What's the Problem with FREE?

FREE! is so powerful few of us can resist. In fact, I would be so bold as to say that FREE! is what gave the indie and self-publishing movement the traction to become the wide-sweeping change we see today. FREE! finally leveled the playing field between the traditional and the non-traditional industries. So if FREE! is so awesome, what’s the problem?

More about that in a moment.

A Brief History of Zero

The concept of Zero hasn’t always been around. Zero was invented by the Babylonians, then debated by the Greeks—How can something be nothing?—then finally paired up with the numeral one by the Indian scholar Pingala. Later it was adopted by the Romans. In fact, there is some debate that the explosion of the Roman Empire was due, in part to the adoption of Zero. Roman numerals could only count so high, so it limited expansion.

And boy are we glad that the ancient Romans were a greedy lot. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to give a cute member of the opposite sex our phone number if the numbering system hadn’t changed?

My number is VII I VIIII…Crap! Hold on. That was VII I IX….

Back to my point. Once there was a notion of Zero in context with a decimal system, Zero was here to stay. It swept the ancient world like a primordial Beanie Baby fad and stuck around until finally a little place called Silicon Valley took Zero to a whole nutha’ level.

Did you know that there are 10 types of people in the world? Those who understand binary and those who don’t.

*drum, roll snare*

Yes, I’ll be here all week. Drinks are half price until five.

So let’s just say that Zero, on its own, already had it made. What could be better? Introducing the emotional equivalent of Zero we all know as FREE!

FREEE!!!! FREEEEE!!! How we love FREEEEEE!!!!

I see FREE! being used all the time, and I know how powerful this tool can be. FREE! has changed publishing as we know it.

A Brief History of FREE! in the World of Publishing

Not too long ago, if an author went any route other than traditional, it created a problem. The authors had to sell books that had not passed the gatekeepers of publishing (kinda bad juju) at an equal or higher price than a book that had (really bad juju). No easy feat.

As an example…

I had a family member who wrote a romance novel. This family member, so eager to feel validated as a writer by being published, “published” through Publish America. So, we had basically a book that content-wise was probably the equivalent of a $4.95 Harlequin…only it cost I kid you NOT $34…before shipping.

I never pay $34 for any book…even for family. A $34 book better have gold pages and a foot massage and…nope, still won’t drop that kind of money on a book.

Yet, here is the thing, who other than family would pay that kind of money for ANY book?

I have no idea if my relative’s book was good or bad. I never bought it, so I never read it, but I can see how many self-published authors were in the same dilemma as my relative. It didn’t matter HOW good the content was because NO CONTENT was THAT good.

So, as you can see from my example, a lot of self-published authors faced a real conundrum. It was bad enough to be labeled as an inferior writer, but then to try and sell wares perceived as less valuable at as much as a 200% higher price? Frankly, the game was over before it began.

To add another level of difficulty, many of these writers needed to recoup their investment. They simply didn’t have the luxury of discounting their books, let alone giving anything away for FREE!…so they were almost doomed from the start. Pricing alone was enough to keep them from ever being viewed as real literary players.

What happened?

So the digital revolution hit and with the increase in e-readers, suddenly self-pubbed or indie pubbed writers could use a new tool—FREE! Since an author didn’t have to pay any more for one e-book than he did for a thousand books (unlike paper books), pricing was no longer a problem. And, since traditional publishing sure wasn’t giving books away for free (yet), self-pubbers and indie pubbers soon did what all good entrepreneurs do. They capitalized on a vacuum in the market.

Fast-forward to Christmas of 2009.

The sale of iPads, Kindles and Nooks EXPLODED and people wanted “stuff” to put on their new shiny e-readers, but they only had so much money on the gift card, and traditional publishers weren’t giving THAT much of a discount on the electronic copies of their books. Indie and self-pubbed authors swept in with a solution. Try my book…for FREE!.

FREE was here to stay.

The Advantage of FREE!

FREE is enticing. Few things get our hearts hammering like the glorious word…FREE!. People can try our books for FREE! and risk losing nothing. What is the downside? When we get stuff for FREE!, there IS no downside to the decision and, no downside makes us humans feel all warm and fluffy.

We dig warm and fluffy.

FREE! is awesome when lots of people download our books. It makes us feel special. But beyond that?

FREE! has no power in the publishing world unless there is an impetus for consumers read then talk about our book so more books can be sold. Great, we give away 50 FREE! copies of our new book. If the books sit there unread in a bunch of Nooks and Kindles hanging out with the games we will never play, then we really didn’t gain anything. In fact, we likely lost more than we gained. FREE! can be a powerful sales tool, but we need to make sure we are employing it wisely.

The Trouble with FREE!

First of all, FREE! isn’t special when everyone is doing it.

My social media approach is very different from a lot of other experts. I believe that traditional marketing is an almost total waste of time and does little to drive book sales. Here is WHY.

The same negative effect can also happen with pricing. Oh, sure those first people who got the bright idea to offer a book for $1.99 or $2.99 or .99 cents hit a home run.

But what about those thousands who have followed suit?

When we are the only guy handing out FREE! books, then sure people line up around the block. But when every other indie or self-published author is offering FREE! downloads? It dilutes the allure of FREE!.

When FREE! has Lost its Luster

This is where social media and platform now become important. I feel that, in the face of zillions of FREE! books, people will then prioritize whose books they will read at all or even first. They will default to who they know and who they LIKE. Then if they enjoy the book, the impetus to talk, blog or review the book will greatly increase if there is a personal compulsion to act. Translation?

We’d do it for a friend.

We prioritize by reputation for quality and by relationship. We line up to download FREE! stuff from J.A.Konrath or Bob Mayer or even FREE! short stories from Vicki Hinzi or James Rollins. We might even download from friends or even writers whose blogs we love and trust for excellent content like Chuck Wendig or Tawna Fenske.

In the face of all this FREE! relationship sales matter.

Either we have a prior relationship with the product—I.e. J.A. Konrath’s many best-selling titles OR we have a personal relationship and we want to support this writer as a person. That is one of the reasons that the WANA teams are so POWERFUL. We connect to each other as people, so we go out of our way to offer support. FREE! has power because others care about the author.

Yes, Free! Can Hurt Us

FREE! actually does have the power to hurt. In the behavioral economics book Predictably Irrational—The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions, MIT Professor Dan Ariely states:

The critical issue arises when getting FREE! becomes a struggle between a FREE item and another item—a struggle for which the presence of FREE! makes us make a bad decision. (page 52)

Remember earlier, the attraction of FREE! is most powerful when there is no chance of us making a bad decision. But what about this scenario?

We just finished reading the latest and greatest novel on our new Kindle Fire and decide that we want to download a new book. Lured in by FREE! we download a handful of titles that are being offered FREE! for a limited time. We don’t even bother with sample pages because, hey! They are all FREE!

Ah, but then we sit down in our limited FREE time and open the first book. The formatting looks like it was done by a blind wombat. The second book? It was clear by page five this writer had never met spell check, and was, from all appearances, highly allergic to proper grammar. The third? So many POVs we needed Dramamine to keep up with perspectives. The fourth?

Screw it.

By this point we are just going to go pay regular price for a book we can enjoy reading. Sure, the new publishing paradigm is awesome, but the downside is that what used to meet a slush pile is now being passed on to readers to sift through. Readers may or may not want to put out all that effort for a bargain.

When FREE! Transforms

See, FREE! makes an interesting transition in the world of publishing. If I grab a handful of FREE! Hershey’s Kisses at the chiropractor’s office over the .50 cent Lindt Truffles for sale at Walgreens, I still have a pleasant experience. But, if I download enough FREE! books and too many of them are a bad, time-wasting experience? Then FREE! has lost its luster and with it its power.

FREE! can hit a critical threshold where it is just…annoying.

For instance, I have a childhood friend who grew up to become a realtor. She has never sold me a piece of property but this didn’t stop her from sending me a FREE! magnet calendar. Now, the guy that sold us our house ALSO sent us a FREE calendar…along with every real estate agent in the DFW metroplex.

You guys know I am exaggerating, but you get what I am talking about.

I have a drawer full of FREE! that just annoys me every time I look at it. The Scottish part of me is too frugal to just toss a perfectly good calendar/stress ball/magnet/koozi but I am up to my eyes in FREE! stuff that just clogs up my drawer and my life.

See, I bet the first real estate agent that sent people a FREE! koozi got some business, but now that ALL of them send out this FREE! crap? We just default to the agent we know from church or the one we met at Rotary. The FREE! no longer is a consideration, but rather is a source of consternation. We default to who we know and who we like.

Among Other Down-Sides, Free! Can Make Us Seem Desperate

Back in the 90s, at the height of the dot.com explosion, every tech company was eager to hand out free shirts, free koozies, free notebooks, FREE! FREE! FREE! Yet, in the face of all this FREE! stuff, the company my at-the-time-fiance worked for took a very different approach. They offered nothing simply for FREE! and a weird thing happened.

