Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Does Free Pay?

Recently there has been quite a movement afoot from people such as Cory Doctorow, Tim O'Reilly, Lawrence Lessig, and others extolling the power of free.

O'Reilly sums it up the theory behind the movement in his important essay "Piracy is Progressive Taxation, and Other Thoughts on the Evolution of Online Distribution": Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.

The movement has led an increasing number of authors, including Neil Gaiman and last week's guest blogger MJ Rose, to offer some of their content for free, whether it's a free preview or just outright free. In her article in the Huffington Post explaining her decision to offer advance copies of THE REINCARNATIONIST for free, MJ writes: "It's because trying something for free is the best way of discovering it."

The most prominent media experiment in free was conducted by Radiohead, who let listeners pay what they wanted to download "In Rainbows." HarperStudio's blog noted that they made more money from the preview than they did on their last album.

So what do you make of all this? Does free work? And is it for everyone or for the already-famous and successful, who have other revenue streams? Can authors use free to build their audience?

To be sure, free or almost free has been around for a long time in the publishing industry in the form of used bookstores and libraries. I know a few authors who cringe every time a fan tells them they can't wait to borrow their next book from the library -- if everyone did that, of course, the author would get next to zero royalties.

Should authors be worried as piracy, used books, and free downloads proliferate as the book industry moves electronic? Or should they embrace the free?


Mark D. said...

Embrace the free. If the writing or whatever product is worth paying for, then the exposure will see it happen eventually.

As you said....obscurity is the artist's worst enemy.

bryan russell said...

I find "free" particularly interesting in regards to e-books, as it seems that free e-books lead to paper sales. I think this taps into a key aspect of our culture that lots of people seem to ignore when proclaiming the end of paper books: we are a very possessive culture. We like to own things. We like to put things on shelves and tables. We like to collect things even if they're useless. It's satisfying. We get to say "Look, this is mine. My book! My chair! My plastic flower arrangement!"

It's why e-books on the computer aren't as popular as they might be... because it's somehow less satisfying to "own" a bit of encrypted data on a hard drive. It's so unmaterialistic. But a book! It has nice paper, a glossy image, a booky smell, a phone number from that pretty girl you met at Borders the other day... Even a Kindle, I think, is a step up, because you bought a Kindle. What a nice and shiny thing! And now you want to fill it.

People seem to want things they can touch. We're tactile. I own this book, and I know this because it's right here on my shelf and I can pick it up. I've read a bit about Gaiman's experiment with free, and the results are intriguing. It seems people read a part or all of the free download... and then go buy the book. They just spent ten or twenty bucks on something they already had for free... So interesting.

Now, does it change things when you compare a best-selling mega-author and some unheard of debut writer trying to build an audience? Possibly. I'll be interested to see what people think about this.

Jack B. said...

Struggling writers have enough trouble getting income--why give the farm away? A preview maybe --but the whole thing??--nuh-uh.

R.J. Keller said...

I say, Embrace it, baby. It's how I'm building an audience, and it's growing every day. Many of my free e-book readers have gone on to purchase my book in hard copy. Those who haven't will recognize my name if [when] they see it in a bookstore down the road.

Cate said...

Free as in sample? Or taste test? Absolutely. That's basic marketing. Giving away the whole cow for free seems counterproductive.
Especially in the publishing world. Can one not already go into a bookstore and browse through the merchandise before buying?
With musicians, this makes more sense. It's hard to make a purchase without hearing a single song. But you cannot use the music industry as any kind of standard for publishing.

Marilyn Peake said...

I think, like everything else in the publishing world, it depends. For a famous author, anything works: giving away novels and short stories for free, auctioning off a book for huge sums of money to donate to charity as J.K. Rowling did, or anything in-between. For unknown writers, offering work for free is sometimes looked down upon, as people often place greater value on things that cost more. However, I think getting work out there in any possible way is helpful in launching a writing career – whether it’s through a great publishing contract, self-publishing, or free, but that work needs to be polished.

I agree with Cory Doctorow about the science fiction world and how it’s an incredible social experience, with word spreading like wildfire through conventions when fans like a book. Free would be risky, though, if a book isn't protected by copyright.

Crimogenic said...

I have to admit that I'm afraid to give away my book for free. I'm wondering if it works better for authors who are already published, and just trying to build their fan based. But for unpublished writers, can we afford to give away whole novels, I just don't know. Can't wait to hear more 'experienced' writers weight in on this topic.

dan radke said...

Free is fine as long as it isn't perfect. Radiohead gave out so/so audio versions In Rainbows. The people who got it for free and loved it are the ones who bought the CD, too. They wanted better quality.

