Should you really offer your books for free?

I’m finally back for a new Monday Marketing post.  This one might be a little controversial as I’m going to be discussing whether or not new authors should be offering their books for free! 🙂

Should you really offer your books for free? Image: Book with its pages open

A common practice

It’s become pretty common practice these days for new authors to offer their shiny new book for free the moment it’s published.

After all, we all love free stuff don’t we?

I’ve read a ton of posts, articles and even taken courses that touted the awesomeness of the “free book marketing” idea.  But just because something is common doesn’t always make it the best choice.

An interesting marketing tactic

I can understand the appeal of offering your new book-baby for free.  Think about it, you’re a new writer, people might not be ready to take a chance on you so by throwing your work at them for nothing, you can reel them in, right?

ehh… maybe.

This is not a bad marketing practice I guess and in theory it totally makes sense.  It’s like the free sample of perfume they glue into a magazine to get you interested before you splash out on a very expensive bottle of scented water.  :p

But I’m not 100% convinced it’s the best method.

NB: This is not about the free books you are giving as ARCs (that’s totally fine!)

Just how useful is “Free”?

Now, I’ve received my fair share of free books (almost all ebooks).  Often via newsletters or even on Insta-Freebie emails as well as some I chose while browsing through Kindle Store.  I also got some from friends and strangers that offered them on social media.

But you know what, I don’t reach for them when I’m looking for a read.  I get caught up in the “ooohh free!” and then instantly I forget about them.

Seriously, I have like 20+ ebooks in my tablet that have not been read.

Instead, I continue to reach for books I’ve bought.

I’m also not the only one.  People tell me the books they are reading and when I ask them, they state they are bought ones.  If I query if they have any free ones they haven’t read, they all say something along the lines of:

“Oh yeah, I keep forgetting I’ve got [insert partially remembered title].”

We’ve all accepted something for free, just because it was free, then instantly dumped it in a drawer or closet to be forgotten about for an indeterminate amount of time.

Which begs the question… does giving your books away for free really work as a marketing practice?

The answer is… it can.

When Free Books can work

Free books CAN be a great marketing tactic but I find they work better if applied in a specific way.

First book / Stand alone book

Say you have just written and published your first book.  You have no other books out, just this one.  What can you do?  Here are some options.

Option 1

Sell it – Stick a price on it, even a competitively low price (eg £1.99 or 0.99p for an ebook) and start making money.

“But Ari, what if it doesn’t sell straight away?” 

A book is a form of passive income, once it’s written it can be sold over and over.  So stop worry about it and go on with writing the next one.

Keep your eye on the sales of that book and if they are flagging then do more marketing… don’t just drop the price!

It’s a knee-jerk reaction of new writers//business owners to panic and drop their prices.  As someone whose run their own business for five years, I can tell you, price dropping doesn’t help unless you’ve overpriced yourself to begin with.

But if you are publishing, you should have been looking into comparative pricing for a while before letting your book out.

Option 2

Short term free – On the first week (or two, if you’re feeling generous) of the book’s launch, offer it for free.  Keep the window short to drum up excitement and the FOMO (fear of missing out) sensation people get.

During this time on your posts and articles and ads about the free book, remember to ask those who are interested to interact.  Whether that’s writing a review, sharing their fave character or recommending it to a friend.

Don’t just drop into the pit of “it’s free” and then ignore it hoping people will take it, read it and then do all that.

The few times I’ve actually read free books, was usually when the author made me connect during the time I got the free book.

Having a short window during the launch allows you to control and steer the path you want people to take with your book.

Option 3

Giveaways / competitions – Offer the book for free to people who enter a giveaway or a competition.  Again it’s a form of interaction and you can build on it.  There is a deeper bond than just adding in a link to the free copy on Amazon.

Get the people invested in your characters, maybe run a quiz on which character they are most like.  Once they’ve done the quiz they can choose to be entered into a giveaway for a free copy.

State in the T&Cs of the competition/giveaway that people have to pose with your book and put it on social media with a tag.  This gives you exposure and widens your audience.

Multiple books / Series

Okay, so now you’ve got two books (or more) written and published.  This can make things different.

As well as using the 3 options above for each book, if you want, you could do a perma-free.

Option 4

Perma-Free – Great for using if you have a series (and you have more than just the first book in the series written)Offer the first book in the series for free permanently.

