The debate surrounding free content has become so heated it melts the keyboards of most Bloggers, Musicians, Visual Artists and other Creators. But does it work for Authors?
Anyone who’s published a book knows that you’re expected to give away a few things for free, including sample chapters, and of course review and publicity copies of your book. Most Authors have done free lectures in exchange for a table at the back of the room from which to sell their stuff.
But what if you gave away the entire book? All the time? To everybody?
Bloggers have been particularly frustrated by the issue of what to give away, and what to sell, at any of the conventions and gatherings I’ve been to in 2009. Most of them have written the equivalent of several books and not gained a penny from their efforts. Bloggers are getting a bit angry about this, because we’ve all seen so many promises of things like huge waves of blogging ad revenue that simply haven’t come true. In addition, people have become quite jaded by a proliferation of quality free content, and don’t seem willing to pay for information that helps them, entertains them, or even makes them money in turn.
But there are people making decent money – in fact, some making fantastic money – giving away content. How are they doing it?
According to Blogger and Podcaster Magazine, there are a few basic ways that people profit from free online content, including (for the most part) advertising, merchandise, and using the content to sell something more valuable: their consulting expertise. Like you, I was worried that this meant that if Authors wanted to learn from other industries and try giving away their books while making money in some other fashion, we might need to place completely unrelated and distracting ads alongside our books, which are now published as websites. This might work for some, but definitely not for all Authors and their creative works.
Seth Godin argues that “…The book is a souvenir.” In the previous link, he discusses several cases where Authors – including himself, of course – who have released their books for free on the internet, are still selling paper or downloadable copies. Why? Because what people pay for is the instrument of delivery. Special leather-bound editions might only sell 250 copies, but they could sell for upwards of $250 per copy. CD’s containing eBooks, along with perhaps some bonus material, are still capable of significant digital cachet. Here’s an Author’s opportunity to partner with a graphic artist and create something elegant, beautiful, and distinctive – something irresistable.
Even 37Signals, the company who created the online project management system called Basecamp (that last one is an affiliate link), offered their ebook Getting Real for free if you read it off their website. They sell a downloadable version for $19, and a paper copy for $25. Despite offering it for free, they’ve sold over 30,000 copies of the downloadable version alone.
Examine this additional model from filmmaker Nina Paley, who created the film Sita Sings the Blues, based on the Ramayana of Valmiki. (Well, why the hell not?) Her very public accounting (see the link under her name) of the ways and how much money she’s made by not selling her film tells us something very important: this model does work, but you have to take a wholistic approach. Just one of those revenue streams is not enough – you need to present a well-rounded series of offerings.
As Paley says on her website, “There is the question of how I’ll get money from all this. My personal experience confirms audiences are generous and want to support artists. Surely there’s a way for this to happen without centrally controlling every transaction. The old business model of coercion and extortion is failing. New models are emerging, and I’m happy to be part of that. But we’re still making this up as we go along. You are free to make money with the free content of Sita Sings the Blues, and you are free to share money with me. People have been making money in Free Software for years; it’s time for Free Culture to follow. I look forward to your innovations.” (Links in previous paragraph are from Paley’s original website. I encourage you to give her money.)
Even with all the heat, I think I’m up for the challenge. Even if it melts this keyboard.