People’s interest piqued.

Potential customers wanted to know why, when all the competition had all this FREE! stuff, did this company not follow suit? By NOT being like everyone else, this company stood apart because they offered nothing FREE!

Oooh, they don’t give out FREE! stuff so their product must be more valuable.

What’s the saying? Why buy the cow if we get the milk for FREE!? There is something to that. FREE! can be especially harmful if all we have is one title for sale or if we are at the low end of the Amazon ranking. Whether it is true or not, the subtext is too often–Oooh, she couldn’t get anyone to drop $5 for her book, so now she’s giving it away?

I see a lot of writers get very excited because Two hundred people downloaded my book! Okay, but unless that two hundred translates into more than two hundred actual sales, then we are actually in the red. FREE! must serve a long-term advantage or we are just handing away work that cost us blood, sweat and tears.

Just because we are artists, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be paid for our work. I am dedicated to helping all of you realize your dreams, and part of that is teaching you how to get paid for your work.

So is FREE! ever good? Sure! There is a way to use the Power of FREE! for maximum advantage…and we will talk about that next week.

What are your thoughts? Have you had a wonderful experience offering FREE! books? Want to offer tips? Pointers? Do you download free books? Have you found some real gems? What are some problems you see with FREE!?

I LOVE hearing from you!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of January, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of January I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Last Week’s Winner of 5-Page Critique is Kareen Yvette McCabe. Please send your 1250 word Word document to author kristen dot lamb at g mail dot com. Congratulations.

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books!

Happy writing!

This Week’s Mash-Up of Awesomeness

First, a FABU interview. James Rollins interviews Jon Land. Pop by and show some WANA support. This is a first for both of them.

Best-Seller Lists versus the Long Tail Really excellent post by NYTBSA Bob Mayer.

The Value of Publicity and The Myth of a Best-Seller by J.A.Konrath are both worth a look.

Kristin Nador has a wonderful series about blogging and this gal practices what she preaches. VERY useful series, so make sure you check it out.

My Life as a Three-Headed Chimera by Marcy Kennedy. WONDERFUL and POWERFUL blog about people-pleasing.

Have a hard time keeping up with all the blogs you love? The amazing Jenny Hansen has a post introducing us to Triberr. Yeah, I didn’t know what it was either but Jenny can help you out.

One of my favorite blogs is by the so-talented-and-also-pretty-I’d-stab-her-if-I-didn’t-like-her-so-much Tawna Fenske. Don’t Pet me I’m Writing is always a great place to perk up your day. This post on shampoo shopping? Too funny! And her fiction is truly wonderful. I HIGHLY recommend Making Waves.

Another author who makes me so jealous I could explode is truly talented and generous with her knowledge is Jody Hedlund. She has a wonderful post about How to Make Your Book Play out Like a Movie.

Jane Friedman has a fantastic post When You Need to Secure Permissions and while you are over at Jane’s MAKE SURE you check out Porter Anderson’s Writing on the Ether to keep up with the latest trends and changes and the best information available. Porter whittles down the web to the best, so this site is a HUGE time-saver.

Where there be dreams, there be dragons. Time to slay some beasties! Fabulous post by Ingrid Schaffenburg who is doing a wonderful series about dreams.

Do you call yourself a writer or an author? by Jami Gold.

Is Amazon guilty of predatory publishing? over at NPR


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  1. As a scifi/fantasy author of two (as yet incomplete) trilogies, I will use the FREE! plan when the trilogy is complete. I will offer the first book of each trilogy for free while leaving the price for the others the same.

  2. Super post! And, very timely for me. One of my ebook publishers, StoneGate Ink, did a two-day promo of one of the two novels of mine they published, JUST LIKE THAT, this past Saturday and Sunday, where they offered it for free. The numbers of downloaded copies was great–over 14,000 copies downloaded. But… they were free, which meant no dinero for moi. The proof that it worked–at least in my case–came after the promo. Whereas before the sale, the Amazon rankings varied between a low of 24,000 to 140,000, the day after the promo, when it went back to the regular price, it went to 2,000, a very respectable number. But, today when I woke up and went to check the rankings, it was at 869 and was at #55 in their Literary Fiction category, and #74 in their Literary category. (Don’t know what the difference is in these two categories, but obviously they see a difference…) So, my experience is that at least in this instance, it was a success.

    Feels good!

    1. Actually FREE! can work really well if used properly…but a lot of writers aren’t using it to maximum advantage. So honored you stopped by my little blog and THANK YOU for sharing your experience.

  3. hey kristen – always love your blogs, would counter some of your points based on my own (very limited) exper. w/ KDP and freebie books….. i think that the jurry is still out as to what doing freebie books can do for a writer, espec. one like me who has had their first novel out for only 3 months (see, told u i was a newbie) …. my writer friends that are tinkering w/ freebies are ALL reporting satisfaction with the process…….. what this bodes for the long-term is impossible to guess, but my feelings are freebie book promotions HAVE to be a part of a new/indie authors bag of tricks in order to begin building a platform… IMHO !

  4. Having been in the self publishing game before the explosion, I’ve definitely had the opportunity to see the shift. I have done a lot of experimentation with free. My first novella is available in serial on my blog for free. I offered free review copies of it and my second novella for a limited time in exchange for honest reviews (which was particularly important since no one knew me from Adam’s house cat back then). I have a short story in the world of my series that’s been free for almost a year. All of these tactics worked well at the time. They served their purpose of getting people to try my work at low risk to them. Certainly the ROI wasn’t 100%. There were people who were supposed to review my novellas who never did. That’s a risk you take. I still think it’s worth doing for a limited time to get some reviews up quickly of new releases. It’s the same concept behind ARCs, just not in actual advance of release. Maybe we should call them ERCs (Early Release Copies).

    But oh, the latest FREE! craze…is those who are defecting to KDP Select, pulling their work from everywhere else, and banking that a) their ability to offer that work for FREE! on Amazon for 3 days a month is going to do something AWESOME for their ranking and visibility and b) that they’ll get a decent slice of that communal fund pie. This drives me insane as a Nook owner and has caused me to drop more than one person off my TBR list just on principle. But it seems like just bad business. You do not limit your customer pool. It does not matter if 70-90% of your sales come from Amazon (which is a blatant message you need to market more effectively to other platforms). You’re still cutting out all the potential readers who bought a device other than a Kindle. And for all the reasons you stated above, I seriously doubt anyone is going to gain enough exposure (aka ACTUAL READERS) from those handful of days free to justify the exclusionary practice.

    Incidentally, for self publishers, it is still entirely possible to get your work on Amazon for free WITHOUT going through KDP. You simply publish via Smashwords (which does allow free), go through premium distribution, then publish separately on Amazon and report the free lower price once it matriculates. It’s a little less elegant and more time consuming, but then you’re not limiting yourself to one platform. And when you’re ready to take it off free, just change the price at Smashwords and let it matriculate out. Amazon’s bots will catch it and take the free discount off.

    1. Yeah, Amazon’s KDP select is pretty minimal free exposure. However, I’ve taken advantage of it by putting two short stories from my collection up on that system, but the whole collection (for $2.99) and a single story (99c) are still available everywhere else.

  5. I’ve been debating whether I should give away the first book of my series THE LOCKET SAGA: WHEN GOD TURNED HIS HEAD. I was thinking that this might draw them into the series, and they would want to read the second and subsequent books in the series. After reading this post I’m even more divided than ever. Thanks Kristen for this perspective.

    1. I have found some good series this way, so it does work.

  6. Thank you! I had not understood why authors would give their books away for free. “How can they make a living doing that when they are just starting out?” I wondered. Patterson, etc. could afford to do it, but the newbies? But, if FREE is part of a larger marketing strategy, then ok.

    A response about editing errors in ebooks (whether free or not) is for another day.

  7. I’m so glad you’re going to tackle this topic. I have mixed emotions about free ebooks. My Scottish blood means I’m drawn to a deal like a bug to a bug zapper, but to date, most of the free ebooks I’ve downloaded haven’t been good enough for me to want to buy any more of their books. The free books that did convince me to buy more of an author’s books were from people I already knew through Twiiter or WANA, so I had good writing coupled with a prior relationship to drive the sale. And to be honest, I would have eventually bought their books anyway. I’m not really convinced “free” is a good long-term strategy unless the author has a big backlist and strong writing like Bob Mayer.
    P.S. Thanks for including me in the mash-up!

  8. I think you make solid points. Free without a solid base or something else to sell is kind of worthless. I’m doing free on Amazon via Kindle Select, with at least one title a week going free every single week of the year. We started last week with Atlantis and it quickly hit #1 in science fiction on Amazon. After free was over, it rose up to #4 in science fiction in paid and is still in the top 15, so I feel that was a success.
    This week we’re doing two books together, Black Ops The Line and Black Ops The Gate. We’re seeing a lot of copies getting downloaded and after Wednesday, when they are no longer free, we’ll get an idea how it works.
    For me, free works because I have over 40 titles to spread it among and even if I get a low crossover to sales, say 10%, it’s definitely worth it.

