During my 30 year career in tech sales and marketing, I never heard anyone say, “Let’s give away our product for free” and survive. Remember Star Office, the Microsoft Office-beater given away by Sun Microsystems? For thirty years, Microsoft has been selling Office and never once gave it away for free.
So why do we, indie authors, cling to the fantasy that giving away books is a workable long-term strategy?
Because it feels good.
So does smoking crystal meth … or so I’m told.*
Accumulating “Likes” on Facebook feels good. But it doesn’t make money. Giving away books launched Hugh Howey back when Amazon counted free books among the top 100 list. Mr. Howey is also a natural marketing machine who knew how to capitalize on his success and wrote a damn good book. And, he never gave away the entire book, only the part one of five.
We often hear wild success stories about someone who ran a Bookbub ad for a freebie, had 50,000 books downloaded and drag sales (other books sold) for an astronomical ROI. These folks are often euphoric for a month or two. I’ve had authors brag that they made $3-5,000 from a freebie Bookbub ad.
The trouble is sustaining that high. Like crystal meth, the high doesn’t last long—and Bookbub doesn’t run ads back-to-back. The high is gone in six weeks and so is the $6,000.
We have to ask ourselves, are we in this game for $5,000, $50,000, or $500,000?
FREE is a lousy business model. I know, I know—you’re introducing new users to your work. No, you’re not. You’re giving away your product.
Why is FREE a bad idea? Because humans have an intrinsic distrust of free. An associate of mine ran a Bookbub ad, shipped 60,000 books and in the year since, has accumulated 300 reviews. That’s half of one percent. Another associate has never placed his first novel below $0.99 and then only on rare occasion. He’s sold 12,000 in a year and has 250 reviews. Four times as many people who have his books are reading and reviewing them.
We value what we pay for. When was the last time you heard someone tell you the car he/she bought was a terrible mistake in the first six months? (All cars will disappoint us eventually, but they usually wait until we absolutely must be there :).
If you want your readers to value your work, try a little harder to sell them on it. The more they pay, the more they value your product.
But, Seeley, didn’t you tell us recently that Nick Stephenson is a marketing genius? In that instance, Nick is exchanging something for the book. The downloader has to subscribe to his newsletter. They are making a conscious decision to obtain that book.
If you have 5+ books in a single series, one novella introducing the characters is a great way to get a sample in the hands of readers, right? Ask yourself, what kind of reader will pass it up if it’s $0.99 instead of free? 6-10 hours of reading enjoyment and he/she won’t spring for a dollar. Do you want that reader?
DON’T DEVALUE YOUR WORK. If you did an honest job of spinning a yarn, don’t feel bad about charging a freaking dollar for it. Or five for that matter. We drop a dollar into the tip bucket at the ice cream shop without thinking. Your work is worth more than the three-second smile from a pimply faced teenager handing you more calories than you deserve.
- Why do people buy bottled water when it’s available for free? Value. Perceived or real, they value the bottle. They will value your work IF YOU VALUE YOUR WORK.
- Write more books. Each book will have a fan base, each fan will have ten friends, each friend will hear your name with each release. Do the math.
- Keep your price up, discount on rare occasion.
- Use The Fussy Librarian—they run ads above $0.99. They’re small, growing fast, and understand you need a valuable venue.
- Write more books.
Let me know what works for you on a sustainable, long-term basis.
* If smoking it is indeed how you ingest it. I did a lot of dumb things in my misspent youth but, thankfully, crystal meth wasn’t among them. The closest I’ve ever been to meth was in Roger Hobb’s GHOSTMAN. And yes, I’ve seen Breaking Bad. Trust me, Roger has them beat in one scene alone.