First of all, many thanks to Ziggy for inviting me in to talk about a subject that is currently very dear to me: why should an author give their work away? It’s a fair question and one that’s been on my mind for the last six months, for reasons that will soon become clear. However, the more I think about it, the more it becomes clear to me that the question is posed the wrong way around. Why on earth shouldn’t an author give their work away?
Let me tell you what’s changed my mind.
A year or so ago I was faced with a dilemma. I was writing – or rather trying to write – a book called “Mrs Darcy vs The Aliens”. The high concept behind the book was gloriously simple: a sequel to “Pride and Prejudice” with added aliens. Well, what’s not to love? I’d even got an agent interested in it.
The only problem was that just as I was getting started, a juggernaut moved into the space that I was attempting to mark out as my own: a bloody great juggernaut laden with zombies. Almost overnight, the “Mrs Darcy” concept went from being a brave, marginal venture into cross-genre fiction to an apparent exercise in bandwagon-jumping. There was a brief nanosecond somewhere in the middle where it was bang on the zeitgeist, but I hadn’t written enough of it at that point to capitalise on the opportunity, of course. I almost gave up writing the thing, much to the despair of said agent.
But I struggled on and it came to the point where I was actually beginning to enjoy it. It was starting to take on a life of its own, and I was beginning to have more ideas than I could actually cram into a single book. Believe me, I had never experienced anything like this before. I can do short fiction, but when it comes to novels I usually get to a chapter and a bit and then pack it in. This was completely unprecedented. I desperately wanted to get people to read this. So what was I to do?
Some time around November last year I had an epiphany. I think what happened was that all those pieces that Cory Doctorow had been writing in BoingBoing about his approach to marketing his work had somehow percolated through to my conscious brain. I decided to serialise my book for free, on its own dedicated blog. The thinking behind this was simple. If I could somehow use the serialisation to build up an audience who could see for themselves that it was something a bit different, I could use that as a lever to help my agent get me a proper book deal.
I now wish I’d done this a whole lot earlier. Let’s consider what I’ve achieved.
First of all, I have indeed built up a substantial audience of regular readers. Of course, you’ll say that it’s because it’s free. However, I’m willing to bet that a considerable percentage of the regular readership will have made a sufficient emotional investment in the serial that they will want to buy a physical token of it if such a thing ever gets published. Not only that, but they’ll buy copies for their friends and they’ll also be the ones who will be first to write reviews on Amazon.
Secondly, it has been the most wonderful way of motivating myself to carry on writing. For one thing, it’s fantastic to get feedback from complete strangers. I also have a schedule to keep up (one 600-700 word episode every Wednesday and Saturday) and I haven’t missed one yet. I’ve come close, although the curious thing is that some of the episodes that I’ve scribbled in desperation at midnight on a Tuesday or Friday have turned out to be amongst the best.
Thirdly, I have learnt a phenomenal amount about marketing. It’s not enough to give something away, if it’s something that involves an investment of time by the person you’re giving it away to. You still have to sell it even if it’s free.
When I started publishing “Mrs Darcy”, I already had a reasonably well-read blog and a Twitter account with (at the time) a couple of hundred followers. I was also active on several writers’ forums, such as The Write Idea, Café Doom and Slingink. This gave “Mrs Darcy” her initial footprint, but I needed to build on this.
Before I started publishing, I set up a separate Twitter account called RealMrsDarcy (MrsDarcy had already gone, but I kind of think that RealMrsDarcy has more of a celeb feel to it anyway), and used that to hunt down anyone who looked as if they might be a Jane Austen fan. (The thing that I didn’t do until much later on was to set up a Facebook page for her. This was a mistake, because I’ve had a whole new set of readers appear since then via Facebook who are completely unknown to me.)
I also did the rounds of various steampunk sites as well as Jane Austen fan sites. I had mixed reactions from the latter at first, for reasons that I can entirely understand. If it suddenly turns out to be open season for any clumsy idiot to wander in and trample over the legacy that you hold dear, you can be forgiven for not welcoming them with open arms. However, I did manage to break down the barriers eventually by putting together a couple of YouTube trailers that have been a fantastic tool for spreading the word. This is also the kind of thing that people will remember if and when the dead tree version comes out, and it will make the marketing task for that so much simpler.
So what’s the downside? Have I lost any potential future sales? Almost certainly not. Have any publishers turned the book down because it’s being serialised for free? Definitely not. What else could go wrong? The only possible thing that I can think of is that someone will steal my work. But hold on a minute. Is anyone really going to manage to publish a book now with remotely similar content, when most of the key players in the target communities already know about this one? I’ve established ownership by putting it out there.
As I said before, I really do wish I’d done this earlier. The whole experience has been 100% positive for me and I would recommend it to anyone. Oh, and by the way, did I mention that the book’s called “Mrs Darcy vs The Aliens”? It’s forty-odd episodes in, but you can still catch up without too much difficulty. It really is the most fun you can have with a bonnet on.