Once upon a time I met an author at a Comic Con. He was friendly, but after about thirty seconds of casual conversation asked me, "How much do you charge for your e-books?"
"$2.99," I said. "The standard."
Well. These were the magic words to learning all about the chip on his shoulder.
"$2.99 is TOO LOW a price for ANY book! It's practically free!" he exclaimed. "Authors work hard--you work hard, spend hours and hours writing these books, and selling it for such an absurdly low price is ridiculous!"
I didn't know what to say. On one hand, he had a point--authors do work hard and spend their own money and deserve to get paid fairly for their work. On the other hand, he had just out-and-out insulted me about my personal choices on how to price my own products. Thankfully, I didn't need to say anything:
"And authors who give their books away for free--they're ruining it for the rest of us!" he continued. "They are shaping the consumer's expectation that they shouldn't have to pay for books, that entertainment is cheap! Well, I think books should cost at least $6, e-book or not! And I've never charged less than $5.99 for any of my books and neither should you! And usually I charge $9.99 or $11.99 for e-books."
Well, sometimes I do the opposite of what people want (it's in my genes) and so I gave my book away for free this weekend. The Clock Winked (free til Feb 3!) had so many downloads, that it listed as a free bestseller in five different categories. I got new Facebook likes, new newsletter subscribers, new G+ followers, new Twitter subscribers, and a whole bunch of sales of my other books. It was an exciting weekend, to say the least.
The thing about "not giving books away for free" or "practically free" is a conceptual debate that I get into with myself a lot. On one hand, like the kind gentleman said, I did a lot of work on my books and I want to get paid for them--right? On the other hand, giving books away for free is a great promotional tool that could lead to new readers who will hopefully buy my other books--right?
I think sometimes it comes down to the way it is and the way it isn't. If this issue was important enough to me, I would start a crusade, build a website, create a union, and get other authors on my side. "NO MORE FREE BOOKS," is what our picket signs would say. "AUTHORS NEED FOOD TOO!" I would try to change things--I wouldn't just list my books too high and complain when they didn't sell that "it's not fair."
But it's not that important to me, and this is the way things are. Authors work their butts off to pursue their passion. They sell their books cheap. Sometimes they give them away for free. Readers like free e-books. Readers like cheap e-books. And so here we are, working in the system we live in. Being self-employed in the system we live in.
Being self-employed is a risky business, and sometimes those risks involve giving things away for free. Look at TD Bank. They give away so many pens it's probably an environmental hazard. Every business in town has TD Bank pens--soon we'll be drowning in them.
I just want to say that while, yes, there are plenty of things to complain about in the system we live in, there are plenty of things to be grateful for, too. Not 20 years ago, women writers used male or initial pen names because books by women didn't sell. We still need to work on this, but it's getting better. Not fifteen years ago, it was almost impossible to be successful as a self-published author, without being extraordinarily wealthy or buying equipment and building your own publishing company. Not ten years ago, authors who decided to be self-published were considered frauds, fakes, and not worth reading. Not five years ago, self-published authors were barely shedding the negative stereotypes associated with self-publishing, and still floundering trying to figure out what works and what doesn't.
Now we have resources upon resources, massive networks of authors and readers there to support each other, and access to whatever we need to accomplish our goals. We don't need a publishing company, we just need the support of each other. We don't need to be experts at marketing, we just need a few strategies that work. Like giving away our books. For free.
It's the author's choice whether or not they want to give something away for free. It's the author's prerogative to determine why they want to give something away for free (or not). And here's to a future in which authors respect each other's choices in the matter.
What does matter is the quality of the e-books that are being produced, and the standards by which we judge them. But that, my friends, is another debate for another time.
In the meantime, we should focus on making the world better for the authors that come after us.