Are We Done with Free Yet?

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

I’ve never bought into the idea of offering books for free. To quote Wendy Lawton, “Free is not a business plan.” But I’ve gone along with publishers’ proposals to offer clients’ titles for free for a limited time to help build awareness of each author’s other books. Publishers assure us this plan has given authors significant sales lift.

But this past week, I received royalty statements from a publisher that showed a client’s novel had been offered for free apparently with a great response–close to 8,000 downloads. What sort of  lift did that give to her two other titles with that publisher? Nothing measurable. Those titles actually had poor sales.

I challenged the publisher on: 1) why neither the author nor I knew such a massive give-away was occurring; 2) the rationale for the give-away. The publisher responded that: 1) other publishers are using this marketing technique to great effect; 2) this publishing house itself consistently saw doubling of sales for titles when one book is offered for free.

The strange part of this reasoning, which is what I hear from most publishers, is that I can’t point to one instance in which “free” worked that way for a client of mine. Wouldn’t I notice a doubling of sales? Especially when I’m looking for the Free Effect? How come free imageit happens for every other agent’s clients but never for mine? Considering that our agency has more than 200 clients, and I study all the royalty statements that come in, I’m not operating with a small sampling.

The lack of a notable Free Effect is one reason I’m so over free.

I’m also over it because I believe it devalues authors’ work. Each manuscript is unique, never to be created again. Yet we’re giving away books like they’re cheese samples.

Why, as a matter of fact, do we have to do free when readers already can download a sample of the book? The publishing industry is training readers to expect every title, sooner or later, to be free or certainly to be offered for a significant reduction. Authors receive missives from fans asking when a particular title will be free. Readers sign up to receive e-mail notifications for free books.

Why should a fan pay full price? Why should a fan pay anything?

I have this sneaking suspicion that many marketing departments are at a loss as to how to make pricing work to an author’s benefit. It’s an easy marketing plan to offer a free or “on sale” book. But what does it gain the author, really? Who does gain? It’s unlikely that one author’s free book will spill over into sales for other authors.

Now, to bring a bit of balance to my harangue, here’s a link to a blog in which a self-pubbed author tested the effectiveness of free. He shows why it worked for him. Ultimately, this blog shows that free can work–if you aren’t just out to give away books. That leads me to the same conclusion I had at the beginning of my post: I think it’s time we came up with another marketing plan. How about you?

What do you think about “free”? What do you regularly seek that is free–online photos, music, books, etc.?


Does offering free books help to sell other titles? Click to tweet.

How effective a sales plan is free books? Click to tweet.

170 Responses

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  1. E. Franklyn says:

    Agree with J.R. Tomlin above, and will take it one step further.

    I would be fascinated to see actual comments from real READERS on this page – not just all the same old, tired tongue-wagging from authors who are oh-so-concerned with “devaluing their content.” If I hear that phrase one more time I will lose my religion.

    What authors don’t understand is that the eBook game is all about DISCOVERABILITY. Of course you don’t see name-brand authors offering books for free — they don’t need to — they are name-brand authors! THAT would be a case of a marketing department devaluing content.

    If you would wake up and realize that IF your content is good, interesting, and engaging and IF you have the gumption to offer your work to a wider audience for free, and IF you’re willing to put in the time and effort to play some pricing games with free or have a publisher who will do it for you, I GUARANTEE YOU that free will not only drive your sales to levels beyond your expectations, but that they will sustain at a much higher level (often double or triple) what they were before your free offering. I don’t advocate leaving a title for free forever, because people get bored with looking at the top 100 free list and seeing the same old titles. HOWEVER, if you offer a title for free for a limited period of time and then quickly swap it back to full price and continue this pricing flip-flop – you will be amazed how much revenue this strategy generates.

    And believe you me, it IS a strategy. Smart marketing departments are not (and I had to stifle a laugh at this misguided comment from the esteemed blogger!): “…at a loss as to how to make pricing work to an author’s benefit.”. Wrong-O, chump. We know EXACTLY how to make it work, you just don’t have the guts to put your work out there and let people review it fairly. Free drives reviews – if your work is good, it drives good reviews. Make your title clear and concise and by all means be sure your description actually describes what the book is about and what readers should expect.

