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Old 06-28-2010, 10:15 AM   #1
Steven Lyle Jordan
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Is this a horrible time to be a writer?

The arrival of the digital document era has brought incredible change to publishing, and to its driving force, the writer. Writers have realized that their options have expanded, and the traditional business models are now in flux, giving them the opportunity to redefine their role and importance in the historic publishing equation. But at the same time, the market itself has undergone changes that have not all been in the writers’ best interests. Caught between two ends of a changing market, the question is: Is this actually a good time to be a writer?

On one hand, writers are now in a position of taking advantage of the latest tools offered by computers, the web and new business models (such as those at companies like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords) to step out of the traditional publishing process, wherein they would produce a work, and the publishing house would do the rest of the work of polishing, finishing and distributing, in exchange for a piece of the profit (the first, and usually the biggest, piece). Though their skills at the many tasks formerly handled by production houses may not be equal to those houses, in many cases writers can make a good showing of themselves, and produce a professional-quality work comparable to production house products.

This, in itself, does not necessarily mean potentially high profits for a writer, until you take digital documents into consideration. Ebooks can be produced and distributed for virtually zero cost, once the costs of writing and finishing are done. So each sale is essentially pure profit, after the effort of writing and finishing the book is covered. It would seem that the writer has the potential to make a healthy profit from their work, earning more from their work, per book, than they would receive through a publisher.

Writers also have a potentially wider audience to sell to, since their work can be made available in all corners of the world that are reached by the web. Further, certain geographic restrictions, which had been put in place to protect publishers, do not apply directly to writers, opening up markets that their publishers could not breach. With an expanded market, it would seem the author can only benefit in the new era.

On the other hand, these selfsame changes have impacted the market—the buyers—in a significant way, and they are hell-bent on taking advantage of it. The most significant of these changes is the ability to copy a digital document, at virtually zero cost, thereby removing the exclusivity of product that used to be the cornerstone of the product sales system. The writer is no longer the exclusive provider of their own work; once it is obtained by any other party, that party can potentially produce an exact copy of that work and become another provider of that work, and can do so at their own terms.

The second most significant change to the market, is the nigh-instantaneous, virtually unstoppable communication of digital documents through the web. As easily as a party can make copies of a writer’s digital document, that party can as easily disseminate it to the same worldwide audience as the writer. And the writer has absolutely no way to prevent this from happening, once the document is out of their hands. Suddenly, the potential for profit that the writer hoped for can be destroyed by one person on the far side of the world, who decides to give the writer’s work to anyone who wants it.

In the past, when new technology or social systems came along and threatened to turn the world on its ear, governing bodies would step forward to create order, in the form of new and amended laws designed to create a workable environment for the new tech or systems, and to protect those who used them, and those who didn’t. Compromises were sometimes difficult and expensive, and often involved the development of newer technologies or social systems to complement the ones already developed (for instance, the development of traffic light systems to help control the newly-introduced automobile).

As digital documents have been developed, governing bodies have made an effort to write or amend laws to protect those who used, and who didn’t use, digital documents. However, the market quickly decided that it liked the free-reproduction and easy-distribution aspects of digital documents, and did not want to see any change to that system. And thanks to the already lax controls placed upon the web, they realized that they did not have to accept the new laws. The market proceeded to ignore the laws, and their relatively low chance of being punished for it, and flaunt their newfound ability in public and private… much like speeders deliberately running red lights, because they know there are no traffic cops, and therefore little or no chance of being caught. And those scofflaws can easily use the web to gather disciples for their cause, using scare tactics (mostly transparent but pathetically effective Big Brother rants) to convince others of the impending doom and ruination that the world will suffer if new laws governing digital property are enacted.

Governments are aware of this, as are writers and other producers of content, and they are working to rewrite and amend the laws to tighten control and bring law to the system. However, the nature of the web makes such an effort essentially a global one, thereby demanding the communication and cooperation of literally every governing body whose people can reach the web. And considering the track record of global governing bodies to work together to solve common problems, there is virtually no hope that such a concordance would be reached within 50 years… if ever. And unless the governments act, the market will continue to flaunt their ability to ignore or break the law, and products will not be protected.

This is the world in which the writer finds him or herself: A world in which the only thing easier than creating and disseminating their work, is the market’s ability and willingness to steal that same work; a world in which the potential of becoming independent producers, and earning a profit free of middlemen, is being robbed by the very market it hopes to profit from, a market that pretends to be Robin Hood, but in reality robs gleefully from the rich, the poor, and everyone in-between, and does not care about giving anything back; a world in which the chance that writer’s government will manage to provide protections of their digital property before the year 2050 is virtually nil. And as for those who simply hope for a little fame from their efforts, they get exactly that… in a world where the apocryphal “fifteen minutes of fame” has been distilled down to fifteen seconds.

