Sharing knowledge

NOTE: This is the first 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.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while; how, if the product you offer is free, can you make a living at it? Answer’s simple: You can’t. So why do we writers do this? Just be read? Really? I thought I might need therapy, which is when I began writing this post.

In David’s excellent post, How to Get Your E-book Read, my overriding thought was that getting read is not the problem. In the era of “information wants to be free,” getting paid will be the problem. His article was serendipitous because then I knew I wasn’t alone in my thinking and we began to talk. Since he and I started brainstorming last week about what facets of the money issue we could cover (and believe me, we’ve uncovered more facets than a 2-carat marquis diamond), I’ve seen three disparate conversations/articles concerning this.

First, this Dear Author thread (almost 550! comments) wherein an author stated that she pulled a series because her work was pirated so heavily she couldn’t make money on it and, further, that if a day came that she couldn’t make money writing, she’d just stop.

Second, Ara13 in this Publishing Renaissance thread says:

I read last week how one of this blog’s bloggers complimented a writer by saying she passed on her book to a friend. I winced. For me, that was a back-handed compliment. Sure, it’s great that you like my work and want others to be exposed to it, but if you really want to help, you’ll buy them a copy. Sorry, but being able to pay my rent and grocery bills allows me to pursue such a creative endeavor.

Third, this Time article, most of which is quotable, but this is the phrase that stuck out to me:

From a modern capitalist marketplace, we’ve moved to a postmodern, postcapitalist bazaar where money is increasingly optional.


Money optional.

I nearly had a heart attack.

When I was 18 and new to college, I had a teacher who told me, “Don’t give away your knowledge. You earned it, you paid for it in time, money, blood, sweat, and tears. Don’t give it away for free.”

I choked. It went against everything I’d been taught both at home and at church (Mormons have no paid clergy; it’s strictly volunteer), and I was horrified. Then that teacher went on to prove himself an asshole, so I felt vindicated.

7189sft92blBut as I got on in life and saw that those who have knowledge and who teach for little or no money aren’t very…respected. And I read books of philosophy that changed my thinking. Yeah, one of them was Atlas Shrugged. Sue me.

Then I got along farther in life and saw that sharing a little quality knowledge is useful as well as generous. It’s empowering to giver and taker. It at once gives the receiver a fish so that he doesn’t keel over from hunger and teaches him how to use a fishing pole. It’s a personal choice in how to balance what to give, how much, and when. However.

There is a price:

1. Expectation and entitlement. As in, some people will then feel entitled to more of the giver’s knowledge, and possibly get upset when more is not forthcoming.

2. Devaluation. As in, whether it’s taken or not, it will be seen as disposable because it’s cheap or free. “This is advice is free, so it’s worth what you paid for it” takes on a whole new meaning in today’s postcapitalist, money-optional bazaar.

I have fear for the future of information.

What I truly fear is that all content, all information, all written entertainment, will be free and thus, devalued. The consultant (knowledge) and artist and musician and author need to be rewarded monetarily for their work or else they can’t eat.

Most consultants will find a way to monetize their knowledge. Chris Brogan does. Ramit Sethi does. Christine Comaford-Lynch does. Suze Orman does. No matter how much they give away.

Artists find ways to monetize their knowledge, from the elite to the bourgeois to the commercial to the assembly line.

Musicians tour and sell merchandise. (I probably should’ve used Radiohead for that example, but oh well.)

But most writers have no real avenue of residual earnings off their writing, except through direct sale of the work itself. Most writers will do whatever it is they do anyway without pay and continue to sling hash and throw themselves on the altar of “honing their craft” in order to earn the approbation of agents and editors (if they continue to exist in any number). They’ll take increasingly lower wages in order to be afforded the privilege of writing for money (i.e., “be a REAL writer”) for the cachet of having gotten The Call.

And then they’ll be pirated one way (cutting a print book open and scanning it) or another (file sharing).

Because the consumer has been trained via a number of methods to feel entitled to intellectual property and will, in turn, slap down any writer egotistical enough to say, “Hey, the work product of my brain is worth money.” They’ll do this through two methods:

Refuse to pay and not consume, then find free (possibly inferior, probably equivalent, possibly superior) content elsewhere.

Refuse to pay and consume anyway. Piracy.

No, his mind is not for rent to any god or government.

Nor, I would add, a self-entitled public. It should be for sale.

Aside: I needed the expertise of an editor to thoroughly go over my book. I paid her. I will not disclose how much because I don’t want to think about it; however, she had expertise I did not and I felt…weird…about asking someone to do that much work for little to no money.

