To Free or Not to Free

See full issue for 2016 01-11


Writing is a weird “job” in that everyone, sometimes even writers, view our efforts as a hobby. Something we do because we love it (and we do, mostly). It’s not work. It’s not hard, blah, blah, blah.  Before we can expect to be paid, we must first establish ourselves as “authors.” Build an audience. You’ve gotta prove you know what you’re doing and impress the masses with your alleged talent, and only then are you good enough to be paid. Write articles, short stories, essays, whatever, and submit these to publishers, magazines, whatever, begging them to PLEASE publish you. No, don’t pay me, dear publisher. It’s all good. I just want the exposure. Exposure is good. It’s vital. It’s going to show the world I’m talented and worth their hard earned dollars.

How long does all that take? Good question. Wish I had an answer for you. I’ve done the free articles. I’ve done the free stories. Long ago, I decided I wouldn’t write for free if the company/person requesting I do so is making money from my “product.” If I’m going to publish something and not make any money from it, I’ll do it myself, thank you very much. But I do give free books to readers, because that's how you promote your work, right? Right?!

This is what I want to discuss this week. I run promotional events, such as blog giveaways and book launch parties, where I give away my books, and it got me thinking. The free book dilemma has plagued me (and I’m sure many others) for a long time. I know freebies are good marketing. As an Indie author, effective marketing is critical to getting your books noticed by readers. As are reviews. And sales. Funny thing is we can’t get sales without reviews. It’s tough get reviews for a new book without giving freebies. However, once we give freebies, everybody wants it all free for the rest of time. There go those sales.

What are we to do? I’ve been told that if I refuse to give freebies, I won’t gain new readers. However, I’ve also been told it shows I respect my work, and feel it has value. When I do this, then the reader sees its value too and sales will follow.

So there we are. Freebies are good, but also kind of shitty. Free means no money for me. Writing books isn’t all about the money, but it’s at least a little bit about the money when I publish them. How else am I going to make “author” my full time job? (Hey, I know the odds of that happening are pretty depressing, but a girl can dream.)

Let’s tangent for a moment. I’ve worked in retail for a long time, and I have to say, publishing is one of the only areas where I’ve experienced the expectation of freebies. Do you go to the grocery store and expect free groceries to prove that store is worth your time? Do you ask your stylist for a free haircut to prove she won’t shave you bald? Your basement is flooded. Do you expect a new plumber to fix that for free? Do you expect free electricity, free telephone services, free Internet? Those things would be nice, but most people don’t expect any of it to be free. On the contrary, we expect to pay for it.

So why do readers expect you to offer your product for free? Why do you feel grateful if they take it. Somehow, it's become a thing where if you don’t offer free books, you’re greedy or your ego is monstrous. You’re an asshole. Give a book or two away, for crying out loud. It doesn’t cost you anything.

Another tangent: We created this mess we're in. When we were young and new and desperately wanted someone important to notice our work, we’ve written for free. Over and over again, writer after writer, we’ve given away our work, and were happy to do so. We’ve done it for years. Long before you and me, there were other writers giving their work away. Long before those writers were other writers doing the same. It’s become a tradition of sorts for new writers to go into the scary world of publishing and offer the fruits of our labors for the low price of exposure. Some of us have even turned down money, believing that we are not worthy of it just yet. As each new author offers writing for free, the foundation of this expectation is solidified, fortified. Established authors do it as well, though not as often. And each time we offer a free promotion, we add blocks to the foundation, and give readers this weird message that says, I don’t want to work for free, but I will if you’ll let me.

Readers are all:

“Wait, you say you don’t work for free, but what’s this?”

And then you’re all:

“It’s my book.”

“It’s… free?”

“Yes. For a limited time.”

“So, sometimes you work for free.”

“It’s marketing.”

“Why did I pay for your book last month if it’s free now?”

“Well, it’s to get new readers. I don’t offer free books all the time.”

“But what about me? I’m a loyal existing reader. What do I get?”

“Uh…” *panics* “Here. You can have a copy of my latest book. Actually, just take them all.”

But seriously, I think free promotions have many benefits, and we should definitely use them as long as we get what we need from them.  The ultimate goal is for the book to sell, but to sell, readers have to know it exists and give a shit about that fact. Reviews help with this, as does a decent Amazon ranking (or wherever it is you sell books), and freebies can help us achieve both of those things. So the trick is to figure out just how many freebies to give, how often, and to whom. Simple, right?

I haven’t figured out the magic formula, but I’ve learned a lot in the past few years. For example, freebies have worked best for me at the beginning of a book’s publication. When It’s new and shiny and I'm all gushy about it and some of that icky gush rubs off on readers. They get excited because I'm excited and we’re all happy and free and it’s wonderful. But don’t go overboard. Set a limit on how much you're giving away and stick to it. (Unless you use a free promotion via Amazon, in which case you limit the period of time you're giving books away.)

When you do have a promotion running, don’t forget to promote it. Readers need to know when your books are free if they’re to get a copy for themselves. This means you should also have a plan. Don’t just toss shit out there and hope for the best. I’ve tried that. Didn’t work out so well. Sit down, dig into your brain, and figure out what you want to achieve. The success of any marketing endeavor often hinges on being clear on what your goals are. My goals for free promotions typically include the following:

  • Increase visibility and/or buzz
  • Reviews
  • Expand reader base
  • Boost sales of existing books
  • Sell future books (such as those in a series)

Study the results when your promotion is over. Did the promotion give you any new reviews? Were there new readers? Did you see a sales spike in the month or two months following the promotion? Did other books sell? If the answer is no to any of these, you should investigate other ways to achieve the same goal.

I know I haven't answered the "to free or not to free" question very well. For me, freebies are a tool in a box full of many other tools. It's your work, so in the end, to give it away or not is your decision.




Renee Miller

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