On Giving Books Away For Free

This blog post is not going to win me any friends. 

I don’t care.

I’m fed up with people who think they have the right to tell me what I should do with my own work.

I’ve read a lot of articles and campaigns lately in which indie authors whose sales are not doing very well blame those who choose to give their books away for free. It’s damaging to the industry, they say. It’s your fault that I can’t sell any books, they say. I’ve worked hard to write these books, they say, why shouldn’t I get paid for that work?Leonid_Pasternak_-_The_Passion_of_creation

Congratulations on working so hard. Congratulations on publishing your books. It is hard work, I know. It’s tough, it’s a labour of love, and achieving what you’ve achieved is nothing to be sniffed at. I really, genuinely hope that your business as an author, as a book-seller, works for you and that you manage to sustain a comfortable lifestyle on the proceeds. I really do. But that in no way gives you the right to tell people they can’t give their own work away for free, if they so wish. Let’s deal with a couple of the issues, shall we?

Hard work and paid work are not synonymous 

That’s right. I said it. Working hard does not automatically entitle you to be paid.

I sweep the road outside my house regularly. That doesn’t mean I should be paid for it. It Pedestrian-Clean-Broom-Sweeping-Dust-Cleaning-1294880doesn’t entitle me to become a professional road sweeper. In fact, I could spend hours upon hours sweeping the streets all over town and still, I am not automatically entitled to be paid. No-one has asked me to sweep the streets and no-one is just going to walk up to me and offer me money because I’ve done so. I can ask for money, I can show what a great job I’ve done and I can offer more from where that came from but I can’t assume that I will get paid. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t get paid or that I wouldn’t like to get paid for it, it means that I’m not entitled. It also bears no reflection on those who are paid for it. Speaking of which, do you put litter in the bin? But you don’t get paid for it! And if everyone did that, perhaps street sweepers would be out of a job. Does that mean you should throw your litter on the floor instead? Of course it doesn’t. It’s a bit of a far-fetched analogy but the basic principle is the same.

Hard work doesn’t mean good work

There’s another, perhaps more controversial matter that needs to be dealt with here too.Tsar_Ilya_the_Terrible_Icon Just because someone has worked hard at something doesn’t mean that it’s any good. I could spend months working on a portrait of my husband in oil paint. Toil away. Fall in love with my own work for the sheer effort that I’ve put in. However, the fact that I’ve worked hard at it doesn’t make it worth anything necessarily. Quite the opposite: I’m a shit painter. It would be worthless to everyone but me and perhaps my husband.

Expecting a handsome sum of money to fall into your lap simply because you’ve worked hard at something is an utterly ridiculous notion. It’s a nice idea, but it’s not realistic. Just to clarify something: I’m not, in any way, shape, or form, suggesting that all indie authors are bad at what they do because that is so far from the truth. There are many, many fantastic indie writers out there. I’m also not suggesting that there are never brilliant authors who languish at the bottom of the ratings, simply because they haven’t managed to catch the attention required to shoot them to the stars. Those authors do exist (just as there are some terrible authors who become overnight best-sellers).

What I am saying, however, is that perhaps you need to look at your work – both in terms of writing, marketing, and business management, before you go blaming free books for your poor sales. What I am saying is that sometimes, I see articles and campaigns on this issue written in an awful way – a way that makes me wonder whether some (not all) are jumping on the bandwagon simply because they don’t have the talent to make a success of things.

It’s business

Ultimately, if you want to make a living from writing, you’ve got to stop thinking of it from the sensitive, creative mindset which for the actual writing part of your job was necessary, and start thinking of it as a business. As a freelance writer and editor, I’m often tasked with writing blog posts for people – for which I get paid. This is my business and I treat it as such. I tout for clients, propose terms, work hard, and meet deadlines – just like I would in any other business in the world. There are lots and lots of people who write their own blog posts or guest blog posts for free (myself included) and that’s absolutely fine – that’s not damaging to my business because I know that the work I produce for my clients is worth paying for. That’s not, of course, to say that those who write for free are producing sub-standard work because they’re not, but it’s different. The jobs I take on are work and the blog posts that are written by many writers for free are for pleasure. There is a difference.

business

Another example. In our bar, we often give free drinks to our regular customers or big groups of customers who have spent a lot of money. We have given away food at special event nights and I’m sure we’ll do so again at some point. It’s a goodwill gesture, a thank you to those who support us. Does that mean that simply because a customer has had free food and drinks in the past that they’ll never pay for another? No, of course it doesn’t! That’s an absolutely ridiculous notion. In actual fact, in this particular example, they are more likely to spend money with us. The same applies to books – just because I’ve read some free books in the past doesn’t mean I’m never going to pay for a book again. That would be silly.

If you want to make a living from writing, stop thinking of it with your writer head and start thinking with a business head instead.

