Crankypants

The Inevitable Graying of Worldcon

So I was at Worldcon this weekend to do a few things -- hustle up a new agent, make friends, maybe sell a couple of people on the wonders of Lucy Smokeheart, and in general start connecting with professionals in genre as I expand my career into new directions.

Chuck Wendig has just written a post about The Worldcon Youth Problem. I saw some of that with my own eyes -- while waiting in line for the Hugos to open, a pair of gentlemen in front of me were talking with not-even-thinly-veiled contempt about 'media fandom,' as though it weren't possible to like books and movies and games all at the same time. But they're right -- those people aren't real fans in the sense that they don't belong to the Fandom Culture that is rooted in print zines and written letters. The culture that effectively owns and operates Worldcon. And more to the point: those people (and by that I mean people like me) aren't quite welcome there. Tumblr isn't fandom. Apparently.

This is related to the Fake Geek Girl problem -- a tribe of people who feel they should have authority over who does and doesn't get to be included in their tribe. Suggesting that to be a true fan of SF/F, first you must read the Holy Trinity of Heinlein, Clarke and Asimov is... let's just say it's a little old-fashioned.

In our Sunday episode of The Cultures, I talked about how Worldcon is an incredibly intimidating event for a newcomer to come into. Speaking here as a game designer, this is a structural problem with Worldcon (and other cons like it) as a fan-run event.

Fan-run cons are a recipe for creating events that increasingly and over time favor the long-timers and become closed social groups. It's not inevitable, but preventing it requires a certain mindful attention. 

Worldcon rewards people with social status for volunteering; the people who volunteer get to Be Somebody in the community. (Thus prioritizing people who have the relative privilege to spend that time on volunteer works and not, say, a second and third job, which is kind of a class issue with fandom and a whole other ball of wax. ...Let's pin that for another time.)

The more time you've put in, the more relative credibility and authority you're likely to have. Which means the more influence you're likely to have on programming. And if you're a fan programming a thing for other fans, prrrrrobably you're going to heavily salt the show with stuff that you're interested in. The stuff that you're comfortable with. The stuff that is like the stuff you're used to, and not so much the stuff that you're not personally into. Over time, there will be a trend for homogeneity. There will be a trend for what worked last time. And since it's all run by committees... a trend to not rock the boat.

These fans who run the show are amazing and dedicated people, and what they do is frankly exceptional. They are in the trenches together being shelled. It's by no means an easy job. (I was rooming with a dear friend from high school who does this stuff herself, and let me tell you, she was working her tail off while I was in the bar.)  As a result, the people who run the show (and shows like it) become very close-knit. This is a perfectly natural and human thing.

Have you ever tried to come into a close-knit group of people for the first time? Where they've all known each other for ten, twenty, even thirty years? They have their own language (smof, concom, fannish) and their own in-jokes and traditions (badge ribbons). No matter if they are the most welcoming group in the world, it's going to be super hard to feel like you really belong there.

If I hadn't gone in knowing Chuck Wendig and a couple of peeps from Twitter -- if I had been twentysomething me, kind of awkward and very shy and mustering up what courage I had to buy a day pass -- I'd have a miserable time. Hell, I did basically that to go to a con in White Plains around fifteen years ago and got so little out of it that I never went back to a con until I started getting speaking invitations. And honestly, the first day or two at Worldcon were really, really hard for me and I really questioned whether going had been a good decision. 

In the case of Worldcon in particular, this is magnified by the fact that very much of Worldcon is devoted to the running of Worldcon. Bid parties, committee meetings, voting. This is all perfectly impenetrable to someone who doesn't already know and doesn't have someone to explain it all to them. The only real entry point to Worldcon is to go with someone who can introduce you around. And that just isn't enough.

Dragon*Con is a commercially run event. They know damn well they have to make it as welcoming as possible to young people, new people, anyone who isn't already included in their social network of friends-of-friends. They have a commercial interest in reaching more than a limited circle of old friends from back in the day.

They know you have to invite people in by baiting the hook with stuff they love already, and not just stuff you love. Once you invite them in, though, you can introduce them to new things and old traditions alike. People come to cons to celebrate things that they love -- but you know what? If you can get them in the door, they can also discover new things to love.

So this is something Worldcon and the very particular fannish culture that runs it needs to do some soul-searching about. Are you OK being a closed social group for people who like the same things that you liked twenty, thirty years ago, or who are good friends with someone who does? Or do want this thing to survive and thrive into another generation, maybe even one that also likes games and comics and movies?

Because you can't have both.


