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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

What is my idea worth to you?

Li'l Sis visited this week, it was interesting. The two of us couldn't be more different. She's a carbon copy of our mother, I'm ... not. She has a masters degree and a job as a dietician at a hospital in the mountains (I'm bragging a little). I have a bachelors degree I rarely use, and live on the beach. She lives alone, I'm the mom with four kids and a dog.

Our distinctly different world views make for interesting conversations. On her last night here one of those conversations started with, "What did you think of my book?" (Pro Tip: Authors always want to know what you thought of their book. The answer is always, "I loved it!" even if you didn't. Only let an author know you hated their book from a safe distance.)

Li'l Sis gave me a guilty look. "Well... it's like this. Your book costs money."

"Only three dollars," I wheedled.

"Yeah, but I wouldn't own it," she said. "It's just an e-book."

"E-books have value!" I protested. "You're paying for an idea, rather than paying for a dead tree and shipping costs."

"But I can't own it. Besides, you write for fun. Why should I pay for your hobby? If you enjoy writing, you should pay me to read it."

We discussed e-books for a little while longer. I tried to persuade her that ideas have values of their own, that paying for an e-book was a way of paying the author for their time, talent, and effort. Li'l Sis insisted that writing and ideas must be free, if an author wants to be paid it should be on a patron system like Shakespeare survived on (or didn't - we'll debate that another day).

What was interesting was finding THIS ARTICLE in the Huffington Post this afternoon. Author Thomas Mullen turned himself in to the Department of Justice for his crime of colluding with publishers to make money off of his writing.

I guess Li'l Sis is with the majority here, authors are not worth anything. Computers are already replacing news writers, so why not fiction authors? Anyone can create a story, it's called lying in most places. Writing or typing those words down isn't much harder than writing an email (physically). There may be mental effort involved, perhaps a time commitment, but if a person wants to write and enjoys writing, then why should others be asked to pay for their enjoyment?

You only need to glance at the number of books for sale at Barnes and Noble or Amazon to see that there is no shortage of would-be novelists. People want to write novels! Well, some just want you to pay them for plagiarized nonsense, but most people want to write a book.

So what is a book worth? Is an e-book valueless because it isn't a physical thing? Are ideas not unique? Is the modern era one where art is no longer valued, and if we live in such an era, what does have value? Is your time worth something only if you're miserable? Should people who enjoy work not get paid?

Let me know what you think.


  1. You are a saint to be willing to discuss the concept with her. As someone who's invested a minimum of 20 hrs a week into my writing, sometimes it's more like 30+(I'm terrible at charting my own time when i'm working.), few things send me into a frothing anger master than the implication that what I do is not 'work'.
    I've already dealt with this level of BS over being a stay at home Mom. (Since I have all that FREE time, and don't I WANT to go to WORK?)
    No, writing for fun would be me spitting words onto a page, uploading it to a blog, typos and all, and saying "LOOK! Isn't this pretty! Read it!"
    Writing for fun would be me adhering to no schedule other than the whimsy of 'hey I have an idea for a scene! lets write it down!'. Fanfiction is writing for fun. Crafting a book requires TIME and EFFORT. You draw an idea from the depths of your imagination, you put the words together, you slave away to get a story FINISHED... Then you smash it to pieces, fixing everything that doesn't work, deleting half the stuff that was FUN WRITING, changing words, submitting to criticism, and then when you've crafted something through that furnace... It goes to print.
    Many many people read, even more people watch movies that start the same way, they start as an idea. They start on paper as a STORY. Eventually through hard work they get crafted INTO something worth watching, something worth reading.
    Try telling the Screenwriters Guild that writers shouldn't be paid. Try telling that to George R.R. Martin, or J.K. Rowling. If no one is willing to PAY for entertainment, and the people who's ideas CREATE that entertainment, then we might as well say that creativity is a worthless endeavor.
    See, I find it interesting when you examine the word 'worthless', it denotes a value to something, a negative value, and if writing and ideas have no MONETARY value, if they become 'worthless' in the eyes of people who are used to getting entertained for free* (subscriptions to internet, cable, and netflix still apply as paying for ideas. Nothing is truly 'FREE'.)
    Well, in my opinion those people should become accustomed to substandard entertainment. IE I do not pay for cable, therefore I cannot watch NEW shows when they air, I do however buy DVD's so I have access to entertainment, but it is NOT free, and I have to wait for shows to reach DVD. It's the trade-off.
    I still believe in paying for ideas. Free sample chapters are fine. Offering it free for a weekend is great. but don't toil, and sweat, and present something beautiful... For nothing.
    People will value your work more if they deem it worthy of purchase.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. PS. On a more personal note. I have bought only 5 new books this year. One of them was yours. Not only do I like YOU enough to want to fund your work, but the premise was delightful, the characters engaging, and I wanted to be able to read it ALL, not just the little bits I saw online 'for free'. YOU are worth it. Your WORK is worth it. Don't sell yourself short.

