24 June 2023

"So I read your book…" (pause)
Why Giving Books Away Can Backfire

I gave a dinner party last night for friends of my new husband.  Pleasant people.  One was a career librarian (recently retired.)  I looked forward to having a rousing conversation with her.  Authors and librarians tend to sit in a corner and yak for hours about books, in my experience.

What actually happened is rather humbling.  I've won 10 awards for crime fiction, including three big ones, and most are displayed around the condo here.  My newest book (number 17 with a traditional publisher)  has just come out and is for sale in Chapters/Indigo up here, and every Barnes &Noble down there (The Merry Widow Murders.)  Many of my previous books are in every large public library system in Canada.

My husband made the mistake of asking her in front of everybody if she knew my books.  She said she  had never heard of me.  Not only that, she hadn't even bothered to look at my website to see what I had written, before coming to my house as a guest.

It took everything in me not to laugh out loud.  I was humbly reminded that just because newspaper reviewers and professional review sites may rave about your book, and sales may buy you a corvette, a heck of a lot of people simply don't care.

And this is tough on a writer.  Because we care a lot.

Needless to say, I didn't give her a free book.  Perhaps it isn't well known, but author copies aren't free to us. With shipping, my author copies cost almost $15.  And that reminded me that I meant to write this column. 

As authors, our egos can be rather fragile.  I wish someone had warned me of things like this.  So here's my advice to anyone new to this game, or even battle-scarred veterans like me:

Except for your closest friends, don't give away books for free. 

And honestly, if your close friends are kind, they will insist on buying your book, to help with sales.

But - you argue - giving away books gets more readers, doesn't it?  And more reviews.

Here's what I've found:

If people you know want to read your book, they will buy it.  Is their friendship not worth 15.99?  Or even 24.99, if it's a premium trade paperback?  Is there any friend I have that wouldn't think our friendship is worth 25 bucks at the very least?  Do I want a friend who doesn't?

The problem with giving a book away is it forces the receiver to read it. And this is fraught with risk.  Three things have happened to me:

1.  The best reaction:  They read it, like it, and tell you.

Yay for that.  I want to joke and say, "Please, don't sound so surprised."  But of course I'm gracious and thank them.

To be realistic, if it isn't a book they were prepared to buy, probably it's not a book they will love.  In rare cases it might be.  That's what we always hope for.  Alas, just as often, the following takes place: 

2.  They read it, or part of it, and....eh.

There's a lovely phrase I quote regularly.  I call it the 'phrase authors dread the most':

"So I read your book....(pause)"

Yes, I can see many of you authors cringing from here.  We've all had this happen.  It's a sorry return for your investment of fifteen dollars.

3.  They don't read it at all.

Most awkward, of course.  They happily took your gift of the free book.  You wait weeks for some sort of feedback.  And hear nothing.

Did they hate it?  Did they even crack the cover?  Are they being deliberately mean by not saying anything?  Did they resell it on Amazon, for crissake?

I'd rather not know if the book didn't get read - or worse - didn't get finished.  Best not to invite this.

Final advice?

A fellow author friend with multiple bestsellers tells everyone he doesn't buy author copies, and thus has none to give away.  I find that good advice.

But if you do get pressured into giving a book away free, NEVER EVER ask what they thought of it.

Why?  If they love it, they'll tell you.

If they didn't like it, you don't want to know.

If they didn't read it, you don't want to know.

Just consider it fifteen bucks dropped at the side of the road, and forget about it.

And celebrate the many wonderful people who support you at events, buy your books, and tell you how much they enjoy them.  Those are the friends worth cherishing.

What about you, fellow authors?  Have you had similar experiences?  Comments welcome!

It's here!  Book baby 17, THE MERRY WIDOW MURDERS, available at Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Chapters/Indigo, and all the usual places.

“Delightful is one of the first words that come to mind. The 1920s shipboard setting
is beautifully observed; the plot will keep you guessing and the heroine, is ... well ...
delightful. Not to be missed.”
— Maureen Jennings, author of the Murdoch Mysteries and the Paradise Café series

… on Amazon


  1. Melodie, congratulations on the many, many readers who buy and enjoy your books. A long time ago I learned not to share my writing with anyone who did not express a desire to read it. A co-worker who knew that I am a writer once asked me where I had been published. When I told him, he smirked and asked, “Anywhere that I’ve heard of?” I replied, “I can’t answer that. I don’t know the extent of your ignorance.”
    Edward Lodi

    1. Edward, I hooted out loud at your response! Thank you for that. I may do you the honour of stealing it :)

  2. Oh, yes. I do have fans who, as soon as they hear I'm in something, go buy it - and a fan in Shanghai who translates it (no royalties, I'm lucky he even lets me know he's doing it). And like Anonymous, I've had people who ask, "So where are you published?" and I say, mostly short stories, and a lot in AHMM, and many of them have said, "I didn't even know they were still around." Bang the head slowly...

