For the first time in my life, I find myself contemplating releasing my new book for free. This is an odd thought, but it could make sense for where I'm up to in my career as a multi-class author with feet in very different areas. Not ready to commit yet, but even thinking about this marks a change in direction for me.
I've made some good money out of my how-to books like 21st Century Game Design and Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames, but with publishing giant Cengage struggling to make ends meet in the era of web content overload they have pulled out of games book publishing entirely. That means as soon as the print edition of my 'how to' books sell through (and one already has), they're out of print. I'm shopping around for a publisher to take over these, but most I've contacted are in the same state as Cengage or worse... Traditional publishing is struggling.
Meanwhile, my last three books are a trilogy of philosophy forming my 'imaginative investigations' (Imaginary Games, The Mythology of Evolution, and Chaos Ethics). Published with Zero Books, these are not titles a conventional small press could handle, but 500 copies is a 'best seller' for Zero, and I've already cleared this sales target with the first of the three and am gradually getting there with the other two. In a few months I will have sold a thousand books of philosophy, which is a tiny fraction of my total book sales yet still an achievement in a niche field like philosophy.
Now in comes Wikipedia Knows Nothing, which is also philosophy but short-form. I wrote it for Repeater, the small press my editor at Zero created after he (and I, unrelatedly) left then. But he knows what my philosophy books will sell, and a thousand copies isn't viable for him, nor for any other small press I've contacted. That leaves the academic presses (who, in fact, would generate greater sales for it anyway) – but will I really get a book that claims blind peer review is immoral through a publisher that uses blind peer review as standard? Every academic press is bizarrely wed to this queer artefact of the twentieth century. I have to doubt my prospects, although I haven’t ruled out submitting to my contact at MIT Books, and maybe to Minnesota Press as well (they pride themselves in being a little unorthodox, and they've been a good friend to Ian Bogost).
But there's a third option: a self-published (or pop-up publisher issued) e-book. I can make these myself easily enough, and even getting an ISBN for book catalogues is quite manageable. One key point in this regard is my realisation that I don't have to worry about a lack of publisher promotion because every publisher below the scale of the upper market 'fast-sellers' leaves marketing to the author. Case in point: despite being a huge multinational, Cengage left promotional activity to my books with them up to me. They supported me, but it was ultimately up to me to make everything happen. That was even more true of Zero, although under new head Doug Lain that is changing in new and interesting ways.
The bottom line is that even the best case for the new book is to generate, say, $5,000 for me. To put that in context, that's what I earn on a typical two-week game consultancy gig. No-one writes philosophy to get rich – we mostly write it because we're unable to stop thinking about philosophical problems and need to work them out on paper to get them out of our heads. So whatever happens I'm not looking at making a lot of money with the new project. Which brings up an interesting option: giving it away for free.
The scuttlebutt on free e-books is that they typically 'sell' a hundred times as many copies as paid e-books. I doubt that number holds for philosophy, but either way the advantage of having a short-form e-book is that it can reach people who currently wouldn't read my work, and could perhaps reach ten thousand people if not a hundred thousand. That potentially expands both my audience and the number of people who might enter into discourse with me - both are desirable, but the latter is especially appealing since I am feeling increasingly isolated these days. (My own fault for going down the philosophy rabbit-hole, of course...) This isn't new logic: even the big publishers are now giving away free e-books in order to build the brands of their authors and thus ultimately sell more books by them.
One final option to consider is Open Humanities Press. I already spoke to Graham Harman about this (he edits their 'New Metaphysics' line), and going with them – if they will have me! – would put me in good company. I might not get the free e-book, because they only distribute free PDFs of their books, but as someone who is now undeniably an academic (for all that it rankles to admit that!) it might be better for me to go where other academics I respect, like Joanna Zylinska, Timothy Morton, and Levi Bryant, have gone. However, I’m pretty sure they use blind peer review as well – so I might do just as well to submit to other academic presses first. Swings and roundabouts.
Being an author has become an important part of my self-image. Indeed, I agonised over what to put as my profession on my first son's birth certificate (Game designer? Game writer? Philosopher?) before finally settling upon 'Author'. It may be a small part of my earnings, but it's a huge part of my identity these days that I write books - and I love doing it, too. Absorbed in a manuscript I am more immersed than in any game. I live among my words.
These are strange times for publishers, and thus also for authors. Perhaps I have indeed reached a point where the best thing I can do is go fishing with a free e-book... But I worry about going it alone, even though it was always only ever me promoting my work. I like working with people, I don't want to push myself into ever-quieter corners of obscurity. But then, maybe a free e-book is the message-in-a-bottle I need to end my hermitage? Forces are pulling me in different directions.
I ask you, whoever had read this far, to help guide me. I'm not lost because I know exactly where I am. I'm just not entirely sure where I am going.