On Writing For “Free”

The science fiction tube of the Internet is having another one of those spasms about “free writing on the Internet” and whether giving away writing actually helps or hurts one’s career: Here’s one of the latest, in which I play a prominent role as an example. And while I understand I am fated to continue to be a prime example in this particular argument (although Cory Doctorow and Charlie Stross, most obviously, are other fine examples, and people should go bother them, too), I think I need to point out there’s a lot of conflation going on, between “free to the reader” and “unpaid to the writer.” And while I have quite a lot of fiction work that is the former, the amount of fiction work I do that qualifies for the latter is almost nil. I have always been paid, one way or another, for the fiction work I do.

To bring the point home, let me go down the list for the “Scalzi Creative Sampler,” my list of fiction (and other creative stuff) available online:

* Agent to the Stars: This is famously my first novel, which I put online as “shareware” in 1999 and for which I accepted donations through 2004. I made about $4,000 that way, which was not shabby considering I was not a known quantity in science fiction at the time. Since that time, it’s been sold to three separate publishers (one for hardcover, one for paperback, one foreign publisher), each time for thousands of dollars.

* First chapter of The Android’s Dream: Part of a novel, for which I was paid and for which I am currently earning royalties.

* “The Sagan Diary”: An interesting situation, because I wrote it as payment for a $5,000 donation to the John M. Ford Endownment Fund for the Minneapolis Public Library. However, once the hardcover version earned out that amount, Subterranean Press began paying my royalties (something it didn’t have to do, and the fact it did is one of the several reasons I do business with it), and at this point, without going into financial specifics, on a per word basis it’s been the most remunerative fiction I’ve written to date.

* “Alien Animal Encounters”: Paid a SFWA-qualifying rate (I think five cents a word) by Strange Horizons Magazine in 2001 (even though it was not considered a “pro” market at the time, which is why I was eligible for the Campbell in 2006).

* “Missives from Possible Futures #1: Alternate History Search Results”: I can’t remember exactly what I was paid for this one, but it was a multiple of the SFWA-qualifying rate, from Subterranean Online.

* “Pluto Tells All”: Paid at a SFWA-qualifying multiple by Subterranean Online.

* “How I Proposed to My Wife: An Alien Sex Story”: Published as a chapbook by Subterranean as a premium for folks who bought the limited edition of the “cliche” issue of Subterranean Magazine; as editor of the issue, I paid myself what I paid everyone else, i.e., seven cents a word. When I made it available online, I offered it as “shareware” and I made about an additional $600 from that (so far).

* “After the Coup”: Published on Tor.Com, for which I was paid 25 cents a word, in a set-up similar to Baen’s Universe’s comissioned story rate, which makes it (along with Baen’s Universe, clearly) the high end of payment for SF/F-oriented outlets.

And what about Old Man’s War, which I serialized on my Web site before it was sold to Tor? Well, when I was serializing it, I offered an option for people to get the whole thing in one lump for $1.50. I made a couple hundred dollars that way before Tor made an offer on it. Tor has since offered it up on a limited basis in eBook form for no cost to the reader, but a) it was with my consent; b) it was offered after it had generated a significant amount of money in royalties; c) anecdotally, offering it free for a limited amount of time appears to have boosted sales of the paperback. It also (anecdotally) doesn’t seem to have had much of a negative impact on eBook sales, either, as the Kindle edition of Old Man’s War is currently #16 on the Amazon Kindle SF list, with the other Kindle-available books of mine currently at #2, #17 and #19.

I am quite obviously a big proponent of making some of my writing, particularly short fiction, available online for people to read at no cost to them. But I am also a big proponent of getting paid. As a consequence, I tend to sell my work to online markets whose economic model supports free viewing of the stories, and when I put fiction up on my own site, I encourage voluntary contributions. I don’t do it this way every time — I have short fiction that you have to pay to read (and in one upcoming case, to hear) — but I do it frequently enough. But the point to make, again, is that “free to the reader” is not the same as “unpaid to the writer.” I have gotten paid for the fiction I’ve put online. I do get paid for it. And, barring a sudden windfall of cash that obviates the need of me having to worry about money ever again, I will continue to make sure I get paid for it. And naturally I encourage other writers to make sure their own economic interests are served when they have stuff put online that is free for readers to view.

