If You Build It, Will They Come? | Literary Abominations

If You Build It, Will They Come?

Free content – particularly in the audio fiction space – suddenly seems a lot less of a perpetual free lunch than it did six months ago, and it’s got a lot of folks freaking out in my corner of the Internet. Providers are dropping like flies this year! Matthew Wayne Selznick and J.C. Hutchins have both very publicly withdrawn from the podcast fiction space, and for the best reason there is: Money.

[Correction: MWS chimed in in the comments to correct my misapprehension of his current attitude toward podcasting, which is considerably more complex than the paragraph above makes it seem. My apologies for inadvertently misrepresenting him.]

The two of them are generation one podiobookers who appeared in the space hot on the heels of the three founders, and seeing them throw in the towel has a lot of other creators wondering: “Are we all just being idiots giving stuff away for free?” And it’s got a lot of fans wondering “What’s going to happen now? Are all my favorite writers going to give up?”

The Gospel of Free has been pinging around the internet for a while now, it’s even got its own official book. There are folks in the fiction space – like Doctorow and Sigler – that have made it the cornerstone of their publicity strategy and turn a consistent profit at it. The use of free content in career building is a well-established promotional strategy, but it’s a difficult tool to use, and suffers from the reductio ad absurdum that most people hear when they first encounter the message, no matter how subtly it’s preached: “If you build it, they will come.”

So if I just put my stuff on the web I’ll find an audience? Well, no. You might find an audience, if you get yourself seen by the right people (and by “right people” I mean people who are prone to telling everybody they know about their latest new and great thing). You might even find a good audience – but you have to bear in mind, “Free” doesn’t mean what you think it does.

Let’s take what I do for free (well, free to my audience): I use a segment of my professional time as a writer and as a sound engineer to produce full-cast audiodbooks. I pay for this – billing my professional time out at normal rates, and factoring in what I pay my actors in trade (whether they’ve collected on it or not), my cost (not including what I should be paying the author) is in the neighborhood of $10-15k. Now, am I out of pocket that much? No. I do go out of pocket a little bit, but not a lot – however, that’s all time stripped out of my life that I could be billing at that kind of rate. If you’ve wondered why I do less in the way of publicity than some other podiobooks authors, now you know – the time is my main expense, and I have a life and a business. I intend, eventually, to have my writing income make up a greater-than-fifty-percent share of my household budget, but I’m not there yet. I’m nowhere near. This is what is called a loss-leader.

In business terms, a loss-leader is the bait on the hook – the hook is what gets the audience to spend money. Matching the right bait to the right hook and fishing in the right water is a learned skill set, and it relies somewhat on how fast one learns from experience, how lucky one is, and (in the writing game) how good a lawyer one is and/or has. There’s a reason more than 75% of authors wash out of the game after their first book contract runs out, and why only a minuscule percentage of people with authorial ambitions ever get even that far – being a good writer is not the same as being a successful author. It’s even possible to be a successful author without being a good writer (for example, Dan Brown), but I wouldn’t bank on it and I know damn few successful authors who would, particularly over the term of a career. Craft does matter – it’s just not all that matters.

If podcasting is your loss leader, what’s your endgame? If all you’re trying to do is get your voice heard, podcasting or blogging your novel is a perfectly fine idea. If you’re looking to get published, it might help, or it might be a distraction or a detriment, depending on your approach and a host of other variables. If you’re looking to build a sustainable long term career as a professional author, it’s time for you to stop and think about a few things before you go into podcasting:

1) What will podcasting give me?
2) What is my professional time worth – and if I were to bill myself for this, how much of a loss will I be taking?
3) What kind of author do I want to be?
4) Why do I think “getting published” is a worthwhile goal?

Why should you stop to think about these things? Because I guarantee you that your answers to at least one of those questions is wrong enough to set you up for some serious disappointment.

What will podcasting give me?
Podcasting will, if you stick with it and actually produce a decent product with broad enough appeal, give you an audience ranging anywhere from a few hundred to maybe twenty thousand regular listeners. If you’re very innovative in evangelizing your product beyond the established fiction podosphere, your chances for good numbers go up. If you host in a high visibility place like Podiobooks and leave your content there for a few years, your numbers will climb over time due to the long tail effect.

Podcasting may also help you learn the market in terms of audience. This is the primary reason I started fiction podcasting: Market research. I was looking to find out what kind of people would enjoy the stories that I’m interested in writing, so that I could figure out how to find and deliver to that market that, in the long term (and I’m talking about a time scale of decades) I will be able to consistently turn a profit on. Notice I said “stories”, not “books” – that will become important later.

Podcasting may give you a creative community – this isn’t something I was looking for, but I have made some friends through the process as well as more than a few good business contacts that have been helpful along the way.

