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What I learned from giving away my first novel

Posted 28 April 2014 | By | Categories: Books, Publishing, The Loving Dead, The Loving Dead Online Serial | No Comments

In 2010 I serialized my first novel The Loving Dead on my website, before giving e-books away on Amazon was a common strategy. The industry belief at the time had been that anyone who read a book for free would have no reason to buy it, and so you’d kill your market.

But my publisher and I were impressed by people like Cory Doctorow giving away their books, so we decided it was a risk worth taking. The novel did well and Barnes & Noble has since called it one of the top zombie novels of the past decade.

What I learned is how the publishing industry has become personal. I also talk about an incident involving free bacon.

Information wants to be free. It also wants to be personal.

As a debut novelist I was bonecrushingly anxious about my book getting attention. I feared it being made fun of or worse, being ignored. I’ve since accepted that I’ll be writing regardless of what happens with the publishing industry, but I want to have a career.

And for me, reading has always been personal. I read author bios. I read the acknowledgements. I want to know who these people are and how they got there.

These days, publishers expect authors to be personally and socially available. Readers expect it too, and there’s a massive industry based around looking good and making friends online. So I try to hold up my end, and I love making friends, but I’ve learned that curating an online personality has to be fun. Stressing over trying to get attention ultimately doesn’t serve my goals.

Because it’s not just about attention: I want my books to make friends. I know how I feel after reading things I like, and I know how I feel after I’ve read things because they were slick enough to get my attention. I want readers who are enthusiastic about horny zombies, readers who want smart and honest writing, readers who feel a connection to my work. I want readers like the young man who told me that The Loving Dead was the first novel he’d ever read. It was the first book he’d found that he could relate to.

Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend

I think people choose what books to read the same way we choose friends. The book has to be interesting, and it has to cross your path in a way that gets your attention. It helps if the book comes recommended by someone you trust. There are so many novels out there, and I can’t remember when I last picked up a book based on a book review. I get them all through personal contacts, or chance encounters.

This may go against conventional wisdom, but I don’t think books or even authors are competing against one another. We’re competing for a potential reader’s attention with everything in his or her life. If these potential readers are anything like me, they want the book to be handed to them by a friend. They want reading to be a shared cultural experience, like Harry Potter or Fifty Shades. Most importantly, they want to read stories that speak to their interests.

So my hope is to put my books in front of as many people as possible, so that the books can make friends. Word of mouth is never about promoting a product: it’s about the personal relationship between the person giving the recommendation and the person receiving it. Making the book free is just a way to get more people involved.

Human nature and free bacon

I cowork at an office in Chicago where we recently had a bacon incident. A food truck had made some sort of mistake and had offered to come do a “bacon apology” by giving free bacon to the office members.

Free bacon? 

But when the gent showed up, the offer became “free with purchase” and I lost interest. It was upsetting not just because I’d been excited about the bacon, but because I saw the potential of what could have happened and how badly the bacon promiser had screwed it up.

I don’t think my office mates and I would have taken advantage of the free bacon. The offer was unique and something we’d been looking forward to. We would have responded by buying our lunches from the food truck. We would have told our friends about it, and the company would have cleaned up in sales and good word of mouth. That’s why I want to give more novels away. It’s not just about a single transaction.

For the past decade, publishing has been evolving from the big box model toward the cult fan base. There will always be big trends because humans are social creatures, but I see the 1,000 True Fans method for making money from creative work becoming mainstream. And why not? We get our breaking news through our social networks now, just as we did thousands of years ago. Information has always been personal, that’s why we trust it.

“Over the course of my career, I’ve never had one. People come for the body of work, not the song.” — Joe Bonamassa