What’s the answer?

Hell, I don’t know.

Rand had her architect and her musician and her novelist ride off into the sunset poverty-stricken for the sake of their art, taking their work with them.

The Internet drowns in pundits and theorists claiming, “Information wants to be freeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

The writer in me, the one who was reared to give away knowledge, still hears the siren call of That One Person to whom what I have to say will make a difference in his life and possibly change it for the better—whether I know it or not.

The entrepreneur in me wants to make a living doing what I love to do. Validation is gravy, but I gotta have the spuds.

25 thoughts on “Sharing knowledge

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  • January 23, 2009 at 9:24 am

    I agree. So far it doesn’t seem to have gotten THAT bad. Right now we have a bad economy which is skewing the numbers a little bit. But most people don’t pirate, and most people who read continue to read. ergo, they’re paying for the privilege.

    I think a large part of the problem is ebooks that are almost as much as the paper books. Consumers don’t understand how little profit a print book turns, nor do they care. They don’t understand that publishers already undersell to make the product affordable.

    So when they see an ebook more expensive than some of the print editions, they feel corn-holed.

    It’s unfortunate, but that’s the situation. Ebooks have to be less expensive to sell.

    Though I agree that if you can “get it for free” what is the incentive to pay for it?

    When it’s readily available for free, it’s already a luxery item, and we’re in a tough economy, what makes someone pay money anyway.

    I’ve got the ebook (a free ebook, legally free) called: Free Culture that goes into piracy and all the rammifications and types of pirates and etc. I think they go into some possible solutions as well.

    We can’t run around like chicken little with the sky falling until we really really understand this phenomenon and what to do about it.

    I’m not saying you are doing that, but a lot of people are doing that. And doing that just adds to the panic noise.

  • January 23, 2009 at 9:47 am

    Wm, elaborate? How?

  • January 23, 2009 at 10:10 am


    I agree with William, but I don’t know if it would work. I’ve sold exactly three tshirts in two years of selling. Not that I push it much, but even were I Stephen King, writing doesn’t hold a tshirt-worthy cachet, you know?

  • January 23, 2009 at 10:12 am

    Oh, you mean like merchandising?

    Yeah, I doubt my opening up a Cafepress shop and putting The Bewbies on a mousepad is going to get me anywhere.

    Don’t think I didn’t think of it. LOL

  • January 23, 2009 at 10:55 am

    I believe at the root of the problem is the tendency of people to treat transient business models as if they can and should be extrapolated into infinity (e.g., real estate). It could be that we’re just now emerging from a long IP pricing bubble, and like housing, the value of IP is finding its “natural” level. Maybe “dime store novels” really are worth a dime.

    Still, I also believe that ISPs have every right to block file-sharing ports, and copyright holders to protect their rights. But like Prohibition, absurd IP laws and pricing models mostly breed scofflaws.

    A good working model to study is the doujinshi (amateur manga/fanfic) subculture in Japan. I think the best metaphor for doujinshi is the NCAA. For the obscure sports, like fencing, it’s amateur all the way, labors of love. For the popular sports like football, it’s really the minor leagues (often marginally profitable), and successful writers and artists are regularly scouted out by major publishing houses and “go pro.”

    Perhaps the most important point about doujinshi is that in a country that can be very fastidious about IP, a synergistic live-and-let-live relationship exists between the IP owners and the doujinshi artists who regularly copy and pirate their work. This is described well in Sujata Massey’s murder mystery, The Floating Girl.

  • January 23, 2009 at 11:02 am

    I have many thoughts on this, but yes, a bit of acting like a band isn’t a bad idea. For one, most bands spend their first years touring like crazy any out of the way city with a stage that will have them, building up their fan base. People like to feel that they’ve discovered something and also like human contact. Additionally, the majority of readers, crazy as it seems, are not online, or at least are only online for specific reasons and barely care to know how to use google.

    The biggest difference, however, between music and books, is that not everyone rereads, whereas people do listen to music over and over. (Picture me shrugging here.)

    MoJo, do you have a mailing list somewhere on this site?

  • January 23, 2009 at 11:07 am

    MoJo, do you have a mailing list somewhere on this site?People like to feel that they’ve discovered something and also like human contact.

    Speaking of that. Another BFF sent me this and “human contact” was the first thing that went through my mind:

  • January 23, 2009 at 12:49 pm

    I have no problem with giving my work away for free. And I’m not concerned about “piracy” either. Heck, if the day ever comes when my novels are shared in file sharing networks, I’ll consider myself a success.

