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The Double-edged Sword of Free

I usually mused about my epublishing business on Packing Heat, but since I won't be updating that content anymore, I figured I could post my mental process about it here and tag it epublishing, and readers can follow or comment as they want to.

Recently I heard a disturbing professional opinion about putting things on sale. Disturbing because I do in fact think it's true, but also because I plan on continuing my sales simply because it's an awesome way to exploit my autonomy.

The theory is this: by putting things on sale, you devalue your product, and you train your readers to wait for sales rather than to buy your things full-price. On the flip-side, I've been happy with the performance of my weekly sales, because it gives me the chance to send my subscribers an email that says, "Hello, I may not be able to produce a book a month, but I am still alive, see?" Also, it encourages readers to buy from me directly rather than having half the price on an ebook go to a middleman.

The best answer I can come up with is that I'm hopefully doing my sales in a mindful enough way, for specific enough thought-out reasons, that I'm not ending up devaluing my own product.

But what about free? Free is a double-edged sword that can cut both ways. People either totally over-value "free" by standing in line half an hour for a free ice cream cone that would normally cost three bucks, or they entirely devalue something that's free and make an extra effort to go put a lousy review on a free read from an author on the web so that everyone can see how delightfully jaded they are.

I got some numbers today that tell me that my PsyCop freebie Thaw was downloaded 5613 times at Barnes and Noble! That's a lot of downloads. How about the reviews? Well, when I try to open the review page, I see it for a quarter of a second and then it snaps shut. I see the average rating is a shitty 2.5 stars, so that probably gives me a good indication of what the reviews might be like.

How many sales has this resulted in? Among the Living sold three copies in that time. About what I'd expect it to sell from over five thousand people tripping and falling on their Nooks while looking at the page.

In this particular case, "free" is clearly not my friend. Does that mean I spaz out over the crappy ratings and run and unpublish my story from B&N's site? No. There are probably some intangibles I'll never know. Maybe a handful of those 5000 people never knew m/m existed and now they do, and they'll come back and find me again someday when they're ready. It certainly hasn't cost me anything.

And these people who are basking in how few stars they can give my free offering are incidental to me, regardless. My first intent when writing a freebie is always to hook a new reader who already loves m/m, maybe a reader who's heard of me but never cared to try my writing for whatever reason. This would happen at a venue where more m/m readers hang out, like a specifically romance-themed or GLBT-themed ebook seller. In tandem with this, equally important, is the urge to make stuff for my current readers and be able to give it to them as a gift with no strings attached, just because I can. I quit my day job because I want to be independent, and being able to give stuff away if I choose to is one way my free spirit can manifest. And finally, by having the freebies available at JCP Books, I convince a few readers it might not be so scary to buy from me direct.

Posts tagged "free" on Dan Ariely's Blog. Dan is a behavioral economist, and the author of one of my favorite books, Predictably Irrational
Sarah Petty interviewed on Duct Tape Marketing on Creating a Boutique Business - here's where the comments about devaluing your product came from--a great interview
Sign up for my weekly sales and specials for JCP Books

Speaking of sales and freebies, this weekend I will be a featured author at Rainbow eBooks. Among the Living will be free 10/16-10/17, and my other stories there will be 20% off. I suspect it will be a more receptive crowd there than at B&N.


( 38 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 14th, 2010 09:06 pm (UTC)
This is quite a timely post because I've just downloaded a free read from another author at ARe which was recommended with 5 stars on Good Reads. I suspect the author has a similar view to you, as she says in the foreword:

"If you don’t like it then take solace in the fact that you haven’t paid so much as a dime for it. If you do enjoy it then visit my site and take a look at some of my other work."

Which as a marketing ploy worked because I did visit her website and read a few of her other freebies. This author had also put one of her books on sale at the GLBT Bookshelf rummage sale. I bought it and really enjoyed it and since then have bought two others of her books. If her book hadn't been on sale I may well have never bought it or read it and she would have remained unknown to me. If I'm a 'typical' reader it shows that these types of marketing strategies do work, regardless of the ratings at B&N.

