Dear Writer-Friends,

I've been self-publishing since 2011, and I've shared the knowledge I've gained in two books: the Indie Author Survival Guide, Second Edition, and For Love or Money. I'm not an indie rockstar or a breakout success: I'm one of thousands of solidly midlist indie authors making a living with their works. These books are my way of helping my fellow authors discover the freedom of indie publishing. Write on, writer-friends!

S.K. Quinn, Independent Author of Science Fiction

CLICK HERE TO GET YOUR QUICK START GUIDE TO SELF-PUBLISHING and to be notified when the 3rd Edition of the Indie Author Survival Guide releases!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

FREE Books: Bane or Boon?

No, that title's not provocative. Not at all.

Yesterday, Amazon price-matched Open Minds to free.

Publishers have been giving away books as an enticement to get people to read them for a long time. I recently attended a kidlit conference where a high-ranking NY editor gave away a literal truck-load of paper books to attendees. Why? She was trying to entice us into discovering a new author. And hopefully buy more books.

And that, in a nutshell, is why people/publishers/authors give away books. It's a solid marketing strategy.

Free in the Digital Era
The difference now is that giving away books is fast and easy. Ebooks don't have to be printed, shipped, and somehow find their way into people's hands. With one click, they're on your Kindle, in your purse, on the way to the doctor's office.
One more click, and you're telling all your friends about it.
(Thank you, Robert!!)

Tackling the Negatives on Free

Giving away books devalues the author's work.
No one will buy books anymore, if they're all free.
If only I had sold all those books, I'd be sipping Mai Tai's in Tahiti.

I don't believe any of these.

Giving away books doesn't devalue the book/work.
No one claims that having free samples of yogurt at the grocery store devalues the work of yogurt factory workers. No one thinks less of yogurt if it is free. Sampling a product makes people actually want MORE of that product, not less. Books are even more of an acquired taste than yogurt, so sampling makes a LOT of sense.

On the other hand, have some sense about it.
Giving away all your work makes you a charity, not a business; giving away some of your work is solid marketing. Grocery stores don't give away ALL the yogurt in the store; they give you a serving. Do some people eat the samples and never buy the yogurt? Of course. But some will also decide to buy more yogurt, because it's yummy, and it's sitting right there on their tongues, saying BUY ME.

Even in a world full of free books, people still buy books.
I would have thought this was obvious, but I hear the counter-argument all the time. Writers (particularly ones who spend time online) see free books everywhere. It's easy to think that all those free books mean that no one will ever be willing to pay for a book again. Why should they, when authors are giving away the farm? Readers will actually say this out loud: I don't buy books anymore! I just download free ones! First: don't believe them. They never bought books; they got them from the library or they pirated them. Second: if they're only willing to read the freebies, they are not the kind of avid readers who will eagerly await your next work. They are not the loyal readers you will build a fanbase from. If they only come for the free yogurt, they weren't a potential customer anyway.

If only I had sold all those books, I'd be sipping Mai Tai's in Tahiti.
You just need to get over this. Or don't ever set your book free. It's not mandatory.

All of these perspectives look at free books as something lost: value, sales, market share. But this very much misunderstands that free books are primarily a marketing tool used to gain something.

Reframing the Question
The question is not "what did I lose" by giving away books, but "what do I gain, and how much does it cost me?"

There is a real cost to giving away ebooks. It's less than the print-and-ship variety, but it's still there. The cost is in "expected revenue" lost.

Say you normally sell 1 copy a day of your $2.99 book. If you set your book to free, you are losing $2 a day in revenue. If you do that for a week, you're out $14. Meh, no big deal. But if you're selling 10 copies a day, that number is $140 for the week. At 100 copies a day, your week-long free run will cost you $1400. So, the better your book is selling, in general, the less incentive you have to go free.

Makes sense. I've had people actually say to me: why on earth would you set your book free? You're already selling so well! And they have have a point. It's costly to go free. And there's the non-monetary side as well.

Non-monetary Downsides
When books are free with one click, people may not read the description. They may not even look at the genre before downloading. They may just like the cover and go "click." There's always the possibility that any reader will hate your book and leave a nasty 1 star review (everyone gets them; check out the 1 star reviews on Harry Pottter), but the probability goes up with free downloads: people bash the book for not being a genre they like, for wasting their time (not their money, because it was free), or for any number of random reasons (or possibly being drunk at the time; that's the only explanation I have for reviews like this - again for HP - "Bad hate it not worth buying. Lego and the world is going through my mind and the rest. Rise in addition"). Some would say this is because people don't "value" free books, so they bash them more, but I think it's more complicated than that. People have to be motivated to write up a nasty review, just like they have to be motivated to write a positive one. Most readers will just move on if they don't like a book, but the incidence of negative reviews does go up with going free.

