Tuesday, February 11, 2014

"Loved your Book, but I'll Pass on the Free Copies!"

by A.M. Khalifa, thriller writer, Google+

Imagine you walk out of the cinema raving about how much you enjoyed the movie, only to find the director or even producer of the film walking up to you, thanking you for your vocal praise, and proposing something along the following:

“Given how much you've enjoyed my film, I'd like to offer you ten free tickets to give to your friends and family. People who you think may enjoy this film as much as you did.”

How would you react? I know what I would do, I would grab the opportunity. Free tickets, right?

For the oddest reason, the same principle doesn't seem to apply to books. Every time a reader has given me a particularly glowing review of my debut novel, Terminal Rage, and I've connected with them offering free copies to spread the love, they’ve balked at the suggestion. Even friends and acquaintances. It’s almost as if there’s something inherently dirty about evangelizing on behalf of a book, but it’s okay to do for a film or other content types.

My friend the talented writer and blogger Scott Whitmore says "there is a subtle difference between reviewing and promoting. I don’t mind reviewing a  book, but when you give me copies to hand out, now I’m part of your PR organization. Many may think: I really loved your book, and I said it in my review, but it isn't my job to physically move copies of it for you.”

Scott is on to something here, but I think it's also about the writer giving out the freebies. Or the perceived experience of the writer. If Lee Childs or Cormac McCarthy were to offer his readers free books for their contacts, I know I wouldn't dream of saying anything but a resounding yes, and then brag about it for the rest of my life.

With new writers, the psychology at work may be different. Perhaps the reader is unsure whether their taste is really on the money. Loving an indie book doesn't mean others will too, and if you promote it aggressively, only to discover that other people aren't as keen about it, you could risk your reputations as a taste maker. Whereas any odd book by an established writer seems like a safer bet, a great book by an unknown author is still laden with potential risk. The risk of being labeled as a lousy literary connoisseur among your peers.

But here is where it gets more interesting. I've found that without my intervention or offers of free books, readers who loved my novel eventually end up promoting it and recommending it to others, and coming back to tell me what they've done. What the hell?

As a new writer, selling books is buried way down on your list of priorities compared to your number one goal: to be read by as many people as possible. So giving away books left, right and center at a loss seems like a viable proposition to gain traction. That is until you realize it doesn't always work like that.

What if by giving away free books I am depriving readers of the challenge of getting their friends and family to get vested in their taste and vote with their money? It’s one thing to give someone a free book you've read and enjoyed, but a totally different challenge to recommend a book and ensure that it’s purchased, based on your good word. And maybe readers also feel cheated to have paid for the book, when the author is willing to give it away.

As much as being read is important, it seems that trying to trip-wire the basic principles of demand and supply may not be such a fancy proposal. What do you think?

Writers, do you find giving free copies to satisfied readers demystifies you as an author and somehow cheapens your brand? How about you, readers, is my analysis of the psychology of recommending books somehow accurate?

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My sizzling-hot #bestseller short story, The Jewish Neighbor is on sale for 99 cents on Amazon.

A.M. Khalifa's critically acclaimed debut novel, Terminal Rage, was recently described by Publishers Weekly as "dizzying, intricate, and entertaining."  He lives in Rome, Los Angeles, and Sydney, sometimes at the same time.

The ebook version of Terminal Rage is now on sale for $0.99 on Amazon.


  1. I've seen established authors try to move books at a discussion, even then it only goes so far. They offer a discount price, signed and one even made a joke that this is the way to buy a book that helps the author write more--author's copies cost less and the author gets 100% of the profit, making life more comfortable to write again later. Similarly, at the defunct Boarder's I was given free copies of books to read when I spent $X amount, but it wasn't my usual reading genre. I still haven't read some of those freebies, and one was made into a TV show. The feel of a given book is different.

    I cannot tell why this is but even I, an avid reader do not want free copies of a book I'm not in love with. And I've given away many books to friends, but always ones that matched my living philosophy, not my reading voracious reading habits. But I have bought and given away 4 copies of the Omnivore's Dilemma and several Temple Grandin books only to repurchase them and share again. That said, I don't know that the giftee read them. As I said before...free books are different.

  2. Interesting post and topic, Aymen!

    I think, like anything, people value what they've paid for, and free lowers the perception of a quality product. I haven't offered any of my books for free on Amazon and I don't think I ever will. Although I do give out a free book or two at every workshop I present, and even at panels I'm in.

    As for recommending books to others, I'm always hesitant to do that. I mostly read and edit thrillers and fast-paced mysteries, so if I know someone who also loves thrillers and other crime fiction, I'll gladly recommend books to them. But I've had friends and family ask me for suggestions and I almost never recommend books to them, as I know most of them have different reading tastes than me. Same thing with anyone else, unless I know they read and love the same genres as me. There's a certain responsibility that goes along with recommending a book or giving it away to a specific person - if they don't like it, it backfires for everyone, including me.

    A great topic, though - lots of food for thought here!

    1. I agree Jodie.

      When I first published, the concept of free was anathema to me. Although I did KDP Select last year and used my 5 free days, I still felt somewhat uncomfortable.

