Why I Really Really Don’t Like ‘Free’

A trend in publishing that I like less and less, and a trap that I see more and more budding creators falling into, is “Free”. I understand it’s appeal to authors looking to get a foot in the door. They might see “Free” as a way to get read and build an audience, or maybe something else entirely. It is possible they have heard of an industry pioneer who paved the way for their success by starting out with massive amounts of “Free” product. (Look behind the curtain, though, and you will find a well-developed hook, or perhaps they make the majority of their money in another capacity, or simply the fact that that person has become in and of themselves a unique brand.)

But really, whatever the motive, “Free”, especially by itself, is something else entirely.. and long term it does far more harm than good to a creator’s success, and the creative industry in general.

1. “Free” = “No Value”: I have written dozens of magazine articles along with thousands of words of prose and hundreds of pages of script. If after all that labor the best I had to look forward to is to give all that time investment and hard work away for maybe a hundred faithful readers, then what is the point? To just give away writing for “Free” is completely unfair to the talent, to the work, and to the all the others that make a living developing their craft. “Free” is hardly a great motivator either. Writers need to be paid for their work, even if it’s $5 for an ebook. And what is more, if a creator is not willing to respect one’s own work and put a value on it, why should anyone else?

2. “Free” = “Bad Conditioning”: Do you remember learning about animals that were conditioned to ring a bell for food? Society is the same way. Everyday we condition ourselves (or are conditioned) to accept certain things as normal or to expect a return for investment. Following this to conclusion, how do you think your audience is going to react when you move your work from “Free” to “No longer free”? You are going to lose a solid chunk of your audience who were along for a free ride because you conditioned them to expect your work to be “Free”. Further, your work is far less likely to be taken seriously by fans or prospective publishers/producers because of the signal “Free” sends to these potential big time investors.

3. “Free” = “False Advertising”: Believe me, producing creative product is no picnic at the beach. It is labor–enjoyable labor, yes, but it is labor. Slapping a “Free” label onto that product of labor sends the absolute wrong message that it probably didn’t take much to compose the work. This will lead to a nasty clash considering the above two points. It will also leave the impression on some “aspiring writer” that “anyone can do this”. The result will be someone else with potentially far less talent also charging “Free” for their work. Having affirmed the “get what you pay for” sentiment, audience members who read that work and determine it to be terrible will then (rightly) assume that your “Free” work is likely equally as bad–or worse(!!)–and not even bother to give it a chance.

The other side of this coin is that you inspire a writer with untapped talent to pen a fantastic story. Unlike you, they decide to put a price tag on it and make some nice money, maybe even leading to an agent and book deal. And what did you get out of this service to the industry? Well…nothing, because you charged “Free” and were lost amongst all the other obscure titles and anonymous authors in the “Free” bin.

There is a proper place for “Free” in the creative realm. Giving material to reviewers or charity or allowing a portion of your work to be sampled for “Free” or running a specific, limited time promotion for another product or service is acceptable in their proper contexts. But as a rule instead of the exception, “Free”, by itself, is a harmful path to follow. I can empathize with the desire to be read and the belief that any audience is far more desirable than no audience. But in the long run the opposite will out leaving disappointment, cynicism, a watered down creative industry, and/or an unfair representation of your fellow creators.

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