An Unassuming Proposition

By: Mike Nov 16, 2014

With Apologies to Jonathan Swift's satirical A Modest Proposal


Earlier this week while poking around the Internet, I stumbled across a couple of articles. The first What I Want From Library Ebooks was published by Library Journal. It turns out that what the author wants from ebooks is the ability to buy a book at reasonable price (hardcover or below) with absolutely no DRM and distribute the book to unlimited simultaneous readers, including readers in other states or countries. Imagine, if a library could buy an ebook of a popular title for $25 or so, and freely share unlimited copies of that book worldwide! Culture and entertainment could be freed at last from the chains and shackles of commerce. O brave new world that has such visionary thinkers in't!

Then I read an article in Wired entitled Streaming Services Need to Pay Songwriters Fairly. Most big performers don't write their own music, and the songwriters are usually paid a percentage of the recording revenue. Streaming music platforms, like Spotify or Pandora pay so little that songwriters are earning tragically small amounts. A quick look at the comments section shows a distinct lack of sympathy for the songwriters or performers.

Obviously, the winds of change are blowing. The real question, of course, is what sort of change is required to weather the coming storm? How can the apparently-contradictory needs of creators and consumers be harmonized? After all, making something for nothing has always been a tricky business.

In a capitalist society effort is motivated by self interest, often in the form of financial compensation. Sadly, removing the compensation removes the incentive to perform. For example, this fall I told the nice gentleman who mows our yards that I wouldn't pay him again until spring. Predictably, he has ceased his labors on my behalf. What is wanted is a microcosm of people without capitalist motives who can be persuaded to exert themselves in the creation of music, literature and other entertainment without demanding monies in return.

But where would we find a group of people with time and (presumably) talent, who can be compelled to serve the greater good of society without pay? Big business has already plumbed the limits of seeking cheap labor through H1B visas, outsourcing to third-world nations and unpaid "educational" internships. However, there remains an unexploited labor force which is imminently biddable (or at least easy to manipulate): prisoners.

Obviously, there have been problems with prison labor in the past, and I implore the dear reader to hear me out before committing judgment. Why should, say, Patterson or King spend months hunched over a keyboard in a tiny office to produce a new novel (a service they would clearly charge money for) when the same service can be performed by any of hundreds of people already compelled to spend their time in a small cell? Would it not be a kindness to free the conventional author from such tedium?

Why should songs be penned by people who will demand remuneration from a frugal and intransigent public? Can they not be equally well penned by someone serving a life sentence? And here is the beauty of the plan: to a person without the freedom to enjoy the rewards money can bring, cash is a poorer reward than an extra portion of vegetables, and the public is already buying the vegetables. Given our nation's proclivity for lengthy prison sentences, there is no shortage of souls who have no hope of ever ever buying anything more costly than a candy bar, whose efforts could be procured for the most meager of rewards.

I urge the public to consider the very real benefits of creating art and music in prisons. For example, imagine if music lessons were compulsory for all inmates. The best and brightest could be invited to play in prison bands, and the prisons could be equipped with recording studios. This would completely eliminate the need for the existing music industry, at virtually no cost to the public. The prisoners would be overjoyed at the prospect of playing for your wedding reception or senior prom; the mere whiff of freedom a greater incentive than any five-figure check. And, with proper penalties for missed notes or shoddy timing, their performances could quickly surpass those of free-market bands.

From your dubious looks, I perceive that you have yet to grasp the full benefits of this plan. There are many prisons in this nation, and doubtless they would specialize. Perhaps Atwater penitentiary has a warden who prefers blues, while Leavenworth leans classical. An obscure state prison could become the epitome of training in writing fiction. Prisons could become the epicenters of culture. A prison like Allenwood could become the equivalent of Julliard, with prospective musicians vying for "admission".

This would handily solve the problem of keeping the prisons full. You see, since many prisons have been privatized, the states frequently sign contracts guaranteeing occupancy rates. Under our current system, a state with a contractual obligation to maintain a 90% prison occupancy level might be tempted to pass harsh laws or arbitrarily increase sentences if crime begins to decrease. But under my system, a prison that distinguishes itself in the creative arts will have people committing crimes merely as a means of seeking admission, and the prisons will stay full without unethical shenanigans. A bank robbery becomes not just a crime, but an audition!

Finally, criminal codes are infinitely mutable. If, for example, no prisoner can be found to emulate the literary skill of Nora Roberts, then Ms. Roberts can always be found to be a criminal. It is worth noting that our current system of unfathomable laws and constant surveillance is ideally suited for such tasks.

Show me the man, and I'll show you the crime.

In fact, it may not even be necessary to find a crime to charge her with at all. We already allow law enforcement to seize private goods and properties under asset forfeiture laws, without even the suggestion of a crime. Perhaps these laws could be expanded to allow talents to be seized as well. It's certainly possible to imagine that dear Nora is doing something unsavory, so it should not unduly strain our current vision of justice to seize her time and talents for the good of society. If that still seems unfair, bear in mind that sometimes a few must suffer injustice to promote the greater good, and the ends will doubtless justify the means.

So there you have it, a modest proposal that will insure the continued production of arts and entertainment without crass commercial rewards, improve the life of prisoners, and help maintain the legally-mandated minimum prison occupancy levels, all without costing the public more than a few extra servings of ice cream.


In case it has somehow escaped the reader's notice, the preceding article was satire heavily seasoned with black humor. This suggestion was not serious, and I have no desire to exploit prisoners or harm artists, honest!


Mercy Is Back in Comics

By: Mike Aug 14, 2014

A few years ago we launched a series of Mercy Thompson comic books. The series launched with an origin story called Homecoming that was eventually released as a graphic novel, and then we tried to adapt the a couple of the Mercy and Alpha and Omega novels to the comic book format. We got to work with some very talented people, and it was fun to see the stories in graphic form, but there was something missing.

Almost two years ago, we called Nick Barruchi, the president of Dynamite, with a feeling of dread in our stomachs. We carefully explained that while we enjoyed working with him and his crew, we felt that final product was slightly lackluster, and that we would not be continuing. Much to our amazement, instead of anger and blame, Nick agreed with our assessment. He carefully explained that re-hashing the novels meant that we were playing to a limited audience. That meant production costs had to be controlled, which affected how much time the artists and writers could spend, which obviously affects the final product. Then he made us an offer — if Patty would come up with an original story idea, something that she would be comfortable basing a novel on, and let him base a graphic novel on it, he would do his best to blow her away.

We thought it over, and decided to take a chance. Patty thought up a creepy story that might have made a good novel, and sent it to Nick. Frankly, our expectations weren't too high. Then we saw the story draft, and it was good. We began to hope. The first art rolled in, Patty asked for a few corrections, and they were made promptly and the revised panels showed a great deal of promise. We got more excited. Then we saw the colored versions, and we have to admit that Nick has kept his word. This is a comic we're proud to be part of.

The original plan was to skip the comic medium, and publish this as a stand alone graphic novel, but after seeing the first dozen or so pages, it was decided to release it in comic form first. So, the first eposide of Mercy Thomposon: Hopcross Jilly will be available in October. You can find more information on Dynamite.com.