Six months ago, when I first opened up shop here at Ditchwalk, there was a riot brewing in the publishing marketplace. For all the back-and-forth about self-publishing versus traditional publishing, however, the rhetorical clash that eventually broke out last fall was never really an us-against-them-whoever-they-are revolution. Or if it was, it was only that for a few short weeks, until the industry forces manning the status-quo battlements got their mind around the fact that the internet wasn’t going to go away no matter how many ruby-slippered heel clicks they threw at the damned thing.
What really drove the chaos last fall is what drives chaos in any business. Suddenly, with only a fleeting decade’s warning, the book business didn’t now how to make a stable profit. The internet was the obvious scapegoat, at least until the recession took hold, at which point big names in the publishing business reassured the rabble that everything would be fine as soon as the recession was over.
Now, when a pricing plague strikes your village and the experts fail to stop the spread, and Aunt Sadie’s home recipes don’t work, and your prayers don’t save the people you love, there’s a natural tendency to latch on to anyone who comes by with a possible solution. Fortunately, the one thing you can always count on in such situations is that someone will come by.
Off to See the Wizard
Stepping in to help calm (or at least leverage) the pricing uncertainty last fall were three notable writers not directly aligned with any of the main publishing firms. In alphabetical order, they were:
“…editor-in-chief of Wired, which has won a National Magazine Award under his tenure. He wrote an article in the magazine entitled The Long Tail , which he expanded upon in the book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More (2006).
“His newest book, entitled Free, which examines the rise of pricing models which give products and services to customers for free, was released on July 7, 2009, by Hyperion.”
What I learned about Chris Anderson over the past six months, apart from that ugly plagiarism scandal, is that he believes you can make money by giving content away for free. Not surprisingly, various people question this radical premise. However, the idea that free content can be used to build a following is currently being tested in the marketplace, predominantly by unknown writers who may feel they have no recourse in terms of attracting attention to their work.
The free pricing model does not yet seem to have caught on at the corporate level.
“…a Canadian blogger, journalist, and science fiction author who serves as co-editor of the blog Boing Boing. He is an activist in favor of liberalizing copyright laws and a proponent of the Creative Commons organization, using some of their licenses for his books.”
What I learned about Cory Doctorow over the past six months is that he is a passionate, outspoken and intellectually dishonest critic of technological efforts to enforce Digital Rights Management (DRM) laws. Not surprisingly, he is also a pop-culture hero for people who believe that stealing copyrighted content is not stealing. Mr. Doctorow’s prescription for the publishing industry is simple: no matter what else is happening, no matter how rampant piracy may be, no matter how much data is collected on piracy and its negative effects, and no matter how viable any DRM solution may be in practice, nobody should actually try to prevent people from stealing copyrighted content.
While this view is not directly aligned with Mr. Anderson’s business model, in practice the effect on authors is the same. Like Mr. Anderson’s advice, it does not seem to have been adopted by the corporate publishing world.
“…an American author of business books.”
What I learned about Seth Godin over the past six months, apart from his ugly attempt at brand extortion, is that he is a marketing guru whose principle product is Seth Godin. Like all gurus, Mr. Godin is a master of countering the general with the specific, the specific with the general, and the practical inability of anyone to do everything well with the maddening theoretical assertion that everything could be done well if only you really cared. Because gurus are by nature always on the bleeding edge, Mr. Godin’s prescription for the publishing industry is a bit harder to pin down, but suffice to say it involves branding in a way that’s not so-yesterday.
Mr. Godin is also an advocate of free content, which, as noted above, has not yet been embraced by the larger industrial content producers.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that these three men all have the same general take on how individual writers can be successful in the new publishing environment. Give your content away and the world will beat a path to your door. To the extent that this idea doesn’t seem to appeal to full-blown publishing firms that’s simply taken as confirmation that traditional publishers are completely out of touch with the new reality.
The Yellow Brick Road
For individual writers the basic idea is that giving content away will build a loyal brand, tribe or cult following, which will, in turn — through some mechanism of generosity triggered by adoration — later provide compensation in the form of actual cash. Because these three men do not publicly document their revenue streams I can’t tell you why they are not all out in the street in their underwear, as most business owners would be if they gave their products away for free, but let’s assume for the moment that this radical new model really works.