Another possible downside is that your "also boughts" list can become jumbled. A peek at the top 100 Free on Kindle shows a wide range of genres. These can quickly become your most frequent "also boughts," rather than books appropriately in your genre. You will also be on the "also boughts" list for a wide range of other books. In other words, your world just got a whole lot bigger - you're now in the "general bestselling books" table at the front of the store, rather than appropriately shelved with your SF/Fantasy book-friends. I don't personally think this is a huge issue. The also-boughts for Hugh Howey's SF/post-apoc tale Wool include a book on Guitars and a Christian Novel (but most are other Wool books - yay!). I don't see it hurting the book any.

There are potentially real costs and downsides to going free. So what do I gain?

  • Sharing: Free makes it easy for people to share news about your work. When Wool went permafree, I went crazy telling everyone about it. Why? Because I was already a huge fan. I knew people would download it, love it, and buy more. Hugh Howey was already a bestselling author, but setting his book free gave me yet another reason to tell people about his work.
  • Marketing: When someone downloads your book to their Kindle, you now have an ad for your book on their device for all eternity (or until they delete it). Every time they scroll through the Carousel, they'll stumble on your book and think, Hey, maybe I'll read that book now.
  • The best ad for your book is your writing: Samples sell. Whether it's the blurb, or the first chapter, or the first novel in a series, the biggest thing that sells your books is the words themselves. If a reader likes your story or your style, they'll come back for more. Yogurt on the customer's tongue sells more yogurt.
  • Ads: Free ad sites=pools of readers you don't normally have access to. Since it's important to always be looking for new pools of readers, this is the first main value of free. There are lots of free ad sites, and some are even starting to charge you to list your book, but the big Kahuna of free ads is Pixel of Ink. You can't buy an ad on POI; you can submit, but there' no guarantee that they'll pick you up. However, an ad on POI can move thousands of books. THOUSANDS. There are very few places/people that can do that, in the indie or traditional worlds.
Pixel of Ink is the Oprah Winfrey of the Indie World.

  • Top 100 FREE: This is the second main value of free, if you can get there. Getting on the genre Top 100 Free lists has value as well, but if you can get into the Top 100 Free list of all Amazon, the visibility jump is tremendous. It's like buying a front-table display in the world's biggest bookstore, only instead of buying the display, you earn it by having a book that lots of people want to download.
9400 downloads. #16 Free in the Kindle Store. All in one day.

But Nobody Reads Free Books
What happens to all of those (hopefully thousands) of downloads?
  1. The book doesn't get read: if this happens, no loss. There's even a bit of gain, because your work is still passing in front of their eyes on their Kindle. It counts for one of the seven touches of marketing. Some people say they're more likely to read a book they pay for than a free book, but this gets the causality backward: readers seek out and pay for books they want to read. Right? How often have you paid for a book you had no interest in reading? Free books are "zero friction," meaning even a mild interest will induce them to download. It's now in their hands. When the mood strikes, your book will be right there, ready to fill the need for a mind-bending thriller while waiting at the doctor's office. And then it's up to your words to hook them....
  2. The book gets read immediately (or 6 months later), and the reader hates it: still no (major) loss, although this is less painful if you go into free with a stable of reviews already.
  3. The book gets read immediately (or 6 months later), and the reader loves it: WIN! They go on to buy your other books. You've gained a new fan. All is well in the universe.
Don't Have Unrealistic Expectations
  • All those downloads are not going to be read.
  • If you have 5% sell-through from downloads, you're doing very well. Meaning for every 100 downloads of Book#1, maybe 10% actually read the book, and 50% of those will buy the second book, so you get 5 sales of Book#2.
How To Use Free to Sell Books
  • Do not go free with your only book. Once upon a time, people tried to gimmick the system by going free, getting up in the rankings, then switching to paid and catching sales on the way down. I'm not sure if this ever really worked, but it certainly doesn't work now. And gimmicks don't sell books, at least not in the long run.
The Key: setting the first book in a series free.
  • Wait until you have a series or a backlist before experimenting with free. The best way to sell your books is to have people read them. Putting an entire book in their hands is like giving them a very large sample, but it will only lead to more sales if you have more to sell. I waited until the entire Mindjack series was out before going permafree. Most authors that I know who have been successful with free have had at least two books out, usually more.
  • Experiment with Permafree. One way to go free on Amazon is to set your price free on other outlets (Kobo, Apple, B&N) and have Amazon price-match. The benefit to this method is that you can stay free for longer periods of time, plus it can give you a foothold in these harder-to-succeed-in retailers. Some indie authors I know sell more on Apple and B&N than they do on Amazon. Usually it's because they managed to get on the top bestseller lists and stay there. In the case of Apple, the only success stories I personally know are authors who set the first in their series permafree, climbed the charts with a great book, and stayed there. Now Apple is a major source of their income. Same theory applies to Amazon: two Indelibles who were listed in Amazon's Top Books for 2012 got there with the second title in their series, the first being permafree.
  • Experiment with Select. The other way to go free is through Amazon's select program. This requires you to pull your title from all other retailers, so it might be best to experiment with Select when you're not already doing well on the other channels (or when you first publish). One advantage of Select is that you can set your title free in other Amazon markets besides the US - and English language books can sell well in the UK and Germany, once you get a toehold there. This is again where the free book can get you visibility that carries over to your other books. The other advantage is getting into Amazon's Library program, which again, gives you visibility to a pool of readers you wouldn't normally have access to (directly).
The Upshot: Free books are not a a cure-all. Not every book that goes free will sell-through to other books. The book still matters - A LOT. At the same time, free books are not the doom of the industry. They are not stealing sales from you or anyone else's books. They do not devalue books or the author's work; it's just a large sample. Don't give it away unless you have more to sell. Free books are a marketing tool that, when used effectively, can help you build an amazingly broad fanbase of readers. When used ineffectively, the worst they will do is collect electronic dust on lots of kindles.

