My friend Aaron Polson has a quick and interesting blog post today about a recent review he received on one of the story collections he offers for free. The review was (apparently) from someone who doesn’t typically read paranormal stories, and therefore found what was inside somewhat jarring. They gave it a one-star review.
Those of us who read and enjoy paranormal and horror, especially those of us who read and enjoy Aaron’s work, can only raise our eyebrows. What was this person thinking they’d find?
It might be instructive to take a moment to talk about why a writer offers stories for free in the first place, and I think there are more than a few reasons. Some writers (be they good or bad) are only looking for readers, and are happy to offer most or all of what they write for free. They might not even care whether someone likes their work, they’re simply happy to be read.
Other writers (myself included) offer stories for free in the hopes that people who like our free stories might be inclined to purchase something else from us, perhaps a story collection or a novel. For example, in the back of all the stories I offer for free, I include marketing material on other works I have for sale, descriptions and links to Swash!, Sumner Gardens, Applewood, etc. Frankly, in my case, it’s the only reason the stories are free at all. Yeah, it's nice to be read. Flattering, even. But it doesn't pay the electric bill.
But in my experience, a funny thing happens when offering free stories, and I touch upon it in my reply to Aaron. What I’ve discovered is that the stories I offer for free are not only reviewed more frequently, but they are reviewed more harshly. Bear in mind now, in most cases, these are stories that have been good enough to be purchased by publishers (small publishers, yes, for not a lot of money. But someone paid me for them!) and have appeared in anthologies, however they often get only one or two stars.
Now, I THINK I know why that happens with my two zombie stories, Nearly Dead and Fortunato’s Ghost, and that is because they’re not your traditional blood ‘n guts zombie tales that (I suspect) most zombie afficianados are looking for. In fact, Nearly Dead is meant to be more comedic than horrific, and my own love letter to St. Pete. But I do call it a “zombie tale” and therefore will (rightly) suffer slings and arrows from those looking for more. I can accept that. I also like to think that folks in St. Pete will find it, at the very least, amusing. And that's really who I wrote it for.
But I simply reject that the other stories I’ve offered for free are anything less than two or three stars (and maybe more) and wonder if psychology is more at play here than anything else. Perhaps people who download free stories are preconditioned to think they’re crap (and honestly, a lot of them are.) Maybe it’s unconsciously easier to have your preconditions confirmed than it is to be surprised and then delighted to find that it’s not what you thought it was going to be.
Another reason folks might be preconditioned to think it’s crap is, a) they’ve never heard of the author, and maybe they're just another crap writer offering crap for free, or b) if even I don’t think my work has any value (i.e. I’m offering it for free) then why should they believe it has any value?
At any rate, I’ve become very conflicted about offering things for free, going so far as to remove all of my free stories a few weeks ago before getting cold feet and putting them back. Heck, I’m even thinking about offering a complete novel for free (Hopetown? Swash!?) in order to get readers to notice me. But then, I think about how easy it is for folks to be dissapointed (for whatever reason, legitimate or otherwise) and leave a bad review. And I wonder if instead of sparking sales and interest in my other writings, the bad reviews on the free stuff actually undermine sales of my other offerings.
It’s quite vexing! But it comes with the territory of being an “independent author” I suppose. For the record, in most instances, I've simply stopped looking and will let the chips fall where they may.
As always, thanks to Aaron for bringing it up. It’s not the first time he’s posted what I’m thinking, and it’s always nice to know there are others out there struggling with the same issues.