Some Thoughts About Free Ebooks

Back in the day, all of three years ago, putting an ebook out for free could have a significant impact on discovererability. But ever since Amazon announced it’s Amazon Select program (December 2011)  the plethora of free books has significantly decreased the effectiveness of this type of promotion. So what should authors consider in today’s environment?  Well here are some of my thoughts.

Traditionally Published Authors

Many may think that free is only a consideration when self-published, but traditionally published authors have some options as well. Even those under contract are usually allowed to write non-book length titles, and a free short story can make a lot of sense.  It can be particularly helpful  when the story is an introduction to a longer series. This gives an exceptional opportunity to provide the readers with something that costs nothing and takes a small investment in time to introduce them to your work. I did exactly that with The Viscount and the Witch a short story for my Riyria Revelations series. I give it away for free at my website (in a wide range of formats), but it also free on Amazon, ibookstore, Kobo, and Smashwords.

Another option for traditionally published authors is to ask your publisher for a free extended preview. Generally this gives away a good portion of the book to give the reader a longer period of time to evaluate if they like your style. It is especially beneficial if you can find a spot early on in the novel that serves to really sink the hooks into the reader. Cliff hangers in full-length novels can be a bad thing, but in an extended preview, it makes it likely that they’ll hit purchase to find out what happens next. With my new release,  The Crown Tower, I convinced my publisher to created an ebook with the first five chapters (80 pages). At that point in the story it wraps up a major event and so in some ways, it’s like getting a self-contained novella. For my next book, Hollow World, I have a place picked out that should really make people want to see what happens next. Again, the concept here is the same as a free short story, to give the reader a taste of your writing with the hopes they’ll want to read more. Be forewarned, though, don’t do this with a story that you think is weak, as you’ll end up losing sales. They’ll reach the end of the preview and decide the book wasn’t for them.

Besides getting people hooked there is another reason for doing an extended preview. If you have a shorter work, or one with a lot of front matter, the standard preview may end before the reader even gets to the first chapter, or may only offer a page or two.Amazon doesn’t allow you to set where the standard preview ends so making your own free preview may be the only way to get the reader to the meat of your piece. I’ve found this happen quite a bit with non-fiction titles with extensive forewords.

Self-Published Authors

Authors who self-publish have more flexibility than traditionally published ones. Not only do they have the two options above, but they also have the ability to make whole novels free. I’ve yet to see a traditionally published title that is made free, although with the substantial discounting that is being done these days, my guess is we might see a few titles do this during the Christmas buying season.

But just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that you should.  Too often I see self-published authors offering free books when I don’t think it is appropriate.  When are these times?

  • You have only one book for sale
  • You haven’t professionally packaged the book
  • You don’t have any reviews

In the first instance putting a book for free really isn’t getting you anything. Sure a bunch of downloads might boost your ego, but being an author-publisher means thinking with your business head not the emotional side of your brain.  Once a person has that book, there is nothing from you that they can open their wallet for. Resist the impulse.  Save this kind of promotion for when you have two or preferably three books on the market.

For those authors who are “dipping their toes” in the self-publishing pool a free ebook can actually hurt your reputation. If you have just taken some trunk novel (that wasn’t good enough for traditional) or slapped something together to see if it will sell, it’s probably not best to attract a large number of downloads. A book that isn’t “ready for primetime’ will leave a bad taste in your reader’s mouths and may make it so that they never try anything else from you.  If anything, a free book needs to be your strongest work as the whole idea is to get someone to love your writing so much that they’ll pay for your other titles.

When you have a book with few or no reviews, putting it for free doesn’t make sense.  For one thing, while it may draw some people to your page,many won’t hit download because they don’t want to be the guinea pig. They see the lack of reviews and even when free they don’t want to expend the time to give it a try. Also, those who get books free (or for little money) are actually more likely to leave a bad review than those that pay full price. Often this is because you are getting readers for which that book isn’t in one of their preferred genres or not something they would normally read, but since it is free they figure “why not.”  By putting the book into the hands of those that it may not be the best fit for, you increase the chance of negative reviews and then you are left with a book with not only a low number of reviews, but the few that are there are ranked poorly.’

Making  books free

Unfortunately there are only two ways to get books free – and one doesn’t always  work.

  • Amazon Select – allows the author to make the book free for 5 days out out of 90.  The catch is you have to have the book ONLY available on Amazon.  This exclusivity can upset potential customers on other platforms (such as the nook) but to me the worst thing about Select is that authors use it too much. They can be on it for years and it basically trains their readers to “wait for the next free cycle.” They are being trained that books that show the “Prime” icon will usually become free eventually so they just watch and wait.
  • Price matching – doesn’t always work, and no one has figured out the “magic” that gets Amazon to do this. Things that probably help are: steady sales, good numbers of reviews, high rating of the reviews.  Basically what you do is put the book for free on a site such as ibookstore or Kobo then wait for the Amazon “bots” to find the lower price and match it.  You can even help them by going to your book’s page and hitting the “Tell us about a lower price” link, which appears just above the customer reviews.

Wrapping Up

Personally, I tend to use free in limited ways, namely extended previews and short stories. To me, a novel represents a significant revenue stream and takes a significant amount of time to produce. For those reasons I don’t do free novels (even when I was self-published).  I did do a free promotion once where I put the second book in my series free for a three-week period. This worked out well because those who downloaded it, noticed it was the second book and immediately bought the first one.  This gave me a large number of sales even while giving a book away. Had I done it the other way around (making the first book free) they may or may not have bought the second book.

One last thing that bears noting…a download is not a guaranteed “new reader.” I have hundreds of free books on my devices, many of which I’ve never cracked. Usually its because I’ve heard of the author and if I continue to hear good things I’ll want to give their book a try. By downloading those things that might have future interest for me I lower the barrier of entry for that author.  This technique has already gotten me to read, buy, and enjoy several author’s works that I wouldn’t have if the books weren’t free but the vast majority of those books will never convert me.

In any case, each author is different and experiences vary widely. I recommend some experimentation with free to see if it works for you and your titles, but don’t think of it as panacea. Even “back in the day” free produced only a handful of downloads for many authors and nowadays its even harder to get your free book to get noticed. Experiment, sure, but don’t think that you have to do free just because you perceive it as a “must’ in today’s environment.

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