Maker, Hacker, Writer.

On Wednesday, I’ll be participating in a live Q&A where anyone can ask me anything and expect some form of honest answer. Leading up to that, I thought I’d share two of the questions I get the most these days and also explain how this past weekend at the Boing Boing and Ford Ingenuity Hack-a-Thon helped me to better understand my usual answers.

The number one question I get is why I chose to self-publish. When I wrote my first novel, I spent a few weeks querying before two small publishers expressed interest and made offers. This was already more than I expected, so I took an offer and had a wonderful experience editing and publishing my first novel.

When the contract arrived for the sequel, there were a few reasons I decided to put the book out on my own. The two strongest reasons were the desire to control every aspect of the book’s creation, and the awful feeling I had when signing over the rights to my work. There are a lot of other reasons I thought self-publishing made more sense (the tools are available to anyone; the book will be in print for the rest of my life; I was going to be responsible for the majority of the promotion; the pay was a lot better). But it really came down to control. I didn’t want to hand over the thing I’d made. I wanted to craft it from beginning to end.

I liken this to an artist who isn’t satisfied simply painting on canvas. They also feel the need to choose the matting and the frame, to hang it on the wall just so, and to light it appropriately. How the painting is observed is a combination of all these things, just as how a book is enjoyed is affected by font selection and size, the spacing, where a sentence ends on one page and begins on another. It’s all important to me. While working with a publisher, I wanted to get on the phone and discuss these minutiae but worried about being a pain in the ass. Doing it myself removes that worry. I can be a pain in my own ass.

The other question I get a lot of these days all fall into the category of: Are you freakin’ stupid? These are questions on DRM, piracy, and fan fiction. I’m against the first and all for the second and third. DRM is bad for those who pay for their media and a minor annoyance at best for those who steal it. And my stance on piracy is that I don’t care if people steal my work. I similarly don’t care if they buy my books at a used bookstore, read them on a friend’s Kindle, or borrow a copy from a neighbor’s bookshelf. The challenge is to be read. Figuring out ways not to be read seems silly to me. I’m not alone in either of these stances, but my view on fan fiction is a bit more outlying.

The idea of the immutable novel is rather modern. Storytelling began as an oral tradition, when tales were swapped, spliced, modified, and augmented by each teller. Even when books began to be written down, translators and transcribers would often make tweaks and add their own twists as they were copying the text. And beyond the printing press, you had greats like Dickens who would serialize a story and then change those texts slightly as he combined them into novels. Stories weren’t meant to sit there, unchanged and unmoving through the years. They can, but that’s a recent invention. Fan fiction is much older. It harkens back to the Homeric epics and the lore lost to time.

What I realized this weekend at the Boing Boing and Ford Ingenuity Hack-a-Thon is that my writing philosophy is a product of the Maker and Hacker culture in which I grew up. My love of crafting a product from beginning to end, which means teaching myself the typographical secrets of kerning and widows and orphans, or figuring out Photoshop for covers and Indesign for interiors, fits with maker culture and the obsessives who want to craft a thing from concept to launch.

It was from embracing the crowdsourcing mentality at an early age that I learned to be comfortable with fan fiction. This is literature, hacked. DRM-free is all about open sourcing material, making it part of the commons. Not worrying about piracy is because . . . well, I was a pirate. I knew firsthand that trying out a product was the surest way to get me to support it. What’s true of software could be true of books.

My first career was as a computer repairman at a Tandy store. This is where I picked up the traits that would color my writing career. I loved to build my own computers from scratch. I loved to tinker, to steal software, to share what I learned on bulletin boards, to make things do more than what they were designed to do. Watercool a PC just to push the chip to its limits? That was me. Rewrite the hex code of a saved computer game to open up new abilities? It was more fun than the game itself. You think I would be happy just writing the words and handing them off to someone else? Not on your life. You think I would want to lock up these words, make them difficult to access, difficult to change? It would go against everything I’ve done as a user.

I like making things. I like hacking things. That affects who I am as a writer.


23 responses to “Maker, Hacker, Writer.”

  1. I’m surprised that this piece has languished in the comments section. Thanks for sharing your insights about this. Too many people disregard the oral tradition of storytelling because in a sense it harkens back to pre-literacy, when people could actually read the world, and each other. The tales were far more rich, subversive even. What an odd turn of events that people have nothing to say about something that says so much. Thanks, Hugh.

