DRM vs. the Tip Jar

I am a bit of a Stoic, in the classic sense of the word.

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex philosophy, what I mean when I say this is that, in order to get the most satisfaction out of my life, I devote a certain amount of time and mental energy toward envisioning how things (anything, most things, some things) might go wrong, and how I’ll deal with it if it does.

This, I am told, is weird and counter intuitive and even sounds depressing to a non-trivial percentage of people (or at least a high percentage of vocal people), and I understand their reaction; I’ll admit this approach to the life’s daily events has a tendency to, let’s say, flatten the peaks of whatever high points come along during the day.

The flip side is that it also softens the blow of the low points, because I’ve mentally prepped myself for unfortunate events – often something far worse than what actually happens. (I have a pretty good imagination, so when I tell you I envision things going wrong, understand that I take things quite a bit further than “what will I do if I get a flat tire during rush hour?”

It may not work for everyone, but it works for me – in short, I make plans to deal with the worst that might happen, and as a result I’m generally pretty pleased with an otherwise unremarkable day: the house didn’t burn down, everyone’s healthy, and my kids didn’t run into traffic while I was getting the mail. Yay!

I will admit, there are downsides, the primary one being the fact I go through the day expecting people to, collectively, be kind of horrible.

But people aren’t entirely horrible – it’s possible they aren’t even mostly horrible – and when you prepare for the worst (as I do) and instead encounter the best, it’s worth talking about.

I want to tell you a story about people not being horrible, and how it’s changed the way I approach making stuff and putting it out in the world.


When HarperCollins published Hidden Things, I didn’t expect anyone to buy the audiobook rights – it rarely happens with first-time authors – and of course no one did.

But I still wanted an audiobook of Hidden Things to exist, so I asked the agent representing me for that book to ask HarperCollins for the audiobook rights back, once it was fairly clear nothing was going to happen on that front. They said yes, paperwork was signed, and it was done: I could do whatever I wanted with the rights, limited only by my finances and ability.

Now, I had the funds available to pay for the recording and production of an audiobook, but I didn’t like that option for two main reasons:

  1. I didn’t want to get bound up in some kind of financial bottom line with the project, where I only judged it “good” once I’d (for example) made as much money as I’d spent on the thing.
  2. It sounded boring.

So instead, I started up a Kickstarter to fund the audiobook development. (You can check out the video for the project over here

The main reason I did this was because it meant I didn’t have to worry about the financial bottom line, because the project would be in the black from day one, thanks to backers who essentially “preordered” the audiobook through the kickstarter.

This gave me a tremendous amount of freedom, and I wanted to use that freedom to explore ideas that I believed in very strongly in theory, but which I hadn’t been able to test out where it really mattered.

Specifically, I wanted to release the audiobook in as many formats as a could, in ways that would make the story available to anyone, anywhere, without running into problems with Digital Rights Management and all that other “treat the customer like a criminal” bullshit the publishing industry does (because they didn’t learn anything from the music industry failing at the same thing, ten years previous).

In this, I took my cues from Cory Doctorow, who is something of an evangelist of the anti-DRM movement, and who makes all his books freely available for download off his personal website and yet still manages to pay the bills.

“DRM does nothing but punish honest people,” a paraphrased Doctorow might say, “so I’ll make it easy to get my stuff, no matter what, and prove ‘digital theft’ is a silly bogeyman in publishing, compared to the very real problems of inaccessibility and obscurity.”

Did I buy that? Here’s bit of my narration from that kickstarter video:

I plan to make this audiobook project a demonstration of the futility of DRM in today’s digital marketplace. I believe it is possible for a creator to ask a fair price for good work and receive that price from fans who believe in the work and want to support it.

I was pushing that line pretty hard, but you’ll notice that I was basically setting up the kickstarter to help make that happen. I didn’t say it in so many words, but the underlying message was something like this:

“Listen: if I have to pay for this myself, it’s going to go out as an audiobook, and that’s it. If the kickstarter funds it, and I know I’m not going to lose a bunch of money, then it’s happy fun peace love time in here.”

x-files-i-want-to-believe-poster1

Yeah. That was me.

