Free is wrong for writers; Freemium might not be

homeless dolphin by el patojo
homeless dolphin by el patojo

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.

Discover more from As in guillotine...

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

38 thoughts on “Free is wrong for writers; Freemium might not be

  1. Since I have been saying that Facebook and Twitter killed blogs, let me clarify. Blog are not dead per se and the freemium model is valid. But before we learned how to write or read we spoke out-loud, like the name of your blog. Speech is our primary form of communication. Even when it’s a digital chat, still verbal. So where you find people talking about ideas is where the cultural mixer is. That place has migrated from blogs circa 2005 to the social networks circa 2009. The energy that driven the early blog adapters is now gone.

  2. Freemium is where it's at for an aspiring poet author.

    I've gotten my chapbooks in the hands of good editors, curators and reviewers through a swap exchange–my chapbook for your chapbook, used book, CD, or media item of choice.

    As for blogging vs (current social media trend): They are both extensions of the water cooler but I always feel like my own blog is my water cooler where folks come to catch up with me and not the other way around.

  3. Twitter and Facebook have extended the conversation's reach, but what remains on blogs is arguably more thoughtful and has more long-term value. Your great exchange with Wilson wouldn't have been quite as meaty on Twitter, and I'd have probably never seen it there since I wasn't following you at the time.

    Interestingly, Wilson believes there's four primary channels for social media: Twitter, Facebook, Blogs and blog comments, and I agree. I love Disqus because it socializes comments, extending them beyond the blog, and not surprisingly, Wilson is one of its backers.

  4. Oscar, you right about your blog being the place where people interact with you. But it used to be the only place for people to let off steam about ideas and such and it is no longer.

  5. Thanks for explaining these critical differences to an aspiring writer. You have confirmed the advice someone else gave me about blogging before publishing. How much better it is to sharpen your skills by publishing short works in a public forum than getting creamed by criticism when you publish your opus of the heart. I am now blogging in preparation for a book I am currently writing, but is nowhere near to being published. I blog mainly about politics, BDSM and GLBT rights, and post book and movie reviews.

  6. Twitter is a great resource for finding blogs relevant to my particular needs and resources about writing. My blog is totally dedicated to the memoir I am writing of Leroy Cooper, bandleader for Ray Charles, and includes info and excerpts from the upcoming book. I don't find Facebook useful but have used MySpace since it is musician friendly. I'm new at blogging and owe a lot to Maria Schneider. As for free, my stock answer is “I don't write for free.” My blog is the only place where you can read my work for free. Mags have cut pay & keep trying to get me back but I give them my stock answer.

  7. Thanks for explaining these critical differences to an aspiring writer. You have confirmed the advice someone else gave me about blogging before publishing. How much better it is to sharpen your skills by publishing short works in a public forum than getting creamed by criticism when you publish your opus of the heart. I am now blogging in preparation for a book I am currently writing, but is nowhere near to being published. I blog mainly about politics, BDSM and GLBT rights, and post book and movie reviews at

  8. Good post, Guy, as always. I like what you say about what remains on blog as being more thoughtful and having more long term value. This is why I have not jumped on the Twitter bandwagon. I'd also like to add that comment streams in response to blog posts are easier to follow in their being centrally located. I tried to follow what sounded like a pretty important conversation a few of you were having about the poetry industry via Twitter and I just gave up, and wrote my own blog post, which then carried into the comment stream.

    Finally, I am wondering why “personal brand” is so dreaded and blogging apparently obstacled. Oscar and I have been talking about establishing our areas of expertise, which just sounds like a logical and sensible thing to do especially when promoting the product.

  9. Ben, I agree with you that there are more opportunities to be heard in e-world now but I think that blog is the way to go for aspiring writers as it allows you to post full-length reviews, detailed reading information and opens up conversation with potential readers. But that's me and I'm sure each writer, depending on genre, will find the SM app that best serves there need.

    Would I discourage using Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, (SM Flavor of the Month)? No.

    Would I encourage picking one social media application of choice and directing all of your peripheral SM to that one source? Yes.

