The Allure (and Danger) of “Free”

I get that people like to get things for free, but pirating a book when you know it’s stealing baffles me. Maybe I’m more sensitive to it because I am a writer myself, and I know that the author likely spent years on that book.

I really could not understand the pirates’ belief that somehow they DESERVED to have this for free. That they were ENTITLED. Why would anyone feel that they deserved to get a product for free? Where does that attitude come from?

I never understood it—until I experienced it myself.

I played with the idea of changing the look of my blog, so I browsed the Free Themes section. And I got irked because none of the free themes did the things I wanted. I saw a few paid themes that looked like they might do the trick, but WHY SHOULD I HAVE TO PAY? Is it too much to ask that JUST ONE free theme does what I want?


There’s that entitled attitude.

A lot of stuff on the Internet is free. That is a wonderful thing. The problem is, all that free stuff (a lot of it good-quality free stuff) primes you to want more free stuff. If they give away X free, why not X+1? And then because you got Level 1 free, you feel somehow cheated when you can’t get Level 2 free.

How well this equates with the feelings of a book pirate I don’t know, but I think the same basic theory applies. “Some books are free, why should I have to pay for any?” While I’m sure the psychology of it is more complex than that, it leads me to the dangerous part of “free.”

Devaluing a product is a slippery slope.

With the rise of ebooks, many authors use free books to prime the pump. They use 99¢ books to draw readers. They keep their books priced $2.99 or less to attract downloads. All of those promotional strategies are fine in themselves, and I’m all for using them in small doses. But when it leads to scores of books always selling for under $3, readers begin to believe the value of ALL such work is under $3—and don’t want to pay more.

They value your years of research, writing, and editing as worth less than a throw-away cup of coffee.

Once your work is devalued, it is almost impossible to bring the price point back up. People come to expect—to believe they DESERVE—your work at the lower price. This devaluation of our worth is in part what agency pricing was meant to stop.

What happens to the authors when all ebooks have to be priced under $2.99 or no one will buy them?

Pricing is deviously hard—but so is writing. Be sure to consider the value of your time and effort when pricing your book.

YOU deserve it.


  1. I hadn’t thought of the issues from that angle — you make some valid, thought-provoking points.

    • I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Most of us dream of being able to live off our writing income. But if prices keep falling, it will become impossible to move enough units to make a comfortable living–at least not until you have many books out and selling well. J.A. Konrath thinks eventually all content (books) will be free and authors will be paid by advertisers. Not sure I agree or that I even like that idea of being at the mercy of someone else’s sponsorship. But that is how artist’s survived in olden times–they had a patron. Things coming full circle?

  2. Charging $2.99 is not too bad when the author gets 60-85% of the proceeds. It’s probably more per copy than you would get from a publisher.

    • It is undoubtedly more than you get with a trad publisher. But the larger percentage is only useful to you if you SELL BOOKS. Aside from some outliers, it’s very hard to get the visibility for your books you can get with being in bookstores unless you are very good at marketing or have your own money to put into paying for marketing (which you then need to make up through sales before you see a profit).

      Plus, Bill, think of your own book as an example. How many will you have to sell just to make up the cost you put into it? How many to equal the advance you would have gotten from a trad publisher? I agree that the percentage per book is certainly higher, but it only adds up to something livable if you can add large sales volume to the equation.

      Of course, some people are not in it for the money–they’re quite happy just to be published and have a handful of people read their book. If that’s your goal as a writer, then pricing doesn’t mean much to you. Not everyone wants the same thing out of “being published.” And that’s fine.

      • As you surmise, it’s not about the money, for me. I want to leave a legacy that people can read hundreds of years from now, as I read authors from long ago, and try to imagine what their lives were like, and what they were thinking.

  3. neptune1021 says

    My husband has a saying that goes like this: when you buy cheap, you get cheap. I bragged that I was able to build my own website using WordPress for practically free, but there are a lot of extras you don’t get. So in the end, I hired and paid someone. Mind you WordPress is a great way to go, but if you want level 3, you gotta pay.
    When it comes to pricing eBooks, though, it’s not about what I deserve but what people can afford to pay in this economy of unemployment, high gas & food prices, etc. So I try to stay reasonable with prices, though in my heart, I might feel I deserve more.

    Thanks for a great post.

    • I’m certainly not arguing that ebook prices should be up with paper books. And taking the reader into account is always a good idea. But ebook readers own ereaders – which are not cheap. They are likely not hurting so much that a difference of a dollar or two on a book is going to make a difference. I’m just saying that we need to be fair to ourselves as well as to our readers. Every author will likely have a different price point that they are comfortable with.


  4. I’m so exasperated with all the games people play to get their books noticed these days—asking you to vote for them in popularity contests, asking you to write 5-star amazon reviews whether you read (or liked) the book, asking you to download their book for free even if you’ve already purchased a signed copy—twice I’ve won free books on blogs just for commenting, because the topic interested me, when I didn’t even know there was a giveaway. All of this makes marketing into some kind of game you have to win. This mentality, for me, also devalues a book. Must we trick the public into reading our work? If we’ve written a good book, won’t people recommend it to their friends?

    I can’t say I’ll never try these ploys, especially if that’s what it takes to stay published. I know, I know—”everyone does it,” so you have to too, to keep up. But it does sadden me.

    • Yes, all the hoop jumping exasperates me, too. Still, there are proven marketing plans that we would be silly not to try if they work. On the other hand, if “everyone” is doing something, perhaps the best way to get noticed is to…do something different. (Think of the one person in a line dance who’s off a little–they sure stand out!)

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