Is Free A Price We Can Pay?

It seems that every book these days — or, at least, every self-published book — is popping up free for a short period of time, an act driven by inclusion in the exclusive Amazon KDP Select program.

I did it with SHOTGUN GRAVY, as you may have seen. To report back on the experiment, the novella has once more gone back to its two or three sales a day mark. The sales basically went like this: after going free for just over a day, the novella moved around 5200 copies. Then, after the promo ended, I sold (daily): 70, 4, 89, 48, 36, 13, then it we’re back to the two or three sales per day. During the time SG spiked, my other e-books mysteriously dipped for a couple days but then raged back strong thereafter. During that stretch, it netted be about 20 new reviews. So, I’m willing to call it a success.

And I’m not yet sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

The results were a good thing. But it’s the ramifications of those results that has me feeling wibbly-wobbly.

Here’s where I’m a bit troubled.

First, the fact we’re now seeing a new type of authorial self-promotion (my book is free! hurry up and not pay for it!) is troubling if only because I fear we’re just contributing to the overall noise — and it’s noise that spreads an intrinsic notion about the value of our work, which is to say, it maybe ain’t worth that much. This noise also helps to set up expectation: “If I wait around long enough, this book might just show up free for a couple days.” So, where before readers were becoming trained to wait for a sale — “Oh, now the book is $2.99 instead of $4.99, or now just a buck” — they’re instead waiting for it to cost them absolutely zero.

Second, the boost in sales that comes out of this process is effectively a cheat. It’s an exploit like you’d find in a multiplayer game. It’s not based on human word-of-mouth, it’s based on a programmatic exploitation of Amazon’s recommendation system — a system that is inscrutable and unpredictable. Amazon may intend for it to work that way so, in this sense it’s not strictly an exploit — but my point is that it’s based on an algorithm of recommendations rather than actual recommendations. Moreover, if that algorithm becomes dominated by this mode of juggling books to the top, then those books that are not participating may have a harder time finding a place in that already-unknowable and potentially-overcrowded recommendation system. Right? So, not only is this “free product exploit to boost sales” trick creating a potential ecosystem of lowered expectations in a story’s value (because a buck wasn’t cheap enough!), it’s also enforcing a programmatic ecosystem where if your book does not participate, it doesn’t get to play in the Reindeer Games with all the other once-free books.

Third, we’re reinforcing the notion that Amazon is the 800-lb. gorilla in the room — except now, Amazon is becoming the 800-lb. mecha-gorilla in the room (now with rapid-fire gatling gun arms!). I already sell minimally on the Nook and most authors I talk to have the same experience. On the one hand, that coffin’s already got eight nails in it. On the other hand, if our aggregated Amazon exclusivity hammers in that ninth and final nail, that means Barnes & Noble officially fails to be a competitor (which is as much their fault as anybody’s, to be clear). And a book publishing ecosystem that loses both of its main players (in Borders and B&N) is a troubled one. Up until this point, Amazon has been very author-friendly. Outside a few little stumbles and bumbles, they’re pretty good to authors and offer a genuine benefit. Amazon has changed publishing and how authors reach audiences. But, Amazon is a company. I hold no illusions that they do this to be warm and fuzzy. They’re making friends with authors so as to shank publishers in the kidneys. What happens when bookstores and publishers finally die, gurgling in their own lung-blood? Will authors continue to get a great deal in that ecosystem? Self-publishers who scream and cry about publisher monopoly plainly do not understand monopolies. Amazon has the ability to become just such a monopoly.

Let me be clear — I used the promotion, it worked, and I’m fairly happy with the results. I’m not knocking it nor am I knocking any who seek to access that exploit. You do what you have to do. If your unknown book is now known due to this process, then that’s a clear win.

My fear is that it’s a win in the short term. But that there may be harm in the long-term.

(As a sidenote, if you’ve nabbed a free book from an author and then read that book, you should do something to pay the author back: leave a review or buy other books by that author. It’s only fair.)