  • January 23, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    JMReep, I understand that that’s your philosophy and I respect that and in a lot of ways, I’m torn that direction, also.

    But I think there is $$$ value in the work that we do and I don’t want it devalued by the general public because it’s cheap/free. Human nature, IMO, ascribes a price:value quotient to products and ESPECIALLY to intellectual property.

  • January 23, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    Merchandising is only a small part of it. What I mean, rather, is that authors would need to work to create a world or worlds that fans can really invest themselves in via a constant stream of content (including things like Twitter feeds for main characters or similar low-cost but constant content venues), fan participation (embracing fan fiction, forums), collaboration with other authors, etc. And they need to do the equivalent of singles, ep and albums and only charger for one of them. And also have premium products associated with them.

    Yes, much more difficult to do for authors. But just like the hipper bands these days see albums as a way to promote their touring and make more of their money off of shows, authors are going to need to find a mix of free and paid content that’s equivalent. Basically, find a way to convert enough casual fans to the 100 or 500 or 1,000 or 5,000 hardcore fans that can support or at least decently subsidize an author’s work.

    Some speculative fiction authors have done that. Some Web comics artists have as well.

  • January 23, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    Wm, that gave me some great ideas. Have you shared these on AML and I just missed it?

    Also, did you listen to that Extreme album, III Sides to Every Story? A comment you made made me think this might be comparable to what you envision with LDS music.

    Last, my brother sent me a link to the “1,000 true fans” concept you talk about and then there’s a followup about the reality of 1,000 true fans.

  • January 23, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    1. Nope, haven’t shared it.

    2. Thanks for the Extreme recommendation I’ll check it out.

    3. Regarding authors and the 1k true fans — I don’t think it can work for most authors who want to write full time. They’ll still need agents and publishers and advances. Most authors will still need to work at least part time (and hopefully that part time work includes medical benefits).

    But here’s the thing:

    Your only really hope as an author — if you want to make a more than a semi-livable wage — is to break it big. How many authors are going to break it big?

    It seems to me that along your way to breaking it big (or not breaking it), it’d be nice to get *something* out of it — both in terms of income but also in the value that comes with connecting with fans. Time and energy is an issue, of course. But that’s an issue no matter what path you take. Whether it’s working full time and trying to write here and there. Or working part time and writing 7 novels over several years like Brandon Sandersen did. Or even if you have a trust fund and have all the time in the world, it seems to me that it’s better to work a few angles than to just write and cross your finger and hope.

    I’m also worried that the dominance of the novel as the major form of print narrative is going to erode so it makes sense now to get experience in and build a track record of some of these other forms of writing (short stories = singles, novellas/screenplays = EPs, novels = albums) as well as learning to write serially.

    And hey — at least authors don’t have expensive equipment needs and have to tour relentlessly in a broken down Ford econline and crash in squats and eat out of dumpsters like many of the punk/hardcore/post-punk bands did/do.

  • January 23, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    I think Robert Rich (“the reality of 1,000 true fans”) is right about specialization. That’s why it’s a mistake–assuming they want to grow beyond the crumbs left behind by DB and its clones–for “Mormon” publishers to expend a lot of energy trying to establish a foothold in the established “Mormon” market. It’d be much more productive to carve a “Mormon” segment out of much broader markets.

    For example, Sujata Massey (mentioned above) writes murder mysteries that take place in Japan. So she sells primarily into the large mystery genre market, but also to people like me who are primarily interested in the Japanese aspects.

    At any rate, why not ads in ebooks? High-brow publications like The New Yorker and National Geographic have ads. PBS and NPR have ads (they just don’t call them that). I see an opening for Google to pioneer context-based ads for the literary-minded.

  • January 23, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    I’m not a fan of tight specialization, either, because humans are more than the sum of 1 or 2 niche interests.

    At any rate, why not ads in ebooks?

    I have a tickle of a memory of reading something lately where that was being tried and it wasn’t going over well. Feedbooks, perhaps? I thought I saw it on Teleread, but I can’t find it right now.

  • January 23, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    Twitter feeds for main characters


    And then there’s this.

  • January 23, 2009 at 10:48 pm


    The Monty Python story reminds me of the lessons bands learned after watching Radiohead make a mint with In Rainbows:

    Step 1: Be Radiohead…..

  • January 24, 2009 at 7:43 am

    Step 1: Be Radiohead…

    That’s what I was thinking.

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  • November 19, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    What’s money? A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.

  • June 1, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    Hi there!
    My band recently recorded our first proper song!!!

    Have a look, we’ve learnt a lot from your blog! 🙂


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