Should Free eBooks be Outlawed?
How many times have you gone onto Amazon and seen a Stephen King book available as a free download?
I can’t recall any.
However, there are thousands of free ebooks on there.
Not picking on Amazon. All the other platforms feature free reads – SmashWords, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Google, Kobo etc.
And by the way, I’m not picking on Mr King either. I’m a longtime fan and have no problem with him expecting to pocket some cash for his literary exertions. He’s just my example of the traditional author/agent/publisher arrangement that doesn’t entertain the idea of giving away the milk for nothing.
It’s the indie sphere where ‘free’ seems to have taken such a firm hold. Offering your book free for a limited (or semi-permanent) period is a common marketing option for independent authors. It’s an industry in itself – there are a raft of websites built on the back of freebie books.
But does that make it right?
I’ll hold up my hands. I’ve done it and will probably do it again. This article isn’t preaching, simply pondering something which troubles me. I recently got what I considered a great review on Sci-Fi & Scary for one of my short stories (Doggem – if you’re interested you can read the review Here) and it mentioned the price of the book. It was a flattering observation. The fact that nowadays you could get much longer works for 99p than a relatively short novella and Doggem was still good value in comparison.
But it got me thinking about the horror, the sheer lunacy, faced by indie authors when putting a price on their work.
Let’s get some context around this before we go any further.
On the surface, pricing ought to be a pretty simple matter. How does anyone, business or individual, approach pricing their product? And that’s what it is, after all, a product. You may have bled little bits of your soul into the writing, your partner may have left you because you’ve become some sort of keyboard-obsessed recluse, but your book is just another product once you press the publish button.
The answer for any normal business is that they price it at a level which will make the required profit margin. The minimum will be whatever is necessary to continue operating and the maximum basically boils down to whatever you can get away with.
Those rules start to get blurred when you’re talking about artistic endeavours and even hazier when you step into the indie arena. You’re not an industrial giant, at best a sole trader. You may not even be that. A hell of a lot of writers can’t rely on their writing income to survive. They subsidise their passion with a ‘day job’ and organise the rest of their lives around doing what they love.
For all that, everyone needs to eat. We all need to earn money. Every single one of us deserves some reward for our effort, irrespective of the area in which you place that effort.
No business gives their product away. That’s unsustainable insanity. Sure, they may have marketing strategies that give this impression, but it’s not the reality of the situation.
No delivery charge just factors the cost of delivery into the purchase price.
Buy one, get one free is exactly the same.
Mahoosive clearance bargains are just a way of unlocking expensive shelf space and cutting your losses.
None of it is really free.
Now, I realise you can argue that offering your ebook free shares a lot of those qualities. It’s a tool to gain greater exposure. In effect, a loss-leader to increase overall sales volume.
Someone may be more inclined to ‘try’ you when there’s no cost involved and they may in turn become a loyal reader, willing to pay for your other works. Bear in mind, there’s also a danger that they’ll download your stuff and move onto the next freebie.
The digital age has been hard on loyalty. There’s very little incentive to be decent and do the right thing anymore. We’re actively encouraged to distrust the internet and at the same time use it to get the best deal. The world is a transitory, unreliable place.
Why be grateful for anything. Take what you can and run.
In theory, a free book increases downloads and opens the possibility of more reviews.
The latter are invaluable for indie authors. Reviews are gold. You don’t have Mr. King’s marketing machine behind you telling everyone and their brother you’re the scariest thing since machete-sliced bread. A review lends you precious credibility, one of the rarest of commodities for independent authors.
There’s some truth to this. I gave my novella, Call Drops, away for a lengthy spell.
To date, it’s garnered more reviews than any of my other books. But beware, thousands of downloads hasn’t even equated to hundreds of reviews. Someone downloading your book is no guarantee they will read it, less still they’ll bother with a review.
It’s understandable. They haven’t made any investment. Why would they go out of their way to make their opinion public? If anything, getting your book in this way makes them less likely to place any value on it or you.
More downloads also provides temporarily increased visibility. Your rankings will spike and more people actually see your books because you’re nearer the top of your chosen genre.
That can’t be a bad thing, surely?
Well, no, not in itself. A morale boost, if nothing else.
It does make a couple of assumptions though, and we all know about u and me being the back end of an ass.
Do people pay much attention to the charts? Are they basing their reading preferences on the bestseller ranking in what may be a niche genre? Will it make any longterm difference?
Hard to say, in my experience. It will raise people’s awareness of you – that’s definitely good.
So, promotional benefits exist, even if their impact is unreliable and has questionable aspects.
There is another motivation for making your story free. The simple yearning to share something you’ve created. If you paint a picture or make a sculpture, you want people to see it.
No different with writing. You can be the shrinkiest of violets, shy to the point of pain, but write a story and deep down you want people to read it.
Since being on Twitter, I’ve got to know quite a lot of writers. Good folk, on the whole – the writing community are a decent and supportive bunch. Most of us don’t expect to become rich from our writing and nearly all of us share a common ambition – we want people to read and enjoy our work.
A few are willing to put that desire above other considerations. They give their stories away, either directly or via anthologies where they don’t receive any payment.
I get that, I really do.
There is nothing more satisfying than knowing your stuff is being read and appreciated.
But is that enough? Are warm words adequate reward? Are you validated by simply being appreciated? The fact I’m questioning it suggests I have my doubts, although I am genuinely torn.
One thing swings my opinion a little toward the negative.
It’s something from when I made my little story, Call Drops, free for an extended time. Several friends mentioned I was off my trolley and not doing anyone, least of all myself, any favours. Not in the grand scheme of things anyway. Yeah, I might get a brief gain, but overall I was devaluing myself and making it harder for everyone else to sell their books. They could just about swallow free for a few days. Longer than that was only adding to the corrosion which is slowly hollowing out the whole industry.
Those comments gave me pause for thought, changed my perspective to some degree. It felt like I was letting the side down, being selfish and undermining other writers.
Will I do it again, make my books free? I don’t know. Yeah, maybe, probably. Depends how I’m feeling at the time, I guess.
That said, there’s a part of me wishes all of the self-pub/indie platforms would just remove the free option. Take away the temptation and enforce a minimum cost.
They won’t do that – they’re still earning even if the author isn’t.
But 99p is a token amount – you can’t get much for that nowadays.
And it’s not really about money anyway. It’s about fairness and self-respect.
That’s it, random musing over for now.
As ever, thank you for reading : )
If you want to check out any of my books, these are my Amazon pages: