The Value of Free – Why you should give your work away

George Stares by Jeff Moriarty

George Stares by Jeff Moriarty

It may seem strange to encourage you to give your hard work away for free, but it may be the best business decision digital authors can make.

Specifically, make one version of your work available online for free, like a PDF or a serialized audio book, to reach new fans. And make sure you have plenty of fee-based editions (print, ebook, downloadable audio book) in every marketplace someone may opt to use.

Don’t laugh. It works.

“…I haven’t lost any sales, I’ve just won an audience. A tiny minority of downloaders treat the free e-book as a substitute for the printed book–those are the lost sales. But a much larger minority treat the e-book as an enticement to buy the printed book. They’re gained sales.”

Cory Doctorow, Forbes, 01 Dec 2006

Cory Doctorow, blogger and writer, talked about giving away his work to drive sales back in 2006, which is eons ago in Internet-Time. Cory made a PDF of his book “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” available for free online, and the resulting downloads drove a huge surge in awareness and sales of his other formats. It carried over into sales of his subsequent work, and Cory remains a huge believer in the practice.

In 2010 a New York Times article on digital publishing talked about how sales of Lauren Dane’s books “jumped exponentially” when she put a version up for free. This was a price reduction, and not an alternate format like Cory’s, but the idea remains the same.

Free versions of your work…

Generate buzz and awareness – You’ve given people something to talk about that doesn’t cost them anything. Anyone can participate. Google notices things like increased mentions, and you may find yourself showing up in more search results as your reach grows.

Make it easy to share – Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and all their friends down at Social Media Town work through sharing. A free version of your work is something that can be easily passed around through Likes, Tweets, Shares, or a million other ways people communicate. “I just read this great book, check out free right here…”

Don’t cost you anything – The writing is already done, and unless you are writing your own version of the OED, posting your free version on your website won’t kill your bandwidth costs. If you’re worried, there are places that specialize in hosting digital files with nearly-free bandwidth.

Entice new readers – As word of your work winds its way across the Internet, people who see it now have just one little click to check it out. Super simple with no purchase decision required. In one minute they can be deciding for themselves if they like you or not.

Don’t stop real customers from buying – People will pay for your other versions. People watch TV shows for free, but still buy full seasons on DVD later. People who would never buy your book anyway aren’t impacted, but others will happily convert to paying customers if they like what you have to offer.

Traditional publishers are still clueless

Cory made his move in 2006. The NY Times article was from 2010. In between (and since), countless others have done so to great succes. So why are publishers still baffled by this idea in 2012?

Evo Terra, my cohort in ePublish Unum, has been fighting this exact battle with Audible, the audiobook company. Evo runs, a site for authors to offer free, serialized audio versions of their books, and was excited to hear Audible might be embracing indie authors through their new Audiobook Creative Exchange (ACX) program. Alas, his hopes were dashed cruelly upon the stones.

It turns out that Audible is okay with multiple prices, as long as they are all above free. Even $0.01 is okay. ACX clearly does not understand the new marketplace, and it’s ridiculous.

How you can use free

It isn’t difficult, and many successful authors have been doing it for years. Here’s how you may get started:

  • Check your current agreements to make they don’t prohibit giving away free versions of different formats of your work. You can’t give away the exact same ebook for free that you’re charging for on Amazon (they don’t like that), but you can give away a different format, like a PDF or by serializing the book on a blog.
  • Develop a free version of all (or part of) your book. I recommend putting the whole thing out there, but you can try giving away a few chapters. (Check your genre first to make sure that the current bar isn’t set at “everything”.) It’s OK to change the free version in small ways, like adding an introduction that explains the book/series/idea to new readers, but many authors release the free version unchanged but just in a different format (like PDF).
  • Apply a clear Creative Commons License to your free version that makes it clear who still has the rights, and what you are allowing to be done with that version. If you want to be on the safe side, consider the  Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license.
  • Make yourself easy to find. If you’re about to release a free version of your hard work to get in more readers (and customers!) make sure they can find you when they come looking. Are you easy to find on, or in a Google search?
  • Share the heck out of it. Put links to the free content in obvious places, then let everyone know it is out there. Encourage them to read it and share it with their friends. If you ever hear someone had trouble finding your free version go back and make it even more obvious. You want this to be something anyone can stumble upon and enjoy.
  • Make sure your for-fee version is in all the marketplaces. Some of those with raised awareness prefer the convenience of a book in their hand or mixed in with the rest of their ebook content, or easily found in the iTunes Audiobooks section. Make sure you give them a chance to give you money.

Maybe some publishers never will figure out why free can bring so much value. Perhaps it will be something they ponder as the digital world moves on without them and they can’t figure out why.