Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Making money by giving things away

Cory Doctorow, author and co-editor of Boing Boing reports: [edited]

I've been giving away my books ever since my first novel came out, and boy has it ever made me a bunch of money.

When my first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, was published by Tor Books in January 2003, I also put the entire electronic text of the novel on the Internet under a Creative Commons License that encouraged my readers to copy it far and wide. Within a day, there were 30,000 downloads from my site (and those downloaders were in turn free to make more copies).

Three years and six printings later, more than 700,000 copies of the book have been downloaded from my site. The book's been translated into more languages than I can keep track of, key concepts from it have been adopted for software projects and there are two competing fan audio adaptations online.

Most people who download the book don't end up buying it, but they wouldn’t have bought it in any event, so I haven’t lost any sales, I’ve just won an audience. A tiny minority of downloaders treat the free e-book as a substitute for the printed book - those are the lost sales. But a much larger minority treat the e-book as an enticement to buy the printed book. They're gained sales. As long as gained sales outnumber lost sales, I'm ahead of the game. After all, distributing nearly a million copies of my book has cost me nothing.

The thing about an e-book is that it's a social object. It wants to be copied from friend to friend, beamed from a Palm device, pasted into a mailing list. It begs to be converted to witty signatures at the bottom of e-mails. It is so fluid and intangible that it can spread itself over your whole life.

Nothing sells books like a personal recommendation - when I worked in a bookstore, the sweetest words we could hear were "My friend suggested I pick up..." The friend had made the sale for us, we just had to consummate it. In an age of online friendship, e-books trump dead trees for word of mouth.

There's no empirical way to prove that giving away books sells more books - but I've done this with three novels and a short story collection (and I'll be doing it with two more novels and another collection in the next year), and my books have consistently outperformed my publisher's expectations.

What is certain is that every writer who's tried giving away e-books to sell books has come away satisfied and ready to do it some more.

1 comment:

ConradGempf said...

"What is certain is that every writer who's tried giving away e-books to sell books has come away satisfied and ready to do it some more."

Ummm.... I don't think that is at all certain. "Every" author?! Perhaps all the writers who Doctorow knows of -- all those writers who have become famous... The wording is curious, too. "Come away satisfied" doesn't necessarily mean "sell more."

The jury is still out on my experiment with blogging the book for free. So far it doesn't look promising about sales, but of course I am coming away satisfied -- most authors don't write primarily to sell but primarily to share. And free sharing feels "satisfying."