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Show Me the Money: The Copyleft Dilemma

The copyleft movement is very fond of talking about the benefits of giving your art away for free. The theory is this: if you, as an independent artist, give away all your writing or music in digital format, then you'll more than make up the difference by selling hard copies. Or related tangible merchandise, like t-shirts. Or maybe through tickets to shows!

It's a nice theory. But giving this message to writers who are just starting out, or who are established but have modest followings at best, contributes to an environment where it's OK for everyone around written work to make a living… except the writer.

Dance, Monkey, Dance!

Not long ago, The Literary Review ran a piece by Guy Walters that talks about the hard and potentially poverty-inducing reality that is promoting your work. You should read it. I've never spoken to an 800-person crowd, but it definitely rings true to my experience.

"As I drove home, I did some maths. Those eight hundred people had each paid £7, earning Hay a tidy £5,600. Compared to Hay's turnover of £4 million and gross profit of £1 million, that's not a huge sum, but it is certainly greater than a homeopathic ratio. Hay had probably made around £1,400 from me and I had got, er, six bottles of wine. I googled the wine to see what it cost and found it for as little as £8 per bottle. So 48 quid all in, and I bet Hay paid a lot less for it than that."

Writers trying to get more audience for their central work very often do incredible amounts of extra work for no compensation: book signings or promotional appearances, writing articles or guest blog posts, podcasts and interviews. It sucks up a tremendous amount of time. The month A Creator's Guide came out, promoting was something close to a full-time job. 

Sometimes it sucks up a tremendous amount of money, too — partly due to travel expenses, which aren't always reimbursed, but also because time spent promoting is time you're not spending writing. …You know, that thing you love to do.

Note that everyone involved in these deals except the writer is usually in line to make a little cash. The bookstore hosting a signing profits from selling extra copies of your book; podcasts and magazines run advertising or get sponsorships; conferences do all of the above, and sometimes they charge hefty ticket fees on top, too. (I object to this last so strongly that I will very seldom accept invitations to speak at for-profit conferences charging hundreds of dollars per person, unless the organization is paying an honorarium on top of travel expenses. I'm not in the business of donating my time to make someone else richer, you know?)

The promise is that the attention garnered through your tireless efforts will be your repayment. People will hear your interview or read your article, and they'll be moved to pick up a copy of your book or CD or whatever it is you're flogging. That's the value of "exposure." Put in for free now, for hypothetical benefit down the line.

But say you're giving your work away for free. In that instance, since nobody will be paying you for the work itself, you're not only not making any money out of the deal — you might be actively digging your way into debt. Even assuming you're comfortable or good at speaking in public in the first place.

And on the other hand, even if you are giving your work away, you still have to promote your work somehow. If you can't charge for the work and you can't charge for the promotional activity, where exactly is the writer supposed to get paid?

Tangible Goods

Oh, right. Those hard copies and t-shirts. Let's walk this through. To put out a physical copy of a book, I have to have the interior laid out, a cover designed, and physical printing done. The typical writer isn't going to have a copy of InDesign to lay out pages or the design chops to make a great cover, nor should they be expected to. So our hypothetical independent writer will have to pony up some hundreds of dollars to someone else to perform those services — again, someone besides the writer is earning a living. Anyone notice a trend?

And then, depending on the size of the print run, the books in question may feel prohibitively expensive. It's a rare and wonderful soul who will pay $15 for a paperback when they can get the ebook for free. But alas, including costs of shipping, that's about what a writer would have to charge just to break even on printing costs… much less squeak out a modest profit. And that's not even taking into account the money spent on that designer laying out the pages and designing your cover.

Not to say those rare and wonderful souls aren't out there — they definitely are! But in my experience, they're maybe 10% of your total audience, and often much, much less.

T-shirts have much the same problem. Small runs are proportionally more expensive, which makes them a harder sell to any but the most dedicated fan. And again, the writer is spending a lot of time and money to do something they may not even be good at or may not enjoy. The writer is forced to become a manufacturer and fulfillment house, at the expense of time spent writing.

The small independent artist, just starting out, may not have enough fans to even break even on design costs. That means the route to profitability and independence is much further out of reach for more people. Which means less art in the world.

Do we really want that to be the price of admission to be a writer?

Why Do We Write?

There will be some noble soul coming by, I am sure, telling me that they write for the joy of it; for themselves and for their audiences alone. Why should a writer have to make money at all? 

There's an unstated implication there that commerce sullies the artistic process, or that writing isn't work, and that it's right and proper that people shouldn't make a living from it.

