Opinion: Revisiting the Concept of FREE

Boy, 2020 is turning out to be some kind of year, huh? Not surprisingly, everything going on with the world at large has had a massive impact on every part of my life, from my day job, to my home life, to my writing. As you have noticed, it’s basically put my blogging on hold. To be honest, I debated for days about whether to even write this one, given the circumstances. I decided to go ahead, because it might be even more relevant now.

I want to be sensitive to what’s happening, and what everyone is going through (some way more than others), so right off the bat I want to acknowledge two important truths:

  1. People all around the world are struggling right now.
  2. Authors are people.

I also want to acknowledge that what I have to share comes from my personal experience and may not be the case for others. Therefore, I present it all as an opinion piece, and not gospel truth. Use what I have observed as a factor in your decisions, but try it out yourself and make up your own mind.

Part 1 – How I got suckered into a tired old chorus of FREE (again)

When the pandemic first hit, everyone got on the PR bandwagon and started their CRM engines full blast. You may have received dozens of emails from “concerned” businesses assuring you they were there for you, working together to stay safe and healthy in these uncertain times. Seriously, it was so bad someone wrote a poem of the most overused phrases in those emails. It got tired very fast.

But one email caught my attention. Smashwords sent out a notice that, in an effort to help everyone struggling financially because of COVID-19, they would be doing a special sale and authors were invited to participate by discounting their eBooks as much or as little as they wanted. The email advised to be sensitive when marketing this sale, to come from a place of caring.

So there I went, discounting my 3-book erotic romance series all the way to free for the duration of the sale. Because yeah, the situation sucks big time, and if I can help brighten someone’s day with a steamy read, why wouldn’t I? My more mercenary hope was that if it didn’t get me more royalties from sales of non-free books, at least it would get me some readers, and maybe a few reviews.

I didn’t push the sale very much. I posted once or twice on Facebook, and then let it run.

The result, shockingly (but not surprisingly) was 217 freebie downloads in 20 days. Not one single sale, or review.

Part 2 – Okay, I messed up. Let’s fix it.

You know how they say free books supposedly lead to sales for related books in the series? Yeah, I set the entire series as free. Didn’t quite work as advertised. So when Smashwords sent another email saying they had such an amazing response to the sale they decided to extend it for another month, I decided to do things right. I kept the first book of the series as free, and discounted the other two by 50%.

I figured, hey, the response was pretty good for the first freebie run. Clearly people out there are liking what they see. I was watching those downloads. Some people got the whole series in one go, but far more of them got one, then came back for the others. That tells me the books were judged to be worth checking out. And if they’re worth reading, they should be worth paying for, right?

Remember, authors are people, too, and royalty income is money that puts food on the table. As much as we want to be supportive and helpful in a time of crisis, we need some support and help ourselves, too. The news all over the web was that eBook sales have spiked with people stuck at home with nothing to do. I have not observed that to be the case. And, before someone feels it necessary to set me straight, I am fully aware that there are a lot of other factors affecting this trend, including (but not limited to) the fact that I haven’t had a book release in a couple of years, I don’t promote my books as much as I should, I am Indie published and therefore pre-judged to be trash, etc, etc…

But anyway, if the “rock solid” advice “proven time and again by bestsellers all over the world” was really true, then my freebie book 1 should definitely have led to sales of books 2 and 3, especially if they, too, were discounted. Stands to reason…

The actual result after a month of this madness was 6 freebie downloads. Not one single sale, or review.

Part 3 – What the f*&%, yo?

So here’s what no one tells you: Freebies do actually work to gain more sales. Not as much for the author who discounts to free, though. Mostly for the platform doing the sales. Because they can offset those freebies against sales of their bestsellers, who sell even more as a result of the platform shoving them into reader’s faces with increased intensity to cash in on the sure thing. And you sell what you promote. So the more they promote bestsellers, the more those bestseller sell, and the more invisible every other book becomes. It’s a full circle that way. A closed one.

Freebies don’t work on their own (in my experience) because of one reason: People who download freebies generally do it out of an impulse to possess, not to read. That freebie will sit on someone’s device for years before it’s opened, if it ever is. Readers prioritize books they want to read more than anything in the world. So they will read their favorites first. Most likely those they went to the trouble of paying for.

