WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

“Free” is not a price: who pays when readers won’t?

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While on hiatus I landed on this interview with David Byrne, which, though he talks primarily about the music biz, struck me as apt for writers as well. The bottom line is that it is getting hard to make a living as an artist. Why? Because people don’t want to pay for the things artists make anymore.

As everyone who writes about this stuff points out, with music-streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, and Grooveshark making the consumption of music as cheap as the user wants it to be (free), the incentives to buy a new album — if they’re even still called that — are completely absent now. Sure, an audiophile might want a CD or vinyl record to add to the collection, but average consumers by the millions opt for the cheap/free approach and listen to the “work of art” on crappy earbuds or nasty little laptop speakers. Much of the craft and creativity that went into the making of the song is lost in translation as a result, yet the user is getting what he/she expects to get out of it so, as the kiddies say, it’s all good.

Oh, except that the musician isn’t getting paid. Or at least isn’t getting paid much.

Byrne asks, “Do you really think people are going to keep putting time and effort into this if no one is making any money?”

The same dilemma faces those of us in the fiction game, particularly self-publishers. Let’s see, do we price a novel that took more than a year to write at a ridiculously low $2.99 or, in the hopes of attracting more potential readers, at a criminally low 99 cents? Or do we give the goddamn thing away? Marketing sites like BookBub and Booksy list deeply discounted titles exclusively. And recently, The Fussy Librarian advised in a newsletter that if you only have one or two novels, or fewer than 10,000 career sales, you ought to be pricing at 99 cents. This is the building phase of your career, you see. Nobody will risk three bucks on you if they’ve never heard of you before. God forbid they should sacrifice the cost of a car air freshener on something as pointless as a book.

You see the problem.

There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re in a transition period. But, interestingly, there are no glory days to compare this with. (Maybe for the cream of the crop there were, but for us mid-listies? No. We’ve always been fodder. I can remember Thomas McGuane saying that he didn’t make a living on his books; he lived on his quarter horse business.) Looking back, we can see that artists have always been taken advantage of, tricked, abused, undervalued, and promised the undeliverable. We’re just starting a new model now. It’s the age of art for art’s sake — literally — and, get this, almost everyone’s an artist!

So it’s become a labor of love, and the payment for a labor of love is the love of laboring. Byrne is right to ask the question he asked. The real issue is, Will music/fiction/painting/sculpture/drama/dance become, in the end, hobbies, and the artists who can’t help themselves, obsessives?

Or will they (we) evolve somehow to accommodate the new model? With musicians, at least, the option to do live performance is viable, but for writers? — I’m not sure we have a way to earn money that’s not dependent on selling the books themselves.

But hey. For now, I’m sure as hell not in this for the money…

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20 comments on ““Free” is not a price: who pays when readers won’t?

  1. ericjbaker
    January 8, 2014

    It’s partly supply and demand as well, I think. Lots of us record music and write novels. As a shopper, if I have 75,000 e-books to choose from, it’s a buyer’s market. The particular problem for writers is exposure. My potential audience as a musician or actor only needs to see my face or passively hear my song a few times to start recognizing me. But how do I get them to invest 10 hours reading my book?

    Last year I was dicussing albums vs MP3 with a younger co-worker. Of course, I was talking about the art of the album and he was talking about the convenience and affordability of MP3, which is a philosophical stand off. But when I mentioned that MP3 sounds terrible and that ear buds are the Chef Boyardee of sound quality, he shrugged and said, “I can’t tell the difference.” So there’s that. Can people tell the difference between a good piece of writing and drivel anymore?

  2. Kevin Brennan
    January 8, 2014

    I think you hit the nail on the noggin, man. A buyer’s market. Success, on one level, is now measured in downloads, even if most of them are free and most of the most are never even read. And yes, when time is becoming a scarce commodity for almost everyone, the investment in reading a book is something of a price.

    Where music is concerned, I happen to think you can tell the difference, but I don’t buy that much music these days so I’m not the target audience. (I’d rather spend money on making music!) If you read the Byrne interview, you can tell that it peeves him that people settle for poor quality, since what does any artist do but put the best he has into his craft?

    Ugh. Hard to see how all this turns out better for makers in the long run…

  3. 1WriteWay
    January 8, 2014

    I’ll admit to downloading free ebooks, but I do feel like I at least owe the author a review in exchange. Which is why I’ve stopped downloading free books 😉 That said, whenever I get around to self-publishing, I doubt that I will just give away my labor of love. It seems like a vicious circle: you give away your book in order to get more readers but then those readers who download your book for free also value it less because they got it for free. Sounds f**ked up to me (excuse my language … oh, what the hell!).

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 8, 2014

      It is a vicious circle! And readers who see a book for $2.99 bet that a free offering is only a few weeks away, so they wait it out.

      Hey, aren’t you going to try traditional publishing before jumping straight into self-pubbing? It’s worth a shot!

      And by the way, feel free to cuss here all you like. Not many children are reading this stuff. 😈

      • 1WriteWay
        January 9, 2014

        Thanks for the permission to cuss 😉 I’m cussing fairly regularly now that I’m back at the daily grind (job). I have a long ways to go before I can think about publishing. I might “try” traditional publishing but I don’t know if I have patience for it. Frankly, I don’t hear much that merits going traditional these days. The loss of control over my book is my greatest fear.

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 9, 2014

        There are definitely pros and cons to the traditional approach, but it might be a good idea to shop your first novel around. Agents are always looking for “new faces,” so your odds might actually be better the first time out.

        As far as control goes, giving up a little to get a contract isn’t such a bad thing, now, is it? 😉

      • 1WriteWay
        January 9, 2014

        I’m really on the fence about it. How do you feel about Parts Unknown? Knowing all that you know now, would you still have sought traditional publication for that novel?

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 9, 2014

        I’ll tell you all about it on the side later. Wouldn’t want to upset the kiddies. 😩

      • 1WriteWay
        January 10, 2014

        You could write a post about that 🙂

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 10, 2014

        It would be hard to make it entertaining!

      • 1WriteWay
        January 10, 2014

        🙂 It’s not the entertainment value. It’s the educational value.

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 10, 2014

        Aw, do I havta? 😖

      • 1WriteWay
        January 10, 2014

        Ha ha ha … ok, I’ll let you off the hook, but only if you’ll tell me your story some day and no later than before the day I decide whether to try traditional 😉

  4. John W. Howell
    January 8, 2014

    Nice post. My book was on Amazon for three days and then discounted 10%. WTF I haven’t even got the mother fu*king marketing plan rolling yet. raise the price back up you sons-a -bitches.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 8, 2014

      Wow. Crappy that you’re not even consulted on price strategies. (Better review that contract!)

      Ain’t publishing a kick? (In the arse…)

      • John W. Howell
        January 9, 2014

        I signed the contract after five months of queries. Publisher has control. *gun to head*

      • Kevin Brennan
        January 9, 2014

        You are toast, I’m afraid.

  5. sknicholls
    January 8, 2014

    Even though Amazon discounts my paperback, I still get the same royalty…I don’t know if that is true for John because he traditionally published. The “Can’t tell the difference,” comment does have me conderned. When reading some reviews for a Pulitzer prize novel, I was amazed to see Junior High and High School kids writing things like, “i didn’t really like this book, it was 2 much jumping around 4 ur mind. i was 4st to read it 4 school.”

    • sknicholls
      January 8, 2014

      conderned, concerned…same difference apparently.

    • Kevin Brennan
      January 8, 2014

      Yes, “can’t tell the difference” is scary stuff. Might as well cut and paste random text if it doesn’t matter to the audience. (Joking, of course.)

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