I don't know about you, but that makes me very sad. Great art requires commitment. Years spent developing craft and executing. Great art requires an infrastructure that supports the artist financially so they don't starve to death or die of consumption while producing their masterwork. Without that infrastructure, without compensating for the work of imagination, those masterworks might just stay in the artist's head because they're too tired when they come home from that job at the factory or the restaurant or the nursery school. The whole world is the poorer for it.

If we cannot come up with a system that allows an artist to eke out a living without first sinking into debt through production costs and promotion, than we're ultimately creating an environment where spending the time to make serious art is a luxury few can afford. That is not the world I want to live in. 

The Time and Place for Free

Sometimes free is a good idea, of course. I've done it myself! Right here, and right now, you are reading work I am giving away for free. I don't run ads on my site, nor do I ever intend to. It's my gift to the world.

But it's not a gift lacking ulterior motives. It established my presence and opinions on the internet; it gives me a platform to promote the stuff I hope people will pay for, like the Guide, or like Lucy Smokeheart.

Even in the case of Lucy Smokeheart, I've been known to give the first episode away for free as a promotional effort, hoping to lure people into buying later episodes. But that's a key element: I am selling other pieces of work that people can pay money for.

The idea that all content should be given away for free and that creators should make money through nebulous other means is wrong and it's damaging. We should support a system that allows writers to make a living by writing… and then selling what they've written. 


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Rights Grabs

I've been running into a problem a lot lately. It's this phrase, or ones just like it:

"a perpetual, non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, sublicensable, transferable license to exploit all copyright rights now in existence or that may arise in the future"

That comes from the Terms of Service of Medium, a shiny new content platform. Yesterday I used Medium to write a post on why writing for Medium is a bum deal. The translation: Medium is claiming the right to take what you submit and use it in any way they can dream of, forever and ever, without telling you and, more to the point, without paying you.

I don't know about you, but if I posted something on Medium and it happened to make them a million dollars... I'd be super mad if none of that ever trickled down to me. (It's a moot point right now in that Medium doesn't appear to have a business model at all, but I'm confident that won't last forever.)

Alas, Medium isn't alone in that kind of language. Another example: Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal is running a contest to find an author for a tie-in novel. In their rules, they say this:

 

Each entry will be the sole property of the Sponsors. By competing in the Contest and/or accepting 
a prize, each entrant (including the prize winner) grants to Sponsors the right to edit, adapt, publish, copy, display, reproduce and otherwise use their entry in connection with this Contest and in any 
other way, in any and all forms of media now known or hereafter devised, throughout the world, 
in perpetuity, including publication on www.darkcrystal.com.
That means they can, say, decide to print an anthology of all of the submitted stories and sell it.... without ever paying the authors for it. That's pretty common language in the terms of service for a site or a promotion any time user-generated content is involved. But it's... not cool.
Sweeping legal claims in website terms of service started out bad and they've only become worse and worse. I can see why it's done -- web services are trying to protect and future-proof themselves in a wildly shifting media landscape. They're collecting all of these rights, not because they actually plan to sell anthologies of content without compensating the writers... but because the copyright system doesn't actually have a simple mechanism in place that allows a web service to act as the agent of a user without staking some kind of ownership over their content.
And in the case of user-generated content, companies are trying to protect themselves from inevitable claims of stolen ideas, suspicious similarities, and the like, ridiculous though those claims usually are. 
But the de facto standard answer doesn't have to be "we own everything you ever show us," nor should it be. Our legal system needs to address this. Maybe we need new licensing standards specifically for web services and for user-generated content.
One wonders what those standards would look like.

 


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Kickstarter and Profit

Once upon a time, I wrote a short story. It was a lovely short story, one of the finest pieces I'd ever written, but alas, I couldn't find a market to sell it to. Then one day, a shiny new toy came out that I desired but could not afford. An idea sprang into my head: I will ransom the story to the public! If I could raise $250 to buy the shiny toy on Kickstarter, I would publish the story on my blog under Creative Commons as a gift to the world.

This Kickstarter was very successful; I got the object of my desire, and my husband got one too.

None of this should be news to you if you've been around here for a while. You lived through it with me! But I recently shared this experience on an online forum and was very taken aback when I was told that the project was unethical. Not what Kickstarter is for, probably a violation of their ban on "fund my life" projects, and in general a terrible thing to have done.

I disagree with this line of thinking, of course. Worse, I think there's a terrible, poisonous idea lurking in its heart: that artists don't deserve compensation, and that artistic work is without value.

The Debate

There are several more specific arguments regarding why the Shiva's Mother Kickstarter was unethical; the first is that the story was already written. Another seems to amount to an insufficient purity of heart; my motive in offering the Kickstarter was personal gain. One is: Kickstarter money should be spent solely on things that are required for the execution of the project, like editing or cover design for publishing, or music and graphics for a game. 

