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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Paulson

*Free* sucks. Fight me.

Way back when the Earth was cooling, I landed my first job as a journalist with the local newspaper. ‘Twas the only thing I ever wanted to do.

I thought that if I worked hard, didn’t screw up too badly, and stuck like glue to my ethics, I would have a long if not entirely brilliant career.

Then the Internet landed like a bomb in the middle of newsrooms everywhere, and suddenly the world changed almost overnight. It felt like it tipped on its axis and rolled over as if in capitulation.

Immediately, editors and media owners everywhere jumped into the ethereal sea of free. It was a new era of journalism, they cried. We will reach more readers, offer more content, hire more online reporters and garner more advertising because new platform! Isn’t this exciting?

Well, we know how that turned out. Not too much later, reporters were being laid off, newspapers were closing doors, and the big Internet companies were sucking up all the advertising dollars like vampires in a feeding frenzy. I do not exaggerate.

While I do not entirely blame the advent of online everything for my untimely exit from full-time newspapering, I definitely do blame same largely for the culture of free.

Free. Free is different from freedom. Free is the opposite. Free is the murderer of careers in culture, arts, newsgathering and truth-telling. Free allows for uncurated preaching to choirs of discontent, even as it provides forums and platforms for useful human connection. So it’s not all bad.

But it’s pretty bad.

In desperation and with little choice, artists have pivoted into the free culture, particularly musicians and authors. Embraced would be entirely the wrong word. While I know little about marketing music, I know a fair amount about marketing books. Let me rephrase: I know of or have studied the trends and approaches used by authors around the globe. They are, for many if not most, frustrating, ever-changing, and largely useless.

Here is one such marketing concept. If you are, for example, the author of a series, you should give away your first book as a loss leader! Everyone will love your book So Much that they will buy All The Other Books In Your Series and You Will Become Rich And Famous. I’ll give you that this has worked for some authors, such as the illustrious Mark Dawson. However, in the main, people will download or pick up practically anything for free, then completely ignore the item because free requires no investment in attention, time or, ahem, money.


I ran a straw poll on Twitter with the simple single question: Free Books??

Answers (312 respondents):

Yes! 43.3 per cent

Never! 10.3 per cent

ARCs/magnets/on sale only: 36.5 per cent

Free is stupid: 9.9 per cent

(For those unfamiliar, an ARC is an advance reader copy. A magnet is something you produce that is given away for FREE to entice people to sign up for newsletters or otherwise “follow” an artist.)

Some of those declaring Free is Good had good points. A few authors said they write for themselves and do not seek filthy lucre, and good on them. Others have had some luck providing the first book in the series for nada, leading to sales of ensuing works. Some felt that giveaways had indeed grown their readership. Many said loss leadership is a tried-and-true marketing strategy.

But many others argued that free equals bad in the minds of many buyers. In addition, there’s that lack of investment issue, which means the free book settles to the bottom of the must-read pile like whale dung.

News flash: some artists do actually try to make a living from their work. As one writer put it:

“I work my fanny off writing/creating/editing and spend a fortune to get a book ready to go out. No way am I going to just give it away! You want to read it "free" join a beta reader group or wait for a sale.”


And here’s some more theory support from an advertising expert, ie, not “just” an author:

“I've worked in advertising for 24 years and have never bought into the loss leader marketing approach. It says, "We can't sell it so we are giving it away." Financially, it only works if you are overcharging on other sales. But bargain hunters will thank you for your generosity.”

Free, in my humble, sucks. The free culture was founded by the big boys running the big ether companies. They are the ones making the money on the backs of artists (and many other types of folk.) The rest of us, however, are also to blame. We capitulated early on, and now there’s a long, winding road back, largely blocked by massive boulders of inertia and power.

To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, we must return to the garden, and only by banding together will it happen. It’s not strewn with gold, and it never was. But it is lush with beautiful words, strange and illuminating ideas, entertainment, escapism, enduring truths and liar detectors. And that is worth something, damn it.

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