  2. I applaud your ethics. You really nailed it, particularly, when it comes to DRM. It doesn’t even slow down the hackers and only really inconveniences the legitimate users/readers. Plus, you made me nostalgic for the old days of computer technology. Playing with hex editors to unlock a developer only feature or make an old extension work in an update to my OS… I haven’t had that sense in a very long time!

  3. Hurray for the makers!! Have I told you that my library is creating a makerspace? We’re having a mini-makerfair in late September to glean input from the community about the things they’d like us to include. So fun! Love the extension of the maker/hacker mentalities to the world of authorship. Everything is connected.

  4. Now if you can just find a way to offer combined digital / audio / print versions of the same book in a single purchase. Movies figured out with Blu-Ray that they could add a slight upcharge and sell a Blu-Ray, a plain DVD, and a digital copy all in one package.

    I pre-ordered an Ugly-cover “Dust”, but also bought the Kindle version yesterday when I wanted to actually begin reading the silly thing. I prefer to read on a Kindle but still love to own dead tree versions of really great books (particularly signed and personalized ones). Don’t get me wrong, Hugh. Your e-book prices are so danged low that it was a no-brainer on buying both. I just wonder how long until publishers realize that they are missing a huge up-sell opportunity with the “Author’s Gold Limited Edition” version!

    1. Ingenious!! I would be all over something like that!

    2. Amazon does something like this. If you own the e-book, the audiobook is only 99 cents extra. That’s a great deal.

  5. I feel pretty much the same way about self publishing. It will be a challenge to see if I can see this thing through to the end. No sleep for me then….lol

  6. I love that you provide so much information that helps complete newbies like me navigate through the shoals of self-publishing, but Hugh — you’re offering “some form of honest answer” in your Q&A? Dishonest ones could be a lot of fun too!

  7. I didn’t realize that about Dickens. It certainly seems that we’ve come full circle. I’ve never read or written Fan Fic, but I love your take on it as well as your views on DMR etc. It always makes me think about Lennny from Motorhead, who when asked (in The Decline of Western Civ part 2) what he thought about other bands ripping of his material was OK with it because “maybe they’ll do something we can rip off later.”

  8. Really interesting. When I was going through the publishing process on KDP, I didn’t fully understand the implications of DRM and was too excited/impatient to do research or critically consider the matter. You’ve made me wish I’d clicked the other button. The idea of people reading my work makes me giddy, regardless of whether they paid me for it.

  9. The reason this didn’t get any quick comments is because everyone was reading DUST!

    I love your support of those writing fiction in your world, Hugh (needless to say!) and I think such freedom is tremendous for fostering creativity. Open your mind to ideas, open your heart to the universe, and the stories will flow from and through you to others.

  10. Brilliant series, Hugh! It was good timing when I learned of the free download via BoingBoing. My fiance gifted me a Kindle reader, and I was looking for something to load up on. I like the the e-reader, as I work on commercial cargo ships and space in my sea bags is at a premium. After dining on your freebie, while on my last ship, I was locked in. I downloaded the whole of your Silo Saga (sans Dust, which only just came out. Yeah, I downloaded it the moment I learned of the release) the first opportunity I had at an Internet connection. Main-lining your novels really made those 210 days so much more bearable. Thanks!

    BTW, I might just save Dust for when I ship out again. Your stories are a sweet way to fill the voids when I’m not working: Coffee breaks, the lunch hour, and after dinner. I’ll return to socializing after I’m done reading.

    Once again: Thanks!

  11. Interesting ideas and view. Just wondering what the final attitude is when the “makers” don’t get paid at all? Jaron Lanier, one of the founding fathers of open sourcing, has broken from the pack and is now seeing that much of the espoused merits of the “everything open” movement is actually making the majority poorer. He points to the Bieber effect. A few get really, really lucky while the majority languish. A sort of further concentration of resources through lottery distribution. Of course his views are a little more expansive (more macro economic in nature), but he does have some interesting thoughts and challenges to the carte blanche virtuous exaltations of the open movement. Don’t get me wrong, I love your success story. Nothing makes me happier than seeing a person get their shot, but the greater impacts of the “open” (everything is free) aren’t fully realized yet and are looking very similar to an advanced “Wal-Marting” of sorts. Besides, Amazon’s Kindle Worlds program is very slanted to favoring Amazon and the originator of the “world”. The fanfic creators don’t even own the work in the end (kinda ironic, the fanfic “maker” gets little to nothing). Anyhoo, congrats on your success with “Wool”.

    1. Some good points. Two clarifications about Kindle Worlds, though:

      The fanfic writers in the Worlds program get 35% royalties, which is more than publishers pay. For the price of most fanfic (below $2.99) it’s the same royalty they get when they straight up self-publish.

