Giving it away for free. Why?

I am inundated by new writers offering me free e•content these days. “Download my book for free!” And this has led me to realize why the traditional world of publishing, that is, those who try to make a living out of this business, have circled the wagons on their industry.

It is almost a given these days that a new writer has to self•publish his book and give away the e•book version for free. Some say that you have to give away three free for every one sold at $0.99. That is less than 25 cents per copy. How long will that take before you amass the minimum required to receive your first royalty check from the online retailers who are notoriously lax at paying? Perhaps many fall by the way before accumulating that minimum, to the benefit of the online retailer. And why do we have to do this? Where is the value exchange? Where is the token of respect for all the hours socked away into learning the craft and then producing the book? Where is the sense of self•respect that this labourer is worthy of his hire?

Sure, I give a certain amount of content away for free – like this blog article, for example. But my value exchange here is received in the engagement by the many that read and provide feedback to me on the issues I raise – that is my compensation. But to give away a whole book, something taken years to create, to some faceless person, seems a bit excessive to me. Yes, I have given away books for free too, but again, only when the reader engages with me one•on•one and agrees to discuss the book’s pros and cons. Most of these “freebies” have paid off, for the readers have gone on to post online reviews of my book, good, bad or indifferent.

I am told that free downloads can amount to thousands of curious, “anything for free” collectors, but not many of these freeloaders actually get down to reading the book. So, all that one has achieved is to have moved the book of your own hard drive to the hard drives of many others where it sits in storage. I believe that the online retailers also count free downloads as “books sold” (I recently received a $0 invoice for a free download that I tested) so this permeates the myth that the free book is now a best seller. Of course, try telling this to a new writer and it’s like water falling on a duck’s back.

I developed a principle some time ago: I will not give away my e•books for free unless in a limited promotion (and I haven’t engaged in one yet for I am still studying the implications). My e•books (and trade books) will have market competitive prices to the faceless multitudes. And “market competitive” does not mean “free” for then there is no market for one’s work. And if my restraint ends up in fewer copies sold, well, so be it. At least that will give me an indication of my true value as a writer. J.D. Salinger was the master of this restraint principle – the more he tried to hide his work, the more the world wanted of him.

I do not know if this stubborn “last stand” of mine is going to drive me into a hole in this new publishing world. I am sure those who practice the “give three free, expect one to be bought for $0.99” approach will dismiss me (and Salinger) as a Luddite. But if the new publishing world means working for free, it sounds worse than working in the times of slavery, and I thought that we had evolved past that dark stage of our lives. And as for the guy who sends me that ubiquitous tweet, “Thanks for the follow, please download my debut novel Blah, Blah & Blah for free,” he, or she, will be coming off my “following” list pretty damn quick.

The Age of Opinion

In previous blog posts, I had categorized our present age variously as the age of fear, the age of personality, the age of the artist and now I am going to add a fourth: the age of opinion.

We have always had opinions but many of us have not been able to express them in past eras. This was for many reasons: some of our predecessors could not articulate opinions due to a lack of education and a lack of access to channels or communication tools; some of us were censured for our opinions with punishments as harsh as jail or death; some of us preferred to keep our opinions to ourselves as it was culturally more acceptable.

Then social media dawned and made it all possible, and in some instances, mandatory; we had to have a public persona. Everyone had to know everything about us. “Just Google him!” became a standard. It was professional suicide if a person who actively pursued a profession that dealt with the public—like a writer, for instance—was told that he could not be found on the Internet. And this led to people wanting to know what you stood for: “Take a stand, man. Show us your beliefs, principles, ideas, life stories and family pictures. We want to know that you are a living, breathing thing out there.” And on the employment field, “If you want a job with us, we wanna know all about you before you even step in for an interview. Oh, and if we don’t like what you’ve posted in cyberspace, don’t be surprised if we suddenly cancel that interview on you. Forget resumes and references, just your online persona will give us clues on whether you will be a fit with us.” It was as if job ads had a subliminal qualifier: “Strong silent types need not apply.” Thus, after all this information was uploaded, there was only one step left: gravitate towards being a full•fledged Online Opinionator. Why not?

And so we have opinions on everything: what we eat, where we vacation, what we read, what we buy, who we date. And we love to offer opinions. People do not make a purchase based solely on advertizing any more—no, we need everyone’s thoughts on it as well. Oh, you poor ad companies, you that fuelled and funded those start•up social media sites, did you think that matters would come to this pass?

