by Robert Digitale
As a storyteller, you want as many people as possible to read your book. As a business person, you want them to pay for it. And as a new author, you want to find ways for more readers to take note of your work.
So do you ever give it away for free?
I’ve watched the newspaper business grapple with this sort of question for years. If you think you’ve had trouble knowing what to do about free material, consider the plight of my fellow old media pros. Here were people working for established brands, most of which had dominated their markets in print for years. But when they entered the digital age, editors and publishers found how difficult it is to strike the right balance between attracting new readers and getting them to pay for online content.
Most papers quickly decided that while they could demand money from their print readers, they had to give a free pass to their web sites and hope to still survive with online ads. However, since the industry is half of what it was roughly five years ago, the wisdom of that strategy remains open to debate. And some papers, including the venerable New York Times, are now charging readers or limiting the number of free stories they can view each month.
So newspapers demonstrate that there may not be easy answers in such matters. Even so, I still think the question is worth asking new authors: Are there times when it makes sense to focus on connecting with readers rather than selling books?
Let me share two recent examples when I answered “Yes” to this question.
The first came last spring when I ran a murder mystery serial on a blog that I host for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, www.digitalestories.com. What made the story different was that I collaborated with 15 other journalists and local authors. Each of us wrote a chapter for a thriller set in our home turf of Sonoma County. The executive editor liked it so much that she ran the “Sonoma Squares Murder Mystery” in the print edition as well. We went on to put it out as an ebook.
Nobody made any money on this story, so why did we do it? We all had fun, certainly, but it also was a chance to connect with new readers. In doing so, I hope we introduced some talented writers to readers who might otherwise never hear of them. It was a small step, but it was well received and I hope we’ll do it again.
The second occasion was this summer when I learned that our Sonoma County public library was creating a site for local authors, a place where patrons could read a brief bio and discover their books. As part of this effort, the library was exploring the possibility of also hosting local authors’ ebooks. I contacted the library’s collections manager and became the first author to provide them ebook files, offering up my fantasy novel HORSE STALKER.
I did this even though ebooks downloaded from this site would never expire on reading devices. Instead, local patrons would be able to freely download the ebook, just as if they had paid for it on Smashwords. I know that many authors would steer clear of this. I don’t pretend that this makes sense for everyone, but I’m glad I tried it. And the collections manager since has placed my novel into the library checkout system for OverDrive, which means the ebook is eligible for library patrons at plenty of locales around the U.S. (On OverDrive, the ebook does expire from the reading device at the end of the lending period.)
I wish I could tell you that these steps have made an incredible difference in the bottom line. They haven’t yet, but I think they’re still worth trying. I remain convinced that the biggest challenge for new authors isn’t selling books. It’s connecting with readers. And what I like about these two examples is that they both involve collections of local writers. The newspaper serial and the library’s local authors site offer readers a chance to discover groups of writers, not just a single author.
I’m looking for more such opportunities to join forces with other writers. And I’m going to keep looking for ways to connect with readers, even if it doesn’t make a cash register ring.
Robert Digitale has been a newspaper reporter for three decades at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. He hosts the paper’s online blog, Digitale Stories, and is the author of the fantasy novel HORSE STALKER, book one in the series, THE ROOT OF GLORY, www.horsestalker.com.