Time for another angry blog post about greedy writers!
I may have mentioned that I used to write and draw webcomics (a few of which are still available in various forgotten corners of the internet - don't bother, though, because I was never very good. Prose writing suits me a lot better). I'm pretty well-acquainted with the webcomics business model - to whatever extent it is a business. I've said before I think there are lessons in it for writers in the ebook age. Here's one of them:
Human psychology does not suit treating transient experiences as capitalised commodities.
By which I mean, consumers aren't going to see ebooks as something they should pay for. Ebooks, like webcomics and webcartoons, are transient in that there's no physical object involved. The supply isn't limited; the 200-odd kilobytes of my novel on your Kindle's hard drive can be copied endlessly and without cost. There's effectively no overhead when you sell an ebook (there's Amazon's web hosting and bandwidth costs, but divide whatever they pay for those by the number of ebook sales and you'll get a very small number).
This means that, however strongly some writers feel they should be paid for their books, reader - consumer - psychology is pushed in a 'this shouldn't cost anything' direction. And that means we're fighting an up-hill battle to get them to pay for ebooks.
Where do webcomics come into this? Most webcomics are available for free. And yet, webcomic creators with enough passion, ability and work ethic can make a living at it, despite a much smaller consumer base than is open to ebooks.
How do the top webcomickers make their money? Hard-copy sales and merchandising. Concrete, tangible, non-transient stuff that their fans can't deny the commodity status of. People like Howard Tayler, Jeph Jaques and Fred Gallagher sell thousands of books every time they release a new collection (if I had the money, I would be among those buying - I already own five MegaTokyo collections*). They sell T-shirts, spin-offs and toys. They make family-supporting incomes. Full-time-job type incomes. Yes, they work full-time at it, but you know what? I like the idea of working full-time at writing.
* If you're about to judge me for reading MegaTokyo, then screw you, you sneering webcomic nerd. Screw you right out the door, down the hill, and dump you in the river. I like the characters and I'm sick of people telling me I'm somehow 'wrong' if I still like MegaTokyo (/rant)
For those of you about to point out that lots of webcartoonists don't make that kind of money, I KNOW. I'm getting to that. After all, I ran a webcomic for five and a half years. At a conservative estimate, I put something like 2,500 hours of work into it in that time. That's about ten hours a week, almost all of it drawing time. I made one attempt to get some money out of it, and made £5, before Paypal's cut. If I'd been prepared to put in twenty-five to thirty hours every week, including a whole bunch of promotional activity, then even with my weak grasp of the serial comic form and my wildly inconsistent artistic skill, I bet I could have bolstered my income quite a bit. I might even have found a decent niche for myself, got a stable fan-base going and turned it into a job.
Why didn't I? Partly it was a confidence thing. Mainly it was about passion, though; I cared about telling the story, not about getting it read. I didn't care enough about doing webcomics as a career choice that I was prepared to put in the hours to make it a career, when there were other things I was also passionate about. And when my passion for the story ran out, I stopped.
My point, ultimately, is this: Very few, if any, of the webcomics that are making money at the moment, started because people thought of webcomics as a way of making money. Most of them started because people were interested in the possibilities of the internet for playing host to sequential art and had an idea they wanted to try. People start webcomics out of passion and capitalise the process - make it a career - as and when they can.
I believe very strongly that the ebook revolution means we prose authors are in the same boat. We should be. It's nothing to fear - there are far more book readers than webcomic readers, and just as free webcomics get a lot more pageviews than paid-for dead tree comics, free ebooks are going to get looked at by a lot more people; free ebooks will expand the reader pool even further than ebooks already promise too. More people reading is a good thing in a transcendental sort of sense, but it also increases the likelihood of you finding readers so well-suited to your work that they can be persuaded to buy a hard-copy, and a poster, and a mug and so on.
I've seen a number of people expressing horror at the thought of giving their books away for free, wailing and gnashing their teeth at the world because their book should be 'worth something'. Well, I've already said that the value of a book to its author is the time spent writing it, not any amount of money it might happen to bring in. Looking at it from the other side, the value of a book to the reader is how much time they spend reading it and how much they enjoy that time - also not the money they spend on it. When you make your book available, you're asking readers to invest time in it. It might be time they're going to enjoy, but neither you nor they can know that. So I would argue that you can't know the cash 'value' of your book, and neither can a reader, until after they've read it (and yes, all of it. Samples are usually deceptive in some way or other).
