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Self-Publishing: How I Learned to Stop Giving My Books Away for Free

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Ash has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.

Giving away your book free is like saying "Here. Take my money."

Giving away your book free is like saying "Here. Take my money."

In 2017, when I first started self-publishing through Kindle Direct Publishing, I -- like every indie author before me -- came across an endless plethora of articles that told me I should give away my work for free.

These articles explained that temporarily free and sometimes permanently free books were an easy and effective way to bring in new readers. (Don't take this guy's horrible advice. He will try to shame you for actually wanting to be paid for your hard work. The nerve of us writers! Feeling obligated to a living!)

The Kindle Select program actually has a Free Promotion deal as a part of their exclusivity contract. If you sign up for Kindle Select, then your book will be free for up to five days out of the 90 days that it's enrolled, and it will also appear in Kindle Unlimited, where it can be read for "free" for the entire 90 days.

The word "free" is in quotations here because readers actually have to pay for a subscription to access your book for free. You also get paid based on the number of pages they read. Sounds like a good deal, right?

Nah.

You only get paid less than half a penny per page. So you only get around maybe a dollar or two depending on the length of your book and whether or not these people subjectively find your book engaging enough to read to the end. I have yet to have someone not read my weird-ass books to the end, but the payout still sucks.

Basically, Kindle Unlimited is giving your book away for nothing with the hope of drawing in a new reader. But the kind of reader who uses Kindle Unlimited (aka someone who likes cheap and/or free books) is likely not going to read your other non-KU books unless they're free too.

And yet, I ran into so many articles telling me that this was the only way to make sales that I tried it out. I tried it out for a year. I watched my books skyrocket through the ranks during free promotion days, only to realize that this boost was temporary and that my book would eventually sink to the bottom again when the promotion was over.

Why?

We Live in An Age of Entitlement

Because we live in an age of entitlement. Programs like Kindle Select have trained people to believe they are owed free books. They don't want to pay even two dollars for your hard work. Never mind the fact that you spent hundreds on a book cover, editing, and an ARC -- on top of all the hours, months, years you might have spent honing the book itself.

People expect your book to be free. Not even cheap anymore, as selling a cheap book just makes it look . . . well . . . cheap. Putting .99 cents on your work makes it look worthless. So you put $3.99 on it, but people still aren't willing to pay that.

People will pay $3.99 for a pack of pencils before they will pay $3.99 for a book that can entertain them for years.

On top of people just being cheapskates, everyone expects that ebooks are awful, full of typos and quickly produced for cash. Add to that the fact that ebooks are cheaper to put out because they aren't printed, and people don't see why they should pay money for them or take the risk.

It doesn't even seem to matter if your book is well put together, has a great cover and blurb, and has many reviews -- people still don't care if you aren't compensated for your hard work.

For some reason, they don't understand why you should be. They are owed entertainment.

I've mentioned in other articles that I actually spent about ten years writing for an audience for free online. I decided to go to self-publishing because writing is really hard work and I felt like I should be paid for that hard work. Instead, I was being constantly harassed for the next chapter of so-and-so, while at the same time being treated like garbage by a whiny, entitled fanbase who didn't seem to realize that I was working my ass off for nothing.

Instead of being grateful for free entertainment, they behaved like entitled asshats, and I was more than happy to leave them behind for greener pastures.

Now that I'm an indie author, nothing feels so good as actually getting paid for my time and effort. But actually getting paid seems to be a rare occurrence.

When you're a writer, no one wants to pay you. In fact, everyone else wants you to pay them.

Amazon Isn't the Only Guilty Party

Amazon isn't the only one pushing indie authors to give away their hard work for nothing (though they are the biggest perpetrators).

When I was still new to the indie publishing world, I was inundated by book promotion services that wanted me to give away my books free or else they wouldn't promote them.

If I wanted my books in front of their thirsty subscribers, then I had to either discount them by half -- half! -- or make them free for a week. On top of that, I was expected to pay anywhere between $20 to $75 just to get on their subscription lists and find readers for my niche.

So you're basically asked to pay someone to give away your books for nothing! Readers are so trained to expect free or cheap ebooks, that book promotion services have bought into the culture of entitlement and are encouraging this way of thinking.

And all book promotion services are like this. It's hard to find a service that doesn't ask you to discount or giveaway your book for $75.

