Rosenbaum, The Plausible-Fabulist
September 19, 2008 7:13 AM   Subscribe

Like others before him Benjamin Rosenbaum is making his debut short story collection, The Ant King And Other Stories, available from his publishers, Small Beer, as a free download. More than this though, he is holding a competition to find the best derivative work inspired by it. These include "translations, plays, movies, radio plays, audiobooks, flashmob happenings, horticultural installations, visual artworks, slash fanfic epics, robot operas, sequels, webcomics, ASCII art, text adventure games, roleplaying campaigns, knitting projects, handmade shoes, or anything else you feel like."

Benjamin Rosenbaum is not a character from The Scarlett Pimpernel, a poet or a writer of children's books as 'Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes', by Benjamin Rosenbaum' makes clear.
posted by ninebelow (19 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
well, Annie Proulx recently complained that she gets tons of Brokeback Mountain fanfic (mostly porn), so it happens even if you don't hold a contest. of course, people need to notice your work first, something that may or may not happen to Mr. Rosenbaum's work.
posted by matteo at 7:25 AM on September 19, 2008

Nor is he a violinist or an ornithologist.
posted by penguinliz at 7:50 AM on September 19, 2008

I loathe the breathless hyping I read of "free free free" at places like TechDirt and BoingBoing. It works great if you're already famous (I mean, Radiohead, Trent Reznor, they could both release albums inside specially marked boxes of Vegan Kale-Puffs and it'd be successful) or if you're looking for publicity because nobody's heard of you. Once the novelty of this kind of stunt wears off and you're competing against a bunch of other artists who are free free free, the returns will drop, drastically, because your stunt will no longer be interesting - it'll be just another cheap WB girlkiss, circa 2002. It's you versus ten thousand other short story writers, and if you stop writing because it takes more time than you've got between sleeping and working a job where a paycheck happens, well, there's nine thousand, nine hundred, ninety-nine others to whom the hordes will turn, with more to come.

What will survive is art made as a side project by people who maintain day jobs (as in "don't quit your, because people are cheap") and (here's the kicker) art made by corporate-backed prepackaged celebrities who will give us "music sung by people chosen for their ability to dance." The former looks like the CD Baby ghetto; run the stats and find out the average number of albums sold there and the approximate profit, then realize that the majority are the dayjobbers who cannot afford decent production, good equipment, or the education it takes to make a great album. The latter looks like an endless stream of boybands and Britney Spears, with even less quality - just indistinguishable popcorn packing made to fill the time between stunts, rehab, and a chance to break into show biz.

We've drawn a circle around people whose work is easily pirated and said, "Digital resources are infinite; those folks should be working for free," which is a fabulous after-the-fact "she was asking for it" rationalization. Copyright infringement is easy, I want to do it, and it must therefore be right. Give it a cheap Casio bosso nova beat and Doctorow will dance to it, then try to convince everyone to join the conga line right into an Amway meeting, where people will tell you how successful you'll be working for them.

Touring? It's great if you book a large venue, but gas prices will only go up, making trips less and less profitable for smaller bands. I witnessed a band trying to get "buyouts" of the various venue perks this week alone - their stop at a small venue turned out to be a net loss for them. Most of the CDs on my shelf are from bands who cannot afford to tour outside of a small area — I'll never see them, unless I want to drive six hundred miles. I call it the Mr. Bojangles business model and it's an ugly fate for rock'n'roll.

Free isn't the new black, it's just the new child labor sweatshop - only this time we don't even have to ship the work overseas.
posted by adipocere at 8:16 AM on September 19, 2008 [5 favorites]

I'm afraid your point is lost on me. Radiohead? Touring? Sweatshops?

You will probably be infuriated to know that Tor, who are publicising this competition, are also making a lot of their back catalogue available for free, most recently War for the Oaks by Emma Bull and Dogland by Will Shetterly. The sky is falling.
posted by ninebelow at 8:28 AM on September 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

What will survive is art made as a side project by people who maintain day jobs (as in "don't quit your, because people are cheap") and (here's the kicker) art made by corporate-backed prepackaged celebrities who will give us "music sung by people chosen for their ability to dance."

