Sometime last year, I wrote a post on whether or not writers should publish for free. There I took the hard-nosed professional’s stance. I said authors should not give away their stuff for free, especially if someone else is making a buck out of it.
I still believe in that credo. If someone is making money out of your writing, you deserve a cut. Period.
But this also brought up a more fundamental question. Should writers ever give away their writing for free? Here I’m talking about things such as blog posts and free e-books and story collections.
A friend asked a similar question on her blog the other day. If you had asked me the same question at the beginning of the year, I would have answered differently. But now, I firmly believe that writers stand to gain by writing for free.
Here are five reasons why I think so.
1. The model is workable
If I write for free, an author may think, how will I ever make money from it? But the model of giving away content for free and still running a profitable business has been around for centuries. We call them newspapers. And magazines.
Did you see how much an edition of Times of India costs? At my local grocer’s he gives it away for five rupees. In other words, the price of a forty-page newspaper with columns and editorials is just about the same as that of a chicken egg. (My grocer gives me a 20% discount on eggs – four rupees each – if I buy more than a dozen at the time. None of that for newspapers, though.)
How do these media outlets remain profitable in spite of throwing their content away for free? The answer, of course, is advertising.
2. This is the era of free content
At last count, there are:
- 190 million free websites on the internet.
- 120 million videos on YouTube, with 200,000 videos added daily for free viewing.
- 300 million photos per day are uploaded to Facebook for free consumption.
Notice what the key word is in all three examples above? Free. Free. Free.
And these are only the big players. Whether we like it or not, this is the era of free content. As consumers, we expect to get things for free. So as producers, we must give it away. As much as we can.
3. Think like a business.
Whether they sell aluminum pipes, cakes, clothes or software, every business worth its salt has a content marketing plan in place. And writers are businessmen too. Depending on what genre you write in, you’re selling concepts. Ideas. Stories. Art. Knowledge. Expertise.
A baker may set up a food blog on Pinterest to take pictures of cakes that she makes every morning. A software engineer who has a product to sell on internet security may begin a blog about why security is important for everyone. A writer of fiction may find it worthwhile to discuss ideas and literature with his readers.
Whatever you choose to write about, begin by thinking like a business.
4. Build your brand.
There’s no better way of building a personal brand by showing your readers who you really are. And there’s no better way of showing your readers who you really are than by regular blogging. Giving away a free e-book may seem like you’re disrespecting your craft, but today, your biggest fear is that of being invisible. In a world in which everyone has a table, megaphone, and tons of free content they’re eager to share, who will stop by your stall if all you have on display is a list of prices?
Authors are traditionally reticent, and are not natural brand builders. But that’s okay. Begin by being yourself. Give away more than you’re comfortable with. Things will become clearer as you go.
5. Build relationships.
This is probably the most important advantage of operating for free. You build relationships. You build friendships. The most rewarding experience of my writing life has been the setting up and running of Write Club, a free Writers’ Group in Bangalore. In the three years I’ve been involved with it, I’ve met countless people from diverse backgrounds. I’ve made friends. I’ve had fun.
I firmly believe that human beings are not natural users of money. We’re emotional, instinctive beings. Our ethics and relationships are built on values such as cooperation, sharing, justice and mutual benefit. So if money is kept out of the scene, I’ve often noticed that the nature of relationship between individuals is a lot more ‘human’ – for the lack of a better word. And as soon as money enters the picture, people become more ruthless, more demanding, less forgiving.
What should you do?
If I have convinced you that writing for free could be a good thing for most writers, your first step forward is to build a strategy. There is no one-size-fits-all approach here. You must figure out what is good for you.
More specifically, ask yourself these three questions
1. What are you going to sell?
Before you begin creating free content, it will pay to ask yourself what you’re actually selling. You may be a published author, in which case you’re selling books. You may be a professional blogger, in which case you’re selling content itself, which means you will need advertising to earn money. You may an expert in your field, and you may be selling courses to aspirants.
Whatever you’re selling, your free content will need to mirror the ‘product’ in quality and theme.
2. How much time can you allocate to free writing?
It is possible to become so engrossed in creating free content that you neglect your product. Ever since I became a regular blogger, I’ve found that I’m spending less time writing fiction, which is my ‘primary role’. It will help you if you can define beforehand how much time you can afford to give to free writing.
3. Whom are you going to target?
As a writer, you have two broad groups of people you can target:
- Other (aspiring) writers
Whom do you want to write for? The kind of content that readers will love is completely different to what your colleagues will enjoy. For each post you write, therefore, define in your mind which group you’re targeting. It’s perfectly possible to run a blog which caters to both groups, but it will, of course, take more of your time and effort than if you focused on just one.
Join the discussion. As a writer, do you think writing for free is beneficial or bad? Do you agree with this post? What do you think of the proliferation of free content on the internet in recent years? Is it good or bad for writers and content creators?
Image Courtesy: Salon.com