If I'm reading a free book online and it's awesome, I'm gonna want a hard copy, and I'll go buy it (I don't think anyone wants to read a 300 page book on a computer).

Now, if the Kindle or something else really takes off, and people can get perfect versions of books downloaded to it... then there may be problems.

Derek Gentry said...

Worried or not, I don't think we have much choice but to embrace some degree of "free"--people have just begun to expect it.

I do think that it can work though: I downloaded Charles Bock's "Beautiful Children" while he was offering it for free. If I'd liked what I read more, I definitely would've bought a hard copy...something that I wouldn't have even considered without the free preview.

Of course he already had tons of publicity behind him. Making it work as an unknown would certainly be harder.

Anonymous said...

I don't like it. I feel it makes the 'value' of writing ancillary to the publicity surrounding it. This is why this has been more successful with sci-fi authors with major platforms or that Beautiful Children book that came out earlier this year.

Anonymous said...

With 10% of free equaling zero, what do agents think about their clients giving it away for free? Writers at least get the joy and satisfaction of having somebody read what they've written and hopefully they have a day job to keep them in coffee and toner. But this is the agent's day job. Would you ever tell your client this is a good thing and they should do it?


Furious D said...

Baen books seems to be having success with their free library leading people to buy hard-copies of not only the e-books they read for for free, but of new books by those authors as well.

So free can definitely pay in the end.

Joanne said...

Ann's got a good point. What would you, as the agent, advise your author? Would you suggest this as a good career move? My first thought is that if "free" is only occasional, and part of some larger marketing package, then yes. There's value to building name recognition.

Michael said...

I agree 100% that that author's worst enemy is not piracy but obscurity. Offering something for free seems like a great way to get noticed. But with most things, there has to be a balance. I think it would be a great idea to allow people to read your first book for free before your second book comes out. That way, people can give you a test read before they lay down their hard earned money. And if they like it, you just might get two sales out of it, but you'll probably at least get one. Now you have a reader who will notice you for the rest of your career. The problem with this, though, is that you have to hope that your first book sells enough to get a second. I think it all comes down to the old business adage, "You have to spend money to make money." Giving that stuff away for free could just be part of the cost you would pay for marketing. Since word of mouth is some of the best publicity you can get -- look at "The Kite Runner" and "The Shack" -- the investment could pay off.

Anonymous said...

"I know a few authors who cringe every time a fan tells them they can't wait to borrow their next book from the library . . ."

Wow. I'm trying to get my head around this. What do other blog readers think?

Nathan Bransford said...


To expand on that a bit, I don't think any author wants to see libraries closed down. But when a reader with the means to buy books tells an author that they can't wait to borrow a book from the library.... some authors feel that is a sale that doesn't count toward the numbers a publisher looks at when they decide how/whether to publish their next book, doesn't generate royalties, and it induces some cringes.

Now, some might argue that the author gains by having a devoted readership, and being read helps the author in the end.

Personally, I cringed a bit in the "are you buying books" you tell me from last week because so many people are buying books used and borrowing them at the library. That's kind of a scary thing to me, given that authors don't earn royalties on used book sales and on library circulations. If enough people make those choices it will show up adversely on the bottom line for authors and publishers.

Anonymous said...

Not for unknowns. If you devalue your product and you're unknown, no one takes it seriously. The vaule of it is subconsciously tied to what you paid for it.

Part of what keeps people interested at first is that they need to make an investment, however slight, into the work.

Great idea once you're not unknown.

Marilyn Peake said...

Something happened to me today that relates to this topic. I received an email from the publicist for a T.V. show actor who has written a book, asking if I would consider publishing an article by the actor in my newsletter. This came about as the result of a long process of giving away a free newsletter, beginning in 2005. I started the free newsletter to advertise my own books, but soon started asking fellow authors to write articles for the newsletter to make it more interesting. As I met more and more people online, I asked a new person each month if they would write an article. The Internet is filled with so many wonderful people!! Eventually, I had newsletter articles written by so many talented authors and people in Hollywood, I was able to arrange the publication of two books, with royalties shared among all the authors. The books contained the newsletter articles originally published for free plus additional articles contributed by many of the authors. Wonderful things have happened with these books, including the first book winning a Silver Award in the most recent ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards. A few months ago, I stopped publishing articles in my newsletter so that I could focus all my attention on a science fiction novel I’m writing; but I’m now thinking about possibly going back to monthly newsletter articles, and possibly seeking publication for a third newsletter book.

Zoe Winters said...

