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. I like free novellas for the free plan. They’re shorter, take less time (hopefully), and provide the same exposure.

    The great thing about free is you have the potential to gain readers. Personally, I downloaded a free romance novel and then purchased 10 of that author’s back list. I downloaded another free title and purchased that author’s entire back list and we meshed so well I’m now her editor.

    The bad thing about free is there are many, many people who will horde free books, never read them and certainly never buy another. It’s sad, and I agree–this exists because readers are being taught novels are worth nothing. Before, these readers would visit used book stores. Now, they visit the Free section of Apple or Amazon.

    But if not free, what?

    Penguin (pre-merger at least) still prices its ebooks at $7.99. Is Penguin losing sales?

    • Janet Grant says:

      Kristin, you’re the dream free user. If the majority of readers responded as you did, free would work. But if someone has thousands of free titles on her e-reader, why would she ever buy a book again? Or even find time to read what she has.

      • What if just one book was offered for free, periodically or continuously, for an author, but never another book?

        Such as the first book in a series. (A stand-alone could work, but ideally the back matter would temp the reader to check out the sub-plot couple in book 2.)

        Do you think that might be worth it to draw the dream free readers?

      • Janet Grant says:

        Kristen, but why ever offer the book for free? Even if you charge 99 cents or $2.99, it says you think your work is of value. Do you think you would get a lower response? If so, are those who want free really likely to buy any other of your books?

      • This is exactly where I am at know, Janet. I download a free book with every intention of reading it, but after 600 downloads, I can’t say I’ve read more than 10 of them through to the end.

        What I have done in some instances is write a first chapter review. This has been a popular feature on my blog. I read the first chapter then discuss my thoughts, ending with whether I would continue reading and why or why not. But again, I would probably say I haven’t done that even an 1/8 of the time.

        Now I’m much more selective over what I download, even if it is free.

    • Personally, I can go either way – I hear about free ebooks, download them, and then honestly forget about them. But other times I’ve read the free book and ended up buying several others from that author.

      I agree with the idea that doing one specific book works out better – that way, readers know that they can’t just sit around waiting for each book to eventually “go free,” but the benefits of gathering new readers are still there. Melody Carlson has several series for teens, and two of those came out on Amazon with the first book free and all the others at least $6-$8 a piece. I downloaded the freebies and ended up buying all the other books in both series – that’s seven more books for one series and five more for the other, all at full price.

      • Janet Grant says:

        “Free” was made to work for Melody Carlson’s series then. Thanks for sharing how free has affected your reading.

      • Liana Mir says:

        This is so me. I read some, I devour some, I never get hooked enough by others. I forget a very few. I go and buy when I fall in love, even having bought the rest in an author’s series where they were ten bucks a book on sale. I have a miniscule book budget and a voracious reading appetite, and I’m very picky, so I won’t spend money on an author I’m not very sure I’ll love.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Liana, the question is: What does it take for you to buy a book? I’m not saying we should mindlessly buy books; I’m a picky purchaser myself. But I pretty much know if I’m going to like or love a book based on downloading a sample and reading reviews.

      • Liana Mir says:

        But I pretty much know if I’m going to like or love a book based on downloading a sample and reading reviews.

        Note: I said author. I read their short work, a free book if they have one, something complete. I read two books in particular that still leave a bad taste in my mouth because I ADORED the first 75% of them and they failed ABYSMALLY on the ending. I read and reread books for years. So I don’t spend money on an author unless I know they are a good fit for me.

        I found many of my favorites through online magazines, but many others through their free short stories posted on their own websites. Lacking that, I have fallen head over heels through a free book.

        It requires a complete read. And I will pay money for that which I fangirl, even though I read freely available online magazines and personal writer journals and websites EXTENSIVELY. My budget is miniscule. I can afford to buy between three and ten books a year. I can only rarely afford a dud.

  2. Amanda Dykes says:

    Whew, these are some great points that I hadn’t considered- especially the idea that readers are being trained to expect “free”. Lots of insights and food for thought; thank you, Janet!

    As to what I regularly seek for free– yes, guilty as charged for seeking free photos (and photo-editing software, like Picasa) for use in blogs, etc… and also classic books that are downloadable for free permanently, as they’re in the public domain (either in e-book format or to listen to on

    I’ve wondered the same thing about giveaways. I read once that “giveaways” have become so prevalent in social media that readers tend to skim over giveaway announcements on Twitter and Facebook, just as they would spam.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Amanda, I’d agree that giveaways are diminished in their effectiveness. Unless I happen to notice a favorite author’s book is available, “free” elicits a yawn.

    • I think giveaways are still prominent, at least more so than free promotions. As a blogger, I still get many, many times more hits on a giveaway post than any other type of post. As a blog reader, I don’t click on every giveaway that comes up, but I do click on almost all giveaways that apply to me – books, stuff I can use with the kids I work with, beauty products, that sort of thing. So basically any giveaway of products for which I’m in the “target group.”

  3. Jill Kemerer says:

    I don’t have an opinion on this because I’ve read so many conflicting views. For every author who claims they sold thousands of backlist copies, there are authors who still haven’t broken through four figures on any of their books.

    Why do we write? For people to read? As a career where we can support ourselves or our families? I think it’s fair to have both.

    If I knew my daughter’s expensive jeans would be free 3-4 times a year and all I had to do was order them from my computer, I would never pay for them again!

    Writing takes so much effort and hours and skill. We seem to be the last breed of “will work for free” out there. I would like to see that change.

  4. as a reviewer i get several ARC and review copies of books; and in several cases, if i want to support the author and think that the book is wonderful, i will still BUY the book and give it for donation or keep it in its final form, if need be. i agree with you 100 per cent. i think publishers make a grave mistake in assuming that offering free downloads will somehow expose an author to a wider audience. certainly it may put a name on a radar for later on ( if the author is not already established) ; but the poor sales you mention as a result of a FREE download promotion may keep a later contact from materializing. unless the author has a prodigious backlist i cannot see how this is useful. i believe, as aspiring writers, which is what i glean the majority of this community to be, we have a duty to give to others that which we anticipate will be given to us. in short, shell out the money and buy the book. money talks, unfortunately, sometimes more than talent or charisma or integrity or passion and what keeps a book in print and an author contracted is sales —- that’s the ugly truth of this old publishing sphere — it is , at its core, a business. if you want to read a book for free, why not suggest your local library add it to its collection. the reality is that writers nowadays (with few exceptions) cannot afford to quit their day jobs; but the best ones DESERVE to be in print and free amazon downloads —expected, as you say Janet— are not helping the industry at all.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Amen, Rachel! I love that you are caring and feeding today’s authors because you recognize why we readers need to so.
      The idea of asking the local library to order a book (including a digital version) is an excellent one and supports everyone–the library, the author and the reader.