  10. Hi, this is fascinating. Freemium is a model that shouldn't really be considered so alien to writers. We're not that different from musicians who are very familiar with the concept of giving away the basic content in order to encourage the purchase of value-added content such as merchandise and special editions. I think writers are too quick to say fiction and music are different entities. My moment of realisation came when I got excited about buying the 2009 Murakami diary, and I thought, hang on, I can't be the only one. Now I'm an avid believer that writers should follow the Trent Reznor approach of providing the basic for free and offering something special for which fans can pay, be it with extra content, special binding, whatever.

    The other advantage for authors who are new in providing free content is that readers aren't committing their bucks to something they don't know. My model is to give away e-copies of my books as widely as possible to my target market (I write contemporary edgy fiction aimed at 18-25s), and hope they'll come back for the paper copy.

    There's another issue at stake here, and that's the wider question not from the writer's but the reader's point of view. I believe in letting the public have access to as much great writing and music as they can (that was the principle behind setting up the free download festival and indie culture celebration free-e-day []), and not just what the established industry can support. I spend a lot of my time trying to think of ways to bring that material to the public so the next time they decide they want to spend $10 on a book or an album, they can choose from the whole range of wonderful material out there, not just what the industry points in their direction. As a writer, it's not solely a question of business models (and yes, I'm a broke writer and would give anything to be able to give up the day job because I'm paid to do what I love), it's a question of striking up the conversation between writer and reader that is the lifeblood of culture. And that means giving my work away for free.

    Dan Holloway

  11. Could I add on the subject of blogs, blogs are great bcause they allow interaction and conversation (although I love wiki even more), but I want my readers to HAVE something as well, so you have to offer downloads they can take away ready for their iPhone or whatever.

    I also think we should be looking to build an experience for our readers – think of Lilyholics, which for me is still the ultimate reading experience. I've tried to do that by writing my current novel interactively and in real time (hence room to take readers through the edits and the writingprocess as well as the story). I've written The Man Who Painted agnieszka's Shoes on a Facebook group (same name) rather than a blog because the structure of the group lets me leave pieces of backstory dangling nicely for people to stumble upon, in a way I'm not sure blogs do as well. It's meant I can build a real sense of community around a common story – abit like a rock tour only for a book. I hope my readers have enjoyed it.

    I'd just like to make that last point again – I see too much about what writers should do, and how writers can succeed. I'm a writer and I'm under no illusion – I have only one duty and that's to my readers. The moment a writer stops being reader-centric and looks at what's in it for him/her, his/her writing's dead.

  12. Excellent article! I've seen examples of this in the DIY community, particularly authors who build a following by giving away their fiction in the form of serialized podcasts, then publish a book later on. Their enormous fan base means the book actually sells, despite the fact that most of it was (or still is) available for free. The excellent point made here is that this is not easy, and building this kind of audience takes YEARS.

  13. Very interesting post, which, by the way, I found via Twitter. I don't believe that blogs are dead at all. Mine is admittedly small, but as a reader (and emerging writer) the first thing I look for when I find a new author or person of interest is their blog/website. I use Twitter in conjunction with that. I'm not on Facebook because I don't have the time right now (with a job, family and novel to sell) to manage one more thing.

    I've had content of mine lifted off another website before, so I'm not interested in offering FREE content online (of say, my novel), but am toying with the idea of podcasting, since I listen to a few and enjoy the medium. So that would put me in the FREEMIUM arena. Thanks for the good discussion on the difference between the two and what advantages each offers.

  14. Great post. There is a huge difference between free and freemium. That being said, I think it's getting harder and harder to fight one's way through the fray. There are so many writers trying to establish themselves via blogs, facebook, twitter, etc. Sometimes it feels like a lot of people broadcasting and nobody listening. I would just like to remind writers that they can also connect in many ways with their local writing community, or make contacts with other writers by going to writers conferences. You can't do it all online.

  15. Twitter isn't for everyone, but it's ultimately what you make of it; I use it as an RSS reader / notepad / IM hybrid. I'm pretty specific about whom I follow and what I tweet, and it's become the primary traffic driver for my blog over the past six months, arguably because of that focus and self-discipline.