Scott Sigler and J.C. Hutchins never would have gotten major publishing contracts, if they hadn't used the power of free, with podcasting.

There is something to be said for it.

A new author is trying to get two things: Money, and Time. But Time is the most important thing. (I would argue, even in this economy.)

If you get someone to give you their time, and they love it, how far away can they be from being willing to buy the next thing from you?

I'm much more open and willing to buy when I've been given free samples. And that's of anything. Food, books, music, cosmetics. You name it.

I realize that you may or may not have ever heard of either Scott Sigler or JC Hutchins, but, I think definitely for Scott Sigler, you won't be able to say that for very long.

I definitely see him going somewhere big.

Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

Embrace the free... and at the same time, demand for royalties.

Once in a while, many of us writers, artists, musicians, and filmmaker NEED money to put food on the table, yeah?

Other Lisa said...

I think it's a little dicey to compare how music artists like Radiohead stand to benefit from free downloads versus how novelists might. Piracy pretty much dynamited the old model of the music industry and where artists make their money - sure, lucky bands still make money off their recordings, but a lot of them make it primarily through touring and concerts and other ancillary stuff (T-shirts, anyone?). At least this is my understanding.

Writers, well, I can't see writers generating income going out on tour. I guess there is some ancillary stuff to market but not like a band would have.

On the other hand, what Michael said about a writer's worst enemy being obscurity. I can see the value in a limited number of freebies to help establish a new author. I also think that publishers might want to consider discounting certain debuts as an incentive to curious readers, or offering them as a package with a more established author (Borders does stuff like this I think).

150 said...

Free is brilliant. You might refer to Penny Arcade, Jonathan Coulton, or Randy Pausch, whose YouTube hit directly produced a huge NYT bestseller.

Zoe Winters said...

Hey Other Lisa,

You make a good point, but I think, especially with fiction, there is still a very large segment of the public who, if given the choice, STILL prefer a print book to an ebook. Even on a Kindle. As long as that market exists, then there is a segment of books that piracy can't really touch.

I guess you could pirate an ebook and then print it. But for the cost of all that paper and ink, and a binder or something to hold it all in, you could have had a NICE paperback copy of the book.

A good friend of mine published her own novel and she had both a free ebook download and a print version for sale. I read a few chapters of the ebook first to make sure I'd like it, but then I bought the print version. And not because it's a friend. I would have done that with anyone. I don't prefer ebooks.

And as long as print books are available, I will always go for them.

Josephine Damian said...

Free or not, I refuse to read books online or in a Kindle (Oprah be damned!).

And if a book store was giving away traditional paper books for free, you'd still have to grab me on the first page and make me want to read it.

My reading time ain't free - it's got to be earned with good writing. If it's good, I'm willing to pay for it; if it's bad you can keep it regardless if it's free.

Nathan don't forget author Paul Coelho is also big on free content.

Conduit said...

I'm going to repeat a few points I made in response to a post by Moonrat a week or two ago...

I believe it's a grave mistake to try and apply the MP3 model to other industries and expect things to work the same way. Microsoft made a similar blunder not that long ago in regards to movie distribution. They backed the inferior HD-DVD format in favour of the superior Blu-Ray DVD format purely to scupper adoption of either, so that they could then usher in downloadable hi-def movies. It blew up in their face because people don't watch movies the same way they listen to music, and no one wanted to wait twelve hours to download an enormous file. The MP3 model just didn't apply.

Likewise, books are a different medium (says Captain Obvious). At the moment, E-Readers aren't too widespread, so free E-books will mostly be read on computer screens. And no one likes reading from a screen, so there's a good chance anyone who likes what they're reading will buy a hard copy. But if and when E-Readers achieve greater market penetration, people will be inclined to stick with the free version they already have. Really, why should they pay good money if they already have a usable version?

A huge distinction between the MP3 model and publishing is that musicians can still earn money from touring even if their recorded music is given away. Authors can't.

There's a lot to be said for an established author giving away early books, particularly if they're part of a series, to stimulate sales of newer books. That's not much help if you're at the start of your career, though.

Having said all that, the arguments in favour of providing free material are compelling. Free content is a core element of Web 2.0, along with the importance of community. It's a question of finding what works for our specific industry. Personally, I plan on giving away a free short story collection, and possibly an unpublished novel. The first two chapters of my forthcoming novel (2nd July 2009, folks, already available for pre-order on are already there for free on my website - I think it's only common sense to offer that - but I'm in no hurry to give away the whole book for free.

We live in interesting times...

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I just read Charlie Huston's book CAUGHT STEALING. All of it. Free. Online.

It's so brilliant that I simply must own all of his books now.