  5. …. i also think, while i’m at it, that some publishers need to set stricter Netgalley guidelines and rubrics. most publishers ask that when a book is requested, the blogger or reviewer outline their influence to prove they can promote book sales. many publishers offer a “download now” feature that waylays this step altogether. as netgalley works specifically in introducing readers to new authors and publishers utilize this, they are allowing free books to be downloaded right off the cuff and not giving the new authors a chance. chapter samples should be the name of the game on these websites …. and on amazon

    • Janet Grant says:

      I hadn’t realized how easy it is for a blogger of any stature to get a galley. You’re absolutely right; that’s another area that needs to be shored up. If someone gets a free galley, that individual should qualify for it beyond having a blog.

      • I don’t know how NetGalley works, since as a minor I cannot use it yet, but I am very familiar with programs like Blogging for Books (from Waterbrook Multnomah) or BookSneeze (originally from Thomas Nelson, although it works with other small branches as well now). I would never have become the book reviewer or gotten my blog off the ground in the way I did if these programs had stricter qualifications for review copies than they do now.

        These programs require that you have a blog, post a review for every book on your blog and on a consumer site, and sometimes that you have a certain number of followers before they’ll allow print copies (otherwise ecopies only). I’m very thankful for these programs; without them my blog and my wide span of reading and resulting knowledge of the publishing business might not exist.

  6. Last year I offered my first self-published novel free for five days through the Kindle Select program. It was downloaded 5039 times and reached #1 on the Kindle genre free list. The rest of the month I had 63 sales. In all months since I have had 35 sales. It’s by far my best seller, but the price (all those giveaways) seems very steep for the sales.

    I don’t plan on doing free again. Though who knows? If I ever have a series of five to ten books, maybe I’ll have the first free to hope to hook people. Right now, though, I don’t do free.

    • Jill Kemerer says:

      Thanks for sharing this, Todd. It’s good to hear real, detailed experiences.

    • Liana Mir says:

      I think the main benefit of free books for independents is that it gets us reviewed. That’s one area where trad pub still takes the lead. And once you have reviews, those start spurring more sales.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Liana, provided those reviews are good. As other commenters have mentioned, giving a book for free could mean lots of people will read your book and then give it a bad review, couching the review in “I don’t usually read this kind of book but…” While I hear what you’re saying, it’s definitely a scatter shot way to obtain reviews.

      • Liana Mir says:

        No reviews actually sell fewer copies than a couple of bad ones. I don’t read reviews for a thumbs up or down, and neither does anyone I know. I read reviews to find out what’s in the book.

  7. Norma Horton says:

    Thank you. And thank you again. And thank you one more time.

    Aside from all the business reasons and marketing reasons NEVER to give away “bright—collar” product, there’s the old adage, “why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?” As someone mentioned, although not in these terms, all “free” does is to condition a potential buyer to expect not to pay for a product, and eventualy devalues the product itself.

    It’s interesting that this “free” craze has accompanied the rise of self-publishing. I don’t see NYTimes best-sellling authors offering “free” anything. Daniel Silva or Donna Leon offering a chapter for free? Not gonna happen.

    There’s a desperation to “free.”

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      What a wise succinct analysis, Norma. “There’s a desperation to ‘free.'”

    • I don’t know if there’s any NYT bestsellers doing this, but I know of a lot of larger name, traditionally published authors who do use free promotions and giveaways. I think the difference isn’t in who uses them, but how they’re used. Indie authors and other “desperate” authors offer giveaways and free promotions all the time. The larger name authors I’m thinking of offer promotions that are few and far between. Perhaps rather than quitting free altogether, we just need to learn how to use it properly. It’s like cooking with spices – spices aren’t a bad thing to cook with, but to avoid a negative experience, they must be used properly and in moderation.

      • Norma Horton says:

        I agree there’s a difference between a free promotion, and a free chapter or book. In the first, you give away an incentive to make a purchase. In the second, you give away a commodity that needs (in my opinion) to be purchased for its producer to stay in business.

        I’ve seen too many industries ruined, and consolidated to the point that only big corporations remain, by product price-cutting. And I believe any product whose major competitive point of difference is its price tag has a limited shelf life.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Norma, you make a good point when you state that, if a product’s only competitive edge is its price point, that produce is in trouble.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Exactly, Emily. I’m railing against using free mindlessly, which seems to be the case more often than not.

  8. lisa says:

    I often wondered about this. Thank you for being so diligent in raising the question.

  9. I can’t tell you how many people have told me the equivalent of, “I can get so many books for free, why would I buy any?”

    I’ve also heard readers irritated when a book they paid full-price for, maybe even pre-ordered to show support, is then significantly discounted or offered free six months later.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Nataline, good point. What sort of thanks is the publisher extending to those who bought the book when it first came out, when a short time later, it’s discounted or free. That also trains us to just wait, which is why readers email authors asking when a specific title will be available for less.
      That doesn’t mean a book should never be discounted, but I don’t think anyone is asking the question, What affect will this have on readers and on future sales for the author?

  10. Lori Benton says:

    Free copies for promotional drawings are good though, right? :)

    • Lori says:

      As a reader, I think they are.

      I’ve won books from authors I have never tried before and now I am a fan of some of them.

      • Jill Kemerer says:

        I’ve had the same experience. I’ve won books through blog giveaways and gotten hooked on new-to-me authors!

      • I sometimes participate in the blog for books programs. I get a free copy in exchange for posting a review of the book. I always follow through, promoting my review also on FB, Pinterest and link-ups. Sometimes I feel a twinge of guilt, though, because the absolute best way to help the author would be to pay for the book and still promote it.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Lori, I think blog drawings and contest are a whole ‘nuther thing and sometimes can be very good promotional tools.

  11. Sarah Thomas says:

    I’m so glad you’ve tackled this question! I’ve downloaded dozens of free books and have only once purchased an author’s other books as a result (Laura Frantz–now I buy everything she writes!). For a while, free actually STOPPED me from buying books. I had so many titles on my Kindle I figured there was no need to buy anything. But since being agented and contracted I’ve realized the importance of reading specific authors and books in my genre. (And how important it is to financially support my fellow writers!) I’ve begun to feel manipulated by the freebies. And, unfortunately, that can lead me to feel like those books I have sitting on my Kindle just might be worth what I paid for them. And that’s not fair to the authors.

    I agree, free feels like a marketing model that hasn’t been thought out very well.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Well, I’m glad you discovered Laura Frantz through reading free books. But you’re an example of how free generally works. MAYBE a reader will discover one new author, whose books than are purchased, but for the most part those free books just start feeling like stuff clogging up one’s e-reader. What in world is one to do with all of them?

  12. Agreed and thank you. The free books on my Kindle often keep me too busy to go out and actually BUY books. Like others who have commented, a free book has never made me buy a book by that author.

    FREE OTHER STUFF might help… free audio chapters, free discussion guides… Brad Thor gave away a free PROLOGUE to his latest book, which I paid for after getting hooked by the prologue. Ancillary products for free can draw the same attention, I believe.

    Question and thought: does the publisher contractually have the right to give away the book to 8000 people for free? Doesn’t that steal royalties from the author and make it HARDER to sell out?

    And here’s my thought: the free offering might become a CONTRACT ITEM in future book contracts.

    Bill Giovannetti

    • Jill Kemerer says:

      Interesting angle, Bill. Logical!

