Free Books: Marketing Genius or Devaluation of Writers?

Contemporary culture seems to have a conflicted relationship with.
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Heard at a recent garage sale: "I always take free stuff even when I'm not sure I want it. I mean, it's FREE; I can always throw it out!"

Contemporary culture seems to have a conflicted relationship with free. People will hip-check each other to get to a neighborhood "free box" first, then get suspicious when eager salesmen dangle promotional freebies to close a sale. We all love a free meal but will still wonder what's wrong with business that the restaurant is offering it. We can rationalize downloading music without payment, yet barely blink when art is auctioned for millions on the basis of "perceived artistic value."

Then there are books, given away by the boatload in "free book promotions" in hopes of snagging that ever-more desirable demographic: the e-book reader. As the format surpasses all others in global book sales, the seduction of this burgeoning audience has become the mission statement of all book sellers, including indie authors, making Amazon's brainchild promotion the Holy Grail.

To the uninitiated, the "free book promotion" is a strategy whereby writers offer their e-books free-of-charge for a number of days during their Kindle Select enrollment period. The objective is to entice readers in hopes they'll download your book, leave a review, stir up positive word-of-mouth, then come back to buy your other books that aren't free. This presumes, of course, that you have other books; it also presumes those planned objectives are met.

Are they?

Depends who you talk to. Some authors report getting thousands of free downloads, winning higher Amazon rankings and heightened name awareness as a result. Others tout similar stats but lament the cost of sites like BookBub and others that charge $200+ to promote those free promotions. Still others contend that the strategy's value has peaked, as the sheer glut of free product has lowered incentive for readers to ever pay for books (despite e-books already being cheaper than other formats). Writers themselves are conflicted.

I asked indie author, Martin Crosbie, who's had tremendous success with his books, particularly his novel, My Temporary Life, his view of the strategy:

"If I had not had the ability to offer my book for free I would not have found the readers I have. Reduced and free pricing has been the difference for me between connecting with hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of readers each month as opposed to just a handful. Hopefully some of these tried and true methods will remain effective for a little while as we all scramble to increase our readership, because really, we're not just selling books. We're building our reader base; that's where our real focus is."

Most would agree, yet some believe the proliferation of freebies has permanently altered the landscape, both in the perceived value of writers and their work and the mindset of readers who've become habituated to not paying for books. Literary agent, Jill Corcoran, makes that point in her piece, "The Devaluation of Writers, By Writers":

"I get it, we all want our books to be read... getting your foot in the door/getting your e-book on anyone and everyone's e-reader is the first step to [hopefully] selling these buyers your second book. BUT, if your self-pubbed book is free, and, according to bookgorilla, John Green's THE FAULT OF OUR STARS e-book is worth $3.99, then all of us in publishing will need to downsize our houses, our food bill, our lifestyles because unless you are selling a heck of a lot of books, at $3.99 or 1/8th of $0.99 or at the golden 'price' of FREE, we have all just devalued ourselves to a point of below the already pitiful American minimum wage." [Emphasis added.]

And what about the readers? Where are they in all this? Seems they're as conflicted as everyone else! Some readers have been quoted as saying they're not likely to read all the free books on their Kindles, having hundreds they've never even opened; others admit they haven't gone back to buy from writers from whom they've downloaded free books. Some say they don't worry about the quality of what they've downloaded because "they were free... I can always delete them"; others say they do prefer better books but can't rationalize paying for them when so much free product is available.

My opinion? I'll see your contradictions and raise you some!

One can understand scrambling for readership any way possible; as an indie author marketing my own novel, I get it! But beyond the loss of income, there's also -- at least in my opinion -- that issue of quality. With countless sites built on the free/bargain book paradigm, product demand has increased exponentially. Which means for every high-quality writer like Crosbie, there are scores of lesser writers flooding the marketplace with poorly written and produced books that still find ready readership more focused on cost than quality. That bodes ill.

And, frankly, the strategy is limited. If readers don't return to pay full price for your book, you're out (and why would they if they've already gotten it free?). If readers download that free book but never read it, they won't be talking about it; hence, no word of mouth. And if you don't yet have other books to sell during a free promotion... well, that's as far as it all goes until, maybe, you do.

Which is why writers are endlessly admonished to not spend too much time on marketing but "write, write and WRITE MORE!!" And while it's always important for writers to write (and when you're self-marketing a book, balancing those two tasks can be formidable!), too often the rather vigorous push to do so suggests that cranking out book after book is the paramount goal, ratcheting pressure to the point that some writers actually question if "it's OK to forego professional editing just so I can get this new book up before my promotion."

NO. It's not. Not ever. But if the strategy bullies any writer into cutting corners and delivering sub-par books to feed the beast (and we all know there are lots of those out there), it has become counter-productive.

Donna Tartt took over ten years to write her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Goldfinch (and it's only her third book). The great Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, published only one book in her lifetime (albeit, a masterpiece). Many of our most respected authors take years to hone their finely crafted literary works before ever thinking of entering them into the marketplace. Unless one is satisfied just cranking out unspectacular books, indie writers should hold to the same literary standards. Because, ultimately, it's the quality of what we create that endures, that makes us truly successful writers, not our ranking, not how many free downloads we get; not how many books we post on our Amazon page.

And lastly, why should writers be expected to give their work away on such an expected and persistent basis? Writing is our commodity, our trade. Many of us have spent years honing our craft and gaining the necessary experience to attract meaningful work and appropriate remuneration. Other skilled professionals aren't expected to repetitively work for free, why should writers? Bestselling author Dean Wesley Smith takes on that question with so many common sense points in his Killing Sacred Cows series, I'll just leave you with this link: Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Indie Publishing: #9... You Must Sell Books Cheaply. Once you're done here, go read it; it's very illuminating!

I remain an optimist, though, hopeful that the more judicious and market-savvy amongst us will realize there's something culturally essential in supporting quality writers and their work... and with marketing dollars! Until then, I hope readers will, both, enjoy their freebies and repay the favor by fulfilling their end of the deal: reading the book, spreading the word, leaving a thoughtful review... and paying full price for their next one!

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