Curious to hear your thoughts — I’m not settled on any of this (how can you be, with the ground moving so swiftly beneath our feet?), and for all I know this represents just another step toward an authorial Renaissance. On the other hand, I worry we’re cutting out one middle-man for another, except this one is a faceless insane Amazon algorithm that lives in the dark and seeks to undo all existence with his cybernetic Hands-of-Atropos. Snip, snip.

You tell me. Have you tried the free thing either as author or reader? How’d it work for you? What are your thoughts and fears over all this? Talk it out. Curious to unpack this, see where authors of all stripes stand.

Oh! One more thing:

If you’re a self-published author, you know that one of the hardest things to come by is data.

So, go fill out this self-publishing survey. Please?

67 comments

  • I haven’t tried this or downloaded any temporarily free books, mainly because it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I suppose if the point is to get recognition, readers, and a bigger platform that knows your name and the name of your book, then sure, do it. But that seems like the only main thing it’s really good for. If you’re an established writer (like, say, you), then I don’t see the need.

  • There’s this blog I read. The guy gives writerly advice couched in profane meatophors. He put a novella up for free. I nabbed it. I read it. In the note afterward, he mentioned that there would be three more in a series. Had they been available then for a price I could afford I’d have purchased them immediately.

    I did, in fact, leave a review, though Amazon disappointed me by refusing to post it until I removed a profanity used in the context of warning folks that if they don’t want to have their children seeing profanity their children should read something else.

    And in re the thing about Amazon becoming a monopoly. Well, sure, they could do whatever they wanted but really, what do they want? They want to sell stuff to people. Writers provide them with stuff they can sell to people so they have a vested interest in making it easy for writers to get stuff up on Amazon.

    Could they mess with the royalties? Sure, but it wouldn’t take much for, say, Apple, to seriously compete in the e-book market. I am rather surprised that they haven’t taken those steps already and frankly, I expect them to do so soon.

    Hell, if I were Apple, I’d consider buying Barnes & Noble just to prop them up for a few years while they merge the Nook and iPad user bases.

    • @Gregory — This is where I think the free promo does good things — you left a review, which means you’re contributing to the overall human side of the recommendation system, not the faceless insane algorithmic robot system.

      That said, as to Amazon becoming a monopoly — it’s possible I’m just more suspicious or cynical than you, but with a flip of a switch Amazon could easily reduce royalties, could ensure that Kindle files are not easily read on competing devices, could elevate Amazon-only titles, etc.

      They may not. As I said, they’ve been fairly author-friendly at this point.

      — c.

  • You’ve pretty much mirrored my reaction to the free book phenomena, Chuck. I’ve done it. It’s worked fairly well to bring me some new readers–some who (thank you, whoever you are!) actually bought other books after the giveaway–but I didn’t *like* giving my work away. Like Laura said above, there is a bit of bad taste connected with it. I would much rather Amazon allow a writer to run a sale now and then, and show a lowered price and sale period on the product page, instead of only offering the chance to go *free* for five days every quarter.

    That said *free* is the promo bandwagon of the day, and I’m on it–until the wheels fall off.

  • I’ve got three free books on my Kindle. Well, I *had* three.

    I read half of the first one, and it was awful. The premise did not reflect the story, and it was genuinely awful. Just — everything about it. It had coherent writing, and that was about it. I started the other two, and have enjoyed them, but just haven’t had a chance to really dig into them.

    I’m not a huge fan of the free e-book phenomena, because it does make me wonder — what’s wrong with it? Then again, I’m also of the opinion that I’d rather be read than paid, so I get it.

    It’s a mixed-up issue.

  • “That said *free* is the promo bandwagon of the day, and I’m on it–until the wheels fall off.”

    True, E.C. — and I might be, as well. And there’s no doubt it works and is effective, and hell, I might do it again. I’m just wondering about the long-term ramifications — if any exist at all — of this whole dilly-o.

    People still say “dilly-o,” right?

    — c.

