What's the Problem with FREE?
FREE! is so powerful few of us can resist. In fact, I would be so bold as to say that FREE! is what gave the indie and self-publishing movement the traction to become the wide-sweeping change we see today. FREE! finally leveled the playing field between the traditional and the non-traditional industries. So if FREE! is so awesome, what’s the problem?
More about that in a moment.
A Brief History of Zero
The concept of Zero hasn’t always been around. Zero was invented by the Babylonians, then debated by the Greeks—How can something be nothing?—then finally paired up with the numeral one by the Indian scholar Pingala. Later it was adopted by the Romans. In fact, there is some debate that the explosion of the Roman Empire was due, in part to the adoption of Zero. Roman numerals could only count so high, so it limited expansion.
And boy are we glad that the ancient Romans were a greedy lot. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to give a cute member of the opposite sex our phone number if the numbering system hadn’t changed?
My number is VII I VIIII…Crap! Hold on. That was VII I IX….
Back to my point. Once there was a notion of Zero in context with a decimal system, Zero was here to stay. It swept the ancient world like a primordial Beanie Baby fad and stuck around until finally a little place called Silicon Valley took Zero to a whole nutha’ level.
Did you know that there are 10 types of people in the world? Those who understand binary and those who don’t.
*drum, roll snare*
Yes, I’ll be here all week. Drinks are half price until five.
So let’s just say that Zero, on its own, already had it made. What could be better? Introducing the emotional equivalent of Zero we all know as FREE!
FREEE!!!! FREEEEE!!! How we love FREEEEEE!!!!
I see FREE! being used all the time, and I know how powerful this tool can be. FREE! has changed publishing as we know it.
A Brief History of FREE! in the World of Publishing
Not too long ago, if an author went any route other than traditional, it created a problem. The authors had to sell books that had not passed the gatekeepers of publishing (kinda bad juju) at an equal or higher price than a book that had (really bad juju). No easy feat.
As an example…
I had a family member who wrote a romance novel. This family member, so eager to feel validated as a writer by being published, “published” through Publish America. So, we had basically a book that content-wise was probably the equivalent of a $4.95 Harlequin…only it cost I kid you NOT $34…before shipping.
I never pay $34 for any book…even for family. A $34 book better have gold pages and a foot massage and…nope, still won’t drop that kind of money on a book.
Yet, here is the thing, who other than family would pay that kind of money for ANY book?
I have no idea if my relative’s book was good or bad. I never bought it, so I never read it, but I can see how many self-published authors were in the same dilemma as my relative. It didn’t matter HOW good the content was because NO CONTENT was THAT good.
So, as you can see from my example, a lot of self-published authors faced a real conundrum. It was bad enough to be labeled as an inferior writer, but then to try and sell wares perceived as less valuable at as much as a 200% higher price? Frankly, the game was over before it began.
To add another level of difficulty, many of these writers needed to recoup their investment. They simply didn’t have the luxury of discounting their books, let alone giving anything away for FREE!…so they were almost doomed from the start. Pricing alone was enough to keep them from ever being viewed as real literary players.
So the digital revolution hit and with the increase in e-readers, suddenly self-pubbed or indie pubbed writers could use a new tool—FREE! Since an author didn’t have to pay any more for one e-book than he did for a thousand books (unlike paper books), pricing was no longer a problem. And, since traditional publishing sure wasn’t giving books away for free (yet), self-pubbers and indie pubbers soon did what all good entrepreneurs do. They capitalized on a vacuum in the market.
Fast-forward to Christmas of 2009.
The sale of iPads, Kindles and Nooks EXPLODED and people wanted “stuff” to put on their new shiny e-readers, but they only had so much money on the gift card, and traditional publishers weren’t giving THAT much of a discount on the electronic copies of their books. Indie and self-pubbed authors swept in with a solution. Try my book…for FREE!.
FREE was here to stay.
The Advantage of FREE!
FREE is enticing. Few things get our hearts hammering like the glorious word…FREE!. People can try our books for FREE! and risk losing nothing. What is the downside? When we get stuff for FREE!, there IS no downside to the decision and, no downside makes us humans feel all warm and fluffy.