Adding to the frustration is how invisible books can be on the device itself. It’s not like looking at a bookshelf of spines where you see 50 of them at the same time and your eye picks out the most interesting one. You see titles. Maybe 6-9 front covers in thumbnail. Scroll through a hundred titles and try to remember what they were about… not likely to happen. That’s why covers are so important to make a good, lasting impression.

But I digress. Basically, the whole thing is a two-fold effect. First, if readers want to read a book, they’ll be willing to pay for it. Second, if they paid for it, they’ll feel obligated to read it to get their money’s worth. It’s a full circle that way. A closed one that tends to exclude freebies.

Part 4 – So what now?

Since “common wisdom” failed me, I decided to fall back on what I knew worked. Word of mouth. In social media form. What I did was open every book-related Facebook group I am a member of (about 50 of them) and started posting promos. Images and videos with links to the book’s page on my website.

With FB’s new restrictions, you can’t post the same thing into different groups too many times or they block you for 24 hours. Luckily, I have folders full of promo graphics that I’m able to cycle so I can post in all groups and promote all my books in a relatively short amount of time. Took me about an hour to hit all 50 groups.

I did that twice in about 3 weeks. It really should be done more often to have a proper effect. I used to do this on a regular basis a few years ago and it got me steady sales. Now, it’s too much time I don’t have, and there’s no way to automate it so it’s gone neglected for years. Another factor of low sales recently.

I also shared choice reviews on my own page. That seems to have stronger impact than any promo graphic I could make, because it’s one reader speaking to another. Word of mouth is what gets readers interested. Personal recommendations, or at least ones that feel personal.

The result was about 5 sales (that I was able to track) over the next two weeks or so. I admit, it’s not much, but it’s more than the freebie sale got me. And the sales (again, those I could track) weren’t from just one retailer. I got sales from Amazon, Apple Books, and Barnes & Noble. Audiobook sales reports lag a month or two, so hard to tell yet what impact it had there. Same with print titles through IngramSpark.

Part 5 – The bottom line is this:

You sell what you promote. If I learned anything over the last decade of being published (holy crap, time flies!), it’s this. If all you promote are your Amazon links and then you get upset that all the other outlets aren’t selling, you only have yourself to blame. If you go too long without promoting and you get upset because your sales have dropped, you only have yourself to blame.

If you keep pushing freebies in hopes that people will notice your other, full-priced or discounted books next to them, I hate to tell you, but it doesn’t seem to work that way.

Another piece of ancient wisdom used to be that when you promote your book on social media, you should share a direct link to a storefront where people can buy it when they click. For better or worse, I have bucked that trend from the start. Why? Because I can’t control or monitor what people do in someone else’s kingdom. I could share a link to Amazon, but if the person who clicks it is a Nook reader, it won’t do me or them much good. And even if they do shop where I send them, that store will bombard them with paid ads and suggestions for a whole lot of other books to distract them from mine.

When I share, I share a link to the book on my website. This accomplishes a few things.

  1. I control how the page looks
  2. I can provide direct buy links to as many stores as I want on that page
  3. I can display related books and content that will keep readers in my universe, exploring my books, not someone else’s
  4. I can look at the stats and see how long people stayed, what they clicked on, and can extrapolate what’s popular, what works, and what needs to change or update

But I think I’ve rambled on long enough now, so I’ll stop there. You get the idea. ūüôā

I sincerely hope everyone reading this blog is healthy, safe, and doing well (or as well as can be expected). Here’s hoping there’s a light at the end of this long, crazy, dark tunnel, and that it isn’t another train.

Much love to you all, my friends. <3 Until next time!

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Let’s Talk About Piracy

This morning, I woke up with a fun, catchy song in my head. I was in a good mood, ready to tackle the day, and then I logged onto Facebook. I write this for both authors and readers, because I’d be remiss if I didn’t address it on this website. It may end up a bit ranty (there may be profanity, too), but I hope you’ll forgive that. Every time this particular topic comes up, it feels like death by a million paper cuts with a bonus lemon juice bath. I hope you’ll read it, anyway.

