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Piracy and Paganism

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  September 7, 2010 — 38 Comments

Thorn Coyle pointed me to a blog post at Scarlet Imprint, a small publishing company that creates high quality limited-run esoteric works (we’ve mentioned their recent poetry collection Datura here). In the post, the publishers decry the trend of their titles, and the titles of other small esoteric and occult publishers, ending up on file-sharing sites.

“This has been described as a ‘golden age of occult publishing’. From the internet it appears that there is a thriving international occult community and that publishers are reaping the benefits. This could not be further from the truth. Most magical publishers are very small businesses struggling to survive. Occult authors are making precious little, if any, money. This is not the motivation behind the work.

We work a seven day week at Scarlet Imprint because we believe in what we are doing. Producing books is a massively demanding occupation. We wasted another day today trying to stop illegal copies of our books when we could have been finishing Geosophia for the printers and working on our own writing. We are sick to death of this, as are Ixaxaar, Golden Hoard, Xoanon et al.”

This isn’t a new phenomenon, esoteric works have been pirated and put on various torrent sites for years now. The justifications for this are many. That they can’t afford the book, so it’s OK to steal it, that it’s out-of-print and the used book market is exorbitant, that the author is dead so his beneficiaries should release the works to everyone, or that they don’t like the organization or company that controls the rights to a certain author. Some pirates/file-sharers even claim that they are doing the authors/companies a favor by downloading the book for free, that it’s a form of promotion. This was an argument used against composer Jason Robert Brown when he tried to convince various individuals to stop trading his sheet music for free.

“Let’s say Person A has never heard of ‘The Great Jason Robert Brown.’ Let’s name Person A ‘Bill.’ Let’s say I find the sheet music to ‘Stars and the Moon” online, and, since I was able to find that music, I was able to perform that song for a talent show. I slate saying, ‘Hi, I’m Eleanor and I will be performing “Stars and the Moon” from Songs for a New Worldby Jason Robert Brown.’ Bill, having never heard of this composer, doesn’t know the song or the show. He listens and decides that he really likes the song. Bill goes home that night and downloads the entire Songs for a New World album off iTunes. He also tells his friend Sally about it, and they decide to go and see the show together the next time it comes around. Now, if I hadn’t been able to get the sheet music for free, I would have probably done a different song. But, since I was able to get it, how much more money was made? This isn’t just a fluke thing. It happens.”

The problem, of course, is that not all experiences are scalable, and what Trent Reznor or Cory Doctorow finds profitable and worthwhile may not work for every artist, publisher, or company. In the end, and this should be something key to anyone active within the Pagan and esoteric communities, it’s about consent. You can’t force your preferred business model or promotional ideas on someone else, no matter how right you think you are. If it’s unethical within the circle, it is certainly unethical outside of it. It doesn’t make you a romantic rebel, it just reveals you as someone with no consideration for how your actions will affect someone else.

Further, our businesses and artists are working on a very small scale, with very limited resources. A few sales could mean the difference between putting out another book or closing shop for some small publishing houses. Even if we allow that piracy against “big” acts or corporations is ethically neutral, to do it to one of our own, no matter what the justification, is a hurtful act. To use another example, Pagan artists like Pandemonaeon, Damh the Bard, or Emerald Rose produce very small runs of their CDs, usually only around a 1000 copies. Even “bigger” acts like Faith & The Muse or various artists on Projekt Records aren’t all that much bigger in terms of the number of CDs they produce and sell. Every time we download one of their songs or albums for free instead of ordering a CD or purchasing a legal download we literally cost them money.

“Last night I was directed to a very interesting New York Times graphic showing how little money is left in the music industry.  Wow! On the FB thread, there were a few comments along the lines of, “Yeah, I’m sure this affects the major labels, but Projekt fans wouldn’t steal.” Sorry to burst the bubble, but Projekt fans steal just like everyone else. Projekt’s total $$ is 50% of what it was a decade ago, and if it wasn’t for legal download (iTunes, mainly), it would be 25% of what it was 10 years ago. When somebody steals an Unto Ashes or Soulwhirlingsomewhere or Steve Roach or Black Tape For A Blue Girl album, that means less money for Projekt, less money for the artists, and a much higher chance that someday you won’t find anymore music from this artist.”

