Saturday, April 25, 2015

Self-publishing: The Tragedy of the Tragedy of the Commons

Of the many eponymous laws (laws named after people, like Moore’s Law of integrated circuits), one of my favorites is Godwin’s Law of the internet.  It states:

Godwin’s Law - As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.

What’s great about this law is that it is not only true, people too quickly play the Hitler card as debates rage on, but it has a helpful corollary.

Godwin’s Law (corollary) - If you resort to comparing something to Hitler or the Nazis in an argument: you lose.

The corollary has a welcome corrective effect for online debates. People familiar with the law are more hesitant to invoke Nazis for fear of being told they lost the argument.  Which is a good thing all around for internet discussions.

Thus, in an effort to improve the quality of debates about indies and self-publishing, and hopefully immortalize myself by joining the ranks of Godwin, Moore and Murphy, I nearby introduce Mackay’s Law.  It goes like this:

MACKAY’S LAW - If someone invokes the Tragedy of the Commons when discussing self-publishing, they know nothing about the Tragedy of the Commons.

The corollary is: 

MACKAY’S LAW (corollary) - If you invoke the Tragedy of the Commons in an argument about self-publishing: you lose.

I created this law not simply for personal aggrandizement, but out of absolute necessity.  Seriously, this has to stop.  The Tragedy of the Commons has nothing to do with self-publishing.  Yet it is constantly being brought up, usually by supporters of traditional publishing, as if it were relevant to the topic.  It isn’t.  It has no more relevance to self-publishing than The Monroe Doctrine has with streaming music subscriptions.

The  "Tragedy of the Commons" was an economic theory published in 1968 by Garrett Hardin.  It’s name was inspired by 1833 pamphlet by English economist William Foster Lloyd.  In short, it goes something like this: farmers are allowed free grazing on a "commons," an area that locals can use for free.  Because they only care about their own interests, they overgraze, the commons are ruined and everyone suffers.  I prefer to think of it as the story of the stupid farmers.

To the extent that the Tragedy of the Commons has anything of value to say about real life economics (and it doesn’t have much, as I’ll explain later) it is only in relation to discussing situations involving limited resources.  Self-publishing, however, is particularly notable for it’s lack of conventional limitations.  That’s what makes it so revolutionary.  There is basically limitless shelf space for an boundless number of writers to market as many ebooks as they like to a virtually inexhaustible number of customers (because new babies are being born every day and will eventually grow and learn to read and spend money).  Yes, I suppose there are some theoretical limits to self-publishing.  It’s possible the Earth will be consumed by the sun and all of mankind will perish.  Or an inevitable Zombie apocalypse.  But other than that, there is no practical limit on the number of books that can be published online, the number of writers who can write them, or the amount of money writers can theoretically make from those books.  So a theory based on problems with limitations is particularly irrelevant.  Yes, not all writers are guaranteed to make money by self-publishing, but the Tragedy of the Commons never said anything about making money.  It was about destroying a limited resource, not the difficulties of making money in highly competitive market.  There is no economic lesson to be learned from farmers overusing free grazing land that can be applied to the disruptive effect of limitless shelf-space, low cost publishing and easy world wide distribution of literature. 

But, oh boy, do people like to reference the Tragedy of the Commons (TC for short) when talking about self-publishing.  It doesn’t matter that they’ve never read the original paper or studied its history.  They think TC is a kind of “shit happens” mantra for arguing that good things never succeed.  And there are lots of people who want self-publishing to fail, because it is a really good thing (for self-publishers and readers, not so much for traditional industry pundits grasping for reasons why it can’t work).

I briefly took down the Tragedy of Commons in Part Two of my series on the “Too Many Writers” meme, but it deserves a more detailed thrashing, and a corrective eponymous law, in hopes of discrediting it once and for all.

It was recently invoked by an unlikely, and frankly disheartening, personage: The Data Guy, Hugh Howey’s secret sharer and the math genius responsible for Author’s Earnings, a critical and wonderful resource for self-publishers.  There’s no doubt about what side The Data Guy is on in regard to self-publishing.  He’s for it.  On top of that, in all his commentary on Author’s Earnings and his posts in various blogs, he is unfailingly smart, knowledgable and eloquent on all issues and topics swirling around the indy scene.

