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The Free Ebook Farce

And it started out so well, didn’t it?

Free ebooks have always been, well up until now anyway, a fair means of attracting attention to a new book or new author. It is something I have done myself many, many times.

However, in recent months the free ebook frenzy has gone from being a semi-useful marketing tool, to now being a complete and utter waste of time. When your book is offered for free, and is up against over 4,000 other books each and every day that are also free, what is the point?

I read this week of an author who was extremely pleased to have had over 25,000 downloads during a few ‘free’ days. The net result in sales two weeks after this? None, zero, zip, nil, none. When I did the same thing late last year, I gained over 100 sales during the first week after just over 1,000 free copies were downloaded. When I last did it in September, I had 25 sales in the first week after 15,000 free downloads.

It’s no surprise that the effectiveness of ‘free’ ebooks is declining – almost to the point of being totally ineffective and even counter productive. As with many other marketing ‘tricks’, once everyone is doing it, it isn’t a trick anymore. My honest opinion is that free ebook giveaways are in all honestly, a marketing tool to sell e-reading devices and not to sell books. Why does the iPhone sell so well? Free apps in their 10s of 1,000s of course.

So if free ebooks days are ineffective in generating new sales, what can you do?

Consider having one free ebook all the time and make sure you ‘plug’ your other books just after the book credits. Make sure your books are listed at the end with links to where your books can be purchased. If you don’t have a free book, write one! It doesn’t have to be more than 30,000 words. Just something that you can use to show off your writing skills and then to plug yourself. Update it regularly by perhaps adding reviews you receive for other books.

Make it free on all platforms, and Amazon will apply their ‘Price Matching’ to it after a while and make it free there also. Give it away on your blog or website. I have even loaded my free ebook up onto Bittorrent in .mobi and .epub formats and it is being downloaded about 300 times a day now.

So my advice is to stop giving away your ebooks that are only helping to sell e-reading devices, and start giving away an ebook that will help sell your own books.

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18 comments

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  1. Pat

    I have been toying with the idea of free books but like you can’t really see the point. But then again it is readers seeing your work – or at least a few readers. However something else I noticed from my own experience. I have downloaded quite a few free books to my kindle but actually read none of them! Possibly because if they are free they are not valued in the same way…

    1. Jack Eason

      If that’s the case Pat, why did you download them if you have no intention of reading at least the first ten pages? See my latest blog post on this very subject by clicking on the hypertext below for Spawn of Scrooge. :)

  2. Dave Arnold

    Good advice. Thanks!

  3. Andrew Ashling

    The danger is that readers will expect the other books of an author will become free as well at one time or another… and postpone buying them.

    I have made what I call and extended sampler perma-free on Amazon, ARe and Kobo.

    It has the first twelve chapters (over 60,000 words) of the first novel in a series of which four books are published out of a projected six.

    I hope it will give the reader a good taste (hopefully an addicting one). As I see it, I lose nothing. If they like what they read and want to know what happens next they still have to buy the full book.

    I will never make these books free, though I might discount the first volume for a limited time. Probably not.

    1. Derek Haines

      I think you’ve hit the nail on the head Andrew. There are some readers who are happily reading only free books. Who could blame them, as there’s plenty of choice. It’s time for authors to value their work far more and not fall for the ‘free book’ trap. It’s a dead end strategy.

  4. Andrew Claymore

    I think a real danger of the kindle freebies is genre shock. If someone sees a free book, they may download it without reading the look-inside. Later, they get around to reading it and they’re outraged that the science fiction story they downloaded doesn’t have space battles every ten pages. I’ve seen tons of new writers on KDP boards aksing why they don’t have any reviews on their books. Usually, you see them complaining about ‘Torpedo’ reviews shortly after telling everyone they have a freebie coming up.

    Admittedly, there’s a lot of backbiting on those boards, so they might have been shot down or ‘Elloried’ by a misguided author, but it seems too much of a coincidence to me.

  5. James C. Campbell

    Sigh – I’m thinking you might be right.

    I did a free promo about two weeks ago, and yes, I was expecting a ‘sales bump’ as everyone talks about, but that hasn’t happened, so I’m least hoping for a ‘review bump’ once people finish reading it.

    If that doesn’t happen either, then this will have been an incredibly hard lesson learned.

    1. Derek Haines

      Take heart James. You have probably helped in a small way to create a little sales bump for Kindles though. But I hope you garner a few reviews.

      1. James C. Campbell

        Maybe if Amazon likes me for helping to sell Kindles they’ll bump me up in their algorithms ;)

        But anyway, I want to, at the very minimum, hit 15 reviews and maintain a 4 or higher average rating so that review and book blast blogs will be willing to look at it.

