How To Make Thousands From Your Writing, Using A Weird Pricing Technique

    Are you afraid to share your writing with the world?

    I am.

    And yet, I’ve made thousands from my writing, using a weird pricing technique.

    I share my story to show you how to make thousands from your writing.

    I’m a writing coward.

    It took me close to 20 years to step up to the plate and publish my work.

    Even when I finally started self-publishing, I did so under the guise of a hobby. If anyone asked why I was writing (no one did), I’d tell them I was writing because I loved it.

    But deep down, I really wanted to see if I could hack it as a paid author.

    Finding Validation as a New Author

    For hundreds of hours over several months, I wrote on my blog. I was the only reader. I was so scared, I didn’t even tell my family about my new, all-consuming hobby.

    Yet somehow, slowly, people found my website and started subscribing.

    In April 2013, I finished my second book (the first I gave away free to new subscribers – all 10 of them). Having written thousands of words, dozens of articles, and several short guides by this time – all free – I wanted my writing to be validated. This meant I couldn’t just give it away.

    There had to be an exchange of money.

    It was time to sell my writing.

    The Classic (and Broken) Approach to Pricing Your Book

    Most new authors I know offer their books with a $.99 to $7.99 price tag on the Amazon Kindle store.

    Next, they give it away for free for 3 days to boost (free) sales in the hope that their content will spread and make them more sales in the future (this time, paid).

    The painful reality is this rarely pans out.

    Usually, after the flash sale ends, sales trickle in. And as you probably already know, most authors sell less than 100 copies of their book – ever.  Ouch.

    Even worse: on Amazon, you don’t know who these customers are.

    How am I supposed to validate my work if I can’t hear from the people buying and reading it?

    A Weird Pricing Technique

    So I did what any irrational, nothing-to-lose, hobby-writer would do in my situation.

    I removed price altogether and gave the book directly to my readers.

    I told them the book was free, but if they enjoyed my writing, they could contribute whatever amount they wanted.

    I released the book on a random Sunday morning with a single short email to my subscriber list of about 150 people. I thought nothing would come of it and I was okay with that – it was a hobby, after all.

    That afternoon, as I was enjoying Sunday-Funday in Nashville, my phone buzzed.

    Someone downloaded my book – and contributed $10. Cool, I thought – that just paid for my next beer (high-gravity craft beer is expensive).

    A little later my phone buzzed again.  Another download, another contribution: $15. My phone kept buzzing.

    By the end of the month I’d made close to $500 from this one book with no price tag and no promotion.

    Does Pay What You Want Pricing Work for Other Authors?

    If this worked so well for me, surely others had used it too. Of course they had.

    • In 2012, released several books as Pay What You Want. Their results: about half the people paid at least $5 with some paying upward of $20 per bundle. 
    • experimented with a Pay What You Want science fiction and comic bundle that brought in over $1.1 million.
    • Natalie Fee tried out PWYW for her poetry for one day and you can see from the comments section that she made upward of 3x per sale versus her retail price of £8.
    • gave their ebook and ecourse products away as Pay What You Want for one day and brought in over $2500.
    • In the past year, I’ve made over $5,000 from my writing using Pay What You Want pricing.

    There are dozens more examples of individual books and bundled products being sold as Pay What You Want.

    Why Removing Price Works

    There are 3 main reasons removing price from your writing works:

    1.  It removes the barrier to entry.

    Many readers might be interested in your book, but the price tag can scare them away or make them delay their purchase (which usually means a lost sale).

    With PWYW pricing, there is no barrier to entry, which means more people will opt in to get your work.  More sales means more reach, more impact, and more revenue – if you do it right.

    2.  It removes the upper price ceiling.

    The beauty of PWYW pricing isn’t just that it allows those with lesser means access to your work, but that it allows those with greater means the ability to give you more than your fixed price.

    I’ve received several contributions upward of $100.  That’s simply not possible with a fixed price.

    By removing the upper limit, I let my biggest fans support me as much as they want. If you do the math, this more than makes up for those who pay little or nothing.

    3.  It inspires generosity.

    Granted, I’ve tried to create a platform that encourages generosity, so my results could be abnormal, but the reality is: people are generous.

    People are generous, but we need to give them a reason to be generous.

    When the majority of businesses (and people) nickel-and-dime their customers, where’s the room for generosity?

