The Problem With Free

It’s been a big couple of months for us, here at Golden Fleece Press. We’ve put out four books in the last month, and blog posts, and shows, and a couple of big shows coming up.

We’re at the calm before the storm phase now. Lost and Found is out in the world, and as of writing this there’s nothing left to do with Sugar and Spice but pull the trigger (when this goes live you’ll be able to buy it here). We’ve got most of our plans in place for AwesomeCon, and I’ve almost stopped panicking about the fact the first big con I ever attend will be one I’m working at.

All of this makes a case for this being a week where the world actually gets stuff out of me. Like serious blog posts, and other content, and attention that’s sadly lacking when I’m up to my eyeballs in slush and editing projects. It also means I have a lot more time to pay attention to what’s happening on the internet.


Anyway, have a post about serious businessy stuff. Don’t worry, it’s mostly just my opinions.

The Problem With Free: Or, why our value radar is perpetually broken.

As I was aimlessly strolling around the internet this weekend I came across this blog post by Rob McClellan (who also runs ThirdScribe, but that’s a post for another day). He has some interesting points about the realities of ebook pricing, at least as he sees them. And while I think in places his numbers are a little inflated (I hope he’s genuinely not paying for things what he says he is, but to each their own) he’s done a good job of laying out the corpses, so to speak. But I feel like there’s something missing from his market analysis.

Actual customers.

Now, I don’t mean spreadsheet customers. This is a thing I notice a lot about marketing, no matter how targeted it is, the only people they seem to pay attention to are the people buying their products. There’s a whole list of metrics, but none of it is about people who don’t buy a thing. It’s all about reaching out to people who usually buy the thing.

And that makes a certain amount of market sense, I grant you. “Most of our products are enjoyed by 16 to 21 year old yodeling mountain-climbers, so how to we reach out to more of them.” You’re right, that’s probably the easiest sale you’re going to make.

But it’s not actually increasing your market.

Humans have a weird relationship with cost. We want free, but we equate free with worthless. “So and so probably didn’t really put a lot of effort into that books, it’s free.” And the other side of the scale is just as problematic. “Even were it plated in gold I wouldn’t pay that.”

So that blog post I linked to is talking about how 2.99 to 4.99 is the sweet spot for amazon, and for authors/publishers. Is that the sweet spot for customers though? If you sell twenty times as many books at .99 cents isn’t that the sweet spot for consumers?

It’s a triksy argument, and it never works with books because we start assigning art lables, but only to certain kinds of books, and then we’re off in the weeds arguing about literary merit. So instead I’m going to tell you a little about pricing other things I know. This is a little personal anecdote, and a little market research, though in a completely different market. When I was around twelve to sixteen my dad had a side-line photography business. He took some of the most amazing nature pictures I’ve ever seen, I still have some of them hanging in my house, and they’re the thing my siblings and I will probably fight over when it’s time to divide up the assets.

For several years, aside from carrying equipment when he trudged into the woods and such to take pictures, I carried pictures and manned the booth at craft shows and helped him set up and take down the booth. I explained what Polaroid Transfers were to intrigued artists and customers alike and affirmed that yes, he did take all of his pictures. Yes, he used real film. No, they weren’t developed at the drug-store and blown up by a third party and mailed back to us.

Mostly I pretended not to hear when people muttered about how much a 16×20 framed picture cost.

One of my favorite parts about these shows was wandering around to see what other people were selling. I was twelve, and there are only so many hours you can sit in a hot EZ-UP and smell cotton candy before you go a little stir crazy. And I started to notice then, that people are strange about price. One jewelry booth has really great jewelry, and awesome earrings, and they’re all $2.00. Nobody buys them. The one down the lane has the same style of jewelry, makes the same claims about the stone content, and charges $60 a pair. They don’t sell any either.

Then there’s the booth in the middle. This booth sells them for $10 a pair at the local crafts fair in my tiny hometown. And $30 at the big regional fair in the mall parking lot a state over. This booth knows what kind of people come to each show, and adjusts their prices accordingly. Which is not something most business can do, but at least this booth was thinking about all the customers, and all the reasons.

I think the worst piece of advice I ever heard on these excursions was, and I quote, “It’s not about how much it cost to make, what is it worth to you.”

This is horrible market advice. Of course your effort and your time are worth buckets. Of course you love the thing, otherwise you wouldn’t be releasing it into the world. Don’t price a thing you’re selling based on how much you love it. Price a thing you’re selling on how much you need to make to keep doing it.

Any kind of market decisions you make, about knitting, or soap, or cookies, or chainmail, or books should be a Venn diagram. Circle 1: How much I need to charge to make the thing viable. Circle 2: How much person in my widest target group would pay for the thing. Now find your overlap.

Notice I said would there. I am an inherently cheap individual. My ability to pay for a thing and my desire to pay for a thing are generally a very long way apart. This is good. This means my child is fed and I have a roof over my head, and my disastrously expensive tastes aren’t about to leave us in the poor house.

So, just to line this all up and tie it together, here is my metric chart. 1–pay attention to your product, and what others like it cost. 2–pay attention to your market. 3–pay attention to all those strange, strange things called people. They’re probably easier to connect with if you don’t assign them a number and a value return.

Also, this may be an utterly unfair dig, but if you want me to pay fifty dollars a month for ‘author services’ I’m not sure you get to throw stones at Publish America. Talk fast, bud, as of right now I ain’t buying.

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