    • Larry says:

      Indeed, having nice extras for free could help build a stronger fan base: the folks who might like free short chapters detailing character background, or a “free tour” of the setting of the novel, like a photo-tour, are the folks who are the ones probably already talking on their blogs or to co-workers about ones’ book, and these sort of freebies could be a good marketing tool, allowing readers to share all the cool free things other readers could explore by becoming a reader of ones’ novels.

      • Larry,

        I really like your ideas! Give away things that will hook readers and make them want to buy the book. Introduce potential readers to the characters, excite them about the setting(s), and maybe tantalize them with a few tidbits of the story. Give the readers something that will make them want more. Let them taste the wine; don’t give away the whole bottle.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Christine, or as ad agency’s say, “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.”

    • Bill, I like the idea of free being a contract item. Very interesting thought. I’m eager to see if Janet has thoughts on that.

    • Great idea from my point of view, Bill, on making the free offering a contract item. I’ll confess I have no idea what the publisher might think. Also looking forward to Janet’s response on that suggestion.

      Also, what about a novella-length prequel for free, a teaser of sorts? I’ve heard that idea batted around, although I still cringe at anything being free.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Bill, publishing contracts give the publisher to right to set the price and also to give away books, if the publisher believes that will stimulate sales.
      But, as this free idea is playing out, it does tend to lead to no visible increase of actual sales of either that title or other titles by the author. And that means thousands of copies of an author’s book could be out there, but the actual sales on the title are negligible.

      • Janet Grant says:

        And, by the way, Sally, a few publishers do have in their contracts and/or as a matter of practice that the author must give permission for a title to be offered for free or at a significant discount. Those publishers who don’t have that practice would not be eager to add it to their contract. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good idea!

    • I agree that free “other stuff” is a better idea than putting books out for free. A free bookmark, signed bookplate, audio bonus, prologues or epilogues, etc. have definitely worked to get me hooked before. I think maybe that’s why choosing one book out of all one author’s works, or the first book of a series, also works better than the general way free promotions work. Offering the first book of a series is the same idea as offering the first chapter or a sample of a standalone, especially if you look at the series as a single work. I’ve paid full price for all the books in a series after enjoying the first one for free.

  13. Great thoughts here. It’s interesting to hear that you haven’t seen a rise in sales as a result of free offerings. And it’s always struck me odd when authors don’t even know their book is being offered for free until a fan/reader tells them. Why wouldn’t they be involved in that decision?

    As a reader, I find that getting a book for free makes me value the content less. That’s definitely not something I want my readers to feel — that my work isn’t worth paying for. I hope publishers start moving away from this tactic.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Kim, part of my complaint is that offering books for free is such an automatic response for several marketing departments that they don’t inform the author the book is being promoted. If it were part of a careful marketing campaign, the author should be made aware of the plan so he or she can help to get the word out.
      Although, it’s okay with me if my clients don’t spread the word about free books–unless,of course, it’s an instance in which it might make sense.
      Also, Kindle Daily Deals are made up of titles publishers have requested be a deal; Amazon decides which deals are approved, and the publisher might only have two weeks’ notice that the offer is taking place. That means everyone has to be fleet of foot to work the “deal” to the book’s benefit.

  14. Heather says:

    Hm. I totally see your points, Janet, but I do know several favorite authors I never would have found had their books not been free. I don’t have money at this point to buy books, but when a friend sends me a freebie or I win a freebie or download one, I often find a new fave authors. And I am a tireless influencer for authors I love. I will mention them to all my reader friends, loan out the books, and most importantly, BUY their next books. My latest freebie find is Rachel Phifer’s THE LANGUAGE OF SPARROWS. I can’t say enough good about this book…and I’m reading it b/c a friend downloaded it free and couldn’t say enough good about it. I do think offering free Kindle reads might boost an author’s Goodreads/Amazon ranking, if it’s a great book. Personally, I’m self-pubbing my Viking novel in November, and I look forward to the day it’s free, since my primary goal is not to make millions (HA!), but to get this story into people’s hands. The more people reading it, the better. And the more chance some of them will enjoy it and recommend ME as author to their friends. That goes back to ye olde “word of mouth,” which I’ve heard everywhere is more important than all the social media efforts in the world.

    Just my thoughts. With the economy being such as it is, I know many friends who are building a library of free Kindle books, and they’re going to look for those authors and talk them up in the future.

    • Sarah Thomas says:

      Oh, I forgot I downloaded the Language of Sparrows for free. It was amazing. But it was also a debut, so there isn’t anything else to buy of hers at the moment . . .

      • Sarah, this is exactly what I don’t like, the only product for that author given away free. Yes, she’s exposed to new readers, but are they going to remember nine months or a year later when a potential book two comes out? I don’t see a clear winner in this scenario, the writer or the publisher.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Yes, so why didn’t the publisher hold off on offering that book for free until a second novel was available? As it is, you loved the book but can’t buy the next one.
        And if it’s free, you can tell your friends it’s great, and then they can download it for free. Maybe they won’t hear about it until it’s back to the regular price. But often these free offerings last for two weeks, which gives someone time to start a novel, realize it’s fabulous and tell her friends, “And it’s FREE for another week!”

      • Iola says:

        Julie Cantrell’s debut novel, Into the Free, was offered free immediately after publication. I’m sure that was instrumental in her winning the Christy Award this year – not just for First Novel, but also Book of the Year.

        Sounds like good marketing to me. It just depends on what the long-term marketing plan is for a particular author: to maximise short-term profit, or to build a sustainable author brand.

    • Larry says:

      Cool, didn’t know you were going to be releasing your Viking book in November!

      I know there are some other self-pubbers here in the community, and it’d be cool to hear from them about their journey. (What David wrote earlier in the topic was intriguing, the number of free “sales” versus priced sales).

    • Heather, I’ve been where you are, not having any money for books. I kept a TBR list and requested the books from my library, either that they buy it or that they get it through inter-library loan. And like you, I really promote books and authors that I love. So I think there are still other ways to get hands on books without giving them away for free.

      Looking forward to reading your book in November! That’s a fascinating era that just hasn’t been covered enough.

      • Heather says:

        Thank you all for your thoughts on my Viking novel. I’m also taking a marketing “risk” and offering it in an early-reader version to many of my writer/blogger friends. MANY. I know they will get the word out if they like the book, but I also realize that will cut that potential profit. I’m totally ready to be an experiment for wannabe hybrid authors everywhere…if it results in people reading my novel!

        I have a fairly short list of CBA authors whose books I will buy without hesitation…and I have found maybe 95% of those authors through free books or ebooks (often due to influencing for those whose topic matter I know I’ll love). The other 5% come through friend’s recommendations. I just feel like sometimes the bottom line isn’t about profit. Not that I’m not hoping for profit on my novel, or can’t use it! Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting your name out there. If you’re like me, you’ll follow that author’s blog/twitter/FB feed for updates on the next book. And you might wind up buying those books for friends you know will love it, as well.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Heather, I wish you the best in your experiment. As others have mentioned in their comments, because they’re doing their own publishing, free looks like a good way for them to get the word out about their books. We’re all experimenting nowadays; it’s wild out there!