Some may now be wondering what my personal stance on this issue is, after all, I’m a big proponent of Creative Commons and making information easily available on the Internet. I don’t place ads on my site, don’t sell anything, and hold one fundraiser per year to help fund my activities. I also admire folks like Doctorow who are taking chances with their content in order to build new models of making money as a creative person. But that brings us back to problem of consent. I’m choosing this model of doing business. So when you share my articles around, you are doing so with my blessings. Since I’m coming from a place of grass-roots journalism, I want what I’m doing to spread with as few hurdles as possible. But I would feel very differently about it if I were selling a limited edition book, or trying to sell a CD. I love it when people forward my posts around on Facebook or via e-mail, but you are doing a Pagan musician no favors if you buy one copy of a CD and then allow all the other members of your magical or religious group to make free copies of it for their own use.

But even if the moral argument, or arguments from a stance of magical ethics, doesn’t move you there’s a very simple practical reason why we should support our businesses, writers, and artists with our money, and that’s because it enables them to continue doing what they do. Without enough revenue we don’t get better books, or new albums, or thriving businesses. We don’t build the infrastructure that so many say we want and need to move forward and service our ever-swelling ranks.  We are at a time of transition when it comes to media, and how our community as a whole responds to it will decide how able we’ll be to face the challenges and needs of the future. Times are tight, and the temptation of simply taking what we want is greater than ever, but if we give in to that temptation we risk hobbling our own progress in the name of short-term benefit.

Of the smaller Pagan presses Immanion/Megalithica have really stood out as a place that isn’t afraid to tackle  difficult and unusual topics or thorny issues. From serious-minded explorations of Otherkin, to in-depth meditations on Ogam, to updated reissues of out-of-print classics, the company has carved out a unique identity rather than trying to clone the industry leader. Their latest offering, “Talking About the Elephant: An Anthology of Neopagan Perspectives on Cultural Approporation”, is no exception. Edited by Lupa (“DIY Totemism”, “Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone”) , the book shines light on an often-contentious issue within the larger Pagan community.

“Talking About the Elephant is an attempt to shatter that stillness and to promote constructive communication about the issues surrounding cultural appropriation in neopaganism. The nineteen essays approach such practices and faiths as Celtic reconstructionism, neoshamanism, and ritual magic; and explore and critique topics ranging from academic appropriation of pagan and occult practices, to intra-community intimidation, and potential solutions to the problem of appropriation. The controversy surrounding cultural appropriation in neopaganism is nothing new; however, it’s time to stop pretending the elephant isn’t staring at us as we stand in silence. This powerful, diverse set of voices is poised to break open a new dialogue, one that must occur if our spiritual communities are to balance individual needs with concerned criticisms.”

It is safe to say that the issue of cultural appropriation is one that often generates more heat than light when brought up in  various forums. From Goddess worshippers trying to negotiate a manner in which to properly honor indigenous voices, to polytheistic reconstructionists balancing hisotrical and cultural fidelity with “UPG” (unverified personal gnosis) and syncretic urges, many of these discussions can end up as bitter flame-wars with both sides hurling brickbats at the other. “Talking About the Elephant” bravely steps into the midst of these simmering debates and attempts to both discuss the various forms of appropriation existing within modern Paganism (everything from Vedic Druids to Christo-Pagans), whether appropriations can or cannot be done respectfully, and the somewhat murky issue of authenticity. While there are a variety of perspectives on display in the collection, there is an overwhelming message here that modern Pagans do need to be more careful in spiritual seeking and how they present themselves. A message summed up rather well by Elizabeth Barrette in her essay “Braiding Pagans”.

“The responsible spiritual tourist, or pilgrim in search of a new religion, takes care to harm no one along the way. In order to survive and thrive in this increasingly multicultural world, we must learn to live together in harmony and respect each other’s traditions. That means sharing or trading our practices, not simply absconding with what we want and giving nothing in return. It means asking before taking, and sometimes, it means taking “no” for an answer.”

As for the contributors, the book features a veritable who’s who of rising stars in modern Paganism, including Erynn Rowan Laurie, Dr. Phillip Bernhardt-House, Lupa, and Kenaz Filan (among others). This is an excellent starting point in addressing this ongoing issue within our communities, and it would make and ideal centerpiece for a book discussion group. While I doubt we’ll ever completely settle the issues raised within this tome, I do hope that quality books like this will start to let more light in, and produce the constructive dialogue needed to move us collectively forward. The Wild Hunt recommended!

