bill-barol-bookI found an interesting piece on BoingBoing the other day by Bill Barol, another one of those authors who had been rejected by traditional publishers and was thinking about self-publishing his caper novel, Thanks for Killing Me. He discussed the matter with a friend who had been a publishing executive, explaining that his real goal was to catch the attention of a traditional publisher and/or the movie business.

“Okay,” he said. “First, forget everything you know about traditional media; all your experience is worthless. Take all that time you spend screwing around on Twitter and put it into marketing your book. And, at least in the beginning, sell it as cheap as you can. In fact, you know what? Give it away.”

“What?” I said.

“Give it away,” he said. “For free.”

The reasoning was that he wasn’t going to make any money out of self-publishing anyway, so he might as well get the book in the hands of as many people as possible and hope they liked it. Of course, Amazon won’t allow self-publishers to give their books away; they have to price them at a minimum of 99 cents, so that’s what Barol has done:

As the screenwriter William Goldman said years ago about Hollywood, Nobody knows anything. You try something, you try something else, you try everything, even things that sound insane, because in an industry where the longstanding business model has been upended, everything else has been upended too, even the gravitational tug of logic. If you want to get rich, value your work at zero. Yes, okay, it reads like the last line of a Zen koan. But self-publishing’s best practices are still unwritten, so really: Why not? That tactical freedom might be the most disruptive, the most liberating part of the whole self-publishing business. I can’t wait to figure out what I get to try next.

Missing from the article is, of course, any sense of just how well this give-it-away philosophy has worked. Which probably means that it hasn’t worked yet. I’m honestly dubious. There are lots of people out there giving away their work for free. Heck, I’ve written fanfic and other stories and put them on the net for free myself. And while there are success stories about authors who’ve given their work away and attracted publishers (John Scalzi, for example), they’re pretty few and far between.

My own suspicion is that Barol would do better for himself setting a higher but still reasonable price on his novel, like $2.99, and trying to earn what he can out of it. Thanks to Amazon’s 70%, he could probably earn the same amount for a $2.99 novel that he could out of a traditionally-published hardcover, and people might even be more likely to buy it than to buy a 99 cent title from the “you get what you pay for” thing Mike Stackpole has mentioned. At least then he’d be earning something out of it.

But he’s the author; it’s his decision. I hope it works out for him in the end.


  1. He’s actually selling at $0.99, since that’s the lowest price that Amazon and Apple (and B&N) permit through their self-publishing systems. The $0.99 price point is becoming almost standard for first novels from new authors, even though it does mean a lower percentage on a lower sales price. Most readers of novels prefer series from established authors, and won’t take much of a risk on a single book from an unknown author.

    Once the author gets established, the $2.99 price point becomes more viable, particularly for additional books in a series. This “series” stuff is like crack for fiction readers. Comments like “series X has really sucked since book 7, and I can hardly wait for book 19 to come out,” aren’t unusual. Give ’em the first hit for free…

  2. I would love to see another online seller lower the minimum amount for ebooks to qualify for 70% royalties to 1.50 or so. The problem is that Amazon and BN would have to match that price, so you’d only get 35% on those titles from Amazon (which at the moment is selling the most). Or what if indies moved their titles over to this new seller and stopped distributing through Amazon altogether? Now, there’s an idea.

  3. Giving something away is a powerful tool. I made Book 1 of a series of mine free at the beginning of this month (on Amazon – you can do it by prompting Amazon to price-match). Since then I’ve been selling a little more than 20 copies of book 2 each day (and am releasing book 3 shortly).

    Free is absolutely a useful marketing technique. But you make a book free when there’s other books for the readers to buy.

  4. Doug – I may be odd (and many here might agree ..) but although I have opined often against high prices, I am not a fan of 99c or 1.99 titles except for completely unknown first time authors in their first few months of sales.
    I also suspect that this price point will change in future years when better, more comprehensive, and popular social reading sites improve readers choices.
    For authors with a series of titles, it makes sense to sell the first cheap, but I personally don’t favour lower than 2.99. If a potential reader takes a look at the preview he can quickly assess if the title is worth a paltry 2.99 gamble.

    However while saying all that – if it works in the marketplace …… do it ! 🙂

  5. The 2.99 or the 0.99 price all depends on the book and writer himself. if the writer thinks that the book is worth not less than 2.99 and of course can sell for that price, why not go for it? Still, for first time writers who have yet to establish his or her name, giving a free copy or even some interesting points of the book will encourage potential readers to come, read my book, enjoy and buy.

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