Paying for Art 05/03/22

If Jay asks me to write a blog, I write a blog. Simple as.

The tweet is in reference to taking down the “pay what you want” books from my Gumroad site. Gumroad is at times a frustrating platform, and my latest user experience led me to finally pull the plug. But I’ve been thinking about this a lot, lately.

First, let me explain where I was coming from. As a kid of the late ’90s, early ’00s, I came up downloading songs from Napster, and when the technology was available, torrenting movies and books. I found this invaluable, as again, I was a kid with no disposable income (and parents who couldn’t have afforded my book/movie habit if they’d made twice as much).

Influenced by Cory Doctorow’s “Information Wants to Be Free,” I decided that the best idea for my books would be to offer them PWYW, with the idea being that a free sample (basically an entire free book) would compel new readers to become loyal fans, who’d then, you know, actually pay for the books.

After several years of this, it turns out that just doesn’t happen. Which makes me wonder: why?

The first, and most obvious answer, is that an artist giving away their work for free devalues it. I will never not find it cringe when some pear-shaped blowhard baby-talk genre writer gets on their high-horse about piracy. It happens, maybe it sucks, I don’t know. But there’s nothing you can do about it, and going after potential fans is stupid. On the other hand, I do think you have to make yourself a spokesperson for your work, and that requires you putting a value on it.

If my son (who is now one year old) is playing with something he shouldn’t, I can distract him from it by pretending that something safer/less expensive is the coolest shit I’ve ever seen. This impulse never goes away. It’s why people all line up at the checkout at the same time…we can tell when other hunters are going for a kill.

Even more simply…goddamn, you’ve gotta at least pretend to like the shit you’re making. As an artist, you’re selling the performance of being an artist as much as the art itself. All art is aspirational in this way. I remember Jeff Burk once told me “people don’t buy books, they buy authors,” and that is the truth. What does it mean, then, if the image the artist is selling is one of “I make dumb shit that no one should buy”? Not a good look.

The other piece to this puzzle hit me on a recent episode of my podcast Agitator (which is really getting an audience in a way nothing I’ve ever done has…cool to experience). In the episode, I’m talking to Kelby about piracy and I have this lightbulb go on in my head: the act of writing and reading are sacred, meaning they require sacrifice to fully appreciate/realize/experience.

You pay a Tarot reader before a reading. You have to. Same with any magical exchange. Don’t go asking spirits for things unless you’re ready to leave an orange and some incense at the very least. And the same holds true of the “ritual space” of art experience. Reading a book, watching a movie, listening to music, playing a video game, admiring a painting…all of it requires payment, especially if it affects you.

Payment can be monetary, or perhaps spreading a little “word of mouth,” but in 2022, it’s monetary. It feels good, feels right, to pay for things you enjoy. And then you can share them! Libraries are sacred ritual spaces intended for sharing (within reason), handing your buddy a book is sacred because you paid for it for him, or someone did…and now you’re sacrificing your copy (because you know you’re never getting that shit back).

All of that magical energy goes out the window if the artist themselves denies the exchange. You’re no longer wearing the hierophant robes, no longer the keeper of the flame, but just a guy who did something one day, and you can read it if you want, I guess.

A tithe isn’t just a way for a megachurch preacher to buy a new Lambo. It’s that and something mystical, important. Both of these things are true.

In summary, I think my books are worth about $15. They’re good. And more are coming. Maybe just in paperback! I haven’t decided yet.

Have a good one!