09 January 2010


A serious question and in need of serious answers. TSTL need not reply.

I'm thinking about an experiment. A pirate is trying to convince me she makes more money offering her books for free with a request to donate if you liked it. She CLAIMS...and I think this is baloney for any author with decent sales...that she makes more money this way than she ever made with a publisher.

I don't buy it, because I know what I make from my published books with a few of my publishers. If people can get something for free, why would they pay for it? I don't buy that you can make out on this deal. But it may be worth a test run...just as an experiment to blog about. I'm analytical that way. Worst case, I make nothing, and it's just another free read I offer. And yes, I will give it as much distribution as I possibly can to give it a running start...and market it as I would any book.

I THOUGHT about doing this for charity, but I want an honest test. If people see it's for charity, they might give just to support the charity. If it works, I might further do another one for charity.

So...feedback time... What do you think of this test?


Bill Kirton said...

Someone (sorry, can't remember who it was) claimed he made his early stuff available to people online for free. It built a readership , which stayed faithful when he started charging for later works. He's now with a publisher and sells quite well apparently. I know this makes no sense without identifying him but I only read about it recently and my impression was that he was sincere and reputable. It's probably worth a try. It'll be interesting to hear the results. Good luck with it.

PennyAsh said...

I also don't buy it. Usually these folks ask for donations "to help pay for bandwidth" (or server space, whatever) so the downloader thinks they're still getting something free. You know, the old "Help keep this site free" thing. To test this I would try to replicate this person's site as closely as possible, wording, layout, type of site (probably a free site), everything. Then add something like a paypal donate button that goes to an account that is used for nothing else. You can compare the number of downloads from the site to the donations and the difference in what you get compared to what the book would have gotten through a publisher.

Amanda Young said...

I don't know about your pirate's claims, but it would seem to me that maybe people are making donations so the free books will keep on coming, rather than a "pay if you like it" situation.

BrennaLyons said...

I think you may be talking about Corey Doctorow? I think I spelled his name wrong, as well. Grinning... As far as I know, he was writing non-fiction tech stuff, and yes...it did work for him. Very nicely. The Baen Library works, as well, but neither is a donation model.

The pirate I'm talking about is talking about fiction and donation model rather than free reads. Now, I'm the first person to state that free reads as hooks into the rest works well and I do it often, but this person is claiming that donation-only fiction releases make her more money than she made with a publisher.

I'm not convinced, but I am willing to admit it's worth a try as an experiment.


Donica Covey said...

I agree if you say it's for charity people MAY donate strictly for the charity cause. SO I'd run the experiment (I'd be interested in learning if this REALLY works!)I know once it's out there it's "out there" but you could plan to run the experiment for x number of months then once you've done you "time" announce that you've donated the money collected to _____ Charities.

I would LOVE to know if this actually brings any money in! I encourage you to go for it!

Hugz and GREAT LUCK!
Donica Covey

Rachel Caine said...

Brenna, I already offer a lot of free content on my website, and yes, it certainly does help build interest and readership -- people like to get a sense of how you write before they pay money for a book. I support and nurture that, and offer many things under Creative Commons licensing.

HOWEVER, having said that, my personal experience with this donation model is that it doesn't work. I offered an out-of-print novel online for a voluntary donation, and even offered part of the proceeds to charity ... the response was embarrassingly bad, especially when compared to the number of people who downloaded.

Full disclosure: it wasn't in one of my popular series, BUT it was a book that had very little distribution, and it's one that I actually like quite a bit personally. The sum total of donations in seven months was under $250, versus downloads well into the 10,000 range.

You tell me ...

I've had pirates tell me that it was the "charity" thing that handicapped me. Considering the charity was to give books to poor children, I think this is a pretty damn lame excuse.

-- Rachel

Tess MacKall said...

Promoting books with free reads is becoming quite the thing. I know one author who is doing this and has seen her sales consistently jump.

However, I don't know how this will work with regard to a pirate and donating money. I do know there are people online that ingratiate themselves with Yahoo Group members and talk about their pitiful lives, and before you know it, that person is receiving gift cards, cash, and checks for anywhere from twenty to fifty bucks. Next thing you know, that same begger is talking about their new PS3.

