Why I’m being stupid enough to launch my book at $0.00

NOTE: The free promo described below has ended, so The Bialy Pimps now costs $3.99. Small price to pay for awesome, really, and people are LOVING it.

Yesterday I told you all about my novel The Bialy Pimps and how, after twelve years of indecision and resistance, I’ve finally rewritten it and published it, yada yada yada. And maybe that was interesting to you and maybe not, but what probably got your attention — if anything did — was the fact that I’m debuting this book at a price of FREE (through the end of today).

On hearing the whole “free” thing, here are some possible reactions you may have had:

“Wow, that’s awesome!”


“It’s free? That must mean it sucks.”

and probably most of all

“That’s incredibly stupid. He’s going to lose whatever for-sure sales he was going to get.”

I’m going to explain why I decided to launch for free in just a minute, but first I wanted to remind you to go ahead and download The Bialy Pimps for free here (non-US people, see the first P.S. below) before we go any further, because the free promo ends tonight.

Seriously. Go download it. It’s awesome.

In fact, download it even if you don’t have a Kindle, because there are apps that will let you read it… and even failing that, you can read right there on the website thanks to the “Kindle Cloud Reader,” which makes the process incredibly easy. Or, if you have an e-book reader that’s not a Kindle, email me and I’ll let you know what’s up. Hell, download it even if you don’t want it. Download it to humor me and make me feel better. I don’t have a tip jar, so downloading it to feed my ego (and spreading the word) would be an awesome way to give back if you’re so inclined.

Now, if you haven’t downloaded it yet despite my intolerable pestering, let me try something else in the interest of marketing professionalism:



Do it. You know you want to.


I’m totally serious. Go get it. It’s free. Then tell your friends and ask them to get it for free. Tweet it. Facebook it. Tell the world, so that as many people as possible can get it without giving me a cent.

Which raises an excellent point.

Why the hell would I be so eager to give something away for free?

Stupid, right?

After all, this book means a lot to me. It was written during a time of intense personal turmoil. It was born from a hell of a lot of pain, with hilarious results. It’s based (hilariously) on a real place and (hilarious) real people who I can safely say are, in the (hilarious) pages of this book, no longer that place or those people, but the sum of which is still (hilariously) still very meaningful to me.

I spent hundreds of hours on each draft of the book. There were four.

I spent dozens of hours prepping the manuscript for publication.

I spent scores of hours researching fiction marketing as it exists today, formulating my plan, and writing emails and posts like the one you’re currently reading.

And my strategy, after all of that work and head-scratching, is to give the book away — and not just to give it away, but to give it away to you, my prime audience… to the people who were most likely to actually shell out cash and buy it.

In short, I’m cutting off all potential royalties from the people most likely to earn me any royalties.


Angry Birds are smart birds

Let me explain by allegory, because that’s how I roll.

The other day, on a whim, I decided to download the Angry Birds app on my smartphone. I’d never played it before, but I’d heard a lot of hubbub surrounding it, so I figured what the hell. And besides, the app was free. So I opened it and I started playing. My son got very interested in it. Because he got interested, my daughter (who does everything her brother does) got interested.

While I was playing, I accidentally clicked on a few of the ads that exist inside the app. It didn’t annoy me, but it happened.

And then yesterday, we bought two sets of Angry Birds plushes. They are identical, but each kid had to have them. They spent their Christmas money. $25 each.

So if you’re following along, here’s what happened:

  1. Angry Birds was released for free.
  2. A lot of people liked it, spread it, and started talking about it.
  3. Because it was free, I figured what the hell and decided to try it myself.
  4. My son saw me playing and liked it.
  5. My daughter saw my son playing and liked it.
  6. We bought $50 in Angry Birds merchandise, and there’s no way that’ll be our last Angry Birds purchase. I also sent Rovio a few cents in ad revenue due to my fumbling fingers.

