Books for free!

Should authors be giving away their books for free? It’s a question I’ve been thinking about since a conversation I had with a group of other authors on Facebook recently.

Gold_BarsIt came as part of a wider discussion about the financial rewards (or otherwise) of writing a book. Cards on the table – at my level of authorship there simply aren’t any significant financial rewards! My book is a literary novel by a first time unknown author, published by a small press – it’s not going to sell like Fifty Shades of Potter. So I didn’t expect to make very much money at all from my book – and have not been disappointed in that expectation.

In fact, it still comes as a surprise and a pleasure to me when a tiny royalty cheque lands on the mat – a novelty if you like. I am amazed I get any money at all for doing something I love – and perhaps that’s the problem we authors have.

Unless we sell books by the skipload authors do not make a great deal of money from the books people buy and the other peripheral things authors do don’t add to their riches either. At my level, for example, getting paid for reading at lit fests is hit and miss. I have been paid on occasion – but I’ve also been expected to turn up for nothing, and pay my own travel expenses, just for the privilege of promoting my book. My view on this has been that as a recently published author, in all humility, I ought to take the opportunities which are offered to me. I accept that I am working for the festival organisers for nothing and put it down to experience.

US_Dollar_banknotesThe thing is though, even more established authors often don’t get paid for work either. There was a row recently when a novelist refused to write a forward for an academic non-fiction book for free. His argument was that, as a professional writer, he ought to be paid for his services. Was that so unreasonable? And I have also heard that very well established writers are still expected to turn up at literature festivals and read for nothing, or for some kind of low value ‘gift.’ Why is this?

It’s a surprising state of affairs I think. The literature festivals only exist because of writers – they sell tickets and make money. So why shouldn’t the writers be paid? I like to compare it to when I was a kid playing in rock bands. If the owner of some bar had asked us to play for nothing, on the basis it would be ‘good exposure’ for us, we would have laughed in his face. Somehow the economy surrounding books and writers has become skewed so that the market has set the value of an author’s labour at more or less zero and the expectation is that they do a lot of work for nothing. We work ‘For the love of it’ or to increase our profile. Where do we draw the line?

BookspileSo – to the business of giving away books.

This is something I didn’t know happened until I had mine published – but I’ve seen plenty of it since. It tends to be the download, Kindle, variety of book which gets given away for nothing. Self published authors do a lot of this, though it is a marketing technique I have also seen adopted by some small publishers. Often books will be given away free as downloads for a limited time – during a free week for example.

I think part of the idea is simply for people to get their book out there – to put it in as many hands and in front of as many pairs of eyes as possible. This is a need I understand only too well. There is a glut of books on the market in an age when people can just publish their own work with no quality control whatsoever. And, of course, there are a lot of calls on people’s time – all those TV shows and movies and web sites and games. Who has time for reading? (Me!).

It is very hard to get your work noticed, however good it may be. So asking people to take a copy of your book off your hands for free – spreading your work around as widely as possible, can no doubt seem like a great way of kick starting it on it’s road to best-sellerdom.

There’s also the issue of the ‘best-seller’ lists, which are broken down into numerous genre and sub-genre groups. How many authors are propping up their claims to be ’best-sellers’ on some of these more minor lists on the basis of the number of books they have given away for free?

Here’s my position – I don’t like the idea of giving away my book for nothing. Why? Because that suggests my work is worthless, and it is not. Song of the Sea God took me two years to write, it’s been nominated for a couple of serious book awards, been published by a reputable publisher with a passion for literary fiction and has had good reviews from readers on both sides of the Atlantic. Frankly I am very proud of it. So why would I want to suggest it is worthless?

Writing is such a subjective business – the only thing which separates me from a mad old lady writing cat poetry is that, sometimes, I get paid.

It really isn’t about the money. I know I am not going to make any significant money from Song of the Sea God – but that does not mean it is not a good book. So why would I treat it as though it is of no value?

That’s why I don’t give away my book for nothing. I don’t do it online and I don’t do it in person. Since I became a published author I’ve been surprised now and again by work colleagues, acquaintances and the like who say things like ’lend me a copy of your book and I’ll read it.’ or ‘stick a copy in the canteen so people can borrow it.‘ I politely decline their kind request. I don’t know who they think has paid for the copy I would be giving them.

I’m lucky in that my publisher has never asked me to give away my book for free through Amazon etc – they’ve set a price for the product and stuck to it. I’m sure I would have handed out a lot more books if I had given them away for nothing – but what would I be saying about the quality of my work?

What’s your view? Let me know in the comments section below!

