Why I Nuked My Writing Career Before it Even Started

On Friday, September 9th I uploaded my eBook to Amazon.com, iBooks, and Barnes & Noble for $2.99

A week later, I uploaded it to The Pirate Bay for free.

I know what you’re probably thinking.  “Well, that was stupid.”  That’s exactly what my girlfriend, a few of my friends, and the voice in my head all said.

It took me two stiff drinks to work up the courage to prep the file.  I wrote up a half page letter to the reader.  This has been uploaded by the author.  It took ten years and countless hours to create this book.  If you like it, consider buying a digital copy for a friend, blah blah blah.  I added links to Amazon, I inserted this into the book.  I labeled the file: Pirate Edition.  I hit upload.

Then I went to bed.

My first experience torrenting from the other side.

I woke up wondering if I didn’t dream the whole idea.  When I checked my computer the torrent file now had 12 seeders and 5 leachers.  Other torrent sites had it.  As of writing this, if you Google my name plus the book title, a torrent is the top hit.


So why did I do what some might call the stupidest thing an artist could do?

Because I used to pirate as well.

Like many, all through college I struggled financially.  I found a hundred ways to survive off ramen.  I learned to eat at Trader Joe’s for exactly three bucks.  I dodged my landlord on rent days until my miserable paycheck had cleared.  During the really bad times I borrowed my friend’s Costco card and went there for the free samples and cheap pizza.  Somewhere in Los Angeles there’s an Arby’s that recognizes me on sight.

If I had to buy software for a class, I went to the internet.  If a friend suggested a musician, I did the same thing.  The cycle persisted well after graduation and into my twenties.

(I feel like I’m confessing to murder here.)

And then something happened.  As I started getting more and more financial stability, I stopped pirating as much.  I started buying.  iTunes replaced Limewire, DVD’s replaced .avi files.  I went back and bought the albums and movies I loved, many of which I discovered back before I paid for them.

If you look on my movie shelf you’ll see hundreds of movies I bought at retail, half of which I probably downloaded at one point or another.  Most of my music now is linked to an Amazon or iTunes account.  My Xbox is unhacked.  I pay for my apps.  I make a teacher’s salary.  It’s not much, but it’s enough.  If I save I can get a few toys.

I bought an iPad the day it came out.  I couldn’t wait to read on it.  A friend emailed me Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  He said I’d love it.  I did.  But about halfway through one thing bothered me.  I hadn’t paid for it.  So I went to iBooks and paid the $9.99.  Probably too much, but I know the author didn’t set the price, so whatever.

Same with Shit My Dad Says.  Same with Game of Thrones.

I did this because I no longer eat ramen or have a sample buffet at Costco and can afford a few things.  Do I buy indiscriminately?  Absolutely not.  I can’t afford to.

But I feel I owe it to those who wrote the stories I like.

So why did I upload something for free that I spent roughly ten years writing?

Because I believe you can’t turn readers into pirates, but you can turn pirates into readers.

Because I believe some people will pay for quality writing, they may just not pay right then.

Because I don’t think of each copy downloaded as a purchase lost, but a potential reader gained.

Because I believe most people don’t find their favorite author or musician on a bookstore shelf or on a CD they paid for.  They find them by borrowing a friend’s copy or hearing a song on the radio.

And mostly, because I believe I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t.

Maybe it sounds like socialism, maybe it’s disruptive, I don’t know.  What I do know is that ten years ago I set out to write a book that scared me, hoping someday readers might enjoy it.  That hasn’t changed.

It's out of my hands now. Couldn't hit UNDO if I wanted to.

And really, what’s the worst that could happen?  People don’t buy it?  I’m hardly Stephen King so that’s not a problem.

So I’ll see how this experiment pans out.  Did I nuke my writing career before it even started?  Perhaps.  I can’t imagine a single publisher would ever be interested in working with an author who uploaded his book for free.  Did I do the wrong thing?  I don’t know.  If anything, it feels kind of right.

But then again, ten years ago I never thought I’d pay $9.99 for a bunch of ones and zeroes that I could download for free, so who knows?

  • What a great, honest and interesting post John. As I was reading and agreeing with your words, I couldn’t help but think of Cory Doctorow, who has ALL his books currently available for free on his website (http://craphound.com/), but at the same time has a donation option set up and continues to post his earnings through this donation system. So much like you did when you were able to, people will ultimately (not everyone of course!) pay for things, even when they’re initially offered for free, as a way of rewarding the creator of said item they are enjoying.

    There’s hope for humanity yet!

  • Cory Doctorow releases free uploads of all of his novels, even the big ones being published by huge international publishers. He doesn’t seem to have a problem. Brandon Sanderson and Peter Watts have done the same thing with some of their books. Baen Books do it as a matter of course for most of their catalogue. I really don’t think it’s a fatal blow to any writing career, and in fact could be a shrewd move 🙂

  • It’s fine to upload your book to Pirate Bay if you want, but not with the expectation that anyone will ever pay you for it, or that you will ‘turn pirates into readers’. Besides which, you have uploaded it yourself, so it is not technically a pirate copy at all, it is a copy you’ve chosen to give away using bit-torrent as a means of distribution.