The way I look at it is this: I'm not going to put time into reading your book unless I think you wrote it out of passion for the story, characters etc. This is because if you don't have a passion for your work, I don't trust you to have put in the effort to make reading it worth my time.
And if you wrote it out of passion, then I believe you'd have written it anyway, regardless of any possible financial return. So why not make it available and see if it inspires the same passion in me? If it does, and you offer me a well-produced hardcopy that'll look good on my shelf and remind me of time well spent on a good read, I'll probably buy it (financial woes notwithstanding). There's a thick strain of pack-rat/nostalgia/trophy-collecting in most human beings. If you can inspire in your readers the same passion for your work that you have, that's a rich vein for you to tap. And if you can't, do you really deserve to make any money?
I still get a red mist when I see authors saying 'If I can't make [some particular amount of money] at my writing, I'll stop.' When I see an author saying that, I mark them down as one to avoid, because anyone who thinks like that clearly doesn't care enough about their actual writing to do a good job of it.
With all creative endeavours, the only reason to do them is passion. If you just want to make a living, any other job is better. Making a living in the creative industries is always going to involve a huge quantity of work, a large part of which you will have to do before seeing a cent in return. If you can't do that start-up work for the love, you'll be wasting your time, doubly so because you'll probably be crap at it and get nowhere.
I've mentioned, I think, that I'm in a band. We do a fair number of gigs. Our last two and our next two, like many that we play, are free. We won't make any money, the venues will only make money at the bar. But we get to play to a bunch of people, some of whom won't have seen us before. That's a feeling and an experience I really love. I do it out of passion. As a result, I look like I'm having a good time on stage. I feel good, so I put positive energy into my performance. That translates into a good performance that people will enjoy.
You can tell the bands who've set out to make a living at their music. On-stage, they're leaden and stiff. Uninteresting. Watching them, you get a sense that they're holding you in contempt, because your only value to them is how much money you've paid. Off-stage, they tend to be rude and condescending.
Of course, most if not all of them fail. The bands that succeed are the ones that play for the love, that don't make a chore out of something that should be joyous, that don't hold their fans in contempt. The bands that succeed are the ones that look forward to their next opportunity to interact with their fans through their music, who welcome their audiences. Yes, they'll be commercially conscientious, but not at the expense of blaming their fans for not paying enough.
I'm banging on this theme of passion so much, by the way, because this is my basic point. Write for the love. Show your work to the world for the love. Only that love can drive you to do good enough work to inspire the passion in others that will get them to give you financial support. And once you have good work, thanks to that love, have faith in its ability to inspire others.
That could be my conclusion, but there's a little bit more to be said. A caveat to deliver. The caveat is this: one of the reasons the ebook revolution is so inviting to authors is that the initial outlay is a lot less than in other publishing streams. It costs basically nothing to upload an ebook to Kindle. Maybe you want to pay for a cover or some editing, but that's about it.
Going back to webcomics, the situation is similar; there are a few big webcomic networks that run free hosting for new comics. You can start a webcomic with only the expense of drawing materials.
Unfortunately the kind of merchandising that drives the careers of the big webcomics - and I am suggesting will do the same for authors - has up-front costs. Webcomic authors have various ways of dealing with this, from asking for donations to pre-order systems, to a sort of incremental approach where you start with cafepress and work up the quality and profit-margin scales from there. My perception of the business is that the more start-up money you have, the better your profit margin will be overall.
I haven't done any particular research into the various ways of producing hardcopy books, but I'm pretty sure that a commissioned print run is going to give you a better profit margin than print-on-demand, and the larger the print run, the better the margin. Where's the money coming from? Particularly for someone like me, who can barely afford a professional cover?
To that end, I'm willing to accept a certain amount of charging for ebooks. Charge low prices, flog a bunch of copies and build up your start-up money. That's what I'm planning to do with 'Heaven Can Wait' and its sequels. For the time being, it's possible to make money by this route.
If that's a success, though, you can expect most of the rest of my writing to be available for free. Doesn't mean I won't put ebooks on sale, necessarily (particularly as long as Amazon won't allow authors to Kindle their books for free), but it'll be available for free, formatted properly for the major e-readers. I'll make my money on hardcopies and merchandise.
And if I can't make enough money that way to live on? Well, that will show, clearly and irrefutably, the value and quality of my writing; it will show exactly how much passion I've been able to inspire in my readers.