What I’ve Learned About Free Stuff and Human Nature

Way back in the early days of the Internet when I was working at advertising agencies, one of my bosses would always bring up the fact that the word FREE was the most searched for word on the web. Or the information super-highway. We were so silly back then. This was the era of Napster. When Macromedia’s Flash was burgeoning and I made a living creating interactive CD-ROMs. Video on the web was problematic and most people connected to the internet through dial-up. Myspace was years away. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram were all just twinkles in precocious twelve-year old’s eyes.

Yeah, the good times.

Now, I’m the kind of guy who likes books. I like to collect – though my wife uses “pack-rat” as a verb – the books I read. This means I buy the physical objects and sock them away in one of many bookcases. Once I received a little publishing money for one of my novels, I bought an iPad – which I had resisted because it killed my job as a Flash developer – and now I’ve been buying books that aren’t that important to me, paperback level stuff, on the Kindle. I like reading at night on my device, because it doesn’t require a light and if I’m reading a China Mieville book, I can look up all of the grandiloquence on the dictionary very easily. Ebooks tend to be cheaper, too, so that’s a plus. Already, I have more books than I have time, both print and electronic. I see the benefit of ebooks and this isn’t some rant against them.

Around a year ago, and in the spirit of this great new age, I placed a collection of short stories called Fierce as the Grave on Amazon for 99¢. It was four long stories clocking in at 25,000 words total. I figured I’d sell quite a few copies on the cheap and make a little extra money. Heh. Yeah, I know right? Silly.

I maybe sold fifty or sixty copies, all told. I received a check for $18 at one point. So, a couple of months ago, I figure I should raise the price some because, since no one was buying my collection anyway, I might as well value my work and by God, I think it’s worth $2.99. Hell yeah, four of my stories are worth as much as a damned Red Bull. I didn’t see any decrease in sales. I definitely didn’t see any increase.

Jump cut to a week ago. My new novel, This Dark Earth, had been released to much acclaim. I thought, maybe I could nab a few new readers and fans by doing a free promotion. I’ve written a good book and I have confidence in its merits, its entertainment value. Like all products, I’m in the process of trying to get This Dark Earth into the hands (or awareness) of its potential audience, which I feel is huge. So I set up Fierce as the Grave to run for free for five days and scheduled a bunch of tweets regarding it, asked the awesome publicity team at Simon & Schuster to pimp it a little.

I wrote this once in regards to publicity and still believe it:

You have a circle of friends in real life. You have people you know at work. You have high school buddies you haven’t seen in ages but talk to on the phone once in a while. You have friends on Facebook. Maybe you use other forms of social networking services, Twitter, Google+, Goodreads. Maybe you’re active in forums and bulletin boards.

Write all those groups down and draw a circle around them.

The people inside that circle are the people you can reach with relative ease and the more groups you have inside your circle, the better foundation you have for getting the word out about your book. But, however much you talk about your book, you tweet about it, you talk about it in your status updates, very quickly you’ll come to realize that everyone inside your sphere of influence who is going to purchase your book has already done so. Hopefully, that’s a high percentage of people (but you’ll be surprised at how many folks are happy to tell you that they borrowed your book from a friend or checked it out from the library. Just remember, don’t hit them when they say that, even if you want to. They don’t know any better.)

See all that white space outside your circle? 

There’s six billion people in that white space. Those are the people you want to reach. That’s the purpose of publicity and marketing. Getting noticed outside your sphere of influence.

Making Fierce as the Grave free was my attempt at getting beyond my sphere of influence. Here’s how it broke down so far.

That chart only includes the first two days of the promotion. But you can see the jump, obviously. Once I have the rest of the numbers, I’ll make them available here. Should be at the end of this week.

During the five day promotion, Fierce as the Grave went from a regular 300k+ Amazon ranking down to somewhere around #600. It reached #20 on the Horror rankings. Not incredible, but not too shabby either, especially notable due to the lack of any sort of graphic representation of either male or female abdominal muscles on the cover. The promotion ended today and its ranking is once again 300,000 or higher. What’s more interesting is that the sales of both Southern Gods and This Dark Earth remained constant during the duration of the experiment. Granted, it might take a long while for someone to get around to reading Fierce and then decide they might want to read more of my work. So, that’s inconclusive.

