Pub Rants

Communicate Before You Offer For Free

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STATUS: Been reviewing a film contract which pretty much makes me cross-eyed by the end of the work day.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? OVER THE RAINBOW/WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole

Before you head off to post a free novel on your website, you might want to spend some time learning about the pros and cons of doing so.

In my opinion, yesterday’s post is probably most useful for writers looking to break in. If you are already traditionally published and have a publisher, this could be of value but you need a clear plan and the blessing of your publisher.

There are some contractual things you need to keep in mind before you post stuff for free or embrace Creative Commons or pursue other online experiments. Since the beginning of the year, author Cory Doctorow has been chronicling his experiences with free electronic books in Publishers Weekly.

If you haven’t had a chance to read his monthly columns, I think they are definitely worth a read. Here is a link to get you started. There’s no need for me to repeat what Cory says in his articles and so much more eloquently.

One of the things I want to highlight is that Cory is embarking on this documented journey with the full knowledge and support of his publisher Tor/Forge. As a published author, you have terms in your traditional publishing contracts that you must abide by. Posting things for free could get you in trouble. For example, a non-compete clause. Depending on how that’s worded and what the parameters are in your contract, uploading free material could be deemed a competing work with what your publisher is currently publishing for you. Or it might not.

My suggestion? Be sure to have full communication with your agent and your editor about your desire to explore these kinds of avenues. My guess is the publishers are keen to see what authors can do with creative endeavors but would be less enthusiastic if kept out of the loop.

17 Responses

  1. Jill said:

    I keep hearing stories (but have ever seen concrete proof) of authors giving away a freebie and still boosting their sales. I guess it could work for a newbie, but I’d be reluctant to try this, for many reasons, not the least of which is that it seems it may devalue the work. A chapter or two might be worth putting out there gratis, but I doubt I’d go beyond that. For now…


  2. Cole Kleinschmit said:

    Funny you mention Doctorow! I’d never heard of him before today, but that’s the third time in 24 hours I’ve seen his name come up in relation to his distribution methods. The other blogs were politics related (rather than literary). Seems he’s become the poster child of non-software Creative Commons/GPL use.

  3. Shelley Watters said:

    I understand if you are a published author with an agent that you would want to avoid posting your work for free on your website, but what about for unpublished authors?

  4. Empress Awesome said:

    But why would you post the entire novel online for free? Don’t you want people to buy it? Wouldn’t it be better to post related short stories and such online and save the novel for print? Just wondering.

  5. Kelly said:

    I get nervous when I see what some authors/writers are doing online, and I’m not even the one doing it! I don’t do ANYTHING without running it past my agent.

  6. Jeff King said:

    I might change my opinion in the future, but for now I wouldn’t offer anything for free…

    But your advice is sound and I thank you for it.

  7. Joe Andrews said:

    Why are writers so willing to devalue their work to zero? It seems an uninspired way to get noticed when a huge number of effective marketing texts exist that could help a writer gain exposure. Have we gotten so lazy that we’re willing to stoop to starving for fame instead of doing our homework and building something creative enough others want to purchase it?

  8. Eridani said:

    One thing to keep in mind is that Cory Doctorow has a large and diverse following that is composed of very active (and activist) loyalists all around the globe. Even if you’ve never heard of the man, that article gives you at least a hint of the breadth of his personal influence. The success of an endeavor like this by a man who is a hero of the Internet isn’t necessarily indicative of how it’d be for your average author.

    He’s also subcontracting many pieces of the pie to experts. The fact that he gets this work for free by highly qualified people is extremely relevant. The average author won’t have the kind of support network Doctorow has available to him.

    All in all, these articles are an interesting look at what a DIY might look like, but to me it’s analogous to Bill Gates deciding he’d like to independently publish a piece of software or Garth Brooks putting out an album via his own label. Doctorow may not be a rockstar, but in this kind of endeavor he might as well be.

  9. Rik said:

    All my poetry is published online under various Creative Commons licences – but then it’s poetry, which has no market.

    Did you know that poetry books sold in the UK are considered to be successful if they sell more than 500 copies? (source: Chris Hamilton-Emery, Salt Publishing).

    Novels are a different game. Free samples and chapters are one thing, but I’m not ready to give an entire novel away for free (except to close friends, and my Mother, of course).

  10. Jeff Baird said:

    An interesting Dilemma! If you have written a second book in a series and tried the query process without success, is giving the first one away a viable means to a published second book and money? What if as a new writer you are working on a new story and use the same logic? Perhaps Sara or Kristin would like to comment about a Query that lists (1000 downloads of first book on web site)! Would that matter to them if it wasn’t published?

  11. India said:

    I’m a published author, and I don’t think I’d put up an entire novel for free — but on my website, I do put up a couple of full text short stories (the rights reverted to me and the anthology editor said sure, it was fine with him). And I put up about the first 50 pages of each of my novels. I figure that’s enough for a reader to decide whether she likes the book enough to buy it or get it from the library. I figure if they don’t like the first 50 pages, they won’t like the next 350 pages any better!

  12. Marilynn Byerly said:

    From many of my successful friends’ experiences, I’ve learned that a free novel is only useful if it is the first of an established series. That’s why so many publishers offer the first book free to get the reader hooked.

    Some authors also offer prequel short stories about their series hero or major characters.

    A free poorly written book is no bargain for you or the reader. If anything, it would drive readers away.

    And beware much of Doctorow’s advice on ebooks, etc. Many of his rants involve a deliberate misunderstanding of what copyright is and isn’t.

    For example, he says that “used” ebooks can be resold, and copyright law specifically states that the “First Sale Doctrine” doesn’t apply to ebooks.

  13. JS said:

    Jo Walton, who also publishes with Tor, had the opposite experience with the giveaway–it had zero impact on her sales.

    Her LiveJournal entry about it is here.

    So we see that two writers of about the same age who publish in the same genre (though in different subgenres) for the same publisher at the same time can have radically different experiences re: free downloads.

    Cory Doctorow seems to argue that his experience will be the usual one. But maybe Jo Walton’s experience is the usual one?