Do You Have To Go Free?
No. I sold over 28,000 ebooks before going free. That's a lot more than some indies, and a lot less than others. I'm solidly midlist in the indie scene. I didn't have to go free; I chose to experiment with it to see how far it could go in expanding an already-well-selling series. (Answer: see Holy wow above. Carry-over sales? We'll have to see, but it's off to a good start.)

You don't have to go free to be successful. But it's one of the exceptional tools you have as an indie author, so I recommend you at least consider it as part of your overall marketing strategy.

Feel free to throw tomatoes in the comments.


  1. I still think that a publisher giving away free paperbacks and people downloading free Kindle titles, are two completely different kettles of fish. Of course giving away free books helps. But I do think giving away free on Kindle isgetting less and less effective the more popular it gets. Not because you don't get tons of downloads, but because who can remember what's on their Kindle in amongst all the others freebies? I certainly can't. But I DO remember what's on my shelf because every time my eyes pass over it, I can see the covers. Free paperback. YES DEFINITELY. Free Kindle? Well ... not always gonna work, and definitely not for everybody. Unless they are stars like some lady named Susan I know ;-)

    1. I remember the freebies, because I'm very selective about what I download. If it wouldn't appeal to me, it doesn't matter that it'sfree.

    2. As much as I'd like to think I'm a special snowflake, I know far too many authors who kick my butt in sales to believe it. But, yes, different people/books have different experiences with free. Some author-friends had very little sell-through; some had CRAZY amounts of sell-through. It depends a lot on the book and the genre, just like everything else.

      Is the effectiveness of free waning? Yes and no.

      The ebook market is still maturing/evolving - readers as well as writers are still figuring out how it all works, what the possibilities and pitfalls are. Free isn't a novelty anymore, but that doesn't mean it's ineffective. It just means the pros/cons are still shifting. Which is why I keep listening to people's experiences, as well as try out my own, to see what works/doesn't.

    3. Also: I think Beth's comment just shows that readers aren't a monolith - there's a wide range of reader behavior regarding books (free and otherwise).

  2. A fabulous dissection of going free Susan. There's still a lot of venom (?) directed at free books. I'm quite new at all of this, but I've made one observation that corresponds to your thoughts: Be smart about free. It can work to build your readership--extremely important for unknown authors--if used correctly. However, as you said, it can work against you.

    If all or most of your work is free all of the time, I believe that's when the 'devaluing' starts to happen. Plus, it doesn't give people the incentive to pay for your work when it isn't free if they know it will be every other week.

    I've experimented with KDPS with the first book in my Moonsongs series. It has been a successful experiment so far in terms of getting more downloads. I haven't seen an uptick in reviews necessarily, but I have noticed a few more downloads of the second book in the series. The third will be out in March, and I plan on experimenting more then.

    I'm corresponding the rest of my free days with big stops on a blog tour I'm currently on, and that seems to be a very good thing to do.

    1. Leveraging your marketing together is definitely smart.

      And you make a great point about predictability. As much as I believe in experimentation, you also need to give your readers some sense of stability. Occasional sales are fine, but I think if you change price a lot, or go on/off free a lot, you mess with reader expectations (at least the loyal readers, the ones who are paying attention). You have to both seek out new readers and treat your loyal readers like the pure gold that they are.