Podcasting (if you’re good at it) will win you respect and accolades as well as the adoration of at least a few fans along the way, and this feels really good. Just remember that, as encouraging as it can be, it’s a limited kind of street cred. Audience tastes change, and what they love about you today they may hate about you tomorrow. Glory feels wonderful, even in small doses, and can put an extra bit of shine on a life well lived, but it will never make up for insecurity or the need for the kind of relationships you can only have with people who really know you.

Podcasting may give you pleasure – if you enjoy the process and enjoy interacting with people, it’s something that you might like even as a hobby.

But unless you are supremely lucky and very canny, there is something podcasting will not deliver: a paycheck of any substance. If you’re expecting to be have your audio audience put you on the bestseller list once you get that book deal, good luck to you. A few people have pulled it off. Those people are, without exception, people that – by chance or by cleverness – wrote exactly to market. They were selling stories that resonated perfectly (or at least well enough) with the public that a larger-than-average segment of their fan base wanted to own a physical copy, and the same larger-than-average segment went out of their way to pimp the shit out of the books to their friends, family, and strangers who might not even own iPods. A few others have pulled it off by their books being noticed on a site like Podiobooks, and subsequently selling film options.

If you want your book to perform well enough to get to your next contract, you need a publishing house that will throw its weight behind you, a print run that is realistically scaled to your book’s performance, and a property that is going to sell in the current market. If you don’t have at least the latter two of these three things, then (again) good luck to you. You’re going to need it.

How Much Is My Time Worth?

I hate to sound like a schoolmarm (or worse), but time that you’re podcasting is time that you’re not doing four other things, all of which are arguably more important. It’s time you’re not making money at whatever your profession is, it’s time you’re not spending with friends and family building the memories that make life with living, it’s time that you’re not learning, and it’s time that you’re not writing.

If you intend to write fiction for any significant fraction of your life, you need to be doing all of those things. You have to write to grow as a writer, and you have to make money to be able to live while you’re writing. But if you have a life that isn’t worth living – say, a life without significant relationships or learning and enrichment – then it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to have anything interesting to write about (and you may be too depressed to write about anything at all, except stories about depression).

Every hour you spend podcasting is billable time – somebody’s paying for it, and it isn’t always just you. Don’t cheat on your mental accounting sheet – There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. Even in a down economy, your time has a dollar value attached to it – figure
out what that value is, and then keep track of what you’re spending. If nothing else, being aware of the cost will help you keep from feeling cheated at the far end if you wind up not getting a good return on your investment, because you’ll be spending on purpose.

What Kind of Author Do I Want To Be?

If you’ve been in and around the writing business for any length of time, you’ve heard the old saw “you can’t make a living as a writer unless you’re in the top 1%.” This bit of conventional wisdom is what lies behind the blockbuster mentality on the part of authors: you want to have a brand name, you want to be the biggest thing ever, and you must relentlessly self-promote (the blockbuster mentality of some publishing houses is another animal entirely, and Charles Stross and Dean Wesley Smith have both covered it very well on their blogs recently).

If you’ve heard that and are still intent on trying, then you are either mind-numbingly stupid, a heroically-minded risk junkie, a hobbyist, or someone who actually has a clue about business and doesn’t listen to the conventional wisdom of creative people (in which case, good for you).

So you want to be the next Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer? You’d be better off going to Vegas – that kind of trend really is a game of chance, and depends largely (though not entirely) on unforeseeable market forces. That said, there is a whole swath of writers who make a living on their names, which they worked very hard to establish, and who aren’t blockbusters (and yes, Scott Sigler is one of them. He might be a blockbuster by our standards, and his ambition is to be the next Stephen King, but by broader market standards he’s a respectable front-lister, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that).

But blockbusting is not the only way to win this game, and here’s why:

Most authors who make a living at it don’t make a living on their book advances. Oh, the advances help, but they’re not even close to the whole pie. Subsidiary rights sales, foreign rights, royalties from the long tail, article sales, and commissioned work for other commercial ventures (such as being tapped to do a Star Trek or a Dragonlance novel) make up a large part of the income flow, with investments helping keep the rent paid during lean years. These authors generally (though not always) sit solidly on the mid-list, and some of them write under a variety of names for different markets. I know and have known (personally) at least a score of authors who make their living with their words, and the two qualities that distinguish them from the authors I know who haven’t been able to pull it off are: 1) insufferable, bloody-minded perseverance, and 2) continual growth in craft and breadth. In other words, these authors actually treat it like a career, rather than a brass ring.