For the sake of not making this go viral, I won’t post the image that completely ruined my good mood, but I do want to address the subject of book piracy.¬†Everyone loves a freebie, right? There’s no harm in downloading just one book, right? It’s just a drop in the bucket for authors who make money hand over fist, anyway, and after all, it’s just¬†one book.

The way I see it, piracy happens for one of two reasons: ignorance, or entitlement and apathy. The former is fairly easy to dismantle with just a bit of accurate (if painful) information. The latter, not so much. So let’s talk…


“But it’s just one book. I give away my paperbacks all the time. I paid for it, it’s mine. Who the hell are you to tell me what to do with something I paid for?”

You’d think the vehemence was exaggerated. It’s not. But here’s what many people don’t know, or consciously realize:

Print books and eBooks are not the same. A printed book is one copy of the product. Very cumbersome to replicate by copying or scanning, and why bother when you can just buy another one fairly cheap? eBooks are digital files–tiny ones at that, just a few kilobytes, all told. It takes two seconds to upload an eBook to a server and make it public. That eBook will live there¬†forever and can be downloaded¬†countless times by¬†countless people, all of whom will have the ability to send a copy on to¬†countless other people without losing access to the original. Printed books have a shelf life. eBooks don’t. That means there is literally¬†no limit to how many people can get illegal copies them.

Here’s what that means for the author: Hundreds and thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars of lost royalties. In many cases, that’s a full-time income the author has just lost. Literally, a livelihood stolen right out from under them. And no, I am not exaggerating. In recent years, I have lost count of the number of authors I have seen hang up their writing hats because they just¬†can’t afford it anymore. Many of them had to go back to seeking full time jobs, which is never easy, especially after you’ve been out of the workforce for a while.

To a reader just looking to pass the time, that one eBook is a few hours of entertainment. To its author, it’s hundreds of hours of work, not just writing it, but promoting it as well. It’s an on-going, full time job. Yes, we do it for the love of writing–for ourselves. But when we share it with the world, it becomes a product. It costs money to put it out there, and it needs to generate revenue, or it’s not worth continuing.


“How is it entitlement if I just want to read and can’t afford the books?? You should be grateful someone reads your books at all.”

I’m going to pause here for a moment to take a deep breath and master my emotions. Okay. First of all, that is the definition of entitlement. You can’t afford it? But authors should be able to afford to give away their livelihoods for free? You can’t afford it, so it’s okay to steal? No. It’s not okay. I’m sorry for your personal circumstances that prevent you from being able to buy a book you really, really want to read, but that does not make it okay for you to steal a copy. There are these things called¬†libraries where they actually make books available for free. They buy them on your behalf, so the author doesn’t have to skip a meal, and then loan them to you for a time so you can enjoy the stories without having to shell out a dime. There are these things called¬†book sales where authors make their books available at a much lower cost, or even free, where you can grab a copy totally guilt-free.

It just so happens, I currently have one of these floating around:

Catch Me is FREE at Smashwords until 7.31.2018, so feel free to check it out. Click the title, or the image to go directly to the Smashwords product page. If you feel adventurous, book 2 of this series is also discounted until the end of July.

 

See how this works? I, the author, make this book available to the reader and invite them to download from a legitimate bookseller. I’m far from the only one. All you have to do is go to Smashwords, set your filter to FREE and you’ll find hundreds, thousands of free titles right there for your enjoyment.

“How’s that any different?” you ask.¬†Here’s how:

When a library purchases a book, it’s a sale for the author. They get paid for that. When they discount their own book, it’s their choice as a marketing strategy. Even free downloads (if they’re legitimate) can help an author’s career. Those downloads are tracked; they affect the book’s ratings and visibility. The higher it is on the ranking list, the higher the chance others will want to buy a copy, and authors get paid for that, too. Pirate sites, on the other hand, do none of that. They’re basically a black hole of nothing for the author.

As for being grateful, please excuse the profanity, but in this case, there is really no other way I know to reply, except to say, “Fuck you.” That is all the answer you deserve for even thinking something like that about an author who puts their heart and soul into a book, much less saying it aloud,¬†to their face. So, at the risk of being redundant, I say again: Fuck. You.