  • The thing that disturbs me most about this subject is that we are left discussing our work in terms of price, that the quality of the work doesn’t become the means by which we compete–it’s whether its $2.99 or $.99 or free. I suspect a lot of readers are shopping by price, rather than by what’s good or interesting or even well-reviewed. This is one of the problems with publishing in general–a lot of time is spent letting the salability of a book override what’s good. Yes, it’s business, but if crap floats to the surface because it’s free, well, that just sucks.

  • Here’s the thing most people who think “free” gets their book in the hands of more readers.
    .
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    IT DOESN’T

    You wrack up more downloads, but you don’t get more readers. Most of the downloads are going to be from the people who trawl Amazon specifically for free downloads. They don’t read them; they take and archive them because they’re free.

    Readers have discovered that the free, and even $0.99, books are (mostly) garbage. The percentages are different for promotional price drops, but if you listen to those making a serious go at self-e-publishing through Amazon, they’re almost all reporting that readers are giving up on the books that start out and stay at those price points because they’ve learned it’s flash on an inferior product.

    What’s happening is that the deluge of lackluster writing (slush, whatever) is dropping into that cheap/free cess-tank, so rather than the self-pubbing stigma staying on the industry, it’s relocating to writers who run out waving the “cheap-book” banner. The books priced $2.99-$4.99 are the ones currently showing stronger sales.

    People who first get e-readers still go nuts for the cheap and free books, but it’s a shine that wears off quickly. Once you’ve hit your 3rd, 5th, or 12th horrible experience, you’re more likely to choose your selections with care.

    • @Josin —

      I don’t know that I’m willing to go that far. I can’t speak to percentages, but I know I got a handful of readers — and new buyers for other work — out of the SHOTGUN GRAVY free promo. Further, I’ve seen a *ton* of quality books and authors go the free route recently. Jeff Shelby, Ray Banks, Anthony Smith — strong writers, compelling voices, not amateur hour at all.

      But I think something you say does resonate — if we fill up our Kindlemaschines with a ton of free books, we can only read *so many* books at a time. Will people continue to buy fiction if they get a glut of books (cheap or free) sitting on their devices? Maybe. Maybe it’s more about desire than quantity. Maybe quantity and time matter.

      I need more coffee.

      — c.

      • Adding:

        I think that free, whatever the avenue or trick, works, but should be part of an overall strategy — that said, I’m just not sure what that strategy is yet, though it certainly aims to maximize readership at just the right moment. You don’t want to limit readers with that exclusivity option, and you *do* want to offer fans a way to reward you for work as opposed to just get something for free. Hm.

        More thought — and coffee — needed.

        — c.

  • You got new readers, sure, but you didn’t start out at free/$0.99. Yours was a price drop, not the average “I’m just gonna toss this out there and see what sticks” kind of deal, so people who were already curious about your writing pounced.

    With someone who is an established writer, who has readers that can expect a certain level of quality in story and editing, then the percentages skew in favor of the writer because the consumer is getting more for their money (of time, if the book is free).

    • @Josin —

      Sure, and that lends itself to my feeling that an overall strategy is necessary.

      Then again, to play Devil’s Advocate, you look at David Kazzie — THE JACKPOT was going nowhere fast and, after the free promotion, rocketed to the top 100 paid books on Kindle, earned him a ton of new readers, new reviews, and in a very short period of time basically gave him a small novel advance (equivalent).

      So — it does work. The question for me is what are the long term consequences (if any)?

      — c.

  • So far, I’ve not used the free option. I enrolled one of my books in the KDP Select but will probably pull it out. There’s too much reader backlash against the exclusivity requirement and, while I”m not selling much on any other platform, being in the program means I won’t ever develop a readership anywhere else.

    I think the key element is “unknown writer.” I’m not convinced that authors with a solid readership can gain that much from going free. I know a dozen or more “starters” who leveraged a ride up the charts on the free-train to paid success after it ended. I’m not sure that’s possible now because of algorithm changes.