The truth is that most people who get counted as “authors” in surveys of author incomes are people who publish a single book, or who have a book they haven’t sold. They’re not career writers. They don’t count screenwriters, ad copy writers, stage play writers, or other such folks. In other words, this bit of conventional wisdom is horse shit because it counts every dilettante, aspiring amateur, and washout as an “author.” Authors such people may be, but professionals they ain’t. Some of them will become professionals (I must hasten to add, I’m on this tier — I’m not prolific enough or churning enough cash enough yet to be called a professional, but I’m heading deliberately in that direction) – others are hobbyists. I daresay that if such a survey were taken of all the auto mechanics in the world, with hobbyists and people that change their own oil counted with the same weight as ASE certificate holders, the numbers for auto mechanics wouldn’t be dissimilar to what we hear about with writing.

If you’re looking to do this for a living, writing is a professional business (i.e. a business that relies on being an expert in a particular domain), with all the problems that implies: It relies on individual expertise, a broad skillset, at least a vague awareness of market dynamics, a certain legal acumen, the ability to adapt to contingency, a high tolerance for risk and uncertainty, and a little bit of luck. You know, just like any other non-franchise business.

Why Do I think Getting Published is a Worthwhile Goal?

More than any other question, the answer to this gets to the heart of the matter for an author who is thinking of podcasting their work, because in answering this you’re probably going to answer a significant portion of all the other questions.

My answer to this one is simple: It’s a step on the road. I got a huge thrill with my first short story sale – now, after only a couple more, it’s an exercise in contract negotiations and another tick on the scorecard. It’s fun and exciting, but it’s not the life-affirming experience that the first sale was. Why? Because my sights are on the next set of goalposts, and I need to get to those so I can see the next set, and so on.

But my self-worth is not wrapped up in this. This is business. If I can’t make it work one way I’ll make it work another, and if, in the end, I turn out not to have the chops, I’ll shift my focus and continue writing as a hobby to whatever extent I can justify it. Yes, I am one of those rare people who will write no matter what – it’s the reason I’m making a go of turning it into a profession. But that doesn’t mean that everything I do will be available for free. Some things will, some things won’t – just like, right now, some things are and some things aren’t. My time is billable hourly, and my free stuff is there so that I can 1) build my audience, and 2) learn how to navigate in my marketplace(s). It’s an investment I’m making because it seems sound to me – I know what it costs, and for me the price is right.

Is the price right for you? Think hard about it. I daresay there will always be hobbyists in the podcast fiction space, but if you’re a pro or an aspiring pro, look at it as a business investment. It’s not a magic bullet, and it’s not a shortcut. Even podcasting’s biggest success, Scott Sigler, doesn’t see it as either of those things. Scott needed a platform to prove that there was a market for cross-genre horror, so he essentially invented one. His focus now is on figuring out where the next place to grow his audience is, and what books will be best to write next. There’s a reason he’s made this work, and it goes a lot deeper than “he writes in a popular genre” (although that also is very important).

Wrapping It Up

The Gospel of Free is a pernicious little meme that’s burned out some talented people and seriously burned others, but it’s not a new one. Every get rich quick scheme, every investment bubble, every motivational speaker that comes along has the same basic blend of bullshit and wisdom: “Look at this new thing – it’s no-lose! Look at its merits! Imagine how much you could do with this!” Network marketing, real estate flipping, dot com stocks – there’s always something, and it nearly always takes a pretty clever idea and isolates it from all good business sense.

Don’t fall for it. Free has always been with us, and it’s always been good business when done right. New tools, new media, and new toys are great, but excitement about the opportunities they present can easily obscure the most basic thing about business: supply and demand must meet, and they must trade. If they don’t, then at best what you’ve got is a rewarding hobby, and at worst you’re in a financial disaster. There is no such things as a fast buck except at the craps table, and there is never any such thing as a free lunch.

Me? I’m in this for the long haul. I’m building a business, with all the risk that implies. Right now, my business model includes podcasting. Will it in three years? It depends on what happens between now and then.

So, in sum, my advice to other writers and podcasters, for what it’s worth: Podcast what you will. Keep track of what it’s costing you. Cut your losses if it’s not returning what you need for it to be worthwhile. Above all, don’t buy the bullshit that motivational speakers and other sharks shovel. Celebrity status might be useful, but it’s like Monopoly money: not negotiable currency outside of the small circles that generate it.

For fans of mine and other’s podcast fiction: remember that while this is free to you, it’s not free for us. Your feedback, your cash in the tip jar, and your evangelism are much appreciated. We podcast authors know that we’re being wasteful and reckless – and not all of us will stay in this space forever. For now, I at least am getting what I want out of the bargain, and I do enjoy entertaining you all.

For everyone reading, remember: Life is precious. Don’t forget to enjoy whatever it is you’re doing, and treasure the memories it gives you. Treat your time like an investment, and savor what you buy with it. In the end, the moments are the only thing we have to make a life out of.