Freedom of Information
and Supporting Pagan Creators

(Version 2.3)

Copyright © 2000, 2008 c.e., Isaac Bonewits

Things that are a high priority in our lives are the things we spend money on
or give money to; things that aren’t, we don’t.

Neopagan Authors, Fame, and Fortune

Most readers have only the vaguest ideas of how authors earn our livings, often assuming that we published ones are all wealthy. They get these ideas in part from news stories about “best selling” authors getting huge book advances and/or selling movie rights for millions of (US) dollars; unaware that only one writer in ten-thousand ever sees more from her or his writing than the original book advance of a few hundred or a few thousand (US) dollars.

My best known book, Real Magic, has been in and out of print for thirty years, generating a trickle of royalties three years out of five. Yet with roughly 250,000 copies sold around the world, in three languages that I know of (English, Dutch & Russian), my total direct income from the book during those thirty years has been less than US$25,000 — or about ten cents per copy. How many Westerners could live on US$800 per year?

Even the most famous and best selling authors at Llewellyn and Weiser/Red Wheel barely make ends meet financially, despite being “household names” in thousands of Pagan and occult households. The biggest of our Big Name Pagans is only a micro-celebrity by mainstream standards and very far from sufficient fame to generate much of an income “just for being famous.”

Another source of the myth that published authors are rich is the fact that, for centuries, only those who were wealthy (or subsidized in some other fashion) could afford to spend their time writing. This has been true even throughout the last several decades. I remember being told often during the 1970’s by my friend Randall Garrett, author of the wonderful Lord Darcy novels, that the three things a writer most needed were, “A tweed suit, a briar pipe, and a spouse with a steady income!” The situation has not changed since then.

“Ah, but what about those huge speaking fees authors get?” I hear someone asking. Steven King, Danielle Steele, or New Age superstars may receive thousands of (US) dollars for speeches or seminars, but lesser known authors receive much smaller fees (for mine, see my Fees page). The reason you see so many Pagan and other authors dragging books to festivals, or doing psychic readings there, is because the usual Neopagan festival or speaking event pays far less than the author would have earned staying home and cranking out a few more pages (or going to their day job). So the little bit of extra income from selling books or giving readings can make a big difference. Without them, at the end of most festival seasons, Neopagan authors and speakers usually find ourselves having spent or otherwise lost far more money than weve received. “But you have so much fun going to festivals all the time,” you say. Well, the first two or three festivals in a year can be fun, but doing ten or fifteen is work!

Some of the reasons why Neopagan authors and speakers make so little money at their careers are rooted in the “poverty consciousness” so popular in the Neopagan community. This is the attitude that poverty (at least for others) is morally superior to wealth or even sufficiency, and is, of course, another leftover from the hippy era (and another typical example of dualistic thinking). After all, if we Big Nosed Pagans started earning as much money as our audience members, we might get corrupted!

Other reasons have to do with the basic anti-intellectualism of American, English, and Australian culture. After all, a speaker is “just talking,” and “anybody” can do that! The idea that printed or spoken words could have any real monetary value is alien to most people, in large part because they do not perceive the years of effort that go into learning the craft of writing and speaking well, or the hours of painful sweat that can go into writing a single chapter or one-hour speech.

So why do Neopagan creators keep writing and speaking? For most of us, it’s because we love our deities, our planet, and our communities enough to live at a lifestyle level far lower than we could earn otherwise if we were, for example, holding down the kinds of blue-collar and white-collar jobs that most Neopagans have. Many Neopagan clergy who aren’t writers, teachers, or musicians make the same decisions, literally sacrificing comfort and financial security for their vocation.

Members of most mainstream religious communities, whether rich or poor, would be deeply ashamed if their clergy were significantly poorer than the average member of their congregations. I can’t imagine the average Baptist, Lutheran, Jew, Catholic, or Buddhist going to their minister’s/rabbi’s/priest’s house to find an empty pantry, children wearing sweaters because the heat has been turned off, or a dead vehicle in the driveway, shrugging their shoulders and going home without taking action of some sort. Yet I’ve seen Neopagans do just that. The fact that many mainstream religions abuse their fundraising process is all the excuse that many Neopagans need to ignore the fact that our own clergy can’t even pay their mortgages or buy groceries, let alone go around wearing furs or driving BMWs like televangelists. This begins to get us into the larger issue of clergy abuse, however, so I’ll go back to the topic of authors and speakers.