I came to your books through a recommendation and word of mouth, so I didn't need to get your free books. I can see why you would value them though and why they are important at hooking new readers to your writing.
Oct. 14th, 2010 09:08 pm (UTC)
I meant I didn't need to get your free books first. I have since downloaded and read them, but only after I'd read your Psycop books first.
(no subject) - jordan_c_price - Oct. 14th, 2010 10:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jordan_c_price - Oct. 14th, 2010 10:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - egret17 - Oct. 14th, 2010 11:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 14th, 2010 11:17 pm (UTC)
I think many people grab freebies even if they have no clue what they are about. Thaw is a Psycop book so obviously us rabid, um, I mean enthusiastic fans are going to appreciate a peek into the relationship more than someone who has no clue who Stanley and Jacob are or what it all means in their relationship. It's stupid to take something that has no meaning for you, but some people just can't resist free. Many of them probably don't even read them, just download them because they can.

Usually when I read shorts like that in an anthology where I have no background information that is assumed by the author, I make it clear that it may not have resonated with me because I don't have that information, doesn't mean fans won't adore a peek at their faves. So I think you have to be careful reviewing or rating those kind of books if you don't have the whole story.

If I have an autobuy author, I won't wait for a sale. I want it NOW. And I know someone who wanted to try one of your Psycop books but didn't have the money to pay full price. When your sale came (I forget the details), I sent her the code and I hope she picked up one, because once she's hooked, she'll eat ramen for a week to afford the others.

So for me personally, a sale works for an author I am not familiar with or maybe for a book with a theme that leaves me waffling. That first sale may be the catalyst for me turning that author into someone I'll buy immediately when the next book comes out. As for freebies on sites, I know one author who has a LOT of freebies and I totally fell in love with his work based on the freebies and he hasn't published any m/m in forever but if he did I'd pay full price in a minute because I fell in love with his style on his website. So for people like me, his freebies did what they were supposed to, hook me in to pay money for more more more. It won't work for everyone who reads them, but you can lead a horse to a free book, you can't make it buy one though. :-)
Oct. 14th, 2010 11:21 pm (UTC)
You know I have to know to whom you're referring in that last paragraph, Tam!
(no subject) - cdn_tam - Oct. 14th, 2010 11:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - egret17 - Oct. 14th, 2010 11:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - krondr - Oct. 15th, 2010 11:22 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jordan_c_price - Oct. 15th, 2010 01:38 am (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 14th, 2010 11:20 pm (UTC)
I'm trying to remember - I think I might've tried a few of your free shorts before reading the PsyCop series. I was a shiny fresh ebook reader and a leetle skeered of buying books from sites unfamiliar to me... but I hadn't discovered ARe or FW or Goodreads yet, so... the free reads made me more comfortable.
Oct. 15th, 2010 12:32 am (UTC)
That's nice to hear! Were you already reading m/m when you got your ereader? I think many of the snarky comments come from non-m/m readers who get a free m/m short only because it's free, go "WTF??" and feel the need to berate it.
(no subject) - egret17 - Oct. 15th, 2010 12:39 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jordan_c_price - Oct. 15th, 2010 01:33 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - egret17 - Oct. 15th, 2010 01:38 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jordan_c_price - Oct. 15th, 2010 01:42 am (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 14th, 2010 11:55 pm (UTC)
I loved Thaw, but then I was already hooked on Vic and Jacob anyway. I will literally devour anything about them. And Crash! Have I ever mentioned how much I adore him?
Oct. 15th, 2010 12:33 am (UTC)
I have at least two unfinished Crash shorts languishing. Hm. The second one has some chance of me finishing it!
(no subject) - byrne - Oct. 15th, 2010 12:54 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jordan_c_price - Oct. 15th, 2010 01:43 am (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 15th, 2010 01:37 am (UTC)
by putting things on sale, you devalue your product, and you train your readers to wait for sales rather than to buy your things full-price.

Pretty cynical view of human nature, I'd say. Or capitalist. Same thing. :p I'm sure there are those it applies to, but to say that I, as a reader, can be trained in such a Pavlovian way sort of divests me of free will, intelligence, and a sense of 'right', doesn't it? It says that, like a computer, my only consideration is cost. That is not only ludicrous, I actually think I'm offended.