Given that it seems to be working for all of them, and that they don’t seem to be affiliated in any way, it’s tempting to believe that these writers are really on to something. But that’s not what I believe. Rather, I believe they have simply inverted the process of selling content into a celebrity-first paradigm. In such a model the establishment of notoriety or pop-culture importance lays the groundwork for what you write, while the more traditional paradigm proposes exactly the opposite.
In effect, as long as people know who you are and want to know more about you, or be more like you. or have what you have, or be what you want them to be, you can make a living off of that interest. And I guess that’s hard to argue against, in the same way that it would be hard to argue against O.J. Simpson’s promotional plans for If I Did It. (By argue against I mean deny the economic benefit of. Obviously, people with moral and ethical concerns could quibble endlessly.)
In a nutshell, if the celebrity model already works for murderers and serial killers, corrupt former politicians, morally bankrupt performers, washed-up comics, pop-culture icons, proudly-addicted musicians and sundry television personalities who have no actual craft, why shouldn’t it work for people who are full of bright ideas? You know, like Tony Robbins or Depaak Chopra or you?
Having never read anything these three writers have written, I can’t offer an opinion as to whether they’re good writers or not. Then again, I’ve never read anything Stephen King has written because horror is decidedly not my thing. To the extent that Stephen King is famous or even a celebrity, however, it seems to me that this status is a function of a very different paradigm, and one that is not at all predicated on making Stephen King the focus of Stephen King’s writing career. Rather, the focus of Stephen King’s writing career is the storytelling that he does, which entertains the people who read his books. (As far as I know Stephen King is not currently giving his content away.)
In the old days, if I heard that someone was an author, the thing I imagined them doing was writing, and the thing I imagined them creating was a book. That was the archetype whether the content was literary or mainstream fiction, or nonfiction. The internet has now rendered that archetype void, at least according to the people who are adopting (if not selling) the internet-based, celebrity-first model of marketing. In this new model — put forward, admittedly, by people who actually seem to be making the model work for them, albeit without documenting their income — Stephen King and authors like him are extinct dinosaurs who only thrived as a function of the pre-internet gatekeeping power and marketing muscle of the largest publishers.
I think there’s probably a grain of truth in that idea, but I think that grain of truth is being used to obscure sleight of hand on the part of celebrity-first proponents. The important point about the idea of an author as a writer, as against the author as a celebrity, was the implicit assumption that the author was creating something of inherent value. Whether a spell-bending story, a literary masterpiece, or a non-fiction work of historical importance, the premise of writing was that the words themselves had both meaning and worth in the marketplace. Not worth associated only with the author’s celebrity, but inherent value apart from the author’s name, likeness, public appearances, t-shirts, etc.
We used to call the place where this value was determined the marketplace of ideas. The current thinking, however — again, propounded primarily by internet-centric, celebrity-first writers — is that because the internet exists there is now an infinite supply of words and ideas, which means, by the very definition of supply and demand, that those words (ideas, stories, facts) are worth nothing. Add to the mix the reality that consumers have little or no time for locating content that is meaningful or valuable to them, and the idea of content itself producing a return on investment or attracting attention is deemed not simply quaint and naive but irrevocably dead.
It is this line of logic that is now leading many writers to the seemingly inevitable conclusion that the only way to leverage money from content is to give content away in order to build celebrity, at which point they will be more visible in the marketplace because people will be talking about them. But what’s the obvious problem with this approach?
Well, let’s pretend that the old way of doing things — whatever it was — was the equivalent of standing with every other author on the crowded and badly listing side of a boat. What the advocates of the new, web-savvy publishing paradigm are suggesting, no matter the details, is that everyone should stand on the other side because that’s where the opportunities are.
The current conventional wisdom is that nobody — meaning nobody except Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling — is going to be able to make a living selling content for content’s sake, so success for individual authors will necessarily be celebrity (platform) driven. Amazingly it’s not only internet-centric, celebrity-first proponents who are saying this, but traditional publishers as well. Between cutting back on marketing budgets and encouraging even established authors to commit to a web presence, publishers are effectively parroting the same anti-publisher rhetoric of Doctorow, Anderson and Godin. Which means everyone really is being encouraged to run to the other side of the boat.
The best that can be said about this paradigm shift and the transitional stage we currently seem to find ourselves in is that it’s a land grab where early adopters (like, for example, Doctorow, Anderson or Godin) might profit from staking out an early celebrity claim. Rather than locking up acres and river rights, early internet-centric, celebrity-first writers can attempt to grab mindshare and bandwidth before everyone else joins the fray — at least until the inherently valueless marketplace of ideas has been replaced by an equally crowded and valueless marketplace of personalities.
