Rethinking free

I recently read an interesting blog post on Dean Wesley Smith’s blog, about how, how not, and whether to make your books free. The conclusion he comes to is this:

Free is short time, limited supply, and never on the major bookstore shelves.

In other words, no permafree, no free pulsing, and no publishing free online content on sites like InstaFreebie unless it’s for a limited time.

Three or four years ago, I probably would have pushed back pretty hard against this advice. There are still points of it that I disagree with, such as the idea that giving anything away for free devalues all your other work. Perhaps that’s true for physical product, but for digital content I think there’s a solid argument to be made that the rules have changed.

That said, a lot has happened in the last three or four years. Permafree worked really great until about the middle of 2014, at which point I noticed that it was a lot harder to generate any kind of interest in my free books. I switched to a free pulsing strategy in 2015, which was a lot more effective at giving away free books, but that didn’t always translate into more sales.

In fact, there’s a passage from Dean’s blog that sums it up real well:

A customer walks through your door and you have a wall of twenty pies in glass cases, all the smaller short story pies in a case in the center, and some specials near the cash register.

And there on your wall are three pies that say, “Free.”

And a bunch of short stories that are “Free.”

The customer can take an entire pie for free or buy one. As a customer, what would you do? Duh. You take the free pie and leave.

And pretty soon your customers start to change. The only people who come through the door are people who only want the free stuff. They would never buy something under any circumstances, but you are giving your pies away for free, so they take one.

Pretty soon there would be lines out the door to get your free pies and you would make nothing. The free takers would crowd out and devalue the pies you are trying to sell.

Now, I don’t entirely agree with Dean here. My 90-day sales chart on Amazon shows a predictable uptick in sales every time I set a book free and send out an email to my list. Most of my subscribers signed up through InstaFreebie, which means they’re probably not quite fans yet (and probably signed up for a bunch of authors’ lists).

But my long-term data tends to agree with Dean. Back in 2012 and 2013, there was a very clear correlation between free downloads and royalties / paid sales. Then, in 2014, that correlation started to become fuzzy. Over the next several months, it got progressively fuzzier (even though I was giving away more books), until today there’s really no correlation at all.

Obviously, YMMV and I can only speak for my own books. But there have been a lot of major shifts in the ebook market over the last five years. Kindle Unlimited has had a huge impact on the effectiveness of permafree, or any kind of free book strategy for that matter.

Point is, it may be personally useful to rethink my free strategy. I’m not going to stop doing the free book thing altogether, since I do think there’s still value to it (if for no other reason than that little sales bump, plus the handful of “thank you!” responses I get from my email subscribers each month). But instead of free pulsing two books each month, usually including a first-in-series novel, it may be better to do a 99¢ novel and a free short story.

The two biggest mistakes I’ve made so far in my writing career have been 1. underpricing my books, and 2. unpublishing books that were still selling. (I still can’t believe how stupid I was) Holding onto a free books strategy that isn’t working could easily become a close third. I’m not going to throw the bus into reverse while it’s barrelling down the highway at 70 mph, but some experimentation and a course correction may be in order.

Writing is not a business

I recently read Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki. It’s a fantastic book, not only because it gives you a basic education on financial literacy, but because it gives you a solid foundation for making money in general. It’s one of those books that really deserves its bestseller status.

About midway through reading it, I realized that I’ve been thinking all wrong about my writing. Everyone always says that if you want to write professionally, you should treat your writing as a business. But that’s not entirely correct.

Writing is not a business, it is an investment. Publishing is a business.

The basic argument of Rich Dad, Poor Dad goes like this: if you want to be wealthy, don’t work for money—make your money work for you. How? By owning more assets than liabilities. An asset is something that puts money in your pocket. A liability is something that takes it away.

When you write a book, you are creating an asset. A book is an intellectual property that generates money. Dean Wesley Smith compares it to a piece of pie in a magical bakery, where you can cut infinite pieces for your customers. With online publishing through ebooks and print-on-demand, that’s not a bad analogy.

If I were to cease all of my publishing activities right now, including all marketing and promotion whatsoever, my books would still generate income. It probably wouldn’t be a lot, but it would still be something. Even starting from zero, with a single book on Amazon under a totally unknown name, over time it will generate a small trickle of income.

A book is an asset. Writing is how you create that asset. Publishing is how you service that asset to make it more profitable.

As an indie writer, I am my own publisher. The business that I own is a publishing business, not a writing business. It’s a subtle but important distinction. I could still create books if I weren’t my own publisher, but at that point I’d be a contractor, not a small business owner.

Writers are not paid by the hour. As an indie, I’m still earning money on work I did ten years ago, and I fully expect to continue earning income on that work for the rest of my life. That’s because writing is an investment. Not a job. Not even a business. An investment.

