Monday, March 06, 2006

The Basement Interviews

A short tale about the challenges and opportunities facing scribblers in the age of the Internet, and six rules exemplified.

Three years ago I had an idea for a book. It was a simple enough idea: I could see that an increasing number of "free" or "open" movements were developing, and that while they all had different aims, they appeared to represent a larger and more generalised development than their movement-specific objectives might suggest.

Indeed, I felt that they looked set to exemplify the old adage that the sum of some phenomena is always greater than the constituent parts. But if that was right, then what was the sum in this particular case?

I was also intrigued as to why all these movements were developing now. For while it was apparent that Open Source and Free Software, Open Access, Creative Commons, Open Spectrum, Open Biology, Open Journalism, Open Politics, Open Data etc. all owed a great debt to the development of the Internet, it was not clear (to me at least) that the network was the only driver.

The genesis of the Free Software Movement, for instance, could be said to lie in the particular culture of the Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT in the 1970s, rather than the Internet. At that time, after all, software programs were still generally written as part of large-scale centralised projects, and distributed on floppy disks or tapes. So I suspected that the Internet was not a sufficient explanation on its own.


I was also very curious about the individuals who had founded these movements: What has motivated them? Why did they feel so passionately about the cause that they had adopted (and it was clear that most of them were extraordinarily passionate advocates)? Why did they think these open movements had developed when they did, and what did they think the various movements had in common (if anything) with one another? Finally, I wanted to know what big picture issues they saw behind these movements, and how they saw them developing going forward?

I concluded, therefore, that a good way of achieving my aims would be to devote each chapter of a book to a Q&A interview with one of the key people — people like John Perry Barlow, John Gilmore, Michael Hart, Richard Stallman, Eric Raymond, Linus Torvalds, Jay Rosen, Lawrence Lessig, Joe Trippi, Harold Varmus, Vitek Tracz, Stevan Harnad, Paul Ginsparg, Cory Doctorow, Yochai Benkler, Richard Jefferson etc. etc.

My plan was to then top and tail the interviews with an opening chapter introducing the various movements, and generally setting the scene, and a closing chapter in which I would try to sum up what I had learned from the interviews. One benefit of this approach, I felt, was that readers could ignore my interpretations, and form their own conclusions from what the interviewees themselves said.

The proposal

In 2003, therefore, I put together a book proposal and sent it off a number of publishers. Several got back to me and said they liked the idea, but they felt that since many of the people I planned to interview, and the movements that they represented, were somewhat controversial they would prefer that the book included interviews with representatives from some of the companies and organisations whose business models and traditions were being challenged by the new (not to say subversive) thinking being promulgated by these movements — representatives, that is, from companies like Microsoft, Reed Elsevier, Thompson Corporation, Monsanto, Knight Ridder, and industry organisations like the Association of American Publishers, the Recording Industry Association of America, and the Motion Picture Association of America.

It was a fair journalistic point, perhaps, but I could not see how it would address the questions I wanted answers to.

Moreover, having spent most of my journalistic life interviewing "suits", and writing up their clich├ęd bizbabble and product pitches, I was really not interested in doing it for a project like this.

The model I had in mind was more like Steven Levy's fascinating book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (in which, as Wikipedia puts it, he "describes the people, the machines, and the events that defined the Hacker Culture and the Hacker Ethic"). But rather than tell an unfolding story through a single authorial voice I wanted this one to be told primarily in the words of the actors themselves.

Rule one

It occurred to me, however, that there was one publisher who might be interested in a book structured in the way that I envisaged: California-based O'Reilly had built a formidable reputation as a supporter of the Open Source Movement, and the company was the pre-eminent publisher of books on Open Source.

Moreover, their web site actively canvasses for books with "Big Picture Technology, Social Impact, and Geek Culture" themes. As their "So You Want to Write a Book?" section puts it, "Technology is changing the world. Our goal is to document those changes not just with hands-on books for practitioners but with ones that help the general public to understand the implications of technology." So I e-mailed my proposal to O'Reilly.

