Giving Away the Farm

In one day, this is what I saw:

An ad from a plastic surgeon in the newspaper:

“Plastic surgeon, new to the area, offers FREE breast implants

to the first one hundred women who sign up!”

An online article:

“Stockbroker giving away FREE Apple and Google stocks

to the first five hundred people, no strings attached!”

A Walmart sign:

“Free pizzas for thirty days, for everyone, no exceptions!”

I couldn’t believe my eyes! All of these free things being thrown in my direction. I could get a boob job, and some stock, and free pizza, all for doing nothing!!

Wait, now. Just hold on a sec. How was this even possible?

Because, my friends, the above scenarios are entirely fictional.

Does any writer or artist reading this article get what I’m alluding to?


I suspect that, like me, many of you have had a yard sale in your lifetime. On one table you have linens and dishes, on another you have jewelry you don’t wear anymore, or clothes that no longer fit. Towards the end of the day, you lower the price on whatever hasn’t sold. Those cute pearl earrings were $5.00, but you are tired, and you still have to take whatever is left to Goodwill, so you drop the price, say, to half. Oh, here comes a sweet old lady. She hands you two ones a two quarters and tucks the earrings in her purse. Now things are selling again, the yard sale nearly over, the last lookie-loos hoping for a bargain. Still having to do laundry or Swiffer your kitchen floor, you decide enough is enough, so you grab a large box, mark FREE on the side, and toss most of the unsold items inside.

Here is where psychology comes in: Dozens of latecomers show up, peek into the “FREE” box, a few even stoop to pick up the pretty salt & pepper shakers or that silver-plated hand mirror. You think, Hallelujah, it feels so good to unload this stuff, even if it’s free! Less to haul to Goodwill. During the final hour, you ignore the box. After all, there is no money to be had on these items, so who cares if someone comes and takes the whole lot? The goal is to get rid of things, right?

The yard sale ends, and while you are tossing the remaining table items (of which there are few) into the trunk of your car, what do you discover?

The stuff in the FREE box is still in there. The salt & pepper shakers, the silver-plated mirror. All of it.

How can this be? You were giving the stuff away! Who doesn’t want free junk?

Because by attaching the word FREE to the merchandise, you are telling potential customers that those particular items HAVE NO VALUE!

So here we get to my long-winded point: As a writer, don’t you have value? You’ve been writing for years. Honing your craft. Dealing with rejection. Laying the story out in front of critique groups to slice and dice. Hiring an editor. Designing your book cover. Paying to have it formatted. Learning the ropes of self-publishing. And finally, after months or even years of hard work, you upload your awesome book to Amazon: AND GIVE IT AWAY.

But why?  Other professions don’t do this. Doctors do not give away free boob jobs, or hearts, or livers, or Botox. Stockbrokers do not give away free stock from the top NASDAQ sellers; and Walmart, while they may be one of the most affordable mega stores in which to shop, never gives anything away for FREE!

So then, why is it that writers have suddenly become the beggars in the bunch? How is it that you can work so tirelessly, sacrificing potential family and social time, wringing your hands, wiping away tears, and then tell your readers they may have your first-born (or second, or third) for free?

Every time you give away books, you are:

  • telling potential readers that your writing isn’t worth a dime, and so maybe it isn’t worth reading to begin with
  • causing other writers to compete by doing the same thing, creating a collective downward spiral

Believe me, I understand wanting to build a readership. I am spending three to five hours a day handling my own marketing to prepare for my book launch in a few months. The book itself took me eighteen months to write, and I won’t even mention how long to edit. My eyes are bleeding, poring over Amazon stats and articles on how-tos and what-not-to- dos. So I know what it means as a debut author to want to rise above the rest and make your book stand out.

But if you truly believe your work has value, that you as an author have worth, then maybe we should ban together instead of bid against one another.  Here is what you (and I) should be doing:

ADD VALUE to your work: Instead of giving away free books, offer to sign the first hundred print copies. Or offer a free bookmark or bookplate with each purchase. Or a free reading at a school or library or book club in exchange for buying X number of copies. If you have more than one published book, or an author friend has a book written in the same genre as yours, then offer the books together as a bundle. Or raise the price of your first book, and give the second away for half price if they buy the first, instead of the other way around. It may take some time to build your fan base, but there are lots of ways to offer incentives without giving away the farm.

Even Payless Shoesource has their BOGO half-price deals.

Even Goodwill doesn’t give away merchandise.

Even the Depression-era migrant workers soon fought bidding wars by forming unions.

Okay. I am not suggesting unionizing, though this is a future possibility for self-published authors.

Yes, it’s true, I am trading a few ARCs (advanced reader copies) with family members and writer friends in exchange for honest reviews prior to publication. But the second my debut novel is up and running, those freebies stop.

If a potential reader can’t ante up one or two dollars, then perhaps I should find another profession. Maybe I could go to medical school. Become a doctor. Then I’d never give anything away for free.

And no one would expect me to.

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