Why I’m a Little Afraid of Free

Full disclosure: I use permafree currently, and I’ve done free promotions for a number of my books. (Permafree is what authors call it when an ebook is always free to download.) I realize that free is an incredibly useful and probably necessary tool to get my name and my books in front of new readers. I will very likely continue to have a permafree book and use free promotions in the future. And in fact, I use two free books to promote my new releases newsletter. So I’m familiar with free.

I just have this concern…

There is the obvious fear of giving away book for free, that you aren’t earning anything for your hard work (and the counter argument that you have to do something to get noticed). And often times free books get downloads in large numbers. Sometimes this is by a excited reader, sometimes by people who might just be free-seekers. Either way, readers can end up with lengthy To Be Read (TBR) lists.

Personally, I think most people who download a free book are genuinely interested in reading that book, but when there are so many free options, it’s easy to just stick another free one on the pile and forget about it. And if that reader ever does come back to the book, it’ll be just a cover in their library that they might ignore (since it’s missing its blurb and reviews and such).

So: Free. Gets a lot of downloads. Might lead to real readers. Might lead to being just one more item on a TBR list. This is the known and expected gamble an author takes when making a book free.

Oh, there is the excitement of a book doing very well as a free promo, like my book recently hitting #1 on several charts. Don’t get me wrong. I’m excited that people are interested. There are thousands of books that are free that DON’T get downloaded. So, thank you to everyone who downloaded mine — I hope you like it enough to try another.

The thing I worry about is the shift in market perception that makes free an expectation. My day job is in web, mobile and app development. We went through the gold rush era for apps where you could spend time and a lot of money building an app, then put it on the market and get sales by the boatload. Then things changed. Particularly as Android’s popularity eclipsed or at least equaled that of iOS (iPhone, iPod, iPad). Android’s app market pretty much sucked at first. So they pushed for developers to make things free to try to drum up more downloads. And now, almost everything is free (for reference, since I switched my personal phone from an iPhone to an Android phone, I have not had the need to buy a single app, even though I have downloaded many). My perception of the ebook marketplace now is that this same push to make things free is happening.

App developers with free apps use in-app purchasing and ads to try to make money, but those ideas don’t transfer to ebooks. Well, not easily. I think a reader would be pretty upset to read through to the end of a book and see: “To purchase the last chapter, tap here.” Producing an app has gone from a money-maker to a high-risk venture. I’ve watched a number of companies – big ones – implode producing expensive apps they couldn’t sell.

Before anyone jumps in and says people will always pay for books (or songs, or movies) they love, I totally agree with that.

What I worry about is that the pressure for free (or 99c or $1.99 or even $2.99) makes it harder for the little guy to earn a living selling books, much like the pressure for low cost or free apps has made it quite hard to earn a living making apps. (This article is from 2013 and discusses the difficulty in making money on apps – and I’d argue strongly that things have just gotten worse: http://www.forbes.com/sites/tristanlouis/2013/08/10/how-much-do-average-apps-make/)

Apps are essentially just software. They’re still built in complex ways by skilled programmers and designers. The same programmers and designers who, before the app craze, probably developed really expensive software. But the market now expects their programs (apps) to be free or dirt cheap. That’s tough to live on. (BTW the companies that DO make money on apps are the SELLERS, like Apple. Sound familiar? Amazon is the real winner with ebooks, of course.)

All this is to say that I’m a small fish. I don’t need to be the Great White shark, but I’d like to at least survive in the ocean. Free may be a necessary evil or it may be something that has a larger negative effect on the industry.

I don’t have a solution. I use free, so I guess I’m part of the problem. Vanguard indie author Hugh Howey (and friends) have collected and sorted a lot of data on pricing and determined that $4.99 is the optimal ebook price for downloads and royalties. I have exactly one book at that price, so I guess I need to reassess my planning.

What do you think? Will you only consider free or low cost books? Or are you on the opposite end of the spectrum, avoiding low cost and free books because they feel like low quality to you?