Monday, August 31, 2009

The Great Ebook Experiment

In my previous blog post I talked about the future of ebooks. The current model of overpriced ebooks with exclusive formats isn't going to last, because history shows us it never lasts. Technology, and the media released for technology, follows a pretty predictable pattern.

I believe ebooks are going to lose proprietary formatting and copy protection, and eventually become either cheap or free. People want their media fast, easy, and inexpensive.

Fast and easy will come as a matter of course, as all tech gets better and less expensive as time goes on.

Inexpensive will come one of two ways.

In the best-case scenario, print publishers will realize their strategy of releasing ebooks for the same price as hardcovers is short-sighted and harmful, and they will lower their prices.

But I don't see them doing that. Instead, I see software and tech developers eventually coming up with a system that will allow Joe Average to quickly and easily download all ebooks for free.

Joe Average can already download all ebooks for free, but it isn't quick or easy. There is precedent for this happening, however.

I have an iPhone. The first thing I did when I bought it was jailbreak it.

Jailbreaking involves hacking the operating system of the phone, which allows it to be used for many applications that Apple doesn't condone. One of these applications is Cydia.

Cydia, and Installous, are included with the free programs used to jailbreak iPhones and iPods. These are apps that link directly to websites that let you download apps for free.

In other words, the owner of a jailbroken iPhone doesn't need to go to the iTunes App Store to buy programs and games. They can simply go to Installous and get all of the programs and games for free.

Consider the levels of piracy involved in this endeavor.

Programmers hack the source code. Software developers create the applications. Designers build websites. Then users hack applications and upload them.

This is a streamlined, coordinated effort to steal by thousands of people, used by millions of people. Anyone with a jailbroken iPhone can get any application they want, and it is fast, easy, and free.

This isn't a question of if it will happen with ebooks. It's a question of when. And when it happens, how will authors get paid?

I've said before, you combat piracy with cost and convenience. Selling ebooks (which are essentially a bunch of ones and zeros and cost nothing to copy and distribute) for $9.99 is insane. Especially when you consider that this cost results in the ebook distributors LOSING money, because the print publishers sell them to retailers at 40% the hardcover price. This is hurting the retailers, and the consumers, who are going to go elsewhere to get their ebooks for cheap or free.

But I think there's a way for authors to make money by selling their ebooks cheaply. I think they can even make money by giving their ebooks away.

But first, let's go off on a seemingly unrelated tangent for a moment.

I love going to movies and seeing coming attractions. It gives me a taste of films that I might be interested in seeing. Sometimes a preview announces a film I didn't know about. Sometimes it gives me a glimpse of something I already knew about, and gets me excited about seeing it.

As a form of advertising, previews work. They aren't intrusive, like commercials. You pay to see a movie, and previews are a sort of bonus feature. They offer content.

People like content. They like information and entertainment. They seek it out.

Books have their own kind of preview. At the end of each of my paperbacks, there is a sample chapter of one of my upcoming books. I think this is a no-brainer. The best advertising for your writing is: your writing.

Like a coming attraction, an excerpt informs and entertains. It announces, whets the appetite, and often is a direct call to action. If I read a preview that I like, I buy the book.

For years, I've been wondering why publishers waste money on full page ads in the New York Times, featuring a picture of the book cover and a bunch of blurbs, when a much more effective ad would be a full page excerpt from the novel.

If your writing sells your writing, it makes sense to have your writing in as many places as possible, so it can be seen by as many readers as possible.

Unfortunately, print publishers haven't used this opportunity as much as they could. The end-of-book excerpt is commonplace, but it isn't the equivalent to the coming attractions at a movie theater. Instead of five previews, a book only offers one preview. And the preview is limited, because it is a preview of the same author who wrote the book.

This is understandable. Space is limited, and expensive, in print books. Plus, an author may balk at the idea of having five excerpts from other authors at the end of their novel.

Unless that author is me. :)

Personally, I'd pay a fortune to have ten pages from one of my books appear at the end of a Stephen King or James Patterson novel. It would be a tremendous opportunity.

Which brings us to this experiment.

How would you like to put a ten page excerpt from one of your books in the back of my ebooks?

Not counting SERIAL, which has had over 100,000 downloads as an ebook, my other ebooks have been downloaded roughly 30,000 times on my website and Kindle.

