Why offer your ebook for free?

Every day hundreds of thousands of books are given away free on Amazon in Amazon’s ebook programme, Kindle Select. There’s a lot of buzz surrounding this programme since it was introduced in August 2011 Amazon announced KDP Select, both positive and negative.

Why are authors, and in some cases even publishers, giving their books away for free?

Isn’t the goal of most authors – indies or otherwise – to make enough money selling books so we can give up the day job and focus on writing full-time? Although we’re quite aware that’s only attainable to a handful of us – think E.L. James – we’re still satisfied with that extra pocket money that will take the family to Euro Disney during the off season.

It is a revolutionary thought to offer your slave work for free. Since writing became a profession, we have all been hack writers living on Grub Street. Our collective consciousness consisted of the following steps: write the best book you can, pay for editing if you can, find the best cover and write the neatest blurb, upload, write another and yet another and get lucky. Some succeeded, most plodded on with just a few sales to their names and hardly any visibility amidst the millions of competitors.

And now 20,000 free downloads is enough to get your book into the top 100 free all ebooks on Amazon! Sudden, immense visibility, perhaps the tool to get you out of Grab Street for good?

But there remains that tinge, that strange taste in my mouth. What about my hard work thrown on the cobbled streets of Kindle Mania for all to devour? Will there still be respect for my craft and  – more importantly – will it increase my sales after the free promotion is closed?

A while ago I had a discussion on Twitter with my UK writer friend Viv Tuffnell about the pros and cons of  “giving your books away” on Amazon for promotional purposes. Viv is very much against this common practice among Indie authors as she’s adamant offering your books for free is equal to killing the business.

My publisher Taylor Street Books makes our books free for two days per month. I have no say in it. As I’m new to the published world, I rely on my publisher for following the right promotional routes. Still, from the start I have had mixed feelings about my book When The Ink Dries being offered for free. Excited about seeing it climb the ranks of Freebies and sad that all these downloads would not be translated into cash. The first months I eagerly awaited more reactions from readers and more reviews but nothing showed up and soon after the free days my book sank down in the paid ranks and disappeared in obscurity again.

Now is the relaunch on my debut novel a thing in itself – it was first published under the title Casablanca, My Heart and still available as such, so maybe I’m not a good example – more about this soon! However, Viv’s firm standpoint made me decide to hold a modest poll on my FB Author page to find out what my friends think of Kindle Select. Here are the results:

It gets my name out there                                                    20 votes

It doesn’t give me more reads or reviews                          13 votes

It’s an excellent promotional tool                                         6 votes

I won’t do it                                                                                5 votes

It’s killing the business                                                            5 votes

Each time I’ve run my 2 Select books free my other books have seen great sales           2 votes

People only go for the freebies these days, they hardly buy a book anymore                   4 votes

So does it work?

I’m not convinced, not so anti either, but certainly not convinced. Maybe it’s too soon to have a solid opinion?


17 Responses to “Why offer your ebook for free?”

  1. Diane Nelson says:

    When I offered The Conference for free over the standard 5-day period via Kindle Select, I shot to #2 on women’s lit and had an amazing 30000 downloads. In 5 days! Surely, if only 1% of those readers would have ‘liked’ and reviewed—good, bad or indifferent—I should have seen a steady rise in the rankings. What I achieved was a very respectable 400+ sales/month for about 45 days, including a steady rise up the ranks. Then Amazon (again) changed their algorithm and the novella plummeted into obscurity and sales halted, completely dead in the water.
    So, no more sales, no reviews, no likes. There are 30K copies sitting out in cyberspace that will likely never be read as the sheer numbers of free reads continues to escalate.
    I no longer offer my work for free on Amazon. What I do is run a serial on my Saints and Sinners website. I’ve developed a small but rabid following. I have rediscovered the joy of writing for people who ‘get me’. When the book is finished I will offer it free to those supporters. It will be my choice. It is my gift to them for believing in me.
    I don’t write for commercial success, never did, never will. I found my slot and a way to engage with readers. But I do believe giving your work away for the sole purpose of trying to achieve name recognition is counter-productive in this new world of publishing.

