Writing Progress: Slow and Steady Wins the Race

As I mentioned earlier this month, I’ve never been able to write at a NaNo-style pace (which, I should like to clarify, I don’t even think is particularly fast for many writers–it only works out to about 1,700 words per day if you write seven days a week, which is eminently doable). For me, though, somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 words a day, five-days-a-week is the most I can muster. Still, if I can do that steadily, I can finish a short story in a month to six weeks, a novella in twice that time, and a full-length novel in around four months.

Or at least, that’s what the math says.

But lately, I have to confess, slow and steady has not described my writing. I’m having terrible trouble maintaining any consistency. Every manuscript I pick up with great excitement, I have to set aside a few thousand words later because I’ve run into a roadblock of one kind or another.

The result of my writing in fits and starts like this for practically the entire year is that I will only have completed two manuscripts this year–both of them 15,000 word short stories for Spice Briefs. That’s a pretty horrific track record for an entire year. I can do better than that and I should do better.

So what’s holding me back? Honestly, I don’t know. But I do know I have to make myself accountable in some way that’s a little more public for completing something. Obviously, the internal honor system isn’t working for me.

To that end, Beverley Kendall and I made a “bet” that we would each finish a manuscript targeted at Harlequin’s Presents line by the end of January. Our “punishment” for failure is to donate $25 to a political cause we both despise. That’s definitely a motivator, but I’m now sitting at just shy of 1,400 words on this manuscript and at the rate I’ve been going, I won’t finish until January of 2012. I’m determined to get to the 10k mark by the end of this week because next week I’m going on a 9-day vacation, which means I need to get myself a good, solid head start before I leave.

So, starting this week, I’m going to post my word count goal and then update my progress every day. My progress bar or “WIP Meter,” because I hope it whips me into shape, looks like this:

Promised to the Prince
1,000/50,000 words (1%)

My goal for this week, represented on the bar in dark blue, is to add 9,600 words, which is the 20% mark. Gulp. I’d better get cracking!

Is Amazon Guilty of Censorship? (Poll)

Since I posted yesterday about the brouhaha over The Book That Shall Not Be NamedTM, Amazon has seen fit to stop selling the book despite early, vigorous claims that it would not do so. My personal feeling is that Amazon pulled it not so much because of the barrage of complaints and more because, when the book climbed to 80 on the Kindle bestseller list, it was pretty much impossible for Amazon to dissociate itself from the book’s content because it was prominently displayed on the website. Moreover, because the book was self-published direct to Kindle, Amazon was not merely offering for sale a book that was provided to it by another publisher or seller (as is the case with some of the other rather eye-opening titles I’ve come across on Amazon in the past couple of days1) but in fact the entity that made the book available in the first place. Those facts, more than the threatened boycott and media firestorm, were likely what compelled Amazon to make its move.

What interests me here, though, isn’t whether or not Amazon did the right or wrong thing by pulling the book (personally, I think the execrable grammar and spelling were reason enough for deciding not to sell it, quite independent of the objectionable subject matter), but whether or not in doing so, Amazon committed an act of censorship. I’ve seen people arguing both sides of this since yesterday, and I’ve yet to entirely make up my mind which side is right.

For the sake of a touchpoint, the Wikipedia entry on censorship defines the word as follows:

Censorship is suppression of speech or other communication which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or inconvenient to the general body of people as determined by a government, media outlet, or other controlling body.

The two arguments go something like this:

1) Amazon’s refusal to sell the book is censorship because it is making the book unavailable and therefore suppressing it based upon its content.

2) Amazon is not guilty of censorship because, as a retailer, it has complete authority to decide what it sells. Brick and mortar book stores are not guilty of censorship because they don’t stock every single book ever published on their shelves, Amazon likewise cannot be guilty of censorshop for refusing to sell this (or any other) book.

On its surface, at least, I think argument 2 is pretty compelling. Retailers are not government entities and they would seem to have an absolute right to control their inventory to their own liking. Amazon can choose whether to sell this book or not sell it, but in choosing not to sell it, they are not committing censorship or book banning since the author has other avenues for publishing the “forbidden” content regardless of whether it’s available on Amazon (hello, a website/blog!).

And yet, I’m not 100% satisifed with that as my final answer. Part of the reason I’m not is because Amazon has muddled its role as a retailer with a new role as a distribution channel (or “media outlet”, to quote that Wikipedia definition). By opening up the Kindle platform as a vehicle by which writers can publish and sell their work, Amazon has stepped beyond the boundaries of simple retailing and made itself a kind of public soapbox. Granted, Amazon provides “guidelines” and claims it won’t allow you to publish anything that’s deemed offensive, but boy, that’s a tough call. Offensive is very much in the eye of the beholder. The Book That Shall Not Be Named1 appears to be pretty universally offensive (but not so universally sensitive that it didn’t sell enough copies to land in the top 100 on Kindle…/boggle with me now please), but there are plenty of other books that might be just as nearly universally offensive that Amazon hasn’t chosen to stop selling.