    1. Eve, don't we treasure those fans who buy everything we write! I guess that's why we still do it. And yes, I've had the same response, "didn't know they were still around". Thanks for making me feel like I'm not alone!

  3. Like I told Melodie in an earlier e-mail, Elf in the Merry Widows is now my favorite character in the world of crime.

    Two years ago in physical therapy after back surgery, I gave my female therapist one of my paperback story collections, 9 Holiday Burglars Mysteries. She informed me she didn't read fiction. I told her that if she didn't laugh while reading "Black Friday," then it was double her money back. (Joke ) At the last session as I was leaving the room, she called out, "R.T., I'll read your story." Now here we are two years later, same female therapist, but after neck surgery this time. Did I bring up the book? Nope. She's a nice lady, gives great neck massages and I didn't want to hurt her feelings. Did she bring it up? Nope, but at the end of these last sessions I did get a hug goodbye when I graduated. And, those neck massages were definitely worth the price of a book.

    1. Robert, thank you so much for that terrific endorsement! It means a lot to me. And I've had similar experiences. I've actually had people (a regular delivery person, a health care professional) beg me for a signed copy of my latest book, which I've gifted, and....nothing. I wonder sometimes if I'm the only book on their shelf, as they aren't really readers. Or perhaps that's what I hope.

  4. I have encountered the surprised reaction from extended family. A cousin purchased and read one of my books and said, "It was really good. I liked it. Just like reading a real book!" with the most astonished look on her face. I remember thinking, "That's because it is a real book."

    1. Oh N, I'm smiling. I recently got a mention in The Globe and Mail here (Toronto's main newspaper - 6 million) and some relatives and friends seemed so surprised. After 10 awards and 17 books! sigh. Real book, indeed. Thanks for that comment!

  5. Elizabeth Dearborn24 June, 2023 13:20

    So how did this person get invited to your party in the first place? Congratulations on your marriage!

    Re authors' copies, years ago I edited three medical word books all for the same publisher. When the first one was published I received 10 authors' copies. When the second one came out I got two authors' copies. With the third, I was just one of several contributors & got one copy. Oh well ...

    1. Thanks Elizabeth! smile...well, ya know, friends of the new guy. When I say author copies, I mean the ones we buy at a discount. I get ten from my publisher per the contract, but I always buy 20 or so to take on library gigs etc. Someone, everyone thinks they should be free, sigh...

  6. I have given just a few of my books away, with no expectation of comments. My "issue" is feeling a little weird when people in my close circle buy the book. I am grateful, but also worry a little they are just being "nice". I'll still take the royalties, but...

  7. Oh, and congratulations on your marriage!

    1. Thanks Darrow! We eloped, not wanting to wait for a reception, where we could endanger others with covid. Re issue: I think it's a loving thing, to buy one's dear one's book. It's exactly the kind of support we need. I've had some dear friends buy more than one copy, to give to their friends. That's love.

    2. That's great way to re-frame it! Thanks Melodie. You are still teaching me. (I got a note today asking if I want my CWC membership upgraded to PAM!)

  8. I rarely give away books to friends, family, and neighbors. I've had similar experiences, so, that makes me reluctant. But I do give away books to book store owners, to enable them to read the stories and (hopefully) recommend them to the right people.

    1. Anne, that is clever. I think, as one gets more published, it's easier to say (as my friend L does) "I don't buy author copies anymore." Getting there myself...

  9. I would expect any sensible person surrounded by mafia and murder titles might pause before carelessly offending her hostess. Perhaps her sense of self preservation is flawed. Or perhaps she knew exactly who her hostess is and, on the theory she couldn’t testify what she didn’t know, thought pretended ignorance might save her skin. Anyway, me an Vinnie gonna have a little chat with her.

    Were they still alive, my parents would no doubt read and enjoy what I’ve written. My brothers and cousins… not so much. I do not understand. (sigh)

    Congratulations of the book. Did I mention one of my last consulting gigs was with Disney Cruise Line? We managed to dodge most of the icebergs.

    1. Grin - You know my uncle Vince, do you? Thanks for the congrats! And I'm dying to find out what you consulted with Disney :)

  10. Alice Fitzpatrick24 June, 2023 23:29

    Last year, I asked my sister, niece, and nephew if they'd like a copy of the anthology I was recently in. They all said yes, although some less enthusiastically than others. I suspect they thought it was the answer I wanted to hear. I ordered 3 author copies and gave them to my family at Christmas. They took them with polite thank yous. Then my niece asked, "Oh, did you have to pay for these?" It left me wondering if they'd only taken them because they thought they'd been free. It's been 6 months, and no one has said a word about my story. No doubt the books have been sitting on a shelf somewhere collecting dust.

    1. Alice, I think that is an all too common problem. Perhaps it's what I like to call the Twitter Effect. Young adults are so used to being entertained in 15 second bites on twitter and youtube that they can hardly stand to read a whole email, let alone a short story or novel.

  11. Teresa, you are a doll! Thanks so much for that comment. It means so much to me :)


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