1500 Shades of Nonsense
Ongoing Blockquote Fixes

Free Your Book And What Will Follow?

Digital BookFor 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.


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I'm in the middle of reading the manuscript and am enjoying it! This book appears to be marking a period of transition for you, which may be a signal to change up how your deliver your work.

Self-publishing a free eBook would allow you to establish a form of 'Free To Play' in the literary realm. This could really lead to finding a new audience and a possible expansion to the Republic of Bloggers. I cannot see any downside to the self-publishing route given the current position you are in.

Hi Chris,
Thanks for your comment, and glad you are enjoying the new manuscript. Yes, I am going through something of a transition at the moment... although not for the first time! The discussion of 'knowledge as a practice' began as an idea that I'd not fully developed, but the further down this line I go, the more I'm getting out of my rebellion against the dismissal of 'subjective'. I feel I have more to do in this space.

I'm very tempted by the free e-book option, but I think I must first try and get it into an academic press. Since I expect rejection on this front, it will probably end up in the same place, but if nothing else I have to keep playing the publishing game.

All the best,


In my almost entirely uneducated view, it seems like it's a decision between "free" vs "traditional academic" audiences (to the degree that those audiences don't overlap). Perhaps the Open Humanities Press is the audience-maximizing choice?

And of course, if criticizing blind peer review disqualifies you from the traditional academy, then "free" is your only option. (But how much delight would you take in being accepted by an organization that relies on the very blind peer review process you criticize? And of course, if they all reject your manuscript, you can plausibly argue that it wasn't based on any failings of your work) ;)

Let us know what you decide to do and why!

Also -- on the off chance it's of any relevance to you at all -- I just ran across a paper discussing an AI/game-theory approach to organizing peer reviews; my hunch is it does little to alleviate your criticisms of the practice, though!


Hi Nathan,
Thanks for your two comments here - this game theoretical approach to peer review is interesting... I'm more neutral about whether double blind make sense for the sciences, although I'm sceptical and want to see this claim defended instead of just asserted - as these folks do! :) For the humanities, however, double blind peer review makes not a lick of sense.

Anyway, I have submitted the proposal to MIT Books, whom I expect will reject it. When they do, I'll make a few quick edits and then submit to Open Humanities. If they reject it, I'll issue it as a free ebook. I'll probably post about this when I get back to blogging properly, but right now I'm snowed under with marking. The blog will not be idle, though, as I have a three part serial running to cover the interval. Now that's what I call obsessively organised! :)

Best wishes,


Have you considered ETC Press? (if you go down the free ebook route)

Hi Jose,
Never heard of them! I'll check it out... thanks for the tip!


Drew Davidson over at CMU runs it. PM me if you want me to help make the connection. This link: http://press.etc.cmu.edu/ In a nutshell, academic publishing where everything is CC licensed and print-on-demand.

This is a great tip, Jose, many thanks for this. Looking at them, I'm not sure whether their entertainment technology interests would stretch to the content of 'Wikipedia Knows Nothing', although they have common ground in digital humanities. The proposal is currently under consideration at an academic press... I'll wait and see how that turns out, but it's great to know I have something in my back pocket if I do decide to 'go free'.

Thanks again!


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