Here’s something else:

A good friend of mine posted some kind words about This Dark Earth in the Reddit thread on The Walking Dead, because he’s my friend and he likes my book, he likes zombie fiction and video games, he loves The Walking Dead television show, and he thought the folks who enjoyed one might enjoy the other. The single comment he received was that my book was too expensive, the excerpt of the book sucked, and that they’d just wait and pirate the shit out of it instead of paying for it. Here is the meat of this kid’s argument:

Also, the $11 price tage is way too high. Hell, John Grisham novels are only like $7 and he’s an internationally known author. Us zombie fans are are pretty much all young and know our way around the internet. We’re not going to pay $11 for a book written by an unknown author when the excerpt isn’t even very good. We’ll just wait til someone posts a copy and pirate the shit out of it. This book should only be like $4. It looks like he has a semi major publisher so he’s probably not in control of the price, but no one is going to buy this as a result. Hell, even the eBook is $10.

You can check out the comment in its entirety here.

I have no profound statements to make regarding any of this other than obviously, people love free stuff. And the Internet is the mecca of free shit – from books to movies to television – our entertainment culture is moving toward an economy of micro-payments (on the bright end of the spectrum) and totally free stuff either willingly given to the masses or taken through technological theivery (on the cloudy side).

I worry, though, that all the “zombie fans” that are “pretty much all young and know our way around the internet” will reach a point where they value nothing at all, not my work, not their own. We hurtle, breakneck, toward a time where even the young are dispossessed and jaded. Couple that with a total disregard for intellectual property and amoral demeanor and shit doesn’t look good for any of us “content providers” like authors, artists, movie-makers, and musicians. Sculpture will be the pre-eminent art form until the makers can figure out some way to digitize a sculpture from a jpg and 3d printers can crap them out.

I don’t have control over the pricing of my books published by traditional publishers. But the stuff I do have control over, I’m making sure I set at a reasonable price, yet not the lowest price possible. Because if I don’t value my work, it’s obvious to me that no one else will.

Welcome to the 21st century folks, where a large pizza costs more than a book and a cup of Starbucks coffee costs more than a collection of short stories.

That is all.

8 comments

  • The Reddit comment reminds of the recent issue over at NPR’s ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and the remarks of one of their interns about how she “owns” a deep playlist of music but has only ever paid for a handful of music courtesy of the wonders of internet piracy. Here’s an article about it: http://entertainment.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/06/20/12318244-npr-intern-owns-11000-songs-paid-for-only-a-few?lite — it’s all a bit ridiculous, and sad, and I imagine makes authors with books on store shelves sometimes feel like a lot of their efforts are ones based in futility.

  • Happy to say I am one of the people who paid $0.99 for the stories back in April. Haven’t read them yet, but they are on my Kindle, waiting for the right moment.

    And you are right, people like free stuff. I myself have scooped up a number of e-books when they were offered free, and even intend to read most of them some day. Pirating stuff though, that is completely different… The NPR article Erik mentioned has drawn some interesting conversations among my friends and acquaintances. That girl didn’t really seem to realize what she had done wrong, but based on the huge response to the article, I bet she does now. That reddit kid you mentioned, though, knows exactly what he is advocating and is a contemptible, entitled a-hole. Just my opinion.

  • Hi John,

    Really pains me to yet again read such a story about an author. The strange thing is, even I’m guilty of this in a way.
    You’ve been on my radar for a while now and have heard good things about your books, but just hadn’t gotten around to picking one of them up yet.
    So when I saw your tweet about the short story collection being free for a set period, I immediately jumped on it thinking ”I’ll get this and read it when I get around to it and if I like it I’ll get some of his other stuff”.

