Friday, March 07, 2008

Authors Who Want to Give Away Their Books

Publishers and authors seem to be coming around to the idea that giving away copies of their product might, in the long run, put a lot of money in their pockets. I've heard of four instances in the past few days where a book has been made available for free download on the internet. So, unlike the fossils running the music business, it appears that publishers are fast becoming aware that good things happen to those who make the public aware of their existence by giving them something for nothing.

Oprah and Suze Orman paired up to make a year-old book of Orman's available for free download for 33 hours last week, an offer that over 1.1 million people decided to accept. The result: hard copies of the book are selling as well as ever and the book is doing very well on Amazon's best seller list despite its age. Orman's financial help books are not the kind of thing that works best on a monitor screen, so that makes perfect sense. I suspect that many of the people who downloaded the book are going to want their own hard copy of the thing. And, maybe best of all, hundreds of thousands of readers have been exposed to Orman's work for the first time. This is all good for her.

Random House did something similar for three days with Charles Bock's debut novel, Beautiful Children, a 432 page book, in a move that will expose Bock to more readers than he could ever have dreamed possible for his first novel.

Avideh Bashirrad, a Random House marketing executive, says the free download, which follows a similar experiment by HarperCollins, is a way of "introducing new readers to the book who may decide to buy a copy after sampling it. After all, in a bookstore you can browse as much of a book as you want to before deciding to buy it, and we want to give people a chance to do the same online."

Bock, 38, says, "The more people reading my book, the happier I am."

Does he fear he'll lose money if they read it free? "If someone wants to try to read all 432 pages online, I'd say "Good job,' but I figure they'd want a copy of the book at some point."

As for printing it out, "it'd probably take a ream of paper and a whole printer cartridge."
And, as mentioned in the article, Harper Collins has already tried the same thing.

There is even one author, Charles Sheehan-Miles, who has set up a site to give away his own work. Why? Well, he sees it this way: "...the biggest challenge most authors face isn't online piracy. It's not people out there diabolically copying their works and distributing them for free. In fact most authors (including yours truly) suffer from a different problem entirely -- no one has ever heard of them."

I have to agree. It's hard to make the argument that on-line piracy is a bigger problem for a new author than plain old "obscurity" is. The whole download took less than three seconds and I do plan to read at least some of the book. It was very unlikely that I would have even known of the existence of this author or his book in any other way, so this has to be a plus for him in the long run.

This just might be one new marketing trend that will be good for both readers and writers. It's good to see so many so willing to take a chance on the possibilities.


  1. I think you're right. Most authors probably suffer from being obscure, and can use any public exposure they get! I'm very glad that so many publishers/authors are willing to give free books out in order to get their names known.

  2. Like you said, it's too darn bad that the music industry doesn't understand this concept.

    Interesting post.

    Have a good weekend! :D

  3. Reader's have always been able to read books for free via the library. There's never been (to my knowledge) an argument that those hurt book sales, so how should this be any different? Just like there are those that prefer buying over borrowing, there are those that would prefer a hardcopy rather than a downloaded one. Book sales won't be hurt.

  4. Heh. I had no idea Sheehan-Miles was doing this. That's awesome. He and I were both reviewed, many moons ago, over at the PODler's website. I liked his book a lot.

    I was thrilled to see so many of my favorites doing it, actually: Neil Gaiman and John Scalzi both did it this month, and Will Shetterly's done it before, too.

    When I decided to make mine free to celebrate the anniversary of its publication, I had no idea so many other phenomenal authors were going to be doing it, too. Certainly makes my contribution seem rather meager by comparison, but ah, well.

  5. Jeane, the whole idea just makes perfect sense to me and I applaud the "pioneers" who are willing to take a chance on something new like this.

  6. Trish, the music people have a slightly different problem, I'll admit, in that their product can be enjoyed as much from a download as from a physical CD or record. That makes them more unwilling to allow downloads than are publishers because books just aren't the same unless you are holding one in your hand...electronic versions don't compare either on a reader or on a monitor screen...thus more sales of real books are generated.

    But all that copy-protection encoded on CDs I pay for or on the downloads I buy do drive me crazy because they limit my use of something I bought...I can't easily shift the songs from device to device so that I can listen in my car or at home or at work, whichever place I choose. That is so irritating that I don't feel bad about "borrowing" music from friends or "loaning" them it childish revenge, but it is driven by the big companies like Sony who treat customers as criminals...

  7. Exactly right, John...most authors, other than the big names, of course, are thrilled when their publisher is able to place 5000 copies in public libraries. It's all about name recognition and future sales...libraries help that, not hurt it.

  8. Thanks for stopping by, Will...glad to see that the concept is working for you and that you are still happy with your decision to offer your work up for grabs that way. I'm going to take a look at it myself now that I'm aware of you and your work...see it's working. I swear it is. :-)