Giving away free books? It gets complicated.

Posted on April 25, 2016 By

Well, let me say this up front: it doesn’t have to be complicated. For instance, I recently pulled Take Back Your Privacy from Amazon’s KDP Select program, and as of yesterday you can get it free via Smashwords. It’ll hit more retailers (update: like Kobo) soon. But, hey, it’s free already. Done! Right?

Why’d I do that? Because KDP Select wasn’t doing me much good with that title, and I only had it in there to begin with because I wanted to see how many copies I could give away during the 5 free days Amazon allows for books in that program (in each 90-day period, during which the ebooks must be exclusive to Amazon). Answer: not so many. I could do much better distributing it for free on other sites. Hell, the thing’s been pirated (torrent site link; be careful if that’s how you roll) in more than one place, and it appears to have been downloaded more often that way than via Amazon. With no efforts by anyone, so far as I know, to “promote” those downloads.

Oh. Why do I want it to be free? Because I want people to read it. It bothers me that so many people out there don’t seem to have a basic understanding of how the internet works. But that’s a rant for another time and place. I’d love it if people were taught this material prior to graduation from high school, too, and it seems deeply weird to me that this ain’t the case. Um…yeah. Another day. Today is about the mechanics of distributing a book for free.

Hey, I can do it via my own website, right? Sure I can! And I probably will, once I get around to it. But, you know, when I post something to the blog it gets seen by maybe a couple of hundred people. Good people! But that’s about it, for the first week or so anyway. Some of my posts get more attention over time, but most don’t. Don’t misunderstand: I’m flattered to have a couple of hundred people reading my babble. But…since I really want this book, or at least this material, to be widely distributed…my site ain’t gonna cut it.

In theory, since I’m distributing the book (as a freebie) to various non-Amazon retailers via both Smashwords and Draft2Digital, it could reach a larger audience. Maybe it will. Maybe Amazon will price-match the freebies from elsewhere, too. That could happen. I won’t hold my breath waiting, though–some people have had good results emailing Amazon’s support staff and asking for price-matching when they’re trying to use “perma-free” to promote things like the first book of a series, but this one (so far) is a standalone work of nonfiction. Sometimes Amazon will price-match when they get some (unknown and possibly arbitrary) number of reports from potential readers of lower prices elsewhere, but that process is (1) a dark art, and (2) unreliable.

Note that I don’t think retailers have any obligation to host my freebies, or my other material, at all! They each have their own policies, and that’s as (I think) it should be.

But still. Giving away free stuff is harder than you might think. For instance, Apple won’t distribute my book, as written, at all. Why not? Because it contains links to Amazon. It’s a reasonable concern, I guess. But this book has hundreds of links. Most of them are to websites, but some are to books. Generally, it can be hard to link to a book without linking to a book retailer. Not all books have vendor-neutral sites, and many of those that do might be better off without them (maybe including mine!). I guess I can see Apple’s point here, but I have one too–if I’m going to write a book that works for a wide swath of readers, I need to include the links most likely to be useful to them. At the moment, that means (in some cases) links to Amazon. Is it possible that I’ll go through and publish a separate Apple-only version of the book? Sure. Not today, because I need to wash my hair, but maybe sometime. When I don’t have any higher-priority stuff to do.

Incidentally, this isn’t the first time I’ve had trouble publishing to Apple. They also don’t like my story …come what may. Why not? Because I didn’t capitalize anything. They told me I should change my title. I shrugged, and didn’t. Did they care? I doubt it very much. Me either. This sort of thing, I think, is entirely reasonable–we don’t actually all have to agree, and when we can just walk away without any offense being given or taken? I think that’s swell.

There are freebie-only sites, too, like Wattpad. I could post the book there. I doubt it’d get many readers, for two reasons: (1) Last I heard, Wattpad was mostly kids–I’d love it if this book were read by kids, but I doubt it’ll appeal to many, and (2) I have no idea how to use Wattpad successfully anyway. I’ve tried it a couple of times. A reader (thanks again, Heather!) tried to help me navigate those muddy waters, but I ended up wandering off with little success. I didn’t actually try very hard…but I can tell you this: it’s not just a matter of posting and waiting. That way leads to zero reads.

So, what about other freebie sites? I got invited to post material on one of those just the other day, apparently by its CEO. I said I was open to the idea but asked what benefits generally accrued to those who did. I got a response essentially telling me that I wouldn’t be a good fit after all ’cause I had this crass desire to monetize my fiction, and the site was more for people who were taking a longer-term approach to building their readership. Hmm, I thought, and decided “longer-term” meant “slower,” ’cause my experience to date tells me it’s easier to give books away on retail-type sites than on freebie sites. Plus, yeah, there’s always the chance that folks will move from your freebies to other material, and pay money, and money is nice. So…in the case of TBYP, I guess I could post it on freebie sites. But I have no idea of how to appeal to readers in such places to get them to give the thing a shot, and trying to figure it out on each site seems like it would take a long time with very little payoff–regardless of how “payoff” is defined. I’d rather write, or trim my toenails, or tickle my kid, than mess with all that. Lame, I know.

So the obvious thing to do is to reach out to bloggers, point out that the book is free, and ask ’em if they’d like to recommend it to their readers. I could write email to do this, and customize it a bit, and I actually do follow several bloggers who have readers who might be interested. Still a lot of work, right? I mean, I think giving this book away counts as a public service! Doesn’t that mean people out in the world should be, I dunno, somehow required to pay attention?

Heh.

You know what? Yes, it can be hard to give a book away. Even if you think it’s really important, and people should read it for their own good. And thank whatever gods you like (or dislike, or whatever) that’s the case! Imagine how awful it’d be if people were forced to read books they don’t enjoy…

Oh wait. There was that Ethan Frome (no link!) incident back when I was in high school. But, see, I didn’t actually read it. Because I didn’t want to. And I aced the test, too. I got asked, for instance, why some character or other committed suicide. My response (“She couldn’t deal with the reality of the new situation”) was apparently sufficient.

I want people to read my book. But I’m weirdly pleased that this matters so little. It’s just as it should be. If I put more effort into it, I may get better results. Or I may not.

Life’s full of unknowns. Which is why exploring possibilities is so rewarding. If we knew the results we’d get in advance…hmm…suddenly I have a new story idea! Gotta go write it down, for later. Which bumps the Apple-only book even farther out into the future, and maybe contacting bloggers too, and…it is what it is. And as it should be.

Have fun out there!

(New-fiction word count: zero. Blogged first, today. Told myself I could do the fiction later. Stuff happened. I’d say I should know better, but the thing is? I do know better. Did it anyway. Dumb, huh?)

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