The Free Information Movement

Over the last few years, I’ve read articles in magazines and online about the “freeware” and “shareware” movements among computer software writers, as well as the arguments pro-and-con concerning the downloading of music and video files on the Net. There are now major controversies over the very concepts of “copyrights” and “intellectual property,” with creative artists, consumers, and corporations taking different and often strident positions.

“Shareware,” for those of you new to the Net, refers to computer programs that one can download and try out before buying. The assumption is that users who like the software will be willing to pay what they, or the software authors, consider “a fair price” (or a small donation to a worthy nonprofit cause), which is usually much lower than equivalent commercially produced and distributed software would cost. Shareware originally worked on an “honor system,” and some still does. “Freeware” refers to programs that are put out on the Net with no return expected, other than perhaps postcards, user feedback, and opportunities for programmers to improve their skills and earn reputations with which they can later build professional careers.

Freeware authors generally had and have no complaints about a lack of money for their efforts, and I suspect that most were and are subsidized in some fashion, by their parents, schools or employers. Shareware authors, however, quickly learned that honor systems didn’t generate much income, perhaps because individuals have such varying ways to define “honor.” So they gradually began to offer multiple versions of their shareware, with additional functions, documentation, or technical support requiring users to pay varying fees (I don’t know if they got this idea from commercial software publishers or vice versa).

Based on the concepts of freeware and shareware, as well as political and philosophical theories (such as those of Richard Stallman) of free information exchange, some people on the Net began to say that all information should be freely available, including digitized audio and video information — hence the controversies over the online trading of copyrighted music and video files. These mirrored in many ways the arguments about photocopying of books and periodicals in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Publishers weren’t too thrilled about the invention of the photocopy machine back then, while students, researchers and collectors were delighted. Similarly, cassette and video taping technology were controversial, at least until the music and film industries figured out how to make money through using them. It’s been suggested that the music industry and its big name performers will stop fighting audio file sharing technology as soon as they find a way to make significant money from it.

Left out of most of these controversies, at least once they were “settled,” were the non-superstar creators whose books, songs, and performances were copied by individuals, without a penny going to those creators. Some creators weren’t bothered at all, considering unpaid copies to be free advertising and promotion that could build a following. Others felt that while they weren’t making any money, at least their out-of-print works were still reaching an audience (as I did during the years when Authentic Thaumaturgy  was available only in photocopies). I strongly suspect, however, that most of us felt just a little bit “ripped-off” each time someone copied our work because they were simply too stingy to buy it. (As distinct from being genuinely poor — something the vast majority of Americans have no knowledge of compared to people elsewhere in the world). That quarter of a dollar/pound/euro of income lost per book, or half that per tape, isn’t much perhaps, but multiply it by hundreds or thousands of readers/users and it begins to have a real impact on a creator’s life. That missing money could have paid for new research materials, new instruments, classes to gain new skills, travel to gain new insights, or simply blessed time to think and create. For us “minor” authors, artists, speakers, and performers, tiny losses add up over time to big setbacks, some of which kill careers and all of which limit the amount of work we accomplish over the course of our lifetimes.

Getting back to philosophy for a moment (away from that messy “real world” stuff), it seems to me that many of the ideas now being discussed about freedom of information contain some (deliberate?) confusion between the different kinds of information that exist, some of which (a) should be openly available to all, and some of which (b) needn’t be or even (c) shouldn’t be. As examples of just these three categories (of the dozen or so categories that could be delineated), I would offer (a) basic scientific or historical information, or evidence of corporate or governmental or military crimes, (b) medical techniques, plumbing methods, poetry, fiction, or personal memoirs, and (c) instructions on making weapons of mass destruction. Remember, “all or nothing” arguments are rooted in dualism, not the real world. The fact that subtle distinctions may need to be made between differing kinds of information and audience does not justify tossing those distinctions out of your philosophy because they’d require work to define and teach, or worse yet might cost you some money if you accepted them.