Now get this. Rovio could have priced Angry Birds 99 cents or $1.99 and there’s no question people would have paid it, because a buck or two is definitely worth it. Even the Android app has hundreds of individual levels, and it’s really addicting.

But at even a buck or two, I wouldn’t have played it, because I don’t care even a buck or two’s worth about games on my phone. Their decision to charge me $1-2 would have assured that they didn’t get my $50+ this week. And the same goes for millions and millions of other people.

But Rovio did a very smart thing. They created something great, and they made it free. Because of that — and ONLY because of that — they got my attention… and then they got my money.

It’s ironic. They got my money because they refused to charge me any.

The math of free

What would you rather do? Would you rather sell something for ten bucks, or sell the same thing for a hundred bucks?

Ideological concerns and matters of pride and brand integrity aside, you can’t make the decision without knowing how many of each will sell. The market’s appetite for what you’re selling will determine your success, and a large part of the market’s appetite is determined by price.

Again setting aside fears of bottom-feeder thinking and opinions about what a low price “means” or “says to the world,” the truth is that each time you lower the barrier to entry by lowering the price, you get more attention, and the sales get easier. You remove an excuse for a few people, and if what you have to deliver is good, everyone walks away happy.

Want more reasons why free is awesome? Okay, here are three:

  1. Free results in delighted fans and lots of thank-yous. Everyone likes receiving gifts.
  2. Free is very easy to promote. I can be more aggressive during this promotion because I’m not asking people to spend money; I’m trying to give them a gift.
  3. Free is also very easy for others to promote. If you ask your friends to tell the world about your $2 (or $200) product, they’ll flinch because people hate to sell, or appear salesy. But friends are usually happy to tell the world about something you’re giving away.

Would you rather sell fifty thousand thousand copies of a bird-flinging app at $1.99, or would you rather distribute half a billion for free, each of which generate just a few cents in ad revenue?

It’s not a perfect analogy because price isn’t the only option, and I don’t plan to slash all of my own prices to see what happens. I also don’t plan to offer my book for free forever, and I’m not making ad revenue from my book the way Rovio makes it from their free games.

But given a limited and defined set of circumstances, I think you get my point.

The magic of free on Amazon

If you’re an aspiring author, pay close attention to this section.

I’ve enrolled my book in Amazon’s KDP Select program in exchange for the opportunity to offer my book for free on the Amazon Kindle platform for a total of five days, divided however I’d like. The way it works is, I give them a 90-day exclusive (the book’s not available on Barnes & Noble’s e-book store or anywhere else), and as a thanks, they give me the right to give my book away for free. It sounds like a shitty deal, but it’s not for a lot of people I’ve heard about.

It’s because of the algorithm, and because of critical mass.

See, there are two basic ways to drive sales of e-books. One is for people who already know you to seek out (or be driven to) your book. That’s significant if you have a gigantic audience or if you’re an established name. If Steven King farts and has it transcribed (with the possible addition of an evil clown), it becomes a bestseller because people know and love Steven King.

But if you’re like most people, the bigger source of sales is people who didn’t know you in advance, but who somehow run across your book. There are a few ways that happens (you rise in rankings like the top 100 or the genre bestsellers, or maybe you show up in the “people who liked this also bought” suggestions for books like yours) but all of them depend on you already being popular, and already being successful on Amazon.

In other words, it’s kind of a catch-22. You need buyers to attract buyers.

It’s a vicious circle, but the more positive way to think of it is as requiring a critical mass. If you — somehow, anyhow — get enough buyers who think highly of your work, you’ll rise in the rankings and more people will find you. As more people find you, more people will buy from you. And as more people buy from you, more people are able to find (and buy from) you.

Most authors aren’t able to achieve the critical mass needed to get the ball rolling. They don’t have enough “at the ready” buyers to sustain the reaction, and they fizzle out. Nobody can find them, so nobody buys them. And when nobody buys them, it becomes less and less likely that anyone will find them.

