[This is a guest post by Dan Holloway. His info is at the end of the post.]
The battle isn’t getting people to pay; it’s getting people to read. If they do read, they might not pay. If they don’t read, they’ll never pay.
Writers who use the “freemium” model face two distinct challenges, and the harder one isn’t always the one you think.
What a delightful piece of coincidence that I should be asked to write this blog the day before I headed off to the Reading Festival. My wife and I were going for the headline set by the most important band of the 1990s, Radiohead (sorry, Kurt), who propelled the issue of providing content for free into the public consciousness (sorry, Trent) when they released their album In Rainbows on a set-your-own-price basis; 60% of people chose, in the event, to pay nothing.
A delightful coincidence, but not actually that significant. Radiohead are still the most important band in the world; Trent Reznor is one of the most important figures in [re]shaping the music industry; Stephen King is about the most long-term successful writer on the planet. And Chris Anderson is, well, Chris Anderson. But these are the names that come up again and again in the freemium debate – “look how great they are; see what they did!” on the one hand; “it wasn’t a success, it was a disaster; and the free wasn’t properly free!” on the other.
I want to make two points. First, the exploits of established megastars have nothing to do with the relevance of the freemium debate to new writers. Second, they actually skew the debate rather dangerously, because they focus attention on the wrong challenge, not the one that’s most important to new writers.
New writers who want to make a living (or to supplement their living) through their writing need readers who will pay for their work. They always have done and always will. What the freemium model does is claim new writers can get readers by providing content for free, and that enough of those readers will buy their content in alternative formats, or with added extras, to provide them with an income.
For the average newbie writer (or musician*), what matters most is getting any audience at all. So I want to come back to the first point, but I want start by exposing a couple of bits of faulty logic in typical objections to the second point.
1. “People won’t pay writers for enhanced content or merchandise.” Wrong. Only a week or so I came across a wonderful piece of merchandise on the website of author partnership Deberry and Grant, a bag that is featured in one of their books. I wasn’t one of their readers (I came across them during a chat on Twitter), but I wanted one. If I was already a fan, it would be essential. Simple, but effective.
2. “60% of people downloaded In Rainbows for free; not enough people paid for Stephen King’s set your own price book to justify him continuing the experiment.” Plain irrelevant for the average writer; these uberstars are qualitatively different beasts. The audience’s attitude towards remunerating them, and the amount of remuneration required, just don’t apply. What we need is evidence from newbies who use this approach – which is one reason I intend to keep a regular and public record of the figures for Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, the book I launched on September 1st, as a free download and a £7.98 paperback that includes bonus material, including a paper I gave on the themes of the book at a recent conference; an annotated history of the book’s various opening chapters; and, for people who order the book direct from me, a poster from the rock gig that features in the book’s second chapter.
I don’t need enough people to buy my book to make me a millionaire; I want eventually to build a fanbase of 1,000 true fans. That’ll do.
For me, as for the majority of people with a great cultural product looking to break into the market, that means what matters most is getting exposure. For many of us, going through the traditional channels just isn’t an option; I write gentle, thought-provoking literary fiction that will never sell more than a few thousand copies. I don’t make financial sense for publishers.
The battle isn’t getting people to pay; it’s getting people to read. If they do read, they might not pay. If they don’t read, they’ll never pay. That’s the simple logic that explains why so many of us struggling writers and musicians display exasperation and disbelief at the animosity shown towards freemium by so many who already have an audience.
“Free” is a hugely powerful way to get people who wouldn’t try if they had to buy, to take a look; it’s the essential foundation of a writer’s platform. I firmly believe that if people read my work they’ll think it’s every bit as good as what they’d find in the shops. It’s just getting them to spend five minutes of their time to read it.
The real question is how to expose people to our free material?
These problems – lack of visibility and the stigma that “free” means “worthless” – were the reason I set up the Free-e-day festival, a one day (December 1st) celebration of indie culture, where anyone (writers, filmmakers, musicians, and artists) can offer something as a free electronic download for a day, and where audiences can spend a day in one place trying out the vast wealth of talent they couldn’t find in the mainstream. Or through bittorrent.
The festival isn’t a list or a directory, it’s a carnival. And a workshop; there will be all kinds of webchats and online advice seminars on the day to help creative people working outside the mainstream, from the ins and outs of Creative Commons to website design. Every participant gets a page of the e-brochure to do with as they please, and a listing and link on our site, in return for the promise to make something available to readers for free on December 1st.
I believe passionately in the freemium model. But as new writers, we need to not let the debates distract us. We should stop worrying about how to get paid for our premium offering, and start thinking about how to use free to get heard.
*NOTE: I really don’t want to go into the shambles the UK government has made with proposed anti-file-sharing legislation, but I’ll say for the record that as a content producer struggling for an audience, I don’t want any boundaries put up between me and my audience. It’s something authors don’t talk about much, but I’ve yet to meet a musician who disagrees.
Dan Holloway is co-founder of the Year Zero Writers collective, and organiser of the Free-e-day Festival. His novel, Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, the story of a teenage girl growing up in post-communist Hungary, was a number one book in 2008 on writers’ sites Youwriteon and Authonomy, and is now available as a free download in all e-formats, and as a paperback for £7.98. He is also on Twitter: @agnieszkasshoes.