Since we’re started out free urban fantasy serial, I’ve learned that giving away free fiction is actually a controversial topic. There is a really interesting article at Smashing Magazine, which talks about pitfalls of providing free services. It’s a lengthy article, but it makes an interesting point: if we perform any labor, that labor has value and we have to be compensated for it.
Labor is the ultimate currency of our society. We’re walking in the footsteps of John Locke, who defined ownership as exertion of labor upon natural resources, meaning that since a person owns themselves and spends themselves in labor, he then owns the product of that labor. When you own something, you want something in return before you part with it.
The article states that when labor is given away, it is either presented as a gift, in which case “the action of giving a gift satisfies our desire to please someone we care about” or it is given away with expectation of compensation, if not from recipients of the gift, than from a third party. For example, Twitter is a free service, but at some point its creators had to monetize it. It costs money to run Twitter. There are servers, man-hours, utility bills, and so on. Since Twitter is provided free of charge to its users, the revenue is derived from advertisers. The article points out that in this scenario, the users of a free service become its product.
Nobody really wants to think of themselves as products.
This mindset creates several conflicts of interests. First, to target advertising, one must know a little bit about the consumer, which means that free services end up compromising the user’s privacy or compelling/bribing the user to permit them to pass his or her personal information to advertisers. Second, the development of this free service is no longer dictated solely by the needs of the user. It must also accomodate the needs of the advertisers, who are the source of revenue.
You can see it with technically oriented WordPress bloggers. They hawk WordPress theme sites in return for advertising and affiliate fees, and it’s often very difficult to find an honest review of a particular theme, because everyone who reviews it is an affiliate and receives money if the visitor to the site purchases a theme.
I think that if a blog is popular and the blog owner wants to earn compensation by advertising on a sidebar or what not, they should have full power to do so. We come to these blogs with expectation and understanding that some revenue has to be generated from our visit. But the example above shows that sometimes the very value of the reviewer’s content – his unbiased opinion – can be compromised and what was supposed to be an impartial evaluation becomes a sales pitch.
The author of the article makes a simple point: if the consumer is willing to pay a small fee for using the service, than that service can be profitable to the creator on its own, which eliminates conflicts of interest. I agree with this: I’d rather pay $3 per month to use Facebook and not have it redesigned to accomodate advertisers. I’d rather drop $10 on an online game, instead of getting it free only to have it flood my wall with “notifications” which are actually disguised advertisements.
So given my stance on free, why are we giving away the broom thing? For two reasons. First reason is simple: I hope that the readers share links to our work and people who might not have necessarily tried us will give our work a shot. At the very least, when the serial runs its course and becomes an ebook with a price attacked, we hope that some readers might purchase it.
Second reason is a little more complicated, but in a nutshell, because posting a free novel or novella, or whatever it will end up, makes us feel better. It’s very nice to post a snippet of something that came out of your head and hear that it made someone’s day or someone had a sucky week and this was a bright spot for them. So yes, in essence we are getting emotional compensation for our free fiction. Does it mean that our readers are products? I hope not. :/