To Free, or Not to Free…

There’s been a fairly interesting topic of conversation going around the literary circles lately. It involves a discussion as to whether or not the constant changing of media and technology is making writing obsolete as a profession. Certainly anyone that enjoys writing has an opinion on the subject with which to weigh in, and as such, go forth do I with my own. Of course, I’m relatively new to the world of “professional” writing and my experiences and opinions are adolescent at best, and completely misinformed or uneducated at worst. However, this is the internet after all, and those conditions have not stopped anyone anywhere from voicing their opinions yet. Am I supposed to be so different? 🙂

I read a rather scary statistic a couple of years back when I first decided to become serious about my pursuit of writing. This statistic stated that less than 2% of all writers were able to claim writing as a full-time job. Just 2%. However, as with most dreams, if you decide to pursue it, you should make certain that you’ve got something else to fall back on. I am no different. As much as I would love to be included in the 2% of writers that “make it,” even with my poor mathematical skills, I can easily read between the lines and comprehend that my chances of reaching that plateau are slim to none. I’m ok with that. Why? Because whether I ever pay a simple electricity bill with my author royalties or not, I am living my dream simply by writing. I knew that I had found success after the first person told me that my writing was good. How many people sit behind a computer wanting to tell their story, but never do? I was lucky enough to be afforded the opportunity and am forever grateful for it.

But how exactly is a writer supposed to make money when the current cultural conditions we live in demand everything for free? As writers, the current generation of people that we target to find our audience can be challenging and frustrating at times. There is a self-imposed sense of entitlement out there, which has become the largest obstacle for a writer to hurdle. I know that I personally want to create compelling content that would allow me to entertain while delivering a paycheck, but how can I do that when I’m marketing to tech-savvy users constantly searching for a window to find what they want for free? I believe the answer to that question to be simple: Differentiate your content.

If being an iPhone user has taught me anything, it’s that people will always prefer to obtain things they want for free, but there is an amount that they are willing to pay without a second thought: 99 cents. Need proof? Did you know that in the first five days of release, the latest edition of Angry Birds, Rio, had already been purchased ten million times? Allow me to say that one more time… TEN MILLION TIMES! Again, citing my accepted limitation in the way of mathematics, even I can figure out that equation. But what does it mean? It means that these tech-savvy users out there are happily investing small out-of-pocket amounts for things that they may or may not love, but are willing to take a shot. That, my friends, is the audience of a writer’s dreams. When I see eBooks going for upwards of $7.99, I think to myself, “that’s a pretty good deal for such hard work.” And it is. However, at such a high price point, I can’t help but wonder how many potential readers will never give it a shot. Would Angry Birds be as popular for $7.99? My gut tells me that it could still command that price point and generate sales, but the amount of downloads would diminish significantly. I believe the key to success for the independent writer, such as myself, will be volume of sales over asking price. This calculation is what led me to put a 99 cent price tag on Noble, and while it’s not setting the world on fire currently, in just the short time it’s been at 99 cents, I’ve already exceeded my previous 2011 sales figures from Q1. Not bad.

So in getting back to my earlier point, “differentiate your content,” I think the answer to whether or not to write for free is… both. In today’s ever-changing technology, an audience has never felt closer to the people they admire than they do today. The invention of Twitter and Facebook has brought the ability to interact with celebrity to the masses and they are responding in kind. Not a day goes by where I am not amazed at the type of content that is given away for free on my Twitter feed. Take Family Guy creator, Seth MacFarlane, for example. In addition to coming up with jokes and gags for three different television programs, Seth is never without humorous tweets. He offers obscure bits of randomness, answers questions from his fans, and takes the time to promote articles that interest him from around the web. If you’re a fan, you’re getting exclusive access to the mind of Seth MacFarlane all for free. Why? Because you’re already watching his shows, buying his DVDs, and wearing his t-shirts. You’re already supporting him in ways that have made his life comfortable and he’s providing you with an outlet that is both entertaining and free. He’s able to do this by differentiating his content. You won’t find recycled Family Guy jokes on his Twitter feed. You’ll only find fresh new content at the cost of your time, not your wallet. By doing this, his fans feel more justified in supporting his craft monetarily because they get access to so much more than his DVDs. As I learn from this tactic, I think about how people might perceive my craft. They can buy my books to engage in my created stories, but they also have free access to this blog and my Twitter feed if they so choose. My point being, the 99 cents spent on one of my books helps me to keep going, while in return, I’ll continue to offer up fresh content for free amongst the social media circuit. I could be delusional, but I see the relationship as an ebb and flow. A give and take.

To free, or not to free…? I say you can have the best of both worlds. Stay true to your craft and make certain that your audience never feels ripped off. If you can find that balance, there’s no reason you should ever have to abandon compensation in exchange for your dream. Only the select 2% of us are going to “make it” anyway, so don’t try. It’ll only drive you batty. But don’t you ever give up!

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