My message disappeared into the ether without even the echo of a bounced e-mail alert.

Rule one: e-mail is a very precarious way of communicating with potential publishers.

Rule two

I had half forgotten the project when, in May 2004, I received an email from Tim O'Reilly, the founder of O'Reilly. I had apparently been put into his marketing mailing list after interviewing him in connection with an article I had written for the Financial Times about the Open Publication License.

The e-mail was an invitation to attend his new Web 2.0 Conference. I took the opportunity of replying to the message, saying that while I couldn't spare the $700 conference fee he was asking for (or indeed the cost of a flight to the West Coast of America where it was taking place), as I had inadvertently gained his attention maybe he could he find out what had happened to my book proposal.

A short while later Tim O'Reilly's assistant emailed me to say that my proposal had apparently gone astray, and suggested I send it directly to her.

Rule two: e-mail can nevertheless be a very effective way of reaching inside a publisher, if you can find a direct path to the top guy.

Several months later an O'Reilly editor e-mailed me to suggest that I send a sample interview. That seemed a good way forward, so I arranged an interview with Vitek Tracz, the founder of the open access publisher BioMed Central — an abridged version of which was subsequently published in Information Today in January 2005.

The interview was well received by O'Reilly and — in February 2005 — I was commissioned to write the book.

That was when the hard bit started. Somewhat naively, I had failed to appreciate the challenge I would face in getting the attention of the people on my list. That said, all bar Linus Torvalds (who is notorious for his aloofness), responded positively to my request for an interview. The hard part was pinning them down to a precise day and time. After a while, however, I began to make some headway, and as I completed each interview I forwarded it to the O'Reilly editor, as he had requested.

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with the editor declaring that the interviews were "some of the best I've read".

But I still had to get a bunch more very busy people to find time to speak with me (and since I was keen to do in-depth interviews I was asking them to give up a lot more time than the average journalist asks for), so it continued to be a frustratingly slow process, and I realised that writing the book was going to take longer than I had anticipated.

It also meant that the early interviews (which I had printed out in case both my hard disk and backup system jointly suffered cardiac arrest) were in the meantime sitting gathering dust in my basement.

By last December, however, I had broken the back of the book, having completed eleven interviews. In theory, therefore, I had triggered at least two advance payments from O'Reilly. I was promised several times that a cheque would be sent to me — shortly. But I waited in vain.

Rule three

Instead, in the third week of February this year I received a short email from the O'Reilly editor I had been dealing with. "Our publishing program has been hit on multiple fronts, including the continued downturn in the tech sector, outsourcing of jobs [and] the decline of independent booksellers."

As a consequence, he added, "almost all my trade books have been cancelled including yours [and] the company is making a number of editorial cuts."

In short, rather than send me the advance that it had promised (and clearly owed me), the publisher had unilaterally ripped up our contract.

O'Reilly did, however, offer to publish the interviews online. As the editor put it, "I've been trying to find another way to both publish and be associated with the fine material you've produced."

The company's online publishing proposal, however, was not enticing. Not only was I losing the advance I was owed, but O'Reilly was now proposing to pay me four and a half times less than the advance in the original contract, and a royalty figure of 10%, rather then the original 12%.

I could understand O'Reilly's position: business is business after all, and the company had clearly been hit by the same technology waves that are buffeting so many businesses. As O'Reilly indicated, for instance, the growing power of online booksellers like Amazon is killing off independent booksellers, and driving down publishers' margins.

Fortunately, it had never been about money for — in fact any scribbler planning to write the kind of book I had planned would be living in Cloudcuckooland if he thought he was going to make much money from it. For me it had always been a labour of love.

Nevertheless, I felt a betrayal of trust. O'Reilly and I had effectively entered into a joint venture, but they were insisting that I take the full financial hit. They had also failed to comply with the contract they themselves had written. This was particularly saddening for me given that O'Reilly has always promoted itself as a "right-on" company. And it wasn’t as if it had gone into Chapter 11, and so did not have the wherewithal to meet its obligations.

