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Opinion: Why Indie Authors Shouldn’t Give Away Free Books

Opinion: Why Indie Authors Shouldn’t Give Away Free Books

Michael Jason Brandt, indie author, plays devil's advocate on the issue of book giveaways

Michael Jason Brandt, indie author, plays devil's advocate on the issue of book giveaways

Giving books away free has always been something of a controversial subject in self-publishing circles, and when Amazon's algorithms changed some time ago to give less weight in ratings terms to giveaways as opposed to paid-for copies, many authors became less enthusiastic.

However, the advent of new players in the giveaway frame, such as BookFunnel and Instafreebie, has added a new way of distributing free books, and a new purpose: to build your author database by effectively trading email addresses for free books.

While the jury's still out on the long-term benefits of the latter approach, as we discover how many of these subscribers will unsubscribe – as is their legal right – or not bother to read their freebies, it seems a good time to air the debate about what the pros and cons of giving away our work. In this week's Opinion slot, Michael Jason Brandt weighs in to gently but firmly make the case against it.

In the interest of playing devil's advocate, and with complete respect for those who disagree of whom I know there are many, how about the advice: don't do it?

This is probably a minority opinion, but:

Think twice about doing giveaways, period.

I suspect they can help in a small number of cases, but I'm of the opinion that there are two big problems with them in general.

Impact of Free Books on the Indie Author Business Model

Cover of Plagued, with Guilt by Michael Jason Brandt

Free books – plague of self-publishing or a step on the critical path to success? (Michael Jason Brandt's debut novel deals with two other kinds of plague!)

Although individual authors can be in a position where free books don't hurt them, given that existing ebooks cost nothing to provide, at a macro level,

all of the free and supercheap books erode the viability of the business model for all authors as a whole

I can say without hyperbole that at least half of readers I know never buy anything but free and $0.99 books from services like BookBub.

New and unknown authors, those who don't qualify for BB's requirements, and those who hope to make a decent living off their writing, all suffer in the current climate.

As with any any decision, we should evaluate any potential short-term benefits alongside the long-term effects on the mindset of our customers/readership.

Low Readership of Free Books After Distribution

The vast (vast, vast) majority of free downloads never get read, so giveaways don't actually accomplish what they're intended to do: spread the word, get reviews.

On top of that, many authors pay money to advertise these giveaways, and spring for shipping in the case of hard copies, so they're actually paying people to get a free copy and not read it.

Part of the Learning Curve?

Again, I don't mean to come off as abrasive and absolute.

I'm sure that giveaways work for some authors in some circumstances.

I think many new authors do it as one of many things they try out as they're learning the whole marketing part of the job. I just thought I would share some of the less appealing factors to consider.

OVER TO YOU What's your experience of giving away free books? What's worked for you? Do you have any cautionary tales to share? We'd love to hear your views.

Opinion: Why #IndieAuthors Shouldn't Give Away Free Books by Michael Jason Brandt #selfpub Click To Tweet


Author: Michael Jason Brandt

Michael Jason Brandt is a specialist in history and geopolitics. Born in Washington, D.C., he has lived and worked in the U.S. and Europe. He has degrees in business and computers from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania and international relations from George Washington University and the London School of Economics and Political Science. He currently lives in Maryland. Find out more about his work at www.casusbellibooks.com.


This Post Has 38 Comments
  1. Unfortunately, I have learned the hard way that paying for ads and giving away free copies will not generate more reviews or traffic to your websites. Giving out free bookmarks is another waste of time and money. There is no easy way to gain publicity, unless you’re willing to dish out big bucks. Even then, there are no guarantees. My advice: write because it is your passion. Don’t expect to make a living out of it.

  2. I’m afraid to say I have to agree, as an experienced book marketer and crime author I can honestly say that my research into FREE books offered as a lead magnet into a series is now a rather exhausted method of obtaining new readers even for authors with a back catalogue. I have tested many sites like Freebooksy/Bargainbooksy and the results went from amazing to alarming, but the core factors I gleaned from numerous tests and research on these sites are thus:

    They tell porkies about the number of subscribers they have to entice authors into thinking they’ll sell thousands of copies (the conversion rates don’t lie. For example, a FREE book gained me 10,000 downloads, at a cost of £100 to set up the book deal. Conversely, a 99p/99c deal of another book in the very SAME SERIES netted a measly 17 sales. This went out to exactly the same audience, supposedly crime readers! How does a list of supposedly 268,000 subs only produce 17 sales of a 99c book? That’s 1 sale in every 15,764 reader views (an industry all-time low based on the email click-through rates, which should be more like 1 sale in every 3000 reader views of said book ad = 89 ebook sales).