    • Janet Grant says:

      Lola, the Christy Award isn’t based on sales but on quality of writing. If the publisher nominates a beautifully written book, it should rise to the top of the submissions, which is exactly what happened to Julie Cantrell’s book. So offering it for free had nothing to do with her winning her awards.

  15. Janet, I always appreciate your well-reasoned insights. I have such mixed feelings on this. I agree with you that our industry gives away far too much free stuff, and it devalues fiction as a whole. That said, my first novel was released as a digital-first title this summer, and part of the marketing plan was to offer a two-day free promotion. The response was overwhelming. Because I have a great relationship with my marketing contact, she and I worked closely together both monitoring sales and tweaking marketing efforts in the days afterwards. As a result, the promotion did create a big increase in paid sales afterwards, not to mention a flood of reviews.

    In my case, I think the free days were the best thing we could have done to get my book “out there,” but I also recognize it won’t work with all books in all genres. Marketers and authors need to be prepared to exploit any exposure they get from the promotion and convert it into paid sales. Springing a price promotion on the author without telling him or her certainly isn’t doing that. On the other side, authors need to show interest in what their marketing department is doing and support them however they can. This is a partnership, after all.

    Bottom line, I think free isn’t necessarily bad when it’s part of an overall strategy; it’s just bad when it’s the ONLY strategy.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Carla, free is also a bad strategy when it’s done because one publisher tells another publisher that free works. What does that mean? “Free” isn’t that simple.
      Clearly the marketer you worked with actually had a plan, which meant the book was free for a very limited time, and the marketer worked hand-in-hand with you to make sure the offer resulted in the most sales possible.
      Let me just say your experience was unusual. You were blessed to have it.

      • Funny you should say that. After I wrote it, I was thinking about how it’s like those diet supplement commercials: “I lost 60lbs taking this product!” When in fact, you must read the fine print at the bottom of the screen where it says “diet and exercise also required to achieve results.” Anyone taking the product merely because their friend said they lost weight using it will be sorely disappointed with their results. As you said, too many times businesses (not just publishers) jump on the bandwagon without considering the “yes, but” and the “no, unless” of the equation.

        And yes, I’ve been hugely blessed with this publishing experience as a whole. :)

  16. Janet, at first glance, “free” seems awesome. (In some cases, depending on the situation, probably still is.) But I’m with you–I think we’re eventually going to see the wind of change blow in.

    I’ve always had mixed feelings about the “free” concept where books are concerned, unless it’s for a (very) limited time only.

    And 8,000 (FREE) downloads and no measurable sales where previous books are concerned? That just makes me gulp. Wow…

    Thank you for being a champion of what’s fair, right, and honest in our industry. Just another reason we respect you! :)

  17. Very interesting post here and thoughts in the comments. I have downloaded a lot of free books, especially when I first got my Kindle, and I was surprised at how many good books were being offered for free — and how many newly pubbed books (i.e., books that hadn’t been out for that long!). I’ve had both things happen: either I discover an author I really like and purchase his/her backlist, or the book languishes on my kindle and I never read it.

    It might be a good way to discover debut authors, but perhaps doesn’t work so well with more established authors. Just a thought.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Lindsay, the advantage the more established author has is that, if you liked the book, he or she has other books out there for you to read.
      Once you have the debut author’s free book, what benefit can that author hope to gain from your reading the book? The only answer: That you loved it so much you helped to create word-of-mouth. Failing that, the book is just…free.

  18. Janet, I’m so glad to hear your thoughts on this. From the beginning, I disliked the free e-book. Why not lower the price to under $5? $2.99? $3.99? That way you still make some money, and those who buy it are more likely to read it quickly.

    James Rubart is the one author I know of who says the free book did well for him, but that was in the early days of giving books away for free. It does seem that giving a book away is a good idea if an author has a good-sized back list, but I have never, ever understood giving away a book that just released. Why?

    I know I’ve gotten a number of books for free that I’d planned to pay for–and they’d only been out a month or two. As a writer, I’ve started paying attention to the publishers doing that, and it does make me leery of them. Not that my name means much to them now. :) But I want them to value my work like I do. I’d much rather see my book sold for less than given away for nothing.

    • Agreed, Sally. Lower the price if you must, but at least put the value at something.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Yup, lowering the price makes more sense to me, but once again, if that decision is just a task for the marketer to check off of his or her list, and no INTENTIONALITY is put into that action, it’s just as meaningless as free. There’s a smidgen of money involved, but that’s it.

      • Janet, I don’t know if you’ll come back and see this–or if you’ll have time to respond–but I’d love to see you expand on the intentionality that would go with putting a book on sale. Maybe that’s a more in-depth marketing question that might make a good blog post for another day.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Sally, I’ll give thought to a blog post on how a marketing department could, with intentionality, make offering a book for free a more sensible plan. In brief, it means planning far ahead, adding social media announcements to the mix, coordinating efforts with the author.

  19. Larry says:

    There is also the specter of quality control: many a free e-book is….not of good quality, so by giving away ones’ book for free, does one label their writing as not being worth paying for?

    • Janet Grant says:

      That’s inherently the message that’s being communicated, Larry. This book is not worth making a reader pay for it.

      • Bonnie Leon says:

        I had a couple of my books listed for free and a few of the reviewers were surprised at the high quality of the story and writing because it was a free book. So, definitely there is a stigma to free for some people.

  20. Heather says:

    A note on the sale side. I’m guilty of it. I won’t by hardback because I’d rather wait till paperback, which is cheaper. Now I’ll buy the e-book because it too is cheaper, and takes up less room. But I was the one perusing the ‘sale’ sections at physical stores. When I noticed one author I read ended up there a few months after all the copies were ordered, I waited to buy it on sale for subsequent books. I’m not saying I’d ever say to an author ‘when is it free?’ but I would smart shop to buy their book and save some money.

    • Janet Grant says:

      And why not, Heather? It’s the way the publishing world is working, so why not take advantage of it?
      Except, of course, for the negative affect is has on the author and that book’s sales history. I really appreciate that several commenters have pointed out that requesting the local library buy a book costs you nothing but time but benefits everyone.

  21. Janet,
    Such good points. Another thing I’ve seen is that Free titles can undermine reader trust in authors.

    As Sally said, sometimes publishers release new titles for free months (or even weeks) after that book’s release date.

    This can cause real frustration for readers who actually PAID for the book when it first came out.

    I’ve seen disillusioned readers posting on author Facebook walls, and messaging them directly, with, “Why didn’t you tell us it was going to be free?” questions.

    They assume that since this is the author’s book, of course the author knew when the book would be offered for free, and kept quiet for the sake of their own profit.

    This has lead legitimate buyers to feel they were tricked into paying full price.

    In our world of tight margins and trying to make every dollar stretch, everyone is looking for a bargain.

    But the danger with free is that we create a bargain-entitlement culture. One that assigns the same value to the book the publisher did.

    I personally know many readers who used to snap up books from their favorite author as soon as they were available, and who now take the “I’m just going to wait to see if it comes out for free” approach.

    We’ve been trained to do this, unfortunately. Because no one wants to be the schmuck who paid full price in a world of free.