One thing that all this opining helps with is in choosing your friends more easily. If everyone is wearing their hearts on their sleeves these days, or, more aptly, flashing their opinions on their Facebook pages, it’s easy to know where you stand relative to the other. Perhaps the entry point to person•to•person friendships in future will be a virtual one at first. Perhaps Facebook will invent new signs to follow their ubiquitous “like” and “comment,” buttons, like “Let’s Meet for Coffee” followed by “You passed, now you can phone me” or “You failed, bozo.”

Not sure where this will end. Maybe we will drown in our opinions and start regurgitating them (there are only a finite number of opinions one can have, surely. I am fast running out of my supply). Friends will tune out, and it will become harder for corporations to find employees who fit squarely into their boxes. I see more buttons for Facebook: “no opinions, please” and “opinionated out.” “Gimme the facts, man” will be back in style. Perhaps those job ads will change their qualifying line to, “Only strong silent types without a Facebook page need apply.”

And so the world will go around and another age will surely dawn upon us.

Winding down the year

“So this is Christmas, and what have you done?” The refrain hangs heavy on my mind. Like a stock•taking superimposed by some divine deity who is counting down the hours in my life left on this earth.

I learned a few home truths this year. I learned that I could write books and stories in my sleep, but without a strong sponsor or benefactor, they were going nowhere, unless I gave them away for free on the Internet (still an option that I am actively considering). I learned that the commercial world had burrowed deep into its foxhole in 2009 and wasn’t taking any chances on “new and enhanced” but sticking merely to “tried and true.” I learned that Social Networking is great to become famous (sure, Google me and see the number of places you can find Shane Joseph, Writer) but not necessarily rich. It takes more than blog articles, tweets, and online postings before customers will buy into your brand. I learned that the tried and true media outlets are still the most influential.

I learned that people, even those closest to me, were fallible, just as I am, and that I cannot always hold them to the high standard I hold for myself. I learned to pursue dreams and accept when they came up short in reality. I have learned that money is only given to us for safekeeping and for deploying wisely; if we fail in that task, it will be taken away. I learned about the circular nature of time – events will take place only when they are meant to; all we can do is prepare for their occurrence. And so, even though I continue to record appointments in my calendar and plan for achieving defined goals within certain time frames, I am fatalistic about their actual outcomes. I have learned that the expression “Shit happens,” really happens!

Therefore I would respond to that old John Lennon song and say that I grew wise, marginally. I grew patient. I became poorer in the pocketbook but richer in my soul. I grew older by a year. I planted a lot of seedlings in this rather fallow year, which I am hoping will bud in 2010. And I have bided my time, waiting for the next chapter to unfold.

To all of you who have been reading my blog posts, I wish you Season’s Greetings and all the very best in 2010!

Big Brother is Watching

When I realized that my whole life and personality could be pieced together from the many online social communities, online banks, online merchants and online bill payment facilities that I participate in, it kind of scared me.
Recently a website sent me a composite of who they thought I was and asked me if I would like to own and promote this profile (for a fee, of course). They had combed through umpteen websites that had information associated with my name and sewn together a pretty good likeness of who I was. Now, there were some tit bits that were wrong (which was also scary) but for the most part – they had me pegged. And I hadn’t even given them permission to gather any of this information in the first place.
To compound things, in this faltering economy which is rife for consolidation among like•minded business, what would happen if many of these online operators merge? My profile would crystallize even more, without my ability to stop it.
So what is the answer? Provide false information? I could sign up as a female, 21, with an address in Nevada, working as a topless dancer. Pictures could be captured off the Net of a sweaty panting woman wrapped around a pole adorned in a G•string and dollar notes, surrounded by gawking men, and posted on my profile page. I could also list interests such as reading and writing literary fiction, working as a management consultant when I am not dancing topless, having children aged 28 and 23, and writing blogs revealing the ills of Canadian society, a country I have never visited because I live in Nevada, remember. I could create a severe identity crisis for these trolling online profilers who try to fit me into a demographic box. And then what will the world think of me – as some weird schizophrenic mutation? No one would want to do business with me or read my books, because they could not identify with me. That would be no good either.
Or I could retire into the wilderness, with a shotgun and a dog, with no telephone or Internet and be forgotten by humanity. My writings in the wild will be published posthumously and be dismissed as the prattling of a madman out of touch with the rest of world. Or might I gain cult status like other reclusive writers? But they were famous before they went into seclusion, so no luck there either, old boy!
I think I have no option but to carry on under the watchful eye of Big Brother, whoever he is, re•affirmed by the belief that in this media crazed world, it is better to be a known than an unknown. And I have to accept the fact that the Orwellian vision of 1984 is rapidly taking shape in the free world.