Writers no longer have ‘right’ to make money, says Seth Godin

Matthew Ingram at GigaOm takes a look at a Seth Godin interview (which is actually interesting in its own right for all the stuff Godin said that Ingram didn’t cover) to cherry-pick a comment from Godin that authors should be willing to give their books away for free as e-books and focus on building a fan base rather than trying to make money right away.

Godin said:

Who said you have a right to cash money from writing? Poets don’t get paid (often), but there’s no poetry shortage. The future is going to be filled with amateurs, and the truly talented and persistent will make a great living. But the days of journeyman writers who make a good living by the word — over.

That’s not to say that writers shouldn’t be able to make a living, Ingram elaborates, but they may have to be more creative about how they make that money in the future than just “sell books, get paid.” Writers aren’t competing with books that are better than they are anymore, Ingram notes—they’re competing with all the cheap or free ones that are good enough.

Ingram also points to similar comments from film director Francis Ford Coppola, noting that art doesn’t necessarily have to cost money, nor artists have to make money.

Of course, ever since the Internet and college students found each other, there has been plenty of free electronic writing out there for people who wanted to read it. Digital media has been making it harder for professionals to get paid in a number of professions (including photography). Harlan Ellison blasted “amateur” writers who work for free for making it harder for professionals to get paid.

On the other hand, this has also increased the chances that writers who don’t go through professional publishers can make a little money themselves. So perhaps it all evens out.

About Chris Meadows (4149 Articles)
TeleRead Editor Chris Meadows has been writing for us--except for a brief interruption--since 2006. Son of two librarians, he has worked on a third-party help line for Best Buy and holds degrees in computer science and communications. He clearly personifies TeleRead's motto: "For geeks who love books--and book-lovers who love gadgets." Chris lives in Indianapolis and is active in the gamer community.

14 Comments on Writers no longer have ‘right’ to make money, says Seth Godin

  1. pay-the-writer // March 7, 2012 at 6:01 am //

    God, I’m 100% with Harlan Ellison on this.

    I work for a publishing house and part of my job is selling serialisation rights to newspapers and magazines. While most national publications understand the principle that content isn’t free, it’s surprising how often people try the line, ‘hey we can’t pay you but if we could run 2000 words from the book it will be great publicity for the author’. My response is always that they wouldn’t dream of asking their journalists to write for free, so why on earth should they expect our authors do so in order to sell copies of their publication? My colleagues in Publicity would happily give it away for free, and that’s because they have a different agenda, and also why it’s a good thing that publicists don’t handle serialisation rights.

    Proper content has a value. Pay the writer. Writers who give their stuff away for free aren’t writers, they’re mugs who will never be proper writers.

  2. It’s a tough one. Writing is very hard work and isn’t just about self expression. If people want the benefit of a book they should be prepared to pay the writer for the year he or she spent writing it. But, on the other hand, giving out writing for free gives writers the opportunity to be read without winning a publishing company’s approval first. I can see how a writer could build a fan base and then market products to make money later. What I hope we don’t lose, however, the benefits brought to literature by professional editors. People get too close to their own writing and can’t see where it has become confused or floppy. A professional editor can sort those kinds of problems out.

  3. Felix Torres // March 7, 2012 at 10:02 am //

    In the old days, which are surely dead and gone, the writer wrote, the agent and publisher promotted and marketted and each got their alloted share. Authors were certified as “Professional” by being paid. Amateurs paid out of their pocket for others to read their stuff. Nice and clean.

    Not so today; today *anybody* can publish.
    Anybody can sell.
    Professional isn’t just a matter of getting published or even having a contract.
    Professional is writing as a *business*.
    And just like any other business, price is a marketting tool.
    Free can be a perfectly valid way for a “certified” professional to grow his business.
    Free no longer equals amateur. Not automatically. (Sorry, Mr Ellison. Times have changed.)
    Free can be a temporary promotion to boost visibility of an under-performing title or a new author.
    Free can be bait to hook a reader into a series.
    Or are we to believe that David Weber offering up ON BASILISK STATION perpetually free isn’t to meant to hook readers into the 15-volumes-and-counting Honor Harrington series? That he is just an amateur and not really a professional?
    James Patterson?
    Stephen King?
    Any author whose book gets picked for promotion for an ebookstore?
    Free books may not be a viable option in a p-book world but that’s no longer the world we live in. The world we now live in has ebooks and self-publishing by professionals.
    The world has changed and so have the rules.

  4. @pay-the-writer

    I agree with you here, but to be even more nuanced; If writing is done for free, it should be available directly to the public for free. Today this usually means a blog or a website, but even before the internet there were flyers, phonebooks, free newspapers and newsletters etc.

    What is NEVER acceptable is for an organization to charge the public in some way for access to work then not pay the creators.

