On Free Speech

Far too many people these days seem to think that freedom of speech means freedom from being criticized, freedom from consequences, freedom from verbal retaliation. We need only look at the response of the two guys whose columns triggered the current kerfuffle over the SFWA Bulletin for an example of this — apparently people criticizing their columns is censorship, oh noes!

One of my favorite quotes on this subject comes from Jim Hines, who said, “Freedom of speech doesn’t protect you from the consequences of saying stupid shit.” Everyone who’s ever whined that their free speech was being curtailed because people responded by saying mean things about them needs to tattoo Jim’s quote on their forearm or something, someplace where they can see it every day.

Tobias Buckell just linked to this great post by Ken White on Popehat, the legal blog. It’s right on point and well worth reading. It starts like this:

Let’s be clear β€” the right to free speech is the right to express oneself without state retaliation. It is not a right to speak without social retaliation. Speech has consequences. Among those consequences are condemnation, vituperation, scorn, ridicule, and pariah status. Those consequences represent other people exercising their free speech rights. That’s a feature of the marketplace of ideas, not a bug.

Yet too many people seem to think that free speech includes not only a right to be free of consequences imposed by the state, but a right to be free of consequences imposed by other people. Therefore they attempt to portray criticism as a violation of their rights. This, of course, finds no support in the law, and is patently unsustainable as a philosophy besides β€” it nonsensically elevates the rights of the first person to talk over the rights of the second person to talk.

There’s more; click through and check it out.


Scalzi Comments on Random House/Hydra Deal

John Scalzi doesn’t make a major point of discussing big publishers messing over writers, so when he does, you know it’s bad. He looks over a deal sheet Random House’s new electronic imprint Hydra is offering, and points out a few red flags.

* No advance.

* The author is charged “set-up costs” for editing, artwork, sale, marketing, publicity β€” i.e., all the costs a publisher is has been expected to bear. The “good news” is that the author is not charged up front for these; they’re taken out of the backend. If the book is ever published in paper, costs are deducted for those, too. [Note from Angie: there’s also a permanent 10% of net charge for the on-going sales and marketing that Hydra most likely won’t be doing.]

* The contract asks for primary and subsidiary rights for the term of copyright.

Click through for more detail and some commentary I found pretty entertaining. It’s clear, though, that Random House is looking to squeeze as much money from ignorant baby writers as it can, while hoping to pay out little or nothing.

Also recall that “term of copyright” these days means your lifetime plus seventy years. Your grandkids will still be getting royalty statements from Hydra saying, “Nope, haven’t made up those costs yet.”

This reminds me of the electronic “imprints” set up by some of the other big publishers through AuthorHouse, which were clearly meant to be cash cows for the sponsoring publishers. It looks like someone at Random House figured they could rip off writers just as well on their own, without having to hire another company to do it. Eliminate the middle-man and make more money, right? And hey, some bright RH executive thought of taking the rights for the duration of copyright, which even AuthorHouse, as horrible as its rep might be, doesn’t do. Go you, Random House! Way to be eviller than a notoriously deceptive vanity press!

Oh, and in case anyone is wondering, SFWA has issued a statement declaring that Hydra is not a qualifying market. [cough]


Serials, or, How to Make Your Readers Hate You

Can we talk about serials for a minute?

I know serialization is supposed to be the hot new way of sucking extra money out of readers. (Oops, was I not supposed to say that out loud?) But you know, most readers can actually do the, like, second grade math required to figure out how much the whole story cost them. If your short novel is coming out in five two-dollar parts, or your normal sized novel is coming out in ten two-dollar parts, a lot of people are going to do the above-mentioned math and figure out that you’re ripping them off. ‘Cause seriously, ten bucks for a short novel in electronic form is ludicrous. So is twenty bucks for a regular sized e-novel. If this is how you price your “serial,” then you (either the writer or the publisher, whoever came up with the scheme in any given case) has absolutely no moral ground to stand on when readers start complaining, in print, on their blogs or on Goodreads or wherever else. Because that? [points up] That’s a major rip-off.

Better yet is when the writer/publisher/whoever fails to let readers know up front that a story is, indeed, a serial. When a reader has bought what they think is a short story or a novelette and is reading along only to find that the story cuts off abruptly at the end, leaving them hanging, needing to wait..wait…wait for the next installment, and fork over another chunk of cash to get it? Yeah, you’re going to get complaints about that, too. And again, you’ll have no grounds whatsoever to whine about those complaints, even when they’re made publicly. The reader who posts to their blog or leaves a comment on a vendor site or a social reader’s site to complain about your stealth-serial isn’t being mean or sabotaging you or whatever. They’re making a legitimate complaint about your lack of up-front disclosure that you were selling them a fraction of a story.