    I believe that the ebook buying market is strongly stratified by price. The people who buy at 99-cents (and under) are not the people who buy at $4.99 who are, in turn, not the people who’ll pay $9.99 and up. Simply pricing the book differently might attract the attention of these other markets, but buy-through to the backlist is far from assured.

    In my world, shorts and novellas sell weakly. Single novels sell better. Books in a series — particularly a completed series — sell best. As alway, YMMV.

    And I already took the survey.

  • I picked your book up when it was free because it was your book Chuck, not because it was free. I would have eventually paid to have it, and in fact did pay for the first two of your books. I think we devalue ourselves and our work by offering free just to get people to buy our books and I agree with Joslin, buying/downloading a free book does not mean we have collect a new reader. I also agree that a vast majority of those books I’ve gotten for free have been, if not poorly written, then poorly edited. I am willing to admit my first stop for book choices is the public library. Mostly I prefer audiobooks so I can listen while I work. I have very few physical books in my bookcase and most of those i have bought, I’ve later given to a friend. What was my point? oh, yeah, don’t sell yourself short, charge for your work. My last thought, for the day, I avoid buying from amazon out of principal.

  • Well, I had decided to run a free promo on my newest title in a few days but this article has made me think twice (damn your reptilian hide, Wendig!). I have also sort of griped about how now, with the free promotion, it gives buyers the sense that ALL titles should be free for at least a little while.

    As far as Amazon fighting Barnes and Noble and knocking Borders out, I think, for right now, it makes interesting news. But 10 years from now when Amazon is the sole Book Lord and we no longer have access to chains like B&N, I think we may realize that we’ve been a little TOO accepting of Amazon’s approaches.

    Lastly, you hit something on the head: “if you’ve nabbed a free book from an author and then read that book, you should do something to pay the author back: leave a review or buy other books by that author. It’s only fair.” Sadly, writers that buy other writers understand this. I actually don’t “buy” many free books just out of principle. But the 4 that I have downloaded, I did also buy one other title from that author. I’d be interested to see if this is something that readers that aren’t aware of what’s currently going on in the writing world also understand…

  • As a reader, downloading free books makes me sick. I can’t keep them because it just feels wrong to me, especially if the book is really good. I may be a poor motherfucker but I still know the meaning of worth. If a book is good, it should be worth more than a buck. I feel then that the writer’s selling themselves short that way. Then I don’t want to read it. I’d rather read a book I paid $20 for than .99. Just saying~~

    On the other hand, as a writer, it is nice to establish yourself. However, there are other ways to do that. Many other ways. If the book is truly with .99, then sell it like that. If it’s not worth anything, then sell it free. Just stick with the price it should be worth, and then run with it. Readers will come that way eventually. Eventually.

    Also, I apologize. I couldn’t jump on the Shotgun Gravy bandwagon and get it for free. I’d rather pay for the book. Sorry.

  • Two points:

    1) Scott Sigler raises a relevant point regarding “giving away” his work as a podio book (and I paraphrase): I know my work is good but I can’t expect you (the potential reader) to know that. By giving readers my work I let them experience my books at no risk. The ones who dig my stuff will come back for more.

    Is the goal to “sell more books” or is the goal to “get more readers and fans and evangelists of your stories”? The mechanisms of book sales will always be there, always shifting and morphing as the industry bucks and gyrates like a pole dancer.

    But the fans and devotees of your work will persist through all that, sustaining and patronizing your craft.

    2) I used your free offer to e-blast all my friends (many of whom had never heard of you) and sing your praises and pimp your work. You GAVE me a tool to spread the word and add to the growing shambling horde of readers who recognize and respect (and buy) your books.

    Without that extra hook I would have just been another guy saying “Hey, this is awesome, check it out”. Where is the downside to that?

  • I’ve been considering this approach for my short story collection. I never really intended for it to make money as if was more of an experiment into how the whole process worked. Now I’m thinking that it could make a good lead in to my first full-length novel when I release that. I’m not sure though, I would hope that there were better ways to get my name known. In my case perhaps I will repackage a few short stories to give away for free instead. I just think that these things have value as more than just promotion for something else.

