The Price of Free

See full issue for 2017 03-27

It’s time to buckle up, kids, because Mama’s about to go on a bit of a rant.

Longevity is a rarity in publishing these days, in both traditional and indie markets, so it follows that a publisher has to do whatever it can to pay its authors. This is why we’re seeing Kickstarters for anthologies, and other crowdfunding campaigns to try to keep the doors open. As an author, I feel better knowing a publisher is able to fund itself, but the sad reality is readers have come to expect shit for free, or for next to nothing, so what’s a publisher to do? How can they stay afloat when they’re fighting a free market?

I’ve also noticed A SHIT TON of non-paying zines and publishers out there. By that I mean publications that DON'T pay authors. Instead, they offer authors "exposure" or a copy of the publication. It’s been this way for a long time, but as I dive further into traditional markets (Remember, I'm a hybrid author), I’m forced to notice them and, of course, I wonder if they get many submissions. They're flourishing, it seems, and are so overwhelmed with submissions, they have to close periodically to sift through them all.

What. The. Hell?

Who are all these writers happy to write for the “privilege” of being published or in hopes of gaining exposure? And what is exposure anyway? What does it do for you? Does it get you paid? Does it make you seem legit? Does it give you anything in return, other than maybe being read and stroking your ego a little? I've written for exposure, and in my experience, it doesn’t build anything but the expectation of more free shit.

A while back we discussed whether we should offer freebies. My opinion then was that sometimes it can be a useful marketing tool. I still have that opinion. If you’re self-publishing, free promotions, when done in moderation, can boost sales of future books, but the results vary and are rarely anything substantial. (I didn’t say it never works. I said rarely.)

Here's the problem, though: We all whine about the state of publishing (both indie and traditional). We bitch and moan that we can’t make a go of it. Can’t seem to get paid. Publishers are so cheap. They never take risks. Want the same old shit. Pay crappy royalties and expect us to do all the work. Blah, blah, blah. Well, this “token” payment system, and the “exposure” bullshit, isn’t something devised by publishers to screw us. We’ve done this to ourselves. This is our fault, and until we fix it, good publishers who actually try to pay their authors will continue to fold, because they can’t compete against the wave of freebies out there.

"But, Renee, readers just aren’t reading anymore. I can’t even make a go of self-publishing. If we don’t give it away, we’d never be read."

No, that’s wrong. They’re reading. They’re just not BUYING books, because they don’t have to. Part of the reason people aren’t buying books and markets aren’t paying is because of the yahoos out there who “just want to be read,” so they throw shit up on Amazon for free. They publish in non-paying zines and blogs for exposure.

And don't get me started on those who claim, “I just want to be read. I don’t care about sales or a career. I just want to enrich the masses with the gift that is my imagination.”

Shut up, you foolish, ego-indulging person. If you just want to be read, start a blog, or post your writing on blog-type sites like WattPad. Send it to your friends and family. Post it on Facebook. Whatever. Good luck to you. Stay out of what should be a paying market, because you’re not interested in a career.

That sounds bitter and mean. It should. I feel bitter and mean about the state of publishing these days. Bitter, because I played a part in it, and mean, because no one seems to want to own responsibility so we can begin fixing it.

Those of you who are trying to build a brand or a reader base might offer freebies in an effort to get people to see your work. That’s fine. A freebie given to loyal readers now and then or to reviewers to generate buzz is good marketing.  When you offer free shit all the time, to everyone, then you start a trend. Readers start asking when you’re offering another freebie. They read it for free last time. Why not now? I’ve been stuck in this cycle and I have no one to blame but myself for the lagging sales afterward.

What I'm saying is we teach people how to treat us. If we don’t value our product enough to slap a price tag on it, then why should anyone else? And we need to start examining that price tag too. Contrary to popular belief, it DOES cost money produce an e-book, although they aren’t a tangible product. Cover designers, editors, marketing, etc. all costs money. Now, those of us who publish via Amazon know there is a pricing guide, which tells us what price points are most effective for maximum sales. The price point for the average e-book right now is less than three dollars. THREE DOLLARS for a full sized, 80,000-word book that took months to write and more months to get it ready for publication. Even without the cost of editing, cover design and marketing factored in, does that seem right? I’m not without guilt here. I price my books at three dollars or less, because if I don’t, they don’t sell. I've noticed some publishers are starting to do the same.

The anti-publisher fanatics out there might be cheering at how we forced them to lower prices, but it's not a good thing in the long run. It hurts all of us when readers don't see value in books. I've seen a few publishers and magazines that have to fight for every sale, every subscription, and every bit of success they manage to achieve. Some of them close the doors eventually, some manage to limp along. These are good publishers who focus on publishing quality fiction and they PAY their authors well. They shouldn’t be fighting to be successful, but with all of these “free” publishers popping up, not paying their authors, offering readers all kind of stories (good or not) for nothing, then why would anyone pay to read the offerings of a publisher who is actually paying its authors?

They won’t unless we change how we do things. Readers will pay, and are happy to do so, but only if authors demand it. That's the kicker, though. None of us wants to be "that guy" who charges more than anyone else, and is sitting there with zero sales and reviews.

How do we attract readers then if not by offering them a sample? If we're going traditional, how do we break into the pro markets without proving ourselves? If you don’t give it away, how else does it get published? Readers and/or publishers won’t take a chance on the new guy. The non-paying markets and freebies are the only option.

There’s no easy answer. Success in publishing is a process that involves many tools; some that won’t work for you, and some that won’t work for others. You build a reader base by getting out there and working hard. Figure out what works and what doesn’t. Promote. Get reviews from blog tours. Get on social media. Go out in the real world and make appearances (yuck). Submit to paying markets to spread your brand all over the place. Make sure your sticky little hands are everywhere. Yes, it’s hard. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s often not fun at all. The rejections are many. You’ll get way more rejections than acceptances. However, when you get one yes, more will follow. Publish it yourself, if you want, but show that you feel it has worth by expecting payment for it. If you keep getting rejected or no one’s buying what you’ve put out there, then it’s time to examine the product you’re offering. Is it worth paying for? Be your own worst critic.

Do. The. Work.

If readers don’t bite, then you need to figure out why. If they do, well there’s a big chunk of the battle won.

I’m rambling. This is how rants go, though. My point is the traditional publishers aren’t the bad guys here. They’re not the reason we’re not getting paid. We are. If we’re cool with offering something we’ve spent hours working on for free, then why should they pay us? Readers are cool with expecting it to be free as well. This free model isn’t working, obviously. Free doesn’t pay the bills and it’s starting to affect every aspect of the industry in a very negative way.

"But we’re a community, aren’t we? By publishing for exposure, we help ourselves and the publishers gain recognition. They might pay later. It’s all about supporting each other, not the bottom line. Writing is art and you can’t put a price tag on that."

Sure you can, and it IS about the bottom line. If you’re writing with the goal of making it a career, then your writing is a business and a business is VERY MUCH about money. And it should be. Yes, support fellow authors. Yes, support publishers. Yes, treat your readers well and offer them a freebie now and then, but only give those freebies to readers who have supported you by buying your books in the past. Support other authors and publishers by encouraging readers to BUY their books.

Books are not worthless. Stop treating them like they are and your readers will do the same.



Renee Miller

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