So I think it gets down to quality. Free only works for selling if it's great stuff. Of course, selling mostly only works if it's great stuff, too. :)

One direction we haven't taken this conversation is the short story market. There are a ton of quality free ezines out there with huge readership. It's a great thing to tap into. The markets generally don't pay well enough to justify words=money, but it's pretty cheap for the author as a promotional effort.

Mark Buckland said...

"Anarchist in the Library" is the classic guide to how free distribution is the future.

Jeanie W said...


When writers work for free, agents don't get 10% of nothing; they get 15% of nothing. That's a big difference.

the Amateur Book Blogger said...

You have to read the detail of the Google Book Search Agreement to see the potential of this. As Josephine said, Paul Coelho is a big fan, and attributes his success in Russia as a single example, to 'free' distribution. But free does not mean anyone can download the entire copy and do what they like with it. It is on screen read-only text. You can't copy/paste or download it. So it is free to read, but can't be 'stolen' in the way many seem to think. I believe Google Books will open up a whole new world of e-book distribution. It was agreed yesterday for the US - subject to legal approval. Bet you Amazon is working their socks off right now. If anyone's interested and have no idea what it's about, I wrote about it here ( It could become the iTunes of print.I think it's what e-books have been waiting for. And it will support print too.

Dan said...


First of all, I think that a lot of people who borrow books could end up referring them to someone who *will* buy the book. Though maybe this will also make more people use the library, I think that some will still want to own the book, however, I think it would likely lead to more purchases than had the bum with the library card not raved about the book (and if it's good, it's going to be constantly checked out... so maybe people get tired of the wait and buy the book anyway).

That my friend, is the power of referral, the leading cause of sales of ANY product, and why some (or all) content should ALWAYS be free.

JES said...

Back in ye olde days when sailing ships roamed the high seas, a tiny fraction of them were pirate vessels. I don't see the technological-piracy situation now much different. Even if I believed nothing should be free -- which I don't -- it's nuts to regulate a product's availability according to the exceptions rather than to the vast majority. All it does is p*ss off the latter.

Warner Bros. records (when there was such a thing) used to make piles of money by giving away entire vinyl albums containing one song apiece from each of many performers. Their ads (i.e. in Rolling Stone, National Lampoon, etc.) promoted this as their "loss leader" product line, and it worked -- for some of the unlikeliest artists.

Free samples are everybody's friend, I think. Giving away whole works? Eh, not so much.

eli.civilunrest said...

I think free works. If you doubt it, ask the various podiobooks authors who sold self published books based on their free audio versions, who got publishing deals based on their free audio versions.

Free works for new authors because it lowers your market entry costs to, get this, free.

Polenth said...

I'm a fan of free stuff. It does raise the chance of me buying a book, especially if the author is an unknown.

Lisa said...

Free is a good thing. I just bought a cd (and paid full price) based on a youtube post by the record company. Wouldn't have even known about it otherwise. So, yes, it will pay in the long run.

Jenny said...

For nonfiction, yes.

My latest book, Blood Sugar 101, is a careful arrangement of information that is available completely free on the web site of the same name: .

The book stayed at the top of the Amazon list of bestselling books about Type 2 Diabetes for seven months and continues to sell steadily.

Readers who are enthusiastic about the web site and my blog tell me that they buy the book to give to family members and friends and to keep around as a reference. They also tell me that they get more out of reading the same information in book form than they do when they read it off the computer.

Publishing a book out of material I had made available for free was an experiment for me and I have been extremely heartened by how successful it has been.

But it is worth noting that I did not come to this as a publishing neophyte. This is my 4th small press book marketed entirely through a web-only strategy. Two of my earlier books were Amazon category bestsellers for several years. I went into small press publishing only after having a mainstream bestseller published (in two editions) by John Wiley & Sons.

Beyond that, before publishing the book I built up the traffic to the related web site to where it was busy enough to support a book.

Figure that .5% of your web traffic will buy a book--a similar rate to what you'd get doing direct mail, and you'll probably come out with a pretty good estimate of how many books you can sell.

Anonymous said...

Are you kidding?

Free? Hell no. I honestly consider it a pleasure to trek to a bookstore and buy a favorite author's latest book. To get it for free, or even borrow it for free makes me slightly ill.

This is a consumeristic (is that a word?) society. We value things, we value our own judgment, to get "this" new book I'll forego "that" new purse -- to make these decisions shows what we hold dear.

I may try out a new author at the library first to see if it's an author I'd like, but at least the library had to pay for that book.

Angie said...

