Now here’s a funny thing. I’m a humourist and raconteur and a while ago I promoted my book ‘GRIT – The Banter and Brutality of the Late-Night Cab Driver’ on a five-day freebie. I had just under 1000 free downloads during the five-day period, which is a record for me but a bit disappointing because my target was somewhere closer to 2000.

And then someone said to me, “But you don’t make any money out of that?” And this, believe it or not, was a person who runs her own business and sells her own products, so you’d think she’d be a bit more switched on, wouldn’t you? But clearly she’s not clued up on the advantages of FREE e-advertising, and she obviously doesn’t realise that I will in fact make money out of it.

Last time I had a freebie the retweets and Facebook shares were ‘out there’ for at least another month. I know this, because book sales went up substantially during that period. And this time I was expecting better results. I know already, of course, how many mini-cab and taxi firms have re-tweeted my promotion or shared it on Facebook. And if I could be bothered – which I can’t - I could work out exactly how many people those tweets etc. went out to.

Leaving aside the supporting authors, writers, bloggers, book reviewers etc. just imagine the couple of dozen cab drivers who re-tweeted me to their thousands of followers or people who ‘like’ their Facebook pages. The book’s not free anymore, but for the following month cab drivers would have been checking it out, re-tweeting it themselves, finding out it now costs £0.99p on Amazon, thinking to themselves, “I’ve never heard of Karl Wiggins. It’s probably crap, but for £0.99p I’ve nothing to lose really,” and clicking on ‘Buy Now.’

It’s a numbers game of course, and it’s a nice thought that it will reach hundreds of thousands of people, but I’m pragmatic enough to understand that only a small percentage of those will act on it.

So where would you start trying to explain the advantages of a loss-leader to someone, even a businesses person, who clearly missed that class in ‘Business Studies’ at school? First of all, a free giveaway isn’t a loss-leader at all, is it? A loss-leader is when a product’s sold below market value in order to stimulate sales of a more profitable product. In other words the vendor makes a ‘loss’ on one product but that ‘leads’ to more sales of another product.

Well I haven’t made a loss on those 1000 books, have I? And anyone who thinks I have clearly doesn’t understand e-publishing. Most vendors have to buy their product in the first place. If they give it away for free they’re making a loss. Thus the obtuse statement, “But you didn’t make any money out of those books, did you?”

This particular person has to fork out for product, petrol, phone bills, stationary, equipment hire, wear & tear on vehicle, advertising, marketing and so on. They can’t afford to give anything away. The thought of giving a product away would no doubt bring them out in a cold sweat. What they fail to understand is that my product doesn’t cost me a penny. It’s extremely time-consuming to write a book, and that’s another matter, but to market an e-book doesn’t cost me a single penny.

So I’ve now got 1000 people reading the book who otherwise would probably never have done so. Which this sole trader doesn’t have, do they? After one week’s work they haven’t exactly attracted 1000 new customers to their business.

“But,” I hear again, “They’re reading it for FREE!! What good is that to you in the long run except for selling a few more books next month?”

DUUHHH!! Okay, to clarify, I’ve attracted 1000 new people to my business without any advertising costs whatsoever. And don’t be misled into thinking they’re one-time buyers, but more about that later. It really is only e-businesses that spend no money on advertising. Most sole traders have a website, of course, but they still use Yellow Pages, local newspapers, pamphlets, business cards and so on. Larger businesses – traditional publishers for instance – have print runs, premises, cleaning, electricity, water & gas, employee costs (salaries, health plans, pensions etc.), company cars and of course advertising. Not looking like such a turnip now, am I?

And are my 1000 new customers just one-time buyers? Let’s hope not. That depends on the quality of my writing. I'm very much aware that I have an inappropriate sense of humour that isn’t to everyone’s taste, and that not everyone ‘gets’ me. And I’m alright with that, in fact I take it as a compliment because if all I wrote about was roses on postcards and kittens and stuff like that then I’m not being controversial enough.

Most of my writing is my lifestyle observations, making every attempt to bring to life all the not-so-ordinary people that cross my path, even if most of them break my balls. This does, however, have the affect that a lot of people smile, laugh or ‘wet their knickers,’ and either way you look at it that’s got to be a success!

