The mistake critics are making is to focus on slavery as the ownership of the physical person—aka chattel slavery. More important than that is the ownership of that person’s future production. Slavery, while it is a human rights issue, is also an economic issue. Owning people does not benefit the owner unless he can derive value from their labor. While chattel slavery involves the ownership of the physical person, there are other forms of slavery which purchase a person’s labor. America, to a very great degree, was built on the backs of a second set of slaves: indentured servants or, as colonial sources like to call them, redemptioneers. Indentured servitude is internationally recognized as a form of slavery.
Here’s how that system works. A person wants to come to the colonies for a chance at economic bounty. They can’t afford the passage. So, they sign a contract with someone who will pay for their passage, and they promise to work the debt off. The redemptioneer might cut his deal with his future employer, or might have his contract sold from the shipper to someone in the colonies. The redemptioneer has sold his future to fund his present, commonly for a period of three to seven years.
This is what authors do when they accept a contract and advances which are accounted against his future output. An author is selling his labor to move him into a position of future bounty.
Stackpole’s original post that inspired the furor is required reading for anyone calling himself or herself a writer, as is the Barry Eisler followup he cites in the current post. And while I have no hope of trying to make myself sound as insightful as either, the following thought did occur to me vis. Stackpole’s analogy and why he’s right to use it.
The role and history of indentured servitude as an unnamed tier of slavery in the development of European North America remains vastly overlooked, and it’s an excellent way to expand the “house slave” allegory for those who still don’t get it (which, as Stackpole notes, probably includes a lot of people who simply didn’t read his original post). A quite-cool book I read a long while ago (The Redneck Manifesto, i think it was) made the point that objectively speaking, indentured servants were often worse off than chattel slaves, because the latter were property. At the end of the day, it was in a slave-owner’s best interests to keep his slaves healthy in the expectation of selling them or their children. However, the holder of an indentured servant’s contract would want to get as much labor as possible out of that servant before his term expired — even if that meant literally working him or her to death.
Obviously, the morality of slavery or indentured servitude isn't apropos of the morality of the publishing industry. But since that just as obviously wasn’t the point of either Stackpole’s original post or Barry Eisler’s post, the “house-slave” language remains entirely accurate. In a situation where a publisher “owns” a writer (for example, a long-term work-for-hire situation typified by newspaper writers), it’s in the publisher’s best interest to take care of that writer. That writer and his or her talent is the long-term investment that brings dividends to the publisher. Fiction writers, on the other hand, are indentured servants, and publishers will treat them like crap not necessarily because of indifference or ego — but because it makes no economic sense to do otherwise.