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The Big Yellow Book

Seeing the World from Both Oculars-- a Bananaslug's Journal

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Eric Flint on being called a scab...
The red bear's back...and boy is he mad!

Re-posted from the MutterOfDemons Conference on Baen's Bar:

From: "Eric Flint" <ericflint@comcast.net>

I'll be devoting at least one full essay in my regular "Salvos Against Big Brother" column to this very argument advanced by Hendrix -- although, if I say so myself, I'll pose his position a lot better than he does.

Here's the introduction to it, which will appear at the end of my column in the June issue of JBU:

“So, in my next essays, I will deal with the two most important—and rational, let me say—objections to my approach to the problem.

“The first is this:

“What might work for one author, won’t work if all of them do it. To put it another way, it may be true that if a few authors use free or cheap distribution online of their work it rebounds to their advantage, because it helps them penetrate the opacity of the book market. But if all authors did it, that same opacity would close down again—except that the level of income of all authors would have been lowered in the process.

“This is by no means a silly argument. In fact, on the surface, it looks very close to the standard argument advanced by trade unions explaining the need for collective bargaining. If you allow any individual employee “liberty of contract” to negotiate whatever terms they can get from an employer, it will inevitably be those people in the weakest position whom the employer will use to set the level for wages and benefits.

“That is absolutely true, and as a lifelong supporter (and former activist) in the trade union movement, I support collective bargaining.

“Similarly, so the argument goes, if a few authors start handing out their work for free, because they get an immediate promotional benefit from doing do, sooner or later all authors will be forced to do it simply in order to compete—and all authors will see an overall decline in their income. Including the scab idiot who started the ball rolling, because he was too short-sighted to see the inevitable end result.

“The problem is that it’s a completely inappropriate analogy. Writers are not in the same position as factory workers, for the very same reasons that produce the opacity of the book market in the first place—as I’ll explain in the next essay.

“The second objection is this:

“An anti-DRM approach to electronic publishing may work very well, so long as the principal book market remains a paper market. Under those conditions, whatever sales you lose in the electronic market are more than made up for by the gains you make in the paper market, which is vastly bigger. But, sooner or later, electronic publishing will become the dominant format for publishers—at which point the same stupid author who thought it was a bright idea to promote his works online will discover that he just cut his own throat.

“You will immediately see how closely connected the two arguments are to each other. In essence, with regard to both issues, the argument is that while DRM may be penny-foolish, it is pound-wise. It may hurt you in the short run, but in the long run it’s simply a necessity for the future.

“Well, it isn’t, as I’ll spend quite a bit of time demonstrating."

The fundamental problem with Hendrix's viewpoint is that it's based on assuming a class identity between authors and wage laborers which is completely false. The argument for collective bargaining, as I noted above, is one that I support entirely, being not only a lifelong supporter of the trade union movement but having spent a quarter of a century as an union activist. But the logic for supporting collective bargaining is based on the fundamental premise that wage labor is _replaceable_. I.e., that whatever skill differentials may exist between one or another wage laborer in any given category of labor, they are simply too small to matter to an employer. (Especially a large employer.) The employer can therefore fire anyone he wants and replace them with someone else who's willing to do the same work for less money.

Allowing for some gray areas at the fringes, this is by and large correct. And what it means is that the notion of "liberty of contract" so beloved of libertarians -- and enforced in the US legally for three quarters of a century following the Civil War by a succession of rightwing pro-business Supreme Courts, who used "liberty of contract" (which is nowhere in the Constitution, be it noted) to rule minimum wage laws and unionization to be illegal -- reduces itself in the real world to the ability of employers (especially large ones) to reduce wages to the _lowest_ common denominator possible in whatever skill set we're talking about.

Hence, the argument of the trade union movement that only collective bargaining could produce a genuinely fair contractual agreement.

What Hendrix seems completely oblivious to -- this is not a man, I take it, who has any experience at all in real trade unions -- is that authors BY DEFINITION do not fit into this category. Writing, like many forms of entertainment (including athletics), is a type of labor whose product is by its nature irreplaceable. Even if I wanted to be a "scab," I simply CAN'T.

C-a-n-n-o-t. Picture it:

"Hey there, Mr. Megabucks Publisher, why are you paying J.K. Rowling a fortune to write Harry Potter books? I'll write a J.K. Rowling Harry Potter book for peanuts."

"Hey there, Mr. Megabucks Team Owner, why are you paying this clown over here a fortune just to throw a baseball across a plate 66 feet away? I'll do it for $300 a game."