    1. You and Les Edgerton benefitted from the “Free” because you have the reputations and product variety to take advantage of it. Glad it’s working that way for you. You also generate a lot of goodwill within the writing community because you give of yourself. You go, Bob.

    2. Agree with David – your gifts to the writing community cannot be measured.

  9. I’ve never been a fan of working for free and recently I have spoken with many writers who have seen little or no sales results from the free promotions. I think the best advice here is Kati Nolan’s suggestion to publish on both Smashwords and Amazon.

  10. As a Kindle owner, this is where reviews come in so handy for me. Before I even download a FREE! book, I hit the reviews. I go straight to the 1 stars, because having friends are published, I’ve learned that some of the 1 stars are downright stupid and mean. I sift through those and only worry about the real ones. Then I hit the 5 stars and sift through those (some obviously written by friends and family, lol). I think the reviews are very valuable. I do love my FREE! books and have found a few favorites among them. Are they awesome writers? Maybe, maybe not. Can they tell a good story? Sometimes. But are they likable? Yep. I totally agree with platform, platform, platform. I think what you’re blogging about makes a ton of sense. The whole industry is changing seems like every day and we as writers have to keep up or we’ll get lost in the fray.

  11. I stumbled upon one blogger’s website where she was so frustrated with her roller-coaster time with agents (she’d get representation for her book, agent would suggest edits, she’d resist, eventually agent said relationship wasn’t working out, and they parted ways.. and this happened two or three times to her) that she decided to give away her book for FREE.. on her blog. One chapter per week.

    I couldn’t believe it! Why spend so much of your life dedicated to creating something that clearly has potential, and then give it away for free? If multiple agents were jumping on it, there was something good in the book. (I get the impression that personality / resistance to take criticism was an issue in her case). Even if she had turned into an e-book and sold it for $0.99, I’d think it had value.. but the fact that she was choosing to share this story and then give up and give it away.. I lost faith in her as an author, and had no desire to read the book.

    Really interesting post and a good reminder!

  12. I have some friends who won’t even shop at Marshall’s because they are skeptical of quality. (not me) but I have been thinking for a while now that the ebook market has been watered down by self-publishing.

    I have been thinking that part of my marketing strategy for my book will be to get the word out that it has been professionally edited. I want to entice some readers I don’t know to read it and get their honest feedback, If they like it, I plan to really go for it!

    Free to me is synonymous with the box at the end of a driveway full of all the junk a person didn’t think they could sell for a dime at a garage sale.

    What about the lady who was written up in the Wall Street Journal after selling over 170,000 books for 99 cents?

  13. I have to say that I found two new authors this month by downloading their free e-books. They both offered one free book that was a part of a series. The rest of their series ranged from 2.99 -5.99. I was so impressed with these authors that I had to buy every e-book they had listed on Amazon. If you do it right, it seems like a good marketing plan to me.

    1. This happens when you sift through the freebies and don’t buy them just because they are free.

  14. The free thing definitely starts to become a little like white noise–it becomes really easy to ignore. You’re so right, authors have to find a way to connect. 🙂

  15. Right on. Love this: ZERO, the emotional equivalent of free. Called to mind a quote I found sometime in the middle of the WANA 1011 course and put on my desktop:

    “Many people have “the big idea” and then right away say, “I can’t do it. its too big.” How am I going to raise 2 billion, or 300mm, or even 1 million. I’m just an X, or Y, or a Z, and I don’t have an MBA or a law degree or a high school degree or whatever. And Zs get nowhere in life. Zs turn into Zzzzs. Asleep. Like all the other people in the pencil factory – asleep at the switch.The people who I see succeed never think this way. It’s a daily challenge for me not to think this way. I’m used to being a big fat Z.”
    (From “How to Have a BIG idea” on The Altucher Confidential Blog, http://www.jamesaltucher.com/2011/12/how-to-have-a-big-idea/)

    Free is for geniuses and enlightened ones who can understand things like imaginary numbers. For the rest of us skimming along the sea of regular, pay is the bar the world sets to help us reach our goals.

  16. The problem with free is it costs something.

    Dr. Tom Bibey, author, “The Mandolin Case”

  17. I completely agree with this! To be honest, I have over 50 free books on my Nook that I have never read. I have about 20 more that I bought for $.99–again never read. On the other hand, I only have three books on my Nook that I have paid $2.99 pr more for that I haven’t read–and all of them are follow-up books in series. They are 1, 2, & 3 on my to be read list.
    Why? If I pay for something, I am darn well going to use (read) it. Free books often end up in my eReader junk drawer. 🙂

  18. THANK YOU FOR THIS POST! Free Kindle downloads have been plaguing me since my winter break.

    See, I’m primarily a reader. I write, but my first love is reading.

    At first, I loved all of the offers for free Kindle books on Twitter. I retweeted them in the hopes that my students would try them out. I downloaded most of them, myself. I was happily chugging along on the FREE! train during my entire month off from teaching. And then I turned on my Kindle, and learned that I managed to download nearly 40 free books.

    40 FREE BOOKS.

    And . . . that was when I panicked.

    My original plan was to add all of the FREE! books to my Goodreads To Read shelf, and to then actually read and review each one. I owed the authors that much, after all. But here’s the thing–the single most depressing fact about my life is that I will never be able to read all of the books I want to read. And what did I do by downloading all of these free books? I just added to that pile. It turns out that I’m not sure I can do it, not when I have so many other books I really want to read, as well.

    So now I feel guilty. I love authors. I love them for creating books, and I hate to let them down. But now I fear I’ll have to. All because of those FREE! Kindle downloads and my inability to resist a deal.

  19. It is refreshing to see an intelligent discussion of this subject. Most of what I’ve seen across the blogging world are angry minds throwing rhetoric at each other about the merits and curses of free (or .99). I have a box-full of free garbage, mail, magnets and mayhem that I throw out every year. I never look at it beyond the time it takes to quantify it and chuck it in the box. When it comes to books, the only ones I take for free are hardcopy or won in contests.

    Great post, Kristen. Looking forward to part two.

  20. One thing I want to point out (not to you Kristen, but to some commenters) is there’s a big difference between FREE! as a promotional strategy (either for a limited time or the first of a series) and as a ploy of desperation to get people to download our books.

    If we have no other books available for sale, we’re not giving our readers an implied “call to action” (buy our other books if you enjoyed this one), and we’ll suffer from the negative association with too-cheap ebooks (I did a whole blog post about people’s assumption that cheap ebooks are crap). If we’re using FREE! as a strategy (i.e., for a consciously thought-out reason with clear goals in mind) and we have other books for sale, then FREE! can work and be helpful.

    However, I’ve seen other articles also say the “halo” effect (other books selling when one is available for FREE!) works best with series and less so when we have only single titles. Just something for people to keep in mind. 🙂

    And thanks for the the link!

  21. I worry that all these FREE books are teaching readers that ALL books should be free. I’ve heard where some readers actually become outraged that an author will then try to raise the price. Look at what has happened to the music industry. People now expect to download all music for free. In fact, they believe they are entitled to get free music, even though a lot of people worked a long time to produce it. When it comes to the music industry people think nothing of illegally downloading music b/c in their minds everyone in the music industry is rich so it’s not like they need the money or will miss it. But when everyone starts thinking that way there’s a big problem. I bet a lot of people mistakingly believe most authors make a lot of money so it’s not like they’ll miss a few bucks here or there.

    If someone built a dresser the carpenter would expect to get paid for it. But if we spend 6 months to a year writing and editing a book we’re not expected to get paid for it?

  22. Great post and thanks for the shout-out! 🙂 I’ve discovered both gems and clunkers from downloading free e-books. I see some writer friends very excited that when they offer their book free they move up to #so-and-so on the Amazon list but I always wonder if that translates eventually into dollars for the author or just bragging rights. It seems like a good leap frog strategy to stand out from the pack but can’t be sustainable unless THE PRODUCT IS AWESOME. If it’s a good book, people will hear about it and continue to purchase it after the offer has expired. On the other hand, if it’s crap, people have a much quicker turnaround time to discover it and let others know. I think it’s a new form of word-of-mouth.Word-of-mouth and good product is what ultimately sells books.

  23. I don’t think I’ve ever purchased a FREE! ebook, however I have “won” a few ebooks free of cost. I’m more inclined to read a book that I actually pay for, but that’s me. I also think that if a writer worked as diligently as we do, why give our work away for free, unless we are working to promote and sell other titles already available. My two cents…

    1. Nope, that’s not just you, Tiffany. That’s human nature.

  24. My husband is a musician and refuses to play for free or “exposure”. That’s a good rule to have and it keeps him from being taken advantage of. The problem with art of any kind is that the buyer only sees the end result, not the months, or even years, of practice/work it takes to produce it. If you give it away, that negates the whole process.