Let’s look at an example. I don’t usually call out specifics when I’m writing about a general trend, but this one’s unfortunately perfect.

Monty Gets Arrested is up on Goodreads with four ratings and a 3.0 average. This isn’t a lot of ratings, and the average might improve with time. But what’s significant here are the comments. One commenter, who left a one-star rating, says, “It’s not even half a story.” Another, who left two stars, says, “Not bad, just .. way too short. More like a chapter than a book.” A third said:

Ok I am not rating this right now cause I’m mad.
I didn’t realize that this was a short story to be continued….
And not continued soon, but a whole month away. I just read Anitra Lynn McLeod series Seven Brothers for McBride and I had to wait a whole 7 seven days for the next installment. And let me tell you that was a raging 7 days and each Saturday Anitra came through with the story.
Now I have to wait a month for the next installment? This was ok but I don’t know that I care enough to ‘post-it note myself’ 30 days out.

Wow, great marketing strategy this turned out to be.

Someone came along and commented to one of the reviews, explaining that Monty is a five-part series, with parts to be released once a month. I’m assuming this person knows the writer, or works for the publisher, or whatever. Okay, that’s good information to have. Why didn’t the publisher give it to us? Because this good information should’ve been given to the readers before they spent their money.

Monty’s page on ARe (a popular e-book vendor site specializing in romance) says nothing at all about the book being the first part of a serial. The full title is Monty Gets Arrested (Marshall’s Park #1), but that’s also how series books are often titled; it looks to a savvy reader like there are going to be more books about Marshall’s Park. Which is fine; if you like Monty, you’ll probably be interested in reading more books set in the same place, by the same writer. But nowhere on this page does it say “Serial,” or “Story to be continued,” or anything similar. The reader (potential customer at this point) is given no hint that they’re not buying a complete product, or that they’ll have to pay more money to get the rest of the story.

Obligatory statement that I’m not writing this to rag on the author. I have three of her books on my to-buy shelf on Goodreads, which means at the very least she can write good summary blurbs. Her total average rating on Goodreads is 3.82, which is very good; she can clearly write stories that readers enjoy, and I expect to enjoy a few of them when I get around to it. For that matter, the summary blurb on Monty makes it sound like a fun story. I’m betting the problem here is with a publisher who thought they could make an eventual $9.95 for a 57K word novel (assuming all five parts cost the same and are about the same length) instead of the more usual $4-5.99 a novel that length would bring in if sold as one book, and who apparently hoped no one would notice or complain about their shenanigans.

I’m not going to say that serialization is a bad concept entirely. Rather, I’ll say I’ve never seen it implemented well, in e-book form. Serialization goes back to the days when newsstands were full of magazines carrying fiction (heck, it goes back to the days when there were newsstands) and many of those magazines serialized novels a chapter at a time, or a chunk of chapters at a time. Purchasing the magazine got you a lot more than that issue’s serial, though. Even if the serial was the major selling point of the magazine (as magazines with Dickens’s work often were, as I understand) the fact is that there was still more to read once you were done with the serial installment. Even if the only effect was psychological, it’s the psychological effect of realizing that you just paid money for a fifth or a tenth or a fifteenth of a story that I’m talking about here. A reader who’ll pay $2.99 for a 12K-word novelette — a complete story — might well balk at paying $2.99 for a 12K-word chunk of a longer novel, when they realize that the whole novel is going to cost them $15, and that they’re used to paying $5.99 at most for a single (complete story) e-book of that length. The psychological effect is exactly the problem, and saying it shouldn’t be that way doesn’t make it vanish.

What it comes down to is that serializing a longer work and selling the parts individually is a sales and marketing strategy. The publisher is trying to make more money selling the parts separately than they’d make selling the work as a whole. Wanting to make money isn’t a problem — everyone who doesn’t consider this a hobby wants to make money. The problem is when you’re doing it so blatantly that your customer can’t help noticing your hand rooting around in their pocket.

