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?
Kimber An says
“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 says
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).
Free works for me in my comics. I have every strip done for http://www.DearPirate.com and http://www.Expertcomic.com available for free. People still buy the collected book versions, as well as related merchandise.
Lady Glamis says
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 says
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 says
“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 says
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 says
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.
“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.
email@example.com (Mur Lafferty) says
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 says
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.
Briane P says
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 says
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!
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 says
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 says
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 says
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.
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.
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.
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.