An Experiment on Giving it All Away

My life as an "indie" writer has been more or less without surprises. I knew when I uploaded a few short stories and a novel onto Amazon and Smashwords, I wasn't going to get rich. And I was right. I haven't. Not even close. Not even not even close.

I can name a number of reasons for this. Namely, I haven't been much of a salesperson. In this vast sea of Amanda Hocking hopefuls, it takes a lot to stand out, and although I've followed a lot of the recommended techniques, it hasn't been quite enough to push me beyond what Malcolm Gladwell would call the "Tipping Point." My success has largely been in proportion to the amount of effort that I've put into promoting myself, and I'm overall satisfied with it. I have plans to add more to my online library over the next several months, and I'm feeling optimistic about the future.

The question has now mainly become one about pricing. I've always felt my price points were directly in line with people's expectations of what they think is a fair price for downloadable content. $.99 for short stories, $2.99 for novels. Any more than that, and people will generally start to hesitate. It doesn't matter what I think my work is ACTUALLY worth (I think it's worth more than what I was already charging, but so what?). It's what people are willing to pay for it. Amazon knows this, and it's why they're tops in the business right now. They deeply discount their products to bring in more customers, and it works.

There's also the fact that people largely don't like to pay for downloadable content at all if they don't have to. The ones who do pay have to be a particular brand of passionate not only about reading, but about the future of e-books.

You can throw Dean Wesley Smith algorithms in my face all you want, but what has worked for him will not work for everybody. Most writers don't have followings ranging in the thousands. Most of us have followings ranging in the dozens. And when it comes to books, most people are still reluctant to purchase electronically. There is no use in comparing ebooks to MP3s at this point in time. CDs are far more irrelevant in the marketplace than physical books, and it'll be a very long time until that changes. In the meantime, we have to work within a realistic framework. People generally don't like paying more than a couple bucks for digital content of ANY kind - music, phone apps, games, and even books.

And that's without even getting into the fact that many people who download content are pirating it. Again, the lack of a price tag is more appealing for a generation of people who don't believe they should have to pay for digital content. This has never been more true to me than in the last week, when I started giving my work away as part of the Smashwords Summer Sale.

In doing so, I have discovered that there is a great demand for my work. In the first 24 hours of giving away my short stories, I'd made more sales than I had in three months. Did I care about all the money I was "losing"? You can't lose what you were never making in the first place.

Every day since then, I've been selling an average of twenty stories a day. Some days are more, some days less. Yesterday was close to fifty, and the numbers are on an upward trend. Stories that were once my lowest sellers are now my highest.

I didn't want to stop there. It was only my short stories that were free. My book, I had marked down to $1.49. But that still wasn't really selling as well (at least on Smashwords... my novel sales have generally been much higher through Amazon). So I decided today to make that one free as well. Within hours, the sales of that book have more than doubled.

This tells me a few things:

1. People are cheap bastards. Of course, I knew that already.

2. There is some kind of a demand for my work, or people wouldn't be downloading it the way they are.

Do I care that the income I could've been making over the last week might have paid this month's electric bill if only people weren't such cheap bastards? No, not really. Whining about that is futile. I'm a cheap bastard too. I get it. It's folly entering into something like this expecting people to behave any differently than I would myself. It takes a particular kind of person to invest even a buck into an unproven writer. And by unproven, I mean someone who hasn't been published by a traditional publisher or at least reviewed by someone with some clout.

I never went into self-publishing for the money. I wanted the exposure. I'm a writer, and I want people to read what I write, and giving away some of my work is a valuable marketing tool. In letting the work speak for itself, and letting people have free access to it, I could very well build a following that I might never have if I'd kept everything behind a pay wall. The name recognition and brand building is worth far more in the long run than the measly double-digit quarterly royalty payments I've been receiving.

If we expect to be breaking down the barriers of tradition and being avant garde with this whole e-publishing thing, then that should also have to extend to how we wind up generating income. We may have to consider short-term losses for long-term gains.

In fact, I'm considering keeping the bulk of my catalog free. I feel far more rewarded as a writer when I see one free download after another than a stubborn trickle of paid downloads. I know a lot of my writerly peers will call me crazy for that, but I'm thinking about the long game, and in my opinion, if the story isn't making you any money after several months, why bother charging? At this stage of my career, I'd rather the readers know my name. The money can come later.

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