    I think a better alternative is the flash, pre-order sale option. It offers readers a great deal, rewards them for their early interest, drives pre-sales, and honors the TREMENDOUS work put in by the author to create each story.

    People still love a good sale in every other industry, but in the book business, we’ve been conditioned to expect more than that.

    I believe we need to retrain readers to love book sales again.

    And that means doing exactly what you’ve said: being SO DONE with free.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Thanks for your comments, Kelli.
      The idea of a pre-sale is a good one. We all want to be the first to own something of value, but if you give me the added incentive of a price reduction, I feel even smarter.
      The publishing industry, in my opinion, as forgotten what kind of messages it sends when so many books are regularly discounted. Rather than communicating that a work is of value, publishing has said that work is cheap.
      Of course the truth is just the opposite, this is a work of art, a celebration of knowledge, and a contribution to our culture. It is to be valued and prized.

    • Larry says:

      I would say that in a world still reeling from a near complete economic free-fall, the only “entitlement culture” comes from those who feel that their product is beyond the rules of the marketplace itself:

      If most readers are waiting to pick up books at a particular price point, then perhaps the writer and their publisher should work on creating a product that makes the reader feel the value the writer and publisher would prefer it to sell for is there for the reader.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Larry, when so many books are being offered for free, part of the issue is that readers are right to assume the publisher doesn’t value the book at all. I think it’s the wrong message.

    • Preach it, Kelli! :)

  22. I call this the Old Navy phenomenon. I was shopping there with my daughter a few months ago and saw something I really liked that was being offered for regular price. Even after trying it on, I ended up putting it back. The reason? I knew if I waited, it would cost half as much–or less. Turns out my daughter had done the same thing with a skirt she wanted. Old Navy has trained us to wait for the sale. Amazon has trained us to wait for the free.

    As a military wife with a sometimes tiny budget for the non-essentials–and much as I wish to argue to the contrary, the purchase of books fits that category when a library is just down the road–free is a HUGE enticement.

    However, I wonder as I type this whether I have not become the very problem I am railing against. Perhaps the answer to free is right down the road at the library. If we were to borrow rather than wait for free, wouldn’t that really be the best choice? As a writer, I love it when my books reach libraries. THAT is where I get new readers. Free books? I don’t know because thus far none of my publishers have offered any of my novels for free.

    So is going back to the library the answer? I’m thinking it might be.

    • Yes, Kathleen, good point! I have purchased several books I first loaned from the library because I loved them so much I just had to have my own copy.

    • Janet Grant says:

      I believe you’re right, Kathleen. A trip to that library with requests that certain books be bought will benefit you AND the author.

    • Andi says:

      I am a former military wife so I understand the budget thing you are talking about.

      I also have to admit that when I first received my kindle I downloaded a good amount of books from NetGalley and while I read them I neglected to review them on my blog. I am doing a whole lot better about that now.

      As for free downloads via Amazon, it has opened me up to a huge list of new authors and I do purchase downloads too.

      With NetGalley, it would be nice if when they approved you for a book they would give you a date for posting the review. I say that because as a reviewer I tend to forget. Not meaning too, it’s just life.

      I have been known to also purchase the hard copy and do a giveaway on my blog.

      Another thing, is publishers don’t keep track of the copies they send out. I have at times received 2 or 3 copies of the same book and I have hosted a giveaway on my blog for those.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Andi, thanks for your perspective as a reviewer and a reader. A due date for reviews is a great idea because that would help to focus momentum for the book and urge reviews to actually occur.

  23. I’ve left so many replies, I don’t have much more to say, Janet. :) But this discussion makes me think of the mall food court. As you walk through, there are hawkers handing out samples, bites, really, and all you get is a tiny taste. If you want the whole, tummy-filling meal, you have to go to the counter and plunk down your cash. If there’s no such thing as a free lunch, a meal that may take approximately an hour to prepare, why are we giving away food for the mind that required many hours, weeks, months to prepare?

    • Janet Grant says:

      Good analogy, Meghan. It goes along with my comment that books are not cheese samples.
      Why don’t we offer more snippets of a book to entice readers to make the purchase? Why do we have to give the entire book away?
      Publishers are depending on: 1) the free book being read; 2) the free book being enjoyed; 3) the reader to tell many others to make up for the sale that was lost when he or she downloaded it for free.
      As Shakespeare said, “There’s many a slip between the cup and the lip.”

      • I’m sorry to be repetitive, Janet. By the time I got through all the comments, I had forgotten about your cheese sample analogy. And then I remembered that I had smiled when I read that.

        My husband suggests that the free book contain everything except the ending. :)

  24. Addy Rae says:

    I’ll admit that I do have quite a few free books, and I’m slowly working through them because we have very little money. What I’ve noticed with myself is that free books that are the first in a series will, if the book is good, prompt me to buy the next book. Stand alone free books, however, unless they’re spectacular, don’t encourage me to buy anything else from the author.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Thanks for your observation, Addy Rae. If many readers are like you, then it makes sense to only offer the first book in a series for free.
      Although some readers are more prone to read standalones because books in series generally are genre-specific such as a mystery, suspense, or fantasy. While standalones are more likely to be book club reads or just commercial fiction.

  25. Rick Barry says:

    If I go into a store or restaurant and receive a sample of something for free, I will take it. But it’s doubtful that handout will make me turn around and say, “Okay, you gave me a freebie, so let me give you some hard-earned money for something else I wasn’t looking for.”

    I’m no business major, but I like the old farmer saying, “If a man can get the milk for free, he won’t buy the cow.” To me, it would make more sense to offer, say, three sample chapters for free, just to whet readers’ appetites. But if they want to keep reading, they can order the whole book.

  26. Jenny Green says:

    In our church, we were once getting ready to hand out pamphlets on some worthy topic for free. The minister said, ‘no. Charge for them, even a dollar. People don’t appreciate things that are free.” This is completely true. As a former books editor, I was casual and careless with the hardcovers I got as readers’
    copies. I was very careful with the ones I bought myself.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Jenny, it’s so true that we value that which we pay for. And by giving something for free, we indicate the item is of no particular value.

    • I’m probably the exception here, I’ll admit. Maybe this is because I know a lot about the publishing industry and how free books – even ARCs and review copies – take a toll on the author’s pay, however small it may seem for my one book. Maybe it’s because I honestly can’t afford to buy books new, so I buy them on sale at Books-A-Million or used on Amazon or at Gottwalls. But a book I win in a giveaway or receive as a review book I often value more than books I paid for, because I know how much work and time goes into a book, how much a book really costs, and therefore feel honored to have gotten it without having to pay – like a gift from the author to me. Am I the only one to feel that way?

  27. Rachel Smith says:

    My book buying budget right now is miniscule. I do grab free books, especially if it sounds interesting, but I don’t go trolling for them.

    I do watch for sales of my favorite authors too. One of my favorite authors has a new book coming out next month, 22nd in the series, and to celebrate the other books were $1.99 for 24 hours. I bought seven of them.

    Being a writer myself I try not to take advantage of other authors and their publishers. I know how things work, and I don’t want to be one of “those” people.

