Free Online Book Publishing and Google Print

My publishing business is based on giving books away for free online. Book publishing is an easy business to get into if you’re an author, but it’s a tough way to make a living. The really tough part is marketing, which traditionally required a serious budget, a lot of insider knowledge and the ability and willingness to “do lunch.” I didn’t have any of these things when I started out back in 1995, but I did have a website, so I started giving books away online, with the note that visitors could buy paper copies direct from me for less than the cost of an inkjet cartridge. It worked, sort-of. I didn’t have the ability to easily process payments back then, Amazon wasn’t on the radar yet, and I was stuck making the books at a copy shop because print on demand didn’t exist. The overhead was more than I could take and after a year of fooling around, I sold the book to McGraw-Hill. The whole experience inspired me to write my first article about publishing, namely, how to find a publisher in the new millennium.

I kept up with web publishing for the next few years while making a living as a trade author, but I stuck primarily with non-commercial writing, because I still didn’t have a good way to print and distribute books. Unlike many small publishers, I thought I had the marketing angle beat – give the books away for free online and sell them to website visitors. A few years later, when I discovered the Lightning Source model for printing and distributing books, I put the model to the test with a business book I’d been writing online. Not a week went by without somebody e-mailing me just to ask when the book would be finished so they could buy it, but when I finally published the book, sales were mediocre. So, I experimented with leaving the first few chapters of the book online and taking the rest down, and sales soared. Then I replaced all the chapters I’d removed with excerpts from those chapters and sales improved even more. My conclusion was I could make a living giving free books away online, just not whole books.

In the meantime, I added low key advertisements for my first book to some related material on my website, and sure enough, a percentage of visitors were interested enough to check it out. The obvious conclusion was that any online publishing on reasonably related subjects would help sell books, and it opened up a whole new area for me, namely photo illustrated pages. The print on demand publishing model doesn’t work well with any photography, let alone color, but simple digital camera snapshots are the perfect match for online publishing. I’ve since added many pages to my websites that have drawn wonderful feedback from visitors who wonder how I can do all this work for free, but now you know my secret. My book sales are driven by the free online book publishing I do, and I doubt I could have kept up the effort to write this blog if it didn't contribute to sales of my publishing book.

I’ve written about all of this before, but I wanted to review it to put Google Print into context. There are currently two Google Print programs, the opt-in program that publishers like myself can (and do) participate in, and the opt-out program based on scans from some select libraries that the Authors Guild is currently fighting. Since I’m no longer a member of the Authors Guild, I didn’t bother writing to tell them they are acting like a bunch of armchair intellectuals, as I did when they attacked Amazon for selling second hand books. At the risk of sounding like a big head, I’ve got as much experience publishing online as anybody, and it’s my opinion that Google Print can only help book sales. I’m also happy that a book of translations I spent three years working on is in the collections of the libraries in the Google library program, because it will now be preserved for posterity so everybody can laugh at what a bad translator I am:-)

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