Tuesday, October 21, 2008

smart kid. (or, internet book publicity)

M.J. Rose gets online promotion. She's giving away her book, The Reincarnationist, for free for the next 9 days. You can download it from her website (and read her well-put rationale) here, or you can get the Amazon Kindle, also free for this window.

As she puts it, she chooses the shampoo and the socks and the cookies she buys and loves because at some point someone gave her a sample.

The internet is a beast that will do nothing for you but steal your content. It's a conglomerate of people, everyone of whom is equally empowered and of roughly equal resources, with differing interests and desires. Because of all the choices available, no one has to waste time looking at things on the internet that they don't want to.

All this means you can't use the internet to make it do what you want. YOU have to do what IT wants. YOU have to offer a good or service that people want to come to you for. Meanwhile, there's all kinds of free content online that can replace books people used to buy. How does an author lure in readers? Give it away for free. They're gonna get it anyway if they want it; if you give it to them directly, at least they'll love you for it, and maybe pass the love on.

M.J. gets it. So does Sherwood Smith, of whom my publishing mentee is a big fan. Sherwood offers her devoted blog readers on her friends-only live journal community an opportunity to beta read her manuscripts and react to them before she submits them. My mentee signs up for the beta read--and then buys all the books when they're out. (Wouldn't you?) Sherwood has also been known to offer a book, A Stranger to Command, for free download on her blog (before it was picked up by a publisher and became a "real" book).* So not only does Sherwood not compromise her book sales with her generosity, she builds a die-hard fan base with her personal attention and eye-level accessibility. Smart cookies.

Instead of going on with my thoughts, I'll open the floor. What are your thoughts?

*Edited to clarify. Thanks to my mentee for writing in.


Kim Kasch said...

This is very interesting and I'm curious what others say. My sons have started an on-line comic, hoping to build up a readership amongst their gaming friends.

I have yet to see how this works - but I'm hopeful.

Anonymous said...

This isn't the first time I've heard of authors giving away books to generate interest in future or other books of theirs.

I'm not sure I'd consider giving away the entire book, but maybe a chapter or two.

What you said about Sherwood asking for beta readers, now that I can see as a workable system.

J.C. Hutchins said...

Another great "building a personal brand" post, Moonrat! I love it.

Anonymous is right: there's a growing subculture of authors who subscribe to the "Giving It Away Is Okay" philosophy. These folks believe that the added exposure and buzz of freely distributing their work is an effective marketing tool ... and by nearly every account I've read, they're right.

The marketplace is ultra-competitive, and authors need differentiators like the one M.J. is using to engage new readers. Authors from mainstream publishers such as Cory Doctorow (a SF writer) have reported higher engagement and sales thanks to giving away e-copies of their books. Neil Gaiman recently reported a spike in hard copy sales of his novels after a similar "free e-book" promotion.

I've seen even more examples of this in the independent press. As someone who uses social media and podcasting to promote my work, I'm often asked to distribute free PDF editions of upcoming indie novels; these authors are hungry to find "brain space" among online audiences, and consider the free e-book method to be an effective (and zero cost) marketing tool.

Anecdotally, the technique boosts print sales -- though everyone using this method admits it's difficult to track its effectiveness. (After all, customers never fill out cards at bookstores explaining how they heard about a particular book.) This lack of metrics makes publishers wary of such promotions. From an old school perspective, giving away a product seems like suicide.

Thanks to my success in the online space, I'm a believer in this breed of promotion, though I think it must evolve further in the months ahead to be truly effective. Providing full manuscripts for free is savvy, but adding even more "value add" content to those PDFs (such as an exclusive short story) will provide even more incentive to download such content ... which creates an even greater reason to reward an author by purchasing a hard copy edition of the book.

It's a strange and awe-inspiring transition the industry is facing, and I think significant (and profitable) change will hail from the trenches -- from authors like M.J. and others who are learning to leverage the 'Net and speak the language web-based consumers are fluent in.

We 'Net nerds are legion, we evangelize something when we like it, and we reward hard creative work with purchases. Free is the new Black. :)

ChrisEldin said...

I think it's a great idea. Isn't that how Apple computers locked in the schools early on? By donating their computers to various schools around the country.

I've been thinking about marketing, and this particular issue, a lot lately.

Katherine said...

To me, books have *always* been sold (at least in part) through free excerpts and free reading opportunities. It's been done for years:
* excerpt series in newspapers
* public libraries
* friends meeting up for coffee and saying, "You MUST read this!" and thrusting books at each other
* public readings, even

The part about doing it on the internet is just an extension of that. It means that your excerpt or free copy will travel farther, and be less under your control, but for promotional purposes, isn't that a good thing?

Conduit said...