So what does it take to get in on the ground floor of this new revolution in publishing, by which I really mean a new revolution in marketing? Well, in order to build your platform, it helps to have — wait for it! — a platform! Chris Anderson is the editor-in-chief of Wired. Are you? Cory Doctorow is an anti-DRM culture hero and a fixture on BoingBoing. Are you? Seth Godin is his own market-tested product. Are you?
But it gets worse. If you haven’t pre-positioned yourself as a celebrity prior to writing and marketing your own book, you may already be too late. Here’s Mr. Godin on the applicable time frame:
“If you have people’s attention, you can make money,” Godin declared. You start promoting your new book well before it is written by using the internet through blogging, hosting content-driven sites, and social networking to accumulate a tribal following. When to start promoting? “Five years ahead of time,” he suggested, underscoring the point.
So there you go. Five years before you hope to put your content in play, get out there and establish yourself as a celebrity of some kind. That’s your new publishing paradigm.
But what if you don’t want to be in the attention-getting business? What if your goal is not to become a celebrity in order to “make money”, but rather to write something that you care about that will “make money”? Unfortunately, the new publishing paradigm says you’re both an idiot and a certain failure, so you have no choice but to get with the celebrity-first program.
And again, there’s a grain of truth in this. If you’re a writer I think you’re a fool not to have a web presence. But that’s not the same thing as building a celebrity-based persona, any more than putting your dental practice on the web makes you an oral-hygiene guru. It may raise your visibility, or make you easier to find, or help potential clients learn something about the focus of your practice, but that’s all normal marketing stuff. In the old days you used to hand out a brochure, or place ads on TV: now you get the word out on the web. There’s no difference.
The difference between what celebrity-first writers are talking about and what content-first writers are talking about is that celebrity-first writers are talking about themselves as a product, and content-first writers are talking about content as their product. I don’t have either the desire or the tools to be a celebrity. I have no interest in impressing people, getting up on a stage and performing for people, or, to paraphrase Mr. Godin, in “attracting people in order to make money.” I know that as a writer I will have to market my work, but that’s no different than any other business. What’s different is that I think the work comes first. Or that the quality of that work is at least as important as any potential celebrity I might have.
In fact, I’ll go one step further. If I knew I could land a bunch of book sales simply because I was famous, regardless of the content of the book, I wouldn’t be interested in that money, career or life. I know this opinion brands me a heretic, if not an actual traitor to the current definition of patriotism in America, but it’s how I feel. I want what I write to matter, even if only to just one person. I don’t want someone buying my content or making choices in their life because they saw me give a talk in which I glossed over life’s harsh realities while selling the sunny side of victimization.
There are enough people doing that, and there are more headed to that side of the boat as I write this. But it’s just not for me. Yes, maybe that means I have no chance in the marketplace. On the other hand I’m at least being contrarian, if not also true to my convictions and my heart. I want to believe that content matters, not only because I write content, but because all those poor, deluded, swamped readers still seem to think so, too.
I want people to talk about what I write, not talk about me. My objective is not to get you to know me or to become famous or to be able to get into any restaurant in town. It’s to tell the truth. Or at least to try.
No Place Like Home
So for me the question is pretty simple. How much platform/celebrity is enough? The answer, of course, is that you can never do enough. However much you’re already doing to sell your book or yourself there is always someone out there who will (often for a fee) arm you with more advice, tips, tricks, secrets, paradigms and attitude adjustments. Unfortunately, it’s been my experience that while these people will tell you right to your face that they’ll make you rich if you’ll only have the courage to believe in them, they’re the ones who end up making money off your faith. If you just want it bad enough, if you’ll just let your guard down and believe for five minutes…then they can stick their hands in your pocket and take your cash, and your little dog, too.
Today I think it’s worth taking at look at where we are after last fall’s price collapse, and after all this give-free-or-die advice to individual writers. Perhaps I’m a cynic, but it seems to me that while the price collapse temporarily appeared to validate the free/freemium/celebrity-first model of content pricing, the people who profited the most were celebrity-first writers like Doctorow, Anderson and Godin, who took opportunistic advantage of the apparent causality in order to further increase their own celebrity. Too, publishers profited by encouraging writers to do more and more of their own marketing, thereby taking costs off publisher’s book.
