Free e-books?

I’ve now self-published four ebooks on Smashwords. I decided to make one of them, which is a short guide to Bach flower remedies, free of charge and not surprisingly this has ‘sold’ far more copies than any of the other three which cost just $2.99 USD each.

Now that there is so much free material available on-line it is understandable that many people are reluctant to pay for ebooks. Would you be well advised to make yours free? There are various pros and cons.

Free ebooks could be a good idea for some writers, for example those who simply want as many readers as possible and do not care about making money. Or, if you wrote your book with the aim of helping others in need or mainly for the interest of your family and friends, you may feel it would be inappropriate to accept payment for it. Even if you are more commercially inclined, you may consider giving away one of your ebooks as a ‘loss leader’ in the hope of getting your name more widely known and encouraging sales of your other work.

On the other hand there are several reasons for charging. As one of the many part-time writers whose main income comes from other sources I don’t need or expect to make any significant profit from my books, but I do feel it is reasonable to want some financial return for all the work which goes into them, and to cover expenses. Although self-publishing is much cheaper than it used to be there are costs involved for formatting, editing, cover design and marketing, whether you employ expert help for these aspects or acquire the skills and equipment to manage them yourself. Then there are the ‘opportunity costs’ incurred by spending time on writing rather than paid work. It seems bizarre that when I was in clinical practice I could earn more from a one-hour consultation with a client than from a book which took literally thousands of hours to write.

While there are many excellent free ebooks available, the quality of others is very poor. Some writers, perhaps without realising it, feel that if they are not going to charge for their book it is alright to take a casual approach towards content, grammar, spelling and layout, instead of aiming to make it ‘the best it can be’.  I believe that if the self-publishing of ebooks is to be valued as a respectable undertaking with high professional standards, new writers should usually put a price on their work.

Lastly, ‘people value what they pay for’. Many free ebooks get downloaded, but I wonder how often they are actually read.

Choosing the cover for a self-help book

One of the pleasures of ‘indie’ publishing is having freedom to choose the cover image. I recently spent an hour or so browsing in search of the best one for my new book Persons not diseases: a guide to mind-body-spirit medicine and holistic healing. With such a huge selection of titles now available online, it is often just a split-second glance at the cover which decides potential readers whether or not to ‘look inside’ a book, so it is important to choose a theme and colours which attract attention and convey the desired message.

But different people can interpret the same picture very differently depending on their emotional state, as I learned from a chastising experience some years ago when I worked in psycho-oncology at a hospital in England. I was giving a talk about coping with cancer and included a few art slides to represent different moods and attitudes of mind. My favourite was a colourful image of a trapeze artist high up in a circus tent. This was intended to symbolise positive qualities such as courage and joy, but one patient in the group thought it showed a woman hanging herself. When considering images for my new book I was careful to avoid anything which could lend itself to such a shocking interpretation, but on the other hand I did not want it to look too bland or sentimental.

I considered sunrises, seascapes, flowers and abstracts before deciding on a picture of a path winding up a green hillside, with blue sky above. I chose this picture mainly because I liked it, and I think it could also suggest taking ‘the illness journey’ through natural surroundings in a spirit of peace and hope. Talented designer Jeremy Taylor has now converted this photo into the cover image for Persons not diseases, which will be published as an e-book next month with a print version to follow later.

Book Marketing Basics – Part 2

My last post gave some reasons why it is advisable for authors, especially self-published ones, to play an active part in marketing their own books. For this post I have drawn on my own recent experience to suggest a selection of methods which may work for you, even if you have a limited budget or you feel uncomfortable with self-promotion.

Internet marketing is potentially a powerful tool, but personal contact and old-fashioned ‘word of mouth’ are still important and it is advisable to make use of both methods.

You will obviously want to tell your family and friends about your book, and this can often be done by email. However, beware  of ‘spamming’ people whom you do not really know even though their address has found its way into your contact list. You can also write to relevant societies and organisations, preferably on an individual basis.

The message is best kept fairly short and factual, and should not come across as ‘pushy’. Include links to further information such as a web page describing the book’s content, a free sample chapter, even a YouTube video or an audio clip. Remember to say where to buy it. Finish with a request to forward the message on to others who might be interested. If you belong to networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, post the information there too.

Arrange a launch event soon after publication. This could be held in a local library or bookshop; at a venue appropriate to the subject of the book, for example at a sports club or in a healthcare setting; even in your own home. Send personal invitations to selected people, distribute some printed or electronic flyers, and ask for RSVPs so that you have some idea of numbers for catering purposes. Copies of the book, and perhaps any previous ones you have published, should obviously be on sale at the event and most buyers will want you to sign them with a brief personal message. A suitable timetable might include half an hour of light refreshments while the guests are assembling, half an hour for you to give a talk about the book and read some extracts from it, then half an hour for questions, discussion, more refreshments and of course selling and signing books.

There may be ongoing opportunities for talks and presentations, at meetings of local societies or at larger conferences. For example I have spoken about my own recent book Focus on Healing at various events attended by natural therapists, and at gatherings for members of a breast cancer charity.

Printed cards, fliers or bookmarks can be distributed through libraries and other suitable settings, or given to people you meet. You can be creative with the design but it is best to relate it to the appearance of the book, probably using the same image as that on the cover so that people will recognise it.

Write to relevant journals, magazines, newspapers and websites to ask if they would like to review the book or publish a feature about it. You may decide to send out unsolicited review copies anyway, but this takes time and money, and does not guarantee a response. If you do get a review it may well take a long time to appear, and will not necessarily be positive – though it is said there is no such thing as bad publicity, and a really damning review sometimes stimulates people to read the book out of curiosity.

‘Special offers’ may be worthwhile, for example you could suggest combining your book with another product for a limited period, or posting out gift-wrapped copies for Christmas.

Writing articles or giving interviews for websites, blogs or paper publications will help to get your name known, without necessarily promoting the book directly.

This is not a complete list of marketing techniques but I hope it provides some ideas for those starting to explore the world of self-publishing.

Book Marketing Basics – Part 1

Like most authors I would rather focus on writing books than on selling them. I tend to write for my own interest and enjoyment, not for a particular market niche. This is one reason that the fiction books I wrote in my younger days were rejected – unless manuscripts have outstanding merit, publishers require them to fit into a recognized genre and mine did not. I was luckier with my medical books, written while I was working in hospital and university settings. These had a ready-made readership and the very first one was adopted as a course text without any effort on my part. Other aspects of marketing were handled by my publishers with minimal input from me.

All this changed after I moved from the UK to New Zealand in 2000 and became self-employed. I no longer had a reputation in professional circles. I wanted to write about new fields in which I had no special expertise. At the same time, sales of printed books were starting to decline. Although I did succeed in having a few other books published in the traditional way over this period, self-publishing now seems to me the most promising route for the future.

Self-publishing has become a viable and respectable option. The technology is advancing rapidly and already offers many different methods for producing an e-book (electronic) and / or a p-book (printed) at reasonable price. So anybody can now publish their work without having to compete with other writers and suffer a long stream of rejection slips. But the element of competition has shifted to a later stage in the process – with so many books available, how do you persuade readers to buy your own? If you want to spread your book’s message, and to make any profit at all, you will have to play an active part in marketing.

One option is to employ a professional agency to do it for you, but this can be quite costly and there is no guarantee of success. Similarly, advertisements are expensive and often have disappointing results. Though I am by no means a natural sales-person nor an expert in marketing, I have learned a few low-cost techniques and will write about these in my next post.