Views From The Captain’s Chair! Episode Six: To Free Or Not To Free?

Captains ChairBlog

Ahoy, Mateys!

Today’s voyage takes us to the land of the free. No, no, we aren’t going to Sweden. Sorry. Nope, we are going to be talking about giving away work for free. Specifically, the idea that if you give your work away for free it will build your audience and create sales when you finally have something to offer for sale.

Easy topic, right? Yeah…not so much.

How about a little backstory?

*Cue wavy lines and doodleoo-doodleoo-doodleoo sound effects*

One night, as I was riding home from the Contessa’s party, I came upon a horribly disfigured man. This man… What? Oh, wrong backstory. My bad.

I started my novel writing career by giving my fiction away as a free podcast. It was an easy choice for me since I was listening to a lot of free podcast novels. I learned a lot from the trailblazers like Scott Sigler, JC Hutchins, Mur Lafferty, and the other amazing writers in that community.  I was introduced to Evo Terra and There was a sense that something revolutionary was happening with publishing and I wanted to be a part of that.

With the support of some of the above mentioned authors, I was able to get the word out about my podcast novel and soon I had a serious following. It was amazing and I’ll always be grateful to those that gave me a helping hand when they didn’t need to at all. Their help put me on the map.

And my goal, from the start, was to turn the momentum and success of my podcast into a publishing deal. I was able to do that with a small horror press. It was great.

Then ebooks hit.

Wow. The game changed. Everything changed.

I watched the podcast community crumble. Podcasting was no longer the “only” form of distribution for an author trying to break into the publishing world. I watched authors that had been on top, having millions of downloads, hit brick walls.  Some quit, informing their audiences that they were no longer going to give their fiction away for free. They were skewered. It’s the internet, right? You skewer people if they don’t hold up to the expectations you have imposed on them in your brain. That’s what the internet does.

I wasn’t any better. I skewered. Why? Because I had gotten wrapped up in the “cult” of free. That it’s more important as an author to give your audience what they want instead of getting what you want. That your audience has “made” you and you “owe” them free content FOREVER! Okay, okay, I’m going all hyperbolic and exaggerating. It wasn’t that extreme. Well, except that it was, in many ways.

I made a lot of claims, I said a lot of things, I opened my mouth and stuck both feet in. Why? Because I lacked experience and the perspective that comes with that.

So, ebooks. Let’s get back to that.

They hit the world and all of a sudden authors such as myself could immediately publish our novels without waiting for “Big Publishing” to knock at our doors. We could go from podcast novel to published ebook (and print since POD expanded as well) in the blink of an eye. Amazing!

Yeah, not so much. You see, free does not translate into sales. It doesn’t even follow the basic tenants of marketing which is a 10% return on investment (ROI). Let’s say I had 10,000 subscribers per month, which was my estimate at my podcasting peak, then it would stand to reason I’d be able to sell 1,000 ebooks. Right?


It was more like a 1% ROI. If that. But, hey, maybe I wasn’t marketing well enough. Maybe I wasn’t getting my message out there since so many new writers had entered the podcasting sphere. Maybe I was getting lost in the noise.

Okay, so write the next novel that the listeners are hungry for and get that out there. Bam! Bam? Bam…

Plenty of downloads, almost no books sold. Poop. This free thing was starting to get a little suspect.

So I took a break for a bit. I concentrated on writing ebooks under a pen name in a certain gold rush genre. I sold El Shit Ton of books. It was amazing. Then the rules changed and Amazon screwed up the party. Kinda like back in the ’80’s when the California real estate bubble burst and everyone realized that coke was burning holes in their sinuses. Party over.

Time to dive right back into podcasting! Get that new novel out there and sell, sell, sell! I decided that I’d release the ebook first then podcast the novel to build interest in the ebook. Good strategy. Except it didn’t work. What I was hearing from fans wasn’t, “Great novel! Loved reading it”, but instead I heard, “Are you going to podcast it?” and “I like listening better than reading.” Or “You promised to podcast everything”.

My personal favorite was “By not podcasting this first you don’t give your fans a chance to decide whether they like it or not. I don’t waste money on books I haven’t listened to first for free.”

That’s an honest to God quote.


Now, don’t get me wrong, I had TONS of dedicated fans that bought my novels. THOSE FANS ARE THE BEST! I still chat with them on my website, on Facebook, on Twitter. Many have become actual friends. Seriously. I won’t list names, but if we’ve interacted in the last week then you are on the BEST list. You know who you are.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful, completely the opposite. I am very grateful. For all of the exposure, the friendships made, the connections in the industry, the hard lessons learned. All of it. So very grateful.