    Conversely, PWYW pricing allows us to give our work away freely and generously, while asking others to recognize this generous act and support our work. It might seem like an insignificant detail, but it makes all the difference in the world.

    How to Apply Pay What You Want Pricing to Your Writing

    Pay What You Want pricing can work – or not. The difference lies in the execution. (Writing really good stuff is a given.)

    Here’s a 6-step framework you can use to apply PWYW pricing to your work to start leveraging the upside of your fanatical readership.

    1. Clarify the impact of your writing and your PWYW offer.

    Your writing and your Pay What You Want offer need to be clear, precise and powerful. As in: who’s the writing for, what’s the benefit, and why you’re using Pay What You Want pricing.

    If it comes across as a sleazy, money-making strategy, it won’t work.

    2. Build a relationship with your readers.

    Readers have a unique relationship with their favorite authors. When you connect with your readers, you become a real, living, breathing human. And people support humans, not corporations or robots.

    So get personal, connect, and build a relationship with your readers, and they will support you.

    3. Tug on your readers’ generosity strings.

    Lesson one in psychology 101: responses are triggered by stimuli.

    In the case of generosity, the trigger is idealism. Sometimes appealing to their idealism is as simple as using words that trigger the response you want (words like: generosity, karma, or alluding to virtues, etc.)

    Here’s an example from a recent email I sent, asking people to contribute to a new book I planned to publish using Pay What You Want pricing.  My goal was to inspire generosity now, not later (i.e. don’t think about contributing – actually contribute):

    The early adopters of the world are the people who make it possible for new artists, entrepreneurs, and authors to survive…so thank you in advance for being one of them. It means the world to me.

    As you can see, anyone who reads this and wants to be an entrepreneur, artist or writer (or is one and recognizes the struggle we all go through as creators) is going to want to contribute generously.

    This resulted in 30+ sales in the first hour, with an average price close to double the minimum bid of $5.

    4. Anchor the price.

    This is tough if you’re selling a fiction novel by itself, but if you’re selling more than a single work, price anchoring is key.

    Price anchoring means showing a high-priced equivalent item next to your item, so people’s brains are anchored to (warmed up and ready to pay) the higher price. This technique is proven to get people to pay more for things from iPads to flatscreens to charitable donations.

    The Storyline Conference recently released tickets as Pay What You Want.  To encourage generous contributions, they included bonuses at the ‘suggested’ donation level of $249.  Next to that, they had a ‘pro’ option for twice the amount.

    I don’t have the stats, but it’s reasonable to assume the average PWYW contribution will be much higher because they had the $499 price anchor.

    You can also anchor price by creating a list of the top 5 contributors.

    5. Help the reader choose a price.

    Pay What You Want pricing is confusing.

    It may be a turn-off because it requires thinking. Your job, as the writer, is to make it so easy to understand that your reader doesn’t have to think (much).

    Here’s how to do that: show your readers what a fair price would be.  Also tell them what a generous price would be. (‘Buy me a nice steak dinner.’)

    This clarifies the offer for your reader and helps them make a choice that will ideally be generous.

    For example, when ran an ebook experiment using Pay What You Want pricing, they preselected the $5 price point for customers.

    Here’s what happened (bolded for emphasis):

    “The thing we noticed right away was that a lot of people were choosing to pay, even though you can download all the books for free. Almost half of all book downloads were paid, with most people choosing the default $5 per book—even when buying four or five books at once — and several going above and beyond, with a few even paying $20 for a single title.”

    6. Rally around a cause.

    Pay What You Want pricing only works when there’s a strong message behind the pricing.

    The truth is, slapping the $0+ sticker on your products won’t result in generous contributions. People need a reason to be generous.

    The best way to do this? Create a cause around what you’re doing.

    When Pulse magazine was about to go bankrupt in 2008, they did something crazy: they rolled out a PWYW campaign to resurrect their magazine. But they rolled out this offer along with the support of hundreds of artists who recorded limited-edition songs just for their PWYW campaign, to help get the magazine in the black.

    Their cause: help a passionate, fan-focused, independent music magazine survive.

    The response was incredible: They raised over $275,000 and gained 30,000 additional subscribers, at a time when most magazines were either  in the red or going bankrupt.

    If you want to take your cause to the next level, add charity to the mix. When we make our PWYW pricing a key element of raising money for a charity that is congruent with our message, it will most certainly increase contributions.