    I am generally in favour of piracy, so long as it’s not stuff of mine that means the difference between one bar or two bars on the electric fire of a winter, but one cannot reasonably expect every pirate to research the personal circumstances of the artist concerned and in general there are often hidden benefits in work circulating below the radar that don’t involve money. But it is true I think that pirated material does become much of a muchness after a while. Just as easily as it is downloaded it is deleted forever and forgotten about on nothing more than a cursory taste. At least preferring that people pay for your work ensures they stay long enough inside to feel they’ve at least had their money’s worth. There is no such guarantee with free material. I don’t know about you, but these days I must admit I find it hard to be interested in *anyone’s* literary efforts, whether they’re well-known and successful or not known at all and trying. Fate is about the only successful marketing strategy a book can have to find me. The advantage of a book being free is that a potential reader can take a look then and there, but it doesn’t guarantee it’ll be read, loved, and remembered. As for getting a donation, forget it, it’s unseemly to be in the slightest bit interested.

  • Alexis Gervais

    Established writers offering free e-versions of their latest is one thing, for a writer’s first time publication it’s another.
    Somewhere in the middle is Peter Watts, who had written and concluded a tetralogy when he released his first novel that wasn’t part of that universe, Blindsight – and he did it online. I still bought the paper version, and so did thousands of others across the world, since the book was translated in more than one language.

  • I agree with Joel.

    I can see a lot of people downloading your free novel. They won’t bother to read it, though, unless they see or hear some other mention of your masterpiece. Well, they’ve already got that one. Weren’t they smart? Now all they have to do is read it and marvel among their friends how wonderful it is. Well, that’s a nice story, and I’m all for it.

    A lot of other writers and myself seem to have decided upon $.99 as the price of our ebooks. (We could never agree on that, though, unless we wished to find ourselves charged under the antitrust laws for fixing prices.)

    But isn’t it likely that the readers of independent authors who invest just under a dollar in what we write might wish to take the time to see whether they’ll be happy hearing what we have to say? And they’ll actually read it and mention it to their friends, and maybe even prevail upon their book club to put it on their list?

    I firmly believe the best in whatever genre you’re writing in will ultimately rise to the top.

  • Steve Bennett

    Nice post – really appreciated the insights. I don’t think it matters much whether you seeded the torrent first or not. If the book’s any good, someone else would have done it for you sooner or later. This way I guess you get some warm and fuzzies, so that’s good 🙂

    Personally I think your strategy of paying for digital content is coming from the right place, but misguided. As a published author, you know the tiny fraction of sales that goes to the author. Paying full retail is a terrible way to support authors – and a great way to enrich music executives, movie distributors etc etc.

  • An interesting experiment, and I hope it works out well for you. In the long run, I think building your brand is more important than making immediate money. It might have taken ten years and countless hours to write this book, but I’m sure you learned a great deal about writing, and I doubt this will be your last novel.

  • You’ll be fine. People like to act like the world is coming to an end when their stuff ends up on a torrent site. So many conveniently forget they once watched a film at a friends house that was not exactly above board, or listened to music on YouTube over and over again instead of buying the single (back in the days before artists had their own channels).

    Most artists (yes, I do consider writers artists) are not money centric. It only crosses their minds in a practical way once they need to eat, or pay rent, or buy stuff to create more art, otherwise it’s merely detail (that seems to be the case with the creatives I know, including myself). I’ve found this usually means the work produced is wonderful since it’s created to inspire, not for financial gain. Often because of this distinction the work goes on to pay dividends.

    Personally, I think “free” is a valid and powerful marketing tool for artists who decide to take control of all aspects of their work. I hate the .99 price point. Cheap is cheap. I would take a quality free sample but I wouldn’t buy a cheap product.

    Like you said, you’ll be hard pressed to turn a reader into a pirate, but you can probably convert a few pirates into readers 🙂


  • You shold check out baen.com their view the whole time has been free books sell books.

  • >Because I believe you can’t turn readers into pirates, but you can turn pirates in readers.

    You meant pirates into* readers

    • OK, cop, I fixed it.

      P.S. Not technically a spelling issue. :\

  • This is awesome. I wish everyone would do things like this, and think like this. I don’t know if I’ll ever read your book, but I just bought it on Amazon to support your decision. Kudos!

    • Steve Bennett

      So we’ve reached a point where we no longer purchase goods we want at a fair value from their creators. Instead, we pay third parties in order to express a value judgment about the activities of the creator. Genius!

  • Having done exactly the same thing, I of course agree with your move. I was originally inspired by this famous line from Ecclesiastes: “Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days”. (according to my own interpretation at least).