In short, the immediate future for writers looks very bleak. They have been rendered an endangered species by the unstoppable advancement of technology, the uncaring, uncontrollable whims of a greedy market, and the inability of their governments to protect them.

And what about the long-term future for writers? Should they expect better, someday down the line? Well, as stated above, when changes to society or technology create chaos, governments eventually rewrite the laws to rein chaos in. There is still the possibility that governments will manage to do this, though, as I suggested, it will probably take more than a few decades for them to manage it.

In other cases where such laws have been created to force order, they were rarely accepted by the market without disagreement or dissension. In some cases, this meant further tweaking of the laws to better satisfy all parties. But in the same way drivers eventually learned to stop at red lights, whether in understanding of the safety involved in doing so, or simply to avoid getting a ticket, digital document users can learn to obey digital document laws, whether it is to guarantee the protection of someone’s property, or simply to prevent their being fined.

And in time, the market gets used to the laws, if grudgingly, and after awhile, even stops questioning them; though occasionally they will reminisce fondly about the lawless days of yesteryear when no one was safe… and wasn’t that a fine time?

At that point, writers will be able to write, and be assured that their property will be protected. They will be able to earn a fair wage from their work, and function as productive members of a society that has been largely taught to be fair with them. They will feel valued, and not leeched upon, by the society which they labor to serve. A balance will be restored, and society can begin to consider the next form of technology or social order that will turn them on their ear.

Space mining rights would be my guess. That, or the latest version of the food nutrition pyramid—it’ll probably be a dodecahedron by then…
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Old 06-28-2010, 10:35 AM   #2
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Here's my answer and I can't say it any less bluntly than this.

If you're a writer working with profit in mind then you are royally, unstoppably, irrevocably f**ked.

On the other hand if you're writing because you have something to say or want to tell stories to as many people as possible, then it's all dandelion fields and cloudless skies ahead.

Society has shifted, it's highly unlikely to shift back now.
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Old 06-28-2010, 10:43 AM   #3
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Let me ask you this, Mr. Laws-and-more-laws:

Why has Baen not gone out of business?

Why have Baen's writers not stopped writing? Their books are "protected" (restricted, you mean) by neither technology nor the draconian laws you desire.

Why is David Weber, to take one example, despite nearly every book he has written being legitimately available free, still writing, and apparently making a living selling books?

Do you "gleefully" steal everything that isn't nailed down?

No?

Then why do you think everyone else does?
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Old 06-28-2010, 10:56 AM   #4
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As a writer who has taken both the traditionally published and indie paths (different times and genres), I think it's an exciting time for authors - at least indie authors!

Those worried about stealing can choose to be published only by those companies offering DRM, like Amazon. The author has more control than ever imo.
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Old 06-28-2010, 11:36 AM   #5
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Originally Posted by Moejoe View Post
Here's my answer and I can't say it any less bluntly than this.

If you're a writer working with profit in mind then you are royally, unstoppably, irrevocably f**ked.
Only if you equate "writing" with "writing fiction". There are lots of jobs available for writing outside the fiction field where it's entirely possible to earn a decent wage, whether it be working as a journalist, an advertising copywriter, or a soap-opera script-writer. "Writing" is an enormously wider field than fiction writing.
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Old 06-28-2010, 11:44 AM   #6
Steven Lyle Jordan
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Worldwalker View Post
Let me ask you this, Mr. Laws-and-more-laws:

Why has Baen not gone out of business?

Why have Baen's writers not stopped writing? Their books are "protected" (restricted, you mean) by neither technology nor the draconian laws you desire.

Why is David Weber, to take one example, despite nearly every book he has written being legitimately available free, still writing, and apparently making a living selling books?

Do you "gleefully" steal everything that isn't nailed down?

No?

Then why do you think everyone else does?
Then allow me to ask, Mr. Anarchy-at-all-costs:

Is Baen a writer?

Does David Weber already have an established print publishing resume, where he makes the bulk of his book profits? Will he still have that when print has been largely replaced by digital publishing?

Why don't you support laws that protect the rights of others?
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Old 06-28-2010, 11:45 AM   #7
Steven Lyle Jordan
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Those worried about stealing can choose to be published only by those companies offering DRM, like Amazon. The author has more control than ever imo.
Well, we all know that existing DRM systems do not protect content, as they are easily broken. The only author who has control of his work is the one who never lets it see the light of day.
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Old 06-28-2010, 11:55 AM   #8
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Oddly enough, Steve, I have been pondering this question myself. In fact I had decided to throw in the towel, but now I've changed my mind. Authorship for me is a vocation. Whether anybody pays for my work is no longer an issue. I plan to continue writing, but simply as an exercise in self fulfilment. That's not to say that I will pay no attention to the reader, or that I won't be glad to be read.

