How Does “Free” work?

Eduardo Saverin: You don’t want to ruin it with ads because ads aren’t cool.

Mark Zuckerberg: Exactly.

“The Social Network” Movie (2010)

I’m interested in things that are ‘free’.  Up to a point.  When something is on ‘buy one get one free’ I usually only get one, to the bafflement of the person on the checkout.  “But it’s free!” they protest with increasing shrillness, “It’s free!  Buy One Get One Free!  You can get two for the same price!  You might as well.”

Is it free though?  Is the space it takes up in my home free?  Is my time free?  Is my brand loyalty free?  Of course I don’t say that.  I just say: “No thanks.  Yes I understand that it’s free, but I really only need one toothbrush.”  The checkout assistant makes that face – the one that says “I’m wondering whether to file you under ‘Stupid’ or ‘Crazy’ right now.  But you’re a customer, and you’re usually polite and you have a cute son.  So I’ll smile and we’ll both pretend that this awkward moment never happened.”

I am not a ‘freeloader’ which my Pocket Oxford defines as ‘a person who takes advantage of other people’s generosity without giving anything in return’.  I’m interested in things that are free but I still want to give back.  So I do like ‘free’ – but only if it’s really free and fair for everyone involved.

So when is ‘free’ the right price point for the reader?  Oh, it sounds so obvious doesn’t it?  Intuitively, we think we’d like everything to be free.  And yet, my experience of getting free books hasn’t been entirely positive.  Has yours?  Ever downloaded a free ebook that turns out to be an 8 page pdf of pure advertorial?  Or read something free, enjoyed it, bought into the brand – and then found that the free sample wasn’t representative of what was really on offer?  And the worst of all – you sign up for a free e-book and newsletter only to find that you’ve actually hit the button marked: ‘Permission to stalk me across all media in perpetuity with aggressive hard-sell tactics creating an involuntary gag reflex whenever I see this author’s name.’  I suppose all those words wouldn’t fit on the sign up button… so they just went with ‘Subscribe’ instead, but that was what they meant.  I find that the negative brand associations in these cases are worse than if I’d paid for the book.  A bond of trust is created when something is free – it’s a deeper relationship than when you pay for something.  It’s emotional.

Also don’t you find that you abandon a free book more quickly than one you bought?  I ditched a kindle sample on the fourth page yesterday.  Actually the first few pages were a self-promotional prologue from the author so it was technically the first page of the actual book when I gave up and deleted it.  If I’d paid I might have struggled on for a few more pages, but it was a free sample.  I wasn’t invested so I wasn’t prepared to put up with poor writing.

On the other hand, I got a free e-book copy of ‘APE Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur’ by Guy Kawasaki as part of my NaNoWriMo winners’ goodie bag.  I’d read a few articles by Guy Kawasaki before, and I liked the cut of his jib.  The giveaway was well-targeted – a NaNoWriMo winner has just written a book so we were the perfect market.  I was excited to get it and devoured the whole thing in a few days.  I’ll probably read it a dozen times and refer back to it a dozen more.  So the next time I’m browsing and Guy Kawasaki’s name pops up, I’m going to be within a nanowrimo of pressing ‘Buy Now’.  In this case, ‘free’ worked.  Not just for the reader, but for the writer: I’ve become a fan.

“Fans, true fans, are hard to find and precious.  Just a few can change everything. What they demand, though, is generosity and bravery.” Seth Godin – in Tribes

So why did it work – not just in terms of my getting a freebie, but also becoming a fan who will buy more books?  The recent income survey at Beverley Kendall’s blog backed up how well the intelligent use of ‘free’ can work for writers.  The vast majority of the self-published authors surveyed who were earning significant amounts of money from their writing had work available for free, and believed that it had been a factor in their success.

I’ve put my novel on KDP Select so it will be free at various points in the next 90 days (details will be on Twitter).  This will be my first experiment with ‘free’.  I have low expectations at this stage – I’m just dipping my toe in the water while I write the next book in the series.  But I intend to create at least one book that is permanently free in the series I’m writing, as well as promoting others from time to time.

If ‘free’ is going to work for the reader, then I believe that the writer has to give them a quality product – a level of quality that they would have been prepared to pay for.  Also it must be a fair representation of what the reader will get if they choose to invest in other books or continue following the blog.

When ‘free’ works for the writer they find fans.  Reader loyalty doesn’t need to come in the form of money – spreading recommendations, reviews, and encouragement are all valuable to writers.  So now I’m just working on creating something that’s good enough to be free.

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