A bas les aristos!

I recently read The Scarlet Pimpernel (text, audio, movie) by Baroness Orczy, and ran into a bit of an interesting philosophical quandry while I was reading it. You see, the Scarlet Pimpernel is an English nobleman who through disguise and deception rescues French nobility from the Guillotine during the French Revolution of 1792 and spirits them away to England and safety. I’ll write more about this great series of books later, but the issue that I ran into while reading the first of the Scarlet Pimpernel novels was that, simply put- I felt what he was doing was wrong.

Now some of that comes from reading Scaramouche (also an excellent novel- text, audio) right before the Scarlet Pimpernel, because Scaramouche does an excellent job of presenting the case of the crimes of the nobility in France, and exactly why they needed to be exterminated. In addition to those at home, those nobles that escaped justice were rallying support among the other nobles of Europe to attack France and destroy it’s new burgeoning republican government and once again usurp the will of the people. So how exactly was the Scarlet Pimpernel a good guy again? (He is, if you’re a noble, if you’re a commoner…not so much…And you’ll note the Author herself was actually a noble! Talk about propaganda!)

It took a bit to mentally reconcile that for me, but eventually I decided he was helping the innocent nobles (since not all were cruel overlords) to escape an overreaching new government that bordered on fanaticism, and so I decided I could accept it. However, I also came to realize that part of the reason I was reacting to badly toward the Scarlet Pimpernel’s mission was that I actually understood the feelings of the people of pre-revolutionary France (well, as much as a modern person can) because in a way I was living in a similar time.

The revolution came (in large part) because of a severe divide between the filthy rich and the poor, where the masses were literally playthings of the rich, and the government systems were tools of that inaccessible landed nobility. Being Canadian, I’ve spent most of my life happy with our system, and actually overall continue to be happy (but a little worried) about it to this day, but when I look at the situation in the USA and the world, I start to feel what those ancient French must have felt. Take a look at the USA, or should I call is CSA (Corporate States of America) where the major corporations managed to turn a financial crisis into a windfall! Where the corporations now have the Rights of a person and the ability to influence politics in a huge way, but don’t share any of the Responsibilities for any of their actions. (A corporation is a person, unless they do something wrong, in which case they’re not. Could the former French nobility have asked for better? Non!)  Where the police are tools of the rich, and a relatively minor offense of theft turns into a major case because it affected one of the corporate nobility like Apple.

And do I expect it to get better? No, worse, much much worse. The financial stability we seem to be enjoying again is an illusion, and another crisis is just around the corner. What’s sadder- that millions of people will become destitute, or that we can expect the culprits to walk away, and even profit from it?

A bas les aristos! Indeed.

To Free or Not to Free 2- The Revenge

Last night I was chatting with a friend and discussing the audiobooks conundrum mentioned earlier this week- if you give the audiobook away for free, will they pay for the text versions or not?

My friend, commented that from his perspective in fact the reverse approach may have netted more fish- give the text away for free, and then charge for the audiobook version. His logic was that audiobooks are less effort to read, and therefore more and more people are being drawn to them out of the sheer base human quality of laziness. He felt that if people like the text, or even just the beginning of the text, they might in fact pay to have the audio version just to make their lives easier as they consume it.

He also pointed out that if something generates fans, then those fans will want to consume more of that something, and in different ways. People who read books don’t avoid the movie version, they tend to flock to the movie version- hoping for an enhanced experience of what they loved about the book.  How much would people pay for a version of the book read by the author themselves?

Now, this approach won’t solve all the problems- for one, how do you get people to read your work in the first place? Part of the reason for podcasting novels to begin with was to have a fresh medium that wasn’t cluttered with a zillion other people fighting for notice. (And even now, with lots of people doing it, it’s still a drop in the bucket compared with the number of people writing away on Fiction.net or their own personal blogs.) The ability to have your work stand out like that, and be given a chance by a lot of people who might not normally touch it is a pretty big advantage in making a name for yourself.

Another issue that would come up is the question of finding an actual publisher- as in, someone to market your books and pay the initial costs of getting them out there in bookstores. If the text is available online for free- why would they want to touch it? (Answer- they probably wouldn’t, you’d need to write a new book for them once you got their attention.) Of course, things are also changing in the e-book realm, with sites like Smashwords helping to enable people to get their e-books published across the formats and platforms. Also, thanks to Lulu.com and similar sites, if you want to do it yourself, that’s feasible too. (Of course, you could also use Lulu.com to sell the audiobook version for pay as well…)

So, unfortunately, the story is far from simple, and the issue is far from closed on the best way to market your creative writing talents online. Do you do the publisher route, and hope you don’t get lost in the slushpile? (Although this site seems to have semi-solved that problem through crowdsourcing.) Or do you take what is almost the modern independent musician route, where you give away your base product for free, and try to make your money through associated merchandise? Is there a happy medium in between?

My friend thinks it’s all about human nature, and finding the best way to navigate the base human needs and desires to get what you want. It would be interesting to know if anyone is doing it his way, and if they’ve had any success doing it as a result.

To Free or not to Free, that is the Question.

One of the writers that a great many in the podcast novel world look up to is J.C. Hutchins, both because of the quality of his work and because he made the dream of many into a reality- he got a book deal from his podcasted novel. He was one of the guys who literally set up the holy grail of new media novelists, and used the new media to get his work and his name out there into the general public. As a result of what was partially his work, there are now hundreds of novels being podcast out there, and a few more since have also gained book deals as he did.

