Neil Gaiman on Giving It Away

February 12, 2011 at 9:53 pm 1 comment

Neil Gaiman — author of American Gods, The Graveyard Book, Coraline, graphic novel series The Sandman, and many other things — was recently interviewed by the Open Rights Group (linked previously here) about copyright, misconceptions about copyright on the web, and how piracy can be a promotional action.

In today’s blog entry, Gaiman reposts a few extracts from previous entries on the subject of giving away his fiction for free. In 2008, he decided to post the entirety of his novel American Gods (perhaps his best work apart from Sandman, imho) for free viewing and download at the HarperCollins website:

I was surprised by a few emails coming in from people accusing me of doing bad things for other authors by giving anything away — the idea being, I think, that by handing out a bestselling book for nothing I’m devaluing what a book is and so forth, which I think is silly.


Word of mouth is still the best tool for selling books. This is how people found new authors for more than a century. Someone says, “I’ve read this. It’s good. I think you’d like it. Here, you can borrow it.” Someone takes the book away, reads it, and goes, Ah, I have a new author.

Libraries are good things: you shouldn’t have to pay for every book you read.

I’m one of those authors who is fortunate enough to make my living from the things I’ve written. If I thought that giving books away would make it so that I could no longer make my living from writing and be forced to go out and get a real job — or that other authors would be less likely to be able to make a living — I wouldn’t do it.

Reading American GodsThis was followed by a response to a bookseller worried that by posting his novel online, it would actually take sales away from brick-and-mortar bookstores:

I don’t see this as either “they get it for free” or “they come and buy it from you.” I see it as “Where do you get the people who come in and buy the books that keep you in business from?”

The books you sell have “pass-along” rates. They get bought by one person. Then they get passed along to other people. The other people find an author they like, or they don’t.

When they do, some of them may come in to your book store and buy some paperback backlist titles, or buy the book they read and liked so that they can read it again. You want this to happen.

Just as a bookseller who regards a library as the enemy, because people can go there and read — for free! — what he sells, is missing that the library is creating a pool of people who like and take pleasure in books, will be his customer base, and are out there spreading the word about authors and books they like to other people, some of whom will simply go out and buy it.

If readers find (for free — in a library, or on-line, or by borrowing from a friend, or on a window-sill) an author they really like, and that author has a nice spanking new hardback coming out, they are quite likely to come in to your shop and buy the nice spanking new hardback. You want that to happen. You really want that to happen a lot, because you’ll make more in profit on each of the nice spanking new hardbacks than you will on the paperbacks (or, probably, on anything else in the shop).

Gaiman ends with a note about the sales figures for American Gods during the month that it was posted online for free:

Sales of my titles — all my titles — in Independent Bookshops went up significantly while we had American Gods up here for free. We sold more copies of American Gods. And we sold more copies of everything else. And then, when we took American Gods down, they dropped again, to pre-free book levels.

This seems a counter-intuitive business model, but it is one that has been proven time and again: posting a book online for free download does not hurt physical book sales, and actually gives them quite a boost. Fellow author Cory Doctorow (who actually offers all of his books for free download the day they’re released in dead-tree editions) often cites a quote by Tim O’Reilly that also relates to this issue: “The artist’s enemy isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity.”

It is perhaps no coincidence that Gaiman’s young adult novel The Graveyard Book (which won the Newberry Medal, the Carnegie Medal, the Hugo Award, and 14 other major book awards) has been available for free viewing/listening on since its publication and also spent more than fifteen consecutive months on the New York Times Bestseller List.


Entry filed under: Books, Writing.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Clement Chia Hui Tien  |  February 26, 2011 at 10:25 pm

    Surprisingly , I agree to Neil Gaiman’s thoughts as seen from the youtube video in the previous posts. He was angry and disappointed at first when he knew people were putting his stories up on the web , but later he got to understand that by doing so, more people will know about him and buy his books. The reason why I am surprised is mainly because I thought that by posting a book for people to view online for free, was not beneficial for the authoer at all, as that way , people could read the book for free. But then after watching to the interview of Neil Gaiman , the free book published online for free for a month called the ” American Gods”, I got to know that he actually profitted from this. His sales increased by 300%! That was shocking for him as he also did not expect such a growth in his sales for the book. I have read the “Graveyard Book” by him before ,so I know how well he writes. He is an excellent author and his books are interesting too. Overall , I think more authors should be like him and be more open-minded about piracy.


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