Which is not to say that the publishing aspect—or in other words, the business aspect—is less important. Quite the contrary. A rental property is an asset, but it won’t make any money unless you find renters and take care of the upkeep. Similarly, a prime plot of farmland is an asset, but it won’t make any money unless you work it.

So how do you “work” your books? By publishing them, of course. Publishing is your business. This includes marketing, promotion, branding, and the like. Publishing is the business that makes your assets—your investments—profitable.


The implications of this are really interesting. For example, suppose you have a book that doesn’t sell very well, or that gets a bunch of negative reviews. Does that make you a failed writer? Does it spell doom for your career? It’s easy to think so if you think of writing as your business.

But when you think of writing as an investment, everyone changes. Got a book that tanked? That’s okay, it’s just that book. Every investor gets it wrong every once in a while. Learn from the mistake and pick a better investment next time.

If all your books are tanking, is that a sign that you’re just not cut out for this writing thing? Possibly… or it could just be that you need to work on your publishing. Even the richest farmland needs to be tilled, and fertilized, and watered properly. Perhaps you just need to learn how to market better, or brand your books better, or do a better job of finding and connecting with your readers.

On the flipside, suppose you have a book that used to do well, but now it isn’t selling as well as you would like. You’ve clearly done a good job of marketing it in the past, but what can you do now? Market it even harder? Or recognize that this is just a normal part of the investment cycle and go out to develop a new asset?

If writing is your business, then the success or failure of your books is a direct reflection of yourself as a writer. With that kind of mindset, it’s easy to fall into some traps. On the one extreme are those who believe that publishing well is secondary to writing a good book, and that therefore they should devote the bulk of their time and energy to writing. On the other extreme are those who seek validation so hard that they put all of their effort into the publishing aspect and neglect the writing. The truth is NOT somewhere in the middle, because both extremes grow out of a faulty premise: that writing is your business.

This is the Fugio cent. It was commissioned by the Continental Congress before the ratification of the Constitution, and designed by Benjamin Franklin. Fugio means “I fly,” referring to the sundial, which represents time. Taken with the inscription below, it is a reminder that we can all leave the world a better place by doing our best in whatever line of work we choose to pursue.

For many of us, writing is more than just a hobby, or a job, or even a career. It is a vocation. It is our calling. And yet, we live in a commercial world, where the price of a thing is often conflated with its value. How, then, can we best fulfill our calling as writers? By ignoring the demands of the market? By fancying that our books are simply unappreciated by those of inferior tastes? Or by losing sight of our calling for that lucre that will perish with us?

Benjamin Franklin’s message is that we can best fulfill our calling by pursuing excellence in every aspect of it. That includes the commercial aspect as well as the artistic, the practical as well as the spiritual. When we truly learn how to excel, we will see that there is no contradiction between the two sides.

Writing is our calling. Publishing is our business. Our books are investments, many of which may very well outlive us. By understanding this, I firmly believe that we can mind our business as well as Franklin admonished us, and truly fulfill our calling.

Some new writing resolutions

So I’ve been following Dean Wesley Smith’s blog pretty closely over the last few days, as he posts about his creative process for a novel he’s ghost writing.  It’s more than a little mind-boggling–he started literally with nothing, not even a working title, and yet he’s averaging between 5k-7k per day.  If he hasn’t already, he’ll probably finish it tonight.

I’m learning a lot from these posts, especially about the importance of switching off your internal critic and trusting your creative instincts.  Over the last couple of days, I’ve tried to do just that with the sword & planet novel I mentioned last week, and I can say that it really works!  By doing all I can to put words on the page and ignoring everything else, I’m averaging about a thousand words per day and the story is unfolding wonderfully.  It’s like a trust fall with my muse, where instead of failing miserably I’ve found she’s there to catch me.

All of this has made me think that I need to reorder my writing routine and make some resolutions in order to keep this momentum going.  If I can overcome some of my bad habits and replace them with good ones, I can be a lot more productive, and writing will be that much more fun.

So here’s what I’m going to do this week:

  • Start every day with writing.  Even if it’s only fifteen or twenty minutes, as soon as I get out of bed I’m going to sit down at the writing computer and pound out a few hundred words.
  • Write in lots of little chunks, rather than one or two large chunks.  In other words, don’t put off writing until the chores are done–put off the chores!
  • Shoot for 1000 words per hour or better.  If the pace starts to flag, switch projects if necessary, even if the other project is fanfic.
  • Go for at least one walk at some point in the day.  Walks do more to re-energize my creative energy than just about anything else.

Basically, I’m going to treat my work-in-progress as something fun, rather than work or a chore.  I’ll use a stopwatch to keep track of how many hours I write each day, but I won’t give myself a quota.

My writing process isn’t the same as Dean’s, and I’m not going to try to imitate his process, but I am going to pick out what I like about it and see what works.  Also, I’m going to focus a lot more on quantity than quality, with the understanding that treating everything as practice will likely improve both.