See, it all seemed to make sense to me, and as a reader/listener/consumer, I know first hand how much DRM infuriated and frustrated and insulted me.

But when you bring this argument up in publishing, there’s a some nodding and agreeable murmurs and then a WHOLE LOT of what I’ll call “expectation management,” and mostly it boils down to this:

“That’s a fine idea… if you’re Cory Doctorow,” they say. “Once you have a hundred thousand happy-mutant BoingBoing readers buying his stuff, even though he’s giving it away for free on his website, just to prove him right, then of course he can say DRM is bad and trusting people works better.”

And I understand that mindset – I really do. You can’t come into the publishing world with a horror novel and expect your career to describe the same basic arc as Stephen King: that would be stupid and unrealistic, but people still do that, every day, so you have agents and editors and publicists trying to help a new author understand they aren’t Stephen King. I get it.

But at the same time, this didn’t feel like a “you’re not Stephen King” situation. This wasn’t about the writer as much as it was about the readers – it wasn’t what a person could do, but what people would do.

In other words, I was pretty sure everyone who was telling me “that only works if you’re Doctorow” were wrong.

So I put my hand out, asked for some help, got it, and made the audiobook the way I wanted. I “gave it away for free” via a podcast that anyone could listen to, then remastered it and released it on Audible for what I suppose are normal audiobook prices, while continuing to make the free podcast available.

And I did more than that. Once the podcast was done, I put the whole thing up on Podiobooks. If you don’t know what Podiobooks is, it’s kind of given away in the name: audiobooks, in podcast format, and the thing with Podiobooks is, everything is free: listen all you want, and it doesn’t cost you a dime. More than that, the guys running the site even do the work of getting the stuff up on the iTunes as well, also for free.

Did you get that?

I had my book on Audible (US only, because of DRM), iTunes (ditto, I think), and Downpour (eventually) but I also had free podcast versions on my website and on Podiobooks AND AGAIN on iTunes (sitting there, free, right next to the pay remastered version).

Clearly, I’m not going to make a dime, right?

Not so.

Sales through Audible have been steady. I don’t get much of the proceeds, because everyone involved takes their cut first but, well… I don’t care – the whole project is in the black: I’m enjoying the “long tail” of digital sales, from day one. Given the option to buy something or just take it and walk off, people have been pretty nice and bought it. Yay.

But that’s not the thing I want to tell you about.

See, the people behind Podiobooks aren’t a charity. You can listen to everything for free, yes, but they do ask listeners to pay for the stuff they like. I’ve listened to Hidden Things over there, and about halfway through there’s a little reminder from the Podiobooks spokesperson saying:

“Hey guys, if you like this… you really ought to show that by giving the author something for all their work. We take a percentage, yeah, but most of it – a whopping eighty percent – goes to the author.

And then there’s a similar reminder at the end.

In short, there’s a tip jar. Just a tip jar and a reminder.

That tip jar and reminder has earned me more money than Audible by an order of magnitude – maybe several orders of magnitude; I’m kind of bad at math. It continues to earn me more, every month.

No DRM. No treating every customer like a potential criminal.

Expecting people to be awesome, and finding out that, by and large, they are.

I’m a believer.


In a few months, I’ll be releasing the last of the things funded by the Hidden Things kickstarter – an ebook + audiobook collection of short stories set in the Hidden Things world. It’s called Little Things. Again, released as a podcast, then put up everywhere, but still free if you want it that way, and available anywhere.

Because seriously: fuck DRM – I trust you guys.

You’re awesome.

Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA Student Commencement Address

Earlier this August, I and thirteen other writers received our Masters in Fine Arts degree for Creative Writing, from the Whidbey Writers Workshop and the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts.

I was selected by my peers to be the student commencement speaker, and I wanted to share what I said, both for posterity and simply because I think I have have accidentally included some pretty good advice for writers in general.

