Filthy, filthy promotions!

Passive Voice has a great rant today inspired by a pretty silly post bewailing how indie writers are devaluing their work with the 99-cent price point and freebies and giveaways in exchange for a reader promoting the book in some way.

The original post is very over-the-top and contains the hilarious line, "Traditionally published authors aren’t stooping to these tactics." (You know, like sock-puppet reviews and selling cheap books.) And PG comes back in a way I think is awesome, pointing out that if you actually value literature and reading, then the rise of indie publishing should make you very happy.

The funny thing is, the original post was written by a bestselling author who works as a consultant for other indie authors. And the other day I met a bestselling author who works as a consultant for other indie authors who has embraced things like the 99-cent price point and giveaways with equal if not greater stridency. And of course I can think of two authors right off the top of my head who credit their success in large part to the savvy use of freebies. (So, you know, there's a lesson about blindly following "experts" here.)

But the thing that really struck me about the original post was the writer's clear discomfort with the concept of promotions.

Which is odd, right? I mean, no one writes articles in Retailing Today that say, "For God's sake, DON'T PUT YOUR STUFF ON SALE!!! NO FREEBIES!!! DON'T OFFER YOUR CUSTOMERS A CHANCE AT A GIFT CARD IN EXCHANGE FOR LIKING YOU ON FACEBOOK!!! YOU'RE DEVALUING YOUR BRAND!!!!"

Sure, a company can devalue a retail brand via promotions, but it has to be a VERY high-end brand for that to happen (or the promotions have to be so terribly mismanaged that they make people feel like they're being ripped off). To be vulnerable, the brand also has to thrive on recognizability--if I have an Hermès bag, you know I paid a freaking arm and a leg for it. That is a major reason why people buy Hermès bags. Hermès does not put its bags on sale.

I don't know how an author can possibly create that kind of brand. If I'm reading Stephen King on my Kindle, how the hell are you supposed to know? If I'm reading Stephen King in a hardback, it's not like you're going to look at that and say, "Ooooh, that's a Stephen King book! Gosh, I wish I could afford one of those!" You're not going to sneer if I got it on sale or--shudder--at an outlet. That is completely irrelevant to your perception of the book's worth. (It's true that books can be status objects, but they are supposed to be indicators of internal worth--I read poetry because I am such a sensitive soul, not because I'm mad flossing.)

All that is why book consumers are somewhat insensitive to price--for most readers, avoiding a bad book is more important than saving a couple of bucks.

As a result, if your book lacks reviews and recommendations, dropping the price probably won't help much. But it's also not going to hurt your brand--people might look at a dodgy 99-cent/free book, think "Looks dodgy" and avoid it. But they're not going to associate that with your name and refuse to buy all your books forever because six months ago one of your titles was 99 cents or free. (I know I've spoken out against always having books at 99 cents, but that's because I think it causes the writer to devalue the financial worth of their business, not because I think it causes the reader to devalue the literary worth of the books.)

If someone likes your stuff, or is curious about you because other people like your stuff, or otherwise thinks your book might be worth reading, doing a promotion can tip them over into buying. Which is a good thing.

Believe it or not, some people will argue that getting more buyers through promotions is not a good thing. These are usually big believers in finding your 1,000 True Fans, who apparently will give you all their money and will spend all their time promoting you and will carve your name on their foreheads with a screwdriver and will hide in your bushes chanting your book titles until the police come and haul them away.

I think it's fine to focus your attention on cultivating (non-scary) fans (who respect boundaries)! That's great! Read The Gift of Fear while you're at it!

But in addition to your True Fans, there are other audiences out there you can sell to. I wouldn't spend big hunks of my time chasing bargain-hunters, because your margins are going to be lower with them, but if someone will only buy your book if it is 99 cents, aren't you better off getting that 99 cents from them than getting nothing at all? For every tech company like Apple or Intel that make money catering to True Fans who will pay a ton of money for the latest thing, there are a dozen companies that make money catering to the more price-sensitive people in the mass market. And unlike a tech company, you can 1. tap into both markets, and 2. convert the tightwads into True Fans--there are very few people out there who won't pay more for a book they know they're going to like.