Putting the Theories to a Test

At one point, a reader and I were discussing the Freenet and its system of decentralized, distributed file storage on the Net. That system essentially makes it impossible to ever suppress information once it’s been uploaded. Unfortunately, it also makes it impossible to ever enforce a copyright or patent anywhere in the world. As an author, this means that any of my work on the Freenet would never go “out-of-print,” and I would never again have to deal with a publisher’s commercial judgements in order to get my thoughts shared with the world. It also means that anyone can plagiarize me and I have no recourse. And, oh yes, I would probably never see a penny of payment for my works, no matter how many people downloaded and used them, and no matter how much effort it had taken me to produce them. (When I first published this essay, it also meant that anyone could impersonate me and publish items under my name, but this has since been partially addressed with private “namespaces” on the Freenet.)

As I told the reader I mentioned earlier, “Letting the authors get ripped off by readers instead of by publishers isn’t much of an improvement. From what I know of the Freenet idea so far, it provides no financial incentive at all for writers to write, and thus is a backward step to the days when only the idle wealthy could afford to write.”

To which he replied, “I have optimism and faith in humanity. People will give you $1 when they read an essay (I would). Of course, it’s my faith in humanity that gets me in trouble…” So I decided to take his suggestions and give them a try. In early October of 2000 c.e., I gave visitors to my website the option to click a graphic and donate small sums of money to me, assuming that they had found something on my site that they thought was worth that amount to them. This required them to have an account with the PayPal system, but the account set-up process takes very little time and they could always snailmail me a small sum if they preferred. With over 1,500 visitors to my site daily in October (200+ visitors daily after Halloween) that year, even a one percent response rate would have generated more than enough income to justify setting the system up.

How well did it work? From October of 2000 to September of 2001, my website received over 200,000 visitors. The overall response ratio during the first year was something like 0.05% or five-hundreths of one percent (one donation per 2,000+ visits), with an average donation of less than $5 (with a couple of shining exceptions). During that time, my website generated a little over US$80 per month of income from direct donations and Amazon referrals. This was about enough to pay my hosting and net access costs, but certainly not enough to let me spend the many hours I would have liked to devote (and have in the past) to researching, writing, and adding new material while keeping the older contents current. Since my self-employment efforts from web design and freelance book editing yielded (and still yield) an income putting me well below the official “poverty line,” you can see how this was less than satisfactory — but it got much worse.

Donations to my website after September 11, 2001 dwindled to nearly nothing. Various nonprofit organizations noticed the same pattern and have attributed it to people giving most of their spare money to the disaster-related charities. While the organizations collecting funds for the victims certainly deserved all the help they got, this loss of funding to other worthy causes had a devastating effect on the entire nonprofit sector of our economy. The effect was worsened when Bush’s trillion dollar giveaway to his rich friends combined with the economic fallout from 9/11 to put the American economy into a tailspin. Website income in the time since 9/11 dwindled to an average of US$35 per month. With over 35,000 visitors to my special Halloween pages in 2002, all of 13 people made donations, for a response rate of one donation per 3,500 visits! Somehow I doubt that all 35,000 visitors that month were welfare mothers or street people… In 2007, over 100,000 visiters came to read my Halloween pages, less than a dozen donated anything at all.

Obviously there are some unseen holes in anti-copyright theory. Most modern people now use money as the rock-bottom measure of all value. Things that are a high priority in our lives are the things we spend money on or give money to; things that aren’t, we don’t. I’ve often suggested that we could build or buy Neopagan temples in every city in the U.S. and Canada, for example, if we simply collected one piece of silver jewelry from every Neopagan at every festival for one year. This is in keeping with my suggestion that the magpie (“Oh look—shiny stuff!”) is the right totem animal for the entire movement.

The very same people who “can’t afford” to donate to a Neopagan temple, community center, website, or other organization on a regular basis have no problem finding the money to buy science fiction books, videotapes, DVDs, game cartridges, music CDs, comics, beer, pizza, cigarettes, movie tickets, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, crystals, robes, capes, etc. This is not a pattern unique to Neopaganism — almost every nonprofit organization or movement tells the same tale. People in the West generally have money for those things that bring comfort, pleasure, and ego-gratification. Everything else has to wait in line and hope for the best.