    The reason for this is these sites are chocked full of US-based FREEBIE SEEKERS who download hundreds of books onto their Kindles with no intention of reading most of them (future series sales down the pan). Amazon freebies are no better and as it’s been discovered they are worthless in terms of ranking on the site, as 1 download is now worth 100th of a sale, seriously!

    Also, it’s worth bearing in mind pretty much all these sites have exactly the same subscribers, so you are pitching deals to the same people most of the time. The US market is saturated with FREE and 99c deal sites. The best ones a genre-specific, but even then, the results are not worth the costs of the higher-priced deals.

    If an author offers a free novella on their website, unless they get a lot of targeted traffic from ‘actual book buyers,’ say from a link inside their series books on Amazon, that can lead to poor results also. The problem is Amazon has created a culture of cheap eBooks and customers expect to pay those abysmal prices that represent poverty for authors. Very few indies can price their books as publishers do. Add into the equation the whole discoverability issue and indies are really up against it. Books do drop off a cliff after 30 days unless we use AMS ads, but as I have found out they are costly and only work to a point.

    The bottom line is: that even great writers will struggle on Amazon because they give huge priority and exposure to books that sell HUNDREDS of copies a day. Those authors with ABSR’s (Amazon Best Seller Rank) of around 5,000 and below get a lot of free exposure in the genre books charts, they dominate the “Also bought carousels” on every other genre authors’ books page Those in the top 500, get huge amounts of exposure. Amazon actually emails deals out to over 3 million-plus subscribers of Kindle Unlimited. So my stats show the 80/20 rule playing out. 20% or fewer authors on Amazon are making 80% of the total profits from the KDP pay-out fund!!!

  3. Great blog! Finally someone said it! As someone who experimented with Free Kindle giveaways hoping it would ‘spread’ my name or my work would get eyeballs, I really didn’t see any growth. Of course, I deactivated by social media and yes it IS true if you give your books for free on Kindle and tweet about it with appropriate hashtags you WILL get downloads. But to what extent? Almost 0% of those will leave any reviews. I also noticed one of the dumbest thing I did before was have a perpetual cycle in 2 months where I am giving away something or something for free modeled a la PT Barnum thinking it would “keep them talking”. But again, not only I got ZERO organic sales, no one bothered to leave a review. Also, AFTER the promotion was over.. guess what? The bars became smaller and downloads dwindled with zero sales. So it’s not as if after the promotion since your books are ranked high due to “free” ranking it will get more eyeballs and people will buy it. (As an ancilliary note, I also got almost ZERO dividens from Amazon ads. Waste of money. I know it is cumbersome to use it but even after getting hang of it it had no benefit for me.)

    All in all it really boils down to how much readership base you have. Probably if you are a minor indie author celebrity with 4k to 40k readers it MIGHT have some benefits, but for majority of us newbies it doesn’t matter. It is a sisyphusian uphill battle all along unless some white saint comes along and drops your link. (Then again that is the case with MOST people who thinks they are all hotshots and what not kudo-ing themselves that they are ‘successful’ when all well and good they really got ‘lucky’. It DOESN’T matter what kind of writer I am. Heck if Oprah or Joe Rogan drops a link… it will explode and I will blow. But in US where we like to brag and pride about ‘came up from the bottom and now we are here’ no one likes to here about luck. (My Youtube video which got average views ONLY got so was because A. Someone ELSE dropped the link; B. It had NOTHING to do with me but about popular celebrities or sports team. Similarly, on Amazon the ONLY book that sells is NOT the ones that showcases my dazzling creativity and imagination, but one that ‘provides value’ (read: people find it “useful”- which is actually a low effort chess book.)

    Finally, why do I squint my nose whenever I see Youtube giving free movies? It is almost subconsciously I associate free with crappiness. I mean Minority Report and The Saint are really not low quality movies. But just cuz they were free I couldn’t sit through them and watch them. (FWIW what those “Einsteins” at Amazon don’t get : NOT every frikkin thing needs to be delivered overnight. Heck some of us RELISH the idea of surprises and delayed delivery. I remember when I was a kid I subscribed to some books and boy oh boy! Imagine the dopamine rush I got when all of a sudden I received the book when I was LEAST expecting it.)

    tl;dr: Uncertainty. Luck. Reverse psychology. All plays more role in life and success and marketing. (I know some dumb marketers think if you just get the right amount of sans serif right of your brand or the perfect shade and hue of yellow on your logo – as if somehow that will make the difference and people will drop everything and rush to buy your products. (Heck there are actual major marketing and PR teams who spend billions on this trivial ideas. Then there are those dumb self help ‘motivational’ videos who quotes Warren Buffet et al, how it is about rejecting 999 proposals and zeroing in on the last one and saying ‘Yes’. Really? As if you had 1 million movie pitches and you said ‘no!’ to 999,999 then the last one will be gold. Really? Isn’t it all subjective at the end and you CAN’T control all the varibles in life.)

