Give it All You Got by Giving it Away: How the Gift Economy is a Great Model for Professional Writers


The primary school my daughters used to attend had a strict non-competitive sports policy. This made their annual sports day a tedious affair. The main part of the day involved a song and dance routine that all the children performed, in which they sang about the importance of ‘taking part’ and patted themselves on the back for simply ‘having a go’.

In between learning the song and dance, rehearsing the song and dance and then performing the terrible song and dance, the children would occasionally come into contact with a ball, and attempt a very non-hazardous obstacle course, in relay, for no discernible reason. Eventually, there was an outcry from the parents and the school agreed to include a few more sports and award a trophy or two.

This led to one of the most embarrassing displays I have ever been forced, through parental duty, to watch. Namely a ‘non-competitive soccer match’. A close friend’s son was chosen to be one of the goalies for this match. To say he was not up to the task would be like suggesting Kanye West wasn’t renowned for his wisdom and humility. Every time a ball came anywhere near his goal he would run in the opposite direction, bend down to tie his laces, or simply gaze in awe at the ball as it hurtled past him into the back of the net.

When the whole thing was over, and I was finally allowed to slope off, I spotted my friend and her son in the log jam of escaping parents at the school gates. Sadly, I was too hemmed in by the other fleeing mums and dads to backtrack and avoid them. So I had to put on a brave face and say hello. As I sidled up to them, I wracked my brains for something positive to say about the poor boy’s performance. I even, for one desperate moment, considered quoting the awful song they’d been singing about how important it was just to ‘turn up and do your bit’.

The very last words I expected to hear coming out of my mouth were “well done” or “congratulations, that’s awesome.” But that’s exactly what I had to say when her son held up the trophy he’d gotten for being ‘Person of the Match’. As unanimously decided by everyone who took part. Thanks to his ‘excellent sharing’ he’d allowed everyone who played to score a goal. Not only had everyone on the opposing side scored, including the other goalie, but, his own team had started scoring own goals so as not to miss out on the fun. That’s why they gave him the trophy

I’ve since come to realise that my friend’s son is a great example to us all. By working completely against the whole purpose of the event, he beat everyone else in the sport of being non-competitive. This stunning victory allowed him to win the ultimate trophy by making sure that all of his team mates, and the opposing team, would also be winners. If we, as writers, were to follow his lead, I believe we would also be more successful in our careers. Let me explain why.

Publishing has always been a cutthroat business, and this has only gotten worse of late. With the rise of the eBook, the continued growth of Indie publishing and the increasing viability of self-publishing, there have never been so many writers competing for the time, attention and, most importantly, money of today’s readers. So it may sound counter-intuitive when I tell you that the single best way to succeed as a writer, in today’s market, is to help as many of those other writers as you can, as often as you can, and as much as you possibly can. However, that is exactly what you have to do.

Publishing has changed beyond recognition since I first entered it at the beginning of the millennium. In fact, it’s fair to say that it’s currently in a constant state of change. As such, the ways to make a living as a writer are also changing, but one constant is coming through more and more. The new economic model, by which we earn a living, begins to resemble less of a market economy and more of a gift economy.

Let me explain what I mean when I use the terms: ‘Market Economy’ and ‘Gift Economy’. A market economy is what we think of as the traditional way of doing business. Someone barters goods, services, skills or information on an open market in return for payment, either wages, or a one-off fee. A gift economy is a little more difficult to define, as there isn’t one universal type. The basic idea behind a gift economy is that you give away everything you make or do, without any thought for what you might get in return. You give this to a community of people who are also giving away everything they make or do so that, as long as everyone is giving away enough practical and important things, everyone involved is looked after and no one goes short.

This is an ideal system and I don’t pretend it’s without flaws, but our current market economy isn’t without flaws either. You only have to look at the regular recessions we have, or the fact that the majority of our wealth and resources are in the hands of a tiny minority of people, to see that. Historical examples of working gift economies include the Kula ring that operated amongst the Trobriand Islands, and the Moka exchange that took place in the Mount Hagen area of Papua New Guinea. More recently, the Burning Man festival, which takes place once a year in the Nevada desert (and at a huge number of other affiliated sites), also operates as a gift economy. No one uses money (in principal) but everyone participates in the key activities and practices self-reliance.

