The pros get paid, plain and simple

Grocery shopping as a kid was a decidedly dull affair.

Wandering up and down the food-laden aisles took a big bite out of play time. And since most desserts and sugary cereals were considered contraband in my house, there wasn’t much to look forward to. The grocery store was Boredom Central.

Except on Saturday.

That was the day most of the local grocery stores enhanced the shopping experience with free samples. What a big difference those surprise snack stations made. Yes, I’ll try some smoked sausage. A new kind of potato chip? Don’t mind if I do!

And if you happened on by the frozen foods at just the right moment, there’d be a small square of pizza waiting for your eager little fingers.

While I can’t promise those free samples impacted my family’s purchases, offering free samples must still a viable marketing tactic. Why else would HBO and the rest of the premium channels promote free weekends if not to get you hooked with bite-sized portions of their TV shows and a limited-time smorgasbord of blockbuster movies?

Now imagine if a new network popped up and decided to give away its programming indefinitely but with a vague notion that at some point in the future, once it had enough regular viewers, it would put a price tag on what it provides. By that point, people would be so in love with its series and films, they would happily fork over money to get more.


I doubt it.

There’s a big difference between handing out a few free nibbles and serving up meal after meal at no charge. Just ask the many newspapers that tried to incorporate payment gates on their websites after making every article free-to-read for years. Most of them now limit the number of free clicks per month, but the damage had already been done. Very few folks believe they should be charged a fee to read about what’s going on in the world.

A $10,000 bill

No sane writer expects to get rich from his or fiction, but it’s equally ridiculous for professionals to expect to make profit by giving away their product for free.

Once you establish the worth of a product—whether it’s a frozen pizza or national news—it’s awfully difficult to convince people they should have been paying along.

The strange dynamics of creative pursuits and their corresponding value have been on my mind for many months, probably ever since I made my first foray into self-publishing. With regard to writing and the democratization of distribution (i.e., self-publishing), the power is placed in the hands of the writer to decide how much he or she wants to charge for a book.

But the subject of how much one’s time and talent is really worth stretches beyond articles and blogs about writing specifically. We live in a DIY world, and while some might rejoice at breaking down the barriers that kept the everyman’s creative endeavors from reaching the public, there are some unfortunate side effects from the Rise of the Amateur.

Take this article in the New York Times, for example, which reports that the need for imagery in newspapers and magazines is quickly being satisfied by stock photography and amateur contributions. The role of professional photojournalist is fading.

In the article, a photojournalist says, “People that don’t have to make a living from photography and do it as a hobby don’t feel the need to charge a reasonable rate.”

What exactly is a “reasonable rate”? Should people who invest in an education and work hard to improve expect a fair wage for what they do—or even a full-time job, for that matter? Why should a do-it-yourselfer be vilified for believing that sharing a photo with the world is reward enough? These questions and many more are worthy of consideration.

In his blog, author Scott Roche explores whether a writer should give away his or her fiction for free. There seems to be a theory out there that if aspiring authors give away their stories and novels for free, they will build a fan base, and with that boost in popularity, they will eventually be able to start charging those same readers later on for new fiction. Or, better yet, a traditional publisher will see how popular the author is and offer to purchase the existing series and/or future works.

I don’t buy it.

For one thing, there’s a lot of free content out there. Folks who prefer free fiction have plenty of other options; rather than change their habits and take out their credit card to buy your fiction, they are far more likely to seek out the next struggling up-and-comer or hobby writer willing to give it away.

Even if your “free readers” really, really like your characters or your style or your personality, you’ve already set a no-fee precedent. People don’t like surprises when it comes to payment. In fact, the only industry I can think of where that free-now-pay-later approach works is illegal drugs. Customers get the first taste for free, and they love the experience so much that they will pay just about anything for more. But even in this scenario, it’s more akin to the grocery-store samples than what some writers are attempting today.

And sorry to be the voice of reason, but no matter how good you are at your craft, the odds are that no reader will ever become chemically addicted to the words you put to page.

While Mr. Roche does put his content out there for free, the big difference between the free-now-pay-later paradigm and the author’s personal approach is this: he just wants readers and isn’t holding his breath while waiting for a major publisher to pounce.

Ultimately, every writer—every artist, for that matter—must decide what he or she wants out of the craft.

  • If you create for the sheer joy of creation, then feel free to crank out as much content as you want, whenever you wish. Keep it to yourself or share it as you see fit.
  • If you are satisfied with simply sharing your creations with the world, and you don’t want anything other than the knowledge that other people are potentially enjoying your work, then go ahead and give it away.
  • If, however, you believe your writing (or photography or whatever) is as good as or better than the stuff produced by people who do get paid—and certainly if you have costs you need to recuperate—you had better start charging for it from Day 1.

