When did creative work become worthless?

Yes, the post title is an overstatement–but the situation described below struck me as peculiar enough to deserve a little hyperbole. It relates to Balanced Libraries: Thoughts on Continuity and Change and three posts (and related comments) on two liblogs. The posts and comments all happened in late May, while I was incommunicado (on vacation and only checking work-related email once every couple of days at fairly high shipboard internet prices).

Before getting to the posts and comments, I want to be very clear about one thing: This is not about rejecting negative criticism.

To drive that point home, I was doing some ego-Googling (which I rarely do, although not for lack of ego) and encountered a terse review of Balanced Libraries that I hadn’t seen earlier. The review appeared on Goodreads and was written by Jack (I think you have to join Goodreads to find out who Jack is). Here’s the review, in full:

“Generally just classic Crawford: long-winded, rambling, reactionary rhetoric. “

My comment? That’s an honest opinion stated clearly and presumably after reading the book. I have no problem with it.

But this other combination is something else–not a negative review of the book (which I’d link to or quote) but, well, something else.

It begins with “Where Are Blogs Bred? In the Heart Or In the Head?,” posted by Keith Kisser on May 27, 2008 at The Invisible Library (http://sanchezkisser.com/blog/). Kisser recently published a science fiction novel, The Machine of the World, on Lulu, and was searching Amazon to see whether it showed up yet. It hadn’t (and still hasn’t, which is odd); instead, he found Balanced Libraries,where I’d quoted from one of his blog posts. (The post favored Netflix-style library service and included a charming statement ending in “time to wait for the dinosaurs to die off.” You’ll find it in Kisser’s archive on December 8, 2006.)

Kisser doesn’t comment on the book itself or the context for the quotation, since he hadn’t read it. But he does have opinions about having a blog post show up in a book. Some of what he says:

But one thing I am, is uncertain about how I feel about being cited in this or any other book. At first go, it’s a little flattering to have my opinions taken into consideration, even if, as I gather from the few pages I’ve read online, …Walt Crawford is criticizing me. That’s fine. Healthy debate is great and I’m a big boy and can handle it. But what remains uncertain at this point (because again, I haven’t read the whole book yet) is the context…

The thing is, my blog is a rough draft of ideas that are constantly changing and evolving. Some library blogs are more academic (i.e. judiciously worded) and take topics at a more in-depth, analytical perspective. I do that sometimes but I’m not above tossing off a half baked idea, contradicting myself later, or criticizing reactionary librarians or critics of libraries with impertinent language. It’s my blog and I’ll rant if I want to. And anyone is free to read, link or cite my words as they see fit. It’s a wide and woolly Internet and I neither hide my identity nor suffer the delusion that a blog is somehow a private forum. If you can read it on the Internet, it isn’t private or secret.

But just how public and in what capacity a blog, any blog is, has yet to be defined…. [Notes that his blog ranges widely…] You see the problem here? In which context was my post cited? Is it Academic Librarian Keith being cited or Geek Keith? Maybe it’s Slightly Sleepy and a Little Cranky with a Side of Silly Keith?…

Blogs are still too new to have a defined space in the academic world…. How do you treat blogs? As Journals or diaries? Thy can be both and at the same time. It’s nutty. And confusing, And wonderful. But mostly confusing.

I’d challenge some of the last two paragraphs

  • I think we’re long past the point where “how public…a blog is” has yet to be defined. An open blog–one anybody can reach (as opposed to some LiveJournal blogs and other protected blog) is a series of publications. It’s public. Each post is a publication. People have been quoting from blog posts in articles and books almost since there have been blogs. For that matter, it’s fair to assume that a lot more people will read Kisser’s post as quoted here or in Cites & Insights than will read it as quoted in Balanced Libraries, since it’s wildly unlikely that I’ll ever sell 1,500 to 2,500 copies of the book (roughly the average daily readership here and typical first-two-months readership for C&I).
  • I provided date and address for the post, as I did for all quoted posts. That allows any reader to find the context–typically a lot more easily than they could find the context for a quotation from print, where the reader might or might not have access to the original. I quoted Keith Kisser talking about library services; it’s not up to me to guess “which Keith Kisser” was writing the post. I’m prone to changing opinions and issuing rough drafts here as well–but I know that, once posted, they’re published statements suitable for citation.
  • “Academic world” is a red herring, since Balanced Libraries isn’t an academic work and I’m not an academic.