The Fate of Fate

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  November 11, 2008 — 1 Comment

The Minnesota Star Tribune does a charming profile of venerable UFO/occult/Fortean magazine Fate, interviewing editor Phyllis Galde about the magazine’s storied past and (somewhat uncertain) future.

Fate Cover from 1950

Fate cover from 1950.

“At first glance, Fate looks like a pulp-era throwback, which, in many ways, it is. Even when the cover doesn’t feature an image recycled from a Cold War-heyday issue, Fate leaves a decidedly retro impression. While most magazines have become increasingly visual, Fate sticks with its small, type-heavy basic layout and reader-submitted mug shots. Fate was born in 1948 Chicago, the creation of former “Amazing Stories” editor Ray Palmer, who is said to have spun the first UFO hoax. The magazine was sold in 1988 to Llewellyn, a St. Paul-based publisher specializing in New Age and occult titles. Galde, a former Lllewellyn editor, bought it in 2001.”

While Fate has an extremely loyal readership, it is also a shrinking one. Their subscriptions have halved in the last ten years, they’ve gone from monthly to bimonthly, and a large percentage of their subscribers are elderly (Galde quips that it is “the last thing people give up before they go to the nursing home”). Despite these setbacks, Galde is optimistic that the magazine will pick up new readers interested in hauntings, energy vortexes, and aliens.

“Galde said that 600 new subscriptions (some from lapsed former subscribers) have come in over the past three months and that the website (www.fatemag.com) gets 750,000 hits a month.”

But can a tiny niche magazine like Fate (or other Pagan/metaphysical/New Age publications for that matter) survive in our troubled economy? When so many magazines are going under that there can be a regularly updated blog about it, and when print institutions like Time, Newsweek, and the Christian Science Monitor are bleeding money, jobs, and undergoing drastic format changes is it only a matter of time before we start seeing the after-shocks among “our” titles? When even the normally recession-proof New Age community is taking a hit, Pagan magazine editors and business owners have to be a little worried.

Publishers Weekly has posted a fascinating article about shifts in the “New Age” section at bookstores. According to Juan Martinez, the occult is out, and Oprah-style spiritual awareness is in.

“Traditionally, the New Age category has catered to aficionados of the esoteric and the occult. Today the genre gratifies a more mainstream consumer. Fading is the era of crystals and tarots. Nowadays, readers seek science-based titles that will help them become healthier and more spiritually aware. As New Age is continuing to expand into other categories, many titles that were once the provinces of health, psychology, self-help and spirituality (to name a few) have now assumed the New Age mantle. According to Jo Ann Deck, publisher of Celestial Arts and Crossing Press, the new New Age reader is “more practical and less interested in nebulous philosophical and spiritual exploration.” As a result, the genre reads more like Dr. Phil and Jack LaLanne than Carlos Castaneda and Ram Dass.”

While most of the publishers interviewed agree that there is an increasing dominance of New Age “hybrids” that intersect with self-help and “mind/body” subject matter (which they heavily credit Oprah for), there is some disagreement over how poorly “traditional” New Age books are actually doing. While a Llewellyn spokesperson claims that recent fiscal and political troubles have spurred the rise of the “hybrids”, Jan Johnson of Weiser books claims those same factors are selling “old-school” New Age titles (crystals, channeled entities, aliens, etc) like hotcakes.

“Jan Johnson credits the “shaky economy… unpopular war… and the global economic crises” as the impetus for more readers turning to “books that admit the possibilities of extraterrestrials and other entities.” Cosmic Connection: Messages for a Better World by Carole Lynne (Apr., 2009) looks to outer space to answer Earth’s difficult questions. According to Johnson, “Lynne shares information from her off-planet guidance about what we can do to survive the coming changes.” Johnson promises more books from Weiser on topics similar to Cosmic Connection—’We’re seeing much more openness to what used to be considered esoteric, strange or weird.’”

