04 Mar

Free ebooks, three points, and a whole lot of rambling

Three notes on free ebooks.


Neil Gaiman gave away American Gods for online reading. He notes:

I was surprised by a few emails coming in from people accusing me of doing bad things for other authors by giving anything away — the idea being, I think, that by handing out a bestselling book for nothing I’m devaluing what a book is and so forth, which I think is silly.

Lynn Viehl has also noted that she’s been attacked (see her Dec. 19th post) for giving away novellas and samples on her website by writers who accuse her of much the same. If you’ve followed some of the debates within SFWA (the Science Fiction writers organization), you’ll have picked up that one of the great big fractures revolves around a dichotomous view of the subject as well, where some people view Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross as the anti-christ(s) for giving away free eBooks.

Now, I’ll be curious to see if various detractors will publicly say the same things about Neil Gaiman as they have about Cory and Charles (laughs). They’ve been on the attack train against authors who do this stuff for so long, but I imagine as authors like Vernor Vinge and Neil Gaiman start using the tactics it must be getting a little freaky for them.


Here, let’s look at who else give novels away for free at this point:

Vernor Vinge: lets you read Hugo winning novel Rainbows End online.

Chris Roberson: released his novel Set the Seas on Fire, a prequel to Paragea, until it was picked up for publication (not a bad route!).

Peter Watts: has put his entire backlist up as creative commons eBooks, free to read. According to various sources, Blindsight’s free release basically got it the attention it needed to get on awards ballots and in the stores after a low initial pick up.

Nick Mamatas: Move Under Ground is available under a creative commons license.

Mike Brotherton: released his first novel, Spider Star STAR DRAGON, as a Creative Commons download.

Kelly Link: has Stranger Things Happen as a free download, a book in its fifth printing (or maybe more…).

Karl Schroeder: released Ventus as a free cc download as well.

Today, as I post this, I see that Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird by Richard Kadrey as a free download.

These are not ‘information wants to be free’ people, but entrepreneurs interested in gaining a wider reach for their fiction. They’re disparate in politics, technology outlooks, and so on. They’re not part of some e-conspiracy, but a range of working writers in today’s field.

Whole publishing companies are starting to experiment. Baen is well known for giving away the first novel or couple novels of a series (bet you can’t read just one), you can check out their free library. All indications from Eric Flint’s comments are that these drive sales up throughout the backlist.

So far that’s been dismissed as something being unique to Baen readers.

But now Baen isn’t alone. Solaris is gaining attention for Chris Roberson’s The Dragon’s Nine Suns by posting new chapters to Chris’s novel Three Unbroken every week.

Neil Gaiman and HarperTorch of course are putting up American Gods for free, as I mentioned at the start of the post.

Tor is finding something of value in free giveaways as well. They’re starting up a new website soon, and to get people on their newsletter they’re sending a free ebook each week to people who signup. The list of names so far has included Brandon Sanderson, John Scalzi, Robert Charles Wilson, and next week Mercedes Lackey.

John talks about his experience here. It seems to be a positive one:

So, according to BookScan, in mass-market paperback:

The Ghost Brigades sales are up 33% from the week prior;

Old Man’s War sales are up 20% from the week prior;

So a similar effect with Tor books as with Baen books, although John is just one piece of data.


So, Tor is giving away free eBooks by Tor authors. Any chance I’m in that lineup?

Yeah. At some point in the next couple weeks, if you’re signed up for the Tor newsletter via www.Tor.com, Crystal Rain will show up in your inbox.

Not surprisingly, I have much the same reasons as John as being interested in doing this, as he states here, I want to see how it will affect sales on the book and I’m not too worried about it having a negative effect.

Why is that?

Well, here’s the thing, in today’s publishing world books have a pretty short shelf life. It’s one of things I’ve learned. Crystal Rain came out in February 2006. The hardcover was on shelves for about 3 months throughout the country, but after that, it was a pretty sharp drop off in availability.

A year and a bit later the mass market paperback came out, and even though that has lingered in stores longer, the difference between the first 4 months it was out, and now, is pretty extreme. It really looks like a long tail. So anything to get it some attention, that would be good. Many mid-list genre authors tell me that 3-4 years after a book comes out it’s basically non-existent on the shelves.

But do I think giving away free eBooks is an automatic success runaway? Not anymore than I think starting a blog is a sudden magic powder for success, as John points out that Michelle Sagara points out that Jo Walton points out, it isn’t the case. People who’ve been blogging 10+ years and building up a large audience have what is called by marketing experts, a platform. A platform from which to shout and distribute and encourage. It’s that platform that often makes a big difference. But a lot of people mistake the platform with the technology (ie: give away a free ebook/make millions. Start blog, make millions). They miss the hard work part.

One reason Baen free giveaways work is that lots of people read Baen. Baen has a platform (lots of readers). People who give away books on a site where 5 people read them don’t have that. As a result, that doesn’t work so much (there may be outliers, sure, but I wouldn’t bet a year’s worth of hard work [which is what a novel often is for many] that it was). One reason Cory gets a lot of attention is that he has millions of people a day listening. When Peter Watts got his free eBook launched into general attention, it happened because Cory, Scalzi, and others with large platforms who knew Peter pointed out the release. They lent him their platforms (Cory and Scalzi both graciously pointed out the free 1/3 of Crystal Rain back when I launched that, which was very helpful to spreading buzz and word about CR, but you can’t depend on that per se, forever).

I have maybe 1,000/day visiting this whole site, so my offering the first 1/3 of my books has resulted in somewhere around 5,000 downloads. Not exactly turning the world upside down, but it’s had a nice impact as I get a number of emails from people who got suckered into buying the book after getting hooked on a few chapters. The idea of a free eBook showing up in the inbox of what I would presume would be tens of thousands of Tor readers signing up is a positive in my book, and a chance to borrow a huge platform… that’s a ‘no duh’ in my book.