I Am Not Afraid, Dammit

Publishing is changing. And I am not afraid.

I’ll be the first to admit I can be myopic at times. I am often unable to see the ripple effects of something until the effect is fully cemented in place. So my lack of fear could simply be the cheerful blatherings of a fool. But I don’t care. I’m still not afraid.

As someone whose career is still in its larva stage, I’m watching with interest as publishing frets about the massive changes in the industry going on right now. Ebook pricing. Ebook piracy. Hardcover pricing. The death of the book. The death of publishing. The sneaking fear that maybe this Internet thing isn’t just a fad, and it will SPELL OUR DOOM.

I understand much of the worry. I’m sure someone else understands the rest of it. And still, I’m not afraid.

I don’t think books will go the way of the horse and carriage, as I’ve heard comparisons used. I also don’t think that treating the business the way “things have always been” is the wisest way to go. Things don’t have to die. Sure, some things die or become quaint, such as papyrus and horse-drawn carriages. Other things evolve–they get mighty and morphin’ and change with the times.

What really surprises me is when you hear publishing people say that they don’t know what to do, or that they refuse listen to Internet professionals. They seem to believe if they do what has worked in the past, eventually the storm will pass and the anchor of tradition will have kept them steady and safe. They look at the people who are succeeding by merging their digital plans with their traditional print plans and call them anomalies at best, or insane at worst. What they need to be doing is learning from them.

My career started when I began podcasting fiction, releasing in serialized audio format in 2006. Giving my work away has resulted in one small press deal, signing with an agent, and invitations to speak at several SF and new media events. At least three authors have gone from the unwashed unpublished masses directly to the elite authors with major book deals by giving away their work via audio serialization, building audiences first and then finding publishers. Many others have found publishing deals through small press houses.

A growing trend, started by Cory Doctorow, is to release a free PDF of a book when you launch the print version. Some, like Doctorow, release the whole book; others release a number of chapters. Still, it’s the concept of the free sample or teaser that works–check it out for free, if you like it, then buy. Sometimes recipients won’t like it. Sometimes they will like it, but just smile and move on. (I do this all the time in the grocery store.) Sometimes they will buy. Everyone I know who has given away free contents has said it increased sales. I’ve gotten more than one email from a consumer of my free content saying that they appreciated the free book and were buying several print copies to give away. It’s difficult to quantify, of course; you can’t say x people downloaded, and y of those people purchased, but there’s no arguing that getting your work in front of people reduces obscurity. People may or may not buy your book if they have heard of you. They will not buy your book if they don’t know it exists.

What’s to stop them from downloading the book, reading it, and never giving you a cent? Nothing. What’s to stop them from going to the library or borrowing it from a friend, reading it, and never giving you a cent? Nothing. Doctorow offers a “think like a dandelion” concept for growth of audience. Instead of nurturing your book in private and hoping it gets into the hands of a reader who will pet it and love it and call it George, you send it out in EVERY direction. Like dandelion seeds, your work will fall on some hard pavement or languish in an unread RSS feed. But some of it will get into the cracks in the sidewalk and find readers (who may become fans and paying customers) you never would have found otherwise.

The good thing is some agents and editors are getting wind of the power of online popularity, and thus they have developed the term “platform.” We all need this now–we need to come to publishing already proven that we can entertain an audience. The way you entertain an audience online is to give away content. When we bring along our audience, who loves us because we give them shiny trinkets, will publishers then refuse to let us give away anything else?

I’m quite aware it’s easy for me to talk about this — my career is still developing. I can afford to take chances and experiment. I have nothing to lose. More experienced people may be looking to be safe, to view giving things away as anathema. Experienced businesspeople think they can still herd the sheep where they want them to go. But the truth is, with the Internet, the sheep are running the show. They’re used to free content, and if made to pay, they will look elsewhere for the freebies.

I believe a successful merging of digital and print content is the way to keep publishing alive. I don’t believe in a kumbaya lifestyle that claims art is meant to be given away always; I want to make a living by writing. I am of the opinion that enticing people to consume my content for free will sell more copies. So I release stuff via audio, blog, PDF, and soon iPhone app, desktop widget, and any other way I can come up with. The more people I touch, the more people will buy my books.

So I’m not afraid. Publishing is changing. I’m ready to see what it turns into and change my expectations with it.

21 comments to I Am Not Afraid, Dammit

  • David Niall Wilson

    Just a comment from a lover of audiobooks. First off, when I downloaded Heaven, Hell, etc – your “Podiobooks” I paid. I took the time to make a donation, less than I’d pay for a novel from Audible.com – but still – the point is, I don’t think I’m the only one…and yes – I did enjoy your work – and yes, I will read more of it.

