My latest Publishers Weekly column, “Heuristics,” documents the success I’ve had with a pay-what-you-like donation model for my With a Little Help DIY short story collection, and looks at how it might be applied to other books:
But it’s the success of the donations program that has me thinking hardest—specifically, about the value proposition of the donations. Could donations form the basis of a new retail channel for e-books? Perhaps a widget that commercially published authors could embed in their own Web sites and social media pages based around this pitch: “Buy my e-book on a pay-what-you-like basis, and I’ll split the take 50–50 with my publisher, still a much better take than I’d get from your e-book purchases on Amazon, Nook, or iBooks.”
Why not? Commercial entertainment conglomerates understand that “pay creators, it’s the right thing to do” is a better pitch than “pay multinational entertainment conglomerates, they deserve your money.” This is why so many antipiracy ads focus on creators, not on corporate profits. Authors who collect directly from readers have a commercially valuable moral high ground, and figuring out how to incorporate the special relationship between creators and their audiences into a business model has the potential to rebalance the current relationship with the existing online retail channels.
It’s not unprecedented—pay-what-you-like programs like the Humble Indie Bundle (video games) and Radiohead’s In Rainbows and Nine Inch Nail’s Ghosts I–IV (music) have been runaway successes. The pitch from these projects, “pay the creator you love,” is a message that clearly resonates with my readers, some of whom have donated as much as $200. And this can help with the “pig-in-a-poke” problem. Without locked-in channels or DRM-laden works, authors and publishers can put together new titles in a single package to cross-promote their works—new writers could be bundled with established ones, for example. The Humble Indie Bundle has been very successful with this strategy. Readers could even nominate some of their payment for charity—say PEN, a library friends organization, a literacy trust, Creative Commons, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or ACLU.