To give away or not to give away

You know how it is when everyone's doing something and you're the only one not doing it? (And I don't mean in a 50 Shades way). Inevitable anxiety and a series of horrible questions follow - why am I not doing it, too? Would it not be better if I did? But what if it's not? What's wrong with me that I'm not doing it, what's wrong with me full stop, aaarrrggghhh. None of these questions are best designed to help you, really. And what also doesn't help is the kind of story like this one, about the four self-published authors on the New York Times bestseller lists: Or that Amazon's e-book sales have over taken their print sales for the first time: It's the main story, all the time, everywhere, and as I'm not available yet as an e-book, and I'm not self-published, I'm not part of that huge big main story, either.

How much does any of that matter? There are many, many, many articles tirelessly devoted to telling you just how much any of that matters (although I did rather like Nicola Morgan's slightly two-fingered gesture to the whole damn thing: The questions only continue: should I make myself part of the story somehow? Get myself in there anyway, anyhow? One of the things I like most about being on Twitter and Facebook is that I can keep up with what other writers are doing, when their books are out, what they're thinking about, etc - but when I see all the posts about their books being offered free for a day (or 99p for a day, which is almost the same), I start to panic even more and I wish I hadn't seen them.

Last week, exactly this kind of panic drove me to ask my publisher if we should put Between the Sheets up for free for a day. I really had mixed feeling about this - more on that in a mo' - but I know I wouldn't even have suggested it if it hadn't seemed like the entire world was doing it and I was being left behind, along with my horse-led carriage, my beta-max video and my cassette recorder (although, just as an aside, the camera didn't replace painting. But I'm sure I'm only missing some crucial theory about that somewhere). Anyway - they weren't keen on that course of action just yet - like many traditional publishers, they want to give the print copy a proper chance. The e-book edition isn't available yet, as I said, but when it is, there will be a chance to download a chapter for free from the publisher's website. Crucially, it will be priced pretty competitively with the paperback. I asked about this issue on Facebook last year when I saw that the e-book edition of Claire Tomalin's biography of Charles Dickens was pretty much the same price as the hardback. I got the same answer - traditional publishers don't want to hurt potential print sales with an e-book giveaway.

There is another argument, of course (I'm reluctant to get into too much of this kind of debate as there's always at least 1000 other arguments and it's exhausting), that offering the e-version for free for a day would expose it to people who wouldn't normally have bought my book anyway, but might download it just to see, and who might talk about it, too, might create a bit of a buzz around and that in turn would help sales. Which of course only leads to the timing question - if you do want to give the book away for a day, which day should you choose? The day before publication? After? Six months later? When is the best time, if there is a best time? Like most writers, I know people for whom this strategy has worked extremely well, and people for whom this strategy has made little or no difference at all. Maybe it's even done them harm, who knows?

But as I think more about this question, I know what my mixed feelings are really all about, and it isn't about money and the loss of potential sales. It's about something very different - it's about status. That might seem a petty and even ridiculous thing to be worried about but tap any writer just a tiny bit and you'll find an egotistical monster who desperately cares about their status in the literary world. In the past, status was maintained by clear distinctions - published versus unpublished or self-published (and it was a very 'them and us' situation. I help organise a monthly networking evening for writers called 'Weegie Wednesday' and it's striking how many published writers feel it's not for them, because they think it's full of unpublished writers, or 'wannabes'. They're wrong, but the need to maintain those distinctions exists).

'Published' status of course has its own little hierarchies - whether you're published by a major, a midsize indie or a tiny. Whether your publisher is local, regional or London-based. Whether you got a big advance, a respectable advance or you're royalties-only. The arrival of the e-book market has shot a bit of a bolt through all of that, because you have big names self-publishing now and you have established authors turning to it because the traditional publishers have turned them down for low book sales and they figure they can make more money self-publishing than going with a royalties-only tiny. It's hard to look superior to a selfpublished e-author if they've just pocketed 10 grand in one month, and you're traditionally published and can't afford to replace the leaky shoes you're standing in.

