To Free or Not to Free, That is the Question

The hardest part of writing for an Indie Author is finding an audience.  You could write the best book that the world has ever seen, but unless you’re able to find people to read it nothing will become of it.  It’s daunting in the best of times, but now that the world of publishing is open to anyone with a good idea and an internet connection, getting noticed in a sea of enterprising writers is a huge challenge.

Enter free books.

The strategy of offering a book for free, particularly if it’s the first book in a series, has been a fantastic way to reach out to that elusive sea of readers to introduce them to your work.  There is no risk involved in free.  A reader can download something from someone knew and take a chance on it.  If they don’t  like it, well, they got their money’s worth.  And if they do like it then they’ve got a favorite new writer.  It’s a win-win situation, right?

Sure it is.

It’s also not the magic bullet that it used to be.

Once upon a time, back in the fledgling days of free book promotions, offering a book for free (particularly on Amazon) was a sure way to boost your sales by the hundreds, or even thousands.  The number of downloads a free book would garner could bump it up on the best-seller list to the point that even after the promotion ended authors would experience a surge of sales.  Authors were super happy and their wallets a little fatter.

But in recent weeks Amazon changed their algorithm and the effects of free days changed with it.  Many of my writer friends have noticed a drastic decline in the number of sales they receive after a free promotion.  Like, from hundreds to single digits.  Others have noticed that their book did not receive the ranking jump that it formerly had.  It seems possible that Amazon isn’t counting the free downloads as sales when it comes to rankings.  Or perhaps there is some other really math-y explanation for the change that I will never understand.

The long and the short of it is, free book promotions aren’t doing for an author what they used to do.  In fact, with so many authors offering books for free across so many platforms, it makes me wonder if any kind of free promotion is as effective as we think it’s going to be.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not against authors offering their books for free.  In fact, I’ve done it myself before and I’m planning to offer The Loyal Heart for free again during the week of my birthday in July and once again around its one year anniversary in September.  And last time I offered it for free I saw an increase in sales of the second book in the series along with a dramatic rise in the number of ratings it received on iBooks (of all places).  So free book promotions do work.

However, if the point of offering a book for free is for a new author to get noticed in the sea of indie authors, and if there are so many thousands of books being offered for free every day, then how effective is it for an indie author to jump from one giant ocean into a slightly smaller but still crowded sea?

The answer is that it’s at least a little bit effective.  Sales and exposure do increase.  But not the way they used to.  These days it takes far more than a free book promotion to rocket sales to the place that we all, as proud authors of fabulous books, think they should be.

Of course the other side of the coin, one that has been debated so much that I don’t feel the need to do more than touch on it briefly, is what the glut of free and extraordinarily cheap books does for book pricing across the board.  Free is hard to compete with.  Are we devaluing our creative work in an attempt to push a quick sale?  I don’t know.  Based on the advice of Mark Coker in his book The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success I raised the price of my books to $4.99 out of curiosity to see how it would affect sales.  Short answer, it didn’t change the number of books I am selling one way or another, but I am making twice as much money.

But I digress.

Should you run a free promotion of your book?

In my opinion, yes.  If only to test the waters and see what happens.  Will you reach more readers who you wouldn’t have otherwise?  Yes.  Will you see further sales once the promotion has ended?  Yep.  Should you expect to sell thousands of extra books and make enough money to buy a car and a vacation in the Bahamas?  No way.  Not at this point.

But who knows?  The algorithms may change again.  As more readers purchase Kindles and Nooks and eReaders a whole new crop might catch on to the free book craze.

So what do you think?  What is your experience with free book promotions as a writer and as a reader?


9 thoughts on “To Free or Not to Free, That is the Question

  1. I’ve given out over 5,000 free copies and I didn’t expect a spike in book sales. What I wanted was reviews which are the basis of popularity in a genre. Frankly I am extremely annoyed to have only 4 reviews in 6 months as a result of giving the books away for free. Still that’s the way it is.

