Friday 10 July 2009

Free is not a Four-letter word

Well, I couldn’t really stay out of the debate, although I’ve already blogged at length about the value of giving writing away for free. The release of Chris Anderson’s “Free” and resultant hoo-ha ( is too much of a happening for me not to write again. I’ve already posted a few thoughts on

I’ll keep this brief as a result. The last thing I want is “Dan going on about free stuff” fatigue. I’ll also try and keep it opinionated because facts seem to be out of fashion in this debate. Personally, I just don’t understand the objection as a business model to so-called “freemium” promotion – offering a basic version of your product for free, and charging for a premium version. Music practitioners have used the model so successfully I’m not sure I can see the negative argument.

Which suggests to me the argument is ideological. People who are excited about the freemium model are, by and large, people who have day jobs and want the chance to give them up and be paid for doing what they love. People who object tend to be those who are already paid to write. I understand that people don’t want to lose their livelihoods. Of course they don’t, and of course none of us wants them to. But protectionism isn’t the answer.

Literature is a breeding ground of innovation, and should remain so. And the public should have access to as wide a range of culture as there is out there. I believe they should be able to access it for free, and decide, from a position of knowledge not ignorance, which of it they want to spend their money on.

The argument that this will pollute the cultural world with rubbish is just nonsense. If what’s offered for free outside the establishment is junk, the public will discard it, and no one in the mainstream will lose their paycheck. If some of it DOES turn out to be better, then why shouldn’t some on the “inside” take a pay cut so that some on the outside can have a slice of the pie?

My call to action is simple. Make your work available to the public for free download. Let readers decide what they want to pay for. It’s not the end of the world. It’s the beginning of an aspiration to take culture seriously. That’s why I started Free-e-day ( as a platform to bring together givers and takers of free cultural content. I also see it across the web in great initiatives like

Free isn’t a four-letter word. Free is good. For the producers of culture. For the consumers of culture. For culture itself. Come and embrace freevolution


  1. Dan,

    Speaking of "freemium", this kind of knocked my socks off, as it were:

    Damnation Books eBook publishing model is free for the first person to download a new title, +.05 for the next person, and so on by 5 cent intervals until they reach the cap, at which point the price is fixed. Confusing? perhaps. Kinda kewl? hard to tell.

  2. Wow, thanks for the link, Piers. That's really neat. Gimmicky, but neat. As always, if teh content is right, the this is a great way to play on the gotta have it mentality (as well as the obvious gotta be first mentality at the start. Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational has some great stuff about the psychology of these situations - once people have committed to having teh book at 20cents they will still be committed at the higher price because tehy've nivested emotionally.

    This is not only kinda neat. it's kinda smart.

  3. I agree, the problem is that the work-for-pay writers are afraid that if it catches on, it'll destroy their livelihood. And that's probably because they're aware that once "free" reaches a certain level of adoption, the corporations that pay the bills will start pushing for it too. "How about you work for free, and we'll throw in other incentives to even it out?" Cynicism goes a long way.

    Still, on an individual (or small org) level, Free is definitely a great way to go. I just recently posted some stats from one of my free books:

    Vive la freevolution!

    @piers: Ooo, that's a cool model. I must give that a try!

  4. It appears my OpenID login flaked out. Sorry for that previous post.

  5. Writers are going to keep giving their work anyway in order to attract attention whichever way the free/freemium debate goes. The internet and bloggoland have created a fantastic opportunity for direct connection between writers and readers and the old style gatekeepers, editors and publishers, will just have to learn to live with it. Creativity is not only expressed in how you write but also in how you go about building a career. The people who complain about this causing a plethora of bad writing haven't thought it through. Bad writing has been pushed out through the old system and propped up by marketing for a long time (just look at the best seller lists). On the internet bad writing just doesn't sell. The first requirement for building a career on the internet is the ability to write, as opposed to the ability to schmooze editors or generate sellable airport novels.

  6. Hi, Dan,

    As a blogger I'm already giving away my work for free. I take time to write interesting and entertaining posts. I edit them carefully, choose pictures to go with them, then put them up on the internet for all to see.

    Giving away my work for free on free-e day or with Year Zero is just an extention of this.

    I agree with you. The most important aspect of this is that it's worked for musicians. It's time for us to allow it to work for us too.

  7. I'm going to be away from the net for several hours but will post a detailed response on my return. Huge apologies for the problems posting - I'm getting it more and more on blogger with other people's blogs. I have to try 2 or 3 times before anything happens.

  8. DOOD, you have to dump this PINK!!!!

  9. Thanks for the patience. Pete, the pink stays. For now. It goes with the Agnieszka Kitty logo - part of the manga kitsch ethos of The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes :-)

    MCM - that's a great site, with fascinating info. I'm going to add it to my links page over the next couple of days. I had a look at your stats, and the figures pretty much tally with what I would figure on earning eventually - and I think this is part of what people are frightened of. To make money from free (I'm not so sure it's a free issue, somuch as a long tail one) people will have to be productive. And I think insiders equate quantity with lack of quality (I guess we've just gotta look at James Patterson :-)), which is something I take against. I write short (50-70k) novels in contemporary genres (The Man Who is like literary manga) whose styles mean that they can be produced rapidly. At the moment, with a day job full-time, a wrters' collective, Free-e-day, blogging, a social and home life,and promotion, I still produce a fully edited book in 6-9 months. I don't want to be a millionaire. I want to earn enough to give up the day job and write full time. Throw in talks and TV appearances, and for me the figures easily stack up. I'd love to have you on board for Free-e-day, by the way :-)

    Paul - "creativity is expressed in how you build a career." I think that says it in one.

    Anne - that's a really important point. People draw artificial boundaries between the arts, whereas the truth is they're now merging in more ways than ever before.

  10. The traditional publishing and copyright models are badly broken - I publish my writings for free on my own website and on freebooks but dead tree writers maintain that that is not "real" publishing!

  11. Papalazarou, the question isn't whether it's real publishing (though it's interesting how quick people are to claim it is when "first rights" are at stake). It's whether it's real writing. I've taken a look at your stuff, and that it most definitely is!! Welcome to the freevolution - do hope you'll sign up for