She’ll Take What You Give Her, As Long As It’s Free

Yesterday morning I got a free cookie from a box that an anonymous benefactor left on the counter at work. It made my morning because, like most people, I like free stuff. Free is one of those catch-words that immediately grabs my attention. Free food, free books, free concerts, free anything: I’m there. (Well maybe not anything. I’m not a fan of free water torture or free poisonous snakes. Though I did get excited the other week because I got a free flu shot, which is probably a little sad.)

I’m an editor not a marketer, but it would seem to me that in these times of economic lockdown, free is one of the first things we’d have to say goodbye to. How can anybody make money by giving stuff away for free? It might be time to fully embrace the old adage, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

Not everyone thinks so.

Last week I read about the profits for Radiohead’s last album, In Rainbows. Before it came out in stores, they allowed people to name their price and download it from their website. It turns out that even though more people downloaded for free than paid, Radiohead made more money before the album officially hit stores than they did on their whole previous album, Hail to the Thief.

It’s not a foolproof business plan for a lot of reasons. Books aren’t the same as music, nor are their buyers. And, come on, Radiohead is enormously famous, and F+W is well… we’re the Midwest Publishing Empire! Nevertheless, some authors and publishers are using free merchandise in their marketing strategy, and proving that free and marketing strategy just might belong in the same sentence. Publishers have always given review copies to the media for reviews, but now some are bypassing the media and going straight to readers. Will it work?

We’ve done it here with some TOW Books, offering free downloads to warm people up to the imprint. John Warner takes a look at publishing’s dark times and gives his reasons for the free promotion in his tongue-in-cheek press release.

This week M. J. Rose is giving away digital copies of her new book, The Reincarnationist. In a crowded market she believes “reading my whole book for free as a way of discovering me as an author.” She also attests that this method has worked for her and several others in the past.

I have no idea how this trend will turn out for books. But I do know that people like free stuff, tell their friends about free stuff, and try stuff for free that they’d never pay for—and end up getting hooked.

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