Actually, I was a little astonished that, in 2008, someone would be questioning the appropriateness of quoting from a blog post in more formal literature. That train left the station a long time ago, and I really don’t think there ever was a question. (People have been quoting elist posts in formal literature for many, many years, and that’s never been much of an issue either, as long as the elists are public.)

The first commenter, Jenny, thought it was great that Kisser was cited in a book. In part:

Does it really matter in what context you were cited? Someone took an idea you blogged about because it sparked an idea they had and ran with it. Isn’t that part of the point of a blog? To create wider discourse? And, even if Crawford did use your blog entry out of context at least you’ll always have something to rant about at dinner parties.

To which Kisser responded:

True. Though I’m less concerned about how he quoted me in particular and more interested in the idea of blogs being quoted in a scholarly paper as a general concept. I’ve also found out more about the circumstances of this citation in particular. I’ll have an update soon.

Somehow Balanced Libraries now shifted from being a book to being academic to being “a scholarly paper.” In any case, blog posts have showed up in formal refereed articles for years as well, so that general concept is also settled. Blog posts in non-pseudonymous blogs are signed publications.

I would have posted some of this as a comment–but, although comments do appear, Kisser later closed the post to comments, so that wasn’t possible. I might have left it at that, particularly since I really don’t think there’s any serious controversy about the public, citable, quotable status of public blog posts. (What part of “public” don’t you understand?)

But wait…there’s more!

On May 28, 2008 (the next day), Kisser posted “Not-So-Balanced Libraries.” He begins by noting that he’d wondered aloud “about the context of such citations and the weird gray area inhabited by blogs in the academic world.” (Again: My book isn’t academic and the area isn’t all that gray…but never mind.) He “did a little more research” leading to my website and a link to the book at Lulu.com. (The Amazon record he originally found isn’t for the Lulu edition, it’s for the CreateSpace edition–but, again, never mind.) And here’s where it gets interesting. Since this is all about me and I’m commenting on it, I do believe that fair use applies, so I’m quoting the rest of the post in full:

This in no way invalidates his book, or thesis, but neither does it really inspire much confidence. Let’s be honest–and this is coming from a fellow Lulu author–self published academic work tends to have a certain… charm, shall we say. It’s good to know others are getting their work out there independently and for all I know, Walt Crawford is the unsung, Tom Paine of the library world. But seriously, Walt, $29.50 for a paperback is bad enough but $20 for the download? Downloads are free. I could understand maybe asking for donations. Charging a buck or two is acceptable, if you want to be a dick. But $20 for a PDF is madness. Like, RIAA suing tween music downloaders for their parent’s retirement fund level of madness. Cory Doctorow explains why. Bad form, Walt.

The only thing worse than not making an ebook available (especially when self publishing the book on Lulu, where that option is free and as easy as clicking a single button) is charging such a ridiculous price for it. This is one of those really easy web 2.0 ideas that often get ignored by library administrators because they either can’t or won’t change their minds about access and distribution models. If charging people for ebooks is part of your idea of creating a balanced library, I’m not impressed. And neither am I willing to spend $30 bucks for some out-to-lunch academic’s pet project.

Well now. First he says that publishing through Lulu doesn’t inspire much confidence–and, frankly, I agree. If I didn’t already have a reputation (for good or for bad) through 12 traditionally-published books and a few hundred traditionally-published articles and columns, and through Cites & Insights, I would never have attempted the Lulu trick for a nonfiction book. “Walt Crawford” is the only real brand here, for better or worse.

I’m hardly the “unsung Tom Paine of the library world.” Kisser’s never heard of me. No reason he should have. But a few thousand others have–well, tens of thousands in the case of the Library 2.0 special.

“$29.50 for a paperback is bad enough but $20 for the download? Downloads are free.” Sez who? Cory Doctorow? I haven’t adopted Doctorow as a guru. The $29.50 price is, to put it bluntly, cheap for a 247-page trade paperback on current technological issues in the library field. Every similar work that I’m aware of costs at least $35, with one going for more than $100. But that’s not really the issue. The issue is whether an author is obliged to give away his or her work for free, as long as it’s in downloadable form.

