Writing and The Conundrum of “Free”

I love “free”.

Food samples? I’m on it. Giveaways on the corner? I’m widdit. Free items via shopper’s card at a grocery store? Yes, indeed.

I’m all about that something-for-nothing life….except when it comes to books.

I suppose this makes me a hypocrite because I check Bookbub and Choosy Bookworm every day to get ebook deals and if it’s good and free, I usually partake. The upside: I sometimes discover good authors and I didn’t come out of pocket. The downside: I have a glut of ebooks across Kindle, Google Play Books, and Nook that I still haven’t read from two-plus years ago, and I keep piling on more.

The “write/don’t write for free” debate has raged across the literary landscape for years. It’s especially more pertinent now, with so many authors choosing to self-publish. Some self-proclaimed experts insist that giving away books is one of the best ways to build your audience. Others ignore that advice in an attempt to preserve the value of their work.

Which is the best path?

I can’t say for sure. I was always taught that people don’t value that which they didn’t have to work to obtain, be it via money, time, or work. This value statement applies to physical objects, relationships, goals…you name it. If you don’t put some skin in the game, some kind of way, it won’t matter to you once you get it. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “In it to win it.”

I have written articles and book reviews for free, especially when I was venturing into a new area outside of my comfort zone. Each time, I parlayed those free writings into paid gigs–which was my end game (I’m an unapologetic capitalist). Writing for free doesn’t mean you have to keep doing so; if your writing is good, it will get noticed by people who are willing to pay for what you have to say–unfortunately, this sometimes means giving a larger sample of free writing so that the lucrative gigs can get a better measure of your writing style and determine if you are worth the cash and will enhance their media brand. I get it: it’s good business sense, particularly for internet-based companies without the resources and reserves of more established brick-and-mortars. And while I implore all writers to value their work, make sure you are actually writing something of value–boring, trite, repetitive, error-filled, cookie-cutter writing may work for those fly-by-night, clickbait-laden sites, or for those whose reviews/follows were purchased, but won’t cut it for the major players. and/or serious readers.

I’ve given away my books for free. Usually, there is “payment” in the form of an email address so that I can increase my mailing list, or an agreement to provide an honest review, or some other sort of mutually profitable arrangement. All to increase my book sales some more (sales are lifeblood to the professional author, whether traditionally or self-published. The love of the art is the catalyst, but in the end it’s about cold, hard cash, continually increasing sales, and ending up in the black.). Likewise, when I’ve won books via a giveaway, I had to pay in the form of providing my email address; answering questions (anyone who has entered a contest via Rafflecopter feels me on this LOL); (re)tweeting my entry into the contest; following the author on Twitter or liking a Facebook page. There was a payment involved, an exchange of energy that made me look forward to getting that book–which I read almost as soon as I received it. In the end, I paid for those books somehow, and I valued them more because of that, even if it was just an Advance Reader’s Copy (ARC) and not the finished, shelf-ready product.

There is no such thing as a free lunch.

I think of those hundreds (and counting) of ebooks clogging up my platform apps. I also look at the books (e- or otherwise)  I tend to read and re-read: the ones I actually purchased, even if it was only for 99 cents. To not read them, after I bought them, would be a waste of money and that is counterintuitive to my personal beliefs. The free ones? I’m not so pressed about, which is why they continue to stockpile. I have no incentive for reading them NOW. I recently went through a bunch of books I had in storage. Most of these I’d gotten free from the Book Expo of America (BEA) over ten years ago. Most of them I still haven’t read and don’t know when I will. I didn’t pay for them: I lived in New York at the time and my entrance fee was paid for by a publication for which I used to write reviews. So they will continue to gather dust and be relegated to the “I’ll get around to it” zone. And before you ask: I’m keeping them because most of them are out of print, or have original cover artwork (and have since been re-released, perhaps as a movie tie-in or as part of a move to a different publisher), so that makes them more valuable to me. And they were…well…FREE. 🙂

This is my personal conundrum: give away books with no type of “payment” from potential readers in an attempt to bolster my audience and sales, or charge money? I’m all about building my audience (and sales), but I also don’t want to end up in anyone’s (e)book glut, either, to be discovered one, five, or ten years down the road…or never.

