Should You Give Your Work Away For Free?
For most writers, getting paid is an important part of the career path. There are a few writers who don’t seek payment, instead writing purely for the sake of writing and either putting it up online or just keeping it to a small audience in their local community. But, for the majority of writers, getting paid is welcome; even just as a token of recognition for their efforts. Although though the majority of writers will never make a full-time living out of their work (wouldn’t it be lovely?), being financially compensated is still important.
I listened to a 2017 interview with Neil Gaiman recently, however, and had my mind partially changed. Fundamentally, yes, we should be paid, but perhaps there are occasions where some free material isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Gaiman related his experiences with the very early days of the internet, when pieces of his work—primarily a few of his short stories and poems—appeared online without his permission. Naturally, he was concerned about his copyright—rightly so, as he had created the work, and deserved the credit for it—and, if I may put my own comments in here, there might also be a concern about payments as well. He wouldn’t be receiving any royalties on this work, and he deserves to be paid for anything he’s created—any of us would think the same. But then something odd happened: his publisher noticed that sales of particular works would increase dramatically for the month whenever something new was put up online without permission. Gaiman admitted to having been caught off-guard by this, but was pleasantly surprised by the apparent link. He then discovered that someone had gone to the trouble of translating a few of his works into Russian and launched them onto the web. Again, sales of other pieces of his work then increased as a result. As a result, he put a proposal to his publisher to actually endorse giving his work away for free, and they—perhaps unsurprisingly—had some concerns. I would have too, but Gaiman was able to talk them into trying it. So the publisher took a full length novel, had it translated into Russian, and put it onto the web. This coincided with the launch of a new book, and sales increased strongly in the Russian market for the month or so after his other book was released.
This is intriguing; I wouldn’t have necessarily imagined there was a correlation, but Neil Gaiman is, of course, very well-known. Would that work for people further down the ‘pecking order’ of writing fame?
My publishers at Inspired Quill have previously explored these possibilities. It certainly goes against what one expects to happen; income is generated by sales, and we lose out every time a copy is given away for free. There are occasions when it’s entirely fine to give copies of books away—to reviewers, for example, or to people who have contributed to your work—but I’m intrigued by putting things up online.
Hearing Neil Gaiman speak, however, challenged my thinking. Having some limited work available to readers allows them to see what you create and how your style gels with them. He posed a question to the audience: How many people have a favourite author? Of course, most people answered in the affirmative, so Gaiman pressed on: How many people were introduced to their favourite authors because they bought one of their titles straight off the shelf? Or were they lent the book? The majority overwhelmingly said that they had been lent a title, then gone out and purchased their entire back catalogue over time, or all at once if they could afford it.
So perhaps we should introduce some of our work to potential readers for free, in one form or another; perhaps we should donate a short story to an anthology, or launch a story online for people to pick up and read whenever they get a chance. Maybe you’ll grab a few new readers as a result, and maybe they’ll end up recommending you to others. That would be lovely—and would have all come from something they picked up for free online.
Worth a try, wouldn’t you say?
© 2018 Matthew Munson
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Thanet-based author Matthew has three novels published by Inspired Quill, is an inveterate blogger, and writing is his passion.