Kisser seems to think that they are–“Downloads are free.” He even says that charging a buck or two is only acceptable “if you want to be a dick” and seems to equate my $20 price with RIAA’s infringement suits.

In the final paragraph, Kisser once again calls me an academic–this time an “out-to-lunch academic.” And somehow my belief that authors can request some compensation for their work (done on their own time) is “part of [my] idea of creating a balanced library.” I’ll cop to that: I don’t believe that balanced libraries set out to make authorship worthless, even though they can, do, and should provide free (prepaid via taxes or tuition) access to written materials. (I assume that the few dozen libraries that purchased Balanced Libraries circulate it, and would certainly hope so!)

This is, to put it mildly, bullshit. Writing a book is hard work. To assert that an author is at best clueless and at worst “a dick” or worse because the author doesn’t give that work away is insulting and offensive…and devalues creative effort. If an author wants to follow Doctorow’s approach, more power to them. That doesn’t make it the only correct or honorable approach. In fact, the whole “give it away so your true fans will buy other stuff” meme works badly for writers and even worse for niche writers.

Again, I would have protested directly on the blog–but again, although there are comments, comments are closed. So I would have commented in an essay on copyright balance about the dystopian notion that you’re obliged to give it away if it can be distributed digitally.

Except for the linked post and the comments on that post…

There’s really only one comment and a trackback, and the comment is from the person who wrote the blog post that’s tracked back: Aaron at SemiConscious Dot Org. (www.semiconscious.org). His May 29, 2008 post is entitled “Library 1.87” and is brief enough to quote in full:

What’s daffier than daffy?

Writing a book about the future of libraries (you know, those places where they lend books to people)… and then charging twenty dollars to download it.

Who out there has the pun, the barb, the eloquent poison-pen quip, to sum up the silliness of this situation in devastating fashion? Let’s hear ‘em. Seriously, I’m tapped out. I got nothin’…

I’ll admit that, until then, I was unaware that all other books about libraries were free in ebook form–that, somehow, writing about a place that lends books requires you not to charge for your book. There’s a logical chain there, but I’m too dim to see it.

“Keith” (presumably Kisser, but I don’t know that) noted that you could get an estimate of what the book actually costs to manufacture. Actually, you can get a precise figure. Keith mistakenly assumes that I’m dealing with retail markup because there’s an ISBN (there’s no ISBN on the Lulu edition) and says I’m “charging twice as much as the printed edition for a download” which he calls “a clear cut case of shenanigans.” Actually (and I got this wrong in my comment–Aaron’s blog does have comments open), my net proceeds come to $15.94 for the paperback version via Lulu (less via Amazon) and $16 for the download–a six cent difference, hardly “twice as much.” Am I overcharging for the paperback? Well, I’m charging less than the going rate for such books… As for “shenanigans,” since the prices are clearly stated, the costs are readily available, and nobody’s forcing anyone to buy the book, I can’t imagine what Keith has in mind.

Ah, but then there’s the capper, from “StaciB”:

Clearly, he’s writing for an incredibly gullible audience. Which tells me how little he knows about libraries and librarians in the first place. And just as clearly, he’s more interested in making money than in making sense. How about “Techno-twerp exploits self-defeating prophesy.”

See how we’ve progressed? Now it’s appropriate to attack me as “writing for an incredibly gullible audience” and I can’t know much about libraries or librarians–all because I’m asking to be paid for my work by those who wish to read it.

This is character assassination and I think it’s wildly inappropriate. StaciB doesn’t know who I am. None of them seem to be aware that I give away the equivalent of four typical books a year (in Cites & Insights), not to mention this blog, or that I have–I believe–reasonably well established that I know a little bit about libraries and librarians. Anyone who understands library publishing at all knows that, if I was “more interested in making money than in making sense,” the last thing I’d be doing is writing self-published books on librarianship–or even traditionally-published books! Speaking, column writing, consulting, greeting folks at Wal-Mart: All better paid gigs than the Lulu books are likely to be.

I did write a response to this post and the comments–and, again, I’ll quote it in full (it’s my work!), even noting that my “$13” estimate was wrong…

I have a simple response for this post and the two comments: Nobody is requiring you or anyone else to buy either the download or the print book.

