What [FREE author Chris Anderson] is proposing is down somewhere, on the scale of ethics, well beneath Wal-Mart’s policies of no longer hiring any full-time workers so as to avoid health and unemployment insurance. It is in fact some weird sort of neo-feudal, post-contract-worker society, in which he will create a dystopian and eager volunteer-slave system of “attention-paid” enthusiasts (which is to say, people with no other options, and no capital of their own) to create products from which rich people can get richer.
“Chris Anderson Is Worse Than Wal-Mart“, The Awl
The “FREE” debate rages on – with thought-provoking posts by Will Hindmarch, Mitch Ratcliffe, Fred Wilson and Mark Cuban added to the mix (along with the one quoted above, from The Awl) – and in the midst of it, the need for some clarification jumped out at me: “Free” and “Freemium” are NOT the same thing.
They’re getting intertwined in the debate, though, and for writers developing their own platform, understanding the difference between them is critical.
“Free” is the realm of venture capitalists like Wilson and cagey opportunists like Anderson. It is usually based on an advertising-supported model that demands scale and/or desirable demographics for profitability, along with as much freely contributed content as possible to keep expenses down. A niche strategy can work, too, if the audience is highly targeted; ie: Anderson’s GeekDad site, whose business model The Awl criticized for resembling “a digital-age medieval society”.
In the print world, most B2B magazines are built on the “free” model, with “qualified” subscribers getting the magazine for free (controlled circulation) because it’s subsidized by advertisers who want to reach that particular niche. Much of their content is often freely contributed by non-writing professionals, too, primarily to position themselves as thought-leaders within their respective industries. With the stark decline in ad revenues of late, “free” is an increasingly precarious business model for publishers, and many are struggling to transform to a “freemium” model, developing additional products and services that are of value to their readers and worth paying a premium for.
“Free” isn’t a viable business model for writers, but “freemium” just might work… for some.
“Freemium” is simply a variation on the age-old marketing tactic of giving free samples to entice a purchase, and in the context of publishing, is less dependent (if at all) on advertising. It’s only sustainable, though, if both the free AND premium content are worth paying for.
Seth Godin “gives away” his content online because it reinforces his position as a thought leader and keeps the lucrative speaking gigs coming in. Godin isn’t primarily a writer, though; he’s a marketer who views his books “as souvenirs of content you could get less conveniently and less organized for free online if you chose to.” He’s also an established “authority” who attracted a loyal following over the years, initially based on his demonstrated expertise, a point often left out of these debates.
For the unknown (or unproven) writer, a “freemium” approach is a strategic question that should be based on one’s long-term goals, and is arguably more appropriate for non-fiction writers and poets than fiction writers, as there are fewer ancillary opportunities for the latter beyond licensing deals. For non-fiction writers, speaking gigs can be more lucrative than the average book deal, and there’s still a viable freelance market for quality content in many niche publications. (Fiction writers can and should leverage the freelance market, too, and could potentially position themselves for speaking gigs.) Poets can follow the indie music model by selling limited-edition chapbooks and MP3s; assuming they have an engaging stage presence, they can also get paying college gigs and workshops.
[ETA: io9 has an interesting post that suggests direct sales to readers as the premium offering in a fiction writers' "freemium" platform: "The Best Way To Break Into Science Fiction Writing Is Online Publishing".]
In any case, establishing one’s name and expertise (aka, the dreaded “personal brand”) is the first step to building a viable “freemium” platform, and while the Internet has made it much easier to do, it still takes time, effort and credibility.
In his oft-referenced Advice for authors, Godin notes:
“The best time to start promoting your book is three years before it comes out. Three years to build a reputation, build a permission asset, build a blog, build a following, build credibility and build the connections you’ll need later.”
Substitute “book” with “self” and “it” with “[your ultimate goal]“, and you have a timeline for developing your platform.
Starting a blog is an important step early in the process, and one that’s apparently a much bigger obstacle than most people realize. Maria Schneider, former editor of Writer’s Digest and current propietor of Editor Unleashed, offers some excellent tips and resources for writers in The Editor Unleashed Guide to Good Blogging as part of her own exemplary freemium blend.
While there’s lots of inane talk right now that Facebook and Twitter have killed blogging, I don’t buy it. Both are useful social networking tools, more about making connections and sharing content than creating or consuming it — blogs still represent the best foundation for a “freemium” platform. It’s also worth noting that neither Godin nor Andrew Sullivan (blogger extraordinaire at The Atlantic) have forsaken their popular and influential blogs for the flavors du jour.
What do you think?
And if you have a blog, leave the URL in the comments section so I (and others reading) can check it out.