    You cannot plan certain things in life. Ask Rebecca Black! Thank God for counterintuitive geniuses of the world like Rory Sutherland who basically turned the whole marketing strategy upside down!

    P.S. It turned out more of a therapeutic rant than a response. Oh well!

  4. I’m from the music world, and i’m here to scream at the top of my lung “NEVER GIVE YOUR ART AWAY FOR FREE!!”

    Literature is art, just like Music; and just like the music industry, if you give your literature away for free, it will kill your entire global community of writers.

    Let me show you what I mean.
    In music, we HAVE to give our music away for free now. We HAVE to put it on Youtube for people to hear for free; we HAVE to give away free copies at shows; we have to give and give and give.

    We are forced to give everything away, because in the recent past, people starting getting the idea “While everyone is selling their music, I’ll get a leg up on them by giving it away for free; then once I get some fame, I’ll start charging money again.”.

    This idea then forced every other band to give at least some of their songs away for free to compete. When the digital age took off (and along with it downloads), bands realized that their ‘fans’ only knew the songs that they had given away for free, and paid-for download sales were crashing. People didn’t want to pay for the 0.99 cent song; because they were content with the free ones.

    Bands soon realized that if they were to get any recognition for all their work, they needed people to hear their music; and the only way to get people to hear it if no one was buying, was to give it all away for free.

    Countless hours of work writing music, writing lyrics, recording music, mixing and mastering the music; and All the money spent on musical instruments and equipment, recording equipment or studio time, gas for traveling to practice and shows, paying for a quality cover art for the album, paying for quality t-shirt designs and then paying to have the t-shirts made: after ALL OF THAT, bands had now been forced to give it all away for free. There’s no return for your investment, no breaking even, just mountains of debt and wasted time writing music almost no one appreciates. The going idea now is “Give your music away for free, Tour your life away playing live shows forever, and if people like your band enough, they’ll buy your t-shirts.”. The music industry is now the clothing industry. …. and that’s not the motto of indie bands, that’s what the biggest bands in Metal live by.

    People will never pay for what they normally get for free.
    If you set a precedent of giving books away for free, people will expect them for free; and never buy them again.

  5. As a relatively new writer, I’m for the freebies as it gets my work out into the community around the globe. When you consider the gazillion of self-published authors you’re up against, it’s the best no-cost method for me. I buy a lot of my own books at author’s discount and carry them with me when out and about. I went to the DMV the other day to renew my driver’s license and offered three of my books to the clerk. Before I knew it there were three clerks gathered wanting a copy. And when you sign the books to them, you know the word will spread. The bottom line is – I LOVE TO WRITE. If the books sell, that’s an added benefit. The joy of writing, being able to create living characters in almost any place on the globe is a treasure I value above all else. By the way, all my stories have happy endings. I insist upon it. Always happy to hear from other authors. [email protected].

  6. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for writing this article. Saw this on Twitter and retweeted it.

    Like a lot of authors, I’ve done freebies and can count the resulting sales on one hand. Giving away my hard work goes totally against my grain. Freebies devalue our work, and in turn, damages our author image.

  7. Yay! Thanks for writing this. We all know that price is powerful lever and it’s all too easy to pull it w/o thinking or appreciating the consequences. Yay, we sold a lot of books, so let’s do it again! But this puts an unsustainable price point into the market. If readers now think that books can be zero dollars or 99c why pay more? In fact, those who charge more are just ripping us off, aren’t they??!!

    Free books are not always a bad thing but they are increasingly becoming a bad thing more often than a good thing.

  8. This has been my huge shift over the last three months. I’ve written something very similar, with a few more long term effects (as I see it) across a few blog posts now on my website (www.timheathauthor.com). I’ve started the hashtag #BooksAreNeverFree as we need to educate our readership.

    Ironically, since I stopped just giving books away, this last month (May 2017) has been the best month ever (5 years as a published author) in book sales, with over 600 sold!!!

    So my audience seems to be understanding what I’m saying, and they are placing more value on paid books than free.