"Hey there, Mr. Megabucks Movie Producer, why are you paying Superstar umpteen million dollars to star in a movie? I'll star in the same movie just for the perks and the fancy trailer."

Alas, I am neither J. K. Rowling nor Nolan Ryan nor Will Smith -- and what the public is paying for is to see THEM. This is, incidentally, why it is also absurd for people to complain about "overpaid" movie stars and athletes. Uh, no, let me explain Remedial Economics to you. When there's only one Reggie Jackson or Harrison Ford or Meryl Streep in the whole wide world, their labor is "worth" exactly what the market will bear. And if they can draw in the paying crowds to earn that money, then they are not in fact overpaid at all.

Okay, here endeth the lesson in remedial economics. Moving on to slightly more advanced economics, what this also means is that the most common pattern -- by far -- of what happens when a given individual (be they a writer, a musician, an actor, or an athlete) suddenly figures out a way to leverage more money out of the market is the OPPOSITE of what happens when cheap labor is used to break strikes. What actually happens, 99 times out of 100, is that they create a new market altogether -- or, if you prefer, greatly expand an existing one.

That's because there's so much fluidity in the entertainment market, and it has almost no relationship at all -- not a direct one, at any rate -- to the general business market. Movies did a land office business all through the Great Depression, for instance. Why? Well, not the least of the reasons was that the movie industry produced a lot of very popular movie stars during that period, and that boosted the whole industry.

You can find a million examples of that, all through history.

Did the emergence of the Beatles crush other British rock bands? What a laugh.

Tom Clancy's popular technothrillers in the early 80s spawned an entire subgenre. Rowling's immensely successful Potter books boosted the sales for lots of other fantasy authors. Michael Jordan's pyrotechnics on the basketball court -- coming on top of Larry Byrd and Magic Johnson -- raised the popularity (and ticket sales) of basketball to a much higher level.

Do I need to go on? Hendrix's argument is simply nonsense, top to bottom, because it starts from a nonsensical premise.

What he'd have to be able to demonstrate is that the money that writers like me or David Drake or Charlie Stross or John Scalzi make from our expansive attitude toward fair use -- which is what it actually is, not "scabbing" -- comes AT HIS EXPENSE. And that's...

Well. "Silly" is probably the least impolite term I can use.

Even trying to follow the logic is enough to give you a headache. To use me as a well-known example of a "webscab," I put up 1632 for free almost six years ago -- and I recently signed a contract for three more 1632 series novel for $70,000 each. Being blunt about it, $70K is more money than most SF writers will make in a lifetime. So how in Ghu's name am _I_ undercutting the market? Even the market for alternate history, much less F&SF as a whole?

What actually happens is that other publishers notice such things as the popularity of the 1632 series -- or Harry Turtledove's books, to use another example -- and start being willing to pay more for books in that subgenre. Whether they will continue to do so, and for how long, depends simply on sales -- which, be it noted, are _not_ affected by how much either Harry or I get paid to write the books. To the best of my knowledge, no book buyer (well... except mothers and such) in the multi-century history of publishing has ever rushed out to buy a book in order to make sure the author earned the advance. 99.9999% of them have no idea what the advance was to begin with, even if they cared.

Gah. Boy, it's annoying to have to explain Basic Trade Unionism to someone who prattles about it based on -- I'm willing to bet -- very little personal experience.

And enough already. You can read more about it in the months ahead in my column in Jim Baen's Universe.


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And people bitch about the free library. I still would have never gotten into scifi if not for John Ringo. I definitely wouldn't have pursued a B.S. in History if not for the original 1632 book.

Ah, Borat my good man. What does Kazahkstan have to say about this?

"Uh, Re-tahded!"

People bitch about it, but isn't there also a waiting list to get into the library?

Exactly. People are lining up to give away their books, to increase their sales. How horrible!!

I think they are "giving away their books" on the same principle as a dealer's "the first taste is free." (Not to compare authors with drug dealers - books are FAR more dangerous)

Scalzi is a good example. I read "Agent to the Stars" online - and couldn't wait to buy "Old Man's War".

I don't think authors can really be compared to the usual union workers(I speak as a long-time AFSCME member). This does not mean writers don't need unions, just their situations are different. Heck, actors need unions, even multi-million dollar ones. Ronald Reagan got his start in politics as president of the Screen Actors Guild.

