Sitting across the table from my handsome husband, I sipped my Manhattan and listened to him talk about video games. Again.
We enjoyed a medium deserved, much-needed date night in the midst of the whirlwind around Christmas and New Years. The conversation turned, as it so often does, to a beloved Twitch streamer. We attempted to pinpoint what exactly is the source of his success. We cited his unthreatening everyman video game skills and his hilarious fluctuations between absurd confidence and wallowing self-pity that translated into moderate charisma and lots and lots of money.
Honestly curious, I asked aloud, “I am at least as charming as this guy. How do I implement his business model to my writing career?”
“Give your book away for free,” my husband answered.
My head felt like it exploded.
Do you even know how much work I already do for free as a stay-at-home mom and housewife? Do you know how little that unpaid labor is valued in our society? And you want me to put my passion project, the fruit of my intellectual and creative self, out into the world for free as well? No.
I blinked in shock. Mike may or may not have been pleased to render his chatty wife speechless.
“That’s how you would do it,” he doubled down on his assertion.
But the hours of work! The literal years of my life spent writing and learning how to write better. The money spent on conferences, how-to books, and paper. Don’t these sacrifices deserve some sort of reward?
Not really. I’m writing for fun and self-development. Nobody has held a gun to my head to say I need to write this story. What would a fair hourly rate even be? And who in this “fair” art market could afford a book of passion written by a first-time author? Books would go for thousands of dollars! And who would pay thousands of dollars for art? That’s right… art collectors.
I took a deep breath. Trying to slow my mind enough to come up with a reasonable objection to his crazy plan. “But I want the approval of being traditionally published,” I said embarrassed to so openly need the approval of others.
“Who care’s about publishers? You care about readers.”
“That’s true.” The readers are the people I am hoping to connect with after all. Some will obviously pay nothing, but some might pay a lot.
And this is where I got stuck for days. My mind churning in the background, as I do all my other unpaid work, picking away at why I should or should not give away my book for free.
Isn’t this model the honest meritocracy that I want in the world? If a reader likes it, they will pay, if not, they will not. The Twitch phenomenon has proven that there can be serious money in providing free content and asking for small donations from people who care to do so.
But there is the other side of The Twitch coin, the unknown number of streamers who are just as charming, skillful and engaged as the big names, but for some reason, the alchemy of popularity didn’t work for them.
‘What if I’m one of the unwatched streams?’ Comes a voice from the increasingly widening pit in my stomach. ‘What if I build it, but nobody comes?’ The failure of a cornfield ballpark is still statistically likely even if I do get traditionally published. So why not let it get out there for free at least make it easy for readers to get their hands on?
And after weeks of churning… I’ve decided my story is valuable and I don’t want to give it away for free. That is weirdly difficult to admit, and embarrassing. But, yeah. My novel has worth. (Still awkward… I’ll keep practicing.)
How much worth? In terms of dollars? I do not know. Value, especially in art, is in the eye of the beholder. The same book can be thought-provoking and literally life-saving to one reader, and a simple ‘meh’ to another. Which one is correct?
Is my book collector-level worthy of thousands? Maybe for some readers. But most of my readers will be in middle school, and that is a lot of allowance money. Is it worth the $.99-$25.00 that a bookstore will charge? Perhaps. Maybe since it is born of love and hours willingly given it should be my free gift to the world.
Perhaps someday there will be a machine, or more likely an app, that can measure the increased serotonin levels in your brain when you experience art. Then they will equate those chemicals with a dollar amount, or even better, a percentage of your income. (Like taxes, but fair.)
Until that technology arrives, I’m at a bit of a loss.
All I can say is that my book has worth. My story has value. I just don’t know if I’ll get any money. If that makes cents.