Regular visitors may already know that my small ebook publishing company (Personville Press) has been publishing several ebooks by the Ohio author Jack Matthews. I have actually been working hard on doing that (which explains why I post so rarely here). I am actually working on several titles with Mr. Matthews now (the most recent of which is a great philosophical play called Interview with the Sphinx).
Personville Press has published a great mini-ebook consisting of three short stories which Mr. Matthews published in the 1980s. And it’s free — free, free, free! (Mr. Matthews and I picked some choice cream-of-the-crop stories which show his range of storytelling).
I have thought long and hard about whether to offer freebies and whether it’s a viable marketing strategy. My take is that it doesn’t really hurt and might possibly help, though you’d be surprised at how hard it is to persuade people to download a free title… You practically have to beg them to do it.
One issue is that many readers (even techno-savvy ones) are unfamiliar with or inconvenienced by having to transfer ebook files to their device. If you are unused to doing it, I can understand why it could be a problem. But really it’s easy. The Calibre ebook management software lets you do it via USB connection — but that’s only for DRM-free titles.
Another option for the Kindle is to email the ebook directly to your device (which I explain midway down on this page). This is a nifty solution, but bizarrely, although Amazon can convert lots of file types, it apparently cannot convert epub files to KF8 files when sending via email. (Epub is the standard which all publishers use and which even Amazon’s own conversion tools know how to convert).If you have to do the transfer yourself, you need to be diligent about keeping backups. I’ve had ebook devices fail on me, and even if the titles I lost were only public domain titles and creative commons titles, it’s still lost if I didn’t make a list of which files I lost. (If I had a list, I could simply download them again). For now though, I keep an "ebooks" folder in my Dropbox which is specifically for bought and free ebooks. I put ebooks I obtain there first and then upload them manually to my device when I get the chance.
Making It Free: The Challenges
The other issue why it’s so hard to persuade readers to download free titles is that Amazon and Barnes and Noble make it so difficult to distribute free titles. You may see lots of free Kindle titles on Amazon.com, but that is totally an illusion. A large number of these free ebooks are:
- public domain titles (they were already free)
- free ebooks from big publishers which are mainly genre books (romance, sci-fi, fantasy, erotica). Mostly garbage.
- titles which were free only to subscribers of Amazon Prime program. (Amazon Prime requires that Amazon be the exclusive seller of this title– which is a really bad thing).
Amazon has been pushing the Amazon Prime in a major way. One inducement to indie authors is that they would allow any title submitted to Amazon Prime to be free for 5 days of every 30 days. This is not being generous.
One workaround for authors is to publish the title for free on Smashwords, publish the same title for a price on Amazon and use Amazon’s price-matching guarantee to persuade Amazon to drop the price to permanently free. Although the process isn’t particularly smooth, if the ebook is formatted up to a certain standard, it can be distributed for free on Sony/Barnes and Noble/Kobo and Apple. But this is enough to convince Amazon to match the low-price guarantee. So it basically took a month of waiting for Amazon to carry this title for free. So enjoy it, folks!
Why is Amazon so stingy about allowing free ebooks? Mainly, it’s greed; the power to make something a freebie is a carrot which Amazon can dangle before publishers. Besides, Amazon isn’t in the business of distributing free things; they want their digital distributions to actually earn some money. It also has to do with the fact that a lot of free titles on Smashwords and elsewhere are crap. Not merely in terms of quality (that can be simply a matter of taste), but many so-called "ebooks" are not actually full-fledged ebooks. Instead they are simply 5-10 page stories….or less! People already have a built in sense that a book ought to be at least 150-250 pages. Perhaps that opinion needs revisiting, but when an online bookseller is selling lots of ebooks under 20 pages long, it becomes impossible to search or browse for any title you want.
Frankly, I use inkmesh and ereaderIQ for Kindle to locate and download free titles onto my Nook and Kindle. I do this often — even if I know most of the ebooks are going to be crap — or outside the genre of things I normally like to read. But what bothers me most is that many titles are short and don’t even have a description or reader comments. I learned the hard way why this happens; some booksellers don’t import the ebook description properly. Even if the free titles were easily available and searchable, the sheer number of amateurish titles would drown out all the ebooks that are finely written and produced.
Many new writers are discovering that publishing frequently is a strategy to get readers hooked. The trend is for titles to become shorter (50-75 pages) and for author to publish more frequently. From a business point of view, this makes sense. If you an author, you can’t afford to spend 5, 10 or 20 years writing a book of unknown financial potential. It makes sense to publish more frequently, so you get more immediate feedback (not to mention payback).
The problem becomes: how do you promote an ebook of only 50-60 pages?
Part of the problem is that ebooks are incorporeal and there’s no set expectation about how big they ought to be — it’s hard to read 300 pages of a seemingly unending book without being trapped. Shorter titles don’t imprison you for as long; they provide more immediate gratification, and they require less commitment.
