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Does Free Equal Worthless?

cowThat is the theory proposed by Howard V. Hendrix, current vice president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc. Hendrix believes that offering up full length novels for free will dilute the value of a book for the short term gain of promotion.

My concern is that, in the long term, as more and more people become schooled to reading off the screen rather than from the printed page, free online whole-book posting may set a precedent of “why buy the cow, when you can get the milk for free?” which in the end will benefit conglomerates rather than authors as a class.

Hendrix is a self proclaimed Luddite and the Internet generation only creates fear and distrust in Hendrix.

I think the ongoing and increasing sublimation of the private space of consciousness into public netspace is profoundly pernicious.

Hendrix is not the only author to feel that way. Samantha Hunter wondered on Writeminded whether the connection to the readers via the Internet is dragging her down and that by giving away books its dilutes the value. She contemplates that there is a certain cache to be inaccessible.

Sometimes I've wondered if we should take on more of that, be less “out there.–? Stop the contests, the freebies, etc, in particular. Why are we so eager to give our hard work away? I've also stopped sending my books to any websites for review except one or two, at most, and may stop sending them altogether –" if they want to review me, they can buy the book.

Ironically, Howard’s rant came right after the news that Scott Sigler received a purported $500K book deal from Crown. Sigler is a pioneer in the books for free via Podcast and was featured recently in the New York Times. Sigler’s “giving away the milk for free” led to him selling his very expensive cow to a NY Publisher. There are other examples: Due to poor sales, Peter Watts convinced Tor to allow him to give his book away. On March 29, Watts’ free book, Blindsighted, was shortlisted for the best novel Hugo Award. Cory Doctorow has been giving his works away for some time and says that he consistently outperforms his publishers’ expectations.

The internet is increasingly becoming the medium of choice for advertising dollars. According to the Library Journal’s recent article on mystery books, more and more publishers feel that online blogs and review sites are a smart place for publicity money. The internet can not only be inexpensive publicity but productive because of the organic feel of the buzz created by a reader blog. Publishers no longer feel that an online review “ghettoizes” a book, particularly with the declining space given by print newspapers and magazines to books. Online review sites and reader blogs are filling the void left by the abandonment of print publications. One example of this is reader blogs republication on USAToday’s book page allowing a book to receive greater exposure or at Reuters.

The internet is a great marketing tool and shouldn’t be looked upon with suspicion and distrust. As Elizabeth Hand stated in the Galley Cat article

“Ebooks and podcasting and the like are just the tip of the iceberg. So, um, get used to it.”

As for free online giveaways, right now it works. I can’t tell you how many times I visited Kelley Armstrong’s website between the time I read Bitten and the release of Stolen. Each time I visited and read her free offerings, the more entrenched in her world I became. Her free fiction offerings were like gifts to me, the reader. These gifts created such a feeling of goodwill toward the author that I wanted to buy her books and to give them away as gifts and to convert everyone I could to read her. I associate Kelley Armstrong with not only her books but with the idea that she loves her readership. I am sure that every author loves her readership but Armstrong could act like the biggest ass in the world toward her readers and I would still think to myself, “but she gave away those backstories about Jeremy and Clay and Elena. She loves her readership.” I know that other readers love the free epilogues that some authors, like Mary Balogh, offer up on their site.

Authors who giveaway their books or offer up free fiction, whether it is print or in ebook format, are not only exposing themselves to new readers, but they are fostering that goodwill. In the future, when ebooks sell at the same pace or greater than print books, the concept of giving away an entire novel will need to be rethought. Right now, in this environment, with the crowded bookshelves and declining readership, giving away the milk encourages readers to buy the entire cow.

What say you commenters? Does giving it away devalue the product?

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

26 Comments

  1. Jayne
    Apr 17, 2007 @ 04:37:16

    Online review sites and reader blogs are filling the void left by the abandonment of print publications.

    When I first started reading romances again about 10 years ago, it had been almost 15 years since I had regularly read any so I had no idea of who any current authors were. And let me admit I made some doozy mistakes in picking which books to try. That is, until I got online and found sites like AAR, TRR, Rakehell and Mrs. Giggles. I still regularly check in with them to read their reviews and many other features. If not for online reviews guiding me to better books, I’d probably have ditched this genre ages ago.

  2. Teddy Pig
    Apr 17, 2007 @ 05:25:10

    Joey W. Hill does this on her site and she blew me away the quality of those short stories is wonderful. I spent a whole day reading through them.

  3. Kerry Allen
    Apr 17, 2007 @ 05:50:27

    “…if they want to review me, they can buy the book.”

