Saturday, July 31, 2010

Dr. Anthony Francis: Give it Away to Get it Back

I met Anthony through the DragonWriters, a workshop group created through A.C. Crispin's writing workshop at Dragon*Con.  The DragonWriters is oldest writer's group that I've been a part of - and probably the most influential and helpful, Anthony not least among the group with his enthusiasm and drive.  So, it's with great pleasure that I get to share my blog with him during the Bay State Equine Rescue Blogathon!

Anthony Francis is a computer scientist by day and a writer every free minute he isn't spending with his wife and cats. He's been writing science fiction since he was a child, but fell in love with urban fantasy five years ago and started work on what became the Skindancer series featuring magical tattoo artist Dakota Frost. The first book in the series, FROST MOON, came out this March, BLOOD ROCK is expected to come out this year, and he's hard at work on LIQUID FIRE. In all his writing but especially the Skindancer series, Anthony loves mixing hard science with pure fantasy and seeing what comes out of the stew. His Ph.D work at Georgia Tech focused on artificial intelligence for information retrieval, and he currently works at "The Search Engine That Starts With a G."

Give It Away to Get It Back 

At the beginnings of their careers, a lot of authors and other creative types are obsessed with making money off what they produce and are deathly afraid of people stealing it.  I've seen people charging their friends for copies of short stories printed in magazines, putting their artwork on the web behind passwords or with huge watermarks, or pricing their software out of reach of the people who want to buy it. But this doesn't help them - in fact, it hurts. And I'm here to tell you to give stuff away for free.

Why? Well, that takes a bit of explanation. Sometimes I describe my philosophy as the trainwreck of Christianity and Objectivism: I have a strong moral core based on the Christian principle of "do to others as you wish they would do to you" backed up by the Objectivist principle that "you should not fake reality in any way whatsoever." When faced with moral choices, I think: "WW{JC,HR,RF}D?", or, "What Would Jesus Christ, Howard Roark or Richard Feynman do?" If my mental model of two out of the three agree, I feel pretty confident I'm doing the right thing.

And a lot of the time doing the right thing, even for a Christian, involves getting paid for your work.  It's not a surprise that all three of Jesus, Howard and Richard would tell you that it is up to you to find your own special talents.  But I'd go further, and say all three would tell you it is your responsibility to use those talents to be a productive citizen - see the parable of the talents, the whole of the Fountainhead, or Feynman's reflections on what to do with his life after he left Los Alamos. In other words, you should get paid for your work - or, as my mom puts it, "don't give away your stuff for free." 

But that can sound pretty selfish, and can lead to that hoarding behavior in creative types I described above. Well, WWJ,H,RD? Jesus preached generosity, but a number of his parables seem to approve of some pretty darn selfish behavior. And, of course, both Howard and Richard could be pretty selfish. That's two point five out of three, and yet I'm still going to tell you that being too greedy can get in the way, and that you should instead give stuff away to get ahead. What gives?

The problem is in creative endeavors, greed gets in the way. In the beginning, no-one knows what your creative efforts are really works. Stories are not eggs. Paintings are not potatoes. And software isn't steak. Products of creation are not really commodities; there's no ready-made standard of value telling us how much an artwork is worth. Deep down, we know this: we don't expect a publisher to buy a story before having read it, or a reader to buy a novel without flipping through it, or a moviegoer to see a movie without having seen the trailer or at least the poster. You may be responsible for using your talents wisely to provide for yourself, but you can't fake the reality that no-one wants to buy something when they don't know what it's worth.

And yet, early in our creative careers, we can get into a hard sell mode, convinced that we can't let a single copy of our precious work away unless someone pays for it - sometimes, pays a lot for it. This seems natural, because we worked hard to create that piece of art; we couldn't possibly sell it for less than that. But all we're really doing is gumming up the works - convincing the reader to go to the next writer, the viewer to go to the next artist, the client to go to the next contractor. Putting your light under a bushel basket and charging for every peek prices your out of the market before people know how good you are. And until they really learn how good you are, they aren't going to pay you to be creative.

I'm not saying I'm good at this. I was a guy who charged people for copies of a magazine with one of my short stories in it when I could have run them off at a printer. I've lost software contracts because I bid too high. And I still ask that people buy copies of my book - though this last one is a strategy; I want the publishers and distributors to know people are buying my book, and it costs me some coin to buy copies of my own novel (in boxes of 28) because I've already gone through all the free ones I could get from my publisher.

But a lot of the people who have received copies of FROST MOON paid for it, even though I offered to give them copies for free. Why did they do that? Many of those people who paid for a hard copy of FROST MOON were my beta readers, who got a free copy of FROST MOON from me back around draft 42. They knew how good it was and wanted to support me. Many of my beta readers went further and didn't buy it from me directly - they went to Amazon or Barnes and Noble to show their support, even though they had to pay a bit more for shipping. So giving things away for free has turned around and helped me out.