Maybe the pirate offers such a "WONDERFUL SERVICE"--a service that tweaks its nose at authority to boot--someone who thinks they will use the site to download a hundred books or more believes that tossing twenty bucks to the pirate puts them well ahead of the game. And it does.

I also know of an author who runs a site in which she asks for donations to keep writing her free online reads. Saying that she needs the fees for the upkeep of the website, cover art, editing fees, etc. I checked her site and within one week, she reported she had tripled her need for the three hundred smackers she'd asked for. I closed out in disgust, of course.

I see no reason why the experiment won't work, Brenna. I say give it a shot. I'd love to hear what you find out.

BrennaLyons said...

Okay...the pirate is an author personally, and what she's supposedly doing is what Joanne talked about. Not the donation for being a pirate of other people's work, though she doesn't see anything wrong with piracy, per se, which is why I call her a pirate. In her mind, it apparently doesn't make any sense to protect copyright, so she doesn't respect the copyright of others. Deplorable for an author, in my book.

But that complicates Penny's idea of copying the set-up she has on her site for continuity in testing. Obviously, she's smart enough not to use her real/pen name on the forums. Using a forum name means it is impossible for me to check out her site and see how she's doing it. All I can do is have a free download of the book and (inside the book and on my site both) the "If you like this, consider making a donation at X." which she claims she does.

Like I said, it will likely fail, but it's worth a try.

Thanks to everyone for the feedback so far.


PennyAsh said...

Good point. And if the real/pen name got out it would definitely have an effect on her bottom line. I've seen lots of the donate if you like this sites, even subscribe to a few, and they seem to do well. It might be worth a try, I have some out of contract books I could play with. Far as protecting copyright goes I suppose she doesn't mind someone taking her books and passing them off as theirs then?

BrennaLyons said...

She never really covered what she thought about someone plagiarizing or otherwise passing her work off as theirs. But she definitely doesn't see anything wrong with mass piracy of work, no matter how many copies sell or don't.


PennyAsh said...

Meh. All I have to say to that is if theft is okay, what else it okay? Assault? Murder? It all comes down to the same thing. And her "pirating" her own books is still theft if they've been contracted to a publisher. Otherwise it's just self publishing.

Destiny Booze, Novelist said...

I have serious doubts that any author could make more money offering free books than selling through a publisher. With that said, one big concern I would have trying something like that would be in consideration to how that money would change things when filing taxes. Legally, what laws govern how you collect donations?


BrennaLyons said...

I got the idea that she was self-publishing them and using this atypical model for distribution. This does have some concerns, among which is...if she's not "selling" them but rather giving them away with an optional donation model, she makes herself ineligible for several writing awards that include self-published titles, including EPIC's. Of course, if she doesn't care about awards, it's a moot point.

Destiny brings up a good point. As I understand it, you would have to claim all donations as other income on taxes, unless you are donating it all to some charitable cause...in which case, you should still be accounting for it but not "earning" it.


Unknown said...

I think there are a lot of variables, so it's not going to be a clean experiment. How popular is your blog (or other venue) to start with? Is your personality such that people are drawn not only to engage with you, but to specifically engage with you in a way that they'll donate money.

Are you coming across as begging for money? Are you coming across as ashamed to be asking for money? Are you coming across as trying to shame people for reading it for free without giving you money?

Also, are you willing to put in the time and effort to experiment with different models? Size of donations requested/automated, means of payment (paypal, google, etc), location of donation button, whether you interrupt the text with requests for donations, whether you're offering it on a website or as a downloadable or both, what ad copy works better for you.

It's probably not enough to throw up a story, ask for donations, and three months later say it doesn't work if you don't make enough money. At least, to say it doesn't work in general. You can certainly prove it doesn't work for you personally, if you've gone as far as you're willing to go with it.

So I'm guess I'm saying, you should probably set up a strategic plan. What are you willing to try? How much effort are you willing to put in? What lines won't you cross? How far do you have to go to prove to yourself that the donation model doesn't work for you?

