Friday, December 7, 2012

Potlatch and Publishing

When Does It Make Sense to Give Books Away?

As luck would have it, I am about one-quarter of the way through Kristin Gleeson’s Selkie Dreams as I sit down to type this post. It’s a novel about an Irishwoman, Máire McNair, who escapes her dreary Protestant father and his plans to marry her off to the man of his dreams by signing up as a missionary to the Tlingit in late nineteenth-century Alaska. A historical romance, which I like, and an unusual setting, which I also like. I’m hoping that Máire will settle down with one of the Tlingit, a young man educated by the missionaries who has reverted to his native culture. (Selkies, for those who don’t know, are Celtic seal spirits who can take human form but must always, eventually, return to the ocean and their own kind. Máire believes her mother to have been one.)

I mention the book here not only because it’s worth the read if you like historical romance but because one of the Tlingit customs that particularly upsets the missionaries is the potlatch, in which people vie to give away cherished possessions—a custom that strikes the missionaries, for whatever reason, as sublimely uncivilized. 

Tlingit Dancers at a Potlatch, 1898
Courtesy of the University of Washington Digital Collections


Now customs are customs, and I’m no Victorian capitalist missionary to judge the ways of the Tlingit. But I do find it odd that the world of indie publishing seems to be caught up in its own kind of potlatch, in which authors who have spent years of their lives crafting a work of fiction vie for the right to offer it to the public free of charge in the hope of boosting sales.

Now, if someone tells me s/he has such plans, I keep my mouth shut unless the writer asks for my opinion, and few do. But as a marketing strategy, the logic of this behavior has always escaped me. Yes, I understand about loss leaders and giving the razors away for next-to-nothing to drive sales of razor blades. I know that search algorithms use brute numbers in calculating which results to list first, and since a large part of selling a new book by a first-time author is letting the public know that the book exists (not to mention differentiating it from the zillion other books being produced at the same time), hitting the top of these lists has value. But it still seems to me that the strategy of giving a book away for a period of time pays off best for writers who have other—preferably several other—titles already written and available for purchase. In that case, when the person trawling for free downloads clicks on one book and likes it, the person may be persuaded to pay cash for other books by the same author—right then, right there. Otherwise, the thousand people who download a book for free will seldom pay to buy that book—why should they?—and by the time the next book rolls around, they will have gone on to other authors. The author of one book may gain in popularity and search results, but it's not clear that s/he actually sells more books.

For that reason, even though I now have two novels in print, I had pretty much decided not to make my books available for free until I had at least a couple more titles out the door. Instead, I've sought other ways to publicize my books, counting on word of mouth, the building of relationships through social networks, and my role as the host of New Books in Historical Fiction to produce a slow but, one hopes, steady improvement in sales. I also set the prices at a level I could sustain over time or, if the occasion seemed to warrant it, reduce without forfeiting all profit from my work.

Nevertheless, as you can see from the widget at the top right corner of my blog, I have decided to participate in a GoodReads giveaway. Between now and December 31, GoodReads members in the US, the UK, and Canada can sign up to win one of two signed copies of The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel.

Is this a contradiction? I don’t think so. For one thing, I’m well aware of my own limitations when it comes to marketing. The argument I sketched out above could be completely wrong—ill suited to the new ways of doing business. I won’t know unless I test the waters, and a GoodReads giveaway is a pretty safe test. I myself am curious to see what happens.

What has happened so far is that the number of people listing The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel as “to-read” has quintupled in the last 72 hours. This clearly results from the giveaway, because the numbers for The Golden Lynx haven’t budged. Sales also haven’t budged, but that’s hardly surprising: people who have signed up to win something cannot be expected to buy the product before the giveaway ends.

But the big questions remain. Will the giveaway increase sales, or will the people who don’t win just sign up for the next giveaway by another author? If people do read The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel and like it, will they then buy The Golden Lynx? If neither of those things happen, will the giveaway raise my profile or increase traffic to my blog or assist my attempts at marketing in some other way?

Stay tuned for the answers!

1 comment:

  1. I tend to share your opinion concerning free giveaways. I haven't spent all these years (15 at least) writing books just to give them away. I want to be able to make a living from my writing and giving it away for free won't enable me to do that.

    However, I like the terms of yours. Instead of giving away an unlimited number of copies for a limited span of time like so many others do, you've limited the number of copies. It might work. I'll be interested to see the results. Good luck!


Ideas, suggestions, comments? Write me a note. (Spam comments containing links will be deleted.)