Aug 10 2009 1:43pm

Gaiman and Doctorow Discuss Giving It Away

Neil Gaiman and Cory DoctorowOn Saturday at WorldCon, Guest of Honor Neil Gaiman read Cory Doctorow’s short story “The Right Book” to a full house for later audio release with an upcoming self-published project. During the question and answer session afterward, the subject of giving digital work away for free came up.

Now, If you know of Doctorow, you know he’s talked about this a couple of times. He’s rather well known for giving his work away, as he had the first Creative Commons novel with Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. But Gaiman is not as well known for his stances on giving things away. (Well. Not as much as Doctorow is, anyway.)

But he did give away free digital copies of American Gods for a month’s experiment in early 2008.

It’s been really fun in my own slow way nudging HarperCollins out of the stone ages and into the dark ages. As far as I’m concerned the entire argument [of the validity of giving digital books away] was won at the point where I got them to put American Gods online…we gave it away for free for a month, and during the course of that month and for about four weeks after, the number of copies of all of my books…went up three hundred percent. As far as I’m concerned, that answered that question.

And in case the American Gods experiment failed to sway him, the results of his Hugo-nominated Hugo-winning  The Graveyard Book experiment definitely did. He had a videographer follow him on his book tour to record him, so you can watch him reading the book in its entirety online. Again, giving away digital copies for free, albeit in video this time.

Whenever I notice that [The Graveyard Book] is slipping down the Amazon ratings…I just go onto Twitter and say, ‘You know you can watch the entire thing for free,’ and then the Amazon ratings will go up. It has been out in the world for forty-three weeks, and for forty-three of those forty-three weeks it’s been in the top ten of the New York Times Bestseller list. So I don’t believe we have lost a single sale.

An audience member did ask how an unknown author could make that happen for himself, as Doctorow and Gaiman are quite popular, and Doctorow pointed out that popularity didn’t matter.

When my first book came out and was the first [Creative Commons] licensed novel, one of the criticisms I heard a lot was, ‘Well of course you can afford to do this because you’re so poorly known; you have so little to lose.’ Now, six years later, I frequently hear people saying, ‘Well of course you can afford to give your books away, you’re so well known.’

We have the audio of the full question and answer session—we apologize for the poor quality when someone asks a question; they didn’t have a mic for the audience.

Soon we’ll post the video of Gaiman’s reading of “The Right Book.”

Mur Lafferty is an author and podcaster. She is the host of I Should Be Writing and the author of Playing For Keeps, among other things. You can find all of her projects at

Marcus W
1. toryx
I love it whenever attention is given to this subject. When Tor gave away all those free novels online last year, I snatched every one that I could and downloaded it as a pdf file. I only recently got around to reading some of those books and in every case so far, I've enjoyed the book so much that I either went out and bought the rest of the series, bought a hardcopy to keep in my library, or recommended them to friends to buy.

Getting it for free gave me the chance to read something I might not have otherwise picked up and as a result I suddenly have four new authors to follow. It's a win-win situation for everyone.
Jason Ramboz
2. jramboz
"And in case the American Gods experiment failed to sway him, the results of his Hugo-nominated The Graveyard Book experiment definitely did."

I do believe that the word "nominated" is no longer entirely sufficient. Congrats, Neil! :)
Joseph Blaidd
3. SteelBlaidd
Absolute best explination of how free ebooks economics works is the Baen Free Library which has been up and runing since 2000. If it didn't make money they would have droped it years ago.
Torsten Adair
4. Torsten Adair
Working for Barnes & Noble, I happened across a free copy of Doctorow's "Content". I recommend it to all who wonder about the concept of free merchandise in a digital world. (Available online in just about any digital and audio format.)

(Libraries have been doing this for years. Comicbook shops since 2001. Remember... the first one is always free...)

Harper is a bit ahead of the game... at Book Expo this year, they handed out "ARC cards"... 4x6 inch cards showing the cover on one side, the blurb and download code on the other for a PDF or EPUB file.

Of course, booksellers know that what really sells a book is word of mouth. "Free" is almost as good, but to anyone who has trolled the shipping area on Sunday evening knows, there are lots of abandoned free books.
Torsten Adair
5. John T. Cullen
I can tell you with absolute certainty that giving stuff away free doesn't work unless you are already a known author. I was the world's first author to publish free weekly serials of my novels (1996, Neon Blue and Heartbreaker, before there was e-commerce). Thousands of people downloaded around the world, and I got some nice thanks. Last year, in an effort to pump up my still-meager sales, I offered everything for free. I had over 120,000 visitors, of whom a small number read the stuff, and not a single thank-you. People are scared of scams. It's a different internet than it was 13 years ago. Also, more importantly, people are saturated - nobody has time to read stuff by an unknown. Finally, too, I always felt that many people will think that, if you give something away free, it must not have any value. I've stopped the free giveaway for the most part, and am refocusing on markets where I know I can pump up my sales.
Torsten Adair
6. Douglas Cootey
Free content is a way to jumpstart the word-of-mouth chain reaction. But there needs to be more than a "Kewl! Free book here: (linkie)" response. If the free content isn't any good, there is no benefit. People need to talk about what they read—to endorse it. That's when the free promotion leads to sales.
Gerry Quinn
7. gerryq
Unprotected shareware software worked for a little while too, until (1) everybody started doing it, and (ii) people got used to it.

It doesn't work now.

Maybe books will be different. Maybe.

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