I can’t dictate what’s best for each writer. You have to do what you feel is best for you and your career, and blessings be to you on whatever you decide.  But as for me and my house, I prefer to get paid.

Thanks for stopping by.

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Disturbing the Comfortable

I am a fan of Bookbub. I have tried a lot of books of which I wouldn’t have otherwise known, and found some gems in the process. One of my main criteria for purchasing a book–free or otherwise–is reading the reviews. While reviews are arbitrary and usually subjective (I used to review books for a living, so I know), I can still get a sense of whether a book is worth me taking the time to get it from the reviews. I especially pay attention to reviews about editorial errors; too many of those and I will pass the book by, even if it sounds interesting.

I recently skimmed the reviews for a fantasy/paranormal book and saw that quite a few reviewers said something on the order of the book plot making them uncomfortable; one reviewer even titled his/her review as “Disturbing”. These comments stemmed from the plot premise of the protagonist–and her ilk–boosting their powers via sexual intercourse. The comments thus ranged from comparisons to human trafficking, to parental perspective (e.g., would I want my daughter doing this?).

This got me to thinking of a character in the Bible (hey–years of Southern Baptist upbringing die hard). Paul, formerly known as Saul before getting a clue on the road to Damascus, was charged by Jesus to “comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable”. Much as Paul did for the Word of God, we as writers–indeed, all creative folks–should have the same charge. Our mission in life is not just to do what we love and get paid (well) for it–though that’s a good start. We need to roll like Paul and shift the paradigm of literature. We shouldn’t be afraid to write/paint/record/dance/design/sew what we like because it’s different, or not being done/trendy, or so far out the box that the concept can’t be seen by the Hubble telescope.

There is a reason that Gillian Flynn is blowing up the New York Times Bestseller List with her latest novel, Gone Girl, even before the movie was cast with Ben Affleck. She did the same with her previous novel, Dark Places. There is a reason, beyond his excellent writing style, why Junot DĂ­az won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for his novel The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. There is a reason why Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun, is a literary force, in the vein of Wole Soyinka, Buchi Emecheta, and Chinua Achebe–long before she was introduced to the masses by a sampling  of her TED Talk, “We Should All Be Feminists” .

Each of the aforementioned authors discussed social and political issues that were preferably not discussed at all: domestic violence; fratricide and matricide; dictatorships; civil wars; new nation creation and dismantling; political corruption; feminism; the politics of skin color; immigration (both documented and undocumented) and the lengths to which it will be obtained, including paid marriages. They dared to shine a light on the underbelly of the human condition and show the maggots thriving beneath…and we, as a society, are better for it.

To that end, we as creatives should all strive to provide more than just entertainment. Nor should we try to shock, for shock’s sake. Instead, we should try to create platforms that further foster discussion, since discussion leads to understanding, and understanding leads to change. Sounds very Yoda-like, but was Yoda ever wrong? 🙂

Thanks for stopping by.

What I’m Reading: Laundry Man by Jake Needham

I recently turned to a Kindle book that was offered as a free download via Bookbub: Laundry Man by Jake Needham. I’ve had it for over a month, but since the Kindle app on my phone kept downloading it (multiple times) every time I opened the app, I figured I might as well read it so that the downloads would stop. 😀

 

Laundry Man Jake Needham

 

 

It’s interesting so far, but I’m not even 1/4 of the way through. The book is about an expatriate named Jack Shepherd, an international finance guru who has left the stress of Corporate America in the United States behind,  to live in Thailand and teach at a university there.  He gets a phone call from Buddy, a former friend and colleague whom he’d long thought of as dead–only to find out that this friend faked his own death to take advantage of a lucrative, yet unsavory, financial opportunity. When Buddy’s opportunity is in jeopardy of going south due to missing funds–and the possibility of his real death looms–he turns to Jack and his financial expertise to get him out of the jam.

