It’s Not Easy Being Free
(Another CrossFit-related post for you up front, but stick with me for a bit and the big picture point about giving it away makes it into the post.)
Each time one of Steve’s books left the table, my son reached in a box, pulled out another book, and topped off the stacks.
The weekend before, we showed up for the first time. My jaw dropped as we walked in and watched the competition underway. My energetic seven-year-old stood silently in one place, for the next hour, mesmerized, eyes glued to the athletes, as Brian shared information about his box with me, and proved—again—how gracious the CrossFit community is. And then he took it out two more steps:
He showed my son how to do a “muscle up” on the rings, and then adjusted the rings for my son’s height and helped him do two muscle ups in a row.
And then he said:
You should come next weekend and you can sell some of Steve’s books here.
Umm… He’d already given me so much of his time, he earned mom points for his kindness toward my son, and then he offered an invite to reach additional readers. He’d given so much away. Why was he being so nice?
I was so thankful, and stopped wondering about motives, and decided he’s just a cool dude—and said something along the lines of:
I want to come, but I’d like to give them away and I know Steve will feel the same way.
CrossFit has been nothing less than nice to me, to my son, and to Steve. I felt like a fraud, thinking about showing up with something to sell. Neither Steve nor I belong to a CrossFit box. We’re outsiders. It felt wrong to be invited to join this community two Saturdays in a row, and then to try to sell to them. What we needed, instead, was to say thank you.
So I contacted Steve about giving away a bunch of books, including advance copies of The Profession (which won’t be out until June). Steve was cool with it, so I contacted Seth Godin’s team, asking if I could bring a few copies of Poke the Box. Ishita Gupta came through with those.
Saturday rolled around again, I piled the boxes in the back of my van, and off my son and I went, excited to give away the books.
And when we got into the box, it was the same crazy cool energy.
We started unpacking the books, slotted right between the t-shirts and Patrick Smith’s table for Catalyst Meals.
Then Andrew Z., a fan of Steve’s books, came by and we started talking. He was enthusiastic and calm and nice and all that good stuff I was coming to expect from CrossFit. I was psyched by such an immediate and positive response.
And then there was nothing.
People stared at the table from afar. And I got worried and wondered if this wasn’t the right thing to be doing.
I kept mentioning the books were free. A few people came up. And then a few more. They wanted to know: Why are you giving these books away? They were questioning me, just as I had questioned Brian’s kindness (sorry Brian). I explained how Steve and I were new to CrossFit, how I’d feel like a huckster if I showed up to sell to people there, that the books were a thank you, that we were interested in learning more about CrossFit, and wanted to get to know individuals within the community.
Those that listened to me ramble through my why-I-was-there-with-books explanation started picking up books and talking a little more.
Then the main event—”the heat” of the day—was up. I stepped away from the table to watch. I was surprised to see Andrew Z. among the group. He was calm, cool, and kind when we talked earlier about Steve’s books. He didn’t talk about himself, other than to answer my few questions. Didn’t volunteer that he was one of the elites in the room. No ego. I watched him compete, thinking about how much people give.
And as we watched, I noticed a few people making their way to the table, looking at the books, picking up a few different ones to take home.
Overall, an awesome morning.
Though I didn’t show up at CrossFit for an experiment on giving things away, I walked away with a few lessons—and it happened the Saturday after the launch of Do the Work, and the General Electric-sponsored free Kindle version of the book—AND, after I read a blog post asking if Do The Work could be considered a bestseller if it was being given away. Does it count if there isn’t an exchange of money?
Here’s what I’ve learned about giving it away:
FREE isn’t enough.
If FREE was enough, my kids would be loving the pencils that land in their Halloween bags, just as much as they love the candy.
People have to want what you are giving away. There are those who take anything free that comes along, but most of us don’t. We have to want it. Otherwise, it becomes more clutter in our lives.
Action Takes Long Naps, Asks Tons of Questions, and Wants to Move on Its Own Terms
It’s hard to convince others to go after that free thing. Walk up to the table and take a book. Go to the site and download the free thing. Sign up for an opp to receive some amazing whatchawannacallit. Instead of doing it, they ask tons of questions, not believing that thing they want is free. They e-mail and ask “is that right?” They see the $0.00 and think it is a mistake.
And then when they do move, they do it on their own terms. Some people will walk up and accept seven different books from a table. And some want to do it on their own. They want to take their time, when no one is watching them—get in and then out.
Attention Doesn’t Jump for Free
And when they finally take action, it is because they’ve decided that they like you enough, they want what you are offering, to take their time—to give you a bit from their lives—to take action. I asked Seth about the free direction and he nailed it:
“Some people will buy it because it’s free, share it because it feels like a real bargain. But most people, most of the time, are paying with their most valuable asset (their attention).”
Attention is hard to find. It doesn’t jump at FREE. It has too many other options.
What About the Creators? Free Doesn’t Pay the Mortgage
I’m going to turn this bit back over to Seth:
“As a creator, part of the goal is to spread an idea. But you want the idea to be respected and to be engaged with because it matters, not because it’s free. And complicated things like gratitude and reciprocity rear their ugly head…
“The shift that Domino is participating in re books is this: we’re trying to undo scarcity when it comes to great ideas that are often in books. If we can approach this with abundance instead, how will that change the conversation?
