A new way of writing

I’ve been writing blogs and participating in online discussion groups for so long, perhaps it’s only natural that I’m thinking about alternative ways of writing books (OK, the Kindle might have something to do with that, but only indirectly). My first two books were traditional books, written by me, sent to a publisher, who added illustrations and formatting, cover illustrations and title, and marketed and sold physical books. And owned the copyright.

Like most beginning authors, my part of the wholesale (not retail) value of each book sold was 10%. Think about that for a minute. Subtracted from that were returns, books that stores bought but didn’t sell, and were allowed to send back to the publisher. All told, a book that my readers might buy for $16, I might receive $1 in royalties. Not enough to live on, certainly, unless you’re a wildly popular author with a large potential audience.

Added to that is the almost more serious issue of not owning the rights to the material I created, not being able to use it online or in classes, not being able to publish it in another language, not being able to, well, give it away for free if I want to, however many years later. And if the publisher doesn’t keep it in print, then no-one has access to it. Even me.

So much has changed in the world that we now have other options. A previously published author can obtain an ISBN number and sell their books as e-books on Amazon.com or from their own website. A person can independently publish e-books or even real books through just-in-time small print run online publishers. Advances in desktop publishing software have certainly improved things for the graphically inclined to illustrate their own works.

The question is, how do you reach your audience? This is the true value-added of most publishers, mine included. There’s something to be said for that thrill of seeing your book pre-orderable on Amazon.com, or a hard copy at Borders, or Waldenbooks, or the local new age bookstore. Famous authors, like Steven King, can and have tried any experiment they want in e-publishing, including giving their material away for free and asking fans to donate what they think it’s worth. Of course, they’re famous; when they try something like that, it’s headline news (or at least blogger news).

Still, the accessibility and the economics are interesting. For one thing, it takes a year or two to get a book published the normal way, even once you’re done writing it (we won’t talk about how long THAT can take). And I could sell a book online for $4, make four times as much, and have my readers pay four times less, than through regular publishing. That ought to make up for at least some publicity issues. The internet is loaded with opportunities to publicize a new book, through online forums of interested user communities.

But what I’m really toying with is the idea of allowing the material to be downloaded like freeware – made freely available, with a request to donate to the author if the reader finds the material to be useful, interesting, enjoyable, or helps build their own business. This preserves the ethic I’ve always had about most of my writing, to make it freely available on my website to those who want to learn. At the same time, I believe people would place value on my work and donate what seems reasonable and affordable to them.

In this format, I could post chapters as they’re written, and people could subscribe to get the very latest. Entire books would be one thing, but a lot of other materials could be provided that way – extended essays, course materials from online classes, newly developed spreads, etc. This material could then be used by the reader in any way they saw fit – potentially contributing to their own online business, website, or classes, which would ideally make it even more valuable to them. A freeware-type copyright would be used, which expressly allows for all these uses, with appropriate attribution and website links.

What do you think of this experiment, potential readers (and downloaders)?

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4 thoughts on “A new way of writing

  1. Lisa Hunt says:

    Interesting post, Teresa. I think a lot of authors are grappling with some of these issues and the potentiality of expanded distribution via unconventional means. There is a big transition going on that has authors and publishers talking–the way one used to get published is no longer the fixed mode of delivery. Given that things are changing so quickly and old models of publishing are now being challenged, it’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out in the coming years. I think the next five years will support a major shift on how we publish books, art and other intellectual properties. I think the best thing to do is to remain open to the possibilities that lie before us and see it as opportunity rather than detriment.

  2. Soulwright says:

    Interesting Synchronicity. I was just reading about a restaurant called SAME – So All May Eat. Some pay full price, some eat for free and volunteer, and some pay all they can afford. And it is working. I suspect because of the clarity of intention of the owners.

    I find more and more that I want to spend the $$$ I have in ways that support the world in ways that I value, and that support the people in my community – whether that is my local community, my online community, or the world community.

    Before Microsoft owned the computing world, shareware was pretty common, and lots of us paid a few dollars to use programs that we found useful. I don’t know if that model was ultimately successful or not – but as a user – I loved being able to pay for what worked and feel that my contribution went directly to the developer.

    And don’t get me started on copyrights and royalties!

    I say go for it!

  3. Gail Wood says:

    Hmmmm. I think a lot of writers, especially those who write in niche markets are saying the same thing. Small presses like Willow Tree and Spilled Candy are already POD (print on demand) presses with downloads as an alternative. I put one of my books on lulu.com with a download option.

    Then the responsibility for distribution, promotion, etc is on the author. And a lot of that is true anyway.

    I like your idea of chapter by chapter. Three of my books were correspondence courses before they were published. The fourth, I taugh as workshops before publication. It’s the way I roll…er write.

    And it’s a dollar per book sold if you are lucky and you don’t have a high rate of return or if your distribution is good, or if your publisher “back burners” promotion of your book.

  4. veronikab says:

    “Before Microsoft owned the computing world, shareware was pretty common, and lots of us paid a few dollars to use programs that we found useful. I don’t know if that model was ultimately successful or not – but as a user – I loved being able to pay for what worked and feel that my contribution went directly to the developer.”
    That’s still the case. Probably more on Linux platforms than with paid-for operating systems, but the idea of freeware and shareware is still very much alive and well.

    The one problem I see with self-publishing is marketing. It takes a lot of time and effort, which would normally be taken care of by the publisher. I am not saying that it cannot be done, but it will cost time.

    Don’t get me started on copyright either! If I typeset a paper and make the pictures AND proofread, because even copy-and-paste seems to introduce errors, why do I have to sign over the copyright?

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