    That being said, I can understand using FREE!!! as a marketing tool if you have several titles out. I don’t mind casting bread upon the waters, but I need a little bread to cast first.

  25. This conversation comes up a lot in photography (and probably a lot of other creative professions). When you give away your work for free on a grand scale, you devalue not only your work, but the work of those in your profession. At least that is the perception.

    I think FREE works on a limited basis. Gifting your book to influencers and friends (not every single one) can translate into the word getting out that you have a great book. If someone “gifts” me their book, I’m more inclined to read that freebie than to read one I hit the Amazon one-click button on just because it was free.

    A photographer might choose to do a little free work with a model because that model is going to help make their portfolio look great. A writer might choose to give out a free book to someone who knows how to write a heck of a review. 🙂

  26. Amazon is really making waves with their Select program. I can see how the free days are useful to help your book climb the ranks because then it gets more visibility for when it goes back to paid price. If you have more than one book, that can help your other sales. Granted, not everyone who downloads it free will read it or look at your other works, but you’ll still get some new readers, and to me that seems like a win. On the other hand, I’ve heard from some people that when they did the free sale, even though it brought in some great reviews, it also brought in some 1-star reviews, which can also hurt an indie author–but negative reviews is another topic.

    I don’t agree with the exclusivity thing, but KDP Select seems to have benefited some people.

  27. Interesting discussion. I see a couple of issues here. First is the scam publisher. A fellow writer recently got taken in by Publish America, which is still overpricing books. Hers was listed at $27, and she had to pay to buy the rights back (she found three different places with three different prices for doing so on their website).

    Second is the pricing discussion. I’m intrigued by those who are using FREE as a promo strategy, especially where a series is concerned. That could be interesting.

    There are so many opinions about pricing right now that it’s hard to know what to do. I have a novel out at $1.99 (which will end up as a series). I will price the next one higher because I personally am suspect about cheap books. In the meantime, I am working on building an audience, which I didn’t do enough of with this first novel.

    Thanks to everyone who posted here. I learned a lot from reading the responses.

  28. Kristen, I love this blog! The picture of the creepy child-predator van portrayed the perfect image. I was one of those “got to have something to read on my new Kindle” so more out of experimentation, I downloaded “freebies” thinking, “cool — free books.” Disappointment turned to disgust quickly, for all the reasons you stated above. Now that I’m toying with the idea of self-publishing, I worry that those “freebies” have tainted the e-publishing market for debut authors. I’ve decided my “freebies” will be via blog tours and contests. I need to earn my readers trust first. Thank you again for all your research on these topics. Rabid fan.

  29. Big problem with free: if you demand your money back, they’re glad to give it to you, but after the $15.95 processing fee I’m not sure you come out ahead.

  30. “First of all, FREE! isn’t special when everyone is doing it.” You said it all, Kristen.

  31. I am totally enjoying reading what you think about FREE!. I am a tightwad at heart, and I *heart* FREE!

    In some cases, it has inspired me to buy an authors other work. I discovered Black Crouch that way. I got 4 novellas for free and then spent $7 on a short story and one of his older novels. In Mr. Crouch’s case, FREE worked.

    Some time back, I read a blog by an author whose short story had been freed (without his permission) by Amazon.com. He didn’t have a choice in the matter and was looking at the bright side–that he’d gotten several reviews that he didn’t have before. I know this is a bit different than what you’re talking about here, but this author’s situation has stuck with me and was very eye opening.

    I’ll look forward to next week’s installment. 😀

  32. I almost spewed tea out my nose laughing. I wish we could catch your live standup routine. 😉 I’m soo glad you’re addressing this, Kristen. The thought of free books driving do appeal or profit for authors of all sorts makes my heart ache.

    A friend recently sent a mass email out asking people to download her free book “to boost ranking at Amazon. You don’t have to read it,” she said. I would’ve bought it, had she not taken this approach. (Does that make me a snob?)

    (Sorry for any type-oes – censorship banner is blacking out some words. ;))

  33. You make excellent points and I thank you for this perspective.
    What I have experienced with KDP Select is that after the free period, you see a huge spike in sales b/c so many downloads of your work gets the Amazon algorithms working. I offered my first (and only) novel for free for the three days after Christmas. It was fun seeing the large numbers. But what happened after was even better – seeing the book move into the top 25 in its category (YA Science Fiction/Fantasy) and into top 10 in sub-category – on the PAID list. A jump in sales ranking from being in the 100 thousands to the top 5000 in less than a week.
    I’m concerned about all the things you mentioned – i.e. that it will be perceived as less valuable (a principle I learned from my attorney days – the higher the hourly rate the “better” the attorney is perceived to be by the public); that no one will read the free copy, etc. So for me the jury is still out about whether the free days are a sound strategy.
    But if you have a book that is sluggish, the movement in the algorithm caused by the free downloads can lift it higher in the chain so more people see it. If used well and with a good overall strategy, the free days may be leveraged into something really valuable for a self-pubber.
    So I’m looking forward to your future post about that as I’m sure I didn’t leverage my free days as well as I should have!

  34. Okay, I’m going to tell you the one time my publishers decided to try out a Free promo on my debut novel that had been out for about a year. This was before Amazon split the Free and Paid books, so all books in the kindle “best sellers” were on the same list.

    Tender Graces quickly shot up on the Kindle Best Sellers list to the top 25, then 10, then it hit No 1 over The Help. Then what happened was, when the two-week (or 10 day, whatever it was) promo ended, my novel stayed up there at No 1 for a few days, and then fell somewhere in the top 25 for another week I think it was. Since then, it’s done well but hasn’t jumped back up there to the top 100 in a while.

    When all was said and done, during around a 3week period of during the promo and right after it, TG had over 60,000 downloads – however, I was only paid for a portion of these downloads because most of those were when it was free. Granted, it was the biggest check I have (yet?) received but not near as big a check if I’d have been paid for all those 60,000 downloads! lawd!

    And have all 60,000 people read that book? Probably not yet. I can only hope many of them will and it will affect sales of my other books and future books – if they love me :-D.

    My publishers haven’t done another “free” promo of my books – they, or Amazon, have done other promos, but never free again. It was during the time when “free” was some experiment, I guess. It both worked and didn’t – but the main thing is how Amazon treats “free vs paid” now – it’s a different ballgame. That and all the white noise of free free free out there.

    That’s my free story!

    Oh, and the only time I download a free book is if I know the author and want to support them.

  35. Very interesting post, and can I just say that you pick the best photos EVER for your posts? I always click through just to see what you’ve got up there. They’re that good. 🙂

    Since you are planning to write more about when Free IS a good thing, I have a question I hope you’ll answer in that post. I’ve heard a lot of talk about “freemium,” which is where you get something for free, then you are enticed to “upgrade” or make another purchase. I heard about this in the context of “in-app” purchases, but I wonder how it might apply to e-books or other services too. Thanks Kristen!

  36. I’m going to make this short and sweet. I LOVE your blog. Yours is one of the few blogs I know will entertain and educate. I’d already linked you on my blog 🙂 But now you know it too! Thank you!!

  37. One of my hats (that I haven’t worn in a long time) is mathematician, so I loved your story about the importance of zero.
    As a newbie writer, and someone who has not yet succumbed to the e-reader craze, I appreciate this whole discussion and all of the reference links. Thanks to everyone.

  38. Free has worked for me as a promotional tool. I used it last summer with one of my books that wasn’t selling and had almost 17,000 downloads. But the interesting thing was…during the last of the promotion, while the book was still free, there were sales of the paperback. Also, sales of the ebook were good after the free promotion. And this with a book that just wasn’t selling, period.

    So when Amazon offered this promotional tool as a part of KDP Select, I put 3 of my books in it. And I’ve experienced similar results…paperback sales, increased sales of my other books which are not enrolled in KDP Select, not only on Amazon but through other vendors. Free can be a powerful promotional tool.

  39. My only good experiences with “free” is when I am making direct contact with the head of an organization (pastors and ministry leaders) who are great candidates for me coming to sell books. They have to trust my writing before they are willing to promote my book.

  40. That last point hit home with me as a copywriter. If you give it all away, eventually you will end up broke and tired. (I’ve been broke and tired and now do not give anything away unless the person I’m giving it to has done me an equal service in the past. Some people complain about that but, hey, I’ve got a right to make a living.)

  41. Kristen, this is a post where the comments are as valuable as what was written. A great workshop.

    I borrow from Kindle’s Library and have come across some very good novels, 2 of which were later free. I have downloaded temp. free books too: 3 out of 4 pretty darn good.

    Before I download I vet the book: I sample a free chapter. If the story doesn’t grab my interest in the first 2 or 3 pages, I don’t download. If there are typo’s or bad grammar in that first chapter-no download. I remember the authors, the very good and not so good, when I make future choices.