Let's focus on that last one first, because that's the key to this whole discussion. If I require outside services, like, say, an illustrator, it's OK to pay them with Kickstarter money, right? Absolutely. There's no argument there. And then that illustrator, having earned their wage, can spend it on anything they damn well please. I'm compensating that artist for time and craft, and their personal finances are their business. They're under no obligation to spend that money only on colored pencils and licenses for Adobe products, and if you suggested as much, they'd laugh in your face.

If I need several kinds of services -- even a whole team of game developers -- then it's fair to expect every single one of those people will be earning a wage in compensation for their time and skill. You might even say they're making... a personal profit.

Does that work suddenly lose its value if the person running the Kickstarter does it? If I have the skills and chops to design my own cover or run my own website, is it OK to pay myself for those services rendered? And indeed, is it not right to budget a wage for the time you spent in conceiving and excuting your own artistic project? According to the people calling me unethical and deceitful, the answer is no: that's not what Kickstarter is for.

So my question is... why would it be OK for everyone except the core artist driving the project to earn a wage? Must all artistic works rest on a core of volunteer labor out of love? I say absolutely not, no way, nohow, good lord no. 

It all comes back to that pernicious art vs. commerce tension that riddles our society, the idea that the work an artist does, all of the time and craft and passion they pour into it, is morally purer if there is no profit motive. That is isn't right for an artist to make or think about money. And yet you cannot eat art, you cannot live in it, it does not keep you warm in the winter nor does it put shoes on your feet. It is a hard fact that an artist must earn money to live. And if an artist does well enough to afford shiny toys on top of that: more power to you, comrade.

The time you spend in writing is still work that has value in the world. It is fair and just to at least try to earn something approaching a wage for it.

So was the story already written? Yes; call it owed wages for labor done before the Kickstarter ran. Was it a "fund my life" project? No; I executed and delivered an artistic work, just the way I said I would. Was my heart insufficiently pure because I went into it wanting an electronic device? No; how I spend my wages earned is my own business, not yours.

And should I have only spent the money on something necessary to the execution of the project?

...You know what? I did. Because without my own labor, there wouldn't have been any project at all.


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Social Media for Old People

Oh, old people. We love you, really we do. You're so wise and loving and experienced, and we would not be here today without you. But we have to talk about the way you use the internet. It's... it's just... you're doing it wrong.

You're embarrassing us.

You're embarrassing yourselves.

But look, we know it's hard to pick up subtle social mores through observation once you're out of your teen years. And there are plenty of amazing things you know that we never will! Like the proper etiquette for a sock hop, or how to darn socks, or even how to find your way to a place that Google Maps doesn't think exists. You're amazing! We get it.

But we want to help you be your very best, modern, social media-savvy selves. And we know you don't mean to be... you know, kind of off. You just can't help it. So let's try to fix that, OK? Here, just for you, is a rundown of how to use various internet sites now called "social media."

Ready? I promise it won't hurt.

Tumblr

This is not for you. Do not use it.

Facebook/Google+

You probably are already on Facebook! This is great! If you're not familiar, Google+ is like Facebook except with fewer people and fewer ads, and I'm only including it here for completeness because you don't need to be on it. Pretend I never said anything.

These two sites are mostly for sharing things that you agree with, and stuff like baby and vacation pictures. And picking fights about religion and politics, if you like that kind of thing.

It is OK to friend your younger relatives and other loved ones to see what they are up to! But you should know that every time you post a comment on something they say, you are probably speaking to an audience including their other relatives, boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse, close friends, boss, coworkers, classmates, and everyone else they have ever wanted to impress.

It is not the right place for "We are so proud of you!" or "How did the doctor visit go?!" UNLESS you see other, younger people not related to them say those kinds of things first in comments before you. Repeated for emphasis: Everyone they have ever wanted to impress is watching.

If you do not understand something, do not comment on it, because they probably are not talking to you. If you are not quite sure if you understand something or not, do not comment on it.

Do not post on someone else's wall. NOT EVER.

Do not try to have a detailed catch-up with someone else and their life on Facebook. If it's not a conversation you should have at top volume on a bus filled with everyone you have ever wanted to impress, it is not a conversation you should have on Facebook, either.

Also, do not comment on someone else's post about something completely different from what they were just talking about. It is like barging into the middle of a conversation and changing the subject, and it is very rude! If you want to talk about something else, post it yourself on your own profile, and type in +THEIR NAME to catch their attention. That plus sign turns their name into a TAG, and it means they will be sure to see the comment. They'll get a notification about it! Awesome!

