Why I Am Not “An Author”

To be an author is to get paid for writing. I’ve heard this often enough that I’ve become quite comfortable with not being an author. Instead, I am someone who makes up stories and gives them away for free on the internet. I have always wanted to do this, but until the past year or so, it was not a serious option. Now, thanks to the emergent convergence of e-books and e-readers and iPads and iPhones and Androids and all the other great stuff coming out, it is not only an option, but the perfect one for me.

I’ve put out more than two dozen ebooks, mainly through Smashwords and Feedbooks. I love both of those websites for different reasons. Smashwords is doing a great job of distributing through different venues and making itself known in the world. Feedbooks is responsible for a ton of international downloads for my stories. Also, since I’m a huge fan of 19th century literature, I use Feedbooks to feed my own reading habit. It occurs to me that most of my favorite writers are either dead or otherwise never made a penny from me, so why should I honor this connection of writing and money? Everywhere I turn, it comes down to that. I wanted to sever that chain, and I have, for myself.

I am also not an author because I’m not one of those writers who are ‘masters of craft’ or style or technique. I am not a ‘wordsmith’. I never took a class in the art of fiction. All of that is just fine – I’m not criticizing or judging anyone else – I just like to make up stories and write them down. I tend to write in a hurry (because I have a job and a family and and friends not a whole lot of free time or unlimited energy). I live with a story for the days or weeks I am inventing it. I think about it while commuting or walking the dog or riding my bike – whenever I can. My stories have a limited life span in my mind. Once I know how they’re going to end, I just have to finish it up quickly so I can move on. Between stories I like to absorb impressions from the world around me. I don’t worry about writing or not writing. I don’t care if I ever write another story or not.

Not being an author has been very liberating for me. I give all my stories away for no other reason than because that’s exactly what I’ve always wanted to do. I worked in bookstores for nearly twenty years, and witnessed firsthand the brief shelf-life of most books. All is vanity, saith the preacher, and publishing – whether by industry or self – is certainly included in that. There are a few authors who are giving their stories away electronically – of course Cory Doctorow comes immediately to mind – and I really love that. I do use Lulu to print-on-demand, since my parents refuse to read anything but an actual book, and I do like to give them my stories, but I’m not out to ‘drive sales’ or even move in that mode. I also have my stories on Amazon Kindle. Unfortunately, I cannot yet give them away for free in that venue, but have to charge a minimal ninety nine cents. I am hoping to do away with that once Smashwords gets their distribution package with Amazon settled.

I’ve had some interesting experiences as a giveaway storyteller. Thanks to an accident of timing on getfreeebooks.com, my story Zombie Nights remained on their front page for nearly two months, and ended up spending the summer as the #1 download at Smashwords. Also, thanks to that website, I have four other books in the top 100 most downloaded ebooks. On the flipside, I’ve received a numbers of really rude comments by people who didn’t like my stories. I don’t know about you, but when I don’t like something I’m reading, I just put it down, and read something else. I don’t understand the impulse to trash someone’s stuff. And yet, this has also been amusing, and I’ve learned a bit more about what I like to call ‘the unwritten rules of impossible things’. For example, in Zombie Nights, my zombie doesn’t go around eating flesh. Instead, he’s kind of puzzled as to why he’s even around, and is kind of bored and has to think of something to do. Even though I presented the story as an ‘existential resurrection thriller’, some people didn’t think it was funny, or even acceptable, to break the unwritten rules about zombies!

I wasn’t used to experiencing these reactions, but now I do know a little about it. One year ago, although I’d been writing my stories for twenty-five years, hardly more than a dozen people had ever read any of them. In these few short months, that number has ballooned into tens of thousands, and I even had someone ask me if she could translate one of my stories into Farsi. How cool is that?

A friend of mine has an ethic of gardening. One tomato is great, she says. Anything more is abundance. This is how I feel about my self-publishing experience.


It’s better than being an author.

  • Nice post, Tom. I’ve seen you around Feedbooks, but haven’t read you yet (apologies). I featured this post because a lot of the info on this site is for Serious Authors with Serious Ambition. But self-publishing isn’t all about that. It’s also about people who enjoy writing and publishing with no other pretense. And there’s nothing wrong with that. At all.

  • Wow! This is one great post! Too many writers are worried only about sales and forget the joy of telling a great story. For you, that is what truly matters . I admire you, and I must start reading your works. Thank you for this invitation to great reading.

  • Most of what you hear about free ebooks is how terrible they must be, by definition! free == not good. But just last week I read a wonderful book that I found out about through Wikipedia (free!). The book is titled “The Infant’s Skull” and was written by a 19th century French writer named Eugene Sue. I got the book (for free) from Project Gutenberg (bless them!), and downloaded it onto my Android (open-source) cell-phone and read it on the Aldiko book reader (a free app). Of course, I might also have found it just as well through the public library system, but it’s very unlikely I would ever have found a copy in any bookstore.

    I have also found some (free) contemporary stories I’ve enjoyed on Smashwords and Feedbooks, Wattpad and Lulu and elsewhere. Like anything, “you have to dig through much earth to find a little gold” (Heraclitus), but that is also a good thing – the adventure of discovery.

    I like to think that storytelling is an ancient tradition, and for most of human history it’s been more a matter of sharing and community than a business model. I like to celebrate that idea also. We can see the world of free ebooks as a jumbled mess, or we can choose to see it as a monster jam session. I encourage everyone I know who likes to write to put their stories out there. You might as well.

  • I love the hell out of this post.

    And, PS, Freak City + Snapdragon Alley rocked.

    • you’ve got a fantastic website & especially love the manifesto!

  • Really interesting post. I think it’s great that you just want to share your stories and have people read them. I guess I’ve always imagined that I’d like to be paid to do something I love (write) but maybe it’s not really about that. Puts things into perspective. Thanks!

  • Well I’ve just read your Zombie Nights Tom and I enjoyed it. I found it even more enjoyable because it was free!

    Ian Woodhead (A fellow Smashwords author…I mean writer)

  • I know what you mean. I’m fine with just being a writer.