    Or they can forget you exist and devote their publicity to the book that other author sent them for free.

    That statement just jumped out at me as being completely ridiculous.

  4. Ann(ie)
    Apr 17, 2007 @ 07:13:55

    I noticed that Sybil’s site had been syndicated in the entertainment section of Reuters. I thought that was pretty cool.

  5. Jane A.
    Apr 17, 2007 @ 07:18:29

    Hendrix’ suspicion of the internet and resistance to change clearly colors his perceptions in this matter. It takes someone much more forward thinking to see the advantages he disdains.

  6. Fiona Glass
    Apr 17, 2007 @ 07:29:45

    My feeling is that there’s truth on both sides. I want to engage with my readers and keep them coming back for more, but I don’t want to post so much free stuff that they don’t actually need to buy my books. That would be shooting myself in the foot. LOL

    That said, I can’t see that the internet itself is to blame for any of this. It’s opening up opportunities to share writers’ work with a much wider audience and that’s got to be a good thing.

  7. Scott Sigler
    Apr 17, 2007 @ 08:43:39

    I gave away my book ANCESTOR in three forms: free podcast, free on Sirius Satellite, and free as a PDF that was downloaded 40,000 times in the first week I put it out. Despite flooding the market with goodies, I hit #7 on Amazon.com the day the book came out. Why? Because out of the tens of thousands that got it for free, a percentage of them loved the book so much they wanted it in print.

    It’s a new market. The reader gets to decide what’s good and bad. The gatekeeper publisher and editor are being removed from the process. People who don’t figure that out are going bye-bye.

    “…if they want to review me, they can buy the book.â€?
    - No, they won’t buy yours, they’ll be busy reading mine, for free, and then posting a review. This quote sums up the elitist, archaic views of the “established” authors. If you’re too lazy to fight for new customers, that’s your business. I’m willing to scratch and claw to get my work in front of as many people as possible, knowing that I’ll connect with a certain percentage of them, and then I’ll have more happy, entertained customers. Sit in your ivory tower, the rest of us New Blood will happily be down in the gutter, hustling our asses off to connect with new fans.

    Marketplace democracy sucks if you’re the ruling class. Sorry about that.

  8. Vivi Anna
    Apr 17, 2007 @ 08:57:41

    Interesting post. I think having free stories is a great thing that authors can do to promote themselves and their work. I was posting a chapter a month on my site for a fantasy novel that i was working on…unfortunately no one was reading it. So I took it off…but am looking to do it again.

    I too think Kelley Armstrong rocks and her generosity on her site and all the cool stuff she offers to her readers has taken her to the top.

    And Bravo Scott! You’re clawing and scratching paid off.

  9. Jules Jones
    Apr 17, 2007 @ 10:12:19

    I write m/m romance. When my books first started coming out, gay romance aimed at straight women was still a new thing in pro romance, even if slash fanfic fans had been into it for decades. A lot of romance fans were willing to at least consider reading one to see if they liked it, but naturally weren’t inclined to spend money on it. I gave away copies in contests, I have short excerpts from everything plus sample chapters and short stories on my website, and I’ll happily give free copies to reader review sites. And now I have autobuy status with a bunch of readers who tried m/m through one of my freebies and decided that they liked it enough to pay for it.

    And I”ll be joining in with International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day next Monday.

  10. HelenKay
    Apr 17, 2007 @ 10:47:37

    I think Howard is missing the larger benefit here. He fails to understand the power one well-written book can have over a reader’s future book-buying choices. My experience mirrors what Jules is saying in that there are authors I read and have continued to follow (ie, purchase books) only because I initially started with a free book. For example, I started reading both Susan Mallery Vicki Lewis Thompson because I got a free copy of one of each of their early category romances. Since the first free book, I’ve purchased book after book. Seems to me the initial loss of $3.50 (or whatever) is worth winning over a lifetime reader. And, I can honestly say it’s doubtful I would have started reading either author without that initial freebie since I’m not a big category romance reader. I hate to think what I would have missed had I never received those initial freebies.

  11. Caroline
    Apr 17, 2007 @ 10:53:15

    I think no one should underestimate the power of FREE. People will try things for free that they might never be persuaded to pay for. Authors of course do depend on people deciding to pay, eventually, but part of that persuasion can be giving away freebies, whether short pieces or epilogues or review copies or even actual books. If a writer is in a position where they can ignore the benefits of giving away the lawn to sell the house, great for him, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea or devalues the product. Every author has to decide for himself what is ‘giving away too much’ and what is justified ‘scratching and clawing’ for their own career.