  9. The e-book world has definitely changed over the years. I started selling e-books at the end of 2006 (in the dark ages before Amazon or any well known book sellers – when well known authors still scoffed in contempt at the idea of an electronic book – how times change!). I write Regency romance novels which don’t completely fit into their traditional genre so I’ve always offered a free story (for most of that time it’s been a short story – around 30,000 words) so readers can decide if my stories are for them (and to prove I can write a story). I’ve come to loathe Bookbub and its ilk. A friend told me about it when it was still new (and most of their books were still self-published) so I signed up. Shortly after I found myself deluged with similar deals by other similar companies I never signed up for. I assume the better termed Bookbug earns income by selling its e-mails. For the first few months I’d look through the offered stories, but being in the UK most of the books were only free in the US (at the time). I quickly gave up and just deleted the e-mail without looking at it. As a reader I don’t think I ever discovered a single author for me via Bookbug. Once the ‘free e-book e-mail’ took off I really noticed a plummet in the downloads of my own free stories (I have two short stories) which translates into flat sales. It’s true readers expectations have changed (which is quite fascinating) and it could be that my rubbish covers are no longer good enough (I’m working on that), but I have a theory that this industry that puts a mountain of free books in front of people’s eye balls every week is training the average reader that they don’t need to ‘forage’ for stories. They can just wait to have something come pop into their e-mail.

    As a reader, I have found free first books in series to be helpful in deciding whether I’ve found a new author for me. Becca Andre is a good example of a self-published author who is freaking awesome story teller. I probably wouldn’t have bought that first book, but I have since bought every other book in her Final Formula series. A number of authors have hooked me with free books, but finding them isn’t always easy. I learned about Becca Andre by word of mouth! I think we’re all in a time of flux and there’s so much change that the book selling industry hasn’t been able to find a level playing ground. I suspect in another ten years it will be very different still, but maybe it will be less self-destructive. At the end of the day writers are readers. We all want wonderful new stories. We want authors to be able to pay their bills and buy food so they can keep writing (at least those of us who know stories don’t grow on trees).

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  11. I see your point here, MJB. But what I don’t see is an alternative to building an audience. The market is not only saturated with FREE BOOKS but it’s also saturated with SELF-PUBLISHED BOOKS…and a lot of them are BAD. How does a GOOD AUTHOR get noticed in this mess if it’s not by giving away a book? That’s the real question here, in my opinion.

  12. I only did one cycle of freebies of my books. And the only thing I know for sure is that I got one reader out of it and she did buy the other two books in the series. She told me she loved my books yet she never reviewed any of them.

    That was the only verifiable benefit from running the freebies. Although briefly I broke the top 100 in the Free Kindle Store. I also tried Kindle Count Downs and made zero sales from that.

    Perhaps there was a time when freebies really worked but it’s now the thing that everybody does, so whatever edge it may have given a new author I don’t believe it does anymore.

    It may however, still work as a come on to get people on your mailing list – from what I’ve read and researched using that tactic does still seem to be effective.

    I do agree with you though – it devalues the work (even if you’ve written a halfway decent book, you’ve put an enormous amount of work into it and giving it away hurts). And it also has contributed to this culture of ‘everything should be free’ which I don’t think is healthy at all. People rarely appreciate things they get for free, so yes I believe that many don’t bother to read the free books they download anyway.

    In my case I at least try to read the free books I download – however, in my experience the freebies usually aren’t the author’s best work and many I was unable to finish because they were pretty bad. So, none of them encouraged me to sample any of the author’s later works.

    The other irony is that the people encouraging authors to give away their books for free are often the same people charging writers money to pay for their programs, in which they are promoting free book giveaways as a way to make it. Bit of a vicious circle, eh?

    Good or bad, I think the free book tactic has lost most if not all of its effectiveness as a way to gain visibility and reviews.

    But don’t worry, some enterprising young man or woman will come along with the next great way to promote your book any time now. 😉

  13. I have a little different perspective. My main series is at 8 books and counting. The first is permafree. All are available wide on all the major sites and dozens of minor ones. The free book got picked up a dozen times a day or more across sites but it resulted in few residual sales…some, not many.

    Last month I got a Bookbub ad approval; my first ever. It was for my permafree book. It ran Wednesday and everything changed.My low priced ($.99) across all sites 2nd in series sold well the day of the ad and continues to sell four days later. But, more than that, all of the other books in the series are selling too as are boxed sets. Now, a few days out, I’m also seeing a few modest sales of other books that are not a part of that series. I’ve more than doubled my ad money but I’ve gained even more than that.

