Monday, 17 September 2012

Trust Your Readers?

"The only way you can make a man trustworthy is to trust him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him and show your distrust."
- Henry L. Stimson

'Trust your readers' is one of the most important rules of the writing craft. Publishing a book is like handing your newborn baby to complete strangers in the street. You have to trust that they'll treat it with the care and respect it deserves.

In fact, the need for trust is stronger than that. A novel is a structure, scenes and actions and people, and you rely on the reader to put their own experiences and memories into that structure to fill it out into a complete world in their head. You try to point them in the right direction, but you have to let them do the filling in themselves. If you tried to cover all those details for them, you'd end up with over-written, tiresome, directionless drivel.

The best fiction (by which I mean Janny Wurts' The Wars of Light and Shadow, just so we're clear) requires at least as much work from the reader as from the author. Just because a book should be easy to read does not mean it should be indolent to read. A great book is one that makes you want to work just as hard at the world as the author did (and again, Janny Wurts. If you don't like her work, you're not working hard enough at it ;D).

And trust is great. It's one of the most important forces in human society. It's the fundamental basis for all healthy social relationships, and healthy social relationships, more than any other single thing, are the root of happiness. So it's no surprise that trust turns out to be fundamental to art.

But I don't think we go far enough, really. I think we, as writers, trust readers artistically or literarily, but not commercially. Yes, this is going to take some explaining.

Let me start with a detour. Corporations are incapable of trust. Trust is a thing people do (or individuals, anyway - I'm sure there are some animals, if there's even a clear people/animal divide anymore, which are capable of trust. As for aliens? Well, we consider ourselves people too, thank you very much ;D).

Furthermore, we can't expect corporations to somehow miraculously develop the ability to trust. Their only interest (as laid down in law and backed up by at least a couple of hundred years of consistent behaviour with very rare exceptions) is the bottom line. To serve the bottom line, they need up-front, single-unit, fixed pricing. They have to be able to shift money around their complex internal structures clearly, efficiently and tracably. Their basis for decision-making is the financial performance of different products.

And (despite my general suspicion of corporatism) I have to acknowledge that there's a place for that. Maybe even in the publishing world (and I stress, maybe).

But corporate publishing requires trust from readers - trust that the marketing is true, that the price is backed up with quality - without offering trust in return. To offer trust, you have to offer choices. What choice does a fixed-unit-price product offer? The simple question 'Do you want this enough to pay this much for it?'

I, as a self-publisher (I'm starting to fancy the term 'digital frontiersman' ;D), can offer something different. Thanks to Smashwords, I can make my works available on a pay-what-you-want model, and offer readers the choice 'How much do you think this is worth?'

It's a slim difference in some ways, but I think it's a subtly powerful one. Pay-what-you-want isn't just In Rainbows anymore. Look at the Humble Bundle's performance. Look at Bandcamp (and keep looking, because hopefully in a few weeks' time I'll have an EP up on there).

Now, I'll admit that as a consumer I'm a huge fan of pay-what-you-want, and not just because I'm poor. In fact, based on the pay-what-you-want  purchases I've made, I'm more likely to pay more if given the choice to pay nothing than I am to pay at all if there's a price floor or fixed price.

For example, I've bought two things on Bandcamp recently, Sam Jones' 'My Friends' and Sam Hart's 'Ink' (both excellent, by the way). 'My Friends' has no minimum price, 'Ink' is a minimum price of a dollar. I paid a dollar for each.

Now, Sam Jones is a buddy of mine, and I love his music, but I had five of his albums already. On the other hand, 'Ink' is Sam Hart's first release, but I've been into his music from his Youtube videos for three or four years, absolutely gagging to be able to buy some of it. I seriously considered shelling out for the CD copy (with autographed photo of his cats! (It's a thing, don't think too hard about it...)). And yet, I only paid the minimum price. Why? Because when I saw that minimum price, my thought was more or less 'well, that's what he thinks it's worth, and he made the damn thing, I'll trust him on the point'.

When I saw that I could get 'My Friends' for any price at all, my thought was 'Well, I don't have a lot of money right now, but I want to show that this music is worth something to me'.

See the difference? Maybe I'm psychologically unusual (certainly, seven years of academic philosophy has made me very sensitive to semantic nuance), but the distinction is there, definitely. And, in all honesty, the way I write fiction I think is directed most closely toward people with a similar level of attention to semantic detail.

I've been hinting for a while now that I've got a new non-Second-Realm release coming up. It's finally starting to approach readiness for publication now, and I'm hoping to be able to put it out in early October, mid-way between the next and next-but-one Second Realm episodes. Well, I'm going to put it up using Smashwords' pay-what-you-like feature, and we'll see how it does.

(Sidebar: For now at least, The Second Realm remains free. When season 2 starts, probably in December, I may change it to pay-what-you-like, but the monthly episodes will always be available for free.)

If the trust I'm putting in my readers turns out to be justified (in my sole estimation - but I'll explain my decisions here on this blog as and when I make them), then I'll keep trusting. I believe very strongly in this model (and the closely-related crowd-funding model), for a lot of reasons which I'll get into another time.

If you want a sneak peek at the new release, by the way, I'm doing Cara Michaels' Character Matters series this Wednesday. You should definitely check it out.

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