Would You Take a “Free” Book Deal?

It sounds like an oxymoron. But as a follow up to our fairly grim outlook on book advances, I wanted to shine a potential bright light: a possible everybody-wins solution to the financial dilemmas facing both authors and their publishers today.

Last week, I spoke with an internationally published author who came to me with this perspective: “If I could find a major publisher in the U.S., I wouldn’t even require a book advance.”

When I asked the question on Facebook, I got several immediate “Yes! Yes!” responses. If you have pre-baked material, just lying on a shelf or in an agent’s slush pile and you’ve spent years writing this thing, would the offer to see your book to market, in print, in stores, and with a brand seal, for sheer gratification, not be somewhat compelling?

eBook publishers, like Amazon, Diversion, Avon/Impulse, and Open Road, are already offering writers the opportunity to publish using their resources – different from self-publishing – and given demand, the vast market of writers looking to publish, these publishers are getting more selective. The advance may be zilch, but the royalties and creative control more advantageous than any standard book contract. (You can find pro’s and con’s for e-publishing options here.) But when the author I spoke to prompted me to look into traditional publishers who might consider the free book deal, I saw only a few paperback romance and/or smaller publishers had followed the example: Black Lyon Publishing, Amber Quill Press, Lachesis, and others, none of which I’d heard of before. (Shame on me.)

There are plenty of writers who couldn’t, or shouldn’t, in today’s publishing landscape, make such a deal. The most obvious: if you have a competitive offer, why would you? Or if you need an advance to put your life on hold to research your book, why should you?

Even while low-cost equations like Amazon and even smaller startups, like Storyville (proposing to do for publishing what iTunes singles did for the music industry), push us toward Anderson’s prediction of “economic gravity,” print publishing remains a curated system in which only those books deemed promising have a shot, and the fee paid for the material represents a greater collective of internal enthusiasm and support, without which, many books face mediocre destinies.

In publishing — like other industries governed by people, not products — herd mentality still reigns. Just consider the premise of book auctions, spurred by competition and the interest of others, often placing false value on books that, many times, lose money. Currently, if an author were deemed unqualified for a book advance, the book simply wouldn’t get published; if it did, salespeople, marketers and even the publisher, might not feel the conviction, or offer the investment, naturally given to the author signed for six or seven figures.

As an aspiring author, willingness to abstain from a book advance might therefore seem, today, an act of both futility and desperation. But are we looking at a different realm of possibilities in the near horizon? If “free” book deals were granted by major publishers, wouldn’t your agent consider it, in your best interests, after a standard round of submissions with no offers? And the editor who so badly wanted to buy your book? She could be given a shot at making it a success, with the incentive of something to prove. Smart and forward-thinking authors like the person I spoke with also realize that nothing in this world is actually free. You, too, will be “charged” with promoting your book; that’s after the uncompensated work you’ve already done writing it. And your publisher will be making a significant investment in your book in production, design, marketing and distribution — with or without the added book advance.

I am not arguing that publishers become the sort of “anyone and everyone” aggregator model established by Amazon. What I’m suggesting is that there are many proposals and manuscripts that come so close to making the cut — what if there were more leeway allowed in those decisions? With more risk-taking, open-mindedness and creativity, and the realization that successful marketing lies in both the estimable (promotional costs) and the inestimable (word of mouth), traditional print publishers, like their e-counterparts, may soon find value, not stigma, in the model of the free book deal. There is no dearth of hungry writers out there, willing to do the work. And in this new way of doing business, we widen the breadth and diversity of acquisitions, find writers less frustrated, and readers, possibly more satisfied.

So the question: would you consider a free book deal, if the other terms (royalties, rights, creative control) were more advantageous?Tell us below or on www.Facebook.com/LucindaLiterary.

*Anderson’s toyed with selling his book for free, but it is now available for purchase at it’s standard $26.99 (definitely not free).

*If I were an author paid an advance, I’d re-invest in tech promotions like Patti Callahan, who took a favorite detail from her book, and turned it into an app.

*Guess who landed a $1.5 million investment from a prominent slate of Silicon Valley investors for ebook self-publishing software?

William Rempel


“Chockablock with dialogue and intimate detail assembled by deep research… All sorts of celebrities—in business, sports, and elsewhere—glide through the text, including tennis star Andre Agassi; Mike Tyson, whose infamous ear-biting episodes occurred at a fight in Kerkorian's MGM Grand Hotel in Vegas; fellow business magnate Lee Iacocca; Elvis Presley; and Cary Grant, one of Kerkorian's good friends… [The Gambler] is the compelling story of a Horatio Alger." — Kirkus Reviews