Friday, March 30, 2007

More on Ebooks

Looking for some suggestions.

I've been talking with my print publisher, Hyperion, about giving away free ebooks in the Jack Daniels series.

I've been an active believer of Internet promotion since I first became a writer. My blog gets over 20,000 unique hits every month, my website gets almost as many, I have 13,000 MySpace friends, 10,000 people who have signed up for my mailing list, and if you Google "JA Konrath" you get 143,000 hits.

I try to maintain a large Internet presence, because more and more people are using the net. According to http://www.internetworldstats.com, there are more than 1.1 billion Internet users.

The more I do on the Internet, the likelier chance I have of people finding me. The more people that find me, the more who will read me. And, of course, the publishing industry has known for years that a certain percentage of readers will become buyers. Publishers give away millions of ARCs and galleys, hoping they will be read and talked about.

Which brings me to ebook downloads.

An ebook costs nothing to manufacture or distribute. It can be copied by pressing a button, and sent around the world by pressing another button.

And yet, for all the excitement about ebooks a decade ago, they aren't really big sellers. In fact, looking at past royalty statements, I haven't sold many ebooks.

The reason is threefold:

1. Ebooks are too expensive. Readers don't want to pay $16.95, or even $6.95, for a text download, when they can buy the print book for the same price. And the print book is easier to read.

2. Too many formats and restrictions. Consumers need special equipment and programs, and books that can be read on one device can't be read on another device. Some ebooks can't be printed, or put on two computers at once. It's confusing, and not user-friendly.

3. The majority of book buyers don't care much about the Internet. That's slowly changing. But I've spoken at over a hundred events, and I have had thousands of fans show up to see me, and I always ask them how many have visited my website. Surprisingly few have. Mystery readers buy print books, not ebooks. They don't care if an author has a website.

By giving ebooks away for free, I don't want to turn my print readers into ebook readers. That isn't going to happen, because my average reader (a woman in her mid-fifties) isn't going to give up the joy of reading a book on the beach to hunch over her computer to read. She doesn't have a Blackberry or a PDA or a Palm Pilot, nor does she want one.

I want to reach the audience that is already online---the Internet people---and turn them into print book fans. And I want to do this by giving away free ebooks.

If you Google "ebooks" you get 50 million hits. People are reading online. But, based on my ebook sales, my fans aren't among them.

Giving away free ebooks will help reach this potential audience. And as my audience increases, so will my print sales. Here's why:

First, because people who wouldn't read me normally will give me a try if it is free. Some of those people will become fans. Fans who talk about me, buy my books as gifts, and even buy copies for themselves.

Second, because not many people like to read entire books online, there is a percentage that will read some of it, then go out and buy the book to read it in the bathtub, on the beach, before bed, etc. People are likelier to download a full ebook than simply an excerpt, because there is a perception of greater value. An exceprt is a teaser to get someone to buy a book. A free ebook is a gift, and the attitude towards free ebooks is warmer and more welcoming.

Third, because this will help me reach an audience I haven't been able to reach. I've been to the mystery conventions. I've won some mystery awards. The mystery fans already know who I am. But how do I reach the larger audience? The regular fans?

I know I can reach thousands of people on the Internet. I can do this without spending a lot of money. And it won't cost Hyperion much, because my backlist ebooks haven't been selling very well.

This is cheaper than print advertising. Cheaper than touring. And I'll do most of the work.

Here's my plan:

I'd like to make WHISKEY SOUR, BLOODY MARY, and RUSTY NAIL available for free on my website, blog, and MySpace page.

I'll use two formats, pdf and HTML, as these are universal and able to be used on the most devices. Downloads will be handled on my site.

I'll encourage folks to download these files, and share these files with their friends and family. Business author Seth Godin did this with his first ebook, UNLEASHING THE IDEAVIRUS, and went on to become a bestseller in print. Sci-fi author Cory Doctorow has had hundreds of thousands of free ebook downloads, and still sells like crazy in print. The publisher Baen/Tor has had an ebook program for years. Dave Weber's novel ON BASILISK STATION has been available for free for several months. Over that time it's become Baen's most popular backlist title in paper.

Naturally, the fear is if we give away ebooks, people won't buy the print copies. I believe the opposite is true. When Napster (the original file sharing site where teenagers traded their music online) closed down, CD sales did not go up as expected. Sales went down. Getting music for free didn't prevent sales, instead it encouraged people to try new music, which they then went out and bought.

I'm read for free in libraries all the time. And many of those people who discover me at the library later buy my books.

I believe that ebooks are another way to get noticed, and get read. Publishers spend a lot of money on marketing and promotion. Here's a way to spread name-recognition and brand-awareness for free.

I'd really like to give it a shot. If I'm wrong, and my sales go way down, we've learned something. If I'm right, we've figured out a new, inexpensive way to promote authors.

Hyperion decided on a compromise. They're allowing me to give away 1000 downloads of one of my backlist titles, and see how that goes.

In order to do this effectively, I need to know several things.

1. Which book should I give away? The first book in the series makes the most sense. But giving away the newest book might spur more interest in that book.

2. How should I go about giving these 1000 away? I have a blog, website, newsletter, and MySpace page to do so. Should this be a contest? Or should they go to the first 1000 people who respond?

3. How can I leverage this to get as much bang for my buck as possible? Enlist other bloggers? Draft a press release? Take out a few ads?

Let me hear your ideas and suggestions. You might be doing something like this for yourself, someday soon...