    I know some writers will hate Pay What You Want pricing – it leaves us exposed and vulnerable – but for those willing to take a chance, you might be happily surprised by the results.

    Have you ever considered letting your readers choose their price? Help out your fellow writers by sharing your stories  – successes and failures!

    I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

    About the author

      Tom Morkes

      Tom Morkes is a West Point grad, Iraq War veteran, who even got paid to jump out of helicopters for a while.  Now he’s the CEO of Insurgent Publishing and author of three books including The Complete Guide to Pay What You Want Pricing.

    • Hi Tom,

      I think this technique only works for someone who have some subscribers or a good numbers of “friends” on facebook or anything else. I can’t do this technique on amazon for example. And if I do in my web site, I’ll need to have people visiting.
      But it’s a very interesting thing.

    • iltalehti says:

      Well stated and with wonderful timing

    • Hiten Vyas says:

      Hi Tom,

      This is an excellent post!

      I’ve never considered the pay as you want model before, and I’m definitely going to now consider it, after reading your article. Thank you.

      • Tom says:

        Thanks so much Hiten! Glad you liked it 🙂

    • Tom says:

      Thanks! :/

    • Zoe Uwem says:

      Fantastic post! PWYW pricing sounds great. I hope to try it with my next release.

    • Patrick Waldron says:

      Sounds good but I get turned off by the panic-trap-marketing-techniquesbeing used here.Buy, buy, buy…before it goes bye-bye.

      • Tom says:

        don’t quite get what you’re saying. what do you mean?

    • Hi Tom

      Great post. My plan is to write a few short guides and eBooks and give them away for free. I’m going to publish something more significant myself this year and charge a short amount for it.

      Out of interest, did this model help grow your email list?


      • Tom says:

        Bryan it helped grow my list directly and indirectly.

        Indirectly b/c PWYW is a unique pricing technique so it helped with marketing.

        Directly because every time someone buys a book I capture their email information and can sell another book to them later.

        So, so for me, it helped grow my list big time.

    • As you told us that after hundred of hours you were the only reader of your blog, i know how it feels like. But Somehow you managed to get visitors and subscribers. How can i get the same visitors flow in less time as building your web reputaion is not that easy. By reading your blog or ebook and implementing them in day to day life will be the key i guess.

      What do you think about it? Share your view

      • Tom says:

        Karan, appreciate the comment.

        The best way to get visitors: write stuff that gets shared.

        And the reality is only the stuff WE share gets shared…meaning you have to be able to promote your work to the right audiences.

        I’ve found accelerated success through guest posting and writing content that mentions people who already have audiences (they’re likely to share it if it’s good, so your message gets shared faster).

    • I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting my
      own weblog and was wondering what all is needed to get set up?
      I’m assuming having a blog like yours would cost a pretty penny?

      I’m not very internet smart so I’m not 100% sure.

      Any recommendations or advice would be greatly appreciated.
      Appreciate it

    • Just what I needed today. I’ve been planning what to create for my subscribers but as I get more feedback from them, pricing the product seems to become more complicated. Plus, the thought that my target readers/buyers are beginners in my field so i don’t want them to think I’m taking advantage of them. The PWYW model fits perfectly with my business vision and target readers. Thanks Tom!

      • Tom says:

        Jovell – thanks so much!

        I think that’s an awesome idea to test out. Or you can even do a hybrid: sell it PWYW but let people know if you don’t make on average X per person, you’ll begin charging fixed prices…that’s what Steven King did for his first online serialized book and made half a million from it before cutting the book.

    • Great post, Tom!

      And what a great idea. I’m just finishing up my first e-book. I was going to give it away as a freebie as I grow my email list (I don’t have one yet!), but now I’m wondering if PWYW might be the way to go? Hmm…food for thought!

      • Tom says:

        Laura, my recommendation – make it Pay What You Want.

        Then at least you don’t devalue your work like a free book would do and you can make some income from it while you create more great work.

        p.s. I continue to make sales from my PWYW guides and books….if they were free, I’d make nothing. Just food for thought.

    • Great post Tom. While the PWYW model is far from new (indie musicians have been using it successfully for years), it’s nice to see authors exploring different pay and distribution models. There’s far too much influence exercised by third party distributors like Amazon these days, leading many authors to forget the direct reach and relationships they can build with readers (while still making money in the process). Thanks for covering something so rarely talked about in the indie publishing community!