Yet just as questions about the validity and viability of self-publishing seem to have faded since that time, so too have questions about the utility of free content. While I have no hard numbers to point to, my sense of the market is that a floor was reached over the past ninety days, and that floor is somewhere north of $0. Last fall’s price-depressing news about blowout hardcover sales at big box retailers and Amazon’s loss-leading sale of bestsellers has been replaced by Macmillan’s insistence that it gets to call the shots on the price of its products, the agency model (about which I’ll mumble more later), and more substantive discussions about the difference between pricing pure content (meaning e-files of various types) and physical books.
It’s also worth noting in passing that no constituency was more well-served by the idea of giving content away for free than the piracy delegation. If content is not simply easy to attain but actually priced at nothing, then piracy as a crime disappears. Because of this obvious synergy, it seems to me that much of the pricing rhetoric over the past six months (and longer) had an inherent price-discounting bias.
For all of these reasons I’ve decided that free is not for me.
— Mark Barrett
Will Entrekin says
I kind of love that Chris Anderson extols the virtue of free. I wonder how big an advance he got from Hyperion, and how much he makes on the sale of every copy of his book. Which, ironically, costs at least five bucks on Amazon.
More to the point, the problem with the publishing model mention is that, for the most part, writers who start seeking attention five years ahead of time . . . well, let’s just say it’s fairly obvious that they devoted a lot of attention that could have gone into, say, writing a better book, to instead garnering more blog hits/Twitter followers/Facebook friends.
Too many publishing professionals continue to talk about platform, and too many authors continue to attempt to build them on sand.
There’s an inherent, irreducible chicken-and-the-egg component to all of these issues. I see no way around that. Yes, you need to be visible. And maybe giving your stuff away makes you more visible. But the money comes from…where?
2,000 copies x $0 = $0.
Celebrity is clearly an exploitable commodity. It explains why former television stars populate late-night infomercials in that same medium. But it’s still a market, and it’s still a market that newbies will have to compete in against your lions, tigers and bears.
so, how much do we owe you for this post then?
Good question! How much you got? 🙂
But enough comedy.
Yes, any word I type on this site is implicitly supporting the idea that free content begets something. Like your attention. And yes, it’s a good thing for me that people read my writing, and hopefully a good thing for both of us that we can have a dialogue.
But every business gives things away free. You go into a store, ask about some products, try on a few things, it’s all free. It’s part of the familiarization process, etc.
But those stores are not letting you walk out with free product.
Your closing line is puzzling because free content is integral to your blog. In a way, your free blog is lowering the value of music industry publications, but it also opening up the discussion to a wider audience.
You should be glad to know that people are reading your blog because of your ideas. So if sharing ideas and bringing people back to your blog are the goal, then you are benefiting from it’s current cost: free. How many would read it if it cost money? Without a name for yourself or being part of a larger institution, you likely would just have your friends and direct contacts.
Valuing creative intellectual property is a significant problem, as is determining how to increase its value. Should all books be priced the same, even if the writing is only mediocre? Should all music be priced the same, even as production costs drop and supply shoots up? What local news are people willing to pay for when they can read better national and international coverage and opinion elsewhere?
Price fixing has existed in the music and publishing world my entire lifetime. And this movement towards free partially justifies itself on that fact. It doesn’t make it right. But neither was the previous system. Free may not be the solution, but the old systems are changing and I believe that is a good thing. However, it is scary since the future of the American economy depends on intellectual property that is increasingly easier to share (legally or illegally).
Those are my zero cents.
All good points, really. I should have been clearer in the last line that I was talking about books or other content that I intend to market. Yes, the blog is free, but as I noted above, most businesses don’t charge for various aspects of service, including entry to the store.
(As a historical footnote, I’ve always been interested in the educational/communal aspects of the web, and by way of example a decade ago I spent a lot of time asking and answering questions about interactivity for no money. I see that as a personal choice, and one I choose to make. See also the Docs page on this site.)
There’s a limited amout of time available to each person each day, and too many ways to spend that time, and that has generally decreased prices. But people are still buying things, and content is still selling, and while maybe the margins are getting slimmer and the overhead is getting untenable that only means I have to pay careful attention to my costs. (I’m not a corporation, I’m just one person.)