    The “personal branding” comment was a bit of sarcasm from the marketer portion of my brain. A “personal brand” is a smart thing for writers to develop, but too many marketers have become obsessed with it, in some cases to the detriment of the brands and/or clients they're supposed to be marketing. Depending on your job, it can be a tricky balance, but for writers, it should definitely be all about their personal brand.

  16. Making a direct connection to your readers is the most powerful aspect of social media, and I wholeheartedly agree that a writer must keep them in mind when developing their strategy, using the tools that make the most sense for their specific goals. The important thing for writers to remember is that the “premium” aspect of “freemium” requires something of value for it to be profitable; in your case, that could be exclusive printed versions of your work a la Trent Reznor.

  17. Would you be charging for your podcast? They're usually a free component of a freemium platform, not the premium itself, so you'd be going against the grain there.

    As for content scraping, it happens, but depending on your strategy and your ultimate goal, it's not necessarily a bad thing to have some of your content spread far and wide. As Stackpole notes in the io9 article, people pirating content probably weren't going to buy it anyway. “It's no money out of my pocket.”

  18. Agreed; an online platform is no magic bullet, and the abundance of free content that Anderson and Godin laud makes it difficult to cut through the noise and find an audience for your work. It also makes quality content that much more valuable, and the advantage there goes to the passionate professional. No matter what, though, writers have to be comfortable marketing themselves these days, both online and within their local writing communities.

  19. I'm doing it the other way around: I'm giving away a “DIY Book” podcast I'm pretty sure will be of interest and use to lots of people (telling them how they can write, make, and sell their own novels), partly 'cause it's fun and it feels like the right thing to do, partly 'cause I'm hoping some people will be inspired to buy some of my novels — which are a much harder sell: everyone's taste in fiction is so personal that it's a long-shot to ask them to buy it without any previous experience of me or my work.

  20. P.S. If you want to get these podcasts, my website is, or search iTunes for “DIY Book”. (Perplexingly, iTunes only shows the introductory episode, but there are four podcasts available once you subscribe, and I've got another one coming out very soon.)

    Happy writing!

  21. Godin's timeline is a guideline, not a hard rule, so a speedier “MashedPlan approach” could certainly work; really depends on your goals and your ability to focus on them.

    My first question would be what are you trying to accomplish with your blog? I loved your “OPBs” post, and “Bank: Investors” seems to suggest you're just winging it at this point with no real agenda, which is perfectly fine. There's already a lot of personality, and a lot of truth, in the little bit you've posted so far, though; made me curious about you, but neither your tagline nor your short bio offered any real info, and there's no indication of your Twitter account, which if it's not purposeful, is a missed opportunity.

  22. Thanks for the response. Yes, I definitely want to go the Trent Reznor route. The point about giving things away for free and creating a loyal fan base, is that there is no pressure on the readers to buy anything in odrer to get your wor, but as fans, there is a willingness on their part to pay for something a bit special. So I intend to make my books more like (as Seth puts it) souvenirs – adopting a more music merchandise-like approach rather than just a regular retail one. I want to treat my readers like kings and queens, which has got to be an advantage for them. And for me, the advantage is I can charge a premium, special edition price, making much higher royalties and relying on fewer fans.

    Oh, and everyone here who offers something for free, can I invite you to join in Free-e-day via – the online download festival celebrating independent writing, film, art,and music?

    Best of luck to everyone.

  23. Wow, I was just thinking about all of this. I'm a travel writer and blogger who has just started revving up my content to daily in my blog. I'm in the midst of writing a book and am gaining a pretty decent following that way. I guess the key is to have that book available as “Fremium” content.

  24. That is an excellent summation of the situation as it stands. Your freemium model is the only one I've found that works. Giving away enough writing to convince people that the book is worth buying and then, if the book adds genuine value to their lives, relying on them to pass on the word. Really, it is not much different from how writers, particularly poets, have worked for centuries. I believe it is easier now to build a career as a writer than ever before. The possibilities are endless.