Some readers like serials, and are maybe even willing to pay more to get each chunk of story as soon as possible. Okay, that’s great; selling serials to people who like them is a good idea. If you’re targetting readers who like serials, then let the readers know up front that you’re publishing a serial. There’s no excuse for letting someone buy what they think is a complete short story or novelette, only to spring the surprise on them at the end that the story is incomplete. Announce in the marketing material — within the summary blurb would be a good place — that this is part of a serial, with more parts to come (and previous parts if it’s not the first). Give the readers the information they need to make a valid decision whether to hand you money for your product. Some people will decide not to buy, yes. But the alternative is to deal in bad faith, and have people complaining about you in public afterwards. This kind of behavior might make you a few more dollars now, but it’ll lose you customers in the long run.

If you’re going to sell a serial, act in good faith. Let people know what they’re buying before they give you money, and then see how many do. However much money you make when everyone knows what they’re buying? That’s the measure of whether serials are successful.


Writer Hit by Trademark Bully

I’ve been watching this one develop all day, since I saw John Scalzi’s post about it, and things look to be turning around for the writer involved. Still, she’s still pretty firmly in suckland at this point, and the fact that it’s happening at all is outrageous.

MCA Hogarth wrote a book called Spots the Space Marine and self-pubbed it. Games Workshop (a large game company that publishes the very popular game Warhammer 40K) has recently decided to exercise its trademark of the term “space marine” — it has the term trademarked in the area of tabletop games and video games — against fiction. It sent a DMCA notice to Amazon, claiming that Spots violated its trademark, and Amazon took the book down.

Wow, where to start?

First, Games Workshop does not own the term “space marine” in the context of fiction. There’ve been space marines running around SF for about as long as there’s been a recognized genre called science fiction, and maybe even longer. Doc Smith and Robert Heinlein had space marines. There’s reams of prior art. Just because GW’s got a lock on the term in the gaming arena doesn’t mean they own it in fiction too, and the fact that they’ve started publishing fiction recently doesn’t change that.

Second, as Cory Doctorow points out, the DMCA doesn’t cover trademarks, only copyrights, so Amazon was under no obligation to comply with the take-down notice. They chose to do so freely when they didn’t have to — a thwap of the salmon to Amazon for being an auxiliary idiot here. (The comments to Cory’s post are pretty entertaining, if you’re at all familiar with Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. πŸ˜€ )

Third, someone at Games Workshop must know their trademark assertion is completely bogus, because they’re going after a tiny little indie-pubbed book, but (so far as I’ve heard) haven’t said so much as “Peep” any of the big New York publishers who are “infringing” just as much on their supposed trademark, but who all have lawyers on staff.

This is pathetic behavior on the part of Games Workshop. I don’t know where their legal advice is coming from, but it’s not a source I’d ever hire, because it’s making them look like idiots.

The legal blog Popehat is calling for pro bono help for Ms. Hogarth in fighting this crap, which she can’t afford to do on her own. (Which GW counted on, I’m sure.) Popehat has a good track record with this sort of thing, as when attorney Charles Carreon sued Matt Inman; I’m betting they can get help for Ms. Hogarth too, and I’m looking forward to reading about the results.

I’ve been a gamer since I was a teenager. I played in the same FRPG campaign for almost twenty years, until I got married and moved away from my group. I used to work as a developer/gamemaster for a company that does online multi-player RPGs. I have no local gaming group, but still play computer games. As a member of the community Games Workshop is trying to do business in, I have to say that I’ll never again buy one of their products, ever. They’re a pack of cowardly, bullying douchebags and don’t deserve my business. I hope a lot of other gamers make the same decision.

And I hope a trademark attorney or two responds to Popehat’s call and gives Games Workshop a good smack upside the head on Ms. Hogarth’s behalf. They definitely need a few brain cells jarred loose.


Voter Disenfranchisement in Pennsylvania

From the Field Negro:

The first story is just about your basic racist idiot (and I’ll agree with anyone who thinks it’s uncool to make fun of the guy for being fat, jerkwad or not), but the second one is a great example of how Pennsylvania’s new voter ID law will disenfranchise honest people. People who are poor, transient, or of color are more likely to have document issues than people who are well off, at a stable address, and white. Being old, born at a time when documentation wasn’t as formal or vital as it is now, is an additional problem. In this case, Ms. Applewhite has been working on replacing her ID after it was stolen, but she’s over 90 and getting everything together is tough. She’s probably not going to be able to vote in November.

If the Pennsylvania Republican leaders had any brains at all, they’d be swarming around Ms. Applewhite, pushing through her document requests, making absolutely sure she gets new picture ID and a new social security card, and that her voter registration is up to date well before the election. If they want to go on pretending that Pennsylvania’s new law is really all about preventing voter fraud (despite the fact that the government can’t produce any evidence of significant voter fraud there) then they should make sure people like Ms. Applewhite are accommodated with all speed.

