Are Free Ebooks Evil?

Free ebooks! It’s a hot topic among indie authors these days, as we try to bring our books to readers’ attention.

Many authors say they would never give away their books for free (except for brief promotional periods). They believe this devalues the hard work of writing and publishing.

Others claim that making the first book in a series “perma-free” is a good way to generate reader interest in the other books in the series.

Who is right?

Arguments against free:

1. The time and treasure you put into writing and publishing the book is worth something.

2. People don’t value the ebooks they download just because they are free, and most never read them.

3. Free books cheapen the written word for everyone, harming authors who depend on selling their books for a living.

Arguments for free:

1. Free “outsells” any non-free book. People love free.

2. Free is frictionless. To buy a $0.99 book you have to go through the payment process. Free is an instant download.

3. People do read free ebooks and some return to buy either the print version or other ebooks in the series.

Now to my own experience: I have written and published a four-book series. In one 18-month period (September 2012 to February 2014) that the first book was free, it was downloaded several thousand times. And that was when it had its original homemade cover image. Sadly, only a small fraction of those who downloaded it returned to purchase the other 3 books in the series. But I was thrilled at the numbers that did.

Every year, Smashwords offers its authors two opportunities to make their books available in a special catalogue at reduced rates (Read an Ebook Week in March and the Summer/Winter Sale for the month of July). Prices may be reduced by 25% to 100% off the regular price. In my experience, there is little uptake for books at 50% off, but those at 100% (i.e., free) are snapped up. I suspect there are many readers who visit Smashwords only during these events, trolling for free ebooks.

Some say that making an ebook free should be part of a marketing plan, in which readers who get free books should be required to offer up something other than money in exchange — a review or an email address. A good idea, except it depends on the goodwill of the recipient reader. If a reader doesn’t produce a review, the author can’t get the book back. As for email addresses, when someone downloads my book from the Smashwords site, or from B&N, the Apple iBooks store or the other outlets to which Smashwords distributes, I have no idea who those readers are. All I see are the numbers of downloads; the readers are invisible to me. The only way I can think of to get their email addresses is to put a note at the end of the free book offering the reader the second one for free by sending me a message. (Have I done this? Not yet.)

Many authors buy advertising, which may or may not pay for itself in book sales. It may end up being a financial loss, so really, how is that different from giving away books for free?

Conclusion: do what works for you. The beauty of self-publishing is that you call the shots. If you have a number of books available, try making one of them free. Or write short prequel or spinoff story and make that free.

Of course the downside of calling all the shots is  ever-present doubts, second thoughts and what-ifs. I frequently have arguments with myself that go something like this:

If I were charging $0.99 for that book, I’d be earning $0.60 per sale. Sure, there are lots of downloads, but I’m losing $0.60 on each one!

Yes, but if the book cost even $0.99, the uptake would be way less. And so would the number of readers buying the next book.

OK, but what if it’s true that hardly anyone actually reads free ebooks? If only a fraction do, and only a fraction of those return to buy the other books in the series, is losing the $0.60 worth it?

Well, but don’t you like seeing all those downloads pile up? It’s depressing to see no sales week after week. Better to keep the first book free for a few more months.

OK, but what about…

And so it goes. For now, The Friendship of Mortals ebook is free. For the next month, anyway. Or maybe the next 6 months. Or maybe just a few more days, depending on how that argument turns out.

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17 comments

  1. A great post, with some excellent ideas. Many thanks for the kind link, too! 🙂

    Free books some times remind me of an old joke. A cobbler starts selling his shoes at ridiculous prices. “How can you make any money on these?”

    “I lose $2 on each shoe,” the cobbler admits proudly. “But I’ll make it up in volume.” 😀

    Like

    1. Haha! Good one! I think we indies who do not depend on selling our books to stay alive are privileged in that we can afford to try marketing techniques that may prove to be ineffective — or no marketing at all. And by sharing our experiences we can all lurch along together, achieving whatever success we can (monetary or otherwise).

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I tried free ebooks when I first started using Amazon Kindle. The most successful giveaway was one that had absolutely no promotion or publicity. However, none of the giveaways made a scrap of difference to sales and none of those freeloaders left a review either.

    I think your point about having some kind of free prequel or spin off makes more sense, something written specifically to be given away as a promotional tool. And put the major effort and creative resources into work that will be sold.

    Chris

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Getting reviews seems to be another struggle, and I have no advice to offer — but many others do. And if I ever develop a marketing strategy for my series, I may try the intentional short freebie. Self-publishing seems like a huge experiment; I think it’s best to approach it like that, rather than a test of self-worth in which one is either a winner or a loser.

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  3. Until I have a fan base I’ll keep giving books away for free to build reviews and get new readers. It may be slow going, but if those people wouldn’t have bought the book unless it was free I’m not losing anything.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for your Like and Follow at my Fusion Fiction blog. Authors who cross genres deserve to have a more accurate way to represent their work, so that readers do know what to expect, and can better evaluate them on their unique merits. Adopting a designation like Fusion Fiction can help both readers and writers.

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  4. A very interesting read. If I publish my current WiP as a an ebook (which I’m definitely considering), I have wondered whether to give it free or not. It would be my first book, so it would be a good way to generate interest in me as an author. But as it’s a stand-alone I wouldn’t be aiming to bring in people to buy the rest of a series so maybe a small charge for it wouldn’t be a bad idea. So many things to think about!

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    1. If you’re publishing through Smashwords, it might be a good idea to make it free for the month of July (Summer/Winter sale) or for the first month after you publish. Then change it to whatever price you think is reasonable. Or if you’re in KDP Select on Amazon, you have those 5 days you can make your book free. You can experiment!

      Like

    1. It looks like there are two opposing schools of thought on this matter: authors who stand firm on never giving away their work for free, and those who, perhaps from desperation, will try that as a means of finding readers. Proud But Poor vs. Shameless (and often also poor). Some of us are looking for the magic formula for success (however we define it), while others stick to the principles they came in with. Interesting times, in any case!

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  5. I have offered free downloads, and a good number were downloaded, but I have seen no net benefit to me, and oddly enough, the books I have never offered for free seem to do better. I have given up “free”. I may be losing out from it, but there is no evidence. once upon a time it was a good idea at Amazon, because it lifted you in the sales rankings, but now “free” is not considered a sale. As far as I am concerned, it is not a sale either.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The more I read and think about the whole self-publishing thing, the more I realize there is no formula for success. At one time it was thought that writing a series of books and making the first one free was a sure-fire strategy. When I tried it a few years ago, it almost seemed to work, but not in the long run. Giving away books certainly does not result in a lot of reviews or even ratings, and only a small minority of those who have downloaded my free book return to buy others. I will probably assign a lower price to my at-present-free book, and leave the series to its fate. Writing and publishing more books is said to improve sales all around, and after all, most of us profess to love writing for its own sake, so why not just do that?

      Like

      1. If there is a formula for success, I assure you I have yet to find it. If anyone knows one, feel free to let me know 🙂 As it stands, I am just keeping going, I get some modest sales, and as you say, I am writing because I feel I have something worth saying, so I write and let the fates decide.

        Liked by 1 person

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