Do free books devalue an author’s worth in the public eye?

There must be a thousand gimmicks on the Internet showing emerging writers how to become better-known writers. Some “gurus” advocate “street teams” who read and talk-up an author’s books. Some suggest various methods for gaming Amazon’s algorithms so that an out-of-nowhere book suddenly becomes a bestseller. Others say each of us needs a giveaway book that shows readers our style that includes links to the primary books we’re trying to sell.

I’ve had dinner at Antoine’s numerous times and I like their food. One has to earn the kind of reputation they have. But that doesn’t mean everyone else is chopped liver.

There are stories–some probably true–that tell of unknown writers who followed a guru’s publicity program and suddenly sold $100,000 worth of books. These often sound like the claims I used to see in chain letters. And, notably, while I read a lot, I’ve never heard of any of the authors who became rich according to these claims.

If you look at a lot of prospective books on Amazon and elsewhere, you’ll see that the Kindle edition of a well-known author’s fiction costs more than the hardback edition of an unknown author’s novels. Well, obviously people are going to pay more for a dinner at Antoine’s Restaurant than a quarter pounder and fries at McDonald’s.

Yet, sometimes I think emerging authors are setting their prices too low. This reminds me of the old phrase “I can get it for you wholesale.” Sure, but how good is it?

I don’t expect to compete–on price–with John Grisham or J. K. Rowling. Yet, if I set the price of my books too low, this gives prospective readers the idea that I’m not charging more because my work isn’t worth more.  Nor would I expect a mom and pop diner in Peoria to charge as much as Antoine’s. However, when a new restaurant or an emerging author sets prices too low, I think they are devaluing their work.

As C. Hope Clark (Funds for Writers) has said on multiple occasions, writers are often expected to jump at the chance to attend a conference or serve on a panel “for the exposure.” Why do those in charge of writers’ retreats expect us to jump at the chance when everyone else supplying something to the venture–from publicity to catered meals–is being paid?

In a recent blog post, Clark said, “A few people will get their feathers ruffled. ‘Not me’ or ‘I know a lot of exceptions to that’ but the grand majority of people see free as something of lesser value; otherwise, it wouldn’t be cheap. And if something costs more, there usually has to be a reason.”

I agree. Yes, FREE might have its place, but generally, it’s not a good place. It makes us look cheap and unworthy. As Hope says, “In the long run, you deem what you are worth, and the more you give it away, the lower your stock value.”

I don’t think this is the impression we want readers to have. Experience has taught me that giving away books seldom leads to anything positive: the people who get them don’t flood Amazon with positive reviews or trip over themselves to get to my other books. The same can be said for pricing everything at 99₵. Do mainstream authors to this? No, of course not, so when we do it, the price just screams AMATEUR.

Frankly, I don’t trust cheap or free. When I download cheap or free, I’m usually disappointed. I definitely don’t go looking for more of these authors’ works because my time is worth more than the books’ low prices. Sad, but true.

We have a duty, perhaps a right, to price our books reasonably, neither free nor what James Patterson expects. I don’t think it helps us as authors to devalue our work with too much CHEAP and too much FREE.



2 thoughts on “Do free books devalue an author’s worth in the public eye?

  1. You make a good point, Malcolm. When I make one of my books available free for a limited time (1 – 5 days) in electronic format I am always astonished how many downloads it gets. This tends not to translate into sales for it or its stable mates. But there do seem to be a whole wodge of book-reading people who read nothing but free books! I believe this ‘wodge’ to be people who read A Lot, don’t use libraries and thus like to read cheaply. They must find the quality sustaining. Including, occasionally, an entree by Judi Moore. Although I, too, often bemoan the fashion for free content and its devaluing effect.

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