It’s up to me!

But do you want to know the ultimate truth?

I don’t care.

I don’t care about any of the above. I don’t care if you want to charge £100 for a short story or if you want to give your magnum opus away for free. I don’t care if you write for the sheer joy of it or if you are desperately trying to make a decent living from it. I don’t care if you are looking for fame and fortune or if you simply like to tell a tale. I don’t care if you choose to charge for your books, or if you give them away free in some sort of marketing ploy, or if you give them away because you don’t give a damn.

What I do care about is how you interact with me.

I do care about being lectured about what choose to do with my work.

I do care about preachers who try to force their ideals on me and on others around me.

Like Voltaire, I may not agree with you, but I defend your right to do as you wish – as long as you grant me the same privilege.

Do what you want with your work and I’ll do what I want with mine*. 


*As a side note, my books actually aren’t free but (as I’m sure you’ve noticed), I strongly believe in my right to give them away, should I choose to, without reproach. And as a result, if you’d like a free copy of John Sharpe: No. 1,348, let me know and I’ll send it to you. I won’t even badger you for a review, but I’d be extremely grateful if you choose to leave one for me 😉

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7 comments

  1. I think the problem is that it’s almost become the ‘norm’ to give books away.
    ‘What? You expect me to pay for it?’ ‘Er… yes please.’
    I’ve no objection to authors who give them away, and in fact I offer a ‘freebie’ short story every week on my own blog. I know marketing is my downfall and I’ve thought long and hard about making my books free, but for now the price tag remains. Perhaps that’s why they’re not ‘selling’ very well. 😀

    1. Yeah, I can see how it’s frustrating that some people expect books for free but there are people like that in every walk of life. For the most part, people aren’t like that. True readers, true book-lovers, will enjoy free books and be willing to pay for books that they want to read – and that, I think, is key – getting them to want to read it!
      I’m with you – I’m terrible at marketing and I also charge for my books. I’m unlikely to make my books free for all time but I believe in my right to do so without reproach. Likewise, I don’t expect anyone to give their books away if they don’t want to. Choice is key.

  2. It used to be ‘Why are you selling your books too cheaply?’ There’s not a lot of difference between free and 99 pence. If I was to work out the number of hours spent writing, editing, etc it at even the minimum wage the reader would probably have to take out a mortgage. I like to think of the Anthony Gormley analogy. I have stood admiring The Angle of The North, taken photos, put the pictures on my website. Likewise I have stood in the crypt of Winchester Cathedral admiring the statue standing in the pool. I have never met Anthony Gormley and I have never given him a single penny for his work. In return he is very welcome to read my blogs or short stories on my website for free! Talking of cathedrals; the architects, masons and artists are not even around to know their work is still appreciated, let alone to receive payment for their work…..

    1. I completely agree about how much work it takes, it absolutely does. I’m not saying that people should work for free – but I believe that everyone has the choice. If people want to work for free, why not let them? It’s just the same as how some people work in retail for pay, and some volunteer in retail for charity – it’s a choice thing.
      I love your Anthony Gormley analogy though.

  3. Excellent article and very factual. I wrote a short prequel to my Sea Purrtector Series with the express intention of offering it for free. My reasons were 1) it would provide potential readers to meet my main character (Xander de Hunter, a feline 007) and see if they were comfortable reading from a cat’s perspective; 2; it is my hope that ‘free’ helps build author name recognition. Thus far, Latitudes & Cattitudes has been living up to my expectations and it has been in the top 10 of it’s Amazon category for several months.
    In each book, I give links to my other novels.
    Since making Latitudes & Cattitudes available, I’ve noticed a rise in sales for the other four books in the Sea Purrtector Series as well as a few more sales for the Chatterre Trilogy. My older novels, which are suspense/romance, haven’t had increased sales, so I assume the individuals who are looking for books with cats are the majority of my readers. I also conclude that free creates sales.

    1. That’s a great example of how free books can help sales (oh…and I’m intrigued! I’m going to download it now…)
      It’s the superiority of it all that gets me, the way some authors feel they have the right to dictate to other authors simply because their books aren’t selling. It should all be about choice – charge if you want, give away if you want, ask people to dance for peanuts if you really want – it’s up to you!
      Thanks for reading 😀

      1. I totally agree with you that price (any everything else) is what we authors get to choose. My original reason for choosing to go independent was that I wanted full control over my covers…. That irritation was spawned after the designer my publisher choose for Passion’s Fire put Mt. Fuji in the background … the book takes place in Alaska.
        I now Kiara to design my covers and she always reads the rough draft, so the covers give clues about the stories. For instance, Me-YEOW!’s cover has Xander with Mischief peeking up, some dots and dashes in the design are actually Morse code, which the cats use in the plot and the background is a map of where the story takes place.

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