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.
Image by Cryptonaut via Flickr
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.