The first book becomes the lure, offering it free gives people a chance to get swept up in your story and if you leave the ending as a hook for the next book, then they will be more likely to buy the next book.

Yes you still run the risk of that free book being downloaded and then forgotten, but I’ve found that it’s not as likely with series/trilogies.

Again, like the earlier options, the more connected people are with your books, stories, characters, the more they will be drawn to actually reading that free book.

You could even offer the Perma-Free to those who are definitely interested, say the people who are on your mailing list.

You do need to have the second book out at the same time, or at least launching.  I personally wouldn’t put book 1 for perma-free if book 2 is going to be months away before it comes out.

Option 5

First book discount – Instead of perma-free, you could have perma-discount where you keep the first book in the series at a low price.

As I’ve said people who buy books seem to have more invested in wanting to read them.  I have started a lot of new series books because the first book was at say £0.99 and I’ve been drawn to read on.

Interesting fact… people BUY books!

It’s true!  They do!  And Indie book sales are on the rise, so being a self-published author doesn’t mean “no one will buy your book so you have to give it away”.

Value your work, use your marketing plan and strategy to shore up interest in your book, then sell it.  Don’t assume instantly that you have to give it away for free for months at a time.

Remember, you already give your book for free when you send out ARC reviews.  (You are doing that, right?) – these reviews are damn important, so definitely do this.

Yes there are people who won’t buy your book and there are people who want things for nothing.  But there are people who buy books.  People who love finding new authors and taking a chance on them.

So consider not rushing to give away your books for free at the first hurdle.

Let’s talk

What do you think about new authors giving books away for free?

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Obviously, everyone is different and while I know I’m not alone, there may be lots of people who love receiving free books and wholly support it.  Great, if so, drop me a comment and share your thoughts 🙂

Now offering a book for free and getting lots of people to download it may help with analytics, but don’t you want people to actually read your book?  Just a thought 🙂

Thanks for reading this post, I hope you enjoyed it.  Do check out my other Monday Marketing posts.

Happy writing

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33 comments

    1. Thanks for reading, Lorraine. Sorry for the delay, I’m still playing catch up from when I was ill. I appreciate your kind words. I wanted to give advice as to why I thought what I did regarding free books and at least give people something to consider before they make the decision.

      My kindle is a graveyard of unread, free books.

      1. You write excellent marketing posts, I trust your research and can always make informed decisions based on your advice.

        Thank you Ari. You’d be great at workshops. 💙

  1. Yeah I find it’s a bit of an issue, since unless I know the author (and even possibly then) that freebie is gonna languish on my kindle unread. So that’s a bit of a problem with giving out books for free. Reducing the price might actually work better. Great post!

    1. Thanks for reading. 🙂 I totally agree, I have books from authors I know that I got for free, and I’m still not reaching for them.

      I am trying to make myself read the free books and then I think I’ll stop accepting/downloading them.

      I am much more likely to accept a book at a cheaper price (especially start of a series) and read it than I would with a free copy.

  2. There’s something about ownership. When we buy it we use it. If it’s handed to us we put it aside and chances are we forget it.

    So much to learn in this field and again, I thank you for helping us.

  3. I’ve “bought” quite a few free books. Perhaps even hundreds of them. The ones I’ve read were typically the ones I was planning on reading anyway. They’re either books I thought about reading before it was free, or books whose author I know. I haven’t even read all the books I’ve bought on sale! At least the author is making money that way though.

    If you want to read my work for free, you can read my stuff on Twitter or my fanfiction. That will always be free. I don’t intend on offering my original, non-fanfiction books for free though.

    1. Thanks for reading, Brooke. Yes I am the same, there are a number of free books I have that were planned purchases and then I found out they were free.

      Or ones I had been drawn in to by the author and was eager to read.

      In such situations I will often read the free book then if I enjoy it, will buy the paperback (as I feel the author deserves to be paid and I prefer paperbacks) 🙂

      lol I know what you mean, I have a stack of bought books in my TBR list that I haven’t got to yet. Definitely going to try and get through them all this year.

      I’m glad to hear you won’t be offering your books for free. Writers work extremely hard for their books and they deserved to be paid for it.

      Leave the free copies for ARC reviewers and prizes in a giveaway to your fans 🙂

  4. What a helpful post, Ari. What you’ve done here is to give the various sides to this story, and the advantages/disadvantages. So much better than arguing for one or the other, when the situation is more complex.

