Wednesday, July 24, 2013

This blog post started off as a comment on Glyn Moody’s Google Plus post linking to this post on Medium about ‘free culture’, and the discussion that ensued. You might want to read those first.

The biggest problem with discussions of how to financially support the artistic sector, as per the article Glyn linked to, is that although the landscape has changed a lot, and continues to change, our maps aren’t up to date. A lot of the conversations I see on this issue are based on ideology and assumptions, with very little in the way of evidence. And when we do get evidence, it’s not often generalisable beyond its original context. So it’s very easy to understand where we are, and where we need to be, but nigh on impossible to say how we’re going to get there or, more importantly, how a specific person is going to get there. 

I’ve long been a proponent of free culture. Indeed, whilst at ORG I ran a project looking at how artists of varying sorts were successfully using a free or pay-what-you-will model. However, they say that no military campaign plan survives first contact with the enemy, and no theoretical framework for earning money as an artist survives first contact with reality. 

My own journey as an author began with an assumption that free was the way forward, because that was what I believed. I recently did an analysis of my stats for my first novella, Argleton, and wound up with these figures: 

Free Downloads: 23,180 (% downloaded by humans unknown)
Sales: 782
Remittances: £210.86

I have more recently realised that the assertion that “If people love what you are doing, they will pay” is not entirely true. People can love what you’re doing, and be vocal about that to you, and still not pay even 99p to support you if they have the option to get your work for free instead. And really, why should they? In these economically straitened times, people want to and need to save every penny they can, so if you give them free, they’ll take free, even if they love your work to bits. 

Equally, the assertion that your fans will sell your work for you is overhyped in the extreme. Getting fans to promote your work is actually incredibly difficult. I’ve had people pledge up to £500 on Kickstarter, so clearly people do value what I do, but there’s a disconnect between their willingness to pay and their willingness to promote it on my behalf. When I tweet about my new novella, Queen of the May, for example, I get very, very few retweets. It is unrealistic for me to assume that others will do my marketing for me. 

The problem is that too often outliers are interpreted as indicative of the general case, and they’re really not. Most authors are not, for example, Amanda Hocking or John Locke or Hugh Howey. They are not going to have a runaway success, because those are extremely rare and we don’t live at Lake Wobegon

For the vast majority of authors, the road to success is long and very slow and, to start with, rather expensive. There is no secret sauce. Free is not a magic bullet. Obscurity is a problem, but a pure free model is not the answer. 

For Queen of the May, I’ve taken a long-term view and gone with a semi-free model. Argleton and my short story, The Lacemaker, are free and Queen of the May is 99p if you sign up to my mailing list. If you don’t want to sign up to my newsletter, the two novellas are £2.49, and the short story is 99p. This means that I’m giving people a chance to become familiar with my work by offering some of it for free, but I’m still getting some value from the transaction – I’m getting them on my mailing list. Yes, they could subscribe and then unsubscribe having downloaded the freebies, but so far no one has actually done that. 

In two and a half weeks since I released Queen of the May, I’ve had about 90 downloads or sales, and pulled in £38 after PayPal fees. It took me two years to reach £210 for Argleton. And my mailing list has 35 new subscribers, which will make promoting my next book much easier. 

Kickstarter, too, is not an easy option. It’s certainly a useful tool, but it’s very hard to get enough attention for your project to ensure it completes, and even harder to get it to complete at a level that pays you for your time. And if you don’t get paid for your time, you’re not on your way towards a financially sustainable career. 

The truth is that reality is horribly complicated with lots of confounding factors; no ideology can stand up to reality; and we lack the evidence to understand what really works even to the point of not knowing if, for example, Google or Facebook Ads have any worthwhile return on investment. 

There’s far too much cargo cult thinking going on. Far too many people trying to mindlessly duplicate what they see successful writers/artists appearing to have done without thinking about what exactly they are doing and why. Ultimately, ‘free’ is only a part of the puzzle, to be used wisely and as part of a broader strategy. 

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