043: The Power of Free: How You Can Profit from Giving Away Your Work [Podcast]

Since the dawn of time, human beings have felt the need to share — from food to art. Sharing is part of the human condition. A person who does not share is not only selfish, but bitter and alone.
–Paulo Coelho

You have something to say, but the world just won’t listen. What’re you doing wrong? Maybe you’re being too stingy. If you have a message to share and no one’s listening, the best thing you could do is give some of it away for free.

043: The Power of Free [Podcast]

The best way to get someone’s attention is to be generous. Giving your work away for free is something I’ve talked about for years. But it also comes with its share of challenges.

In this week’s episode of The Portfolio Life my co-host Andy Traub and I talk about the obstacles of “free” and offer practical tips on how to overcome them.

To distill the entire episode down to a single takeaway, it would be this: Being generous is a great way to get attention. But when everything’s free, nobody values what you do. [Tweet]

Listen to the podcast

To listen to the show, click the player below (if viewing this in email, click here)

You can also download it at iTunes or on Stitcher.

How free can lead to more sales

Being surprisingly generous is a great way to engage your audience and build trust with a tribe. In fact, I’m modeling this right now with giving paperback copies of my book for a limited time. I believe in this stuff.

People often ask me if being too generous will water down what you do or undermine the value of your offering. Honestly, that’s the wrong question. The biggest enemy of getting your work to spread isn’t people ripping you off. It’s people not knowing who you are.

For example, take Paulo Coelho, author of The Alchemist, one of the best-selling books of all time. The book wasn’t an instant success. In fact, the publisher told him it wouldn’t amount to much. So how did he end up selling over 65 million copies?

When his publisher dropped him, Coelho decided to forgo traditional marketing and began promoting his book in less conventional ways. Taking efforts into his own hands, he began “knocking on doors”  and within a few years, the book went from selling a few thousand copies a year to millions.

So what made the difference?

According to the author, it was giving his book away for free on the Internet — first by publishing a Russian translation on his own website and allowing people to download it for free, then by sharing it on other file-sharing sites.

And guess what? It worked.

Coelho is a big proponent of radical generosity, especially with books, music, and art. He thinks all works of art ought to be shared, and if you do this enough, the work will spread and people will want to pay for it. I agree.

Tips on being strategically generous

  • Give somebody something short, shareable, and easy to consume in one or two sittings. For writers, I recommend crafting a manifesto.
  • If you want attention, you are going to have to create a “WOW product.” But creating “wow” isn’t just giving somebody something that’s great. It means going above what’s expected.
  • Don’t give everything away for free or it waters down the offering. Offer something that’s valuable by making it rare.

Resources mentioned

If this episode was helpful to you, please share it (it is free, after all) with others who may benefit from it. Also, I’d appreciate an honest review on iTunes.

How can you apply the concept of giving something for free to helping your work spread? Share in the comments.

10 thoughts on “043: The Power of Free: How You Can Profit from Giving Away Your Work [Podcast]

  1. You nailed it Jeff! This podcast came at a great time for me. I recently gave away an eBook for free, and it’s been downloaded thousands of times, but when people asked me why I was giving it away for free, I honestly struggled to give them a good response. But this affirmed me in my decision.
    I’m also planning on doing the free strategy with KDP select like you suggested before once. Hoping that it will also help generate new audiences for me. Thanks!

  2. Jeff,

    I agree 100%, especially for fiction as well as non-fiction. I am currently finishing up the 1st draft of my fiction series, and plan to make the 1st book free as I approach the release of #2 later this year. It is a bonus to your readers, because you are showing your appreciation to them. It also tears down the walls of hesitation for new readers, because there is essentially 0 risk for them in trying out your work.

    I feel like I am much like yourself a few years ago… writing in the margins of life with a full time job and 3 children. Once you have reached out to a number of writers, what would you recommend as the next step?

    This article was great, as they always are. Thanks Jeff.

  3. Great points. I especially like how you mentioned that giving it all away for free makes free seem like it is not such a big deal. You have to have the right mix of free and paid content.

  4. I really enjoyed this podcast Jeff (and Andy). A fear of mine with giving my work away for free was getting stuck as the person who gives everything away for free. I had to learn the balance between giving things away for free but not giving away the farm. It’s a tough line to discern when you start off.

  5. I’ve also tried to find the fine line of balance. One thing that I’ve personally struggled with is that while I’ve given stuff away (mostly in the form of website setup/design), when I publish a pricing schedule, all of a sudden people disappear. As long as it’s free, people are coming out of the woodwork, and I usually DO totally believe in their vision and then I empathize with their startup or nonprofit budgets. Then I just do it for free. Ha. So I guess I’d like to find the solution to that issue.

  6. Yep. My writer’s group published an anthology of short stories this past November. I took an excerpt of that and posted it on Noisetrade for free (it’s still there under “Stories From the Heartland”). It’s not the entire book, but just a few stories we felt were powerful. To date the actual book on Amazon has sold slightly more than the average for self-published titles, which is pretty good! Giving away something for free seems to be working!

  7. Jeff, I’m about to watch this concept in action in a big way come March 1. The most popular magazine for leaders in my field (that a few months ago gave my book a “best of 2014” award) will be offering my book as a free eBook incentive to all of their 20,000 subscribers if they log-in to see their new subscription service they’re rolling out.

    They’re allowing me to put anything about my book in the email to their subscribers and in the upcoming digital copy of their magazine – with links to my website. What’s amazing about this (besides all of that) is that it will go to leaders who would want to use my book as a tool to instruct/encourage their teams/congregations. After the March 1st roll-out, they said they could also include it in the May/June print version of the magazine, if I want. Besides the 20,000 subscribers, they have a readership of 120,000 – all men and women in my field who lead those I’m trying to reach. I’m completely blown away by this!

    BTW, I can’t afford a single, tiny square ad (which would hold little more than a pic) in one of their magazines because it’s just so expensive. This is the best free advertising I could possibly imagine. And THEY’RE excited about it!

    I’ll let you know how it goes – and the results!

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