Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Value of Free

Forgive me, Blogger, for I have sinned. It's been about a year since my last real blog post. Sure, I've posted news aplenty since then, held a couple contests -- even hosted an interview. But I haven't talked much of late about my writing life. Partly I've been busy. Partly I've been lazy. And partly, I feel like there are already more than enough people in the world talking about the art and business of writing. The louder the clamor of contradictory opinions gets, the less I care to shout to be heard over the din. But lately, I've come to realize I'm in a unique position to provide a little perspective on what's emerging as one of the hottest hot-button writing issues of the internet age.

No, not $0.99 ebooks. That debate, I suspect, will prove short-lived, and anyway, I've already said my piece. I'm talking about a belief so ingrained among writers, so prima facie obvious, only a fool would dare argue against it. I'm talking about the edict that (cue echo effect) The Writer Must Be Paid.

Turns out, I am just the fool for the job. 'Cause as far as I'm concerned, sometimes (like buskers, ice-cream shops, and Anthony Kiedis) the thing to do is give it away.

Now, I'm no expert, and I'm not one to prescribe, preach, or proselytize; at best, all I can say is what's worked for me. Thing is, giving (some) fiction away has for-seriously worked for me.

The first story I ever gave away was "Seven Days of Rain." To Demolition, this was. I confess, though I was delighted they'd accepted it, I was bummed I didn't get a check for it. Particularly since I'd gotten a lovely rejection letter from the editor of EQMM telling me it was a fantastic story, if not the best fit for them. Then "Seven Days of Rain" wound up winning a Spinetingler Award for Best Short Story on the Web (an award it would have been ineligible for had I placed it with EQMM), and I didn't feel so bummed anymore.

The second story I gave away was "The Toll Collectors," to Beat to a Pulp. That one (he says bitterly, waving a clenched fist at the cruel, uncaring world) didn't win a bloody thing. It did, however, kick off a rewarding relationship with editor David Cranmer, which has thus far yielded four additional publishing credits (three paid) and what I suspect will be a lasting friendship.

I'm not sure you can say I gave away "Eight Pounds," since Thuglit sent me a kickass T-shirt for my trouble, but I didn't, strictly speaking, get paid a dime. Upon publication of that one, I got a letter from a fancy-pants agent, asking if I was in need of representation. I was not (having already procured an agent of sufficiently fancy pants). But when Stuart Neville got a similar letter, he wasn't agented, and as he's written on his blog, the whole thing worked out pretty well for him.

At 11,000 words, "The Hitter" was perhaps my most egregious violation of the pay-the-writer edict. One seventh of a novel just given away, and before I'd ever even seen an issue of the magazine I gave it to. But I knew the guy who'd asked for it a little bit from Twitter, and I believed in the vision he and his cohorts had for Needle. Plus, I was out of work at the time, so I figured why the hell not write something for them? I had the time.

Not quite a year later, me and Steve are friends, and "The Hitter" has been selected by Harlan Coben and Otto Penzler to appear in THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2011 (which, incidentally, pays about as much as my EQMM and AHMM credits combined, making it the most I've ever gotten paid for one story), not to mention nominated for a freakin' Anthony. Which (and again I'm no expert here) I'm guessing doesn't suck for my writing career.

Look, I'm not saying you should give work away all willy nilly. In fact, careful readers will note I'm not saying you should do anything at all. What I am saying is I've had damn good luck giving stories away. Now, I wouldn't give a story away to just anybody; in fact, I'm far more likely to submit to a paying market than a non-paying one. But the fact is, if I'd only published at the venues that paid, chances are, you never would have heard of me. And, as a side note, the only publication that ever screwed me over was a paying market. (They'd accepted a story of mine and paid me $10, only to disappear without a word when it was revealed they were a vanity project for their editor, who'd been padding his bibliography by accepting dozens of his own stories under a variety of pen names. I only tell you this so my editor-friends don't get all nervous I'm talking about them.)

Believe me, if you want to stick to paying markets, that's cool with me. In a perfect world, all markets would be paying markets. But we live in an era in which anybody with access to the internet and a passion for the written word can be a publisher, and it's important to note most of 'em lose money doing so even without paying for content. That doesn't make their tastes any less refined, or the role they play as gatekeepers any less valuable. So to those folks who stick to their getting-paid guns, I say this: stop demonizing non-paying markets, and grant the possibility that they have a place in the world of fiction. 'Cause I'm for damn sure better off for 'em.