Free is Not a Price and Hope is Not a Business Plan

Prepare for a long rambling rant with overtones of self-analysis.

I have written before about using free as a strategy, not a price.

Please, make business decisions based on evidence, a plan, not hoping and wishing.

I’ve read mention of people giving away tens of thousands of digital downloads of their book, and receiving a few dozen reviews and the equivalent of $700 in related sales.

If the effort involved is minimal and the reward is $700, I guess I can see that. I suppose I have to reserve judgment until I have more data.

Yes, I want lots of people to read my books.

What I don’t want is for lots of people to just line up and download my books. It’s not the same thing.


Perhaps I’m going about the business of being a writer all wrong. If I had to choose between 10,000 copies sold which I knew would never be read, and 1,000 copies sold which would be mostly read, I’d take the loss of income in exchange for chance to reach fans and touch their lives.

Yeah, if that was print copies, I’m talking about giving up $50,000 in exchange for $5,000 with a satisfying emotional component.

Maybe I take my art vs. money issues too far. Maybe I don’t believe I’m ever going to make real money as a writer, so why not aim for something I do believe I can achieve, a real connection with fans.

When 50,000 people download a free book without even having to share an email address, I suspect the number of copies read is painfully small. I’m an avid reader. I go through a 400-page mystery in 3 days. Yet I still have a number of free downloads parked on my iPad because I just don’t bother. I grab a book because it’s free and because I have a vague interest.

When I buy a book, or bother to check it out of the library, it gets read.

When I walk through a grocery store and they’re giving out free samples, I eat ’em even if I know, absolutely, I’m not buying the product. Sometimes I’m just hungry. Sometimes I like to see how this brand compares to what I make at home. But I’m taking it because it’s free.

Raise the price to just one penny, and I’d walk by without a glance.

And so would virtually everyone else.

Brain science, endless research, has shown us that the difference between “free” and “any cost at all” is the nexus, the real dividing line.

People will take free all day long and twice on Sunday.

Raise the price to anything at all, even an email address, and they stay away in droves.

Those people who’ll take free, but won’t pay any price no matter how small?

They’re not worth my effort.

Are they worth yours?

But Wait! There’s More!

“Hold on, there!” you say. “Is there even a shred of evidence that this is good business?” you ask.

Because, after all, I’m the guy who wrote that if you don’t want to learn marketing and sell your books, you should take money out of the equation entirely.

Yes, there is a business method to my artsy madness.

The principles I’m using to build my book business, to create “Joel D Canfield, author” as a money-making enterprise, are the same principles I’ve used to create the businesses which currently feed, clothe, and house my family.

Are we rich? Financially, no. We still have to save up when we want something outside our daily needs. We still juggle things a bit to keep the bills paid. We’re a one-car family, and that’s a 10-year-old minivan. Rarely eat out, even when we wish we could.

Here’s the other side of that coin.

Despite my lackadaisical attitude about money, we live in a gorgeous house with a lake in our back yard. We travel frequently, including one or two trips a year from the midwest to various spots in California (and we travel slow, usually spending a full month on these trips.) We give to charity, both money and time. We eat well. Too well; that’s for another time. We lack nothing except all my wants. I have a lot of wants.

And we do it all for a total, between Best Beloved and I, of about 30 hours work a week. On a busy week. With a business we could do from anywhere there’s an internet connection.

It wasn’t always like this. In 2007 we were in a financial hole so deep I had to look up to see the bottom. It took 7 years to dig out, but dig we did. And now we’re here.

My writing, as a business, didn’t start in a whacking great hole. It started on level ground, like everyone else’s. Above ground, perhaps, because I have a lifetime of experience as a storyteller and a writer, as a marketer and connector to people.

I’ve only been seriously marketing my fiction for 18 months.

Will I eventually make money selling my writing?

I say yes.

Will it take 7 years?

I think not.

But even if it does, I will get there by following the same path I’ve followed since the day I took the reins of my life away from the winds so I could steer for myself.

I’ve done it before. I have not doubt I’ll do it again.

Leave a Reply