Degrees of Slavery

While I was at the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego, a bit of a controversy blossomed around my use of the phrase “house slave” in a blog post I wrote here back in May. Barry Eisler, in a guest post on J. A. Konrath’s blog, mentioned my use of that phrase; so he caught the full force of the fury of authors who resented being called a slave and who suggested that the use of such a label trivialized the pain of slavery. Alas, in making that particular argument, they proved the veracity of what Barry was saying.

If one actually reads Barry’s essay, he’s referring to a mentality in which the oppressed defends the oppressor. He mentions Stockholm Syndrome. I remember Patty Hearst joining the Symbionese Liberation Army. The concept goes all the way back to the rape of the Sabines. It’s a situation where folks come to define their self-worth in terms of the abuse they’re having inflicted upon them—their only worth comes from the fact that they’re worthy of being abused. Thus, any attack on their abuser is an attack on their self-worth and a challenge to their emotional and intellectual existence.

I don’t think Barry is at all incorrect in creating this linkage. I would not be the first person to note the irony of authors who have so long and loudly decried the abuses of publishers now turning around and claiming publishers will save them. This is the mentality to which Barry refers and, if one reads my original essay, the situation to which I refer as well.

I need to address the whole idea of the trivialization of slavery, because that charge is a straw-man argument presented to shield authors from the reality of slavery and of the current publishing economy. Critics can point out that to refer to authors as slaves of the publishers is incorrect. It’s been noted that authors are free to sign contracts or not; and this freedom means they are not slaves. That’s a great argument, and seems solid, unless you look at the history and degrees of slavery.

The mistake critics are making is to focus on slavery as the ownership of the physical person—aka chattel slavery. More important than that is the ownership of that person’s future production. Slavery, while it is a human rights issue, is also an economic issue. Owning people does not benefit the owner unless he can derive value from their labor. While chattel slavery involves the ownership of the physical person, there are other forms of slavery which purchase a person’s labor. America, to a very great degree, was built on the backs of a second set of slaves: indentured servants or, as colonial sources like to call them, redemptioneers. Indentured servitude is internationally recognized as a form of slavery.

Here’s how that system works. A person wants to come to the colonies for a chance at  economic bounty. They can’t afford the passage. So, they sign a contract with someone who will pay for their passage, and they promise to work the debt off. The redemptioneer might cut his deal with his future employer, or might have his contract sold from the shipper to someone in the colonies. The redemptioneer has sold his future to fund his present, commonly for a period of three to seven years.

This is what authors do when they accept a contract and advances which are accounted against his future output. An author is selling his labor to move him into a position of future bounty. (It’s also what professional athletes do, but they have strong unions which specify how labor can be treated by ownership.) While this seems like a straight-forward contractual agreement, let’s examine the finer points of what we get:

1) The publisher does all the accounting. Tales abound of errors which are uncovered by all-too-infrequent audits. Because an author can never be sure of the accounting, he never really knows when his term of servitude is up. This problem is typified by the “reserves against returns” practice where the publisher may withhold as much of earned royalties as they wish, for as long as they wish, from the author—even if the book is being reprinted and selling well.

2) Publishers demand that authors sign non-compete clauses in their contracts that prevent them from taking any other work during the period of the contract, despite the fact that the contract might last for multiple years, but the payout schedule and advance level are insufficient to provide a living wage for that same period of time. Even if an author goes ahead, writes the books fast, delivers and they are accepted, the non-compete would prevent them from doing any other work which might be published during that same period.

3) All contracts have a “right of first refusal” clause in them, which means the publisher has the right to first look at your next new work, and the right to match any offer from any other publisher for that work. Most of those clauses, however, have a timing aspect, where they don’t have to consider your next work until the final book has been delivered, or within a time period around that delivery. The author, therefore, can be blocked from making any money with anyone else as the publisher takes his time deciding if he wants to continue to work with the author.

4) Some contracts have clauses that prohibit an author from writing any other work in a particular universe except for work to be published by that publisher. This looks great in a contract if you have a long and ongoing relationship with that publisher; but once you’ve been dropped, suddenly your best-loved work may be forbidden to you unless you, with no leverage, can get the publisher to strike that provision. (I found one of those lurking in a contract I signed a long time ago. It stings badly.)

5) Contracts regularly buy up rights the publishers know they are not going to exploit—like gaming rights, audio rights, stage play rights, movie rights. Those are lottery tickets for the publisher. If the author or his agent works hard, puts together a movie deal, the publisher wins, even if their publishing the book had nothing to do with the movie deal. (Face it, who in Hollywood actually reads books?) If an author does a treatment of his own book, sells it to a filmmaker on his own, he still owes money to the publisher and, in fact, under some contracts, may be prohibited from actually doing that side deal since those rights reside with the publisher.

6) Contracts allow a publisher to hold on to the rights to a work for a period of three to seven or more years, from the point that the work goes out of print. When that period is over, the author can ask for the rights back. In today’s world, however, with print on demand making short runs feasible, and digital meaning something is always available, books never go out of print. Publishers hold the rights to those works for a minimum of 35 years, at which point United States Copyright law allows authors to petition to get those rights back. That means, for many authors, that their grandchildren will be the ones doing that petitioning.

Publishing practices likewise use authors rather roughly:

1) Publishers can, and have, worked in lock-step to determine “dealbreaker” aspects of contracts. Is it any surprise that prior to 2009 publishers would give authors 50% of income from electronic publishing (IEP) but that after Random House sent a note to agents in early 2009 that they were cutting that to 25% of IEP, other publishers fell into line? While critics might point out that an author is free to sign a contract with an onerous provision or not, their needs and lifestyle may not permit them to walk away from an offering. If an author has a mortgage, or kids, or has to pay for his own health insurance, he’s handcuffed. Sure, in the eyes of many those handcuffs may be of gold, but they’re still handcuffs.

