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: always on, books, publishing, rob reid
Companies: medium, random house


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  1. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
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    Anonymous Coward, 10 Jul 2017 @ 5:26pm

    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.

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