    The hurdle that his highest is to get readers who enjoy traditional formats to take the time to sample in new ones. I already listen to a lot of audio books, so it was natural for me to sample some podcasted content. The stigma remains, however, that has made it difficult for new writers throughout history.

    It’s one thing for a famous writer to give away sample chapters…quite another for a new writer to then compete with those famous writers by offering their own content. Most readers will download the free content from authors they already trust and only get to the rest if they have time…

    I guess I’m saying that the new formats and ideas are very enticing, but most of the hurdles that faced authors when there was only traditional publishing to consider are still in place.

    Good essay!

  • Brave New World, for sure. It’s coming, it’s here. What that includes, excludes, is a work-in-progress. You’re an active part of the change, Mur, and even this essay has an impact on the evolution of publishing. I think it’s foolish to resist change but equally foolish to abandon functioning formats vested in habit, tradition and appeal. What may be more important to the new wave may be just HOW its product is displayed. Will it follow the old pattern of tightly-defined genres by pure contnt, for instance? Will it evolve more toward the individual skills of writers as regards the elements of all fiction, character to style? Marketing has so often become like a self-fulfilling prophecy in that it locks books in to a narrow perception of genre. There is always room for things that test the waters. Good luck, Mur.

    — Sully

  • I think even if it mires us in a sudden lack of craft, what will happen is what happens every time. Those with vision and talent who put in the work will emerge, and the rest will follow.

    Bring it on!

  • As other people have pointed out… it’s MUCH easier for a Cory Doctorow, with the platform of Boing Boing and all that this gives him, to “give away” his stuff for free, He has a built-in advertising platform in Boing Boing, and he also has a built-in readership through that blog, too. Let a young and up and coming writer try to emulate Cory’s business model, not only does this youngling NOT have the platform and the audience, he also has to compete directly with someone like Cory who DOES. The odds are kind of skewed. It boils down to the usual bottom line: if you’re already known, you can pull off the kind of shenanigans that you can’t afford to even try while you are TRYING to get known.

    Personally, without a blog with the readership of BOing Boing, I don’t know that giving away my work for free is going to help me a great deal. I’m happy to do that with a sample chapter or a excerpt – but seriously? A free PDF of the book? I don’t sell enough of them to pour millions – or even great helpings of THOUSANDS – into my pocket *anyway* so just why would I cut into what IS coming in by giving all of it away for free?

    Yes, publishing is changing. I’m seeing a few changes that I don’t much like – including an increasing tendency for the publishing world to emulate the worst of Hollywood and for only a handful of people to have the opportunity and the support to become superstars while the rest of us toil off-off-off Broadway for a pittance and are grateful if there are more people in the audience than there are on the stage…

  • David Niall Wilson

    Pretty sure Mur isn’t really suggesting most people should give away their whole book – and equally sure most of our publishers wouldn’t be happy if we did…but giving away larger chunks – the first 8-10 chapters out of thirty? You’re gambling then on the talent most of us are so proud of…I think it can work, in some cases.

    I the case of the podcast serialized books, I have seen several examples of people building up a great following who actually became book-buying fans, and I suspect that will be the case for Mur as well…Heaven has a large fandom.

    D

  • Actually I do advocate giving the book away – I have given away one novel (both audio and PDF) and five novellas (audio only). And someone actually brought up the boingboing thing to Cory this year at WorldCon – he replied that in the beginning (2003, when he gave his first novel away, which I am pretty sure was pre-boingboing, but I can’t find a date when he started on that blog), people said, “sure you can give your book away, you are nobody and you have nothing to lose.” and now they say “sure you can give your book away, you’re huge, but someone starting from zero can’t do it.”

    When I started my podcast, and the same as JC Hutchins, Scott Sigler, and many other podcasters and authors who give their books away, I had no platform at all. I built it giving my stuff away.

    Is it right for most people? I don’t know. (see myopic comment that was my caveat.) But everyone I know who has done it swears by it. It’s right for me.

  • I knew you were giving yours away…HOWEVER…as previously stated, you at least have a place where those enjoying it can donate money to the cause. I’d be interested at some point hearing how that goes…whether people normally bother to donate, or if mostly they just take it …

  • Very interesting post and discussion here.

    I’m a relative newcomer to writing, only two years into my ‘career’ and still flailing around at trying to build up a readership. I have reached the point where I do have sales of my e-books every month now, though not in great numbers, but I do *usually* reach the payout amounts every month.

    I’m interested in podcasting, but haven’t had the time to really look into it. My accent’s so bad, I’d likely have to have someone else read my work for those, LOL. Plus, I suck at public speaking, and that’s pretty much what podcasts are, right? Having someone else read the work sort of defeats the purpose of an author podcasting, doesn’t it?