2) More importantly, publishers have asserted, over and over again, that they own the electronic rights to books for which they have no contract for electronic rights. Short of suing to get those rights back, what can an author do? If he does sue, there goes any chance of future deals with that publisher.

3) Publishers, as often as not, will be late in paying authors, without any interest or penalties paid to the authors. Conventional wisdom has it that payments are always late, and a welcome surprise when they arrive early.

4) Conflicts of interest abound in the industry. A publisher who owns translation rights to a book will let a foreign branch of that company purchase the rights without negotiating. That’s good for the corporate entity, but sucks for the authors. (I’ve had repeated cases where a publisher undersold my work into foreign markets and could do nothing about it.)

5) Publishers, when soliciting titles, will mention, as a matter of course, that “author appearances” are part of the marketing for the title. More than once I’ve had booksellers tell me that they’ve asked publishers if I’d go to their stores. The response is, “the author isn’t touring”—making it sound like I’m the one who refuses to honor the promise the publisher made.

There are many more things which lurk in contracts and practices (and you can mention them in comments if you wish) which put authors in difficult and even onerous positions. The bottom line, however, is clear: authors are indentured servants whose futures are purchased. Their ability to make a living at their craft is restricted by someone who has complete control over their output and the accounting for its success. While authors can refuse these contracts, in theory, it boils down to a question of can you afford to be unemployed?

This concept is critical for understanding the relationship. In a normal employer/employee situation, the employee is paid for labor which has been performed. The employee is being paid for his past output, not his future production. He is free to take his labor any place else he wants to if his employer or employment situation becomes unpleasant. That’s the theory, of course. How many employees, when forced with the choice of taking a 60% pay cut or being fired, would walk away from that job? Can they afford to?

With writers, because we sell our future labor to pay for our present life, the situation is much more difficult to figure out. Publishers, when calculating advances, tend to look at what they expect a book’s sales to be over the first two years of life. That determines the advance. So, with a trilogy, then have to project out over roughly six years, since the last book will be two years old approximately six years after the contract is signed.

Because sales have been consistently dropping, and will continue to plunge in this market, advances have been slashed and major houses have dropped well-known authors simply because they can’t project forward with any reliability. If the publishers over-pay, they’re stuck with money they won’t earn back. If the market were to pick up and they had cut the advance to the bone, they win. In theory, the author would win, too; but with a publishers’ ability to manipulate and delay royalty payments, the earn-out and payment to an author might never come.

Authors dealing with traditional publishing may be put into situations, through contracts and industry practices, where they sell their future and the future of their intellectual property to people who, quite understandably, wish to profit from their labor. Publishers should and must look at the return on their investment in talent because that is their job, and their responsibility to their stockholders. Toward that end, the laborers are only good for what they can produce at a reasonable cost. Simple market fluctuations (or fad bubbles bursting) may suddenly make an author unemployable because he will no longer be profitable. It’s not his fault, nor is it the publisher’s responsibility to take care of him past any period of profitability.

Unfortunately for the author, he is likely to live beyond his period of profitability, unless he accepts new terms. I have a friend who used to play in the NFL and he tells the story of a coach telling him that at $400,000 a year they can’t keep him, but at $250,000 a year they can. There was his choice: $0 or $250,000. Not really much freedom there, just an illusion of choice. Authors are in the same position.

All of the above could easily lead to a discussion of whether or all laborers are slaves, but that will keep. I’d like to return to a core point which is the reason behind my choosing to use the term “house slave” in that very first post. As I point out in the beginning of that post, I know the term is incendiary. I intended it to shock and draw attention. (And, I shall admit, I found it funny that while a number of writers fumed over it at World Fantasy, not a single one of them had the fortitude to speak to me directly about it. Nor, do I imagine, they actually read the original post.)

I wanted attention drawn to the issues I addressed because I don’t want writers being hurt. Sure, we’re all adults. We get to make our own decisions. I just want us making informed decisions. While a first time author might be over 21, that doesn’t mean he has enough information and background to actually be informed about the intricacies of business. The “no further work in X universe” clause I mentioned above was in a contract I signed a good decade into my publishing career. How my old agent allowed it to go through, and how I didn’t strike it, I don’t know. Had I known then what I know now, it would have been gone, but now I’m stuck.

Those authors to which the label “house slave” has been applied are authors, in my opinion, who have not informed themselves well enough about the changes in the industry. If they have, if they’ve made informed decisions to stick with traditional publishing, more power to them. Those authors will dismiss the label and not look back.

But for those who haven’t done their homework, for those who have not informed themselves about what’s really going on in the digital revolution, the term should sting. They have the choice over whether or not they will remain indentured—wholly or in part. As I noted in the original article, my emphasis for all authors has been to get their backlist up and available online. It will make them money. If traditional publishers don’t want to do collections of your short stories, or if you have a trunk novel no one wanted to publish, get it out there. Might as well have it earning something as opposed to nothing.

At World Fantasy I had a long talk with a publisher about digital publishing and midway through, he looked at me and asked, “Do you know how I’m still in business in ten years?”

“Nope,” I said.

He smiled, “I’m still in business because 97% of authors are not as aggressive about digital as you are.”

And if that does not give all of us—rebels, revolutionaries, indie authors and house slaves—something to think about, we’re just not paying enough attention.

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44 Responses to “Degrees of Slavery”

  1. Will "scifantasy" Frank 01. Nov, 2011 at 3:04 pm

    I wasn’t at WFC, and I’ve only heard about this second- and third-hand, but it strikes me that you have, at best, shot yourself in the foot, and at worst, burned bridges, and that this post really won’t help.