    1. Thanks so much for reading, Cynthia. I am so glad you found this post useful.

      I feel it was important to see all sides. Too often I am seeing marketing advice touted that doesn’t appear to address all issues, especially ones that can cost us money/revenue.

      Thanks again 🙂

  5. I can see the pros and cons of doing this, but I certainly didn’t have any success with getting any extra reviews of my book when it was offered for free over 5 days. I got plenty of downloads, but no new reviews. It kinda put me off from doing it again, although I do like your idea of making your first book cheaper when book two comes out. That’ll be happening to me soon.

    1. Thanks for reading, Hugh.

      After asking my writing community on Twitter about if they review, many said they never do so it seems most people, even other writers, aren’t doing reviews.

      I think the best way to get reviews is with official ARC copies/reviewers. This way they know why they are getting a free copy.

      I have to say I know a number of authors who’ve had success with the free or discounted first book in a series. So I do recommend that.

      Good luck 🙂

      1. I’ve been reading your other other responses to comments, Ari. I can now see that offering a book for free is not the way to go about getting new reviews. Is there is a list of who will take a, ARD for a genuine review, or is it just a case of asking around?

      2. Your best bet is to find book review bloggers. Ones that specialise in just doing or mostly doing book reviews, many of these will have a submissions guidelines.

        You can put out a request on social media asking for ARC reviewers. Be clear with them on your genre, length of your book, age range (eg YA, NA, Adult etc) and anything they need to be aware of (eg violence within etc)

        Most people who give ARCs give them about a month or two before the book is to be released.

        It is confirmed with the ARC reviewer that the free copy is given with the understanding that they will leave a review(s) either on Amazon, GoodReads and/or their blog.

        If you want something specific (eg Amazon) make that known early.

        You can also send them a reminder following release date asking them to complete a review and sending you a link.

        There will always be some ARCs who fail to review, some might not want to do it if they will give it a negative and some will just forget or not read the book.

        But book reviewing blogs that are active and with a good following will usually complete them.

        Here are three bloggers who do book reviews, I know who are great, not sure if they read your genre though:

        https://bookreviewsbyshalini.com/review-policy/

        http://www.brookereviewsnsweeps.com/review-policy/

        https://rachelpoli.com/book-review-policy/

        I am doing book reviews myself, though only 1 month currently. My review policy is in my menu.

        You could also do a Google Search for book reviewers for your genre 🙂

        Good luck

  6. I also have a bunch of free ebooks that I haven’t got through! Although I’ve started most of them and found that, alas, I have got what I paid for. If a free book is riddled with spelling mistakes, or it’s clear the only editor to have looked at it was the author’s mum, then I’m out.
    There’s a few I’ve read the whole way through – they were all the first of a series, too, so looks like your tip for going free when you have some other writing it can point towards works both ways! 😁

    1. Thanks for reading.

      Oh yes, there is nothing more off putting that realising the author just rushed to publish and took no pride in their work by getting it professionally edited.

      I’ve had writers tell me editing is expensive and they can’t afford, but the point is that’s part of the cost of doing self-publishing. Investing in yourself with a good cover design, a professional edit.

      If these things aren’t worth saving and spending on, then the book won’t be worth reading more times than not.

      Yes, that’s the only time I’ve read a free book, when it was the start of a series. Some I thought, “hmm not for me” others drove me to get the rest of the series. 🙂

  7. For me, free books seem to be the only way I get people to read my stuff, did a giveaway but even then I didn’t get any reviews. I am now trying to market more through my blog and on social media but it doesn’t seem to make a difference. The thing that frustrates me is the lack of feedback, even bad reviews are reviews!

    1. Thanks for reading, Chris. So did people actually read the book when they downloaded it for free? Or did they just download it?

      I think offering for free in hopes of a review won’t really work. When I asked via #TheMerryWriter if people left reviews, most said they never did (surprising for other writers).

      I think using ARC reviewers is the best way to get reviews and just driving interest to your books (that have a price) is the best way to get people to connect enough to buy.

      It is frustrating that people don’t leave reviews. I was surprised just how many writers confirmed they don’t bother to review…and yet surely, when they publish, they will want reviews.

      Maybe it’s because everything is now being reviewed. On Amazon your asked to review the product, the seller and now the packaging!