    Giving away stuff for free is something that I do. I have shorts available, a couple of on-blog stories and try to make sure all of my for purchase e-books have samples available so that readers can try before they buy. I’m a big believer in that, since it’s what mimics going to a book store and browsing.

    I’m certain that has helped sell e-books and kept the number of returns very low ( 1.25%). My biggest obstacles are my ADD (I have a very hard time finishing writing projects without the positive re-inforcement of feedback to keep me focused) and readers who let me know they enjoyed reading my work, but don’t have the time or think to post a review where others will see it (like on Amazon or Smashwords).

    The first is all on me and my whacked out brain chemistry. The second is mostly on me, because I should ask them to do that. In fact, I think I’ll start. =)

    But what publishing ends up evolving into is going to be fascinating to watch and be a part of. I wrote a blog entry yesterday about how e-books could ‘save’ traditional publishing. Not that I’m an expert, but it seems like commonsense to me. =)

  • [...] I Am Not Afraid, Dammit – Author Mur Lafferty on the future [...]

  • Mur: Love the post; I just posted something related this am and I’ll replay it here not to counter what you’re saying, but as something we should all remember as we briskly usher in the “new” era:

    In our latte-sipping, college-edumicated liberal-elite-techie-early-adopter approach to e-readers and user-generated content driving the future of fiction writing and art, we have left behind a significant readership: poor people and libraries.

    I was standing on the downtown 4 train the other night on the way home from work and noted–not for the first time–dozens of people’s heads buried in books. Hard-working people on their way home to rented apartments or projects in Bed-Stuy, Bushwick, and Crown Heights. Not exactly yuppie hipster outposts in Brooklyn. Reading books. People’s kids, having been just picked up at daycare or aftercare, also reading books. When we point a gun at print publishing, aren’t we too signaling the end of easy access to literature–fine or crappy?

    I am guilty of bemoaning the state of mainstream print publishing, and how they just pump out crap for sheep. Nothing new, nothing ahhrtistic or subversive, just plain crap. “Oh, publishers, you suck so much because you don’t think outside the box, you don’t market anything outside plain vanilla McDonald’s version of fiction, blah blah blah.” But if people are reading, that’s better than smoking crack, or watching reality TV, or picking their noses. Right? Reading crap is still better than playing video games. Reading crap is still better than not reading at all, and that’s my point.

    Forget the nostalgia for books–the smell, the feel–spare me, please. If we are truly headed in the direction of digitizing *all* fictional and possibly artistic content, where does that leave libraries, the home-base of poor school districts, poor neighboorhoods, old people, and millions of others who routinely *still* use libraries, and not just for the free internet on those four beat-up machines in the back?

    I’m all for alternative paradigms that push the boundaries of what we are comfortable with as far as form, content, and medium. Bring it on. I’m already amazed at the creativity out there. And once we get our shit together on the technology, things like smart pages (whatever the hell that means), things are going to be really excellent.

    I said the other day that I’d gladly post an ad on my print book if that’s what it takes to collateralize it. I didn’t really give that much thought–I just tweeted it and put it out there. Then, of course, it brings to note embedding those ads–product placement–in the text, and the question of artistic integrity. What makes fiction authors so much better than film and television writers who use product placement to collateralize their productions? Sure it’s a compromise to the artistic integrity. But if someone will pay me $50, or $500, or $5000 or more to have my character drink Coke rather than Pepsi if the narrative calls for that granularity of detail, then I’ll most surely cave.

    Guy Le Charles noted in his tweeted response that it’ll be a passing phase and for niche pieces. If Google’s business model is hinged upon offering free content and then using advertising to support it, I’d wager that Google is doing much better than many other sinking business that somehow fucked that up, like magazines. How the hell does a magazine like Gourmet, and the scores of others, fail, when recently their pages have been overstocked with advertising? Was it not targeted properly? Was the content all of a sudden just crap? Were there too many ads? What is Google doing right that we need to learn and adapt, as independent writers and artists, while at the same time keeping access to all readers open?

    I hope I’m missing something and that you can tell me I’m just an idiot because _____________. But let’s not leave poor people and libraries without resources, in our push to electronic content.

  • Kate

    You read my mind! My career is taking baby steps, too, and I’m excited by the new opportunities, new formats, and lots of ways to interact with readers. Thanks for making me feel like we have a quiet community of optimists.

  • [...] the book publishing industry. Her post today has an excellent quote from author Mur Lafferty (here’s his original post): What really surprises me is when you hear publishing people say that they don’t know what to [...]