    To quote one of the posts I’ve seen:

    “There are times when there is no nuance to be had, and so I’m fine with shrill tones under those circumstances. Actual slavery should be opposed. Genocide, ditto. Egregious violations of human rights? Very, very bad. But a decision about how to get your book in the hands of readers? That does not rise to the level of ‘crimes against humanity.’ And using that rhetoric to discuss it means that instead of having a discussion about substance, you end up with accusations flying. And that’s a shame.”

    That is, regardless of whether you’re right or wrong about the economic arguments, cloaking your argument in the morally-inflaming language of “slavery” will upset people not because of the economics of your argument, but because they find it to be a trivialization of actual slavery.

    I’m reminded of an episode of Sports Night:

    Isaac: You’ll apologize (for a comment made in an interview)…because this is television and this is how it’s done.
    Dan Rydell: Yeah, well, sitting in the back of the bus was how it was done until a forty-two year old lady moved up front. I’m not very impressed with how things are done, Isaac.
    (a few lines later)
    Isaac: No rich young white guy has ever gotten anywhere with me comparing himself to Rosa Parks.

    Same principle here, if you follow me. You’re not going to make friends or converts, especially among minorities and historically-marginalized groups (among whom, by the way, where publishers have gotten away with still more objectionable practices–whitewashing protagonists, forcing sexuality changes, &c.), by using “slavery” language. You may consider it merely “incendiary terms,” but many see the comparison as horribly insulting and trivializing–a point you haven’t really addressed at all here. You simply called it a straw-man, went back to the economic argument, and then doubled down on the language.

  2. Nathan Christenson 01. Nov, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    I can see people being upset at the language usage, I can also see why you used it.

    Do you mind my asking what universe you got locked out of?

  3. Will, my point, and apparently poorly made, was that indentured servitude IS slavery, and is so defined as such in declarations of human rights. And simply to object to the use of “slave” without acknowledging or understanding the economic roots of the situation is to willfully remain ignorant of reality. To classify what is going on as a debate about how to get your books into the hands of readers negates the fundamental issues at play here: authors failing to receive the full and fair value of their labor.

    Your point that I might not be making any friends is valid, though I suspect anyone who will dismiss what I or anyone else is writing on the subject a priori is not someone who is open to reason in this discussion. As I noted in my essay, I just want writers to make an informed decision. If they refuse to learn about the subject, that’s on their heads.

  4. Will "scifantasy" Frank 01. Nov, 2011 at 5:16 pm

    “[A]uthors failing to receive the full and fair value of their labor.”

    I think you’ve hit on crux of the problem–you see slavery as, primarily, a tool for refusing to give people the full value of their labor.

    I can’t speak with full knowledge, but I feel comfortable saying that the people who object to your use of the word see slavery as an institution that not just legalized, but normalized and encouraged, rape, assault, forced separation from family…the list goes on. And those people object to your casting it in economic terms.

    Even if you are correct inasmuch as slavery could be economically defined in that manner, many people see it as insensitive–especially, frankly, if they are African-American, and therefore recognize both that their origins in this country may be that their ancestors were taken as slaves and forcibly relocated, and that there are still racial inequities as a result of the practice in the United States.

    “[T]hough I suspect anyone who will dismiss what I or anyone else is writing on the subject a priori is not someone who is open to reason in this discussion.”

    I’m not sure that’s the case. If you left off the term “slavery” and made basically the exact same economic argument, I suspect you’d get more response to the merits of the argument.

    “If they refuse to learn about the subject, that’s on their heads.”

    Maybe, but surely you agree that it’s disingenuous to say you want to inform people and then do it in such a way that will hinder that goal.

  5. The role and history of indentured servitude as an unnamed tier of slavery in the development of European North America remains vastly overlooked, and it’s an excellent way to expand the “house slave” allegory for those who still don’t get it (which, as you note, probably includes a lot of people who simply didn’t read your original post). A book on that history that i read once (can’t remember the title right now) made the point that objectively speaking, indentured servants were often worse off than chattel slaves, _because_ the latter were property. At the end of the day, it was in a slave-owner’s best interests to keep his slaves healthy in the expectation of selling them or their children. However, the holder of an indentured servant’s contract would want to get as much labor as possible out of that servant before his term expired — even if that meant literally working him to death.

    Obviously, the morality of slavery or indentured servitude isn’t apropos of the morality of the publishing industry. But since that just as obviously wasn’t the point of either your original post or Barry Eisler’s post, the “house-slave” language remains entirely accurate. In a situation where a publisher “owns” a writer (for example, a long-term work-for-hire situation typified by newspaper writers), it’s in the publisher’s best interest to take care of that writer. That writer and his or her talent is the long-term investment that brings dividends to the publisher. Fiction writers, on the other hand, are indentured servants, and publishers will treat them like crap not just because of indifference or ego — but because it makes the most economic sense to do so.

  6. Criticizing Mike’s language usage in this regard is a straw man, as far as I’m concerned, and a way of avoiding discussion of the issue he’s raised. Whether you agree with him or not about whether the house slave mentality exists among some writers, he’s used the most accurate and striking language to describe that mentality. To say that language is somehow off limits for him or anyone else is frankly Orwellian and a perfect example of political correctness run amuck.

  7. K. W. Jeter–You hit the nail on the head.

  8. Thanks for this, Mike. It’s a refreshing read, and hits close to home in some areas that are still painful despite years having passed since they struck.

  9. Will, it would be disingenuous if the text didn’t illuminate and define the argument; but it does. I don’t believe either article presents my case in terms that assault the reader. While the term “house slave” may offend some folks, let’s recall that the initial post referenced house slaves in contrast to Spartacus, harkening back to the Roman Empire, not American history. Slavery, or all its immorality and heinous practices, has always and will ever be an economic institution. To deny that aspect of it is not only to deny reality, but to deny understanding of its other manifestations.