  42. Loved this post as I’ve been wondering for awhile what an author gains by offering a book for free. If it’s not a classic, I, as a reader, don’t want to risk taking the time to read something that hasn’t been edited to solve story, spelling and grammar problems. When it’s free, I immediately think the author is desperate. If the author is desperate, then maybe the writing has failed to win the interest of agents or publishers. I know there are exceptions; there are many writers who deserve to be read but aren’t getting the opportunity for whatever reason. I just find it sad that the writer has put in all that time, sweat and tears to complete their novel and they end up giving it away, as if it wasn’t worth anything. Of course, having said that, every writer wants to be read, so in the end maybe giving one’s work away for free guarantees at least some kind of readership.

  43. I have a boatload of FREE! ebooks on my Kindle. I haven’t read one of them. I think I do have a subconscious mental block–free means it can’t be that good. I know logically that’s not true, but there it is.

  44. You had THIS computer geek at “binary”…LOL. 🙂

    I think this is a huge discussion and the comments are fabulous. I don’t know how I’d feel about giving my work away for free, unless it was a promo for a day or a week, and would help other sales.

    While I definitely love getting to buy books for $2.99, or even $4.99 (I bought both of yours for that price), I don’t want to spend my time on books I don’t like. If I start a free/inexpensive e-book and it sucks, I delete it off my Kindle immediately. Usually after getting to about page 4 or 5. My time and my joy in the written word is too precious to spend on crappy writing.

    And huge thanks for including a link to my Triberr post!

    1. Haha, Jenny. I totally have that joke on a t-shirt in my closer. Go geeks!

      1. umm…closet. 🙂

  45. I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I’m more like to buy a book that costs at least $2.99 than one lesser priced. I figure that the author should believe in his/her work enough to know they should get paid for it. On the other hand, a temporary price cut to, say, 99 cents may be worth a download for me. But the regular price better be higher.

    • ebyss on January 25, 2012 at 3:15 pm
    • Reply

    The post is true. And unfortunately some good books are probably getting lost in the free chasm.

    Another thing I’d like to point out (hope it’s not a repeat of another commenter) is if the story is good and captures the reader’s imagination, then they will pay for it. I will pay for it. Um.. probably not over $30. LOL!!

    So, as writers, our goal should be to make the story the best it can possibly be.

  46. If it’s an author I’ve been recommended to, then I’ll download the free. Of course if I love that, I’ll get more book by that author. Otherwise, I’d rather pass and not load up my Kindle with ton of books I might never open.

  47. Fascinating post. It got my attention because I recently had a great experience with free books. Three weeks ago I offered my book for free on Amazon kindle for five days and over 14,000 people downloaded it. I figured that you can give away papercuts if they are free so I expected nothing after the ebook went for sale for money. Real dollars. Two weeks, many reviews, and thousands of sales later, I landed an incredible agent from New York. I wish I could tell you the end of this story, but like I said, I am only three weeks in. But for me, free worked wonders. Free got their attention, but word of mouth only comes when people read and love your work. (http://www.amazon.com/On-Little-Wings-ebook/dp/B006MITQRC/ref=tmm_kin_title_0?ie=UTF8&m=AG56TWVU5XWC2&qid=1327509438&sr=8-1)

  48. Krsiten, I love, love, love your articles. As a newbie I find them very enlightening. HOWEVER – witha day job, a husband, 4 kids and a book to write, WHERE am I likely find the time to read everything you recommend? I end up feeling overwhelmed and that if I don’t read I’ll miss something I should read, but if I do read I’ll not be writing! Arrrggggggghhhhh – Do you have any suggestions for overcoming THAT little problem.

    It is interesting that you raised the FREE! issue as I must admit I was wondering when I watch the Twitter feed. FREE! this and FREE! that and much of it in genres I’m really not a reader of.

    I don’t plan on offering FREE! for I feel there is enough FREE! on my website and FREE! doesn’t clear our legal debts or pay the school fees.

    By the way – as to price? TEXT BOOKS!!! Some are $80 for high school students. Wish I could capture the academic market at that price!

    1. I’m with you on the volume of recommendations, but I’m doing my best. I’m almost through Larry Brook’s Story Engineering (recommended how many blog posts ago?) and it’s definitely worth the time. I’m so glad I picked it up (checked it out of the library, my current favorite place for FREE).

  49. As usual, you’ve given a lot of information in a little space. I’ll have to save it just to hit the links. At first Free! sounded good but your dissection of the shortcomings showed me that that form of self-publication can lead to really screwing the reader. I wouldn’t send anything into the ether if I didn’t think it was near perfect. I’d be rewriting a story that was published because something seemed wrong even though nobody else saw it. But that’s just me.

    • Marianne on January 25, 2012 at 3:55 pm
    • Reply

    I’ve wondered about this. I’m still not exactly sure how I would work with free or if I would work with it. I just really want to be paid…

  50. Nice to see I’m not the only one stumped when people gush over ‘selling’ a bunch of their books for free. The problem is there’s no guarantee people will read your free book. I have a free short story I have on Smashwords. I did it because I heard it was a wise idea to give people a freebie as a sample of your work and at the end, have a sample of your novel with links to buy. In the first week, my free short had over a hundred downloads. I think it’s translated into a few sales of my novel, but I wouldn’t be surprised if most people hadn’t even read my short story after downloading. So free has been both good and bad for me.

  51. Having just self-published “Searching for My Wand” Free has been suggested to boost sales but I agree that Free can come back to bite you. I might consider a temporary buy one get one when I publish my next book but I’m in this to sell books, not give them away.

    • Heather_Ponzer on January 25, 2012 at 4:33 pm
    • Reply

    I have a couple of points:
    1) I am a poor stay-at-home mom. And I’m a ninja reader. I can put away a massive epic fantasy in a day or two (if it’s good).That combination makes free books ALWAYS appealing to me. I’ve found quite a few free books that way. I even enjoy a really good “bad” book every once in a while- for a laugh and as a learning tool. How many bad things can you spot in this chapter? I’m sad, I know.

    2) I have a couple of blogs that I follow (and use Twitter) to be selective about the free books I mess with. They make them easier to sift through.

    I don’t disagree with how free has been devalued, but I have also been just as disappointed (or even more so) in books that cost 2.99. I guess I’ve read around enough that I don’t always see a correlation between price and quality.

    In the end, nothing can replace good reviews, good cover art and a terrific tag line. Oh, and writing. If you write something that people love, I don’t think offering it for free could ever be a bad thing. I will go out of my way to leave a glowing review on a book I got for free. I will purchase books from an author I like that I got for free.

    Sorry to be so long-winded. I believe that writers, myself included, work hard and deserve to be paid. I’m not trying to belittle the value of great books.

    1. I think you hit the nail on the head, Heather. Free does not always equal crap and a price doesn’t equal quality. The same distinction holds true with self published and traditional work. There are, quite simply, no guarantees, which is why as a consumer, it pays to take the time to check out the sample and reviews.

        • Tamara LeBlanc on January 25, 2012 at 4:45 pm
        • Reply

        excellent point Kait and Heather!

    • Tamara LeBlanc on January 25, 2012 at 4:42 pm
    • Reply

    Fascinating topic!
    it’s funny you bring up not bothering to read the sample pages, because it’s true, when I get a free book on the ole IPad I normally forgo that little step…but, as you so humorously put it, I’m usually very disappointed in the long run as well.
    I’m all for the people who are indie publishing, but darn tired of downloading FREE! Crapola. I read the first three pages of an IP book the other day (and I paid for this one…it was a friends) and ended up deleting it. God, I feel awful, but the formatting was ridiculous and there were so tons of typos.
    I want people to realize that if their novel or short story isn’t clean and polished enough for NY publishing then it’s not ready to be IP either.
    Kristen, I enjoyed every word of this post. thanks for your wisdom.
    have a great evening!


    • Tamara LeBlanc on January 25, 2012 at 4:44 pm
    • Reply

    yep, that’s what happens when I don’t proof read before submitting a comment, I end up with a ton of typos myself.

  52. Where have you been all my (social media/marketing) life?? You confirmed what I’ve felt for awhile on the whole FREE! concept. But one thing I was considering was to offer the book for free for the first week? month? Get the reviews and then maybe go to $3.99. Yes?

    Is this where I tell you I’m linking back to your blog with a mention of your book? (Said in sotto voce because I feel pretty damn stupid for having to ask, The Machine probably lets you know).

  53. This post hits right near home for me. And I’m running right over to link to it. I run a blog called Amy Denim’s 365 days, 365 Free ebooks, and I started it specifically because I was frustrated trying to work through the slush of free books out there.
    But I’ve gotten an unexpected perk out of reading and writing about free ebooks (besides the jem books I’ve found). How to (or not to) use FREE! as a marketing tool. (Also about making sure to write a great book and not get overly anxious to just get it out there).
    Your article (and tons of the comments) here put into words the jumble of lessons floating around in my head. Rock On! Thanks for that.