      • Tom says:

        Jennifer, couldn’t agree more. Thanks so much.

    • Patrick says:

      Hi Tom,

      I am trying to pay zero dollars for your full package. How do I do that?


      PS thanks for the opportunity to pay what I want.

      • Tom says:

        Patrick, thanks for the message.

        To get the book, it’s pay what you want at $1+

        The book is all you need to make PWYW work for you, I promise you that.

        But I save the complete bonus package as a special treat for those who contribute generously to my creative work. They’re the people who allow me to keep doing what I’m doing, so I try to incentivize that.

        So check out the book, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it (and if not, I have a 100% money back guarantee).

    • You’ve officially blown my mind, Tom. I’ve printed out your post and plan to hold onto it for the future. I love the concept of marrying generosity together. Sometimes, it’s the craziest ideas that work best! Thanks.

      • Tom says:

        Marcy, thanks a million!

        Let me know if you end up putting it to work – would love to find out how it goes (or help you through the process).

        – Tom

        • Thanks for responding, Tom. I’ll definitely keep you posted if I decide to publish myself. My literary agent left the biz this past fall before she submitted my novel. I’m still regrouping…

          • Tom says:

            What’s your book about?

            From experience as a self publisher and a boutique, artisanal publisher (my publishing company: Insurgent Publishing), niche books do better as self published works (or through boutique publishing companies that can leverage sales through the niche).

            Would be happy to talk strategy with you if you’re interested (head over to my site and you can find my contact info).

    • Tom, that’s a fascinating technique! I’ve read about a New York restaurant that pegged its prices by the moment to the NYSE index.When stocks were doing well, its prices soared; when times were bad, they plummeted. That was logical. On a good day, brokers could afford to pay more. Another restaurant tried the ‘pay us what you think it’s worth’ gambit and went bust. Why? Word got around that everything was free. So it attracted freeloaders.

      I’m sure you’re right that you have to pick a market that already has a bond with you, some sense of obligation. And affiliate your offer to a cause. (It’s no accident that the Sierra Club has the highest renewal rate of any subscription club, Folk are not just buying a magazine, they’re pledging their soul to ecology.)

      But, Tom, how would that pricing scheme work at Amazon or Barnes&Noble? Surely you could manage it only from your own web site?

      • Tom says:

        John, short answer is this WOULDN’T work with amazon or B/N because they’re big corporations.

        We don’t give to corporations, we give to people.

        Now there are new companies coming in the tech world of all places – – that offers their services as PWYW…but they have it at the core of who they are (they are a privacy focused company and PWYW is in line with their mission).

        So Amazon / B/N would have to totally transform how they do biz which wouldn’t happen.

        The could potentially offer it for digital products that, compine it with charity (à la humble bundle) and make a killing.

        • That’s what I thought, Tom. We can’t fold that model into the existing indie-publishing structures. But it might work like a dream provided we had a warm list of our own to approach, plus a great web site to invite people to. As so many indie authors have said: we can’t trust our futures as authors to the capitalist mercies of Amazon, etc, who might pull the plug on us – or change their terms of business – in a moment. Our only safe way forward is to build our own platform plus a customer list where the customer names are known to us. Just try asking Amazon (or Lulu, for that matter) for the email addresses of the folk who bought our book, so we can go back to those good people with our next offer!

          • Tom says:

            John, exactly.

            I actually think publishing on Amazon is the wrong technique for many authors.

            I publish on there but not in every case.

            Most of the time, I prefer to sell directly to my audience. That’s why this pricing works for me – because I’ve gotten to know them.

            Thanks for the great comments!

    • This is interesting, Tom!

      I’ve used PWYW pricing for courses I teach, but “Over $X” not free. And have not used it for ebooks! I may try that out with my next one and maybe offer it as an exclusive to buyers of my previous ebook.

      • Tom says:

        Carol, that’s awesome. I bet you’ll find incredible success giving it to your repeat customers…

        What’s so interesting about it is that every time I offer something PWYW, those who truly appreciate what I do and why I do it, continue to contribute quite a bit (more than making up for those who take it for the minimum or free).

        Let me know if you plan on doing it – would love to hear your case study (and help you along the way if you need it!)

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