E-Free: savvy or stupid?

Lucky me, I woke up to a FREE newspaper this morning.  In fact, every house in town had a neatly rolled up paper just waiting in the driveway for unsuspecting homeowners to fall in love with.  And order a subscription.

Two days ago, Dear Hubby checked out the fitness center in town and came home with a card that gained him access to a FREE week of membership.  Ya know the “Try us out.  If you like us, come back,” kind of thing?

I also got a Buy One, Get One FREE coupon in the mail the other day from a shoe store. 

Seriously, free seems to be the new…well, old…marketing model.  Businesses have well-learned that a sample goes a long way in attracting customers.  Some of those customers will enjoy the services/product so much they will become loyal buyers.  Others will swoop in for their freebie and never be heard from again.  Some will turn up their noses and throw the coupon away in disdain, for obviously, free means inferior.

And still more land somewhere in the middle.  They will read the paper, check out the gym membership and pick up two new pairs of shoes.  At times, they’ll come back to work out whenever possible, doing so in cycles as it works with the rhythm of their lives.  They will pick up a news stand copy of the paper when the fancy strikes them and definitely remember the great selection of shoes the next time they need some kicks. 

So, is free savvy or stupid? 

Do we give away too much for the little return on life-long loyalty?  Is the sheer quantity of freebies given worth the quality of future buyers?  But what if nobody buys?  Or what if everyone buys and they hate the product and will never, ever, ever under duress of life and limb purchase another membership, shoe or paper again?  What if they tell everyone how much they *gasp* hate their free product, essentially poisoning the sales well for life?

And how does this apply to the writing life?  Well, brick and mortars allow readers to browse through books, feeling the cover, sniffing the pages and reading a chapter or two before exchanging gift card credit for a new novel.

In my opinion, astute e-book authors–whether self-pubbed or traditionally published–will allow readers to view a sample chapter or two.  That’s akin to the week of free membership.  And I’ve NEVER heard anyone complain about that before.

More convoluted, however, is the debate over an entire FREE book.  Arguments against this tactic include:

  • the author is selling herself short both on time and talent, 
  • the author doesn’t believe he has a superior product and must give it away to be read at all,
  • and free books will become the rule and readers will expect to read all their novels without paying a dime thereby destroying the very essence and livelihood of every author everywhere.

Without aruging for or against the practice of free-ness, I ask a few simple questions. 

  • Does the free newspaper on my driveway diminish the integrity of newspapers all across the country and threaten to destroy this mode of news gathering forever?
  • Does the BYGO philosophy only pertain to crappy tennies and ill-fitting sandals, or can you still get quality kicks for a deal?
  • After cashing in a coupon, do you always expect the same deal forever and ever, amen, or is your tweeter tickled simply by virtue of getting a good deal at that moment in time?
  • Can a name-brand shoe not only cost more, but also give it’s wearer more corns and blisters than a cheap pump?

I don’t mean to be so cheeky, but I can’t help but wonder about the double standard for free e-books as a teaser. 

Author and writing friend, Calista Taylor recently unleashed her first novel, Viridis, on the cyber world.  She describes her reasoning behind the pricing scheme for her steampunky goodness (and provides links for the free version and the $0.99 copy).  In fact, many bloggers post on this topic because it is so widely debated. 

So, let me ask you, dear readers, how do you feel about FREE?

  • I think free e-books diminish the integrity of the written word. 
  • I think only self-pubbed writers give away free e-books and therefore would never “buy” one because the quality is sure to suffer.
  • I refuse to pay full price for anything.  My (insert e-reader here) is chock full of free books.
  • I use free to check out new books and authors.  Some I love and some I hate.  But the marketing plan worked and got me to try a sample I otherwise might not have.
  • I have downloaded free books, grown to love the writing and bought–with real money–more books from the same author.

Curious minds want to know.

PS- in case you’re curious, Calista Taylor has a traditional publishing deal for a nonfic book.  Self-published doesn’t mean can’t-cut-the-mustard.  If you don’t believe me, check her out.  She rocks my socks off.

PPS- my spell check isn’t working, so forgive any spelling errors.  I didn’t sleep well last night!

19 responses to “E-Free: savvy or stupid?

  1. Free has its place, for sure. But a free session at the gym isn’t giving away a membership. A free sample of anything doesn’t give away the whole product. Why should it be any different for writers? Unless free = crap, which is a judgment apparently reserved only for writers. As a self-published writer, I will give away short stories, but I will never give away a novel. I won’t even price a novel at $.99 except when it’s first published, as a short-term, one-time promotion.