      For me, the reason is two-fold:

      1. My book is the result of hard work, time, effort, energy, and money. It's a good product. I don't expect expect other professionals to offer their services for free, so why should I? The only counter argument to this is the loss-leader strategy. If a business wants to shift several products, their target buyer might be more interested if the first one if free. Losing out of the revenue of one product may be negated by the income from the others. Like Kristine Kathryn Rusch says in her current series of posts on Discoverability, free for a set period of time for a specific marketing strategy can still work. But there has to be a strategy behind it. Of course, some authors keep the first book in a series perma-free and it seems to work (Lindsay Buroker comes to mind), but this only works when there are several books in the series that can then generate income off the back of the loss-leader.

      2. Like Jodie says, free gives the impression that the product may be of poor quality, even if it's not.

      Though I am doing KDP Select this year, I will concentrate on the Kindle Deals rather than the free days (you can only do one or the other during the 90-day period anyway).

      With regards to the principal subject of your topic Aymen, I share Kari's, Jodie's, and Scott's views. I am very happy to do giveaways and competitions where readers can get my books for free, but I would not ask my readers (even if they are friends) to share out free books for me or expect them to actively promote. Like Scott said, they then become part of my PR team and I feel that would spoil the author-reader relationship. I was recently invited to be part of the Street Team of an author-friend of mine by their publicist and said no. Principally because I didn't have the time but also because I felt uncomfortable.


  3. Additionally, I have a cousin who evangelizes in southern Asia. He charges a small-coin per tract so the paper isn't used to light a fire or as some other useful thing. The idea is that If we pay for an item, it's higher value.

  4. I agree, AM--it really isn't an effective marketing too and tends to repel rather than attract. I think the reason is that it comes across as pushy. When someone pays a compliment, you don't respond by hammering them over the head with it. You simply thank them and show gratitude.

    On another note, I receive requests from authors I've never met (who unsolicitedly send me their books), asking if I'll give them a blurb. It feels invasive--if not presumptuous--and I always wonder if they realize this. As much as I like to help other authors, my reading time is so limited as it is, and to send me their book feels kind of disrespectful of that. It's like spam on steroids.

  5. You know, I've actually never offered extra free copies, the way you suggested. I've pimped like "HAIL" (yes, my southern dialect is coming out) for reviews by offering reviewers free copies, and tossing free copies out left and right, up and down, at online events. But, that is where I have drawn the line, thus far. I full-heartedly agree with all that you mentioned. One would THINK that being offered free copies of ANYTHING would be a no-brainer. (It would be for ME, but hey, just call me cheap. I AM a starving artist, after all...) But you are quite logical with regards to the masses. It ultimately shouldn't make sense, but it does. So, bravo, bellisimo, woo hoo, and the like--and I will continue to do things as I have in the past. :)

  6. Great post and discussion, Aymen.
    Jodie's mention of the "responsibility" inherent in giving someone a book to read resonates with me. I feel a certain awkwardness regarding reading recommendations or requests from other than close friends. Perhaps it is, in part, related to the sanctity we book-lovers hold for our own reading time. It is a sacred commodity!

    For me the discomfort extends to seeking beta readers or, as Andrew describes, blurb contributors for my writing. I feel like I'm imposing.
    When kindly writer folks provide input or blurbs, I am hugely relieved and appreciative.
    Perhaps thoughts for another post - how to develop effective beta readers and other support?
    Thanks to all!

  7. Two things struck me right away, Aymen.

    The first was that if theaters did the big ticket give-away thing all the time, it would lose some of its appeal. If they did it to movies involving people I'd never heard of, I'd probably just trash them.

    The second was the balking by friends and acquaintances. That's a lot of pressure. Roaring through their heads is the concern about your future relationship if they hate your book. It doesn't matter if you tell them it doesn't matter. Because frankly, with friends and acquaintances, it matters—at least more than it does when it's a stranger.

  8. Parts of my family have read my writing and well, they said they liked it. I've had a few friends read it too, but no, I've never offered to give them free copies to give to others. I give away copies in giveaways, in exchange for reviews, and ARCs to a few people before it goes live. I figure that is enough - and if they like it, they usually recommend it anyway. I guess I never thought to offer such a thing! Right now my first in a series has gone free, so people can get it without me even offering. I'd love reviews and am hoping to entice people to post a review for #1 in a chance to win #2, but we'll see.

    I think I'll stick with how I've been doing things, but I can see why people wouldn't want to suggest a book they enjoyed to their friends. Movies are different than books because books...they tend to mean something different to each person. I know a book has made someone I know cry and think it's so great, and when I read it at their recommendation, it just made me angry! LOL! So, I get it!

  9. While I don't mind telling anyone and everyone about a great book, I have moved to e-book format almost exclusively. I'm not going to haul print books around or have them sitting around my house so I can distribute them to friends on behalf of even my favorite author. And, it would seem to me an author would rather SELL books than give them away. I'm happy to gush to everyone and anyone about a book I just read and loved - and then let people decide for themselves how they're going to obtain it.


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