Of What Value is Free? (Unmasking an Author Series, #3)

This is the third in a series about author visibility. First I discussed some challenges indies face. Last week I discussed some beneficial and some not-so-beneficial ways to use freebies. This week I want to consider the value (or not) of free.

Everybody loves freebies. We try them because there’s no risk involved. We’re not out anything if we’re disappointed. So it makes sense that authors would want to use this natural draw to gain new readers. Think about it. How many of us have found our favorite books and authors this way? Did you purchase your first book by a favorite author? Or did you check it out at the library or borrow it from a friend? But there are two schools of thought on this, and I’ll admit, both have valid points.

Probably the most famous advocate for giving work away free is the English author Neil Gaiman. In fact, he’s the one who drew that analogy to library books. Then he pointed out that most of us who found a favorite book or author for free then went on to purchase additional books by that author. Very true. I’ve done that.

In a video I’ve seen on several blogs now, Mr. Gaiman tells how he grew alarmed when his work was being heavily pirated. Then he noticed he was selling more books in those areas than anywhere else! Freebies, he came to realize, are actually excellent advertising. He then encouraged his publisher to release his book, American Gods, for free for a month. As a result, sales of his other books went up 300 percent the following month.

Last fall I read an article by another biggie author who now releases all his digital content for free. All of it! I know this is horrible, horrible journalism, because I can’t remember the fellow’s name, and I have totally failed to track down that article again. The link is buried somewhere on the BookBlogs forum, but in it the author mentioned how he’s making a killing off his paperbacks.

Most of us middle-of-the-road authors (okay, us in-the-grass-somewhere-beyond-the-sidewalk authors) wouldn’t benefit in the same way these successful, established fellows have. Personally, I like my Kindle check too much each month–small as it is–to give up all digital profits. So we experiment with free on a lesser scale. That’s been the draw of Amazon’s KDP Select program. Authors are able to make their work available for free on Amazon for five days every three months. Such exposure on the marketplace giant has been a reliable method for boosting sales in the past. (Note: In the past–but that’s content for another post.)

Not everyone agrees. Author and game designer Guido Henkel had this to say about KDP Select: “To put it in plain Kindle language, if everyone is offering their book for free, it is once again disappearing in the glut and no longer special.”

And there are many who argue that making work free is actually detrimental. The market is over-saturated. Free isn’t appreciated. Free cheapens your work. Free cheapens everyone’s work. Free too often means a poorly written, unedited book. Free is dragging down the establishment. Free negatively affects authors who must charge for their work. Free is lowering the standard across the entire industry.

Okay, so I do have to agree with some of that.

I posted a discussion on the BookBlogs forum about this issue. Here are some of the responses I received:

“Everyone is thankful for a freebie but it is soon forgotten. Anything given away freely is not appreciated, examples,’welfare, some ebooks, salvation.'”

“There’s an awful lot of slop for sale at Amazon.”

“I like to get free books, unfortunately I tend not to read them because I’m reading stuff I actually paid for.”

“Writers must establish an audience, and probably should do so before offering free books. Otherwise the book could be swimming in the sea of books for some time.”

Hmmm. There are certainly a lot of opinions on this topic, and I’m really curious to hear what yours are. I tend to fall in the middle of the extremes. I have no intention of giving away all my work, and I don’t download many freebies because the quality is usually substandard, but I still think giving away some work can be useful. If you tuned in last week, you’re still waiting for that last suggestion I promised–that great brainchild, my new strategy. Sorry! You’ll hear it in my fourth and final post in this series which will appear here the first Friday in September. Next week I’ll be guest posting a blog tour wrap-up on one of my favorite blogs.

So tell me, what are your thoughts on free? Is it beneficial to a new, unknown author? Or does it contribute to a declining quality of literature?

4 thoughts on “Of What Value is Free? (Unmasking an Author Series, #3)

  1. Great post! I absolutely love Neil Gaiman, and I became a fan when he was somewhat underground with the Sandman series. I think it’s amazing to watch how authors and artists are organizing and using technology to distribute their work and make it more assessable to their fans. I think if you put your work out there and it finds its audience, then they will support you regardless of the price tag. For instance, I can find lots of songs I like for free and add them to my playlist, but when I come across an artist that I truly enjoy- I buy their album- whether it’s in i-tunes, CD or sometimes still, tapes- lol! In the case of Neil’s work, I have the entire collection of the Sandman series and many more of his books- and they are completely priceless to me. Thanks for sharing this! ~ Jess

    1. Thanks for those comments, Jess. I just read my first Neil Gaiman book this summer (The Graveyard Book). It was really engaging. I do the same thing when I have an artist or author I really enjoy. I spend the money. Haven’t bought a cassette tape in a while… 🙂

  2. Especially with ebooks, I get a lot of free ones. Real books, I (or my parents)buy more and if it is a favorite author I buy them when they come out. Some of the free books I get make me go out and buy other books from the authors if I really like it. 🙂

  3. “Some of the free books I get make me go out and buy other books from the authors if I really like it.”
    That’s what I’m talking about, Erik! 🙂 Or I buy a different book by that author.

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