We dig warm and fluffy.
FREE! is awesome when lots of people download our books. It makes us feel special. But beyond that?
FREE! has no power in the publishing world unless there is an impetus for consumers read then talk about our book so more books can be sold. Great, we give away 50 FREE! copies of our new book. If the books sit there unread in a bunch of Nooks and Kindles hanging out with the games we will never play, then we really didn’t gain anything. In fact, we likely lost more than we gained. FREE! can be a powerful sales tool, but we need to make sure we are employing it wisely.
The Trouble with FREE!
First of all, FREE! isn’t special when everyone is doing it.
My social media approach is very different from a lot of other experts. I believe that traditional marketing is an almost total waste of time and does little to drive book sales. Here is WHY.
The same negative effect can also happen with pricing. Oh, sure those first people who got the bright idea to offer a book for $1.99 or $2.99 or .99 cents hit a home run.
But what about those thousands who have followed suit?
When we are the only guy handing out FREE! books, then sure people line up around the block. But when every other indie or self-published author is offering FREE! downloads? It dilutes the allure of FREE!.
When FREE! has Lost its Luster
This is where social media and platform now become important. I feel that, in the face of zillions of FREE! books, people will then prioritize whose books they will read at all or even first. They will default to who they know and who they LIKE. Then if they enjoy the book, the impetus to talk, blog or review the book will greatly increase if there is a personal compulsion to act. Translation?
We’d do it for a friend.
We prioritize by reputation for quality and by relationship. We line up to download FREE! stuff from J.A.Konrath or Bob Mayer or even FREE! short stories from Vicki Hinzi or James Rollins. We might even download from friends or even writers whose blogs we love and trust for excellent content like Chuck Wendig or Tawna Fenske.
In the face of all this FREE! relationship sales matter.
Either we have a prior relationship with the product—I.e. J.A. Konrath’s many best-selling titles OR we have a personal relationship and we want to support this writer as a person. That is one of the reasons that the WANA teams are so POWERFUL. We connect to each other as people, so we go out of our way to offer support. FREE! has power because others care about the author.
Yes, Free! Can Hurt Us
FREE! actually does have the power to hurt. In the behavioral economics book Predictably Irrational—The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions, MIT Professor Dan Ariely states:
The critical issue arises when getting FREE! becomes a struggle between a FREE item and another item—a struggle for which the presence of FREE! makes us make a bad decision. (page 52)
Remember earlier, the attraction of FREE! is most powerful when there is no chance of us making a bad decision. But what about this scenario?
We just finished reading the latest and greatest novel on our new Kindle Fire and decide that we want to download a new book. Lured in by FREE! we download a handful of titles that are being offered FREE! for a limited time. We don’t even bother with sample pages because, hey! They are all FREE!
Ah, but then we sit down in our limited FREE time and open the first book. The formatting looks like it was done by a blind wombat. The second book? It was clear by page five this writer had never met spell check, and was, from all appearances, highly allergic to proper grammar. The third? So many POVs we needed Dramamine to keep up with perspectives. The fourth?
By this point we are just going to go pay regular price for a book we can enjoy reading. Sure, the new publishing paradigm is awesome, but the downside is that what used to meet a slush pile is now being passed on to readers to sift through. Readers may or may not want to put out all that effort for a bargain.
When FREE! Transforms
See, FREE! makes an interesting transition in the world of publishing. If I grab a handful of FREE! Hershey’s Kisses at the chiropractor’s office over the .50 cent Lindt Truffles for sale at Walgreens, I still have a pleasant experience. But, if I download enough FREE! books and too many of them are a bad, time-wasting experience? Then FREE! has lost its luster and with it its power.
FREE! can hit a critical threshold where it is just…annoying.
For instance, I have a childhood friend who grew up to become a realtor. She has never sold me a piece of property but this didn’t stop her from sending me a FREE! magnet calendar. Now, the guy that sold us our house ALSO sent us a FREE calendar…along with every real estate agent in the DFW metroplex.
You guys know I am exaggerating, but you get what I am talking about.