If Jack Matthews were a well-known author, I might have been able to get away with charging 1 or 2 dollars for this mini-ebook (which consists of only 3 stories — excellent though they may be). But generally, I wouldn’t pay 99 cents for 3 stories, even if they were written by Kafka himself. At some point, a person says, just give me a compilation of all his stuff, so it’s no longer necessary to keep almost a dozen mini-ebooks.
Why read several works by the same author?
For a moment, leave aside the intended purpose of this ebook — to introduce Mr. Matthews to a wider audience and make it easier for new readers to get a taste before they delve deeper. Why would anyone want to read multiple works by the same author? Literature students are taught about the “death of the author” and the importance of disregarding intentionality and biography when considering a literary work. (This conveniently overlooks the fact that authors are alive, they regularly visit the supermarket and drive their kids to drive to soccer practice). Serious readers have come to believe that it shouldn’t matter if you were a bestselling author or an unknown one; the most important thing should always be whether the story was well told.
Why then do we continue to insist on reading several things by the same author?
Familiarity. One reason we do this is that it takes a while to adjust to the author’s voice: the cadences, the word choice, the emotional outbursts. I had been flipping past Mavis Gallant stories for years in the New Yorker without ever reading one of them. Then one day just to pass the time I devoted an hour to reading one of them, which happened to be great. Suddenly I understand what she was all about. IBID with Arnold Bennett, Gunter Grass and Henry James (to name a few other writers who initially didn’t strike me as accessible). I sudden had cracked the code of how to enjoy a Mavis Gallant story – at least on a superficial level. Motivating people to read your stuff is insanely difficult; authors have to resort to all kinds of gimmicks to get the reader started. If you have practice reading a certain kind of story, it becomes easier to read similar stories later on.
Trust in the writer’s competence. Writing a decent novel is hard. Even writerly types don’t appreciate the true difficulty of the undertaking until they have to wade through a novel whose narrative is neither seamless nor easy to digest. All literature is fakery, and it is happy luck when a literary work can distract your from this fact. At one level, it boils down to competence. Can a literary creation paint a world persuasive enough you to suck you inside before you start noticing the narrative crossbeams?
When readers have already seen examples of an author’s competence, they are more inclined to look past narrative jumps or plausibility issues or a clunky style for the next work. Nobody expect perfection from our writers – only plot twists and a certain amount of polish.
The Golden Touch. Readers naturally assume that certain authors have a “golden touch” and retain the ability to conjure the same sort of magic they did on a previous literary creation.
There’s truth in this, of course. But from the writer’s perspective, striking gold once provides no guarantee of doing it again. The overall style in the second work may be practically identical to the previous one, but the writer may simply have chosen a character or incident which didn’t resonate as well. Maybe the author took the wrong approach. Maybe the reader isn’t ready to appreciate the second kind of story. For every great writer, I would classify a certain percentage of their literary output as “interesting failures.” Certainly not awful – a writer’s style often improves with age, so the prose is usually cleaner and tighter. Such failures are not necessarily bad things or signs of decline; indeed, they are proof that the author is willing to venture outside of his comfort zone – and that is probably for the best.
Even for interesting failures, the failure itself or why it failed can still be interesting. Suppose it became known that Kafka wrote a bad sci fi novel about traveling to Jupiter. You’d better believe that critics would be all over this book – recognizing similarities to other Kafka stories and finding cultural references. If anything, it would provide more insight into Kafka as a person: his interests, prejudices and possibly even his personal relationships. A bad sci fi novel by Kafka would be worth reading just for curiosity’s sake alone, and my guess is that you’d still see hints of his perplexing and aphoristic style. A writer may try to hide or disguise his writing style, but it’s hard to disguise it totally.
Affinity with the author’s voice. Never mind that authorial voice is constructed or can change from book to book. When we read works by a known quality, we trust that the author’s sensibility and style will be pleasing for its own sake. We enjoy inhabiting certain artistic sensibilities. It can make us feel grand or profound or passionate or deeply spiritual. We may recognize a kinship between this author’s point of view and our own way of viewing the world – even though this one is wiser, more concise and more beautiful.
Everybody else is doing it. I was once talking about Alfred Hitchcock with my movie critic friend, Michael Barrett. Mike said that for film critics, Hitchcock films could be grouped into two tiers: the “greater greats” and the “lesser greats.” He was being facetious, but the Hitchcock oeuvre is vast enough to offer something for everybody. When an artist or entertainer tickles the public’s fancy (usually through some award or controversy or stunt or novelty), a whole cottage industry can spring up to support that person. A cult of personality forms to endorse and promote this artist. . The differences between a highly-regarded writer and unknown writer aren’t really that great; but fame continues to amplify itself while obscurity proceeds at its usual miniscule pace.
Limits to our Enthusiasm
Maybe readers are driven to seek multiple works by an artist. We may bemoan the arbitrary nature of fame, but there is another problem: just how many artists can a single person stay enthusiastic about?
