thepenalcolony U.K. novelist Richard Herley, whose book The Stone Arrow won a regional novel award called the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize, is offering initially free downloads of Arrow, The Flint Lord, The Earth Goddess, The Penal Colony, The Tide Mill and a collection of all the books. Parents should see age ratings for Penal and other works.

I took a quick trip to Amazon and found that, yes, Herley has his share of fans among those who know of him, and he has drawn some nice reviews in publications such as Library Journal. His novel Penal Colony inspired the movie No Escape, known in some markets as “Escape from Absolom.”

You can also catch up with his “free to copy” works—in .epub, Mobipocket/Kindle, PDF and Sony formats—via Feedbooks. There’s no hitch other than his reasonable request to happy readers to pay him as if the books were shareware. The charge for these CC-licensed titles is “between $1.70 and $2.50, according to length.”

Encouraging Richard to go on writing

“In this way,” Richard writes, “you will encourage me to go on producing work you like. I hope that you will also feel a personal interest in the book concerned and a connection with its author.

“As far as I know, I am one of the first mainstream writers to adopt this publishing model. It somewhat recalls an earlier age, when the arts were supported by patronage and subscription; in operation it is indistinguishable from the modern model of shareware.

“I believe this is a better way of funding authorship: the conventional model is inefficient, bad for authors and new writing, and unduly expensive for readers.”

Your thoughts

So, gang, read the books and share your impressions of them. Meanwhile what do you think of his business model? Will it succeed? Robert Nagle would probably be optimistic. I myself am wishing Richard the best of luck but am not so sure—I’d prefer that Robert be right. When John Scalzi used the shareware model in 1999 with the funny and deftly done Agent to the Stars, he earned $4,000 over five years. Ideally that sum would be bigger today. But remember, Agent is an extraordinary book within its genre.

Good luck, Richard! I hope the shareware approach boosts your career and leads to a huge Herley revival and some nice contracts with p-publishers. Yes, under the mainstream model, it is tough for writers, and I’m delighted to see shareware-type experiments continuing despite my concerns.

Related: Richard Herley’s bio and his blog, where he reflects on his experiment’s early results: “One especially courteous gentleman even paid twice for the same book, with separate fees for The Stone Arrow and The Pagans.” He also proposes an authors’ cooperative to host books for downloading, and makes clear his opposition to DRM, which I myself consider both a commercial and literary toxin for books.

Excerpt: Here’s the start of The Penal Colony.

Routledge became conscious. A foul taste was on his tongue; he felt nauseous, drug-sick, and at first he thought he was emerging not from sleep, but from anaesthesia. It followed that he must be in hospital, in pyjamas, but his skin and limbs returned a contrary sensation. He was fully and heavily clad; and hospitals smelled of disinfectant, while this place smelled of damp wood, and stone, and salt air, and an unpleasant acridity which he could not quite recognize.

Then he remembered a recent fragment of dream. He must after all have been asleep: was he dreaming still?

Above him, dimly illuminated, as if by a single candle some distance away, he could make out the form of a low ceiling, crudely made of rough laths and bundles of rushes. The quality of his sight was unmistakably real. This was no dream.

He had been placed on a low bed or pallet, on a mattress made of dried heather or bracken. He became aware that he was completely helpless: he had been zipped into a tightly fitting sleeping-bag and his wrists felt as if they had been bound together.

At that moment he understood where he was and what must have happened to him. The preceding days in the workroom, supper last night, had given no inkling of this; there had been no unusual taste in his food. Each day had followed the same routine, the routine that had been established from the morning of his induction over six months before. During those days he had foolishly begun to feel safe, to imagine, somehow, that he was not after all to be placed in Category Z.


  1. I wish Richard the very best of luck with this approach. In a pre-PayPal age, I started with the idea that readers would send a small payment through the mail. This approach was a huge failure and I switched to a more conventional approach of having a free except but (very modest) payment before reading the entire book.

    I think Stephen King had some luck with the shareware approach early on in his semi-book, The Plant, but interest faded. It is, after all, just so easy to have good intentions but end up not making payments. Then again, PayPal and similar services offer a more immediate option compared to having to actually send money through the US mail.