    I think anyone who has read my work, from Star Wars on down through Once a Hero, has a very good idea where I stand on issues of racial inequality. I’m keenly aware of prejudice in all its ugly forms. I understand very well these sorts of issues. Not only do I have Native American ancestry; but other of my ancestors fled Ireland after the famine, arriving in an America where signs reading “Dogs and Irish not allowed” adorned shop and restaurant windows. I have little doubt that they or the other side of the family, which has been here far longer, earned their passage through indentured servitude. I’ve been subjected to hate literature because I’m a Catholic and because I’m a gamer. I have relatives who are African-American, Asian, lesbian and gay. I hear hate speech directed toward them all the time, and to suggest that my use of house slaves could be classed as the same truly trivializes hate speech.

    Some people might see chattel slavery and the history of it as trumping indentured servitude—but that belief does not negate the reality of the economic basis for slavery. While only a fool would suggest that the plight of writers today is in some way as heinous as the treatment of chattel slaves or indentured servants was, one cannot deny the parallels in the economic realities of both situations. My purpose is to point this out to people and to point out that they have the means in their hands to escape that situation.

  10. I find this whole situation pretty ridiculous. Of course people get upset, and you can’t make everyone happy.

    One thing I would like to see is a consistent application of this outrage to compare slavery in “slave-wage” and “retail-slave.” It’s not like corporations in this context are keeping our time and livelihoods in perpetual debt, poverty. Oh no, to own us physically is illegal here in the land of the free. If we are treated horribly as workers, then we certainly have the time and money to get justice through the courts and win even when the laws protect the behavior of corporations. Or we could just quit and get another job. Jobs are so plentiful in this modern age. What do you mean I’m overqualified for the lowest paid job? That’s alright. I’ll just take minimum wage to support my family on it only. We don’t need electricity or water so long as rent is paid and we have only dried noodles to feed on. On principle, we won’t even get food stamps to at least get fruits and veggies for a healthier diet. That’s evil socialism. The rest of you that don’t have regular jobs are just lazy sloths that deserve to die of cancer because they couldn’t pay for their own healthcare. Go American Dream! It’s nice to know that people are at least pro-life.

    Talk about “language.” Who is in the wrong for it? People have different views about things, but opening up about issues and how they apply today doesn’t necessarily make them wrong or trivializing the past. I can certainly understand, and do assume, that a lot of the time, for any side of any issue, someone thinks that they are talking to a wall.

  11. As someone who is excited by the possibilities of ebook self-publishing, I find it disheartening to watch its leading exponents discredit themselves by digging in on this wildly unfortunate analogy. (Especially when one of those exponents is Mike Stackpole, who I like and respect.)

    Arguments are made up of language, so naturally one should expect one’s language to be criticized in the course of any debate.

    When you choose to compare writers in an unfavorable business relationship to the victims of a catastrophic historical atrocity, of course any underlying point you hope to make will fall by the wayside! To expect to be able to narrow the sense in which you mean this is colossally naïve. Just as it would be if you referred to folks on the other side of the argument as kapos.

    Let’s pretend for the moment that fiery language actually persuades people, rather than mutually reinforcing the loyalties of opposing camps. Why not find some metaphorical incendiary devices that don’t require you to douse yourself in gasoline prior to use?

  12. Robin, I certainly respect your opinion in this regard and can see logic to your point. I would have to ask, however, to which “catastrophic historical atrocity” you refer. The wholesale importation of slaves to America from Africa, or the centuries of slaves being taken throughout empires in the Old World and New? I don’t believe it is naive to point out that slavery is an economic issue, nor to point out that the “unfavorable business relationship” to which you refer bears a strong resemblance to indentured servitude.

    Fiery language serves a very important role in this discussion: it attracts attention to the issue at hand—an issue of vital importance to people working today. I believe that no one who has read the essays would suggest I’ve doused myself in gasoline (nor would I suggest that your use of that particular metaphor trivializes the painful deaths of those who have immolated themselves by that very means to protest social injustice). As I noted in the very first essay, I could have easily used a Paris General Staff versus Doughboy analogy from World War I, but no one would have noticed, cared and most wouldn’t even be aware that World War I existed.

    Ultimately folks will have to draw their own conclusions as to whether or not my comparisons as applied to mentality or economics are correct. Those who think they aren’t are welcome to present their arguments to refute mine. I’d welcome that debate.

  13. It’s certainly an apt analogy, and those who are reacting emotionally are not doing so because of the analogy, they did before they heard the term applied to them. This has nothing to do with millions of people in slavery today, but with authors so afraid of biting the hand that feeds them they become over agressive trying to protect their bosses.

  14. To any disinterested observer reading you in the English language, “house slave” will evoke American slavery. Given your prior experience as a PR troubleshooter, I’m surprised to see you argue otherwise. It suggests to me that you’ve become so invested in your argument that you’ve lost perspective.

    Which of us hasn’t been there? We get so pissed at the people we’re contending with that we shift from persuasion to point-scoring. As we tell ourselves that we’re drawing valuable attention to a crucial issue, the debate turns into a brawl for emotional dominance.

    I’d argue that you’re underestimating the downside cost of the incendiary approach. Having one enforcer on the team can be useful, but when all the leading spokesmen have become embattled bruisers, you’ll turn away more people than you bring on side.

    I’m in some degree of contact with a number of authors who know the old system and are steeped neither in net or nerd culture. They view the transition to digital with, generally speaking, great apprehension. Things will indeed be tougher for them than for you or me. I’d like to be able to direct them to your site, representing as it does one of several promising ways forward into the new publishing. But I can’t. Because the second they see “house slave”, they’ll close the tab.