I can't envisage any regulatory mechanism that would protect an author's rights. The average quality of work offered is bound to decline, and the only people able to follow the vocation of authorship at a professional level will be those, such as myself, of independent means. Ironically, those means were provided by authorship in the pre-internet age.

I blogged about this back in February, and my piece was discussed here at MR.
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Old 06-28-2010, 12:17 PM   #9
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Only if you equate "writing" with "writing fiction". There are lots of jobs available for writing outside the fiction field where it's entirely possible to earn a decent wage, whether it be working as a journalist, an advertising copywriter, or a soap-opera script-writer. "Writing" is an enormously wider field than fiction writing.
Yes, for now, but I don't think those jobs will survive the next ten to fifteen years either.
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Old 06-28-2010, 12:46 PM   #10
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Well, we all know that existing DRM systems do not protect content, as they are easily broken. The only author who has control of his work is the one who never lets it see the light of day.
Well, we may not have the perfect technology for protection yet - but people share dtbooks all the time, sometimes with many friends, so is what's happening with ebooks so different?

(Maybe it is - I haven't heard about widespread stealing.)
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Old 06-28-2010, 01:36 PM   #11
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I can only answer for myself - for me it's an exciting time. The traditional publishing world of 10 years ago repelled me so thoroughly I stopped writing. The opportunity for all world of today has me eagerly working at it every day. And while I'm not making the big bucks that many of you consider necessary, my little indie venture is firmly in the black and at this point making me a decent supplemental income.
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Old 06-28-2010, 02:00 PM   #12
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I have to admit, I am very tired of these sorts of complaints. Writing fiction for money is, and always has been, a sales job---there is no guarantee of income in a sales job. You have to both have a project, and---here is the tricky part---convince people that your product is worth paying for. There are some books I buy the day they come out, for example, but there are other books I borrow from the library because I do not enjoy those authors as much.

I also think that until authors band together in some sort of union or league or whatever to remove barriers that prevent paying customers with money from spending that money on their stuff, they have no right to complain. How many stories have we heard on this forum of people not being able to buy books they want to pay for due to geographical restrictions? Incompatible DRM schemes? Or on a lesser level, books whose e-price has not been updated to reflect a cheaper paper edition?

I realize these problems may not affect YOUR books, Steve. But if you are lumping authors together as some sort of species (rather than, as I see them, as lone wolf salesmen some of whom in any type of sales job will do better than others) then as a species there is an element of collective responsibility involved where all of you will have to work together to help fix some of these problems. Because as long as there are paying customers wondering why somebody won't take their money, nobody has the right to complain about lower sales---because they are not SELLING!

As for piracy, I think it is a mistake to base your business model on the notion that all of your customers are potential thieves and it is your job to thwart them. Stores like iTunes have proven that if you make product available at a price people want to pay, and make it simple and convenient for them to pay it, people WILL pay for stuff they can get for free. And it is worth noting too that the most 'pirated' ebooks of all are Rowling's and that's with no e-edition to duplicate with the touch of a button. So I really don't think ebooks as a concept are the problem here.
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Old 06-28-2010, 03:12 PM   #13
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Steve, I am a writer. Specifically, and like yourself, I am a science fiction author.

Do I understand the issues you raise? Yes.

Do I want to see more strictly defined and rigidly enforced laws to "protect" our rights? No.

From my perspective it is an excellent time to be a writer. We have the means to produce and distribute works according to our own sense of propriety; we have the opportunity to reach audiences on an unprecedented scale; we have the selection of both format and technology to ensure a diverse readership.

We also face the risk that our work, once circulated, will be further disseminated, without our permission and beyond the scope of our intent... and this is the same risk we have faced since the first literate peasant learned how to operate a quill. People haven't changed that much. Technology has merely altered the speed with which their intentions can be realized.

Charles Dickens, Jules Verne and Samuel Clemens all continue to sell, despite the fact that most of their works are freely available, without copyright, throughout the world. If we also manage to captivate imagination in the same way, ours might do likewise.

- M.
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Old 06-28-2010, 04:54 PM   #14
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I have never said a word about anarchy.

Baen Books is a publisher who makes a substantial share of their profits (I've heard in the 30%+ range, but have no documentation) from the sales of ebooks. DRM-free ebooks.