        And cheers on this here blog. I find myself reading and commenting on your articles quite frequently.

    2. Andrew Claymore

      James, you have a cool cover and the ‘look inside’ shows a polished narrative. I think your best marketing strategy is book #2 (followed by #3 and so on). Folks who think they might get attached to your characters are often reluctant to buy when there’s only one book in your inventory.

      1. James C. Campbell

        Cheers – that’s heartening to hear. I am in fact currently in Moldova at work on my second book, so … yes, patience seems to be the order of the day.

  6. Rick Carufel

    I stopped using Kindle Select and no longer give books away on an open ended basis. Not only does it no longer work to boost sales but presents a low-hanging fruit for the bottom-feeders on the Amazon Forums to fuel their campaign of giving 1 star reviews for fun and games. Amazon it would appear has a double standard when it comes to authors. If you are published through the traditional method you are treated well. If you publish independently they treat you like shit. They would never dare summarily delete customer reviews for mainstream best selling authors but routinely do it everyday to hundreds of Indy authors.

    1. Derek Haines

      I have to agree Rick. I read just in the last few days that KDP Select published ebooks no longer appear in ‘Customers Also Bought’. I’m not sure if this is true, but it would fall into line with Amazon’s recent snub of KDP authors, including idiotically wiping hard earned reviews. As I said in my post, all Amazon are interested in is in selling Kindles, and have used self published authors to achieve this end. And now they are dropping them off a cliff as they have ‘used and abused’ them to achieve what they wanted.

      KDP Select is something NOT to walk away from but something to RUN away from.

      1. Sharon L Reddy

        Authors don’t seem to realize they’re crediting Amazon with the results of the promotion they do. “I sell so much more on Amazon.” Excuse me, but where do all your promotion links lead? Those of us whose links lead elsewhere, sell more elsewhere.

  7. L.C. Giroux

    I was part of Select when it first launched and got tons of downloads and a better than decent sales bump of my other books. It got to be less and less with each succeeding book, not to mention the bad karma of fans with Nooks emailing me about why they couldn’t get the book yet. What I do now is have a loss leader. My first novel is permanently at .99. It is a stand alone (not part of a series) but a curious reader can download it for less than a cup of coffee and see if they like my style. After that, my short stories are 2.99 and novels are 3.99, my boxed set (3 novels and a short) is 8.99.

    I no longer recommend Select to the students in my mechanics of e-publishing course.

    Interestingly, for my first anniversary in self publishing I priced all my novels at .99 figuring I’d make up in volume what I lost in per sale dollars. Not so! Evidently my readers aren’t much into the .99 book. I actually had less sales that month than the previous and following months. My sales rebounded when I raised my prices back up to 3.99. Lesson learned, next time I’ll send out a freebie short story to my newsletter subscribers

  8. Eve Ainsworth

    Intetesing read. Funny enough I’m doing my first free promotion this weekend, will I live to regret it?

  9. lindyloumacinitaly

    I think free promotions are a good idea, or they were but it has got out of hand there are just too many available now. It seems to me as well from what I hear that a lot of these downloaded books are never actually read. Ridiculous why download it in the first place then, obviously for the wrong reasons!

  10. Janne

    I’m not a writer, just a reader. Nevertheless, perhaps you’ll find my perspective useful:

    * Any way to put text in front of me, including “free”, _works_. My problem is not price, but time and the sheer amount of stuff out there. I discovered Charles Stross through a couple of freely available ebooks (Accellerando, I believe) and short stories, and I now buy everything he puts out there.

    In the same way, I got the Humble eBook Bundle a while ago, in because I wanted to try out John Scalzi. His book was a bit of a letdown (doubt I will get another one), but Kelly Link and Paolo Bacigalupi were happy discoveries, and I will have to find more written by them. I’ve yet to read the rest so there may be more pearls to find.

    * A sample from an author I turn out to like does generate sales from me, but the bump is not immediate. Work and family — and other reading — takes up much of my time, so I’m not rushing out to buy more when I find a new author. It took almost a year after discovering Stross before I actually bought a second book from him, and the Humble eBook Bundle won’t drive a new sale from me until next year, or perhaps later still.

    * DRM is a serious turnoff for me. I buy Stross and other authors mostly on paper, not as ebooks. Why? I can lend them to friends (and borrow stuff right back). Disappointing books, or “once is enough” kind of reads, I sell to Book Off and get store credit to buy used books and try out other authors in turn. DRM’ed books are really just rented, not bought, and I can’t use them the way I can a real book.

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