In any event, when we are all arguing about free fiction online, let’s remember that “free” does not have to equal “unpaid.” It hasn’t been for me; I’m not sure why it has to be assumed it will be for others.

30 Comments on “On Writing For “Free””

  1. John,

    I look forward to the day Woz or a similarly well funded SF lover decides to grant you patronage Medici style.
    Until then if you want to lock in a regular source of income how about a periodical we can subscribe to with short fiction pieces published say once a quarter?

    What with all the spare time you have and everything…

  2. I think the major stumbling block so far is finding a business model that supports “giving it away for free” while paying writers without being a loss-leader for a larger publishing concern. Some have accomplished this (Strange Horizons immediately comes to mind), other are struggling with seeing how it will work as they watch their hard copy subscription rates fall (and the resultant drop in ad revenues). It’s a natural reaction to be more conservative in that regard. It’s hard to leap from the cliff and build your wings on the way down when you’re worried about making payroll (or other expenses) next month.

  3. John,

    First – thanks for the link. I now have my “hat trick” of link ins from uber sites.

    Second – I didn’t and don’t conflate “fiction for free” and “writers working for free”; that conflation is in the commentary.

    The question I was asking was whether one writer’s ‘loss leader’ fiction will benefit the publisher’s stable or not – as it is pretty clear that you have been successful in whetting people’s appetites and turning the taste into a sale, for your own works.

    I didn’t bother to get into the ‘I’m sure he got paid in some fashion’ issue because that wasn’t the subject. I guess I mistakenly assumed that most people would figure out that since it was up on the TOR site, and since your (primary) publisher is TOR, that “arrangements had been made” (which could have been anything from “ok, we won’t ask for another OMW novel for two more years” to “the skid of paperbacks will be arriving in Ohio next week” or any other form of compensation that you would consider acceptable.

    I merely wanted to point out that TOR’s efforts, combined with the free availability of some of your work has (maybe) had a direct and positive effect on sales in Concord, NH. I then wanted to ask the next question: will this benefit other authors?

  4. Wow, your business acumen is way better than mine. :) But like you, I often have people ask me why I give my writing away for free on my blog (I write long-ish blog posts). I’ve found it useful to think of the blog as a “writing lab” whereby I get to explore fun topics in a sort of “polished free-write” format. I don’t get paid per post, but I’ve gotten three paid (published) articles in science magazines out of it, plus a third book contract. I’m no Scalzi, with his lucrative online sci-fi empire, but neither do I give it away for free.

    Hopefully, people will start figuring out that, as Scalzi says, free to the reader doesn’t mean the writer can’t get paid. The Internet is a shiny new distribution mechanism, that’s all.

  5. [A]necdotally, offering [Old Man’s War] free for a limited amount of time appears to have boosted sales of the paperback

    I would imagine that it’s also boosted sales of the other books in the series, too. I know that at least I, when I signed up for tor.com, spent a little time nosing around the site. My internal dialog went something like: Cool — free e-books. Download ’em all. Now… which one do I read first? Couple of writers here I’ve heard of… ah, but there’s a short here set in the same world as one of them… read that first. Yep, that was good. Read the book. That was good too… straight to Amazon to buy the next in the series.

    I highly doubt I was the only one who did this.

  6. Steve Davidson:

    The issue of conflation is a general one, not confined to you, and you might be surprised at the number of people who assumed that I wrote something for Tor.Com for free (or something close to it) simply because they are the publisher of my books. Fortunately, the folks at Tor believe in paying for the work they receive.

  7. This will be a terrific / horrible debate because it will never, ever be resolved. Too many variables. But to an outsider it looks like a decent component of the essential self-promotion campaign if you’ve got the chops for it.

    How does it play out for me personally? After downloading “Accelerando”, I buy Stross’ books in hardback. Want now. OTOH, I read OMW from the free download and haven’t bought any of your books. I liked the writing but aspects of the universe just didn’t work for me. I’ll wait until I have another free / cheap opportunity to read one of the sequels to give it another go. (And I will give it another go. Something got my hackles up and I couldn’t get past it. If it isn’t mentioned as much I’ll suspend disbelief easier and likely start buying them.)


