Tuesday, July 1, 2014


I've been involved with software for a few decades now and one of the things I really enjoy about software is how it costs nothing to reproduce and redistribute. This means that a lot of it gets given away freely. Linux is like this. It's free and you can run Linux on your laptop for just the time it takes you to download it and put it on your machine.

And then there's the Internet. Do you want to find all the web pages that talk about kittens? Do a google search and you'll get hundred of links to sites related somehow to kittens. And what did you have to pay for this? Nothing! It's free.

Aside: The Grammar Nazi would like to point out that it is "free" or "for nothing" or "freely" and that it is improper to say "for free". But don't take him too seriously, because he left out all the commas in that last sentence.

If you have a smart phone, you can go online to one or another web site and search for applications. And if you're lucky, there's an app for that. And most of the time that's free, too. Which is great.

If you're a writer, particularly an indie writer, you may have noticed that your biggest problem is obscurity. The people who know you look up your work on Amazon or wherever, and they can buy it for a nominal amount. But you aren't rich and famous because nobody knows to look up your work on Amazon.

One approach that indie writers adopt is giving away free samples. You can find some of their stories for sale for $0.00. This is in hopes that you'll realize you like their work and you'll buy other stories at $3.00 or more.

One thing I've discovered that does NOT work for me is offering a free minimalist smartphone app, that has all its best features teased, but unavailable unless you pay for an upgrade. It's gotten to the point where there are things which I just naturally expect to be free, and it is unreasonable, but I resent it when someone expects me to pay for it. It's like internet news sites that are hidden behind a paywall. I won't pay, I"ll just go somewhere else that doesn't charge.

If I change roles, and think of myself not as consumer, but as producer of software, of ebooks, of cell phone apps, of music, of videos, etc. I have a problem with this attitude. As a producer of works art, I'd sort of like to get paid for it, otherwise I'll starve. Or do something else.

So, I've got an opportunity to build my reputation online via giving away freebies, but I can't start charging for anything I've been giving away. Once I start charging, it's like the girl who's been giving you sexual favors announcing that henceforth she's raising her prices to match the hooker standing on the corner. It changes the entire dynamic.

However, suppose you've enjoyed the sexual favors of some toothsome lass and after you're enjoying the afterglow, she casually mentions her favorite brand of champagne, or chocolate. This will transfer some of the good feelings you've recently gotten from the free goods to these other goods. You may then realize that you're thirsty for champagne or hungry for chocolate.

What I'm saying here is this:

The only thing you can reasonably expect from a freebie give-a-way is a referral.

Suppose you give away a really great iPhone app. You won't be able to raise your prices, but if that app creates value for a lot of people those people will think well of you. And if you ask them to refer their acquaintances to a related-but-different product, I think you can reasonably expect them to mention it. For instance, I might give away the sound track, but sell a movie. Or give away an iPhone app, but sell computer consulting.

The trouble with indie writers giving away book A in hopes of driving sales to book B is that the reader of book A holds in her hands proof that the book can be reproduced so cheaply you can give it away, so there's little reason to believe book B is not produced just as cheaply.

If you're an indie writer who wants to drive business to your stories, you'll have to find something related-but-different that you can give away freely. And all you can expect from that freebie is some gesture of gratitude on the part of the recipient. I don't quite know (yet) what that related-but-different freebie might be, nor do I know how to create a system that enables gestures-of-gratitude.

If you have any ideas, let's hear them.


  1. Part of the issue here is expecting too big an audience for the paid product (or the free one, for that matter) too quickly. If you self publish a book on Amazon and charge for it (as my cousin Aric does: http://www.amazon.com/Aric-Davis/e/B0041TSCR4/), then you might get 50 or 100 readers with a bit of hustle. Is that a lot? Not for Stephen King but maybe for you.

    Then when you get your second book, half of those readers buy plus some new ones, etc.

    I think Aric hustled mostly with his real-world friends to build his audience, and then things started taking off. Another technique I've heard is to sell the book and blog the backstory. Probably more important is to engage actual readers in a give-and-take - so it might be better to find existing online communities where you can engage and become "one of the gang" - once you have something to sell to them, they'll be appreciative.

    Gary V wrote about this recently as well in Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook - give a lot before you ask. App "teasers" don't feel like giving, but a real, free app with in-app content can be awesome - because the recipient feels that the app is truly given if it is truly useful on its own. Evernote is another example of that.

    Happy to brainstorm more over lunch sometime soon ...

  2. Well, I lost my long reply because I signed in after I wrote it instead of before. .

    Long story short, I like to read series. Many authors, especially on Smashwords, give away the first book for free. I have bought the rest of the books of at least 10 series that way, shelling out $2.99 EACH because their writing is just that compelling. Of one series I bought 7 sequels (until it got too dystopian) and on another I'm at 13 and counting.

    Write. Publish. Repeat. by Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant is a great book in terms of marketing strategies and tactics, including the extensive and strategic use of freebies. It's not free, but it's worth buying. Currently $5.99 on Amazon. (I paid $9.99 and I don't regret it!)


    Other than that, I will just say: I bought Finding Time for $2.99 because I enjoyed the Aristotelian for 99 cents.


Those more worthy than I: