Free ebooks – Good, Bad or Ugly?

Free eBooks - Good, Bad or Ugly?

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)…

Still here?


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)

Analogy time.

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.


15 thoughts on “Free ebooks – Good, Bad or Ugly?

  1. Interesting debate and like you, my thoughts are mixed.

    I, too, have downloaded lots of free e-books and some of them I’ve read, some of them I haven’t. This isn’t because I’m downloading for the sake of it, I always go for the genres I know I’ll enjoy. I suppose in my case it comes down to how much time I have to spend reading. As it’s often limited, I’m more likely to read the books written by authors I already know first.

    That’s not to say I think the rest aren’t worth my time. I’ll most certainly get around to reading them. As a novelist myself I appreciate the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into these books and I’d hate to think of such bodily fluids going to waste.

    But like you say, there is the question of perceived ‘value’, something which I think is easier to overcome if an author has already make their mark. Some readers might be less suspicious when it comes books by well known authors . A freebie from an established name could quite easily be viewed as a ‘thank you’ rather than the means of promotion it is.

    If you do decide to go down the free download route, Angelo, I look forward to hearing how you get on x

    • Thanks for that Suzie, it’s really good to get other opinions on this.

      I think you’re absolutely right regarding already well known authors too. I suppose that a free book in that way could be seen as more of a thank you to existing fans, while at the same time benefiting the author in terms of possibly reaching a wider audience.

      And if I do decide to use my free KDP days, I’ll most likely blog about it, so watch this space..! It would be very interesting to see the effect on downloads both during and after the promotional period, and on both The Walk as well as my other books which might be affected in some way.

      Thanks again for commenting Suzie.

  2. Is your book an ice cream or a Ferrari?

    Most people starting out in writing dream that their first book will be a Ferrari. It will be so wonderful and successful that people will start a queue outside your door. Fans will buy T shirts with your book’s name on them. Fame, fortune and all that. Harry Potter, Jack Reacher and Fifty Shades.

    There is a very good reason why Ferrari don’t give away free samples.

    Most new authors don’t write a Ferrari – at least not the first time. They are more likely to have written an ice cream. Relatively low cost and low in excitement value. Don’t get me wrong. I like ice cream. But I have very little brand loyalty for, say, Ben and Jerry’s over Haagen Dazs.

    Ice cream shops don’t make their money on your first purchase. That’s why they can afford to give away free samples. Instead they make their profit from repeat business. The freebie you give away on Monday entices me to pay full price on Wednesday.

    Authors who are starting out don’t need sales. They may think that they do, but it’s a mirage. What they really need are fans and readers. And they really need to have written that second, third and fourth book. Because as soon as you hook someone with book one, you want them to go to Amazon to see if you have written anything else.

    One day, maybe, one or both of us will write that Ferrari and won’t need to give away free samples. Until we do, we are selling ice-cream. And that means that number of fans is more important that the money we make from sales.

    • Hi Will,

      Thanks for commenting.

      I see what you’re saying with ice cream vs Ferraris – which is no contest by the way, ice cream wins hands down… – but I wasn’t comparing two different products, rather the same product being given away using different methods. So rather than ice cream vs anything else, it’s ice cream given to everyone as a sample vs ice cream given to a more targeted group instead.

      I do completely agree with you that authors early on need fans and readers rather than sales, so free books may well be a way to achieve this. There’s this great Hollywood saying which was apparently doing the rounds in the 70s, that “you get rich off your next picture”, meaning essentially that you need to build a fanbase by doing great work first, and then you can worry about making enough money to cover the rent.

      Oh, and you never know, in time it may well turn out that one of us has already written that Ferrari…


  3. It’s absolutely not good for us as authors. We are training the reader to look for only free books and scour the internet for such.

    I wrote a blog article and gives a different outlook to this problem:
    [link broken]

  4. Will has a good point regarding Ice Cream and Ferraris, which is relevant to your ‘value’ comment. Offer a free book and the reader knows, or believes they know, it isn’t a Ferrari – they hope it might be ice cream, but often it’s just a badly written empty wrapper. So why devalue yourself? Price your book according to what you believe its value should be. Free promotions help no-one but the website, by attracting readers to it, not to your book.