    Why would I give away a strategy that I know for a fact makes millions? Because I don’t think anyone reading this thread will be gutsy enough to try it.

    Good luck Tier II and III authors who think you will be discovered without free – there are a lot of authors who are gutsier, smarter, and less scared than you are and they will be the ones getting your sales. And I’ll bet their content isn’t even as good as yours!

    As Sheldon Cooper would say “Bazinga”.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      E. Franklyn, thank you for bringing a different perspective to the conversation. Our blog generally is read by writers, and that’s whom we direct it to, but writers are readers, and many of the commenters have responded as readers rather than writers.
      If an author doesn’t know about discoverability as a word, he or she certainly knows about it as a reality in that writing career.
      Many authors don’t have a challenge getting reviews–good ones. They know how to do that. So if that’s the reason for offering a book for free, then that plan doesn’t make sense for those authors. What they’re trying to do is garner more sales, not get more reviews. As I said earlier in this conversation, you need to know why you’re offering your book for free rather than acting like a lemming. If you have good reasoning, then it makes sense.
      In reading between the lines, I’m sensing that you aren’t published with a traditional publisher, and the dynamics of free vs. a discounted price vs. full price are different depending on which side of the publishing equation your books fall.
      I did a search for you on Amazon and think I located you. Your books are written to appeal to a very specific audience, and that too makes your marketing plan very different from, say, a romance, which needs to appeal to a broad audience.
      I think anyone who dares to publish is gutsy. The real point is being smart. I’m glad your pricing plan is working for you; it won’t work for everyone or everyone would do it. But wait. If everyone DID follow your plan, it wouldn’t work for anyone. That’s the nature of marketing.
      Oh, and tossing out the idea of being able to make millions by giving away books for free has just a little touch of hyperbole to it.

    • Virginia Carmichael Munoz says:

      Sometimes I read a book and get word envy. (If only I could write/ plot/ craft like this person.)
      For the first time I just got blog comment ency. LOL!


  2. I’m jumping in this conversation late, but whew, what a conversation starter, Janet! :)

    As a reader, I can attest to the benefits of an author offering a significantly reduced title. I once bought a freebie by a new author (to me) and loved it so much, I promptly bought the rest of the titles in the series–at full price–and have since gotten all my friends and family hooked on her books. So I guess the moral of the story always comes back to great writing and great story. It wins every time.

  3. I should add to my previous comment…If a freebie DOESN’T work, it doesn’t mean the author isn’t a great writer or the book isn’t a great story. I have a feeling it comes down to catching the right reader on the right day. Which, now that I think about it, resembles catching the right editor on the right day. :)

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Sarah, you didn’t download a free book but one you actually had to pay some money for, even if it was a major reduction in price. And your is a happy ending for all parties involved. Because the story CAN unfold the way you told it, lots of publishers are believers in such a strategy. I’m not as cranked up about a price reduction as I am about free. But even reductions don’t work like they used to–probably because readers are sitting around with their loaded up Nooks, Kindles and iPads.

  4. I will comment first as an avid reader. I have downloaded a number of free books and IF I discover I like the author I will then buy a number of their books. I recently complained to a well known publisher about E-books I had paid for. I downloaded the first in a series and enjoyed it. I then paid for the next in that series. The second book in the series was formatted so poorly that I wrote and complained. So for me a well written book for free is a great way to get me to buy further books by that author.
    As an autho

  5. Oops. Hit the wrong key and off went my unfinished note. As an author of a single memoir I have used free 8 times for 2 days at a time over the last 20 months. When I look at the graph I can see each time it boosts my sales. I think it has resulted in a number of reviews. I have 236 Amazon reviews. It seemed to boost my print sales as well. I think it clearly made my book more visible. However, I do think sometimes when a book is free that people download it when they really have no interest in your genre and that can result in some very negative reviews. I am thankful those have been few. Free has worked well for me in getting my book “out there.”
    Barbara Anne Waite- Author “Elsie- Adventures of an Arizona Schoolteacher 1913-1916″