    When a guns-blazing approach pushes away the writers you’re putatively working to persuade, you’re not just failing. You’re shoring up the very system you’re hoping to undermine.

  15. Robin,

    The initial post where “house slave” was used was titled “House Slaves Versus Spartacus.” If folks want to infer or suppose that this is an allusion to the American system of slavery, I can’t stop them. Given the nature of the post, which was showing a conflict between authors who remain with traditional publishers and those who rebelled like Spartacus, I intentionally rooted that expression outside American history. You may think this is a disingenuous statement on my part, but it’s the truth and is fully supported by the text in the original essay.

    I disagree with the suggestion I’m somehow shoring up a system I hope to undermine. How is hoping authors protect themselves against a dubious future an attempt to undermine the current system? I haven’t called for the current system’s collapse, I’ve merely predicted it’s coming and have told folks to protect themselves.

    If you know authors who are apprehensive about the switch to digital, but would close the tab the second they saw the phrase house slave, then they’re never going to listen to anything I say regardless. They’re letting fear govern their lives. My removing the phrase “house slave” (which doesn’t appear in plenty of posts concerning publishing on my site) would not make what I have said any more palatable to them.

    I get that the future is scary. I understand that most folks resist change, especially when it forces them to learn things with which they are not terribly comfortable anyway. I can be that way myself. I’ve never, however, been intellectually timid when it comes to learning about subjects of importance.

    It could be that you’re right. It could be that having Dean Wesley Smith, K. W. Jeter, J. A. Konrath, Barry Eisler and me standing up and calling attention to what’s going on could be detrimental. Where I disagree is this: digital publishing has already become a terribly polarizing issue. The original post was written because of traditional publishers and authors aligned with them denying, wholesale, the veracity of what we had to say. Every single one of us has presented our arguments with facts and yet our critics don’t address those facts.

    Now, if someone criticizing Barry or me gets another author to look at what we’re saying just to see what all the fuss is about, that’s a good thing. If I have to take some hits for it, I’ll take them. And, to your point, perhaps this opens a role for someone who is of a more moderate bent who can translate to the timid. Perhaps this fight needs someone bringing that message forward—and I’m sure someone will.

    Let me reiterate one point, so I can clear up any misapprehensions: I am not gleeful or even happy or anything but saddened by the prospect of traditional publishing’s failure to deal with digital and its implications. I’m not happy to see bookstores closing. I’m not happy to see authors having to face a future where their lifelong dream of seeing their name on a book on a shelf in a superstore vanishes. It pains me whenever I go into a bookstore and see the shrinking shelf-space and the subsequent lack of selection. The old, traditional system has been the system I’ve known and loved for over fifty years. To watch that wither and die hurts.

    What I’m not going to do, and what I hope no author will do, is to get trapped in that system. As it changes, as it adapts, might there be a place for traditional-model publishers? Absolutely. Might I sign more traditional contracts. Absolutely. My decision to do so will be an informed decision—the same sort of decision that I hope every author will make.

    It really didn’t matter which metaphor got used to describe the two camps of authors. Had I suggested that we were serfs and knights, I’d have been slammed. If I suggested the the paternalistic traditional publishing system infantalized authors, I would have been bashed. If I’d suggested traditional publishers wanted us all to be kittens, but some of us are feral cats and loving life in the alley, I’d have been accused of animal cruelty. This is simply because the people who are terrified by the digital future are not willing to look at facts, they simply want a convenient way to deny the arguments that would force them to look at reality.

    I really do appreciate what you’re saying, Robin. I actually considered all of what you’ve said and suggested prior to writing the original post. My decision to phrase things as I did was an informed decision, and I was fully aware of the consequences. If my reasoning turns out to be faulty, I’ll get sidelined and that will be the end to it.

  16. I don’t know of any old writers who would flinch at the words “house slaves.” They might disagree with you and whack you with their canes or try to run you over with their motorized wheelchairs, but in general they’re made of sterner stuff than to swoon away at a hint of non-p.c. language.

  17. “I’m in some degree of contact with a number of authors who know the old system and are steeped neither in net or nerd culture. They view the transition to digital with, generally speaking, great apprehension. Things will indeed be tougher for them than for you or me. I’d like to be able to direct them to your site, representing as it does one of several promising ways forward into the new publishing. But I can’t. Because the second they see “house slave”, they’ll close the tab.”

    So is it really that you can’t, or is that you won’t? Who are you protecting in this situation? Your points look as if you are saying that you are both protecting the authors of the old system from “language” that you think might offend or scare them off from these ideas and Mr. Stackpole from failing to express his views properly. What is the point of that? If you can’t trust the authors you are in contact with to think critically for themselves, then saying that Mr. Stackpole is undermining his message and will scare them way is just a great big unsupported guess.

    “As we tell ourselves that we’re drawing valuable attention to a crucial issue, the debate turns into a brawl for emotional dominance.”

    So why use emotional dominance by keeping people in the dark instead of being exposed to ideas? If you are just thinking of the well-being of the authors that you know with whom you’ll never share this article, then why would any of this even matter to them?

    “Having one enforcer on the team can be useful, but when all the leading spokesmen have become embattled bruisers, you’ll turn away more people than you bring on side.”

    Since you can’t share this article with people that you know, then this point is moot. How are you so sure that he’ll turn your author friends away when they’ll never see this to begin with? These assumptions are just assumptions that haven’t happened, and according to you, will not happen because they’ll never know about it. It can’t happen and not happen at the same time as a point of criticism.

  18. “So is it really that you can’t, or is that you won’t?”

    I won’t, because in my judgment it would have the opposite effect to the one desired.

    “So why use emotional dominance by keeping people in the dark instead of being exposed to ideas?”

    I don’t understand you here.