Yet, podcasting wasn’t my end goal and I realized it was getting in the way of said end goal. That goal? Get published and be a full time, successful writer. Not a full time podcaster. Podcasting doesn’t pay the bills.  So I quit.

A year ago I walked away from podcasting. It was noticed in the community and I got skewered, just like the others that had quit before me. Many people wrote blog posts, or recorded podcasts, about me quitting and turned that into a rally cry to keep up the FREE! Free, free, free! Anything else but free was treason! TREASON! Again, being hyperbolic here. The treason comments were from a vocal minority. But they were vocal. And they had/have the right to be vocal.

Oh, well, no worries. I now had the time to dive into writing and not worry about podcasting. The shift in focus changed everything. I was no longer a “podcast author”, but a writer. I was no longer beholden to download numbers that meant absolutely nothing. My time was all about words on paper, not words in Garageband.

Why write this huge, rambling post about this?

Because this weekend I cleared out my podcast feed of all free fiction. Wiped every single post away. Instead, my feed will now be dedicated to offering samples of my audiobooks (which fans can buy on Audible, Amazon, iTunes), essays when the mood strikes, and also other offerings. There could be interviews or readings or whatever. I do like the audio format, but it is now a compliment to my writing, just like my Facebook page or my Twitter account or this blog. Another way for me to interact with fans and readers, but not the only way.

I am now a full time writer with contracts in place with two publishers. I crank out a novel a month. Yep. I am a writing machine. And I credit a lot of my success to quitting podcasting and getting my head out of the free model. Not because free is bad, but because it clouded my vision of who I was as a writer and where I wanted to go.

Some of you have been reading this and are saying, “Oh, yeah? Well so and so turned their free novel into a huge publishing deal!” And “Blah blah author is now selling BILLIONS of ebooks a month after giving their work away for free!”

Those are outliers.

In fact, all success in all forms of media are examples of outliers. Let that sink in.

The entertainment industry as a whole is not made up of successes, but of failures. Only an estimated 1 in 400,000 make it in entertainment. That includes agents, grips, editors, cover designers, extras, chorus line dancers, make-up artists, writers, gaffers, etc. You think you’ll be one of those lucky ones? Could be. But there are 399,999 other people that think so as well.

Now, with that all said, am I condemning giving your writing away for free? Hell no! Seriously, I think it’s a great idea! You can build an audience, you can hone your craft, you can meet others and strike up life long friendships. Giving away your writing for free is a fine solution if you are just starting out. Way better than publishing straight to ebook. Don’t do that. Learn first. Get your shit in gear. Get feedback. Become the writer you want to be, not the writer you are trying to be. There’s a difference.

So if you are going the free route, bully on you! Just understand that it is a step and a tool, not a career. And not a cult. Develop a plan for your free works. I have my Friday Night Drabble Party each week. I give away a 100 word story every Friday night. It’s easy to do and it helps me work on ideas I otherwise would let sit or forget about. I dig it. But it only takes up an hour of my time each week. Does it bring new readers/fans? Not a clue. That’s why I look at it from the practice/exercise perspective. It’s as much for me as it is for any readers out there.

And there you go. My experience with free. It won’t be your experience, that’s for sure. We all live individual lives. We all have to choose our paths. Find yours and own it. Own it as in buy it, because nothing in this world is truly free, and if you own that then no one can take it away from you. Or something profound like that.


Oh, shit! I totally forgot to take us out of flashback mode!

*Cue wavy lines and doodleoo-doodleoo-doodleoo sound effects*

Disclaimer: Views From The Captain’s Chair are just that: views. These are not laws. These are not set in stone. I could be totally wrong. I could be off my rocker (shut up). I could be full of S-H-I-T. I could change my mind next week. All of that is possible. Who knows? But if even just a little of this helps you then I’m happy with that. If it just makes you stop and think then I’ve done my job. Which I really need to get back to. Blogging don’t pay for the bourbon! Oh, and the whole Captain’s Chair thing? Yeah, I write in a captain’s chair. It’s true, Mateys! Got a question? Need some one on one? Shoot me an email, a DM, a PM (no BMs) or comment below.

Jake Bible lives in Asheville, NC with his wife and two kids.

A professional writer since 2009, Jake has a proven record of innovation, invention and creativity. Novelist, short story writer, independent screenwriter, podcaster, and inventor of the Drabble Novel, Jake is able to switch between or mash-up genres with ease to create new and exciting storyscapes that have captivated and built an audience of thousands.

Posted on February 12, 2014, in Views From The Captain's Chair! and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Views From The Captain’s Chair! Episode Six: To Free Or Not To Free?.

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