To Give It Away or Not to Give It Away

Image: a garish antique storefront sign reads "Giveaway."
Photo by Don Agnello on Unsplash

Today’s post is by author and editor Kim Catanzarite (@kimcanrite). Her third book, Bright Blue Planet, publishes this month.

Before I get started, it’s only fair to reveal that I am a self-published author who gives her first-in-series away from time to time. They Will Be Coming for Us is not permanently free, but once in a while, I discount it 100 percent and let the free-for-all ensue. After advertising a free day, I see an uptick of sales and Kindle Unlimited reads.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t weigh the pros and cons of both sides of this coin.

Authors against giving it away

I understand why plenty of authors vehemently disagree with the idea of giving their book away. A list of some of their reasons follows:

  • Doing so cheapens the book. Readers should have to pay for the book because it has value. It’s not good for the author’s brand if they give it away.
  • They worked very hard on their book and spent much time and energy on it.
  • They spent money in the creation of it—quite a bit of money on editing and a cover design and more—and they intend to earn that money back via book sales.
  • They’ve written a stand-alone book. They’re not selling a series, and they don’t have a large backlist.

I think we can all agree that writing and publishing a book requires time, effort, and funds—and many of us are in this business to make money. That is true of any author who hopes to have a lasting author career. I also agree that giving it away is not a viable strategy for those who have published only one book. It may not work for those who publish stand-alones, either.

So, let’s explore what I consider the main issue here: the idea that giving the book away devalues the book.

Is a free book a bad book?

There was a time I assumed the answer was yes. My thinking was, How can a writer be taken seriously if they have to give the book away in order to interest readers?

Several years before the debut of my self-published novel, I wondered whether an ebook was worthy of purchase if it didn’t cost $9.99 or more. Part of this mindset stemmed from the stigma surrounding self-published books. I was merely a shopper, an ordinary reader, and I remember thinking self-published ebooks were inexpensive because they were subpar.

This sort of thinking persists to this day for those who buy only traditionally published books, those who read only bestsellers, and those whose preference is literary fiction. Perhaps some self-published authors who are against giving away their book are of a similar mindset.

To them, I say: Times have changed.

There is now a voracious population of avid readers in the world who want and value free and very low-priced books. And here’s the important thing: a lot of these books satisfy their reading needs just as well as the higher-priced ebooks. These book buyers have learned from experience that many self-published books are, in a word, worthy.

A saturated market

At this point several million books are published every year, and the large majority are self-published. That’s a lot of books readers can choose from. It also adds up to a lot of competition in most genres.

From what I’ve observed, only the well-known, well-publicized and sought-after releases, and some specialty books, are priced at $9.99 and higher. For the most part, these are traditionally published books.

The majority of self-published books have settled into less-prohibitive price points such as $7.99, $4.99, and $3.99—and lower. Which is perfectly respectable considering we earn better royalties than the traditionally published authors do.

Those who have lowered their price to the bare minimum (99 cents or permanently free) have done so for a reason, a strategic reason: to draw interest to their books and build a fan base. They are removing the monetary barrier that keeps buyers from buying.

The free strategy

If you want to be a professional author, people need to read your book. They can’t do that unless they have access to it.

One way to give them access is to give them the book for free. In this way, they only risk the time it takes to read a few pages because they can opt out with no monetary loss if they realize the book isn’t for them.

The point is, if they have your book on their reading device, they are free to read it or discard it. It’s in their hands, both literally and figuratively.

You’re a new author. You’ve written one book and are launching another. You plan to write a series of six. In a sea of books, how are you going to draw attention to yours?

You could put both books up for whatever the going, respectable rate is for established writers in your genre, say $4.99, and then work your marketing skills, posting and blogging away, while readers slowly start to take notice and a few of them decide to buy.

But it’s very hard to get someone to take that risk on an unknown author. There are so many other options for reading out there. The reading public doesn’t know you, doesn’t know what your writing is like, doesn’t know whether your story will resonate with them.

On the other hand, you could have a free day where upwards of 1,000 readers download your book in one fell swoop (see my blog post). Of that 1,000 or more, some will read it right away. Some will like it and leave you a review. It’s those readers who will trust you and want to purchase the second book in the series to find out what happens to these characters they are now invested in.

If the second book is already out, they will be willing to pay the $4.99 to own and read it. In this way, you both win.

Hopefully, the same reader will become a fan for life and buy the third…fourth…fifth installments. And maybe even a new series, if you decide to write a different one.

Or you can wait

The alternative is to wait for people to discover and buy your first book in dribs and drabs. It will help if your book wins a contest or if you find some influencers to read and review it. You’ll most likely have to use paid ads on a regular basis to draw attention. Building a career this way can be done. Many authors have done it. Traditionally published authors do it this way. While they have at least some of the perks of the publishing house on their side, many end up selling a very small number of books.

Without building a substantial following, you can’t make money as an author through book sales, and it becomes tough to make money through other avenues as well (speaking, patrons, crowdfunding, and so on). You have to spend time and money to make money, just as you would any small business venture. Would you rather publish the book and have very few people read it, or give that first book away and possibly ramp up more quickly, earning more money later?

The choice is yours.

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