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.