Making Money by Giving Stuff Away Online


Can you make money by giving stuff away on the web? Yes, but it’s not straightforward or easy, as Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams has discovered. He says, “Free is more complicated than you think.”

By sharing your work online you might be able to increase sales of products or premium services. You might be able to find a new job or win new clients.

If you give your work and your products away for free, however, you may cannibalize your sales. You may make people think they will always get your work for free. You may spend your time doing poorly-compensated work, leaving little time for more lucrative activities.

Adams has had “mixed results with giving away content on the Internet”:

I was the first syndicated cartoonist to offer a comic on the Internet without charge ( That gave a huge boost to the newspaper sales and licensing. The ad income was good too. Giving away the “Dilbert” comic for free continues to work well, although it cannibalizes my reprint book sales to some extent, and a fast-growing percentage of readers bypass the online ads with widgets, unauthorized RSS feeds and other workarounds.

Adams also found that when he made one of his older books available as a free download, some fans then expected his newer books to be free too. He says, “I inadvertently set the market value for my work at zero. Oops.”

And his blogging hasn’t exactly been a lucrative use of time. “I spend about a third of my workday blogging. Thanks to the miracle of online advertising, that increases my income by 1%,” he jokes.

If you do want to experiment with giving away your work in order to make money, there are a bunch of ways to do it:

  • Web designers can share website templates, showing their style and expertise. People looking for custom designs may then approach them with work.
  • Software developers can contribute bug fixes or new features to open source projects, raising their profile in the community and finding new employment or contract opportunities.
  • Attorneys can share free legal advice on sites like LawGuru, attracting new paying clients in their area of specialty.
  • Book publishers can make portions of books available for download, hoping to create buzz and sales of the print book.
  • Writers can start blogs, of course, and earn money through advertising, by attracting freelance writing clients, or selling premium content like PDF handbooks.

Have you tried giving work away for free in order to make money? Share your stories and tips here.

Related posts:


tobias buckell

I’ve given away the first 1/3 of each of my novels (out from Tor) and have gotten a lot of readers that way. Not enough to catapult me out of mid list SF writer status, but it’s been rewarding :-)


There may be applications you aren’t considering, Gavin. Take books, for example. Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi are two mid-lists authors who set the publishing world on fire by giving their books away in electronic form. In each case, sales of the print versions — same product, different expression, were outstanding. In fact, all of Cory’s printed works are always available as a free download.

At, we showcase people who have decided to kick that up a notch. We encourage authors to record serialized audio versions of their books and make them available to the general public free of charge. While it’s not an instant success for all, it’s caused at least five authors to land larger publishing deals (which goes along with what you are suggesting), and quite a few more to have been “paid” more in donations from grateful listeners than they ever did off of physical sales.

I’m not sure we’ll ever get to a post-scarcity world (quoting Doctorow again), but digital distribution is certainly making that a possibility for some items.

Evo Terra

Gavin Heaton

Giving away your work for free can be a strategy that last only so long — you may start out providing something for free, but really it is only a way to get in the door. The only way to do this is to produce a commodity that has high demand but a follow-on product or service that is much more targeted — something that unlocks extra value in the free offer.
This approach provides both you and your customer with a roadmap that answers the questions “what’s next” and “how do I get more”.


Often when I consult with a client, I do a complementary “web meeting” so that they can see how I work. If that works, then I will charge for the next “web meeting”. I also gave away a ebook I co-authored with an email subscription, as well as posted some tips from my speaking engagements.

Comments are closed.