Amazon’s ranking algorithm is just as mysterious to the outside world as the Google search algorithm, but there are a few things that are known:

1. Popularity matters. The more people who visit your book’s page, give you good reviews, link to you, and buy your stuff, the higher you’ll rank.

2. Downloads of a free book give you the same momentum as do sales.

and the really important one:

3. It’s a lot easier to “sell” free than it is to sell non-free.

So yes, I’m giving up maybe a thousand relatively for-sure sales, but I’m doing it because much like Angry Birds, I’m trading those sales for what I hope are a lot more eyes. A lot more downloads. A lot more reviews. A lot more popularity.

I could sell X number of books at $3.99 this month and be happy, but I’d rather “sell” ten times that number for $0 and manage to hit my own critical mass.

Will it work?

Hell if I know.

I might as well say right now that what I’m doing scares the bejesus out of me. I write these posts in what probably sounds like a confident, authoritative voice, but it’s the magic of editing and zero body language that makes me seem sure of myself. I’m not sure of myself about this. Not at all.

Truth be told, I’m on a wing and a prayer here.

I haven’t staked my mortgage on selling even one copy of The Bialy Pimps, so no actual harm is going to come to me if, when the free period ends, nobody ever buys it. But I will tell you one thing: that would suck.

I would not like it.

It would seriously bum me out.

Because I spent a lot of time on this book, and because it’s a story that means a lot to me, and because (if I could pretend that it’s possible to be objective about my own work) it’s a really good story. It’s funny as hell, and I think it’ll also make you ponder a bit. I think the story will stay with you and resonate once you’ve finished reading. I think it speaks to some bigger, somewhat more serious truths. I think there are messages in this tale that are about conformity, about the fragile and random nature of fame, and about what we’re truly supposed to spend our lives doing.

It’s occurred to me, in my less-than-confident moments, that this book may have only a few hundred to a few thousand sales in it, and that what I’m doing right now may just be giving all of those sales away and getting nothing in return.

And although I don’t need that money, it’d be nice to have even that small amount of recompense if this thing totally bombs.

What the fuck

There’s a line in the movie Risky Business that forms a cornerstone of my life’s philosophy. It’s when Joe Pantoliano (as Guido the pimp) tells a very young Tom Cruise, “Sometimes you’ve just gotta say, ‘What the fuck.’ ”

Do I know what’s going to happen?


Am I pissing away the small amount of reward I could get from my years of emotional and physical effort?


Should I remember that a (angry) bird in the hand is worth two in the bush? That if I know I can get some sales today, I should take those sales rather than rolling the dice on a free promotion?

Who knows.

Sometimes you’ve just gotta say, “What the fuck.”

So it’s free. And I want you to pick it up, and I hope you like it and share it.

If nothing else, I’ve shipped a work that’s been in my closet for over a decade, and that means a lot, too.

P.S: The book IS available at no charge on non-US Amazon sites too, so if you’re outside of the US and these links tell you that you can’t get it, go to your local Amazon site and search for “The Bialy Pimps.” Here’s the Amazon.co.uk link, for instance.

P.P.S: The free period ends TONIGHT. So be sure to download it now.

P.P.P.S: Remember, you don’t need a Kindle. Read the first part of this post again to see what I mean.

P.P.P.P.S: I think I forgot to mention that I have a book out, and that you can get that book for free. I forgot to mention that, right?

P.P.P.P.P.S: What the fuck.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S: Mitch Hedburg said, “At the end of my letters, I like to write, ‘P.S. This is what part of the alphabet would look like if Q and R were eliminated.’ “

Now that you've read this post, go here:


  1. Baker Lawley says:

    Johnny–Congratulations on all the work it took to rewrite and polish and revise and everything that goes in to writing a novel in the first place, and then congrats again on publishing it. Awesome that it’s out there–I’ve got it and can’t wait to read it.

    I’m also interested to follow along on your strategy with this pricing. I’ve got a little Kindle store going for my own fiction already (only short stories and a collection so far; I’m releasing my first novel later this month). I am planning on a strategy very similar to yours, so thanks for trailblazing!

