When I left the newspaper business in a year ago, one of my goals was to see whether there was anything that could be done with The Key to Darbas, a novel I wrote in 2003. The book made it to the brink of publication in 2005 and wasn't out of options, but the experience of dealing with mainstream publishers and agents discouraged me.
Much has changed in the world since 2005, including the rise of social (networked) media, print-on-demand publishing, better e-book devices and public-spirited copyright reforms. So last fall I took my 2003 manuscript and rewrote it, then hired a friend to copy edit it, all with an eye toward an alternative means of publication.. But my attention turned to freelance gigs in early 2009, and the manuscript sat in a box for more than six months.
It was still sitting there in August when I decided to wrap up all my personal projects by the end of the month so I could go looking for more regular work in September. So over the past four weeks I:
- Wrote through the suggested edits;
- Created four maps in Illustrator;
- Produced some additional material (introduction, notes, etc.);
- Designed front and back covers;
- Typeset it in InDesign for trade paperback and home printing;
- Output it as a free PDF;
- Encoded it as a DRM-free .PRC e-book file;
- Built a complete personal website, with links to the project;
- Launched a stub of a site for the novel, including a wiki (and, at some point forums);
- Solicited some friends for advice on how to begin developing a publishing project that's unlike anything I've seen before.
On the one hand, The Key to Darbas is just a science-fiction/fantasy hybrid by an unpublished novelist (though not an unpublished writer). On the other, though, it's an experiment with an entirely new way of defining the relationship between writers and readers.
The crux of that relationship is a different approach to copyright. Under the traditional system, I would reserve all rights to the characters and situations I created in the novel, then sell some portion of those rights to a publisher. If the novel acquired fans, those fans could build an online community around the book, and perhaps even generate reference materials. But any hobbyist fan-fiction they produced would fall into a copyright gray area, and woe-betide the writer of a fan-fiction novel who tries to sell copies without the approval of (and payments to) the original novel's publisher (Sept. 4 update: and/or author)..
That's too bad, because as a genre, SF/F is different. A SF/F novel is a story that takes place in a unique world that extends beyond the plot. Many fans are devoted as much to what intrigues them about that world as they are to the story per se. They're curious its larger context. They want to know more about unanswered questions.
Before I wrote the first word of the novel, I wrote tens of thousands of words to help me imagine and understand the world in which my story would take place. At some point, Janet and I realized that I could have just as easily written interesting stories out of multiple other aspects of the world and its backstory.
So I thought, why waste all that?
Why not keep my story but give its world to the fans, and let THEM own it?
I didn't consider this in early 2005. I didn't know about Creative Commons then. Chris Anderson's Long Tail was still a new idea, and his Free: Why $0.00 Is The Future of Business was still three years in the future. Cory Doctorow hadn't yet boosted sales of Little Brother by offering it for free. In Rainbows hadn't been released. Wookieepedia hadn't been launched. Amazon hadn't yet acquired P.O.D. pioneer BookSurge. There was no Twitter, no Facebook. And so on. I didn't think of this idea then because the intellectual, legal, cultural and technical infrastructure necessary to support it didn't yet exist.
What remains to be done, then, is to figure out ways to connect these trends and tools and ideas into one system. I think the ultimate expression of this idea might look like this:
- A community copyright license in which the author donates the intellectual property that underlies his or her story (i.e., the original novel or series, to which the author retains rights) to its fans, with the expressed purpose of allowing fans to develop and expand that fictional world cooperatively and commercially.
- The community license would set up a foundation, run by community-elected officers, that would manage that license. The license would require that any subsequent commercial works would pay a royalty back to the community, to be used in whatever way the foundation sees fit. The community would decide, for instance, what rights it would allow to third-party publishers, community royalty percentages, etc..
- Matters of canon, etc., would be determined and governed by the community, not the original writer or any publishing company.
Why do this? Well, in the first place, it's good karma, and good karma is often good business. Plus, if a writer and his or her readers are literally partners, then everyone shares a mutual interest.
Think of it this way: Writing a book is easy compared to the task of finding readers. But if my book attracts a community of fans who are interested in the extended world I've created, then anyone else who chooses to write in that world automatically benefits from the readers I've already assembled.This means writers could self-publish in the Darbas world and make money without having to market their work, hire lawyers and agents, or sign over their rights to publishing companies.
In theory, at least, the majority of these people would want to read the original novels rather than just the descriptions of them on the free DarbasWiki. So even though I wouldn't be taking a cut of their sales, I'd still be profiting from their participation. And that's enough.
There are any number of problems with this model, the most obvious being the fact that my novel currently has only one fan (Janet) and it's possible that's all it will ever find. So how do you take an unknown novel and build a fan-base that could eventually become self-sustaining? I don't know yet. And I'll have to accomplish that task before I can afford to take on the challenge of crafting a legally valid community license.
But that's where this blog post and DarbasWeb and Twitter come in. Because I don't have to answer all those questions at once, and I might not have to answer all of them myself. If this book has an audience, I have to trust that I can find it. If community licensing has a future, I have to trust that we can construct it as a community.
So I'm proceeding with a few basic assumptions. That I'll be able to use networked media to build an organic audience for my free book. That people will donate enough cash to help me fund the first print-on-demand trade-paperback edition. That early returns from my first marketing campaign (called The Hundred Books... e-mail email@example.com for details) will generate enough cash for me to cover expenses and hire an intellectual property attorney to write the community license. I'm assuming that the growth of the community would provide me a financial base from which to write the final two books in my planned trilogy (and that I'll be able to work out the legal details of those rights within the community license).
To get anywhere, you have to know where you're headed. When I imagine the success of this project, I imagine myself with a trilogy on the shelves and a happy fan-base that is enjoying (and profiting) from the fruits of its labors. I imagine donating the legal language for a community license to Creative Commons (I've contacted them and they've expressed interest). I don't know if I'll ever write other stories out of the world I've begun, but if I do, I'll do so as just another fan under a community license. And I imagine that if any portion of these things comes true, then the world will be a little bit happier for it.
But today I start small.
- If you'd like to read my book, please download a copy for your home printer or for your e-book reader. If you don't have reader software, get yours free here.
- If you'd like to advise me on how to promote this book and these ideas, write me (firstname.lastname@example.org).
- If you'd like to join the fan community, sign-up at DarbasWeb.
- If you'd like to advise or assist me on technical matters, I need that, too.
- If you're a lawyer or copyright expert and you'd like to volunteer to work with me to create the world's first (that I know of, anyway) community license, we need to talk.
And if you like my book, or these ideas, please let me know. And tell your friends. Because I know I'm not enough, by myself, to make any of this happen.