August 19th, 2013 | Back to article list
A question that often comes up when I tell people that my books are available under Creative Commons is “how can you get paid if you give your work away?” It’s interesting and very relevant but not very easy to answer.
If you weren’t already aware Creative Commons is a licence for artistic and literary works (among others) that enables the user/reader to obtain and distribute the work for free without fear of penalty or prosecution. So unlike the more usual draconian copyright threats you see at the beginning of DVDs or in a book, a Creative Commons licence is the rights-holder (author/publisher) saying “Please do copy this and pass it to your friends”. If you want to know why I have chosen a Creative Commons licence then you should check out this post. I’m a strong believer in freedom but for once here I am going to focus more on the pragmatic reasons for choosing Creative Commons.
Getting paid if you give your work away
So you can see why the question comes up. Given the prevalence of the draconian model it’s quite difficult to see how an author can make any money if they deploy Creative Commons licensing. So I’m going to attempt some kind of answer here.
First getting any kind of income for writing is hard – really hard. As Catherine Ryan Howard points out in her excellent blog post, publishing a book is not easy. Catherine is talking about self-publishing but it’s no simpler getting published by somebody else. I know what you’re thinking here: “this is not making a good case for giving the stuff away Ryan” and you’re right except what has become the traditional publishing model – whether self-published or otherwise – is primarily focussed on selling books. A publishing contract , in essence, is you saying you will write a good book and the publisher saying they will edit it, supply it to booksellers and promote it for you. A self-published book under standard practice is focussed on sales. Read any self-publishing tips and they will speak about turning readers into sales and here lies the difficult part. Writing a decent book is hard but compared with convincing strangers to hand over their cash it’s a doddle.
But walk around a supermarket or browse an online store and you’ll see “buy one get one free” or “try before you buy” offers galore. People who sell stuff know that free is a powerful word and self-published authors know it too. That article explains very well how the key to getting readers is to make advocates. Giving your stuff away for free is a good way to do that. Creative commons extends this paradigm further by saying you can not only get a copy for free, you can copy it and give copies to your mates. Suddenly you’ve made your advocate’s role easier. Instead of telling their friends to download a copy themselves, they hand it to them on a USB key or eMail it to them. Of course your job is still to build the advocates but it’s a lot easier to convince them to try it if it doesn’t cost them anything. Recently I went to a Science fiction convention where one of the exhibitors had a bookcase full of old books they were giving away. I picked up an anthology of short stories which turned out to be excellent. I would not have found it had there been a price tag.
Not all readers convert into sales
To give you an example of the difference the word free can make, my book has been available for a few weeks and has sold a few paperbacks but the downloads of the Creative Commons ebooks outstrip this by 20:1. Here’s an important lesson – not every reader is a sale. This is the same with restrictive copyright licensing. For every purchase of your book you can presume there will a lot of readers who don’t buy a copy. How often have you lent a good book to someone? How often to more than one person? I have books I have lent to probably 15 people, to my knowledge none have gone on to buy a copy. Yes the proportion of sales to readers is lower for traditional licensing but my experience tells me that those who get a free, unencumbered copy of an ebook are more likely to go on to buy a copy later. I have more than a few paperbacks that I purchased after first reading a freedom-licensed ebook. I have virtually none where I borrowed a copy from a friend first. Books released with freedom will convert to sales, it takes a lot longer but it happens. Some authors make a living from their books and yet give them away under Creative Commons. It may not make you a JK Rowling but it might make you a Cory Doctorow.
Another way to fund your writing is to ask for the money up front. Crowd-sourced funding is a growing trend in all sorts of projects. A friend of mine is producing an entire TV series under Creative Commons and is funding it via Kickstarter. It’s probably not going to work for your first novel but once you have an audience you may find many of them will be prepared to pledge some money to fund the next one and in return you give them some reward – say a special edition, pre-release or a hardcopy. I’ve not tried this but, others have to great success. If you look at that link you’ll see that those who donate $5 got “Access to project updates and the free web-based digital edition of the book” – that same book is now available to download for free and yet 238 people pledged $5.
People who support projects in this way do not tend to think in terms of reward (but they do like them) they think in terms of the project they are supporting. I know this because I have done it. I supported Lunatics (my friend’s TV show) and received free hardcopy of some of the artwork. It’s beautiful but it wasn’t why I pledged the money. I wanted to see the TV series come to light.
So again we come back to connecting with your readers, making them more than consumers but isn’t this the aim of any author? Don’t people like Jacqueline Wilson and again Rowling engage with their readers outside of their books? Interacting with readership is important and if so then I would say giving them freedom to pass your book around is a good way to “win” them.
So how am I making money off this?
In truth, at the moment I’m not. It’s early days but to be honest the focus of this project was never to make me rich. It started as a way to encourage my children in their creativity and to encourage others in storytelling and sharing of stories. I have sold some copies (thanks if that was you) and as far as I can tell those have come from either somebody reading the ebook and buying a hardcopy or somebody else recommending the book to a friend. I’m grateful for that and it is more than I was expecting off a small, obscure novel tucked away in a dusty corner of the web.