Personal Testimonial: the free library worked it's magic on me

Before I stumbled across the library, I'd read very few Baen authors. Sure, Mercedes Lackey when I was in middle school - because every girl needs a talking horse for her best friend.

Since finding the free library, though, I've read, oh, maybe a tenth of the books there. I've also gone on to buy about 30 paperbacks by authors who I discovered there (I like to think I bought David Weber lunch at least once), and I've gotten a Webscription account and use it pretty often. And when I read a book in the library I like, it spurs me on to read more fantasy and science fiction, because I remember how awesome it is. Everybody wins!

On other blogs, I've explained my position on this, which includes: (1) I personally like Dr. Hendrix and his writing, and he's smarter than his rant indicates, so cut him some slack; (2) I don't see evidence to support his hypothesis, but I try to keep an open mind.

"When there's only one Reggie Jackson or Harrison Ford or Meryl Streep in the whole wide world, their labor is 'worth' exactly what the market will bear."

Speaking for a moment as a Mathematical Economist, published on international management theory as well, NO company can pay you as an employee "what you're worth." Almost by definition, their profits come from the DIFFERENCE between what you're worth and what they pay you.

Hence writers are not optimizing by being employees -- though staff writers and story editors can do well in TV-land, that's due in part to Writers Guild of America (West) -- very Union-like.

Writers thus often assume more RISK than employees by being independent contractors or consultants, in return for better revenue and cash flow. The best paid writer in the USA is probably Stephen King, who in essence is co-Publisher of his books, taking 50% of GROSS. J. K. Rowling is the best-paid writer in the world, ever. I, for one, am very happy that she raised the bar, and generated a new generation of eager readers.

I've been a member of 3 unions: SPEEA (an engineers' union) when at Mama Boeing, Kent Space center; NWU (National Writers Union is a local in United Auto Workers; I was a 7-times elected Steering Committee member); and a union of adjunct professors in California. My conservative Wall Street Capitalist Republican grandfather and father did not like unions, but I've found them useful.

Bottom line: whether writers are seen as employees, contractors, management of their own productivity, or investors, they should be entitled to optimize or satisfice as they deem best, with their own work.

If "giving it away free" increases long-term revenue, or some intangible (Stephen King still sells some stories to tiny magazines), then a writer should be able to do so. But nobody else can give their work away free, without permission, by copyright law.

I also thank Dr. Hendrix for raising this topic, and opening a good debate. He may never make as much money as Jimi Hendrix, nor have Paul Allen build a museum to him, but he is an intelligent and honorable man. So, Eric Flint, I thank you for the polite (Heinleinian) tone of your disagreement, and enjoyed your essay.

(Deleted comment)

Re: Hendrix and Unions

"What you're worth" means, how much money you bring in to the company, how much value you add to the corporate endeavor.
You're worth something to the company, forex, when you're assembling widgets, and the price that the widget sells for = materials + your wage + profit. Or when you're managing, so the widget-makers can assemble as many widgets as possible (instead of coping with obstacles to widget-assembling). Or bookkeeping and secretarying, so higher-paid peeps don't spend their expensive time on that stuff.
"What you're worth" is monetary, not moral, in this case.


I have been just amazed at how much commentary Howard Hendrix's little rant has generated. Look, that was just one guy's opinion! It's hardly worth all the effort spent on replying to him.


Second, I did a panel at a circa 1979 Norwescon with Jim Baen. He offered me a book contract to expand on what I'd said in the panel (about thew future of computers). He paid me. Was I "giving it away free" on the panel? I don't think so!

First, what happened to my previous (longer) comment submitted?

I miss Jim Baen, and so do many others...

So on the one hand, you can't be a scab writer because nobody can produce a cheaper Harry Potter novel than Rowling's.

But on the other hand, the success of the Harry Potter novels boosts the sales for other - inevitably less expensive to acquire - fantasy books.

These aren't strictly contradictory, but they do tend to pull in different directions. Say Rowling were to go on strike, but not yet for so long as to kill the market. Wouldn't the publishers be more anxious to acquire other books like hers to fill the gap?

That could be seen as scabbing of a kind, but then by that definition the whole idea of writing imitation knockoffs of better-known authors would be scabbing.

It'd take some thought to decide if it actually is.

Another argument you can easily make: Nowadays, you can find many works of fiction in the public domain (Mark Twain, Dickens, etc.) on the Internet and read them for free. Yes publishers continue to issue new print editions of these same works, and they sell. In fact, it's a very competitive market.

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