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When Is Free Bad?

December 29, 2010
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How much free fiction should an author offer?

This is a question that was spawned by a small discussion with author Dusk Peterson about her troubles turning followers of her serialized fiction into actual sales for her books. I will admit up front, I have not read any of Dusk’s work, and I am not likely to, but I’ll go into that below as it is actually pertinent to the conversation itself.

As independent or self-published authors, one of the only ways to snag a potential reader is by letting them read your work. Reviews can help, if you can get them, but without a publisher or some site with an established readership, a reader is not going to know the quality of your writing without reading it, and is subsequently unlikely to make a monetary investment in your work. On my own site, I offer several short stories, short-shorts, and flash fiction. My publishing site offers excerpts of every book we offer, and I am in no way suggesting that it is a bad practice.

Like most things in life, the issue here is moderation. When an author like Dusk offers huge swaths, and sometimes entire books, of her fiction on her website for free, I can’t help thinking about that adage about buying the cow versus getting the milk for free. If I can read the entire book on your website, what is the incentive for me to purchase it? Especially since there is no security on her site to prevent me from simply saving the HTML files off and sticking them directly onto my e-reader.

One thing I’ve learned about the internet is that, if someone can get something for free, they will. We have just had to send our first DMCA Takedown Notice to an ebook pirating site because someone is attempting to offer one of my books for free. Like all of the animals in The Little Red Hen, there will always be people who feel that they are entitled to the fruits of your labor without putting in any effort, and without respecting your own level of effort. And if you as the author agree that readers deserve to have your work for free, you will never convince them to pay for it later.

My husband recalls at this point the best piece of advice he ever received during a job search. After what he felt had been a successful interview, the interviewer told my husband that the amount he had been asking for salary was much lower than it probably should have been. He told my husband that if you don’t value your skills enough to ask for a more competitive rate, employers won’t value you highly enough to offer you a job. It was counter-intuitive at the time โ€“ asking for more money makes you more likely to be hired? โ€“ but a simple experiment proved the point when he increased his asking price by $10K and found himself in a bidding war between two companies.

Similarly, if an author appears to value her work so little that she gives it away for free, then readers are unlikely to put enough value on the work to pay for it. By making it difficult for people to obtain the work without paying for it, some people will feel that buying the book is less effort than pirating it, and other people will feel the book is enticing enough to invest the money. (Granted, some people will still manage to find a free copy, but I don’t consider that those people were ever potential sales in the first place.)

The point of an excerpt is to tease the reader, to draw them in, make them hungry enough for the next chapter that they’ll pay for it. It’s the same thinking behind offering free peanuts and pretzels at a bar to entice the patrons to buy more beer. That wouldn’t work the other way around: expecting people to buy peanuts when you give them free beer is going to drive your bar out of business. An author’s work should be valued by the author enough that she isn’t willing to part with it willy-nilly. Because if you as the author doesn’t feel it’s worth buying, then how can you expect anyone else to?

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. December 29, 2010 9:44 pm

    I have to agree. I’m very familiar with Dusk’s work and how it has been promoted, so I know that there are other problems, but yes, he/she has given away the whole farm. I was going to use the milk/cow example in the LJ discussion, but I think I’ll skip it. ๐Ÿ™‚

    So far, I’ve given away a novel and a short story. But the novel was an early version — proof-read and edited, but quite a bit shorter and somewhat different than the published version will be. I’m doing the same right now with this year’s NaNo novel, but with the clearly stated caveat that it’s a first draft intended to be of interest to other writers. Some of the chapters are followed by notes to make it more interesting. It’s probably the last time I’ll publish an entire novel, even in an early draft.

  2. December 29, 2010 10:05 pm

    Bravo. Very well put. *nods*

    You have to value your work. I mean, if you WANT to just give your fiction away for free and never make a profit, that’s one thing, but if you’re trying to turn a profit but giving away huge chunks for free, people have little incentive to pay for anything. Freebies are awesome and help the readers get a feel for your style and what you aim to sell, but they are supposed to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

  3. December 29, 2010 10:12 pm

    Catana – I think there are several issues with Dusk’s work, even if I have never read it. I have outlineder four of the main issues in the Livejournal discussion. I’m very aware of what goes on around me in the publishing world. I read everything readers say in the forums I scour. While I am no expert, I think I have some advice to give, and I have given some of it, but it is up to Dusk to take it. The impression I received was that Dusk wasn’t really interested in changing things, so I was hesitant to get into too much of a discussion over it. If what is happening now isn’t working and selling the books, then you need to re-evaluate the method you are using, and if Dusk is only pulling in $400 a year on the books, I think it’s definitely a sign that an overhaul is necessary.