This is already the way things are -- any exceptions are either just that, exceptions, or they're beneficiaries of patronage.
posted by cobra libre at 8:50 AM on September 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's heartening that there seems to be a resurgence of popularity in Sci-Fi/Spec-Fic/etc short stories. I often tried to convince the wannabe novelists in writing school that they should try writing those instead, but alas most of them stuck with their ethnic grandma pseudo-memoirs. Seems like they should have listened: short innovative genre pieces are perfect for the web.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:55 AM on September 19, 2008

I'm not sure the comparisons to giving away music for free really work. The majority of short fiction writers are already going to be doing it on the side while maintaining their day jobs, because the number of writers who write fiction full-time is pretty small, and the number who make a living off SF short stories is even smaller. In addition, Rosenbaum is neither a giant of the field nor a complete nobody - he's somewhere in between, with a fair number of award nominations and published stories, putting out his first book. Whether writers giving away their work for free is harming themselves or the industry is a debate is an interesting question, but comparing it to the record industry is not the answer.
posted by penguinliz at 10:03 AM on September 19, 2008

What will survive is art made as a side project by people who maintain day jobs....

Since this describes the vast, vast majority of artists working in just about every medium except sculpture and "installation" art, I'm having a hard time understanding who you're speaking to.

I mean, do you have any concept of what it takes to make a living as a writer? Especially a spec fic writer, where a "pro" magazine sale nets you $500-600 if you're getting the top rate? And where advances are usually $5K or less, and you're super-lucky if the book ever earns out? You've got to work really hard and have your fingers in a lot of pots -- for example, teach a bunch of workshops, have a steady gig to write a column or two, pick up assignments (like David Foster Wallace did), etc. -- be really really good and aggressive at self-promotion, be content with never getting rich, and be more than a little lucky. It's great if you're a good writer, but not required; you do have to be writing stuff people want to read, though, which means you're probably not doing LITERATURE.

The whole "anti-free" knee-jerk reaction strikes me as elitism in its most destructive form: Identification with the tiny minority of people who are able to be outrageously, atypically successful, without paying attention to the way it works for most people, and then proceeding to lionize those culture-heroes as the True Models. I'd much rather see people doing what worked to get their work out there. Small Beer have been very creative about that, and I expect them to continue.

(This would be a great time for jscalzi and cstross to emerge from the woodwork and throw in their two cents, but they're probably too busy, um, writing....)
posted by lodurr at 10:37 AM on September 19, 2008

Excepting journalists and reviewers, most "professional" writers seem to be creative-writing teachers or TAs. Teaching is the gig you want, not selling content. Content will only get cheaper and cheaper.

All that aside, I read the Ant King story. Not my cup of tea.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:15 PM on September 19, 2008

Actually, I'm not writing pay copy today, because I'm in New York and traveling to other places soon.

Among other things, I think that adipocere and other people forget that "free to consumer" doesn't necessarily mean "unpaid for the artist." If you go to my site and click on the "Scalzi Creative Sampler," link on the front page you'll find all sorts of free reading up to and including an entire novel -- all of which I have been paid for in one form or another. I write about this at length here (NB: my site's been acting just a bit wonky lately and I can't address it at the moment because I'm traveling, so the site may hang or you may have to reload). Suffice to say I have a lot of fiction you can read for free without it costing you a dime -- but someone paid for the work, because I don't put out for free.

Will the novelty value of free-to-read work online wear off? Sure; I suspect it already has. However, I'm not sure that means it stops being useful in one way or another. I've been putting out free-to-read fiction online for nine years now and I've found its utility to be good at most points along that line, particularly when the rise of readership online is contrasted with the collapse of readership with the print outlets for science fiction (and, to be honest, for fiction in general).