  3. I'm curious to know what you think about piracy. I've heard of musicians purposely putting some of their work on torrent sites, or sharing it on Limewire, for the exposure. I know Hugh says he's fine with people pirating Wool, but have you ever heard of an author putting their own work on those kind of sites?

    1. I don't like piracy, but I also don't think it's does the tremendous harm that some people think (we're talking ebook piracy here). I tend to be in Cory Doctorow camp of "the worst problem for a writer is obscurity, not piracy" but without the radical "let's all go free economy, now!" bent.

      I get pirated a lot, and generally don't worry about it (or do take-down notices or make other efforts to keep my ebooks close to the vest). I don't mind much at all when people pirate the first book in my series (especially when I've made it free!). I'm less happy about pirated copies of the second and third books.

      I've not heard of authors who intentionally pirate their own stuff. That seems... backwards. The saying is that you know you've "made it" when you're popular enough to be pirated. Faking that by uploading your own stuff... kind of misses the point, I think. If you simply want to give your work away, that's what free on Amazon is for - there's no better way to reach people who actually might turn into paying customers. Some pirates are also avid fans and will buy stuff as well, but many are not. They're the ones who only come for the free yogurt.

    2. I swear I saw a post by J.A. Konrath where he did just that--uploaded one of his own books to a piracy site, just to see the results. I went looking on his blog and couldn't find it though. But he most definitely has opinons on piracy. Namely that there's nothing you can do to stop it, so don't worry about it. People will still buy your books, even if they are free some places. And the more people reading your books, the better.

    3. Well, now, why doesn't that surprise me? LOL! #KonraththeRebel

  4. I like this article. I think it takes an in-depth look at all the aspects of "free." I went free recently. I've had about a thousand downloads in a week and have stayed on the amazon best seller's list for free short romance. However, I know that has a lot to do with the cover, because before the new cover it was free and not getting downloads. And I write "sweet" & many other books on Amazon's list are erotica or steamy mainstream romance, so the "also boughts" have already jacked with my ratings some.

    1. Covers make a huge difference, so sometimes it's hard to parse out what exactly drives sales. I can see the also-boughts being more of a problem after coming off free - we'll see what happens to Open Minds! I think being clear in your description is probably all you can to do combat this. Good luck!

  5. Oh you've hit every nail along the way on giving away freebies. I tend to only do an actual bigtime free giveaway 2 times a year. For my series I give book 1 away for free if the book 2 is coming out soon. I find that giving away the 2nd/3rd books in series can be counter productive if the book is a sequel that depends on understanding of book 1. Also, you don't want to offer all books in a particular series free within months of each other. I've seen publishers do that and my daughter may love a series but she will sit and wait to see what is being offered for free. She's gotten over 6 series completely free O_o

    1. Yeah, I don't see the point of going free with the second or third books in a series (those are the sales you're supposed to make off the first free book!). I DO do giveaways of the second or third books, but those are just a few copies, and I usually give the option of having the first book instead, if they haven't read it. Those giveaways are rewards for loyal readers, generally speaking, and not as much an ad to attract new readers (although it can do that too).

  6. I have a question about pushing the book to permafree on Amazon using price matching. I may misremember or misunderstand, but doesn't the Amazon contract specify that authors can't set their book's price lower on any other site than they are offering the book on Amazon? Did I misread the contract (given that I have no legal background this could be very likely)? Or has it changed?

    1. Amazon's TOS says you can't have your price lower somewhere else, but it's one of those things they selectively enforce. The real thing they're trying to avoid is being the high-priced player in the market (with your book 99cents on Apple but $2.99 on Amazon) - this is why they price-match in the first place. Amazon is well aware of price-matching to free as a strategy used by indie authors, and they've obviously decided that it's better to allow it to happen than to kick out all the authors who do it. It's interesting that they offer Select (for indie authors to go free) and give a free option to publishers, but don't enforce the elimination of price-matching-to-free. My guess is because price-matching is a powerful selling strategy for them, and they're willing to allow the loophole because there's not a good way (profitable way) around it.

    2. One thing you have to watch out for is Amazon can be very slow it price matching your book back to paid. I had them price match a book of mine once to free, and it took a couple months for them to go back to paid after I took it paid elsewhere. I had to email them several times. So that may be one way they discourage the practice.

    3. Interesting! I've had to email them to raise the price back up after a 99cent sale, but they've always done it quickly. I wonder if they drag their heels on the freebies...

