“Being Indie” in a post-consumerism world
Why Ask Your Audience to Pay for Something They Expect to Get for Free?
A conversation with APHEENX and Andrew J. Wilt about “Being Indie” in a post-consumerism world
“Why should I pay for something if I can get it for free?” This is a question many indie artists are asked, ranging from musicians, writers, webcomic creators, filmmakers, and many others generating content for online consumers.
Ten years ago, Chris Anderson wrote an article in Wired titled: Free! Why $0.00 is the Future of Business. In the article, he predicted that we will enter an economy where the cost of production will be lower and lower each year, therefore, the cost of products will become cheaper. In many ways, he’s right. The top of the line technology 10 years ago is a fraction of the cost today. In a similar way, the media we consume costs less. With the proliferation of the web, products (CDs, DVDs, and books) have been turned into services that stream unlimited titles of our favorite media (Spotify, Netflix, Kindle Unlimited).
In the new era of the internet, the economics of doing business has changed; media creators are paid in advertising royalties based on hit counts. The feeling of most consumers is: If their stuff is worth my time, I’ll watch it/listen to it/read it. Others say that’s not enough. If you truly like an artist, you should show them your support by buying media, because streaming royalties don’t cover all their costs. In capitalism, you have a vote with every purchase, and by choosing one artist over the others, you are saying: this creator deserves my money, so they can create more stuff I know I will love.
In this conversation with hip-hop artist APHEENX and author Andrew J. Wilt, we explore this topic and hear two creators’ perspectives on content production in an era where people expect media to be free.
DO STREAMING SERVICES KILL YOUR SALES?
APHEENX: No, they increase them because I get mechanical royalties.
AJW: I agree with APHEEX; streaming doesn’t kill sales, but it does change the sales model and if you don’t adapt to the change, or worse, if you resist it, you will sink into obscurity. If anything, streaming services lead to more sales. With services like Kindle Unlimited, more people get to sample my writing. If someone really likes what I have to say, they will become a true fan and purchase a copy.
I know that my book costs (at least) as much as one month of a streaming service subscription, so my ideas should be worth one full month of your budgeted reading allowance (if you stream books). If anything, it pushes me to be that much better because I know every purchase is asking a lot from someone. It also means that each person who buys my book in 2018 is more valuable to me than if I were writing books decades ago because I know they are a dedicated “true fan” and their feedback is important to me.
Kevin Kelly wrote that you don’t need a million fans to make a living. Really, all you need is 1,000 true fans who will buy your music, books, movies, and merch. They are the ones who will attend your public appearances and share your videos and blogs on social media. Because I’m a new author, I’m still growing that fanbase. I think every media maker is doing that. They’re trying to get their 1,000 true fans, which is kind of cool in itself—you get a tribe of people who all care about the same things you do. And their feedback and input prompts interesting conversations and makes you, as a writer, musician, or artist, better.
WHAT GOES THROUGH YOUR HEAD WHEN SOMEONE ASKS YOU FOR A FREE COPY?
APHEENX: Usually, I don’t have time to ask why, because I’m trying to get from one person to the next, but I think most likely they don’t like it enough to buy it but want it because they may be trying to be polite. There are times where giving out free stuff has its advantages, but at the end of the day, when you give out your stuff for free, you’re reducing the worth. Deep down, people don’t value free stuff—they only value something when they exchange something they value with something your offering.
AJW: Digital media is one thing. It doesn’t cost much to produce. When it’s a book or a CD or t-shirt, that all adds up. When people ask me for a free physical copy, it’s a little offensive. What they are saying is that my work isn’t valuable enough to purchase. It’s a kick in the face. When I was playing music, I would sometimes get caught up in the “you’re my friend, you should support me” vs. “you’re my friend, I shouldn’t have to pay for it” debate. What I’ve found is that if a friend really likes your stuff (music, writing, film, whatever) they’ll buy it. If they think you’re not that great, they’ll want a t-shirt or bumper sticker so at least they can feel like they are supporting you. What I want, and what most people want, are true fans. People who will pre-order the new book or album. People who will share your links on their social media. People who are inspired by your work and will advertise for you for free because they think it is important to spread your message because they too believe in your message. And when they spread your message, it becomes part of who they are.