In the end it’s all an experiment, and one that will necessarily end badly for a lot of people. I’m trying to have it end well for me, and one of the decision points I’ve reached is that I can’t give content away for free. Today that means specifically a short story collection that I’d like to publish.
I think content will continue to sell, but I think we are in a transitional period, which creates consumer uncertainty. And as you noted, nobody wants to be the sucker and buy what others are getting for free.
As someone who still purchases albums and books I find myself wondering with each purchase if it is a good investment. Does it make sense to buy CDs which will never be played again after the are ripped to my computer or does it make sense to buy MP3s, which likely will be replaced by higher quality recordings in the future? I’ve already bought CDs that replaced albums or tapes. I won’t be fooled again.
As for books, the technology isn’t as prevalent yet, but the Kindle is selling and it is only a matter of time before people are facing similar questions with books. People like owning books. I like owning books, but every time I move I like owning them less.
DRM is a huge issue, because it is about trust. Even though I don’t upload music I would never buy a DRM album because I don’t trust record companies not to make it obsolete. DRM forces the consumer to give up all control, to basically rent the song, album or book. Amazon can make a book disappear from your collection any time it is connected to a wireless hot spot. Incidents with the Kindle have made it very clear who is in control. At least with hard copies you always have back up and can resell it if you don’t like the product. DRM-free digital media asks the artists to take risks and trust the consumers while DRM-encoded media asks the consumers to buy something they cannot own, at least in a traditional sense.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not arguing for free. I like AmieStreet.com’s music store model, where price increases with demand until it hits the established price point. It allows unknown artists to gauge their value, which starts at zero or 18 cents instead of 99 cents. Right now it is just a fringe model and probably needs tweaking, but it is a start. It is also DRM free.
Thanks for the reveal. This feels like a pay-no-attention-to-that-man-behind-the-curtain kind of moment.
Ross Pruden says
First, great blog. It’s refreshing to read long and eloquent topical writings, especially online. In this busy modern age, it’s often hard for me to find the time to read something quite so long. Bravo.
However, it troubles me that you opine at such length and then admit, “having never read anything these three writers have written, I can’t offer an opinion as to whether they’re good writers or not.” If you’ve not read their full arguments, what weight can your objections really hold? It’s so easy to pick something you don’t like, but if you haven’t really read the people you’re criticizing, well… it’s kind of hard to take you too seriously. No offense… it’s just a minimum standard of intellectual discipline. Read first, really try to grasp all nuances of truth put forward in the authors’ arguments, and then critique.
Now, having said that, you hit on a lot of great issues on the free/freemium debate, and you state them very completely. However, the biggest blind spot I see from authors is that if see books as the only product you sell—and the only product you ever intend on selling—then you’re going to be out of a profession like a horse and buggy driver because you’re (incorrectly) think your business is selling books to consumers. Actually, what you’re actually selling to consumers are the *stories* in those books. Consumers will pay money to get stories whether they come on paper, over e-books, online… there are several ways to deliver stories, and books are but one option. (Has anyone ever discussed “living” stories, i.e., stories that are changed over time? Ideal for the ebook format.) How all that is monetized is what everyone’s worried about. Old business models die out, and new ones are reborn. But there are ideas aplenty. See the bottom of this post.
The “celebrity-first” paradigm you refer to is not a new concept. For example, I sought out Tom Clancy books 20 years ago because Clancy had established his name as an expert in that niche genre. So authors can be brands as much as their books are brands. I read Godin because I know exactly what I’m going to get. I read your blog because I know what I’m going to get. So “celebrity” is really just another way of saying “successful branding”. I know I’ll see every film Robert Downey, Jr. is in because he is an excellent actor. Why is this really any different for authors?
If you want to understand how free can work as a functioning business idea—and I mean if you’re really serious about opening up your mind and not just resorting to dismissive metaphors which suggest that freemium advocates have simply gotten high in poppy fields (a catchy but inaccurate and mildly offensive portrayal), then pore over this list of recommended reading (I had to delete the URLs because your WP-SpamFree plugin wasn’t letting me post my comment; just Google the titles and you’ll find the articles easily enough):
Kevin Kelly’s Better Than Free
Tech Dirt: Ten Good Reasons to Buy
Tech Dirt: Ten Good Reasons to Buy: The Newspaper Edition <—of particular interest to authors, methinks
Tech Dirt: The Future of Music Business Models
My bad here. What I meant when I said I hadn’t read any of their writings was that I’d never read any of the books they’re giving away free (or, in the case of Doctorow, encouraging me to steal). I have read any number of their blog posts, watched videos of their presentations and pitches, and read multiple (multiple) articles about them and their various positions on these issues.
