When Is it Smart To Give Your Work Away For Free?

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Have you ever given your writing work away for free? This is sometimes a controversial topic for writers. But I do it, I have done it, and I believe in "free stuff"  as a marketing tool. I do think you have to be smart about when and how you give your work away. 

But before we talk specifically about writing, think about how often you've gone to a store because it was giving away something free. Have you bought one brand over another because of its "buy one get one free" deal? I mean, maybe I'm alone here, but pre-pandemic, I LOVED free sample day at the grocery store, especially when the free samples were wine! Free is not a marketing tactic that's only for books and writing, but sometimes, I think creatives take special offense to this tactic. 

And I totally understand why. Many of us sacrifice a lot to get the words on a page--we get up at 4:00 am while our kids are still sleeping. We stay up until midnight after our partners go to bed. We use our vacation time to work on our writing. We pay money to take classes, go to conferences, and get editing and writing advice. 

But still, I believe in using the "free" marketing strategy during these four situations:

1. If you are unknown: If you're unknown and competing with famous and well-liked authors, it doesn't matter if your book is better or your essay is the next award-winner. If readers don't know you or know they even need to find you, then they won't. I've said on The Muffin before that you have to look at yourself as a consumer, too. What are your buying habits? Do you search out the most unknown but well-reviewed piece of literature, or do you buy what your book club is reading and what's featured in the Scholastic Book order? If you're unknown and you plan to write more than one book (so this is a career), then don't be scared to give your book away for free sometimes to create buzz and interest.

2. If you need reviews: You need them. It's just a fact of being an author. If you're a book author, you need reviews, and I'm here to tell you that if you're not famous with a bestseller, getting reviews is very difficult. Readers are busy. Readers are now dealing with a global pandemic. Readers want to help you, but they don't understand (really) how much their review will help you. And it doesn't have to be five star (although that's great!). It has to be honest and give a little detail about the book to show they have read it. I recently gave away ecopies of both Finding My Place (middle-grade historical fiction) and Read-Aloud Stories with Fred Vol 1 (from my publishing company, Editor-911 Books). We are now getting new reviews (and an added bonus--readers have started checking out Fred's book in the Kindle Unlimited program--I am THRILLED!). Reviews are social proof. (PSA: If you read a book and you love it, go give the author a review on Amazon or Goodreads!)

3. If you have a book series: If you have a series of books (three or more), one popular marketing strategy is making the first book perma-free (always free) to entice readers to give it a try, get hooked, and then buy the rest of the books in your series. Again, think of yourself as a consumer--if you find an author whom you like, do you buy more of his/her books? 

4. If you need credits for a bio: If you don't have a book out yet, maybe you didn't even make it this far in the post, but you need to be willing to give away work for free too, especially if you are JUST STARTING OUT! I know that "selling" your story to a magazine for copies or putting your work on a website for impressions and views and likes aren't the ideal situations, but if these platforms give you some of your first writing credits and samples, then don't be afraid to do this. You know, a lot of professions, such as teaching, require UNPAID internships. You need experience and you do the work, and it is part of your degree or what you put on your resume. These first writing credits--think of them as an internship--you need something to put in that bio paragraph when you're querying agents to show them that you're not a one-book wonder, that you're in this for the long haul and willing to do your homework!

5. If you need names for a mailing list: Whether or not you are a book author or planning to be, many writers have enewsletters, and to get people to join, they giveaway a reading magnet, usually an ecopy of something. The cost? An email address! Then hopefully, you've gained a long-time subscriber and fan of your work. This is the last time I will say this, I promise (because this is almost over), but haven't you signed up for a newsletter to get a free story or a coupon or a helpful worksheet or template? I have. Very few people are dying for more email in their inbox, but they're dying for a great short story or to keep in touch with their favorite essayist...

Don't be afraid to give your work away for free. Just be smart about it. See what other writers and authors are doing who write the same material that you do. And if some tactic doesn't work, it's not the end of the world. You didn't make "the biggest mistake." Just take a deep breath, and try someting else. 

Margo L. Dill is an author, publisher, editor, teacher, and writing coach living in St. Louis, MO, with her daughter and dog. She is currently giving away a free book for her publishing company--it's true (practice what you preach)--to get your FREE ecopy of The Dog and the Flea: A Tale of Two Opposites by Fred Olds from Editor-911 Kids (picture book)--go here today (October 28) and tomorrow
(October 29). To sign up for Margo's next novel writing coaching class that starts on November 6, look here. 


Renee Roberson said...

I wholeheartedly agree with giving away your work for free when it makes sense. I've personally given away a short story for free to capture names for my e-mail list, and at the present time, I'm creating a podcast completely for free in the hopes that it will grow to entice relevant sponsorships and help me build a platform in true crime writing!

Cathy C. Hall said...

I wish I had a mystery series right now 'cause I would absolutely give away that first book in the series!

I'm reading ebooks much more these days and I'll scroll through the Kindle store to see what's free. LOTS of indie authors are on there with free or nearly free books and it's the perfect bait to hook a lifelong reader!

I agree wholeheartedly that there's a right time to give away your work and your list enumerates those times perfectly, Margo. Good luck with YOUR marketing!

Jeanine DeHoney said...

Margo, I've given my work away for free alot, mainly because I liked the vision of a nonpaying magazine I submitted to and the stories they published and wanted to be a part of it. I know I will continue to do so in the future, but I also frequently submit and search for paying markets too.

Margo Dill said...

Hi Renee:
Yes, your podcast is the perfect example of a smart way to build an audience using free material at first!

Cathy: I know, right? I have like 187 books currently on my Kindle. Ridiculous. :) Get reading, Margo!

Jeanine: Yes, there are all kinds of reasons to give things away for free!

Sioux Roslawski said...

Margo--I once had a story published in an anthology--and I got only $10 in payment. I did it because I admired the publisher's mission (it was a collection of veteran stories) and it was when I was a beginning freelancer.

Yes, there are times when it's wise to give away our writing, and you gave me some new ideas. Thanks.

Empish said...

Thank you for writing this post. I look at giving away my writing for free a little different than how you portrayed it. I do volunteer writing instead. I have a career background in the non-profit world and I write blog post for a favorite non-profit on blindness and visual impairment. It is a way for me to give back to my community, bring awareness to this disability and also get published. It is a win win for everyone. .

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