I see it like this:

Some people have plenty of money, so they could buy early, but will always rate a good price above all other considerations -- including the quality of the writing. Which means they might not *ever* buy the books at full price. A 'meh' book on sale trumps a good one full price, so the only way many of them would buy you would be if you were on sale. These are the people that 'theory' describe, in large part, and I suspect that these are also largely the same people who came up with the theory. What do they call that in psych ---? Projection?

Some people are broke. Reading is getting to be an expensive habit. See above, except that if I were the author, I'd be glad to give them the opportunity to trade patience for more books, because m/m doesn't generally get to the libraries. And these people may well value quality over price, but they feel they haven't much choice and will love you for lowering your prices occasionally.

Then there are those who love your writing so much that they can't wait. And while they may not be rolling in dough, your (or whichever author's) work is a high priority instant grat autobuy.

Then there are people like me. Pretty patient. If it's a big name author (big press), I wait until it is out in paperback (or on sale). But for small press m/m? No way. I've been known to let a sale pass and pick up a book later at full price. Because I figure the author is more strapped than I am. I certainly would never wait for you to lower a price. Because while I'm far short of wealthy, I know damn well I can afford the full price, and waiting for a sale feels as though I'm devaluing you. Because I know you're not rich (this is the general 'you', btw, referring to most published m/m authors).

I think that there are a lot of that last variety of supportive readers out there (based on more than optimism...also on discussions with m/m reading friends who by and large, despite the occasional pirating horror, are pretty conscious of and concientious about supporting their authors) -- especially in these small circle niches where you feel as though authors become acquaintances and sometimes even friends.

I suspect the theory holds true more for large mass printings... but I bet it's less of a consideration for these more intimate niches.

Umm. Yeah. Damn socialist of me, isn't it ("From each, according to her ability...")?

Oh and yeah, what other people said, too, I was leaving out the whole question of luring in readers who know nothing (yet) about what they are missing. I'll read free reads (yes, even the ones based on published work) to get a sense for whether I like the writer (excerpts aren't enough). And if I like it, I'll buy.
Oct. 15th, 2010 01:59 am (UTC)
Wow, what a wonderful and nuanced response. I suspect as a reader I fit into category that says, "Goody, you're on sale." While a timely book or new release might spur me to buy at full price, I will also buy some extras I might not have otherwise picked up at a good sale. Some authors actually release so quickly that by the time I go to buy their stuff, it's already marked down!

I love the idea that cost is only a partial consideration for you. (I suspect that applies to me too, even though I am painfully frugal about many things, considering I sprang for an Adobe CS5 extended upgrade this year.)

Pricing is slippery stuff. I need to make sure I don't aim to be the "Wal Mart" of the m/m world with my pricing, because it's all so subjective. Instead, I've priced my stuff "average" and added bonus end-matter, and good covers and proofreading, so readers feel like they're getting a Cadillac for the price of a Ford, hopefully.

I wouldn't be offended at the notion that some of the general public are Pavlovian. I'm sure some of them really are. It doesn't necessarily mean you're in that category ;-)

But can a discerning percentage of the population at large carry a specialty business? I think so. And I think the podcast that inspired this post would argue that, as well. She advocated for adding value to demand top price rather than cutting costs to try to appeal to the masses on the basis of price alone. I am horribly conflicted about money, so for me as a businessperson, it's important for me to give value, value, value for whatever money I receive in return.

I could also price everything bargain-basement but that wouldn't resonate with me either.

Fun stuff to ponder. I wish I had more business-geek friends to discuss it with.
(no subject) - ocotillo_dawn - Oct. 15th, 2010 02:40 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jordan_c_price - Oct. 15th, 2010 04:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 15th, 2010 07:18 am (UTC)
I fall into that grey area of being cash-strapped, but also wanting to support m/m authors as much as possible. Consequently, I buy direct from the publishers rather than third party sites, as I know this usually benefits the authors in increased royalties. However, I often wait a few weeks in the hope that a publisher sale will come along before shelling out the full price. Oh, and I love the competition giveaways some review sites have - I've sampled a few new authors that way.

I'm profoundly grateful for discounts and free reads, as they allow me to try more authors. Those I love will become auto-buys, and I will pay full price quite happily. I'm sure that there are plenty of other m/m readers with a similar attitude.