I was also puzzled as to why — given that publishing on the Web incurs no printing costs — the proposed royalty figure had fallen. In my eyes something was wrong with the picture.

Rule three: as we continue to make the transition to a global networked economy publishing business models are increasingly vulnerable; and nice guys clearly finish last!

Rule four

The question was: should I nevertheless agree to publish the interviews with O'Reilly? Money aside, one problem I perceived was that people would have to pay for the interviews before reading them, since O'Reilly was going to drive them through a secure payment system before they could access them. This, I could see, would significantly reduce the number of potential readers.

With a book, after all, it is possible to browse before buying, and gain a sense of whether the purchase is worthwhile. And online bookstores are increasingly virtualising this ability with techniques like Amazon's "Search Inside" feature.

So while I understood that, like so many publishers, O'Reilly had to feel its way in the brave new world of publishing, I wasn't very keen on their proposal.

It began to look as if the interviews I had done were set to sit in my basement indefinitely!

Rule four: no one yet knows the right formula for online publishing, and every new project is a step into the unknown.

Rule five

However, it was also clear to me that in the age of the Web self-publishing has never been easier. I had been operating a blog for over year and I had a copy of Adobe Acrobat sitting on my computer. It appeared that I could do most everything that O'Reilly was proposing to do in its plans for publishing the interviews online, but I could do it in my own way.

Moreover, while it was uncertain that I could make any money by publishing them myself, I wouldn't need to give 90% of any revenue to O'Reilly; and it wasn’t clear that O'Reilly could make any money publishing them online either. Crucially, I was free to offer people the choice of whether or not to pay to read the interviews, and in the process maximise the number of potential readers.

So I e-mailed O'Reilly and said that I intended to publish them on my blog, but rather than insist people pay to read the interviews I would invite them to do so — after they had read them.

I also asked O'Reilly if they wanted to be involved in my revised plan. "What you are planning sounds good, but I'm afraid it will confuse our audience because we're going to start asking them to pay for PDF's", came the reply.

So while my book had been killed by new technology, I thought I would try and resurrect it (or some of it) by exploiting that technology myself.

Rule five: in the age of the Web anyone can be a publisher.

Rule six

In the next few days, therefore, I plan to publish the first interview, which is with the founder of Project Gutenberg Michael Hart.

My aim is to publish an introduction to the interview on my blog. Then anyone who wants to read the interview itself will be able to click on a link at the bottom of the introduction and access a PDF file.

If after reading the interview people believe it has been sufficiently well done to warrant it, I invite them to make a small voluntary contribution to my PayPal account. The interviews will be published under a "some rights reserved" creative commons licence, and no one will have to pay anything if they don't wish to.

Of course, I don't know if anyone will pay, but I am hopeful some will. I recently conducted a similar experiment, and some good souls did indeed send me contributions — including one who disagreed with what I had written. As he commented on my blog: "Interesting article and I'm going to send you a PayPal micropayment ... but not because I agree with you."

So who knows? As I say, this was never about the money. On the other hand, as a freelance writer I live by selling my words, and it would be nice to be able to continue paying my bills!

Right now, however, my primary objective is simply to get these interviews in front of people. The time has finally come, I feel, to "free the basement interviews".

Rule six: If you have something you really want to publish, just do it. It's that easy now!


The interview with Michael Hart has now been published here.

The interview with Richard Stallman has been published here.

The interview with Eric Raymond has been published here.

The interview with Jay Rosen has been published here.

The interview with Lawrence Lessig has been published here.

The interview with Cory Doctorow has been published here.

The interview with Vitek Tracz has been published here.

The interview with Harold Varmus has been published here.

The interview with Richard Jefferson has been published here.

The interview with Joe Trippi has been published here.

The interview with Stevan Harnad has been published here

The interview with Peter Suber has been published here.

The Basement Interviews index is here.

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