Besmirchment Of The Free

The agent drummed his fingers on the desk, his smiling teeth clenched down on the pipe. Cherry smoke filled the room.

“Sorry, son!” he chirped. “We love the book. It’s super. Just super! But you went ahead and posted it online! For free!” At these last words, he barely stifled a guffaw. The pipe almost fell out of his mouth. He regained his composure. “Surely you see the problem, my boy.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Look at it this way. Say I’m a man looking for a bride. I don’t want some… dusty, grimy gutter-tramp who’s had sex with one or three other men. I want her unsullied. Pure and sweet, like cane sugar. I don’t want her out there, mauled by greasy hands and besmirched by wandering eyes.  Your novel is like that woman. You’ve gone and ruined her.”

“But now it has an audience.”

“Audience! Right, sure. That’s what I want. A woman whose sex organs come with a big audience. Brrr. Shudder. No thank you. That way lies Herpesville.” He kept smiling. Kept smoking. He even winked.

“My novel isn’t a woman.”

“No, but you darn sure want to treat her like one. Keep her in the dark! Hide her under a blanket! That sort of thing. This has been a great chat. You have a nice day, now!”

“But–“

The smile was gone. He took the pipe out of his mouth, and squinted. “I said, you have a nice day, now.” I heard the mechanical slide of a pistol’s action drawn back under the desk. I heard a thumb draw back a hammer.

I thanked the man and left.

Did you read my last post? The one where I decide I need an agent? That’s a good place to start. Go on. I’ll wait.

I said there that I might be posting a novel I’d completed online, and some voices rose up from the darkness and warned me against it. The traditional wisdom applies: don’t give your stuff away for free, an agent or a publisher are far less likely to take it if you just throw it out there or go a self-publishing route, free is for jerks, and so on.

It gives me pause. I won’t go releasing the novel for free yet. I’ll hold off. Johnny-Five is alive, and Johnny-Five needs input.

But, it does seem worth it to have this discussion.

The models are changing. The publishing industry is having to navigate new waters. All of entertainment is.

I have a hard time believing that agents or publishers will turn down a quality product because it was posted for free or self-published. (I’m not saying it’s not true, mind you — it may very well be. I’m only saying it surprises me.) Publishers pick up small press iterations of novels with enough frequency that it tells me that they don’t consider previous publication to be competition. (The same is not true for short fiction; generally, journals and zines want first rights or none at all.) If a small press novel — or a free one — gets a readership, that’s what publishers care about. David Wellington, J.C. Hutchins, David Wong, Scott Sigler, these are all guys who built an audience with a free product and ended up with deals because they built audience. They came to the table with thousands, or tens of thousands, of readers (slash listeners).

Now, do I think I’m capable of garnering that kind of audience?

Hey, if I’m anything, it’s delusional! Seriously though, don’t I have to at least think my work is viable? What’s the point? I’m not stepping into this arena with the expectation of failure. I want to succeed, and I think I have the product to do it. If I don’t think I’m capable of being successful, then why not just quit now? (See earlier comment, re: “delusional.”)

Still, the nagging question. Why free? Why give it away?

A couple reasons.

First, the “traditional process” is not a swift one. It’s a slow boat down a lazy river. That’s okay, to a point. I’m patient. … Okay, no, I’m not patient. If the microwave has seven seconds left, those are too many seconds. I have to liberate the food now! I’ll put a brick through the glass just to get the tasty treats into my belly. Sure, I could’ve just opened the door, but eff that ess. Brick! Glass! Liberation! Hot Pocket! Exciting.

Getting your work out there now means that the work is… well, doing more work. It’s generating energy. It’s keeping up momentum instead of letting momentum drag. This might be false logic. In fact, it smells of false logic, and yet I keep saying it anyway. Hurrah!

I also know that the process can be a hard, long slog — months, years wasted letting the work run the track until it’s out of breath and throwing up on itself, and then it’s still back at the beginning. (Apparently, I’m becoming a big J.C. Hutchins cheerleader. My writing partner, Lance, did a great interview with Hutchins, which you should check out. For the record, I am not stalking Hutchins. I am, however, blogging about this from under his bed. That’s totally normal.)

Second, audience building. Sure, I’ve gotten some audience. Since changing this blog over to WordPress, since getting on the Twitternets, since marketing myself more aggressively, my audience has probably doubled (ahem, of course, if you double a small number, you still get a small number). But I’ve a long way to go. I want to keep momentum, not let it wane. It feels like garnering interest in a new project is a way to seize on that momentum and keep the ball rolling. This also might be right back to the bullshit logic. Never underestimate the power of my brain to make up shit that sounds true but probably isn’t.

Them’s the thoughts at present. I don’t know that they’re useful or revelatory. A “freemium” model continues to have interest, but maybe it’s a dangerous path into a dark forest. That’s the issue with the state of publishing. As I said elsewhere, it’s death by a thousand uncertain options. It’s like a Choose Your Own Failure novel — “Do you want to ruin your chances with an agent? Turn to p. 26!

Time to stop rambling. I’ve got a query letter to write.

Oh, and also for the record?

I’d never eat a Hot Pocket. I’d rather scald my balls with a curling iron.