Firstly, as I share my thoughts here as both an author and a reader, be aware that “free” is in quotation marks in the title of this blog post because there isn’t really a such thing as a free book. Even if a reader isn’t taking money out of pocket for the chance to read a book, there were still costs involved with producing that book and making it available to the public. Somebody had to pay those costs.
Secondly, I’m writing this post because I know that fellow authors (particularly independent authors) sometimes suspect or assert that giving away ebooks at a $0.00 price at retailers devalues books. “Readers are starting to think that books aren’t worth anything, but I work too hard on my writing to just give it away for nothing.”
As an author, I so get it. I work incredibly hard at what I do. Still, I personally can’t think of a $0.00 price on a book of mine as a devaluation or an insult. If I did, I’d have to see all prices on all of my books as insults. Even if I were to charge 30 bucks per copy for my ebooks and I never gave any away, a “$30.00” sticker wouldn’t truly reflect what that writing cost me in practical sacrifices as well as the blood, sweat, and tears—the heart and soul—I put into my work.
It’s not up to a reader to pay a monetary price equivalent to the value of my heart, my soul, and my life experience. That would be impossible. But my very heart, soul, and life aren’t for sale anyway. I’m selling books, and once I put a book on the market, it’s a product for consumers. Putting monetary prices on products is a practice of business, not sentiment.
When I hear authors say that giving away free books is an overall bad idea, the discussions sound as if the practice of giving away books started with indie authors and the digital age. Yet, while a digital book is indeed a relatively new medium for reading, free books aren’t a new thing, and they certainly aren’t the original invention of today’s indie authors (many to most who haven’t been in publishing more than a decade or two yet, I figure).
Traditional publishers have been giving away free copies of books for a long time, including in the form of the thousands of advance reader copies (ARCs) they’ll print up for an upcoming release in the hopes of garnering some early reviews and endorsements for the book. I myself get free books from traditional publishers all the time, whether they’re ARCs, or finished copies for review, or books I’ve won in publisher giveaways, or books I’ve earned through publisher reward points, or books I’ve borrowed from the library.
YES, public libraries with free checkouts still exist!
Sometimes traditional publishers even give away piles of free copies of a new book just to get the buzz going about it among readers. I first learned about this type of guerrilla marketing when I was pretty fresh out of high school, years before I became an author. A couple of times since then, publishers I’ve reviewed for have sent me and a lot of other folks some free extra books in the mail. New releases, no strings attached—read them if you want, pass them on to friends, or whatever. Whoo!
And I’m talking about free copies of paperbacks and hardbacks from publishers. Yes, I also receive some free ebooks from traditional publishers now, including through free ebook promotions they have at retailers just like indie authors do. But publishers didn’t start by giving away ebooks. They’ve been giving away print books since well before many of today’s indies even had a serious thought about getting into publishing.
Digital publishing hasn’t created free books, but it’s added some new methods and changed the level on which free books can now be distributed.
Sure, running promotions for free ebooks doesn’t yield the same results for a lot of authors as it did earlier in the indie game, but markets change as they begin to mature. A lot of readers who used to grab up every free ebook in sight (because Free Ebook Grabbing was the new thing they could suddenly do) have since become more selective about the free ebooks they’ll download. And some readers are shopping less while they work through the ebooks they already have, discovering which authors they like and weeding out freebies they once snatched up in a hurry but now realize they have no real interest in reading.
In general, it takes a little time for an authors’ new, true fans to emerge after they’ve gotten some reading done.
So. Does downloading or otherwise borrowing books stop this reader (me) from buying higher-priced books? Nope! Real book shoppers like me find that, just like back in the olden days, plenty of books we really want, we have to buy. Or request our local libraries to purchase them. Or we let our loved ones give us bookstore gift cards for Christmas. That kind of olden-day stuff.
But instead of only having the option to buy ONE new $10, $15, or $25 book, reading it once or twice, and then cycling back to read some of our older books again while we’re waiting to save up or receive more book money to spend (like we did back in the good ol’ olden days), we now can get 3, 5, or 8 new ebooks for the same money if we want, plus pick up some freebies and inexpensive books to try new authors and genres we never would have tried in the past when our 10, 15, or 25 precious dollars would only afford us one new book.
Ebooks and the rise of independent publishing have given us more options. Exploring our options takes time, and while exploring, when we read something we find worthwhile, we put that author on our list and come back shopping for that author later.
Granted, I’m no market expert, and I’m not speaking for absolutely all readers and authors. Readers have different wants and habits, and different strategies work for different authors. If an author decides as a strategy or on principle never to give away any of their books for $0.00 to consumers, I respect their decision.
Still, giving away samples and free products isn’t a new concept or practice in business, and I do my share of research. The information I find, including these results from a survey I recently took part in, tends to show that most authors who make a living or otherwise substantial income from their books (evidently reaching good numbers of readers with their work) are authors who not only sell books but who also give away free copies.
Hence, in the bigger picture beyond that strategic $0.00 price on a book, those hardworking authors aren’t giving their writing away for nothing.
In my case, I’d rather have my writing reach as many insatiable book lovers as possible than for fewer people to ever read my writing while I’m holding on to a “heart and soul” principle that no monetary price could satisfy anyway.
That’s me. 🙂