My point was simply to say that I wasn’t grading these people on their writing talent, but rather on the idea that celebrity is a viable end-around when it comes to the question of marketing (or defeating the dreaded anonymity). It was also to illustrate that even though I haven’t read their books, and I also haven’t read the books of someone like Stephen King, there’s a clear difference in the roads those writers have followed to success. With slight modifications related to use of the internet, my preference was to follow in King’s footsteps, where the writing matters more than the sales pitch.
I completely agree, and that’s one of the most interesting questions about wrestling with price. When you strip out the costs associated with creating a physical book, what’s left? Joel Friedlander at thebookdesigner.com makes a compelling case that there are still a lot of design and layout issues to deal with, even if you’re going digital. But of course you don’t have to buy paper, or bind pages, or ship anything anywhere….
I’m 100% interested in stories by nature of my craft. I do know that I need to devote interest to marketing, design, etc., and I’m not advocating that other writers keep their heads in the sand about these issues. If anything, the opportunities afforded by the internet in terms of distribution and publication confer moreresponsibility on the average writer, not less.
Again, I don’t disagree, but there is a slippery slope here. It’s quite possible to be known simply for being known, rather than for knowing what you’re talking about. Being an oblivious paid pitch-person for a late-night infomercial isn’t inherently different from being your own pitch-person, and particularly so if what you’re really selling is your own celebrity. Buy me!
I do appreciate the links you’ve suggested, but I don’t think I’m being dismissive. People who advocate giving away free content are often already leveraging a brand or platform that existed before the free/freemium model was proposed. Anderson wasn’t working out of a car at a flea market, he was the editor of Wired, and as such perfectly positioned to create buzz for himself.
At the end of the day, free content and celebrity runs into the same obstacle that the free/freemium proponents claim to be able to avoid: a logjam of people all doing the same thing, with no way for the consumer to separate them out. Plus no income to pay the bills, and little or no emphasis on craft — which is, I think, really damaging to writers who are just starting out.
See also my previous comments here:
Luci Temple says
Great post, however, like Ross, I really have a problem with people criticising a theory without making sure they understand it properly. From your opening paragraph re Anderson and ‘Free’ it was clear you had jumped to conclusions about what he was saying, so it was no surprise when you later revealed in your post that you hadn’t actually read him.
To be honest, “Free” has been sitting on my desk for 2 months, only the first 2 chapters read (due to lack of time rather than interest) – so I’m not a crazed fan whose hackles are up when a guru is criticised. However, those first 2 chapters do clearly show that you’re confused by what he means by “free.”
Anderson doesn’t purport that everything should be free, but rather that giving something away for free is one economic tactic that some businesses have great success with – and this has been largely overlooked by economists. He admits there is nothing new in this idea – and his case studies go back through time looking at, for example, how Jell-O only became popular after a recipe book was given out for free.
In the digital age, it is easier to give something for free because there isn’t the same per item production and distribution costs. For example, one could argue that the first copy of an e-book might cost $50,000 to create (time of the writer), but thereafter it’s about 2 cents each in actual expense (not counting marketing). Whereas in traditional publishing the first book costs hundreds of thousands because there’s a whole print run, and then on every single book there are margins for the retailer, distribution, publisher, agent, and so on – and if the book doesn’t sell out, there are further transport, warehouse, and pulping costs.
That doesn’t mean you should give your book away free digitally, but simply that the digital age gives us opportunities that would once have cost us a lot more.
Your frustration with the way the world has turned – having to celebritse yourself – is justified, and in many ways I feel the same. Ten years ago someone told me that the best thing I could do as a screenwriter was to get out and network, and I shrank away from that notion, because I – like you – would rather my work speak for itself than become part of the ‘who you know’ league. I have no personal desire to have a public personae, and writing a blog and exposing myself on facebook and twitter has put me well out of my comfort zone.
However, we have a choice whether to stand on the sidelines feeling powerless and frustrated about the way the industry works, or we can get involved. The reason I’ve converted is because I realise that building an audience linked to myself actually has the potential to let me work outside the system that I consider to be quite dysfunctional. If you have your own audience, you don’t have to worry so much about the “gatekeepers” like agents, publishers, networks, investors, etc – unfortunately those gatekeepers value an audience more than they value your content. And, if you want your content to get to people so that they can value it, you need an audience by hook or crook.