  54. You did it again, Kristen: you made me laugh out loud and think in a new way about a topic that has been on my mind. Who can write about “Zero” and make it entertaining? I scrape and bow to your awesomeness.

    I have been on a reading binge since I got my Kindle. I pay for some books, and also download a lot of FREE ones. I expected to find a lot of crap. I have been pleasantly surprised at the quality of a lot of the FREE stuff I’ve read. I am willing to forgive some formatting issues and even some typos for a good story, well told — as long as I don’t pay more than $2.99 for it. If it’s more than that and published by a traditional publisher, I expect a lot better quality.

    Since August, I’ve read about 30 e-books and I’ve only abandoned about three books without finishing them. One of them was traditionally published and I just didn’t get into it. One was a creepy fantasy that was too far out for me. The last one was porn classified as “romance”. I found something to keep me reading in everything else.

    [I request you do a series on how to properly classify books. Advertising a book as “contemporary romance” when it is porn is just tacky and gross. Would love (love, love) to read your take on classification of novels!]

  55. This reminds me of the old sales quip, “We lose money on every sale, but we’ll make up for it in volume.”

    (If the Romans had trouble with the concept of zero, they would have really been blown away with imaginary numbers.)

  56. We were just talking about this last night at my local writer’s guild meeting. I know someone who claims to be a “best selling author” because thousands of people had downloaded her FREE! book. Thanks for posting this!

  57. Well, I agree, Kristen, up to a certain point. FREE! classics are SO COOL! My Kindle is loaded with FREE! pre-1924 edition classics and I’m loving it. (Sorry McDonald’s.)

    • Jon on January 25, 2012 at 7:39 pm
    • Reply

    I personally love getting free books. I have discovered several authors that I really like and have bought other ebooks by them. There have been a couple I didn’t finish but I don’t mind since they were free. I have tossed more books by traditional publishers than ebooks. My issue is the high price of kindle versions of my favorite authors. I can’t bring myself to pay more than a paperback will cost in a year. And I will be able to pass the paperback on if I want. If I am going to pay $12 for one of my favorites I would probably add enough to buy the hardback on release day when there are sales.

    • Debra Eve on January 25, 2012 at 8:13 pm
    • Reply

    I did phenomenally well with a FREE promotion over Christmas — made enough bucks to cover my holiday shopping and saw my blog subscriber rate increase 50%. My book remains in the top-50 of two Kindle bestseller lists. All in all, good results, since my book is a blog anthology, the first of four, and I did it as an experiment.

    I made a big mistake, however. I didn’t plan for success. Others have alluded to FREE being useful to introduce a series, and I agree. I haven’t written the next in my series, and will loose this momentum by the time I do. Or perhaps not. It’s the Wild West out there now. Who knows?

  58. The other problem with free are bad reviews from people who wouldn’t have bought your book because it was never the right book for them. I had one 2 star review for a short story by someone who complained that it was too short. Um, didn’t they read the blurb that clearly said ‘short story’. After that I added the word count to all my stories.

    I try to have a free short story available at least some of the time as an advertisment for the collection of stories and other single stories I have available. I plan on rotating them, but the first one I had free downloaded around 6,000 books and I figure they mostly haven’t been read because the sales of the collection are still small despite excellent reviews.

  59. Free Diapers….Ok I just wanted to see what you’d do Kristen. 😉 great post

  60. Thanks for a great blog, as always.
    These days, when I see FREE I start sifting through the fine print. I don’t mean free books, but stuff like Writers Digest Partners churns out. It always has a catch. It starts off FREE ON HOW TO PICK GNATS SUCCESSFULLY Buy this book/course for $200 and get the three page addition/extra lesson FREE. (exaggeration, but you get my drift)
    Ergo, I have learned to mistrust FREE. Ain’t nothing FREE in this world except love and oxygen (and even oxygen is under threat 🙂

  61. @KaitNolan My sales are still modest enough to where there’s no way I’d give up the handful of sales I could get on other streams (and you’re right–if you’re not selling on other platforms, you’re not marketing on them) or the other less-tangible connections available to them. B&N has discussion communities (which I know I’m not taking advantage of) for many genres, f’r’ex. I’ve always been a bit of a maverick when it comes to most gadgets (I run Linux, yo) and I want to read ebooks the same way–on the device I want.

    I will happily play with FREE when I have more books out, or use FREE to pay it forward, or for karma purposes, but I also want to put out to the universe that yes, I do believe my work has value, and my expectations of said value are not unreasonable. But when the bloggers start to blog about FREE and question its efficacy, that’s a pretty accurate indicator that the signal-to-noise ratio is approaching 1:1.

    We’re all looking for that magic pill that will shoot us up to the top of the “get noticed” pile. This is one way to do it, but it’s not, and should not be, for everyone.

    1. That’s been the thing that has surprised me over the time I’ve been at this. The climate and “what works” changes SO FAST. So even what worked for me two years ago, would not work for me now most likely because everybody jumped on the band wagon. And as was said earlier, if everybody’s doing something, nobody’s gonna notice. The simple fact is that there is no magic pill. There’s writing a good book, hard work, and luck. The only thing we can control are the first two. Chances are we’re never going to be the next Amanda Hocking (who is one of the few names bandied about who was TRULY indie and did not have a massive traditionally published backlist), so it behooves us all to temper our expectations and put the bulk of our effort into improving the quality of our work.

  62. The funny thing I’ve found is that I would rather go for a regular priced 2 for one. Instead of a free book. & there’s this really long awaited 12th instalment of a series that I was hoping to get at the book store cuz it just came out, but walked out without it because even with traditional publishing they still wanted $30 for the big (my grandma could read this) hardcover version. Sorry to say but $30??? I don’t think so! And I own every single other book of hers (all in paperback). So yeah I think price does make a difference especially since audiences are becoming much more discerning (in all areas of media & entertainment. Just look at the movie “Touch of Evil” 1958 or “Vertigo” also 1958. Neither were even nominated for the oscar and neither did well in the box office. But now both are considered masterpieces! I think with art (and anyone who tries to convince you that art is only on a canvas is an idiot) is sometimes it takes a while to enter into the public’s consciousness and patience, love, and diligence is required to get you through! Xoxo much love to all the writers out there trying to bring their art to life for us!

  63. I joined the whole indie thing this past July. Since then I’ve been trying to build a platform, following the advice from your book and the WANA1011 workshop, and it’s working. But in 5 months on Smashwords (who distribute the titles to B & N and other ebook retailers), I ‘sold’ a whopping 66 books. And about half of them were free. Some from an occasional giveaway, some donated to other authors for contests and release events. So maybe 33 books in f5 months.

    So, even though I’d sold less copies on Amazon, I decided to give KDP a try. It was only a three month commitment and I didn’t feel like I had anything to lose.

    In that time I’ve done maybe 8 days of free promoting and given away about 4,500 copies of my books. I realize they may or may not be read, but I did get an email from one reader who wanted to know when the second book in my series will be released.

    I almost jumped for joy over that! But I’m also very happy that I’m moving up on nearly 1,000 REAL sales. I mean books that people are actually paying for. And this is in 38 DAYS. I know that’s not a lot of books…but it sure is an improvement over 33 in 5 MONTHS.

    Why did I make this decision? Because I have a new book being released in April. I wanted to get my name out there, and use all of my resources to start promoting the new book. It seems to be working. Maybe not on a huge scale, but a whole lot more people know who I am now.

  64. Interesting post, thanks Kristen. I have not offered either of my books for free as prizes or as part of a marketing strategy. My Regency novella ‘The Duke’s Blackmailed Bride’ has done very well on Amazon without freebies. However, I’ve recently published on Kindle a collection of stories by my very techno-phobe partner and this will be offered free as part of the Kindle Select programme. I’m interested to see how it goes. I agree with others that as part of a marketing strategy monitored ‘free’ has merit. Interesting that some commenters here have found books and new authors they’ve enjoyed. I’m keeping my fingers crossed but not desperately!

  65. FREE! is great for promotional purposes IF you clearly limit either the number of FREE! copies available or the timeframe for the giveaway. It works just like McDonald’s chicken bites, 1 toothpick full per customer the first week on the menu.

  66. This is really interesting. I’ve been working on a marketing plan, and one of the things I’d assumed I needed to do was to give away free copies. However, I never thought of it the way you’ve presented it here. It could definitely come back to bite you in the butt. What about contests? Yes, those are free, but don’t they give extra incentive? Or are those overdone as well?

