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.

So you’ve written a short story…

So you’ve written a short story, and you’re wondering what to do with it. You think it’s pretty good and you want to see it published, but you’re wondering what’s the best way to do that.

I can’t guarantee that this is the best way, but it is the way that I do it. Let’s start with the basics.

Indie vs. Traditional

Traditionally, short stories were published in magazines, anthologies, or collections. These were known as the “markets.” The editor was the one who chose which stories would go in and shepherded them to publication. Because of the periodical nature of the markets, there were a lot more short story slots than openings at the big publishing houses for novels, and many editors considered it a way for new writers to cut their teeth and prove their chops. It was also a great way for writers to get feedback, on the rare occasion that an editor wrote a personalized rejection.

In the 90s and 00s, the short story markets entered a period of decline, mostly due to the technological disruption of this newfangled thing called teh internets. Subscription rates for all the major sci-fi magazines went down, just like they did for newspapers. However, several new markets emerged to take advantage of the new ways to reach readers. The same innovations that spurred the indie publishing revolution also gave birth to new short story markets.

Today, when you write a short story, the first question you’ve got to answer is “do I want to self-publish this, or should I submit it to the markets first?” If you’re a happily self-published indie writer like me, the urge will be to self-publish first and ask questions later.

But Wait!

The awesome thing about short stories is that you can get the best of both worlds. How? Because unlike the major publishing houses, the traditional short story markets don’t impose prohibitive measures designed to gobble up your rights and lock down your publishing options. Publishing the same story in multiple markets is not only possible, it’s encouraged.

To maximize your returns, you have to be patient and impervious to rejection. You also have to learn some key terms. But first, as with any job, you have to select the right tools.

Get Thee to the Grinder!

To start out, you’re going to have to need some way to track all of your story submissions. By far, the Submission Grinder is the best free tool on the internet to do that. It’s a massive database for every English-speaking short story market, with stats compiled from user data. Not only does it tell you where you can submit, it gives you all sorts of useful statistics about each market. Create a free account, log your story, and use the Grinder’s search tools to find out where you can submit it.

Because I’m paranoid and believe in redundancy, I also keep a spreadsheet with all of my story submissions. At this point, though, it’s largely a backup. There’s no one right way to keep track of your submissions, but you absolutely need a system to keep track of them, and the best one out there is the Grinder.

Pro vs. Semi-Pro vs. Token

To decide whether a market is worth submitting to, you first have to determine how professional that market is. The best way to do that is by looking at the pay rates.

In the old days, when SFWA was more than just a snobbish in-crowd full of petty drama, you could tell that a market was professional if it was on the qualifying list for SFWA membership. Today, though, any market is considered professional if it pays at least 6¢ per word.

If a market pays between 1¢ and 6¢ per word, it is considered semi-pro.

If it pays less than 1¢ per word, it is considered a token-paying market.

Original vs. Reprint

Some markets want to be the first place where a story appears. If it’s already published elsewhere, they won’t touch it. Other markets don’t really care, though they may pay less for reprints.

The thing to look for here is “original fiction” or “first publication rights.” If a market’s submission guidelines specify either of those, then they won’t take your story if it’s self-published. Obviously, if you want your story to appear there, you can’t self-publish it first.

Most of the markets that accept reprints don’t mind if your story is already self-published. A couple of them do, which is super annoying, but whatever. As always, read the submission guidelines carefully before you submit.

In general, the more a market pays, the less it’s willing to accept reprints. Adjust your publishing strategy accordingly.

Multiple and Simultaneous Submissions

If the first thing you do after finishing a short story is submit it to every market that might possibly accept it, you’re liable to get yourself blacklisted and make a lot of editors angry. There is etiquette and protocol to the traditional publishing game, and if you want to succeed by going that route, you’re going to have to learn it.

simultaneous submission is when you submit the same story to more than one market simultaneously.

multiple submission is when you submit another story to the same market where you already have a story in consideration.

Most editors hate multiple and simultaneous submissions. If they like your story and want to buy it, the last thing they want is to find out that another editor beat them to the punch. Likewise, if they’re swamped with submissions (as they usually are), the last thing they want is more stories from someone who’s already submitted something to them.

For that reason, assume that a market does not accept multiple or simultaneous submissions, unless their guidelines say otherwise.

Of course, what’s bad for the editor isn’t necessarily bad for the writer. You can greatly speed up the submissions process by submitting to all the simultaneous-friendly markets at once, or by not having to wait for a response before submitting to a market again. The faster you can get through the submission process, the sooner it makes sense to self-publish.

With That Out of the Way…

Before you decide which publishing path to take, you first have to determine your publishing goals. Are you trying to make money, to build an audience, or both? Can you afford to be patient, or is time not on your side for whatever reason? Once you’ve determined what you personally want to accomplish, you’re able to make the important decisions that will take you there.

As a professional writer, it’s important for me to maximize profits. Also, I’ve found that I can do more to build an audience by self-publishing than by going through the traditional markets. That said, the prestige of publication in a pro market is still important in my field, so I find it worthwhile to submit original fiction to the pro markets before self-publishing.

Here are my criteria for submitting original fiction:

  • Will I make at least $100 from this story sale? ($20 for flash)
  • Is the average wait time for this market more than 60 days?

In a world where I can self-publish my stories and sell them directly, or give them away as freebies to build a readership for my other books, the traditional submission process costs both time and money. Also, if a market has eggregiously long wait times, that’s usually a red flag. Publish with them at your own risk.

However, for reprints I will submit my stories just about anywhere. They cost neither time nor money, because they don’t care if you self-publish first; all they want is non-exclusive publication rights. They don’t typically pay as well, but who cares? It’s free money, and the extra exposure isn’t going to cost you anything.

