Must we come to terms with money?

Ebooks can be given away very easily, Smashwords has a simple setting for this and even allows it specifically for libraries while other users pay whatever non-zero price you’ve decided on. Amazon’s Kindle, similarly, allows all sorts of ways that pricing and royalties can be adjusted. What is transferred from producer to consumer is, after all, simply bit strings, code that a machine translates into its root binary system and passively runs on its hardware. There is nothing there, really, and so nothing can cost nothing and no one is hurt. Paperbacks, on the other hand, require real physical production, and that means the use of resources for both manufacture and delivery. The most an author can do is to lower a book’s asking price down as close as possible to the production costs (keeping in mind that the printing service will take its cut as well); in my own case what that process worked out to was that I could make no less on a paperback copy sold than five cents. I was getting that nickel come hell or high water – unless of course I bought the copy myself and then gave it away by hand.

But what is this nonsense? “I could make no less”? And it isn’t at all that “There is nothing there, really, and so nothing can cost nothing and no one is hurt.” There is plenty there! Tens of thousands of hours of labor and who knows how much energy expended. That’s something all right! It is, of course, it is, and as our own Terms and Conditions state, an artist ought to be able to live by their work. Ought to. Welcome, however, to 2017. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, even by the mid-nineties it was being predicted that the way to make money from creativity was no longer through sales but through fame – give stuff away for free and then milk the celebrity you are thus able to “buy” yourself for profit, focusing particularly on niche audiences. (That has actually become a rather established formula amongst fan writers, by the way.) Does it work? Well, for some. For everyone else… Again, welcome to 2017.

I am in two minds about the stilted and unsatisfying relationship my writing has with money. On the one hand I would love to be able to afford to write full-time and to have a cool writing closet tucked away in some building’s loft where I hole up and am able to give myself exclusively to a keyboard, but on the other hand I have a family that hugely benefits from economic stability and I also realize that my day job provides quite a bit of grounding that I otherwise wouldn’t have if left entirely to my own devices. In that case I’d probably go even weirder than I am now. Not pretty. The main problem, as I see it, is not that I want to chase money, but rather that the world we live in forces us to chase money in some manner or other. Being read is really all the reward I’m after for the huge investment of time and effort that I put into my writing. But simply being read doesn’t help pay the rent or the kids’ daycare.

There is a deeper question to all this, though, and that is in the approach. I don’t want to live in the world we live in where everything is commodified, quantified, and disposable. I want to live in a world where art is freely shared and freely enjoyed for its own sake. Let’s trade: your new album for my novel. Why not? Such trends are happily taking place in some quarters, and the net (and of course ebooks, emusic, e-etc.) has made it all that much more possible, but still the thought sticks that work really should be recompensed monetarily. Perhaps it’s our inability to think in terms beyond the financial, perhaps it’s a result of the incessant consumerist brainwashing we’re all treated to daily, perhaps it’s just a marker of the historical era we’re passing through. I am not so naive as to think that giving my books away will help to make the world a better place – but then again, maybe it will; for you, at least, if it brings a smile to your face for even a moment. After all, an ebook wouldn’t cost me anything to send, and I’ve got some paperback copies just sitting on a shelf gathering dust to boot. But there I go again thinking in terms of “cost” – that’s the habit we’ve got to break, the monkey we’ve got to get off our backs. Here’s an offer I’m willing to make: In perpetuity throughout the age of the known universe, anyone who sends me a request through our DSB contact account is welcome to a free pdf of anything I singly author. Take that, capitalism! (The capitalists will naturally just see this as me shooting myself in the foot, but you and I, we know better. 😉 )

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