    The thing that bugs me about samples, though, is that far too often it’s all the front matter, a table of contents, the copyright page, and gobs of other stuff, then TWO OR THREE pages of actual novel. I’ve downloaded many a sample like that, and it makes me so mad. I have a 20 page sample on my Nook, and there is ONE AND A HALF pages of actual novel, that ends mid-sentence.

    I want a whole chapter at least so I can make my decision based on author voice and style. If I end up with something littered with adverbs, telling, or speaker attributions all over the place, it also makes me mad. I don’t want to spend money on something full of all the things that make it hard for me to enjoy the story.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Rachel, I’m surprised to hear how little you have received as a sample of writing. My experience has been very different.
      When I download a sample on my Kindle, I receive at least one chapter, many times two or three. I’ve never felt that I didn’t know if I wanted to buy a book by the time I finished the sample.And I don’t recall a sample ending in mid-sentence. Usually it’s at the end of a chapter.
      What about everyone else? What has been your experience in downloading samples?

      • When I download samples, they’re usually at least a chapter; sometimes more. It’s the “Look Inside” feature that frustrates me because it usually is a lot of the front stuff and very little of the book. How can I determine if I want to pay $10 – $12 for a book if all I get is a page and a half?

      • I have a Kindle, and I’ve seen both. The free sample is generated automatically, so I’m not really sure how it works. But I’ve gotten free samples that are two or three chapters, as well as samples that are half a chapter and end mid-sentence or mid-paragraph. This is probably one of the main reasons I don’t use the free sample feature anymore, but just read several reviews to determine if I’ll like an author’s voice and style.

    • Liana Mir says:

      I’m with you on all these points.

  28. I’ve had mixed results with free. As an unknown self-published author I’m not sure I would have had more than a handful of sales without the KDP free promo, as I would otherwise have no Amazon ranking or reviews (tho I’m actually not sure my reviews are helping as people seem to be more inclined to give horrible ‘wasn’t what I expected’ reviews on a free book). My sales are still below 100 but I’ve sold a dozen in Germany since reaching #1 in Fantasy during my last free promo. Those are sales I can’t imagine getting any other way!

    • Janet Grant says:

      Amanda, I think we come back to the blog post I linked to. What is your reason for offering your book for free? If your goal is to have people read your book and not to be concerned about the monetary part of the equation, then you made the right decision.

  29. patrice says:

    As a reader, I have enjoyed lots of free books for my Kindle. With some of them, I got what I paid for when I read them. There have been a few that were so enjoyable that I paid for other things written by the author. With two authors, I would have downloaded anything they had.I craved more!

    As a writer, I don’t want to put that label on my work. I have heard that free makes a wonderful promotion for subsequent books, but I just don’t like the sound of it. Even a smaller price on ebooks allows some dignity.

  30. What a great conversation to start off the week. I thank you for addressing the whole FREE issue, because it’s something that’s always nagged me as a writer, despite the fact I take advantage of it as a reader. The sheer number of books I have on my Kindle (600 with probably 550 of them being freebies) makes me much more tentative to lay out cash when I see a book I’m interested in. What I usually do now is add any book I am interested in to my Amazon wish list or GoodReads “Want to Read” list. That way, friends or family will know what I am looking for and might buy them as gifts.

    I can admit I rarely buy an author’s book just because I liked the author’s free title, but that’s mostly because I have so much to read here. If that wasn’t the case, I probably would pay for more books if I enjoyed a freebie, especially if the free one was an earlier book in a series.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Janet. It will be interesting to see how this marketing idea continues to play out in the future.

  31. Leah E. Good says:

    Do you think free is effective when giving away review copies? This might limit the number of free books given away while more effectively spreading the word.

  32. I don’t like free because it devalues the work and the time spent writing and editing. Also, I tried free and have three bad reviews on a book that had all positive from people who actually bought and paid for the book until it ran free. The people who got it free did not appreciate it and devalued it as not being worthy since it was free, or were out of their genre. The only negative reviews came from the free period, so it did not help me. It hurt me instead, and I did not sell more books. I will run a special from time-to-time but I don’t see giving away books I spent hours writing. My time and work is worth something. BJ Robinson

    • Janet Grant says:

      Barbara, the negative reviews are a downside to free we haven’t discussed yet. Yes, you will get negative reviews if your book is offered for free because people apparently have the mentality, if it’s for free, I’m taking it. I’ll sort all the freebies out later.
      I’ve only downloaded a few books for free so the thinking that goes into doing so is outside my experience. But apparently it’s all about loading up your e-reader and thrashing one’s way through the weeds.
      Why that compels readers to write negative reviews BECAUSE they received a free book that didn’t suit their tastes is an utter mystery to me.
      Nonetheless, the affect of a series of negatives is not good. It brings down your book’s overall rating, and some people will decide not to buy your book because a number of readers panned it.

      • This is very interesting, as I hadn’t heard of reviewers doing this before. I think I know the answer to this, but can you tell how quickly between a free purchase someone posts a review? Though people all read at different speeds, it would be very telling if the majority of negative reviews came within a day or two of purchasing. It would be obvious they weren’t reading too far into the book and made a snap judgment on it solely because it was free.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Cheryl, good question. I don’t know if anyone has tracked this sort of detail when a book was offered for free.

  33. I don’t like the idea of giving away my hard-earned work. IMO, if the book is really, really good, it’s not only worth someone’s money to pay for it, but their time to “spread the word” about it.

  34. Thanks, Janet, for an interesting article. I am a fairly new book author and published my first paperback children’s picture book, Benny’s Angel, in 2011. The only free books were sent by my partner publisher to those who participated in my blog tour. Of course, I also offered a neat prize. The main benefit from that experience was receiving several good reviews. In addition, I gave occasional complimentary copies to people who were likely to pass the word about Benny’s Angel.

    The second book in my children’s series, God’s Secret Garden Adventures,is Catie’s Secret. It publishes this month and will officially launch on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in November. A third book, Fred D’s Amazing Escape publishes later this year.

    I am in the process of deciding whether I should offer free paperback books on Facebook, my website, and my blog. After following your link to CJ’s article, I’m not sure I want to get into free books, especially since my books are not e-books. Do you have any suggestions for using the free book method to an advantage in my situation?

    • Janet Grant says:

      Laura, especially when your book is a physical book as opposed to an e-book, you want to give them away only with care. Presenting them to people who have the ability and willingness to provide reviews and other word-of-mouth recommendations is a good plan. A copy in the hand of a teacher or other person who can influence individuals to buy the book can be helpful as well.

  35. Pam Hillman says:

    Unlike many freebies, there is no commitment to anything when downloading free ebooks.

    Consumers of free ebooks don’t have to sign up for a newsletter, they don’t have to agree to a review. We (because I’ve downloaded my fair share of free) don’t even have to read the book if we don’t want to.

    You know the old saying, “Nothing’s free.” …

    That held true when you filled out a form with your name and address and phone number… and more recently, your email address … and later received sales promotions/calls for the chance to win something, or for a free product.

    For just about any other freebie/giveaway, you have to sign up(ie. give your email address at the very least) to win a bag of groceries at your local store, an ipad, iphone, laptop, vacation, car, etc, etc.

