Oct 22, 2020
I spent a lot of my life giving away creative work for free. Baseball blogging, short stories, blog posts, software. It was all free, sometimes given away under the naive belief that it would result in exposure. Problem is, exposure isn’t worth a damn.
But the experience is.
So, I want to be upfront about this post and say definitely make things and give them away for free. But do it for the experience. Build and create to learn. But once you’ve done enough of that, you should take it to the next level and sell your shit.
The first thing I ever wrote that people actually read was about the San Diego Padres. I wrote it because I had been writing things about the San Diego Padres that no one read, except this one guy. This one guy read my writing and asked me to come write for a site where people actually read the words that were published. It was there that I found an audience that would, for better or worse, consume the things I wrote.
But I didn’t get paid.
My writing there got recognized and I was offered an editor position where I could help coach others who would write for the same site. I took it, I wrote, I coached, I edited.
But I didn’t get paid.
That effort led to me getting asked to come write for an even bigger site. My words would reach thousands of people. So of course I jumped at the opportunity. I got the chance to write about more than just the San Diego Padres (though did a good bit of writing about them too). I was invited to talk on sport radio shows. I became part of an inner circle on Twitter.
But I didn’t get paid.
After a while, I realized the work I was doing had value. I had gained the experience I needed and had reached a point where the returns of doing something for free were so diminished they were almost non-existent. So, I started my own site. Instead of ad revenue from my writing going to some large sports media company while I got nothing, the revenue went to me.
Now, I was getting paid.
This is where you can run into trouble. Once your creative work has been rewarded with payment, how do you go back to giving it away for free? The truth is, I think you don't. I think you must categorize your creativity. Once you've proven there is a "market" for a particular creative work, you no longer have a reason to give it away for free. This is not to say you never do anything for free again, and this is certainly not to say you can just up and charge people for all your creative works, even if they come from different categories. Instead, what it means is, sell what you can, and as you develop new skills (should you choose to), the work you do in your newest creative endeavor can become the thing you give away for free.
For me, that was fiction first, followed by software. Writing blog posts is very different than writing fiction, but I have always loved fiction. The first short story I can remember writing was from third grade, and from that moment on, I was enamored with the idea of storytelling. But I'd never taken the time to learn—to dive in. So, that's what I did. I wrote, I joined critique groups, I got better, and I eventually enrolled in an MFA*.
*Big disclaimer here: I was fortunate enough to be at a point in life where I could afford the cost of an MFA, knowing full well the investment would not pay for itself in terms of job opportunities. You DO NOT need an MFA to be a great writer.
As I went through my MFA program, I started putting out my fiction. I submitted to literary journals. Most do not pay because, frankly, they have no money. So as I started getting acceptances, I was once again giving my creative work away for free. And that was totally cool. I was learning. I was gaining experience. Remember, build and create to learn.
And that's what I did with my fiction. I was able to put together a collection of short stories that a small press agreed to publish and sell on my behalf. When the book was released, people actually paid for it. Does this mean I'll never release short fiction for free? Absolutely not. But it does mean I've moved past the creating for experience phase. If I were to write a novel (which I have—twice), I would not release it for free. Many people do. Check out Wattpad. That's a great place to build and create to learn. But again, once you've proven that people will pay for a creative work you can put out, you should consider...you know...getting paid.
This takes me into software. Towards the end of my MFA program, I had an idea for an application I wanted to use myself. That idea was the thing that propelled me to get over a decade-long struggle to learn to code. Once I learned, I started releasing software into the wild. Everything was free.
Graphite started out entirely free before I turned it into a business—one that I would shut down after three years. I then built a bunch of small side projects, all of which I released for free. Until I felt confident enough to release something that people might pay for. Once I felt like I had the experience, I started charging businesses for Graphite. I've written a lot about my mistakes with Graphite, but I had sign-ups. People paid me (very little) for the software I had written. I then released a small side project as a one-time fee, paid app. And people continue to buy that app here and there.
Now, I've reached the point where I write code professionally. I get paid for just about every line of code I write. That does not mean I won't write code for side projects. In fact, I do that frequently now. However, I do it knowing one of two things is going to happens I'm going to build something with the explicit goal of learning something new, and I will likely never get paid for what I choose to build, or I build something knowing I will charge for it once it's released.
See, selling things doesn't mean you have to run a company. Not all apps are businesses. But many apps can be something people pay for. And with that in mind, I now will always release my software with a price tag unless I'm learning or contributing to the open-source community.
This whole post was an extraordinarily long-winded way of saying that creating things and releasing them for free is fine and good and normal. But you'd be surprised what people might pay you for.