Making it and giving it awayYesterday we went over some common issues with "free downloads" being equivalent to "making it". There's two that deserve some special attention: How putting your work up for free impacts your chances of being published and how it impacts publicity.
Publishing: The few people who have had that happen (offhand: John Scalzi, J.C. Hutchins, Christiana Ellis, Scott Sigler, and Mur Lafferty) are the exceptions, not the rule. Each of them busts their ass in a dozen different ways to help make them the exception - and even that wasn't enough for Mr. Hutchins. Mr. Scalzi has said publicly that he did not expect for the novel he put online to be bought - that's why he put it online. Putting the entirety of your work online for free was never a guaranteed success. It's even less so now. Look again at the people who had it happen - they all were putting work up five years or so ago. I don't know of a current (2009-2010) example. Why? Because if you put the book online, it's becoming more of a substitute for the "professionally published" work than ever before - and that's going to keep happening.
Publicity: Yes, the greatest danger to a writer is obscurity. Putting a novel on the web - or making a podcast of it - was new and novel through the mid-naughties. I remember when simply putting fiction online for free got you a near-automatic mention on boingboing. That hasn't been the case for a long, long time. There's simply too much of it out there. (This is why the "busting their ass" in the above matters so much.) But there's still room for free-to-read fiction - just maybe not your novel. You put some of your work out there as a sample. This doesn't mean part of a story - though you can do that - but perhaps a short story set in the world of your novels. Something to get people associating your writing with your name. You get fans, they get to try your fiction out at no risk to them (see Mike Stackpole's Chain Story project for another example of this).
This kind of sampling is also how I became a fan of Jim C. Hines' work. I heard two short stories (one an all-new story, another an adapted first chapter) on free podcasts and really enjoyed them; when I saw him at GenCon, I bought the entire series of those books right then. (You can find that same free fiction right here).
I think that's a lot more common than the other way around - that is, I'm more likely to buy a novel from someone whose (free) short fiction I liked than buy a short story from someone whose (free) novel I liked. But there's another story here - in that there's still a gatekeeper, a central clearinghouse of things to sample, try, and enjoy. Whether it be one of the free-to-read magazines like Strange Horizons or Clarkesworld, a "regular" magazine like Asimov's, or a project like the Chain Story, these clearinghouses mean that I don't have to go find everything myself, and that there's some kind of quality control in place. Just putting your own book on your own website, however... well, yeah. You get the picture. Who is going to know that you're out there? And why are they going to think you're any good?
Yes, this is part of why my weekly drabbles are free to read on the blog.
Honestly, I like getting paid for writing. It lets me exercise my writing (and convention) habit more frequently. These Are Good Things - and I can't be convinced that not getting paid for all of my work is a good way to, um, go about getting paid.