Something you might be interested in is a blog post I wrote about a self published author who created an animation series to promote his book. It was via the animation (free content) that I discovered him, he has the first three chapters of his book available to download for free, and between that and his website I was convinced to purchase 2 copies of his actual book from the Book Depository. http://yetanotherstrugglingwriter.blogspot.com/2010/02/viral-marketing-on-meeting-agent.html
That is the notion of free in action. Free spreads further online via social media than if you were to charge, what he was giving away gave me evidence that he was witty, intelligent, and a good writer, which lowered the risk threshold enough for me to take a punt on purchase, and end result is he got paid for his book. Normally I would be very hesitant purchasing a book I hadn’t seen online because I take my browsing seriously – I judge the cover, the blurb, read the first few pages, and flick through it, and any number of things can turn me off purchase. So, I’m no easy sell.
I’ve given those books to two different people who will now be introduced to a new author. If they like it, they will keep an eye out for his next book, and lend the books they own to other friends who have similar interests, who will also be introduced to this new author.
And, as other’s have pointed out, this blog is free content. It may also be considered ‘marketing’, but really, that’s the whole point of ‘free’. It’s part of a strategy. I hate arguments about semantics 😉
I don’t blame you. I clearly should have taken a bit more time to explain the following:
1) When I first encountered Anderson’s “Free” book being discussed I did a great deal of reading on the subject. I didn’t read the book itself, but I did read serious commentary about his proposal, to the point that I felt I understood it.
2) What bothered me about Anderson and his pitch — no matter how much he may have tried to insulate himself from this criticism in the book itself — was that he was leveraging his own current celebrity in order to put forward a rehashed, sound-byte-ready paradigm. Given the short attention span of the average listener, I think it’s fair to say that’s the part of the message that would become the ‘takeaway’, while the finer points, qualifiers and caveats would all be forgotten.
3) I think that’s what he was aiming for, because that’s what cultural gurus do: they excite people by presenting simple solutions to complex problems. Worried about life? Be happy!
Again, I should have been clearer.
As to the world being the way it is, I have no problem with that. My concern is not so much for myself, but for the great mass of people who are currently interested in writing. They’re being told that the secret to success is to set up a blog, pound out some words, give those words away free, and…then what? As a writer you know how much effort needs to go into craft before you start trying to land a gig. And that’s apart from any native talents one might have.
Free isn’t a consideredchoice for most writers, it’s the only choice. The fact that it has been proposed by someone who did not themselves achieve fame/success/whatever as a result of that paradigm is glossed over, and that bothers me. I agree that giving things away is one way to attract interest.* At the grocery store they call such things ‘coupons’ or ‘BOGO’ — buy one, get one.. (There’s nothing better than BOGO. Particularly BOGO ice cream.) But your average newbie/wannabe writer isn’t putting work out there as part of a massive, multi-product retail outfit looking to leverage high-volume, low-margin business. They’re just one person with a story. In what sense is any aspect of ‘free’ as Anderson (or Doctorow or Godin) proposes it any sort of option for that writer?
My post attempted — however feebly — to argue against the notion that following the free path was inherently a good idea. I think it’s fraught with risks, not the least of which is that you end up branding yourself in ways that may be problematic down the road. Maybe it’s working for people — I don’t know. All I know is that it’s clearly a fad right now, and one that I do not see as benign.
(Attendant to all these issues is something I have addressed in several posts. What does it mean to be an amateur or a professional? I think that’s a conversation we should all be having.)
In sum, and despite this reply, which I hope you will see not as a defense but rather as an embarrassed elucidation, I agree with everything you wrote, and I very much appreciate you taking the time to write it. I also hope to be a bit more cautious in my posts, erring even more on the side of clarity.
* Free is also a fair way to demonstrate value. My short story collection contains twelve short stories. I will make a sample of those stories available to readers before asking them to commit to a purchase. I do not see this as a marketing hook per se, but rather as a necessary obligation on my part to demonstrate an acceptable level of storytelling skill. To the extent that sales might be hurt if I did not do this, I agree. Then again, I suspect the inability to test-drive a particular kind of car would also hurt sales of that model. Because content cannot be ‘returned’ as a car would be to the showroom or dealer lot, I simply have to see that as a price content creators must pay in order to reassure consumers that they can deliver the goods.