And I know I've told you before, but I first tried your work when you gave the "2 for the price of 1" offer on Psycops, then paid full whack for the rest. It works! :D
Oct. 15th, 2010 04:24 pm (UTC)
That two-for-one was a hard sale to pass up, wasn't it? It was the sort of thing that probably would have lured me in.

The more I think about it, the more I suspect that I buy what I want when I want it, and I take chances on stuff that's on sale.
Oct. 15th, 2010 11:18 am (UTC)
The theory is this: by putting things on sale, you devalue your product, and you train your readers to wait for sales rather than to buy your things full-price.

This sounds like it is coming from someone who works for a big box retailer. I say this because that was certainly implanted in my head when I was managing numbers for a retailer with a chain of 300 stores (NOT books). The name of the game is to improve profit dollars, and the easiest and most obvious way is to reduce the amount of discounting. Then I moved to a company with both a retail and wholesale arm, where it’s a totally different ball game in terms of how you view profit, which I am likening to your situation.

Anyway, all I want to say is, it’s your business and you know it best, it doesn’t matter what the prevailing “professional opinion” is. It’s not like you can attribute a nice tidy figure next to “building readership/brand” anyway.

I am flabbergasted that only 3 of 5613 people read Thaw went on to buy Among the Living. There is no accounting for taste! I have pointed people to the excerpt for Among the Living, because that was how I got sucked into it, it didn’t even occur to me to sound them to Thaw!
Oct. 15th, 2010 04:30 pm (UTC)
Sarah Petty's comments were aimed at smaller retailers, I think. To paraphrase her point, it was that you probably won't get ahead by making your stuff cheaper and cheaper as a very small business. That instead you have to add value and focus, and attract the sort of customers who value your product and are willing to pay for the value.

There are always one or two reviewers complaining about my prices. I just tell myself I don't WANT to be a bargain-basement brand. When you think about it, there will always be somebody complaining about something, so it pays to be as resilient as you can if you know those complaints are ridiculous.

Building readership is definitely a consideration!

I'm a bit surprised at the extreme 3/5613 ratio, although not terribly so. I think because of the venue. Most m/m aficionados are probably shopping at their favorite publishers or at sites more geared toward romance.
Oct. 15th, 2010 03:26 pm (UTC)
I can see the argument and to a certain extent it applies to my buying. I have limited funds and so tend to wait for sales or promotions to try 'new' authors or 'new' directions for known authors. But a 'must have' will be bought at almost whatever price as soon as I can find it.

Paperback (or hardback) prices on an ebook will turn it into a never-buy, because it looks like pure greed to me.

I got word-of-mouth recommendations for Psycop and I enjoy the freebie updates. Maybe a lot of the 5000 at B&N were already fans just catching up on the latest snippet?
Oct. 15th, 2010 04:33 pm (UTC)
I have a threshold of "I wouldn't pay that for an e-book!" also. I think it's around $7. I see a lot of titles from big publishers at $9.99 and I just add that book to my Amazon wishlist and get the paperback instead.

In an experienced e-publisher or self-pubbed author I probably see hugely overpriced ebooks as greed also. In a big publisher I figure they're just oblivious to the market.

My world would be a truly happy place if PsyCop had 5000 paying readers :D
Oct. 15th, 2010 10:18 pm (UTC)
Sales are great! They make do impulse purchases, or buy books that I've been waffling about. However, when my favorite author comes out with a new novel, there is no way in hell I'd have the patience to wait till it goes on sale. That reminds me: Where is the next installment of Psycops????
Oct. 16th, 2010 01:42 pm (UTC)
I think the next installment of PsyCop is half on my computer and half in my head. Thanks for asking!
Oct. 15th, 2010 11:08 pm (UTC)
I guess I'm not going to add anything new to the discussion, but I'll put my experiences out there for statistical purposes. :-)

I think discounted/free books are a good idea. Being a full time student, I don't have that much disposable income so I have to be careful about the books I buy. I used to take chances on new authors, but got burned enough times that I very rarely do that anymore. I get very irritated at wasting my money on something that looked interesting in the blurb/excerpt but ended up being crap.