Here are my numbers, as of last Friday:

55 Proof - 3044 free downloads, 468 Kindle downloads
Newbie's Guide to Publishing Ebook - 5761 free downloads
Origin - 3122 free downloads, 2188 Kindle downloads
Disturb - 2724 free downloads, 869 Kindle downloads
The List - 2622 free downloads, 4088 Kindle downloads
Shot of Tequila - 425 paid downloads on my website, 720 Kindle downloads
Truck Stop - 730 Kindle downloads

Now, I'm the first to admit that this isn't enough information to base a reliable advertising scale upon. I've been tracking free books on my website for over 20 months, and have been tracking Kindle books since April 8. It's possible to average day-by-day and month-by-month downloads, but these fluctuate, and differ. For example, Truck Stop is only a month or so old. Shot of Tequila has never been given away for free. The Newbie's Guide has never been for sale. Depending on the month, book downloads go up or down. A lot of it is a crap shoot.

But I'm not out to create an accurate chart for dictating ad rates. For this experiment, I'm going to use a simple model.

I will put your book excerpt in one of my ebooks for $1 a day.

Intrigued? Here are the basic rules.

1. You provide me with an excerpt no longer than 2500 words.

2. You pay me through PayPal for a minimum of 30 days (in other words, $30.)

3. There will be a maximum of five excerpts per ebook title. First come, first serve.

4. In the product description of the ebook I will mention that your excerpt appears, stating your name and the title.

Now lets have some questions.

Q: So my excerpt will appear on both the Kindle and on your website?

A: If my book appears on both, yes. The Newbie's Guide to Publishing Ebook is only on my website. Truck Stop is only on the Kindle, though I will put it on my website soon for $1.59.

Q: Can I put an excerpt in SERIAL?

A: SERIAL, and any of the other ebooks where I have a co-author, are not going to be used for this experiment at this time.

Q: Do you accept all excerpts?

A: No. I reserve the right to not accept an excerpt, and I won't give a reason. But the reason will probably be that I'm already full, or I don't think your excerpt is a good match for my readers, or there are too many typos and errors.

Q: Do you accept short stories or interviews instead of excerpts?

A: No. Book excerpts only.

Q: Can I put an excerpt from an unpublished book in your ebooks?

A: No. Your books must be available for the public to download and/or buy. How else would you be able to track the success of this endeavor?

Q: Does that mean I have to have books in print or on Kindle?

A: Not necessarily. Personally, I think you'd get the most for your money if indeed you had an excerpt from one of your current in-print or Kindle books. But if you want to promote a free ebook you're giving away on your website, just to increase your site traffic, that's fine.

Q: Will you trade excerpt space, one of yours for one of mine?

A: Maybe, if you can prove you have more downloads than me.

Q: Can I pick the ebook I want the excerpt to appear in?

A: As long as there is still room. But keep in mind that my most-downloaded ebook might not be the best one for your excerpt. I encourage you to read the ebook, or at least the description. Different books have different demographics.

Q: Can I advertise in more than one of your ebooks?

A: Yes. Each one is $30 a month.

Q: What document format will you accept?

A: MS Word or rtf.

Q: Can I also include a book cover, or art?

A: No. That's a pain to format, and often comes out looking crummy. But you should include a section that lists your website, and where the book is available.

Q: You posted my excerpt, but now I want to make some changes. Can I send you an updated version?

A: Only if the month ends and you want to buy another month. Either send me something in publishable shape, or don't send anything at all.

Q: What if I want to cancel this in the middle of the month?

A: I'll remove it as soon as I have the time, once you ask. But you won't get your money back. I'll have already spent that on beer.

Q: I don't believe you've had that many downloads. Prove it.

A: Pay for a month, and you'll have access to my download data. I'll give your weekly updates via screenshots, so you'll know how many downloads your excerpt has had.

Q: Is $1 a day fair?

A: I have no idea. Maybe that's too much. Maybe that's not enough. Personally, I would pay a lot more than that to have my excerpts in a well-known author's books, because I believe people will buy my books based on the strength of my writing. But I may be a deluded egomaniac.

Q: Why are you doing this?

A: Besides the money? I believe that ebooks are the future. But I worry how authors will survive in a digital world where everything is free. This experiment is a chance to see if ebooks are a viable medium for advertising. Personally, I think an excerpt is much better than an ad, because it offers content and is viewed as a bonus rather than an intrusion. This makes it more effective, which indeed may help authors sell their books.

Q: Do you think this will work?

A: I dunno. I didn't think putting my books on Kindle would work, and I've made about eight grand so far. I know the hardest thing about being a writer is finding readers. I don't believe print ads works. I don't believe bookmarks and postcards work. I don't believe book trailers work. But I know this costs a lot less than all of those. In fact, I can't think of a cheaper way to promote your book.

Q: Okay, I want to try it. Now what?

A: Email me. But before you do, make sure you have realistic goals, and a way to track those goals. Unless you have some idea what it is you're expecting from this, you'll have no idea if it's working or not.

Q: When does this start?

A: I'm not sure yet. First I need to see what sort of response I get.