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.