  2. Tom Winton says:

    For the past six months I’ve been averaging 350 sales per month (two months I had 500), and two thirds of them came right after free Amazon promos. The downside…I ran one of my novels free on Thursday (for just one day), finished at #42 on the top 100 free US bestseller list, and have only sold 30 copies in the 2 1/2 days since.

    The first time I ran my Four Days with Hemingway’s Ghost (for two days) it finished at #9 overall. I picked up about 200 sales that time. Yes, Select has brought me sales, but they are dwindling and nothing like the numbers a free promo would have brought about nine months ago. What Diane said on your site was absolutely correct, Hannah. Amazon has changed the Select algorithms, and not in favor of us indies.

    They no longer shed the light on the books that finish high in the free promotions. I know an author who finished at about #23 free one month last winter and earned $12,000 dollars within a few days after. Ever since Amazon began pushing their five new publishing imprints, they almost exclusively shed light only on the works of their authors of those who have publishers.

  3. Viv says:

    I may have overstated my case, for which I apologise.
    I think it may have been effective in the first months of select, in terms of getting one’s name known. But now there are a burgeoning number of names, growing every month. If you want to get your name known, then another approach may be better, such as Diane’s suggestion. I began blogging some years before I put a book out there, and that has itself been a good strategy(though not a deliberate one) because I didn’t blog about writing but rather about a number of other things, mental health, philosophy etc. I’ve also put up shorts and poems and whatever too.
    Concerning the free books I myself downloaded: apart from the classics, I’ve read almost none. There is a psychological kink here, that people rush to get free things, but seldom value them as much as things they have paid for. Now I won’t usually take free downloads, because I know I will probably not ever read them. I have stated in several places that should someone want one of my books and genuinely not be able to buy it, I am happy to send them personally a pdf of it. There have been, to date, no takers.
    Like many sales ploys, the free promotion one is time limited and is wearing off. Those it may work for are those who have a series; make the first one free and people may buy the rest.

  4. Jillian Ward says:

    When Taylor Street put Saving Nathaniel on Kindle free a few months ago, it did really well, reaching #3 in free contemporary romance, which spilled over into sales for a couple of weeks afterwards. This seemed rather a good do, I was very pleased, so I thought I would try it with my other books. Big mistake. It took an awful lot of trouble to make them ‘exclusive’ to Amazon, withdrawing them from sale on Smashwords, B&N, Sony etc, and after all the faffing about, the result was piddling at best. A moderate download of freebies, followed by either single digit sales or a big fat zero. It took nearly as long to get them back into the catalogues.

    Since then I have been informed that Saving Nathaniel has been ‘kicked off’ the select program because, say Amazon, it was on sale elsewhere. Apart from my own website, which links to Amazon, it isn’t, so I don’t know what’s going on there. After Anima Mea finishes its stint on select, I won’t be opting in again. It’s more trouble than its worth, and it’s not like mine have a huge price tag – $1.99. It’s less than the price of a medium cappuccino – and lasts longer.

  5. Maria K. says:

    I am very anti-freebie. VERY. I have offered them in the past, but not anymore. First, I believe that writing is work and that a writer must be paid for his or her work. Second, the freebie download surges do not lead to more sales or reviews – one author after another has been forced to admit it. You have expressed it very well, Hannah, “But there remains that tinge, that strange taste in my mouth. What about my hard work thrown on the cobbled streets of Kindle Mania for all to devour? Will there still be respect for my craft and – more importantly – will it increase my sales after the free promotion is closed?”

    Third, it’s the oddest thing, but ever since I quit the Kindle Select slavery… pardon me… enrollment 😉 and stopped making my books available to loan, a whole bunch of other issues went away. There were no mysterious price changes. There were no books offered free outside of the promotion days. There were no sales with zero royalties. They just all disappeared. But my sales went up.