100% agree with free. Another commenter mentioned Baen earlier. I have discovered several authors through their free library (and purchased their books) that I never would have tried before. I even bought several books by my favorite Baen author twice (once on paper, once electronically) and that never would have happened if I hadn't been able to try the author's writing for free - I simply don't have the budget to buy something I may not like. If I do like it though ... readers are weird. We'll buy a book over and over again if it gets borrowed, worn, won't fit on the Reader/Palm/Kindle, etc.

On another aspect of the topic: As soon as I'm published my first question will be how much of the novel I can post. While I remain unpublished, nothing gets posted. This has nothing to do with the "free" argument, more to do with the "publishing houses don't want it if it's already out there" argument.

nomadshan said...

Free is good, but I like even more the model that says, "Pay what you can / pay what you think it's worth."

Sometimes, after reading a library book, I've wished the author had a PayPal "tip jar" on his/her website, so I could donate without having to own the book.

As a writer, I'm more willing to give away short stories than whole novels. I've developed a small audience by writing (free short stories) for an online community, many of whose members have already told me they'll buy my novels when they're published. I'm taking them at their word.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I fail to see how giving away an entire novel is more of an incentive to buy than letting people read the first chapter or two. You might capture a few extra downloads from people who might not have wanted to buy your book, but were willing to read it - but who wants them anyway?

Brad said...

I think free can work good. M.J. Rose has shown it can work very good for an author. Offer a free book in electronic form and entice new readers. If they like the free book, they'll probably buy some of your other stuff too. Of course, in order for this to work, the books have to be worth reading in the first place (ie. quality counts!).

If you don't mind the link, I wrote a post about this very subject not too long ago:

Power of FREE

Loren Eaton said...

Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.


Emily Clarke said...

Recently, I discovered a new band. (Hooray for The Cruxshadows!) I discovered them because recommended them as something I might like.

When I went to their page, they had three of their best songs available to download, free of charge. I stuck them in my iTunes list and, lo and behold, one turned into a musical obsession.

And then I went back to their page. Holy moley, they've got a lot of songs available there to just listen to, all the way through. Within an hour, I was hooked, and I dove into Amazon's MP3 store for everything I could find of theirs.

I would never have found them if they hadn't been generous with their work. And they made a good chunk of money off me that day. Not to mention a rabid fan. I've turned three other people on to their music since, and all of them have gone on to make purchases based on the free samples available.

Free works wonders.

Kathryn711 said...

Yes, I go with free. With 700,000 books getting published every year, the trick isn't getting sales, it's getting noticed. If your book gets popular, the sales will come.

ChrisEldin said...

Embrace it. It's not really free because the marketing potential is enormous.
But I agree with Starbucks-the free stuff better be the best. I would have the exact same reaction as she did...if what I read was really good, I'd be whipping out the credit card to buy other works..

Great post.

Vieva said...

I'm trying it. I've got two webnovels going.

So far? I've gotten some massive praise from complete strangers - but no bites. Ah well - keep on truckin, right? At least I got the praise!

Laura D said...

Well, I guess free can get your name out there, so I've tried it on mybloop to see how it goes. Wish me luck!

Elton A.R. Alwine said...

I've often contemplated "selling" the book for free. I think that just having a book out there is worth more than the 15 grand or so I will ever hope to see from a single book is much more worth it.

For me, getting published means a lot more than just money and fame; it's putting something out there that makes other people want to create, and the opportunities that being published would bring with it, such as crossing over more easily into other genres of writing, whether it's screen-writing or comic book writing.

Exposure, you can't beat it. Keep the check...

(However, this is my opinion solely for my first-as-of-yet-unpublished book ;)

Nancy D'Inzillo said...

I agree that Google's recent settlement about how to deal with copyrighted material will have a huge impact on this conversation in that it will allow people free access without enabling as much piracy. That said, I love downloading free things (including free ebooks) and it makes me likely to buy a physical copy of either the music or the book, as well as buy newer material by those artists and authors. After all, many authors have a blog, which is a similar idea to a free book: a sample of their writing to get the audience interested. Giving away everything for free could obviously be detrimental, but obscurity is far worse.

Zen of Writing said...

I'm with free. The only thing worse than not being paid is not being read.

It probably works best for new authors -- why would an established author do it? Fan appreciation?

Reading something free sure beats paying for the latest over-hyped bestseller. I take those out of the library first now. They seldom are worth it, imho, altho I *would* buy the book if I liked it well enough, I did just that with Giovanni's Room and a couple of other oldies, but I haven't recently bought a new book after reading the library copy. They just have not been that great, the ones that caught my eye, anyhow. I seriously regretted a few purchases.

