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.
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.
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.
- 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.
But Nobody Reads Free Books
What happens to all of those (hopefully thousands) of downloads?
- 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….
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
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.