So, if I can't check the author out with a free or significantly discounted book, it's likely I won't take the chance. I don't think freebie snippets of established series are very helpful for checking out new authors, though. I'm rarely grabbed by a short story where you need to have read the main book/series to understand who the characters are. They're great as gifts for established fans, of course.

But if I find an ebook that looks interesting and is free or half-price then I'll give it a go. If I love it, then I'll buy another book from that author at full price. If I love that, then the next, etc, and the author is likely to become an auto-buy. When they put out a new book, I buy it. I'm not going to wait for some possible discount in the future, I want to read it now!

You, of course, are an auto-buy. I've already got your books by the time you offer discounts, but I don't care because I'm satisfied with the quality I got at full price. I really am happy to pay full price to support authors who consistently produce work I love.

I think having "Among the Living" as a free book at Rainbow eBooks is a great idea. Confession - long ago I downloaded AtL from a fan-translated manga site I used to visit. This site sometimes had m/m ebook downloads (however they stopped that practice long ago when authors, fairly enough, asked them to stop). I loved it and bought the rest of the series that was out at the time, and continue to do so, of course (looking forward to Psycop 6!!!). Not that the Psycop series is your only great stuff, of course, but obviously it is the logical place to start. :-)

Oct. 16th, 2010 04:47 am (UTC)
I'm also a full-time student, and also broke. "I buy books and whatever's left over goes to food and rent," bibliophile broke. I (once! only once, I swear!) checked out a piracy site, and downloaded books by authors I'd been really wanting to check out but couldn't bring myself to spend money on without knowing if it would be worth it. Like Meraehl, I got burned a few too many times when taking chances, and I really can't afford to do that.

The first couple of PsyCop books were part of that download. I'd read such rave reviews, I really wanted to try them. But I have a very low fear threshold (I'm still traumatized by Poe's Telltale Heart, and I read it over 25 years ago!) so when in doubt I err on the safe side. I couldn't tell which side of my personal threshold the PsyCop books would fall on, so free was the only way I dared try.

I fell in love with them and paid full price (!!) for the rest. I really couldn't afford it, but I couldn't wait for a sale to find out what happened next. It was worth tightening the belt, and I'm eagerly waiting for more (imagine the Mervyn's woman here, but instead of "open, open, open," she's chanting "write, write, write!"). So I think giving away the first one is a terrific way to draw in new readers, if I'm anything to go by.

Though I have yet to buy any of your non-PsyCop books, nervous that others may be too skeery for me. I really want to read Hemovore, but I'm waiting in hopes of catching it on sale and thus minimizing my risk. If I love it as much as I suspect I will, then I'll feel safer to buy more, likely at full price. Another example of how discounting books can ultimately result in more sales. Since I'm sure most people are less wimpy and less broke than I am, they'll probably buy the rest of your backlist eagerly after getting hooked on PsyCop.
Oct. 16th, 2010 11:43 am (UTC)
I'm surprised to see the discussion has taken a turn for, "I'm a poor college student so it's okay for me to steal directly from an author in case I don't like the book," and "It's okay for me to steal from an author if I subsequently buy one of their other books." I've seen both of these arguments many times. They are both ways that people rationalize that something is permissible that they know in their heart is wrong.

I'm not going to ever say, "Great, that's totally cool." I am a poor, self-employed artist. I put in long hours to earn my paycheck. Writing is my sole source of income. It's not okay to steal it.

The only ethical way to deal with a previously stolen ebook, mp3 or other digital content is to delete it. If you can't bring yourself to delete it, that would indicate that you value the content highly enough to pay the creator for it.
Oct. 16th, 2010 10:53 pm (UTC)
I guess you won't believe me, but I can see how this would make you angry.

I wasn't trying to say it's "okay" to illegaly download books. I was trying to say that putting one up for free like you did with AllRomance is a good way to reach people who otherwise wouldn't take a chance. I didn't come by the first one honestly, but based on my experience if other people do then they'll be hooked.

I'm not saying I was right. I don't download stuff anymore, it was there at the time and I gave into temptation. I didn't just buy one other book either, I bought everything else. If you think "poor excuse" then fair enough. But you did earn more money from me than you would have otherwise.

(no subject) - meraehl - Oct. 16th, 2010 11:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
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