So, the inestimable Chuck Wendig managed to get a lot of panties in a bunch by suggesting that writers should get paid. Most of the responses were from people who were still entranced by the novelty of the power of free, and they made predictable arguments about promotion, brand building, making connections and so on. Sadly, very few of them read what Chuck actually wrote, which more or less boiled down to “your writing has value, treat it as such.” I’m pretty comfortable with that position.
More impressively, the folks who Chuck raised the point to took it seriously, and are now considering ways to try to create a model that acknowledges the value of the writers. I’m not going to weigh in over there, partly because I’m not a writer, but more because my answer is TOTALLY CRAZY.
So, of course, I will share it here.
Ok, so say you want to publish a collection of writing. A magazine or small book. First, sit down and do the absolute basic business plan of “It will be X pages and cost me Y dollars to print and distribute Z units”. Do it through Lulu or Amazon’s service or some other POD shop. You will need that much seed money, hopefully not to much. Scrape it up.
Put out a call to writers and supporters through whatever channels you see fit and start getting things together, and as you do, be absolutely transparent about your anticipated costs and business plan. Put out a call for patrons and allow them to buy shares in the project for a fixed cost (how much? See below). At some point after the book has been released for, say, 4 months, you will buy back all shares at a price equal to the amount of money on hand after costs (which you have transparently revealed) are covered. Pretty simple, and I expect anyone who invests in this fashion knows they’ll lose some money, but they probably won’t be doing it as an alternative to bonds.
Now, sit down and figure out a few things, notably how much writing you expect to get, and how much you would pay for it in a perfect world. You can be a little approximate onhe payment – if you want to price it per word, great, but if you just ballpark it to $x for flash fiction or poems, $y for stories, that’s fine.
With this information, it’s time to price your shares. $x is an excellent starting point, but every project needs to decide for itself. A highish share price probably means fewer, more committed supporters. A low price means more shares but also more voices. If you’re going to run things with shareholder input (you don’t have to, but I’d suggest it) then the ultimate number of shareholder is an issue, and for reasons of bookeeping, fewer shareholders will probably make your life a little easier. Once you have the price, let the world know (and as I keep underscoring, do so as transparently as possible). Maybe you get some sales, maybe you don’t.
See, the trick here is that once you’ve got a price, you pay the writers in shares in keeping with their contribution. No, it’s not cash, and in the end the shares may not be worth a lot, but there is always a possibility of success (which is nice). More importantly you are acknowledging the *value* of the writing as concretely as you are cash contributions. The writer’s shares will absolutely dilute the value of the purhased shares, and if the project makes very little money, everyone sees very little return, but so long as costs are covered, it’s no worse than it you’d just done it as a lump in the first place.
Initially, this may seem like a lot of bookeeping, but it’s really something that requires little more than a spreadsheet and a shared understanding that paypal (or whatever service you use) is going to take a small bite out of every transaction. The important thing is to pay everything out. There will be a temptation to allow people to roll investments forward into the next project, but that is how things explode in complexity. Keep it simple unless you’re committed to getting all businessey about it. The simple solution is best.
Now, this leaves all manner of questions on the table regarding how to manage the project, and those are better answered by the individual. Personally, I think there’s a lot to be said for opening up decisions to discussion by shareholders – people have a much different perspective on issues like paper vs. e-pub or how much to spend on a cover artist when they have money on the table. Since these shareholders will, naturally, be people of great intellect and discriminating taste, they probably have something worthwhile to say as well.
Ultimately, this model may or may not work for any given project, but I want to float it out there specifically to broach the idea of allowing writers to ‘buy in’ with their writing. Obviously, it’s a different model than paying them outright – but if you’re not in a position to pay straight cash and you want to do something a little more concrete than straight profit sharing (which, I fully concede, this ends up looking like) then give an approach like this some thought.
1- This does not demand that they will be your final printer, you’re just establishing a baseline.
2 – If you CAN’T cover this minimal cost then doing a collection of other people’s work may not be the best plan to pursue. Yes, you can gather contributions, kickstart or the like, but doing so depends that you have an actual product, which in turn depends on other people. If you can make it work, great, but it’s going to be a juggling act.
3 – If you’re really committed, use your seed money to buy shares. If you’re conservative, treat your seed money as a debt to be paid back. Either approach works, but just don’t be secretive about which it is.
4 – Life will be a lot easier if Y is divisible by X, for reasons that will be apparent.
5 – Encouraging participation also underscores the idea of ownership that comes of a share based model, which in turn underscores the value of the author’s contributions.
6 – Chuck asked me a pretty reasonable question: “How is this better than the normal model of simply paying the writers up front?” My answer is this: Paying writers what they’re worth up front can be more expensive than might be reasonable for a small project. That means the alternatives are often to pay them less than they’re worth, or nothing at all. “Less than they’re worth” is usually the necessary compromise, but this approach at least allows for the possibility that the writers might get their fair share.