How I Sold My Book by Giving It Away

Today we’re featuring a piece by Seth Harwood, an innovative crime fiction writer who has used the tools of Web 2.0 to launch his writing career. Below, he gives you an inside look at how he went from podcasting his books to landing a book deal with Random House. If you want to learn more about how writers will increasingly build their careers, be sure to give this a read. Take it away Seth…

Before it ever hit print, my debut novel JACK WAKES UP was a free serialized audiobook.  And giving my crime fiction away for free turned out to be the key to becoming a published author—that last piece of the puzzle that eludes so many aspiring writers. 

How did it work? Well, I got my MFA from a prestigious writers’ workshop.  I got a dozen stories placed in literary journals.  In short, I was doing all the things “they” (the literary establishment) tell you you have to do in order to become a successful author.  And it wasn’t working.  Agents were saying nice things about my crime fiction, but weren’t willing to take me on as a client.  Eventually I started looking for another way to drive my own career and put my work in front of people. Having had a little success with a published story online—my friends could read it and I was hearing from strangers who liked it, two things that had never happened with the dozen stories I’d slaved to publish in literary journals—I could see that the web was the way to do this. But I couldn’t imagine anyone reading a novel online, or even on his or her computer. I did have an iPod though, and didn’t I listen to it all the time in the car and at the gym? Wasn’t I taking out books on CD from my local library for my drive to work? Sure I was. So when a friend showed me how he’d been using his iPod and a thing called podcasting to get free audiobooks from an unknown author named Scott Sigler, I knew I had to figure out how this was done.

Turns out that making MP3 files costs nothing. Distributing them costs me less than $10 a month, no matter how many episodes go out. Each week, I release a free episode—usually a couple of chapters—to thousands of subscribers. You can think of this as a throwback to two old forms of crime distribution: either the pulp magazines or the old-time radio plays that introduced detective adventures to early listeners on the radio.

The point of the pulps was the same as what I’m doing: to use the least expensive means to get good crime stories out to eager consumers. Sure, I’m giving my work away and getting nothing—at least no money—in return. But as an author, this never bothered me: all around me writers are fighting to get their work in front of readers, buying expensive ads, employing publicists, praying for a piece of the ever-shrinking review pages. So if I’d found a way to get my work out on my own and build an audience, why should I care that I wasn’t earning money? I mean, my goal has always been to support myself as a writer, but it still looked like landing a publishing contract was the way to make that happen.

More important than the career stuff, though, has been the effect of having an audience on the way I work. As soon as I started podcasting, I was getting regular emails from listeners around the country and even the globe! I started to see positive reviews posted about my work on iTunes.  People actually liked what I was doing. Suddenly I was writing for an audience. And ultimately this made all the difference. Now I know I have people waiting for what I’ll write next; I feel like a digital Dickens, trying to get the new book written for my fan base to consume as soon as I put it out. Podcasting also became a new end-product for each book; once I’ve podcast a book, I want to move on and get working on something else.  In the last three years, my writing output and drive have soared to levels I couldn’t have imagined back in my MFA days.

The truth is, I learned a hell of a lot about how to craft good fiction in grad school, and I’d had enough of just showing my work to my peers for critique. I was ready to get my words out there to a real audience of readers. And since I have, they’ve given me all the motivation to achieve things I never even thought I could.  Design a website? Put out videos of myself on the web? Become someone on the cutting edge of new media? I never would’ve dreamed of doing all that a few years ago. In grad school I wrote everything with a pen on a yellow pad!

And somewhere along the line, that podcasting process turned into a game plan, one that worked. Thanks to podcasting I’ve just become a published author—my book JACK WAKES UP came out two weeks ago from Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House! (Shameless plug: Michael Connelly said, “JACK WAKES UP rocks!” But you know what’s even cooler? I’m getting emails from my fans with pictures of them holding the actual book!) I’m back to my original dream: to succeed in the traditional publishing realm–and now I’m finally seeing my book on bookshop shelves! When I approached the publishing establishment with a proven audience behind me, I suddenly became about a hundred times more attractive than I’d been as just another aspiring author with the typical literary creds.  

Distribution, creation, marketing and promotion—podcasting has given me the keys to all of these at a time when old avenues have vanished. It gave me control of my career.