  67. I’m so glad you posted this because, in preparation for my self-pub debut, I’ve started giving the whole free thing some thought. At first, as a new eReader, I was so excited about all the freebies. And I still am…to an extent. But somehow, I ended up with over 200 books on my iPad! WHAT??? I still have over 100 paper/hardbacks to read, and more always coming! I can’t do this! And…honestly, a lot of the free stuff out there is, to put it bluntly and rather harshly, waste of memory on my iPad. You know? I want to do a contest to launch my book, but after that, I’m not giving copies away for free.

    Of course, I still have to figure out exactly how to price it…coming from a noname like myself…

    • Elena Aitken on January 26, 2012 at 12:33 pm
    • Reply

    So many great comments for both sides here, which I think brings up a very clear point.
    What works for one author or even one book, is not going to work for another.
    I did go the free route with my newest release and it worked great. I had over 11,000 downloads in one day which translated very nicely into paid sales and higher rankings. It gave a new book a boost. For that book, it worked.
    For others? Maybe not.
    I think the important thing to remember, is that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution here. And to me, that’s the great thing about being an indie author.

  68. Free on Kindle also worked wonders for me. My novel, Snarky and Sweet, was downloaded 14,000 times this past Friday and Saturday for free and since then I’ve had a thousand sales. I know this wave won’t last but when the sequel comes out in a few months, I’m sure my publisher and I will do the same.

    I’m still on three bestseller lists and am holding at around 300 in all paid Kindle. I have a great blurb provided by my publisher, good reviews and I’ve networked like mad over the past five days. What it comes down to is quality of product. If Snarky and Sweet does turn out to be a book that folks like reading, I think some of those 14,000 folks will tell their friends. My book came out in October and I was unknown until this weekend. This may be my fifteen minutes of fame, but I have loved every minute. And it’s given me the confidence to get out the other five manuscripts and get them ready for a publisher. Susan

  69. A very topical and important subject, Kristen! And so many great comments. Free definately works best as a promotional tool to drive sales to your other products.

    But I have to confess something. I’ve downloaded a lot of free books, especially after Amazon KDP and so far I’ve only read those free books who were written by people I already knew. Aside from books of friends and known factors, books that I paid for are on the top of my to read list.

  70. Great post, Kristen. I finished ARE YOU THERE, BLOG and am now reading WE ARE NOT ALONE. Thank you for all the time and effort you put into writing both these books. They are absolutely inspiring.

    1. Awwww….sending you a digital *hug*

  71. I was just talking about this topic with my boyfriend the other night. We went out to dinner where our waiter was a friend of one of his band members, so the whole night he treated us to all these perks. He gave us free wine and an appetizer, and tripled the size of our steak order. I mean I think I was served a whole animal! It was awesome to be so gushed over, and we wanted to repay him with a really good tip. But we left thinking, how does this restaurant stay in business when they treat everyone to all that free food. Prices and costs are going up. It’s worth it if you see the traffic flow and business rise, but if it’s just helping meet your bottom line, could it be devaluing your dream.

    I had a great talk with Jody Hedlund about this too after her post on FREE books. Sometimes, it works, like I won a copy of Jody’s book, read it, LOVED it, and bought 3 more as gifts plus her first novel for me. Where it works is that because I contacted Jody and RAVED about her work, she’s willing to give one of my readers a copy of her book. I love those kinds of giveaways, when you can rave about someone’s work and introduce them to a crowd who will spark up conversation with you and the author. I never would have dreamed as a little girl that I would be chatting and emailing published authors before I’d earned that title myself. It’s funny how much has changed from what I imagined growing up to what the publishing industry is today. Lots to know and be smart about. I hope I can give that back 100% when I get there and be just as open and kind as you and Jody and the other writers/bloggers!

  72. Hi Kristen, great post! I must admit that for me the trend to ‘free’ isn’t great because it contributes to a market price point of ‘free’, ultimately devaluing what authors are doing not just in terms of income, but also in terms of the essential quality. Anybody can post a free book online – and I’ve posted on my own blog about the orgy of awful that usually follows. I have a nightmare vision of an e-book world dominated by ‘free’ tomes so awful that ‘Eye of Argon’ looks like literary genius. A relentless spiral into a Singularity of Hideous where the good stuff is swamped despite all best efforts. Aaaaaaargh!

    All of which points to the fact that ‘free’ book demand does NOT spiral to infinity per purist economic supply-and-demand curve theory. Other factors apply,to me notably including the real challenges of the new writing world – quality and being found in an increasingly crowded market.

    Optimistically, of course, there are some fabulous authors out there & I am sure they’ll find audiences. Maybe the way many musicians have gone – touring, making personal contact with small audiences, and selling copies as they go. We’ll see. Looking forward to your next post.

    Matthew Wright

  73. Super post!! And something I keep thinking! 🙂 The problem with free is that readers who might not be interested in your genre, might read it just for the heck of it. Then they might hate it because it’s not what they’re used to, ie: romance, paranormal, werewolves….but not of the horror genre.

    When you SELL the books, readers will pick them up because they want to read about such things, or they won’t shell out the money for them. But when it’s free, not so much the same. And ironically, when it’s free, it’s amazing how many bad reviews you can garner from readers who hate the genre the book is written in!

    Sure, you might find some new readers who would not give your books a try otherwise and end up with some new loyal readership, but will it be enough to make up for all the free copies given away? Probably not.

    I work at a library and readers will read anything on the new shelf, or put their name on the list for ANY new movie coming out whether it’s something they want to read or watch or not. It’s new and it’s free. We get a lot of gripes from patrons about how awful some of this stuff is. It’s not self-published, but published by NY pubs. Readers don’t take into account that it’s a genre they’d never read in ever if they had to pay for it. It’s just awful as far as they’re concerned. Period. And that’s what authors get so often when their books are offered for free.

    1. @terryspear – You are right about readers accepting free books from genres they might not normally read. My worst review came from a girl who had all of 13 books listed in her library. Twelve were about vampires, and one (mine) was a non-fiction book on marriage. She wrote that she “really tried, but couldn’t even make it past the first page” – then gave me half a star.

      However, with that rare exception, my experience giving away hard copies of my book has been very positive, garnering me dozens of enthusiastic reviews, as well as new friendships with some delightfully kindred spirits.

      I will probably continue to host giveaways, but will keep in mind that I’ll never be able to please everybody.

      Jennifer Flanders

    • Guy on January 28, 2012 at 12:36 am
    • Reply

    All true. And somebody had to say it.

    Dig your blog. I’LL BE BACK.

  74. The value garnered from your post and all of these comments is immeasurable! Thanks for providing this kind of forum … and still making us laugh out loud.

  75. Whether “free” is good or bad when it comes to ebooks gets a lot of discussion. I think authors often make things too difficult on themselves with debates such as this. All you have to do is test it for yourself to see if it’s a good idea for you or not.

    Go set an ebook to free. If your overall earnings increase because sales of your other ebooks increase, then having a free ebook out there is a good idea. If it doesn’t improve sales (or it hurts overall earnings), then take it off free.

    My overall earnings doubled (in the first month they tripled) when I set the first ebook in my series to free, so it remains free for now. At some point in the future, I’ll raise the price and test things again because marketplaces change. Test, test, test and let the results guide you. IMO, it’s that simple. (And it kills me a little every time I see authors arguing this back and forth *without* testing it for themselves. There are sayings about assumptions, and there’s a lot of truth in them.)

    1. Yes, but there are times where FREE! is just probably not a good idea. I am not against FREE!, but I AM for writers using it in a strategic way that makes SALES.

  76. The freebie problem is just as big in the other arts. How much does one expect a prospective patron, customer or collector to value one’s work if we, as artists, value it so little as to give it away. This particular bit stands out for me, says just about everything:

    “Oooh, they don’t give out FREE! stuff so their product must be more valuable.”

    The painter, sculptor, singer, or writer who is confident in their work or talent (or who can at least put on that air) must place a value on that work so others can see it truly is valuable.

    I often think of the prospective employee at a company my husband once worked for. He had a good work ethic and plenty of experience, but when the employer asked what wage he would be interested in the fellow gave a sum a good deal lower than what similar employees made. He was hired at that wage, but later learned he’d have made a good deal more on his check if he had just asked for it. He told the employer what he thought he was worth & thus he became worth less than others doing the same job.

    Seems to apply quite well to the freebie problem.

  77. Great post. I am struggling with the idea of free. My first novel, Gateway, is up at $2.99. I am thinking that once Book 2 is up next month I will go free for a short time on Book 1. I definitely don’t see much point unless going free on one book will lead to sales of the next. Because I am writing a series, the hope, of course, is that those who do read the free offering (I agree with your point that a certain percentage never will, even if downloaded) they will be hooked into the series and find the modest $2.99 price well worth the other volumes.

  78. I am one of the guilty readers who downloads a lot of free books. I rarely buy ebooks. I probably download six or seven free ebooks a week on my kindle. But I only manage to read about one a week. So, many of the writers who offer free books will have to wait months or years before I read their book.
    And it would have to be a truly amazing book for me to pay for an ebook. Now, I am not saying I won’t someday when I can afford it more easily. But, at the moment, I download free books because I can’t easily afford books at cost. I bet a lot of readers are like me.

