Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Colleen Doran Puts a Burr Under My Saddle

Mark Evanier posted this interview with writer and artist Colleen Doran. I don't know Ms. Doran and have only passing familiarity with her work, but she says two or three things in this short piece I found very interesting. If you've got five minutes, take a look then come back . . .

Mark described Colleen as an artist with unusual business acumen, which I think comes across. One of her points is the importance of a creative person understanding that his or her work has value. People who recognize that value more than the artist does will try to take advantage of it. It happens all the time. I know people who've made bad agreements in good faith and lost money, opportunities, or the right to work on or profit from their own creations.

A corallary of knowing your rights and what your work is worth is being willing to walk away from a bad deal. I think that can be tremendously hard to do. This may be the only offer you get! You'll rationalize that a bad deal is better than none--that getting your work into the world in any fashion is better than having it sit unseen in your drawer. I don't think so. Nothing will make you more miserable later than being stuck in a bad contract with exploitive jerks. (I emphasize I'm drawing lessons from the experience of friends, and haven't felt exploited myself. My dealings with my publisher and freelance clients have been respectful and fair.)

Colleen also touches on the economics of the Digital Age, our glorious "Information Should Be Free" era in which people would rather read Doran's work pirated on BitTorrent than on her website--where the content is already available free!--thus denying her the pennies in advertising revenue she would've gotten. I can't tell you how much this mindset of entitlement sticks in my craw, and the harm I foresee it doing to the creative arts.

Here's where I stand on that: Creators' rights are important. Copyright is important. I created something. It was hard work. It took a lot of time. Without me, it wouldn't exist. I get to decide if my work is best presented on paper, pixels, shadow puppets, or theater-in-the-round. If I want to give it away free, fine. If my publisher and I set a cover price of $14.95 or $24.95, you can pay it or not if you think it's worth it or not. Those are your only ethical choices. Downloading a copy that someone scanned without my permission is not an ethical choice. It is not the behavior of someone who professes to be a fan.

It's not about the money. I'm thrilled when people loan my books to friends or check them out of libraries. I think "Great, another reader!" not "Rats, another lost sale!" It's about respect. When you take my stuff, you're telling me it's literally worthless. I disagree. We may have a legitimate argument about whether it's worth $14.95 or $24.95, but it's not worthless.

A peripheral discussion comes up a lot in webcomic circles, where many cartoonists offer their comics for free and earn their living through advertising and product sales, sometimes derided as "selling mousepads and t-shirts." This is championed as the 21st-century business model that we'd better darn well get used to. Get on board or get left behind. It works for some people and I'm happy for them. What irks me is its fundamental assumption that the work itself--the writing and art that lures readers to the site so their eyeballs can be captured by ads--has no intrinsic value except as bait. There's something wrong with that.

What has more value than an idea no one has ever expressed in quite the same way? A story no one has told before? A character you'll never forget? Information you didn't know but which will enrich the rest of your life? A genuine laugh or tear? How much more valuable are "Macbeth" or "Starry Night" than a t-shirt or mug of the same?

It's an upside-down world, brother.

I've got no beef with someone who wants to give away their work, for whatever reason. When I serialized my Mom's Cancer webcomic it was free, with no advertising or product placement. I wanted my story to be read, and the Internet offered the easiest, cheapest way to present it to the world. I trusted that if readers thought the story was good, then good things would come from it. I was lucky; they did. That was an emotional and artistic choice rather than a business decision (it almost by definition couldn't have been a business decision, since no money was involved). The key is that it was my choice.

But I'm a writer, not a t-shirt salesman. I want to make words and pictures and stories that other people think are worth $14.95 or $24.95 or whatever price might earn enough that I can afford to make more. If I can't come up with material that's worth something to someone, I don't deserve to be in the business. Why would anybody with an ounce of self respect set out to create stuff they believe is worthless? Why would anybody read it?



Marion said...

I feel almost compelled to say, "But, Brian, tell us how you really feel." Very eloquent, and you made some great points. I'll listen to Colleen at home.

Jim O'Kane said...

Right with you on this, Brian. Nothing is more irksome than coming across your own words, unattributed, on someone else's site. I've had several articles show up on sites that should know better.

And you're right- - it's not the money part (although that's salt on the wound) -- it's the idea of *respect* - - if someone is that fond of the ideas expressed in an article or a work of art, they should at least cite the artist and link back to the legitimate origin point so that the artist can receive the benefit of that visit to their art.

Grrr. I've stopped googling certain topics and word combinations because I know my works are still out there.

Poor Captain Girlfriend may be even worse off. She wrote an article back when the Earth was cooling and it got turned into an proto-Internet meme (with her name and citations removed). It's part of the waft and weave of the World Wide Web now, and she still bumps into her own lost words from long ago all over the place.