When recently being interviewed for the release of my urban fantasy novel Dying for a Living, I was struck by this question: You give away a lot of free books…Why?
It is a legitimate question. After all, why wouldn’t people be curious as to why I gave away my book for free? Yet the question hung on, following me, popping up again and again—as I made a cup of tea, when I sat down to work, as I slipped on my coat and prepared to step out into the day—and it was only later that I realized why this was such a fascinating question.
First of all, artists are generally very protective of their work. And why shouldn’t they be? We spend a good deal of energy creating it and then a good deal more advocating for its right to life, to exposure. Then when the dissenters roll in, we spend yet more energy defending it—which is to say that may aspects of the creative process engage the professional artist in this particular way, eliciting specifically these kinds of reactions—the desire to control one’s own content.
And this raw emotion is further complicated in the digital age. Three hundred years ago, an author did not have to worry about a pirate running off into the night with a million copies of their book. What pirate would want to carry that many books? It would be too cumbersome for the heister to imagine such a thing.
But now, as your eBook sits so vulnerably exposed on the World Wide Web, piracy of that volume is possible. Even seeing the words together World Wide Web brings to mind a kind of Earth-sized book-eating spider that will run off with that novel you gained fifteen pounds while writing. Has no one respect for your sacrifices?
For these reasons, I acknowledge that today’s artist certainly has fresh challenges in comparison to generations’ past. But I also want to entertain the idea that one could “lose control” of their content, and it will still be okay. The more important questions: Do you have faith in your content? Did you create your content for the purpose of sharing it? For creating that magical reading experience for someone, as it was once created for you?
If the answers to these questions are yes, then piracy is not the problem.
Neil Gaiman has some wonderful thoughts on this and you can learn more about them here.
Gaiman makes the wonderful point that most people find their favorite writer (or favorite artist) through the free route—from a book in the library, from a friend, etc.
When you lose control of your content, when your goal is create magic rather than horde your materials, you increase the risk of finding those adoring fans. Those people who will buy all of your work, follow your blog, your process, come to your readings, viewings, etc. These are the people who tell everyone about you—your greatest marketers.
There could be many, many of these people out there—but not unless they know about you. And that is Gaiman’s argument, I believe, that the people who will truly support you and bolster your career, will not pirate your work.
So for this reason, it is best to relax your grip on your content. You don’t have to throw everything you’ve ever created into the wind, but you can relax.
Of course, there are supplemental considerations for the professional artist as to whether or not “free” is best for you. Evidence suggests that it helps your “weaker” projects sell more but hinders your bestsellers. You should read Joe’s article on this here before making any decisions about your content.
But what I’m proposing—for myself as much as anyone else—is that we move through the digital age with a little less fear regarding our content. Have a little more faith that—just as the right books came to us at the right time—that our work will find its audience*. We should focus on sharing the magic that drew us into this business. And if we believe in our content, then we know the magic is there. We just have to release it.
*with the help of marketing, of course. Take a bit of responsibility!
This article was written by contributor Kory M. Shrum, poet and author of Dying for a Living. Her poetry has appeared in North American Review, Bateau, and elsewhere. She lives in Michigan with her partner and a ferocious guard pug. When not writing, she can be found teaching, traveling, and wearing a gi.