    Giving a book away free without a major advertising push didn’t help me much. Advertising it has helped me enormously. I’m selling books. I’m gaining newsletter subscribers. Visitors to my website and to my social media pages are up. That’s what free (with advertising) has done for me.

  14. Great blog!
    A little history:
    Most people don’t know where the idea of “free books” originated. When Amazon released the Kindle in 2007, this first black and white Kindle with very basic functions was pretty expensive (around $400).

    Since the Kindle was new, Amazon had to explain to buyers why they should pay for a device and then have to buy the book on top of the Kindle purchase. At the time, the buyers’ argument was, “we can buy the books and don’t need the device.” Hence Amazon offered three free books from the public domain as well as various dictionaries already loaded on the Kindle, and
    also sought the support of authors who wanted to promote their work for a short period (5 days per quarter) for free.

    The big publishers just balked at the idea, in fact, most of them did not even want to offer ebook editions.

    Thus, the spotlight was on indie authors who prowled ahead.

    I self published my first ebook in 2012. It was the glorious time of free promotions. I did not run an ad, I did not know how the whole thing worked but by the time I got up, hundreds of free books had already been downloaded because the Kindle users knew where to find the books and there weren’t that many free books. Consequently, readers were looking for “new favorite authors” who published Kindle books.

    Today, this concept is obsolete, everybody knows what a Kindle is, the Kindle is cheaper, etc.

    Amazon offer more than 40,000 free books every day, many authors find that even if readers like their books, a certain percentage of readers specializes in reading “free books” rather than “finding a new favorite author.”

    It may be different for fiction author, but, in my humble opinion, serious nonfiction authors, who publish well-researched new content, should never run a free promo because by doing that they throw their names into the same hat where of thousands of authors who “copy from and rephrase blogs” are.

  15. Recently, a few of us indie authors hosted an event entitled Our Books Are Not Free. (Rose Montague, Jennifer Zamboni and I) – https://www.facebook.com/events/206705409792190/?active_tab=about
    The aim was to prove that we could sell our books and attract a readership with reasonably priced books, with not a single giveaway or freebie.
    The response was amazing. We had nearly 800 authors sign up, and readers had a chance to check out some great books.
    I alone, sold 11 books during the event.
    As authors, we work hard writing the best stories we can for an insatiable readership. It costs money to hire a professional editor, formatter and cover designer. How on earth can we ever reclaim those costs if we simply offer it as a freebie, regardless of the reasons behind it?
    Not only that, but it devalues our work and our reputation as writers, and all we’ve done is condition readers into expecting free books as the norm.
    It’s mental!
    Every profession, every service has a price. Ours is no different.
    Currently, I have one short story (a prequel to my gothic romance series, which is only 15K words) priced at 99c, and my full length novels (95K-115K words) are $2.99 and $3.99 respectively.
    Those are damn good prices for such sized books, and they will NEVER be free.
    I’ve been in this game for nearly five years, and rarely a day goes by without at least one of my books selling, even when I’m not actively promoting them.

  16. Great article, and great responses!

    Firstly, let me say that everyone’s publishing journey is different, as everyone writes different stories for different types of audiences. Some people may find that freebies are helpful, while others may feel they are not. Each author has to decide for him or herself what will help their writing career long term. Do you have one book? Fifty? A series? Is it genre? Or does it not fit tightly in any category?

    As an agented, self-published author of two novels, one adult and one YA, (I have ten on a backlist that I will slowly be self-pubbing over the next three years), I have discovered the differences between a giveaway and a freebie. I give freebies to libraries. I now have my YA in three states, and a total of fifteen public libraries. It is also in a dozen school libraries. This is a wonderful thing, to see my book sitting in a real library, where people go to actually read! I also have done giveaways on Goodreads. After giving away a total of 25 books over the course of two years, I have probably garnered ten reviews, but no actual sales that I can see.

    Since my long-term goal is to have twenty-plus novels out in the world before I am too feeble-minded to write books, I will continue to hand out freebies to libraries and to do giveaways on Goodreads, no matter what the results are, until my name is recognized. Because for me, that is my ultimate goal.

    The irony here is that at the beginning of my self-publishing adventure, I wrote a blog on this same topic, and advised writers NEVER to give away the farm. Ha. Looks like keeping an open mind is the best way to reach your publishing goals, since there are no hard and fast rules after all!

  17. I believe books should be in the hands of the reader. My first work “Sleeper Cell” was given free to my High School and Collage alumni assocs. a copies wound up in the 19 branch Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. I have also given away to volunteer libraries of hospitals, Army base libraries, and some college libraries. Results: Amazon reviews, B/N, others. I also gotten movie inquiries. Again, this was my first work. It would have cost much more for a first work, no name author to do principally the same. I, of course chronicled “The Trials And Tribulations of Publishing Sleeper Cell for free distribution.

