I Gave Away Free Books for a Year. Here’s What I Learned.

I haven’t posted on this blog since December of last year (sorry about that). That post was one I had started drafting in July. It dealt with something that had been bothering me for months even then.

For almost as long as I’d been releasing books there was a thought that haunted me. I’d been selling them exclusively through Amazon and making a small amount of money. Amazon allowed me five days out of every 90 to give them away for free and about 97% of my downloads were taking place on those free days. I was terrified that the $2.99 price tag was keeping away thousands of people who might otherwise want to read my work. I asked myself whether I cared more about making money or about getting my writing out there and I decided it was more important that people read the books. The way writers always say “I don’t do this for the money,” I said to myself, “You know what, I mean that.” So I made everything free.

I had told myself I’d do this for a year and then reevaluate. I knew it might be a slow build, but it made sense to me that readers would be more likely to try a book on a whim if it was free and they’d be more comfortable recommending it to others as well. I thought it would snowball over time. If the downloads increased by a few percent each month, maybe I’d start to find a much larger fan base by the end of the year.

I needed to know. If the money I was making was made by preventing most readers from checking out my work, I thought I’d rather not have that money.

It was a slow build, but things looked good for a while. My downloads escalated slowly, but they were escalating every month. Once in a while I got a new review, or someone added me on Facebook and told me they loved one of the books. I was gaining new fans, maybe not at an incredible rate, maybe not even as fast as before, but the momentum seemed to be building whereas with Amazon it had been falling.

Then I got caught up in other work. I moved back to the US from China and had to find a day job. My computer broke down and I worked with a backup for four months that was falling apart. I was broke, and more focused on finding work than on keeping track of book downloads. In the computer crash, I’d lost access to an important spreadsheet keeping track of monthly book downloads. I could have rebuilt it, but I didn’t care. I was busy with stuff that might make me money. I didn’t care much how my books were doing. I stopped giving it much thought. The buildup of downloads was happening slowly anyway. I doubted I was missing much.

This week I finally fixed my computer. I updated that old spreadsheet to look at what my downloads had been doing for the four months since I stopped paying attention and it’s clear as day. In 2012 I had almost 40,000 books downloaded. In 2013 I had about 20,000. In 2014 I will be lucky to hit 5,000. Those numbers are a little dishonest because I also worked a lot harder at promoting in 2012 and 2013, and I might be okay with 5,000 if the numbers were still climbing each month with no end in sight, but my downloads peaked back in July. Now they’re falling a little, or balancing out. I will not gain a larger readership by giving my work away free to anyone interested. Quite the opposite. More people want my books when they cost money than when they’re free.

I don’t know why that is. Maybe not many people read the books they download for free, or maybe there’s less perceived value on a book that the author gives away. Personally I think it’s just that Amazon is a powerful company and gives major help to indie writers who go exclusively through them. But one way or the other it’s a happy thought. I had spent over a year thinking about how to make money as a writer without charging for my books. I had ideas about crowd-funding, about special offers for readers willing to pay… I was obsessed with figuring it out. But, at least for now, it’s a non-issue. I can give out more copies of my books by making money off of them than I can by giving them away, and that’s good news, because even if writing isn’t about the money, I do love money.

I hope this will carry with it a shift in perspective, too. A year ago, writing for profit had become something I hated doing. Too often it felt like it was more about sales than about art and as much as I liked writing books, I hated trying to be a salesman for them. But with the downward shift in both downloads and income, this year hasn’t been gratifying on that front either. I wanted to put out at least two new books and a movie this year and it didn’t happen. I have to blame a shift in motivation for that.

It’s been a hard year, with an international move, a difficult job search, and a bunch of other stresses. Maybe my productivity has slowed down entirely due to outside forces in that horrible “real world” where the non-artists live; or it maybe it’s related to a lack of downloads for the free books; or maybe, subconsciously, as much as I don’t want to admit it, I do kinda do it for the money. A little bit. I mean, just a little. Maybe.

So I’m about to go back to selling exclusively through Amazon. And the books will cost a few bucks and every once in a while they’ll be free for a day or two. And more people will probably read them. And I’ll probably make more money. And, hopefully, between all of those things, I’ll be writing my ass off. It seems that what’s best for my bank account is also best for my readership and there’s no need to decide between the two. That’s some of the best writing news I could get.

I’ll try never to neglect this blog for so long again. New stuff is coming. I have a new horror novel that’s almost done and a screenplay I’m dying to start producing, and I’m looking forward to the day I can tell you all about them. In the meantime, as always, feel free to send a request to my personal Facebook page if you want.

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One Response to I Gave Away Free Books for a Year. Here’s What I Learned.

  1. Pingback:New Short Stories Every Month | GregSisco.com

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