Luci Temple says
Thanks for the ongoing discussion 🙂
Certainly, theory is always easier than practice, and the pros and cons of any method need to be weighed up on a case by case basis. It’s not going to be for everyone.
And, getting publicity is always going to be easier if you already are ‘someone’ rather than an unknown – that is true of both the traditional media and online.
What is interesting, however, is why someone like Anderson who doesn’t *need* to use Free would choose to anyway. Usually we only branch out and try new methods when the old ones aren’t working for us, so one would expect that someone who is successful in their own right via traditional publishing would keep using the old system. I don’t see why he would unless he really believed in its value. And, perhaps, realises the limitations of the old model, whereby the reader may pay $30 but only $3 comes back to the author.
Mind you, his use of ‘Free’ is far more limited than some – he set a specific time frame in which his book could be read for free, made it readable but not copyable, and urged people to upgrade to purchase. And it is this type of example that people should be following – the balance between free and commerce. There’s no point giving your main product away for free if you don’t have a business model in place to recoup costs from somewhere.
I’ve blogged a bit more about this from an indie filmmaker point of view, if you are interested. http://yetanotherstrugglingwriter.blogspot.com/2010/03/can-indie-filmmakers-survive-free.html#more
Understanding another person’s true motives for doing anything is a dicey business. I say that not simply as an vaccine against what follows, but as a truth — and one that storytelling often undermines with its implicit assurance that causality in emotion is as knowable and predictable as causality in planetary physics.
It’s entirely possible that Anderson’s approach is driven by altruistic motives. By the same token, it’s entirely possible that Anderson’s approach is driven completely by ego. In the same way that high-flying researchers at prominent institutions can become so desperate to prove their own validity that they fudge or fake data in order to prove their pet theory, Anderson may feel compelled — as an influential voice and ‘bright light’ in the tech world — to prove his own validity by coming up with something new and world-changing. (He’s also savvy enough as a magazine editor to know that same-old/same-old doesn’t sell. You need a ‘hook’, and ‘free/freemium’ is a great hook.)
Admittedly, this is a cynical view, but I don’t see cynicism as pejorative. Rather, I think it makes sense to ask how someone might profit (including emotionally) from the positions they take, or the views they espouse. Anderson has a huge lever that he can pull by virtue of his position with Wired, and it’s got to be damned tempting to use it to validate his standing in that community. And I’m not even saying that’s wrong on the face of it. Sports heroes become heroes because they are ego-driven. As Reggie Jackson (I think) once famously said: “It ain’t bragging if you can back it up.”
My problem with the free/freemium model, even in the limited form your describe, is not so much that it’s inherently fraudulent but rather that it’s being oversimplified for the masses — and I don’t think Anderson is killing himself to fight this oversimplification. For me the hidden problem is that free/freemium marketing promises things it won’t deliver to most practitioners, precisely because there’s only so much attention the consumer can pay to the marketplace. (I also think the free/freemium model encourages people to make their work public/professional when maybe they’re not ready.)
Having said all that, I see free/freemium marketing as just another tool in the box. I certainly wouldn’t rule it out in all cases, but neither do I see it as a global solution to what are essentially always individual problems. Beyond that, my hope is that you’ll view Anderson and any other guru/visionary with a bit more of a jaundiced eye. These people aren’t in the habit of doing something for nothing.
I agree with this completely, and I think it’s very smart of you to make this point. The internet allows people to distribute and publish their work, but that says nothing about sales. The free/freemium pricing model emphasizes the benefits of the internet as a distribution/publishing platform, but inherently precludes profit. At some point, if you’re trying to make a living as an artist or craftsperson, you have to figure out where the money is coming from. Right now I think most people simply assume that it will show up — and of course it won’t.
From your blog post, which you linked to in your comment:
My main complaint against free/freemium marketing is that it simply delays the inevitable day of reckoning we’re talking about here. I also think that trading competition over products for competition over celebrity is of no inherent benefit, except to those people who have already established celebrity they can leverage.
In my most recent post —
— I also say this: “The idea that free content necessarily opens demand beyond those who would be willing to pay for it may be the biggest fallacy of the free/freemium model.” (See the post for more.)
In the end the question is pretty simple. If you as an individual choose to use the free/freemium model, can you make it work? While I would probably bet against most people, I don’t think I would bet against you. 🙂