  18. Great post and responses here. I agree with Karen that readers for 99 cents and freebies are different from other readers who shop for good stories, not just a sale item. I have two sides to my experience. I did the novel (mystery) giveaway one time and had little to zero results: 1900 downloads but no reviews or future sales. I have three mystery novels out now. And I have 4 short stories (also mystery), previously published by emagazines that are on the publishers’ websites to read for free. I decided to create the 4 short stories into Kindle eformat and sell them on Amazon for 99 cents. Big mistake. I only got a few sales because no one wants to spend 99 cents for a short story. Now I put my short stories on Amazon for free and have downloads every day.

    So, readers can sample my mystery writing. Does it sparks sales for the novels? I think it does. One of my novels has sales every day and the other two have sales weekly. I get a decent check from Amazon every month. I do agree that it’s bad for author business model to give novels away for free. But giving away one small piece of writing as a sample can be helpful in attracting readership and future sales. The best tip is to be professional in your writing, keep writing and polishing your craft, produce professional books in cover and style and promote where you can regularly.

  19. I’ve stopped downloading free ebooks. The last ones I had were so badly written, that I’d rather pay for a book I can enjoy than get one for free and have to delete it after a few pages. As a soon-to-be author, the thought of giving my book away en masse does not sit well with me. I’ve put quite a lot of money, even more time, sweat and tears (battling with all this new technology) into it and would like to see it being valued at least to some degree. I like the idea, though, of only offering part of the book for free. If people don’t read it, you haven’t lost much. If they do, they may go looking for more. How that can be done technically, I’m not so sure. Does anyone know?

  20. Here’s something I wrote last year on this exact topic:

    An Amazon search brings up 93,488 eBooks currently available for free. A plethora of erotic novellas, Game of Thrones-esque length fantasy books, fan-fiction, and self-help books feature heavily. The result of those 93,488 free eBooks? Readers expect more books to be free, and balk at paying less than the price of an average coffee for your average book.

    There was a post recently detailing the circumstances where a reader, who’d enjoyed the eBooks they’d purchased on Amazon, had returned them, because, although they’d enjoyed them, they only wanted free books, and asked the author to list their books for free from here on in. They didn’t want to have to pay for them

    Many people would be surprised to know you can return eBooks, or that such a facility exists on Amazon. Have you ever tried returning a book you’ve read to a bricks and mortar bookstore, and asking for your money back? There wouldn’t be many instances where they’d refund you after you’d read and returned a book you’d purchased. So why does Amazon allow it? The internet is littered with petitions asking Amazon to fix this, but nothing ever changes.

    A book can take anywhere from a few months to a few years to write. Then, traditionally, authors have to find an agent, a publisher, followed by editing, cover design, marketing. Even self-published books need editing, formatting, a cover. It all takes time, and money.

    I haven’t listed my book on Amazon for free. The eBook remains at the same price it was when it launched – $2.34. That’s about the price of half a cup of coffee but it’s still something. I put too much work into it to give it away for free. My book is in libraries. It’s in bookstores. I’ve done readings. I’m on Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, and yes, even Google+. I work hard, and damn it, I want to reap the rewards of that, in the form of quarterly and annual royalties from my publisher. You don’t get royalties from free eBooks.

    In all the posts about the pros and cons of giving your work away for free, an overwhelming number of authors point out that giving their work away for free has not resulted in reviews, or increased exposure, or a stratospheric rise up the Amazon Best Selling Lists.

    So my advice is: don’t do it. Put the effort in and do some old-fashioned leg-work. Make personal approaches to well-regarded book reviewers. Take a table at a local fair and talk to your potential audience. Approach your library.

    Keep writing. Value the work you do. Because if you don’t value it, no one else will either.

    1. Kirsten, I think your view has tremendous merit. I’m a newbie indie author in the final stages of publishing my first novel, so can’t claim to have vast experience with this. However, I have 40 years of professional business experience, all of it marketing related. I learned early in the game that a consumer will place a value (or perception of value) on a good or service that is proportionate to price. If something is cheap (relative to competition) they place little value on it. If it is free, they place no value on it. If the same good is offered at a fair price with an assurance of quality, a consumer will gladly pay for their perception of fair value. I believe the same applies to books.
      I stopped downloading free books because most were not worth the time to read. My value perception of them is proportionate to what I paid. I’ll hold a higher standard for my book.