If you’d like to hear JACK WAKES UP or my two follow-up JACK PALMS novels, visit http://sethharwood.com. There you’ll find interviews, press coverage, free audiobooks, and much more. You might want to try http://sethharwood.com/what_is_podcasting for a start.

If you’d like to learn more about how you can get involved in the podcasting process and use it to promote your own work, visit http://authorbootcamp.com or drop me a line at http://sethharwood.com/contact.  JACK WAKES UP is now out in bookstores everywhere from Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House.


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Comments (24)
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  1. Benjamin says . . . | May 22, 2009 / 12:19 am

    That sounds like you are smart. I bet you would love The Adventures of Kid Humpty Dumpty. If you ever want to know what happened to Humpty Dumpty before his fall or if you just love fun, colorful characters check it out at http://www.eloquentbooks.com/theadventuresofkidhumptydumpty.html

  2. Seth Harwood says . . . | May 22, 2009 / 9:16 am

    Humpty Dumpty Was Pushed!!
    http://marcblatte.com

  3. John Hilton III says . . . | May 22, 2009 / 1:27 pm

    Very cool. It’s great to hear this story.

  4. Stephen says . . . | May 24, 2009 / 6:51 pm

    The story of how The Shack went from zero to multi-million best seller is also very interesting in terms of the publishing industry totally missed it, and online plugs and word of mouth built its success.

  5. Chris says . . . | May 24, 2009 / 10:11 pm

    Link to /contact is denied. Is there a contact page, or has it been removed?

  6. Dan Colman says . . . | May 24, 2009 / 11:27 pm

    Feel free to reach me at mail@openculture.com

  7. Sherrie Petersen says . . . | May 25, 2009 / 8:21 pm

    What an inspiring story! Thanks for sharing.

  8. Steve Weber says . . . | May 26, 2009 / 7:06 am

    Thanks for posting this inspirational story! Just goes to show that nobody can market a book better than its author — and thanks to the Net, there are so many ways to go directly to readers.

  9. JohnOBX says . . . | May 26, 2009 / 10:17 am

    Thanks for sharing your experience and opening up another path to success. Followed a link from Editor Unleashed to find this, so the word is out there.

    I’m curious; for your Podcast did you read the story yourself or hire somebody to do it? If I wanted to try that route, I’m not sure mine is a voice that would inspire people to listen.

    Thanks,
    –John

  10. Andy Shackcloth says . . . | May 26, 2009 / 2:28 pm

    Just wondering, did you narrate your podcasts yourself or hire a voice’

    I have a heavy accent and so doubt if I would keep many listeners past the first page.

  11. J. M. Strother says . . . | May 26, 2009 / 6:13 pm

    Nor is mine, John. :(

    This is quite an inspirational piece, Seth. You saw a great opportunity and seized it. I think the web is a truly enabling technology for those with the moxie and creative skill to harness it. Thanks for the ray of sunshine in what is often a very dark realm.
    ~jon

  12. Amanda Seyderhelm says . . . | May 28, 2009 / 12:26 pm

    Inspiring story of going around the problem. I’ve been saying for a while now that ‘self=publishing’ is no longer vanity publishing – it’s the smart way to start and build an audience like you did. Well done.

  13. Seth says . . . | May 28, 2009 / 9:23 pm

    Hey guys,
    Thanks for all these wonderful comments and feedback! yes, I really do feel like I found a way to do this myself and market my own work without spending a lot of money or relying on the publishing industry. Turns out that even after I got involved with them, I’m still the best advertiser of my work (which may not surprise many of you).

    To answer a common question: yes, I do use my own voice to narrate my own stories. I had my doubts about how I’d sound when I started, but based on some successes in small-setting readings, I wanted to try it out. I think whatever my own vocal limitations are/were, the enthusiasm of my listeners hearing the author reading his own work really shines through and more than compensates for any losses. I’d really encourage any of you thinking of doing this to definitely give it a try. If you’ve listened to audiobooks- pro and podcast, you know that there are a lot of bad readers out there. You’d be surprised what you can come up with when you know the work well. And you do!–it’s yours!

    I’ll be posting more here on Open Culture and look forward to continuing this conversation with many of you about how to push your work out there to grab a piece of literary success.