    “If you are just thinking of the well-being of the authors that you know with whom you’ll never share this article, then why would any of this even matter to them?”

    I am wishing that Mike’s blog was a good place to send them.

  19. “I won’t, because in my judgment it would have the opposite effect to the one desired.”

    Well that was a roundabout way of trying to convince Mr. Stackpole that it’s his fault you made that judgment, the judgment that you’ll keep authors from thinking for themselves about the ideas in this blog. No one is pushing this blog onto them, are they? After all, you’ve expressed that you are the barrier to them.

    “I don’t understand you here.”

    Well I tried to understand what you meant when you said it as well. I thought it could have meant that one side or the other would start arguing by feeling instead of rationally discussing the point at hand the longer the discussion took along with the “language” it’s discussed in. The rest of your points say something else about it, though. By making the effort to point out here that you’ll never tell anyone about this blog just reveals that you are exercising a dominance over your author friends’ emotions, their sensibilities about being offended, by protecting them from this blog. We all are too much aware to where that kind of action leads, and it’s the reality that every writer faces. It’s also the reality you faced by replying here. Guilt tripping Mr. Stackpole, though, about his writing by telling him he’ll offend readers who are also writers who you’ll make sure never know about his blog in the first place suggests that any point to your reply may be lost in the concern about emotions.

    “I am wishing that Mike’s blog was a good place to send them.”

    I honestly hope that they find this blog for themselves and make their own decisions about how to think or feel about it. Nobody is forcing it on them, though.

  20. The image of anyone guilting the esteemed and formidable Mr. Stackpole into anything is pretty funny.

  21. I have to say, your blogs and David “Farland”‘s have opened my eyes to the publishing industry. It’s pretty nice that, in todays digital age, authors are able to bring issues to attention on their personal sites that had never been heard of before.

    As a side note, I’m rather surprised that there’s not a similar union for authors as there is for screen writers. I’ve been a Teamster for going on a decade, and have just made the step into Shop Steward, which has just reaffirmed my support for Unions. I don’t see how it’d be possible to organize, but it would probably help. Especially with the advent of on-demand and digital publication, if enough authors could rally behind that it might have a shot.

    Of course, maybe in future contracts writers will have their website opeds editted and approved by their publishers. Which is a depressing idea.

  22. For each person who becomes outraged at the use of the term “house slave” and becomes closed minded to what its about, there would be at least one other who would feel it sums up their feelings exactly. Those who become closed minded because of the term “house slave” were most likely already closed minded about the issue, and would have feigned outrage no matter what term was used. If he compared it to sweat shop work it would have been exactly the same.

  23. All the above points, and “bad practices” mentioned stem from a flawed business model. Publishing follows the venture capitalist model. An organization makes a large invesement in cash and as such wants to have control to increase their chances of making a profit. In the corporate world this can mean the original creator of the company is ousted. What’s more…they will lose money in one out of five deals so they must take a larger piece of the pie to offset the potential losses.

    What is required is a change in the business model and technology is allowing just that…

    I have a publishing company that has little to no upfront capital investment. I sell mainly ebooks and I use print on demand. Each book has a ton of sweat equity in it (editing, cover design, etc) but no serious $’s have gone out the door. This means a few things.

    1 – Every book I produce is profitable almost from day one. I don’t have to worry about making “more” on the good sellers to make up for the “bad” they each pull their own weight.

    2 – My contract allows my authors to leave anytime they want. This is made possible only because of #1 above. My philosophy is that if I’m doing well by them they won’t leave and if I’m not…then they have every right to find someone who will treat them well.

    3 – With no huge $ investment both myself and the author are in the same boat. Our investment to the project is one of our own time. (And the author has contributed more of that than myself) and therefore should get a larger perentage of the profit – strange concept I know.

    4 – Other works put out by the author that aren’t with me…will benefit me as well. As mentioned readers will devour everything put out by a writer so to me if they find a self-published work by the author and then I should make some money. Does this mean that some of the time and effort I put into marketing goes directly to the author (or their other publisher) and I receive nothing? Sure but I also get sales from efforts.

    In my model there is no advance paid to the author. Doing so would put me back into the venture capital model and would require me to “lock in” the author.

    I think publishing in this way turns the “master” and “slave” working relationship and puts it back to what it should have always been…a partnership. Where each party benefits as profits are generated. For me…most of my “investment” happens on an ongoing basis as I spend more and more time on marketing. But once we are to this part of the project that investment shows immediate effects on the income produced.

    I think if more publishers offered this type of model we would see that we really CAN work together.

    Robin Sullivan | Write2Publish | Ridan Publishing

  24. Robin,

    It was great meeting you at WFC. Thanks for weighing in on this. I fear a lot of the rhetoric and vitriol is coming from folks who aren’t involved in the technological shift in the business, and who are afraid of even learning about it. Your contract and the service you offer is great—and you’ve been really generous in sharing what it is you do. (I’d kill for a fraction of the sales numbers you were mentioning at WFC. 🙂 )

    With you as an example of what we can do when we embrace technology, I’m hoping more authors will take a chance and learn that where they once only had one choice, now the choices are legion.

  25. Wow. I can’t believe you bothered to respond at such length to such silly attacks. I’m sorry, but TLDR.

    Reading things in context, OF COURSE you (or Mr. Eisler) weren’t saying slavery and stinky publishing deals were IDENTICAL. You were saying their patterns are similar. SIMILAR does not equal SAME.

    Add a little finesse to your thoughts, people!

    It’s a metaphor, it’s not an equal-sign. (And it’s not retro-active Palin-esque B.S. where gunsights suddenly become surveyor symbols when the heat is on.)

    You’re welcome.


