Should We Give Away Our Work?

The New York Times published an interview recently with Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, who pirated his own work by giving away free translations of his books until he was caught by his publisher. Radiohead achieved notoriety when they released their 2007 CD, In Rainbows, online and let fans name their own price. Author JA Konrath at one point was reportedly posting PDF copies of his novels on his website for readers to download for free on the theory they would pay the nominal fee for the convenience of reading his books on an e-reading device. What’s going on here?

Why would authors or artists give away their work for free? There are three reasons: to build an audience, to gain feedback for a work-in-progress, or out of a principled belief that artistic works and ideas should be accessible to all.

While this is great for consumers, I’m not a fan of the idea that artists or authors should give away their work. Artistic works are worth something. Although many authors toil for years writing novels with no expectation of being published or making money, we would like to think there is a financial reward for our achievements.

From a consumer’s perspective, it comes down to the “perception of value.” If you give away your work, the public perceives it as worth nothing. Wait a minute, you say. What about Amanda Hocking and John Locke, who amassed huge sales of their 99-cent e-books? They were practically giving them away. Correct, but there’s a big difference between 99 cents and zero.

Hocking and Locke made conscious decisions on pricing. They bet that interesting, well-written books priced ridiculously low would sell, and they were right. First-time authors who publish on generally choose one of two price points: 99 cents (on the theory they can sell
more books, even though the royalty rate is just 35 percent) or $2.99 (the price point at which the higher royalty rate of 70 percent kicks in). It’s a
calculated decision. Self-published authors know they won’t sell many books unless they price them between 99 cents and $2.99.

I plan to publish my first novel, Small Change, through the Kindle Direct Publishing program. I plan to set the price initially at $2.99. Why? I put
three years of my life into writing and editing this book. I believe it’s worth the price of a coffee and a donut, but that will ultimately be up to the reader to decide.

And what about well-known authors who elect to make their work available at little or no cost? According to the Times story, Coelho “continues to give his work away free by linking to Web sites that have posted his books, asking only that if readers like the book, they buy a copy, ‘so we can tell to the industry that sharing contents is not life threatening to the book business,’ as he wrote in one post.”

One could criticize Coelho’s methods, but he must be doing something right. Coelho has sold 140 million copies of his books and he has actively engaged readers through social media. According to media reports, he has more Facebook followers than Madonna.

Should artists give away their work?



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4 responses to “Should We Give Away Our Work?

  1. Well, there’s something in between which I am trying. But until the Universe knows I’m around, it’s difficult to tell if it will work.

    On my book site,, I am allowing visitors to read book one of my trilogy on the site via their computer screen, or print 236 pages onto 8’x11′ sheets at home. My concept is, that if they like book one, they will buy books two and three, which completes the story. And in the process, I’ll establish myself as a new author.

    So we’ll see what happens. I hope to go eBooks in two months and hopefully that will make a difference.


    • Irv,
      That’s an interesting strategy. Please let me know how it works. A friend of mine is publishing short stories based on the characters in his sci-fi novel and putting them out thre for free on the theory that if people like them they will buy his book on I intend to publish a 99-center eventually, but I need to finish it first. Thanks again.

  2. Chris,
    I’ve been following Corey Doctorow the champion of the Creative Commons license for some time now. He basically says opening rights as much as possible yields the best results for society as a whole, and very good results for an individual as they get noticed and their work gets referenced. But the SFWA is fighting him all the way as many of their members subsist on royalties of “long-tail” sales of SF and would starve without them. This will take some time to play out.

    • Doug,
      Thanks for your comment. I haven’t been following what’s going on with Corey Doctorow but I will check it out. I know authors who have given away some of their work as a marketing strategy. Authors have to make money to sustain their careers. It’s hard to say where publishers and authors will end up in this brave new world of e-publishing. The good news is authors are now in a position to keep a bigger slice of the pie, but they also have the considerable burden of building an audience and marketing their work.


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