The battle isn’t getting people to pay; it’s getting people to read. If they do read, they might not pay. If they don’t read, they’ll never pay.
Writers who use the “freemium” model face two distinct challenges, and the harder one isn’t always the one you think.
What a delightful piece of coincidence that I should be asked to write this blog the day before I headed off to the Reading Festival. My wife and I were going for the headline set by the most important band of the 1990s, Radiohead (sorry, Kurt), who propelled the issue of providing content for free into the public consciousness (sorry, Trent) when they released their album In Rainbows on a set-your-own-price basis; 60% of people chose, in the event, to pay nothing.
A delightful coincidence, but not actually that significant. Radiohead are still the most important band in the world; Trent Reznor is one of the most important figures in [re]shaping the music industry; Stephen King is about the most long-term successful writer on the planet. And Chris Anderson is, well, Chris Anderson. But these are the names that come up again and again in the freemium debate – “look how great they are; see what they did!” on the one hand; “it wasn’t a success, it was a disaster; and the free wasn’t properly free!” on the other.
I want to make two points. First, the exploits of established megastars have nothing to do with the relevance of the freemium debate to new writers. Second, they actually skew the debate rather dangerously, because they focus attention on the wrong challenge, not the one that’s most important to new writers.
New writers who want to make a living (or to supplement their living) through their writing need readers who will pay for their work. They always have done and always will. What the freemium model does is claim new writers can get readers by providing content for free, and that enough of those readers will buy their content in alternative formats, or with added extras, to provide them with an income.
For the average newbie writer (or musician*), what matters most is getting any audience at all. So I want to come back to the first point, but I want start by exposing a couple of bits of faulty logic in typical objections to the second point.
*NOTE: I really don’t want to go into the shambles the UK government has made with proposed anti-file-sharing legislation, but I’ll say for the record that as a content producer struggling for an audience, I don’t want any boundaries put up between me and my audience. It’s something authors don’t talk about much, but I’ve yet to meet a musician who disagrees.