The Power and Peril of Free

We rolled out Alight, our first full-length E-book, one week ago, as a free download for most major platforms. And then our servers crashed.

By “our servers crashed,” I really mean that we rapidly exceeded the free download allowance of our web store vendor, which suspended our store. This limit, of 100 downloads per day per product, had been heretofore theoretical. Much like any number over 100 on a car’s speedometer, it seemed unlikely ever to apply. But we underestimated the power of free.

The crush of people downloading Alight drove some to Amazon, where the book was a 99¢ Kindle download. It got us a few complaints, but not many. And it caused us first to upgrade our Web store package, then to negotiate with E-junkie for a short-term indulgence (thank you!)

The normal microeconomic response to a wildly popular product is to raise prices to bring supply and demand into alignment. However, we couldn’t do that. We had envisioned Alight as a trial, a proof-of-concept, not as a product. When we pitched the idea to the organizers and poets of the Women of the World Poetry Slam, we discussed a free E-book which perhaps one hundred people might trouble themselves to download. We neither sought nor secured commercial rights. (We’ll be donating all Amazon proceeds back to the festival.)

Here are some reasons Alight proved so popular:

  • We were able to ride the coattails of WOWPS, a large and established Poetry Slam, Inc. event with a ready-made audience.
  • Our timing was perfect. Alight is an anthology of a poetry slam festival. We released it during the National Poetry Slam, where most of Alight‘s authors mingled alongside hundreds of poets and thousands of poetry fans. People who saw a great poem on stage could promptly add it to their digital library.
  • We made it with our typical care. Free or not, it’s still a Bicycle Comics book. Artie and Tatyana proofread each poem laboriously and worked the E-mail lines hard to wrassle updates and line break concessions from our contributors. The XML files were hand-coded, line by line, for the .mobi and .epub products. The PDF file we offered for iPhone and Android was the 23rd distillation, after 22 rounds of device testing on different screens.
  • Carrie Rudzinksi plugged it. Longtime Bicycle Comics author Carrie Rudzinski put it on her FB page and her tumblr, and within ten minutes, we had 100 new downloads, including 40 from Australia/New Zealand, where she had toured extensively. Carrie is basically Groupon for poetry books.

In a lot of ways, it was an out-of-the-park home run. However, the sui generis quality of Alight means that the data we accumulated this week are of limited value. Take our E-book platform data: 75% PDF, 21 % Kindle, 4% Nook/Kobo. While PDF was the clear favorite format, most people at NPS were living out of a suitcase, and might not have packed their E-reader.

Alight EBook Download Chart

74% PDF | 21% Kindle | 4% Nook/Kobo

We have received no feedback on our book, but people may not feel comfortable criticizing a free product (we would listen, as always). Also, with no cost beyond a few minutes of time, fans and friends may have downloaded copies as an expression of support. There is no evidence that 600+ free downloads will convert to paid orders for our next edition of Tandem. Finally, with no DRM on (most) of our download streams and with much of our readership sharing three floors of a hotel, there may even have been peer-to-peer shares which our data don’t represent.

Are we glad we did it? You bet. Will we do it again? Unlikely. It was a delightful, wild ride, though. We’re thrilled by how many people enjoyed Alight.

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