The book is set in Thailand, and so far Needham does a good job providing local color, as well as the perspective of an ex-pat. I am drawn into the story because I want to see how/if Jack can pull this off (even though his reluctance to get involved is clear), and also because I sense a double-cross or three on the horizon (I have my suspicious eye on three characters). The characters themselves are, thankfully, three-dimensional. The fact that the book is set in the financial world (albeit one primarily overseas, and specifically in Asia) is very interesting; I’ve grown weary of all of the Wall Street-oriented novels out there.  Still, though Needham doesn’t bombard readers with financial terms, the ones he does include can make your eyes cross if you’re not used to the world of international banking and finance. Anyway, though I got the book free, it’s worth giving it a try  so far.

Thanks for stopping by.

The Bandwagon Syndrome (or, what NOT to write)

A friend forwarded me this link about humorous writing advice from The Worst Muse. After chuckling over the truthful absurdity of it, I was a bit sad because this is but an inkling of how our literary world functions.

Admit it: how many times have you seen a popular book spawn a lot of not-so-popular copycats? One need look no further than the Twilight series (vampires amok!), The DaVinci Code, and the Harry Potter series to identify the plethora of wannabes in their wake. Or even TV shows doing the same (zombie stories in a post-apocalyptic society are the new black, thanks to The Walking Dead). Kinda like the misfit kids in high school, who tried their best to be one of the cool kids.

It goes beyond plot devices (teenage vampires with lots of angst, search for historical /mythical relics, normal kid realizing s/he was actually a magician, race to save the world/town/country from imminent destruction), but is more widespread in characterization. If you go to BookBub, Choosy Bookworm, or even the free e-book sections of Amazon and Barnes and Noble, you will find many books with detectives (preferably broke-down, retired, or otherwise seeking redemption), FBI/CIA/undercover spy/agent, ex-military, attorneys. Or accidental sleuths such as housewives, new mothers, fashionistas, chefs, caterers, and the like.

I know there’s nothing new under the sun, but DAYUM. :/

At first, I blamed the mainstream publishing industry. Its corporate business model is predicated on the replication of a successful book, in any iteration, until it is no longer successful. Kinda like how a virus replicates until it outgrows its breeding ground and is forced to seek a new one; lather, rinse, repeat.  But I see a lot of the aforementioned among self-published authors, as well.

They should have never given folks the ability to copy/paste. Or, for that matter, computers, increased technology, and the greater ease of self-publishing. There was a lot less of this blatant copycatting when books were actually written on typewriters, or by hand.

It’s one thing to take a popular theme and put your own spin on it. It’s a whole ‘nother story (no pun intended) to write something very similar to what’s already out there (and likely glutting the market). It’s as if people are taking the copy/paste function way beyond where it was intended to go. It’s easy to fool oneself into thinking that if one element is changed, then the story is different (e.g,, instead of a mad race with a male university professor to find a historical artifact through Italy, a la The DaVinci Code, there’s a mad race to find a historical artifact through Egypt, with a female archaeologist.).

No. Just…no.

Reminds me of the end-of-movie scene in The Five Heartbeats, where the brothers tell Eddie King that they are starting their own label ( “…instead of Motown, we’ll be…Frotown!”) and they won’t just rap, but they’ll “…rap Country and Western!”. Meanwhile, they wore Run-DMC-type, 1980s  outfits of thick, gold rope chains, Kangol floppy hats, and adidas tracksuits.  (I wish I could find the scene clip on YouTube, but alas…)

I say all this to say: originality still rules at the end of the day, so embrace it.

Thanks for stopping by.