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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.


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.
Oct. 15th, 2010 02:40 am (UTC)
Yeah, I was thinking about this some more after I wrote. I wonder if the theory is overgeneralizing an observation about what really is probably *not* good practice (especially in big publishing) -- that of putting things on the markdown shelf a month after it's released. But that's different from having occasional sales (not permanent markdowns) a year after publication. By a year later, especially with a temporary sale, I'd think you were picking up potential new readers, or those who might not buy normally. OTOH, relegating all books to a 'seconds' shelf a month after publishing probably *does* send a wrong message about the author. Not the least of which is that they don't value their own writing enough to believe it is still worth what it once was.

I wasn't truly offended, just a little, and that mostly because of the implication that 'the public' (a mass, faceless, same herd) was that way. I get offended when anyone makes extreme negative judgements about 'the public', as though this entity was a single lump of homogenous clay. Naw. You'll see me get *truly* offended when I hear people talk about those idiot redneck Texans (same principle), for instance. *That's* offended. *lol*

But more than taking offense, I think it is a self-perpetuating attitude. People live down to your expectations and all that.

And again, most of those who are as described probably wouldn't buy the author's work full price anyway.

Put it this way...I don't know anyone who, knowing they want a particular book, will wait for it to go on sale before they buy it (not saying it doesn't happen, just that it's the exception rather than the rule). Peruse the sale shelf, sure, but that is additional sales, not lost revenue. Now if there was the case of an author making a habit of giving temporary sales, then I could see the more cash-strapped people hanging on and hoping to see that sale come. And you know what? Good for them. Because there aren't libraries for this stuff.

I wasn't always so easy-going about cost, btw, but circumstances change, and as I look back on my life and the generosity I got from others as I struggled (financially), I pay back a little, you know -- to others who are struggling. Besides...if my paying a little more for a book encourages the writers to write more, then I've gotten my money's worth in spades.

If I understand the argument, I agree with the idea of 'adding value' as better than cutting prices, in part because then the author is valuing the customer, and I bet that inspires loyalty (don't discount that -- I have relegated authors to non-buy reads based on me not liking their attitude, maybe that's petty of me, but I bet I'm not the only person who's done it).

But yeah, I'm sure that is a trick for marketing anything -- I remember that from when I was selling my pottery (was a SERIOUS 'hobby' for many years) -- in a very cold, accountant-style analysis way, it's about trying to find that price that earns you the highest hourly wage. Price products too high, your wages falls because you don't sell. Price too low, your wage falls because (a little different for publishing, where the cost is in the initial creation, rather than a single bowl) you don't end up bringing in many more readers, and may send the message that you aren't a 'real' pro (or whatever).

I have to say, your prices don't bug me. But I have been seeing a few books lately that are priced right up there with paper books (wasn't one of the original selling points of e-books lower cost? But if they get up there with paperbacks, and then we need a special reader for them, ummm... I start wondering what is going on. Some of them have hit my personal limit of "you've got to be kidding me, I don't even *know* you," so I don't buy.

Gosh. I hope that all made sense. The upshot is, I'm no marketing person, but it seems to me that what I've seen you doing is good business. Not devaluing.
Oct. 15th, 2010 04:39 pm (UTC)
I love the explanation of pricing pottery. I tried to sell T-shirts at a craft show once. Yowsa, what an exercise in futility. Or a lesson in "watch your market before you put in time and money."

I get really annoyed with the $9.99 prices I see on ebooks lately, when the paperback price with all its manufacturing, warehousing and shipping costs is about the same. Most epublishers aren't doing this--it's the big publishers who don't yet know what to make of epublishing who are doing it.

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