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Risky Business
Hutch and Soup Bone

Image by Cryptonaut via Flickr

I've been interested in the idea of making money by giving your product away for a while now. I watched people like Cory Doctorow and Scott Sigler and Seth Harwood put their work out for free and turn that work into publishing deals. Granted, it was after an insane amount of self-publicity, an insanely rabid fanbase, and lots and lots of hard work, but the core idea was inspiring -- talent and hard work could be enough to start a career. So I was pleased as hell when J. C. Hutchins did it again -- he got a book deal after several years of promotion, talent, and hard work. I spread the word, I got a copy, and I sat back to watch another writer show how this new way of doing business could work.

But it didn't.

First off, I want to remark on how classy J. C. is being in that post. He does more in failure than many people do in success, and that alone is amazingly cool. But the reality is that some people took a risk on two of his books which tried to push the envelope both as business models and as storytelling media, and neither of them delivered as anticipated.

As someone who works in experimental media all the time, this resonates with me. Sometimes, something I do is a critical success but not a financial one. Sometimes, something doesn't get a lot of popular response but does really well in sales. And sometimes, no matter what we do, it just fails.

As people, I think we have this weird blind spot when it comes to risk. Conceptually, we understand that with risk comes the chance of failure -- otherwise, it wouldn't be a risk. But as a culture we want so badly for the underdog to succeed that a risky proposition sometimes seems more attractive than the safe option, and we're surprised when the less likely option fails to pan out. It's like the scene from Guards! Guards! where they try to go with the one-in-a-million option because it pans out nine times out of ten.

So, with the failure of 7th Son, does that mean that we should shy away from Hutch's failure and become totally risk-adverse? Of course not. It doesn't mean that Hutch is done, or that he's a bad writer or a bad marketer. It doesn't mean that the model is flawed, or that there isn't a value in taking risks. What it does mean is that professional creatives should take a cold, hard look at all of the thousands of "sure-fire" and "cutting-edge" business plans out there, and really think about the potential consequences. Every plan, every plan, has risks, whether they are financial, personal, or creative.

When you look at a product, consider not only the financial repercussions, but the impact on your personal life, and how it makes you feel as a creative. A product that you're excited about and pushes you as a creative might be less of a risky proposition than one that will drain you personally but be a good chance for financial success. On the other hand, filling out your bank account might be more important than taking on a project that will be creatively satisfying but put you in the poor house. Some actors talk about doing the "safe film" and then the "art film," switching back and forth to satisfy their creative and financial balance, and that's not a bad way to go, but at the end of the day every creative professional has to decide for themselves whether the risks of a project are worth it.

So look to your current or upcoming project and think about the risks involved. You may find that the odds of success are a million to one. But it just might work.
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That's a shame for him. I wish him better luck in the future.

Comments from me tomorrow at #terribleminds --

In short, lessons can be learned, but those lessons should not be: "We're all fucked," or, "[Insert Strategy] doesn't work because it didn't work here."

More tomorrow!

-- c.

I have (perhaps unsuprisingly) been involved in a number of projects which paid nothing but were creatively satisfying. However, after a while I started to realise that if I wanted to paint something purely to satisfy my creative urge, I could simply do it and leave it stacked up in my garage.

If you are only interested in people seeing your work then free distribution is great, however if you want to be able to make a living (or even simply afford enough to keep being creative) then you have to think more carefully.

There is a middle ground - a band might be able to make money by giving away free Mp3s and then making a living from concert sales. You might give away free Fiction set in your RPG in order to get people interested in knowing more and buying the books. As an artist I can send out free postcards so that people can put up a small piece of my work and think about it next time they are looking to comission.

However, these are all extensions of the Blurb - telling people more to get them interested, like a computer game demo.

Having done work entirely for free (a constant request for young artists, with the less than enticing promise that you can 'put it on your CV') the result is that people always expect you to work for free. After all, why pay for something that you could get for free last week?

The 'net has created some very dangerous business models. Micropayments can leave you writing chapters of a novel for pennies because a handful of people are still interested. The ease of piracy makes people think twice about parting with money until they've 'reviewed' something and then deciding 'well i've got it, so why pay for it?'. Worst of all I think, succesfull web comics, youtube celebrity and browser games superficially appear to say that popularity=success, without mentioning the advertising, link and merchandise deals that actually keep them running.

IMHO Creatively you have to take risks or starve the very thing you are trying to nurture, but you've still got to put food on the table. Never gamble more than you can afford to lose.

I totally agree that creative professionals should be paid (and have more than once been asked to just "knock out a story" for free). Sometimes, the risk of doing work for free to advertise your services is worth it. Other times, though, it isn't. You're right that they can be dangerous, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're bad for a particular situation.

For example, my story Whitechapel is free, primarily because it's an experiment for me. But the risk is low, because I have a full-time paying job as a creative. If someone else were trying to start a writing career, doing something like Whitechapel might be a bad risk (building a reputation as someone who puts out work for free), but it might also be a good risk (building an audience who might then be hungry for your pay work). At the end of the day, everyone has a unique situation, and only they can really make that decision for themselves.

There's always the line, and it's important to walk it. Free isn't bad; and me writing stories and practicing my fiction and controlling the location and the audience and the output is mostly an investment of time, not money. If it builds audience, it might be worth it.

Free can also be monetized quite nicely. Merch is a good monetization model. Apps. Software. Transmedia elements. Plus, in certain cases, branding or strategic partnerships might play into it.

The model I question is, "I release this free, then I sell the same thing and hope to make money off of those 1:1 sales."

I don't know that such a thing works.

Better, perhaps to instead "Release Thing X for free, and let it move traffic to Thing Y, which is the thing I'm selling."

Or, "Release Thing X for free, and then monetize additional content or merchandise around Thing X. If people like my sci-fi novel about Moon Gophers, they may very well buy a funny Moon Gopher t-shirt."

-- c.

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