Why No-one Wants Free Fiction

It's difficult to decide if you should take some work and put it 'out there' to gather interest. Chances are that it won't get enough traffic to gather anything, however there is the odd chance and after all you don't catch any fish unless you have lines in the water.

After trying it for a while I'm now firmly against it. Stick with me, dark reader, and I'll tell you why you should be too.

Get a Hold of Your Quality

When you just put it out there - much like making submissions on the spur of the moment for competitions or mag/web zines - there's the possibility that because you are chancing your arm, you aren't taking your editor role as seriously as you might. I'm willing to bet that if I told you I'm a publisher, I want to see your work and if it's top notch then I'll guarantee you a book deal. You'd shine the thing to within an inch of it's life. In fact you really would be willing to rewrite the whole thing in second person just like that demon in the back of your head has been nagging you to do. You would wouldn't you? I would.

It's all very well saying 'never give anything short of your best' but frankly there's a difference between rough sketches, what you do on one day or another and final work. You can save those tired lines for sports pep-talks and corporate mission statements. As a writer sometimes your best is when you are strapped to the roof of a VW Combi. You aren't in control of your best, all you can do is put in the time and be open to the breaks.

What Ian Redman Knows About Fiction

A comment made in this interview by Ian Redman in W1S1 struck a chord with me. An editor of a paid magazine gives you time - a commodity that you can seldom buy. He's reading the rubbish so you don't have to (bless him for it - some unrepeatable anecdotes from Ashley Stokes spring immediately to mind that I can't publish).

If you had to trawl through all the free fiction being handed out on authors own sites - snippets and teasers, full novels and shorts - you'd soon develop an unhealthy hatred of all mankind and leave your computer in a smouldering heap at the bottom of the garden. Bear in mind that I have been guilty of this myself, my only defence is that like many things: I hadn't fully thought it through.

As a reader you should be looking to pay a sum so that you get as much quality as possible for what you consider an acceptable reading cost per line.

This should form the reader's manifesto.

I remember a gloomy night when I sat with a friend and we worked out the maximum number of books that we could read in our lives. I encourage you to try this thought experiment yourself, feel free to give yourself a long and hearty life. If, like us, you thought the number was shockingly small then go back and re-read that manifesto line keeping in mind cost is both monetary and time-to-discover.

Cash and Kudos

In the not so distant past, as a writer you had to show that you had paid written credits on your CV to get respect. Now that we've thrown the whole system up in the air it's easy to think that this doesn't really apply - predictably though some of this principle remains.

What you need now is a mix of paid credits and kudos. Being published on a recognised web site that is read by [insert large web population number here] might raise you to the status of a prose rock god - excellent kudos but no cash.

Publishing in a paid glossy printed magazine where the bar to admission is extremely high and there is a cheque in the post is excellent, in critical circles you are going to be better regarded but you will actually be read by only a fraction of the free content web audience. Paid gigs are getting better at this with zines publishing both in eReader format and print.

What About The Cast-offs?

Firstly I think we can take a pointer from C.S. Lewis who wanted all his cast-offs burnt on his death by his brother. What actually happened was some eleventh hour reasoning by a Lewis acolyte with said brother in front of a mountain of paper in the garden, acolyte making off with an armful of material and the rest going to the library in the sky. In principle Lewis knew what was up to muster, the rest shouldn't find its way out to disillusion readers. The reader always wants to know more about the author (alledgedly) right up to the point where they find out something they didn't want to - but now they can't unknow that.

At a dinner I once sat next to a Professor of literature. The old fella was pretty grim and anti-social, not interested in talking to a Plebian physicist at all. Undaunted I interrupted his roast with attempts to engage him on fiction, philosophy and higher matters, partly because I wanted to rebut his attitude that scientists knew nothing of worth outside their field, and partly because I saw him as a vein of purified knowledge to mine - I meant to have his brains and save myself years of research!

In the course of this be-knighted discussion I revealed an unfashionable liking for A.E. Housman. The prof glimmered a little at the mention of the name and said 'Enjoy the poems but you must never, never look into the details of the man.' He knew I'm sure that he had doomed me to finding out and now there is always at the back of my head that image of Housman that I can't shed. 

What about truly 'odd' writing? I'm talking about work that won't fit into any magazine or book or viable alternative. My opinion now is that if I hold on to it for long enough, everything finds a place in one form or another. If the problem is just that the writing is small then surely the new whim for eReader wisps of stories sold for just pennies is an answer to this.

The Exception

What I have to make clear is that Project Gutenberg text, where they give you a vast classics library for free - is totally valid and outside the remit of this principle. It's amazing, if you haven't tried it, please do. Michael Hart, the genius who kicked it off is sadly no longer with us.


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