I want to tell you about a musician friend of mine from college. The fact that this particular musician is a long-ago friend of mine has given me some serious street cred with my boardgamer buddies. But I’m not telling you about him to increase my geek-chic quotient. Instead, I want you to know that this very smart guy figured out how to make a living in the music industry–even though the industry had changed overnight from a scene dominated by major labels to a fragmented cyberworld of digital downloads. (Sound familiar to anyone in publishing?)
Six years ago, Jonathan Coulton realized that he had to appeal directly to his fans to support his art. He quit his job and started amassing a collection of his music online. He put fans on their honor to pay him for his digital music downloads, even though they could be downloaded free. He recommended a donation of $1 per song. Here’s an article about what he did. You’ll see many parallels in his life to what’s going on for authors in publishing today.
It worked. His determined fan base gathered around his website and sent him money to buy his music, because they knew that without it, he could not continue to make art. Eventually, he moved to a more traditional sales model, but the foundation of his success was appealing directly to his fans and letting them know they were his only patrons.
Writers, we need to support a similar revolution in consciousness among our readers. Right now, readers don’t realize that each one of them is a patron of the arts–that each buying decision determines which writer will survive and which will not. The reader’s power is disguised by the middle men: publishers and booksellers. Readers think that because our books are available in bookstores, someone must be buying them, correct? So what does it matter if they pay for a book or just get one from the library?
We have this new and growing problem: readers who would ordinarily be our most devoted patrons are starting to get our books for free through promotions, especially through e-book giveaways. These valuable readers don’t realize that the cascade of free books will eventually cause the professional demise of the authors they love. It’s not clear to them that they are our patrons, and without their support, we perish.
As a reader, I have my own strategy to support my favorite authors and allow them to keep writing, so I’ll share it with you here as advice for those who also wish to support the novels they love.
Patrons must be selective. When you choose books to buy, make sure you’re buying the books you love most. If you receive books for free, but you absolutely love one of those books, then go out of our way to purchase a copy of that same book. Give multiple copies as gifts, if the book is that good. If you don’t buy it, you can’t count on other people to do so and thereby support the author so you get to keep reading his books. YOU are the patron.
I hold fast to the hope that in the next few years, new models of publishing will develop that strengthen the bond of support between reader and author. I think we’re going to see a resurgence of patronage for writers through these more direct sales channels, and wonderful things will result. But as we move into this brave new world, we’re all going to have to be more conscious that as readers, we are patrons. And as writers in a world where books are being devalued by giveaways, we need to find tactful ways to make it clear to readers that without their financial patronage, our work will not survive.