Erik Sherman's WriterBiz

A spot about the business of writing as seen by a freelance writer. That includes marketing, sales, contracts, copyright, planning, research - in short, the business end of writing.

Name: Erik Sherman
Location: Massachusetts, United States

I'm an independent writer and photographer who covers business, food, technology, books, media, general features, and pretty much anything appealing that results in a signed check. My work has appeared in such places as the New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, Newsweek Japan, Fortune, Inc, Fortune Small Business, the Financial Times, Advertising Age, Saveur, US News & World Report, and Continental

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

A Note From the Music World

Debra Cash sent another great link - this time to an article by musician David Byrne (at one time in the Talking Heads). He analyzes the current music business and identifies six distinct business models that musicians can consider for their recorded music. It's not that a writer can make direct use of all this, but many of the issues are similar, and the important thing is to see an example of a creator looking at his or her markets with a sharp business eye.

His analysis makes makes me think that there are (at least) nine basic models for writers:
  • Doing someone else's writing Whether ghosting or true corporate work, there is a class of writing in which you sell your skills, but not necessarily the writing you want to do. You might get credit, or not. You might get royalties, or not. In general, you should charge more, because you're not getting much of anything else out of this. (Note that charging can include royalties, in something like a book deal.)

  • Sell all rights for a fixed fee The positive part is that, if you are getting an economically reasonable amount of money, you avoid having to do the resales and don't have to wait for months or years to collect additional money. Unfortunately, writers often settle for sums that don't approach the potential value of the work, and they also give up all control over the writing going forward.

  • Sell all rights for a combination of fixed fee and royalty In this case, you get an ongoing payment stream while, presumably, not having to sell. That can be good if the company obtaining the rights is good at what it does, and bad if they couldn't sell a blanket to a shivering person. Also, you still lose control over the writing.

  • License all non-exclusive rights You don't get as much up-front (presumably), but you also don't completely lock yourself out of doing something else with the writing. It means little if you don't consider what else you might do with your intellectual property.

  • Judiciously sublicense rights License a small set of rights, possibly allowing one publisher to make one type of use and letting another do something different. In this scenario, you need to understand the concepts of rights and how to divide them into sets that can be profitable but that won't preclude each other. (For example, if you license an exclusive in a major city to one publisher, you can't make a sale to a national publication that would require distribution in the same area.

  • Self-publishing, subscription-based Here you produce your own content - whether in print, on the web, in an exectronic format, through skywriting - and get your audience to pay. You keep control of everything, but also have all the production and distribution expenses. It's maximum profit, but maximum expense, as well. If something doesn't sell, you are the only one out money.

  • Self-publishing, advertising-based You produce the material and get advertisers to support it. You see this model in web sites, in newsletters, and you might eventually see it in books. (It's come and go in that world before, although not successfully.)

  • Self-publishing, subsidized You write and get someone else to pay. It's different from advertising in that there is a closer arrangement. One entity, whether company or individual, pays to make the material available to others. We saw this model in art and music for centuries, in which Rembrandts and Mozarts needed patrons or wealthy nobles who would pay for their creativity. There's the potential of losing control here, particularly when dealing with a corporate sponsor.

  • Self-publishing, self-subsidized In this model, you'd give away what you have because what you can get in return - whether speaking engagements, conversions of ebook readers to print copies, consulting work, and so on - more than makes up for the investment you've made in time and money in giving your writing away. Chris Anderson, editor of Wired and creator of the phrase "the long tail," is apparently touting the concept of giving things away now, as you can see in this interview in Media Magazine.
There is no absolute answer for any of us, and there may well be many other models I'm not addressing. The issue is to start thinking - to get outside the "I write and then a publisher pays me" assumptions that may become even more economically unviable than they are today.

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Anonymous Gretchen Roberts said...

Interesting breakdown, Erik. As always, I find a combination of the above is most useful to me, though I admit to not trying hard to sell reprints of the work I own.

January 2, 2008 2:46 PM  

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