promotional benefit. A hot topic this year for authors has been literary festivals, a worrying number of which expect authors to appear for free. Philip Pullman resigned as a patron of my local Oxford literary festival in January over exactly this issue (Guardian article here). As has been eloquently expounded by other (actually successful) authors, this situation is untenable. The authors are what bring people to literary festivals in the first place. You pay the caterers, you pay the venue hire, so pay the talent (a nod of respect is due here to the forcefully articulate Joanne Harris - check her out on Twitter).
In summary, if artists are to make a living they shouldn't be required to work for free.
That said, I'm a new author. I have embarrassingly low readership numbers. If someone popped up and asked me to appear at a literary festival, I would absolutely do it for free. Is that hypocritical? Yes, yes it is. But how could I, as a nobody in the writing world, possibly expect to be paid for attending a festival that famous and fabulous authors were attending for free? To certain extent, we create our own ceilings.
Which brings me neatly onto my next point...
Use It or Lose It
Oh, authors, you lovely bunch of gentle-natured people. Please, I beg you, stop pretending that it's okay for people to copy your work. They may think it's okay to copy your books, but we know it's not (see above).
In these bright, shiny days of digital publishing it has never been easier for people to take your work, repackage it and sell it on. And that's exactly what's happening, on an increasingly frequent basis. Individuals are pinching books and renaming them, renaming the characters, tweaking the setting, then selling them on as works of original fiction. You can read about two such examples here (see picture below - the plagiarised novel is on the left, the copy on the right) and here.
This plagiarism is rampant and prolific, and it's getting worse. So why do authors put up with it? I think it's partly because of the way authors function as a community. Writing is an isolating profession, and social media is an incredible tool for bringing us all together to support each other's writing endeavours. We talk about each other's books, we read and review each other, and we tweet encouraging messages and pictures to help us through the soul-destroying agent query and rejection process. As a group of people, we can be a sensitive bunch. We don't want to see our own work critiqued without tact, so we're careful with the feelings of our peers.
But I think that principle can be taken too far. It means that some authors are more forgiving than saints, and it can be to their detriment. Maybe I'm just a cynical curmudgeon, but my immediate thought is that these plagiarists are fraudsters. Criminals. I wouldn't believe a word I was told by someone who had copied someone else's novel and tried to pass it off as their own. It's fundamentally dishonest, and if that individual has so little respect for the real author, why should I be inclined to listen to their (I assume fabricated) sob story?
I firmly believe that we need to stop making excuses for these individuals, and stop enabling what is blatant and unrepentant copyright infringement. If someone plagiarises your work, take them to the fucking cleaners. Slap their data holders with a Norwich Pharmacal order if you have to, but don't let them get away with it. If you can't afford court, get some crowdfunding. Ask other authors to support you in taking a stand against the growing number of fraudsters who think it's okay to nick your life's work because they can just spin you a sympathetic yarn and they'll never get sued. If you're not a fan of crowdfunding then get yourself a sponsor, an angel of a successful author. Hate him if you like, but Peter Thiel's funding of the Hulk Hogan v Gawker claim sets a precedent that some might find instructive.
I suppose, at the end of the day, this laissez-faire attitude just irks the intellectual property lawyer in me. If people know they will be on the hook financially for infringement, if they live in fear of that, we might be in a position to tackle this problem. Otherwise, I just don't see it going away. If your work has value, then why wouldn't you protect it by enforcing your copyright in it against infringers? And if you don't enforce your rights, aren't you undermining that value? And if your work has no value, why should you be paid for it? Why should any author?
You see my point. It's a slippery slope.
So let's segway nicely into...
The Problem with Wattpad
Channillo shares a number of features in common with Wattpad, but it has the following key differences (to my mind):
1. It's a curated system, so only people who can construct a sentence will be taken on as authors.
2. It has a regimented approach to submissions, so you sign up to provide instalments with the frequency of your choosing. I've chosen to provide one short story a month, and there's a deadline for each month. Essentially this means I've got a proper incentive to write something other than my central WIP, and it encourages me (as a new author) to develop a writing routine. This can only be a good thing. Importantly, the only restrictions on the use of material written for Channillo (in which you retain copyright) are that you can't provide it elsewhere for free while it's on Channillo (and you can take it down whenever you like), so once I've written a book's worth of short stories I can just whack them together in a compilation and sell them on Amazon. Shiny.
3. It's not (and I can't stress this enough) FREE.
Because that's really my problem with Wattpad. I'm sure it's a very helpful training ground, and I know it must be great for those authors who just want to get their work seen so they can use it as a springboard for something else. But what about those who want to get paid? If we put our content on Wattpad, even if for only a short time, then we endorse its business model. We endorse a business model in which authors remain unpaid, unless they can gain independent success and join the Wattpad "Stars" programme. To me, that programme smacks of the literary festival model: give us all your content for free, and you might get some promo. I'm not saying promo is worthless, and there's definitely a balancing act there, but where's the line?
Unfortunately, because it's free, Wattpad is also much more popular than Channillo. I'm not sure how many subscribers Channillo has, but I don't think they're overwhelmed. And who's surprised, when so many authors are prepared to write for free on Wattpad?
In such a content-rich environment, it's already very difficult to make yourself seen as a new writer. The new frontier for publishers is content curation, something I personally think Amazon could do with enhancing, and that's what users will pay for. That's what Wattpad is missing.
So I think that we, as authors, need to do a certain amount of self-curation. If your work is good, then why give it away for free? Doesn't that just devalue it, and your time and effort spent in creating it? I believe in my work. I think it's good enough that people would pay to read it, so I'm going to do a Taylor Swift and stand behind that by refusing to put it on a platform that doesn't pay its authors.
Even if my rubbish marketing earns me an annual income counted in pennies rather than pounds.
Notice of Interest
This is an entirely self-interested blogpost. I'm not a highbrow author creating great works of literary durability and I do not deserve to be paid lots of money for them. However, one day I would like to give up my day job to write fiction, and earn at least minimum wage (unlike most professional authors: see Guardian article here). I'm therefore keen to protect the value of art in general and literature in particular.