“Chris Anderson talks about this a lot in his book Free. The thing is, there are different products for different people. Right now, 99.9% of the population buys no copy of any book in book form. The idea, then, is to use the marketing potential of sampling, of virality, of free, to expose the book to perhaps 1% of the target market. It’s true, you make no profit on this, but you DO generate marketing value.
“Then, the bet (and I agree it’s a bet) is that word will spread and others will choose to pay money. Perhaps they will pay because they get more access, or because they want to hold it and own it and put it on the shelf. Perhaps they pay because it’s a cheap way to be a patron of the arts. Perhaps they pay because the free edition is no longer free…
“This is the experimental part. Can we break through the clutter with free exposure, share ideas, make change and then turn that into a profit in other ways?”
I’ll jump back in here.
At the beginning of Free, Chris Anderson gives this example:
“IN NOVEMBER 2008, the Surviving members of the original Monty Python team, stunned by the extent of digital piracy of their videos, issued a very stern announcement on YouTube:
‘For 3 years you YouTubers have been ripping us off, taking tens of thousands of our videos and putting them on YouTube. Now the tables are turned. It’s time for us to take matters into our own hands.
‘We know who you are, we know where you live and we could come after you in ways too horrible to tell. But being the extraordinarily nice chaps we are, we’ve figured a better way to get our own back: We’ve launched our own Monty Python channel on YouTube.
‘No more of those crap quality videos you’ve been posting. We’re giving you the real thing—high quality videos delivered straight from our vault. What’s more, we’re taking our most viewed clips and uploading brand new high quality versions. And what’s even more, we’re letting you see absolutely everything for free. So there!
‘But we want something in return.
‘None of your driveling, mindless comments. Instead, we want you to click on the links, buy our movies & TV shows and soften our pain and disgust at being ripped off all these years.‘
“Three months later, the results of this rash experiment with free were in. Monty Python’s DVDs had climbed to No. 2 on Amazon’s Movies and TV best-sellers list, with increased sales of 23,000 percent. So there!
“Free worked, and worked brilliantly. More than 2 million people watched the clips on YouTube as word of mouth spread and parents introduced their children to the Black Knight and the Dead Parrot Sketch. Thousands of viewers were reminded how much they loved Monty Python and wanted more, so they ordered the DVDs. Response videos, mashups, and remixes spread, and a new generation learned the proper meaning of “Killer Rabbit.” And all this cost Monty Python essentially nothing, since YouTube paid all the bandwidth and storage costs, such as they were. “
In this past year-plus of Steve creating Writing Wednesdays, Warrior Ethos and other series, he’s increased book sales and visibility online. He’s given away books, time, his writing, developing a column once and sometimes twice a week, for which he isn’t being paid. He’s answering questions from other bloggers, responding on Facebook and has corresponded with thousands, doing his best to answer every e-mail he receives.
And what we’ve seen is that his columns have been shared and have reminded readers of his other work. Some know him for The War of Art while others know him for Gates of Fire and his other novels. This past year-plus, the books have crossed into different audiences. He’s expanded readership.
It just happened. We avoided asking people to buy books as much as possible. We just presented the info. and Steve gave away engaging, valued content. There weren’t many interested in the beginning—maybe a hundred or two readers visiting the site every day. And then it changed. Others started helping Steve share.
Last weekend, I needed to leave two hours into the CrossFit competition to run my kids around. There was one hour left and still stacks of books on the table.
Brian told me I could leave them, that he knew he could give them away to those not attending the Open.
And then Patrick stepped up.
When we started talking two hours earlier, Patrick saw Poke the Box and was familiar with Seth. I mentioned that Steve wrote The War of Art and Do The Work, which Patrick knew, and when he asked about the novels, I suggested Gates and a few others.
When it was time for me to leave, as I walked away, I saw Patrick starting to share Steve’s books to those walking up to the table. I went back to him, saying thank you, but it isn’t necessary, and mumbled something about Brian keeping an eye on the books, and he said, “I want to.”
And that’s when I stopped questioning all together and left with a smile. A wonderful morning, learning from Patrick, Andrew, Brian and so many others there.
A closing thought from Seth:
“Readers return the ‘free’ by listening, alertly, by being challenged and most of all, by changing how they walk through the world. This, I think, is so much more gratifying than figuring out how to buy some shelf space at a bookstore, or a speed table, and trick the harried shopper into paying you so you make a dollar extra in royalties.”
Reminds me of that old saying about “what goes around coming back around.” It’s a bit of an experiment and you never know what’s going to come back at you, but it’s still worth giving that boomerang a nice hard throw. And if that boomerang is free, do everything you can to get it airborne. It’s not easy being free.
*Thank you to Nicole Bedard for allowing us to run her images. She’s an amazing photographer. Enjoyed watching her in action, catching everything at the NoVa Open.
***And one last thank you to Brian Wilson for being so welcoming and inviting. The more he shares, the bigger a fan I become. Check out the image below.
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