Disrupting the Publishing Industry, Magic Kingdom-Style

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is the kind of first novel any aspiring writer would be proud of. Doctorow’s first sentence exudes confidence; he draws the reader into his vision of the future by running down a rapid-fire checklist of its attributes like so many bullet points. He wastes no time in revealing the broad arc of the story he’s about to tell, and throughout the book he manages a delicate balance of teasing new ideas with one hand and fleshing them out with the other.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is the kind of first novel any aspiring writer would be proud of. Doctorow’s first sentence exudes confidence; he draws the reader into his vision of the future by running down a rapid-fire checklist of its attributes like so many bullet points. He wastes no time in revealing the broad arc of the story he’s about to tell, and throughout the book he manages a delicate balance of teasing new ideas with one hand and fleshing them out with the other.

The very notion of a first novel as an author’s debut, is of course a fiction. Doctorow was by this time an experienced writer of short stories. The thrift with which his tale unfolds belies the discipline of someone used to working on a more constrained canvas — not that he doesn’t take the occasional opportunity to stretch out and go on a rambling tangent or two. Down and Out is also a novel that’s distinctly Doctorovian, with the ingredients in this cocktail including transhumanism, the reputation economy, and an obsession with Disney World.

The plot follows the outline of a thriller, complete with murder and paranoia and warring “ad-hocracies” fighting over the control of their most beloved Disney rides. (In a post-scarcity world, nothing is precious unless you have an emotional attachment to it.) The central tension is between the old and the new; a society without death is one where generation gaps are amplified, and here they don’t always play out the way you might expect them to.

As good science fiction does, Down and Out examines whether technological progress is always such a good thing. The trick it pulls off is to be sympathetic to a traditionalist point of view without going full Luddite. In fact, it refuses to take a stand pro- or anti-innovation, to pretend that there’s an easy resolution to the choices that the characters face. In a world where easy escapism is at everyone’s fingertips and death need not be (and usually isn’t) final, Doctorow still manages to tell a story where actions still have lasting consequences.

There’s a meta-narrative about Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, of course. It’s not only the first novel published by Cory Doctorow, but also the first novel released under a Creative Commons license. While Doctorow has since gone on to release his works under even more permissive terms, adopting even the relatively conservative Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license was a major, risky move at the time. In a note on the electronic versions of the book, Doctorow declares, “P2P nets kick all kinds of ass,” but most media companies, including book publishers, tended (and still tend) to disagree.

Thus, the very manner in which Down and Out was published, in both traditional dead-tree and unfettered digital formats, mirrored the conflict between the traditional and the bleeding-edge in the publishing industry itself, and tried to see if it was possible to live happily in both worlds. More than a decade later, this still kicks nontrivial amounts of ass. The results of the experiment proved to anyone paying attention (which was and is not as many people or corporate entities as should be) that media doesn’t need to be held in a vice-grip of copyright to be profitable. And it wasn’t just a lightning strike that couldn’t be repeated, or a fad that’s since gone out of fashion. Since that initial outing, Doctorow’s made releasing CC versions of his works standard operating procedure, and his Whuffie score is as high as ever.

That success may have something to do with his being Cory Doctorow, with his own not-insignificant platform for promotion. But even though other authors who’ve seen good outcomes with this model remain uncertain of its long-term sustainability, and Big Content is clutching its copyright mallet as tightly as ever, it’s encouraging to see an example of a different way of doing things. In many ways, the printing and publishing business hasn’t changed much in the centuries since Johannes Gutenberg, with copyright restrictions growing over time in proportion to the accessibility of printing and distribution technologies. But as artifacts in the physical world increasingly transition to the ones and zeroes of a digital existence, it behooves us to expand our ideas of what’s possible.

New ventures that support progressive copyright models like Unglue.it and, to a degree, AE itself, owe their origins in part to Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. It’s ironic that the novel is set largely in Walt Disney World, whose parent company has exerted a no small influence on the state of copyright law today. But it’s safe to say that its impact on the publishing landscape would not have been as great if the story itself hadn’t been crafted with the same exacting care as one of the rides in the Magic Kingdom.

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