The Great Free Book Debate: The Authors

This is the second article in a two-part series by Alexandra Butcher. Part one is here.

One of the most controversial ways to promote a book is to offer it for free. The theory is that readers will take a chance on a free book by an unknown author, and that this will help the author to get her name “out there.”

Why is this controversial? Well, many authors feel offering one’s book for free devalues it, the author herself and thus all indie authors. It is also debatable whether this strategy actually works in a market already full of what some see as “substandard” books. There is also the argument that readers will madly download free books, and never actually spend any money on buying books.

So do authors really see any benefits?

The Participants

I have gathered an assortment of readers and authors to argue their viewpoints:

  • Sharon Michael – reader

Part 2: The Authors

This is Part 2, which focuses on the perspective of authors. Part 1, which shares the perspective of readers, is here.

Do you offer your books for free?

Massimo Marino: I do, but not as a permanent offer. I see ‘free’ as tied to special reasons/needs unless, maybe, for older titles. In a few years I might have some of today’s works available for free.

Fuzzbom Publishing: We do on a limited basis. Our first series of books is an ongoing anthology of speculative fiction. We’ve offered various volumes free for a number of reasons. Sometimes it was to promote another paid volume of the anthology. Other times it was just to jump start sales on a specific volume. And always it was to increase our readership for future volumes and other books we’ve written and/or published.

Jaq D Hawkins: I have tried it as an experiment, but have stopped making them free on release apart from review copies.

Laurel A. Rockefeller: I tried the Kindle Select program on “The Great Succession Crisis Extended Edition” (digital format) this spring.  Over 200 people around the world downloaded it during the free days, but it has not generated the buzz I expected post promotion.  Reviewers of course, I continue to offer free copies to.  And I offer my digital books for free through Smashwords to libraries.  I’ve also donated dozens of paperback copies to libraries across the United States — including some of the library systems that lost thousands of books to Hurricane Sandy.  Writers need to support public libraries, in my humble opinion.  So I am happy to donate books to public libraries.

Alexandra Butcher: Yes, I ran a couple of promotions for book 1 of my series with mixed success. I haven’t for book 2 but that is more because I am planning for it to go to Smashwords in the very near future, which takes me out of Select.

Would I consider it for the future? Maybe. It would depend on what I was planning for the book. I will also have a short fantasy story in a free Smashwords anthology soon, the idea being people will like the authors and check out other works. Book 1 is no longer exclusive to Amazon but I have given vouchers to Smashwords users and currently have a 10% off voucher on my blog for book 1. I think unless an author gets a lot of borrows then branching out from exclusivity to Amazon is worth it, but it doesn’t have to be immediately and Amazon is still the larger market place. Book 1 is also available to libraries for free via Smashwords and book 2 will be when it is published on Smashwords.

Do you download free books to read?

Massimo Marino: Yes, but not because they are free :).

Fuzzbom Publishing: Yes, but only if they interest us.

Jaq D Hawkins: When I first discovered the free book phenomenon, I downloaded a lot of them. Most are still waiting to be read. After becoming jaded with the plethora of free books available, I now hardly ever bother although I do read descriptions of genres I like and make the occasional exception. I found I could get the Classics I like for free more often than not and have utilised that facility, but these days I only occasionally go browsing in the free books for a genre and after getting used to living on a low income, developed the habit of downloading free rather than low price books.

Laurel A. Rockefeller: Rarely, unless they are from my library.

If you have offered your book for free what are your experiences?  Have you seen an uptick in sales or reviews? Have you had negative experiences?

Massimo Marino: I don’t have a personal experience with that, but fellow authors report every case, from no result/effect to some little, tiny change that can have a correlation with something else. It is not uncommon—as I’m told—to have 10,000 free downloads and see only single digits downloads at non-zero price and no reviews. There are also writers who have experienced almost no sales at free/$.99 and score good results when the title goes to $3.99. Some readers perceive free as the amateur, novice attempt to be read. If the price is correct and the title has good reviews—and a good number of those—there is little incentive, apparently, to go free.

Fuzzbom Publishing: Our experiences have been generally positive as long as we’ve worked hard at advertising the free promotion. Without advertising we might as well have not offered it for free in the first place (we tried this once as an experiment and only gave away a handful of books and noticed no impact after the free period ended).

For each book we’ve run a free promotion on, we’ve seen a noticeable uptick in sales directly following the promotion. This uptick could run as short as a few days to as long as a few weeks. Despite the increase in sales and the large number of downloads, however, we only saw a small increase in overall reviews – a handful at most over multiple promotions.

