I’m not sure I should even be writing this column.
Years ago, with the first advent of such blogging tools as Blogspot and WordPress, I told myself that I would never write a blog, or even write any free content for the internet, because I was a professional writer, and I didn’t by gum believe in giving away my product for free. For awhile, I held to that model, and never posted any free content except to my own websites. The model worked pretty well, for I was and am a poker writer, and found many online avenues for exploiting both new poker content and my massive back-catalog. Even if I was only licensing columns for $30 per year per pop, it was revenue; a revenue stream. And when anyone approached me with the proposal of swapping, say, content for exposure or content for advertising, I told them that I had a “policy”: no free content.
The first self-inflicted chink in my armor came when I went to Romania to develop TV shows, and thought it was time to start a blog, just for the sake of telling the folks back home what I was up to. It didn’t take much time, and it didn’t cut into any of my markets, so I thought that was fine. But it was, in a sense, the start of a slippery slope.
The slope got much steeper and much slicker when my novel, The California Roll, came out, and my publishers’ publicists encouraged me to jump all over social media. Soon I was caught up in the “promotion” paradigm, and in the name of serving that paradigm, I started reaching out to websites far and wide with the promise of interviews, how-tos, guest-posts, and other forms of online content. This wasn’t the old magazine model of “25 cents a word.” This was – is – all free content, and I was persuaded – have been persuaded – that such outreach is a necessary evil for anyone who wants to sell words in the post-modern world. As are my Twitter and Facebook efforts, which don’t take much time, but do take some creativity (I try to make every tweet @TrueFactBarFact shine like a tiny diamond.)
So where my old business model was, “No free content ever,” my new model is “All free content all the time in the name of building my brand.”
I think my model is breaking down.
I think I’ve become more involved with building my brand than with selling my words. I have come to obsess over how many Twitter followers I have, how many Facebook friends, because I’ve been persuaded that all these people are going to be looking over my shoulder at my life, and that this will somehow translate into book sales. Maybe I’m just in a cranky mood this morning, but now I’m not sure I buy it. The more my writing days become diluted with free-content writing and other promotional efforts, the less “real” writing I get done, and the less writing, needless to say, I get paid for.
But Kindle’s going to save me, right? I’m going to make all my new works direct-to-market digital, and I’m going to get rich two bucks at a time, right? Right?
Sure, yeah, if people find those books. But how will they find them if I don’t promote them? And how can I promote them without providing free content? And if I’m providing free content to people who are interested in my words, is not the “free” me in direct competition with the “pay-for-me” me? Am I not undercutting, devaluing and even ultimately destroying my own business model?
Like I said, maybe I’m just in a cranky mood.
The trouble is, by that logic (or let’s not call it logic, let’s just call it ranty syllogising), I shouldn’t even be writing this column. It’s free content. It’s me competing against me. And unless it actually drives sales of my works (or at least measurable awareness of my work) then it’s me competing against me not just for my words but also for my productivity and my time. But here’s the thing – the ultimate rub – I actually like writing this column. No, I love it. Though it started as a promotional effort for a novel, in the year or so that I’ve been doing it, it has come to mean much more. It has, in fact, come to be a drug. Once a month I post to WriterUnboxed and once a month my inbox is filled with positive comments – validating comments – about my thoughts. Direct feedback, writer to writer or reader to writer, lets me know I’m doing a good job, that in terms of doing a writer’s ultimate job – communicating thought and heart – my model is not breaking down. In my daily efforts to cut through the clutter, WriterUnboxed remains worth doing because it pays me something other than money: satisfaction; psychic income.
But it can’t go on forever. Not for me, not for you, not for any of us. All the free content we provide hurts us two ways. First, it erodes the time we could be spending writing words we actually get paid for. Second, it puts us in competition with ourselves and undercuts the general notion that writers should be paid, and paid well, for our words. As long as we’re in competition with ourselves, individually and collectively, we’re kind of in a jam.
I don’t know the way out of this trap. I can’t stop marketing myself or I’ll have no market. But if I continue marketing myself in this manner, the product I bring to market will continue to be worth less and less.
And suddenly I feel like the schoolgirl whose mother cautioned her against going around too loosely with boys because, “Why buy the cow when milk is cheap?”
I have become the cow. And my milk is cheap.
Or maybe I’m just in a cranky mood.
Image by Erin Gilad.