  12. Charlene
    Apr 17, 2007 @ 10:59:37

    I can’t tell you how many books I’ve bought just in the last year due to reading freebies offered by authors online. Kelley Armstrong’s free stories hooked me and I have been buying the entire Women of the Otherworld series. I’m even ordering her comic if they’ll get enough interest to do a print run. (So, sign up, y’all!) Michelle Rowen’s contribution to the PBW ebook giveaway introduced me to another new author. I bought and loved Bitten & Smitten as a result, and can’t wait to buy Fanged & Fabulous.

    I could go on and on, but the point is, it works and it’s a good thing to offer readers. I have two free reads on my site, and I plan to add more as time/energy allows.

  13. Jayne
    Apr 17, 2007 @ 11:21:56

    Retail stores have been using the “loss leader” sales strategy for years to get comsumers to buy things they might not try otherwise and to lure them into buying more once they’re already in a store to buy the low cost item.

  14. Stephanie Feagan
    Apr 17, 2007 @ 11:34:02

    Not much to add, although this is a fascinating concept.

    I just wanted to give a shout out to the Ja(y)nes for the milking cow image. I have no clue why, maybe because she’s shaking her head, “No! No!” but it made me laugh – and as today is tax filing day and the worst for CPAs, I needed a laugh. Thanks! I may send it to my mother, she of the old Mom adage about buying the cow and all that. Perhaps the free milk analogy doesn’t take into account love for the cow. Yeah, her milk’s free, but maybe we want all of ol’ Flossie, so we’re willing to buy her.

    Wow, too many late nights with 1040s. That analogy just went off the rails. But you know what I mean. The first pail is free, but after that, to get that fabulous milk, you have to buy the cow.

  15. Alison Kent
    Apr 17, 2007 @ 11:52:17

    Wow, if I counted the number of books I’ve given away, well, I might need Steph F to help with that bit of accounting. Has it hurt my sales numbers? Uh, that would be no. The idea of being less out there when out there is where the future is makes me laugh.

  16. Linda
    Apr 17, 2007 @ 12:16:03

    I have purchased many SF books due to some free online content at Baen Free library. A short story introduced me to Lois BuJold. I now buy everything she writes, often in hardcover. I was also introduced to David Weber’s Honor series. I was aware of both these authors previously – I had read the back cover of BuJold’s books and put them down w/o buying and a friend had recommended Weber to me. However, when I read them online I was interested enough to buy a book, and then I was really hooked.

    I have also purchased many a book by an author whose first book I received from a friend and I attribute my current book buying habit to those early years spent in the public library.

  17. Dear Author.Com | Free Ebook Offering by Melanie Lynn Hauser
    Apr 17, 2007 @ 12:42:47

    [...] have a free book page as a reader resource! I think what is great about Howard Hendrix’s rant is that it is moving people to offer up more free [...]

  18. Larissa Ione
    Apr 17, 2007 @ 15:24:41

    I can’t tell you how many authors I’ve bought because I read one free book of theirs…whether won in a contest or read on a website or given to me by a friend. I introduced my MIL to Linda Howard last Christmas by giving her Howard’s newest…and my MIL told me a few days ago that she went to Amazon and bought up her ENTIRE backlist.

    Granted, I bought the book that got my MIL hooked, but my MIL got it for free, and look what it did!

    I love free…

  19. Janine
    Apr 17, 2007 @ 15:50:34

    I may be unusual in that I won’t automatically read something just because it’s free. My time is very valuable to me so I prefer to read books I’ve heard something good about or have some other reason to be intrigued with, like enticing back cover copy and excerpt or first few pages. If a book doesn’t catch my interest, free won’t make the difference, but if it catches my interest and I’m still not sure I want to spend the money, at that point, having the option to read it free of charge might very well hook me.

    Like Jayne, I’m very grateful to review sites and blogs, because before I found them, I read too many duds. I’m also very appreciative of authors who post excerpts on their websites, since I usually buy books online and excerpts help me immensely in deciding whether or not to buy a book. I’ve reached the point now where I won’t buy a book new if I can’t read at least a short excerpt first.

  20. LinM
    Apr 17, 2007 @ 16:55:59

    Does giving away milk for free devalue the entire cow? This from a site on a host running a free web server using a free content management system. (sorry – way off topic)

    There is a growing number of readers who are comfortable or prefer reading digital media and feel ownership of digital titles. These readers seek out digital content – for them, there is no incentive to buy a printed book. When this population reaches a critical mass, offering entire books for free online may be counter-productive.

