Ok, this is going to be a heavy-on-the-writing-and-marketing type blog post, so if that’s not really your thing maybe you could read this post (about me being awkward at parties) or, if you’re looking for something a bit darker, this one (about a real-life unsolved murder case)…
Let’s talk about free stuff.
So this all started the other day when I realised how many ebooks I’ve got which I downloaded when they were free, but which I’ve never actually read.
I mean, I’ve read some of them obviously, but nowhere near the majority of them. This got me thinking about free ebooks in general, and whether this is a good approach for an author.
Anyway, there has been a lot of debate about free ebooks, but it isn’t something I’d ever really given much thought to as I’d never intended to make any of my books completely free.
However, when I published my short story collection The Walk a few months ago I looked again at Amazon’s KDP Select program and thought that maybe it would be worth enrolling onto it, mainly so as to take advantage of being able to have promotional ‘free’ days. Depending on who you speak to, the idea behind this is to gain exposure, and/or get ‘noticed’ by Amazon’s algorithms, and/or experience a sales boost once the promotional period ends.
And/or probably a load of other stuff that I haven’t thought of too.
In short though, the idea is that going free for a short period of time will be beneficial to an author.
Free is bad?
The Walk has been out for a while now, and as yet, I haven’t chosen to use my ‘free’ days. I wish I could give specific reasons for this, but to be honest I don’t know exactly what they are. What I do know is that every time I contemplate making the book free, two main objections spring to mind:
1. It seems unlikely that people will read a free ebook before one they have paid actual money for – This is obviously debatable, but because more has been invested in the paid-for ebooks (clicking download and waiting a couple of seconds Vs doing the same thing but then paying money too) it seems unlikely that the free ebook will get chosen over the paid-for ones.
2. Free is seen as less valuable than paid for – Again, debatable, but I do feel that getting something for free may well mean that – consciously or otherwise – you place less value on it. Also, does the decision of the author to make it free make you wonder about his/her own thoughts on its value?
In terms of getting more exposure, ok, maybe I would get more downloads if the book were free, but then how many people are actually going to read it, given the above? And how many will download it because they’re actually interested in it? Let’s be honest, we all like getting free stuff, so my increase in downloads might not actually be attributable to a genuine interest in the book itself. (Although if the aim is purely to get exposure, then maybe whether people read the book or not isn’t that important as long as it shows up on the ‘Customers who bought this also bought…’ sections of Amazon.)
To me, making an ebook completely free to gain exposure is a kind of scattergun approach, where you hope that through sheer volume of downloads, at some point you’ll hit a target. Personally I think it makes more sense to have almost the opposite approach – so rather than chucking free books at peoples’ heads and hoping you’ll hit someone that wants to read it, you find someone who will probably like it and then offer them a free copy as a way of introducing them to your writing.
Ice cream (Yes, ice cream)
Imagine two shops on a high street, let’s say they’re ice cream parlours (because I’m hungry and also because I like the word ‘parlour’).
So, one business gives out free samples in the street, and the other gives free samples in store after speaking to the customer. In the first scenario, everybody is offered a free sample of ice cream. And I mean everybody – people that like ice cream, people that don’t like ice cream, people who might just take the ice cream then chuck it in the bin around the corner, people who might hate ice cream but just reflexively took it to be polite, and finally people who like ice cream but due to the overuse of the term in this blog post never want to see ice cream again.
Now, think about how much ice cream that parlour would have to give away before finding someone who happens to like that particular flavour. A lot, probably.
Ok, now let’s look at the other place. People walk in because they are already looking for ice cream, they then describe the type that they like, and the person behind the counter gives them a sample and explains why they think they will enjoy it. This parlour is much more likely to not only give away less ice cream, but also give the customer something that they actually want.
I’ll be the first to admit that this example isn’t perfect – for one, authors don’t have limitless supplies of different ‘types’ of books that people might like in the same way that ice cream parlours have a million different flavours of frozen crap. But the principle remains that it is surely more advantageous for both author and reader/business and client to find out whether somebody will like what you’re offering before giving it to them for free, rather than giving it to them and hoping for the best.
Free is good?
Now, just to throw a big fat spanner in the works, I’m also going to say that I don’t believe that giving books away for free can never work, just that it needs to be a considered approach and part of a larger plan. In certain contexts, it makes perfect sense to set the price of an ebook at zero, for instance for the first book in a trilogy. People are more likely to try out book one if it’s free, and the idea here is that they would enjoy it so much that they will then buy the next two. Again, there’s no way of knowing that they won’t just download it and never read it, but at least it’s a calculated decision in this case, and designed to illustrate your skill as a writer and invest the reader in your characters to the point where they want to read on.
I have given away a number of ebooks myself, but always after either speaking to a person who I feel will actually like the book, and/or would be happy to review it, or as part of a promotional plan – such as getting exposure for a new book through a Goodreads giveaway.
So I think free can be good, but only if it’s targeted, otherwise you may just end up with loads of people taking what you’re offering and not really caring about it/having no intention to use it/deciding they hate it because they don’t like the genre even though they knew what it was when they downloaded it (“Every page had more romance than the last, and I HATE romance books! Stop writing romance fiction, everyone! Nobody wants to read it! 1 star!”)
So, good, bad or ugly?
I’d be interested to get more thoughts on this, so feel free to let me know what you think in the comments below.
How about it? As either an author or a reader (or both), what do you think about giving away free ebooks?
QUICK UPDATE : Since writing this post, I have decided to give away a short story as a free download for a limited time to all new subscribers to my email list. However, as this is a limited time offer, is a short story rather than a full length novel/short story collection, and is also only available to those who sign up, I don’t look at it the same way as I would making one of my books free on, say, Amazon.