Sunday, October 5, 2014

Should my books be free? Sure, Bub!

I decided to run a comment (below) which was posted in reply to Russell Smith's Globe and Mail column about the ascendency of blockbuster books (i.e. Fifty Shades of Grey), which have rendered the moderately-selling "midlist" novel practically obsolete. I found Russell Smith's piece oddly comforting because it made me realize (unlike all the other forces around me, which seem to be telling me it's all my fault) that all this is driven by global economic conditions and not the personal failure that has sometimes rendered me suicidal. In fact I  have re-run it a couple of times, as a reality check and to keep me from jumping off the bridge.

But this is the first time I have read the comments. I took the name off this - something I would normally never do - because it's a comment, not an article, and because I'm not maligning this writer so much as demonstrating just how desperate we have become just to get our work out there.

It seems it's now necessary to give our work away in mass quantities, powered by something called (astonishingly) BookBub, in order to eventually take in "hundreds of dollars" by selling our books at the astonishing price of  $2.99! But how to sustain yourself on a few hundred dollars? Is that a living wage? Where has our dignity gone?

What bothers me most of all however is the eagerness, the excitement, the sense of promise, even gratitude for this opportunity, the "next big thing" for writers. No one seems to see the sweating desperation behind it, but maybe that's because nobody feels it any more.  Give it away? Are our stories worth literally nothing, after so many years of hard work, reams of time, careful crafting and praying for opportunity? Must we grovel and scrape and learn to love Big Brother to get anywhere at all, to keep from dropping into the pit of oblivion that swallowed me a long time ago?

I can't keep up with things like this, or with ugly, even grotesque names like BookBub. At first I thought this was satire. It had to be. Then I PRAYED it was satire: Jesus, look at the lengths we have to go to, just to get our work into people's hands and people's skulls! Then, with a sickening feeling of the floor dropping out from under me, I realized it was true. Not only that - you have to PAY them to give your work away, in full knowledge of the fact that in our money-driven culture, free things are generally perceived as worthless, of interest only to garbage-pickers and other scavenger types.

This is what we must do and even what we must feel good about in these shark-infested waters. We must keep up with all the new warts popping up, infestations that ask YOU to pay THEM so that you can get your books out there for free.  I am constantly told, "well, Margaret, that's just what you have to do these days, you don't have any choice, just hold your nose and do it." Open your legs, and close your mind.

No thanks. I'd rather be a no-list writer, keep my dignity, and make my few hundred dollars from actual sales of actual books, bought by actual people. And that's the way it's going to stay - Bub.

Mr. Smith offers us a snapshot of a continuously evolving process. No one knows what publishing will be like a year from now, or two, or ten. We are making it up as we go along.

I'm what the industry calls a midlist author, neither a bestselling star nor a miserable failure. I'm paid (though not very much) for the sf and crime novels and short stories I write, and my readership occupies a definable niche well away from the middle of the bell curve.

To see what the long tail might mean to me, nine months ago I began self-publishing my backlist -- books that had been trade-published but whose rights had reverted back to me -- as well as collections of short stories that had appeared in mass-market magazines. I found I could sell ten ebooks a day, which didn't make me rich but it did give me an income stream from past work that otherwise had no commercial value. 

But then the sales began to trail off, despite all the Facebooking, blogging, and tweeting to which we midlisters are encouraged to devote daily time. So I cast around for another strategy and came across BookBub. It's a service that advertises ebook bargains (free or 99 cents) to more than a million subscribers.

I reduced the price of one of my sf titles to zero, and for $80 BookBub sent an email to 240,000 sf ebook readers. In 24 hours, some 15,000 people downloaded the free text off Amazon, Kobo, and Smashwords. Now I wait and see how many of those freebie-takers will come back and buy one of my $2.99 titles. 

Even if only one or two per cent do so, I will earn hundreds of dollars from that $80 investment. If ten per cent come back for more, I'll take in thousands.

The thing is, I couldn't have done any of this two years ago, because BookBub didn't exist before January 2012. Now it's a serious player for self-publishers needing marketing support. And next year, or the year after, some bright spark will come up with yet another profitable way to help us authors make money off the long tail.

Because this revolution is just getting started.


Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book
    It took me years to write, will you take a look

(WARNING: this is a real book, sold for real money. But not too much. I promise you!)

Visit Margaret's Amazon Author Page!

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