    OTOH – excerpts, free stories and essays all work to show-case an author. This free content is invaluable in engaging a potential reader.

    But I wonder how authors manage all of the responsibilities that have descended on their shoulders – writing, advertising, promotion, selling, … Technology may have benefits but it is not without cost.

  21. Devon
    Apr 17, 2007 @ 18:54:24

    As a reader with a limited budget, I’ll read anything that’s free. I tend to spend only on what seems like a sure thing (auto-buy authors, or something that’s gotten amazing buzz and totally meshes with my reading preferences). So excerpts, short stories, novellas etc. on a site help give me an idea of what an author has to offer and might get me to pick up something that I wouldn’t normally. “Extras” also help to keep the interest and excitement up between books.

    I always point to Kelley Armstrong as an example. After I read Bitten and Stolen back to back, there was a wait for Dime Store Magic, I went to her website and the (at the time) two novellas were down for revision. She very kindly emailed them to me, and it just kept me totally excited. I feel like I know her characters and “world” really well.

    I have to say, I’m always extra impressed by writers who do that sort of thing. It seems like a certain level of commitment to their craft and their readership, going above and beyond…

  22. Jules Jones
    Apr 17, 2007 @ 18:55:14

    Janine — one of the reasons I have excerpts from all my books on my website is because my books are mostly available only in ebook format, and as far as I’m concerned excerpts and sample chapters are the online equivalent of people being able to browse through a dead tree book in the bookshop to see whether it’s something they want to buy. After all, I was a reader long before I was a writer, and I prefer to at least flip through a couple of pages of anything that isn’t on my very short autobuy list.

    LinM: even when it hits critical mass, for an author with a decent backlist it may well be worthwhile offering one book as a free download in the hope that if a reader likes it, they’ll buy the rest. That’s what’s happening with the Baen Free Library, according to authors I know over there.

  23. LinM
    Apr 17, 2007 @ 20:17:05

    JJ: In many ways, I want to sing the harmony to your tune but not quite (never could carry a tune).

    1. Although I said that my comments on OpenSource software were off-topic, they were a valid reaction to Hendrix – In the OS/software areas, the marketplace has already adapted to both commercial and free software so I think that the choices made by one author do NOT poison the well for a different author that makes different choices. In this, I disagree with Hendrix who speculated that free books by one author would lead to consequences for all.

    2. Authors who offer current books for free in digital format may succeed, may not – I think it depends on the author and the genre and the salesmanship of that author but they won’t sell a print book to me.

    3. Authors who offer OOP books for free are doing their own promotion. I hope it succeeds for them. In my own experience, I feel guilty. I have found OOP works for free that I would gladly have purchased by authors where I have missed the early books, enjoyed some of the more recent backlist but have no interest in the current books. I also end to ignore even free novels by authors that are unfamiliar – for me, short works are a better enticement.

  24. Poison Ivy
    Apr 18, 2007 @ 08:15:52

    Alas, my current favorite authors don’t have any additional fiction content on their websites. Just ways to buy their books. These ads alone do not move me to buy, though. If instead these authors gave something away on their websites, that would create in me a sense of obligation (a connection) that might translate into me buying their next book. Instead of checking it out from the public library as is my wont.

    And for a book no publisher wanted or that has reverted, putting it on the website might change some minds. And at least get it out there to the public. Writers want money and fame, but at bottom, we want people to read our work.

  25. Blue Tyson
    Apr 18, 2007 @ 23:35:54

    Nope, I am pretty sure I have lost count of authors I have tried because of reading something on the internet. Some of those have turned, and will turn, into book sales.

  26. limecello
    Apr 21, 2008 @ 23:03:17

    Hm, I actually remember some of these quotes from the original posts/threads. I have to admit, I felt all cowed and guilty as a reader. Maybe I’m spoiled, but I love the free. Authors who do monthly or weekly (joy!) contests make me feel that much more warmly towards them. I discovered some authors because of free books [or trying to get their free books :P] – and now I’m determined to buy the rest of their back list. Some authors, because of their generosity and fun blogs/promos made me like them so much, that I want to buy their books to support them even though I didn’t really love their book that much. Or, I got one in a series, and I’m anal so I must have the others in the trilogy. That’s $24.00 in books right there.
    I’ve also noticed/felt some authors trying to guilt people for going to libraries (less royalties). I have thousands of dollars worth of books right now, and I’d say I got 99% of those because I read them first from the good ol ‘brary.
    Of course, one of the few authors who is an autobuy for me, doesn’t do giveaways. So what do I know. I’m just a lowly reader & consumer.

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