When making simultaneous submissions, I generally do it by tiers. If the story is at a pro market that accepts simultaneous submissions, I will only submit it to other pro markets. Likewise, if a story is at a semi-pro market, I will only simul-submit to other semi-pros. This is the best way to maximize your potential returns for original fiction.

In practice, though, since most simultaneus markets don’t pay more than $100, I usually end up submitting to them after I’ve already self-published. At that point, it doesn’t really matter where I submit, since a sale to a token market isn’t going to keep a semi-pro market from buying it too.

So in short, here’s my process:

  1. Submit to all the markets that will pay at least $100 and respond in a reasonable manner (usually takes 1-2 years).
  2. Self-publish.
  3. Submit everywhere that accepts reprints and pays at least token rates.

A Word About Royalty-Share

In today’s rapidly changing publishing environment, a few markets are experimenting with non-traditional forms of payment. Royalty share is one of those. Instead of paying up front by the word, these markets pay you a share of the profits after the work is published.

In general, this is what I think of that:

Unless the royalty share arrangements are made against some sort of an advance, the publisher is basically asking you to take the risk for their venture. For original fiction, I’m generally not open to that, especially for markets with long exclusivity periods after publication. Tried that once, got burned, learned my lesson.

However, once I’ve self-published, the reprint rights are basically free money anyway, so I’m happy to give it a shot. Worst case scenario, I neither lose nor gain anything. And there are some places like Digital Fiction that are doing some really interesting things with non-traditional payment methods. I just signed a contract with them this week.

So yeah, that’s my process. The money in short fiction isn’t all that great, but if you’re systematic, organized, and prolific, you can make a decent profit at it. It’s one of the few areas of publishing where it still makes sense to go traditional, but you’ve got to know when to pull out and go indie. If you can afford to wait, it makes sense to run down all the pro and semi-pro markets with your original fiction. Otherwise, you have to figure out the cutoff point where it no longer makes sense to hold out.

Good luck and happy publishing!

An open letter to my 2008 self

Dear Joe,

This is yourself from the future. I know, that sounds kind of cheesy, but it’s true. Pay attention, because there are things I need to tell you. This is not to replace the life lessons that you’ll soon be learning, but to help you learn them faster so you can move on to the important stuff.

Right now, your college career is in full swing. You’re writing a lot of books on the side, and that’s great—keep it up. You will find a lot of success in your goal to be a professional writer. You’re also studying Arabic and Political Science with vague ideas of having some sort of an impact on the world. That’s fine, but unless you make those goals more specific and focused, you’re not going to accomplish anything by them. And before you try to change the world, you first need to take the time to understand it.

At this very moment, the world is transforming right before your eyes in ways that will cause you to look back and wonder. The financial collapse and housing bubble have thrown the global economy into chaos, and the resulting fallout will have a greater impact on your life than 9/11 or any other event. Up until now, you’ve focused on the Middle East, but the place you should be looking to is Europe. Why? Let’s just say there is a reason why every world war has had its origins in the European penninsula. Study the continent. Spend some time there. Learn a couple of languages, and pay attention to current events. Always be aware that you live in interesting times.

Your political affiliation on Facebook is “agnostic,” which you think is really funny. Frankly, that’s bullshit. Good and evil have political dimensions, and you aren’t doing anyone any favors by sitting on the fence. Pick a side, and choose it well. But always have the strength and integrity to admit it when you were wrong.

You’re proud of the fact that you never voted for George W. Bush. In the future, though, you’re going to regret your vote for Obama more than you ever would have regretted a vote for Bush. Obama will break every campaign promise he ever made, except to get us out of Iraq, and that will be the biggest mistake of his presidency (yes, the Iraq War was a mistake, but trust me, Obama will make it unimaginably worse). However, you will never regret your vote for Romney in 2001.

One of the most important lessons you will ever learn is that there are two kinds of people in this world: makers and takers. The makers believe in expanding the pie by creating wealth and value for everyone. In contrast, the takers believe that everyone should get “their fair share.” Somehow, this always ends up with the takers being the ones to cut the pie, with them getting the biggest slice. Don’t be a taker. Be a maker.

Enough about politics. Let’s move on to personal advice.

Don’t be afraid to change your major. Don’t put off doing an internship. Those will be the biggest regrets of your college career. Even so, there is nothing you do in college that you will deeply regret, so don’t worry about it too much. Continue to take full advantage of your time there.

At the same time, don’t worry too much about grad school. Your real education won’t begin until after you leave academia. Book learning is good, but it’s no substitute for real-world experience. Learn how to master your own personal finances. Never be ashamed to work an honest job, no matter what that job may be.

Contrary to what you currently believe, marketing and sales are not evil (though human resources certainly is). The only reason you think they’re evil is because they rule the world, and from your sheltered academic perspective you can’t see the good that capitalism creates. Embrace marketing. Learn how to properly sell yourself. You don’t have to be dishonest to be a good salesman.

People who self-publish are not as crazy as you think they are. The publishing industry is about to be turned on its head, and that is going to create a lot of opportunities for you. Keep your eyes open, but be aware that the best and worst publishing advice you will ever hear will come from the same source. Also, Miss Snark is full of shit.

Finally, don’t worry too much about dating or getting married. Definitely put yourself out there, but spend less time obsessing about it and more time having fun. Contrary to what you may think, there are actually attractive women out there who will be attracted to you. Keep an open mind, grow out your beard, and you’ll find them (if they don’t find you first!).

That pretty much sums it up. Always be happy, but never be content.

Your 2015 self.

P.S: If you want to lose weight, lift weights. Running and hiking just don’t cut it for your body type.