Free Books and T-Shirt Sales

Cory Doctorow has written an interesting column for the Locus Magazine about his experience in giving away free copies of his books [1]. Mainly he rants about some of the criticism he has received, initially it was people claiming that giving away books for free only worked because he was not a well known author, now people claim that it only works because he is well known.

I’d like to see authors publish free work (as Cory does) and then sell print-on-demand t-shirts. has their cheapest t-shirt at $US16.99, has a shirt for $US15.95, and has shirts for as little as $US6.40 but their web site is difficult to navigate and gives me a lack of confidence in their operation. In spite of the difficult web site seems to be the best offer at $6.40 for a basic shirt, that means either lower prices for the customer (and more sales) or a higher profit margin.

The sale of a t-shirt could give the same revenue to the author as a sale of a book while also costing less than the price of one book in a store. It would be more useful after the book has been read (something you can wear rather than something that takes up space on a shelf), and it would advertise the book. The amount of effort required to create a decent shirt is a small fraction of the effort required to write a book, in many cases the cover artwork could be used with only minor alterations. Cory Doctorow’s novels page has images that could make seven different great shirts with a small amount of effort [2].

I’m sure that there are also many people who want to buy the book and the shirt, so it should give a general increase in revenue.

5 comments to Free Books and T-Shirt Sales

  • Jon

    Frankly this is a ridiculous idea. If your read books are taking up too much shelf space, sell them, or give them away! Or use a library in the first place rather than buying them. Would you honestly want a shirt for every book you’d read? I can’t imagine walking around wearing a “eastern standard tribe” t-shirt, let alone a “mein kampf” or a “koran”. The skill set required to pen a book is a completely different one to that required to design a t-shirt. Some people might be lucky enough to possess both, but in most cases, the “branding” of a novel is largely out of the control of the author. If the revenue stream for a novel would be largely driven by t-shirt sales, surely the graphics design people would start to complain?

  • etbe

    Jon: The Eastern Standard Tribe cover art is not really to my taste either. But I would be happy to have the Futuristic Tales art on my shirt. The Overclocked cover is really great, I haven’t read that yet but I want the shirt!

    You are correct that the skills required to design the cover art are not the same as the skills required to write the book. In the vast majority of cases the author of the book does not do the art, they (or their published) pay someone else to do so. When the author buys the rights to the cover art they just have to make sure that they get the right to use it in other media.

    Note that my idea applies to the commercial production of books using business models similar to that employed by Cory Doctorow. Your mention of the Koran (which is public domain) and Mein Kampf (copyright owned by the Bavarian Government who refuse publication) is a straw man.

    As an aside I’ve seen plenty of people on the news wearing shirts that indicate that they are Muslims, and I once saw a man on a train with a shirt indicating that he would have read Mein Kampf if he was capable of reading… But of course the revenues from those shirts is in no way connected with the authors of the books in question.

    As for complaints by the graphics design people, it’s work for hire. If they don’t want the work then someone else will do it. There is really no shortage of aspiring artists.

  • Or publishers could just implement Assassination Politics, substituting “release the book under a CC license” for “kill the politician.”

  • In a similar vein, Amanda Palmer (ex Dresden Dolls) made $11000 in a night from a t-shirt that was devised and marketed via twitter, compared with making nothing at all from her latest album after the producer and recording company got their share.

    In her words :
    total made on twitter in two hours = $11,000.
    total made from my huge-ass ben-folds produced-major-label solo album this year = $0

  • etbe

    Don: You seem to be thinking of asking for a ransom for a published book. Variations on this theme include demanding contributions from fans to a certain value before the book is published, and accepting a single large donation which allows an exclusive release with a free public release at some later date.

    The extreme libertarians really should visit one of the many countries where there is no effective government (EG parts of Afghanistan). Of course no-one gets to live long in such places unless they get along with the local tribal leaders…

    Jase: Thanks for that reference. One minor nit, the $11K was revenue not profit. Producing shirts seems to cost at least $6.40 each if done individually, maybe as little as $5 if done in bulk. So the profit would be at most 20/25 of that amount.