A lot of people don’t know what all goes into the publishing process, so I want to break the fourth wall and tell everyone how it works.
Age of Agility is over 400 pages, so it costs more to print than a traditional 200-page pop-business book. (Don’t get intimidated, it’s easy to read and there’s a lot of good content, there’s just more of it than most books of its kind.) From a financial perspective, a 410-page book costs about $6 to print. Because my contract is through an indie publisher, they are not going to print 10,000 copies in one go. They use a print-on-demand model that costs a little more, but it’s a way for them to save money in the end. Let’s say they print 10,000 copies and I only sell 3,000. What are they going to do with the remaining 7,000 copies? And where are they going to store that many books? (Don’t look at me, I don’t have a garage.) In a traditional print-run model, they lose money even though the print cost-per-unit is less.
On top of the printing cost, the publisher pays the store selling the book. Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and indie booksellers, they all take about $6. What’s left from my cover price is about $6 and some change. From that, the publisher gets their cut because they hired the graphic designer, editor, developed the infrastructure, and have to do paperwork I don’t even know about, pay accountants, have legal people on retainer, and so on and so on. What I get from every book sale at full price is $2.87. AND THEN, I have to report my earnings on a 1099 and pay taxes on it. If self-employment tax is 15%, that’s 43 cents. So, I end up making $2.44 on every book sold at full price.
It took me over 2,000 hours to write, revise, and go through the publication process with Age of Agility, not to mention all the books and peer-reviewed journals I read. On top of that, authors have to do a lot of their own marketing. Whether you are signed to an indie publisher or big publishers, they have a limited budget when it comes to marketing—unless you are a big name like Stephen King. Since 99.99% of us are not that big (yet), we have to hustle our books online, make connections in our communities (online and face-to-face), maintain a blog, and connect with fans via social media. It’s safe to say that the time an author spends on post-production: marketing, mingling, interviews, blogs, is about the same amount of time it took them to write the book in the first place. So now, I’m up to somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 hours. That’s two years at 40-hours/week or one year of working nonstop with laser-focus and dedication.
That’s why some indie writers and musicians get so pissed off when people ask for a free physical copy, because all that time, money, and energy was put into creating Art, and now you’re asking the Artist to pay some guy on the street for all of their hard work.
As a side note, I do have promotional copies, but each one of those copies ends up paying for itself. Free copies go to bookstores, reviewers, bloggers, and influencers in the industry. In terms of net revenue, each book I or the publisher gives out for free will end up paying for itself a few times over. If not in additional book sales, it’s in speaking fees or other gigs.
WHY WRITE OR MAKE MUSIC IF THERE’S NOT A LOT OF MONEY IN IT AND THE CHANCES OF MAKING IT BIG (BEING RECOGNIZED AT A NATIONAL LEVEL) ARE SO SLIM?
APHEENX: I’m not totally attached to the idea of becoming a rap icon like Tupac or Eminem. The messages in my music most likely won’t be received to that degree anyway and I’m fine with that. All I know is that music is my calling, and however that plays out, I’m fine with. The point is to have fun and be the best version of me and whoever relates to me is fine with me. Whoever doesn’t, I’m ok with that too.
AJW: I didn’t write Age of Agility to get rich. I wrote it because I wish I had a book like AoA when I was trying to find my passion and get my feet off the ground. If I sell 10,000 copies, I will still be way under minimum wage for all the time and effort I put into it. The reason why I work in workforce development, keep a blog, answer questions that come to my email, is so I can help people realize their potential. Because I do make sacrifices in my fulltime job, I rely on sales from Age of Agility to supplement my income. It’s my side gig. What Chris Guillebeau calls a side hustle.
