It’s estimated that in 2008 electronic books netted $1.1 billion dollars, up 68.4% from $67.2 million netted in 2007; and that’s almost double the $54.4 million sold in 2006.* Reports are already being compiled about e-book sales in the first quarter of 2009, and they’re looking very good.
It’s not difficult to guess why this format is growing in popularity; e-books are all about convenience. You don’t have to drive to the bookstore to buy one. You don’t have to wait for your order to ship from an online bookseller. When you buy an e-book, you download it immediately. In a world that practically demands instant gratification, that’s probably as fast as Publishing will ever get. It’s also convenient to store e-books on all the popular gadgets we all seem to be plagued with these days; no shelving required. For the reader with limited living space, the e-book is an ideal alternative to the traditional print book collection.
Now that it’s become a trend, authors are jumping on the free e-book bandwagon in droves. Not a week goes by that I don’t see someone’s publisher putting a free read online, and there are even some blogs popping up that track and link to these free reads.
I know a little about the power of the free read, as I’ve been creating e-books and giving them away on the internet for the last nine years. During that time I built a virtual library of free reads which anyone on the planet can read online, download, print out and redistribute to friends or other readers. The difference between me and most other authors who have done this is that all of my free reads are original and exclusive to the internet. Instead of handing out electronic copies of my print novels, I provide fresh, new fiction in full versions (no teasers, partials or sneak peeks. I give them the real deal.)
I did sell one Darkyn series e-book, (Master of Shadows), as an experiment last year. It was a novella that I wrote as a parallel story to my January ’09 print release (Stay the Night). I’ve just received some preliminary sales numbers on the e-book:
Total: 1,062 (sold from December ’08 – March ’09)
These are pretty good numbers for an e-book, but I simultaneously published a free Darkyn e-book at the same time (Incarnatio) which has gotten 6,197 views and 1,840 downloads to date (December ’08 – May ’09.)
The primary difference between the two e-books (other that you have to pay for one and you can have the other for free) is that my free read is accessible to any reader in the world. At present my publisher is only selling MoS to readers in the U.S. and Canada. Since I have a strong overseas following, being able to self-publish and distribute a free e-book allows me to reach a global readership without having to wait for red tape and foreign rights to be worked out.
Other writers who think I’m being foolish have said to me, “You can sell all those stories you give away on the internet.” Actually I can’t; my publisher generally isn’t interested in purchasing anything but my novel-length fiction, and I have a non-competition clause in my contract that prohibits me from selling fiction related to contracted work to anyone else. However, I can give away as much as I like, with the bonus of being able to publish whatever I like (versus trying to sell the idea to an editor.) This gives me enormous creative room to work, and allows me to do fun things, like ask my readers to vote on which story they’d like next to read as a free e-book.
Whether it’s a 1500 word short story or a 60K novella, giving your readers a free original read serves two purposes: first, you’re providing your readership with new content that they don’t have to pay for and they can’t get anywhere else, which they always appreciate. It’s a gift you can give to any reader on the planet, and the exchange doesn’t cost you or them a dime. Second, you’re advertising your work with the absolute best promotion in the business: your work.
At the back of my free e-books I always put a bibliography/backlist page, which details all of my series, the names I write under, the order in which the books should be read, listings for upcoming releases as well as a complete updated index of my other free reads. This gives interested readers more online reads to check out as well as a shopping list if they want to try my print work.
If I had mailed out a promo letter to every reader who took a look at my last free Darkyn novel, it would have cost me $2602.74 (this is assuming they all lived in the U.S. The postal rate for overseas mail starts at about double that.) Promotional materials only advertise a product, however, and the majority of those are thrown away and wasted because, let’s face it, it’s junk mail and has no value to readers. No one throws away a free e-book; there’s nothing to throw away. The only reason a reader looks at or downloads an e-book is because they choose to – obviously, because they’re interested. If they like what they read, they’re going to want more.
If you’d like to try publishing a free e-book, I suggest you start with a modest project, like a short story or novelette that relates to your print work (this can be a storyline that is parallel to your print novel, or a spin-off, or provides backstory or futurestory for one or more characters.) I’ve done alternative POV stories (Illumination was StarDoc book one but from Duncan Reever’s POV), merging storylines (Deimos brought together a young Cherijo Grey Veil from StarDoc with Holly Noriko, my lunar marshall) and origin stories (Near Dawn is a collection of some of the short stories that eventually became the Darkyn novels.
I frequently try out ideas on readers via free reads as well, and the feedback I receive helps me decide whether or not to pursue a new series or genre. I can also stretch my writing wings and play in a genre I haven’t yet explored in print (as I did with my fantasy short story collection, Ravelin.) Because you’re in charge, you can be as creative as you like and really have fun with it.
You can also ask your publisher to use your free online read as promotion for your current or next print release. Not all of them will take you up on it, but if they are amenable and you can get a link on a publisher or bookseller web site, that will increase your exposure exponentially.
Some links for those of you who are looking for e-book software:
Adobe Acrobat Pro: the original Cadillac of PDF creation programs. It pretty much does everything. Free full-functioning 30-day trail; $449.00 US to buy.
E-Book Compiler: Free to try, if you would like to sell the e-books you create with it you pay a one-time fee of $49.95 U.S. The feature I like about this one is how you can set your e-books to expire: “Set your E-Books to expire after a set number of days or uses, unless the password is entered.” If you wanted to put out an e-book for a limited time, this would be the way to go.
Nitro PDF Professional: 14 day free trial, $99 U.S. to buy. According to the designers, you can edit the e-books you create with this program.
Help Desk Geek has a good article here comparing seven popular .pdf writer and printer programs.
Hosting: If you don’t have a web site or FTP you can use to park your free reads on, you might consider using a free file hosting service. I’ve tried a number of them, and I think Scribd.com is the best on the internet.
*Stats source: Simba Information BPR April 2009