Does Giving Away Free Ebooks Help Sales?
I was at a Barnes and Noble bookstore the other day, and they had huge piles of books stacked at the front door.
A big group of authors was milling around. One of them walked up to me and said, “Hey, take a free book. Giving it away makes people think it’s popular. Plus, maybe you’ll be kind enough to write a review?”
Well, with all those free books available, I didn’t even need to go into the store to buy one.
Did this happen?
Of course not. But it happens on the Internet every day.
Does giving away free books help you sell your book, get reviews, or build your author brand?
The Free EBook Giveaway Trend
Does giving away free books help you sell your book, get reviews, or build your author brand?
The public library used to be the only place people tried to load you down with free books to read. That all changed in 2007 when Amazon released the Kindle ebook reader which allowed free online delivery of their ebooks by the Whispernet system.
For the first time, authors had the capacity to give away massive amounts of free digital books to bait book buyers.
But why would anyone want to do that? Offering a free Look Inside, as Amazon offers, makes sense because that emulates how people browse and buy in bookstores.
But give away thousands of books in digital form? That doesn’t seem to make sense. Why would authors be motivated to do that?
Free Books Serve Amazon, Not Authors
Well, it is counter-intuitive UNLESS you own a bookstore and want to build traffic to sell other books, and you can convince authors to give away their work as what’s called a “loss leader.” Amazon owns a bookstore, so that’ exactly what they did.
They wanted to build their own Kindle brand at no expense, so they offered authors a way to give away their books. And in the quest for fame and fortune, many authors started doing that.
At first, the enticement meant something to authors. Early on, you can get on the Amazon bestseller list without actually selling one book. The free books used to count in their regular sales statistics.
Early on the free e-book was a big deal. Readers love getting a free boo, and they were often motivated to write a review out of gratitude.
A Good Idea Turned Bad
But then things turned dark for authors.
Authors are still in the quest for fame and fortune and are willing to give away the books as bait. But the rules of the game changed in subtle ways, and all authors must question whether giving away books is worthwhile anymore.
For example, free books don’t get any love in the Amazon bestseller categories anymore. You can get ranked in free categories, but that’s not prestigious at all
And, Amazon started the Kindle Select program. which actually limits your ability to distribute free books even if you decide you want to do that.
You are now required to sign up for Kindle Select and give Amazon complete exclusivity to sell your book for 90 days in exchange for five days of free giveaways. Is that a good deal for authors? Well, it’s good for Amazon—that’s something we can say that for sure.
Free Ebooks Became as Common as Dirt
In the next phase, free ebooks became widely available. A free ebook was no longer special. We saw the proliferation of websites that promoted free ebooks. That was great for those sites, but not so good for authors.
- Those free ebook websites often charged people to put their free book on the site.
- The websites sold ads for related products.
- They linked to an affiliate product.
So, these free book sites had multiple opportunities to make a profit while authors had no such opportunity.
Do you see the problem?
Within just a few years, PublishersWeekly, one of the most prestigious publishing magazines was asking the question, “Are Book Giveaways Still Worth It for Indie Authors?” They had their doubts. They thought there was a glut of free ebooks and freebies were no longer a viable way of ultimate getting sales.
Here we are, many years later, and some book marketing gurus are still telling authors that they must give away their book before they can get sales.
Is that true? Well, it’s only partly true. Let’s look deeper.
Does Giving Away Free Ebooks Work Today?
It depends on who you ask.
Let’s look at the case of Cory Doctorow (not to be confused with the more prominent author E.L. Doctorow) to see one extreme. Cory Doctorow is a successful Canadian sci-fi author and blogger and is a huge fan of giving away his work.
Not only that, he wants to change copyright laws to make them more liberal. He is a big fan of Creative Commons, even though I’d say Creative Commons should scare most authors.
He seems to have no problem with other people copying his books or plagiarizing or adapting them for their own purposes. His argument is that copying things—what you or I might call stealing intellectual property—is a natural thing for people to do, so it’s okay. I think that’s a fair assessment of his position.
Importantly, he doesn’t believe in the economic idea that scarcity creates demand.
Please bear with me for a moment as I talk about his view of economics because it has a direct effect on your bookselling success.
Doctorow’s ideas about selling books are based upon what is known as post-scarcity economics. It’s a Leftist political idea that you can make any product, even a book, available cheaply or for free, and that it will not have a major effect on sales.
Ebooks are an example of disruptive technology that can and should be given away freely, in his view. He says:
“Giving away ebooks gives me artistic, moral and commercial satisfaction. The commercial question is the one that comes up most often: how can you give away free ebooks and still make money?”
His theory, in a nutshell, is that after people buy and read the ebook, they will want to buy the print edition. And even if they don’t buy, it doesn’t make any difference.
Doctorow has even written some fiction about this utopian economic view including, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and The Rapture of the Nerds.