Still, despite the lack of reviews, the significant increase in sales has made the promotions worthwhile on every occasion. We have not seen an effect on long term sales, however, as we’ve often needed to re-run a free promotion to get sales going again.

Jaq D Hawkins: I think the free thing has had its day. I haven’t noted any sales increase as a result of free days and many other authors I know have observed the same.

Laurel A. Rockefeller: My experience with free books is similar to others.  Since the free days on Kindle Select program, I have seen single digit sales on my books across the board.  The Kindle Select Program also had an adverse effect on sales for me, preventing me from offering that book in other formats.  I know of at least TWO PAID SALES I LOST as a result of having to wait 90 days to offer it elsewhere.

Alexandra Butcher: I have done a couple of freebie promotions. The first did not generate any reviews or more than a couple of extra sales, but the second led to extra sales for a couple of weeks after, including in stores such as Amazon.ca and Amazon.de.  Whether it was through the promotion or other factors it is hard to tell. Timing may well be key. The second promotion was timed to be close to another event I was involved with. I was also far more active in promoting it. I would think it really depends on audience, genre and timing, not to mention how the author promotes the free event.

Do you feel there are far too many free books available and you can’t compete?

Massimo Marino: Free has given many the impression that because an ebook is ‘digital’ it costs nothing, thus free is the expected permanent price or as low as $2 at most. Some readers don’t even look at books over $4.

Fuzzbom Publishing: We do not believe this. Books aren’t directly competing with one another – paid or free. People are always looking for new things to read. The key is to get discovered in the first place and free promotions help this.

Despite the number of books offered free on a daily basis, we’ve never had trouble getting a significant number of downloads (again, assuming we advertised). Of course, being downloaded doesn’t mean that the book will actually be read, so there’s another hurdle that we don’t have great visibility of. But without being downloaded in the first place, being read isn’t even a possibility.

Jaq D Hawkins: It’s not a matter of competing. It’s more a matter of becoming associated with the great unwashed slush pile of free books. In Trad publishing 98% of books were rejected by publishers for being substandard. Now it is the reader who is sorting the gems from the slush.

Laurel A. Rockefeller: The free books give readers the impression that ALL digital books are “slush.” It creates the expectation that books are and ought to be free and NEVER paid for.  So when they see that $3.99 price on my second book (which is 400 pages in paperback and 600 in large print — more than double the length of book one), they register this as “over-priced” when it fact it’s a very fair price for the length, research, etc. put into it.

Some people argue that offering a book for free is a good marketing strategy as it gets the author’s name known. What are your thoughts on this?

Massimo Marino: As an unknown author, free can provide a good entry point. Not always though; because of the too large availability of ‘bad’ titles, and many of them are free, I have the impression that a good percentage of readers see a ‘free’ title as the only way for an invisible author to ever end up in an ereader… And deleting a ‘free’ title to make room for other ebooks is very easy. Amazon offers the “Look Inside” feature, and my novels can be read—for free—up to 40% of the entire story. A reader has more than enough to decide whether s/he likes the story or not and can then buy the novel with confidence.

Fuzzbom Publishing: We firmly believe this. Throughout various businesses, not just the publishing industry, items and samples are given away free to entice a customer to spend more money later and become familiar with a brand. Books are no different. Giving away books is an investment on the author’s part and helps get their name out there. For self-published authors, this is also a low cost way of advertising as it can be done with zero upfront monetary investment.

Even if you give away thousands or even tens of thousands of books, there are still millions of people you can sell to. If just a handful of those thousands spread the word, and the word continues to spread, that’s a huge benefit. Even though we haven’t specifically seen this long term benefit on our anthology, we firmly believe, had we not given away any copies for free, our paid sales would be significantly lower. Plus, it’s impossible to quantify what long term effect the free promotions have actually had. We could be doing worse had we not run them.

Jaq D Hawkins: Yes and no. If an unknown author with a wonderful book makes the work available, there is a chance it can work this way. They are still swimming with the other 98% and could get their talents lost in the mire as a result. It’s more effective to solicit targeted reviews. Not paid reviews, but reviews from people who have written good reviews (not the childish ones with animated gifs filling the page; I reject books just for having reviews like that if the reader liked it as I assume it’s too ‘young’ for me).