But this isn't just one kooky author's strategy. It's the strategy of the publisher too. Bell Bridge Books is composed of wonderful people, but I can assure you they're in the business of making money - and yet they've given away ten times as many books as I have, both in electronic and printed form.  They're practically throwing them at people, and also doing many other little things like putting together videos and buying licenses for art that I'm using in my own promotions. Why are they doing that? They want people to know how good FROST MOON is, and by extension how good I am, and by extension how good they are. They want those people to tell their friends to buy FROST MOON ... or, more importantly, BLOOD ROCK and LIQUID FIRE when they come out, or other books by Bell Bridge Books now that you've learned they put out the good stuff.
This isn't a trivial expense; it's a serious line item in the initial push on a book, and if the book doesn't do well it can remain a major part of the cost. So why do publishers do it? They're in for the long haul. They're not in for the one-time peek under the bushel to see a brief flash of light: they want to flip the basket over, set the light on top of it, call people over, let them take a good long look at it before sitting down for a long bask under its warm glow ... and remind them that if they come back tomorrow, they'll be able to bask under it again ... and the next day ... and the next day. Except it isn't days, it's books. But you get the idea.

The way I'm describing this, it seems like this is a cold Objectivist strategy - giving stuff away for free now because it will pay off for you later - rather than a Christian altruistic approach. And I know a lot of Christians will get their hackles up at this and try to shut this idea out.  But I also know a fair number of priests and theologians who will tell you that this calculus of reward doesn't change even if you expect no reward in this life - you're just moving the receipt of the reward to heaven.  But the delayed gratification, long-term-payoff view isn't what I'm talking about here, either in this life or the next. I'm talking about the nature of creation.

In a world where everyone is pricing themselves out of the market, nothing is getting done.  Readers aren't getting samples of stories, stories are sitting in sock drawers, and the flow of ideas starts to dry up. Patrons aren't getting to see samples of artwork, artwork is sitting in closets, and our walls are barren rather than inspirational. Angel investors aren't investing in companies, ideas are remaining in garages, and everything that could be built on those ideas isn't happening. Sure, some stuff is getting done - some stories sold, some art hung, some ideas funded - but the commodities, the things we already know we need.

In a world where people give things away for free, something different happens. Cory Doctorow writes Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, gives it away for free, and is not only a short term success but founds a whole career. An artist (whose name I don't remember) sells some art for cheap in Atlanta and explodes, hanging art in restaurants over the whole city. Free software and open source software thrives; giant companies are built upon software written by college kids in their bathrobes (who go on to become well paid and have their own huge careers).

So give your stories away. Give away your artwork. Do some consulting work for free. Put up a version of your own website with your own money and time. Sell samples of your stories for cheap, or put prints on the market for as low as you can afford. No matter how you have to do it, get your stuff out there and let people know how good you are. Let people build on it. This isn't to say you never make money off what you make, or that you always give everything away for free forever.  Cory Doctorow sells books, that artist in Atlanta is no doubt going for thousands of dollars a pop, and Linus Torvalds makes a boatload of money now.  But create the market first before trying to exploit it, or you'll kill it before it gets started.

And it's important that it gets started. Because, if you're any good, people getting your stuff isn't just good for you, it's good for the world. People can build upon the building blocks you created - fan fiction, prints of your artwork, software built on your frameworks. In a gift culture, people become inspired to become producers themselves. I, for example, am sitting in a huge pile of books, comics, posters, and prints, almost all of which I got on the cheap and all of which feed the creative fires that produce my own art and writing.  Once that fire is lit, once people see the cornerstones upon which the edifice is built, people may come to you, the original author, for more cornerstones, and that's great - but if not, they're still better off.

I think this is one reason Jesus asked us to give things away, for which he claims we will be rewarded in heaven. But why will we be rewarded? I believe that things aren't good because Jesus says so, but that Jesus said so because things are good. Everyone is better off in a culture of giving, and that's why we should do it.  So don't greedily hang on to every scrap of every thing you create; let things go.  If you are responsible about doing that, if you have a plan to build something on top of that cornerstone, eventually it will come back to you, just like the book of Proverbs says. And if the roll of the dice works against you - if you give something away and don't see how you can get repaid for it - then take comfort that you made the world a better place. I'm not just saying that because I'm a Christian. Even Howard Roark would approve of that - because while Objectivists are selfish, they are also benevolent.

-the Centaur

Thank you so much for the great article, Anthony!  And Thank you for continuing the good by supporting the Bay State Equine Rescue.

Definitely go buy Anthony's book - it is a GREAT read!

And if you can, please consider also donating to the Bay State Equine Rescue via the apple below.  J 

Click the apple to donate now to help the BSER horses!


e_journeys said...

Beautifully put! Amen, Anthony.

A Novel Friend © 2008 by para Você | Re-design Sweet Baby Girl