Instagram

This is not for you. I'm not even kidding. Just don't.

Twitter

Remember how I said that talking to someone on Facebook is like talking to everyone they've ever wanted to impress all at once? Twitter is like attending a party where all of those people are hanging out, and also the whole world, too. It is even archived in the Library of Congress! Twitter is for keeps, yo, and so you need to be really careful about how you use it.

Twitter is not a way to talk to one specific person and catch up. It's a public conversation. Even when you use an @reply on Twitter, other people can see it!

That includes information you may not even realize you're giving away, like where someone works, the names of their friends and relatives, when family birthdays are, and other stuff that could potentially help a bad person perform identity theft. Be cool, OK?

Private Communication

But if you can't catch up with people on Facebook and Twitter, you demand, where IS it OK? Didn't you think the purpose of all of these newfangled tools was being able to keep up with their lives?!

Yes and no. It's to keep tabs on things that people are sharing on purpose -- NOT to ask questions about things they have not chosen to share online. Asking questions and talking about personal stuff is OK... as long as you do it in private!

Fortunately there are a lot of ways to contact someone privately.

On Facebook there are "Messages." They are only readable by the person you send them to!

On Twitter there is such a thing as a "direct message." That's a private message to only one person! A DIRECT MESSAGE IS NOT THE SAME AS A REGULAR TWITTER MESSAGE STARTING WITH @theirname. Twitter can make it very hard to find direct messages; they are located on the "Your profile" area, accessible through a button with an envelope on it.

Of course there is the classic: email! Email is a fantastic way to keep in touch with people privately!

And of course there are the reigning methods of private conversation these days: The text message, or instant messaging (either through your phone, or a service like AIM, ICQ, Google Talk, etc.) If you're using text messages or instant messaging, be sure to keep them short and to the point. It's a conversation, so say one or two sentences and then wait for a response. Don't get offended if someone doesn't reply right away (or at all.) You never know what they might be busy in the middle of! 

Oh, and... signing "Love, Your dad" is sweet and all, but you don't need to sign a text or an instant message. It's not a letter.

The Telephone

I am confident you know how to use the telephone already, being old and all. Probably you are a MASTER of the phone compared to young people today!

Just one thing, all right? DO NOT EVER CALL a young person because of something you just saw posted online. Likewise, don't ask a question on Twitter about something you saw on Facebook. This is called context-switching and it is rude.

I'll give you a pass for very major life events, such as "I am getting married," "I am pregnant," or "I have been sentenced to twenty years." If something of that magnitude occurs, then yes, do call.

And of course you're free to call your younger people just because you love them and like to hear their voices! We all expect this from our old people.

Tumblr

Seriously, just stay off Tumblr. It will only confuse you.

MySpace/AOL/Friendster

Oh, you sweet, adorable thing. If you're still on any of these platforms, you can do whatever the heck you want. Nobody else is paying attention anymore. Just have fun and stay safe, you crazy kids.

LinkedIn

LinkedIn is basically just an online resume and not really important unless you are looking for a new job. If you are retired, you can safely ignore it entirely. If you're not retired and somebody sent you this post, um, maybe you should stay away. You know, to avoid embarrassing yourself in front of a potential 24-year-old boss. Just sayin'.

One Final Warning

I have a terrible thing to tell you. It's... well, there's no sugar-coating this, brace yourself. Many things on the internet are lies.

It's horrible, I know, but... look, if something seems too good to be true, like you won a foreign lottery or a company is donating absurd amounts of money to charity if you forward an email, it probably is. And if this is proof that your worst enemies are doing evil perfectly calculated to blow your brittle arteries apart... be skeptical. Or if someone is helpfully warning about a danger but you don't personally know anyone who died that way, don't believe it.

Remember, anyone can type something that looks like a press release. Anyone can say that they checked with their cousin the chief of police, or their brother-in-law who works at the company, or their second cousin who's a lobbyist on Capitol Hill. That does not mean it's 100% true. People lie! A lot! So just... check before you share, OK? And check before you answer. A lot of bad people are trying to get your money. Don't let them win.

There's this site, Snopes.com. It collects common rumors and scams that go around on the internet and tells you if they're true or not. Use it. Live it. Love it. If you're not sure how to use it yourself, ask for help. Just about anyone will be happy to help you sort it out.

Fellow Youngsters

In order to make this a better and more useful resource for the old people in our lives... what am I missing? What elements of the new social contract might need spelling out? What habits would you like the gentle opportunity to break? And old people... is there a way to call your attention to these small matters of etiquette without hurting your feelings?

Do weigh in in the comments. We're all friends here.


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