Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Westside Writers Schmooze explores the value of Giving It Away

About 29 of us (give or take) gathered on November 9th for a lively discussion of the potential benefits of giving away our work, aided by a Schmooztastic panel of homegrown “experts.”

But before we got into the meat and potatoes of the evening (or should I say turkey & stuffing?), our brief mention of upcoming events unearthed this way-cool advance tidbit from Lee Wind, regional advisor with Sarah Lawrence of the LA County SCBWI:

The 2012 LA County Writer’s Day will feature an additional half-day of intensive workshops! (Yes, kind of like what was done with the National Conference this past summer.) More info will be available in the coming months. Space will be limited, so Lee suggests acting fast once registration goes live. (Check the SCBWI So Cal site for announcements.)

Just when we thought Writers Day couldn’t get any more amazing, right?!

And speaking of Writer’s Day events – Karol gave a mini recap of the Central-Coastal CA Region Writers Day which took place on November 5th.

Favorite moments included:

· Getting to hear Lin Oliver share about the craft of writing, rather than introducing the next speaker or handing out door prizes (like she does at the National Conferences). Lin also told the story of how she and Stephen Mooser met and formed the SCBWI. Very fascinating and inspiring!

· An in-depth look at the charming and unique picture book, WON TON – A Cat’s Tale Told in Haiku. Author Lee Wardlaw, editor Sally Doherty (from Henry Holt & Co) and illustrator Eugene Yelchin all spoke about their roles in bringing this special book to fruition.

After those awesome appetizers, Charlie took a moment to share the inspiration behind this month’s “freebie fundamentals” topic. He’d been bothered by a nagging feeling that all the old structures of business and distribution of art were dying on the vine. This felt particularly true of books, where the workplace seemed barely just anymore. The corporations could no longer afford to devote editors’ time to editing, nor could they do much to publicize your book once it was released. It felt like some new form was needed, some new way of doing business. Something to do with DIY (Do It Yourself) – getting straight to an audience – generating a smaller overall profit but with more going to the artist. But Charlie wasn’t sure what this form was. Until he realized his kids had already discovered it: they were getting stuff for free.

Somehow, in other mediums, folks were making money by giving their work away. When Charlie’s son wanted to learn flash animation, he found a website that let him download four lessons for free, in the hope that he’d find them valuable enough to pay to download more. (He did find them valuable, and Charlie did pay for more!) As well, the hilarious online site had been making Charlie’s kids laugh for nearly 10 years with funny, satirical cartoons that are totally free. Homestarrunner has no ads, tie-ins, or membership requirements. They make their money through merchandising.

(Charlie even brought in his set of Homestarrunner characters to illustrate, but he wouldn’t let us touch them, keeping them close to him the whole time, eyeing us suspiciously.)

Lastly, Charlie spoke of Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast. Maron is a comedian who had fallen on hard times until he started interviewing other comedians in his garage and posting the interviews on the web for free. Maron’s comedy shows now sell out, he has become a major respected figure in comedy, his podcast is now sponsored, and he makes additional money selling podcast-related merchandise. Giving it away sure seemed like the way to go, and a great idea for a Schmooze topic.

Except for one thing: Charlie had no idea how this related to books.

Charlie was bemoaning this fact to fellow bemoaner Greg Pincus when Greg went into a fascinating and detailed discussion of the many ways to monetize free. “AHA,” Charlie thought, ignoring Greg as Greg continued, “I get it! Karol and I don’t need to understand this topic; we just need guests who do!”

And thus was born our Schmoozetastic panel:

First up was none other than Lee Wind, who started his blog – I’m Here, I’m Queer, What The Hell Do I Read? – in September of 2007 as a “safe space for kids to find out about books featuring GLBT characters.” Before long, he branched out to include posts about social issues that he cares about. His passion and consistency paid off. Not only has his blog won awards, but he was invited to be a part of the Official SCBWI Team Blog (which blogs live from national conferences) and was recently appointed the Captain of Team Blog and the Official Blogger for the SCBWI.

Lee found blogging rewarding both personally and professionally. He loved the fact that “there was no one I had to convince to publish my blog.” He could just do it himself. And now that his blog is a known presence, Lee is too. He’s interviewed many authors for his blog and has gained credibility in the whole SCBWI community. Pretty much everyone knows who he is now and will return his calls (except, perhaps, for Charlie and Karol, who are too small and bitter).

