What If You Published Half Your Book For Free Online?

from the interesting-experiments-in-publishing dept

Almost exactly 17 years ago, we wrote about an interesting experiment in the movie world, in which the film Chicken Run freely chose to put the first 7 minutes of the film online (in my head, I remember it being the first 20 minutes, but I’ll chalk that up to inflation). I thought it was a pretty clever experiment and am still surprised that this didn’t become the norm. The idea is pretty straightforward — rather than just doing a flashy trailer that may give away much of the movie anyway — you give people the beginning of the actual movie, get them hooked, and convince them it’s worthwhile to go pay to see the whole thing. Of course, that only works with good movies where the beginning hooks people. But… it’s also interesting to think about whether or not this kind of thing might work for books as well.

In this always on world, where some fear that people are so hooked on short attention span bits of information raining down from Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, there’s a reasonable concern that people just aren’t willing or able to disconnect for long enough to actually read a full book. Some argue that we may be reading more, but getting less out of all of this. But now author/entrepreneur Rob Reid and Random House are experimenting with something similar. If they have to convince people to put down the internet to read a full book, why not go to the internet first. Rob has announced that he (and Random House) has teamed up with Medium to publish the first 40% of his latest novel, After On, which is coming out in full on August 1st.

Now, you may recall, five years ago, Rob came out with a fun book called Year Zero, a hilarious comic sci-fi story about aliens needing to destroy the earth… because of massive copyright infringement (no, really). With that book, we were able to publish a short excerpt, but that isn’t always enough to get people hooked. With After On, a massive chunk of the (admittedly massive!) book will be published online in a dozen segments over the next few weeks leading up to the release of the actual book (the first few segments are entirely free — and after that, they want you to become a “member” of Medium, but you can get your first two weeks free for membership — or you can just go buy the book by that point.

Rob has written a blog post talking about this experiment and what went into it — and he’ll also be on the Techdirt podcast tomorrow to talk more about it. In this book, while not about copyright, it does touch on a number of other issues that we frequently write about here, including patents, privacy, AI, terms of service and… the general nature of startup culture. The book is super interesting and engaging, but this experiment is interesting in its own way as well:

After putting 7,500 hours of my life into it, I want After On to reach lots of people. But I?m even more interested in reaching the people it will truly resonate with. It?s quirky, costs money, and entails a real time commitment. So if it?s not right for you, I?d rather not take your dollars or hours (which is arguably bad for business???but good businesspeople don?t write sprawling novels for a living). Whereas if it is right for you, I want you to discover it with as little friction as possible. Both goals made a big excerpt on Medium seem like a good idea.

My pitch to Random House evoked the largely bygone practice of US magazines excerpting new books. Licensing fees cost editors less than a major article, and publishers were pleased to generate income while promoting new titles. This practice is now rare. Reasons include the drop-off in print advertising, which has lowered magazine page counts, squeezing content. So why not transplant this pillar of the publishing ecosystem? Without trees to topple or ink to smear, we can release much longer excerpts online. Digital excerpts travel globally, and widespread excerpts will help books reach their most natural audiences. Better fits between books and readers will make reading more delightful, which means more books should sell???and hey, presto, everybody wins!

Anyway, check out the first excerpt that just went a little while ago, in which Rob (or the book’s narrator…?) dares you to read the whole damn thing…

Filed Under: , , ,
Companies: medium, random house

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “What If You Published Half Your Book For Free Online?”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
32 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

I’ve seen authors routinely publish the first chapter or several online in leadup to the release of their book. Jim Butcher, of the Dresden Files (of the top of my head example), has the first five chapters of all of his books on his site, iirc. They usually start appearing a month before the book’s actual release.

TechGrrl1972 says:

Giving away your book?

I have to agree with the posters who pointed out that Baen Books has been doing this forever, along with not putting DRM on their ebooks. Eric Flint is the go-to guy on why non-DRM ebooks are a net money-maker for the authors.
The Baen Free Library gives you painless access to authors’ backlists, and demonstrably have increased sales of all the authors’ works. This is the ‘long tail’ phenomenon, I believe.
Baen also posts sample chapters in advance of books’ publication.
Not sure why this is being presented as new or daring. It’s a proven marketing technique across pretty much all economic goods. “The first hit is free, the subsequent ones will cost you.”
The trick is that the writing has to be good enough that the reader becomes invested in the characters and will want to know what happens to them because they care about those characters.
After all, the 8 deadly words are really a thing. “I don’t care what happens to these people.” will be a dealbreaker if your free sample leads the reader to that thought.