  7. I'm still not here yet to experience this...(should be soon), but I can see how this strategy works. And as with everything, balance is key. Not too much, yet not too little. It makes sense.

    1. I'll be curious to see what your experience is, if/when you try it!

  8. I am not an author, just a reader, however have a few friends on Facebook that are authors. Would you mind if I shared this link to the article and had a discussion among them and the readers? I find some of your points spot on for me as a reader and maybe this will help a few Indies out!

    Either way, great article. I enjoyed it immensely.


    1. Of course! Please (always) feel free to share. Thanks for the link-back, and if you want to tag me on Facebook, I could perhaps join the discussion there as well. :)

  9. Quite a comprehensive article, Susan. I hear you on all fronts. I have one book perma-free on Kindle and it has led people to my other books, which is great.

    However, I have come to accept the fact that some people seem to save up their ire to spend on free books. Half the time it's clear they haven't read the book, don't even know what it is (they click on 'free' not realizing they're getting short stories and not a novel) and then leave snide remarks about wanting their time back. It gets my goat particularly because I'm extremely careful about what I put out and because the stories won awards. Still, I understand that the best novels/stories have a range of 1-5 star reviews depending on taste, etc,. After all, one man's junk is another man's treasure.

    After doing a random look at books that go free and noting that the 1 and 2-star reviews came from people who had got them free, I made the decision to keep only one book free. That balances things out nicely because for all the 1 and 2 star reviews, the book is still holding it's own as a bestseller in the free Kindle store.

    At worst, the bashers would not have bought a book by me anyway and at best, I've found new readers who go on to buy all my books. So yeah, free books 'pay' for themselves in one way or another.

    Exiting stage left with my soap box now. :) Again, this is a great article on the pros and cons of freebies.

    1. JL - Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your experience! Your comments are spot on: the bashers will stop reading, but the new readers that find you will go on to your other books. And that's the whole point of being out there with your work to begin with.

  10. Incredible amount of book sales you got goin' on Susan! You are my total indie publishing idol.

    As for free books...I personally think the world is awash with them. HOWEVER, I don't think that's a bad thing.

    I'm kind of neutral on the whole idea of it all...which is a long winded way of saying I really don't care. I suppose I do care for writers I'm REALLY SUPER interested in. For example, if Neil Gaiman were to come up to me and say, "I'll give you all my books for free," I would say, "Gimme Gimme" or maybe even quote Yoda and say, "MINE MINE MINE."

    But if someone (I've no idea who) gives me a free book, I just go "meh" and put it on my kindle to read when I have time. I eventually do read them. I had an author that gave me one recently unsolicited so I read it. Wasn't that great and I gave him three stars in a review. But he wanted me to be honest!

    1. I've liberally handed out review copies to people (mostly book bloggers), but there's a fine line between querying someone (would you like me to send you a copy of my book to review?) and badgering someone and shoving your book at them (here's my book! Read it now!). And insisting on a review. An HONEST one! If a reader isn't interested in a book enough to reply "yes I would like to read that", that is NOT the person that you want reviewing it.

  11. Oh and I wanted to add, I'd be totally more excited to read a free book if the author was a sexy/hot guy and included a free nudie self picture with their free book. I think, I'd drop everything and read their novel at that point.

    1. Hey! New marketing technique, Sexy Author Men! Pay attention! (LOL)

      Actually, I'm almost certain this is the psychology behind all those hot men/women on covers.

  12. This is the one advantage to self-publishing or going with a small press. You have the ability to run promos ect. Flexibility is key in this digital age.

  13. This is all very good, detailed advice; it's good to know. I've downloaded a few free-ebooks, either because I won them in contests or because they were available online. You're right that people will still buy books even if they can get books for free. It's like that grocery store example you used: I've eaten free samples at the grocery store, but those often motivate me to buy the product that I sampled. It's the same with books. If I really like what I've read, I'm going to want to read more.

  14. Susan, great post full of good information. I posted on my blog right away for others to come read this.

  15. Congrats, Susan. I see the book is number one and on your first free day too.

  16. Brilliant post, as always. The whole free sample analogy is spot-on, which is why I think the best free strategy is Book #1 of a series once the whole series is out. Or at least more than one. And hey, I buy things in the store all the time off free samples! :D xoxo

    Congrats! And great work scoring POI! <3

  17. Great article, and I loved your grocery store sample analogy. I'm on a tight budget so I try to do most of my reading through the library & freebies. When I read a good freebie, though, I do often buy the author's next book(s). It's a little nudge for people like me who want to be sure they'll like the story before they go out and buy it.

    And congrats on getting in the top free on Kindle. And I saw your FB post on the MindJack trailer. Woot!