  8. JDC:

    “I’ll wait until I have another free / cheap opportunity to read one of the sequels to give it another go.”

    It’s called “the library,” actually.

  9. I’m one of those who didn’t read any of the free versions but I did read John’s blog for a while before I bought OMW. After reading that, I picked up three more books, and in all likelihood will pick up more as John churns them out from his writing sweatshop. (Ha, we’re on to you John.)

    Also, I’ve hardly read science fiction books, so my decision to buy the first book was based purely on what I read on this blog.

  10. Another piece of evidence for the validity of the “free versions benefit the author” side of the argument:

    I was pointed to your blog by a friend who appreciated your writing style. Your blog entries were a good indicator of a.) your writing ability, and b.) your personality, so I figured I’d probably like your novels. I downloaded “Old Man’s War” as a sampler, and decided after twenty pages or so that it was worth buying. (Contrary to anti-ebook wisdom, people prefer reading stuff on dead tree, and will, in fact, get the paper version to go with the ebook.)

    Then I ended up buying all the other OMW books, as well as The Android’s Dream. All those paperback and hardcover sales can be directly attributed to the free content of your blog, and the free ebook copy of OMW made available by Tor. The blog and ebook were free to me, but they directly translated to money for their author.

    (And let’s not even talk about all the change I dropped on books from authors featured in your “The Big Idea” posts…)

  11. I hope you don’t consider this spam, John, and feel free to delete it if you do, but I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I started a free-to-the-reader, online-only, pro-paying flash fiction magazine (with the boring-but-Google-friendly name “Flash Fiction Online“) in December of 2007.

    I pay pro rates for several reasons, but mainly because pros are more likely to submit their work where they can get paid for it. Lots of ‘zines publish stories for free or with a token payment, and some of them are really good, but a professional wants income as well as gratification. And, of course, money is one form of keeping score. So for stories ranging from 500-1000 words, I pay $50, or 5-10 cents per word: professional level, albeit nowhere near the $.25 / words that you got for “After the Coup”!

    It’s good for my readers, because I get good-quality stories from great authors (I’ve published Bruce Holland Rogers, Bruce McAllister, and Jim Van Pelt, for instance), and it’s good for my authors because they get a little money and non-pros should (we’ll see when I ask the SFWA for accreditation in December) get a pro credit. Win-win.

    Of course, right now I’m losing money — I make a little from advertising and a little from the tip jar, but not nearly enough to cover the cost of publication yet — and that’s publishing only three stories plus Bruce Holland Rogers’s monthly column on short-short fiction writing. (I’ll eventually look for direct sponsorship, but I want to have a little bit more street cred before I do.) So my challenge is revenue generation.

    That’s not my authors’ problem, of course, but they’re part of the solution — when I buy a story, I buy electronic publishing rights and a one-time non-exclusive right to publish a Flash Fiction Online-based print anthology. People still like paper, and some readers who wouldn’t dig through all of the stories online will enjoy reading the book. I also think that as people browse the shelves they will respond well to seeing an anthology of stories that have already been published to a Web site (the stories were good enough to be picked up by a print publisher as well as a “Web site editor”), and that the book will give the zine both credibility and a few readers.

    It’s hardly a publishing empire, but it’s trying to find a way to take the win-win I already have (readers and authors) and make it so that readers, authors, sponsors / advertisers, and the publisher _all_ win. Free-to-the-reader, paid-to-the-author online fiction seems to be a strong part of that scheme. It’s worth the experiment, anyway.

  12. Gee the library! Why didn’t I think of that? Oh wait! I did. The key word in my comment is “opportunity”. The tiny village in Cheshire I call home does actually have a library. It even has a science fiction book. That’s book singular. I admit I haven’t requested any of your books though I have requested others. Nothing as yet. I read a lot of books but, joyfully, there are always more. As I wait, you can fuck right off for that pointless bit of snark. Yes, it’s your blog and of course you can say what you want. No, I don’t think you really meant that to sound quite as assholeish as it does to me. But there you are.

  13. I forgot to say: Of course you shouldn’t have to put up with my telling you to fuck off on your own blog. Delete it! But if you do, I’d appreciate it if you deleted my earlier comment and your own follow up (and this one too of course). Thanks.

