Weblit as Gifting Culture

I wrote a guest post over at Cheap Ass Fiction about weblit as gifting culture that people here might be interested in. Here's an excerpt:


"When I first started reading weblit other than fanfiction, it kind of knocked my paradigm of publishing on its ass. Not because it was on the internet. The internet was just a flexible, fluid, far-reaching medium. What hit me was that so many authors were giving their stories away, for free. Because they loved it. Because they would rather give, with no expectation of reciprocation, than keep it to themselves and maybe get a contract some day.




I really liked this article, it says a lot of what I think when I write. Nicely done.


I agree wholly with the sentiment of this article, but there are a number of interesting points that come up when you consider that the gifters are interacting with a society inextricably clamped in ubercapitalism.


As illustrated by this old news:




In the world of the internet the opposite appears to be true, where the mantra that no one has the right to charge is championed. Everything is free if you want to take it. There is very little sense of gratitude and an overwhelming tide of entitlement.


Meanwhile, given their druthers, I think most artists would sooner be on stage with Josh than ignored in the subway. A lot of writers feel a lack of appreciation, real or perceived.


Joshua Bell put it best, actually--that the whole incident was a stunt. It didn't prove anything except that people will pay craploads of money to listen to excellent musicians on their terms, but won't pay so much to listen to excellent musicians on someone else's terms. Also, that Joshua Bell is incredibly lucky to be known as a world-renown musician rather than just a busker.


As to the article:


"So what do I want to create? I want to live in a gifting culture. I want to give with no expectation of reciprocation, and yet with the surety that in some form it will always come back to me."


There's a contradiction here that I don't understand. You want to give with no expectation of reciprocation, but you *do* want something in return--to receive the benefits of gifting culture (receiving gifts) in exchange for participating in it. Or would you be okay with me receiving all the benefits of gifting culture while personally refusing to return the favor? You also cite hunter-gatherer tribes who engage in gifting culture as not having economies, but the fact is, they *do* have them; they're just much more subtle than ones based on numbers.


In addition, I've grown wary of the idea that there are tons of best-selling books that are 'bad fiction'--I agree for certain values of 'bad' (good God, Twilight), but I must add that this 'bad fiction' sells well because it brings joy and pleasure to a large segment of the population--and that this joy and pleasure means that in certain ways, 'bad' best-selling books /aren't/ bad. There's also an abundance of incredibly good best-selling fiction which makes me suspect that at least some of these publishers know what they're doing.


I apologize if any of the above feels antagonistic; I've grown cynical toward the issue of internet publication based on the amount of people I've personally spoken to who want to claim that the reason their stories aren't wildly successful is because 'the industry is broken'. I don't think that's what you're saying at all, but the amount of people who do say it has roused the curmudgeon in me.





@Letitia

Concerning this:

"In the world of the internet the opposite appears to be true, where the mantra that no one has the right to charge is championed. Everything is free if you want to take it. "


I don't think that there's an expectation that everything is free. I've just got done featuring a handful of authors on my site, several of whom do sell and make money from their work in some form or another. I do not think the internet audience feels entitled. They do, however, need to be convinced that something is worth paying for, which is why authors who do give away things for free tend to do better (compared to the many self-published author who charges $15 for a book of unverifiable quality.) Could we not rather say that authors of commercial publishers feel entitled to charge an arbitrary amount for books that are often not worth it?


@Robert


There is a difference between reciprocity and pricing. Yes with reciprocity there is an expectation that sometime in the future a gift will be returned. So, yes, reciprocity is not just selfless charity or sacrifice. But this is much different than pricing which is setting a (usually pretty arbitrary) number on goods or services and withholding said goods and services until this (again, arbitrary) number is met. Reciprocity is based on trust. Pricing is based on mostly arbitrary rules assigning a number to the value of an object. Not saying either one is bad. In a large scale state society, pricing is really the only efficient way of doing business because trust is shaky in large groups.


However, this--

"would you be okay with me receiving all the benefits of gifting culture while personally refusing to return the favor"


--is extremely unlikely to happen in a gifting culture (as seen [traditionally] in groups such as the Semai or Batak and some Native American cultures.) In gifting cultures people who take, take, take, without providing anything generally get shunned (this is of course excluding incidents of taking by violence in which case it's not a gifting culture so much as a military state.) Then there is no trust or friendship or cooperation. Pricing, of course, does not require trust or friendship or cooperation. Reciprocity does. When a person does not cooperate, it breaks down--at least for the untrusted party.


The idea of a gifting culture is not some idealistic, utopian notion of people giving things away happily and freely because they're full of love and rainbows. It is not necessarily better, but it is a different way of doing things.


Oh, my point wasn't that there wouldn't be repercussions for me refusing to participate in gifting culture, but that for gifting culture to succeed, there *must* be a form of exchange--in exchange for my participation, I receive support. We're engaged in trade--which is a form of economy.


