Writing for Free Doesn’t Earn a Living

This post was inspired by Judy Penz Sheluk’s comment on my previous post: My Free Book Promotions on Amazon are Over.

Judy’s Comment

I will not give my books away for free because people do not value free. And I worked 100s of hours to write a book. If someone doesn’t feel that’s worth the price of admission, then I don’t want them in the room. Glad you’ve come around.

My Response

I agree, Judy. The majority of people do not value free. There are a few who will, but the exceptions don’t change the rule. I hadn’t done a free book giveaway for a few years. In January 2021, the promotion came to mind, so I did it even though it didn’t feel comfortable.

Why I Did the Promotion

In the countless marketing articles I’ve read in the past 12 years, the majority of them spoke about how wonderful these giveaways were on Amazon. There were many advantages, including getting reviews.

To top it off, I was expected to pay for ads to promote these free books. Authors are still doing this. If you subscribe to newsletters promoting books, you’ll often see free books listed, too. Authors paid anywhere from $10 to $200 to have their free book promoted. That’s like a double slap in the face.

Northern Survival

Even in 2012, it felt wrong to give away my hard work. I equated it to a dentist giving me a free filling or a taxi giving me a free ride. That doesn’t happen. They expect to get paid. There’s no question about it. A teacher is not going to work for free. Neither should the writer who provides material for her to teach with.

Although it felt wrong, I was learning how to market my book. Marketing is the toughest part of self-publishing. And I didn’t enjoy it. I did a few freebies on Amazon, and, yes, I gave away a lot of books. I could pat myself on the back and think, “Six hundred people downloaded my book! I have a lot of readers.”

What I didn’t know back then was, it didn’t matter if one million people downloaded the book, I may still have only six readers. Back in the early 2010s, people downloaded millions of free books, many of which weren’t read.

All this conflicting information was in my head in January 2021 and for some reason, one cold winter’s day, I decided to give the free promotion another chance with Northern Survival. I wasn’t running any other promotion at the time, so I thought it might be useful to get the book in front of more eyes. Certainly, it wouldn’t hurt anything. According to the ‘experts’, the ‘selling’ trend would continue after the promotion ended.

Boy, were they wrong. I had been selling a few copies every day until the free promotion, and then not one paid sale or Kindle Unlimited page read for two weeks afterwards. These ‘experts’ might have been right in 2011, but they were dead wrong in 2021. I gave away 698 eBooks that generated a few reviews, including this one-star review with the horrible ‘at least it was free’ comment.

1 Star: Am I missing something?

Reviewed in the United States on February 21, 2021

I’m having a very difficult time relating to all these positive reviews. I made it to page 52 and gave up on these two thoroughly obnoxious characters and gave up on the book. Thank goodness I didn’t pay for it.

Amazon Review

A Little History

When I started writing professionally in 1997, the pressure to give my work away was huge. For every ten articles I received payment for, I gave away three. I was told this was how I built a portfolio, made a name for myself and gained experience. I accepted it because this was what other writers told me. After three years, I said, “No more.” There were a few exceptions, but they were far and few between, and had to be for good causes.

The more writers I met and the more I learned about who was making what, I found that women were more likely to give away their writing and to negotiate a lower price for work they sold. Men refused to give away their work, and worked for higher pay. Not all men and women did this. There were exceptions, but the exceptions didn’t change the outcome: men made more money from writing.

That irked me to no end. As a woman raised by a father who told me I could do anything alongside seven bothers, I worked in several ‘men only’ jobs, including construction. My brothers taught me to never back down, to always stand my ground.

My mother would say, “You should have been born a man.” While she wanted me to do housework, style my hair and wear dresses, I was beneath a truck covered in grease or camping by a river and catching fish while always wearing blue jeans. While I was average height, my mother stood five-foot high, so she looked at my size and strength gained from rugged work as something a man should possess, not a woman.

Growing up in this environment has influenced how I see the world and how I see men and women.

The fact women were setting these low standards of pay for other women triggered me into ignoring the advice of many of them. Instead, I read about how men were writing, negotiating and earning money.

I understand there are women who will only work when paid a fair wage (and I follow several of them who offer excellent advice), but the ones who undercut themselves far outnumber them. I need to rethink because in the past five or six years, I’ve strayed off course, and I’ve not stood my ground. That’s on me. Not anyone else.