    (And for anybody who’s thinking about indie publishing and is interested in this debate about pricing for ebooks on the Kindle, you can check out an opposing take that came out just yesterday by Zoe Winters, another indie writer: http://zoewinters.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/ebook-pricing-or-where-zoe-says-something-about-publishing/ )

    Congrats again, Johnny!

    • Johnny says:

      Yeah, I totally hear that side of the debate. I’m going to $3.99 after the debut period is over, but it’ll probably settle at $4.99. I actually agree that people shouldn’t undercut themselves TO MAKE THE SALE, which is why I waffled so much about “brand considerations aside,” etc. up top. I think what writers do is something they deserve to be paid decently for if the customer agrees it’s worth paying for.

      That’s a bit in contradiction to what I said, but what I’m suggesting above is a conscious choice to trade price for publicity (and reviews), NOT a bargain-basement strategy in order to “take what you can get.”

      That’s actually still not very clear. But it’s not totally clear in my head yet either, so that fits.

  2. Mars Dorian says:

    I just downloaded the ebook and can’t wait to read it, Johnny.

    I luv your blog posts, and your overall style, so I’m sure I’m in for a ride.

    It’s really interesting to see how this spread-for-free tactic works – Julien got a lot out of it by doing it with “The Flinch”.

    I remember Seth saying: Share your first book for free. If it’s good, it will spread. And then you’ll make money with your second book !

    Man, I wish you all the success in the world !

    • Johnny says:

      I’ll write the results up when I’m done, complete with number of the free promo and numbers of what follows. Should be interesting!

  3. Done. You even got me to overcome Inertia and download Kindle for Mac. That’s big.

    Can’t wait to read it, I’ll let you know what I think!

    P.S. – Did you write the description? Totally you.

    • Johnny says:

      Yeah, I wrote it. 🙂

      I actually do appreciate how big that is… it occurred to me that there’d be a lot of people who might want to read it but either didn’t have a reader or were unwilling to read on their computer. Luckily it seems to be less of a problem than I’d feared, but that’s a big inertia issue.

  4. I just realized something. All this talk about your book, and you haven’t really told us much at all what it’s about. I’ve already downloaded it, but you might want to come up with a little pitch for the book as a book, not as a marketing experiment. (Unless that’s already written, and you’ll be posting it after the “free” period expires, in which case never mind.)

    • Johnny says:

      Well, it’s on the actual Amazon page for the book, so I figured people would just read it there… but the decision to not focus on the story here was pretty deliberate. This isn’t a blog for fiction readers, so I wanted to explain it in terms that would be interesting to the people here. I’d pitch the story on a Kindle readers’ blog, for instance.

      The way I’m doing it here is what I decided was my best shot at getting my audience to care.

      • Hey, how about that. I saw that big ol’ “One Click” button and didn’t scroll down.

        • Johnny says:

          I would say that I hope not many people made that mistake, but actually, I kind of hope they did. If I’ve convinced over 1000 people to go and get something THAT THEY DIDN’T EVEN KNOW WHAT IT WAS, then I kind of rule in the persuasion department.

          Any of you eskimos want to buy some ice?

  5. Awesome! Just downloaded it and can’t wait to start reading it.

    Your approach to using Amazon is really similar to what we’re doing. In fact we have a book up for free all week. It’s currently the #1 Free Cookbook on the Kindle Charts. This is part of a more long-term strategy for us, BUT it’s already resulting in hundreds of new unique visitors to our site – and sales of the more expensive book that we only sell through the site. So it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

    Here’s the link if you’re interested: http://www.amazon.com/The-Breakfast-Taco-Book-ebook/dp/B005JTNP90/

    • Johnny says:

      Right… I think it’s important to to differentiate between “cheap/free to get the sale at any cost” vs. “cheap/free as one small component of an overall marketing strategy.”