    Advertising works because of the principle of reciprocity- consumers acknowledge when they have been given something for free and are willing to pay for something else because of it. It’s part of human nature. But it doesn’t work if the end consumer already feels like the paid for the content somehow, or they are being asked to buy too many things in return. People used to understand this principle- back when advertisers were referred to as “sponsors”.

    In your case- newspapers and magazines that charge a subscription fee should pay writers. Because the readers of that paper already PAID for the content by subscribing to the paper and viewing ads. That payment needs to be passed on.

    This is also going out the window with ereaders. Ereaders and tablets themselves are quite expensive, yet authors are now being encouraged to give out free ebooks WITHIN proprietary ebookstores. Something like the Project Gutenburg is fine- the public can see it is a direct connection. FREE to Kindle owners (or Ipad, or Nook owners) really shouldn’t be, in most cases.

    Yes, the free reading apps make it a little bit more acceptable. But I think most consumers still feel like they’re being asked to purchase something (unrelated to the author) in order to read the “free” work.

    And dont’ get me started on Amazon Kindle ads.

  5. Anyone deserves to be paid for their work. If you ask for payment for your work, your customer should either honor your request and pay you, or they are within their right to take their business elsewhere. If you are good at what you do, you should be able to count on enough customers paying you, versus walking away.

    If the world actually worked like this for writers (and other artists), everything would be fine. But thanks to a digital environment that makes it easy for someone to walk away from a selling counter, then snatch the same books from a torrent site or a friend, artists can’t even count on honest sales; it is too easy to be ripped off.

    Maybe Godin thinks this is okay. I don’t.

  6. Godin is right and he is wrong.

    Steven is right. Authors, just like anyone else, have a right to be paid and to charge for their work!

    This whole thing comes across to me like a bunch of people scrambling around desperately trying to make sense of the new digital world, without realising that when it comes to selling, nothing has changed. Only the medium has changed (and of course people’s ability to self publish).

    Of course writers who have a number of titles need to explore a range of marketing options. One option to boost sales, if sales need to be boosted, is to offer a title for free for a period. But that is just a marketing strategy, not a way of life! The poetry comparison is just silly.

    If a writer has only one title, then giving it away is INSANE.

    I am in my fifties, and in my life I have learned a couple of things, despite myself. One thing I have learned through experience is that people place NO value on what comes free, unless it is in context of another service that they DO value. The second thing is that if someone places no value, or a low value, on what they do, then other people place no value, or a very low value, on what they do. Ellison is only correct when he says “. . writers who work for free for making it harder for professionals to get paid.” Where the quality that is being delivered free is as good as that being charged for, then he is right and the advice of Godin is a disaster if writers start to swallow his ideas.

    Quality will rise and win out – in eBook as in every other form of commerce. Godin’s suggestion about ‘good enough’ winning out is utter nonsense. Readers in the 21st century have very little time on their hands to read, on the whole. They will NOT accept good enough as a mantra for how they spend their time. They want quality. They want the best. That will not change.

    The elephant in the room, in this discussion, is the old chestnut of the new eBook world – discovery. How will readers find good quality writing. As long as that is still a major problem then the market will be dominated by best sellers, big money promotion and hit-and-miss reading.

    I am certain that in the coming few years social reading web sites, and sites that help readers find quality reading through mining like minded readers will come of age. As that comes about, the world of eBooks will settle down into a more rational market place.

  7. I agree to an extent; writers should absolutely be entitled to charge for their books if they want to. But they should not feel entitled that this charge should automatically translate to a living wage. It’s like selling any other thing. If I make some cookies and want to charge 50 cents for them, and someone is willing to pay me the 50 cents, fabulous. I have the right to charge it, they’ll pay what I charge if they want the cookies (or else they won’t pay and I will have to modify my strategy or eat the cookies myself). IF I am able to find enough people willing to pay me for the cookies, I may well make a living wage. But there is no assurance of that. It could be that I will sell just enough cookies to have some pocket change. It could be I’ll sell enough to have a side business but not a full-time one. Or it could be that I’ll see so few that it won’t be worth my while to sell cookies anymore. The market will decide. Having the ‘right’ to charge for a book is an entirely different issue from ‘charging for my book make me enough money that I can quit my day job.’ The former IS a right. The lattter is a crapshoot.

  8. I agree with Steven but find the whole conversation puzzling. Why shouldn’t authors get paid for their work just because it is something they want to do?. Nobody has a “right” to be paid in the way they have a right to Life but, in the same way, nobody has the “right” to benefit from anothers work for free. If teachers, nurses, bankers or even IT experts enjoy their work, and might be good at it, does that mean they have to provide it for free? People often teach their children for nothing or look after the elderly for nothing or mend a friend’s computer or help with their bank account for nothing but does this mean nurses, teachers, etc should not be paid? Perhaps Godin thinks all writers should have other paid work and squeeze their writing into their spare time. I wonder if he ever gets paid for work?

    pay-the-writer is quite right. Newspapers are always thinking that good copy for them which improves their sales, is valuable publicity for the photographer/writer/artist even if it is uncredited because they claim they haven’t got the space..Doh! The other strange idea is that writers are greedy and make lots of dosh. The top 5% might but most writers earn less than a quarter of the minimum wage so – just because you want a freebie – stop being so greedy.

