What Kinds of Content Should Authors and Publishers Give Away for Free?

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka

Sometimes giving it away for free seems to work: Cory Doctorow gave away several of his early novels online for free and it has subsequently turned him into a successful, traditionally published author. Or so that’s the story he likes to tell. Of course, giving away an entire book has it’s risks. Notably, that the book will proliferate for free online to such an extent that it could make sales less than viable. But Doctorow, for one, is dismissive of this argument and it’s just one of the reason’s he advocates non-DRM e-book publishing. “My biggest problem isn’t piracy, it’s anonymity,” he’s said in the past. Numerous authors have followed Doctorow’s example, with varying degrees of success. One thing to keep in mind with Doctorow is that he starting “giving it away for free” at a time when the audience of people reading e-books was significantly smaller. What’s more, his fiction largely catered to a SF/fantasy genre audience — a group filled with early tech adopters.

When it comes to marketing, as discussed in today’s lead story, giving content away for free in order to sell more content in the future has become the norm. Today, the web is filled with book trailers or podcasts featuring interviews with authors, first chapters and excerpts from new books, and bonus supplemental material that might be anything an everything, from photos of the authors dog to an unpublished index of research primary sources.

The thinking is that giving away a small sample for free will entice buyers to purchase a larger quantity. It’s no different than Jamba Juice handing out one ounce sample of smoothies to people walking through a mall.

Whether this really works or not is still up for debate. But one thing is certain — publishers and authors need to determine exactly what kind of content to give away and how much. Earlier this year Kevin Smokler argued on this site that the current methodology publishers have for allowing readers to sample books is inadequate.

What’s more, the question of what and how much to give away doesn’t just involve content, it extends to the author’s time as well. Nearly all the large publishers have in-house speakers bureaus that organize paid-for appearances for their authors. At the same time, an author is requested by the marketing and publicity departments to make a number of appearances for free in support of a new publication. Where should the author — provided they can attract a paid-for audience — then draw the line? Does this not put the marketing and publicity departments at odds with other parts of the publishing house?

So, based on these various scenarios and current state of the book market, what kinds of content — and how much — should authors and publishers give away for free? What, in your opinion, are the risks involved? What’s the downside and the upside?

For a point of reference, see some of the recent discussion of this topic online at The Guardian.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.