    Well I’ve not gotten around to it yet, but will do eventually. So what I’m trying to say is, don’t be completely disheartened just yet, I’m sure there are other readers out there like me who will find their way to you eventually.

    And I have to say, there is a lot of stuff to read out there though (regardless of medium or price and even quality to a certain extend) and they’re all vying for my attention. So it is quite hard to make choices and free stuff makes those choices all the more easy.

    The pirating attitude though, I don’t get personally. But I understand what is going on. Think of it like when you were a kid and you ‘stole’ a sweet from mums cupboard and then when nothing bad happened afterwards, you get another. Until you’re just casually grabbing a sweet whenever you feel like it and don’t even think of the consequences any more even though you still know you’re taking them without permission.
    This is the same thing, internet has made that bar so low and the virtual anonymity means you can get away with it each time.
    I think this explains how people behave on-line as well, which they would never do in person.

    How to solve this though, I haven’t a clue. I do think low pricing, or to put it in better terms ‘fair’ pricing is important though. And I think $2.99 is very fair, especially for a short story collection. For e-books anything up to £7 I think is still a very decent price.
    I can understand that big publishers can’t just sell books at such low prices, but it is where they’re going to miss out in the long run I think.

    So don’t give up just yet, it takes time for people who really want to read your books to find you and when they do, they will also be the ones who are more then happy to pay a fair price for your books.

    • I’m not disheartened. I’m still doing pretty damned well, all things considered. I’ve got an agent, I’ve got publishers interesting in my next book – we’ve already turned down one three-book deal. No, I’m sitting pretty.

      “I can understand that big publishers can’t just sell books at such low prices, but it is where they’re going to miss out in the long run I think.”

      Agreed, totally. They’re pricing themselves out of relevancy, if not business.

      But I’m not going to just give away my stuff or price it at the lowest possible amount because otherwise young kids will pirate it – they’re going to do that anyway. It’s just a point of pride, I guess. When I first placed Fierce as the Grave on Kindle at 99¢ I received notification in a week or so it was online, at a torrent site. I get email notifications, daily, that Southern Gods has been placed on any number of torrent sites in audiobook and ebook format. I forward that to my publisher and let them deal with it.

      I probably should’ve titled this blog post “Water is Wet,” and have been done with it. But thank for your comments and I hope you get around to checking out my work some day.

      • Sorry, I thought you were a bit disheartened. Good to hear you’re not 🙂

        And I couldn’t agree with you more on pricing, especially as you said pirating is going to happen no matter what.
        I think a true fan/reader is willing to pay what the book is worth. Trying to sell a book for a bottom price doesn’t cater to fans/readers they just get the attention of either pirates and/or people who just hoard stuff (not saying that hoarding’s a bad thing per se).

        I’m looking forward to reading Fierce as the Grave, it’s on my night stand already 🙂

  • Not only did I buy it, I read it. AND reviewed it. I think I even gave it a star or two. Same with that Southern Gods thing. I even made my wife read that one. Reviewed that sucker too and probably gave it another star, star-and-a-half. Maybe.

    Finally, I broke my “I’m only buying one book a month” moratorium to pay cash money for This Dark Earth, which I have to say I haven’t read, but soon as I finish the book I’m on I’ll be taking it for a spin. I expect it may garner another star or two on those goddamn review sites as well.

    As for me, I don’t want to pay less than 5.99 for a full-length eBook. I’ll swallow 2.99 for a short collection or novella. But I’m not down with getting stuff for free anymore, or even .99. I feel like I’m digging my own grave at that point while the undertaker waits with a shotgun in his hand.

    • You are a scholar, a rocker, and a gentleman. I thank you for your support. How’s American Falcon? You haven’t posted any live videos on Facebook. I love the album, but I like watching you play live more.

      That didn’t sound creepy, did it?

      • I like creepy.

        We don’t play much, though we have a show tomorrow night. And when we do play, given that wives and/or girlfriends tend to be the primary video/photographic documentarians of such things, and ours never come to our shows, it’s rare we get any. So we’re like ghosts. Or Sasquatches. Or something.

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