    As a reader, I’ll pay full price if I think the book is worth it. Very few books are worth the inflated prices that traditional publishers and some naive and/or delusional self-publishers seem to think people will shell out. A $16.00 novella by someone self-publishing their first book, as an ebook? No thanks. And yes, that’s a real example.

  2. Catana,

    Thank you so much for chiming in with your experience. I definitely see your point about the membership thing, but (playing devil’s advocate), can’t the first book in a series (or a writer’s career) be equated to the free week, with the paid membership being the remaining books in a series or future pubbed stories over the life of a writer?

    I honestly have no stance on this topic to date, but after finding my free paper this morning, it struck me that free in the writing world cheapens while free in the real world is considered lucky for the buyer. Not to mention that as the marketing ploy works so well in the real world, why is it so hard to swallow when the exchange of words for money is concerned?

    Again, thanks for stopping by. I appreciate hearing all view points on this sticky topic and hope to unravel a bit of the mystique regarding the double standard through comments like yours.


  3. At a recent conference, a panel of agents were asked their take on free e-books. After several exchanged glances (as in “who wants to jump into this pile?”) Jill Marr of the Dijkstra Literary Agency said she wouldn’t count “free” as publishing experience (in a query) and wouldn’t be interested in any self-published book that had sold less than 15,000 copies. Kathleen Ortiz of Nancy Coffey Literary agreed with her. The number of copies varied among the agents on the panel, but all said he/she wouldn’t be interested in anything selling less than 5000 copies.

    Personally, I like the “try it now” option on Amazon and frequently download books via this method. I’ve purchased some and foregone others. I equate it to standing in a bookstore and reading the first chapter before buying a book.

    Good post, Cat.

    • Great feedback, Kay.

      I question why writers give away their first books and then sell subsequent ones in terms of their goals. Do they really expect to attract an agent or editor based off the free downloads, or are they simply “buying” a following by allowing that glimpse into their writing, hoping that this following will purchase subsequent books and make it easier for the author to get the numbers that do attract future contracts? Or, do many self-pubbed authors even care if they pick up a traditional contract anymore?

      I don’t know.

      I do know that I have never downloaded a free book–my sister does all the time and we share a Kindle account–but I have purchased many ebooks priced between $.99 and $13.00 with my average cost at just under $5.

      This topic fascinates me on both the selling and buying end, and more for the psychological process than for the financial one.

  4. I can understand how someone might equate a first book to a free newspaper, but it isn’t. The newspaper represents one day’s production — a very small loss to the company. A week or even a month of free gym membership will likely result in a very profitable sign-up. A free book represents anywhere from a few months to years of work, all of which is being gambled on the possiblity that it will lead to sales of future books. If you are an author with a number of books that you can put up immediately or simultaneously, the gamble may be worth it. But the critical point is interest. All the example freebies offer a temptation to do something *now*, while interest is high. If you’ve only written the one book, by the time you publish the next one, readers’ interests have moved on, and the first book may well be forgotten.

    • Oooh, Catana, I think you hit on a very valid point with the e-sales. I’m an instant gratification buyer on my Kindle. I hear about a book and I want it NOW. If I fell in love with an author or a character, I would want as much of that writer/character as possible–NOW. Six months, a year or two years might be stretching it for that kind of purchase. Not to mention that with so many titles in the e-stores, it is easy to get lost in the shuffle. Volume of ready material should be a factor in considering the e-free route. In fact, it should be a consideration with e-publishing in general, me thinks.

      But…what if a writer isn’t looking for a career book or a writing career? What if one story is all the writer plans to pen and simply because they believe the content should be consumed by the masses? What if a writer is willing to “donate” that time and energy for the greater good, does this change how they would approach the e-free debate?

      So many variables…

  5. Catwoods, I read a fair amount of fanfiction, which has to be free because of copyright issues, and a lot of original fiction that exists only online on either the author’s blogs or websites, or on sites set up for that purpose. There’s a huge amount of fiction simply given away, either because the author writes as a hobby, or doesn’t want to go through the (old) hassles of getting published. Some of these writers are now self-publishing and making money from their books, and some are using self-publishing to gain a wider readership for material that is still free.

    So, a big variable is intention. If you’re planning on a writing career, then when and how you offer work for free is very important. If you’re writing just for the pleasure of it and giving it away, that’s an equally legitimate use of “free.” I judge a book by its content, not by its price of lack of a price. Considering how much professional-level and near professional level work I’ve read for free, I can only be grateful to the authors who provide so much wonderful reading.