So with my leaky shoes I questioned my anxiety about losing face - and wondered why it did seem to me to be losing face at all, to give my book away for free for a day. I worry that it will look bad - that it will look as though my book isn't selling and I've had to give it away. That I will look desperate. That I will have to spend forever persuading people to download it. That if I fail even to get decent figures on a give-away that will mean I'm rubbish, and so on and so on.

My own conception of what my status is will be affected, then - and yes, I know how ridiculous it is for me to think about 'my status', but there you are. I don't want to have to beg. I don't want to have to 'give away' (even though I know that if Sainsbury's were to take up my book and sell it for 99p, that would be seen as a great thing). I'm scared of joining in with everyone else and being swept away on a big tidal mass of free stuff that, in the end, just buries me and that tiny little bit of status that shores me up will be gone for ever. Stupid, I know, to cling to such a thing when innovation and change are happening everywhere. And when neither of those things frighten me in themselves, or necessarily threaten the thing I'm clinging to...but what do you do? And now I'm back to the questions.    



  1. I used to boycott Amazon because they were so dominant but I now have to play the game like everyone else. My ebook is selling for .99p there at the moment. Amazon approached my publisher and they thought it was a good idea. More people will buy it therefore more to pass the word round. What do I have to loose? I don't care what other writers think.

    But I think non fiction is a different matter. I would never buy a non fiction ebook. And if your publisher don't want to go into promotional deals they should be doing something else to promote it.

  2. Thanks, Moira, I was hoping someone who'd done this would make a comment. I suppose it's too early to tell how it's affected your sales? My publisher had promotional deals with Amazon that still involved reductions on the price, I think most traditional publishers now have to do that. Whether it's enough or not, I don't know. Interested that you would never buy a non-fiction e-book. Why not?

    1. I very rarely buy ebooks. It is normally for a quick read of something I feel I should read. Most fiction and all non fiction books I buy hard copy because I like to own the physical book. I like to flick back and forth and refer back to pages long after the initial read. It just isn't the same with ebook

  3. Maybe it depends on the type of non-fiction? Biography, which is fully text-based, works on Kindle, but something that depends on illustrations isn't good at all on Kindle (though it would work well on IPad or some of the other e-book readers). Or maybe it's about non-fiction books being 'keepers'?

    Lesley, I really enjoyed your blog post. I think it's refreshingly honest, the way you bring status into the argument.

    As for pricing - I put my short stories up on Amazon for £3.31 because I believe a 'good' book should be priced 'properly', but in hindsight I think this has been counter-productive. At a SoA event last week, the advice was to give away for two or three consecutive days to build up a head of steam so I might try that.

    Seems there's no right or wrong answers in this e-book debate. Just what works for the individual author.

    Last thing - have you seen the Edinburgh e-book Festival?

    Best wishes,

  4. Thank you for that, Carol - I really want this blog to be as honest as possible. I'm not down at all on the publishing industry, I think there are lots of ways of making the new technologies work for us all, and I guess I wanted to try and address that with it.

    Certainly, there's a difference between 'pulp' fiction, and the 'beautiful books' that people like to keep, that's always been there as far as I can see. The problem seems to be applying the same marketing and sales logic to the 'beautiful books' that is applied to the more 'disposable' types of books (although there's plenty of 'disposable', pulp books that have lasted through the decades - just look at Conan Doyle and Wells. They both thought their popular books would die and their 'serious' work outlive them) - it doesn't seem to work with the same guarantees, but perhaps that shouldn't surprise us.

    I knew about the e-book festival but will check it out, thanks!

  5. Interesting blog Lesley. A quandary for all writers I'm sure.Never done a free promo of my own debut novel 'Twice Born' and as far as I know my publisher is not keen on one for my second novel 'Bombay Baby'. Here's another article on ebooks that is worth browsing: How E-Books Are Ruining the Next Generation of Writers via @HuffPostCaLiv

  6. Thanks for that, Leela, it is a dilemma. I will be blogging on 'literary fiction and not giving up the day job' next week - partially addresses that (rather badly written but interesting) article you've cited. For my part, I have currently just over 250 paperbacks sitting in my flat, sent to me by editors and publishers in the last four months alone, a small selection of what's being produced by an industry that's apparently on its last legs...


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