Many gift economies run alongside market economies and, when it comes to making a living as a writer, this is the case. Let’s face it, you’re not going to start giving away all your books and scripts and start expecting people to magically pay your utility bills. Before I go into more detail as to how you operate a gift economy, within the harsh realities of the publishing world, let me look at how publishing has changed for the writer.

When I started as a novelist and comic writer, publishers would pay you a four figure advance for novels and a page rate, for comic scripts. A novel advance, coupled with a few script commissions, was usually enough to support yourself, for three to four months, while you wrote the book. It wasn’t quite as much as I got paid for being a national journalist, and it was harder work, but it was a viable way of paying the bills for a mid-lister like myself. You would even get a little money off the back end when your royalties kicked in.

For all kinds of reasons, too complex to go into here, those days are gone and are unlikely to return in the near future. Publishers now offer much smaller advances, but some, especially Indie Publishers, offer much larger back end deals, sharing the net profits of each sale. This means that sales are now more important than ever to your income. Now you may be asking yourselves: ‘if this is the case, should I really be giving my work away and helping my competitors?’  The answer is yes, and here’s why.

One way in which writers operate a gift economy is in the free eBook giveaway. The aim being to either lure readers into buying more of your work, if they like the free book, and/or leaving a favorable review, which will also help your sales. The fact that so many authors do this is a sign that it works.

Another way that authors gift their work is through giving it away on their blogs, either as an incentive to subscribe, or as a part of the actual blog. This can be anything from a piece of flash fiction, right through to a serialised novel coming out in regular installments. In every case, giving the work away helps to get more eyes on your blog/website which helps drive sales. A gift economy working alongside a market economy.

For a gift economy to work you need to have a community. The initial community to which you can contribute, is that of your fellow writers. In a market economy, they would be seen as competitors, but this is a myopic view. Few book buyers read only one author, most like to choose from a wide variety and are always up for a new discovery, I know I am. One of the best ways to make these discoveries is through personal recommendations, especially from other writers whose work I enjoy. As a result, I end up buying even more books. So do most readers. This means overall sales rise for more authors and publishers.

What’s more, for every author whose work I share or post about, I potentially win an ally who will also post about and share my work, increasing my potential reach. I don’t share the work of other writers because I expect something in return, I do it because I like them and their work. The fact that they often help me in return is a wonderful added bonus. The more authors I help, the more authors will potentially help me and the more we can all increase our sales. But it only really works if you do it with an open heart, paying it forward, as a gift.

In a market economy, knowledge and market information is of an absolute premium and is zealously guarded. For authors, however, it’s in our best interests to give as much away as we can. A huge number of avid readers are either authors, or budding authors, themselves and are highly interested in learning about the business. One of the best ways to get noticed, and to build a readership for yourself, is to write about what you’ve learned from being an author and to educate others. Don’t charge for this advice, give it away as a sales tool on your own blog, in guest blogs, and in private correspondence with your readers. If the advice is free, it means more people will see it and, if they like what you write, they will be more compelled to buy your work and continue supporting you.

One final way that authors benefit from a gift economy is through crowdfunding. In this case, the author is the one who is most in receipt of monetary gifts, but the more you give away yourself, in the gathering of these gifts, the more likely people will be to support you. Also, if you engage in all the giving I’ve mentioned above, the more successful you’ll be in getting the word out about your campaign, be it Patreon or Kickstarter. Once again, a gift economy depends on a community and the bigger the community you build around your campaign, the more successful you will be in supporting one another.

We cannot escape the fact that, as individuals and as a society, we still operate in a market economy. We have many financial obligations and responsibilities and we need to find a way to meet these. I’m not suggesting that, as writers, we should give away all our possessions, paint ourselves blue and start living in our own hand-woven colony of trash cans. However, as technological innovations continue to change everything in the world of publishing, I’m suggesting that the ‘Gift Economy’ is a good model for the new ways in which we need to do business. As things get tougher, there is strength in numbers and the people who were traditionally our rivals could now be our biggest allies, the people who were once our customers should now be our friends and benefactors. If we treat one another right, they will be.

Trust your Uncle Jasp on this. You know it makes sense.


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