Thursday 22 November 2018

The Freemium Author, by Dan Metcalf

A while ago I was merrily shopping in a supermarket and a voice came over the speaker system:
‘Please make your way to the deli counter for a free demonstration and a guaranteed free gift!’
Never one to pass up a freebie, I obeyed the voice from above and found myself watching a man give the performance of a lifetime while demonstrating a knife and sharpener set. I waited until the end and he gave out a small spiralizer-type gadget for turning apples into wafer-thin ribbons. Being broke, I thanked him and left, but several eager customers waited to purchase the main event, the heralded knife set.

“Where’s this going, Dan?” I hear you cry.

This last month I have been filling my time by visiting around 25 schools in what I call my ‘freemium’ tour. In an effort to gain readers for my newest book, Paw Prints in the Somme, I have been doing speaking events at assemblies in my local area. The book is set in the First World War, so tied in nicely to the commemorations of the centenary of Armistice. I offered schools the assembly for free, in return for covering travel expenses and for the chance to sell my books. I quickly filled my diary. I was welcomed at each school and I had asked them to order ahead of my visit, so I took away forms and monies on the day. I returned a week or so later to supply the books.

I know what you’re thinking – you gave your time for FREE? Isn’t that what the SoA and all right-thinking authors say NOT to do?

Well, yes. But hear me out. I will never do a full or half day visit for nothing. These were 20 minute assemblies, and I designed the business model of this experiment to be zero-risk. I covered travel expenses (a standard 45p per mile) and received book orders ahead. Then I used print-on-demand to print the books – no crazy print runs here. If a school wanted one book, I print one book. If the school wanted 100, that’s what I print. I didn’t want to pay for a 2000 copy print run and have them under my bed forever more. This way the print cost per book is slightly higher, but the risk and inconvenience is much less.

The ‘freemium’ model is widely used in many areas of business; offer a free service or product, then hook the customer with your quality and invite them to invest in a further service. In modern tech companies like Spotify, this might be a limited, advertising-supported version of the streaming service. Once they hook you with how amazing the speed, quality and convenience is, they then grab you and hook you into a premium service. Or maybe you’ve received a sample, short story or even the first in a series of books for free? This is a classic way to entice readers into your stories and brand, well known and practised in the independent publishing world.

The assemblies I offered for free were the same as the man in the shop giving away his spiralizer tools for watching his knife demonstration. It tickled the interest of some potential customers. My assemblies demonstrated my storytelling, my public speaking and great relationship with students. Of course, while I was in the school I gave them free posters and leaflets for my school visits (for which I charge full price, naturally).

When I posted a question about this tour on a private author’s facebook group, I received a few gasps of horror. I should never, ever, under any circumstances do visits for free, they said. And I understand. I don’t, much like I don’t hand out copies of my book for free. I do however do readings of my first chapters for free on my website, and amazon offers a sample of my ebooks for free. Is that the same as handing out free books? I don’t think so. I see it as a necessity to make sales.

Let’s be realistic. I’m no Neil Gaiman or Philip Pullman. I don’t have a legion of fans. I’m fairly early on in my career (hopefully) and I cannot afford to sit on my behind and wait for the sales to find me. I need to be out there, talking to readers and doing whatever I can to make my name known, which includes thinking outside of the box when it comes to author visits. I’d love to charge every school I visit, and so would my bank manager, but in reality that is going to drive them away. An unknown author for £££? No thanks! By sneaking under the radar with my freemium service, I can gain trust.

Was it worth it? Well… yes. I think so. It’s early days but I have already had one offer to be a patron of reading and several referrals to other schools (Headteachers talk. Lots.). On the cold, hard cash front, I have a healthy profit margin of 58% on anything I sell, and I can confirm that we won’t have to cancel Christmas this year. So while the big hitters of the kidlit world can charge whatever they like for visits, I’ll be innovating and testing my business model for a while to come. And you know what? I’m fine with that.

Dan Metcalf is a children's author from the south west of England. His First World War book Paw Prints in the Somme is available via 


Sue Purkiss said...

Sounds like a cunning plan to me - good luck with it!

Dan Metcalf said...

Thanks Sue!

Steve Gladwin said...

I entirely agree with you, Dan. Despite hard cash needs there's really no substitute for all those engaged happy faces.