Free to starve


It’s the advice everyone gives to self-published authors.

“Giving books away for free will get you sales.”

Oh, they smile (metaphorically, of course, because all this is on-line advice) and pat your little digital hand, and reassure you: “Oh, we know, honey. It sounds counterintuitive, but it works!”

And in a way it does. You get a little bit of buzz going – people tweet and retweet about you for maybe ten minutes. If you have more than one book, you’ll get some sales on the one that isn’t free, and then you can, a week or two later, turn it around, and get a few sales on the other book.

And all your friends and relations are way impressed, and they like and share you all over Facebook, and everything is grand.

Sooner or later, though, you hit the slump. Everyone you know that was willing to download for free has done it. But the gurus, the marketing pros, the old self-publishing hands, they just send out another digital grin and tell you to do a big social media splash and offer Everything and More for FREEFREEFREE again.

“Watch,” they say. “Sales will boom!”

And sometimes, they do, for a little while.

The trouble with having everything for free is that people come to expect it. The trouble with successively putting your work out for anyone to download without paying for it is that people who might otherwise shell out those laughable pittances that are keeping the wolf from your door – they come to realize that they don’t have to. All they have to do is wait until the next desperate move from the author comes around.

Every author hits a sales slump. Sometimes it can be measured in days or weeks. Sometimes it paces down through literal years.

But this is the advantage of self-publishing.

With a traditional publisher, if your books don’t sell, they let them go out of print. If you were really smart and lucky, you might get some of the rights back, but for most first-time authors, well, they usually get to keep those rights for decades, and even if fans are clamoring for a re-release, they probably won’t do it, because they’ve already lost money on you, and they aren’t about to risk any more.

As an indie, though, time really stays on your side. Your book can remain technically available forever, on Amazon, on Smashwords, and through whichever Print On Demand service you went with.

The upshot? Giving books away for free is a short-term mechanism that ceases, over time, to give anything back to you. Giving books away for free actually trains your readers to expect free content.

The bloody opposite of what you meant to do.


It’s time to stop.

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