    I saw no way to get my stories out into the world until ebooks – and especially free ebooks – came along. All I wanted to do was launch them out there like paper boats on the internet sea and let them have their own destiny. Pirate sites are one path. Smashwords and Feedbooks and Wattpad are others.

    Motivation is key to the free thing. Some people are horrified by the thought that someone might create something and not want any money for it, but it really doesn’t have to be about money. Honestly. If you don’t want it to be about money, you can make it so. (Open your mind, as Kuato said)

    Of course, if you do want it to be about money, and the free thing is just a marketing approach, then good luck with it. It can also work that way and has succeeded for some people.

  • Great post, I love the idea of putting ones book on a torrent site. I imagine it can help increase your notoriety a little. I can’t say by a lot but I imagine it can be quite helpful.

  • Thank you all for the wonderful comments, suggestions, and criticisms.

    I know many authors have used similar methods to promote or find new readers. I’m not so worried about how a move could help or hinder authors like Doctorow, who already have an established fan base, but rather total unknowns beginning their self publishing career, such as myself or others to whom any gains in sales and readership outside the ‘friends and family circle’ are considered great triumphs in and of themselves. I will, of course, be sharing any and all results I discover along the way.

    In my (often incorrect) mental image there are book buyers and there are file sharers, and in a Venn digram in my head I saw the two as separate circles with a vast emptiness between them. I am since discovering I may have been wrong.

  • Andrew, the book buyers and the file sharers have to be in over-lapping, if not identical, circles. They’ve gone to the bother of buying your book, for $.99 or whatever, or downloading it illegally, presumably in both cases because they really wish to see for themselves what you have to say.

    It’s possible, even I’ll admit, the giving-it-away-for-free crowd is winning the argument. Maybe a bunch of potential readers going to the bother of downloading your book for free will ultimately work to your advantage, and what you write will get the attention it deserves.

    I’m grateful to you for beginning this discussion.

  • Great post, of itself and in the discussion its stimulated.

    Like you I write and file share (I think the term piracy misplaced in a file sharing context). Being aware of the palfrey crumbs-off-the-table cut that artists/creators get for their efforts when selling through ‘respectable’ channels reduces my inclination to buy. Also, in keeping with the stereotype, my artistic life has been and continues to be characterised by a distinct lack of cash. Were it not for file sharing sites and people, I wouldn’t have read, seen or used a long list of digital material.

    I disagree with the view that says if people freely download a novel they won’t read it. There are plenty of books that are bought and not read. Whether or not a book is read depends on the book, not the cost of it. Some of my most enjoyable reading has come through the likes of Gutenberg, Open Library, Feedbooks, and Smashwords, etc. As already mentioned, Peter Watts is a good example. Had he not made the Rifter Series free I, through being unable to afford it, would never had had the pleasure and learning experience his writing provides.

    I like the idea of seeding your own work, real give-and-take, nice one. My first novel, Psyclone, is what you might call a sociopolitical hot potato. It contains lots of information that includes data censored in its country of origin. In order to retain control I decided to publish it independently through an imprint created for the purpose. I set up a website from which the novel is freely downloadable in a variety of eformats as well as available to buy in hardcopy through a link to the distributor. I also made it available through Feedbooks, Smashwords, and Wattpad, and for sale through Amazon (hardcopy and Kindle) and Lulu (EPUB).

    My reason for writing it and making it freely available was to connect people with vitally important information. Hence my willingness to give it away. I too was criticised and challenged for the decision, especially given the very real stereotyped life I was living. From the feedback I’ve had it seems that a high percentage of people who read the free copy go on to buy the hardcopy for themselves and/or family and friends. I’m not, however, swimming in cash returns, which would be nice, but as it wasn’t my primary aim, I don’t mind. Given Psyclone’s international range of propagation, I consider it a successful strategy. I hope it works for you too.

    All power to your pen.

  • I think you’d get more mileage out of uploading the first chunk of your novel or perhaps a prequel short story for free in the big markets such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble (see: How to Get Your Ebook Listed for Free at Amazon and Barnes and Noble).

    You have to create demand before anyone is going to go hunting for your work on a pirate site or elsewhere, and a lot more people are browsing for freebies on Amazon than Pirate Bay.

    Either way, good luck!

  • How about if you put half your book onto pirate bay? The first half? Would that spike sales? Or just infuriate people till they comment it into nowhere?

  • LemonDemon

    I’m a bit late to the party, but I believe you have the right idea. I pirate because I’m poor but I won’t read something unless I like the writing style (and thank you, Amazon, for giving free previews) and if I like the writing style it goes on my (eventual) buying list. What makes it doubly difficult is that I’m visually impaired and audio books are at least twice the price of a paperback copy.

    I plan on doing something similar as well with a short erotica series and possibly the first work or two of urban fantasy/horror. Which isn’t done yet because; procrastination.