  25. That's the key right there, Paul: “The possibilities are endless.” While these are troubled times for the publishing industry, it's actually a huge opportunity for savvy writers who seize the moment.

  26. John August is a great example of a writer spending the time to build his own reputation for years, and then leveraging it to charge for content that is genuinely worth money — and recognized as being worth money! — by his audience. It's very tricky to get people to pay for something from a writer they aren't already keeping up with.

    Thus the function of the Jet Pack writer's gallery is to generate a following with free, quality works, so that people might decide some of our work is worth paying for and, then, down the line, pay for it. Let's see if it works.

    Part of what we paid for when we paid for “The Variant” was the feeling of being in on it. The privilege of being conversant in something is sometimes premium content. (“The Variant” was worth the money I paid for it all on its own, though.)

    Thanks for keeping this discussion going, Guy. I'm a lot smarter now than I was a week ago.

  27. I wasn't familiar with August's background, but he seems like a perfect example. I checked out “The Variant” and was intrigued enough by the sample to buy it. Wow! Wow!

    As for Jetpack, I love “The Dirty Model” manifesto and the collective concept. It's fundamentally the same as the poetry reading I started years ago that evolved into the non-profit organization louderARTS. This whole discussion has uncovered some impressive things for me, too.


  28. Will, I love the Jet Pack site. The manifesto strikes a real chord, and combines a lot of what we're trying to do at Year Zero Writers ( with the democratising manifesto and Free-e-day ( with the commitment to giving the public access to the widest range of independent culture possible.

    I have just blogged on this at and given a plug for Jet Pack. Very best of luck with it

  29. Sorry, I missed this before. Thanks for saying so, Dan. I saw Year Zero online just a day or so before you posted this comment and thought you looked like a similar initiative. Except, huge! You have a lot of writers involved over there — that's fantastic. Best of luck on your end, and thanks for the plug.

  30. Hi Will, I've been plugging your site in a few places – I think it's a fantastic idea. The advantage of having fewer people is that your manifesto can be more radical – the more of you there are the more you have to be aware of the concerns of everyone, so there are benefits and drawbacks either way (the benefit of numbers is that we can keep a steady stream of new material – provided we don't all get block at once!). I'd love to chat about whether you'd be interested in taking part in the Free-e-day festival (, a celebration of indie culture I'm running in December based around a day of events and free downloads of writing, music, art, and film. It would be great to have a webchat session on working in collectives. I'm working with a great artisan collective from Canada, and a T-shirt collective from Texas. It would be great to have another writer's group so we can all answer questions on how to pitch manifestos, who does what, hopw to create a USP and so on. Drop me a line – my email's on the website. Very best,

  31. I don't know that free is necessarily good for everyone. Yes, it's great for consumers who can scale their promotional incentives so that 1) free items are low-cost, and 2) the few buyers will essentially fund the campaign. That IS something that Anderson discusses as part of the “Freemium” model.

    But that can't work for writers, since our effort isn't scalable. We just don't have a way to have a few publications pay for our time and experience, and have that fund our “free” writing. Either you write for free, or you don't. And while I like Chris Anderson's book, it takes a rather narrow view that if companies embrace this model, everything's going to be great for everyone, including the small businesses that can't afford to do free.

  32. I know I usualy get laughed out of town when I talk about the way writers can use the 1000 true fans model with freemium by selling merchandise and value-added products, but I came across a great example of this the other day when I was speaking to the great writing combo Deberry and Grant on twitter, who sell tie-in merchandise based on their books (not models or anything obvious, but baghs like those used by the characters in the book:

  33. When it comes to free and using free to sell a product, you just have to be very clear about what you'll do for free and what you won't. The more you clarify for yourself, the easier it is to put your skills into the two camps, the easier it will be for those who seek you out to figure out.

    It depends on your target market as well. I've had success (ie: paying the mortgage) with 'this is free, this isn't' because I work with a very niche market that tends to be loyal – they appreciate 'free' so much that when they have money to spend they spend it with me.

Keep blogs alive! Share your thoughts here.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.