Beyond this, has everyone forgotten the original #amazonfail when, back in April of 2009, books with GLBT content and books labeled with metatags such as “Erotica” or “Sex” mysteriously disappeared from Amazon’s search results? This led to quite a brouhaha, with Amazon ultimately claiming it was a programming glitch and restoring all the items to full visibility a few days later. I bring this up because, while Amazon’s “programming error” led to the books not displaying in search results, they were still available for purchase and it was possible to find them if you knew what you were looking for. And yet, there was a huge hue and cry that, in hiding the books from view, Amazon was guilty of censorship. I myself said as much and, at the time, I felt it was true. (My outrage was probably magnified by the fact that my name and my Kensington book, then due out in June 2009, was one of the books that mysteriously disappeared from search results.)

Looking back on that incident with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I have to say that if Amazon’s removing That Book from its catalogs is not censorship, a deliberate decision to hide certain books from appearing in search results can’t be censorship, either. If a retailer has an absolute right to determine what products it will sell or not sell, it has an equally absolute right to determine how easy or difficult it will make it for customers to find and buy those products. It may be counterintuitive to stock a product and then make it practically impossible to find, but then, every time I go to the grocery store, there’s SOMETHING I need that I can find because I can’t figure out which “category” aisle it logically belongs to (and even within the same store chain, things are sometimes shelved in different categories). So, you know, it’s not like it’s anything PARTICULAR to booksellers.

Anyway, I still haven’t entirely made up my mind as to whether I think Amazon is guilty of censorship or not. I’d love to hear what you think, so if you’ve got an opinion, go ahead and vote in the poll and, if you’d like to elaborate on your vote, feel free to leave a comment.

[poll id=”10″]

1In addition to the classic handbook for bomb-builders, The Anarchist Cookbook, Amazon also sells such doozies as Killing Without Joy: The Complete How to Kill Book and Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacture: Including Recipes for Mda, Ecstasy, and Other Psychedelic Amphetamines. I’ve also heard there are some pretty vile books and videos on dogfighting available through Amazon.

Censorship and Morality vs The Law

So, this morning a shitstorm erupted on Twitter surrounding the fact that Amazon has permitted a self-published Kindle book purporting to be a how-to guide for child molesters to be sold on its site. (I refuse to link to the title of the book because for obvious reasons of not wanting to provide the book any marketing support, however inadvertent.)

My initial response to this book was something along the lines of “OMG, that’s promoting criminal activity, such a thing should not be allowed to be sold, and anyone who ever bought it should be immediately reported to law enforcement authorities.” And then, further reflection (along with input from some very sensible people like Jane Litte of Dear Author and Ron Hogan of of GalleyCat, Beatrice and other place on the internets) talked me down.

Here’s the thing… There’s lot of other books available for sale, both on Amazon and elswhere, that tell people how to do illegal things (and presumably not get caught). The classic one, obviously, is The Anarchist Cookbook, a standby reference for terrorist activity, but my favorite one pointed out to me during the Twitterstorm is titled Hit Man: A Technical Manual for the Independent Contractor. It’s pretty clear from the title that this book purports to train a reader into how to commit a contract killing (and presumably avoid being caught).

What I find interesting is that when this book was brought up, NO ONE called for its immediate removal from Amazon’s catalog. (Or at least no one I saw. I’ll admit, there may be some people in the Twitterverse I actually DON’T follow or converse with who were involved in this discussion.)

So, here’s my question: by what twisted sense of morality is it okay for Amazon to permit sales of a book that might lead someone ot commit MURDER but NOT okay to permit sales of a book that might lead someone to commit child molestation? Now, mind you, I don’t mean to suggest that child molestation is a fine and dandy thing. It’s wrong, it’s illegal, and it’s reprehensible to promote it. But on my scale of evils, murder is pretty much the worst crime you can commit. It deprives a person of life. There is nothing WORSE you can do to a human being than that.

And yet, it’s child molestation that gets the most visceral reaction and has people calling for blood. I find that…odd. What is it about this particular offense that gets us more riled up than the prospect inciting murder or terrorism?

Personally, I’ll admit, I would prefer it if Amazon didn’t sell the book in question. But I would also prefer it not to sell Hit Man and videos on how to train a dog to dog fight. I would also prefer it didn’t sell books on how to make gay people straight or anything by Glenn Beck. Unfortunately, however, even Glenn Beck has First Amendment rights.

