What I Learned About Society From Amanda Palmer

I summed up a lot of how I felt about the recent furor around AFP’s “beer and hugs”-gate last week. I’m continuing my own observations here to clarify my own position and also to point out some things I’ve noticed here and there.

Yesterday I added my observations (and resolutions) as a publisher. Today, I’ll talk about some things I observed from a sociological/economic point of view. And tomorrow, I’ll sum up with a personal example.

Realistically, this whole argument comes down to economics and sociology. So a few observations that I haven’t seen (or heard) expressed too clearly yet…

  • Gross income is not the same as net income. That’s one reason I don’t give actual dollar amounts that often as a publisher. Quite a bit of money goes through my hands as a publisher… and very little of it stays there.  After sinking money back into advertising (and not counting my time), I (as a publisher) just barely broke even last year, and will probably be about the same this year.
  • Different industries have different power dynamics. The first objection I was exposed to about beer-and-hug-gate compared AFP’s offer to workers being overworked and emotionally abused at distribution centers (link to cache, as the site’s bandwidth has been pounded). Analogies across sectors are dangerous arguments for this reason; they’re fundamentally different experiences, not least due to the level of skill of the individuals involved.
  • Exposure is not a guarantee of success. As the converse of the discoverability problem, exposure doesn’t mean sales. It’s not hard to find stories of sites who have experienced the slashdot (or boingboing or lifehacker) effect, only to find that meant a tiny increase of income. Exposure alone doesn’t pay the bills. Doing excellent and creating excellent content where nobody knows about it also doesn’t pay the bills. Again, it’s about finding that pivot point, and it’ll be different for everyone. (Luck also matters a LOT here.)
  • There are strong, disagreeing, and poorly articulated reactions to different theories of value. I don’t hold with the neoclassical theory of value (e.g. “It has to have a price to have worth”) or Marx’s labor theory of value. Instead, I have a very utilitarian view that sees value as inherently subjective and individual; while there may be trends, they are not universal or constant. An hour of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo Child” is not of equivalent value to an hour of NASCAR racing or an hour of “Doctor Who”. While price is a rough approximation of value, it is only one of many metrics by which value can (and should) be evaluated. For the most part, I’ve noticed that the disagreements around AFP’s actions of late have centered on these different measures of value – and insisting that the right way to measure value is the one the person talking has. (I’ve been quite guilty of this, FWIW.)
  • I do have a personal moral reaction to economic injustice. Mine is triggered by individuals or organizations capitalizing on information inequality. This was a new thing for me to realize so clearly. As a practical example, I get pissed at vanity presses capitalizing on new writer’s lack of knowledge in order to sell them wildly overpriced services. Conversely, I was not particularly outraged by AFP’s original request because I presumed2 that the people she was reaching out to would have roughly the same level of knowledge about the risks and value of what she offered, and could make their own decision whether or not it was worth it. 

To add to that last point, I’ve had the misfortune of running across some vanity presses (calling themselves “publishers”) running pay-to-play schemes. So in order to do something about it, in the next week or so, I’m going to write up exactly how much the services some of these vanity presses offer would actually cost you… so that you can decide yourself if it’s worthwhile. (Hint: It’s less than what they charge, but it’s difficult to find that out without doing it yourself.)

As I say on the page where I offer publishing services:

You need to make sure that the person or organizations charging you are giving you a good value for your money. Is it something you could do yourself? Is it simply something you don’t want to do? Or something you don’t know how to do? I just had an individual pay me for burning CDs — simply because he had the money to spare, but not the time. That’s an informed decision — as opposed to someone not letting you know how easy it is to burn a CD anymore.

Because writers often demand these services, and the powers-that-be often tell them to do it themselves, it leaves the fledgling writer at the mercy of the scammers. That’s crap.

So I’ll offer these services, and gladly take your money. I’ll tell you how much it really costs, and what I’m charging you and why. And if you decide that you want to keep giving me money, I’ll be thrilled — because I know I’ll have earned a fair wage. If you decide you can do it yourself, I’ll also be thrilled — because I’ll know that you’re not falling prey to scammers.

As before, feel free to disagree in the comments! I’ll wrap this up tomorrow with a personal example of what I’m talking about and where I’m coming from as both an individual and a publisher.

2 Perhaps wrongly; I can’t know that.

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  1. September 20, 2012

    Your second point reminded me of the McSweeney's cartoon contest kerfuffle: writing has a strong tradition of working on spec, art and design have equally strong traditions of refusing to work on spec. I have no idea what goes on in the semi-pro/talented amateur music business.

  2. September 21, 2012

    And there's probably room to move in both of those industries towards the other side…

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