However, J.C. recently hung up the microphone on the podcast novel gig when he more or less came to the conclusion that while the legions of fans would happily follow him everywhere, they would for the most part only do so while he was offering free content. When his book went to the publisher and hit the shelves, record numbers of online fans didn’t translate into record sales, and the publisher decided not to continue because of the simple reality that his previously podcast novel wasn’t selling.

Now J.C. seems to be turning slowly from the prophet of Podcast Novels into someone who is bitter and resentful about the whole experience. Not that I blame him, he put his soul into it, and was cheered on by the crowds, only to have those same crowds abandon him when he actually asked them to support him in a meaningful way. Not even to give donations, but just buy the book they’d loved and own a copy of it instead of listening for free online. That must have been really painful for him, probably akin to hitting a brick wall at 200kph, and I imagine he’s going to take a long time to recover. Not that his “fandom” is helping, for some of them are even attacking the poor guy for turning off the tap! He can’t win!

In a lot of ways, I think he’s a victim of the Tragedy of the Commons– it’s not that the people didn’t want to support him, but the motivation wasn’t strong for them to buy the end product (they had it already for free) and each of them thought the others would buy it, so they saved their money. And, I think he’s also right in blaming both the sense of entitlement for free content that many internet users seem to have these days and the fickle nature of online consumers who will happily support content creators as long as they don’t have to pay for it.

However, I do think there’s also the issue of what a creator wants to get out of these “free” productions.

Like most things, it’s all about what your goals are. If your goal is to simply entertain people and maybe gain fun and experience, then producing content for free online is fine. If, however, you’re doing it to gain an audience or reputation that will carry you into something that will make money down the line, then I think you require a very different strategy. Putting it all out there, and then expecting people to continue to turn around and pay for it is a recipe for disappointment, even in the internet age. The better strategy is to do what any good drug dealer does- give the audience a hit, get them addicted, and then make them pay if they want more. (Of course, that strategy does have it’s problems, because if your drug isn’t addictive enough, then it will likely fail.)

In J.C.’s case, he might have been better served by releasing the first third of the story, and then putting the rest up for sale on Amazon in book form. The problem is, there wasn’t a Lulu.com when he started doing this, and he was a pioneer at finding out what worked and what didn’t. The canary in the coal mine, as it were. He didn’t have that kind of choice, and was hoping to use the podcast to attract buzz from a mainstream media publisher.

Of course, something to consider is- it worked. Despite 7th Son not selling, and despite his legions of fans having failed him in his darkest hour, J.C. podcasting his book did get it published, and not only that, it made him a name. Even if all his future books will be published and sold normally, the key point is, they will be published because he’s no longer a faceless manuscript sitting in the slush pile. J.C. is now lightyears ahead of tens of thousands of other authors in a highly competitive market, and has a very good chance of being a successful (paid) author in the future.

So, while J.C. might be somewhat bitter about the whole experience, I hope he considers that despite all the hard work, there really was a payoff- a big one. One I bet a lot of other struggling writers wish they had.

Heart of a Ronin

A friend recommended an audiobook called Heart of a Ronin the other day, so I snagged the first chapter and gave it a listen during the morning walk. I couldn’t even get through the first 45 minute chapter. (And he’s released more than 30 chapters at 45 minutes a piece! My god…It’s already longer than DUNE and doesn’t seem to be done!)

The writer’s okay, but he doesn’t know his history or Japanese culture that well; he’s a typical anime/manga fan who’s slapping a Japanese veneer on top of his own Fantasy story. For example, in the first ten minutes he makes reference to his Ronin hero being lower than a Geisha, which is great, but the story is set in roughly 1240, and the Geisha didn’t exist until the 1700’s. Ooops.

Oh, and his starving Ronin who can talk to animals could be one of the richest men in Japan overnight. How? The Japanese nobles were super-crazy about horses, and a man who could talk to horses would (even if he didn’t tell them about the talking part) be so valued you can’t imagine it. Again, he’d know this if he studied the culture instead of his comics.

Moral of the story- if you’re going to set your tale in a historical period then at least bother to learn about more than the superficial aspects you think are cool.

Edit:

Looking back on this now, I can see it looks a little harsh and flippant (mostly because it is!) but I thought I should probably explain a little more about why I reacted so badly to this piece. After all, if some guy wants to write Samurai fantasy stories, then what’s the harm, right?

The reason I reacted badly is because as I’ve gotten older I’ve become more and more a fan of historical fiction, and as a result of that I’ve become less and less tolerant of people who try to write historical fiction and then write off their own laziness by saying the inaccurate parts don’t matter. While there’s always going to be inaccuracies in any history-based work, the point is that I expect to get a sense than the author at least tried to understand his setting. The Geisha thing might seem small to you, but it’s basic common knowledge to someone who knows their Japanese cultural history. (A bit like writing a Civil War story, but not knowing who the major generals were, for example.)

As a fan of historical fiction, I find I love good historically based stories for 3 reasons:

1) It lets me learn at the same time I’m being entertained.

2) It gives me a chance to have history come alive before my eyes. (Especially in the hands of a good writer, like Forrester, or Yoshikawa)

3) It gives me a new view on history that perhaps I hadn’t thought of.

Within ten minutes, I knew Heart of the Ronin was going to give me none of these, and nothing I couldn’t see done better (with more or less accuracy) by real Japanese writers.