How valuable is knowledge?

NOTE: This is the third in a series of several posts David Nygren of The Urban Elitist and I will be cross-blogging concerning the issue of authors (whether traditionally published, e-published, or self-published) actually getting paid for their work.

Outside of David’s and my continuing exploration of how to monetize our work (and for me, this means fiction), I’ve come across some interesting things that really only cement my opinion that, in a misguided attempt to be generous, knowledge is flung around like rotting leaves on a late fall day: plentiful, soggy, and seemingly worthless.

In ages past, knowledge was specialized and carefully husbanded, passed down from father to son or from master to apprentice, under the craft guild’s auspices: tailoring, goldsmithing, masonry, jewel cutting. These trades were respected, well paid, and each had their—get it?—guild to watch out for the trade. (I won’t go into the differences between a guild and a union at this time.)

tohnewlogo6Not that long ago, esoteric specialized trades with their own secrets began to write how-to books. I still liken this to the groundbreaking This Old House (and if you don’t know how groundbreaking this was in the building and remodeling industry, you just weren’t paying attention or you weren’t born yet). In 1979, I was 11 and I ate it up, glued to PBS every Saturday morning. (There’s a genome for DIYers, you see.) Still, the how-to books got bought and people learned these things—and they paid for the privilege.

A couple of years ago, I thought I’d undertake the task of making drapes, so I bought (oooh, there’s that word again) an e-book on the subject. It was self-published, an A-to-Z how-to with simple instructions laid out for an idiot ADDer like me, and far superior to anything I’d seen in a bookstore or at the library. It was $24.95 and worth every penny. (Never did get around to doing the drapes, but now I understand the concepts and principles of drape-making.)

Today, I went looking for how to create dollhouse plans and build a dollhouse. Now, I have never been into dollhouses and this project has to do with my current WIP, Stay, for which I want to build Whittaker House (a gothic revival mansion inn) and its surrounds in miniature. And I found this: FREE dollhouse plans and instructions.

I would’ve paid money for instructions like that, perhaps as an e-book or as a serial or a do-along project. I mean, she seems to know what she’s talking about, right? I wondered, “What’s wrong with that woman?”

funny pictures of cats with captionsBut then I looked at the header of my own blog, where it says, CREATING E-BOOK SERIES. I’ve been spending hours and hours building the next post on this (in case anybody was wondering where the hell it was). What’s wrong with that woman in the mirror?

Three things:

1) I’m a dilettante. I’m not sure I’m doing this the “right” way. I can only share what I’ve done; thus, I’m not sure my knowledge is actually worth anything.

2) I like to teach, and any bit of knowledge will spur me on.

3) I’m a compulsive helper. Knowledge is power and I think there are a lot of people out there who could use some empowerment.

If I had a penis and had gone to a master to teach me, say, stone cutting, my father would have paid the master to take me on as an apprentice. I would have served in his household in whatever capacity in exchange for room and board and knowledge for a period of 7 years (or more), which would have made me little better than an indentured servant. And then I would have struck out on my next phase as a journeyman and continued training. Once I earned the title of master under stringent training and specification, I could then say, “These are my credentials because I gave 14 years of my life to my trade in money, blood, sweat, and tears, and I am now in a position to charge money for my expertise and get my own little slave.”

If I had gone to college and enrolled in their fashion program, I would have paid tuition and gained credentials that told people, “Yeah, I kind of know what I’m talking about, so you need to pay me for my knowledge.” Oh, wait. I did do that. And I have a couple of awards to show for that. In my particular field of textiles, I’m considered a bit of an expert. So I charge.

But I didn’t go anywhere to learn how to create e-books. I learned my CSS and (X)HTML on my own from the free sites online (which sites exist in order to promote a standard markup). I learned the software programs by hit-or-miss. Nobody taught me; I didn’t ask anybody to teach me. I don’t feel I know enough to charge.

So why am I doing it?

To get traffic here into my blog to get you to buy my book. I am an expert on the subject of The Proviso, so I want to get paid for it. I am fortunate in that a couple of people have mostly agreed with me on my level of expertise.

Rightly or wrongly, some knowledge has to be given away to entice you to buy my product. Sometimes, those enticements don’t seem related. Obviously, there are some problems with the method I’ve chosen, which is to say, the people most likely to show up here to take the knowledge I’m offering free are probably writing books of their own and I should view them as my competition. They probably view me as their competition, too.

But say I’m wrong and it’s painfully obvious to everyone (except me and the people who take my advice) that I have no clue what I’m doing. Well, then my competition will screw up, too.