      People are getting tired of it and as we order more things online, there is more that needs reviewing.

      I always try and review all books I read, because as a writer myself, I’d want people to review mine.

      1. That is the question really, did they read it. I don’t know, I have had a few ratings but not many so some people must have read my stuff at some point. As a hobbyist writer with a full time (and very demanding) job I do not always market as well as I could. I don’t have an editor either so live off the good will of friends to help me correct mistakes (editors/marketing etc. all costs a lot of money, if I was going for full time author status I would pay but I don’t feel my family should have to suffer over my hobby!). Maybe there are too many typos so readers put them down quickly, or maybe they just add to the list of ebooks on a Kindle that will never get read!

  8. I have about a gazillion e-books I got for free that I’ve never read. And from the looks of things, I won’t be reading any of them anytime soon.
    I don’t know if it has to do with human psychology, but I hardly ever value the e-books I get for free. Many people say it’s the same with them, too; which is why I don’t think I’ll give out any of my books for free (if ever I write one).
    People would always treasure a well-written book that cost them money.

    1. Thanks for reading. 🙂

      I know what you mean. There is a strange sense of “less than” with free books.

      I do feel that the best thing is always to give your books a good price, or a discounted price. Use stronger marketing tactics to drive interest.

      People want to support authors they like and love to buy books. I’d rather 3 people bought my book and read it, than 20 people downloaded it for free and never touched it.

  9. I’ve heard about “free only to be forgotten” a few times already. Another thing is that as there’s no investment, there’s little motivation to write a review. If it was bad, it was free, so no tears about it – and no motivation to share why you did not like it (which would help filtering out the wrong readers). Good free things are nice but have the same risk. Word of mouth is important to writers and even minimal investment is something that might nudge readers to think about what they (dis)liked about it and thus nudge them into sharing their opinions.

    1. Thanks for reading, Tomas. I like that “free only to be forgotten,” I think that says it all.

      You are so right, there is no investment. In fact, if people give books for free on the hopes of a review I feel that’s bad marketing.

      Having asked my Twitter writing community recently if they left reviews (even on books bought) a large number said they never reviewed. (surprising as they are all writers and will obviously, eventually want their own reviews)

      But it shows that hoping for reviews by offering free (when not done as an official ARC copy/review) is not really the best way to do it.

      I think giving your book a good value, and doing what you can to make people aware of it with decent, non-spammy marketing is the best idea.

      After all, having people download 30 copies of your book for free gives you nothing. Whereas if you sell just 4 copies for 4.99 that’s just under £20 – better than nothing 😉

  10. Someone I know who used to work in marketing gave me a warning about offering my book for free. She told me a lot of customers interpret free to mean worthless. Sure, people won’t say no to free stuff, but that doesn’t mean they value having it. That’s probably why people don’t end up reading whatever free books they might have downloaded.

    1. Thanks for reading 🙂

      I think we are all automatically drawn to “free” but there is, as you say, a sense of “worth-less” to those items.

      I think it comes down to why people want to offer for free.

      Is if for reviews? Then that should only be done with ARC reviewers, these are people who are completely aware that the reason they are being given a free copy, is for an honest review. It’s like a type of business transaction.

      If they are given for free in a hopes they will give a review – not a good idea, especially as when I asked my writing community, many people said they don’t do reviews at all!

      If it’s to just show a lot of downloads to see how popular the book is, fine, but then be aware that you aren’t really getting anything from that other than ranking… though I’m not sure how you’re ranked if the book is free.

      Really, other than an ARC copy or as a prize to a fan who enters a competition/giveaway, I personally think there’s not reason to give a book away for free.

    1. Wow that is random! I swear some people have no idea about pricing.

      4.99 is now considered a “sweet spot” price along with 2.99 and 3.99 but it still has to be in value with the book and 19 pages… oooh that is pretty bad pricing right there.

  11. I have read most books given by authors and forgotten books I have bought… 😂.. Now that you have reminded me I have to get to those books too.. Soon… One day..
    It works for some, when books are free or 0.99..

    1. Are the ones given for review? Or just given for as a random “freebie?” I think if they are given specifically for review, we are more likely to read them. 🙂

      I agree, I’m sure it can work for some, I’ve read at least 2 books I got randomly for free, but I think the majority are probably forgotten unless we already had it in mind to read them.

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts, Shalini 🙂

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