How much do you, as a reader, value “free?” That seems to be the buzz question within many author groups. I cannot count the number of times I have heard the question in various forms, the most common being, “Do you think I should release the book as free for X number of days?”
My answer is no. No, I do not think books should be released as free for any amount of time. Why? I have the perfect analogy that I heard from a man with a MBA I used to work with several years ago.
Let’s say you are going to buy a t-shirt. You find the t-shirt that you want at two big box retailers; Wal-Mart and Target. Which do you value more? The t-shirts are identical, from the same vendor and made by the same company. The only difference between the two shirts is the price. The ultimate decision does not come down to the price tag. The psychology behind the purchase has nothing to do with how much the t-shirt costs. It comes down to which store you think has the better product. Wal-Mart holds to the low, low prices marketing campaign, whereas Target promotes quality. Without conscious thought you buy the t-shirt at Target, paying a few cents or dollars more. Why? Because it is engrained in your mind that somehow the t-shirt at Target is of better quality, even though the t-shirts are exactly the same.
Now, let’s apply the theory to the free book phenomenon that is sweeping the e-book publishing industry. The most common reasoning behind the free book release is, ‘I have to get my name out there.’ Ok, I can understand that. It’s true an author wants as many people as possible knowing their name, and their work. However, they may have promoted their product value right into the discount bin. To the avid reader, free equates to of lesser quality. The general thought behind it seems to be the author has to give their books away to get anyone to read them. That’s not necessarily the case, but in many instances it is the perception. The author’s persona is now in line with Wal-Mart’s low, low prices marketing campaign. If they do this long enough, readers will equate the author name with low quality based on promotion of the price. I’ve often been in Wal-Mart and assailed by the free sample ladies in every aisle. I don’t think I’ve ever had that happen at Target. The question is: is the author Wal-Mart or are they Target?
Free e-books are flooding the on-line retailers at break-neck speed. In fact, it seems there are so many free books that it’s starting to have a reverse effect. The free book the author worked so hard to create is now buried under thousands of other free books.
What happens to all the free book downloads? The buzz on the web is they tend to stay unread in the bottom of the e-reader for someday. All the effort the author put into promoting the book for free is most likely sitting at the bottom of the e-readers of the world, right along with the manuscript they spent so much energy in creating. Initially the author will see a spike in sales, just like Wal-Mart does on free sample Saturday. Then the sales of the product plummet or even out to what they were before. Freebies are a short term solution to a long term marketing strategy.
The big publishing houses do not offer freebies for a reason. It’s all about perception of the author. Is the author a quality commodity, or are they not? Are they quality or are they discount? It’s all about branding of the author. How an author presents themselves to the world is exactly how the world will see them. How the world sees them is how they will place value on the author’s work.
I learned this from my own experience in publishing Sticks and Bones. I devalued my own work by dropping the price to 99 cents. I sold more copies of Sticks and Bones at the $2.99 price than I ever have at the 99 cent price point. I also learned a few more things by publishing Sticks and Bones, and I will be blogging more about those lessons in future posts.
Note: There is nothing wrong with shopping at Wal-Mart. I shop there all the time. This is about common public perception.