Does “Free” Mean “Worthless”?

free app cardI just threw away yet another card from Starbucks that offered me something free. This time it was for an app, but often it’s for a song, and sometimes it’s for a book. This time, I didn’t even bother getting the app.

Between the Starbucks offers and the iTunes free song of the week, I’ve probably downloaded at least 100 songs that I’ve never listened to. My tablet is loaded with free e-books I’ve downloaded and have never read—and likely never will read.

Free: It’s Almost Too Easy

When something is free, it’s insanely easy to click the “download” link or put the card in your pocket, but it also means that you have no investment in consuming the media. No commitment to reading the book or listening to the song. I hesitate to go so far as to say that when I get something free, it’s worthless to me, but I’ll always try the thing I paid for first. If I’ve exchanged money for a book, I’ll feel like I wasted that money if I don’t read the book. If I didn’t pay for a book, nothing is lost if I don’t read it.

Two Success Stories

And yet, there have been times when I actually did read a free book, loved it, and did things that helped the author: I bought more of her books or wrote a glowing review.

I finally started reading The Night Circus when I got a long, free excerpt from Starbucks. “Long” is important. The excerpt was about 1/3 of the book, and I’m nearly certain I wouldn’t have read it if it had been just a single chapter. Certainly, the PR juggernaut around that book also compelled me to actually read the free excerpt. It was at least in part the huge PR campaign that made the free excerpt compelling.

In a more serendipitous example, when I was on vacation this summer, I finally read Apocalypsis, Book 1 from Elle Casey, which I had downloaded free from Amazon at some point. I don’t remember how I heard about it or when I downloaded it, but when I finally had time to read a book, there it was. I loved it, wrote a review, and bought the rest of the books in the series.

What Do You Do?

I can’t be the only person who collects free books, songs, and app and never looks at them. What is your ratio? How many of the things you get free do you actually read, listen to, or use? If anyone knows of a study showing how many books that are downloaded free actually get read, I’d love to see that too. Also, if you’re an author who has tried the “first book free” route, I’d love to hear about your experience. Do you think it helped you get reviews or sell more books?


Mignon Fogarty is better known as Grammar Girl and the author of 101 MISUSED WORDS YOU’LL NEVER CONFUSE AGAIN. Follow her on Twitter: GrammarGirl.

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