The Fifth commandment Don't be afraid to give your work away for free
I’m not going to mention The Pirate Bay in this article. Not once. Except for that, of course. If you want my opinion on the record, it’s this – my only thought as I read the coverage was how sad it was that everything was about file-sharing games, music, videos. I’d love to have my work file-shared on The Pirate Bay. It would mean people wanted to read me. It would mean I had fans. And if we have fans, even if they get your material for free (remember – it’s not a choice between paying for your work or not paying; it’s between getting your work for free or ignoring it – which would you rather?), we have people who will pay for something from us. Anyway, that’s it for The Pirate Bay. I’m available for interviews, panel appearances, after-dinner speeches and guest blogs on the subject through the usual e-mail (email@example.com). Er, I do go on about Napster, though.
I think attitudes to this may be changing so fast there’s not the same need for me to write this column as there was when I first laid out my 10 commandments. More and more writers I know are at least taking the possibility seriously of giving away their work in electronic form. Some – the irrepressible Dai Lowe, for example, who writes the most exquisite literary satires – have already done so.
So this is going to be less about getting people’s head around the idea – as the interview I gave for Writers’ Forum was – and more about some practical advice on how to – and not to – go about it.
A very brief point to reinforce the fact that giving your work away isn’t the same as consigning yourself to penury (there will be more on how you DO make money in later weeks). When Napster became big news, everyone said musicians would no longer be able to make money from their music. The whole industry would collapse. Parts of the latter statement have some degree of truth in them; the former turned out to be nonsense. In fact the current panic over performing rights and the removal of music from YouTube demonstrates that NOT being able to give your music away is actually the musician’s headache. What happened was bands decided if people were going to get hold of music for free, they might as well get it from the musicians as the pirates. Now when you go to a band’s MySpace you expect to get free music; and some bands like nine Inch Nails have turned the giveaway into an art form. It serves two very clear purposes – bringing in new fans; and rewarding your existing ones. And both of those are admirable aims that can be applied equally to writers.
What you should do follows naturally from why you are doing it. For now I want to focus on writers looking to create new fans by giving them something for free, in the hope that fans will ultimately equate to money. It’s not unique to the arts, of course – Internet Service Providers did it in the 90s; magazines and part works do it all the time. With the arts it’s not quite so mercenary as grabbing a market share you can exploit – it’s more that you know you’ve got something people will love if only you could persuade them to give it a try. It’s more like supermarkets offering cheese and wine tastings.
Something that seems incredibly obvious but actually isn’t – as I found out during a conversation with a friend who wanted to give away a detective novel – is that if you’re trying to get fans for your work, the piece you give away has to be representative of your work. The friend in question writes beautifully crafted literary fiction. His detective novel is great – but readers who loved it and sought out the next book of his would be left scratching their heads.
Another thing people don’t realise is that the book you’re giving away has to be your very best work. It’s your showcase. It may be the one chance you have of getting someone to read your work. It has to be good enough to get them hooked. Dai Lowe came in for a lot of stick when he started giving away the wonderful Fardel’s Bear. “It’s too good for that,” people said in horror. That’s the point. Anyone who reads Fardel’s Bear for free will be desperate to keep their £7.99 to one side so they can pay for his next book. If he’d given away one of his old stories he didn’t really care about, whoever read it wouldn’t have given the carefully preserved Fardel’s Bear a second look.
It’s counterintuitive to give away your best work, but stop and think for a minute. As a writer, you’re doing it so that eventually you can earn a crust. But that’s not the real reason you’re doing it. The moment you decided your writing was more than a hobby, you entered the world of culture. And that’s a world where the person who really matters is the fan (just like in any business it’s the customer who rules).
The moment we forget that what we do is for our fans we not only stop deserving to be a success, we make our success that bit less likely. When I started writing The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes, declaring that I was giving 7 months of my writing life to creating something that wouldn’t earn me a penny, several people said, “It must be difficult writing a story you don’t really care about.” They assumed that if I was doing something promotional, if I was giving it away, it meant I didn’t care (you don’t give away ART after all!). What I’ve found as I’ve been writing is the exact opposite. Every time I log on and see a new group member, or read a comment, I care more than I could ever imagine caring about a story I write locked away in my study. I’m doing it for the readers – for any writer – as for any musician – that has to be the most important thing of all.
So it turns out the two reasons for giving your work away – winning new fans and rewarding existing ones – aren’t so different at all. What it’s actually about is connecting with your readers and doing things for them – and that’s the most rewarding thing a writer can ever do. It’s also the way to make your money – and make it with integrity.