I recently did an interview with New York Times bestselling author, journalist, blogger, activist and internet user* Cory Doctorow about his book For The Win (because it came out in German this fall) as well as for a longer article on modern publishing I’m currently working on. Since a) parts of this interview will be published in German b) no one will publish the entire interview c) I hate wasting a good interview and d) this particular one contains three of my favourite sentences ever to be said in any of the interviews I’ve done in the past ten years, here is the unabridged English version:
Cory, for those who don’t know yet: What is For The Win about?
It’s a novel about gold farming. That’s when someone who lives in a poor country plays a video game in order to amass some kind of virtual fortune – a character, a sword, a spaceship, money – and then sells it to someone who lives in a rich country. And it’s a novel about what would happen when these gold farmers try to form a labour union.
Sometimes in your books the line between fact and fiction blur and the reader wonders: “Is this something real or did he just make this up?” For me, that was the case with gold farming.
It’s real. There are about 400,000 people who do it today, mostly in China. And most of their customers live in America and in Europe.
How did you come across this topic?
I read an article on a website called Slashdot, many years ago, about someone who had said, “I’m paying people in Mexico to play Everquest and selling the stuff that they make there to Americans.” No one knows whether he was telling the truth – he has the reputation for not being the most truthful person – but I thought it was a cool idea for a story. So I wrote a short story called Anda’s Game, which was very well received. It was reprinted and translated a lot and made into a comic. For many people the first time they encountered gold farming was in that story. And whenever they would see a news story on that topic they said, “Oh god, you predicted it.” So any time, anywhere in the world, any newspaper wrote about gold farming, I would get a hundred copies of it. So I became an expert on gold farming.
Even if it wasn’t the case here, as a science fiction author you’re basically in the business of predicting the future, aren’t you?
I don’t think science fiction is really about prediction. But I do think it is a good way of reflecting our fears and aspirations about technology and also of giving us a vocabulary to talk about technology and how it affects society.
Does that apply to For The Win as well?
Well, we spent the last two years in the grasp of a global crisis created by virtual currency. The European economy is about to implode. The Euro might collapse on the back of collateralised debt obligation and of virtual currency issued by private corporations whose monetary policy isn’t about maximising benefit for the users of the currency, but rather maximising the benefit for the shareholders of the firm that issued the currency. But we don’t really think or talk about virtual currencies. One of the things that stories about virtual currency can do is help us get a better handle on it.
Are there any figures about how big the market gold farming is?
There is a lot of speculation, but I don’t think anyone has a reliable answer. One of the experts I talked to back in 2009 said that there is a lot of gold farming going on that is very unsuccessful. In the provinces of China a lot of the young women have left for the south of China, where all the manufacturers are, leaving only young men behind without prospects or jobs for them. One of the things the government has done is run very high-speed internet out to these towns, and there is a pervasive myth that you can get rich by finding an empty building, putting ten computers in, finding ten boys who love to play video games and exploit their labour, while alienating them of the product of their leisure, as Marx might say. It’s not so. It’s a bubble. So a lot of the whacky entrepreneurs who start gold farms are failing. But there are certainly some people who are very successful.
Some online game providers prohibit the sales of characters, etc. Is that an effective way to prevent gold farming?
No, it is just prohibition. This only creates bottlenecks for the gold farming market. There used to be more small firms who dealt directly with players. The more countermeasures there are the more you need specialist brokers – you could think of them as drug smugglers or human traffickers, depending on whether they are moving characters or gold around – who know how to conduct the transaction and who can overcome the security measures. So the major effect is not to make it harder to buy gold but to make it harder to make a living from selling it.
Would you say For The Win bridges a generation gap by talking about a more youth oriented topic, gaming, and a rather grown-up topic, labour unions?
Well, for one thing, gaming has become a very adult phenomenon as well. We think of it as the phenomenon of those crazy kids with their Ataris. But those crazy kids are now forty-five. The median age of gamers is going up. Gaming is a major leisure activity of every age group. The average Farmville player in America is a middle-aged woman with a high-school diploma, not a teenage boy. On the other hand, I think that the topic of labour is an important one for young people today because youth unemployment is so high, all through the developed world and in many developing countries. And where unemployment is high working conditions get worse, because the more people are desperate for a job the worse you can treat the people who have a job. And so you have a lot of young people who are trying to figure out how the labour markets work. Getting your head around that topic is important. You’re right, labour unions are a pretty adult subject, but there has never been a time where labour politics were a more important topic for young people.
Since most of the characters in the book are from South-East Asia and China, and considering that a lot of us have grown numb to problems of people half-way across the globe, do you think there is a risk of people not relating?