    Not so with free ebooks.

    Janet, I’m brainstorming new models right off the top of my head. I’m not a CEO at a retail ebook distributor, so my opinion carries no weight whatsoever! lol

    A new model might to offer free ebooks for a limited time…and by that I mean a limited amount of time on the ereader/device, not a limited time that the ebook is free.

    …Or a limited number of free books per account at a time, kind of like the Amazon Prime lending program.

    …And/or free and the account holder has to leave a review within X number of weeks.

    …Or move away from the free model altogether, and flip it around. No more free books, but reviewers are rewarded points/dollars to apply toward additional ebooks.

    What concerns me is that the horse got away while the barn door was open. It’s going to be a little hard to catch him now. :)

    • Janet Grant says:

      Pam, thanks for your creative thinking. Some of these ideas sounds really good. I have no idea what it would take to implement them, but they definitely have merit.
      I certainly take your point that when a book is offered for free it really is that–no strings are attached.
      And, yes, the horse is out of the barn. And it will be hard to lure him back until he’s grazed to content on free and then suddenly realizes it’s all gone. Obviously we’re a long way from that, we’re still offering graze-all-you-want-for-free.

  36. Bob says:


    I’ve often thought that, along with a few other factors, the free availability of news and feature articles via the Web killed or, at the very least, significantly injured the newspaper business. I believe free books will do the same for the publishing business.

    Is it really the publishers doing this of their own choice, or is Jeff Bezos and his online competitors driving down book prices to create loss leaders that drive consumers to buy other, more pricy things? After all every time we even look at an item on these sites, we receive suggestions to buy other “similar” goods. Clearly, it is in an online warehouse’s interest to upsell a customer to pad profits.

    I am often surprised that anybody buys anything new, untried, and/or untested these days, because getting out the word about new things in a way that registers in consumers’ minds has become a bit of a nightmare.

    It is time for publishers to show us the numbers. Google proves every day how it converts clicks into revenue. If they can quantify clicks as profits, publishers should be able to quantify free books as profits in the long-run.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Bob, I’ve only heard rumors of vast sales of copies of books based on the title being offered as free. When I ask publishing reps about specifics, I receive examples that are, I believe, akin to talking about best-selling self-pubbed books. It’s like catching a falling star–unlikely to happen for most of us.

      Certainly Amazon’s success has driven much of this free-discount mentality, but ultimately it comes down to ereaders and how easy it is to offer a free book as a download. Sometimes that means the marketing department doesn’t need to justify giving away books; it’s just part of the marketing template.

  37. PatriciaW says:

    Interesting perspective. As a reader, I love free ebooks. I’ve found some authors new to me that way, after which I have purchased other titles.

    But I’ve also downloaded books I already own in print, just to have them on my Kindle, or books that I wanted to read but never got around to and I stumble across the freebie. I’ve downloaded way more than I’ve read, but I do choose reading selections from my downloaded freebies. I’m reading one right now and I love the author’s voice so I’m likely to buy others.

  38. Sydney Avey says:

    Thanks for this Janet. My first book is coming out in December (Indie Publisher Chalfont House. Hope Springs Books). I’m working hard to come up to speed on my role in marketing. Frankly, I am uncomfortable with “free,” “giveaway,” and “prize.” I think it cheapens the product. (Remember when our mother’s used to caution, “Why buy the cow if the milk is free?”)

    As a consumer, I am thrilled to get a nice discount. When the price of a pair of jeans drops to $5, I question the quality. At two for $5, I begin to ask how many cheap jeans I need and what we’re doing to the landfill. Then I start looking for good value at a decent price.

    As a reader, I myself don’t care about prizes or contests. I care about well written books that touch my heart. I will pay for that book. A new business model that gives everyone their due would be so refreshing.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Sydney, that’s a good analogy with cheap jeans. We believe the adage “You get what you pay for” in much of our shopping, but not with books. What’s with that!? We all love books!

  39. BJ Hoff says:

    Free books for our e-readers. Contests and giveaways for every new book when it’s released. 99-cent books. Samples. Two-for-ones. Three-for-ones. I’m beginning to feel like a snake oil salesman. I’ve long been convinced that the Free phenomenon has accomplished nothing except to devalue a writer’s work and establish a mindset among readers that we “owe” them something for nothing. It’s been a gradual, almost unnoticeable movement, but it’s done a world of damage. And most of the time, authors have no control over the publisher’s decision to launch these “events.” I suppose I can be accused of making big out of little, but I really do believe we’ve done ourselves a terrible disservice, unwillingly so far as most writers are concerned. We’ve created a publishing entitlement mentality for which we will now continue to pay a painful price. “Free” isn’t going to be “free” at all. And there seems to be no stopping it.

    • Janet Grant says:

      BJ Hoff, thanks for your insights. We can stop free. All we each have to do is stop downloading. Ah, there’s the rub. Several commenters have mentioned that lack of money causes them to download. Ask your local library to order the book you want. Others have said they discover new authors that way. But that means sorting the chaff from the wheat on your e-reader, and when are you going to manage to do that? Whatever happened to the joy of discovery by walking the aisles of a bookstore? Or doing some exploring on a retailer’s website? Even though I’ve read the reasons people download free books, I’ve yet to hear anything that outweighs the damage done to the world of books by these actions.

  40. I read somewhere that currently on Barnes&Noble, there are 1,852,172 free books.

    Yet people pay good money for a book by JK Rowling. Without thinking twice and disregarding all those free books they could be reading instead. In other words, all those free books don’t harm the JK Rowling brand.

    Readers will pay if they perceive value. So, maybe, we should try to inject value in our brand. One way of doing that is by not giving entire books for free.

    I have opted to make an extended permafree sampler (the 12 first chapters, 60,000 words) of the first book of my series. The complete book is available at full price.

    TBH, I am considering taking part in the action of one vendor which would make the entire book (not just the sampler) free for two days. That promotion is restricted to series only. It seems to make sense but I haven’t decided yet.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Andrew, before you go for that two-day free opportunity, ask yourself what you want to gain from it. If you’re already offering 60,000 words of your book, what more will come your way by offering an entire book? I’ll know way before I’ve read 60,000 words if I am going to buy the rest of the book. And if I like those 60,000 words and buy the book, then I might well buy other books in your series. Maybe the vendor will get the word out to a broader base, I don’t know. These are all questions to weigh.

      • You’re right on the mark, Janet, on both counts.

        1) My extended sampler is that long because I want readers to be sure they are going to like the series. I want readers to have a good experience for their money. Hopefully with my books but if that’s not the case they’d better spend their money on other books.

        2) Reaching a broader base is indeed the only reason I’m even considering doing it. The vendor is ARe (All Romance ebooks). I’ve been told they have a very loyal (and in certain cases exclusive) customer base.

