To (Give It Away for) Free or Not to Free? That Is the Question

Okay, I apologize for the tacky play on words in the title. I just couldn’t resist.

Anyway, I came across a conversation on LinkedIn this morning about the benefits (and arguments against) giving away ebooks for free.

The post that started the conversation certainly grabbed my attention. It read:

We authors needs to band together and say “NO MORE FREE BOOKS.” Does a CEO offer his services for free? Does an employee tell their boss “This week I’ll work for free?” How do we solve it?

The responses were  … well … quite mixed. I thought I would pull out the most interesting quotes from the arguments on both sides so that you can help form your own decision about whether or not to offer your book for free as part of a promotional package.

The Pros

The Baen Free Library has demonstrated that free books increase sales of backlist titles. I am putting another of my books up there soon. I also “snippet” — post chapters of — forthcoming books for free, up to about half the book’s contents.
Ryk Spoor

My sales were increased tremendously by using the program on Amazon. At the start my sales were up over a thousand percent over the pre program sales figures. And now, at the end of nine months with the program my sales are consistently two hundred percent over pre program sales.
Michael “Duke” Davis

“Free” is not a new concept. Free attracts people who might pay for your stuff in the future. Think of a free e-book as your loss leader.
Susan Wenger

I find it works extremely well when you have a series. I gave away book one of my vampire series and book 2 sales soared. Giving books away is a long term investment and the more books you have published, the better it will pay off!
Janiera Eldridge

When I started this writing gig, I questioned the “free” thing as well. Then I was picked up by a small press who absolutely does not agree with “free”, but does encourage giveaways. On the release of my debut novel, I was provided with 25 free Smashwords coupons to use for reviews, promos, etc. I’ve used them judiciously, and have seen some good return. I agree with others here, “Free” is a marketing decision, and is typically for a limited time. Ever hear of “buy one, get one free?” This has been used by some of the world’d biggest retailers and suppliers for years, because it works.
Debbie McClure

The Cons

Since I signed up for KDP which locks you in for 90 days, I’ve learned that it’s almost a game with many to dowload as many free books as they can – many times in the triple digits. And, they don’t read them, they just collect them. If it were mandatory that there were no free books online ever, the good, the bad and the ugly would be weeded out fairly quickly. With 1300 downloads, I’m think Wow! People will review and the word will get out. Not true. I’ve had l7 reviews in a month (since it was printed) and most of these people have written me via my website and paid for the book. Fifteen five-star and two four-star. As far as I can tell, the free downloads did not help my sales. Maybe they will eventually, but not yet.. If you pull a book up on Amazon or B & N and read the first page, you know whether the book is worthy enough to read. I’m not saying mine is worthy or better than others, I feel that a book should be purchased because it’s a good book,not because it’s free.
Kimberly Shursen

Some authors choose to put their ebooks up on sites like Smashwords for free. That is a personal choice, although it’s been argued that a lot of these are worth even less than the asking price. Some writers do this because they simply want their books to be read and don’t care about bringing in money. Others are looking to create a following as they develop their talent. Either way it would be very rare to hear someone say: “wow this is such a great book I would have paid to read it!”
Gordon Williams

Just remember if you sell yourself cheap why should a reader value your book more than you do?
Ron Mahedy


In summary, I think the pros outweigh the cons. But what really came through in the responses to this original post is that it’s up to each and every author to decide whether this is the right form of marketing for the book in question. As one person so succinctly put it: I don’t see anyone forcing authors to give away their books for free.