Giving it away by Jonathan Pinnock

jonathon pinnock

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.

12 thoughts on “Giving it away by Jonathan Pinnock

  1. This was an informative post for me. I’ve got a serial going, that’s been pretty well recieved. Someone asked me what my plans were for it. Well, good question. It arose from a novel that withered on the vine; now that I’ve started to serialize, it’s got a redirected plot and a lot of life breathed into it.Do I want to pull it and make it the novel I originally thought it could be? You’ve given me some key things to consider – thanks!

  2. Glad to have given you some food for thought, Tony! It’s not a straightforward decision by any means, but if it works for you, go for it 🙂

  3. I just want to say that this is a terrific idea, and I was half-way to doing the same thing myself — no, not writing a “Mrs. Darcy vs. the Aliens” blog book, but putting my novel online for free and saying “what the hell; I’m in it for the fun”. I didn’t do that, but I’m fine anyway; my novel “Dying Light” comes out from Canonbridge in July. http://dyinglightthenovel.blogspot.com/Nevertheless, it’s a terrific idea. In fact, just the other day (it’s kind of coincidental that I’m reading this now), I got the idea for an updated version of “The Wizard of Oz” called “Dorothy: Locked and Loaded”, and I’m looking for authors to do it as a serialized novel online. The start date is 1 June, but I’ve already got part one, the baseline, if you will, on the blog. http://dorothylockedandloaded.blogspot.com/Good luck with the book, and I’ll check it out ASAP.

  4. Thanks! Love the Wizard of Oz idea – good luck with that one (and with your proper book, too)

  5. Hi JonYou siad that you intend to publish this as a book. Will you have 100 chapters, each of 500-700 words? If not, how will you overcome the ‘cliffhanger syndrome’ where every few hundred words needs a break for the tension to build? I ask because I serialised a 70K Jasfoup dovel by daily posts, but couldn’t turn it into a book because every 300 words was either a cliffhanger or a punchline.

  6. Very good point, Rachel. I originally wrote it in chunks like this, mainly because that’s the only way I could! I then packaged them up as chapters, with each chapter consisting of five episodes which sort of relate to each other (particularly in sequences like the dinner at Rosings, where the action takes place over a whole chapter, albeit from different POVs). Generally speaking, there’s a bigger cliffhanger at the end of each of those chapters than the individual episodes. I then unpicked those chapters back into the episodes in order to serialise it.When I presented the first three complete chapters to my local writing group, the general consensus was that it hung together OK, but of course, a professional editor might well see it differently …By the way, when is the next Jasfoup book coming out? I want to read it!

  7. Entertaining and informative article. I just subscribed to Mrs. Darcy and the Aliens. I read that *other* P&P zombie book and am looking forward to catching up on your Aliens story!Thanks for sharing your insights.

  8. Jon–I’ve just sold Jasfoup book two (though I’ve written eight) and am currently editing ‘Screaming Yellow’ a murder-mystery set in Laverstone.

  9. @ganymeder Excellent – hope you like it!@Leatherdykeuk Great news, Rachel – looking forward to reading it!

  10. Hi JonInteresting to reread your ‘journey’ on this. Good point that if you really want an audience, you still have to sell it even without money changing hands. I suspect not a lot of people realise this …AliB

  11. Absolutely right, Ali. I think that’s the most important thing I’ve learnt, tbh.

  12. Excellent post. I’ve been serializing my work on my blog for a couple years now, and while I don’t have a huge audience, I adore those who read and occasionally comment. I’m currently revising one of my first serial stories for selling (self-pub) as a complete work (including fixing those transitional issues someone brought up above). It’s really not *too* much work to “fix” the transitions so they flow better when read as a whole, IMO (easier than the rewrite I’m doing on another ms for submitting to trad publishers later, anyways). I also find that my serials are a good way to try out different writing styles, get instant feedback on what works, etc. It’s been a great experience overall, and I’ll be serializing for a long time to come. Now to go catch up on Mrs. Darcy and the Aliens…I’m looking forward to reading your work. 🙂

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