Why are some of your books free?

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I’ll answer this question in a moment, but it’s really tied in with why I’ve moved from being published by mainstream publishers to self-publishing, so I’ll start by saying something about that.

My first book was a novel, The Sacred Malady, which came out in 1967. In those days most publishing houses were independent enterprises but they have now virtually all been swallowed up and digested by large international conglomerates.

My novel was published by Chatto & Windus and my editor was one of the directors, Cecil Day Lewis, who shortly afterwards was appointed Poet Laureate. After my book was accepted I went to see him in his Central London office and he asked me if I would allow him to edit my manuscript for publication, assuring me that I could trust him to do a good job! He also said he thought I had married too young (something which I think he had done himself).

Two decades later things had changed a lot but some of the original publishing houses still maintained their independence. One of these was Victor Gollancz Ltd, which published a book of mine in the 1980s.

I got to meet the Managing Director, Livia Gollancz, the daughter of Victor Gollancz, the founder of the firm. She had been a fine concert musician and became a publisher reluctantly, when her musical career ended owing to ill-health.

She was a tall imposing woman who I think ran the firm rather imperiously. We talked about a book she had published, The Teachers of Gurdjieff. It was by a pseudonymous author, “Rafael Lefort”. She didn’t know his real name but he had told her that she could get in touch with him if it was ever essential.

She believed the book to be an authentic account of a journey in Central Asia in search of spiritual enlightenment, which now seems to me extremely doubtful. (Lefort was almost certainly Idries Shah, the writer on Sufism who had earlier, with his brother Omar Ali-Shah, imposed on Robert Graves to collaborate in a ‘translation’ of a probably non-existent manuscript of the poems of Omar Khayyam.)

My later books didn’t bring me into contact with any directors as editors;  in fact, nowadays you are lucky if you get an editor at all. Even to to find a publisher in the first place is becoming increasingly difficult. In the past the decision to publish a book might be taken on a whim by one of the directors, but today it is governed by purely commercial considerations and is largely in the hands of accountants. All of this makes for a pretty unsatisfactory outlook for authors.

The science writer John Horgan decided to self-publish his latest book. “After I got the idea for Mind-Body Problems in 2015, I pitched it to a few agents and editors and got chilly responses. Fuck ‘em, I thought, and wrote the damn book anyway.”

My feeling precisely. So far I’ve self-published seven books, both as e-books and paperbacks, and I have no thought of going back to mainstream publishing. None of them has made me a fortune, of course, but most of them continue to sell some copies. But if you look at my list you may be surprised to see that three of my books are available as free e-books. Why are they  free?

In the first place, making a book free isn’t as big a sacrifice as you might think. The sad fact is that you won’t make much money from any of the books you self-publish unless you are extremely lucky or willing and able to invest a lot of time and effort in marketing your work, which I’m not.

That may seem depressing, but don’t think that being published commercially is very different. Contrary to what many authors suppose,  in most cases mainstream publishers these days make minimal if any effort to promote your book. This means that you are unlikely to make your fortune by writing, no matter whether you are published commercially or self-publish.

There can however be indirect benefits from self-publishing. I’ve produced a medical acupuncture textbook which I use on the courses I run for health professionals, and it costs me far less to print this than I used to pay to buy copies of an earlier textbook that had been brought out by a mainstream publisher.

As I don’t depend on my writing income to make a living my main reason to produce books is to be read. More than that, I’m in favour of making information as freely available as possible, which is why I support the academic protest against Elsevier’s restrictive practices (see the Cost of Knowledge). It’s also why some of my books are free: they deal with ideas I think are important and I want them to be read as widely as possible.

One of these books, Making Word.doc Files on Linux, describes how to use free software to make a file that will be accepted by Smashwords. This is my small contribution to the free software movement, which I’m strongly in favour of.

The other two books are on ideas that have been important to me for more than sixty years. Essentially, they are about the nature of belief, and therefore lie on the margins of religion.

The first, Totality Beliefs and the Religious Imagination, is a personal account of my journey through a couple of totality belief systems to a position best described as metaphysical naturalism.

The second, Religion, Language, Narrative and the Search for Meaning, is about the puzzling question of why religion exists and why, despite the best efforts of Dawkins, Dennet and company, it probably always will.

Both books, incidentally, also exist in print form on Amazon.

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