Anonymous Coward says:

Marketing is often about being unique and standing out in the crowd. This approach of free chapters may or may not reach that goal.

Used widely it’s uniqueness would be lost and might even end up as the crowd they are trying to separate from. At that point the benefits are mostly lost and all that is left are the downsides.

Anonymous Coward says:

No, absolutely not. I refuse.

My to-be-read list contains more than 500 books right now, and hasn’t actually gotten any shorter since high school when I was reading close to a book per day. Do you have any idea what will happen if I have access to a large number of convenient, but not finished books? I’ll go insane and never finish anything ever again…

Thanks internet. Thanks a lot.

eaving (profile) says:

Baen Free Library

Yet another person coming to point out that Baen has been publishing, at minimum, 3 chapters from all their books for MANY years, as well as having hundreds of free books posted from many of their authors longer series. The oldest ebook purchase I have through them dates back to 2000, though I have no memory if the program was brand new or had been around for awhile at that point.
Took me awhile to hunt down how they had archived it, but the link above was to Eric Flints write ups called ‘Letters to the Librarian’ in the early days of the Free Library and discusses the fact that having the library has boosted sales. I highly advise reading the whole thing, it isn’t long, but the important line I’ve copied below.

‘Income doesn’t derive from preventing theft, it comes from making sales. A certain amount of loss due to theft is simply one of the overhead costs. Obviously, taking simple measures to eliminate as much theft as possible is sensible. But at a certain point — and much sooner than you might think — the measures you take to prevent theft can start cutting your income.’

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Baen Free Library

It’s worse than that. As hinted above, beyond a certain point (and it’s not far at all along the DRM road), “protection” from “piracy” decreases your legitimate market. In other words, you lose more in “real” sales than you ever gain back from the “theft”.

By the way, if it looks like there are too many quoted workd there, it’s because the anti-“piracy” types frequently abuse far too many words.

eaving (profile) says:

Re: Baen Free Library

Realized I didn’t obviously include the link to the free book publishing commentary and analysis. For those in the know I guess our names are the link, but I didn’t figure that out until a few moments ago. For anyone interested in a more obvious link to the Letters to the Librarian Ebook
http://www.baen.com/readonline/index/read/sku/9781625791214

Chapter 6 is especially interesting as an author shared the sales history of a book. The discussion shows the traditional heavy sales at publication followed by rapid drop off. After he posted the book for free in the library however there was an increase in sales of the book, not a further decline. Almost as if people encountering the free e-book and finding value/entertainment in it felt the desire to own a print copy…

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: What if reasonable copyright terms....

There was evidence presented here, maybe a long while ago, that most of the value of media copyrights(of all types) existed in the first seven years or so. With that in mind marketing new works would still be important.

What value do the middlemen claim to provide? Marketing, editing, recording or printing depending on the case. A better question might be, when will these skills (and or others I haven’t thought of) become independent and mainstream. Write a book, hire an editor, hire a marketer, publish the book online, expenses fixed.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: What if reasonable copyright terms....

@ “What value do the middlemen claim to provide?”

In fact, not mere claim, promotion is key. Just like music. If can get taken inside the racket, you’re promoted. Otherwise, odds are near certainly doomed to obscurity.

That’s the star system. Worst part of any publishing. Or movie-making.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: What if reasonable copyright terms....

Yeah, but the movie and recording studios and book publishers (the current middlemen) all charge the artist/creator inflated prices for all those things and more, and in some cases give the artist/creator absolutely nothing and often get in the way of opportunity. See how many times those middlemen have been sued by creators/artists, for this reason.

But, as we know, only your opinion counts, at least in your head. To you, evidence is just blather. Well guess what many of us think of your opinion.

If perchance you are not THAT anonymous coward, login, it’s free, then we could tell the difference.

Anonymous Coward says:

Suppose you gave away your writing for free every day? -- Oh, you do. For how many decades now? -- SO, has it led to big T-shirt sales? Or ever-increasing number of readers for advertising support?

Apparently not. I always miss your pieces begging so you can continue to pay minion re-writers a pittance, only seen it mentioned. Techdirt is my proof that giving away low-quality re-writing definitely doesn’t work. I take that as nailed down.

