Show Me the Money: The Copyleft Dilemma

The copyleft movement is very fond of talking about the benefits of giving your art away for free. The theory is this: if you, as an independent artist, give away all your writing or music in digital format, then you'll more than make up the difference by selling hard copies. Or related tangible merchandise, like t-shirts. Or maybe through tickets to shows!

It's a nice theory. But giving this message to writers who are just starting out, or who are established but have modest followings at best, contributes to an environment where it's OK for everyone around written work to make a living… except the writer.

Dance, Monkey, Dance!

Not long ago, The Literary Review ran a piece by Guy Walters that talks about the hard and potentially poverty-inducing reality that is promoting your work. You should read it. I've never spoken to an 800-person crowd, but it definitely rings true to my experience.

"As I drove home, I did some maths. Those eight hundred people had each paid £7, earning Hay a tidy £5,600. Compared to Hay's turnover of £4 million and gross profit of £1 million, that's not a huge sum, but it is certainly greater than a homeopathic ratio. Hay had probably made around £1,400 from me and I had got, er, six bottles of wine. I googled the wine to see what it cost and found it for as little as £8 per bottle. So 48 quid all in, and I bet Hay paid a lot less for it than that."

Writers trying to get more audience for their central work very often do incredible amounts of extra work for no compensation: book signings or promotional appearances, writing articles or guest blog posts, podcasts and interviews. It sucks up a tremendous amount of time. The month A Creator's Guide came out, promoting was something close to a full-time job. 

Sometimes it sucks up a tremendous amount of money, too — partly due to travel expenses, which aren't always reimbursed, but also because time spent promoting is time you're not spending writing. …You know, that thing you love to do.

Note that everyone involved in these deals except the writer is usually in line to make a little cash. The bookstore hosting a signing profits from selling extra copies of your book; podcasts and magazines run advertising or get sponsorships; conferences do all of the above, and sometimes they charge hefty ticket fees on top, too. (I object to this last so strongly that I will very seldom accept invitations to speak at for-profit conferences charging hundreds of dollars per person, unless the organization is paying an honorarium on top of travel expenses. I'm not in the business of donating my time to make someone else richer, you know?)

The promise is that the attention garnered through your tireless efforts will be your repayment. People will hear your interview or read your article, and they'll be moved to pick up a copy of your book or CD or whatever it is you're flogging. That's the value of "exposure." Put in for free now, for hypothetical benefit down the line.

But say you're giving your work away for free. In that instance, since nobody will be paying you for the work itself, you're not only not making any money out of the deal — you might be actively digging your way into debt. Even assuming you're comfortable or good at speaking in public in the first place.

And on the other hand, even if you are giving your work away, you still have to promote your work somehow. If you can't charge for the work and you can't charge for the promotional activity, where exactly is the writer supposed to get paid?

Tangible Goods

Oh, right. Those hard copies and t-shirts. Let's walk this through. To put out a physical copy of a book, I have to have the interior laid out, a cover designed, and physical printing done. The typical writer isn't going to have a copy of InDesign to lay out pages or the design chops to make a great cover, nor should they be expected to. So our hypothetical independent writer will have to pony up some hundreds of dollars to someone else to perform those services — again, someone besides the writer is earning a living. Anyone notice a trend?

And then, depending on the size of the print run, the books in question may feel prohibitively expensive. It's a rare and wonderful soul who will pay $15 for a paperback when they can get the ebook for free. But alas, including costs of shipping, that's about what a writer would have to charge just to break even on printing costs… much less squeak out a modest profit. And that's not even taking into account the money spent on that designer laying out the pages and designing your cover.

Not to say those rare and wonderful souls aren't out there — they definitely are! But in my experience, they're maybe 10% of your total audience, and often much, much less.

T-shirts have much the same problem. Small runs are proportionally more expensive, which makes them a harder sell to any but the most dedicated fan. And again, the writer is spending a lot of time and money to do something they may not even be good at or may not enjoy. The writer is forced to become a manufacturer and fulfillment house, at the expense of time spent writing.

The small independent artist, just starting out, may not have enough fans to even break even on design costs. That means the route to profitability and independence is much further out of reach for more people. Which means less art in the world.

Do we really want that to be the price of admission to be a writer?

Why Do We Write?

There will be some noble soul coming by, I am sure, telling me that they write for the joy of it; for themselves and for their audiences alone. Why should a writer have to make money at all? 

There's an unstated implication there that commerce sullies the artistic process, or that writing isn't work, and that it's right and proper that people shouldn't make a living from it.

I don't know about you, but that makes me very sad. Great art requires commitment. Years spent developing craft and executing. Great art requires an infrastructure that supports the artist financially so they don't starve to death or die of consumption while producing their masterwork. Without that infrastructure, without compensating for the work of imagination, those masterworks might just stay in the artist's head because they're too tired when they come home from that job at the factory or the restaurant or the nursery school. The whole world is the poorer for it.

If we cannot come up with a system that allows an artist to eke out a living without first sinking into debt through production costs and promotion, than we're ultimately creating an environment where spending the time to make serious art is a luxury few can afford. That is not the world I want to live in. 

The Time and Place for Free

Sometimes free is a good idea, of course. I've done it myself! Right here, and right now, you are reading work I am giving away for free. I don't run ads on my site, nor do I ever intend to. It's my gift to the world.

But it's not a gift lacking ulterior motives. It established my presence and opinions on the internet; it gives me a platform to promote the stuff I hope people will pay for, like the Guide, or like Lucy Smokeheart.

Even in the case of Lucy Smokeheart, I've been known to give the first episode away for free as a promotional effort, hoping to lure people into buying later episodes. But that's a key element: I am selling other pieces of work that people can pay money for.

The idea that all content should be given away for free and that creators should make money through nebulous other means is wrong and it's damaging. We should support a system that allows writers to make a living by writing… and then selling what they've written. 

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