And now that Amazon has got its claws in Goodreads, giving away a book there costs hundreds of dollars. Hundreds of dollars to giveaway a book free!

So Amazon gets all the money (through Goodreads giveaways, KU subscriptions, etc) while the writers slaving away for them get less than half or sometimes nothing at all.

My Breaking Point

After an entire year of this crap -- of pouring money into my books and seeing little return -- I realized that enough was enough. I had two moments this year that pushed me to my breaking point.

The first moment was when I found a book promotion service especially for my niche. "Great," I thought, "I'll be able to reach people who will appreciate and understand the themes in my books!"

The smile fell from my face when I read under the website rules that I would be expected to discount my book by half the price before I could promote in their newsletter. Their price for promotion was reasonable because it's such a small niche, but I was still really annoyed that I was being asked to discount my book by yet someone else who was asking me for money.

Why in hell should I have to give my book away for half the price just to get it in front of subscribers when I'm already paying you for the service???

Oh yeah. Because people are so f****** entitled, they don't care about a book unless it's cheap or free. Thanks for perpetuating this nonsense, book promoters. It's not like it's hurting us starving writers or anything!

That's the thing about the indie publishing world, though. It has always been about preying on the insecurity of writers, taking advantage of people who are already vulnerable to a system that's always exploited those who wield the pen.

I have decided to never use promotion services that ask me to discount my book or make it free. Never again. Why should I give away my hard work? Especially when I'm already paying you to promote it?! Readers should be paying me exactly what my book is worth -- not a discount, not a bargain -- and there's no reason for them to get it free.

No one asks painters to give away paintings. No one asks directors to give away films. No one asks football players to play for free. So why the f*** are writers always expected to slave over a novel for five years and then just . . . give it away?

The second moment that led to my breaking point? I had someone return a book, effectively taking money out of my pocket, and that was the last straw.

Kindle Unlimited Actually Hurts Writers

I had an entire book series enrolled in Kindle Unlimited (under a pen name that is not Ash Gray). This was a mistake and I own it. I do.

Once I realized how foolish it was to enroll my series in the program, I decided to stop putting books into KU. So when I published the final book in the series, it was not available to read for free.

One person, who I watched read the entire series from beginning to end (because KDP can show us) decided he was owed the last book for free because he had gotten the others for free.

Couldn't be bothered to pay three dollars to read the final book, and you know, compensate me for my hard work. Yes, I know I taught him to expect my work for free. I share the blame in this. But I feel I also had a right to be pissed here.

Keep in mind that the other books in the series were quite short (I enjoy writing novellas), so it wasn't like I was getting the full royalty I would have gotten had he just paid for the books in the first place. Instead, I was getting the standard less-than-half-a-penny per page.

So this person buys the last book in the series, reads it from beginning to end, and then returns it.

This isn't a person who read a book and didn't like it and wanted their money back. This is a person who read a book, liked it, and decided they "deserved" it for free because the others had been free. So they returned it for their money back.

This sucks because they basically were entertained by me for free. They enjoyed my hard work for free, while I got squat. Not even a damn half-penny.

And Amazon doesn't care. People are allowed to game the refund system. Sure, if they return a bunch of books in a short amount of time, they'll be banned. But most people won't be banned because they only do this every now and then.

If enough people are entitled enough to take money out of a writer's pocket for a book they enjoyed, it's going to hurt the writer. Imagine if ten people pulled the same nonsense. Or one hundred!

I think people forget that these books are written by actual people who make a living off the extra money they get from writing. These books are not mass produced by a cold and faceless rich corporation that can afford to lose two bucks.

When you return a book that you liked just so you can have read it for free, you are not hurting Amazon. At all.

You are hurting me.

No More Free Books

It was after this person cheated me out of my rightful two bucks (dammit) that I realized this was something that was going to happen to me again and again so long as I fed into people's entitlement by having my books in Kindle Unlimited. I then decided to stop enrolling in KU altogether.

No more exclusivity. No more free promotion. No more discounts.

"Nooooo more bread and butter. Nooooo more toast and jam."

I am a writer. I write well. I work hard. I deserve to be compensated for that. And what's more, I deserve for my hard work to be respected.

You are not owed entertainment. You are not owed discounted books. You are not owed free books.

And I'm tired of being forced to perpetuate the notion that you are.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2018 Ash