So, below, the text of the speech, and an audio recording of me, reading it.

Enjoy.


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@: commencement speech

On June third of this year, I logged into the MFA’s online campus and learned that my fellow graduates had chosen me to deliver our commencement address.

I’d like to share some of the comments that followed this announcement.

  • “I know he will do a fantastic job.”
  • “Doyce, you will rock!”
  • “Thank you for representing the graduating class to our friends and family.”
  • “No pressure, but I expect to be inspired.”

I want to thank my fellow graduates for selecting me – it was surprising, humbling, and – I think – an excellent opportunity to talk about writing, and unrealistic expectations.

During my undergraduate studies, I had an English professor – one of my favorite instructors – who, upon hearing I wanted to be a writer, asked “Do you just feel like you… have to write, all the time?”

It was, I think, the question she thought she was supposed to ask, when confronted with someone who claimed to be a writer.

And, faced with that question, I grudgingly admitted that, yes, I needed to write, to the point where it interfered with every other part of my life… which is why my paper on Catcher in the Rye was late.

I was lying, of course. My Catcher in the Rye paper was late because my roommate had subjected me to a Monty Python movie marathon that weekend… and I certainly did not “have to write, all the time.”

But just as surely as that professor thought that was the question she was supposed to ask, I thought that was what I was supposed to feel – a gravitic pull toward any keyboard or blank sheet of paper so strong it overwhelmed every other influence in my life.

That’s what I thought being a writer meant.

But I didn’t feel that pull, and it terrified me.

It took me a long time to realize being a writer is something quite a bit different, and quite a bit simpler, and not nearly as fun or as easy as a mysterious cosmic force that reaches out and grabs you and drops your butt into a chair and tunes out the world and makes you put words down on paper.

The truth goes something like this:

Writers write.


People love to label and categorize things, and it’s no different in the world of writing and publishing.

Are you published? Then you’re an author.

But, what kind of author are you? A novelist? A poet? A journalist? An essayist? A lyrical essayist?

The labels (and the qualifications) get more obscure the further down the rabbit hole you go, and in my opinion it’s all a bit boring and pointless.

Are you a writer?

“Well, what are the qualifications for that?”

Do you write?

If so, you’re a writer.

Now, some smart alec with impossibly white teeth and an MBA will smirk and tell you, by that simple criteria, almost everyone is a writer; lots of people have scribbled down an old family anecdote, or tapped out a poem that holds together as long as you sing it to the tune of Bohemian Rhapsody, or written an essay on The Catcher in the Rye.

But that’s not how it works: Writers write.

It’s not that they have written, at some point in the past.

It’s not that they will write, at some point in the future.

It’s certainly not that they intend to write, at some point in an alternate future, with jetpacks and flying cars.

This is not about the past, or the future. It’s not even about the present – it’s not a verb, it’s a description: a statement of reality.

Writers write when it is sunny, and they’d rather be outside. Writers write when they are tired, and would rather watch television, or read, or go to the movies, or browse the internet, or play a game, or just nap.

Writers write when it’s hard. Writers write when they don’t wanna.

And it’s never – almost never – because of some mystical pull toward the blank page — it is a conscious act. Call it whatever you want: Will. Determination. Desire. In my case: sheer cussedness.


Sitting up here, looking a little nervous, a little nauseous, is the largest graduating class the Whidbey Writers Workshop has ever produced.

Fourteen graduates who know the writer’s simple, painful requirement. Yes, they’ve studied their craft. Yes, they’ve put in the hours on workshops and thousands of pages of reading, but more than anything else, despite every imaginable personal conflict, and distraction, and loss, they write.

We are writers.

Those of you who smiled at that through are probably also writers.

Those of you who did not clap or smile… live with writers. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for your patience, and apologize on behalf of my fellow graduates and students.

You, our long-suffering, patient, loving family and friends have shooed the kids outside to play, or volunteered for another tedious school function, or brought in a cup of tea, or simply listened while we tried to sort out the lives of imaginary people you have never met.

