Monetizing Free Books

I hope everyone had a wonderful New Year’s celebration. I sure did and I managed not to do anything embarrassing this year, which is good considering that number seven on my 2008 resolution list was to “Stop Doing Embarrassing Things.”

Anyway, Maria is still enjoying a much-deserved vacation in Florida, but that doesn’t mean we want you to miss out on any writing news. So your favorite managing editors, Kara and I, are holding down The Writer’s Perspective in her absence and will drop a few updates until our beloved editor returns.

I thought I’d kick things off with a wild idea: Could writers and publishers give all their books away for free and come out ahead financially? Sounds crazy, but Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired, doesn’t seem to think the idea is too far-fetched. In an interview with Media, Anderson explains how authors and publishers could potentially monetize free books:

“Here is a thought experiment. The problem with me and an imaginary publisher is they are in the book-selling business and I am in the me-selling business. My job is to promulgate my ideas as far and wide as possible, to create monetization opportunities. I don’t do all of these things but I could: speeches, consulting, board seats, better job offers. People write books to market their speaking engagements. We make a lot more money from speaking than from books, an order of magnitude more. The problem is the publisher doesn’t benefit from any of that. The best way to sell me is to get my ideas spread as far and wide as possible and yet they are only participating in books. So the natural solution would be to cut them in for a share of my revenues regardless of where they come. I am not saying I am doing this, but you could make my book free and I give you 30 percent of all my revenues-speaking, consulting, whatever. You could take the agency model; our client is you and we’re going to monetize you in every way we can and we’ll get a percentage of that. It basically aligns the interests of the publisher and the writer.”

You can read the full interview here, but in the meantime, what’s your take? Can the Google model of giving all your information away and using it as a platform to sell other goods (in this case, yourself) work with books? Drop us a note in the comments section.

Take care of yourself and your writing,
Brian A. Klems
Online Managing Editor
Ps-Have a wonderful and success-filled 2008!

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5 thoughts on “Monetizing Free Books

  1. John McClarren

    I can definitely see the advantage to the autor who has already established a name for himself/herself as an accomplished author and has established that all-important platform. However, for the aspiring, heretofore unpublished author, I can not see success. First things first, and becoming published (and I do not mean self-published)would be the first priority. I am struggling still to accomplish that much, and have been for over a year since completing my first manuscript (nonfiction). I keep plugging, and will continue to do so until it happens.

  2. Jeff Yeager

    I posted a comment recently in the WD Forum about this issue, following a discussion I had with a multi-time best selling nonfiction author. He said: "Guys like us can’t make a living just by writing books. We need to be in the brand business, not the book business."

    As a fellow nonfiction hack, I appreciate his point, but I also know the amount of that author’s last book advance, and – for a cheapskate like me – that alone would be a VERY nice living for a good many years. And that actually raises the other question that I think needs to be part of an author’s thought process on this issue: How much money do you want/need to be happy? Certainly many writers can generate additional income by speaking, consulting, etc., but is that additional income really necessary – and is its pursuit worthwhile – if what you really want to do is simply write for a living?

    As I’m fond as saying: If the alternative to "settling for less" is leading a life that is unsettled, always wanting more, then I know what path I’ll chose.

    -Jeff Yeager
    Author, The Ultimate Cheapskate’s Road Map to True Riches (Broadway Books / Random House)

  3. GLG

    I think this setup could work well for high-profile non-fiction writers like Anderson, for whom a book is only one slice of a bigger pie and speaking engagements are often very lucrative, but it’s a tougher sell for fiction writers. (Alas, most poets would remain red-headed stepchildren except for those who are skilled on both the page and stage and have built a notable following via the latter.) For it to work, though, publishers would have to take an active role in securing film, TV and merchandising deals — something most aren’t really built to do — and writers would have to be even more careful about the contracts they sign.

    Interestingly, several independent comic book publishers follow a model that’s very similar, allowing creators to retain full rights to their work while giving up an often significant percentage of ancillary rights in exchange for their representing their work to studios and producers, and of course there have been many instances of creators getting screwed over because they didn’t read the fine print closely enough.

  4. Rhea

    An interesting idea. The new media does make it easy to have our work serve as a ‘calling card’ or a means to an end rather than an end itself. Funny to think of a book that way, but I think lots of bloggers and others are doing just that. Creating work (books, blogs) that draw attention so that income can be derived from other sources.

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