  • I know I’m in the small will-not-buy-from-Amazon minority, but that means I don’t get to read authors whose work I might have liked. Which is frustrating. I’d like to read Bait Dog, but were it Kindle-only, I’d have to miss out. (I know you haven’t said you’ll do that. Just, y’know, putting it out there.)

    On the dead-tree side of things, I have seen independent booksellers take a little known title and drive it onto the bestseller lists. I would love, love, love for them to be able to do the same in the ebook market. Unfortunately, that seems to require Google eBooks becoming more author-friendly, so it’s out of indie booksellers’ hands.

    I can’t say that free promos are all-out a bad thing. Old school (legacy? commercial? traditional? what the hell are they calling us these days?) publishers have been printing Advanced Reader Copies since forever to get buzz going and introduce booksellers — and occasionally, lucky readers — to new titles. Some of them have started making electronic galleys available. The Baen Free Library has been up and running for years and from every account I’ve heard has helped sales rather than hurt them.

    Combine those with Dave Robison’s point #2, which I can see as an equivalent of shoving a physical book in a friend’s hand and saying “You have to read this.” They’re reading it for free, too (though, technically, you did buy that copy first, so the author got some royalties there). But the idea is, they read that one, find a new writer they dig, and go out and buy the person’s backlist or look for future books.

    So, not entirely a bad plan if it garners new fans. I just wish it didn’t force readers to one supplier. I worry about the long-term. As you said above, Amazon is friendly to authors (and readers) now. If they knock out their publisher and bookseller competition, I highly doubt they’ll keep being nice to the little guys when they’re the only game in town.

  • I think this is more a symptom of direct marketing on the Internet than anything else. For your purposes, Amazon isn’t really a retailer, they’re a search engine. Some collection of requests, clicks, and customer behavior puts your book in front of a potential buyer. By playing Amazon’s game, you’re able to move your book higher up in the results (get it in front of more potential buyers).

    This is really just another side of search engine optimization: curating and configuring your site and an ecosystem around it to help push your site higher up in search results. SEO is exclusively a marketing activity and it’s one that most people who focus primarily on quality content hate (in my experience, anyway).

    Like it or not, we’ve all been playing this game with Google for a long time. That Amazon now has their own Twister board for us to flop around on may not be pleasant, but it’s a basic reality of sales and marketing. It will undoubtedly evolve over time, as Amazon will tweak the process in ways that allow them to sell more stuff. That’s the only measurement that ultimately matters to Amazon: Did we sell more stuff?

    Specifics around promotional pricing, how reviews work, is a moving target now. We’re just immature at how we approach it because Amazon is a relatively new venue for this kind of work.

    The real threat is this: What happens when spam results start creeping up and/or dominating Amazon’s recommendations (counterfeit books, auto-generated texts, compilations of wikipedia articles, etc). The smart and unscrupulous will get better at gaming the algorithms. How Amazon chooses to address that inevitable problem is when the first real “risky for indie” event will occur.

    Rich

  • I don’t care if a book is free or not, I usually get a free sample first, then if I like the book, the writing etc, I either buy it for whatever the price is, or feel great that it was free.

    That’s the best part for me, no matter if its free or. 99, if the sample sucks, I just don’t purchase it. So I don’t understand why anyone would download crap onto their kindle, when you can tell pretty quickly if it will be great or not.

  • I’ve ‘bought’ some free ebooks. For the most part, they have been books I already read/bought in physical copy.

    If the book is the first in a series the readers can then proceed to buy, that’s valuable. Not so sure free standalones attract readers to authors…

  • I’m a writer (unpublished for now) and a reader. I do download free books – if they look good. Because why not? It’s a chance for me to help out a new writer (like I will be someday) by providing feedback via constructive reviews and also recommending them on twitter and facebook (and good-old-fashioned word of mouth). And I will definitely check out more work by the author if it exists, in the case of established authors offering freebees. Obviously people troll the free books. Why shouldn’t they? No one forces writers to offer their books for free.

