OK, I run into tons and tons, and I mean freakin’ elephant tons, of writers who labor under the misguided belief that if they give their work away with wild abandon, they will become successful writers. I run into this everyday, on Facebook, on Twitter, on blogs. I watch writers, usually new, young and inexperienced writers, throwing free ebooks at potential readers right, left and front. I watch them heap them upon the public like your Aunt Margaret’s scratchy afghan. And with very few exceptions, I watch them fail.
This irritates me. A lot. And the more I see it, the more it irritates me.
So for today’s lesson, I’m going to give you an itemized list of reasons not to give your book away for free. Of course, the decision, dear writer, is entirely yours, and I will certainly not throw myself upon the internet highway in a futile attempt to save your bytes, but I hope you’ll consider the following points before sticking that ebook up on Smashwords for free:
– More and more readers are purchasing e-readers, and with the coming holiday season, there will be more e-readers than ever before in the history of human existence. That means that e-books are quickly becoming the mass market paperback of our era. You would not simply stand on your street corner and hand out your self-published paperback to strangers. Why would you denigrate ebooks to “less than this”?
– If you offer too many of your ebooks for free, it gives readers the impression that you aren’t a good enough writer to offer your book for pay in the general marketplace. You are essentially saying, “I’m a sub-standard writer. You don’t need to pay for my hard work. I have absolutely no confidence in myself but I’ll give this a go anyway.” Don’t give this impression. It’s unprofessional, to say the lease, and it does not inspire confidence in potential customers.
– When you offer your work for free, you set yourself up for a massive new competition—namely, all the free stuff on the internet. Seriously. You are now competing with all public domain work (H. P. Lovecraft, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, etc.), fanfiction, and freebies from other writers of your own status or higher—not to mention torrents of books from popular authors. If you think competing with the open market is hard, try competing with the above.
– When you offer your book for free, there’s a good chance someone will snatch it up because it is free, but less chance of someone actually reading it. Again, see my point above. Additionally, the human mindset is more apt to encourage someone who has actually bought an ebook to read it over the “freebie” sitting on their Nook or Kindle. They have spent actual, hard-earned money on Radioactive Lizards from Outer Space by Author Famous. Why would they read your free book first? And as that mindset takes hold and propagates, you can bet your free ebook will get shoved further and further down the line.
– Once you start offering too many freebies, readers will expect it of you. Always. You will become “that freebie author”. And then, when one day you beg for actual money for one of your new ebooks, those same readers will look blankly at you and wonder why you are doing this to them. Your books have always been free. It’s so unfair! You are a meanie poopiehead for wanting actual money! No, really. This will happen to you.
– Offering your ebooks for free will not expand your coffers at all. I know that seems pretty damned obvious, but I’m constantly amazed by authors who offer all their ebooks for free, and then, in their newly embittered voice, proclaim, “I can’t pay for my power. They’re turning out the lights! All you people on the internet are teh suck! You don’t care about us starving artists at all!” No, seriously. I have seen this happen, when in fact you were the author of your own misery.
– When you offer your work for free, your expectations will normally go through the roof…and then be smashed when only a few dozen people download it. Even if it’s a few hundred passing readers who snatch it up, you will still mourn the fact that all the billions of people on the internet are not rushing to your site to download your magnum opus. Morale will go down and you’ll feel like you were kicked in the nuts by a mule. It’ll happen. Trust me.
– If you constantly give your work away, your writing will likely suffer. As much as you say to me, “No, no, that’ll never happen, you idiot,” consider: as your morale drops, so will your interest. As interest in writing and expanding your craft continues to fall like an old Otis elevator, so will your dedication to improving your craft. It’s a bad cycle.
– Giving your books away will not get you boatloads of reviews, whatever you think. It will not. Reviews are very subjective things. You can have have an excellent bestseller and never get more than a pitiful handful of reviews. You have hundreds of reviews and not sell many copies. I speak from experience. I sell a fuckton of The Sting of the Scorpion, and yet receive no new reviews. Ever. Does it bother me? Not really. The book sells. I am happy. That’s all that matters. But it illustrates a valid point made by many new writers today—reviews have little power to move books anymore. The market has changed. The paradigm has shifted.
As an alternative to giving away your sweat, blood and tears, may I suggest offering short stories, or putting together free samples of your work? This may include long excerpts of your present titles all in one tidy ebook, or possibly free “guides” to your universe, if you write series fiction. With your guide, I suggest offering excised material, playlists, introductions, blurbs, short stories, glossaries and just about anything else you can think of. Use your imagination.
And get paid for it.