I don't know what percentage of David Weber's income is e- versus p-. Given how successful Baen (his publisher) has been at monetizing ebooks, however, I doubt if he's worried about his future.

Now, as to supporting laws that protect the rights of others ... first of all, we have to define "rights". We'll need a bigger thread. With regard to laws that protect the legislatively-granted privileges of others, we're looking at three things: 1) What exactly we're trying to protect, 2) Whether such laws are fair, and 3) Whether such laws are effective.

Starting with 1): Just what do you want those laws to do? Do you want them to secure a guaranteed income for authors? Do you want them to make sure that nobody ever reads your book without giving you money? Do you want them to do something different? A major source of problems with laws (and with governments) comes down to the passing of laws without fully considering what they are trying to accomplish. As a random example, it's illegal to play computer games in Greece (or it was; I haven't checked on it lately). I couldn't tell you what the original problem was. The manifestation of that problem was people spending their money gambling (video poker, etc.). The government decided to deal with the problem by outlawing all mechanical or electronic gaming devices. As far as anyone can tell, they weren't really trying to get net cafe owners arrested for allowing people to play chess online -- but that's what happened. They didn't think it through, and ended up with a mess.

Then there's 2) regarding whether any given law is fair. For an extreme example, a law saying that everyone else has to get off the road if I want to drive would certainly be effective in protecting me from the idiots who populate the local roads, but not very fair to everyone else. It's a matter of balance. Looking at the Greek game law, even if it shut down the illegal gambling dens (though given the resilience of such businesses, that's doubtful) it wasn't fair to the owners of perfectly legitimate businesses who were also closed down, people who were arrested for playing games or allowing them to be played, tourists who were threatened with having their handheld games, even their phones, confiscated by customs, and so on. It was a case of calling in an airstrike on a mouse. Yeah, you'll get the mouse, but the collateral damage is messy.

Finally we have 3), whether such laws are effective. The usual example is Prohibition in the US. It not only didn't work, but it spawned more problems (corruption on a massive scale, the explosive growth of organized crime, etc.) than it solved. As someone pointed out above, there are plenty of copies of J.K. Rowling's books available on the darknet, despite the fact that no legitimate electronic copies have ever been produced. The USSR, which tried registering and licensing every photocopy machine, every mimeograph, in their attempt to control samizdat publication, failed. They could, and did, imprison people in the gulags of Siberia for breaking those laws, and yet the laws were broken just the same.

So what exactly are you trying to protect?

How do you think it can be accomplished fairly?

Why do you think that method will work?

I'll bring up once again the example of the "losses" the BSA (that's the Business Software Alliance, not the Boy Scouts of America) claims that software companies are suffering due to illicit copying. They make their estimates based on the idea that every teenage warez d00d with a cracked copy of Photoshop CS5 would have bought that software at full retail price if he did not have access to it. That is obviously false, at least to everyone but BSA lawyers. If he didn't have Photoshop to put stupid captions on his facebook pics, he'd have used Windows Paint; he wouldn't have gone out and spent over a thousand dollars, or even a hundred dollars, or most likely even ten dollars, to do it. It's not a lost sale if it was never going to be a sale at all, and it's not lost money if that money doesn't actually exist (you're not losing a $1000 sale from a kid who only has $5 to his name). The same thing is true of ebooks. Joe Schmoe who grabs a bundle of 3,000 books off some torrent somewhere is not costing publishers $84,000. Why not? Because he would not have bought each and every one of those 3,000 books at their $28 hardback price if he didn't get them from the darknet. He might have bought a few paperbacks. Maybe used ones. He's not even going to read most of them (at 1 book a week, that's over 50 years of reading!). He downloaded the whole bloody zip because it was there; he really wants to read two or three of the books, maybe even a dozen, not thousands. So that $84,000 "lost sales" really works out to maybe ... $84. 1/10 of 1% of what it's claimed to be.

Perhaps you imagine a world in which every ebook is locked to the purchaser's DNA. Nobody could read a word of your books without giving you money. Wouldn't that be great? Well ... a while back, I was browsing the $1 charity book bin at my local supermarket, and I found a mystery novel that looked interesting. So I donated a buck to the charity of the month and snagged it. I liked it so much that I bought every other book in the series, and I'm waiting for the next one to come out this fall. In a world of DRM-locked ebooks, that never would have happened.

