Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Ebooks!

Seven years ago, ebooks were the Next Big Thing in publishing. Agents sold them for big bucks, publishers tripped all over themselves making sure they acquired the rights, and everyone was expectantly waiting for the day when the printing presses stopped forever because we all would be carrying libraries in the palm of our hands.

Well, it didn't happen.

Ebooks were published, in a variety of downloadable formats. But they never really took off. I blame several reasons:
  1. They were overpriced. Who would pay $15 for a text download when they could buy the paperback for $8?
  2. There was no standardization or universal compatibility. Different gizmos and websites used different formats.
  3. The equipment wasn't user-friendly. Reading on a tiny screen isn't fun, and trying to adjust margins on a PDA is a pain.
  4. Books are warmer. There's something about the feel of a book that people like, and they can drop it in the bathtub or take it to the beach without worrying about losing valuable electronic equipment.

So ebooks have arrived, but they don't seem to be doing much. On my last royalty statement, I believe I sold around five downloads.

But I think the tide is starting to change. People are more at ease with downloading content these days. The devices have gotten better, and less expensive. The Amazon Shorts program is getting customers to read on machines rather than on paper. Sony has released their long-awaited Portable Reader System. Project Gutenberg has almost 20,000 books available online. Google Book Search and Amazon offer searching through the content of books. And there's more and more websites that sell ebooks: www.ereader.com, www.ebooks.com, www.fictionwise.com, www.booksonboard.com, and dozens of others.

What does this mean for writers? Here are my predictions:

I predict that downloadable book sales (text, and especially audio) will continue to grow. People these days are either on their computers or traveling someplace, and both are conducive to reading.

I predict that books will become multimedia things like DVDs, offering more than just text (photos, music, video, interviews with the author, etc.) Print copies may soon be packaged with a DVD which contains a pdf or txt file. Downloads will have extra content, and will drop down in price.

I predict the viral nature of the Internet will help to create print bestsellers. Not necessarily through marketing or advertising, but through actual content. By this I mean giving the book away.

So I'm going to try it.

The savvy may have noticed the two book covers over the links in my sidebar. These covers lead to a new webpage on my site, which offers these books, in their entirety, for free.

I'm not the first person to try this. Matt Reilly released a YA adventure on his website in installments for free. Scott Sigler has been podcasting his books in installments. Stephen King wrote a story online in installments with mixed results. Douglas Clegg has been doing it for years. And there's an author whose name escapes me that will email you a story a week if you sign up for this service.

What I'm doing differently is giving away the whole thing at once. And I have a very specific reason for doing it this way.

I want to see what happens.

I'm a midlist author with a modest fanbase. Will that fanbase embrace the new technology? Will these freebies lead to new fans? Will this result in more website traffic, or publicity, or an increase in my print book sales? Will editors and movie producers start fighting over the rights?

Or am I giving away the milk, ensuring that I'll never sell the cow? Am I alienating my fans by giving them something other than Jack Daniels? Am I diluting my brand? Will I tick off my print publisher or my agent? Am I crazy to give away for free what I toiled over for years? Is this simply an exercise in vanity?

I truly dunno. But I've often thought that the best promotion in the world would be to give away 50,000 books. Get people hooked on the writing, and they'll become buyers. Like drugs.

I can't afford to do that. But I can give away ebooks.

I tried this in a limited way last year, for only a few weeks. Then I chickened out, worried about the many things I've mentioned above.

This time I'm going to stick with it until I'm able to draw some sort of conclusion.

So if you like James Rollins, Michael Crichton, and Preston & Child, check these books out---they're in the same vein. And feel free to pass the word along to others.

I'll be watching my StatCounter, and checking my bandwidth, and seeing what happens. It should be interesting...