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The Power of Free: How to Sell More E-Books

29 March 2016

From Publishers Weekly:

Do you want to sell more books and increase the value of your author brand? Then give some of your e-books away for free.

To many authors, the idea of giving their work away for free is counterintuitive—and possibly abhorrent and sacrilegious. Free devalues your work, right?

Wrong. Free makes your work more valuable. As an author, you are a brand. Readers buy books from authors who have earned their trust. But to earn readers’ trust, you must first earn their awareness. If readers don’t know you, they can’t trust you—your brand carries no value to them. You’re invisible. Even if you’re already a New York Times bestseller, there are millions of potential readers out there who have never heard of you and have never read your stuff.

Free makes it possible to reach new readers who would otherwise never take a chance on you. Free enables readers to sample and discover new authors without financial risk.

According to the 2015 Smashwords Survey, free e-books get 41 times more downloads on average than other e-books. This is the power of free. Free drives sampling and discovery.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Advertising-Promotion, Pricing, Self-Publishing, Smashwords

51 Comments to “The Power of Free: How to Sell More E-Books”

  1. *clicks through*
    *checks date of article*
    *is confused*

  2. Is Kindle Unlimited the best of both worlds? Effectively free to customers but authors still get paid? And yes, I know that customers still subscribe, but I think there’s a difference in mindset between subscribing to a pool of content and buying any particular content specifically.

    • Of course. You don’t think of yourself as ‘buying’ movies on Netflix. No, you pay a fee and you get access to all of them… for free! I think that’s why it’s such a huge success. Unlike Netflix where virtually everyone watches movies and TV, only the people who really love reading would be using KU.

    • Is Kindle Unlimited the best of both worlds?

      Yes. It’s the answer to the continued increase in available supply. It’s a price decrease packaged a bit differently.

  3. I’ve heard from a few authors that free books don’t work. You get a lot of looky-loos who always get free books, but don’t necessarily read them. Or those who do, don’t like what they see, and crap on the book in a review.

    Making a novel available for a buck, however, gets you people who are willing to risk a buck, or at least read the excerpt and decide if it’s right for them.

    • That’s my planned strategy for a trio of novellas I’m about to release: First book for .99, next two for 2.99/ea. Besides, I thought Amazon didn’t allow perma-free?

      ETA: Also, anyone have any thoughts as to whether I should release all three at the same time, or wait a month in between each release?

      • Laura Montgomery

        I would wait a month. This would stretch out that glorious time on Amazon where you are in the first 30 days/90 days over a longer period of time. If they are a series, you give people time to read the first and want the second. Maybe you do a pre-order on the second in the series, with a sample chapter in the back of the first in the series. If they aren’t in a series, you don’t want them cannibalizing each other.

        This advice goes directly contrary to the Liliana Nirvana technique (google that) that worked very well for a romance writer who put up several all at once.

        • Thanks for the advice, Laura. It is a series, and I read about the Liliana Nirvana thing on H.Howey’s site, which is precisely why I was asking. It seems like what works for one author/genre doesn’t always cross over to others, but it’s always good to get ideas.

          • Laura Montgomery

            Sure. I’m no expert and it’s just my two cents based on the obvious Amazon advantages of the first 30 and 90 days. Things to think about.

          • I tried the Liliana Nirvana technique in the fantasy genre (but not a series) and found that the 5 titles cannibalized one another. The next time I have several titles ready to release at the same time, I will release them one at a time across several months.

        • This is a good alternative. I was thinking of the Liliana Nirvana technique for later this year, but I think I like better the idea of allowing promotion and pre-order strategies.

      • As a reader, if I like the book, I look for the next one as soon as I finish. If I’m told I have to wait a month or two, it goes on the wish(wait) list, and maybe I come back to it.

        Three books? I could read those in a week or less. Don’t make me wait months (or years!) if they’re ready.

    • Free, on it’s own, doesn’t work. Free combined with a deeper strategy (such as being the first step in larger funnel towards eventual sales) can be massively effective.

  4. Hey, PW, 2012 is on the phone and want’s its article back.

  5. I had my first in series free for two years and it worked amazingly well as a loss-leader, but in Dec it started loosing steam. I pulled it off perma and put it in KU. I’m using it as a reader magnet for my FB ads now, but may put it back to perma this summer so it’ll be a fresh offering again. Free isn’t what it used to be but it can be a strategic tool if used correctly.

  6. Amazon won’t do perma-free UNLESS you use a workaround. Neither will B&N, officially, but you can put up your book free on Smashwords and opt in to B&N distribution, then notify Amazon. Amazon won’t price-match Smashwords but they will price-match the free book on B&N. Oh, Amazon WILL do free for a few days if your book is exclusive to them. See their Run a Price Promotion option.

    A big downside to freebies: You get the It’sAllAboutMe crowd. They hate, say, romantic suspense, but download it because it’s free. Then they post a one-star review, saying, This book didn’t change my mind about disliking romantic suspense.