This is a reflection of spending less time in bookstores, tho. If I had browsed first, I would have known better. Ordering online is too easy, and disappointments result.

Madison said...

I just want to be published. I'll take the rest (good and bad) as it comes.

Kimber An said...

"I know a few authors who cringe every time a fan tells them they can't wait to borrow their next book from the library . . ."

Free reads build an audience. Besides, libraries get their new books in a lot later than bookstores. If a reader devours a book and must have the author's next NOW, she's not going to wait on the library.

"Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy."

Agreed. You can't sell anything if readers don't know about you or your books.

I think it's great when an author makes one of her books available for free in whatever form. This way, a reader can get hooked without fear of loss.

K.S. Clay said...

I'm in the "free is good" category. I often shop for books online since my local bookstore has such a limited selection, and I love it when I'm able to read at least a chapter or two before deciding whether or not to buy the book. If that's not available and I'm not familiar with the writer's work already, I admit I hesitate.

As to entire books being available for free, I actually think that can help more established authors expand their audience because someone can read that book and if they enjoy it track down everything else that author has written (which is why it only works if the author has published multiple books). The sample chapters thing, though, I think makes sense for everyone.

As to authors being disappointed when readers borrow their books from the library, I don't understand that at all. Especially in this economy I have a hard time coming up with the money to purchase the latest titles from my favorite writers. It's even harder to justify money on unknowns. So if I can borrow a book of theirs from the library first, or pick up something from a used bookstore, they should be happy because it's giving me exposure to their work and if I enjoy it I'll be buying their next title (I admit I'm possessive about books and I like to own copies of favorites).

dernjg said...

Free works for me in my comics. I have every strip done for and available for free. People still buy the collected book versions, as well as related merchandise.

Lady Glamis said...

I'm letting all the people I know read my book for free.

But it's not published.

Currently, it resides on it's own blog - open to invited readers only.

Hey, visit my blog. Get to know me. And if I like you enough, I'll invite you in.

This is mostly to allow friends and family to read my work while I work furiously to try and get it published to the entire world.

If it never gets published, hey, I'll just open the blog up to the public. It's copyrighted.

Simon Haynes said...

As some people are already aware, I talked my publisher into releasing the first book in my SF series as a free ebook, despite the fact the print version isn't even available outside Australia.

Instead of leaving a lengthy comment on the results (and my thoughts on ebook piracy in general), I'll point you to my recent blog post on the subject.

By the way, as of yesterday the ebook version has been downloaded over 30,000 times. The paperback version is on its third printing. The publisher recently asked me for book five in the series.

Simon Haynes said...

"Personally, I cringed a bit in the "are you buying books" you tell me from last week because so many people are buying books used and borrowing them at the library."

As an author, I'd be delighted if my books were the most-borrowed and most-purchased-second-hand on the planet. Demand is a good thing, because satisfying that demand inevitably involves sales of new books somewhere along the line.

James Klousia said...

I think I'm on the fence for this one. Radiohead and MJ Rose are already established in their respective fields.

I've considered posting a bunch of my short stories online to give people a "taste" of my style and content, especially after they've made the rounds of all the contests. I'd even give away the first few chapters of a book, though I'm not too sure how much good it would do me as a first-time author.

I'm sure that this practice will only come into wider use, so I'm interested to see what happens.

John Darrin said...

My experience with free comes through Novel Action, a used book swapping site. For the price of postage, I get to exchange the books I have for books I want. It works very well.

I have learned a couple of things from this experience. First, I read a lot more books. That's because I put down books I don't like and move on. When I pay $9.95 for a paperback, I'm going to read the damn thing whether I like it or not, compounding my waste of money with a waste of time.

Next, I read authors and genres that I would not normally. It's easier to experiment when the cost is $0.50 in postage.

I like free. I'll be using it to whatever degree possible when my book, Screenshot, is released in April by Kunati Books. They are very progressive in their marketing strategies, and free is one of them.

ann said...

"Free" seems like a good way to get an audience, but it's like opening the gates to sure and utter poverty for non-famous writers. Already several of my books were "taken" by google and are up in full on the internet for anyone to read. No one asked me for permission or paid me. I'll never be a bestselling author but my writing is my living, and I don't know any Joe the Plumber or Tito the Builder who fixes drains or hammers house frames for free. They know that doing it for free for one customer makes their next customer unwilling to pay. (Mur Lafferty) said...

