Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

In Praise of Free Stuff

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Let’s say you’re the burgeoning author du jour in your ‘hood. We’ll call you Ezra for now. You have two advanced degrees, have taken an overpriced “writers workshop” in the past and have unceremoniously joined the large and growing ranks of the GTA’s overeducated underclass who feel they have been Huffington Posted, sometimes cranking out blog copy for low to no remuneration. Growing up broke in Eldirb Htap (that’s Bridle Path backwards) you learn to appreciate free stuff. You hoard remainder-bin worthy books, hoping they’ll have some good re-sale value online at some point down the line. And outside of your literary world activities, you enjoy music immensely, so you rip CDs ad nauseum. That new disc by Chance The Rapper? Got it. Didn’t pay a cent for it. How about Random Access Memories by Daft Punk? It’s been Daft Slam Dunked, burned in under four minutes flat! Also, your favourite legendary basketball player back in the day was World B. Free, and that’s less having to do with his dunking prowess, and more having to do with his surname.

Given that you’ve been force-fed the script from your parents that getting a solid education is the only way to go, you continue to indulge in formal schooling, only this time by taking free MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Courses) at Yale University. When you’re not unknowingly feeding the coffers of Arianna, you absolutely love getting them tasty free Loblaw’s food samples while out shopping for ramen noodles, and you honestly don’t mind indulging those annoying Pepsi taste-test sampler dudes and dudettes on Queen St. West as a means to cop some free pop.

So what’s the point of me sharing the intimate details surrounding young Ezra’s life? Well, for one, I can’t believe the amount of college and university grads in Toronto who are doing the (f)unemployment thing out of necessity and are adhering to newer arts-engagement models to get by. From newer music “engagement” practices to MOOC’s, it will get increasingly more difficult to not expect more free stuff in all forms. Honestly, you can’t really compete with free. This recession ain’t going anywhere anytime soon, and like, there’s Sonny Bono, and then there’s pro bono. And getting stuff for nada kinda rules these days. The bigger philosophical question then is, should we be looking to translate some of these principles of freedom into the book publishing world? Not to get all socialist Fidel on you, but when citizens can access most things, within reason, regardless of race, income and area code, society as a whole wins, non?

I was thinking about my love of gratis while plotting out future schemes to become a ‘hood publishing mogul. I love writing books that have good ethics and aesthetics, so I was imagining what type of book cover designs I would want to incorporate in my future roster. The thought of hiring an independent book designer who I don’t know from jack, to agonize over a number of weeks to help me produce a haute design that suits my very subjective individual needs? Meh. Rather, I’d probably go research and try to cop one of those fantastic graphic art designs that trump much of the book cover mock ups I’ve viewed over the years, the ones that fall underneath the Creative Commons Licence banner (read: you can use it for free). Yeah, anything that sits in the Public Domain category of freeness, I’m thinking that I’ll spare the designer and myself both the waste of time, and exchange of resources. Why? My reality is this. At some point in time in my career I want to be able to freely give away available copies of my content to those in need. When my current publisher alerted me to the fact that we would be able to give away a free ebook with “proof of purchase,” I was elated. After our profit margins are met, surpassed, maybe we’ll be able to do away with the “proof of purchase” part, and just flood the streets, or web ether rather, with actor/rapper Drake’s life story vis-à-vis PDF files, so we can inspire other kids from Toronto to dream as he did.

Now I am not trying to encourage folk in all aspects of the publishing chain to stop obsessing over profit margins. This is the western world, where we are all groomed from the womb, for good or bad, to chase down dough as a means to become more happy (whatever that means to you) and provide for our loved ones. I’m not at all opposed to generating big profits only because I’m still not entirely convinced that your landlord, bill collectors and banks care too much about how Creative Commons Licences can assist our lives, creative process and philanthropic efforts. They work more out of the Bitch-Betta-Have-My-Money paradigm. However, as I get older, I’m just more interested in learning how the other kind of prophets work, and how I can become an author and publisher who increasingly disseminates strong ideas that live on well past a mere traditional publication cycle for my books. Toronto is far away from Utopia, and while conventional wisdom suggests otherwise, when an author or publisher can distribute life-altering ideas and not worry so much about making cents, but making sense to society as a whole, its worthy of as much respect as pumping out 50 Shades of Grey-styled titles or whatever. By creating a system of producing and distributing books for low cost or free, like some self publishers are doing, it’s not exactly tantamount to promoting a wild west (or Toronto City Hall council chambers) environment, don’t get me wrong. But if you’ve ever felt the need to want to publish your own new works or re-issue other works that didn’t get the time of day during their own release time period as a bucket list “To Do” item, you should look into the world of Public Domain publishing and add the words Creative Commons License to your vocabulary.


Dalton Higgins is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist and radio and TV broadcaster who blogs and therefore is. His latest book Far From Over: The Music and Life of Drake (ECW Press, Oct. 2012) sheds light on the cultural conditions in Toronto that helped create the Drake phenomenon. His four other books (Fatherhood 4.0, Hip Hop World, Hip Hop, Much Master T) examine the place where the worlds of technology, diversity, hip hop and hipster culture intersect. His daily Daltoganda, musings, rants, jabs, pontifications and fire-and-brimstone blather can be accessed from his digital pulpit on twitter: @daltonhiggins5

Click here to read Dalton's archived articles on Open Book: Toronto.

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