So what the fuck was he thinking when he brought up the Tragedy of Commons in an online discussion about ISBN numbers and self-publishing?  Sadly, I have to invoke Mackay’s Law against him: he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  His quote was made in the comments about a Porter Anderson post and then Anderson referenced it again in a new post.  Here’s the quote:

“I agree also with your and Jane's comment that indies need to start thinking of themselves as an industry sector. We've outgrown the "counterculture" phase now. We're an established part of the business landscape, and if we want to help reshape the industry and level the playing field to our advantage, we need to "stand up and be counted." But at the same time, it's harder to make a case to indies that they should play by the industry's established "rules," when doing so imposes asymmetrical business costs on them while providing no measurable near-term business benefit. It's a classic tragedy of the commons.”

No, Data Guy, it’s not a classic Tragedy of the Commons.  The issues around a counter culture growing into a business sector is not what the TC is about.  The issue of whether it is in the interests of indy writers to use ISBN’s has nothing to do with TC.  The fact that indies are charged more for ISBN codes than larger publishers doesn’t relate to TC, even metaphorically.  Because, most importantly, the Tragedy of Commons is an economic theory that is totally irrelevant to anything having to do with self-publishing.

Well, not completely irrelevant.  It’s relevant to self-publishing like evoking Hitler when discussing whether comic books are sexist, or comparing breaking DRM to Nazi war crimes.  That is, it is only relevant because it shows the persons evoking it have lost the argument.

That is why it was so sad for me to see someone as smart as the Data Guy bringing up TC in such a careless way and lending it validity.  The Tragedy of the Commons is normally brought up by people rabidly opposed to self-publishing.  That’s why Anderson, a traditional industry apologist, quickly ran off with the anti-self-publishing scissors the Data Guy handed to him.  He used it to help justify a meandering post to the effect that self-publishers should shut up about how great self-publishing is.

While we can explain away the Data Guy’s transgression with Mackay’s Law, a larger question  is why do people who hate self-publishing gravitate to the Tragedy of the Commons in the first place?  Why fixate on TC?  It is certainly not as well known as Hitler and the Nazis.  Still, there is a long history of TC being used to support evil arguments.  When bad people are looking for an "economic" excuse to do something wrong, or kill something good, the Tragedy of the Commons is frequently the club they grab for.   Not because it makes sense, or is true, but like the “shit volcano” meme invented to discredit self-publishing, it is a colorful way of dismissing positive things by making comparisons to stupid famers, ruined fields and doomed cattle.

Mike Shatzkin, another traditional publishing industry consultant/apologist (who as far as I can tell makes his living attacking self-publishing), loves to bring up the Tragedy of the Commons.  Attacking writers who dare to promote their books by offering them for free, he says:

“It’s a classic Tragedy of the Commons. Each person giving away ebooks succeeds in their intentions to boost their sales, but everybody will pay for the overgrazing in the end.  …I think the Tragedy WILL take place; is taking place. I don't see how it can be prevented. … the unfolding Tragedy of the Commons, which I fear cannot be stopped.”

Shatzkin made this prediction in 2010, long before the “gold rush” in self-publishing really took off.  In the five years since, the “tragedy” he said was “taking place” didn’t take place. In fact, ebook sales grew by leaps and bounds every year since (and all signs point to them continuing to do so). Not only was Shatzkin spectacularly wrong in predicting the future of self-publishing, but he is a classic example of Mackay’s Law.  He didn’t know what he was talking about, and lost the argument.  TC has no connection with how free samples hurt price points.

In 2012, Chris Meadows cited TC on TeleRead to suggest that Amazon and the "glut" of easy to publish ebooks was somehow contributing to plagiarism:

“It’s not terribly surprising to learn that there is a very active underbelly of the Internet devoted to selling digital snake oil like private label rights and plagiarized material for 'instant' Kindle publication. It’s the tragedy of the commons—any time something could be abused for a quick profit, there will be those who will try to profit, directly or indirectly, from abusing it.” 

Once again,  illegal plagiarism doesn’t have anything to do with TC’s theory of limited resources even if you mix it metaphorically with snake oil.

It comes up all the time on discussion boards, like this quote about Amazon:

“You have a classic tragedy of the commons problem in getting self-publishers to act in concert. Amazon is the commons. You are each ‘grazers’ on the commons. It is true that if you all work together, you *might* be able to gain some traction with amazon. However, your individual self-interest is to not work together. Your individual self-interest is to get everyone else to collude to pull their books, but for you to leave your book up, so it is among the few books available to buy. Individual self-interest almost always prevails over acting in community interest.”