So are my 1000 new customers just one-time buyers? Well not if they enjoy the book. Readers naturally search out other books by a writer they like, so if they enjoy the first book they’ll purchase others. And just as importantly they’ll give good reviews. Not all readers understand how important a review is to a struggling scribbler, but I try and review everything I’ve read. Good reviews lead other people to purchase the book. Even better if they can establish a relationship with me. Readers love to communicate with writers. And from my point of view I’m hugely appreciative that they care enough to contact me. I will always reply to tweets, email correspondence or contacts through Facebook.

Never before have readers been so willing to take a chance on an unknown author. They’ve spent money on their Kindle or Nook or I pad or whatever and they’re anxious to load it up. They can spend £10 on a traditional author’s book or £0.99p on mine. For the first time in history that traditional author now has to prove he’s ten times better than me. By offering books for free I’m building a following one contact at a time. And guess what? More and more people are buying Kindles!

HOWEVER, playing devil’s advocate for a minute and looking at the other side of the coin, allow me to tell you a little story. You see I lived on the Algarve for four years, and every year all the bar owners would get together – stay with me because THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT TO ALL OF US – and agree amongst themselves on such issues as standards for touting (no one would tout outside someone else’s bar), the price of beer and so on.

For instance, way back then the price of a large beer was 200 escudos. This is before the Euro, you’ll remember. Everyone would agree on this, but I’m sure you can guess what always happened next? Before you knew it, there was a bar knocking out large beers for 180 escudos, or another bar offering free biscuits with a cup of tea. By the end of the season you’d find bars selling large beers in Happy Hour for 100 scuds, and then only raising the price to 150 when it was time for karaoke.

And guess what? The only person who won was the punter, the Billy Bunter, the tourist, the holidaymaker or the grokel, whatever you want to call him. Not the bar owners. They didn’t win. They all ended up competing with each other every year to fill their own bars with tourists who actually threw precious little of their hard-earned holiday savings over the jump.

But that wasn’t the real problem – PLEASE STAY WITH ME, THIS IS REALLY, REALLY IMPORTANT TO YOU AND ME. The real problem was that every year the breweries put up the price of a barrel of beer. In the four years I lived there I saw it go up from 2000 escudos to over 6000 escudos (Heaven knows what it is now!) but the bar owners couldn’t put up the price of a large beer because they’d price themselves out of the market. Their bar would be empty. Profits dwindled to such an extent that it became really, really hard for them to earn enough money in that short four-month summer window from June to September to last the whole year round.

But it was to get worse – AND THIS WHERE YOU AND I COME IN – for you know what happened next? More and more Johnny-come-latelies arrived to open bars on the strip. They lacked the experience, they didn’t know what they were getting into, THEY DIDN’T KNOW WHAT HARD WORK IT COULD BE OR HOW TIME-CONSUMING, but they were willing to do anything it took to entice punters into their own bars. They didn’t even really care about profits. They were in the sunshine and that was all that mattered.

Does this familiar? It should!

What was once a nice strip with about 20 bars now has over 100. It is horrible! Teenagers drinking cheap alco-pops, puking up and fighting in the street. Nicer people have moved out, retired or bought quiet little bars inland. They don’t make any money, of course, but they can’t compete with the Strip.

Now I hope you’ve stayed with me so far because those of you who are astute enough will have realised that I can at times, if nothing else, be a master of the metaphor, because this is exactly the same scenario that is happening to Indie authors right now. And I have a very serious concern about it.

Before I go on allow me to say that by cogitating over what I’m about to write I’m opening myself up to accusations of hypocrisy, because I have been in the past just as much a part of the problem as everybody else, and I admit that.

It’s only in the last couple of years that we’ve been able to stick two fingers up at the publishing houses and the vanity publishers, who’ve had things their own way for far too long. Do you want to hear my war stories concerning Print on Demand and rip-offs? I didn’t think so, for we can all tell similar stories.

But nowadays you and I are in charge. We write the books, we publish them, we have no one demanding to edit our very own style out of our writing, and we promote them.

HMV went bust a year ago after 92 years, with the loss of 239 stores and 4350 jobs. The reason; digital downloads.

There is really now no place for the high street retailer - records or books. Why would anyone bother to get dressed, drive downtown, find a parking space, walk to the book store, search through all the books and choose one to read when the much simpler option is to fire up your Kindle (still in your jimmy-jams), buy the book and be reading it by the time you've finished your second cup of coffee?