I have mixed feelings about this. At the moment, most people don't have reading devices, so if they download a free e-book, they may well buy a hard copy for easier reading - providing they enjoy it. If reading devices become more popular, however, people may be more inclined to stick with the free version, reducing the benefit to the author.

I'm planning on giving away a free short story collection leading up to my publication, and possibly an earlier unpublished novel. I've also been looking at the idea of a limited giveaway of the full novel due for publication in July (if my publisher will allow it), restricting to maybe 1000 downloads or similar. I think MJ Rose has the right idea in keeping it to nine days.

On a broader note, I think people are in too much of a hurry to apply the same model to other industries as applies to music. Bands can still make money off touring if they give away music for free. Authors can't. It's hard enough to make money at this writing lark, and I think the industry needs to tread very carefully in the years ahead. We could potentially destroy our own industry by mistakenly assuming what works for one medium will work for another.

clindsay said...

Free books are always the best way to hook readers. When I worked at Del Rey way back when, we'd set up a booth at the major media conventions (like San Diego Comic-Con) and just give away free books all day. We'd give away the first in a series; by the next day the customer had usually read the book and came back wanting to buy more. We'd then point them to our partner bookstore across the aisle (Mysterious Galaxy), who was carrying every other book in the series. It worked every time.

Free samples works. It's a tried and true marketing concept.

Kate Lord Brown said...

Great idea - I have no problem with blogging/giving daily prompts free, plan to post free stories on the new site, and when (not if, think positive!) the book sells will happily give free samples if that's what the publisher thinks is a good idea.

Joseph Devon said...

Not only is my last book available for free at my site, but you can win an e-Reader if you help me name it.

Free content just makes sense to me, half the books I read weren't purchased by me and plenty of people are willing to pay for the convenience of reading somewhere other than their computer, but the content itself has always been pretty free.

JES said...

I've gone around in circles about this so many times the motion sickness has infected my brain. So much desire for readers. So much fear that whatever MY feelings about free samples and loss leaders, potential publishers will be scared off. (The old advice, you know: Don't give them ANY reason to turn you down.)

At last (I think), I've decided the hell with it. I've got a blog which I know readers will return to if they like it, and I'll do what I can (within limits) to help ensure they find it in the first place. But freaking myself out about whether I'm "sharing too much" (an oxymoronic phrase (which yes, I guess makes me a socialist)) -- well, it's just not worth the freaking-out.

Online it goes. Bring it on, Fate. (Or not.)

Precie said...

Hmmm...since I can only consider this in the hypothetical so far, I'm still on the fence. I would certainly consider giving away free short stories online...and possibly even a chapter or two.

And logically word-of-mouth is hugely important, I think, for a book to have staying power. (I'm thinking in particular of Gabaldon's OUTLANDER series, which is like the Mother of all w-o-m books.) So, as part of a concerted effort to spread the word, having a free book online carries great potential.

But my gut still isn't comfortable with the idea of giving away whole novels for free.

Charles Gramlich said...

This is one of the reasons I'm not bothered by giving away all the Halloween Horror flash stories that I've been writing for my blog this month. I'm hoping it will spark interest in my books and other fiction. Well, guess we'll see.

moonrat said...

it's a hot issue. i've taken a slightly different stance before, but my opinion about this is slowly shifting.

Conduit, you bring up a good point about the future of reading devices and how they won't be such a novelty soon, which means book sales might disappear entirely if we make stuff too widely available. And it's true, authors won't make money exactly the way musicians do. Two good points.

However, I do think that the internet offers all kinds of possibilities for free entertainment, and the "free readers" you're reaching out to with the free download (the ones who would never spend a dime on the book AFTER seeing the free version) are, by and large, people who would not have spent money on the book in the first place.

That said, I balk against the idea of making your novel totally freely available. There are rights infringement issues there that complicate all kinds of things, and publishing is only slowly evolving its industry codes to try to understand the internet, so most companies aren't ready for that. However, ploys like MJ's 10-day download or Sherwood's internet-only book are clever ways NOT to permanently compromise your book sales but still offering a teaser.

I must also say that the position of utterly unpublished authors is a little different than that of authors with sales tracks and publisher commitments. The difference is that POST PUB these tactics are publicity. PRE PUB they're a little hairier.

I think I'm going to do a long, thoughtful, separate post on pre-pub internet marketing. That is, when I have time to be thoughtful about it. Maybe next week.

The Trouble With Roy said...

I offer some of my writing for free, and keep others that I submit, depending on what I feel like. That way, I can tell publishers and agents that I have a readership, but they don't have to feel like all the people who want to read it already have.

Cory Doctorow offered "Down and Out In The Magic Kingdom" for free download as a .pdf file, and I read it for free -- but then bought all his other books because I loved it.

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