By Shawn StJean
My thinking is evolving on this topic. Just six months ago, I declared to a fellow author: “I don’t think you can give away too many books.” We both ran highly successful KDP Select events, and got our work out there to thousands of potential readers—but, today, I’d like to shift emphasis from thousands to potential.
Today, I say: FREE is not necessarily a good thing. Like many self-published authors, I launched my novel under the Amazon.com Kindle Direct Publishing Select program–which allows one to host five giveaway days in a three-month period–under the assumption that immediate wide distribution was a worthy tradeoff for the lack of short-term profit. And like many others, I can confirm that giving away XXXX copies will result in a residual spike of one or two days of actual sales, after the price returns to normal (a modest $2.99, at the time.) Another desirable (short-term) side-effect of these giveaways is that the members of groups like Goodreads and LibraryThing will now have your work in their possession, and have their fingers poised to write reviews. More on that in a bit.
Some believe that there is no bad publicity. Lately, I wonder.
Over time, I’ve become convinced that, even if giving books away is one viable means of launching, and gaining a toehold in the marketplace, it is not the proper way to ensure a permanent market share for one’s self-published work. For years, I’ve known that FREE was the fundamental flaw of Craigslist: most of the abuses (the scams, the spam, the phishing, the no-shows, the tire-kickers) could be done away with by a simple $10 yearly fee, or a $1 per-transaction fee.
Why? It’s human nature: people don’t properly value anything they don’t have to work for. Think of the last music CD you actually paid for (this would be between $5 and $20 US, probably.) Of course you’ve replayed the hits over and over again, but eventually you delve beneath the surface, and those tunes that don’t immediately capture airplay have a chance to work their less-quantifiable magic upon you. You’re a fan. Now, if you hadn’t paid good money for them, chances are these songs would be lost to obscurity—the b-sides don’t have to pay you back, because you’ve invested nothing in them.
Everyone in publishing understands how vital reviews are. My book has received, on Amazon, reviews at every level: even though several five-star entries were removed in the infamous sweep, several remain, but I also have four, three, two, and yes, several one-star reviews.
Now, consider for a moment how a reviewer would decide to award a book one star–because even the worst B-movies usually get two. A book would have to be either plain awful on every level, or very frustrating. Just trust me, Clotho’s Loom is not for everyone, but by no conceivable standard is it plain awful. Among my dismissive, one-star reviews, I see two definite trends: 1) the writers are baffled by my writing–either because they couldn’t or wouldn’t read carefully, or beyond the second chapter, or at all–and 2) they got the book for free.
These guys couldn’t be bothered to take a 540-page novel seriously. They were not my target audience, and I have no one to blame but myself, putting my best stuff into the hands of someone whose interest lay definitely in “free,” but not so much in “book.” At least, not my sort of book. Free is too indiscriminate. It’s like a sawn-off shotgun.
Easy come, easy go. Every writer knows that some cliches stick around because they’re true.
We’re living in the age of “free.” Young people who can’t get jobs do internships, offering free labor in the marketplace. Rock bands are giving away mp3s of their best material, solely for the exposure. You can see new movies and TV shows just by typing a few characters into YouTube. Bulky televisions and microwaves and exercise equipment and computers–much of it perfectly functional–can be had for the taking on suburban curbsides. And, perhaps most importantly of all, the internet offers trillions of bytes of content, generated by the mainstream media, private bloggers, commercial sites, everybody, for merely the cost of your time, the only limitation being how you choose among it all. And chances are, if you have a coffee in one hand right now, you’re reading this on free wi-fi.
Now take a look at what the world calls the “successful” people. The executives, the professionals, the politicians, the lawyers, bankers, even famous authors. How much are they giving away, really—in proportion to what they’re taking in? Because they know how the capitalist system works: you trade what you have for other stuff, and you do it at an advantageous rate, not a disadvantageous one. Certainly not for nothing.
I’m not discouraging the act of promoting a charity, posting flyers for someone’s gig, or volunteering for a bake sale. We all need to help out someone, somewhere, sometime. We need to pay forward the help we’ve received, ourselves. I’m talking about devaluing your own creative talent, time, and more hours of hard work than you could keep track of. It’s just not smart. It’s not good business.
Some clown (prince of crime) once said, “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” He may have been crazy, but he was no dummy.
Yes, give away your sample chapter. Write your guest posts, and return the favor by hosting some. Tweet your friend’s successes. Promote someone who will never return the favor directly. That’s all good karma, and more importantly, it’ll keep literacy alive in our culture. But don’t give too many books away—give fewer, and to the right people. Find them on Goodreads, LibraryThing, the coffee shop down the street, on a forum or social network, in your extended family, and among the Moms of your kid’s sports team. They’ll spread the good word. At worst, they’ll keep quiet.