Frankly, I don't think there exists any culture that doesn't engage in *some* form of bartering, even if it's not over physical goods. Even the ancient tradition of potlatch (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potlatch )--which sounds reminiscent of 'gifting culture' as it's being suggested here--involves some form of give-and-take.


@Ryan

I do agree with you there. I just think that there is a spectrum of exchange in culture, going from mandatory (pricing,) to implicit (gifting, or reciprocity.) One end is driven by withholding, the other is driven by trust. You are definitely right that all (recorded) cultures engage in some form of bartering, but I think the point is that there _are_ different forms. But I get what you're saying, though.


sorry, that's @robert :-) You know who you are!


Note that in the examples you give for gifting cultures, shunning works because of the level of intimacy of the population. The non-gifters become identified and find themselves without recourse when they are shunned. The scale and basic anonymity of the internet makes shunning less effective I think.


Yes, shunning is definitely at the end of the spectrum where reciprocity is everything and those who don't participate in that have no place in the community. But you don't think that those who "give" on the internet--that is, contribute to the community in some way--get more than those who don't?


This can be applied more on the writers than the readers (which was the point of the article.) I've have a lot of contact with both web fiction authors (who primarily give work away) and self published authors (who primarily sell their work). Again and again and again the self published authors express confusion over why they cannot get people to pay regular book prices for their books. They are frustrated and confused and often give up. And as I'm sure you know, most self-published authors fail miserably, selling less than 100 copies (need to go look for a citation) and mostly to friends and family.


Of course, the same could be said for web fiction, since it tends not to get "successful." However, while I talk to frustrated, confused and drained self-pubbed authors, I talk to many more web fiction writers happily putting their work online with a much different idea of success--one based on giving. I don't see the same level of frustration or "Why am I not getting anything out of this?" But that is incredibly common in the self-pubbed authors--stroll through AW for a day and you'll see plenty of it.


The point is, the authors who don't want to give anything to the community but expect readers to pay upfront(usually a higher price than the book is worth) DO often get shunned.


Are we supporting an artificial dichotomy between "self-published" authors and "webfiction" authors, then? Because a lot of the webfiction authors I know are also self-published by the definition you state.


I will resist wondering if there is some implied superiority to the gifting culture because it is either not involved with filthy lucre, or it seems to create more happiness than selling one's work. Instead, I will caution against simplifying the recurrent and eternal struggle of the artist to survive in a world that will not clothe and feed him for free.


Do we all crave recognition, communion and to reach people with our work? Surely so. Do all of us have the luxury of thinking of it as something that can be given away?


I wonder.


And I think people are again conflating pricing issues with access issues. No, trying to sell your book for $15 to somebody who makes $200 a year probably isn't going to work out for you. And trying to sell something for $15 that people have no prior access to (ie. a self-published book by an unknown author who does not supply a sample chapter or two), probably won't work either. But lots of people in NA and Europe will take a chance on a $0.99 download, because the loss is negligible if it doesn't work out. That may still be the wrong price point for other markets, but that's a pricing issue that's pretty easy to work out.


When I was doing web fiction, I was doing it because it was a hobby, and I had no interest in adding the stress of a sales job to it. But that was my choice. I certainly don't begrudge authors who'd like to make some money from their work, and I applaud those who manage it.


@MCA

"Are we supporting an artificial dichotomy between "self-published" authors and "webfiction" authors, then? Because a lot of the webfiction authors I know are also self-published by the definition you state."


No. I don't support an artificial dichotomy. I'm pointing out two ends of a spectrum. While there is more and more movement to the middle of the spectrum (which is great) there are still many, many people who fall at either extreme. My point is that while people at the "Giving Things Away" end tend to understand the value of free and (from what I see) can more easily meet their ideas of successs, the people at the "Selling Everything" end rarely meet their goals because they don't see the value of giving things away. It's sad to see so many would-be authors crash and burn because of that mentality and I wish more people were at the middle of the spectrum.

Of course, this is just my opinion from my experiences with indie authors.


"I will resist wondering if there is some implied superiority to the gifting culture because it is either not involved with filthy lucre, or it seems to create more happiness than selling one's work. Instead, I will caution against simplifying the recurrent and eternal struggle of the artist to survive in a world that will not clothe and feed him for free."


Saying that one aspect of a system could be beneficial elsewhere is not the same thing as saying the system is superior. And discussion of one aspect is also hardly a simplification. Yes, being an artist is a complex and challenging thing. Yes, giving and selling is one piece of that experience. But it is one worth discussing.


@Chris

I do not think the point of the article was "Giving is the only way. Give everything away." I also admire webfic authors who areable to make money out of their creations. And I think the trend towards .99 ebooks is great, especially for indie authors who could not get their work in front of readers otherwise.