  21. I think the short term giveaways on Amazon have come and gone as an effective marketing tool. But my first-in-series is permafree and making that move put me on the map sales-wise. I resented giving away my baby at first but now I consider that book my most valuable asset. Getting readers to take a chance on an author they’ve never heard of is tough. Giving them a free sample gets them hooked, but only IF the product suits their tastes.Quality writing, quality book cover and blurb, error free (or as close as you can get it).

    Loss leaders has been a tried and true marketing approach for decades.

    1. Btw, I do agree that too many free books out there is a problem. I wrote a post about it awhile back, pointing out that if you are offered a free cookie as a sample in the grocery store, you don’t expect to be allowed to stand there and eat the whole box.

  22. For me, I seldom get free books now (I find I have greater incentive to read something I shelled out dosh for) and I haven’t made any books free except for one, that is available free from lulu (but it’s non-fiction, a book on meditation). It goes against the grain for me (I am Yorkshire by marriage) to give books away. I don’t think it’s something that would benefit me, either.

  23. I have used Amazon free promos as I’m KDP only.THey always result in extra sales -often of the book that was free. I had a Bookbub promo last year for first book in the series and made £10 000 extra revenue because of it. The books continued to sell well for almost a year.
    I just did tow separate BookSend promos and these have not proved hugely successful so far in terms of extra sales etc. They only took place last week so will reserve judgement for a bit longer.
    I also tried two BookBub paid ads -again no noticeable increase in anything.
    Therefore, as others have said, free promotions can work well but not always. I’m fortunate in having over 60 books for sale so can afford to give a few titles away without impacting on my best sellers. I always read at least the first few pages of a book and wouldn’t download if I wasn’t interested in the title.

  24. A really worthwhile discussion. Once upon a time, authors could get a great start if they made their book available free. Back in 2008 and 2009, I got huge traction for the original Nail Your Novel when I offered it free as a pdf. There wasn’t much free material out there, so it got attention. Indeed, as far back as the early 2000s, science fiction writer Cory Doctorow had been giving away digital copies of his novels on a Creative Commons basis, famously saying that his chief problem was to battle obscurity.

    But times change. ‘Free’ soon became a deluge. If readers grabbed them in the digital equivalent of a supermarket sweep, they probably didn’t even remember they had them. In all likelihood, those books sat unnoticed in the bottomless vaults of their Kindles.

    I flirted briefly with free when KDP Select started. Indeed, I organised a free event to coincide with World Book Night for Authors Electric, a group blog of published authors I used to belong to. We each gave away a book for five days, campaigned our socks off, tweeted until we grew beaks, watched the tallies mount in our KDP dashboards… and virtually nothing came of it afterwards.

    Now, is a giveaway the way for authors to get noticed? I contend it is not for everyone.

    I worry we give away our work too easily. If we create a culture where a book costs less than a sheet of gift-wrap and a greetings card, there’s something badly wrong. An ebook may not have material form, but it does give you more time and experience than something you glance at and throw away. And tellingly, the people who get cross with me for speaking out are the ones who say they refuse to spend more than a couple of dollars on a book, or berate me for not putting my books into Kindle Unlimited.

    So that’s my rant done. However, free does work in some cases – where it adds value, rather than dilutes it.In the kind of genre markets where the series rules, making the first book free can work very well. The authors who do this have plenty more titles to offer once readers are hooked.

    But outside those genres, how do readers decide to try an unfamiliar author? Especially those who write the more individual kind of book, perhaps not easily pigeonholed? Usually, it’s by deciding if they like to spend time in that author’s company.

    How do they do that? By reading something that sparks their interest. That could be anything. It doesn’t have to be a book. If you’re one of those authors, every post you write, every meaningful conversation you have on social media is already giving a sample of your voice, your personality, your tastes, your passions, the workings of your unique mind. The books you write will be made from that same material. If that doesn’t persuade readers you are fascinating and intriguing, giveaways and free books won’t make much difference.

    Incidentally, has anyone thought of doing an Instafreebie of three-quarters of a book? Then if the reader was really engaged they could be nudged to buy it properly.

