Giving it Away for Free – The Truth About Your 1st Novel

4/29/2019

All right, you just published your first novel. Now to sit back and rake in all those sweet, sweet royalties.

Oh, wait, yeah, there’s not a whole lot of that is there? Not if you’re a first-time or indie author unless you win the Lottery as I’ve discussed in one of my previous posts. The truth is most writers (even the traditionally published) cannot make a living from their writing. Most writers can barely recoup their marketing, editing, and other writing-related costs. So what are you going to do with your first book? Well, the best thing you can do is give it away for free.

Yes, for free!

***DISCLAIMER: This advice is recommended for those who have already exhausted all their resources for promoting their work, and their work still isn’t selling. I know the expression “I don’t work for free,” and I’m not telling you to give your work away for free “IF” you can sell it. By all means, try to promote and sell your books first! If you can earn a sufficient amount of royalties right out of the gate, this advice is NOT for you. This advice is directed towards writers who published their book a long time ago, and maybe they even made an honest effort to promote it, but for whatever reason, sales have stagnated and they aren’t going to improve any time soon. Rather than give up and let a book die in obscurity, they may want to utilize this as an opportunity to drum up a dedicated readership, which, in the long run, is valuable to have.***

So few writers make money from their work that the United States tax bureau has two separate distinctions for writers who try to declare their writing losses on their income taxes; either you make enough from your writing to turn a profit, or you’re a “hobby writer.” Meaning, what you earn is so meager that you barely, if at all, can recoup your writing-related losses, and you can only write off losses if you’re in the first category as a profitable writer.

If you think you’re going to get rich and famous off your first book. I’m sorry. Most writers will not win that lottery, BUT that does not mean you wrote your book for nothing. Far from it. Being a writer is a process. You can’t just write one book, dust off your hands, kick up your feet, and watch the money roll in. Most of being a writer is marketing yourself as a writer. You will spend more time promoting yourself and your work than actually writing, and I know that sucks, but that’s the reality of what it takes for most of us to make it these days. But how do you promote yourself as a writer?

Well, there are lots of ways to promote your work. You can pay for advertising. You can have giveaways. You can drum up reviews. Do virtual book tours. Build a following on your blog or social media (coughsubscribetomyblogcough). Or, you can do a free giveaway of your book. Some of these methods work better than others, but what’s the end goal? Are you going to make a ton of sales and get rich?

Well…no. Probably not.

Even after all your hard work and marketing, you’re probably not going to be any more financially better off than you were when you started. The truth is that if you’re a first time writer or maybe a second or third-time writer, you’re essentially an unknown. You don’t have a famous name, and you barely have a following or any dedicated readers, and that’s a problem because if you want to someday write a book that actually makes money, you NEED to have an audience who is waiting to buy it. You need to have a body of people who know who you are, know the quality of your work, and who want to read more. Obtaining a following is NOT easy, but it IS the key to your someday success as a writer.

So how do you get this following?

Well, you can build a name for yourself through other means. Many have had luck by produced a popular blog, Twitter feed, or YouTube presence, where they have so many followers/subscribers that when they do release a book, they’ve already got a captive audience. But, not all of us are capable of selling ourselves outside of our writing, so the only other way to build a following is with our writing itself. You need readers, and you’re not going to get them by charging them money to read — not even a small amount. This is the digital age. There are free books on Amazon Kindle right now. Why should they pay you when they don’t know who you are? You can get free books from countless other places online, and hell, libraries are still a thing.

Most people, without consciously thinking about it, always do a risk assessment when they’re picking out books to read. After all, their time and money are at stake, and they don’t want to waste it when there could be something better out there. They ask things like; is this going to be good? Do other people like it? How credible is this author? Have they written anything else that people like? Do they have any positive reviews? Do they have any negative reviews? How much does this book cost? Maybe I can get a better book from an author I already know and love for less money. Is this going to be a waste of my time? I don’t want to spend a bunch of time reading something only to find out that I don’t like it.

When you put a price tag on your book, especially if it’s a high price tag, and you don’t already have a dedicated audience or a ton of positive reviews, people are going to evaluate the risk of buying your book, and they’re probably going to pass.

But, if you give your book away for free to anyone who wants it, it’s less of a risk to potential readers. It didn’t cost them anything. Of course, they can still deem your work unworthy of their time, but they’re more likely to crack open your book and give it a few pages, or a few chapters, before making that call.

If you’re already an established author with an impressive bibliography and a huge following, this doesn’t apply to you. If you sell it; people will buy it because they already know you and your work, but a lot of us Indy and new authors just don’t have that kind of readership, and so we HAVE to do whatever it takes to get our books in front of reader’s faces.

A lot of writers (especially those who have a series or multiple books) join the Amazon KDP program because it allows them to promote their books for free, and if you hook readers with one good book, they’re more likely to purchase one of your other books because they’ve already decided they like your work and they want more, or if it’s part of a series, they’re excited about the sequels.

I’ve had quite a few fellow writers notice that I give away the first drafts of my books and stories for free on online platforms such as AO3, Wattpad, or FictionPress, and they raise their eyebrows at me. Or they notice that I’m constantly generating free coupon codes to pass out my book from Smashwords (some people use KDP Select). I’ve been asked, “Why?” Why? Because I’m not making any money anyway. At least this way I can have readers (and maybe reviews)! Sure, I’d love to be a New York Times bestselling author someday. Who wouldn’t? But that’s very unlikely, and in the meantime, I shouldn’t alienate myself from a potential audience just because I’m afraid that I’m not making enough money. No one is going to take the risk on me, a small-time unknown author, if I charge them, but by giving my work away for free I’ve successfully introduced my writing to WAAAAAY more people than I ever would have been able to through selling. I already have a small, but loyal, group of readers, who, thanks to finding my work through free platforms, know the quality of my writing and storytelling, and they want more. Many have already taken an interest in my other works and my future writing projects.

Look, you’re not going to get rich anyway, so just give it to them and build a fricken audience already. And maybe your next book, or the one after that, or the one after that, will finally be the one that wins the Lottery because you’ll already have a dedicated group of readers who are hungry for more and perhaps are willing to pay for it because they will already be acquainted with you and your work and they’ll know that you’re worth the risk.

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