(Writing in a hotel room in Boston because it beats staring out the window at a blizzard as I wait for online check-in to open for my flight home tomorrow: Ramez will be back with one more blog entry on Thursday, and I'll resume blogging as usual next week.)
So, it all started because Chuck Wendig has a low opinion of the rhetoric that surrounds self-publishing. (Clue: if you thought the Bitcoin libertarian invasion was bad, you ain't seen nuthin' until you've seen the self-publishing cultists in action. I use the word advisedly: there's a role for self-publishing, but the cultists invest it with the unholy radiance of a multi-level marketing scam that will make them rich. And any denial of the FACT that you, too, could be richer than J. K. Rowling with just a little bit of work on the SEO side of your Amazon pitch will be met with ... well, you'll see. Just wait for the comment thread to get rolling!)
Unca Chuck wrote a blog entry about publishing and inadvertently suggested an experiment:
"Self-Publishing Is The Only Real Choice..."Unfortunately Chuck momentarily forgot that on the internet, nobody knows you're a dog. This truism has an arse-biting canine corollary: which is that nobody knows your proposed experiment is SPOILER a joke. So Baboon Fart Story became a real thing. A guy named Phronk (who has a PhD in psychology and writes a blog about putting odd things in coffee which means he is presumably smart enough to know better) went and slapped it together and published it on the Big River.
This usually sounds something like "The only real choice is either self-publishing your work or submitting to the gatekeepers," where the gist is, understandably, that self-publishing is like getting to jump right onto your flight and go wherever you want to go, and traditional publishing means submitting to an invasive colonic cavity search before you're even allowed near the gate.
This is true-ish, in that I can literally write the word "fart" 100,000 times and slap a cover of baboon urinating into his own mouth, then upload that cool motherfucker right to Amazon. Nobody would stop me. Whereas, at the Kept Gates, a dozen editors and agents would slap my Baboon Fart Story to the ground like an errant badminton birdie.
And in a matter of hours it gained a potload of five star reader reviews and it was only 99 cents so of course I bought it.
DIFFERENT KIND OF SPOILER: like the rest of the internet, Amazon.com have no sense of humour. So "Baboon Fart Story" fell off the internet in less than 24 hours, censored by the jack-booted fascist octopus of po-faced corporatism. (Alternatively, everyone's a critic. And just maybe Amazon felt slightly stung by the fact that somebody had proven Unca Chuck's thesis in public and thereby set fire to the twittersphere and made them look like greedy artless poopy-heads.)
But this is not the end of the Baboon Fart Odyssey.
Reader, I am a sucker. And as I said, I bought the story. Pranks deserve to be supported and 99 cents is not too much to stuff in the tip jar. Anyway, "Baboon Far Story" turns out to be licensed under Creative Commons attribution/noncommercial share-alike 4.0, and if the Big River Co doesn't put it back in the Kindle Store at once I shall, subject to Phronk's approval, share the misery by providing a free download of it here. (This is not a link. Yet. Jeff Bezos? You have been warned.)
But wait! There's more.
"Baboon Fart Story" isn't just the word "fart" repeated 100,000 times. No! It has commas. And paragraphs. And quotation marks — indeed it looks eerily like it has the structure of an English-language work of fiction. And this intrigued me. My first instinct was that it looked like Phronk had taken a real non-DRM'd ebook and done a global regexp search/replace, substituting "fart" for each word-shaped object. This would be the easy way to create a Baboon Fart Product. But according to Phronk, he did it the hard way: mad props to him. But in the mean time, this piqued my interest enough to prompt me to ask a question about copyright on Twitter (always a deadly-dangerous gambit if you have more than a thousand followers because: dog, internet, knowledge), which was this:
If I take an existing novel and replace all the words with words of my own, retaining only the punctuation and pagination, is this plagiarism?The imp of the perverse had taken the opportunity to stab my badly-scarred left buttock with her trident, and implant the idea that it might be
Twitter had some answers. "It's not plagiarism," said a self-identified net.lawyer: "but the original author might want to take out a restraining order." Another chipped in: "if that's plagiarism, every poet who ever used metre in verse is guilty." And an academic added, "are you applying for membership of Oulipo?"
Punctuation is metadata and it's potentially meaningful, but not meaningful enough to qualify as literature in its own right, it would seem (unless we're talking about a computer program—copyright applies!—written in Brainfuck).
And getting the punctuation right is traditionally one of the jobs that falls to the put-upon copy editor, who takes a manuscript supplied by an author and turns it into something that is readable, bereft of spelling and grammatical errors, contains no more than three semi-colons and six exclamation marks per sentence (so that the Grammar Nazis among the audience will have nothing to yell about) ... before sending it off to be typeset and turned into something visually attractive.
... And copy-editing is one of those tiresome jobs that the "gatekeeper" publishers insist is necessary in order to justify garnishing all the profits for themselves and paying us professionals a tiny fraction of our just reward, were we to see the light, switch to self-publishing, and drop all that tired old-school pessimism about publishing being "hard".
Which brings us full-circle, back to the start of our odyssey of exploration in the dimension of Chuck's diatribe about the cess-pit of bile surrounding arguments about publishing—seeing light through a baboon's ass.