    By the way, your post and the back and forth is really inspiring me to pursue this subject in more depth.

    • Catana,

      Thanks for the continued commentary. I think more goes into publishing than we realize and the variables are vastly different for each writer and each project. There is no absolute right or wrong answer. Simply individual solutions, maybe?

      I also like your point about blogs being free reading. With every post we make, we are giviing away our time and talent. I don’t think that’s always bad!


  6. Thanks so much, Cat, for the great post and the shout out to my book!!

    I’ll admit, originally I thought I’d just write a short story, post that for free, and then charge for the book. However, short stories just aren’t my thing, and I soon realized part way through the short, that the quality of the story was sub par to that of my novels. I really didn’t want my name on something I wasn’t happy with, and figured my chances of hooking readers would be better served with my novel. Since the second book in the series was ready to go, I threw the first book up for free.

    I’m still at .99 at Amazon, since they haven’t made me free there yet (they pick and choose), whereas I’m free at Smashwords. The difference Free vs $0.99 has resulted in dowloads/sales of 10:1 ratio. So if my goal is to hook as many readers as possible so that they’ll potentially pay $2.99 for the second book, then putting the first book out for free will give me greater numbers who’ll give the first book a shot.

    I don’t know how well it’ll work if Amazon doesn’t follow suit, but I’m hoping it’ll still pay off. *fingers crossed* : )

    • Thanks so much for the quick and dirty details on your sales/downloads. Seeing the pricing game in action really helps.

      And no problem on the shout-out. I love your writing, but you already know that!

  7. I have three traditionally published friends whose publishers chose to discount their e-book versions after they had been released by a couple months. The motivation seemed to be to catch the attention of potential readers who mightn’t otherwise be attracted to a relatively unknown author. These were priced at .99 but not free. After the publication of a second book, the publishers offered the first book free for just one week. The public response was apparently enthusiastic. I imagine the situation has to be different for self-publishing debut authors, unless they’ve first developed a significant following.

    The only free e-books I’ve downloaded have either been classics, known titles from established authors, or novels where I’ve read the first chapter and liked the writing. I guess that fits somewhere between your last two options. 🙂

    • Carol,

      Thanks so much for sharing your insights on this topic. I continue to find the pricing game fascinating and am leaning toward the understanding that every situation is different and requires its own finesse.

      As to your buying of free products, I guess readers like to browse and sample. Does this make us related to sheep?

  8. Great post! I love Calista’s book and think everyone should download a copy!! 🙂

    I have downloaded a fair amount of free or 0.99 books. In some cases I couldn’t get past the first 5 pages. One less than memorable one changed from present to past tense multiple times in that frame and not on purpose. I’ve loved other books and gone on to pay for other books by the same author. Free works for me!

    • Jemi,

      I will ditto your claim that everyone should buy Cali’s book. I also ditto the love/hate thing with books. More disappointing to me than a subpar or so-so $.99 book is a blechy, full price (or even marginally discounted) traditionally published book.

      Thanks so much for weighing in on such a high profile topic.

  9. Thanks for the support, Jemi!

    I agree– there have been some free books that were horrible, and others that were great. At least with them being free, you don’t feel bad if it’s not your cup of tea. And these days, samples of the writing are almost always given, so that helps too.

    As for pricing strategies, I think it’s different if you already have an established readership. When no one knows your name or your writing, sometimes the only real weapon in your arsenal is price.

    • “As for pricing strategies, I think it’s different if you already have an established readership. When no one knows your name or your writing, sometimes the only real weapon in your arsenal is price.”

      So true, my dear. It’s like getting out of the slush pile and into an agent’s hands. We almost have to work harder to get noticed than the more experienced author.


  10. Pingback: Linky Friday « creative barbwire (or the many lives of a creator)

  11. “Without aruging for or against the practice of free-ness, I ask a few simple questions. 

    Does the free newspaper on my driveway diminish the integrity of newspapers all across the country and threaten to destroy this mode of news gathering forever?”

    Yep. Newspapers are going out of business, haven’t you heard?

    • Dear Into:

      I fully understand that paper newspapers and print magazines are suffering the backlash from the sheer amount of e-publishing that takes place. Respectfully, however, that was not my point. The intention of my post was to highlight the use of free advertising and the returns garnered by this type of campaign–future sales based on a sampling. To that end, my question has nothing to do with the declining print, but rather whether a free sampling diminishes the integrity of the news within the paper itself.

      Thanks for your reminder that the e verses print war is alive and well in the world!

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