In this weird version of the analogy, writers become the cattle, and the farmers have disappeared.  I can't really quite see how cattle would try to convince other cattle to leave the commons and then stay on to graze, but okay.  That's not really the point.  Often the TC is cited simply to suggest the inevitable tragedy that must befall all human endeavors.  Particularly, nice ones like self-publishing.  Anything good is doomed because “self-interest almost always prevails over community interest.”

Hmm… is that true?  No.  In fact, it is obviously not.  There would be no communities (including discussion boards) if that were true.  What is true is that acting in the larger interests of a community is often also in a person's self-interest.  People additionally have a tendency to act in the interests of the community in the hope that it will eventually have a personal payoff.  But there is also plenty of evidence that many (if not most) people act in favor of communities even when it is against their self-interest.

Acting for the greater good of the community is pretty much hard wired into our DNA.  Human’s evolved past eating our young, have nurturing instincts and depend on each other for cooperation.  Cooperation is a huge part of our political, cultural, business and educational institutions.  And for a good reason: societies that don’t have an emphasis on community fail or split apart.

That’s why, even though the Tragedy of the Commons is a real economic "theory," it is a theory that has been widely and effectively rebuked.  While not all economic theories can be proven one way or another, in the case of the Tragedy of the Commons, it has been very effectively disproven.  It’s not true.  It doesn’t happen.  It’s false.

In his original discourse, Hardin pessimistically said that "Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”  Yet environmental historians have correctly pointed out that Hardin is "an American with no notion at all how Commons actually work.”  The supposed tragedy was not based on a specific true-life event, even with cows, even back in 1833.  It is not even likely that it might have happened.  Historically, the grazing commons referred to in England and Wales were highly regulated and carefully managed, including there being limits on the number of cattle.  Today, there are still millions of acres of shared public grazing land in many countries, including modern England and Wales.  Sometimes they are managed well, sometimes not, but there are no enviable tragedies.  Moreover, economists who have studied real world situations where farmers share common land, including nomadic societies, discovered that they generally balance stock and manage rangeland in ecologically sounds ways, even without formal regulations.  They are actually less likely to overgraze or destroy the environment than land held by private interests or controlled by single organizations because people watch over each other.  So even the basic cow/farmer analogy of the Tragedy of Commons is completely wrong, historically and in modern application.  Because, you know, most farmers aren't stupid.

It should not be a surprise that the “Tragedy” has no real economic basis because Garrett Hardin was not trained as an economist (or historian).  He studied zoology and received a PhD in microbiology.  He had no business background.  He wasn’t interested in markets, commons, farmers or cows.  He was financed by groups like the Pioneer Fund which researched and promoted eugenics and scientific racism.  He didn’t bother to study economic markets or farming because the commons Hardin was concerned about was what he called “a commons in breeding.”  The Tragedy of the Commons was written to promote the idea that overpopulation, particularly in countries with people of color, was about to destroy the world in a Malthusian catastrophe.  He was also fond of life boat analogies for the Earth where the rich are urged to reject and throw off the drowning poor, even if they have spare room.  Hardin's thoughts are nicely summoned up by David Correia:

"Hardin advanced a cruel codicil to his original Tragedy thesis. In it he equated the earth to a lifeboat. The rich float about comfortably while the poor flail desperately in the open sea. This is the situation we find ourselves in, he argued: too few resources to support too many people. For Hardin the question was not Why are the rich comfortable and the poor suffering?, but instead he asked, Who among the poor should we let into our lifeboat? His answer? None."

Hardin's unpleasant metaphorical theories included very specific unpleasant proposals.  He lobbied actively, and successfully, against the “Food for Peace” program that sold surplus grain to famine-stricken nations.   He praised abortion (for the poor and people of color), forced sterilization for those with “unqualified reproductive rights,” and spoke out against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because he believed that the poor needed to be coerced into “breeding” less.  He was in favor of what he called “passive genocide” by allowing famine, crime and wars to cut down “excess populations” in poor countries. 

Here’s what the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate crimes, says about him:

“Over the course of his career, Hardin wrote 27 books and over 350 articles, many of which were frank in their racism and quasi-fascist ethnonationalism. Nevertheless, whenever Hardin’s views are presented to the public, the white nationalism that unified his thought is invariably glossed over. In general, the only places to find open discussions of the entirety of Hardin’s thought are on white supremacist websites, where he is celebrated as a hero.”