Actually, I don’t. Psychologists who investigate that phenomenon say that it is hard to get your head around the scope of a big disaster. It’s just easier to grasp a disaster that affects one person than a disaster that affects society or a country. That’s why something like Save The Children, where you adopt a child in China or Africa, works well. It works on this one-to-one scale. We care about people, we can’t care about cities. We do care about individuals in a book. I’m a science fiction writer, so I am accustomed to reading books where I care about aliens. And if we can find empathy for aliens, we can certainly find empathy for people who live the relative short distance away like the slums of Mumbai.
Well, I did relate enough that at a certain point in the story I wondered whether or not it was necessary for you to do to a certain character …
That’s how you know that you’ve done your job as an author. I have a theory about what happens when we read books. I think we have little simulators we use for the people we know, and that we just kind of run little avatars. So when you try to imagine what someone is doing or how someone would react to something, you’re running them in the simulator. You can run people who aren’t there or who are already dead. So I think the way fiction works is tricking you into putting made-up people into your simulator. We don’t care about people directly, we care about them through our little simulators. I think fiction is fundamentally a neurology hack. Why else would we care about imaginary people? We have our mirror neurons fire when they do things, we have all these neurological effects that are associated with being in the presence of real people in real danger, even if they are not there. This isn’t merely about cognition, it’s about things that happen on a sub-cognitive level. A fictional medium like film or book can cause that to happen.
Is there a sequel in For The Win or is it a standalone story?
Honestly, I have no idea. I didn’t think I would write a sequel to Little Brother, and then I had an idea for one. I always told people that it was a standalone book, then I had an idea for a sequel. Every now and again I think there may be a third volume, but I don’t know. The next book I have coming out is Pirate Cinema and the same year, 2012, the book with Charlie Strauss, Rapture Of The Nerds, and also the graphic novel for Anda’s Game. And then, in 2013, Little Brother 2. After that, I am not sure what will happen. The next book I want to write I haven’t found the right person to work on with. That would be a graphic novel, non-fiction, about copyright. So it would have to come after that. We’re getting into 2015 now. So if it happens, it would be a while.
On one of the themes of For The Win: Where do you think we are in terms of video games? Have we already explored most possibilities of what to do with them or is there room left?
I think we are just at the early days of what we can do with video games. Video games enjoy the lucky circumstance of being completely hated and ignored by politicians, which meant as technology changed and the ability to compel people to pay for packaged video games became less and less available – you couldn’t sell boxes with Quake in it because they were pirated everywhere – developers had to invent more and more games that adapted to the world, instead of paying lawmakers to adapt to them. And as a result they make a lot of progress. Essentially, World of Warcraft is an amazing hack of piracy because you can only play it when you buy access to the server.
So, even if you are not in the business of predicting the future, what do you see as the future of gaming?
More games, weirder, more interesting, more profitable and in ways we can’t even imagine now.
Like through in-game advertising?
Definitely in-game advertising. That is kind of a no-brainer.
If it is legal.
Well, if it is profitable, some companies will do it. Other than that, I guess we will continue to see people trying to create media with the intention of having part of it live in a game. We have that stupid word trans-media. I think a lot of commercial firms will continue to try and tie one product into another by using games. Why pay for in-game advertising when you can also do a game that itself is part of your revenue strategy for some product that isn’t a game? I also think militaries will continue to use games. America’s Army has been an incredible effective training and recruiting tool. And governments will continue to use games. My wife was in charge of public service games for Channel 4 and earlier for the BBC – which, frankly, didn’t do much, but Channel 4 sure did. The thoughts was: We have public service television, public service radio, public service publishing – why wouldn’t we have public service games? So they did all kinds of really interesting games, like one about sexual transmissible diseases, called Privates, that was a side-scrolling Prince Of Persia adventure game for 14 year olds, set in a vagina. And it did incredibly well. Every boy in Britain played that game and ended up learning a ton about STDs. But they did a whole bunch of games, like ones about the genome etc., that were really fun and interesting and exciting but also had some public service component, not necessarily educational component, but public service component.
Isn’t there a moral dilemma if you use video games for children as a recruiting tool?
I’m not someone who is in favour of the military, but you asked what the future of games was, not what the best future of games was. In the same way as people write literature to inspire other people to do great and terrible games, people will create games that inspire people to do great and terrible games.
One of the things you are well-known for is providing your books for download free of charge. Does that apply to the German version as well?
Well, Heyne has been great about that. They have already supported it in the past with my other books. But generally speaking, For The Win is CC-licensed in English, so anyone could do a CC-licensed translation anyway.
Is it always that easy for when you’re dealing with new publishers?