    • That’s the thing. Sometimes I wonder how many of the free books we give away are actually read. I can imagine that a lot of people download a bunch of free books because they’re free but never read them. It’s pure speculation on my part, but you never know.

  2. The free book thing for reviews DOES work but the key is personal interaction not hundreds of anonymous downloads. After a post I did on should-you-pay-to-have-your-book-reviewed? I got an awesome suggestion from a commenter that has helped me jump reviews on my book Fear of Falling from 4 to 60 (on Goodreads) and up to 19 on Amazon. You’re going to think I’m crazy but I individually contacted over 700 people on Goodreads who entered to win my book back in March (but didn’t), asking if they’d like a free book (ebook or paperback) in exchange for a review. Not only did everyone say yes, most kept up their end of the bargain with a review and, honestly, because most contacts involved a couple of email exchanges with them: (do you have a Kindle? Can you send me your email or mailing address? I notice you like horses. I see you have kids, etc.) they felt that we had a sort of relationship and I have yet to receive a lackluster review from this source. (Mind you, the book’s pretty good, too!) 🙂 It’s less work than it sounds, really. And totally worth it!

    • That’s awesome Susan! I tried something like that on a much, much smaller level and not only did I get a couple reviews out of it, I made some truly fantastic friends! I’ve been able to help them as well as them helping me. And in the end that’s the point. 😉

  3. This might seem silly, but here is my perspective (as a person who frequently searches for new authors on Amazon). My husband and I are avid readers. Since we stopped buying books from bookstores and began downloading them from Amazon or ibooks, we have had to make a budgetary rule: no new authors for more than $3.99. It is so easy to buy online (especially on Amazon with the one click purchase) and there is nothing worse than spending a large portion of my monthly book budget on a book that I don’t enjoy.

    Having said that, I tend to value books more when there is a price tag attached. For me, I’d sooner buy a book that is a few dollars than download a free one. I am not trying to insult all the great authors, including yourself, who have offerd there books for free from time to time, but to offer books for free can sometimes devalue it. I think you have a point when you say that you wonder how often they are read. If someone pays for something, you know they are going to read it – and then, if it is a good product, they will return to purchase more.

    As an consumer, and a historical romance reader, if you want to offer a free book maybe it should be “piggybacked” on the purchase of another book instead of offered solo. I.e. for example, you buy first book of the Heart series and you get the first book in the Out Little Secrets line for free. That way, you have offered only one free book but you have exposed your readers to two different series. Two for the price of one might stand out a little from all the free books currently offered.

    Anyway, I’m not an author so I have no real idea how these things work – just opinions, hahaha. I have bought all the books that you have released, and I am eagerly awaiting Courageous Heart this winter. Those books helped get me through the long, cold, dark Labrador winter.


    • Wow! Thanks Kate! So much of what you just said is truly awesome information that I think we as writers need to listen to. I do worry about devaluing my work by pricing it too low, which is why I raised the price on my most recent release. But yeah, promotions of one sort or another are actually a lot of fun. =D

  4. I would suggest the LibraryThing and/or Goodreads giveaways! They are a great way to reach loads of people, and receive reviews. The stipulations on winning either of these giveaways is that they have to write a review. If you offer up, say, 10 free copies, you will get 10 reviews in return. Another thing is, you will get your book out there…people will read your synopsis, and if they win and are interested, they may just buy it.

    Just my 2 cents. 🙂

    • Does Goodreads allow giveaways of eBooks yet? Last time I checked they only allowed paper book giveaways, and seeing as my books are all eBooks…. I would love to do a giveaway though!

  5. Hey Merry–weren’t we tweeting about this topic a week or so ago? I really like Kate’s suggestion about piggybacking a free (or maybe discounted book) as a way of introducing a reader to more of an author’s work. Kind of a win-win situation, don’t you think?

Comments are closed.