  26. I honestly thought when Mike used the “House Slave” analogy it was fairly clever because while it does do everything that has been posted above, refer to economic issues as well as shock people, it’s also very close to “house elf” from the Harry Potter series, which is what I assumed most regular folks would associate it with.

    I find it a little annoying and hypocritical when very educated people raise a stink because of what less educated people would think. If your educated enough to understand the analogy don’t be offended for other people, they may just be uneducated enough to not be offended for another reason.

    The educated language could be swapped for elitist, or click, or social circle.

  27. Mike, thanks for an an (as usual) excellent, substantive, engaging post. Made all the hits I took for my earlier language and link even more worthwhile. 🙂

    I can understand the views being expressed by both sides of the language argument. Ultimately, you’ll be unsurprised to learn, I tend to look at things the way you do. I find I don’t get outraged or unduly distracted by rhetoric I disagree with, and I tend to approach analogies not by accusing the writer of racism, white privilege, insensitivity, etc, but rather by attempting to disprove the validity of the analogy itself. I find this approach produces more civil and productive conversations.

    But: I also understand there are a lot of people who aren’t like me in this regard, along with a lot of opportunistic ones who would prefer to attack me for being politically incorrect than to engage my substantive argument. So I recognize a balance: How much do I want to avoid unnecessary offense, and to avoid providing ammunition to obfuscaters? If I cause such offense and provide such ammunition, how much will I have lost in doing so? And how much will I have gained?

    Different people will weigh the costs and benefits differently, and there’s a range of varying conclusions I can respect. Speaking only for myself, I’m going to steer clear of the slavery analogy from now on. Not because I don’t think the analogy is on-point or useful (I think it’s both), but because it stirs up so much distraction from my substantive argument. And also because, having read the post you just wrote, I’m persuaded that “indentured servant” is actually an even more illuminating frame of reference. I know many people will go into dudgeon mode over indentured servant, too, and perhaps that’s a cost I should consider. But it’s also one I’m willing to incur because (i) indentured servant avoids distracting, hot-button reactions relating to race; and (ii) as I said, I think indentured servant is actually a more useful analogy in absolute terms, too.

    That’s how I weigh the utility/distraction calculus here, at any rate, but I get other people will weigh it differently.

    Thanks again for all your keen insights and for everything I and so many other writers have learned from you. Even if I disagreed with your delivery, I’d still be grateful for that.

  28. Barry,

    Thanks for your note here. I agree with you: indentured servant is actually a much better metaphor and I’m very likely to join you in shifting to it. This is in part because it doesn’t help anyone for rhetoric to run wild. Moreover, the issues in publishing relate directly to indentured servitude—the selling of a future to secure the present.

    My only fear is, of course, that those who might take exception to the use of “house slave,” will have zero understanding of indentured servitude. Then again, all of this is about education, so I guess we just incorporate that into the discussion. 🙂


  29. I don’t really give a rats tail whether stackpole is right or wrong about language. I’m writing. And publishing. And it is fun. So much fun. I can write whatever I want… even 1930’s pulp… even the really tasteless stuff I grew up with as a child and LOVED…

    and I can publish it… and if it is good, readers will read it.

    So… Much… Fun.

  30. What I consider regrettable about the linguistic kerfluffle is that people are overlooking the distinction that used to be made, at least in the antebellum South, between so-called “house slaves” and “field slaves.” There was a status difference among slaves, with the house slaves, who got to wear nicer livery and do less exhausting chores, often looking down upon the others who had to break their backs from dawn ’til dusk out in the fields. This was the apt comparison that I believe Mike was making with his typically colorful language. I.e., writers who have been published by the traditional publishing industry look down on the rabble of unpublished writers, while simultaneously overlooking the increasingly onerous conditions of the relationship between themselves and the ol’ Massuh boss-man of those trad pub companies.

    My takeaway from Mike’s analogy is that there’s now an alternative to being either a high-status house slave or a lower-status unpublished writer. And that’s to throw down your hoe and light out for the hills of free, indie e-publishing. Or at the very least, use the threat of doing so to get better terms from the boss man. In this way, I consider Mike’s language to be extremely useful in describing both the conditions and possibilities of this rapidly evolving publishing environment.

  31. Terrific post, Mike.

    When people can’t attack what you’re saying, they try to attack how you’re saying it.

    I get my fair share of criticism, but hardly ever on the points I’m making. Instead, I’m taken to task for my tone, or my attitude. It isn’t enough to be right. I also have to be pleasant, politically correct, and tolerant. Which is silly. My arguments are sound, whether you like me or not.

    Mankind has never gotten over its desire to kill the messenger.

  32. Seems to me that all people are seeing is the word “slave” and not the point you’ve been trying to make.

  33. Joe, thanks for the comment. You’re right, the knee-jerk reaction is to kill the messenger, especially when the message is one that demands we do something outside our comfort zone. You’ve been a great force for pointing out that folks CAN make a living going the independent route.

    You should take heart in that your efforts (And Dean’s and Barry’s and mine) are having an effect. I’ve been talking about this for the last seven years. In the last three, at World Fantasy Conventions, more and more authors have come to me and said they get it, and want to do it. These are not only new authors, but long-established authors with huge backlists. And I just finished up an 8 week long class at Arizona State University teaching over a dozen students how to do what we’re doing. I don’t know how quickly they’ll get things available online, but the fact that they CAN—at any length they desire—means they’re a lot closer to sharing their work with readers than they ever were in years previous.

    What a great time to be a writer.

  34. I’ll sum the whole flap up in three words:

    “Haters Gonna Hate”

  35. Mike,

    I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed the original post, and I was glad that Barry was able to bring some fresh eyes on it.

    I understood your reasons for using the “house slave” analogy, and I didn’t find anything offensive about it.

