Should Writers Give It Away for Free

FreeWhen I was an undergraduate in college, many moons ago, I was involved in a student video production club. One of the officers was trying to get the meeting started without any luck. Her approach, while professional and polite, was meeting with mixed success. The chatterboxes had pretty much tuned out the rest of the room. So, seeing that the clock was ticking and we had a lot to do, I had a brain flash and called out, “Free beer.”

Instant silence. We got down to business after a brief group chuckle. The officer said after the fact that it was “just wrong that trick worked.” I agreed, but the incident stayed with me. Years later, I have come to realize Just hollering “beer” to a room full of college students would not have worked. The beer had to be free to get their attention. Thirty (yikes!) years later, “free” still gets my attention. “Buy one, get one free,” is a huge lure for me, because I have three teens to feed. These kids could empty a grocery store in under a day if they got hungry.

I have been thinking a lot about free stuff because I’ve been reading an e-book by Cory Doctorow entitled “CONTENT: Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright and the Future of the Future.” Mr. Doctorow is a published science fiction writer, blogger and speaker who has some interesting ideas about copyright law, the entertainment industry and what we call content. One of the things Mr. Doctorow has done with his own work is that he gives away e-book versions of his work, but still charges for hard cover versions of the same work. His reasoning is that if people really like his ideas and how they are expressed, they will spring for the hardcover edition after they read the e-book.

The idea of spending a significant amount of time creating something, then giving it away, is a tough one. Writers want to get paid for their work. They should; writing is hard work. It’s fun work, but the craft of writing requires a lot of time and commitment to get a book  of any flavor to market. Is it crazy to put a downloadable version of your magnum opus online and let everyone have it for free?

It could be that it’s crazy like a fox. Heck, it might even make finding an agent easier. The questions is:  if a query letter had proof of, say, 500 downloads in a week, backed by a bevy of favorable comments on the writer’s blog, would that persuade an agent to consider the work being queried? How about it agents? Would you?

And what of my fellow writers/creators? What do you think about giving away your work for free? Would you do it as a part of an overall marketing campaign? Would you do it on general principle, like Mr. Doctorow? Having read his work, I am considering it.

Please post your thoughts below. Thanks for reading!

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2 responses to “Should Writers Give It Away for Free

  1. A marketing bod might say that giving something away for free suggests it isn’t worth anything to begin with. This is unlikely to be true for beer (if it’s free, I’m there) but I wonder if it’s the same for creative works? Thought provoking post, thanks for sharing :)

  2. Despite the fact that it’s maybe a bit of a long shot, I really like the idea of people sharing their work for free. In my mind it makes the art pure again. People wouldn’t be writing and churning out a work that simply follows the current trend on the best seller list. They’d be writing because they want to share their ideas with other people. That’s the idealist in me, and I know it’s more complicated than that, but it’s still a nice thought.

    On the other hand, if posting writing for free on the internet becomes a trend, it could become very difficult to sift through all the lower-quality work to find the good stuff. I think it just depends on what you’re after. If you want to support yourself with writing–nothing wrong with that–then go the paid way. If you just want people to read what you’ve written and can support yourself in other ways, make it free.

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