I do think the donation model can work, in theory. But perhaps not for everyone. If you want to see if it works for you, go for it! I hope it does bring your success, or is at least an experience you learn from.

T. M. Hunter said...

I doubt anyone would make much money *just* off donations, but I myself promote my free reads in order to generate readership for my novels.

Granted, I was paid a token amount by the magazine for most of those free reads.

I did have a few people ask if there was a spot on my site to donate, though, so maybe I'm full of s***.

PennyAsh said...

Very good point, you need to report any income whatever else you do with it. And if it all goes to charity usually you have to prove where it's going. Or register an a non profit yourself.
You know, slightly off topic thought here, that might be a way to get some of these pirates, when no one else can nail you the IRS usually can. And they are mean folks to mess with.

KL/LE said...

Probably not a comparable example, but there is an author of Catholic fiction, Bud MacFarlane, who has published three novels through his ministry. These are mass markets, and he will give copies away to anybody who asks. Donations are accepted, but not required.

About ten years ago at a Catholic writing festival, he had the booth next to mine. He set up a stack of books and a box for people to put in donations. All day long I watched people throw money into that box - one even asked me to make change for her. Meanwhile they walked past my booth giving me and my eBooks funny looks.

Now, this might be considered a charity thing, because all the money ostensibly goes to Bud's ministry. Those novels, to my knowledge, are not available as eBooks. I couldn't tell you if people would donate to him if did convert them. I can tell you for a while I had set up a book on Smashwords using their "pay what you think it's worth" option and people weren't paying for it. I might try it again and see what happens.

Barbara Edwards said...

I have serious problem even understanding her premise. Give it away? I'm sorry I work hard to produce a good book and consider it worth paying for.

BrennaLyons said...

Good points, and let me address them. I had planned to do the following...

Give the donation read, as close as possible, the same care my other stories have. It would have the same level of editing, comparable formatting (keeping in mind that I may choose a different font for one book, compared to another), comparable cover art, blurb, excerpt, and comparable distribution. Now, I can't give it perfectly even distribution, since some of my publishers use Fictionwise, and this title would not be eligible to list there. But, Smashwords allows me to use extended distribution to Sony, B&N, and Amazon. I can further list it on my own site.

The donation copy would neither be begging nor dismissive but a simple "If you like what you read, consider making a donation at X." I won't tie a cause to it publicly, because that can raise money that wouldn't otherwise have been donated, depending on the cause. That closely matches what the author in question claims she uses, so it's a good test wording. It's unobtrusive and rather bland.

It's not asking for any specific donation but leaving it up to the reader, which is consistent to the claims of the pirate in question. PayPal would be the method of receipt, which is the same way the other does it. When I know, I will default to what the claims are of the pirate who started this.

And it would have the same online marketing other books get from me. That means blog posts and Twitter/Facebook/Myspace/Yahoogroup/Author Red Room/Manic Readers/etc. notices and such when the art is made, when the work is finished, when it goes out to the public...including being added to the new release section of my site. If it connects to an extent series, it would show on the series pages, as all series books do. It would be sent to reviewers, if they are willing to review it. It would further have the option to be covered on physical promos I make for conventions and public appearances...and would be included in whole on promo CDs, as all my free reads are; sale books have an excerpt and blurb instead.


Aileen said...

How many books is she offering for free at any given time? I can see people paying a few bucks to get a handle of books. Look at those who pay to get a CD of pirated books. But I can't see them donating for one or two books. But you never know. In the spirit of "free" people do all sorts of crazy things!

BrennaLyons said...

Nodding to Aston... I write stories that are included in charity anthologies (I make nothing but exposure from them) and that were written for a pittance or free for the exposure. I already know that works for me. I'm just intrigued by the idea of this experiment.


Carly Carson said...

I have seen a couple you tube videos where I would have sent a donation, but I couldn't figure out how to do it. I'd probably send a dollar (3 minute video), which is not a lot, but is more than I make on a Kindle sale. I wouldn't expect to make a lot of money on a scheme like this, though. This pirate you're referencing may think $500 is a lot of money, and you might not. You really don't know her reference point. But it would be interesting to try it if you can do it with minimal work. (It's a good point that you can't do this on a published work without paying the publisher.)