  79. I just discovered your blog, and was intrigued by this entry as it’s been something that has really backfired for all the reasons that you state.

    I was published with Avon/Harper Collins for ten years, putting out ten books between 1991-2001 before I burned out and took a decade off to have and raise our daughter. About a year and a half ago, some of my author friends convinced me to bring out my backlist for e-books. I took their advice, revising and rewriting where needed and releasing the books at maybe one title per month until I had nine of my ten previously-published titles all out there and available for e-readers.

    My de Montforte brothers series of four tightly-connected books hit the Amazon bestseller lists and has stayed on those lists for about 18 consecutive months now. Every book that I’ve since released has also hit the bestseller lists. I’m grateful for that. But in this 18 months of time, I’ve seen some trends come and go, and some changes come about that as an indie author, I find quite alarming.

    About 15 months ago, I decided to make the first book in my 4-book series, THE WILD ONE, free as a “loss leader” into the other three books in the series (all priced at $4.99), and that has worked wonderfully for me. With an average of 200-700 downloads a day for this book, it sells the other three books in the series and the whole series has done well. Occasionally I’ll do a BookBub or an ENT ad for one of my other books outside of this series, and those promotions are usually quite effective, too — when it comes to selling/moving books.

    But there is more to selling books than just sales. Don’t most of us who run a promo campaign, dropping a book from, say, $3.99 to $0.99, do so in the hopes of getting a bump in the Amazon algorithm, getting readers to discover our books, and hopefully, adding some more reviews to our book’s page? This tactic has always worked well for me and others of my acquaintance, but about six months ago, most of us realized it was no longer working.

    For me, doing a promo six or eight or twelve months ago would usually sell a few hundred books and net a few new reviews on Amazon, and maybe one or two on B&N. But I did a promo for one of my books last month, selling several hundred copies, and that promo has not resulted in one single review. Not one. What does this tell me?

    It tells me that readers are grabbing every discounted and free book that they can grab, but that they don’t have the time to read them. It’s all about hoarding. It’s not at all about reading.

    So what is the point?

    As indie publishers, I feel like we’ve created a monster with free and discounted books. I’m on many lists and discussion boards, and every time I see a wide-eyed newbie going on and on about making her book “Free,” and extolling the benefits of doing so, I cringe. It’s one thing to make your book free if you have other books that this free book is likely to sell. It’s quite another to make your book free when you have little or no backlist because in the end, what does it gain? Sure, you might gain a reader who likes your book, but when that reader goes back to Amazon and sees that you have no other books out, she’s going to move on and quickly forget you. In the meantime, not only did you give away your work, but you added to what I see is a very serious problem that has become pretty much out-of-control over the past six months.

    That problem is that we have trained readers to expect to pay nothing for e-books, or 99 cents at most. We’ve trained them to realize that all they have to do is wait, and the book they’ve been eying for $3.99 will soon be on sale for 99 cents. We’ve trained them, with this “boxed set” phenomenon that has long since worn out its welcome and come back to bite us all in the behind, that there’s no reason to pay 99 cents for a single discounted book or $3.99 for a single full-price book when they can get four, six, even twelve books as a “boxed set” for a mere 99 cents. Why on earth should they pay full price for a book when there are so many cheapies to be had?

    It’s too late to stuff this proverbial cat back in the bag, and every day, I see more and more authors putting out boxed sets at 99 cents, newbies offering their books for free in order to “gain readers” and people whose e-readers are so full of books that there is no way they can possibly ever read them all. When even promotions don’t really “work” anymore because people can’t keep up with the books they already have, when there is such a surplus of books that nobody can possibly keep up with them all, we have a problem.

    And when readers expect these books to all be priced at Free! and 99 cents, we have an even bigger one.

    — Danelle Harmon, NYT & USA Today Bestselling Author

    1. I’ve seen this trend, but another intriguing one as well. When Locke started all the FREE stuff and .99 sales, a bunch of indies jumped on the bandwagon. Soon, people were willing to pay more for a book because they were tired of downloading junk. We saw in 2010, the front pages of Amazon loaded with .99 and $1.99 books. Two years later? More like $4.99 -$6.99. People (readers) have always been book hoarders. How many times have I gone to the library only to check out three times more titles than I ever read? Or a garage sale or resale bookstore? I have STACKS of books I bought even full price I haven’t gotten to. This is why social media has to be paired in our marketing because it creates a relationship. We’re no longer just any book but a “friend’s” book and not only does that bump it to the top of the reading list, readers are far more likely to review and spread the word.

      I’ve long extolled that writers couldn’t rely on algorithms, promotions and pricing. Those only take us so far in a market that’s exploding and in an age where advertising is virtually invisible. It’s a race to the bottom of who can give away the most for free.

      And if we study the numbers, an author will make far more money selling at $3.99 than $10.99, because this moves more units overall and encourages people to take risks. Also, I think we are in a new age. We haven’t had enough years to see enough data. Are there times of year that there are more sales? This is true in traditional. Why are we immune? Also, I think this will be a lot like the dot.coms. People who aren’t in this for the right reasons and who are wanting to use this as a Gold Rush don’t possess the work ethic and patience that other authors (such as yourself) have honed over many years. These writers looking for the pot of gold will be like sparklers *WHOOOOOOSH…fizzle*.

      I think we have created new problems, but we traded those for new advantages (for instance, moth-balled backlists now creating revenue). Every age has a new set of troubles and many of those will work themselves out if we are patient and just keep doing our job. Yet, I cannot count how many times I’ve heard writers say, “I just want to write. I don’t want to TALK to anyone (regarding social media).” Okay, so readers are supposed to part with money they don’t have and time that is even more precious for an author “artist” who can’t be bothered to be a human? We’ll gravitate to authors who take two minutes to connect.

      Thank you for such a thoughtful response. Again, I think time will tell and patience, reinvention and connection are key. Also, writers working together, but that’s a WHOLE other post which I will do later. But, in short, I don’t permit spamming on #MyWANA or WANA. I see SO many “writers helping writers” groups and all they do is spam. That’s not team work; it’s self-serving and ineffective. Also, for five years I’ve been nudging writers out of being the All-Writing-All-The-Time-Channel (and they scream like I am the anti-christ). They tweet about writing and blog about writing and Facebook about writing, and insist on doing blog tours on “reader sites (which is maybe 6-8% of the population). But writers (devoted self-professed readers) are a small group when there are billions of people on the planet. It’s also an oversold and worn out group. Who cares if someone only reads one or two books a year if they are OUR books? And there are HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS of those people.

      THANK YOU!


    • Jason on January 28, 2014 at 2:03 am
    • Reply

    As a consumer, not a writer I have found many good series from a Free! promo. Yes, some free ebooks books are a drudge read, but if the author does have a good book and I pick it up and like it, I am very, very likely to throw money their way on the other books.

    Even more important, is the power of the friend recommendation on social networking. If I like a book, and I am following the author and they say, “Hey, I am going to do a Free! promo on my first or latest novel, this weekend only, tell your friends” I will tell my friends (or maybe they will tell me) and they will download them and read them and share them themselves. We will have more common books and authors to discuss and new books or series to read. That has worked very well, but, I agree, it doesn’t work for everyone as I can only follow and read and recommend so many authors or books.

  80. I’m new to the self publishing world and appreciated this blog. You make a lot of sense. I offered my novel free for one day, got over 600 downloads and went to # 2 in mystery but the next day only 8 people bought it. It’s tough when well known writers are matching my 2.99 price. Granted, the books aren’t their newest but I think readers don’t feel like their risking their money with someone known.

  81. Hi Kersten! So glad I found your blog. I completely agree with you about giving our work away for free. My first book is coming out in the ext couple of weeks so this information is perfect timing for me. Here is the link from my blog/page with linking your blog. Thanks for this great info! https://www.facebook.com/AuthorMelissaEBeckwith

  1. […] What’s the Problem With FREE ebooks? by Kristen Lamb – Before you decide to give your ebook away to try to entice new readers, you need to consider the questions Kristen raises. […]

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  12. […] are a lot of problems with giving books away for FREE! We shouldn’t be giving away our work unless it serves some kind of a strategic advantage. There […]

  13. […] are a lot of problems with giving books away for FREE! We shouldn’t be giving away our work unless it serves some kind of a strategic advantage. […]

  14. […] are a lot of problems with giving books away for FREE! We shouldn’t be giving away our work unless it serves some kind of a strategic advantage. There […]

  15. […] are a lot of problems with giving books away for FREE! We shouldn’t be giving away our work unless it serves some kind of a strategic advantage. There […]

  16. […] are a lot of problems with giving books away for FREE! We shouldn’t be giving away our work unless it serves some kind of a strategic advantage. […]

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