  25. I am writer of standalone literary titles and I am also in the divided camp. Firstly, I think I need to respond to the claim that the vast majority of free books never get read. 60% of all ebooks are unread whether paid for or not. The figure is lower for paperbacks. (And on the question of paperbacks and the objection of paying to give away free ebooks, I made a loss of £5 on every paperback I sold face to face in my first three years old self-publishing!) However, I AM of the opinion that the free and paid-for markets are separate. That said, you can get something of value by giving books away. I did a BookBub ad for my lowest selling book, A Funeral for an Owl. (My personal favourite of all my books and I was just so sad to see it unread.) It had 33,000 downloads in a weekend and I received 130 new Amazon reviews that I can directly attribute to this, the majority of which were extremely well written and 5 stars. The reviews were of value to me (although I have to admit that I can’t actually see any increase in sales of Owl as a result.) I also give away a free book to gain subscriptions for my newsletter. I wanted to test my theories about free and paid for markets so I issued a Survey Monkey survey to my subscribers last month and got a 70% engagement rate, which was extremely good. Almost all respondents had read the free book. 25% of respondents said that they never pay for ebooks. Another 25% told me that they never pay over £2.99 for an ebook. However, 78% of the remaining 50% said they had gone on to buy at least one other book by me. I have no way of testing this data, but since the survey was anonymous, I have no particular reason to think that respondents lied. The cons are as stated in the blog. The dilemma for authors considering this as an ethical dilemma. My own declining sales mean that I have had to resort to experiment with different types of marketing I might not have considered a couple of years ago. As Alison says, pick your promotions carefully and always follow up.

  26. I’m really split about free books. A few months ago, I would have said an unreserved ‘No’. But tired of steady but in exciting sales in the second half of 2016, I thought I’d try and IF push using my series starter, now 3 years old. If was s collaborative venture with other authors and added over a thousand sign-ups to my mailing list.

    Inevitably some have unsubscribed, but if they don’t want to be there, I don’t want them! I’ve got to know some of my new subscribes by email and I’ve seen an uptick in sales of other books in the series.

    In a second more recent IF push, the sign-ups have not been so spectacular but are still good. But I feel I’m getting something for giving away my book.

    Now listing a book for free for a short term promo is not something like, but it does net some extra sales plus some (temporary) ranking.

    ‘Free’ is a tool to use judiciously and seldom; pick your promotion carefully. I still feel instinctively not quite comfortable with it, but I’ve accepted it. Reluctantly.

  27. As a reader, I belong to a number of free/cheap book services like Bookbub. I’m a voracious reader so I read most of my freebies and cheaper books. The books I finish, and I do finish most, get a short review for a number of reader listservs I belong to which introduces these authors to a large number of readers. The series I really like I buy and review. Right now, I buy around a dozen series I was introduced to this way.

    So, freebies are valuable to the writer if it is the first book of a series, and it reaches someone like me who wants this kind of book.

    Caveats. Be sure to know what genre and readers you are targeting so you reach the right reader, market it with the right kind of cover and blurb for that reader, and offer a product clean of errors and obvious problems if you want to keep that reader.

  28. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve had three serious attempts at free giveaways. Coupled to advertising on the bigger free sites, including bookbub. They have resulted in thousands of downloads and practically nil onward uptick in sales or reviews. However, one appearance on bookbub with a slightly reduced selling price put me into bestsellers territory, brought immediate reviews and a sustained uptick in sales. I firmly believe what’s been written here, most of the free downloads audience prob never read the books and the overwhelming majority never buy any books at all. There are so many free giveaways they don’t need to. We (indies) are not helping our own cause. We should be smarter. Giveaway sample chapters only. Raise our reader’s expectations. Raise expectations of what we as an industry cohort will do.

  29. Do you have any evidence for the “vast (vast, vast) majority of free downloads never get read” claim?

    I’m honestly not sure what my opinion is in this issue, but I’d be very interested to see evidence from either side.

  30. I quite agree. I think of freebie’s as a brand issue.

    The audience who covets free/$0.99 books is not the same audience (for the most part) as the ones who pay full (reasonable) prices. Getting more of the former is not going to result in more of the latter buying your other books.

    I try to price more or less in the middle of the quality end of my genre. I want my brand to be thought of as “quality”.

    While I won’t rule out free books for mailing list signups (unless the unsubscribes become unreasonable), and I think brief reduced-price sales of book-1-in-series are helpful for a new series release, the emphasis is on “brief”. A time-limited sale is aimed at capturing more buyers of your other books, and that’s the audience to focus on.

    I’d rather offer special book bundles which are real bargains (but nowhere near free/$0.99). At least those buyers have demonstrated that they may spend more money on your other books.

  31. I think that giving away free books can be a viable part of a bigger picture. For a new author, it is difficult to find an audience that is willing to spend their hard earned money on a new author without a track record.
    However, giving away a free book in isolation – without any followup – without any conversion to being a fan is just that – one action. I would also suggest that even without follow-up, it’s my experience that readers of different genres react differently to the free book giveaway.
    My 2 cents

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