Everyone seems to agree that the “New Age” section itself is recession-proof, but what does that mean for occult, magical, and Pagan-oriented titles? This is completely anecdotal, but I’ve certainly noticed that the magical/Pagan section at my local Barnes & Noble has shrunk down to a few shelves, while the “New Age” section next to it is as large as ever. Are tomes concerning “The Secret” overwhelming studies of the Sefirot? Do retail bookstore buyers prefer Eckhart Tolle’s “Inspiration Deck” to Aleister Crowley’s Thoth deck? Only the balance sheets of the Pagan and occult publishers know for sure.

In the past few days news has emerged that Internet book-selling giant Amazon.com has been pressuring small publishing houses who use print-on-demand services like Lightning Source (owned by Ingram), Lulu, and PublishAmerica to switch to Amazon’s own in-house POD service or have their “buy” button removed.

“Reports have been trickling in from the POD underground that Amazon/BookSurge representatives have been approaching some Lightning Source customers, first by email introduction and then by phone (nobody at BookSurge seems to want to put anything in writing). When Lightning Source customers speak with the BookSurge representative, the reports say, they are basically told they can either have BookSurge start printing their books or the “buy” button on their Amazon.com book pages will be “turned off.” The book information would remain on Amazon, and people could still order the book from resellers (companies that list new and used books in Amazon’s Marketplace section), but customers would not be able to buy the book from Amazon directly, nor qualify for the coveted “free shipping” that Amazon offers.”

This policy was confirmed by Amazon spokeswoman Tammy Hovey, who called the move “a strategic decision”, and that it wasn’t “an ultimatum” for smaller publishers to switch to Amazon’s POD service. While it may not be an “ultimatum”, it does put smaller publishers who use POD services between a rock and a hard place according to Lupa, an author and employee of Immanion Press.

“So why not just switch over to [Amazon's] Booksurge, you may ask? Two reasons … They’re more expensive – they want a significantly larger cut of the profits than many others … Their distribution isn’t as good … So why not just have accounts at both Lightning Source and Booksurge? Because the cost to upload books would double … So why not just use offset and other traditional forms of printing? Because you need thousands of dollars up front, even for a small run, plus warehousing space–and you have to hope that they all sell or else you’re out a good deal of money. Given that the big box stores are already biased against small presses, big losses are a major possibility …”

Lupa’s concerns are echoed by Virtualbookworm, a Lightning Source customer who was recently on the receiving end of an Amazon “strategic” strong-arm call.

“I’m going to refrain from editorializing on this move, since any talk of a monopoly could be dangerous (wink, wink). Instead, I just want you to think of what this could do to your title(s) and, eventually, your pocketbook. When you let everyone know your book was available, many of them probably went to Amazon to purchase it. If this new move (I won’t say threat) goes through, the only way readers will be able to purchase POD titles that haven’t also been set up through Booksurge/Amazon is through a reseller. The availability of your title will be choked, readers won’t be able to take advantage of free shipping (when the requirements are met) and the retail price will skyrocket (and just do a web search on the complaints about Booksurge’s quality).”

If this policy continues, it could conceivably hurt a number of smaller Pagan presses (Immanion/Megalithica, Asphodel, Waning Moon, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, etc) who utilize professional POD services to publish niche books that larger companies aren’t interested in due to a lack of mass-market appeal. For some of these publishers, revenues from Amazon is what keeps them solvent, since many book distributors don’t reliably carry POD titles. This trend could mean a big reduction in publishing diversity within modern Paganism, and may even result in some small publishing houses closing down.

For now, the POD publishing community seems to be waiting for the inevitable showdown between POD-heavyweights like Lightning Source and the Internet giant over the legality of this move. In the meantime, Lupa has some excellent suggestions for those who wish to support small Pagan publishers and voice their opinion of this development.

“In the meantime, you may want to consider alternate avenues to Amazon.com, such as Powell’s City of Books, Magus Books, Mystic Intentions and, of course, B&N, if you must order online. Additionally, some small pagan/occult shops, such as Edge of the Circle in Seattle, have excellent selections of books, including small press fare. And, if you feel up for it, contact Amazon (third box down on the right hand column) and let them know how you feel about this.”

Expect this news to break big as more and more publishers receive their “non-ultimatums” from Amazon reps, and POD companies consider legal action. If Amazon gets away with this recent move, the ecology of the smaller Pagan publishers could be irrevocably changed, and not for the better.