Remember that everything you do to restrict access to books discourages reading. The more expensive, inconvenient, and restrictive reading becomes, the fewer people will read. Further, they will raise fewer readers. Music, as a counter-example, is all around us. How many artists have you discovered because you heard a song on the radio, for example? You can't avoid it. But books don't play in front of our eyes without our active involvement. Readers don't just happen; they're raised and encouraged by other readers. So discouraging reading chokes off the market for books. There is another way in which the world has changed: 100 years ago, books were not only the primary, but nearly the only, form of canned entertainment. Today, they're competing with music, TV, movies, computer games, the Web, etc. Restricting access to books -- especially among the young, because the reading habit is usually formed early or not at all -- just makes those other forms of entertainment all the more attractive.

Here's something to think about. Imagine two possible scenarios regarding selling your books (e- or p-, it doesn't matter):

A) Every copy of every book is locked, by advanced handwavium-based technology, to a single individual and a single use. Those books sell for $5 each, and you sell 20,000 books.

B) Books are much the same as they are today. Any number of people can read a book, it could be resold, given away, whatever. Those books sell for $10 each, and you sell 10,000 books. Another 30,000 people read borrowed, resold, or otherwise transferred books.

Which scenario would you prefer, and why?

Now look back at your answer in light of my points 1-3 above, and think about what it is that you really want to do.
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Old 06-28-2010, 06:58 PM   #15
Steven Lyle Jordan
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Perhaps everyone responding to this thread is a writer (or potential writer) for whom writing is merely a fun hobby... something to do instead of vegging in front of the TV, making pottery for your garden, or knitting humorous cummerbunds. Some of the responses I've seen clearly belong to the "who cares about money?" concept, as well as the "As long as my work gets read" party... though, if you think about it, that party really isn't so big as to amount to much more than your close circle of friends, in most cases.

But there are those--like, yes, me--who saw an opportunity to finally get in on the racket that had been denied us by the Publishing Castle, shutting out newbies without so much as looking at their material, and maybe managing to earn an honest dollar from our labor (no, not necessarily enough to live on, but some monetary amount that served to indicate that our efforts are worth it--since the majority of us aren't being told by more than 2 or 3 people, if we're lucky, that our efforts are worth it at all).

And since, last time I checked, the world still runs on money, and my local restaurant won't take positive reviews to pay for my meal, it seemed that being able to profit monetarily from my efforts wasn't unreasonable. (Someone really needs to let me know when coin is no longer coin of the realm.)

It seems to me that it would be a shame if no fiction writer could make money anymore. And not just because my personal income will get smaller (believe me, it wouldn't be that much of a loss): There are other writers, some great, great writers, for whom money really is the only reason they write... and if they cannot make money, they won't write anymore. That means a lot of writing, great writing, that will never be seen by anyone. If I had the choice to pay for a book, to make sure a favorite author would be able to keep writing, or to deny him a dime and watch him give up writing for insurance adjusting, my choice would be to pay him. It surprises me how many people at MR believe that those writers are completely expendable, simply because they like my money more than they like my personal handshake. Am I really in the minority in that thinking?

Now, I never said that "everyone is stealing from me." In fact, as others have pointed out, all it takes is one... and suddenly, any hope I might have entertained to pay for my next lunch forever goes down the drain. And though no one wants to say it here, society has demonstrated time and time again that, if they know they can get away with something illegal, they'll do it... and often go out of their way to do so.

Prohibition is a perfect example, since it was brought up: Enough people were in on dodging the law and getting liquor, that it was easy at any level of society to do so; so, everyone did. What no one discusses these days, is the fact that the law was intended to prevent the existent problems caused in society by drunkenness and alcohol dependence, and whether that goal was worth making an effort--any effort--to curb alcohol usage. They also don't discuss whether we are really better off, because we are allowed to get drunk, climb into motor vehicles, and run other people down.

I did say that, historically, when technology or society changes, laws are written or amended to rein in chaos. What I have not seen or read is a clear example of why reining in chaos with laws is a bad thing. We are not, I repeat, not talking about locking people up, putting the world's IDs in underground government databases, or setting up a government person to shadow every other person in the world. Anyone who thinks we are is severely overreacting to the issue.

Of course, I admit that maybe I am overreacting when I consider theft of an ebook "chaos." True, I think of it as more indicative of a deeper societal problem: Ignoring laws, right or wrong, simply because it's so easy to do so. But if that moral issue is unimportant to others, I am willing to stand apart from the crowd in that respect.

So, I think that writers who are of like mind may very well wonder how today's society serves them. After all, if society can serve others, why not us? Or should all writers simply accept the status of third-class citizens--mere media-whores to society, without even the benefit of a whore's wages? I'm one guy, with a mild talent for storytelling, a mortgage that the bank is not going to conveniently forget about, and a number of people responding to my thread as if I am Evil Incarnate. Am I really that unusual?
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