Self-publishing and the theology of free

write for free? links today to a story from Publishers Weekly at SXSW on self-publishing and the “theology of free.” But what exactly is this theology?

Called Self-Publishing in the Age of E, Deahl’s panel featured bestselling self (and now conventionally) published novelist Hugh Howey, author of the bestselling sci-fi series Wool, Erin Brown, a former St. Martin’s and HarperCollins editor and now an Austin based freelance editor, and literary agent Kirby Kim of William Morris Endeavor. It didn’t take long to get to core issues around self-publishing: quality, the seemingly ever-growing sales of e-books and the role of conventional publishers at time when many authors have grasped that they have other options—and sometimes more lucrative options.

Originally published by small press, Howey quickly decided to go the self-publishing route generating an enormous word of mouth following that turned his books into e-book bestsellers on Amazon. Indeed Howey said at one point he was generating $30,000 to $40,000 a month in sales and selling hundreds of thousands of e-books. His mantra is “build your audience and the editors and agents will come.” Responding to Deahl’s question about pricing Howey didn’t hesitate: “Free is the best price,” he said, “but Amazon wouldn’t let me give them away, so I priced them at 99 cents.” In fact, he acknowledged that his book are “underpriced,” but “its all about building an audience.”

It’s not much of a theology – rather, it is the very old idea of giving away samples to build an audience that will at some point be willing to pay. For any writer to make a living, revenues have to come from somewhere. You might be delivering readers to advertisers, who will pay you for that. Or you might at some point have content (which might be different than what you give away for free) that people are willing to pay for as readers. “Building an audience” is great if one day you can earn some revenue from that audience. Otherwise, it’s not much of a business model.

This surprised me:

[Howey] now has conventional publishing deals with S&S and Random House UK, but only for print—unheard of in a publishing market that’s being driven by digital sales—and he outlined how he turned down a stream of 6 and 7 figure offers from publishers over the years because they kept demanding print and digital rights. “Publishers never do that,” Kim said about Howey’s deal, pointing out Bella Andre another self-pubbed author with a similar pact.

“My print sales are tiny in comparison,” Howey said, “you only want to print if you want to see your books in stores,” though he was quick to note that “people still want print. I’ve got the best of both worlds S&S does what they do best with print and I do my thing with e-books.”

Surely there are gains to having all marketing and coordination of pricing under one contract? The music industry has been moving towards integrating all sales and licensing under single contracts, now known as 360-degree contracts, in part so that prices of various products can be coordinated, that cross-subsidies can be efficiently exploited, and that there is effectiveness in promotion. Consider: won’t S&S and Random House UK hedge on the amount of promotion they do of Howey’s books if they know that only a fraction of the resulting sales will be of the print copies of books they sell? Isn’t there coordination of prices for print and e-books that could increase the total revenue from sales? The model seems like a bad deal for author and publisher, they are leaving money on the table that could be had through a comprehensive agreement. What am I missing here?


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