(Notice how the thieves always have some excuse, ie, the other person's attempt didn't work because the charity thing messed it up.)

Author Guy said...

John Scalzi, in the Introduction to his book Agent to the Stars, says it was the first thing he wrote, he posted it on the web for free, made over 4K that way, and subsequently got it published after 5 years of free distribution.

BrennaLyons said...

Author Guy,

That's an interesting one. So, it CAN work, for some people. But, this may be the same line we see with self-publishing success stories of all sorts. Many more of them are non-fiction than fiction. Hmmm... Thanks for sharing.


BrennaLyons said...


I'd have to say it's not the same, but is interesting to see. That's one of the reasons I don't want to attach a charity on the first go at this. I will never know if it's the charity or the process making the money. Churches/religious leaders, like charities, often get donations where other donation models might not. But thanks for sharing that.

I didn't realize there was a "pay what it's worth" at Smashwords. I'll have to look again. I just remember the "make it free" and "charge for it," but charge for it may bring up a whole menu that I've forgotten. It's been 6 months since I've listed a Smashwords book that is intended to be paid for. The rest I've personally posted were free read uploads.

The free read uploads are doing very well, BTW...between 13 and 30 downloads in the first 15 hours.


Nobilis Reed said...

I don't know about ebooks, but have a look at Scott Sigler.

He's built a huge audience by giving his books away... and he's STILL giving his books away.

And selling them, too. As in New York Times Bestseller.

He doesn't ask for donations, though.

Zetta Brown said...

Quite a conundrum, Brenna. I've actually thought about limiting the free reads I offer in a (blind?) attempt to make my work less pirate worthy...if that's really possible.

I don't think I could add anything to what's already been said, but it would be interesting if some kind of method--that's shown to work and that authors can use for themselves--could be developed to where it wouldn't even benefit a pirate. Why? Because the author has "pirate proofed" themself.

RowenaBCherry said...

As an experiment, I tried selling the e-book version of Forced Mate on jexbo.com for $1 which is what pirates seem to say an ebook is worth. No one bought it.

I offered it for $1.50 and had three customers, but PayPal took .34c out of my $1.50

You might try putting your free reads on Squidoo. I hear that you make money from visitors' very presence. (I wouldn't know... anything I make on Squidoo goes to cskdetroit.org)

Skyla Dawn said...

I've done it. I've had free serials since 2004 on my site, currently with four entirely free novels available for download. The ebooks have thousands and thousands of downloads, and the current serial had a couple hundred regular readers who came back month to month.

I started asking for donations two years ago, never got a nibble.

I made it very, very clear this past summer that I was in a very tight spot financially and couldn't keep up with freebies if no one would donate, and asked if everyone could throw in $10. I got two donations in, totaling $55, from readers whom I knew personally as friends. NOTHING from the others. When I started a donation drive to get my dog to the vet, I got a couple donations from regular people, but that was it.

When I closed down the community and only allowed people to continue reading if they threw a tip in the jar (as little as $10 would suffice), but kept up the entire archive of free stuff, I started getting hits from people looking for torrents of new chapters.

Will *some* people pay for something that's free? A couple, yes, but I don't think it's fair to expect those people to carry all those who feel they're entitled to everything without paying.

Do I make anywhere near the money my commercially published books have? Absolutely not, and many of these lovely "legit" readers tried to get illegal versions of new chapters when they were no longer available free, despite me having already given away four complete novels. So that's what happened during my experiment.

BrennaLyons said...


Unfortunately, this is not the same thing. I have been giving free reads for years. Yes, it works. I'm one of the biggest supporters of it and just added about 10 free reads to Smashwords yesterday.

I'm also a big supporter of donating work to charity anthologies that earn me nothing but exposure and a feel-good moment...and sending work to sites/magazines that will earn me little or no money and exposure. All of them do what they are supposed to to.

It's the donation thing I'm trying to test out now.


Trisha Wooldridge said...

I'd be very interested in what you find out. If it's no detriment to you or your income, go for it. I wonder, also, if noting this is an experiment might affect people who donate. Some people who publish outside of the "traditional" route can get very competitive to prove themselves right - even at their own cost. (I've seen this particularly at conventions, but at other book selling venues, too.)

