Sunday, December 10, 2006

Upon seeking to be collected...

I'm John Barnes; I'm mainly known as a science fiction writer. I've written and published more than 25 books in the last 20 years; the quickest place to find a full listing is in my Amazon profile:

Maybe it's because my fiftieth birthday is coming up and I'm feeling mortal, or perhaps I'm just tired of having crowded storage space; anyway, over the next few months I intend to convert most of the collectible stuff in my closets and storage space into cash, by selling them to people who might want to collect them. I've never won a major award but I do seem to be well-regarded in the field and there have been many favorable reviews of even my least-praised books.

Book collecting is a dicey business, and manuscript collecting doubly or triply so; once you buy something to hold it as a collectible, you'll have to hope I win a couple major awards, sell a book or two to the movies, and then fall over dead shortly afterwards. I hope you'll pardon me if I only go part way with you in those hopes.

This blog is dedicated to discussing an issue that interests me a great deal: the right way, not just the most profitable way, to sell off my "foul papers," which is not nearly anything so unattractive as it sounds like. Foul papers were originally called that by collectors to distinguish from the "fair copy," the copy from which type was set. My foul papers are all the stuff I do on the way to the finished book. (I'm borrowing the term "foul papers" from the collectors of Elizabethan texts and other works from the first couple centuries of printing; I like the term because it embraces a wide range of possibile media and content, and gives a wide scope to my ego.)

As a theatre historian (you can find 53 articles by me about theatre history at

sorry about the split URL, you'll have to paste it if you want to get there), I am painfully aware that libraries and museums simply can't be counted upon to preserve artists' books and papers as you might think. Many of the new generation of academic librarians are oriented toward "service" which as far as I am able to tell means buying couches and putting in computers to turn the library into a social and internet center, and archive space is often coveted for other purposes; cataloging of special collections is best described as haphazard, varying from near-perfect brilliance to "Yeah, we have six boxes of stuff with that guy's name on them, someplace." In the past few decades some fairly important stuff by many writers and artists – including some early drafts and studies – has been thrown out by the new breed of librarian and museologist. In particular, I suspect that some of the drawings, graphs, charts, etc. that I use in working out my imagined futures might suffer the same fate as some unfortunate set models and costume renderings have, i.e. being tossed for looking messy, by people who don't know that they are core parts of the creative process.

I rather like the idea of being studied by scholars, particularly after I am dead (for example, I'm leaving my body to a scientific foundation) and would therefore like my foul papers to continue to fester in a well-documented archive somewhere.

Private collectors take infinitely better care of things they buy than public institutions do of things which are donated. What I'm planning to do is to sell the boxes of foul papers under a condition that specifies that the collector will 1) maintain public notice somewhere that the collector has them, and 2) make them available for study under certain reasonable conditions. For the foreseeable future I'd like to limit publication of the foul papers or excerpts from them as well, partly because some materials are embarrassing and also because for most non-scholarly readers, I prefer the published version, but clearly if I'm to be studied, I must be quoted, so I hope to make it easy for scholars to do so. (I intend to define "scholar" as anyone interested in studying the foul papers and publicly analyzing, describing, or critiquing them; the fannish and the academic scholar are on equal footing here).

What I'd like scholars, collectors, and any old other folk willing to discuss this to do, is to review this set of conditions – I'll hire a lawyer and get them turned into legalese once I have some foul paper collections in shape to auction – with an eye toward three questions:

1. If you're a collector, would this pose an intolerable burden, or severely inconvenience you, so that you'd be less likely to bid?
2. If you're a scholar, would a collector who gave you as much access as I specify here be making it reasonably easy for you to work?
3. If you are just interested in intellectual property issues, as many writers and scholars are, what do you see as the pluses and minuses of these arrangements?

I don't think that the interests of scholars, collectors, publishers, writers,and the rest necessarily conflict at all; I think there is some excellent balance to be struck, and I'd like to strike it. There is a commonality of interests; scholarly attention to a subject is apt to enhance the value of a collection, and of course collectors preserve things for scholars to work on; such a circle of attention can keep the backlist in print, which is another good thing, particularly for the publisher and writer. So the goal is an agreement that will require the buyer of the foul papers, scholars wanting access to them, and everyone else, to act in the interests of the long-run common good. Look over the conditions and terms, and leave me comments to improve them; I'd like to set a good solid precedent for everyone.


Gary Thompson said...

You want scholarship?

It's not much yet--really just my marginalia--but it's at least a start.

You've no idea how much I would give to get hold of the working drafts of One for the Morning Glory. But I suppose you'll learn soon enough.

John Barnes said...

Actually I'll only learn that if someone else bids against you .... yes, One for the Morning Glory is one of the collections of foul papers I'll be cleaning out and auctioning eventually, though I may need to retain some core materials for the tricycle of which it is the middle book. Never occurred to me before that I can beat the "middle book of a trilogy" syndrome by writing the middle book first, but that seems to be what I did.