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Are Free Books Worth The Cost?

In the beginning of July, I had an idea to help promote my books. I decided to make Copy Bird free on Amazon. It's quite a process to get Amazon to offer your book for free, because they require a price of $0.99 US or higher to sell eBooks with them. I got around this by putting the story up for free on Smashwords, which in turn makes it free to the retailers that Smashwords distributes to, such as Apple, Sony, and Kobo. When Amazon's bots find the book cheaper on other sites and/or you tell them that another site is selling the book cheaper on the book's Amazon product page, they will match it.

Copy Bird went free on Amazon in the beginning of August. I thought it was a resounding success! So much so that I made this face:

Note: Photo not taken at actual time of free offer.

During the time that it was free, about a month and a half, around 4,800 eBooks sold. Of course, the money I made on those sales was a big, fat zero. But, I reasoned this would give me good exposure, and hopefully lead to people buying my other books.

Did this happen? I'm not sure. I can say that August was my highest selling month for paid books ever. But, between 4,800 free sales and 22 paid sales, if it did have an effect it was extremely small. Also, if you look at the Copy Bird product page on Amazon, check the "People Who Purchased This Also Purchased..." section. As you can see, all the eBooks, save a few, are free.

Which means this: People looking for free books are only looking for a handout! I do not believe that these people intend to buy other works by the author if they like the free book. Most likely, these people only want what is free, and that's where they go. Not a problem, I understand that, but I do not think offering your book for free on Amazon will help your long-term sales.

I also wonder how many of the 4,800 people who bought Copy Bird actually read it. I received four fresh reviews from the sales. One was 2-Stars and the others were in the 4 to 5-star range. Those who reviewed it appeared to like it. Did they buy more from me? I doubt it. Because again, I believe they will find what they want for free because there are a lot of authors willing to throw their books up for reading at no cost because they think it will gain an audience. I was in this same camp. But not anymore. Part of me feels like I've been taken advantage of by the readers I long to gain. I devalued my work for their benefit, and they don't care. They just wanted what was free. That caused me to make this face:

Note: Again this represents emotions from the past.

To put it simply: I want to get paid. From this point forward, if I do work, I expect to receive payment. Because when a reader parts with their money to be entertained by me, it shows that they care. They invested in what I write. Readers who pay for their books care about the writer and value their efforts. That's the audience I want to gain; one that understands the hard work. (Don't even get me started on Pixel Of Ink and their "hard work" to find whatever free eBooks they can and broadcast it to the world. Great job there! I'm sure that system's going to keep people writing and self-publishing. Please note my sarcasm.)

I'm urging every reader to consider what it means when you get something free from an author, and you never intend to show them you're appreciative. If you aren't going to buy anything else from them, fine. At least write a review to help them out. But don't take advantage of them.

I'm urging every author out there to not sell yourself short. You might think it's a good idea to release a free book, and maybe it's worked out well for others. At the end of the day, what are you saying about your writing? You might gain an audience that you don't want. That audience is looking for a free handout, and they won't come back if you charge them at any point.

If there is a silver lining in any of this, it's that Copy Bird got boosted in Amazon's system. Because so many people "bought" it, once it went back up to $0.99, it started getting recommended to people browsing for books. Copy Bird is finding an audience, and there is some benefit to offering the book for free, despite my complaints above. In the nine days it has been "revalued", I've sold a good number of copies (Look for my September sales numbers posts this Saturday for specific numbers). That's the audience I want. The people who see a short story, think it looks interesting, and they buy it. Really buy it, too. To those people, I say thank you. Thank you for taking a chance on my hard work and showing that you're willing to join me on a journey with my fictional tale. Those are the real readers that care. Those are the people I want reading my books. Those readers cause me to make this face:

[caption id="attachment_1992" align="aligncenter" width="490" caption="Note: This is how I currently feel!"][/caption]


  1. I read thjis blog because I have just put up a similar one; it would have been an intersting experimewnt, for instance, if you had somehow organised a virtual booklaunch

  2. I was reading Jim Bronyaur on a similar theme this morning. I have 11 titles on SW and the Kindle and in my limited experience, the free book works better if it's part of a deal: i.e. "buy Book A and Book B free."