Oh, and for anyone who still thinks the voter ID thing is all about fraud, read this.

Mike Turzai, the Pennsylvania GOP House majority leader, said that a strict new voter ID law will help Republicans win the state for the first time since 1988.

“Pro-Second Amendment? The Castle Doctrine, it’s done. First pro-life legislation — abortion facility regulations — in 22 years, done. Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done,” he said to applause at a Republican State Committee this weekend, according to PoliticsPa.com.

The comment contradicted the usual Republican line that voter ID laws are for guarding against voter fraud — which is extremely rare if not nonexistent in practice — and not to help elect Republicans.

That’s why they’re doing it. Solving an incredibly rare problem with voter fraud is just smoke and mirrors.


Hating on B&N Right Now

I have a B&N gift card to spend, so I decided to use it. Okay, cool. So I found some books online (my first mistake)that added up to a bit over $25 so I could get free shipping and get more actual books for my money, and went to check out. I was filling out the form, and in the first New Customer section where they want your address and such, they ask for your phone number, but that space doesn’t have the asterisk marking it as a required field. I don’t like giving out my phone number, especially to businesses; they don’t need it, I don’t want them to have it, and I give it only when I absolutely have to, so this time I left that space blank, happy that they weren’t insisting.

I went on through the forms, filling things out. I put the gift card number in its space (does it seriously have to be fifteen digits? really?) and kept going. I got to the end, and tried to submit the order. Except I got a glitch message — I hadn’t put in my phone number, and needed to go back and do that. o_O

Ummm, if the phone number is necessary, why isn’t it marked as being necessary? I would think that’d be pretty elementary, right? What, their hosting costs are starting to skyrocket so someone decided that one more asterisk would push them over budget? πŸ˜›

Okay, fine, I clicked the button to take me back to the phone number field and entered that, then clicked the button to submit my order again. Everything looked good, except when I got my receipt screen, I noticed that it’d charged the whole amount to my credit card. Wait, what?

Same thing when I got a receipt in e-mail — no gift card. [headdesk]

I hunted around on the B&N site looking for a way to e-mail customer support. (And boy, do they hide that page.) I explained what’d happened, gave them my order number and the number on the gift card, and said I wanted to either have the order cancelled, or have $25 of the charges deleted from my credit card and charged to the gift card. While I was at it, I mentioned that I was annoyed by the phone number thing, and suggested they have their web techs add in that asterisk.

I got an e-mail back which said that they were sorry I’d had problems with their site, and that they thought they could “help me best” over the phone, and that I should call this 800 number. Umm, number one, I gave them all the information. What was stopping them from either doing what I wanted (either option) and e-mailing to let me know, or saying, “Sorry, we can’t do that, try using the gift card again,” in e-mail? Granted that last answer would’ve been annoying, but I don’t have to talk to someone on the phone to get it, or either of the positive answers. Exactly what are we gaining by having me talk to someone live? Number two, I’m pretty severely phone-phobic. I hate to call people on the phone. No, it’s not rational, but then no phobias are rational; that’s why they’re phobias.

It took me a couple of days, but I finally psyched myself up and called. I got the usual robot phone answer system (although they’ve got some long pauses in there, one at the very beginning that made me think I might’ve gotten a live person; I said “Hello?” just as the robot went on with it’s spiel) and worked my way through it to what I assume is the right queue. (It’s the “everything else” queue, by the way. There’s no number to press if you have a problem with an order; I guess they’re pretending to all the customers who call with questions about Borders (that was option number one) that there are never order problems.)

So I got switched over to the Everything Else queue. I was notified that my call might be recorded. There were about four seconds of music, then the voice came back to say that all operators were busy and I should keep hanging on, or whatever. Two seconds of music, and I was assured that my call was important. Another two seconds of music, and the voice explained that all the lines were busy and I should call back later, and then it hung up on me.

Wait, what?

I looked at the time on the face of my phone — I’d been connected for one minute and forty-six seconds.

Now, I know a lot of people hate to sit in the customer service queue for a long time, and complain about having to do it. But less than two minutes and then I get dumped? Seriously? I’m an adult, and if the wait gets to be too long, I can decide for myself to hang up on the answer-robot.

You know, B&N is one of the companies who are currently whining and complaining that Eeeevil Amazon is destroying the book business, but I think that if B&N’s business is having hard times, the reasons for it are a lot closer to home.

Angie, who’ll never order anything from B&N again