If you’re offended by a writer who actually hopes to have some small compensation for the effort involved in writing a book, so be it. I disagree. Nobody paid me to do this, done entirely on my own time. There’s no way I’m going to earn Big Bucks on a PoD book in librarianship. With a LOT of luck I might earn minimum wage for the time spent on the book…

Keith: No shenanigans. The Lulu edition doesn’t have an ISBN, only the Amazon/CreateSpace version. In fact, you can determine EXACTLY how much I’m receiving for the downloaded or print versions from Lulu itself (it’s about $13 for the print version, $16 for the download—I’d prefer that people buy the print version, but offered the download because people asked for it).

StaciB: I could refer you to those “incredibly gullible” librarians (such as John Dupuis and Pete Smith). For that matter, I could refer you to my dozen traditionally-published books in the library field (beginning with MARC for Library Use) to demonstrate how little I know about libraries and librarians. But, since it’s clear that I’m more interested in making money than in making sense (presumably why I’ve been giving away Cites & Insights for seven years now), I’ll just bow to your superior wisdom. It must be nice to be able to make such crack judgments about my knowledge and abilities with such utter clarity.

And that’s where it stands. Apparently, some folks believe that it is wrong for an author to ask for compensation for his writing. I disagree. I think it’s perfectly appropriate to give it away if that suits your needs. I think that, for a few people, giving away the downloadable version will sell the print version–and that’s great. (I gave away three chapters of Balanced Libraries, to be sure, but via Cites & Insights.) I’m fairly sure that, if the attitudes expressed here become universal, a whole lot of specialized writing just won’t get done, unless it’s by people who are otherwise sponsored.

10 Responses to “When did creative work become worthless?”

  1. John Dupuis says:

    Wow. I didn’t know it was possible to take Chris Anderson so seriously or to misunderstand Cory Doctorow so thoroughly. Wow.

  2. bowerbird says:

    > This is character assassination

    nah… it’s just stupidity, manifesting itself publicly,
    like a bad smell, so we’ll step away from it quickly…

    if they were to tell you that you owe them a free lunch,
    you’d chuckle in their face; that’s appropriate here too.


  3. walt says:

    bowerbird: Except that I’ve run into the wholly anti-copyright, “if it can be copied then it should be copied,” hard-core attitude enough times before–although not previously aimed at me.

    John: Thanks. Then again, Anderson has a history of generalizing some possibly-good points beyond belief. That was true of the Long Tail; it’s not surprising that it would be true of “free everything.”

  4. This is a complicated issue.

    On the one hand, scholars tend not to get paid for their writing (except to the extent that it’s part of their job and may be funded by grants as well) so making their research reports free makes sense to them.

    On the other hand, writers on the commercial side like Cory Doctorow are experimenting with free downloads to grow their readership. The biggest problem is finding readers and building a fan base in a very crowded field, so making their work free (and linkable and buzz-able) makes sense to them.

    On the third hand (assuming we’re four-handed aliens) Internet user has gotten quite used to accessing texts online at no cost; making downloads free makes sense to them. Anything free makes sense to them. They’re consumers.

    And on the fourth hand, librarians are used to paying for content, and often paying more for online content than for print, so charging for electronic access to information comes as no surprise.

    I think we’re encountering a mixed bag of expectations and a lot of moralizing about the right way to do things in a digital world. Some of the arguments made for open access to scholarly work have been extrapolated to all work, even if the economic context in which it’s produced it is quite different.

  5. walt says:


    Well, actually, scholars do tend to get paid for books, albeit not for scholarly articles–and I would certainly make the results of any sponsored research available for free, if I had any sponsored research.

    Jerry Pournelle calls the third hand the “gripping hand”–in some of his SF novels. “Anything free makes sense to them” sounds good until you need to earn a living to pay for those things that ain’t going to be free–housing, clothes, food, national security. Unless it’s only creative work that’s supposed to be done for free?

    I guess it’s the moralizing given as universal truths that gets to me. As you may know, I’ve written a lot about open access, mostly supportive–and, fortunately, most knowledgeable OA advocates don’t attempt to extrapolate to such an extent.

    Again, though: If someone came forward to sponsor, for example, my blog studies, at a fair rate of pay, I’d be only too delighted to make the resulting downloads free and book versions available for the cost of production. Heck, I’d be thrilled.

