What is your work worth?

January 14, 2011

So, I had a wonderful evening the other night… met some cool people, heard good fiction, got some new contacts (and a signed book… squee!), and had some fascinating conversations.

One of these conversations revolved around giving your work away for free. If we’re all being completely honest here, most of us probably write with at least some hope of eventually being paid for it. Sure, we do it for the love of the art as well, but that doesn’t go terribly far towards keeping a roof over your head and food in your stomach.

So, should you give away work for free? I was speaking to SF writer Peter Watts, and he said that if he hadn’t started to give away his first novel, Blindsight, it probably wouldn’t have found the audience that it did. It seems that connecting with an audience is a fairly large incentive to give work away. Certainly, I see it with the vanguard of podcasters: there have been several who have had free podcast novels find publishers… and sell. Moreover, the personal touch has its benefits. Having been exposed to these works through the allure of “free!” I find there are some authors whom I’m willing to plug, or take chances on. After all, I like them. If not for the fact they’re giving work away, I might not have found them.

But to Peter Watts’ point, when he gave away Blindsight, it was unusual. Now, with everything from ebooks to podcasts, free stories are a lot more common. Once again, it’s getting harder and harder to stand out from the crowd, and even if you do, you’re still not making anything. I also think there’s a danger of people coming to take it for granted. Look what’s happened/happening with the music industry.

Another point to consider is this: if you’re giving your work away for nothing, how much do you really value it? I’m not saying I agree with this argument, but it’s one I’ve heard before. You spent time planning, writing, and revising. How much is the product of all that labour worth  if you price it for nothing?

Personally, I’m kind of in the grey zone on this issue. I think that any work you do ultimately benefits you, even if only in intangible ways; that is, through gaining experience or reaching an audience. However, I also think it’s important to recognize that, eventually, you’re probably going to want to be paid for writing… and that it may not be a bad idea to try the traditional route first, rather than striving to build an audience that may or may not buy your stuff in the future.

Incidentally, I’ve found myself in the position of giving work away. I was asked to write a script, and I did, and sent it off with bright, eager eyes. Later, I figured out the project probably wasn’t going to happen, and the promised contract wasn’t coming anytime soon. Basically, I wrote a script for free.

But the experience may have been more valuable than any commission I would’ve gotten… and may yet pay dividends in the future.





  1. All of my “published” stories have been freebies up til now. Looking back, I believe I probably could have sold one or two of those tales had I sent them out (and kept sending them out) to paying markets. But I felt like I was cutting my teeth. I had (and still have) a lot to learn about the craft of fictioneering, so I don’t lament giving away that work.

    However, I am done with that stage of my career. Firstly, I have left short stories behind. I don’t have time for them and they don’t pay. Perhaps I’m taking the Harlan Ellison view of this subject, but I would very much like to be a paid novelist. Therefore, I will not waste anymore of my time, money (and yes, it does cost money to pursue this dream), or effort in pounding out freebies. Either I’m going to sell my novels or I’m going to sit on them. The only people who will get to read them for free are my family and alpha readers.

    As for self publishing I’m just not interested. I don’t see anyone making money or even getting broadly read doing that. Yes, I know, there are one or two exceptions, but I know I won’t be one of the lucky few who creates a cottage industry of novel production. That’s not been my luck so far in this field. I have a few stories that were collected in a self-published anthology created by Aphelion webzine. Total sells of that book have not topped 100 and its been out for nearly two years.

    No, I’d rather beat on the tower gates of big publishing with my bare fists then go that dismal route.

    — david j.

  2. You have touched on a huge debate in the writing world. I think what it ultimately comes down to, is what you are comfortable doing.

  3. I read an illuminating article comparing the author royalties from e-books with those the author receives from traditional print publications.

    Assuming the figures used are correct, e-books are certainly something to consider.


    But I agree with Lara ~ we need to rely on our internal compass to decide the path we wish to traverse.

  4. I think that this is an issue every author needs to consider. However even if you do give away your work for free for a time do you have to continue doing so. For instance if I offer my novel free for the first month, or year, of it’s publication I make no money off of the novel but perhaps I do build an audience. Then I put a price on the work, if I have built a loyal audience they will continue to plug to novel and people will begin to buy it. Then my next novel I can sell immediately to the audience I built with the first free work. At least that’s the idea. The question is how well does it work in practice?


    • I think a lot of people try to practice exactly that, and I have seen it work for some people. Certainly there are people I’ll put a little extra effort into plugging, because I’ve encountered them through their freebies, and really liked what I saw. The question of how well that actually works is valid, though… it doesn’t happen in every case, and as it becomes more common-place, it once again becomes harder and harder to attract that audience, even if you’re giving your work away.

  5. […] What is your writing worth? By Arvik from Intergalactic Writer’s Inc. […]

  6. I’ve given this subject a lot of thought, so I was interested to see your post. I plan to give away some of my writing on my blog, probably starting in April. I decided that the experience is important, and this way I can see if anyone actually likes what I write.

    You gave me some things to think about. In fact, I made your post my Pick of the Week on my blog! Hope it swings you some readers!

    • Hey, thanks! Glad you liked the post!

      Hmm… you’ve made me think of something. Giving stuff away can be a good way to “test the waters,” so to speak.

  7. […] Writers Inc. Just another WordPress.com site « What is your work worth? Opportunities and Updates January 15, […]

  8. I like your take on this issue, Arvik. (Also, in general I really like your blog! Your post about music has me on a search for the perfect inspirational playlist for my current project – which has turned out to be quite difficult!)

    I think it really is whatever feels right to the writer. If writing is like art, I think community murals are just as wonderful as some of the work I see in galleries for sale. However, personally, I want to make work that is good enough for someone else to spend a few bucks on. That’s the personal measuring stick for me, but it doesn’t have to be for everyone.

    I’ve got a background in graphic design, and in that industry, people ASK for free work like the plague (which is a little different than offering a sample story to a potential audience for free). It’s a big issue trying to educate designers on the damage done to that industry by giving designs away for free… There, it’s considered to devalue the price people are willing to pay for everyone’s work and thus damaging to everyone. I wonder if a similar thing could apply to writing as well? Probably not but the thought is interesting. Here’s a site on it: http://www.no-spec.com/

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