Telling stories for free or profit

How do you make money telling stories? Thousands of MFA students ask themselves that question, usually starting a few weeks after graduation when reality sets in and you find out the world isn’t really that much different than it was when you were sitting in a circle reading from a fistful of laser paper. You’ve got a degree, now what? Who’s going to read your stuff  without the classroom structure providing you with an audience?

You’ve got two options. Give it away for free, or follow the traditional market models. The power of the Web allows the former to happen rather easily. But the latter is still the best way to turn your efforts into cash money.

I’ve now earned a modest amount of remuneration for making stuff up. Certainly not enough to keep the mortgage paid. And as a Web professional, I’m all for the concept barrier-free communication. Everything I do at my day job is designed to make it easier to access information. And this is at odds with the whole notion of publishing. It’s hard to access novels…you have to walk to the store and fork over twenty bucks, or sit at home and wait for the box from Amazon. So the notion of paying for text is ridiculous. Every word I’ve ever written, which is by now numbering in the millions, would fit on a thumb drive and could be sent around the world in seconds from my iPhone.

But as a writer, I also want to get paid for the years I’ve invested in creating that text.

A part of me believes it’s inevitable that writers, novelists in particular, will be giving the goods away for free online, using sites like Scribd. Even publishers are starting to offer free content on Scribd and elsewhere, trying to figure out what the business model will be.

But my friend Mort Castle, with his razor wit and boundless optimism, doesn’t seem to think that is such a good idea.  He’ll proceed as before on his 40-year quest to be an overnight success. Few writers work at it harder than Mort does.

But is the role of the publisher changing in a world of open communication? As these fireworks at SXSW demonstrate, publishers are being forced to face this question directly. I think the guy from Penguin makes a solid point when he proclaims the importance of the filter. That’s always been the role of the publisher and agent: find the gem in the slush, make it easily accessible to the masses. In essence, readers pay publishers to find the best stuff. Won’t a publisher’s role become even more vital in a world where choice is expanding?

Still, the sticky question is how to capture a profit when shelf space and distribution is now free. Some projects would never have existed if it weren’t for the Web, these the sorts of blog-to-book scenarios that writers dream about manufacturing.

Do you wait for a business model, or do you make one? Or do you just experiment? Or do you just stick to the traditional models like Mort? For now, I’m still sending manuscripts to New York in manila envelopes. Though I’ve noticed that agents in the traditional book biz are even changing, with requests for PDFs or Word versions to load onto Kindles increasing. As for LA, I’ve never printed and sent an actual screenplay manuscript…it’s all been PDF (and a scanned release form) since I’ve gotten involved.

But I’m also giving it away. Next week I’m launching a Web comic, an online graphic novel called ‘Los Refugiados,’ with artist Santiago Uceda. We’ve kicked around adding a donate button. We hope someone will recognize our brilliance in monetary form. But we have no real business model.

In the end, telling stories is something that humans do. If the market didn’t exist, it would still happen. If the Web weren’t around, we’d sit around the fire and spin yarns or scratch it into the walls of our caves.

But it sure would be nice to get paid for it.

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