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Reopening the Sundman files


Gonzo SF novelist John Sundman was an early adopter of Creative Commons and of publishing books on the web before Creative Commons existed. About three years ago I read his first two books, Acts of the Apostles and Cheap Complex Devices (both highly recommended) and intended to interview him shortly after. The interview didn’t happen (entirely my fault), but with serialization of The Pains now is an opportune time to reopen the Sundman files…

Three years ago you licensed two books under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license, now you’re serializing a third, The Pains, under the current version of the same license. As a repeat user, how has Creative Commons and this license worked for you?

The biggest consequence of my using the Creative Commons license has been the change in my own head.

In 1999, in what was a relatively rare move at the time, I put the first 13 chapters of Acts of the Apostles, in HTML, up on my website wetmachine. This was a teaser, about one third of the book. If you wanted to read the rest of the story, you had to buy the book from me. This strategy worked very well. I was a totally unknown, self-published author, and within a few months I was getting book orders from everywhere. Michigan! Florida! Saskatchewan! Korea! Sweden! Singapore! I was so paranoid about “losing sales” to people who would read the whole book online that I didn’t even have the sources on a machine that was connected to the Internet.

In 2002, I put the first bit of Cheap Complex Devices online in HTML, and made the PDF of the whole book available for five bucks. This was an honor system, no DRM, and I was nervous about it. I sold about a hundred such licenses, which was a pretty easy way to earn $$.

Then I went to Etech in 2003 and found out about Creative Commons, and impulsively in the spirit of the moment, I put the complete sources to both books up. I actually did this while at Etech, with the help of Rusty Foster, of Kuro5hin fame.

Already my thinking had started to change. Whereas before I had been concerned about “canabalizing” sales of my books (and ebooks), I had started to become more concerned with creating a wider audience. I saw what Cory Doctorow was doing, self-promotionwise, and it was clear that he was a rising star. Now, I love Cory and his books, but I don’t think they’re any better than my own, so I had to ask myself “why him and not me”? And part of the answer, in addition to his incredible work ethic and outgoing personality and sheer volume of output, was that he was giving his stuff away, and even encouraging people to mash it up. “Mashing up” was and still is considered “ripping off” by lots and lots of people — I used to be in that camp — and so his way of looking at things was a challenge to me. But the results were good for him, and besides, it looked like fun.

People continue to download my books and they continue to buy print copies. I assume that having the free PDFs has contributed to my overall sales rate of printed books, but I have no way to test that hypothesis. It’s not like I’m getting rich off of this hobby, by the way. In a good year I make a few thousand bucks. I could probably make more money with a lemonade stand. But I’m certain that having the books available has made them more visible, and has made self publishing at least plausible, and more fun. People assume self-published books suck, and I used to spend a lot of energy defending myself to cynics and skeptics. But when your books are completely available for free online, you don’t have to spend any energy at all trying to convince people that you are a legitimate writer. And now Cory Doctorow has initiated this meme that I’m a “gonzo SF novelist.” Hey look, I’m a rock star! That’s kind of neat.

The reason I like the Creative Commons “no derivatives” license is that I think at least one of my books would make a great movie, and it would piss me off no end if some big corporate studio were to get rich off of it and not compensate me. I don’t like big media companies, in general. So Creative Commons makes me feel like I’m not totally naked in that respect. (Not that I think that was a likely development, but one never knows, does one?)

Nowadays I don’t spend any energy at all worrying about how to “protect” my investment in writing. I just don’t think about it. Rather, I think about how to make more of the opportunities afforded by today’s technology. I’m pretty old fashioned in a lot of ways and I’m not of the gee-whiz camp that a lot of your readers are. I’m more of a technoparanoid than a champion of the future. But I figure that I’m not going to stop the tide, so I might as well have some fun surfing.

Thanks for that very informative answer. I hate to be a pain but there’s an obvious followup. The “no derivatives” part of the license is a blanket prohibition on derivative works (excepting fair use of course), including noncommercial “mash ups.” The noncommercial provision by itself prevents big corporate studios (or anyone) from making money with your work without first negotiating with you. Usually people use a “no derivatives” license because they don’t want their message changed or in the interest of artistic integrity. Could you expand on why you chose “no derivatives” or perhaps consider switching to a license that allows derivatives as Cory did after a year? 🙂

For the time being I think I’ll leave as is for three reasons:

1) Because the artwork is copyrighted to the artist, Matthew Frederick Davis Hemming, I don’t want to offer a blanket release on rights to my part of the book lest there be any confusion about that. He and I have not worked out how we feel about modifications to “the-thing-as-it-is”. Also, because the roll-out is incremental and so forth, I’m exploring new territory. Therefore I want to control some of the variables.

2) In the case of a translation into a foreign language, I would at least like to discuss the approach with the translator. Especially since that’s a case that naturally lends itself to financial
transactions. I do point out that in the cases where I’ve been approached for translation rights to Acts of the Apostles, I have given them, with no charge. I don’t know if the translations ever appeared, although I do know a translation into Russian was at least begun.

3) I’m lazy and don’t want to bother updating the website, or even thinking any more about this, before you post the blog entry.

I’m especially sympathetic with the third reason given that it’s taken me three years to conduct this interview. Thanks again for the informative answers and good luck with The Pains serialization!

Check out John Sundman’s books on

Posted 27 April 2006