I would like to get to a point where I can write fulltime and only do AoA stuff, but that’s only if I can capture an audience who is willing to buy-in and support me. The more people who do that, the more time I can spend writing good content, answering emails, and helping people.
ARE THERE SOME THINGS YOU GIVE AWAY FOR FREE?
APHEENX: Yes, I do give some of my stuff for free and there’s only 2 reasons why I would…one, I think it’s gonna help someone out in a way that’s more valuable than money, there’s no specific situation it’s all case by case. The other reason why I would give something out for free is when I see that I’m in a position to do so.
AJW: I post a lot of free content to my blog. I have over 100 blogs in draft form—I get two or three new ideas every day—there will come a point when I’m posting blogs daily and my books will be PR to direct people to the blog.
I also answer questions on Quora and Reddit. If you have a question, I’m pretty good at responding within 24 hours. And if you have a question I think others might have, or if I think I have a clever response, I’ll turn it into a blog post. I also have a limited amount of free copies I can give away from the publisher. I have this posted on my website:
Can’t afford a copy? Send me an email with “I am the future” in the subject line and let me know why you would like to read my book. In a minimum of 250 words, let me know a goal you are working to achieve, where you would like to be in 12 months from today, and how you think a free copy of Age of Agility will help you create a path to success. I have a limited number of free copies that are available to those who are serious about making a change in their life.
Click here to give a copy of Age of Agility to a student, displaced worker, or someone who is trying to figure out which direction or next steps to take. All gifted books will be given to schools, young adult programs, and WorkSource Centers.
I have that second part in there about giving a copy to someone in need because I’ve had people contact me about wanting to help share my message. One person said: “This is a great book. Every young person should read this! How can I help?” I told them that the price is a barrier for some folks, so if they want to buy a copy for someone, that would break that barrier. The one stipulation is that the person receiving the free copy needs to be in a place where they are ready to make a change, or else the book won’t be of any use. And when they do read my book, make the changes they need to make, and get to a stable place, the hope is that they will return the favor by buying a copy for someone who was in their situation.
IF YOU BELIEVE IN THE WORK YOU’RE DOING, WHY DON’T YOU GIVE IT AWAY FOR FREE?
APHEENX: Lol! I don’t normally answer questions with questions, but this question is necessary to be addressed with a few questions... if everyone that believed in something had to give it away for free, what should not be given away for free but should be earned? Can you think of something you bought or paid for, but you don’t believe in? If you’re ok with buying stuff you don’t believe in, what needs would be met that would compel you to ask why don’t I give my material away for free if I believe in it? This question implies that everyone that has a belief or a cause behind something they are offering has an obligation to give it away for free. If so, what should be earned?
AJW: I wish I could give my book away for free, and I talked to my publisher about it. I suggested that we could focus on speaking gigs and workshops to pay for the book costs. My publisher responded by saying it was a great idea, but if you give something away for free, people don’t think it has value. Meaning, people would download it but never read it. Or, they would read it, but it might not resonate with them as much as a paid book would. There’s something about "perceived value" that messes with our heads. If someone works their fingers to the bone and spends $50,000 on a new car, it’s going to mean a whole lot more to them than someone who got the same car for free as a sweet 16 birthday present. Bottom line: if I spend money on something, I will respect it. if I get it for free, it’s as valuable to me as the advertisement coupons I get in the mail that go directly into my recycling bin.
BOTH NEIL GAIMAN AND TIM FERRISS HAVE USED BIT TORRENT TO PROMOTE THEIR BOOKS. ACCORDING TO ONE ARTICLE, TENS OF THOUSANDS OF MUSICIANS USE BitTorrent TO GIVE AWAY THEIR MUSIC FOR FREE.
APHEENX: I don’t know their reasons for doing so—everybody has a path and formula or reason why they do something. I think everyone should see what works for them. If I knew why they did it and I felt it would make sense for me, I would try it, but otherwise, I would do what works for my journey of music.