    I don’t have an opinion about posting the three novellas simultaneously or one per month. Not sure it matters. Just be sure the packaging and blurbs work really well. On second thought, if you publish them one at a time, this gives you a chance to get feedback and fine-tune.

    Good luck!

    • Excellent, thanks for the response Jacqueline. Interesting what you mention about the one-star reviewers. Sounds like people who are bored with life, and looking to complain about something. 😛

    • A big downside to freebies: You get the It’sAllAboutMe crowd. They hate, say, romantic suspense, but download it because it’s free. Then they post a one-star review, saying, This book didn’t change my mind about disliking romantic suspense.

      This is hilarious…or maybe sad…at any rate, I’ve given away a good number of books through various promotions and I’ve not seen an uptick in either reviews or sales. I suspect most were never read.

      I don’t worry about it any more. I price my books very reasonably and spend very little time monkeying around with it. Instead, I try to concentrate on getting the next one done and published.

      • I have a short story that averages 50 free d/l per month on Apple iBooks for the last 3 years.

        It has 1 review.

        I have yet to sell a single copy of anything else on iBooks.

        • Grr – my edit timed out.

          The short story has been free via Smashwords for 3 years. The title is “Impressive Bravado.” There have been no halo sales on iBooks, Smashwords or any of Smashwords vendor sites.

    • You can go perma-free on Amazon, or at any time that suits, for as long as suits, by not using KDP to upload to Amazon. StreetLib, for example, will let you list on Amazon for free.

  7. The article might be old but its not antiquated. FREE still works very well for me. I permafree’d my first-in-series back in 2012 and it still funnels traffic to the rest of my series. The numbers don’t lie, my conversion rate tells me to keep it FREE and I intend to until those numbers change.

    As for people gobbling up FREE books and never reading them I basically ignore that. I view them as seeds, some grow within weeks and others don’t sprout for years. People find it on their kindle, remember that they downloaded it years ago and decide to give it a read. I get comments like “This sat on my kindle for X until I gave it a try, glad I did.”

    I’d rather the book was already on their kindle than waiting to be put there.

    YMMV, but for me a FREE first-in-series was the game changer. One that’s still working.

    • Thanks, I was wondering if the “first hit is free” strategy is still working.

      As a reader, I do grab free and 99 cent books, but those are usually sales on books I’ve heard of but never saw. Or, they’re books that I’ve read before in paperback and now want as an ebook. Some are completely new to me and they’re in a mental to-read pile. I think you’re right to see your free books as seeds.

  8. Do you want to sell more music and increase the value of your musician brand? Then publish some of your music on cassettes.

  9. Based on my experiences with freebie promos, my guess (and it’s purely anecdotal, so take it for what it’s worth) is that those extra 40 downloads per copy sold consist of 20 e-hoarders who may read the book as soon as they get through the previously downloaded 2,000 other freebies and 18-20 who’ll happily read any book of yours, as long as it’s free, leaving maybe one or two who might spend money on a sequel, if they liked the first book enough.

    A $0.99 book may get around 1/10 as many extra downloads (call it 4 versus 40), of which half will be happy to buy your other books as long as it’s on sale, and two who might buy the sequels at full cover price. Assuming those numbers are anything near accurate, $0.99 is far superior. At the very least, you made some money. On top of that, I’ve found the freebie-chasers tend to be an entitled lot, which often translates to bad reviews and other annoyances.

    The other factor to consider is, if you sell primarily or solely through Amazon: free rankings do not affect paid rankings (I believe they used to, but that hasn’t been the case for a while). Even worse, while the book is free it is removed from the Paid In Kindle list. Even a promotional 7–day free period will hurt the book, especially a new release, where it counts – in the rankings that determine whether or not AZ will start doing promotion for you, through the Hot New Release/Best Seller list and the rather important ‘Also Boughts’

    Again, this is based on my experience, mostly in the SF&F genre and relying nearly 100% on Amazon for distribution, so results may differ greatly by genre, distribution venues. It’s certainly convinced me never to do a freebie promo again, though.

  10. 2,000 people downloaded the first book in my series when I put it free the last few days of 2014. Maybe a dozen people bought the second book. I’m pretty sure that 1,990 people still have my book on their Kindle and never read it.

    On the other hand, since my BookBub ad in January, where I priced Darkness Rising at 99 cents, I’ve had steady sales of books two and three as well as book one.

    Free has done nothing for me. YMMV.

  11. Two years ago I sold 18 books a month. Today I sell 10,000+ a month. What changed? I gave away 500,000 books, with the help of twelve bookbub freebies. The freebies were 1’s and 0’s. The money they brought in is real.

  12. After five years of intense discussion of this topic, I think we can conclude that some people prosper with free, and some don’t.

    • Sure, but I think what really drives the discussion is that people are trying to figure out whom it works for, how, and why so that they can learn from those findings and effectively incorporate free work as part of a marketing plan.