  • Sheep are running the show

    This made me laugh! But, yes, the democratizing force of the internet puts the power straight into the hands, er, hoofs of the masses. Right where it should be.

    Embracing change, riding the wave, adapting to the new paradigm – whatever you want to call it – some people are more willing to take the risk than others. Those are called innovators, and I hope to be one of them as well.

    Interesting times . . . (and I’m just starting out on my first novel)

  • “I’m quite aware it’s easy for me to talk about this — my career is still developing. I can afford to take chances and experiment. I have nothing to lose. More experienced people may be looking to be safe, to view giving things away as anathema.”

    Hi Mur. I’m a fellow-podcasting author, giving podcasts of 3 books away for free on podiobooks. What’s different is that I’m a published author with 9 books printed, mostly by major houses, with foreign editions and occasional royalties paid in actual dollars.

    Podcasting hasn’t worked out the way I expected. It hasn’t generated a lot of book sales – some, yes, but not many. It hasn’t generated very much in the way of donations, either, though podiobooks attaches a request for donations to my podcast episodes.

    But there’s an upside. For one thing, I’ve found a vast new audience. In just the first month of my latest podcast, for example, more people listened than ever bought the original novel, even though the novel won awards and got good reviews. It’s a different audience, and a bigger audience.

    For another thing, I love it. I love going back to the oral roots of storytelling. I love being able to put inflection, pacing, pauses, shouts – all the tools of oral drama – into my writings. And the audience seems to love it as well.

    My advice is, forget the money. Maybe free podcasts will advance one’s career, maybe not. But if you’re like me, you’ll have a blast – and discover a whole new audience.

  • David Niall Wilson

    Joe, I’m closer to your situation, but I’m thinking…have you had many books in print that were new SINCE starting your podcasts? I’m wondering if that new audience of yours might not buy NEW books by you as they come out, even if they don’t really seem to pick up the older titles? Just a thought.

    I may be trying this out myself soon, as well as some other unique alternative methods of reaching fame and fortune…and readers…

    David

  • David, my book Clear Heart came out in print after the Clear Heart podcast was completed. At the time of publication, at least 10,000 people had listened to the podcast – and more now. The feedback on the podcast was enthusiastic, five star ratings, lots of fan mail — and book sales are about 200 copies so far. I was very surprised that there was so little carryover into book sales, but so be it. One problem, of course, is that I suck at marketing. Apparently I’m a pretty good writer and a popular podcaster, but I’m a terrible publicist. I can live with that.

  • [...] scared about changes to the publishing industry? Take heart from this post at Storytellers Unplugged. And then be gobsmacked by the innovations at the new monthly magazine, Electric [...]

  • Paul J Gardner

    As someone who has spent 25 years in the printing industry, I am enjoying the hell out of watching the publishing exec’s struggle with the challenge – struggle to understand that their world has forever changed – past tense – it’s already happened.

    Before the music industry melted down, I watched a series of associated industries collapse: first typesetting companies disappeared in the desktop publishing revolution; then prepress service bureaus disappeared as printers took that work in house – again fueled by a digital revolution. Now the conventional printing industry is watching it’s customer base racing to embracing digital printing, and again, it is technology that’s enabling the revolution.

    But the real fun is yet to come. As authors – content creators – begin to realize that most of the constraints within which their works and ideas have been forced to live are ARTIFICIAL, and they begin successfully transcending what a book has always been, there are going to be amazing works created, and new connections between writers and readers will become possible.

    I look forward to a day when the constraints of process will no longer be allowed limit creativity, expression of authors, and enjoyment and enrichment of their readers. A day when content finally trumps process.

    Thank you Mur for standing up and speaking out.

    Regards,

    Paul J Gardner
    The Conductor of Magical Printing

  • The Internet can also offer new innovative ways of marketing books. Take for instance the book community experience; websites, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, videos, audio, appearance schedules, etc. For many readers this provides the tipping point to buy a book. Fortunately, there are tools available like SmartSymbols (http://www.SmartSymbols.com) that can aggregate all the internal and external marketing material, organize it and give the read the book community experience at the point of sale (where they want it). No more hyperlinks or searches. All the research and community is right there next to the book, which is next to the “BUY” button. See SmartSymbols author/book using James Patters as an example (http://www.SmartSymbols.com/demo.html).

  • How wise of you to not be afraid. Fear isn’t much of a motivator. The publishing industry is evolving and it’s inevitable that writers have to evolve as well.

  • [...] The Storytellers Unplugged post from Mur.  More people will give away free chapters and also dabble in podcasting. Embracing the internet as a new author is imperative, or you will be left in the dust. [...]

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