  6. Reggie says:

    I write as a hobby.
    I work a very hard shift system in a steelworks, (seven days on, two days off) and basically I don#t have the time to take it seriously, which is a shame because I’m great… 😉
    Joking aside, I feel the only way to push your name out there is by writing as much as you can, keeping your work cheap and dishing out freebies every now and then.
    Let’s face it, Kindle has changed the market horribly for any aspiring author, so harbouring dreams of making writing a full time profession is for the bored housewife, unemployed student or old age pensioner, because unless you have a second income, an uncle in one of the big six or the writing talent of a genius, it ain’t going to support your wife, kids and house.
    Nothing wrong with freebies in my humble opinion, you just have to regulate it properly; maybe make ONE book free every now and then but keep the others out of it? I don’t know, but if your work is good, the people will come back for more.
    If it’s crap, they won’t. Simples.

  7. Micki Street says:

    When I put my book on freebie I had about 25,000 downloads and in the blink of an eye I did get to #1 – it was a blink, but I managed to take a snap shot! After the free days, I sold very few books – garnered 3 or four reviews and my rankings dipped faster than the blink of an eye!. The other reviews I have are from people who offer to review (no payments made).

    But I often wonder if Amazon didn’t introduce the select programme to promote the sales of their Kindle. Buy a kindle and download hundreds of free books – a good sales gimmick for Amazon.

  8. Hi Hannah, interesting article. I’ve done three promos for The Aunt Sally Team. During all three, it shot to # 2 in kindle free best sellers. After promo sales were brilliant after the first two promos, netting me hundreds of sales/£££ and lasting weeks. The book got to 3 in humour in paid and 58 in overall kindle paid best sellers. The third promo was a flop. Despite the high free ranking, I only sold 39 books after the promo ended. Was it because I’d already done two promos or because the market/Amazon has changed. I don’t know. I intend to make The Aunt Sally Team free again in December, when I publish the sequel and we shall see.

  9. I do it in the hopes that the person who got my book free will enjoy it so much they recommend it to others, and look forward to my next book, which won’t be free.
    It does get your name out there. Unfortunately, if you don’t get reviews out of it, getting your name out there is a short-lived thing.

  10. Kathy Clark says:

    I was hoping to get some comfort after ending a two day campaign on mainstream novel. Life’s What Happens. Generally I think the comments received match my guy feel of writing is hard work and I write to make a living and the results of free promos is spotty at best. For me, 23 traditionally published books with over 3 million in sales my first two books as direct to eBooks has been a marketing challenge. The books get dumped into a the same pile where far too many have bad plots, no characters worth remembering and are covered over with typos and bad grammar throughout. How to break out where once was is the challenge and my first freebee with a little over 100 grabbed up before Amazon did their “let’s put back in draft status for no reason trick” doesn’t sound very robust. Thanks for asking the question though.

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  13. I can see giving your ebook away temporarily. I mean even I have done that on KDP. But, I have found some really superb ebooks on regular old free ebook sites and they are 100% free 100% of the time and THAT is what I do not understand. I mean there has to be something that is stopping these authors from publishing on a site where they could get paid, Maybe it’s the simple fact that they do not know how or worse – they do not know that a website like Kobo, Kindle and Smashwords are available. Either way, I think it’s a damn shame for this could-be great authors to be losing out.

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  15. Kenn says:

    I don’t know if my writing is a calling, good or bad. It’s not a hobby. Not the way I define hobby.
    No bad intended. I wanted to know why if I work so hard and give a piece of myself should I give it away. I still haven’t figured it out.
    I must thank you all for your posts. I got, for the first time, many reasons for your answers.
    It was very informative for me.

  16. Kenn says:

    Writing is writing. It’s just another internet watering down that can only benefit the big money makers that don’t write at all. It’s stepped on over and over again with this feeling that an E-Book is not really writing. Well your stepping on my guts that should be worth something, because when I write that’s whats on my pages Fiction or non Fiction. There will be zero give away from me. the flow of the money shouldn’t flow by the writers but to the writer First. This idea the the internet must change everything is not always true and in this cause it’s Crazy for hard working writers to be handing over their work free. I am not selling out for Amazon or anyone else that wants to reap my harvest, and then tell me oh 20,000 people reed your E-Book. What the hell would I do with 20,000 people? Promise them a hit novel by Christmas? “Please”
    We write those who want to read our book, buy them and I hope you love it.
    Write On Brothers and Sisters

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