    Guys like you, Joe, Barry, and Dean might get tired of repeating the same message over and over. But you need to keep it up. It took me a long time to hear what you guys were saying. I woke up in April from what seems like a long sleep thanks to all of you guys hammering home the same message again and again.

    I enjoyed this article immensely: thoughtful and thought-provoking.



  36. I think the analogy that caused all the kerfuffle is valid, but I think comparing authors to employees is not. We sell a licence to publish our work, we do not sell ourselves. We are not employees, we are free-agents, producers, the talent.

    If more authors thought of themselves in that way then maybe they would see the light at the end of the tunnel and dive out of the way of the train.

    IMHO of course.

  37. Your whole argument (or at least my willingness to continue reading it) collapses here:

    “The mistake critics are making is to focus on slavery as the ownership of the physical person—aka chattel slavery.”

    Because “house slave” is a term that arose specifically out of chattel slavery. While there are and have been “different degrees” of slavery, that term only ever evokes chattel slavery, and so every criticism leveled at you or Barry or whoever along those lines is spot on.

    Stop backpedaling and just own up to your mistake.

  38. This arguing over PC language misses the point sadly, as KW pointed out (and thanks to him for doing so). The industry is changing as Kristine Rusch and Dean Smith constantly point out on their blogs amongst others. Mike is just lending his voice to this debate because authors are being taken advantage of by publishers, agents and more at an alarming rate. There have always been cases and contracts have always favored publishers in many ways but now publishers are trying to force ways to make profit on authors which really undercut author’s rights and which don’t make economic sense for authors in the digital age with the options available. Suggesting people need to take off blinders and go in wise and aware is not wrong, it’s absolutely great advice. Too bad people are so hung up on terms they can’t see that because this is really an important topic for writers to be discussing and aware of.

  39. Tobias Buckell jumped into this with both feet today here:

    He takes up the “slavery” banner, but doesn’t actually address any of your points. Surprised?

  40. Attention-getting language and monolithic declarations are all very well and good for self-promo on the web and attracting blog traffic, but they’re not a good basis for making intelligent business decisions.
    The problems you’re describing in this post do not represent the universal condition of writers doing business with publishers, but rather an individual state of writers who sign bad contracts and do business poorly.

    Your comments here seem to assume that a writer working with publishers necessarily accepts a low advance rather than getting a good one or (here’s a concept!) negotiating a low offer –up- to a good one. You also seem to assume that writers don’t write for multiple houses simultaneously; whereas, actually, many writers for many years have written for multiple houses—including doing so under one name in one genre.

    This blog post seems to assume that a writer never negotiates (or hires a representative to negotiate) substantial improvements in boilerplate publishing contracts. You seem to be saying that a writer dealing with a publisher necessarily commits to the various bad terms you describe here, including bad option clauses, bad non-compete clauses, bad reversion clauses, and bad clauses restrict the writer’s own use of her intellectual property (the terms you describe in that respect here are so egregious that I’ve never actually even seen this in the boilerplate of any contract in 23 years of doing business with publishers, let alone –signed- something that bad).

    Your description implies that writers license all rights to their work to our publishers on a blanket basis, rather than retaining all subrights, as many of us do; or, alternatively (as many of us also do) licensing certain specific subrights when it makes good business sense to do so, and then negotiating those subrights clauses to make the terms more favorable and ensure the subrights license expires in a limited, specific timeframe rather than enduring for the life of the contract.

    You also seem to assume that we haven’t known for 20 years that licensing language –and- reversion language need to be phrased specifically in order to account for POD, e-rights, and other new technologies. I wrote about this necessity (as did others) as early as 1991, in an article that was reprinted a couple of times and also subsequently available online for years, because the issues of new technologies viz licensing and reversion clauses were already being much-discussed 20 years ago. So it’s certainly not as if we haven’t had contractual tools readily available for the past two decades to prevent later rights disputes. No, actually, longer than that. Even before then, the SFWA Contracts Chair repeated early, often, and publicly, over and over, that the phrase a writer should ensure was in every contract was: “Any rights not expressly granted herein to the Publisher reside exclusively with the Author.”

    Sure, the egregious conditions you describe do indeed exist and apply… to various INDIVIDUALS who make bad business decisions (often—here comes my hobbyhorse!—accompanied by bad advice and incompetent representation from their literary agents).

    But these are certainly NOT blanket realities or universal conditions of doing business with publishers.

    Moreover, when doing business well, there are usually more choices available than just, “Take it or leave it.” (For example, rather than choosing between the two unattractive extremes which you mention of either sueing or else just bending over… Hundreds of romance writers have joined forces (in an effort which began in Ninc and with the Ninc Legal Fund, but has now grown well beyond that) to negotiate over digital rights grabs and unsatisfactory terms RE old contracts with a major house. Their individual legal fees are very modest, since each group is splitting the cost XX or XXX ways; and confronted by –hundreds- of writers working together with a legal representative toward one goal has already generated some movement in the publisher’s formerly obdurate position—though it’s early days yet.)

    I’m not in either of “the two camps of authors” you cite. I don’t go along with any one-size-fits-all notions in this profession. Writing careers are highly individualistic and idiosyncratic, and new technologies and distribution systems haven’t changed that fact. I believe that doing business well is a matter of making choices (and taking risks) on the basis of one’s own needs, preferences, goals, experiences, and opportunities. (But, alas, I can’t think of any pithily provocative metaphors or similes to go with my theory of doing business, so it won’t get much play on the internet.)

    My position is not that licensing books to publishers (which I do) is better than e-self-publishing; or that e-self-publishing (which I do) is better than licensing books to publishers. My position is that doing business WELL is always the best choice, regardless of venue. And I’m never persuaded by arguments which assume that doing business with publishers is universally based on doing business BADLY.


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