    Best,

    Seth
    (you can also contact me here: seth (at) sethharwood (dot) com)

  14. Seth says . . . | May 28, 2009 / 9:25 pm

    One last thing I might not’ve made clear (or I might have): I felt like it was to my advantage to get my work onto the web. The challenge was finding a way to do it so people could experience it. This is why I turned to audio.

    I just didn’t see as many people reading a full novel online as I saw people listening to it. A little more work for me to produce, but VERY worth it in the long run.

  15. tristan says . . . | June 3, 2009 / 5:05 am

    I have been writing books for about three years now and i have finished one book and im on my second im just wondering if u have a website how do you get podcasts on your website

  16. John Wiswell says . . . | June 3, 2009 / 9:20 pm

    Mr. Harwood,

    I truly appreciate you sharing your story – or the story of your story. It’s fascinating to hear how new media can help authors sell their work.

    Do you actually find it surprising that you’re your own biggest advertiser? From all the writers I know, it seems even with publishing deals you’re still expected to be the commercial tool. Is this not the case for the authors you know? Do you expect your situation to change in the near future?

    Thank you again for the insightful column, and cheers on your smashing success.

  17. Seth Harwood says . . . | June 8, 2009 / 10:35 am

    Tristan,
    On a Mac, it’s very easy to put podcasts on a website. I started using their iWeb software, the easiest website software I can imagine (imagine Print Shop for web sites if you’re an old-timer like me and remember Print Shop) and there’s a feature right in there to upload and use your podcasts. If you’re on a PC, you’ll want to check out the software at Libsyn.com and recording software called Audacity (freeware). From there, if you include a link in your blog posts to a podcast ep, iTunes can pick it out of the post and will recognize it. So will Feedburner.com.

    These sites, and a few others, are the backbone of the tools we teach in the Author Boot Camp class. I’m happy to go over more detail at http://authorbootcamp.com and we’ll be running an online version of this class in the winter. (with thanks to Dan)

    That’s a really short answer. I’m happy to give more detail as needed.

    Seth

  18. Seth Harwood says . . . | June 8, 2009 / 10:38 am

    John,

    No, no I guess I don’t find it at all surprising that I’m my own best agent/best seller/best advertiser. My problem before I started using podcast though was that even with knowing this I didn’t have any tools to use to advertise myself. I had a lot of energy to put into the process, but all I could do was send out agent queries, a process anyone can tell you is thankless and hardly gratifying.

    So now I have something I can do that feels like it works. It IS gratifying and that keeps me working even harder.
    I’m currently on my own version of a book tour–in Boston now for a few events after a great reading in NYC–and guess who set it up? Guess who’s paying for it?

    Yes, it’s all self-run and self-funded and that’s how things are in today’s publishing world. I’ve gotten my dog in the fight now and I’m doing all I can to help it/me “win.”

    Glad you found my story encouraging!

    Seth

  19. tristan says . . . | June 26, 2009 / 2:01 pm

    thanks seth i might start doing that now

  20. tanya says . . . | July 9, 2009 / 1:05 pm

    i am a new author attempting to self publish a childrens book. i have used printshopm 12 for some graphics. do i need special permission to do this since i will be selling the book. any help is appreciated.

  21. G. Ward says . . . | August 24, 2009 / 3:35 pm

    I have written my memoir book. of life back in the 30’s and 40’s. I gave away about 50 books hoping to get feed back on my book. I asked people to rate it 1–10. I only received back six answers. I learned a lesson sell them if you get back the cost to print them then your head of the game.

  22. Bean says . . . | September 21, 2010 / 9:04 am

    seeking assitance where and how to set up a web-site to sell my short stories by the chapter and audio books thanks bean

  23. V.V. Denman says . . . | November 13, 2010 / 5:11 pm

    So interesting and encouraging. I’m just beginning to learn about podcasting and so far I like what I see. This may be the medium I need to push my manuscript into life. Thanks!

  24. Rick says . . . | November 30, 2011 / 9:02 pm

    Thank you Seth Harwood,

    I’ve been at this game a little while now and you are confirming what I’ve started to come to the conclusion of. Develop your own audience, go straight to the people, enjoy the fact that people are reading/listening to your book.

    Very few people will spend money on an author they’re not familiar with or isn’t backed by a multi-million dollar marketing campaign, but you passed that hurdle by letting them download it for free and listen on the go.

    Thank you for your inspiring story,
    Rick

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