Laurel A. Rockefeller: That strategy has certainly not worked for me.  I think offering my first book for free (common with a series) has actually hurt me, as did the initial offering of the book when it wasn’t for free at $0.99 cents.  I was following what the “experts” said at the time, of course, but that backfired.  Instead, I think what works is pricing the book at a good, solid, fair-market price and then offering reviewers/libraries the books for free.  Reviewers and libraries are the ones who help the most in getting the word out and are worth investing with.

Alexandra Butcher: Like many strategies it can work for some, but doesn’t work for all. Getting a book noticed is very difficult. Word of mouth is great but it is time consuming. So promotion events are necessary, of course, but therein lies another problem: how much is too much?

There are readers who do download freebies. Whether the readers actually read them is another matter. Exposure is exposure. However, free promotion needs to be considered carefully, and other strategies should also be considered. As with most things, going in without all the information will lead to problems. Do the research and make the decision which is best for you as the author and for your product.

Some people argue that free books devalue the industry and devalue an author. What are your thoughts on this?

Massimo Marino: I think bad quality devalues an author first and foremost, and there are too many sloppy, uncaring ‘writers’ that use free as a lure. I’ve seen a few malpractices, like changing title and cover when readers start accumulating the bad reviews but the content doesn’t change. Those are the ones who devalue everyone in the publishing industry, especially for Indies.

Fuzzbom Publishing: This is ridiculous. As we stated above free samples are given out across industries to build awareness for a product. A free book is simply that – a sample. And this in no way devalues a product.

The only thing that can devalue a book is it being poorly written and produced. While a vast number of free or low cost books are poorly written, the good material will always find a way. Sometimes it takes time, but once it does, the purchase cost of that book won’t devalue it – not if it’s something people want to read.

Jaq D Hawkins: To a large extent I agree that only a badly written or edited book can really demean itself. However, I’ve seen enough comments from readers on forums to note that more often than not, yes, expectations of a free book are often very low. There have been a couple of resounding exceptions in my own reading, but the vast majority of what I’ve read from the free pile has been slightly under par (if not well under). The best indie book I’ve read never went free.

Laurel A. Rockefeller: I’ve received feedback to the effect that when my books were free/$0.99, they automatically HAD TO BE SLUSH.   After I priced them between $2 and $4, that perception changed and my reviews actually improved.  That speaks volumes to me!

Alexandra Butcher: Free books don’t demean an author or the industry. BADLY WRITTEN books do that. Whilst it is true there are terrible book published by indies, this does not hold all books will be that way. My cat has four legs – my dog has four legs, therefore my dog is a cat. You simply cannot generalise in that way. There are plenty of popular books which could be better. There have been conversations I have seen where it is far more acceptable for a trad-pubbed book to be a pile of crap, poorly written and have a weak plot, but if a self-pubbed indie puts out something like that they get flamed.

Putting a book out there for free is a marketing strategy, nothing more. It is the author’s choice. If he or she wishes to try this tactic, then fair enough. If not, then that is also fair enough. As a reader I don’t assume a free book will be rubbish. I read it and then decide.

What strategies do you find successful in promoting your books?

Massimo Marino: Online presence and accessibility, reviews, word of mouth, other readers’ opinion. There are a few promotional venues that filter out the bad (refusing to promote the slush pile) and when accepted by them, readers buy with confidence. There is no need to be free.

Fuzzbom Publishing: We’ve found that the most important thing in promoting our books are Amazon reviews. The more favorable (and even unfavorable) reviews we have on Amazon the more likely someone is to purchase a book. Unfortunately a low number of reviews does have a stigma of the reviews being “fake” (or from friends or family).

Free promotions help with short term sales and are very useful – the trick is learning how to turn those downloads into honest reviews…something we’re still working on.

But the key is the availability of sites and other forums to advertise a limited time free promotion. There are so many of these that are either free or at a very low cost to advertise on (we have stuck with the free ones to date, but there are also the very low – $1-5 – cost ones if you have a small marketing budget). There are places to get promotion for your book without going to free, but they typically involved spending either a significant amount of money or are just too haphazard for our tastes.

Laurel A. Rockefeller:  Honestly, I haven’t found the strategy that works for me yet.  I am hopeful that my focus on multi-media content like book trailers where I sing the songs that are part of each book will turn that around.  Something unique I’m doing right now is adding QR Interactive editions in paperback and added hypertext weblinks to the digital versions.  It’s a lot of website building, of course, but I am optimistic that the smartphone and enhanced digital content will make my Peers of Beinan books stand out.