The Impact on Neopagan Creatives and Other Leaders

We Neopagans like to think of ourselves as smarter, more creative, and more complex than those who belong to more conservative religions, and by and large most of us are (another un-P.C. fact). Multi-model theories, pluralism, ambiguity, and polytheology are not easy for most Westerners to grasp, which is yet another reason why we frighten Fundamentalists of all persuasions. But the dualism which underlies mainstream Western culture still influences our daily thinking and feeling patterns. As I often say, Christian Dualism is the invisible water we fish swim in. We still fall into habits based on the fantasy that matter and spirit are separate, and that creative and spiritual activities happen in a different universe than rent checks, car payments, and grocery bills. So “obviously” creative and spiritual people “don’t need” money to survive — or certainly not as much as we need new toys!

I’m not the only Neopagan leader or author to notice all this. Fritz Jung, who with his partner Wren Walker runs, spoke about this in an essay called “Community Support, Does it Exist?” a few years ago. As he said in a 2000 update, “Not much has changed… We all still struggle to find the cash to do this kind of work. As predicted, several good folks that used to do this work, simply went away.”

I remember back in the 1980s, I burned out on the poverty experience and dropped out of the community for several years to earn my living doing secular work — years in which I wrote no books, did no teaching, wrote no songs, and led no public rituals. If I die tomorrow, those years will have represented a quarter of my career lost to the community. Now multiply my experience by the scores of other Neopagan creatives struggling to survive in an unsupportive environment!

(Goddess! A few years ago one of the founders of the entire Neopagan movement in America was living homeless on the streets in the Southwest. If he hadn’t been literally stumbled over by a good Wiccan woman and taken care of by her, he would have died hungry, alone, and unnoticed.)

Also on the site is an essay by author Maggie (Benson) Shayne called, “Writers, Farmers, Witches and Copyright”, in which she focuses on the casual plagiarism that so many Neopagans engage in, saying, “I would like to see the Pagan community take a stand against the wanton abuse of its own best and brightest.”

Prolific Neopagan author Patricia Telesco wrote me:

“It amazes me that people forget we work for every cent we get in royalties. They don’t see us in front of our computers or scouring over research books for upward of 500 hours to write just 200 pages of text. They’re not in our kitchen when we blurily make coffee after being up late so we can write when the little ones don’t want fruit snacks or a story. Our families, friends, and co-workers often give up a great deal of time with us just so we can persue this passion — and give something lasting to the community. … The bottom line comes down to serving those that serve before we lose our teachers, our leaders, and our elders to burn out. If we value their wisdom and insights, we will begin to share the load.”

Sisters and brothers, your authors, musicians, speakers, webmasters, organizers, and clergy can not live on blessings and goodwill alone. Try to remember that no matter how bad the economy seems to you, it’s worse for most of your community’s creative artists and clergy. Please buy our books, tapes, CDs, and videos instead of stealing copies. Give money to those groups and websites who provide valuable services to your community. Go to your high priestess’ house and do her dishes once in a while, bring her some healthy food, watch her kids for an evening, or in some other fashion give her the gift of free time. Go mow your Senior Druid’s lawn, or weed his garden, or fix his car. If you are lucky enough to live near an author or artist, go help them with their housework or slip some cash under their keyboard. Gifts of artwork or magical tools are lovely, and usually appreciated, but they can’t buy groceries and most Neopagan leaders already have all the “pretty stuff” they need. Finally, it never hurts to remember your community leaders and creatives in your prayers and prosperity spells — after you’ve acted in the physical world, that is!

People who can afford toys for themselves can afford to donate survival money to others.

Copyright © 2000, 2008 c.e., Isaac Bonewits. This text file may be freely distributed on the Net, provided that no editing is done, the version number is retained, and everything in this notice box is included. If you would like to be on one or more of Isaac Bonewits’ emailing lists, click here to get subscription information.

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