It’s not necessarily an easy decision to make.

As for me, I don’t expect I’ll ever be able to make a living off my fiction alone. (So few writers do!) But my time is valuable, and I’ve made an investment in the craft by way of a college degree and thousands of hours devoted to honing my skills. For every hour I spend in front of my computer, I’m losing an hour I could have spent with my wife and kids or volunteering for a worthy cause or catching up on sleep or enjoying a hobby just for the fun of it.

For me, writing is a job. I make a weekly commitment to it with the hope that someday I’ll be compensated for my hard work. If I just give away my books, I’m telling the world that, to me, they have no value beyond my enjoyment in the process, that they are worth less than other books, that it was all just for fun.

I decided long ago that the life of a dabbler wasn’t for me. Yes, I want readers, but not at any—and not at no—cost.



Filed under Writing

9 responses to “The pros get paid, plain and simple

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic. This is one I’ve recently written about as well. So many writers simply want to view their writing as art and feel awkward or oddly unworthy of expecting any kind of financial compensation — yet, at the same time, they expect writing to pay the bills. I definitely agree with you that you either must be a hobbyist or fully commit. The in-between simply is not worth the time you could spend with your family or other economic ventures.

    • Thanks for reading!

      A big part of the problem, I believe, is that professional writers have to be so much more than just wordsmiths these days. I think a lot of writers (of all skill levels) just want to write, and they are intimidated with the amount of research, paperwork, planning, etc. the business side of the craft demands. They want to write and to be read, but if profiting requires so much extra work, forget about it. Hence, the huge number of writers publishing free ebooks and so forth — writers who possibly could have “transcended” from hobbyist to professional.

      And, frankly, as a reader, I’m intimidated by the daunting task of sorting the wheat from the chaff. I’m far more likely to assume that free = low-quality writing.

  2. M. J. Engels

    Cogent points indeed, David. Mr. Roche asks elsewhere “who do you write for” which is as good and just as important a question as “why do you write?” The answer to that question will ultimately fit in one of the categories you’ve submitted above, and one I believe everyone who writes will have to ask themselves and answer honestly.

    Your point about the value of one’s time is well taken, as it is the one thing no one can ever get more of. I may love trains, but if someone wants me to go beyond a cursory overview of how the flashers and gates work at a railroad crossing, then I need to be under contract (designing and testing them is what I do for a living and is how I feed my family.) I’ve done “free consulting” before in the same vein as you suggest samples at a supermarket, and have landed some business before. But I also get “hangers-on” whom I eventually have to stiffarm so I can focus on those who, you know, PAY me. And then they’re off looking for the next new(er) guy who they can get free or low-cost information from while my more seasoned colleagues nod their heads knowingly.


    • Agreed.

      The problem is we live in a world where saving money — especially getting something for nothing — is the goal of many (if not most) consumers. We don’t want to pay what something is worth; we want to get a deal! And the more creative types or any business folks are willing to drop prices to be competitive, etc., the less likely anyone is going to earn the “true value” of his/her products.

  3. Call me Scott, please. 😉

    You make some excellent points. I do know more than a few authors who have started their careers by giving away their works in one format or another. It can work. I suppose the question is, how do you differentiate yourself from the pack. A number of those authors started by podcasting their fiction in a time where that was unique/uncommon. They built an audience and in some cases a career. There are, of course, probably a thousand or more writers who haven’t gotten a lift from giving it away for every one that has.

    • Hi, Scott!

      One wonders if it’s even possible to differentiate oneself from the pack anymore. Oh sure, there might be a new format or, dare I say, some gimmick that could achieve that, but there are just so many amateur writings trying to break into the professional arena nowadays. The traditional publishing paradigm had/has more than a few flaws, but one service it did provide is serving as referee, blocking a lot of the rubbish. (Some would argue that they blocked a lot of the riches, too, but that’s a topic for another time.)

      The democratization of publishing has given every human being the opportunity to put something out there. There’s freedom in that, but there’s also the corresponding hurdle of trying to be heard above the rest of the rabble.

  4. Thomas P. Ramirez

    Dear David, a bit complex for the old duffer. Am definitely out of touch these days. Used to send my stuff to editors. They’d buy or reject. I could get my head around that. But today’s network stuff baffles me.

    Maybe in the near future. When Fern gets well again, and I am not stretched so thin.

  5. Pingback: I should be thankful, and… | One Million Words

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