“I just want to check out the author first to see if I like them. I don’t want to shell out money on a no-name and end up hating the book. I’ll buy a legit copy if I like it!”

It may surprise you to hear this, but this is not actually a valid reason for pirating a book. Authors and stores go to great lengths to give you every opportunity to check out a book before you buy. If you don’t look at the sample, that’s on you. That’s you deliberately choosing to turn a blind eye to the legitimate option in favor of piracy. It may also surprise you to hear that those “no-name” authors you are so eager to sample are the ones who are hurt by piracy the most, because they depend on their royalty income the most. They don’t have a solid readership to keep them afloat, or side income from book merch, or movie or TV series rights. They literally depend on every single penny they get from royalties.

It may seem innocent, but this is just another form of entitlement. “I should be able to read it first and then decide if it’s worth paying for.” Well, no. The very fact that you do want to read it first means it’s worth paying for. You don’t go to a restaurant and say, “Serve me first, and if I like it, I’ll pay for my meal.” You don’t go to a store and say, “Let me wear this T-shirt for a few weeks, and then I’ll decide whether it’s worth paying for.” For that matter, no movie theater in the world will let you in to watch a movie without buying a ticket first. eBooks are no different. If you pirate one, no matter how you justify your decision to do so, you are¬†stealing. You are supporting a system that robs authors blind. There is nothing you can say that will ever make that acceptable.


“Holy crap, this is really awful! I hate that my favorite authors have to go through this. How can I help?”

Now that is the right response. ūüôā Thank you. I mean that sincerely. You’d be surprised how good it is to hear that someone out there actually cares, and even wants to help. If you really want to help your favorite authors, buy their books. That’s all. Don’t look for them on pirate sites. If you happen across one, or someone sharing a link to one, report the person and tell the author. It’s not easy, but there are steps authors can take to curb piracy–if they know about it. Tell people about your favorite books and when you do, tell them where they can be bought. Share with your friends when you see an author has a sale or promotion going on. It helps both the author, and the readers who might otherwise balk at paying full price.

Authors are not unsympathetic, believe me. Many of them will go to great lengths to get books into the hands of their struggling readers. But please realize we’re human, too. We have families, and mortgages, and medical bills, and this is not a hobby. It’s our job. We work at it non-stop, without breaks, vacations, and often times without support or encouragement. We do our jobs well, and we shouldn’t have to justify our need to get paid for it.

Thank you for your time.

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Opinion: Addressing the Chaos

There’s been a lot of stuff happening in the book world recently that’s kind of sort of turning things inside out and upside down. It’s big enough that it warrants a post (warning: it’ll be long), so I’m going to address two things I’ve seen floating around: #Cockygate and the recent blunder by Amazon. But first, a disclaimer: Everything in this post is my observation and opinion. I will not be linking external sources because I trust that those who want to know more will find ample sources all on their own, and I don’t want to add to the viral nature of this mess. Basically, I’m chiming in, but urging everyone to do their own homework and not take my word for it.

So here we go…

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Social Media Etiquette 102: The Personal Side

Hope you all enjoyed recess. Class is now back in session. This is Rant 2 of 2 on authors behaving badly on social media, and thank you again to everyone who wrote to me with your experiences and pet peeves. It’s really put this into perspective for me. If you missed Rant 1, check it out here: Social Media Etiquette 101: The Business Side.

And now we commence Rant 2 of 2…

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Social Media Etiquette 101: The Business Side

It started so innocently… A fellow author sent me a private message saying, “You should write a blog about people behaving unprofessionally on social media!” And because I have seen more of that than I ever cared to, I thought it’d be a great idea. But I didn’t want to be airing just my own grievances, so I asked for input from my network. Boy, that was one scary can of worms I opened… But it showed me that this is an important topic that no one seems to want to talk about because it might ruffle feathers. Well, I have my feather ruffler in hand and, by George, I am going to talk about this!

*slaps ruler against teacher’s desk*

Everyone back in your seats. That means you, Charlie. And Theresa, put that away; no one wants to see that. Joe, I swear, if you don’t pull your pants back up¬†right now… That’s better. Boys and girls, class is now in session. And yes, all of this will be on the test.

Commence Rant 1 of 2…

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