Let’s try “original”. Your minion, Timothy Geigner, aka Dark Helmet, tried pay-what-you-want for a “book” right here on TD some years back. Results were stated to be just over half of a withheld total number paid something. And then was never mentioned again. But I used the given accuracy of that figure to find the lowest numbers that fit, and was in the range of 31 “sales” out of 60 total. Of course if the total sales number is big or amounts add up, an author could make out just fine this way.

Now, this is a somewhat unpredictable one-off publicity stunt with help from willing promoter with massive influence (cough), yet which I predict will flop. If no one does it routinely, there’s a reason.

The special notice given this book wouldn’t be needed if pay-what-you-want were a workable routine. Otherwise, an author could just put up a torrent with Paypal account #, and retire to place of choice.

But clearly the author isn’t THAT foolish, I mean optimistic, so is trying to tease it out. Myself hates lures so will be even tougher sale; you should factor that effect in too. Then, depends on the not-so-simple feat of having material that people will want to continue.

Myself will only check out the sample via TOR, as I bet that the publisher will snag IP addresses for targeted advertising, part of the hidden way one might be paying for this “free”. If anyone reads the sample and then for weeks after sees increased advertising for books, don’t be surprised.

By the way, I was given two early Kindle readers — 400 bucks each new — and those had this same experiment of partial books on them. [ What crap those were! Difficult to use and eye-straining to read. The MP3 player was stated to be “experimental”, and was basically only on or off, NO selection or libary, not even fast forward or back, just started at first MP3 and played all straight through. FOUR HUNDRED BUCKS. Proof that people are crazy for gadgets. You can get near a literal TON of used paperbacks for that. ]

Anyhoo, mainly, this experiment presumes that the ending won’t be available for free on torrent sites. — Is there some DRM involved for the end? — Or is all right with the author if that gets out for free too? — If the book turned out hugely popular, then the whole would almost certainly be available for free. So it’s kind of hoping for copyright-by-obscurity.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Suppose you gave away your writing for free every day? -- Oh, you do. For how many decades now? -- SO, has it led to big T-shirt sales? Or ever-increasing number of readers for advertising support?

Okay, I’ve looked. Even worse than expected. “Free” means that you must SIGN UP before seen one word of the text.

That’s not free.

And given the outline, sheesh. Juvenile.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Suppose you gave away your writing for free every day? -- Oh, you do. For how many decades now? -- SO, has it led to big T-shirt sales? Or ever-increasing number of readers for advertising support?

Man, you’ve been giving away heaps of writing here for free every, single, day, for years. Trouble is the only thing people would pay for, is you to stop.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Suppose you gave away your writing for free every day? -- Oh, you do. For how many decades now? -- SO, has it led to big T-shirt sales? Or ever-increasing number of readers for advertising support?

Psst. Hamilton… “minion” was what you used to use when you used the name “Out of the Blue.” You’re letting your different troll identities mix and it’s showing…

Anonymous Coward says:

Giving away your book?

The publishing industry, ALL of the creative industries are going through huge upheavals caused by technological changes. It’s not just books; music and even film are struggling with this. Imagine this year’s George Lucas or Steven Spielberg with the digital camera technology today instead of an Eymo 16mm camera with a windup crank.

The middlemen will continue to be useful in some cases, not so much in others. Marketing is key, but if a video can go viral on YouTube, you can hit the big time.

Realizing that this author is skilled and has poured love and blood and guts into his work, not sure why this approach is seen as new, innovative, edgy, or any other adjectives that would make it stand out from other books. As a publishing strategy, it’s neither good nor bad, but it’s certainly not innovative.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Giving away your book?

There is shift towards the oldest way that the artists were supported, and that is via patronages, with the Internet allowing this to be from a large number of patrons called the fan base. This also means that the creators are paid to produce new works,and those that get this occasionally remind those who get their works for free that sending them some money will help them to produce new works.

John Snape (profile) says:

We just started something similar

Even though not exactly the same, we started putting the PDF files online on archive.org after I’ve cleaned up an old book and we have it for sale.

Our first one is https://archive.org/details/EvangelicaeHistoriaeImagines

And when I get our Reader’s Bible second edition finished, I’ll be putting more up there for free. We already have quite a few ready to be posted!

Colonel Panik says:

Giving it away

A few years back we attended some Science Fiction events.
Many of the authors and publishing people were aghast at
the free books offer by Cory Doctorow. It came down to
“He can do that because he is unknown”. Just a few years
later it was “He can do that because he is famous”.

Hey, try something different. I think Mike has a saying
about this?

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...
Loading...