    I realised this after I offered one of my books free on Amazon and 400+ downloads resulted in only one immediate after-sale. I offered my first major book at a ridiculously cheap price and it quickly sank through the ratings. I doubled the price and sold more copies than previously but not many (yes – it scraped into double figures!!) It was too late by then, the book had already dropped out of sight in the rankings and nothing but serious and sustained promotion will revive it. And it’s not going to get that until my stable has more Ferraris in it, so that I can strive for return custom and a loyal reader base.

    • Hi Pete,

      Thanks for that, it’s been really helpful finding out about other authors’ experiences of doing the whole KDP Select ‘thing’.

      I think it’s the value part of all this that is preventing me from making my book free. As I mentioned above, if I as the author give my book away to everyone (literally), what does that say about the value that I’m placing on it? And as you said, why devalue ourselves (and our hard work)?

      I do suspect you’re right about free promotions helping the website more than the author too.

      The debate goes on, I guess…!

  5. Technically, every book I’ve sold so far has been free. Ha! I never cashed my first Amazon check and soon lost it completely. I do use my Free Promo Days from Amazon. And I am one of those who loves the free books and purposefully hunts them down. I even have Amazon’s Top 100 Free bookmarked. I check it frequently for books that interest me. With my zero-dollar-a-month book allotment, the free section is all I allow myself to shop. I place a much higher value on things that I can actually own than things that I stare longingly at and can’t own.

    I know there’s all sorts of debate and ugly truth about us SPs being non-professional or horribly unedited, but really, it’s more a case of what we’re individually in it for. I’m not in it for fame and fortune. So, in most people’s eyes, I am a spoiler of the ‘profession’. But I cannot find it in me to care. Getting my name out there is more important to me than hunting and trolling through thousands of blogsites hoping someone will want to read my book and actually reply.

    None of people’s harsh words (not you, with your rather reasonable voice) will dissuade me from using up all my free days, which just renewed! (I am also one of the people who will take a sample from someone then promptly turn around and buy what they’re peddling.)

    • Hi Melissa,

      Thanks for your very honest comment there..!

      We probably do differ in terms of our outlook on self-publishing, but at this point I think there are as many differing opinions as there are books, so it’s always good to hear different sides of the debate.

      And thanks for the ‘rather reasonable voice’ thing too… 😉

  6. Now that books entered into Kindle Select are automatically also in Kindle Unlimited there are only two situations where ‘free’ works. The first is if book 1 is the first in a series then free is a great promotional method. In my experience you’ll give out eight free books for each second book in the series sold. Not a good ratio you might think but they’ll then go on to purchase the third, fourth and so on. I’d like to think that many of the remaining seven books are still unread, but maybe that’s wishful thinking. It’s essential that that free book remains free all the time. To achieve that it can’t be in Amazon Select. Publish it at Smashwords or another book distributor which allows free. Through them publish to B&N, Kobo and iTunes where they will also be free. In time Amazon will price match them.

    The second method where ‘free’ works is where you write a short story and make it exclusive to Amazon using Kindle Select. Set the price at 99 cents and make the book free for three days in Select. You’ll get a significant number of downloads provided you promote it heavily. Hopefully it will also then be downloaded by readers using Kindle Unlimited from which you’ll make far more in KU payments than sales in Kindle Select.

    • Hey John,

      Thanks for your comments. It’s interesting you mention the short story/Select idea, as I have been toying with the idea of maybe offering just one short story free (rather than an entire novel or short story collection), so this might well be a good approach. The issues I mention in the main blog post would still exist of course, but would maybe be a bit more palatable if it’s a short story I’m using rather than a full length novel or short story collection.

      Anyway, it’s all food for thought I guess, so thanks again for commenting.

    • Thanks, I’m glad you found it helpful.


      I’m toying with the idea of making one of my books free actually, so I may well be writing another post on this subject pretty soon…

      Thanks for the reblog by the way, and I hope your promotion goes well!

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