The only thing that keeps traditional publishers from realising they're a dying breed is nothing but their own bloody arrogance!

Their comeuppance is well overdue.

But here’s my concern, and it really troubles me. Just like the bars in Portugal, we as writers have now been forced into the situation whereby we’re all competing with each, and we’re doing that by knocking down our prices. Now when I say competing, that takes absolutely nothing away from the very supportive nature that I’m absolutely convinced the Indie author community has towards each other. All of us totally understand the hard work we each put in writing our books, and the harder work it takes to promote them. But once we’ve written them, we want people to read them, and it would be nice to make a little bit of ‘folding’ out of it, wouldn’t it?

So we knock the prices down, giving five-day giveaways in our own version of Happy hour, yet the only person who wins is the punter, who in this case is the reader.

We’ve reached the stage whereby people are now trawling Amazon looking for free books. There are even companies that list them!!!!

And, just like the Algarve, in the next year or so there will be so many Indie authors on Amazon, what chance will we have? Readers will only download free books! Someone will probably come up with a clever geeky-type thing that says, “Notify me when this book is free.”

I don’t know the answer to this, but if you spend a year writing your book, why should you give your hard work away for free?

I am truly concerned about what will happen in the long run. What’s the next step? Giving books away for free and then selling advertising space around those books? Maybe we’ll end up writing books just as a loss-leader to sell advertising.

Depressing, isn’t it?

It would be no good campaigning for Amazon and the like to cease offering books for free because they wouldn’t. They want to sell Kindles.

I just don’t know where we, as writers, will be in five years’ time. With more and more authors writing books and offering them for free there will be no reason whatsoever for a reader to pay anything at all to download a copy.

I do know one thing though. If this issue is not addressed – by Amazon ideally – the whole self-publishing industry will go into free-fall and eventually implode.

The only people who can sort this are Amazon. The traditional publishers may well be right now sitting on the side-lines, biding their time, waiting for the whole self-publishing industry to cave-in. At which stage they will take over again. Amazon won't care, of course, because they'll continue selling Kindles, only book prices will go through the roof, and they'll make even more commission!

By offering our books for free not only are we devaluing our product but we’re forcing each other to compete. And readers aren’t stupid. They realise what’s happening. I have a friend who doesn’t pay for anything if she can help it. She doesn’t pay to download music, films or books, but can you blame her?

It isn’t just this industry or the bars on the Algarve that face this problem. The mini-cab industry is being taking over by foreign migrants who’ll take, say, a £55 airport run and offer it for just £35 with the return for free. How can anyone compete against that?

In a recession this is quite possibly a global issue, but all authors and writers want to do is earn a little bit of cash from our writing. And if this isn’t sorted soon that may very well become an impossibility.

I will never, ever offer one of my books for free. If I do please feel free to come to my house en masse, build some stocks in the driveway and have all the neighbours throw tomatoes (in the can) at me. Sue will give you a warm welcome. In fact, she’ll probably help!
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Published on July 30, 2014 09:10 • 1,441 views • Tags: book-promotion-free-author
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message 1: by Austin (last edited Sep 08, 2014 03:45AM) (new)

Austin Briggs I hear you!

I guess there's a business principle of never giving away your core product for free. Yet, there's also a ton of research showing that sampling works wonders. It puts your product into the hands of your target consumers.

So yes, I hear your caution... yet I believe that free has a legitimate place in our business model of selling books. For example, having the first book in your series free brings good exposure to the rest of the series, and it only costs you what you spent to write and produce that book.

So I don't think the independent authors will stop offering freebies any time soon. Freebies work, when used well. So they'll stay.

Big companies understand this; so Google, for example, may set your book free without you even knowing. Then Amazon would price-match. You simply wake up to the world of no sales...

Realizing that I complete with authors who are willing to give their core work away, I've changed my strategy. All my books will be series now, and I don't mean books chopped up into series, which is what some authors do (and they get punished for this by readers). I write series of complete books that can stand on their own.

I can't change the world... but I can try to play along.

message 2: by Karl (new)

Karl Wiggins Austin, I so agree that any book out of a series should also be able to stand alone - even if it's the middle book in the series.