  9. Since Goldin, as a nonfiction writer, makes most of his money elsewhere and his books are advertisements for his seminars, etc., his choice to give away books works for him, but it doesn’t work for the rest of us, particularly those of us who write fiction.

    We have no other source of income from our work so giving it away makes no sense unless it is the first book in an established series, or we have no desire to become professional writers.

    I always recommend that those who just want the feedback or reader comments that they go into fanfic which offers plenty of both without the hassle of trying to find readers.

  10. Yeah, easy for him to say after sales of his books. His argument doesn’t stand. Because it means members of the delivery system are the only ones that get paid: the hardware companies, the software programs, the creation apps. Why kind of fairness is that?

    This is the same line of thinking that is unique to the US idea of copyright for movies. In every other country in the world, the writer of movies owns the copyright, and works with the director (Canada may have given up the ghost in the last 20 years, but I don’t know). The US Nickleodeon owners wouldn’t allow it at the turn of the 20th C, so they claimed the copyright for the director or production house. In theatre, however, the playwright is king, not the director or producer; because of the rigor of writing for the stage, you can’t have actors grandstanding with word changes or introducing words that destroy the stage tension. The movie, “Heaven’s Gate”, was a disaster that showed what could happen to a film when the actors ad-libbed and broke the fourth wall. To say that writers should work for free is like saying content does not require talent, journalism schools are pointless, and the networks don’t have to pay their braodcast grunts.

    Godin’s example of poetry is suspect as well. One poem is not a book of poems.

  11. I really don’t think “good enough” books are competing with good books. A certain segment of the reading public is happy with good enough if it’s cheap enough (or free), but another segment would rather pay a decent price for a good book, and many of us won’t read anything we don’t consider good. I’m an indie myself and no one has ever sold me on the idea of giving books away to build a larger reader base. I’d rather have a small base willing to pay for my books than a huge base of feckless fans who would desert if they had to pay for a book.

    Writers also divide in segments IMO. Some are willing to write for pats on the head. Some will spend their time doing other things that earn a fair income for time spent. My guess is there will always be enough picky readers to keep good writers writing.

  12. I also think the idea of a fan base for authors is somewhat suspect. There are many good authors and books to be read that aren’t likely to fit into the “fan” realm. They deserve to be paid. I would also say that authors who write for “fans” are more likely to be hacks churning out series. For this kind of author, maybe Godin’s idea would work. It’s unlikely I’d personally bite that bait, but if there are enough hungry fish in the pond, an author might be able to earn a few bucks this way. Better than washing dishes at a greasy spoon, IMHO, but the quality of the writing might be on equal terms with the scraps of food.

  13. Godin’s obviously smoking the good stuff these days. So, an author should give away all of their early work, subsisting on air and sunlight alone for the years required to achieve some sort of zen-like perfection. Then charge people for . . . what, personal appearances? Not going to happen.
    I make my living writing fiction, and have been reasonably successful at it. I’m not a great public speaker, nor a gifted blogger, nor particularly interested in seeking ongoing email correspondence with the 100,000 or so readers that buy each new book. Unlike Seth, my books are not a convenient advertisement for my speaking services. I’m an author. And most authors I know look a lot more like me that Mr. Godin.

    Personally, I’d rather stuff my future novels in a chest, unpublished, that share them with a world full of people who insist my work has no value. If the future is to be one where art and beauty are not valued, then I want no part in it.

  14. As a published author who wants my work to be read for its worth instead of free, I also point to the work of “motivational” speakers like Godin which espouse giveaways as a form of publicity for their effective destruction of a well educated and well informed culture. Thanks to the “expectation” of a free lunch on my dime, I, too would rather stop writing altogether than share my pearls of wisdom with others, and the amateurs are driving down the profession of writing to its lowest level so far. Even self-styled writing groups who claim to act professional have demonstrated the most slow-witted and unprepared organization possible. One such which has reneged on a contract with me elected to make me so unwelcome that I am determined to avoid any further contact with them, leading me to conclude that I am not likely to find any help from “professionals” either. It’s their way or the highway, and if I am made to feel like that by anyone I’d prefer the highway. If I was Harlan I would probably react the same way, but my approach is far more subtle than that. My absence will send the message better than having a hissy fit. My removal of any mention of the organization from my site, my blogs warning of the dangers of membership, and so on, will do a better job for me. People like Seth Godin and others who think that all literature should be free are both blind and should spend a day homeless; then they will learn what it is like to live the free life. No, art and beauty are no longer valued, or people are too willing to take it without paying for it. In that case, our culture is dead.

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