I doubt most people who cite the Tragedy of the Commons in relation to self-publishing are aware of it’s lurid history and the extent of Hardin’s obsession with “breeding” issues.  Perhaps some would give him a pass for promoting forced sterilization or even admire his tough stance on denying food aid to the starving.  I would hope, however, they might question the motivations behind an un-researched economic policy advocated by someone who praised genocide, even when they called it “passive.”

There were also elitist class warfare motivations behind the original 1833 pamphlet Hardin dug up from the economic graveyard.  It’s purpose was to provide an excuse for the rich to steal from the poor.  The Commons referred to were used by Commoners, i.e. peasants.  The land the commons sat on was technically owned by "the manor," land barons, rich aristocracies, and inherited wealth.  By ancient tradition and hundreds of years of "common law" poor farmers were allowed access to small parts of the vast tracks of land held by the rich, so they could, like, have food.  But around the time of the pamphlet a lot of rich landowners decided they would like to erase those laws (without, of course, compensating the commoners).  They wanted to fence everything off.   William Foster Lloyd’s convenient 1833 argument, or lie, was that the commoners were just screwing up anyway, and it would be better if it the land owner took total control.  Because, you know, rich people, particularly those who inherited money, know how to manage stuff better than commoners.

What happened to all the farmers?  Well, in Part One of my “Too Many Writers” piece I kept referring to the exploited mine workers in How Green is My Valley?  Pretty much they are the children of the farmers who lost their rights to the commons.  It might be argued that this shift from a feudal society was inevitable as Britain industrialized, but there are other ways it could have been done without the wholesale stealing from the poor.  Unquestionably, the rich got richer while the poor had to search for work.

What does any of this have to do with self-publishing?   Nothing.  Because, as Mackay’s Law states, anyone who cites the Tragedy of the Commons doesn’t know anything about it.

It should be no surprise that TC has been wrong about predicting the fate of the flourishing Indy ebook industry, because, as I said earlier, it is always wrong about… everything.  In science, a theory needs to be able to make accurate predictions.  What goes up must come down.  If only some balls go down and others don't, then theories of gravity don't work.  You abandon it and find a new theory.  Economics is often called a "soft science" because a lot of economic theories aren't good at predicting outcomes.  Sometimes this is because of the complexity of markets, and the difficulty of putting theories into real practice.  But often it is because economic theories aren't based on research and are simply masks for political agendas.  Thus is the case with the Tragedy of the Commons.  In addition to being used to advocate stealing land in 19th century Britain, and against feeding starving nations in the 70’s, it is often cited by those who argue against health care, affirmative action and social safety nets.  It is used as a justification for all sorts of nasty scams where private interests steal public lands.

What is also relevant is that useful economic theories normally have a part two.  Do this and that will happen.  Keynesian economics states that when governments inject money into a depressed economy they create growth.  There's a lot of evidence that works (but not always).  Trickle down economic theory says that if you give tax breaks to the rich, the poor will end up benefiting.  There's a lot of evidence that doesn't work, but at least it predicts a hopeful outcome.

One of the utilities of the pessimistic Tragedy of Commons is it makes no such predictions.  What happens to the cattle when you don't allow them to access the commons?  Do they live happily?  No, you fool, the cattle are the whole problem!  They die or get eaten.  What about the farmers, do they go on to learn better grazing practices?  No, they're idiots!  They need to get out of farming and line up to work in a coal mine or something.  Who cares about the farmers?  What is important is protecting the commons.  Well, what happens to the commons?  Is it used to the betterment of society?  No!  Society is ultimately doomed anyway.  The commons goes back to the land owner and he can build a tennis court or something. (Honestly, this is what Garret believed.)

That no positive outcome is possible, of course, is a feature, not a bug, of the Tragedy of the Commons.  It urges that nothing good can done in any situation, and if something good looks like it is happening, it must be stopped before it goes bad.  If farmers are allowed free grazing, they must be stopped before "tragedy" accrues.  If self-publishing is making a lot of people happy, and bringing them money, that also must be stopped before "tragedy" sets in.  It can’t be fixed.

But while the theory is conveniently vague and offers no hope, it does make a measurable prediction.  Tragedy.  And this is where it ALWAYS fails.