AJW: Several years ago, I interviewed the indie rock band The Skies Revolt and we talked a little about this. They realized that they were getting thousands of downloads on filing sharing sites…and they couldn’t stop it. The internet won, it changed the way music is bought and sold. Dave, vocalist and guitarist of the band, told me what they could do is control the quality by uploading their files to torrent sites, and they hoped that they would make up for it with merch sold on their website and fans going to their shows.
Again, this is where the “true fan” is important. All of the music I have listened to more than a handful of times and all the books I have read more than once (or want to read again or use as a reference), I buy. Torrenting files isn’t that big of a deal breaker for me because true fans will always buy your work. And if they don’t, they’re not true fans. BitTorrent is kind of like the library. I go to the library to see if a book is worth reading. If it’s not, I return the book and that’s it. It ends there. If it is worth reading, I buy the book because any book worth reading is worth rereading. And if it’s worth rereading, it’s worth buying. And in buying the book, I am telling the creator that I support them and their work.
YOU’RE SAYING THAT YOU DON’T HAVE A PROBLEM WITH PEOPLE STEALING YOUR WORK, BUT AT THE SAME TIME YOU DON’T WANT TO GIVE IT AWAY FOR FREE? ISN’T THAT A CONTRADICTION?
APHEENX: All my music is on the internet in a way that one way or another I’m making money off of it. If you stream it, I get royalties for it. My music can’t be “stolen”.
AJW: If someone wants your music, your art, or your book, and they don’t want to pay for it, there are ways to get it. I am 100% ok with people reading my book for free, that’s one great thing about the public library…but if they like it and want me to make more like it, buying a copy is the best way to ensure the future of another book.
IF YOU STOP MAKING MONEY, WILL YOU STOP WRITING OR MAKING MUSIC?
APHEENX: This has 2 answers. The question implies that “money” is a certain amount and I don’t know if it means millionaire or comfortable. When someone says they got “money,” that could mean a lot of things. Typically, it means lots but then it’s still vague. How much is a lot? Everybody has their own idea of what a lot is.
The first answer is, my music is good enough that I will always make money. The second answer is, I don’t have to be a millionaire. I will also say that I’m multi-talented and eventually I’ll use my other skills and most likely will focus on those more as I get older. This life requires you to have more than one skill, if you don’t you’re in trouble.
AJW: No. Like APHEENX said earlier about how making music is his calling, I feel like I was born to write. Writing is my calling. Right now, it’s taking the form of books that help people realize their genius. In the future, it will be the same message, only in the form of fiction. Until the day my soul leaves my body, I will be writing. When that day comes, I hope I get my writing done in the morning.
I posted a link at the beginning of the conversation, but I’ll put it here again. About a month ago, Gene Simmons, the bass player from KISS, said that he won’t make any more music because of piracy. The guy is valued at $300 million and he won’t make music. Even if it’s in protest, it says something about his character: he doesn’t play music because he loves it. And that’s his choice, he made a lot of money at it. But I write and make art for a different reason: because I can’t not do it. I have an urge to write and I can’t stop it. I need to write. If I was locked away and couldn’t write, I would die. If I can’t make art, there’s no point in my existence.
This whole conversation points to one thing: money complicates things. It’s true that I will always be writing, every day. But I may only have half an hour every day to spend on it because I have other responsibilities. The more “true fans” I have, the more time I can afford to take off work and write. Obviously, the goal is to write full time. The way things are going, I could write a book every three or four years. If I had a solid fan base, I could write one book a year, maybe more. Add that up and you’ll see what kind of control fans have over an artist.
APHEENX and Andrew J. Wilt love hearing your thoughts. Feel free to comment below or message us directly.
Andrew J. Wilt is the author of Age of Agility, a book that addresses the skill gap between school and work. He can be reached at Andrew.firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @andrewjwilt