Should I Be Giving My Books Away?

Amanda Palmer–alt-rock music star and wife of fantastical writing genius Neil Gaiman–did a talk for TED on ‘The Art of Asking’. The synopsis from TED:

“Don’t make people pay for music, says Amanda Palmer: Let them. In a passionate talk that begins in her days as a street performer (drop a dollar in the hat for the Eight-Foot Bride!), she examines the new relationship between artist and fan.”

Amanda and her band famously used Kickstarter to fund production of their new album, asking fans to contribute a total of $100,000. They ended up with $1.2M, donated by only 25,000 people at an average of almost fifty dollars a piece. Astounding.

Unlike Amanda, I’d hesitate to call myself an artist–it seems a bit pretentious, for some reason–but watching this made me think, as the parallels between music and books are obvious. The digital indie publishing revolution has brought writers closer to their readers than ever before, tearing down the barriers and hurdles of finding agency and publisher representation, of shipping physical copies to a bookstore.

What’s to stop me posting a new novel here, on my website, available to anyone to download for free? With just a PayPal or Google Checkout button next to it with a message saying “If you enjoyed this book, you can help me out here. Thanks.”

Nothing. There are no barriers.

But should I do that? It’s early days in my writing career, but I have a certain amount of confidence that ten or twenty years or novels down the line I might be able to make enough from my current, standard indie pub model that I could make a living at it. (Industry changes permitting, of course.) And if I did make that living, why would I change?

Might doing so make me richer? Would some deep-pocketed fans happily download one of my books, and give me $20 in exchange? $50?

Would it make me more famous? Would I care if it did? Would I even like it if it did?

Would TED invite me to do a talk? (That would be cool.)

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions.

Writers, would you consider giving away your work and trusting in the generosity of strangers and fans to pay your bills? Why? Do you yearn for the emotional connection to fans that Amanda talked about?

Readers, would you donate before you read, or happily accept a freebie? Or maybe come back and chip in what you thought the story was worth once you’d read it? Or maybe you prefer the Amazon shopping experience with eight million books at your fingertips, rather than having to traipse over to every individual author’s website to pick up your latest read.

What are your thoughts, folks?

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11 thoughts on “Should I Be Giving My Books Away?

  1. Note that there’s a big difference between paying for something in advance (like Kickstarter) and paying for something that’s free after the fact. By giving stuff away you build goodwill and reputation, and people would probably be inclined to give you a donation… if they ever get around to it. But most people won’t ever get around to it.

    http://www.softwarebyrob.com/2010/08/18/why-free-plans-dont-work/ discusses this in the realm of online businesses (freemium vs paid SaaS), which is obviously a different situation, but there are probably parallels.

    • Hey, Andrew. Thanks for stopping by.

      You make a very good point, and it’s reflected in the kinds of Kickstarter campaigns which have had the most success. I’m most familiar with KS campaigns for video games, where industry legends like Chris Avellone rock up and ask the internet if anyone would be interested in a new RPG ‘just like the ones they used to make in the old days’. And the internet says ‘yes please, here’s four million bucks’. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Eternity)

      That’s the ‘I want to see this project happen, would have bought it anyway, so will pay now to make it more likely to happen’ side, which only works if people know what you can do and want you to do it. For an unknown like myself, I’d be better off targeting that goodwill and reputation that you mention. Give away enough books–as long as they’re actually good–and maybe down the line folks would be willing to pay me to write them 🙂

  2. First of all, anything by Neil Gaiman’s wife has to be absolutely amazing. Looking at her I feel like they’re a match made in heaven. Thank you so much for sharing this! : )

    • You’re very welcome! Thanks for taking a look.

      I still find it faintly ridiculous that they’re together–it’s almost too perfect. There seems to be a huge group of ‘creative indie’ type folks who love both wildly creative fantastic literature and punk-cabaret with ground breaking payment models 🙂

      And there at the epicenter we have Amanda tweeting photos of Neil while he writes a new Sandman comic. (Internet trips over itself in excitement.)

  3. Several folks have tried the blogged novel + donation link. I don’t know of any cases wherein it actually became self-supporting, except for some more complicated models.

    (For example, if I recall rightly, T.A. Pratt held chapters hostage for X $ amount. There’s someone else who has the book versions available for sale and blogs her titles on her site—then, once it’s up, takes it down and restarts, always with a link to the for-sale version. And then I’ve heard of someone using a subscription model wherein readers pay for the ability to read all stories released on a blog in X time frame, but…I don’t know how that one worked out.)

    Personally, from what I’ve observed (in my own experience and in the experience of others I know), having links to the for-sale e-books tends to bring more than having donation links—but that story was also designed as a novel. I have an idea for another project that would be a fiction blog (wherein a fictional character blogs and such) and I suspect that one will work better on a donation model. I’m still hammering that one out, though.

    In general, from what I’ve observed, it seems to work best with series. *shrug*

    I don’t know how much research you’ve done on it, but Muses Success and Web Fiction Guide are two serialized novel directories I’m familiar with. And I’ve heard that WattPad can also be useful for that sort of thing, though I’ve heard conflicting reports about how valuable it is as a sales tool.

    Er… Is this helpful?

    (This is Misti speaking—yes, that Misti—who’s trying to avoid sounding like a stalker…)

    • (Hi Misti! I did know it was you. It’s your Twitter handle, remember? :))

      Thanks for the links, and your thoughts. Right now I’m very much just noodling the idea around in my head. I’m still getting the hang of the semi-stable model of indie publishing via Amazon, Kobo, et al; trying to get my head around serializing an episodic novel or two on Wattpad at the same time might give me an aneurysm!

      I’ll be keeping an eye on developments, though, that’s for sure. I keep telling people it’s a brave new world for writers and artists, but by the time I finish the sentence there always seems to be another even braver and newer world coming up. Interesting times, and all that.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  4. I’m not keen on the ‘pay-what-you-want’ model. As a reader, I find it a turn off. As a writer, I give all my books away for free anyway, because I’m just not in it for the money. Some people feel that ‘free’ cheapens the item, that if it had value it would also have a price, but when I look around at the great stuff I find for free online (right now I’m listening to some incredible music from ZZKRecords on SoundCloud), I guess I have a different opinion about free. Value isn’t the same thing as price. I do wish the pay-what-you-want model worked because I would encourage people to do that if they wanted, but so far I haven’t seen it.

    • Hi!

      I agree completely that value isn’t the same as price. There are loads of great books for free on Amazon, and SoundCloud and Spotify are doing the same for music. To some extent I think it’s more of a concern for the artist who–unlike you, I guess–would quite like to be able to that full time and still be able to pay their rent 🙂

      Thanks for commenting!

  5. I think the “free trial” type option could work well. In fact Amazon do this for you automatically on the Kindle. You download a sample of the book, read the first 20% of the novel, and if you’ve made it that far you’re clearly going to pay to read the rest.

    You could do the same on a blog. Post the first X chapters up for free (making clear that it’s a trial) and then provide people a link to purchase the whole book. And I think you could make X quite large – even up to 50% of the book. It’s not like someone’s going to read half your story then say “cool, I pulled one over on the author by getting 50% free; but I don’t need to read the rest because it costs $5.”

  6. Pingback: Neil Gaiman: “It’s Time To Be Dandelions” | dan-harris.net

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