numerous discussions with my published author pals on the issue of free
book downloads, we’re all in agreement that “freebies” give publishers
opportunities to showcase all of their books. And,
yes, freebies have the potential to broaden an author’s reader base,
too. But the whole freebies discussion raises more questions than
answers: Will readers feel inclined, after getting something for
nothing, to buy other books from that publisher’s list? Will freebies
inspire newfound loyalty to the author and encourage the purchase of
other books written by that author? If the answer to either question is
yes, how will those numbers translate into profits for publishers andauthors?
I know of at least half a dozen
authors who claim free downloads of
their most recent books numbered in the tens of thousands. Yes. You
read correctly. Tens of thousands of books, given away, for
free, while online or in-store purchases of the same title
plateaued at somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000. Is there a
cause-and-effect connection, here? If so, how does that
translate into profits? Mind you, these authors aren’t complaining
about the totals, per se. The problem arrives with the royalty statement,
where that incredible tens of thousands of download copies did not
appear in the sales column. Rather, the paltry
2,000 to 3,000 books sold determined the number in the “Pay in the
Amount of” box on the royalty check.
To compound things, publishers,
more and more often, are punishing
authors for low sales stats. How? By rejecting all future proposals.
“We are very disappointed in the way Your Last Book
sold,” they say, “so while we’re very sorry, it just doesn’t make
fiscal sense to invest in you again.” Admit it. You know at least one
author who cried on your shoulder after hearing words like those. To
add insult to injury, they heard those words despite having personally
financed rigorous PR/marketing campaigns (rack cards, bookmarks,
magazine ad space, video book trailers, to name but a few expenditures)
in the hope of improving sales.
Readers, as the recipients of
most promotional materials, are acutely
aware those things don’t come cheap. Countless times, my author friends
and I have lamented, we’ve needed to correct readers’ perceptions:
Publishers rarely pick up the tab for rack cards and such. And by so
doing, we add yet another spoke on the vicious ‘book give-away’ circle:
“Authors must be rollin’ in the dough to afford all
that stuff,” some readers believe. “If they can afford all that, why
should I pay $12.99 for a book that’ll be free any
In the olden days, when I earned
my living writing articles (slightly
more than 2,500 at last count), I learned that magazine and newspaper
editors pay their “pet” freelancers from a prearranged monthly budget.
Writers new to the industry believed that if they charged less per
article, they’d net the juiciest assignments and net more
assignments. Poor naïve things. By the time they figured out the
opposite was true, we “old-timers” had already locked up the editors’
trust (and earned more choice assignments than we could handle). Why?
Because we knew better than to undervalue our experience or
underprice our work.
ad agencies and consumer reporting organizations agree that whether
you’re selling roofing materials, toothpicks, or the proverbial better
mousetrap, buyers don’t trust “cheap.” And let’s face it, you can’t get
any cheaper than free. By giving our books away for
days (sometimes weeks), we’re sending subliminal messages to readers:
“We have so little confidence in our talent, so little self-assurance
that our stories might actually sell, that we’re willing to give the
books away just to see them out there in the hands of readers.” So we
don’t question (at least, not out loud) the clause in our book
contracts that grants the publisher carte blanche to give away as many
copies of our titles as they see fit, and we don’t quibble with the
line that says giveaways, whether to reviewers or distributors or
librarians, are not counted as sales.
Gone are the good old days when
publishers sent authors on lavish booksigning tours. Just as gone are
fat advances and contracts that promised cushy marketing budgets. Times
are tough for authors and publishers. To stay
afloat, companies are forced to cut corners. Authors get that. It’s one
of many reasons we work so hard and spend so much of our own money to
lighten their load. We want them to succeed, as much (maybe even more
than) they do!
We want our readers to succeed
in these tough times, too. After all, without our readers, no one in
the publishing industry would have a job. So okay. Let’s give ’em a
break when we can: introductory offers, clearance sales, seasonal
discounts . . . books at reduced rates.
But when all is said and done,
numbers don’t lie. And we shouldn’t either. Let’s stop pretending that
authors—most of whom barely earn minimum wage—can sustain an entire
industry by giving our work away for free.