    Even then, the results have been nothing to shout about, but I'm about to embark on an experiment with another, more successful author, whereby the buyers buy his book and get mine free.

    It'll be interesting to see what kind of effect it has on sales of my other titles.

  3. David, I hope it finds you success. Despite my frustration with the whole thing, I am finding a positive after effect. I'm very interested to see what happens in your case, because the buyer is paying (although not to you). Hopefully it boosts sales of your other books.

  4. Great post. I hope your emotions continue to reflect the 3rd picture. I've been experimenting with free short stories for a few months on Smashwords/BN, making each new release free for a few weeks before charging 99 cents. While I can see how many people download the story, it only translates into an actual review once in a great while and so far hasn't boosted any sales for my existing paid stories. Not that it's discouraging by any means. I'm working on building a larger inventory as Dean Wesley Smith and JA Konrath suggest. If I have 100 stories available and nobody bothers to buy any of them after five years, then maybe I'm doing something wrong :)

  5. Aron, I haven't seen any benefit from offering my stories for free on Smashwords. Smashwords (and every other eBook retailer for that matter) lacks what Amazon does so well. Amazon's algorithms help sell a product, especially once it gets enough sales and good reviews. I had Copy Bird for free on Smashwords, got maybe 100 sales out of it, but once the price went back up, it didn't translate to any paid sales like Amazon has.
    Right now, the money is with Amazon because they know how to sell digitally and help otherwise obscure items be found. That I'm very grateful for!

  6. I really see your point, but the Baen sistem it's a success. Thats my two cents.

  7. B.C.
    I agree Amazon is definitely the way to go. 95 percent of my sales have been through them. I like the idea behind Smashwords, but it feels more like a writers' community than a retailer. Nothing against them, but you're right that Amazon does a better job helping obscure material find an audience.

  8. As a reader who uses a site (not Pixel of Ink or whatever, but another one) to collect free ebooks, I have to say that I *do* use it as a way to find new authors. Especially if the book is part of a series (preferably the first one, or a short-story prequel; it's a bit annoying to find out you've been thrown into the middle of a series and have missed important stuff), I'll buy more from the author. I look at it the same as getting books from the library. It's a way to see if I like the author's style without risking anything. With a physical book, if I don't like it, I can swap it or sell it. With an ebook, I'm stuck with it. If it's only 99 cents, that's no big deal, but if it's $9.95, I'm probably not going to buy it out of the blue. And I can't imagine an author makes a lot of money selling books for 99 cents.
    I'm not trying to talk you into making your books free, I'm just saying that there *are* some of us out here who use the free ebooks as a way to "test the waters", and not just a way to get free books. (Not that I'm complaining about the free books.)

  9. Thanks for weighing in on this topic, Amanda. It's nice to hear from someone who uses the "free" system to find authors that they are willing to then purchase from if they like their work. I went on a little rant above, mainly because of what my numbers say. I understand that not everyone does what I said above, it was mainly my analysis of everything I saw after the fact that led me to that conclusion.

    But hey, maybe those people just didn't like what I wrote, in which case, the problem falls on me and just about everything I wrote above becomes null and void.

    Your post merits the last picture above. Thanks!

  10. 1) If people don't like what you wrote, it doesn't mean there was a problem with you. It might just mean the book didn't appeal to them. Which may sound like the same thing, but it's not. There are several "classics" that bajillions of others love, but I just can't make myself like. The book sounds good, but something about the writing just doesn't click with me.

    2) I can prove free books (sometimes) lead to sales. If I hadn't received a free ebook to review, I wouldn't have known I like your work. Sci-fi isn't one of my top genres, so I don't search it out. I do like your work, so I bought your collection, All My Fiction.

    3) Glad I made you cheezy. LOL

  11. I did see about 30 sales of Copy Bird after it went back to it's regular price. And it is a short story, which don't sell like novels.
    That being said, thanks for your support. I like being proven wrong. :)


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