Next was Greg Pincus, who began blogging in February of 2006. Greg’s original blog (GottaBook) focuses mainly on poetry for kids, though he now also has a second blog, The Happy Accident, which is about using social media for good. GottaBook came about because Greg didn’t feel like waiting seven years to get a poem published. He saw his blog as a way for him to get a “seat at the table” and his efforts have more than paid off. His path to success is the stuff of Schmooze legend! Not only does his huge readership (an e-mail list of over 1,100 for his poetry alone) inspire “bigger” authors to happily write poems for his blog, but after a post went viral and the story landed in the New York Times, Greg ended up signing a two book deal with Arthur A. Levin Books.

(It’s probably important for your humble Schmooze co-coordinators to note here – results may vary!!)

Greg emphasized that for blog writing to pay off you have to be disciplined. You have to set up a schedule and keep to it. That way, folks know to when to check you out, and you know when to be brilliant. Greg also made the point that your blog should have a point. It should have a subject, and it’s best if you know what you want to get out of it.

Cartoonist Joshua Hauke spoke next, explaining how, after being turned down by an agent, he “got mad” and decided to emulate the example set by Jeff Kinney (of Diary of a Wimpy Kid fame). Kinney’s entire first book was done on-line, and thus Josh began his Tales Of The Brothers Three website. He posts new comics every Sunday and uses a “Sunday funnies” format. Originally, his goal was to get a book out the endeavor, but Josh says it’s expanded to become about developing “a community of comics lovers” as well. Recently, he’s added new features, like “Ask Dad – A Fatherly Advice Column” – where kids write in questions, and Josh’s dad actually answers them! Josh also has T-shirts readers can buy (through a link on his site) and plans to make a collection available soon. And – for the record – his “free work” has resulted in job offers.

In terms of immediate gain, Josh feels that merchandising is the way to make money. But he also pointed out that whenever he does release a book, he now has a built in audience. They’ll want to see the new adventures, or to have a beautifully bound compilation of past ones (depending on what Josh decides to do), and now Josh knows just how to reach them: on his blog.

Last but certainly not least was Sara Wilson Etienne, who’s been described as “heart-wrenching, terrifying, hot and un-put-down-able”…just kidding! That description is a blurb from Tamora Pierce about Sara’s upcoming debut novel, Harbinger! (We here at Schmooze Central could Not Be More Excited about this – look for Sara’s book on 2/2/2012!!!)

Most posts on Sara’s blog (which, Greg Pincus’ advice aside, was started years ago as a way to “test the waters as a writer” rather than with any distinct goal in mind) now focus on the upcoming Harbinger release. It features new illustrations inspired by the book, which are revealed weekly on Thursdays, alongside Sara’s interviews with the artists. The idea for this way-cool promotional “tool” came when an illustrator friend asked to read the ARC (advanced reader copy) of Harbinger so that he could create a piece of fan art. Sara got inspired and reached out to other artist friends, asking if they’d do the same, and results have been stunning.

The website is also stunning but that’s because Sara cheated – her husband Tony is an actual graphic artist and he designed it. NO FAIR! There’s also a website for Holbrook Academy, the creepy school in her book. On top of that, Sara made Holbrook Academy brochures and Harbinger lanyards to giveaway at events. (The way-cool orange lanyards spread through the summer SCBWI conference like an epidemic.)

Sara shared a very important lesson from her freebie adventures: When considering doing free work, do something that’s enjoyable for you. Free work takes a lot of time; more than you’d think. And for it to be of value, for it to really catch on with an audience, it’s got to be fun, new, different and available on a consistent schedule. That can only really happen when you enjoy the work. And besides, if you’re going to slog miserably through something you’re not getting paid for, why not just get married? (Okay, she didn’t say that; somehow Charlie got into her paragraph.)

Speaking of Charlie (and why isn’t everyone?), he wanted to end this post with a small mea culpa: More than one Schmoozer has gently mentioned that “Give It Away, Now” was both way inspiring and way intimidating. By focusing on the success of our Schmoozetastic panel, we did a great job of showing what’s possible. But we neglected to explore the equally prevalent and important failures that each has encountered along the way. Everyone had tales to tell of false starts, dead ends, and confusion of purpose, but due to time limitations and our own natural boosterism, we never got to those. In the future we vow to give failure its fair due. In fact, “Failure” may be a perfect topic for a future schmooze.

Much more was said and much more was done. The meaning of life was actually revealed near the end of the Schmooze. Sadly, for those who missed it, we have run out of time for this already-ridiculously-lengthy blog post. Sorry.

Just to show you Charlie & Karol aren't completely heartless, here's a little Give-It-Away-themed something for your viewing pleasure:

Make sure you come to the next Schmooze so you don’t miss anything!

Until then…

Keep passing the open windows,

Charlie & Karol