For the past 17 years, my science column (which continues to run weekly in the Regina Leader Post) also ran, at first weekly, then every other week, on CBC Radio’s Afternoon Edition here in Saskatchewan. As of two weeks ago, however, my CBC focus has changed to matters World Wide Webbish.
I still write them up as if they were going to be turned into print columns–that’s just the way I think–so from now on, I’ll be posting my Web columns on here every two weeks as well as my weekly science column.
And what better topic this week than International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day?
Monday, as I’m sure you’re aware, was International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day.
What? You’ve never heard of International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day? Well, allow me to elucidate.
On April 12, Dr. Howard V. Hendrix, outgoing vice president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, a writers’ organization of which I am a member, posted a rant on the SFWA Livejournal decrying the increasing tendency of writers to post their work for free on the Web. He used some rather colourful language, referring to those who post work for free as “webscabs” (because he felt they were undercutting writers who chose not to post anything online for free and were trying to get better wages from publishers). He also explained he is not running for president of SFWA because he did not feel he could “give imprimatur to the downward spiral that is converting the noble calling of Writer into the life of Pixel-stained Technopeasant Wretch.”
I read this at the time it was posted and thought, “Well, that’s really out in left field,” and didn’t think much more about it. Others, however, took the matter rather more to heart. One of them was Jo Walton, whose most recent novel Farthing has been nominated for the Nebula Award, one of the top awards in science fiction. On her own Livejournal she posted:
“In honour of Dr Hendrix, I am declaring Monday 23rd April International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day. On this day, everyone who wants to should give away professional quality work online. It doesn’t matter if it’s a novel, a story or a poem, it doesn’t matter if it’s already been published or if it hasn’t, the point is it should be disseminated online to celebrate our technopeasanthood.”
The idea was endorsed by other writers, including the very popular SF writer/blogger John Scalzi (winner of the John W. Campbell Award last year for best new writer of science fiction) at his blog Whatever, and took off.
It seems a lot of writers who post material online for free (for numerous reasons, but particularly for promotional purposes) objected to being called “webscabs.” But they rather liked “Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Wretch” and adopted it as their own.
The result was that on Monday a great deal of professional-quality writing (as well as a lot of enthusiastic-amateur-quality writing) appeared online for free.
For example, I took advantage of the day to post my out-of-print young adult science fiction novel Andy Nebula: Interstellar Rock Star online in its entirety, in HTML, PDF and Mobipocket versions. Others also posted novels, or novelettes, or short stories, or portions of novels, or…well, lot’s of stuff.
I noticed an immediate string of hits from people finding my book through Jo Walton’s and other’s collections of Technopeasant material . Just last night, I began seeing another string of visits from a new site—which got me thinking that maybe a good topic for this column was some sources of free books online.
The site that has now linked to Andy Nebula is the Online Book Page at the University of Pennsylvania’s Library site, which is updated regularly with new books posted on line. Very few of them were posted as part of International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day. Just in the last week, books listed here include In the Desert of Waiting: The Legend of Camel-Back Mountain by Annie F. Johnston (originally published in 1908), Masters of French Music by Arthur Hervey, The Development of Theology in Germany Since Kant, and Its Progress in Great Britain Since 1825 by Otto Pfleiderer (published in 1890) and Acquiring Copyright Permission to Digitize and Provide Open Access to Books, a 2005 book by Denise Troll Covey. That’s a fairly wide range of topics.
The granddaddy of all free-books-online sites is Project Gutenberg. This began in 1971 when a man named Michael Hart was given an operator’s account with $100 million of computer time in it by the operators of the Xerox Sigma V mainframe computer at the Materials Research Lab at the University of Illinois. The mainframe was being underutilized at the time, so the operators were encouraged to do whatever they wanted to with the excess time in the hope they’d become that much more proficient at their jobs. Hart decided that the greatest value inherent in computers wasn’t in computing per se, but in making possible the storage, retrieval and searching of information—specifically, information currently locked in libraries in book form. (Google has now taken this idea and is running with it; its grand scheme is nothing less than to digitize, basically, everything.)
Today, thanks to a small army of volunteers, the original Project Gutenberg catalog contains some 20,000 free books, and more than 100,000 are available through various affiliates and offshoots. These are almost entirely out-of-print and out-of-copyright books. Need a copy of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and don’t have a print version handy? Project Gutenberg has it. Or, for a more obscure example, when we were in Sonoma, California, a few years ago my wife and I visited Jack London’s home and thought it would be interesting to read his book set in the area, The Valley of the Moon. Project Gutenberg had it: I downloaded it, formatted it for my ebook reading device, and away we went.
“But I don’t have a specialized ebook reading device,” I hear you say (which is a pretty good trick since I’m sitting in an office all by myself as I type this). Actually, you may: a great deal of ebook reading today is being done on cellphones and other personal data devices—anything with a decent sized screen. I read a lot on my own Pocket PC/cellphone; Palm Pilots and other PDAs and Blackberries also make good (or at least adequate) ebook readers. And much better dedicated devices are under development.
Project Gutenberg texts are posted in plain ASCII—that’s simply basic text that pretty much any working computer can read. You can then convert that to your favorite ebook format (there are several dedicated programs for reading ebooks; my favorite is Mobipocket) , print it out, or whatever you like.
And once you get hooked on reading ebooks, you’ll find they’re also widely available at a variety of pay sites. The aforementioned Mobipocket sells them, for example, but my favorite site is Fictionwise. Here you’ll find not only ebook versions of recent dead-tree editions of bestsellers, but the myriad books published only as ebooks—there are a lot of dedicated ebook publishers, such as Awe-Struck E-books, which published by Saskatchewan Book Award-winning YA fantasy novel Spirit Singer a few years ago (and, yes, Spirit Singer is available at Fictionwise). Through Fictionwise, I subscribe to the digital version of the science fiction magazine Analog, and other magazines are similarly available. Oh, and Fictionwise does offer some free material, too.
There is a reluctance to read books off of computer screens, and the rather silly “you can’t read an ebook in the bathtub argument” (of course you can, just don’t drop it), but I suspect that that reluctance will fade more and more with time. I still like reading a paper book, but I have no problem reading an ebook. As more and more people grow up doing the bulk of their reading on video display screens, I think ebooks will lose their weirdness factor pretty quickly.
And for writers, posting ebook versions of their material online seems, at least in some cases, not only not to hurt sales of their print books, but actually to boost them. (This has certainly been the case with the science fiction publisher Baen, which posts many of its books online in the Baen Free Library ; when people read a book they really like electronically, they’ll often buy it in paper or buy the next book by the same author in paper.)
Which is why so many of us do post material online for free (I’d already posted lots of short stories, not to mention all of my science columns, online before I added Andy Nebula to my site this week). We give away our words in the hope people will then realize our words are valuable enough to pay for in the future.
In the future, I suspect, all writers will be Pixel-stained Technopeasants—or they just won’t be read at all.