    3. That is an excellent answer. I wish I could think of things like that while I'm having the conversation, not a day later.


      I've never been good at snappy comebacks.

  2. Sometimes I think that the only way for an artist to be true to their craft is by not getting paid. I think, though, that this is true in the case of major publishers/record labels/movie houses. When the publisher starts telling you what to write, you're in a bad spot. But none of the above means that an artist shouldn't be compensated for their work.

    Your sister's perspective reminds me of a family member who once said that teacher's shouldn't get paid as much because they have three months off each year. Unfortunately, ignorance surrounds us. We just try to educate it away...

    1. I think there might be an argument in favor of the patronage system. That is, essentially, what selling art is - the patronage system spread out over a group of people. Instead of having one or two rich patrons who have an exclusive right to view/read/hear your work, you have a large group of poorer patrons who all get to see your work.

      And teachers already get paid unfairly low wages. Teachers have one of the most important jobs in the world, and they get paid peanuts! Not to mention the three month gap in pay. Not all school systems pay teachers over the summer months. ... But that's another rant entirely. :)

  3. Usually when I tell someone I'm an author, they want to know when my book will be on the shelves of the local book shop. When I tell them it will only be available as an ebook, somehow it's like they take it less seriously. Is is simply because it isn't a physical thing? I know the UK is behind the US in the digital revolution, but half the people I know have a Kindle, so they KNOW about ebooks and reading them. Does my work have no value simply because it has no physical form? Is it just because I'm NOT going to be on that bookshelf in the local shop? Is it because there are so many ebooks out there and so many of them are free or pirated that no one wants to pay for them any more?
    I do write for pleasure and not for profit. I don't ever expect to make a living from it (aren't all artists supposed to be poor and starving? Well, apart from the ones who pickle animals in formaldehyde or put their used bed on display in the big art galleries of course O.o)
    And should I just go out and get a well paid job that makes me miserable and drives me to an early grave?

    1. I think the physical aspect (or lack thereof) turns people off. It's not a real thing because it isn't something you can hold.

      This is the same mindset that says parenting isn't a real job because there is no paycheck, or that teachers don't work hard because they have three months off. Some people can only understand things they can measure, and you can't weigh an e-book.

  4. Well then, if your sis likes her job, why doesn't she do it for free? And if she doesn't like it, why is she doing it in the first place? We shouldn't have to pay someone else if we enjoy what we do. That way, only people who hate their jobs get paid, and the world is a much crankier, poorer, cultureless place.


    Maybe movies should be shown for free. Maybe Merryl Streep should pay me... and hand over her Oscar while she's at it ;)

    1. Ah, but Li'l Sis is getting paid to reimburse her for her education. It doesn't take an education or a degree program to write a novel, so it's of lesser value.

      -- I tried the "Why don't you work for free?" argument and got "Because I'm worth something!" in return. I told you, we have very interesting conversations.

      And we still walk away from them able to love each other. That takes talent!

  5. And that post made little sense. I need my morning cuppa -_-

  6. I think people do have a problem with there not being something physical there that they can waive about and say MINE! I used to be like that. I didn't like buying music, computer games or books because I couldn't wrap my head around not having a physical copy of the thing. My husband has always loved being able to buy things via download and has slowly helped me get comfortable with the idea. I love it now!

    Some people love being pediatricians or architects. Should they not get paid for the work they're putting in to what they love?

  7. Did you tell her you'd punch her in the head for free, since you like doing that after she acts like such an a-hole? :) In fact, you'd be very happy to punch her in the head and then pay her $3 bucks, since it has value to you.

    1. It was a civil discussion. She likes to play devil's advocate, and she was to some degree. But she's also from a generation that has trouble valuing something they can't physically touch. She was raised to put her trust in science and measurements, and an e-books has no weight, mass, or physical self.

  8. What writers (and pursuers of creative endeavors of all stripes) principally want want is attention. Money is an extremely attractive form of attention, because it's quantifiable, and because it indicates a sacrifice of behalf of the consumer. However, as the number of people pursuing creative endeavors skyrockets, they get more desperate and try to make consuming their media (books/songs/movies/columns) as easy as possible, removing barriers to consumption. Prices for all media are dropping, abetted by technology. it's supply and demand. When HuffPost offers its writers "exposure," what they really mean is "attention."

