Business at usual doesn't seem to be working in the publishing world. It hasn't really worked for the past decade, really. First time authors are finding it near impossible to get either an agent or a publishing deal. Middle of the road authors find themselves stuck in a terrible limbo because their books don't sell enough to get further deals. Everyone seems to be making less money per book sold. Some Aussie publishers are (apparently) just not paying their authors until the quarterly royalty cheques reach a certain size. It's dodgy business all round.
It's no surprise that new authors have spent the past few years trying to find new routes to success. The merits of print-on-demand services have been debated out the arse by much better folk than I. What I'm interested in are the merits of giving things away.
A recent article in the New Yorker called Annals of Innovation: How David beat Goliath discussed underdog strategies, specifically as regards basketball - the ways in which an undertrained, underfunded team of amateurs can play toe-to-toe with near-professional teams simply by using unexpected or "underhanded" tactics.
The political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants. The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 per cent of the cases... Arreguín-Toft was analyzing conflicts in which one side was at least ten times as powerful—in terms of armed might and population—as its opponent, and even in those lopsided contests the underdog won almost a third of the time.
Writing and publishing is different to the battle-field, certainly. If you screw up, nobody dies. But there are certainly Goliaths out there, both in the publishing industry and in the ranks of authors. New authors think they're only competing against the whims of agents and publishing houses, but in reality they're competing against everyone else writing in their genre. When was the last time you heard about an amazing new voice in Horror? Joe Hill, perhaps? But even he has only published a single novel and a short story collection, and I'll bet his sales remain pretty modest until his father dies.
There is only enough room in each genre for a few major authors. This is fact. Two or three big names will always steal about 90% of the sales in any given genre and the newbies have to wait for the oldies to quit or die if they want to be successful - that is, of course, if they take the traditional route.
What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered, when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.”
So what underdog avenues are open to the unpublished, unknown aspiring author? Well, you could always give it away.
John Scalzi is an author that comes up a lot when this for-free debate is voiced, because he's done it, and it worked. As he points out, that's not without a lot of qualifiers. His first big-hit novel, Old Man's War (a damn fine book, available at Of Science and Swords for just $17.95 Aussie, roll up, roll up) was available on his site for next-to-nothing for quite a while, and it grabbed the attention of a passing editor/headhunter.
What does this tell me, personally?
First - that if nobody comes to your site, nobody will read your stuff.
Second - that there is a lot of crud out there, and it's just as important to distinguish yourself from the crud as it is for your work to not be crud in the first place.
Third - people recognise quality, and we should have faith in them.
Of course, many people will argue that you should never give anything away that you can sell. But that's not the way the internet works. There is a definite sense these days that everyone is entitled to everything for free, and that paying actual money is something that happens afterwards, if you really like whatever it is you just stole. Keeping in mind that pretty much everything is available for theft on the internet, and you have to wonder... why not just give it away anyway? At least it'll be nicely formatted, with a proper cover, and a link back to your donations page.
Does giving things away for free hurt sales? Evidence so far points to no, or at least to mmmmaaaybe. Cory Doctorow links to a 2007 case study of book sales following the free e-book release of a title. Sales don't drop. They just kind of hover. Other studies have shown rises in sales of up to 18%. THAT AIN'T BAD, GUYS.
Does it always work? Of course not. And again, a Scalzi post discussing people who think that throwing away a free e-book is a straight line to huge sales. I'll spoil the ending: it doesn't work. A free promotion should be regarded as any major sales strategy - with press releases, banners, cross promotion and the like. You know, the sort of stuff publishing houses are paid to do.
But! There is a secret!
You can do all this too.
Anyone can issue a press release. Anyone can call a newspaper. Anyone can use internet news feeds to promote a free title. These are not incredible impossible marketing strategies. They're just the sort of thing that big publishing houses - the Goliaths - expect you not to do, because it's too much effort.
Malcolm Gladwell made his point very clear.
We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity. It’s the other way around. Effort can trump ability—legs, in Saxe’s formulation, can overpower arms—because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coördination.
Of course, not everyone thinks they should work for free. Ever. Harlan Ellison is a case in point. But hey, he has a right to be angry. He only helped create a goddamn genre.
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So, after all that... your thoughts? Should new authors even bother with the big publishing houses? Or should we sit down and figure out a comprehensive internet marketing strategy that will bring free, quality publications to the attention of thousands... and hope that some of them will want to donate a few extra bucks as well?