      • Agree. What have we learned other than it works for some and doesn’t work for others?

        • I can’t speak to what you’ve learned, Terrence. For me, I’ve drawn inferences about what situations and genres it’s best for, when to use, and for how long.

          As a for example, I don’t write series. I have two novels out, both of which stand alone — and then several other books that are collections of essays or poetry or something. Based on discussions I’ve seen, free seems to work best when offered as a limited-term promotion for a series, so it probably wouldn’t work well for me. But if I were to do a series of something it might.

          Ditto tools and tactics like pre-orders, and Bookbub.

          I guess some of us take more from the discussions than others.

    • What Terrence said. And for those interested in why it works for some, and always will, I wrote what I thought was a pretty well-researched post a couple years ago that I think still holds up fairly well:

      http://scottwilliamcarter.com/2014/09/02/when-giving-away-free-books-is-the-smartest-thing-a-writer-can-do/

      It’s certainly still working for me. 🙂

  13. Curious anecdotal evidence. Free works for some, not for others.

    If I had a minute to spare, I would index each respondent to see if genre makes a difference. For instance, John Ellsworth seems to say that FREE works for Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Thrillers; Meryl Yourish says FREE has not worked for Science Fiction & Fantasy > Fantasy > Sword & Sorcery.

    Someone else wanna index FREE failure and success by genre and report the results? I shall be grateful.

    • I have little success with free or $0.99 for fantasy. My book-1-in-series is always a little discounted ($5.99 vs $6.99) at full price.

      I recently did a simple experiment: since I have no traction on Kobo, I did a free there of a book-1-in-series. One month later, I saw a sale of book 2. One sale.

      Now, since I have nothing to lose on Kobo, I’ll probably repeat the exercise, for a longer period, strictly out of academic curiosity. Kobo’s doing a good job of making this easy to try. But I have long since separated my full-price sales from my discounted ones in my detailed units-sold analysis spreadsheet.

    • There’s a second aspect to the last five year’s discussion on free. A subset of those who do not prosper wants everyone else to stop making their books free. They argue the collective of independent authors is harmed by free books.

      God Bless self-interest, for without it, prosperity is a stranger.

  14. Everything I’ve read from other authors indicates that the mindset is changing since the early days of e-books. Free just goes into a pile on the device of compulsive freebie downloaders and disappears usually never read. Plus many people I know who get free reads never buy anything as they only want free things.
    I’m planning on substantially lowering prices on the FIRST book in a series as a teaser and
    I’ve started having large excerpts of new books for free on my blog – even larger than the look inside on Amazon – and then a link to buy it at the end. It seems to have increased my acquisition rate a little.
    Now I just need to drive more readers to my site to make it really pay off.

    • Free just goes into a pile on the device of compulsive freebie downloaders and disappears usually never read.

      How do we measure that behavior? How do authors know?

      That behavior is probably reprsented in fiction consumers, but to what extent? Two percent of free downloads are read, or 98% are read?

  15. Barbara Morgenroth

    Joe Konrath had 40,000 books downloaded on Sunday I think it was. He was happy. It works for him or he wouldn’t do it.

    I’ve done the permafree and the Amazon free promos. Never impressed. So I’m giving away 1/2 of one of my books starting today.

  16. Free, the magic word. And what can be better than free, Perma-Free. For six months I had my best selling vampire “Vampire Vlad V” book for free. The series has five books. It makes sense to have a lost leader, and be able to sell the other four books at full price. And here are the results:
    Amazon: Free downloads 1440, Other books sold -20% from previous six months
    D2D: Free downloads 489, Other books sold 5
    On Amazon my sales dropped, were down by 20%.
    On D2D, Apple, B&N, Kobo, and others sold only five (5) books.
    So what’s going on? Either my books don’t sell anymore, or it’s a decline in eBook sales, OR Free means nothing. It’s free, I’ll get it and I’ll read it when I have the time, which most likely is never. For the foreseeable future free is not my game. I rather advertise and sell my books for 99 cents, than free.
    Anyone can share their experience? Not what other people say they did.

    • I got about 600 sales of Darkness Rising since my 99 cents sale on BookBub, and have since gotten steady sales of all three books. I went from “coffee money” to “Wow, I can start paying a bill or two” in sales–since January 7th.

      Again, I put Darkness Rising on free the last days of December 2014. 2,000 downloads, a handful of sales after that. No bump in sales whatsoever, really.

      The funds from the January sale are hitting my bank account now. Very helpful, as I was laid off from my job in September and money is tight.

  17. Free no longer works as a general all-purpose, no plan, just shoot it out there, strategy.

    But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work at all.

    Just like everything else, it has to be applied when it works best and stopped when the tide shifts a little. Doing it temporarily (permafree on a tempafree basis) can have a great effect on a completed series for people who surf the freebies.

    But on a permanent basis, it can start to have diminishing returns because the same people see it.

    Also by genre. KU is the new free for some genres now.

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