Publishing online books for free

Published in The Author June 2010

Ever since books were invented, they have cost money to buy. And however heavily discounted they may be on Amazon, at bookshop tables or on supermarket shelves, they always, as a commodity, cost something.

That is, until now. Spearheading what may become a complete revolution in the way we regard a printed volume, one long-established publisher is gradually putting its entire list online, to be read for nothing.  Yes that’s right – you can read their books completely free, and that’s the whole book, not just one chapter.

How To Books, specialising in self-help titles, set up a dedicated website a year ago and has so far put 100 of its books online. Every week, more are added, both new and out of print titles. So does this constitute economic suicide for the publishers and herald even more bad news for the poor old author, already knocked sideways by falling sales, reduced royalties and cancelled commissions?

Well, not really because the earning power of these books doesn’t, as in the past, depend on sales or orders. Instead, it is all governed by the click factor. Every time a viewer clicks on a title and starts to read the book, a number of ads will come up and both author and publisher earn revenue by click, not by sales. 

Publishing director Nikki Read explains all. “We have put enormous research and investment into this, and we knew we were taking the most massive gamble. But we had to do something drastic. Reference books have been particularly hard hit by the internet and as we know, there is a general decline in bookselling anyway.  As publishers, we were finding it difficult to get a backlist title into bookshops as they are only interested in stocking the latest celebrity biography or cookbook.

“One reason we decided to go all out for this model was lack of choice in bookshops.

“Then, although many people want information, they may not be booklovers as such. They are not remotely bothered by cover, binding, design or the look and feel of the book, but just want to have the facts.  Plus, some readers will only want to read bits of a book and leave out the aspects that don’t concern them. 

“People have now become used to large amounts of content being free online, and also the internet has made them impatient. They want the information now, and not have to wait for their Amazon order to arrive or search round bookshops – often in vain.

“It was with these issues in mind that we decided to take the plunge and market our books and authors in a completely new way, and we now believe this is the way forward for our type of publishing.

“We ran a trial site two years ago and it was such a success that we decided to go the whole hog and rather than offering just a chapter or two to be read for free, we would put up the whole book.”

Authors can only benefit, Nikki adds. “At first, our authors were really worried that it would slow down their sales, but this hasn’t happened. The site is giving a new life to out of print books but we are also finding that the online stuff drives hard copy sales as well. We are still producing traditional books, and very often, people who have read a book online will decide to go and buy the hard copy because they want something easy to handle they can refer to again and again. We are now selling one traditional book for every 400 clicks. It may not sound a lot, but it adds up.” 

The site is made possible by Google, which drives suitable ads to the books, so that – for example – you will find ads for specialised insurance next to a book on caravan insurance or running a holiday cottage business.  If you want to know how to run a restaurant, a Google search will direct you to a How To book on the subject, and relevant ads will also come up.

The Google search engine finds and places the ads, and the advertisers have nothing to do with How To Books. The advertisers pay Google and the publishers get a percentage which they share with the authors. The click-through rate varies, but it can be anything from a few pence to £4 per click, and obviously, the more online readers a particular book has, the greater the revenue from clicks. 

The site was very expensive to set up and needed a lot of technical partners to make it work, Nikki says.  “It had to be done professionally, and not in an amateurish way.  The most important aspect is to make sure the right kind of traffic is driven to the pages. A lot of traffic doesn’t necessarily mean revenue, so we have to pay a lot of attention to search engine optimising, and ensure only relevant ads come up.”

Authors are pleased, as they are reaching a whole new readership which is actually earning them money.  “We had a letter recently from one author whose book was long out of print, and he was amazed by his royalty statement as he had earned a significant amount (not disclosed!) from his online readers.

“Royalties are higher than from traditional sales. Authors get 20% of the income generated over the year, and this doesn’t depend on their sales, as in the past. We are finding that financial books of all kinds are doing very well, particularly those about getting out of debt.  Again, people in debt may not feel they can afford to buy a book on the subject, but they can read all about it, and relevant ads will come up near the subject matter.

“We are choosing subjects which are highly likely to be sought on Google, and this is the secret of the site’s success, so far as our authors are concerned. And many of our authors are finding a new audience; those people who don’t go into bookshops but are highly internet-savvy.” 

The existence of the website means a book need never go out of print – or off the site -  and the author can continue to earn, theoretically for ever. This new model is so different from secondhand or charity shop bookselling, where the author earns nothing whatever, however expensively the book changes hands.  And, says Nikki,  thanks to the existence of the site, there is more good news for authors.

“We are now asking authors to write short articles on their subject. They put up ideas to us, and we find key words to incorporate into the article. These key words drive to the ads, and thus to the revenue.  The articles can give authors a monthly income which goes on ad infinitum, and many find they are earning well above the NUJ rate.

“Articles can often succeed where it might be difficult to publish a book. For instance, we recently had a proposal from an author who wanted to write a book on legal advice but we thought it was all too general. So we asked him to break down the information into 20 articles, and he got published that way. We are now asking authors to provide a marketing article which is not a plug but describes markets the book might reach. Then we have a blog whereby authors can talk directly to readers, so it’s all a living thing, and we are investing in social networking.”

So far, adds Nikki, the only people who are not making a profit from this venture are themselves, as the initial investment was so great. But the company are confident that this move will ensure a profitable future for their type of book.


1296 words


- - June 2010