  14. JDC:

    “As I wait, you can fuck right off for that pointless bit of snark.”

    It wasn’t pointless on my end. I find that a lot of people, particularly those whose heads are mostly stuffed inside the Internet, forget that there are these repositories of books (and other media) known as libraries, and occasionally need to be reminded that a) they exist, b) often have the books one wishes to read, and c) will locate the book for you in other libraries if in fact they do not have the book you want housed where they are. That you took it wholly as snark, is, of course, not my problem.

    That said, if such a comment of relatively mild snark quotient drives you immediately to hostility and profanity, when next you visit the library, I recommend you visit the section of the library contained within the Dewey Decimal numbers 150 – 159.

  15. John:

    “I recommend you visit the section of the library contained within the Dewey Decimal numbers 150 – 159.”


    I’m not sure which is worse, that someone can be that easily offended or that I knew what section that was without looking it up.

    I’m contemplating this issue right now, whether it is better to post short stories online for free to get feedback and word out or sell them first. After reading your essay, I think I’m going to password protect them online until I have sold them, then unlock them for all.

    Finally, it was great to meet you at WorldCon – thank you for being so gracious to me and my son, David.

  16. John – The distinction between free to the reader and unpaid to the writer is so effing important, and it’s a point I’m very glad you made.

    It’s not just book authors that are having this discussion, either – it’s all kind of content producers on the web – journalists, musicians, and anyone else who creates digitally replicable art.

    In my mind, one of the real disadvantages to not offering all your work “free to the reader” is that you risk losing that content to someone else in the eyes of Google.

    My boss recently found a book he wrote copied word-for-word into blog posts from a “consultant” in the UK who is getting business because of his “expertise.”

    The unfortunate thing is that this guy is the first one to have brought that exact text online. If my boss re-posts it, Google will “punish” him for having derivative content…this is obviously a problem.

  17. Sorry I’m too lazy to find a link to the relevant posts… but I figure you’re aware of Neil Gaiman’s giving away American Gods as a download and the tracking he and his publisher did regarding sales not only of it but his other books as well that were a result. He’s written several really good posts about “giving it away”.

    I know for me one “free” book – whether from a library, or just sitting and reading it at a bookstore – can end up costing me a lot when I just have to go back and read a lot of other things that author has written.

  18. @Jason Preston #16 – Ditto on the suing. And also maybe write to Google, although that is hard and requires site maps and such.

    I’ve had my share of your issue, and it’s not like I post anything useful all that often. Several months of my blog are lost to people like that who managed to come out on top after I changed my domain name. I don’t make money from my posts, so there’s no way a lawsuit that would amount to anything. You, however, do make money, so a lawsuit would (a) matter and (b) accomplish something.

  19. @John & @Arachne – that’s a good point, although the dude is in the UK and we’re here in the States, so I’m not sure how the legal crossover works (I’m sure if I google it for five minutes I can find out).

    We just found out about it a few weeks ago and we’re thinking about doing a few posts on it ourselves first.

    Lemons = lemonade.

  20. As far as our host goes this comment is probably (like the library one for others) repetition of something he already knows.

    However it seems to me that the free to read != author unpaid issue is something that Eric Flint has addressed in part in his various “salvoes against big brother” columns at Jim Baen’s Universe.

    He coined a concept of spillage to describe the fact that almost every successful sale involves the salesperson / company giving away test-drives, demos, trial periods, free samples etc. before closing the sale and that (duh) not every freebie given away results in a sale.

    The transferal of that concept into books and particularly ebooks means that readers can expect to read a non-trivial chunk of an author’s work for free before they have to pay for it. However, as you note, for a smart publisher and successful author that doesn’t mean that the author won’t be paid because the publisher can expect to receive money from people who enjoyed the freebie and want more.

    [I know you don’t want to get sidetracked on to Tor’s ebook strategy but the complaints from many of us (including me) indicate that Tor did a wonderful job of growing the market for their books/authors and then failed to follow through quickly enough with the right options for new readers to purchase more books and give Tor and its authors money.]