More often, you’ve done the hardest thing: left us alone – in a quiet room, or our favorite chair, or a coffee shop, or a hospital bed, knowing, if not always entirely understanding, what we had to do.

Understand this: we made it here, because you were there.


On behalf of my fellow graduates, I also want to thank our our Faculty. You have the unenviable, it-would-seem impossible task of providing guidance and direction to a pack of wanderers who each see a different landscape.

You don’t know – you can’t know – what challenges any specific writer in the program might face, so you teach us the craft: you show us the tools of exploration and survival; the techniques for navigating by whatever strange stars we’ve put in our personal sky.

And, when we need it, you give us a little shove, just between the shoulder blades, to keep things moving.

That shove is, I think, the heart of this program, and it consists of two words; the same two words with which Wayne signs off every email he has ever sent, since I started this program.

“Keep writing.”

“I’m not sure this story is working.”

“Keep writing.”

“I don’t know if I really get this poetic form.”

“Keep writing.”

“I’ve graduated! It’s over! Now what to do I do now?”

“…”

You are both our mentors and our friends; we are here, because you helped us find the way and never let us stop moving.


Finally, to my fellow students and graduates, I will share this thought.

You won’t always know what you’re doing. There will be days filled with joy, pride, excitement, and hope; and there will be days filled with panic, confusion, frustration, and disillusion. Sometimes, they will be the same days.

This is what you do.

You write.

If you can’t figure out where to stand, write the ground in under your feet. If you feel like you can’t breathe, write the air. If you can’t see your next step, write the sky; write your horizon, and put it far, far in the distance.

If you don’t know the rules about this thing you’re doing, find some comfort in the fact that no one – no one – knows the rules, either.

Keep writing.

Make amazing things.

No pressure, but I expect to be inspired.

Technology

I've been thinking about this more and more as I consider the idea of friction — of resistance — in my life, and how to eliminate it.

To paraphrase and subvert the standard definition, technology is the collective term for techniques, methods, and/or processes that make an activity easier. Cooking has tech. Hunting has tech. Manufacturing, from machinery to millinery, has tech. Scientific investigation has tech.

Basically, if it's something humans do, we've come up with tech that makes it easier to do.

Sometimes, we iterate on that tech endlessly (see: ways to kill each other), sometimes, we figure out the best option right away and leave it (see: the wheel and/or lever).

Sometimes – the majority of the time, probably – an attempted improvement to existing tech fails to make The Thing easier (whatever The Thing is). In those instances, the iteration is discarded or is itself iterated on until is does improve The Thing.

This is so obvious it seems silly to say; if you do a thing that makes the existing tech worse, that is failed tech. (Maybe not a failed attempt, if it teaches us something, but it is failed tech.)

In short, good technology – functional technology – reduces friction: it makes the effort required for A Thing, less. If it doesn't do that, it is not technology.

By this definition, DRM – Digital Rights Management – as it is implemented today by various media industries, is not technology.

It's not a failed iteration of technology; if DRM were completely successful in its purpose (it isn't), it still fails to meet the one criterion for technology: it does not reduce friction for whatever Thing it affects. In a perfect world (which, again, this isn't) it might theoretically achieve a state of adding no additional friction, but it will never make friction less.

It is, in short, doing nothing but making things worse.

Today, it makes it harder to get to your stuff. Tomorrow, that difficulty increases, and as time goes on, so does that difficulty, until we reach a point where The Thing no longer works because of this anti-technology.

Until we reach a point where we've lost years or decades of our culture because we let our Things be locked in vaults we didn't control, to benefit people who only exist to sell keys.

I don't know that I'll ever be someone who gets a large passage of text tattooed in a block across their back or body

But if I were – if I ever am – I believe this is what I'd get.

I was Trying to Describe You to Someone, by Richard Brautigan
I was trying to describe you to someone a few days ago. You don’t look like any girl I’ve ever seen before.
I couldn’t say “Well she looks just like Jane Fonda, except that she’s got red hair, and her…