That is one of the hot topics whenever authors gather to drink absinthe and smoke gauloise in Paris pavement cafés with a dusky jazz singer warbling in the background. Apparently she doesn’t regret anything. The rest of us aren’t so sure.
Or the modern equivalent of a Parisian café, which is an internet forum. Bring your own bottle of absinthe. Stick a choon of your choice on itunes. Maybe “Taylor Swift sings the Sex Pistols” or the new Justin Bieber album featuring Luciano Pavarotti.
One the left hand side of the café, we have the no’s.
“Why should I give my book away? I want to make money from it, damnit!”
“Other authors shouldn’t give their books away, because that stops people from buying my full priced book.”
“I tried giving a book away and hardly anyone bought it. Waste of time and money.”
“I worked damn hard on that book. I reckon that my labour is worth something.”
“JK Rowling didn’t give Harry Potter away for free.”
“No-one reads books they get for free. Most of them are rubbish anyway.”
What do you think? It’s difficult because a couple of years ago I was probably on that side of the café. Simon and Garfunkel may have taken some comfort from the whores on Seventh Avenue, but I’ve never paid for lurve and I don’t see why I should give my writing away for free. Some things you should pay for. Some things should be gratis.
To stick with song lyrics, Lou Reed told us that little Joe never once gave it away. Everybody had to pay and pay.
That is what I used to think. Now I am not so sure.
The problem with the “don’t give it away” theory is that it is based on the Writers Big Dream. The Big Dream goes something like this…
First, I will sit down and slave over my typewriter/ word processor/ roll of parchment and quill pen. Like a cut down version of an infinite number of monkeys, I will scribe a novel of such utter fantasticness that hosts of angels looking down from the firmament will weep at the sight of such peerless beauty.
This will be my Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harry Potter, Filthy Sheds.
Publishers and agents will fight over the right to give me squillions. Hollywood will hire someone incredibly sexy to play me in the movie. I will be able to pay off my debts, replace the sputtering hatchback with a laydee magnet Ferrari, trade in the missus for a supermodel, buy a premiership football club, build a mega-mansion with a four storey annex to house all the bookers, Oscars, Emmies, Pullitzers and Nobel prizes that will be showered on me. And I will be able to tell my boss exactly where he can put this job.
That’s the dream, right? One book, fantastic success, readers selling their children to buy it, adulation and celebration?
If that is what is going to happen, why the hell should I give it away for free?
That’s the sound of your chin thumping into hard reality, my friend. You might be lucky enough to live the Writer’s Big Dream. One or two people have done it. The more likely story is a little different.
You send your manuscript to a dozen agents and publishers, and get half a dozen stock replies. Not taking any new writers on at the moment. Not for me. The market is saturated. Best of luck elsewhere.
So you go down the self-publishing route. Amazon will cheerfully accept your book with no questions asked. Then it’s out there! Now the great book buying public will show those agents and publishers that they know nothing – NOTHING! – about good books.
Um, maybe not. That first review is a little ray of heart-warmingness. Then another. But it’s not exactly a flood. The Big Dream is to sell in tens of millions. The reality is ones and twos. I don’t know the numbers, but I would guess that most self published books sell less than 100 copies. And we don’t buy many yachts from 70% of not a lot.
It is at this point that you need to ask yourself the hardest question in the world. Have I written a good book that no-one has heard of? Or have I written a not very good book that people don’t want to read?
This next bit is going to hurt. I do apologise in advance, but it needs to be said. There is a very good chance that your book isn’t as good as you think it is. The last two self-published books I saw had grammatical mistakes in their blurbs. I’ve reviewed books with more than a dozen serious writing mistakes on the first page.
Put it this way. There is a pretty good chance that you own a camera. We have cameras built into phones, ipads and computers these days. We can all take a picture, right?
Sure, but can you take a picture like this one:
Or this one?
I am guessing that’s a “nope”. These are taken by professional photographers with years of training and experience. Their cameras are infinitely better than the ones that you or I have. These pictures would probably have taken hours to set up. We could learn to take better photographs, but in all likelihood we are not at this level of skill yet.
So why, why, why do people think that they can bash out their first novel and achieve results to compare with people who have been writing for decades?
With very few exceptions, everything worth doing on this planet gets better with practice.
Let’s say that you get over that hurdle. Let’s say that you have written a good and readable book. Your reviewers are saying that it is well written. People like it.
The problem then is that people need to know your book exists. The market for books is completely saturated at the moment. There are over 700,000 books published every year in the US alone. Around 130 million books have been published in the history of mankind. And, thanks to the internet, huge numbers of books are available to buy. Paper books wear out, but ebooks hang around indefinitely. You are not just competing with books published at the same time as yours. You are also competing with last year’s books, and the year before that, and so on.
And that’s where free giveaways come in. What every writer needs to achieve is critical mass. The more readers we get, the more reviews we get. And (assuming our book isn’t awful), that drives more sales.
The other sad fact of life is that it is very hard to make a living from just one book. Readers tend to follow authors that they have enjoyed. The new classic way to do this is to write a series of books, so that the first hooks readers into the second and then the rest of the series. But it also works when you haven’t written a series. Readers will bounce from one book to another if they like the way that the author writes.
Giving some books away for free can help you to sell more books at full price. It’s a simple as that.
At least, that’s the theory. To test it, I am going to give away my first book “Love, Death and Tea”. Between 8th October and 12th October 2015, it will be totally free for download at Amazon.
I have given this book away before and managed a so-so total of 250 giveaways. But that was with no publicity other than spreading the word through friends and a couple of forums. This time I am paying over $200 to publicise the giveaway on around 50 websites. That includes one website costing $100 – freebooksy.com.
How many giveaways will I make this time? Will I see a surge in sales for my other books?
I haven’t got a clue. I am making this up as I go along. Whatever happens, I will post the results here for all to see.
And, naturally, I am following it up with a new book in October – “To Know the Dark”. And I’m working on a sequel to Love, Death and Tea.
You see, I’d really like the Writer’s Big Dream. I think it’s something you have to work for and earn, not something that falls into your lap simply because you’ve written one good book.