    Rob Preece

  2. A posting about the history of free and shareware e-books distributed on the internet might be interesting. Many people only know about more recent instances such as the Baen Free Library and Cory Doctorow’s works. The 1999 distribution of “Agent to the Stars” by John Scalzi is a good example of a pioneering attempt.

    I believe that the full text of “Rim” by Alexander Besher was placed on the web in 1995. I also think that “The Truth Machine” by James Halperin was distributed for free from a website in 1996. I remember reading an advertisement for Halperin’s book on Usenet that said it was available to readers who were willing to fill out a questionnaire.

    I suspect that some books were given away for free or as shareware on diskettes even earlier. Perhaps some blog readers can provide earlier examples of free and shareware e-books? (Of course, Project Gutenberg was founded in 1971.)

  3. David, thank you so much for your support. I’m in a bit of a wilderness patch at the moment, waiting to see whether this will work. My site went live on 17 Feb., and because of the way PayPal works (charging a flat fee and then a percentage) I can give readers a discount on a “bulk purchase”. In theory, then, one must give readers time to read and/or browse all five books before they even think about coming back to pay. So I don’t suppose I’ll know for another few weeks.

    Most writers of my acquaintance, and those I have read about or heard interviewed, put “getting read” before “earning dough” as motives for continuing in this most arduous trade. What is exciting about distributing unprotected books on the net is that thousands of copies get out into the world very quickly and at least have a chance of exposure. This contrasts with the ever-decreasing shelf-life of paper books. Hardbacks in the UK by middling or new writers tend to get sent back to the publisher about three weeks after publication day.

    Rob, thank you for your kind words. I think you were ahead of your time. One of the things that persuaded me to take this step was the emergence of devices like the Kindle and Sony Reader, together with the new mobile phones that let you read text. I am in no doubt that the future of fiction is digital; paper will be the secondary means of distribution. Since DRM is (1) a technical disaster (2) insulting to the reader and (3) likely to put potential readers off from making a purchase, non-DRM is the only way to go. Pre-payment for non-DRM’d files is pointless, so payment post-reading has to be it: and that has to be at the discretion of the reader.

  4. I remember reading The Truth Machine on a sooo slow connection way back in the mid 90’s…

    Personally I am not sure that the tip jar is a workable model. I think that offering a free sample and asking for a reasonable amount either directly or through places like Lulu or BookHabit is a much better way.

    I buy a lot of books, both p and e – I’m depressed, I buy a book, I am happy I buy another book kind of thing – and I also use the library extensively and free resources too, and of course I have a large pile of started but unfinished books waiting for the right mood, but I also do the rational thing namely if something is offered free, I save the money for something I have to pay for.

    The author has the right to set the price, but once it was set effectively at zero, I see no reason to pay.

  5. Richard, I appreciate so much that you have made these available in plain text. That really is the only “universal” format right now. Thanks for that!

    I have downloaded free copies of both the Scalzi and Doctorow books, and in both those instances, I later bought a paper version of something by that author. So I definitely think that ‘try before you buy’ does work! In Doctorow’s case, which was my first real exposure to this new form of disctribution, I knew he was quite political about the Creative Commons concept and I specifically paid for the book for the xpress purpose of making a statement that this method was effective for that author in my instance (in other words, I was making a statement too). So Richard, I can’t promise that your books will be my thing, but if they are, you will definitely see something coming your way from me.

  6. This reminds me of what Radiohead did with “In Rainbows.” Of course, music is more easily pirated than books — at least for now — so it makes sense that, if 100 people pay $1 for your album, you make more money than if one person pays $20 and everyone else gets it off Limewire.

    With books, you don’t have to worry so much about huge numbers of people reading your books for free. (Anyway I imagine a lot of writers would be happy to have huge numbers of people read their work for ANYTHING.) However, with the “shareware” approach, you lower the bar for participation, which is a good thing for a lot of authors. Say you end up with 100 people who pay $1 for your book — maybe two of those people would have bought the book for $20, and the rest wouldn’t have bought it at all. Of course, I’m making these metrics up. But building a bigger readership is always a plus for a less-established writer. Even if you don’t make money off these books, you’re building a brand-name, as it were.