        I still haven’t decided though. :)

  41. I would love to see publishers use something more like a BOGO–Buy one of the new books, get a free download of an older book. That would seem to encourage purchasing–which we need to survive–and introduce readers to other books, perhaps a book that is good but not receiving much attention anymore, or good but no one noticed. :) Our society already feels entitled in many ways. Now it feels entitled to free books. If they wait long enough, they may win the book free in a contest. If they wait long enough, their friend will hand them their copy. If they wait long enough, it’ll be a free download. So free does put books in people’s hands, but that means there are 8,000 fewer purchasers for that title. Some of us can’t afford to lose 8,000 potential purchasers. Let’s restore the idea that books are treasures. :)

  42. There is some fired up conversation going on here today. Fantastic way to start the week Janet.
    I find it interesting that we’re enamored with the idea of a free book download, and yet we’re willing to pay up to $5 for our fancy coffee. (speaking from experience here)
    The coffee goes directly to our waistline. But a book has the potential to teach us, give us incentive to grow, and include characters that take up residence our memories for a life time. I think that possibility is worth paying for.

  43. I agree with one of your first comment responses, Janet – “but why ever offer the book for free? Even if you charge 99 cents or $2.99, it says you think your work is of value.” I am both a reader and writer. As a reader, I tend to shy away from the “free” books – some instinct tells me they are not worth much, or at the very least the publisher and/or author don’t believe they are worth much. However true that may be in reality, it’s what I find myself thinking. An excellent book is always worth something – usually much more than even full price. I think as readers it’s important to sift through the chaff and not even bother downloading free ones that don’t truly interest us, JUST because they are free. Books are not “samples,” and they most certainly shouldn’t be likened to marked-down clothing or accessories. Books are hours and weeks and even years of someone’s blood and passion and work. I think free eBooks are the equivalent of both readers and writers selling themselves horribly short.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Ashlee, I so agree with you. I have this mental image of the crowds at Walmart on Black Friday surging forward in a rush to grab the best for less. It’s not a pretty picture for publishers, authors, or readers.

  44. Janet, what a fantastic post! I’m sorry I missed out on the conversation (I was out all day), but your post and everyone’s comments were great, a thoughtful conversation about a very important topic.

  45. The market is so over-saturated with free books, you can pretty much fill your ereader with books and never pay for any book. That is the unfortunate truth. But even with all the free books out there, very few might stand out above the rest. Self-publishing is so easy now that everyone’s doing it, and some are releasing free books that are of low quality. So many of these low-quality free books get flooded in the market and people start getting tired of free. Or you will just have those people who will download anything and everything that’s free, whether it’s bad or not.

    We will soon get into the mindset that “Free” = low quality. This is what happened with the 99-cent books about a year ago.

    I think free works for some, but not for others. I, myself am trying to release books in all different price-points (including free), in order to find my niche market. As an author, I do value my work. Occasionally I will do book giveaways, but most of the time I try to keep consistent with my set prices and not do discounts and all that.

    I think exposure is ten times harder for an indie author than it is for a traditional author, so indie authors have to come up with effective ways to get their books seen. One of these ways has obviously been making their books free.

    • Janet Grant says:

      R.M. Prioleau, your comment leads to a followup question: Does this exposure via free lead to the sales of your other books? That’s where the equation tends not to work out. I understand the frustration of trying to get noticed in a noisy world; if I self-pubbed I don’t know what decision I would make. I’d probably do the same as you and experiment with different options. That should keep us entertained for a long time because the landscape keeps morphing on us.

  46. Nikole Hahn says:

    While I am the benefit of free, I can’t see how offering something for free escalates sales. I think it’s created a mindset for the consumer where if it’s not free we won’t get it. Top that with a bad economy and it becomes an entitlement issue.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Nikole, many if not most of the responders to my blog regularly download free books. It’s important for us to be aware of what those decisions do to publishing, individual authors, and the availability of ideas via books. I know, grand topics, but our small decisions are all votes for society to go in a certain direction.

  47. I believe: Any serious artistic person – should be reimbursed for their work.

  48. J. R. Tomlin says:

    First, let’s clear one thing up. No one ever said “free” was a “business plan’. It is a marketing tool. Avoiding strawman arguments is a good idea since all it does is fuzzy the discussion. It makes me question whether you are going to be realistic about the discussion.

    You then state that 8000 downloads is a “great result”. It’s not terrible, but frankly a long way from great. I certainly wouldn’t expect to see “doubling” of sale for that kind of giveaway. That would result in a small uptick at most.

    Whether free is the best promotional tool or not is a very good question. I used it (as an indie author) for quite a while after Amazon made it available to indies. For a time, it worked extremely well although it always took a lot of downloads (10,000+) to see a major uptick. Now it takes at least double that.

    I seriously doubt the “devalues books” argument. I haven’t seen even the least evidence that readers are buying (that is paying for) fewer books than they did before this became a common promotional tool. 99 Cent promotions could do the same, but I don’t think they do either. My experience with and as a reader is that when a reader wants a particular book or one from a particular author, that is what they want and not something that just happens to be free. And they pay for it.

    That doesn’t answer what is the best promotional tool, but that changes over time and varies depending upon the book, genre, author, etc. so I assume there isn’t one “best”.

    • Janet Grant says:

      J. R., thanks for your perspective. It’s really helpful to hear from the indie-side what’s required for “free” to work. Your comments are instructive for me. I didn’t mean to put up a straw man by saying free isn’t a business plan. What I was attempting to say was that, if an author relies solely on free books as the plan to make a published book succeed, it won’t work. And authors do use free as the only idea in their grab bag.

  49. Rebecca says:

    As a reader it’s hard for me to spend $15 on a book, unless I am a big fan of the author. More times than I can count, I have paid full price(or close to it)for a book by a new author, only to be extremely disappointed and skim through the book to read the ending. I use the free and sale books for Kindle to try out new authors. And if it happens to be the first book in a series and I really liked it, it will drive me crazy until I’m able to read the rest of the series.
    I would much rather have a book in my hands but I buy ebooks only when they are free or on sale. So with out these sales, there would be a lot of new authors such as Becky Wade, Maggie Brendan, and Sarah Ladd that I never would of discovered.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Rebecca, if more people actually read the books they downloaded for free, as you do, then free would be an effective marketing tool. Unfortunately loading up e-readers with more books than a person could possibly wade through seems to be a more typical path for free books.

  50. Peter DeHaan says:

    This reminds me of an old marketing one-liner: “We lose money on every sale, but we’ll make it up in volume.”

    However, it’s just not the book industry that’s conditioned me to expect discounts and free stuff. (Never mind libraries that have been letting us read for free for years.)

    I only go to my favorite restaurant went I have a coupon, buy office supplies when they offer a deal, make major purchases when there’s a sale or incentive, and so forth.

    Add to this, (my perception of) decreased quality in most books and I’m even less included to part with my cash to read, especially when there’s plenty of books to consume at no cost.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Peter, you sound like a poster child for free reading. I’ve been thinking about other businesses as well and how they operate. This past year JC Penney decided to try to just offer discounted goods all the time–no sales ever, just low-cost goods. The public hated that concept; they want to be driven to stores by sales. We all want to feel like we grabbed a bargain that was available for a limited time. We’re an odd lot is all I can say.

  51. 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 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!


  52. 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.

  53. 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 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.

  54. 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

  55. 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”