It can be difficult with foreign publishers. Not because they are intransigent. You know, with my New York publisher I have a close relationship, I’ve known my editor since I was 17, when I talked to him about this it was as a friend to a friend with both of us understanding a lot about technology – my agent wasn’t part of the discussion – it was just him and me, then I brought the agent in to paper it all over. With foreign rights it goes: my agent, my agent’s sub-agent, the person who acquires the rights in a country that is not the UK or America. I usually have hardly anything to do with these people, if not nothing at all. So it’s hard for me to establish that kind of relationship in order to make this happen.
Will this remain a special feature some authors use – a gimmick, if you will – or will more and more authors have to rely on a marketing tool like the free ebook or, as in Scott Sigler’s case, free audiobook in form of a serialised podcast?
The one thing I am one hundred percent certain of is that it’s never going get harder to copy a book. The trajectory of that is that anyone who wants to get a book without paying for it, no matter their technological skill or lack thereof, will find it trivial to acquire any book published. So we need to find a way to convince people to voluntarily, not coercively, pay. The thing about voluntary payment, for doing the right thing because it is the right thing, is that the prerequisite is that you have to feel that the people you’re paying deserve it. And people who call you a thief and jerk and try to sue you and your family and neighbours are not people you voluntarily want to help. So step 1 is, always do things that are profitable while you’re doing them. So right now I’m giving away free e-books and sell printed books. Step 2 is to always find ways to ensure the long-term health of the case for paying you. Make people feel like you deserve the money.
In general, do you believe the idea of sharing books for free is easier to establish than sharing music because, unlike with music, we haven’t been told “you cannot give this book to a friend”?
Publishers in the UK at least, on and off, have put things in the dust jacket of books that said “you may not lend this book”, but it has never had the force of law. There have been publishers who have tried to argue that for a long time – and they have been idiots for doing so. The thing when talking about music recordings, books, games and so on is that books are much older than any of the others. Books are older than Gutenberg. They call the Abrahamic religions – Jews, Christians and Muslims – the people of the book. So this is at least a five thousand year relationship we have with books that has elevated them to an almost sacred place. Burning a book is like eating a dog in Western society. If you want to show the collapse of a civilisation, show the picture of people burning books. It is true that books are part of the entertainment industry, but they are surrounded by this penumbra of virtue that we trade on and that causes readers to believe, rightfully so, that they have a set of rights and privileges in relation to books that is kind of sacred. That is one of the reasons why the fight for books is different than the fight for music or games or movies.
I have a theory that, much like independent music artists using the internet to market and sell their music without a label, there will be similar kind of independent authors utilising social media to sell their books without a publishing deal. Thoughts?
I think there is that possibility. But you have to remember that all these things are hard. I did a DIY book this year, With A Little Help, of which the hardcover sold well. The limited edition hardcover I made a lot of money on. They pay-what-you-like e-book made a lot of money. The print on demand paperback did really poorly, even though I promoted it as well as any individual author in the world could hope to promote it. It didn’t nearly do as well as I would have expected it. Publishers do something hard. Now, the question is whether or not you need to work with a publisher to get all those services or whether it becomes more à la carte. One of the things that happened in music is that a lot of the freelancers who used to work for labels now work directly for artists, and they do the same job they used to do – maybe the publishing will do that, too. It is already the case in New York publishing. A lot of the people working in publishing there are freelancers, the editor, the copy editor, the typesetter, the proofer, the publicist, the marketer. All of those freelancers are available to writers who have capital or whose agents have capital or who can find an external investor. Nothing is preordained about the current way the book business is done. It has changed a lot in the past and it will continue to change. It may be that the publishers of tomorrow may not look like the publishers of today, but will there always be people who specialise in the things that connect books with audiences and create money out of that exchange? Absolutely.
Final question. I first read about the instant-book-machine, the so-called espresso machine, on your website. Is that a real chance for independent authors?
Its economics are really poor so far. My DIY book is available on espresso machines all around the world right now. But it’s expensive. Those are 12 to 14 dollar paperbacks, and that’s with me getting a 2 dollar margin. Which is the same margin I would get off a regular book, except that a regular book costs a dollar to produce. So maybe if we figure out a way to produce books for that kind of money on an espresso machine, which may be in the machine’s future, and DIY authors could sell their books for 10 dollars, split the take with the bookstore, putting 4 or 5 dollars in their pocket, then selling less copies would not be the issue it is now.
Thanks to Cory Doctorow for the interview. Follow Cory on Twitter @doctorow. Follow me on Twitter @uwewombacher. For updates on Cory’s work, check out his website craphound.com and, for all your geek needs, check out boingboing.net
* “Internet user” being the only description out of this list he uses on his business card.