@AeliusBlythe: "My point is that while people at the "Giving Things Away" end tend to understand the value of free and (from what I see) can more easily meet their ideas of successs, the people at the "Selling Everything" end rarely meet their goals because they don't see the value of giving things away."


As someone who's done both--I did the whole 'pay $10 for my book' and I've given the same book away for free on the internet--I find your conclusions a little baffling. I do understand the value of giving things away for free; for me, that value is zero. I want things in return for what I produce--community, support, feedback, and yes, money. /Particularly/ money. If there was a way that I could squeeze 10 dollars out of every one of my readers, I would leap at the chance and never write free fiction again.


I don't think that's bad; if anything, I consider my perspective to be pretty mature. As a writer, I want your support and I want your money. To acquire it, I need to produce something worthy of it. So I strive to do so.


From my limited experience, the authors who charge $10 for their fiction and then burn out tend to be the ones who assume their work is worth that much from the get-go, and thusly conclude that when nobody pays that money, it's a problem with the industry rather than their approach. My response to failing to even break even could be summarized by a very short, very loud "meh". It wasn't till later, when I was working on producing volumes of online fiction (at no charge to the reader), that I burned out (for a variety of reasons).


@Robert

Do you think you can squeeze $10 out of every reader?


This is not about what we want. Gifting is not an idealistic notion of charity or a utopia where everything is free.


You may want readers' support, but how do you plan to get that? When readers are complaining even about paying $10 for a traditionally published ebook, do you have confidence that you can convince them to give you $10? When even most traditionally published books don't make back the advances paid on them, do you think the $10-from-every-reader-model has been successful?


So, sure, we may want to make money from every single book, but do you really think this is realistic?


And when you were working on producing volumes of online fiction, and getting burned out, were you selling it as well? And if not, then why not?


...didn't I just finish writing a post relating my experiences about how the 10$-a-book model failed for me? Or have I been transported to a bizarre alternate universe where fish fly, cats and dogs get along, and there were no Matrix sequels?


I have no idea what your point is or what you're trying to say. But to answer your last question, I didn't sell them because I didn't think they would sell.


AeliusBlythe: I don't think that's Robert's point. It's about expectations. Self-pubbed authors tend to have a certain valuation in mind, what they think their own work is worth, or what it should be worth to the world at large. Oftentimes that price is as low as possible while still recouping high print-on-demand costs (for dead-tree copies). When readers aren't willing to make that leap, even when the author isn't making a dime, it can be pretty crushing. I'm not self-published and I sure wish I were selling more, though I realise my stories so far have only niche appeal.


Webfiction authors, on the other hand, generally put their work online without any expectations at all. Which makes sense -- when you're giving something away for free it's hard to expect something in return. There are no financial barriers to entry for readers, so capturing interest is often easier. Also, the signal-to-noise ratio isn't as bad (yet) as in the self-pubbed field.


It's an interesting discussion but, I reckon, ultimately pointless. Internet economy can't be formalised like that, as ubersoft and others have pointed out, due to the free-flowing nature of the medium. It obeys its own set of rules and quite frequently breaks them. There's no way to enforce the laws of a gifting culture -- written or unwritten -- while still being an open community. Whether people are happier in a gifting culture doesn't make the idea any more practical in the world as we know it today.


Regards,

Ryan


@Robert

"...didn't I just finish writing a post relating my experiences about how the 10$-a-book model failed for me? Or have I been transported to a bizarre alternate universe where fish fly, cats and dogs get along, and there were no Matrix sequels?"


Yeah, which makes it even weirder that in that same post you would make the $10 model something you would want. ( "If there was a way that I could squeeze 10 dollars out of every one of my readers, I would leap at the chance and never write free fiction again.") Don't you want something that works? So why do you continue to glorify that model when was clearly a failure?


And...

"I didn't sell them because I didn't think they would sell."


So basically, you failed at one extremely bad business model and then assumed the other model would fail as well? Good job.


@Ryan

Re: Self-published vs webfic authors. Yes it is about expectations.


Can you specify what you mean by "formalized"? You are the first in this thread to mention that.


I want lots of things. Super-speed, a gold-plated laptop, a monkey sidekick, even a magical unicorn (I'd settle for a magical pony, though). None of these things are possible (or likely), but I still want them, and I don't think that wanting them is silly or wrong. I accept their impossibility and settle for less. Accepting reality--and making compromises--is part of being a mature adult.


"So basically, you failed at one extremely bad business model and then assumed the other model would fail as well? Good job."


That is both incredibly unfair and insulting. You have little to no knowledge concerning my situation, or why I came to the conclusions I came to. (EDIT: For instance, I didn't sell The Last Skull because I didn't think anyone would care to buy it; unlike Arcadia Snips, it's not an attempt at an honest story--just me playing around with the things I love. I didn't even proofread half of it.)


Anyway, I can see this conversation is a one way trip to Nowheresville, so I'll jump the tracks here and leave you to forge on.