I'm a big fan of what Cory has done to promote Creative Commons, and I've been releasing my work via podcast with CC licenses. It hasn't stopped publishers from considering me and making offers. My ability to market myself and build an audience brought an agent to me (after a year-long unsuccessful search). And I just got this email that said it all in two sentences: "Thanks for releasing [your book] for free so that even late comers like me can discover it. The printed version will probably make its way into a few stockings this year."

Thanks for bringing this up to be discussed. It's a huge issue, but I definitely think it's the next step. I'd rather 40K people download my book and 5K buy it than 3K buy it and no one ever gets a free copy. I'm building a loyal audience and I have faith it will pay off for me down the road.

E.M.Alexander said...

The article brings up some good points, but I can't help wondering if the "free" concept is more likely to equate to a better payout for an artist or writer that has already climbed over the hump of obscurity, therefore negating the whole idea.

Maybe I'm a cynic, but it seems to me that a free download by an obsure artist could get overlooked and if we changed to a system where everyone gives away material for free, you risk no longer standing out in a crowd.

When all the kids on the playground start doing it, it ain't so special anymore.

Ulysses said...

My gosh, what an amazing article. Here is a man who is on the front lines of what all publishers and artists are talking about: the disruptive influence of the internet. Much of what he says is a blueprint, I think, for how successful publishers and retailers should approach electronic distribution channels. His breakdown of the consumer/retailer/wholesaler/publisher model in terms of aggregation makes the whole thing suddenly make sense to me.

But, of course, that's not the question. Free? Sure, I'll give away some stuff.

I don't have O'Reilly's stats to back up my belief that give-aways are effective, so I think I'd be particular about what I gave away. Books that had gone out of print, perhaps. I'm not making any money on them anyway, so where's the loss? The occasional short story and novel excerpt because those things are likely to build interest in the complete novels or in my work as a whole, encouraging people to go out and buy the physical books.

I don't think I'd put an unpublished novel out there unless I had a long track record behind me and thought it might be entertaining or instructive for someone to see how I began, or how even good writers occasionally create a dud.

I certainly wouldn't make an entire published novel available electronically for free. It's too much work, and I'd like to see some financial compensation for it.

Scott said...

Presently, I'm considering giving away my first book and hopefully growing interest for the second one, which I'll feel I've earned the right to charge for. In the reading and publishing world I'm nobody, so why not audition for the people and let them know what I've got?

I am concerned that "free" often translates to "crap" in some circles, but hopefully the presentation and idea is accomplished enough to hook them anyway. Also, if I present it in the right way, I may exude confidence in my product in a similar way "money back guarantees" do.

I'm also giving it as gifts to various directors and producers in the hopes of turning it into a film. Maybe that'll lead to something, dunno, but gifts are nice ways to make contacts.

Erik said...

Strategy is key.

Free for the sake of free is one thing. Just giving away everything won't get you anywhere.

Giving away free stuff that's clearly intended to be free, but is a teaser that gets everyone interested in buying your not-free is different.

It's a matter of being Machiavellian about it. Understand the circumstances and master them.

Lauri Shaw said...

Free sure does pay! Depending on what you're trying to achieve, that is.

Servicing the Pole is in its ninth week right now as a serial, and I'm slowly but surely getting more hits per day every single week.

More people have already subscribed to my feed than I expected. They email me and they say some truly wonderful things about my work. The quality of these responses is very high - people are taking the time to really read Servicing the Pole, as inconvenient a thing as it must be for them to have to read it online.

I appreciate the support. And it's only possible for me to get that support right now if my work is free. And available to anyone who wants to read it.

Lauri Shaw

Anonymous said...

Briane P said...

I think a mixture of free and not free is best.

As an aspiring writer with a few publishing credits, I like the idea of giving some stuff away free -- I post some short stories and essays (and one novel) to build an audience in the hopes that publishers will realize there are people who want to read my stuff and pay me more to put it into bookstores and magazines. (And it's a good way to get feedback.)

On the other hand, I couldn't write as much as I do if I didn't make some money at it, so it's nice to sell a story. But I also get money from ads on my blogs...

... which is where the mix comes in; if people want stuff free, but the author wants to get paid for it, creative new ways of paying can be tried. Like advertising-supported books. If we have TV shows "brought to you by X with Limited Commercial Interruption," why not books? Magazines get most of their money from ads, not subscriptions or newstand sales.

So maybe those library copies and free Internet copies could be paid for with ads in them.

I expect that'll become more popular with the Kindle.

By the way -- I first read a Cory Doctorow book for free ("Down and Out In The Magic Kingdom") and then bought his books thereafter whenever I could, so it worked for him.

Robert Treskillard said...

