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 There you’ll find inter­views, press cov­er­age, free audio­books, and much more. You might want to try 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 or drop me a line at  JACK WAKES UP is now out in book­stores every­where from Three Rivers Press, a divi­sion of Ran­dom House.

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Comments (23)
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  • Benjamin says:

    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

  • Seth Harwood says:

    Hump­ty Dump­ty Was Pushed!!

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

  • Stephen says:

    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.

  • Chris says:

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

  • What an inspir­ing sto­ry! Thanks for shar­ing.

  • Steve Weber says:

    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.

  • JohnOBX says:

    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.


  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Seth says:

    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.


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

  • Seth says:

    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.

  • tristan says:

    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

  • John Wiswell says:

    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.

  • Seth Harwood says:

    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 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

    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 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 Harwood says:


    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!


  • tristan says:

    thanks seth i might start doing that now

  • tanya says:

    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.

  • G. Ward says:

    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.

  • Bean says:

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

  • V.V. Denman says:

    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!

  • Rick says:

    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,

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