Get Nervous and Make Things Anyway

Get Excited and Make Things

Looking back, I can put my finger on part of it I couldn’t reach before.

Chris Anderson, author of FREE, argued to Malcolm Gladwell that writers don’t need to be paid, but the people who wrangle writers do. Writers, after all, get reputation and praise, so they don’t need to be paid, is Anderson’s argument. Editors don’t get the same praise, so they earn money. This is like directors and actors working for Oscar noms and thumbs-up while studio executives get a cut of the box office. We could discuss several ways the argument is flawed — Guy LeCharles Gonzalez has a great post about here about Free versus Freemium — but I’m going to start with this one: it poisons my excitement.

Part of what troubled me about this argument of writing for free being not just viable (which I do not contest) but also fine and unavoidable (which I think is tricky and, coming from a working editor, insidious) is the way it interacts with the messages of your Merlin Manns and your Matt Joneses. They advocate enthusiasm and creation over doubt and preparation. As Matt Jones puts it, “get excited and make things.”

The idea is to not fret over the perfect process, to avoid all the bullshit deterrents and procrastination, to dodge those obstacles we put in our own path and just go forward. Just make things. Make a lot of things and increase our average; embrace the ones that stand out and celebrate the fact that you’re making things, even if some of them suck.

Do it because you love to do it. Be excited, and use that excitement. It’s a wonderful and useful message — a psychic pry bar. Good stuff.

But how can I trust that message if I think the reason it’s being given to me is to keep me happy and singing and toiling in my plot of land so the guy above me can get paid out of the ad revenues for posting my work to his blog?

Why should my work be the free content of an intermediate landlord’s freemium marketing strategy? It makes me nervous that I’m being motivated to produce a lot of free content so that the tier above me can get paid for it.

I have this awful (and unrealistic, I know) image of old boys, seated in club chairs in a smoke-filled sepia-toned parlor, scheming about how to get people to give their work away for free. “Tell them the fun and satisfaction is it’s own reward!” says one.

“The only reward! Writing’s worth nothing — it only generates value for the things we’ll sell afterward,” says the other.

“Yes! Yes,” replies the first, “encourage them to make things for nothing, after they get home from work, and we’ll collect a fee to organize what they make.”

“Writing will be worth nothing,” smiles the second, “and we’ll have struck the mother lode of free writing!”

They toast to their genius.

Obviously, no such scheme is happening. I don’t think Merlin Mann is actually in league with Chris Anderson to devalue my work while increasing my productivity. The point is, they might as well be.

But if somebody’s going to give away my writing, why not me? If it’s going to be the free half of a freemium plan, shouldn’t it be half of my own plan? Why be a part of just the free half? That’s a sucker’s game.

I want to be excited. I want to make things. And I want to work with publications I’ve admired, like Wired, but is it right for the writer to work for free so that Wired can sell its premium content to a percentage of the audience the writer helped build?

(Except, and this is important, Anderson’s not being entirely accurate when he says the GeekDad writers aren’t paid. They get a bunch of free materials to review, don’t they? That stuff’s worth money. I’d write a free review of an iPhone in exchange for the device and the contract, but that’s not really “free,” is it?)

I grok why a certain amount of writing gets done for free — and as the writer’s prerogative, that’s fine — but I hope Anderson sees the other half: when writers realize that they can get a fraction of the audience they’ve built at Wired to follow them back to their own freemium content, they’ll have good reason to take advantage of it. Whatever fraction of that audience that follows the writer back to his own site, generating his own ad revenue and premium-buying subset of the audience, stands to generate more money than the zero dollars Wired was paying them.

The (albeit valuable) privilege of standing under Wired‘s tent is worth less the more the writer under that tent personally builds his own audience. Since Anderson’s vision of future writers posits a class already employed and writing on the side, maybe they’ll stick around for the kicks, but they’ll also have the option of becoming their own brand and generating their own revenue — like Heather Armstrong’s

Wired, pretty soon, becomes a machine for generating visibility for future independent competitors. Big enough competitors to hurt Wired? I don’t know… but the magazine’s been getting thinner every month.

I like getting excited and making things, and while Anderson’s vision of the future makes me nervous, I’ll make things anyway. Because what’s the alternative?

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comments ( 6 )

  • ReplyFred Hicks 8 Jul 2009

    I think I sort of walk around with some unspoken rules in my head. I’ll speak them.

    Rule #1: Don’t plan to do. Do.

    Rule #2: Do it for yourself. Satisfy yourself. What results will please some number of other people once it pleases you.

    Rule #3: Once you have some results in hand, THEN you can figure out how to make money off of it, *if that’s what you want out of it*.

    They’ve worked pretty well for me so far.

    These are in order of decreasing precedence and importance. So rule #2 can be allowed to trump rule #3, etc, if any conflicts (however few) emerge. I think a lot of what I’m hearing here — from your own perspective & world — is thinking about rule #3 in advance of rule #2.

    People (like Anderson and Gladwell, on either side) going on and on about stuff that lives in #3’s territory are spending a lot of time talking about the *least important thing*.

    Do it for yourself, man. Audience will come to it once it’s done.

  • ReplyGuy LeCharles Gonzalez 8 Jul 2009

    I agree with Fred, and not just for writers. I think #2 and #3 are going to come to define publishing in the very near future as the mass consumer approach steadily deteriorates and gives way to passionate niches, because that’s where the money will be. Readers will pay for content they care about, and the commodified content of Anderson’s FREE world will have little value and isn’t as viable any more because of its dependence on advertising support. Magazines like Wired are now threatened by, ironically, websites like GeekDad that reach similar audiences with measurable impact at significantly cheaper rates.

    Every writer has the tools to create their own GeekDad readily available to them; having the talent, patience and ambition to pull it off are what will separate the successful from the serfs.

    When I was covering the comics scene a few years back, my favorite mantra in response to people complaining about not seeing enough of the kinds of comics they liked was “Make the f***ing comics!” I like “Get excited and make things” better for its more positive tone, though. :-)

  • Replybarbara 'kittent' trumpinski-roberts 17 Jul 2009

    I agree that we should all be able to work at what we love and be creative. I have to note that John Kovalic made a really good point the other day in his live journal when he announced that Dork Tower is going to be web only for the first time in 10 years (let me add that it wasn’t HIS idea)

    In some bad news, Comics Buyers’ Guide has had to cut back on expenses due to the economy, and alas, alack, one of those expenses was Dork Tower. The editor says this is hopefully just a temporary thing, and given the feedback I get from the CBG staff and editors, I’m hoping so as well. Yet, for the first time in ten years, Dork Tower is exclusively a web-only strip.

    This is a paradigm I’ve yet to get used to.

    This is also a business model I need to figure out. While I’m notoriously unmotivated by money, the fact that there is now a Daughter involved and a College Fund to be funded puts a spin on things that wasn’t there five years ago.

    It’s fine for Chris Anderson to want artists to work for free…he doesn’t have to worry about paying his bills. If he wants to pay MY bills, I’ll quit worrying and stay home and write poetry or whatever…