Alexandra Butcher: Author interviews, interacting with other writers and readers, and being lucky enough to have my book nominated as the book of the month in a Goodreads group helped me out. The BOM generated a few reviews, gave some guidance for later work, and I have had people looking for book 2 of the series as a result. Even if the book is not read in the designated month, it is still shelved.  I now have a blog too, and whilst my books are mentioned they aren’t the focus of the blog. I run interviews with other authors, reader interviews, articles on writing and the accessibility of e-books for those with restricted vision and various other articles. People sometimes wander over to the book pages and check those out. Networking is important, and it is not just about selling books. Getting and sharing advice is gold. Even just hanging out can reap rewards.

Do you think readers simply wait for a book to be free?

Massimo Marino: Well, if they do with my titles, I’m afraid we will not meet for a few years. My ‘free’ promo price is $0.99.

Fuzzbom Publishing: I’m sure that many do…but again, even if those people number in the hundreds of thousands, there are millions of readers who do not. So ultimately it’s a small and therefore insignificant sample base.

Also, if your book is at a relatively low price, there are many people who won’t necessarily distinguish (free vs $0.99 is such a small change) anyway.

Laurel A. Rockefeller: So many people offer their books free, practically scream desperately to give their books away, that yes, I think that has become the expectation.  Why buy a book when you can find authors who don’t insist on being paid?  It reminds me of a few years ago when illegal file sharing of music was the “in thing” to do, even though it amounted to piracy.  Who wanted to BUY a song or album when they could illegally download it for free?

Except now we’ve given in so that people can do this perfectly legally.

Do you believe that writers in certain genres are more likely to offer a book for free?

Massimo Marino: I rather think it depends whether a writer specializes in novelettes and short stories. Those are easier to be thought of as a ‘gift’. A novel that takes a year, research, working (and paying) for proofreaders and editors, a graphic for the cover, etc. is a different task altogether.

Fuzzbom Publishing: We think free promotions can help writers in all genres. First and foremost it’s about getting your name out. That said, we’ve even seen established authors have success with free promotions by using them to find new readers and help their sales.

Laurel A. Rockefeller: I see a LOT of free books in the young adult, paranormal, and dystopia genres.  By contrast, I have not yet seen a NON-FICTION book offered for free unless it was a Goodreads paperback book giveaway — even then, the number of copies offered in the giveaway tend to be a tiny fraction of what is given away by fiction authors.

Whether or not you agree with free books, have you encountered hostility either from other authors or readers because of your choices?

Massimo Marino: No, not hostility, just different opinions… so far 😉

Fuzzbom Publishing: Absolutely not. The writing community in general is a friendly one.

Laurel A. Rockefeller: Not yet, but then again, this is not a topic I’m usually talking to other writers about.

Alexandra Butcher: Not yet, but I have seen evidence of it elsewhere.

Questions for Our Readers:

Has the proliferation of free books been good or bad for authors?

If you are an author, have you tried giving your books away for free? What were the results?

About the Author:

Alexandra Butcher is a British author of dark fantasy/fantasy romance and erotica, and the author of the Light Beyond the Storm Chronicles series. She lives with her very understanding partner and an assortment of pets, and spends far too much time online. You can visit her blog at libraryoferana.wordpress.com.

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MadLogician
MadLogician
5 years ago

Sorry, that last sentence should read ‘free books work best when …’

MadLogician
MadLogician
5 years ago

I buy a lot of books. A significant minority are from series which I first tried because I got the first book free. Of those, about half were free physical copies given away at conventions.

My experience suggests that free books when they’re the first in a series and there are more books available to buy if I like the first one.

Robert Bevan
6 years ago

I’ve been on the self-pub scene for a while, and I didn’t even know this was a debate.

I had good experiences with free promotions in the past. My biggest free promo for Critical Failures got about 17,000 downloads, and I think I got 20 or 30 reviews from that. That was a big boost for me.

The other times I used free promotions were to get people to download some of the short stories which tie into my novel series, the idea being that people would read a short for free, and then go on to buy the novels. A few readers have told me that that’s exactly how it panned out for them, but it’s difficult to speculate on exactly how effective a strategy that was.

Now that I’ve got my name out there a bit, I’m leaning more toward the Kindle Countdown for promotions. The biggest problem I have with free promos is that, if your books are already one one of Amazon’s bestseller lists, it gets yanked off when you run it for free, and the rank drops a whole bunch when it comes back to its normal price.

With a successful Kindle Countdown promo, your book(s) will shoot up the paid charts, and they’ll still be flying high when the book goes back to its regular price.

I don’t see myself doing any more free promos anytime soon, but I certainly don’t think there’s anything “wrong” with them. The best part of self-publishing is all the experimentation you get to do. See what works for you.

