In 2008, I decided to become a podcaster. I had been listening to podcasts like I Should Be Writing, The Survival Guide to Writing Fantasy, Escape Pod, Pseudopod and others for a while, and appreciating this new form of entertainment. Audio books, customizable news feeds, a wide open world of creativity and content, and free, free, FREE! I was in heaven.
In those days, I was also still aspiring to be a professional writer, but I had a one-book deal for Heart of the Ronin. So in the months before Heart of the Ronin came out, I was brainstorming ways I could market it. I was steeped in the stories of the success of Scott Sigler, J.C. Hutchins, and a few others who had successfully converted their podcast novels into real publishing deals. I was also a techie and minor audiophile, so when the idea came to me to podcast HotR, it felt like the right thing to do.
Like most podcasters, I learned as I went. I discovered the difference between a $20 microphone (Microsoft USB headset) and a $90 microphone (Apex 181 Condenser USB). I built a small, collapsible sound booth to reduce environmental noise. I learned the rudiments of audio production, blogs, RSS feeds, Audacity, iTunes, and Podiobooks. I wanted to give listeners a professional sounding product. I put out my Donation button, the equivalent of the open guitar case on the sidewalk in front of me.
The payback for me was that I learned how to do some pretty cool stuff. I enjoyed putting the episodes together, putting them out there, promoting them on podcasts I’d been listening to for years. I received a lot of really great feedback from listeners. I promoted the book release through the podcast, and I think largely because of this marketing push, the hardcover edition sold out its first print run in about two weeks. So, great news there, back in 2009.
Since then, I have made the transition from lowly grad student to full-time writer. When E-Reads picked up my swashbuckling fantasy novel Rogues of the Black Fury, podcasting it was a no-brainer. I brought a couple of talented friends on board, Danielle McCarville, who had narrated Heart of the Ronin, and professional actress Mary Rodgers to lend their lovely voices. I discovered the difference between an $80 microphone and a $250 microphone (Shure PG42 Condenser USB). And in the case of this novel, Rusk is a character with some mighty big boots to fill. I had to perform (gasp, cringe)–which I must tell you was no easy leap for an introvert like yours truly.
A couple of weeks ago, I completed the final episode of Rogues of the Black Fury. Both podcast and book have gotten some good initial reviews.
There is just one problem.
I started looking at the numbers, and what came over me was this overwhelming sense of bittersweet accomplishment.
As of this writing, Heart of the Ronin has over 275,000 downloads (30 episodes) from Podiobooks.com since it debuted in October, 2008, with several thousand more in the second blog-based feed. Rogues of the Black Fury (32 episodes) has just over 27,000 since August, 2011. At least 10,000 people have been listening to my work, enjoying it, sending me a few nice comments, asking after the next book, etc. This makes me happy.
What makes me unhappy is that I have yet to receive enough support to pay for my equipment, and the sales numbers of the novels themselves have been nowhere near these totals. Heart of the Ronin’s great start had fizzled quickly. I struggle with revealing this, but I’m not going to paint some grandiose picture that I’m making tens of thousands of dollars on these efforts. It’s more like tens of dollars.
Here are some thoughts from the irascible Harlan Ellison that are near and dear to my heart. Give this a quick look before moving on.
Thoroughly vaporized? Okay.
So whose job is it to pay the writer? Publishing companies? No, they get all their revenue from book sales, and then pass a percentage of that revenue to the authors. That means: all revenue comes from readers.
Similar to self-publishing, podcasting just cuts out the middle man.
I’ll admit, it took way too long for me to start donating to those podcasts I came to love. I generated some standard excuses centered around money. I was unemployed back then, and then I became a dirt-poor, eating-generic-pork-and-beans-from-the-can grad student. I was too broke. But I could still go to a movie occasionally. Don’t things that really matter require real commitment? After considerable reflection, I have come to the conclusion that the reason I waited so long to start donating is because I expected that the podcasters were getting adequate donations from other folks. I believed that someone else would take up my slack.
What I’m describing is a real sociopsychological phenomenon called diffusion of responsibility. This occurs in groups as small as three people and increases with group size; the result is that individuals in the group assume that others are responsible for taking care of things or have already done so. Thus, each individual does not perceive it as his or her responsibility to take action. This is even more likely to occur in conditions of anonymity, such as around Ye Olde Web. “I’m some anonymous listener, and while I really enjoy this [whatever it is], someone else will take responsibility.”
The internet is infinite, or so we think. An audience is not; an audience is a finite group of individuals deriving enjoyment and value from the piece of art, whether it’s a story, a song, a film, or whatever. If we have a concert hall full of unidentifiable people with an anonymous donation box, chances are, only a small fraction will actually contribute.
I’m reminded of all those public radio and TV fund-raising spiels that come along a couple of times a year. “How much is it worth to you to have [Program X] in your life?”
So are readers and listeners voting on my work with their wallets, or do they simply not realize (or believe) that writers deserve to be paid for their efforts, or does the fact that I offered two complete novels for free absolve listeners of all expectation of having to offer recompense, or have we as a culture so devalued artistic work, are we so deluged with cheap or free content, that we’re devaluing ourselves?
Because I am a full-time writer, because this is my living, because this writing I’m doing is more than just a weekend creative endeavor, it is a business, I must start asking the question: is this a viable business model?
Heart of the Ronin took some four years to write. Rogues of the Black Fury took two years. It took roughly 80-100 hours to record, edit, and release 62 episodes of podcast novel, plus time spent recording promos and hitting the bricks to get the word out. Is offering those works for free doing justice to myself and the quality of the work? Should I be happy just doing it for the enjoyment? That’s the difference between a hobbyist and a professional.
I don’t regret either of these efforts, not for a second. They were a ton of fun to put together. Maybe I should be trumpeting how being a podcaster is awesome (and it is), how it’s a fantastic new form of entertainment (and it is), how my books are awesome (at least my agent, myself, and my invisible llama think so), how I’m delighted to have touched listeners in some way (and I am), but then I run up against the fact that I’m a professional. Is offering my work for free serving my career, or is it devaluing what I do?
I don’t know the answer, and I would love to hear your thoughts.