Give, But Give Wisely
What do I think of all this? Perhaps you can tell that I think this view is naive. I believe in giving away all kinds of free stuff. Here on VeolcityWriting.com I give away loads of free stuff to help authors.
By the way, over the years I have helped the homeless and others in a sustained and systematic way. No, I’m not flaunting that—we should all be involved in freely helping others on a personal level. I’m just saying there are many ways to help others without putting your livelihood at risk.
That’s why I draw the line at dumping thousands or tens of thousands of free ebooks into the marketplace in the hopes it will generate enough paperback sales to pay the rent.
It may work for Cory Doctorow, and it may work for you, but look before you leap. Using Marxist economic theory as a reason for giving away books may be a long fall into oblivion.
However, you may want to give away your book strategically in some cases. Let’s look at that.
A Strategic Approach to Offering Free Ebooks
Is there a less extreme approach to distributing free ebooks?
Yes, and this is the approach I suggest for most authors if they really think giving away books somehow makes sense.
First, it is not mandatory that you give away books to get sales. There are other ways to get sales, and I explain them below.
Don’t get hung up on the idea that you MUST give free books to get sales. That idea is making less sense as time goes on.
So, here are three things you can do to give away ebooks strategically to get sales:
Have a Marketing Plan
Too many authors write a book first, then wonder if there is an audience for the book and how to reach it. They put the cart before the horse.
Your marketing plan must include a fan base composed of people on your email list. You want to send free copies to just a few select people on that list who you know will be likely to review it.
Be Visible on Social Media the Right Way
Your marketing plan should include visiting Facebook, Reddit, and other pages to promote your book. Offer a limited number of free copies, like 4-5 in each place, to interested readers.
The big mistake I see is that authors go pages where authors gather. That’s bad. Authors want to sell their books, not buy books from other authors.
Offer Limited Fee Copies at Topic-Related Forums
But again, you want to target your giveaway for maximum benefit. The thing to do is to make your limited offer at topic-related sites. Is your book about gardening? Make your free offer for a limited time at places where gardeners gather.
Do you have a recipe book? Post on food-related forums. You get the idea.
Contact Book Bloggers
They deserve a free copy. Maybe even two if they offer one to their readers in a contest. If they love your book, thousands of others will hear about it, and that will benefit you.
The same applies to book podcasters. Getting on one of those shows can send your sales into the stratosphere, and you only have to give away one copy to the person running the podcast.
Don’t get involved with Kindle Select for these kinds of free offers. Send the Kindle or EPUB edition of your book directly to the people who respond to your offer.
Consider the Right Kind of Paid Exposure
Don’t post a free ebook, if you decide to offer one, on all the free ebook sites. That’s like feeding pigeons—all you’ve done is emptied your popcorn bag, but nothing good happens as a result.
Only sites like BookBub.com and Booksy offer any real hope of success. You can offer your book to a wide audience for free or at a reduced cost when you purchase a spot on one of them. It’s very hard to get accepted by BookBub.com and it’s expensive. But FreeBooksy.com (when it’s a giveaway) or BargainBooksy.com (when it’s offered at a lower than normal price) is relatively cheap and effective in getting the word out.
I have used BargainBooksy.com in some of my book launches. I offer them at a lower price (usually 99 cents) and I always get enough sales to pay for my Booksy fee, and in some cases profited nicely. These paid services use their email lists to get your book to a targeted audience, and that works well if you desire to go that route.
Target Your Free Ebook Efforts
See the strategy? Don’t mass-distribute free ebooks. It has become a mostly pointless activity. It may boost your ego to know that thousands may have downloaded, but getting any economic benefit, or getting reviews, is becoming increasingly rare.
Yes, people will tell you about some miracle where they gave away books and made a small fortune as a result. But the only reason you hear about it is that it happens so rarely. Many thousands of people give away books every month, but they seldom share their failure.
Karen Banes at the Writing Cooperative website likes to give away books, but she admits the advantage is slight and the resulting number of sales, once it’s switched to paid, is typically small.
With all that in mind, what strategic plan should you use? Don’t blast free books everywhere. Be selective. Offer individual free copies only to those who are likely to review it, or even better blog about it. That’s a strategic approach.
An Exception and An Opportunity
There may be some advantage for giveaways if you have written a romance or fantasy series. You can introduce new readers to your series with a free book. They then buy all the other books in the series.
Most of those books in your series must already exist. You want links to them in your free book so people can click and buy if they like your work.
But offering your book to mass audiences for free doesn’t make much sense if you don’t have a fiction series.
Most new authors give away their books because they have no other marketing strategy. It makes some feel good to see a large number of downloads even though people are not reviewing it, buying the paperback or your others books, or, in many cases, not even reading your book.
That’s why authors must first do research to determine if there is a market for their book before they write it. When they publish it, they must promote it to the readers most likely to buy it.