  6. Kate Wolicki says:

    I shouldn’t be shocked that people would be so rude about someone expecting to make money from their work, but I am! Is advertising-supported content so ubiquitous that people firmly expect content of all kinds to be free, whether it includes advertising or not? “Free” content is wonderful, yes, but surely the library and academic worlds are unusual in that workers can compile/collect/create content and offer it for “free” while getting paid by their institutions. Moreover, content creators should not ignore the common perception that that which is free is inferior to that which costs money.

    I’ve been wondering lately how current attitudes about copyright affect our expectations of control over our names, images, and public statements. It seems to me in Kisser’s initial post he feels he ought to have been consulted before being quoted. He is perhaps somewhat ashamed of his (very public) blog commentary, and taking his embarrassment out on the quoter is a way to feel better about himself through the social approval of commenters.

    I am reminded of how most people respond the first time someone replies to their mass email with “check Snopes!” They get snarky first, and then realize how powerful their word is – that they are espousing an idea and a piece of information by forwarding it. Perhaps Kisser was faced for the first time with the unavoidable truth that blog posts are public statements attached to one’s good professional name. And, feeling dumb for not having realized it before, he reacted poorly.

    But regardless of his discomfort, he and the other bloggers/commenters were unfair in their comments about you, Walt, and your book. You are a well-known name in libraries, and you write fairly and thoughtfully, aware of your own prejudices and limitations and are sure to inform your audience when you have been mistaken.

    I think Barbara is right on with about “a mixed bag of expectations and a lot of moralizing about the right way to do things in a digital world.” Those who have already made a firm decision about what is right are always frustrated with those who think differently or even those who are reserving judgment (and let s/he who is without sin cast the first stone!)

    Thanks for a good opportunity to consider these topics.

  7. walt says:

    In mild defense of Kisser, I don’t think he was ashamed; I think he really hadn’t dealt with the fact that Public = Published = Quotable or that the equation has been in place for some years now.

    Thanks for the comment. If I offer “a good opportunity to consider these topics,” maybe I shouldn’t be so aware that my post is on the long side. (“Long-winded, rambling” are characterizations I know better than to argue with…)

  8. Sad to say, a lot of scholars – in the humanities at least – are now expected to subsidize their book publications, with either them or their institutions paying publishers “subventions” of thousands of dollars. Not that that’s an argument for “it should be free.” Lord knows, those books aren’t, even with the subventions.

    That aside, I think the question of whether creative work should be free if it’s digital (or if it should cost a fraction of an analog version) is a very hot topic these days. I’m not sure how this will all shake out, but I sure hope it isn’t with even more advertising intruding on our lives. (And honestly, I think we’re all about saturated on that score.)

  9. Angel says:

    Somehow I do not see you as a greeter at Wal-Mart. It took me a bit to read through the story, and to look at some of the links, and I ended with the reaction of “what is that guy thinking?” He does need to deal with the idea of public=published=quotable. If he does not want to deal with that, maybe he needs a private, locked journal, or just not blog at all. I hear you can still get nice moleskin notebooks and journals to write down your own thoughts without anyone seeing them. Otherwise, if you put yourself out there with your name on it, you have to deal with it as well when someone sees it.

    As for giving it away (your work), do they really expect you to do that? I bet if it was one of those folks giving you grief who had works being given away for free, they would probably be raising high heck about wanting to get paid somehow. Barbara does give a nice summary of the complexities. I just observe that people like Doctorow and others are already established writers. They have made their living and fortunes selling their work, so they can certainly afford to give a little sample here and there away to build readership and/or goodwill. But if you look overall, such folks still expect to be paid for their work.

    Anyhow, just a thought or two. I guess you got to see, once again I am sure, the not so nice side of the Internet.

    Best, and keep on blogging.

  10. walt says:

    Barbara, Angel, good stuff. Angel: I don’t plan to stop blogging…and since I won’t go inside a Wal-Mart, I guess I’m not a good greeter candidate. There were times last fall when I thought about it, though.

    Oddly enough, at one speaking engagement they gave me a really nice paper journal, from Barnes & Noble, with a few hundred pages of blank 6×9 cream paper inside a (leather?) cover. Unfortunately, I really don’t handwrite legibly so it just sits there…