Sometimes free isn’t worth what you paid for it and can actually cost you a whole lot of real time and cash.

9 thoughts on “How valuable is knowledge?

  • January 29, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    Well, despite their being in competition, better for writers to form partnerships. One good things about books, unlike vacuum cleaners, for example, is that people usually want more than one of them. Liking one is usually an incentive to get more. That’s probably a good reason for writers to form alliances and group their books together in a way that makes it easier for readers to find content that’s to their taste.

    I wonder if people are more likely to buy when given a large choice? Would a person feel more comfortable buying from a store that has only one or two or three products, or a store that sold a hundred products? If a book has been “legitimized” in the mind of the reader by its inclusion in some kind of virtual “store,” perhaps it would make the purchase more likely. Just speculating, of course. Self-published writers, in trying to overcome the idea that many people have that they must not be “as good” as those published by a publishing house, might do well to mimic a store by banding together and offering a potential reader more choice. Maybe only a single book, the competitor’s, will be chosen, but if they’d all been out there on their own, maybe none of them would have made a sale.

  • January 29, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    On the other hand, a fundamental foundation of the guild system was the devesation of the Black Death. It was scarcity of skilled labor that gave the artisans the political power to take on the princes.

  • January 29, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    Hmmm…this is giving me some very sinister ideas on how writers might increase their authority and power in our society…raise an entire generation on video games so that no one knows how to write a complete sentence any longer except for the talented few.

  • January 29, 2009 at 5:16 pm

    What has happened is the loss of the journeyman class. That leaves only amateurs and stars.

    One hundred years ago there were thousands of journeyman violinists playing in musical halls, movie theaters and small orchestras. Today, overall, if you play the violin, you are either an amateur or Izak Pearlman.

    You either get paid nothing or a lot.

    This has shaped my thinking. I have shifted from focusing on marketing to growing my readership. I know it is not realistic to support myself on a low or middle level of success, so I am shooting for all or nothing.

    I am now giving away books like crazy. I figure it’s a fine way to do the mid-life crisis thing and a lot cheaper than the red sports car and young blonde. (My blonde is actually recycled.)

    I’m thinking that I will never get my book in Celebrity X’s hands, but I might give it to someone who gives it to someone…

  • January 29, 2009 at 7:53 pm

    I thought your journeyman comment was spot-on and while that vague impression had tickled the back of my mind, it really didn’t make any impression. You’re totally right.

    I guess in fictionwriterly terms, that would be…midlist?

    Sorry for the redundancy. 😉

  • January 29, 2009 at 8:51 pm

    I wouldn’t know about any of that writerly stuff.

    See the Symposium in my first book.

    I am only a story teller (sic).

  • January 30, 2009 at 5:56 am

    Regarding technical expertise, “give away one part to sell another” seems to be the strategy du jour. Personally, I’ve written two Java programming books (published by a brick-n-mortar), and I did make money off them directly (through royalties), but not as much (computed per hour) as I make as a software engineer. But the direct income from those books isn’t really the point — it’s that it works for me indirectly by affecting my job prospects.

    It’s true that giving information away free can devalue it, especially in the eyes of the people consuming the information. On the other hand, people know that this is the standard business model (give away some good information to entice you to buy some other part), so people understand the drill: it’s not that it’s free because it’s garbage — it’s free because it’s bait. Free informative articles can be seen as another type of advertising, and advertising costs the producer money just as writing a good article for a (free) blog costs you time. This new development may be more fair from a market-opportunities perspective: not everyone with something valuable to sell can get over the hurdle of finding the money for a professional ad campaign, but anyone with useful expertise or ideas can post them to the Internet and see what kind of returns (recognition, clients, etc.) it generates.

    Monetizing novels is more difficult because there’s a bit of a supply-and-demand problem. Novels don’t just compete against other novels, they compete against all other forms of entertainment — many of which can draw people in more quickly than a novel.

  • January 30, 2009 at 9:22 am

    Monetizing novels is more difficult because there’s a bit of a supply-and-demand problem. Novels don’t just compete against other novels, they compete against all other forms of entertainment — many of which can draw people in more quickly than a novel.

    Which is why The Urban Elitist and I are doing this series. Since publishing blew up in December, there are a lot of writers out there thinking in new directions and either we all have to come to the conclusion that writing and selling will be a hobby that’ll make us a few bucks or that it will be a deliberate career choice. It simply won’t be a deliberate career choice until somebody comes up with some decent strategies.

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