      The reason for taking ownership of all material is to prevent litigation. It’s the only way a program like this would ever work with money involved. Amazon doesn’t want or care to do anything with that material; it’s just a clever way of preventing the license holder and fan fic author from squabbling. They’ve both agreed up front that neither of them own what’s written! It’s more ingenious than diabolical, I believe. :)

      And I agree about artists getting paid for what they do. I think most makers and hackers do what they do as a hobby. I don’t like the idea of coders chained to benches and rowing for the common good. I like the idea of people unwinding away from their real jobs and tinkering with wild abandon. Lanier is a career maker and hacker. I think that’s why he sees it the way he does, and I get that.

  12. Hi Hugh,

    I’m a product of the maker/hacker culture, too–a three-time game-company CTO who writes gritty modern mystery thrillers and technothrillers–the first coming out now, the second with my editor, and I’m writing the third. I read your post and felt like applauding. I’m all for hiring/subcontracting/partnering the talent needed to make our books as near perfect as possible–my editor has 5 NY Times & international bestsellers on his resume. But give up creative control? Nope… makes no sense to me.

    In the game industry, we have a role called producer. When any aspect of a game is not up to par–art, story, technology–it’s the producer’s responsibility to secure the resources to make it awesome. The buck stops there.

    In fiction publishing, the author IS the producer. Period.

    In 2008, when Apple opened up the iPhone Appstore to indie and garage developers and offered a 70% rev share, they turned the mobile game industry on its head. As a CTO for a major mobile-games publisher, I had a front-row seat. It was fun to watch. Before that, the traditional gatekeepers of the mobile game world were the telcos–clearly experts in gaming ;) So AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, etc. decided what companies got their games published and steered indies toward the big publishers, whose paltry rev-shares drove most indie mobile studios out of business. Then along came Apple, and suddenly anyone could self-publish–remember the short-lived flood of fart apps? The traditional game publishers were dismissive at first. But they soon found themselves competing in a brave new world where reviews and word-of-mouth by actual players–*gasp*–determined what sold and what didn’t. Scrappy little indie companies came out of nowhere to dominate sales solely on the quality of their games and the enthusiasm of their players.

    Fast-forward to 2010. The same thing starts playing out in book publishing, driven by Amazon’s Kindle and KDP, and I grinned, already knowing how the story would end. It was time to dive into the pool.

    Then I came across this little short story called Wool by an unknown indie… and it knocked my socks off. I knew I was looking at the “Angry Birds” of books.

    You are an inspiration to all of us indies. Thank you for lighting the way.

    Now I gotta go. Need to dive back into DUST.

    1. The Angry Birds of books! First time I’ve had that compliment.

  13. A couple of thoughts:

    Piracy: What you say makes sense. Getting your work read is the main thing. I do have a different *emotional* response to lending a book or buying it used than I do to shoplifting or breaking into someone’s house. But realistically, there’s no stopping piracy, so making peace with it is best.

    Fan fiction: As I reader, I always want to know where the author’s vision ended and someone else’s began. As an author, I’m honored if people want to tell more stories about my characters and the “go ahead and eat your lasagna because the 50 vampires outside can’t enter your home” world they inhabit. As long as people know where my original story ends. (This is assuming I can figure that out…)

    Mmm, one other thing I realize as I write this: I’ve really come to care for Sally and Lavinia and the others in my story. I might feel bad if people wrote stories treating them with disrespect.

  14. Being anti-piracy just seems so old-fashioned to me. What is this, 1994? Everybody pirates now. Most of them don’t even realize it. Ever look up a song on Youtube? Congratulations — you’re a dirty, stinking pirate.

    It’s always heartening to see independent artists who understand the state of things, embrace it, make it a part of their plan, and achieve great success as a result.

    1. Great point about YouTube!

  15. I love when different spheres come together – I was listening to a Harvard Business Review IdeaCast Podcast which fits perfectly with the need to craft something from beginning to end.

    It was only recently, in human history terms, that work became so specialized, or so claims “The Rise of the Megacorporation” 1864-1914. Worth a listen at to understand what we gave up, not without a fight, though.

  16. Hugh, have you ever read “Hackers and Painters” by Paul Graham? It is a collection of essays on some of the “big ideas of the computer age”, but really he talks a lot about the nature of creativity in the context of software development, and how “hacking” is much more akin to painting or other art mediums than people realize. I think you would really enjoy the book. It is one of my favorites.

    1. I haven’t, but now I want to.

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