Song of the Sea God visualIf you’d like to see whether my book is worth paying your hard earned money for you can take a look here at Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

To download or not to download

Recently my book – which has been out in paperback for a few weeks now, was turned into a download. You can now get it on Kindle here.

As well as the old-fashioned dead tree way here.

I’m not sure how I feel about it – pleased still of course, that the book is out at all, that I have a publisher in Skylight Press out there doing their best for it and caring about it as much as I do. But in terms of the fancy new Kindle version – how do I feel about that? It’s the future I know, no doubt at all about that. It would take someone who was a bit of a Luddite these days to be a download denier – and that’s certainly not me.

So I’m glad to have the book out in this format – and I certainly see the advantages of it. The portability of the devices, the almost instant access to a whole library of books.

I also think that anything which not only preserves, but reinvigorates reading and the novel has to be a good thing. It has to be a living, breathing art form, the moment it lapses into becoming a museum piece then it’s doomed.

Finally, I like the way that downloads, and that means Kindle right at the moment, have already led to a publishing revolution allowing authors who do not have a publisher to take their destiny in their own hands and do it themselves. This reminds me of the early days of punk rock – or of indie bands. The self-sufficiency they had, the DIY ethic, led to some brilliant music and a voice for people who would not otherwise have been heard.

The same thing is happening in fiction now I think – different voices, ones which might not have made it into print, have managed to side-step the publishing system and find a platform for their work.

So two cheers for downloads then. But let’s not (ahem) write-off books.

Let me say firstly, that the dream for me, the one I’d had since childhood, was to have a book published – one I could hold in my hand, put on my bookshelf – one that had the feel and smell and yes, romance, of a book. I didn’t dream of a download.

But that might be more to do with the fact I have grown up with books. A new generation may well be following hard on my heals who dream of switching on their Kindle, swiping their fingers across the screen and having their name pop up on the illuminated display.

Times change after all. But my key worry isn’t about the downloads themselves – more about what they can lead to. Once things are available on digital format it seems to me that their value starts to plummet.

Look at music – digital piracy has decimated that industry. Look at movies, going the same way. There used to be a newspaper industry – I used to work in it. Now because so much news is available free on the internet the market has set the value of news at near zero.

I don’t want the same fate to befall printed fiction.

Already I am hearing horror stories from fellow authors about their downloads being pirated and stolen. Most authors are paid little for their work even when the system is working – if it breaks down they are in real trouble.

So I’m delighted to have my book out on Kindle – thrilled by it – and I really value those readers who choose to buy Song of the Sea God in that way.

But my hope is that the download revolution doesn’t issue in an era when books are thought of as ‘freeware’ available to all without any payment to those who have worked hard to produce them.

Sign here

So – I’ve just had my first book signing. That was quite a posh moment, made me feel like a proper author.

If you weren’t able to make it you can get the book from Waterstones online here

And the Kindle version here.

The signing was at Waterstones in Gloucester, where I live. Waterstones is more or less the only show in town as far as bookshops go in most British towns these days. All the little independent ones have gone the way of the dodo and I would guess that even the mighty Waterstones is feeling the pinch what with the online revolution and the march of downloads.

Who knows, in a few years there may not be any bookshops to do signings in, or any books to sign.

But for now there is a Waterstones on every high street with its tables piled high with best sellers and its Costa coffee franchise. When you walk through the door of one you smell the unmistakable scent of new books.  So I was able to spend a Saturday afternoon sitting behind a small pile of my books with Rebsie from my publisher on hand for moral support.

It’s a curious experience this book signing business. Basically you are sat watching people do their shopping. Though I am of course keen to sell copies of my book I don’t feel it’s right to go up to people who aren’t interested and pester them – I wouldn’t want someone badgering me if I was shopping. So I waited for people to come to me – and thankfully quite a few did.

One or two mistook me for a member of staff and wanted me to tell them where the John Grishams were, but most wanted to talk about Song of the Sea God which was great. You really do need a quick way of describing your work in this situation I’ve found – it’s no use coming over all coy and saying it’s too complex to sum up in a few words – people want to know what it’s about. So I have my elevator pitch ready. I tell them it’s about a man who washes up on a small island off the coast of Britain and tries to convince the local people he is a god.

The people I talked to were very receptive and it was a fun experience – plus I sold a few copies which was great. As well as wanting to know what the book was about they asked a bit about me – where I was from, what I do for a proper job, have I written anything else, and so on. I’m quite chatty, which helps I guess, and I enjoyed the whole thing more than I expected to. With any luck I’ll get to do it again!