  6. the rogue poet says:

    Johnny, I love what your doing. I have been waiting for you to publish this and to catch it for free.. Damn I was stoked. I have inly read a few pages so far but im loving it. It takes mad guts to put yourself out there like this, even being a success as you are already. Well done! I will be telling everyone I can reach about this. Keep on being fucking badass!

  7. the rogue poet says:

    A bit of a humorous side note for you johnny. I have a 21 month old daughter who is talking like crazy, and we have a dog named bailey. So when the two of them are running around playing of course my daughter is yelling bailey, bailey over and over. Coincidentally bailey, when yelled by a 21 month old sounds alot like bilay, so of course in my head I have to add on the pimps after every time she says it. Makes me grin, and of course reminds me to read more of the book, which is quite good by the way. Hope this gives you a chuckle and shows you even the smallest ways you impact the individual lives of all your readers when you create and share (ship if you prefer). For me I know ill always think of your book now and grin at the coincidental memory. Thanks johnny, and keep up thr great work.

  8. Tim Wambach says:


    Love your style! Really looking forward to your results of your trial. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have purchased your book if it wasn’t for free. Nothing against you, I rarely, if ever read fiction. Yup, I am a total non-fiction WHORE! But, I believe in you and what you are about and have followed your story about what it took to “ship your work” and I am impressed! Knowing your story was a definite motivator to take action.10 years in the closet and now it is shared with the world. That is big-time my friend! KUDOS! I will write up a review as soon as I am done. (But, it probably won’t be too soon. LOL!) Great stuff, Johnny, per usual!

    • Johnny says:

      This is EXACTLY why I’m doing it this way! I know that a lot of people who are even among those who like me and what I do wouldn’t buy it if there was a price — any price — attached because this isn’t exactly the perfect audience. I want to get it into a lot of hands, surprise some people, and get some good reviews.

      Thanks for the support, Tim!

  9. Kaari says:

    Really interesting to see your thought processes here, even after I’d already gotten the book. I finally started it yesterday, and that blew the rest of my day away. I finished it last night. Review submitted and everything. I’m working on some similar plans of my own, so looking forward to seeing how it works.

    And you’re right, there’s a lot to think about in your story. Loved it, and kept thinking how prescient you were about some things.

    • Johnny says:

      Awesome, thank you so much! It’s incredibly gratifying to see how well people are liking it, given that it had such birth pains.

      I don’t see the review up there yet but I’m going to thank you in advance because I’m guessing from what you said here that it’s positive. 🙂

      Thank you!

  10. OMG OMG OMG! I LOVED this book! Laughed so hard a couple of times that I shook the bed where my sleeping significant other suddenly didn’t appreciate the humor so much:) The conversation about “pulling out the stops” had me in stitches.

    Still can’t believe you hauled that sucker out in November and spiffed it up in just short of three months – VERY impressive.

    It’s honestly the funniest, cleverest book I’ve read in years. Brought me back to my early ’90s Vonnegut addiction…

    I also lived in Ohio, though a little before you, so some of the local references really spoke to me as well.

    Thanks for the free AMAZING book – I’ll do whatever kinds of reviews you would like me to do, because I LOVED every minute of it and want you to make big bucks and write more!!! Or hell, just write more cuz your fans (like me) will be happy to read whatever you choose to put out there!


    • Johnny says:

      I think that “compulsion” is the only way to describe my frenzied rewrite of the book. It took about six weeks and WAS really a rewrite in most places, meaning that I kept the idea of a section but rewrote it from scratch. Even the parts I left alone underwent serious surgery. So I’m as amazed as you are. I pretty much got up early and stayed up late and did what it took. But I’m really pleased with the results.

      I’m really glad that you are too!

      (Phase one of this experiment is not exactly raking in the bucks, but that was expected and sort of planned-for. Nonetheless, I’ll just add that it’s really nice to hear positive reviews in lieu of bestsellerdom at this point!)


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