As for the A to Z blogging challenge, I’ve got two posts left, Y and Z.  I haven’t written them yet, but I’ve got a great idea for both of them.  Since writing takes precedence, though, I may not get to them until later in the day.  It also depends on whether the temp agency calls me up in the morning with a job–they’ve been doing that a lot recently.  Last week I was at a factory making toothbrushes for dogs (true story).  This week, I could be doing anything–or nothing, as the case may be.  I’d like a couple of days of nothing, just for a good chance to write.

Worldcon 2011: Thursday

Wow, the last couple days have been packed with awesome con-stuff, but I’ve got a short break so I thought I’d blog about it.

Thursday was great, attended a few panels but mostly just wandered around meeting people.  I’m a little surprised with how many people read this blog.  Got Brandon to sign my Kindle, and he was really supportive about my decision to epublish.  I seem to be one of the only Utah writers going full-steam with indie publishing, but a handful of others are considering it, though for now they’re in the minority (which surprises me).

Anyhow, Thursday had a couple of really notable panels.  The first was on faith and science fiction, and had both Eric James Stone and Moshe Feder on it, among others.  Excellent discussion, though a couple of the commenters tried to derail it.

I found it surprising that the panelists didn’t have a good answer to my question: how do you reconcile far future sf with millenialist religions?  That’s exactly what I’m trying to do with my Gaia Nova universe–create a far future epic that isn’t incompatible with the major western religions (Islam, Christianity, Judaism, etc).  From the after-panel discussion, I got a strong recommendation to read C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy, so I’ll definitely be checking that out soon.

The other notable Thursday panel I attended was on ebook art, and featured John Picacio and Lou Anders, among others.  John feels pretty strongly that indie writers are seriously devaluing cover illustration, and within the first ten minutes someone in the audience literally told him to f___ off!  Wow, talk about tension–but even though it almost fell apart, the panel turned out to be very enlightening.

Let me just take a moment to say that I’m very impressed with what Lou Anders is doing over at Pyr.  While the rest of the publishing world seems to have their heads in the sand when it comes to the ebook revolution, Lou is one of the few who sees it more as an opportunity than a threat.  I’m not currently looking for a publisher, mostly because I’m waiting to see how things shake out, but I would be very surprised if Pyr is one of the publishers that goes under.

The parties in the evening were pretty good–as always, the Tor party was literally packed.  Brandon saw a group of us clustering together, so he broke us up and sent us off to talk with editors and agents.  He tried to point me out to an agent, but…you know, I’m not really looking for one right now.  Brandon keeps telling me not to believe DWS when it comes to agents, and while I’m certainly not fundamentally opposed to them, I feel that I can better build my career by going in other directions.  At some point in the future, maybe, but for now…not so much.

Speaking of Dean, I spent the whole evening hunting for him, then gave up around midnight only to find out the next day that he showed up at the SFWA suite fifteen minutes after I left (nooo!). And now that it’s 9pm in Reno and the parties are just getting started, I think I’ll cut this blog post here and recap Friday sometime later.

See you around!

“…and I am doing my best to leave traditional publishing behind.” –Tracy Hickman

Those were Tracy Hickman’s exact words today at CONduit.

He said it as part of his introductory remarks at his first panel, “To Cliche Or Not To Cliche,” and reiterated it on all of the panels he was on for the rest of the day.

For those of you who don’t know, Tracy Hickman has built a career spanning over thirty years, and has 56 novels still in print.  He is an incredibly successful and prolific author.  What’s more, he is quite possibly the most humble and sincere person at the convention: extremely approachable, and very accommodating towards his fans.  He is an amazing man, and I hope to have a career like his someday.

He’s not the only big name author talking about epublishing either.  I heard this secondhand so it’s not admissible in court, but L.E. Modesitt apparently had a lot to say about Kristine Katherin Rusch‘s recent blog posts concerning the disturbing changes in traditional publishing.  Rusch is one of the voices at the epicenter of the indie publishing movement, along with her husband Dean Wesley Smith.

The initial shock wave of the ebook revolution has hit Utah, and people all over CONduit are talking about it.  In fact, I think I spent more time today in the hall talking about ebooks than I did attending panels.

You have no idea how invigorated this makes me feel.  I’ve been going around signing up bloggers for my Genesis Earth blog tour, and the sense of ownership I feel for my career is thrilling.  On my way back to Provo, I made a connection between two ideas for my current work-in-progress, and I literally screamed for two minutes straight.  I don’t know if I’ve ever been more excited to be a writer.

In his last panel of the day, Tracy Hickman closed with the following bold statement: if you master the art of story structure, have the dedication to work hard, and are willing to do what it takes to learn your craft, you will not only write a successful book, you will build a successful career in this world of new media.

That, my friends, is exactly where I want to be.