    Kris – Fandom has shaped a lot of minds. People are expecting more and more for free, and quite frankly, that doesn’t fly. You wouldn’t go into a restaurant and eat the appetizer and entree before agreeing to pay for the dessert. You would go into a theater and watch 3/4 of the film before agreeing to pay for it. People should not expect loads of free fiction from authors before buying the books. Authors’ time is money, and they deserve to be paid for it as much as any CEO or burger slinger. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. December 29, 2010 10:21 pm

    I read your comment on Dusk’s blog and left my own. I agreed with all of it except the covers. I didn’t think about it until just now, but they’re actually very evocative of the atmosphere of the books, so that’s one area where being familiar with them might have given you a different perspective. I think it’s most helpful to have an “outsider” and an “insider” agree on several issues. Dusk is one of my favorite authors and it’s been painful to watch him thrashing around, trying this and that without much success. Maybe bringing it all out in the open can create a breakthrough.

  5. December 29, 2010 10:25 pm

    Catana – I still maintain the covers are not enticing enough to bring in a reader, nor are they polished enough. I’ve seen similar types of covers from one particular e-publisher who is mocked for that sort of cover. Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinions. ๐Ÿ™‚ When I go hunting for a book, I do look at the cover art first. If it’s lovely and professional, I move onto reading the blurb and reviews. Once I’ve done that, if it interests me, I will read the excerpt. At that stage, an author will 95% of the time make a sale off me.

    That other 5% of the time is where poor editing, formatting, and just general bad storytelling turn me off the author. ^_^ I hate to admit it, but I have pretty high standards when reading. It makes me a particularly vicious editor. >.>

  6. December 29, 2010 10:32 pm

    No problem. I like the covers, but I can see your point. I just don’t judge books by their covers, another area where I’m not exactly the typical reader. If I were an editor, I’d probably think about it very differently.

    If by vicious, you mean honest, with high standards, I’ve love to have you for my editor.

  7. December 29, 2010 10:37 pm

    I tend to be very blunt and have very high standards. When people choose to self-publish, I think the best thing I can do is be straight forward with them. I do the editing for the anthologies I publish, and those authors seem very happy with the job I’ve done. Now, I don’t edit my own work as I don’t think an author truly can, and I’m lucky I found someone just like me who gives me the what-for when it comes to the manuscripts I send her.

    What sort of fiction do you write?

  8. December 29, 2010 10:50 pm

    I recently found a good beta reader, but I don’t know if she’ll have the patience or time for more than a few shorter pieces. I’m pretty hard on my own work, but I know I can’t do it all myself. One pair of eyes just isn’t enough.

    I doubt you’d care for my writing. It’s more science fiction than anything else, but very cross-genre, or maybe no genre. This year’s NaNo novel, the one I mentioned above, centers on a small residential prison in a state that’s trying to develop a more rational and humane penal system. There’s also a gay relationship, which isn’t essential to the story, and newly instituted legal slavery, which is. It’s almost a literary novel because it’s mostly about personal ethical dilemmas and conflicts rather than action. I’ve had favorable feedback, posting the first draft in installments (I write a pretty clean first draft, and edit lightly and spellcheck before posting), but it needs some serious revision.

  9. December 30, 2010 1:43 am

    “Dusk wasnโ€™t really interested in changing things”

    Um. I said that I wasn’t going to take down my online fiction (a topic you hadn’t even raised, actually). Other than that, I didn’t think I announced any decisions during our Twitter conversation. I told you about my own experiences with free fiction and explained how those experiences had guided me in determining my marketing in the past. But I didn’t say anything about what I would do in the future. I thought that was what we were in the midst of discussing.

    I’ll respond to the rest of what you said over at LJ.

  10. December 30, 2010 3:07 pm

    The beginning of that sentence was “The impression I received…”. That was just the feeling I got from the tone of your Twitter feed. But after reading your reply, I have to say I stand by that impression. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but I simply didn’t feel any sense that you were open to any of the suggestions that were made and chose instead to simply justify your current practices.

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