Chip MacGregor

June 26, 2012

Should you make your novel available for free?


Martin wrote a note and asked, “How much of your novel should you post on the internet before you have an agent or publisher? I posted three chapters, and it has proven to be so popular that I now have readers writing to me and begging me to post more of the story. My fear is that I don’t want to give it away, but by the time I wait for a traditional publisher, my readers will be gone.”

Interesting scenario, Martin, and you’re asking questions about something that has changed considerably in the past year or two. I used to rarely encourage an author to post his or her chapters on a website outside of a promotional campaign for a book’s release, since it seemed like there was no way for the author to win. I mean, you might garner some attention from an agent, but it would seem like you’d be more apt to get some of the know-nothing, fly-by-night types to contact you. And as for readership, you’ve hit the problem dead on — you might gain readers, but will they stick around long enough to buy the book? That used to be doubtful — from the time you turn in a completed manuscript, you’re looking at a year’s wait before there are ink-and-paper copies on store shelves.

BUT over the past couple of years that has changed. We now have seen numerous authors post a few chapters to get readers hooked, then later sell them for the entire book. Sometimes that plan has worked; sometimes it hasn’t. The alternative has been to post the entire book on line, sell it, and use it to build a readership. Then you try to steer faithful readers to purchase your other releases (so you capture the names and emails of readers, you get in touch with them, etc).

Of course, over the past few years we’ve seen a bunch of writers turn their blogs into books, and there has been the explosion of self-published novels (some great; some lousy), so suddenly the process has changed. With that in mind, I’d say the answer is to ask yourself what the purpose of posting your book is. If it’s to get the attention of an agent, it may not be that helpful, since it requires agents to go trolling (and most already have plenty of manuscripts to wade through). If the purpose is to get the attention of the publisher, it may or may not work, but will be best if there is also clear communication with editors, to make sure they are looking. If the purpose is to gain readers, I think we’ve pretty well accepted the fact that posting words is a great way to find readers – the key is to get it noticed somehow, so you’ve got to figure out where those readers are and get in front of them.

All of this sounds more complex than ever – and it probably is. I’m going to answer more questions about queries and proposals, but I’d like to know what you think is working in terms of building a readership. What have you tried that succeeded? 

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  • Kristen says:

    It seems to me that what Martin has here are potential Beta readers. If it were me, I’d ask for their e-mail addresses, send them PDFs of the book, ask for one-or two sentence “endorsements” for my website, and enlist them as part of the launch team. Wouldn’t this make sense for Martin to add to the marketing section of his proposal: “I have a team of 20 advance readers who are prepared to help promote the book launch with Amazon reviews, Facebook posts…” and so on?

  • Martha Ramirez says:

    I’ve always heard to be careful posting your work online because then it will be considered published. Any advice as to how much of an excerpt is safe?

    • Chip says:

      Yeah, once it’s posted, it is “published.” But that’s not stopping traditional publishers from considering it any more, Martha. At least not usually. 

  • Dawn D. says:

    This post kinda reminds me of the whole Fan Fiction realm. I’m traditionally published, but, have not had a new contract in about 3 years. A few of my novels have been re-released as e-books. I’d like to get some readers OUTSIDE of my writers’ groups. Right now, I feel through my networking and email lists, it contains mostly other authors or wanna-be authors.

    Since the 50 Shades of Grey happened, I’d wondered what would happen if I started posting Fan Fiction for my favorite movie. Granted, I’m not seeking to get a contract for my Fan Fiction, but, wondered, what would happen if I posted this stuff, kinda like throwing out my fishing net to a new group – would these people who may “like” my Fan Fiction, purchase my re-released e-books?

    I’m still trying to get another book contract, but, while I pursue that, I’d wanted to try this to see what happened. It’s a shot in the dark, and not sure if it’ll be successful.

    • Chip says:

      You’re at the same place a bunch of authors are at, Dawn — and asking the same question. For some that has meant deciding to post their work, in order to try and reach those new readers. 

  • My only concern about posting parts of a book on the
    internet is that I’ve heard some publishers will not sign you for that book if any
    part of it is on the net. Am I misinformed? However, it may help draw readers
    to future books. With that in mind, my critique partners and I have considered
    e-publishing a bunch of short stories we did for our blog-site. We each wrote a
    piece inspired by a writing prompt (ie. first kiss interrupted by an animal),
    and posted our attempts at it. They turned out to be a lot of fun and got good
    feedback from our readers. The only concern we have is that some of them are
    now, or are planned to be, parts of larger novels. If we e-publish, will
    publishers not look at the larger work. It seems to me the short story
    collection could draw people to want to read the stories that go with them. Any

    • Chip says:

      I would say that is no longer as true as it once was, Connie. It’s still evolving, so there’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but I can tell you I have sold several projects to traditional publishers that were first self-published by the author. Does that mean self-publishing something could never hurt you with a traditional publisher? No. Does that mean everyone should do it? No. Does it mean YOU should do it? I don’t know you well enough to tell you. But I can tell you that self-pubbing is not the kiss of death with traditional publishers — not by any means. 

    • Thanks for the input, Chip. I’ll pass it along to the rest of my group. I think we are leaning toward self-pubbing the shorts anyway.

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