Let’s review.  It was wrong about commons, farming commons worked in William Foster Lloyd’s time, and they work today all over the world.  It was wrong when Hardin predicted a soon-to-come Malthusian catastrophe of “overbreeding” back in the 1960’s.  Hardin tried to mask his racism as a concern for the environment, but all modern environmentalists have disowned him and his theory.  It was used to predict total economic disaster from freeway gridlock in Los Angeles in the 1970’s.  More recently in the 1990’s it was used to predict email span would force people to stop using email.   In 2009, the nobel prize for economics went to a woman who proved that TC is simply wrong on all counts.  And, of course, it’s wrong about self-publishing.

None of this means that bad things don’t happen in the world, and that resources, even seemly unlimited ones, don’t need management.  Yes, some people are selfish jerks and can try to ruin things for others.  But most people (including farmers) aren’t inherently stupid or self-destructive and collectively they usually work together to make things better.  Jerks are weeded out, shunned or forced to moderate themselves, commons can be regulated, education and development ease overpopulation, freeways get widened, spam filters are invented.  Tragedy is only inevitable in Greek plays.  In real life, it is always avoidable.  A theory that suggests that problems can’t be solved has nothing to offer, except to people who don’t want solutions.  So those who want self-publishing to fail flock to the vague doom of TC, but its consistently incorrect track record proves that self-publishing will prosper forever.

Defenders of TC might suggest that it "could happen" or might have happened a little bit in some situations.  After all, sometimes cattle overgraze, traffic was bad in Los Angeles (and still is), population is a serious issue, spam is annoying.  But this is like saying people were a little bit right when they said that the world was flat and predicted you would fall off the edge if you sailed too far.  No, the world isn't flat and you don't fall off.  So that theory is useless, worse than useless, even if sometimes it seems like the world is flat or you wonder what happens if someone sails too far.

When communities use limited resources there is no inevitable tragedy, nor is there likely to be a tragedy, because communities are regulated by law or markets or self-regulate.  When something does goes wrong, it's because of problems in the community.  Problems that could have been fixed and that might get fixed.  What is important is the quality of the community.  A theory that says that all communities are the same (and doomed) is worse than useless.

The “commons” of self-publishing are not a problem.  They are, in fact, the greatest thing about the indy world.  Yes, it’s really nice that Amazon and Apple let you publish for free and transparently collect money for you.  The internet is a wonderful distribution system.  There’s great technology in ebook readers and software for writing.  But the best thing about self-publishing is the community.
Despite tripping over Mackay’s Law, the Data Guy, with Hugh Howey, has created an incredible resource with Author’s Earnings.  Hugh is tireless and articulate in getting positive messages out about the indy world (and exercising tips).  J. A. Konrath continually gives great advice and assistance to help other writers.  He formed a collective to get self-published books into libraries.  He got Amazon to revise it’s copyright policy for Kindle Worlds to favor indy writers.  David Gaughran exposes the sleazy efforts of Authors Solutions to rip off writers while writing some of the best books on how to self-publish.  Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch also write great books on self-publishing while offering the same information and more for free on their blogs.  Designer Derek Murphy creates free tools to allow authors to create their own book covers.  These people, and many more, are all "grazing" in the self-publishing commons, unafraid to invite more to join them.  There is an incredible mix of working class mothers, retired lawyers, serving military, successful and struggling, experienced and debut writers.

New bookstores are being created to stock self-published books to promote local writers.  Hundreds of websites market services to self-publishers and find readers for indy books.  Blogs and message boards allow writers to share ideas and learn about best practices.  If you can’t write a good blurb for your ebook, post it on KBoards and other writers will rewrite it for free.  There is free advice, support and assistance everywhere.  When things go wrong, the indy community is quick to try to fix them.  

All sorts of creative arts and other interests are supported by similar communities.  But in my experience, what is going on in self-publishing, on a world wide scale, with the amazing mix of commerce, camaraderie and creativity, is something very special and beautiful.

That is the victory of the commons.


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  2. Thanks for taking the time to write and share this. Great thinking and word smithing combined. Was glad to see it excerpted over at The Passive Voice. I liked it so well I had to come over here and say, “THANKS!"

  3. As one of those retired lawyers, this is a wonderful piece, Mackay!

  4. I disagree that TC is completely irrelevant. There *is* a finite resource that a tsunami of self-published books "overgrazes": reader attention. There are only so many readers (most people don't read) and even they have only so much time. QED.

    1. Then why, in the five years since self-published books were introduced, is there more and more money and profit being generated for indy writers? When is the "tragedy" going to take place? If it hasn't so far, why do you assume that it will eventually? Based on what? A failed theory that has been wrong in every other instance where it was applied?