In case this was just my view of the publishing world, I did a search and found this: “The newest page-turner in publishing isn’t a book at all, but research finding books written by women are priced 45 percent lower than those penned by men.” (CBS News: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/why-are-women-authors-books-cheaper-than-mens)

This article sites data for self-published men and women, too, and the results are “Self-published titles by women are priced at 4 percent less than for men…”

While publishing houses appear to value the works of women less than men, their values seem to be replicated to some degree with authors who do it all themselves.

Unfortunately, this submissive philosophy gets into our psyche, and it’s tough to escape it. I often find myself telling me ‘do what you’re told, what others expect of you’. Another voice says, ‘cut your own path; do it your way’. It can be a daily struggle.

Which authors do you follow for sound advice on marketing and pricing books?

One of the people I followed about ten years ago was Dean Wesley Smith. He is a writing machine, and cuts his own path. I’ve learned a lot from him. Unfortunately, I haven’t read him in the past three or four years, partly because I’ve been so busy. Today, I start reading his posts again.

14 thoughts on “Writing for Free Doesn’t Earn a Living

  1. I so agree with you and Judy. I too haven’t done a free promo on a books for a few years now. To be honest, I haven’t done any promotion in the last few years or published. With my husband not well since two years ago and caring for him and the worry, I couldn’t even concentrate on publishing or promoting.
    And i totally agree on pricing you and Judy talked about. The last book I put out was 3.99. I’ve been noticing many authors who had some of their books at 2.99 (like me) their newer books are 3.99 and 4.99 as it should be. Geez, inflation on everything, why not our books, especially when we make so little on them for hundreds of hours of work and sweat.
    I’ve been wondering how it would go over if we raised a dollar on all our books that are selling at 2.99?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, inflation is going crazy. It makes sense to raise the price of our books by 50 cents or a dollar. I’m going to reassess all my prices in the next month. They’ll be going up a wee bit.

      I agree with you with regard to the time and research we put into our books and the financial return of them. It’s not like a cup of coffee that takes only minutes to make yet cost about the same.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Except for a fundraiser here and there I do not give books away for free. I’ve always wondered if I was doing the right thing because I know many authors do give their work away, but although I came to this career late, I always looked at it as my work, not a hobby. Yes, I love writing, but that shouldn’t stand in the place of pay. I worked hard doing what I love. I’m now wondering if I should reexamine the prices I charge for my books. Too low?


    • Thanks for sharing your experience. While I’ve repeatedly said my writing is a job, few people in my circle, including my family, think of it as that. They consider it a hobby. I try to ignore this attitude towards my writing, but it’s difficult.

      I checked out your books on Amazon. A few are less than 200 pages, so maybe $4.99 would be too high. I’d certainly raise them to $3.99. Any book over 200 pages should be priced at $4.99. If you have books over 400 pages, maybe $5.99.

      I’m saying this because that’s what I’ve basically be pricing my books at the past year. However, I’m about to reexamine those prices. I think I may add 50 cents to each price to keep in touch with inflation.


    • I will weigh in here. I have experimented with prices and for me the sweet spot is 4.99US and 5.99CAD. I think when someone sees 2.99 they figure it can’t be very good. Over $5US and you’ve got people second guessing if it’s worth it.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks, Judy. A few of her books are less than 200 pages. I think one was something like 160 pages. That’s midway between a short story and novella. Readers may think $4.99 is too much and state that in reviews. I think $3.99 would be more suitable for that size. As I mentioned, books over 200 pages should be $4.99.

        That said, I wonder if pricing a book by length (when it comes to adult novels) is the way to go. I have seen a lot of reviews that state ‘it was too short for the price’, but should we judge pricing by what readers say? There will always be those who say they paid too much just as there will be people who think, “That was cheap.”

        I look at the prices for eBooks published traditionally, and they are often above $5.99. It makes me think a novel with only 160 pages should be $4.99 or maybe even $5.99.

        What I’m surprised at is the paperback price of $3.26 for “Murder in the Family”. I didn’t think Amazon could produce them for that price.


  3. I’ve done very few freebies but I will donate a paperback to a fundraiser. I’ve written short pieces for free for certain journals that do lead to sales, but otherwise I have avoided the mindless race to give away books as a way to raise “apparent” readership. Publishing is insane now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I, too, have donated a paperback here and there. Some of the markets I attend request a donation for the gift basket. Draws are made and someone attending wins it. I feel this is worthwhile.

      Love that: “mindless race to give away books…”

      I agree: Publishing is insane. Why am I ever doing this? Oh, because I love writing and holding that new book in my hand.


    • Thanks, Judy. At times I forget my own advice and need to reread it. I’ve been taught to tell the truth even if it offends.

      Thanks for sharing on FB and Twitter.


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