Free For All

I’ve written before about a conundrum within the world of publishing, namely an ideological holdover from the last century in which being published by a large corporation is considered “serious” and publishing oneself is considered “vain.”

There was probably some semblance of truth to this view from the 1950’s through the 1970’s. Before the publishing industry convulsions of the 1990’s, the expectations of publishers and editors was that their job, first and foremost, was to enforce literary standards and maintain a clear vision for what kind of writing their house was to publish. Houses with better or worse standards existed, hence the existence of “pulp” in any decade. What changed in the 1990’s was that the new standard in all houses became profit. Out went the idea that publishers needed any vision or guiding principles besides finding the most expedient path to achieving raw profit numbers. Editorial quality became equated with mass appeal, and mass appeal with “good literature,” regardless of the house doing the publishing or any individual ideas within its ranks.

For this reason, I shared my opinion in my previous article, that the best path for a writer who cares about honing their craft rather than popularity or profit is to self-publish. The typical arguments of the industry fall apart when put under any kind of scrutiny. “Only professional editors are capable of teaching writers the skills they need to develop their craft.” No, the editors of publishing houses are there to drive writers toward the kind of prose that will maximize the house’s profitability. “Professional publishers are going to pay writers a living wage, unlike Amazon.” This is demonstrably false for all but a few ‘rock stars’ (e.g. J. K. Rowling or Steven King).

These attitudes also lead to terrible publishing advice, one piece of which really gets me worked up every time I run into it—whether or not authors should copyright their work.

In the United States, obtaining a copyright is relatively cheap, about $50 per work if the work is unpublished at the time of copyright. The form takes perhaps ten minutes to fill out and can be completed online. It provides the writer legally binding recourse if someone were to publish their work and profit from it. It registers the work with the government as “theirs” and not someone else’s to do with as they please. No matter how much anyone might yell “your work is automatically copyrighted to you once you’ve written it,” nothing about that statement is legally enforceable without an official copyright.

The advice of the traditional publishing industry in this regard is one of the most ludicrous of them all: don’t bother because the publisher will take care of it for you. Gee, whatever could wrong with that plan? I can’t imagine for the life of me how that situation could possibly be abused.

Writers should copyright the work that is most important to them, and they should do it themselves. Although it is inexpensive, it is also not particularly cheap. I copyright everything I intend to publish for money, and I recommend other writers do the same, at least in the US. Other countries’ price points might make that more or less feasible. It is unlikely a self-published author will ever need to rally the force of law to protect their work, but then so are all the things we pay insurance companies to protect us from. We still do it, because once-in-a-decade events will happen six to eight times over the course of the average person’s lifespan. One of those could be the discovery that someone is illegally distributing your writing.

This leads me to my plan for the intellectual property rights of my writing after I am gone. Unlike most other writers, I don’t want my copyrights going to my spouse or any other inheritor, even a literary agency. I want them to expire. Once my time is up, I want all my copyrights to go with me, and I want my writing to be as free as it possibly can be—I want it to be in the public domain, not seventy-five years after my death, not after someone finally decides it can’t be milked for profit any longer, but the very moment I take my last breath.

During my lifetime, I want full creative control over where and how my work is distributed. After that, it is up to the world to figure out what to do with it.