I have a drawer full of FREE! that just annoys me every time I look at it. The Scottish part of me is too frugal to just toss a perfectly good calendar/stress ball/magnet/koozi but I am up to my eyes in FREE! stuff that just clogs up my drawer and my life.
See, I bet the first real estate agent that sent people a FREE! koozi got some business, but now that ALL of them send out this FREE! crap? We just default to the agent we know from church or the one we met at Rotary. The FREE! no longer is a consideration, but rather is a source of consternation. We default to who we know and who we like.
Among Other Down-Sides, Free! Can Make Us Seem Desperate
Back in the 90s, at the height of the dot.com explosion, every tech company was eager to hand out free shirts, free koozies, free notebooks, FREE! FREE! FREE! Yet, in the face of all this FREE! stuff, the company my at-the-time-fiance worked for took a very different approach. They offered nothing simply for FREE! and a weird thing happened.
People’s interest piqued.
Potential customers wanted to know why, when all the competition had all this FREE! stuff, did this company not follow suit? By NOT being like everyone else, this company stood apart because they offered nothing FREE!
Oooh, they don’t give out FREE! stuff so their product must be more valuable.
What’s the saying? Why buy the cow if we get the milk for FREE!? There is something to that. FREE! can be especially harmful if all we have is one title for sale or if we are at the low end of the Amazon ranking. Whether it is true or not, the subtext is too often–Oooh, she couldn’t get anyone to drop $5 for her book, so now she’s giving it away?
I see a lot of writers get very excited because Two hundred people downloaded my book! Okay, but unless that two hundred translates into more than two hundred actual sales, then we are actually in the red. FREE! must serve a long-term advantage or we are just handing away work that cost us blood, sweat and tears.
Just because we are artists, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be paid for our work. I am dedicated to helping all of you realize your dreams, and part of that is teaching you how to get paid for your work.
So is FREE! ever good? Sure! There is a way to use the Power of FREE! for maximum advantage…and we will talk about that next week.
What are your thoughts? Have you had a wonderful experience offering FREE! books? Want to offer tips? Pointers? Do you download free books? Have you found some real gems? What are some problems you see with FREE!?
I LOVE hearing from you!
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of January, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of January I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
Last Week’s Winner of 5-Page Critique is Kareen Yvette McCabe. Please send your 1250 word Word document to author kristen dot lamb at g mail dot com. Congratulations.
I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books!
This Week’s Mash-Up of Awesomeness
First, a FABU interview. James Rollins interviews Jon Land. Pop by and show some WANA support. This is a first for both of them.
Best-Seller Lists versus the Long Tail Really excellent post by NYTBSA Bob Mayer.
Kristin Nador has a wonderful series about blogging and this gal practices what she preaches. VERY useful series, so make sure you check it out.
My Life as a Three-Headed Chimera by Marcy Kennedy. WONDERFUL and POWERFUL blog about people-pleasing.
Have a hard time keeping up with all the blogs you love? The amazing Jenny Hansen has a post introducing us to Triberr. Yeah, I didn’t know what it was either but Jenny can help you out.
One of my favorite blogs is by the so-talented-and-also-pretty-I’d-stab-her-if-I-didn’t-like-her-so-much Tawna Fenske. Don’t Pet me I’m Writing is always a great place to perk up your day. This post on shampoo shopping? Too funny! And her fiction is truly wonderful. I HIGHLY recommend Making Waves.
Another author who
makes me so jealous I could explode is truly talented and generous with her knowledge is Jody Hedlund. She has a wonderful post about How to Make Your Book Play out Like a Movie.
Jane Friedman has a fantastic post When You Need to Secure Permissions and while you are over at Jane’s MAKE SURE you check out Porter Anderson’s Writing on the Ether to keep up with the latest trends and changes and the best information available. Porter whittles down the web to the best, so this site is a HUGE time-saver.
Where there be dreams, there be dragons. Time to slay some beasties! Fabulous post by Ingrid Schaffenburg who is doing a wonderful series about dreams.
Do you call yourself a writer or an author? by Jami Gold.
Is Amazon guilty of predatory publishing? over at NPR