  21. I find that a lot of people, particularly those whose heads are mostly stuffed inside the Internet, forget that there are these repositories of books (and other media) known as libraries, and occasionally need to be reminded that a) they exist, b) often have the books one wishes to read,

    There are a lot of authors whose books I only read via the library – Harry Turtledove, Dean Koontz, and M.C. Beaton, for example, who are so damn prolific I’d go broke if I bought them all. When I was a lad, a paperback was $1 (yeah, I’m old), and something in me rebels at paying $7.50 for a paperback.

    More importantly, I enjoy their books but don’t really wanna own them forever. Too bad I can’t convince my wife to quit buying those !@*&#^ Nora Robbs…

    Anyway, reading JDC’s post convinces me that we have an excellent local library, and I have thus far taken it for granted!

  22. [deleted for not_scottbot trying to score snark points off a friend of mine in a manner which I find tiresome, boorish and utterly unrelated to the discussion at hand. Not_scottbot, feel free to be an asshole on this matter somewhere that’s not my site. And you lose further commenting privileges on this thread. Try a flyby snark like this again and you’re going to find yourself dropped into the moderation queue — JS]

  23. Good post, thanks.

    Only time will tell, of course, but what may be going on now is a stepping-stone to a new attitude and we’ll see where it leads. Right now the ‘free samples’ take us straight to Amazon or a bookstore. I hope that remains the case, but everything seems to be changing, so you never know (it looks like Amazon would rather sell used books – or really, just handle the transaction between buyer and used book dealer)…

    The idea of a Medici-like patronage system (or, as we have here in Canada, a government-grant supported system – which I mostly like) may render the reader a little too unimportant in the whole process – right now the only influence on what gets produced is by buying some and not others and I’d hate to lose that tiny bit of influence. I hope the new Medicis make good choices.

    But, of course, like almost all writers these days I give away short fiction online in the hopes it leads readers to my novels (crime, not SF)

    It’s early days, yet….

  24. Hmm. I took directing snark at me as “pointless” (and rude) not the notion of checking the library.

    Had you written “Have you tried the library?” I would have simply related my sob story about the 1 SF book (which is true!). While I would (hopefully) never tell you what you “should” write on your own blog, you don’t get to decide how I should react to your communications to me.

    I couldn’t (and still can’t) see any reason for you to be snarky to me unless I inadvertently pushed a button of yours in my first comment in the thread (if so, I apologise; I certainly had no intent to do so). If someone writes something on their blog that I think is stupid or wrong, I simply ignore it. There’s a hell of a lot of internet out there. Move on! But if someone addresses me in a manner I consider inappropriate, I’m more likely to respond.

    At root, this is probably all down to vagaries of perception, limitations of text, and faux intimacies of online fora. I’m sure it’s the first time that’s ever happened. While I have no qualms (outside the hearing ranges of my mother-in-law and nephews) about profanity and think I escalated rather than initiated hostilities, your concern for my psychological well being is appreciated. I wish you well in the 999s.

  25. Interesting article. One which I agree with whole heartedly. I write action thrillers (think Forsythe, Clancy, et al) but have not been picked up to publish through traditional media yet. As I was querying my first novel I wanted to start building an audience. Rather than offering the story as free pdfs I found http://www.podiobooks.com and decided to podcast the serialized version of my novel. It worked. I did the same with the second novel and got an even bigger audience. Then followed suit with a short story series and now am in studio with my third novel.

    And it paid too, via donations to paypal. At this point, while still unpublished via paper, I have made enough in donations to pay for nearly a six month supply of gasoline. Which says a lot…I drive an F250.

    Not bad for something given away free by an unknown author who lives in Alaska.


  26. John, how in the HELL did you make $4,000 from “shareware-ing” “Agent to the Stars”? Did you post the whole book at once? Chapters? PayPal on every page? Syndication?

    I’d love to know the mechanics of the process…


  27. As one of the editors of an online fiction magazine I would love to be able to pay our writers, but since we make zero dollars off our site we have zero to dish out. Hopefully any exposure our writers get from their stories translates into financial success elsewhere. I don’t think it’s a sin for writers to want to get paid, but I also don’t see a problem with working for free if it’s for a publication they believe in, as long as someone else isn’t making money off them.

  28. I’m one of those who didn’t read any of the free versions but I did read John’s blog for a while before I bought OMW

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