    We may be moving toward a society where practically everyone does something 'creative', for the eyes of their family and friends-and *only* them. There will be no professional writers/musicians/etc. Occasionally someone will go viral, but that will be taken as its own reward-attention!-and not expected to be the start of a lasting career. Taking that further, the definition of 'friend' may evolve into 'someone willing to consume your stuff' and people of more advanced capability in their fields may form close-knit cells of friends, excluding their work from general sight, establishing a sort of creative barter system.

    1. As it happens, I wrote a story concerning these themes, set in Pagan Greece, which I link to solely because it is relevant to the discussion and certainly not for attention-garnering. It's free!

    2. I think I'm going with this lecture "F--- You, Pay Me"
      - http://www.dvafoto.com/2011/04/fuck-you-pay-me-a-discussion-of-adventures-in-contracts-negotiation-and-payment/ -

      The idea that it effort isn't worth something is demeaning to everyone, but especially to groups already marginalized by society. Parenting might never earn me a paycheck (I'd argue that if it does you've done something wrong), but that doesn't make it a worthless endeavor. There is no way to measure the worth of a parent, or a friend, but that doesn't mean we should strip them out of society.

      Technology is shifting, we're seeing more and more people in first world countries able to engage in things that were considered frivolous during the first half of the 20th century. Go back another 100 years and skills like painting, creating music, and writing were considered necessary for anyone of class or breeding.

      I think the boom in writers and musicians we're seeing is another season where a majority of society is once again free to create. Some of us are free because of the work economy, some of us are free because we're not tied down by other time wasters, but more of us are free to create. And the technology is in place to let us share.

      E-books have become the new dime novel. They're cheap, easy to come by, and generally brain candy (I include my writing in that category, and I know that there are some very serious books in the e-book arena).

      We're having fun, we're creating, but that doesn't strip the work of worth or meaning.

      And infant who does nothing more than coo and poo has worth. We adore the little tyrants. So how could an adult trained to write, read, and think be worth less? Professional is what we make it. A professional isn't defined by their income, but by their work ethic. If you sign contracts, promise to deliver, and regularly deliver quality work that meets the standard, then you are a professional. The market may determine your worth (go "viral" as you said), but you can be a professional without that acclaim.

      Thanks for commenting. I'll try to carve out some time to read the story later.

    3. "Parenting might never earn me a paycheck (I'd argue that if it does you've done something wrong), but that doesn't make it a worthless endeavor."

      Speaking as a stay-at-home dad, I couldn't agree with you more.

      "So how could an adult trained to write, read, and think be worth less?"
      Because there are lots and lots of other people also trained to write, read and think, and only so much demand for their writing, reading and thinking.

      "A professional isn't defined by their income, but by their work ethic."
      Then it's not a question of money at all. A professional is defined by inner moral considerations, and doesn't need any cash whatsoever.

      I hope I don't sound flip here. I'm an aspiring author; I don't like the idea that the value of good writing is getting bid down to squat in our society. But I have to admit that does seem to be a viable scenario. One would think surely some method will develop to reward the good and let the bad sink to the bottom. Or maybe it's a question of wholesale cultural change, into new forms we can't even imagine, any more than the pioneering SF writers of the 30s and 40s could imagine self-epublishing on Amazon. All of us are in the grip of larger forces that we can comprehend. More power to you and to us all.

      And now off to revise a short story so it can be printed out and mailed to one of those SF magazines that's still entirely paper,

    4. Also, I think "Long term socioeconomic gravity in an EEALT internet-based worldwide distribution environment has systemically devalued creator-held IP to a point of nothingness" is the most ridiculously complicated way to say "I don't feel like reading your book" I've ever heard.

    5. I haven't heard that one yet! LOL. :o)

      And we may need to debate how many people are actually trained to think. I made the mistake of reading the comments on a news article again today. My faith in humanity is shaken.

  9. I think it is inane that we as a culture are more than willing to shell out $10+ for a movie in the theaters, which is not something we then own except for the memory of it, but not pay the same for a book which can give us an equal experience in taking us away and letting our imaginations play.

    Authors work just as hard on their books and careers as any other worker in any industry. They should be compensated accordingly.

    1. Here, here!

      People pay for experiences, vacations, art viewings, an e-book falls into the same category. It may not be a physical book or have weight outside the e-reader, but it does enrich your life.