On Being a Free Book Barista
Updated: Sep 13
Ever get cheesed off because all your hard work wasn't being valued? Self-publishing authors can identify. It's par for the course as we move along our author journey. But the news isn't all doom and gloom - as you'll see in my mysteriously named blog today...
Recently, I joined a host of other authors in a not-unusual type of promotion: one in which we offer one of our books for free. The idea is that each author shares the promotion with their readers (via newsletter or social media), and in doing so, we're all helping each other to spread the word about our work.
When I shared this promotion in a Facebook reader group (or should I call it Meta now?), I immediately received a comment on the post. Now, normally when I go to read such a message, I find that it's from someone who trawls groups like these in hopes of touting their marketing services to authors.
Want more organic reach? I can help! Yadda, yadda.
So on this occasion, I was surprised to discover that instead, it was a comment from a reader declaring that she'd rather pay for her books and reward the authors for their hard work.
My eyes popped. You don't get that often!
Writing back, I thanked the reader. After all, it's a joy to be reminded that there are people out there who feel so supportive and value authors so highly.
This incident brought to mind the time, some years ago, when I decided to survey my readers group (i.e. people on my mailing list). They had hopped on board via a number of avenues: signup on my website, blog, or a link in one of my books, but for the most part, they had done so via various promotions whereby readers get a free book when they sign up.
What I discovered from that anonymous survey hit me like a lightning bolt. Apparently, many of the readers were only sticking around for the freebies, whether they happened to be mine or those of fellow authors I was promoting. They had no intention of ever buying a book.
Giving people room to write me a note at the end of the survey, some told me they wouldn't ever buy a book - not even if it was a low 99c. Some of them clearly didn't value the work authors put in and felt entitled, but more often than not, I got the impression that many of these freebie hunters were on low incomes.
Well, join the club, folks!
The sad fact is, not getting paid as an author is going to keep me on a low income, too! I mean, this is supposed to be a job - albeit a labour of love - right?
What many readers don't realise is that, before a book is even put up for sale, self-publishing authors like myself are already in the red. (FYI, traditional publishing is a-whole-nother ball game.)
Writing and publishing a book is an investment, but one that doesn't always pay out. You not only have to write the book (hours of unpaid labour) but you also have to get it edited and proofread, have a professional-looking cover made… Need I go on?
In one way, the results of this survey set me back. Emotionally, it was probably the biggest straw that broke the back of my growing feelings of burnout back then.
In another way, however, the survey opened my eyes. It made me take stock. Had I been fishing in the wrong pond all this time? Or just selling myself short and sending out the wrong signals? Either way, I knew I didn't want people on board who weren't… on board, that is. So I ended up culling my mailing list by making people opt back in. (I was worried I'd lose good readers along the way, so I gave them several opportunities to do so.)
Along with the challenges, the survey brought some positive feedback, too - and here's where I draw a parallel with the aforementioned anecdote. The process of surveying my readers made me realise I had a core body of fans, people on board who were keen to read more of my work. I can't express how wonderful it was to find that out - to know I was indeed valued, that I wasn't just publishing books into an uncaring abyss.
In fact, at some point, one reader said something to the effect that she was amazed that people will spend a few dollars on a coffee, which gets consumed within a short amount of time, yet baulk at paying the same or less for a book which can be enjoyed over several hours or days.
Coming back to the promotion post that kicked this article off, I did highlight to the reader who commented why it's important that we, as authors, give away some of our books or stories for free…
So that we can gain more exposure…
So that readers can get a taste of our stories and writing style…
And if they do, hopefully they'll go on to buy other books we've written.
It's just like when you go into the supermarket and find an assistant giving away samples of a new strawberry cheesecake on the market. Some customers who try it go, "Hey, that's delicious! Where do I buy some of this stuff?". But many will simply walk past the assistant or take a slice and decide not to buy. It's a game of odds. But without the opportunity to try a sample, few people would notice that a new cheesecake or dessert brand had made its way onto the shelves.
Of course, as an author, there are downsides to giving books or stories away for free. Sometimes readers can be rude, entitled or lazy. For example, they download a book just because they like the cover but they don't read the blurb to check it's their thing. However, if they discover it's not, they might then proceed to slate it with a one star. Worse, they do that after only reading one chapter. Yes, it really happens. But it's a risk we have to take.
Truth be told, none of us wants to have to give away work that we've toiled over and put our heart and soul into. But just like those taster slices of cheesecake in the store, strategically offering some of our work for free acts as a valuable way to get eyes on our books.
If you're one of those readers who's more than happy to reward authors for their hard work, then a big thumbs-up to you. I definitely want you on my team - and so do lots of other authors.
However, if you're a reader who's always reluctant to hand over their hard-earned for a book, I urge you to give it some thought. I get that we all want to save a little money, but the next time you go to order at your favourite local coffee house, why not ask them if they'll give you a cup for free? You know, just as a taster. I'm not sure you'll get an answer you'll like.