I consider myself relatively well-read, but in truth, I only keep track of about 25 living authors (not including authors I already know personally). Let me throw out a list of my literary pantheon at the moment: J.C. Oates, William Kennedy, Barry Yourgrau, John Sayles, Jane Smiley, Mark Salzman, Milan Kundera, Stuart Dybek, David Grossman, Robert McLaim Wilson, Number 6 (a pseudonym), Andrei Codrescu, Nadine Gordimer, Denis Johnson, Steve Millhauser, Jhumpa Lahiri. I’m sure there are others which don’t come to mind (this list might help). I’m also leaving out lots of works by dead authors. For these people I make it a point to buy their latest works and follow their career and lives.
I probably recognize the names of 2000 additional authors and associate them with generally high quality. Someday I hope to read them, but I won’t go out of my way to do so. It is humanly impossible.
Contrast this to music, where you can hear a complete album in 30-60 minutes. Maybe you don’t like everything you hear or can’t keep the bands or singers straight in your head. But it is still relatively easy and quick to expand your horizons.
I would love to say that I could follow 50 authors or 100 authors instead of 25. Certainly it’s not for lack of love or lack of trying. We have to balance our love for the unknown with the need to maximize the use of our reading time. If given a choice to read another book by Kundera or read something by an unknown, what do you do? I’d like to say that I give every new author a fair shake, but I generally don’t. Reading a known quality like Kundera is just easier – even if his subsequent novels never reach the magic of his previous novels. You want to read as efficiently as possible. Reading competes with other forms of entertainment – not to mention other crazy addictions like socializing, housework and even catching up on sleep. For me as a writer, reading competes with writing and blogging. (“Stop blogging and get back to Cancer Ward!”) When I write, I feel guilty that I should be reading. When I read, I feel guilty that I should be writing.
Actually, I don’t feel that guilty about anything (it’s a personality flaw). Often I act spontaneously on the basis of what feels right. This morning, I ended up watching again a 1937 Shirley Temple movie. Probably not rational, and certainly not great art, but I often indulge in such nostalgia kicks. Most recently I have been trying to read Stephen King’s "Dead Zone” which is a horrifyingly written book. (I enjoyed the TV series and remain curious about the original source material). I’m also reading Galina Mindlin’s Your Playlist Can Change Your Life” about psychology, music and moods. At least I can justify this diversion because of the book about music collecting which I’m writing. As a 47 year old adult with all sorts of professional demands, I feel the constant pressure to read for a specific purpose. And I constantly rebel.
Bloggers (and more generally readers) are not simply promotional vehicles for authors. They cannot be expected to blog about everything or even to like everything they read. There is no imperative to spread the word about a particular book, even if the book happens to be good. In fact, many great works of art come and go and the literary world hardly notices. It’s hard enough just to notify potential readers that a book MIGHT be good.
For authors and publishers, this is both sad and frustrating. Surely, there has to be SOME payoff down the road. Surely, someone will notice and comment. I think even relatively successful authors recognize that being ignored is the natural state of affairs for writers. We may celebrate this new ebook and self-publishing revolution, but it’s hard to deal with the accompanying result that more authors will be overlooked while the less deserving will be praised to high heaven.
Now everybody is an obscure writer
Writers spend a lot of time trying to promote themselves. Some do it well and not too excessively. At some point though, you have to recognize that rational self-promoting just eats away at valuable writing time.
Young writers were always taught that writing a book should be its own reward – that recognition and commercial success are unpredictable and unjust. We all know that. At the same time, we see that some authors are succeeding and winning prizes and cushy academic appointments. Surely, it shouldn’t be that hard to persuade people to take a look at what you’ve written. Surely you could count on your small coterie of friends and family to read and love and publicize your work!
In my 20s, I noticed that people generally expressed admiration if you said you were going to be a writer. Now that I’m 47, people barely notice. I now understand that what people admire is not what you write, but your overall dedication to the activity of writing. Writing is a sensibility, a religious discipline, an attitude.
Before, the biggest roadblock was getting past the gatekeeper (The Editor, the Publishing House). With blogging and DIY publishing, that roadblock no longer exists. But other roadblocks are just as frustrating. Just dealing with the limited attention span of the American public is frustrating enough. At the same time, eliminating these roadblocks to publishing gives the writer more time and freedom to write. Now the writer can concentrate more on the act of writing. In a way, the rise of DIY publishing has a great equalizing effect. An author of four books may have useful writing experience and a chance to gain a following, but that doesn’t give this author any inherent advantage over a novice in writing a great book.
That sucks for the experienced writer, but it’s great for the junior one. When you get down to it, all ebook novels are just words on a page. A reader is always taking chances with new writers, and now an even higher percentage of writers are unknown. During previous decades, readers had signposts to help them choose what to read: reviews, news stories, interviews, author appearances. Nowadays, though, these guideposts cover an even smaller percentage of the ebooks out there. You are basically flying blind. That is not necessarily bad; it forces readers to make up their own minds about what they read — irrespective of what Michiko Kakutani thinks. If every author you stumble across is unknown and under-reviewed and underpublicized, you really have to choice but to treat every title you encounter as the next potential masterpiece.
That is actually a good thing.