And in the case of short fiction, I find the utility of free-to-read significant enough that I prefer to publish my short fiction in places where people can read for free (although also where, I should note, I also get paid). As I've mentioned elsewhere, what I care about are eyeballs; whether the place I sell my work to pays for the work by getting readers to pay for the work, or securing advertisers, or by being a loss leader for a larger publishing entity (or some combination of any/all these factors) is something that on one level is neither here nor there to me.

As for mrgrimm's "content will get cheaper and cheaper," well, content is already cheap and always has been, so I don't know how much cheaper it can go. But there will always be a premium on good content (or at least attractive content), and the artists who can create that stand a good chance of making a living doing that (it helps if they have reasonable business sense as well). That said, I do think people imagine there was a halcyon day in the misty past in which most creative people did nothing but creative stuff all day. It's never worked that way. Artists have almost always had day jobs, except for the 1% who were either fortunate enough to make a living off their work, or too stubborn/crazy to get a job doing anything else. It was that way a hundred years ago; come back in a hundred years, the percentages will be the same.

Also: Ben Rosenbaum = teh hawesome. Read it, folks.
posted by jscalzi at 1:50 PM on September 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I haven't read the other stories yet, but The House Beyond Your Sky rocked. While you're in the neighborhood you should check out the Kessel, McHugh, and Link books, too, all of them excellent writers. (I've shelled out cash money for the physical Kessel and Link books, and probably will for the McHugh at some point...)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 2:54 PM on September 19, 2008

One point in favor of free copy: jscalzi had his 'Agent to the Stars' book online for free. I read it, got two books from the library, read those, and now own two others. I will probably eventually buy all of his stuff and will continue buying his books.

If you're good, free can work in your favor.
posted by stoneegg21 at 4:14 PM on September 19, 2008

content is already cheap and always has been, so I don't know how much cheaper it can go

Many believe it will become entirely free, and that artists will be paid only for performances. I hope that doesn't happen, but certainly many have argued that it's the way of the future. I do think it's inevitable that the more content that is available for free, the more that people will expect content to be free.
posted by frankchess at 6:28 PM on September 19, 2008

I worked for Ben's mom for a while, and it's funny to me that he's famous, or internet famous. Go Ben!
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:06 PM on September 19, 2008

My point in posting this was a) Rosenbaum, although a bit much in concentrated doses, is a fascinating writer and b) it is nice to see, after Proulx's moan and Rowling's court case, a writer who is embracing his fans in this way. I don't really want to say much about the concept of "free" except to echo Scalzi to ask what is so bad about a someone reading for free what a writer got paid for? Oh, and on the slightly bizarre conflation of books and CDs, books-as-artefacts will always have the advantage of being able to be used like this and this.
posted by ninebelow at 2:18 AM on September 20, 2008

I wasn't blown away by "The House Beyond Your Sky." I thought it was ultimately manipulative. I did think it was interesting, though, which puts it well into the 98th percentile in my book.
posted by lodurr at 7:10 AM on September 20, 2008

ninebelow, from what I could see, Rowling had a legit beef. If it had been a wiki, I'd think differently, but it seemed to me that there was a clear violation involved gien that it was a work published to be sold. Put it this way: If my wife had gotten that manuscript from one of her students, she'd have blown him in for plagiarism.

That said, I do think (so I think I'm agreeing with you) that it's kind of whiney, for lack of a better term, to complain about amateur fanfic. If there's enough enthusiasm to generate fanfic, a writer needs to snap out of it and realize that means there's a really powerful connection being made. I.e., it's a good thing.
posted by lodurr at 7:15 AM on September 20, 2008

What was Proulx's moan? Her complaint that Brokeback Mountain didn't win the Academy Award, or something else?
posted by frankchess at 3:36 PM on September 20, 2008

Okay, further Googling reveals that she's unhappy about the erotic fan fiction being written about the Brokeback Mountain characters.
posted by frankchess at 3:41 PM on September 20, 2008

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