Thomas Nelson is giving away free books (physical copy in the mail) to bloggers as long as they write a 200 word review of the novel, and also post it on Amazon, B&N, etc. And no restrictions on the content of the reviews.

I guess the goal is to link FREE and PUBLICITY together as much as possible to get a positive bump for book sales.

Here's the site for signing up:

And here's the CEO, Michael Hyatt's comments on the program at his blog:

Since your question and his announcement came out at the same time, I thought it was interesting!

Gwen said...

Well, I do like the fact that there is a present trend, at least in YA, to post a free excerpt of one's novel online. I am ecstatic about it, really, because through that excerpt, I can get a feel for the book before I go and buy it - and if I like it, I always do buy it. Also, sometimes authors post a chapter or something from an upcoming book that hasn't been relesead yet, and then I get excited to read it based on the preview.

I don't do the whole illegal downloading thing because I feel bad for the artists and authors who actually need to sell their songs and books to make money. I buy all of my music from iTunes, any song you want for $0.99, plus you can buy books on tape, too! It's great.

Just A Girl And Her Craftsman Bungalow said...

Aside from the one person who got free songs and went and downloaded more and paid for them--- I'd be curious to see how many people have really done this?? Obscure bands can give away their songs all day long and still never build up an audience. Free is a tough question. I feel like those that have to get it for free will always find a way to get it for free -- they are just that way. They don't want to pay. Offering it for free will not entice me-- but maybe if a friend got it for free, loved it so much that they told me about it, then I might go and buy it. Word of mouth is the only thing I rely on any more. Publicity is paid marketing and I find it hard to swallow.

As a side note... When iTunes made it so you could download one song and pay .99 cents that was really a huge blow to artists. Monetizing each song as if they were only worth a dollar?? That is ridiculous. If you buy only one song from an album that took thousands of dollars to make and market as well as hundreds of hours of a musician's time to write and record that is like stealing it anyway. You should have to pay $5 or more if you only want one song. I want to throw up when I think that someone buys one song from each album out there for only $1-- that is ridiculous. Maybe an author would like it if we divided the chapters by the cost of the book and paid accordingly??? I'll pay you .50 cents because I only want to read one chapter. Well that is how musicians feel but right now they don't have a big choice because Apple decided what each of their songs is worth.

R.J. Keller said...

Apples and oranges. Except for concept albums, music can be enjoyed one song at a time. Books don't work that way.

There are musicians I like well enough to buy entire CDs from. But if I only like one song from an artist, I download (and always pay for) that one song.

Before music was available this way, I'd either borrow a CD (or in the olden days, a cassette) from a friend and get the song from it, or I'd go without. I have never bought an entire album for one song and I'm sure not gonna start doing it now. At least this way the artist is making ninety-nine cents (or whatever their cut is).

Maris Bosquet said...

I originally posted my YA for my betas, and I've been attracting readers who want an intelligent alternative to vampires and drama queens. Some have said they like the lack of hype surrounding the book; they feel as though they're in on a secret.

freddie said...

Embrace the free, I say. I think Neil Gaiman made a very good point when he said (and I'm paraphrasing here) that what an author is trying to do when s/he gives a book away for free is to create a pool of readers. People who got the first few Sandman comics for free are the ones who came back and bought the trade paperbacks and the Absolute Sandman.

mkcbunny said...

Maybe this question is too old to be noticed, but I wonder, how much of this is even up to the author?

Doesn't the publisher determine what, if any, of a published book could be offered for free? If my book were published, and even if I wanted to offer the first few chapters up for pre-reading, wouldn't my published have the final say?

I would think that I'd have control over any unpublished work as a potential sample for building readership, but not on published material.

Gay said...

What I love best about the Kindle is the sample chapters--to be read, at my leisure, not when the whim to book shop strikes. I have 10 or 12 samples on my Kindle now, and whenever I hear about a good book, I don't think twice about downloading a sample. When I finish the two fiction books I'm reading (I'm like that sometimes, when I can't decide between them), I'll look through the samples, decide which one(s) most appeal, start reading, and download the remainder of the winner(s).

If I didn't have the sample chapters, I might not have picked up the books I've sampled (I certainly would NOT have chosen either of the books I'm reading now). One had a stupid title ( The Ha-ha) but an interesting premise, the other wasn't a subject I thought I'd enjoy, but was recommended by an author I respect who mentored me over the summer. I was willing to give the sample chapters a chance... and LOVED them.

So, I'm hooked and reading avidly (too avidly... not getting as much work as I probably should be on novel number two but at least not chewing fingernails to the quick while waiting to hear back from agents on novel number one).

SO, I'm all in favor of a little bit of free. I think we all win.

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