OTOH, has your pirate really tried to publish traditionally? Does she have hard data to prove that she's made more with this "donation" system than through traditional publishing? If she has tried traditional publishing and didn't do so well - could that have been due to the publisher not marketing/supporting the work?

One last immeasurable point is online audiences versus traditional audiences. I believe that there is less of an overlap between the two than some think. In many online communities, they "take care of their own," so donations seem to have a certain amount weight based on online popularity as opposed to the writing, itself. Yes, it needs to be quality writing to devolop the relationship (in most cases, I have seen plenty of unquestionable exceptions on the quality writing end), but a lot of the people who make money via online donations have cultivated this specifically online relationship with their readers.

That's my two cents, anyway... I am very curious to see the results if you go forward with this!

BrennaLyons said...

She claims she was with a traditional publisher first. She gives no solid data to work with, so how much of this is true or not is anyone's guess.

A million things could have gone wrong for her with a publisher. She could have had no distribution channels, no marketing from the publisher (though you have to personally market wherever you are), a user-UNfriendly publisher site, which discourages sales... She could have had an idiot for an editor that did things like adding sex for sex's sake instead of letting the story stand where it was strong. She could have had a lousy contract, a publisher playing contract games, or some other sort of unethical publisher. I can't say why she didn't sell with a publisher.

I already deal with online and traditional audiences, so that shouldn't make a big difference for me, but we'll see. First step...finish the work I'll be using for this experiment.


Unknown said...

This has become one marketing channel for bands, started last year when one well-known band offered their new album online pre-release and advised people they could pay what they thought it was worth. They did so well with it other bands have jumped on the wagon.

However, the ones that succeed at it are the ones that already have an established fan base of one kind or another. You, Brenna, might actually do well using the promotion for that reason. A beginner, though, likely wouldn't.

I'm always seeing blogs and statements from self-publishers about how many sales they get and how much money they make by avoiding the usual channels so they can keep everything they make on those sales. Asked for proof, they either fudge, or they just list number of sales and gross revenues, which is misleading. And unprovable.

Now, if this woman is selling niche material, and is the only one doing so--or one of a very few--she may well be doing okay. But fiction? I don't believe it, and won't till I see some hard figures.

John Klawitter said...

I did a similar experiment. I wanted to get into audio books, and the company that helped me the most was podiobooks.com. Their business model is to offer the books 'free' and then beg their 'members' for contributions. One of my novels rose to #1`on their list and stayed in the top ten for several months. I received a check for something around $15.

I think your skepticism is valid. If you're trying to promote your work, it may be a good idea, but, at least in my case, it wasn't a money-making adventure.
John Klawitter

P.S. I found a publisher that was able to get my books distributed through audible.com. To date I've written and produced six audio books, with the seventh and eighth in the works, and this has worked out much better for me.

Margaret Carter said...

I'll be interested to learn the result of your experiment. I've never given away free reads in any way, so I have no personal experience of how they'd be received.

I've recently donated to a couple of online magazines because I felt a little guilty about not supporting them financially, and to help ensure that they will continue publishing. If I downloaded a free read that had a donation button, I would definitely donate.

Stephen King sold the installments of "The Plant" on the honor system. Nay-sayers about e-publishing at the time dismissed the experiment as a failure because many of the readers didn't pay. To me, a "failure" that nets many thousands of dollars (and for a story that was just sitting in the drawer, at least the early chapters were) sounds a lot like a success!

BrennaLyons said...

I agree, Margaret! The same thing with King's early e-book releases. As I recall the story, he made $200,000 and called it a failure. For the early days of e-books, it was a major success, and considering there's no shelf life, save that of his own making, it could well have outsold some of his lower-earning books, given the time to.


DanielleThorne said...

Fascinating conversation, Brenna. I hope you post your results. I'd love to know how things go with this.

Patricia K said...

The problem is how people willpay.
I buy from authors that I know or I have read in anlogies. I don't how it would work with the author or the readers. One author you have build up points by putting tha authors wiget on their blogs or facebook