Mike Cairns
6 years ago

Antonio del Drago Mike Cairns 
Hi Tony, sorry it’s taken a while.
I have the list set up so if someone signs up using the site, they are emailed the book in various e-formats, including all the obvious ones. 
It’s also available through Smashwords for people who don’t want to join the list. Obviously we’d like it if everyone did, but I completely understand people not being keen, particularly before they’ve read anything, and I still want people to be able to read it.
cheers
Mike

Antonio del Drago
6 years ago

Mike Cairns Giving away a book for free in order to grow your email list is a terrific idea.  Are you using a free code generated via Smashwords, and sending it to new list subscribers as an incentive?

Mike Cairns
6 years ago

Hi
Great post, thank very much. Lots of interesting opinions to take away. 

To answer your questions, I think the proliferation of free books has, to a certain extent, damaged not authors, but the public’s perception of indie authors. However, this is not so much to do with free books, as with the indie author’s ability to publish easily and without quality control. The link has been made, for some people, between the massive influx of self-published titles and free books over the last few years, leading to what i considered to be the fairly strong public opinion, a few years back, that indie-publishing equals bad quality. 

As an author, however, the advent of free books is a plus for authors. I think Fuzzborn made an important point a number of times, which was that simply making a book free isn’t what will sell it, but rather how you market and advertise the free promotion. But, as an author, having the freedom to offer your book at any price is surely a good thing, so long as you do so with forethought and good reason. 

I have a novella series, of which the first three are out, the next three are mid edit, and the following three first drafted. The first novella is available as a free download through Smashwords, but the main place to get it is by joining my mailing list. In much the same way that many writing blogs give something away for joining their lists, i’ve tried to make my giveaway as relevant to me, as an author as possible. In terms of impact, my mailing lists is growing, slowly but steadily, and of the free downloads, a relatively respectable number have gone on to buy parts two and three. 
So, I do think it’s worth it, but as I said above, there needs to be a good reason, and thought put into how to market the giveaway. 
cheers
Mike

Antonio del Drago
6 years ago

@Diane TibertThanks for sharing your experience, Diane.  Also, thanks for helping to spread the word about this debate.

People used to see a sizeable increase in sales after a free promotion, as the giveaways would help improve a book’s rankings on Amazon.  This made giving free books away a potentially effective strategy for building an audience on the world’s largest online retailer.  
Unfortunately, in the past year Amazon decided to take away (most of) the benefit of giveaways, so now giving away a book on Amazon has very little impact on the book’s rankings in the long term.

Diane Tibert
6 years ago

Thank you for this post. It’s very interesting. I’ve seen slight increases in sales after and during a free book promotion. The increase wasn’t great, but it was there. I don’t offer free very often and have really only tried it in the past three to four months. A book usually goes through Kindle Select once, then goes out to all other markets.

There will always be people who expect things for free. They probably wouldn’t have bought a book anyway, so all they’ve done during the Kindle giveaway was help raise the ranking of the book.

I’ve reblogged this here: http://dianetibert.com/2013/12/23/free-book-debate/

Frank Sherosky
6 years ago

No to Free. Yes to discount. My first Kindle availed review copies for free. Out of the 65 downloads, maybe one resulted in a review. All other reviews came from purchasers.

I never EXPECT something for nothing. Laborers are worthy of their hire.

Debbie
6 years ago

Never done free. Never intend to. I’ll happily donate ebooks to competitions and give away copies for reviews, but I don’t do free otherwise. It just doesn’t seem right to me. I want my readers to have chosen my books specifically because they want to read them. But I respect the opinions of those authors who think otherwise – we all have our own paths to (hopefully) success! 🙂

ALB125
ALB125
6 years ago

I would say it doesn’t work as a single strategy, but perhaps with other  marketing strategies it may be more successful. The Smashwords vouchers are useful – but those can be single shot as opposed to a blanket free for all. Personally I don’t think free devalues a book, bad writing does that, but I can see how people might associate it.  

It is up to the author concerned if they wish to use this strategy. If anyone finds a surefire way of generating sales, then feel free to share the word.

Brittany Forsythe
Brittany Forsythe
6 years ago

Couldn’t agree more.

Tony Dragani
Tony Dragani
6 years ago

As an author, I think that it has been largely bad. Many readers have come to expect books to be free, or very inexpensive. When you consider the amount of work (and expense) that goes into producing a book, it isn’t always feasible to publish them at bargain-basement prices.

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