Maybe you think that’s a joke and that I’m going overboard on the “slippery slope” argument. I mean, there is clearly a difference between a book that promotes/encourages illegal behavior and books that we just don’t like. And yet, I can’t help thinking that the slippery slope IS slippery here. Let’s say we succeed in removing books that are “guides” to illegal behavior. What’s next? Books that provide the same information as these so-called guides, but in the context of a fictional story? What about non-fictional memoirs that describe how the memoirist was seduced by his or her molestor (or that, perhaps, don’t condemn the molestor as roundly as society believes they should)? Where does it end?

I’ve got no good answers, but I know this–anyone who demands the removal of this book from Amazon’s catalog needs to examine why THIS book, in particular, should be banned when others that contain equally dangerous and potentially illegal information should not.

The Difference between Plagiarism, Piracy, and Copyright Infringement

Okay, I know all the lawyers out there are jumping up and down in outrage. Yes, yes, I know that from the point of view of the LAW, plagiarism and piracy are FORMS of copyright infringement. Saying you can quantify the difference between plagiarism, piracy, and copyright infringement is, in legal terms, a bit like saying you’re going to quantify the difference between sedans, coupes, and cars.

But I ain’t a lawyer and this ain’t a legal blog, so I can do what I want ;). And in the wake of today’s brouhaha over Cooks Source magazine’s unfair use of blogger Monica Gaudio’s work, I have seen term “plagiarism” to describe what happened here when this kind of copyright infringement probably falls under the definition of piracy.

Plagiarism is taking something someone else wrote, slapping your name on it, and passing it off as your own work. You can plagiarize the entire work or only passages from it. You can even be plagiarizing if you change some of the words. This is something we’re all taught as early as elementary school, although with varying degrees of enforcement. The thing about plagiarism is that you can plagiarize WITHOUT infringing copyright. For example, Pride and Prejudice is long since out of copyright and therefore in the public domain. If I copy the entire first chapter and put it up on my website with the claim that I wrote it, I’m not infringing anyone’s copyright, but I’m definitely plagiarizing.

So, what Cooks Source did when it appropriated Ms. Gaudio’s article was not plagiarism. This is not to say Cooks Source hasn’t plagiarized OTHER works. There’s some evidence, apparently, that it has. Cooks Source failed to get permission to reprint the article from the copyright owner (Ms. Gaudio), but they did correctly attribute the material to Ms. Gaudio.

Piracy originally meant copying an item and then reselling it as if it were the real thing (think pirated copies of software and you get the idea). In recent years, however, it’s come to apply more broadly to the practice of copying a digital file to a torrent/sharing site so that others can download it. In some cases, this is perfectly legal, even if the material bears a copyright. (I have several stories in free anthologies, for example, that are copyrighted, but available for free distribution. The copyrights clearly state that these works may be redistributed at will, so I have no objection to them showing up on torrent sites. In fact, I’m happy for the exposure–and it amuses me a little to imagine that some people who download them from these sites think they’re getting something they’d have had to pay for elsewhere.) Piracy is a form of copyright infringement, however, when you are giving away or reselling something when you demonstrably do not have permission to do so.

Piracy, then, is what Cooks Source did when it lifted the original blog post (which does have copyright protection despite the fact that it appeared on the Internet and not in a print magazine or book or newspaper) and reprinted it without permission. This is the case even though the blog post is available on the Internet for anyone to read free of charge. Ms. Gaudio does not need to show a loss of income/revenue or that Cooks Source is profiting from the sale of her work to prove piracy/copyright infringement because her exclusive right to determine where and how her content is used doesn’t depend upon whether or not she receives monetary compensation. Moreover, the fact that the article is free on the Internet does not mean that Ms. Gaudio, as the copyright owner, cannot require payment from another party to reprint/redistribute her work. She can, of course, allow the reprinting/redistribution to occur without charge, but if she says she wants to be paid and the other party refuses, she can withhold her permission even though she’s never earned a red cent from previous publication.

Some People Shouldn’t Be Allowed Near the Internet…

A case in point: Cooks Source magazine editor, Judith Griggs. Apparently, Ms. Griggs is under the impression that all content viewable on the web is in the public domain and free of copyright restrictions. Um, no.

True, what Ms. Griggs did when she copied an article from a blog site and reprinted it in her magazine was not plagiarism. But because she did not get permission from the author to use the article, she infringed the author’s copyright, which does exist despite the fact that anyone could go to the original blog and read the article for free. Just because something is freely available does not make “public domain.” (If that were true, the fact that you can download a copy of many of my books from torrent sites without paying for them would mean that they were in the public domain and not protected by copyright. Oy, wrap your head around the mess that would be copyright law if all it took to place something in the public domain was pirating it!)