About a year ago I read what I felt at the time was a very good book. I was enjoying it, but just as the action was about to hot up it suddenly finished. Just like that. It simply stopped mid stride.

I gave a really poor review as I felt the reader was being ripped off.

message 3: by Shaun (new)

Shaun Attwood I understand both sides of what you are saying. I've made the middle instalment of my trilogy, Hard Time 2nd Edition, permanently free in an attempt to drastically expand my readership from its present 10K a year into the 100K zone. I'll keep you posted on the results.

message 4: by Austin (new)

Austin Briggs Hi Shaun,

I think I understand why you made the middle book perma-free, but it's an unusual move. If you don't mind, could you please share your reasons why you didn't make the first one perms-free?

Many thanks,


message 5: by Shaun (new)

Shaun Attwood Hard Time is the only book my non competition clause with my publisher Mainstream (Random House) has expired on, so legally its the only one I could publish as a competing version myself. That clause lasts for 3 years from original publication.

message 6: by Meg (new)

Meg Heggen I certainly agree with the thrust of your argument. My book sales range from zilch to a-spider's-tool-beyond-zilch; so it can be rather tempting to jump on the treadmill to at least get one book into the hands of a reader who's fast-tracking it from freebie to freebie. So far I've resisted, mainly because I'm too overwhelmed or technically-inefficient to promote my work but mostly because it would cost me a significant amount to mail a book ( or five) overseas to prize winners & I've already forked out enough in the process. I've only given away books I can physically hand to real people, the readers I've chosen because they may at least have something to tell me about my writing, face-to-face (though that's hardly ever the truth). Still the dilemma exists. My books sit like un-found stamps in a forgotten album in a forgettable attic, as pictorial temptations waiting to be noticed among the thousands of similar effigies on the digital shelves of I'd prefer for them to be in the hands of readers who appreciate the hours it takes to produce them & who are prepared to pay the larger portion of what they're worth as a mark of gratitude for time- well-spent-in-the-pursuit-of-literary-excellence, but, hey, I'm from the old school & there ain't too many of us around these days.

message 7: by William (new)

William Hahn I think the metaphor doesn't go far enough. The problem isn't that the happy hour beer is cheap- the problem is that the consumers see so many bars they can't remember where they had it, much less whether it was any good.

The problem for us indies is different. First off, I feel you're wrong to assume a download is a read: absolutely not, especially when it's free. Folks graze along and download all kinds of freebies, and forget, like the drinker, that they have them- they're not reasonable and organized like you. Of a thousand, you should hope for 250 reads.

BUT assuming at least some do read, here's where books go in a very different direction. If that large beer glass had a label with the brand, and the drinker woke up with that brand printed backwards on his forehead so he could read it in a mirror, that would begin to be similar. Books only exist if you read them- which means your "brand" can be remembered, and they'll come back to your "bar" to buy again.

That's the point of freebie books.

As for "making us compete with each other", do you even hear yourself sir! Take off your shoes, for you tread on holy ground- competition is what it's supposed to be about. You can't whine about Big Pub's restrictions in one breath, and then complain about their lack of protection in the next. This is it. On the other hand, when you first read Tolkien and loved him, did you swear never to read Donaldson again? Or Lewis, or LeGuin? That didn't happen to me- we will never be in competition in that sense.

message 8: by Karl (new)

Karl Wiggins William, I love the way you've stretched that metaphor. I honestly feel giving books away for free leads to poor reviews.

The drinker wakes up in the morning with a hangover, forgets it was free and just remembers he went to a shit bar. Likewise if I gave books away I'd get totally the wrong readers who download it because it's free, not because it's their favourite genre.

Meg, you've got my empathy. I wouldn't throw good money after bad

message 9: by Shaun (new)

Shaun Attwood Karl,
my book, hard time second edition, went free just over a month ago, so far, all of the reviews are four & five stars on Amazon USA, UK and goodreads
as I hoped, it's getting thousands of downloads and expanding my readership
Some of these new readers are buying my other books
So far so good.
early days, so I'll keep you posted

message 10: by Karl (new)

Karl Wiggins Hi Shaun, that might work as a loss leader, but I still fear we'll get to a stage where the general public doesn't want to pay for anything.

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