I’m cheating and taking this month’s Ask Bethany House question from a survey of our authors about what questions they have about marketing. I think it might be interesting for readers to eavesdrop on something several of their favorite authors are struggling with. Here it is:
“I never know what to say when readers request free copies of my book in exchange for a review. Why are so many readers doing this, and how should I respond?”
I want to handle this question carefully, because I’ve seen it addressed in a way that makes the entire publishing industry seem like whiny terrors who hate readers and life in general. I can’t emphasize enough that authors and publishers love books, and they love readers.
Here’s the thing, though: that doesn’t mean that readers should expect free books from authors or publishing companies, even in exchange for a review.
Yet there are many who do, some very polite and well-intentioned. Most authors are not angry or upset with them, they’re just not sure how to respond because they can’t give books to everyone…and feel like they shouldn’t. I agree.
So let’s ask why this is so common. Here are my best guesses:
Reason One: Social Media
Because of social media, readers can trade stories and comments with their favorite authors, bond over a shared interest, and see pictures of their authors’ kids, cats, and kitchen remodels. And there is so much that I love about that. But there are downsides. For example, Facebook and Instagram make authors feel like best friends…and best friends give you books as gifts, right?
And that’s where the logic stops working.
I think social media has confused the boundaries of our relationships with one another. Everyone is a generic “friend” on Facebook, whereas in real life, we have to consider what we should expect from others and how we can best interact with them.
For example, it’s totally acceptable for me to send a “Happy Birthday” text to a fellow youth group leader…but my mom would be disappointed if that’s all I did to celebrate her special day. Their expectations are different because my relationship with them is different.
I think readers requesting (or, in some cases, demanding) free books comes from misplaced expectations.
Here’s what I think authors owe readers: really good books. Many of our authors say time and time again that they plumb the depths of their soul, work on honing their craft, and put in tired hours researching and revising for the sake of readers.
Here’s what I think readers owe authors: respect for those good books. And one way of showing respect for good books is recognizing all the work that goes into them—for the author and the team of dozens who edit, design, typeset, and market the book. Hopefully knowing that will make you value the books you do receive as gifts or through blogger review programs, and maybe make you hesitate before asking an author for free review copies.
Reason Two: Ebooks
Thousands of ebooks showing up for $1.99 makes it easier to think of books as McDonalds hamburgers instead of gourmet meals (given to you at the price of a reasonable entrée at Applebee’s). In a way, ebook specials are making us devalue books.
On the other hand, ebook specials are low-risk ways to take a shot at a new author, or an easy way to introduce an author to your friends…kind of like offering to let them borrow your book. Or maybe a budget-friendly alternative to the library. Which is why I’m totally in favor of what Bethany House is doing with ebook specials.
Here’s a secret, though: those ebook specials are not really for avid Christian fiction fans. It’s perfectly fine for you to take advantage of a good bargain, but the target audience of an ebook special is made up of those outside our usual reach, people who have never set foot inside a LifeWay, or who have written off Christian fiction as preachy or boring. We’re trying to change their minds by giving them an easy way to try out our authors.
Here’s the response I’d love to see from readers to these specials: “What an exciting deal! Now I can buy a novel in ebook form that I might not otherwise have been able to afford. I should tell all my friends to try out this author too!” Whereas by now, many authors are getting responses like, “Great. When’s your new book going to be 99 cents?” Which, again, doesn’t show respect to the authors and the value of their books.
Now that I’ve explained why more people are expecting free or low-priced books, here’s how I’d advise authors to respond to these requests.
One: Say, “Thank you for your interest in my books.” That’s a great way to start. Affirm the reader in any way you can, even if the “request” came across as demanding.
Two: Explain that you and your publisher have a limited number of copies. Because of the number of requests you receive, and in order to make a living as an author, you have to choose carefully how to distribute them. Then explain your policy for copies—you only give them to bloggers, or you have an influencer team that applied for membership, or whatever the case might be.
Three: Don’t feel guilty. I have this problem often, especially if I’m turning down someone with medical problems, on a fixed income, etc. Remember, your obligation to readers is to write good books. You are not obligated to give readers free books, no matter what the circumstances, and they shouldn’t feel entitled to them.
And to all you readers out there: don’t feel guilty either, especially if you do get free books from time to time for promoting the authors. This post is not about those influencers who are working hard to spread the word about their favorite authors’ books. We appreciate what you do! I just want to give you a glimpse at the authors’ perspective on this issue.
Authors, any follow-up questions? Readers, did anything I said surprise you, or would you like clarification on anything?