Friday, September 16, 2005

Give 'Em Away

Want to dramatically increase the sales of your books? Give 'em away for free! I'm not kidding, this is exactly the theory that the Baen Free Library is operating under. The logic sounds like something Forest Gump would come up with, doesn't it?

Well... Forest Gump was really a pretty smart guy.

Eric Flint, "First Librarian," explains the reasoning and motivations behind the formation of the Library on the first page. The library is an official arm of Baen Books, publisher of such science fiction and fantasy authors as David Drake, David Weber, Jerry Pournell, Merecedes Lackey, Larry Niven, and many others (including Holly Lisle, but more on that in a second). This is not small-press publishing, folks. Authors can volunteer to have electronic versions of their books placed in the library for as long as they want, and they can remove them at any time. The Library was created partly as a response to discussions about Harlan Ellison's famous lawsuit claiming electronic piracy of his books: If a book is free, how can it be pirated?

All well and good. Noble, even. But how is a publisher (and the author) going to make money off of such an idea? After all, for every person that reads a free edition of a book, by definition you've lost a sale. But have you? Flint points out, and I wholeheartedly agree, that the key to making it big as an author is word of mouth advertising. As I've mentioned in previous articles, even if a publisher gave you an expensive book-signing tour as part of your marketing package (generally considered the Holy Grail of marketing), these tours will generate at best perhaps 3,000 sales. That's a tiny, tiny fraction of what your book needs to sell in order to be even marginally successful. Books don't become bestsellers because of any publisher marketing plan, they become bestsellers because one person read the book and told his friend, "Hey, you've got to read this, I know you'll love it."

Word of mouth advertising. This is the true Holy Grail of advertising, it's just that it's not something the publisher (or anyone else) can do for you. If the book is good, you'll get it once the book is noticed. And therein lies the rub: How do you get your book noticed out of the tens of thousands of novels that are published every year? People tend to buy books by authors they know they like. They aren't as likely to take a chance on an unknown. Enter the Baen Free Library. You can download a nicely-formatted electronic version of a book for no cost, no risk, and no obligation. If you don't like the book, you've lost absolutely nothing. Ah, but if you do like the book, you may have just discovered a new author that you might not have tried in the bookstore. You might just want to read the next book in this author's series. Magically, the author has begun to build his readership. He's on the road to that elusive-yet-critical word of mouth advertising that can make or break a career.

It all sounds good in theory, but does it really work? In fact, it does. Flint has tracked the sales of one of his novels that he placed in the library. Instead of his print sales dropping (which is normal even if the book hadn't been offered for free), his sales actually rose. More people were buying the print version after it had been placed in the free library. And not only did this book get a sales boost, but now Flint has convinced a significant number of people that he's a writer they'll want to read -- so they are much more likely to buy his next book. Hard data is difficult to come by in writing, so it's good to see someone who actually has facts and figures to back up a theory.

Now, my own experience. Although I didn't realize it at the time, I have read a book out of the Baen Free Library. I followed a link from Holly Lisle's site to download one of her books (at the time I thought the book was actually being hosted on her site). As I've mentioned before, I don't generally read fantasy, but I was impressed with Holly's non-fiction writing style, so I thought I would give her fiction a try. I downloaded the book, and very much liked what I read. I bought the next book in the series. I'm anxiously waiting for Talyn, her latest book and what Holly feels is her best ever, to hit the shelves of the bookstore here -- and I never read hardbacks. Holly generated sales from someone who almost certainly would have never even considered reading her work -- I had never heard of her, after all. But on the basis of a "free sample" (a tactic retailers have used for decades), I tried something I wouldn't normally have, liked what I saw, and came back for more.

Forest Gump, indeed.

This makes me want to sell my books to Baen as my first-choice publisher, just so I can put a book in their library. I think this could be one of the keys to making it in an already overcrowded field. Now if we could just get the other publishers to relax about squeezing every dime out of every book, they might just end up making a lot more of those dimes.

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