    I’m also of the opinion that if a writer is good, it doesn’t matter how they get their name or books out there, whether self-pubbed, agented, free, or not free. Their reviews will reflect it (well, the majority of them anyway), and they’ll find success.

  • I did it on my own (one of my publishers also did it with a novella of mine) for my book Wanderlust. It moved about 1,000 copies in a five day period. Then it sold more books than it had been for a few weeks after. Now it’s moving about the same as it was before. A single to a handful of copies a day.

    What unnerved me, that I did not see coming, and maybe I should have, was the return backlash. Or as one author on the kdp board called it ‘complimentary returns’. In other words: “I loved your free book so much I went and ‘bought’ all your others, read them, and returned them.” One day a single copy of almost every short I offer on Amazon was purchased, the next day I had a single copy returned. Same books. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that one out. I think the return thing on Amazon is ludicrous and this is only making it worse.

    So, yes, to a degree certain sales have increased, however, so have returns. They’ve increased by about 900%. Due to all the ‘free book frenzy’. I used to have 1 or 2 returns a month. Now I have 9 and up.

    On top of that, there’s speculation that all of this free stuff is just helping pirates snag it and replicate it for torrent sites. Which is just irritating beyond all belief.

    I the ability to list my title for free valuable in one respect and harmful in a another. I think the bad outweighs the good on this one, for me personally. I won’t be renewing the title in the select program.

    When I want to give free books away, I just do it as a reward to my loyal readers (on my site or twitter or via a code in my newsletter). Which is way more important to me than a slew of strangers who will probably never read me again.

    XOXO
    Sommer

  • I’m an avid reader. I run in a lot of reader circles, both online and in real life. (I also teach reading, so I’m responsible for nearly 500 student book purchases every year.) My reader friends rarely download free books. They purchase many books, though.

    I don’t like the free books phenomenon. I tried it out over winter break, and I thought I was being discerning. I relied on reviews and quickly learned that the indie writing world is pretty small, and people seem to be writing fake 5 star reviews to boost their friends’ sales on Amazon and Goodreads. This infuriated me as a reader, and I’ve stayed away since.

    I’m not saying there aren’t wonderful books that go on sale for free every now and then. What I am saying is that, as a reader, there are now just too many titles, and too many unreliable reviews, to make it worth it to take a chance on them. There are just too many books on my TBR list.

    I’d much rather spend $15 or $20 on a great book, than several hours slogging through a mediocre one.

  • The “free” sales bother me, especially since authors are clamoring and striving to give their stuff away. “FREE” benefits no one but Amazon, who’s after more and more content for their expensive readers. That is their only goal in courting authors. It’s where the big 6 publishers aren’t really getting it…

    As for “free” in general, I think it can be a great marketing plan, if handled correctly. I was in a free anthology that has been downloaded over 10K times in 3 months. It’s free, it’s meant to be free (not free on Amazon, but the proceeds are donated and the price is high to encourage readers to go elsewhere for it) as a promotion, and free it shall stay. There are links to contributors’ books because the whole point of the thing was to drive readership to our other work. One story, I wrote in two days, I’m happy to give away. My 90,000 word book I spent NINE YEARS writing? Not so much.

    Sigh. Writers have always been so eager to get read, they’ll give their shit away for nothing.

  • It’s always a difficult conundrum. Reading through it, I compare it to some other recent hard decisions elsewhere in the business cosmos.

    Do I pay more at the independent bookseller, or go down the road to the big chain store? It makes short-term sense to me to get the lower price. Does the existence of the independent bookseller have enough intrinsic worth to justify paying the higher price?

    Do I pay more at the brick-and-mortar store, or get it online? Getting it online is not only cheaper, it’s more convenient. And, yet, I know that if I keep buying books online, the brick-and-mortar stores will disappear. Browsing Amazon is simply not the same as browsing Borders.

    On the side of the producers rather than the consumers, there is the Wal-Mart problem. If I slash my costs by engaging in ruthless and skanky business practices, I can meet Wal-Mart’s draconian demands. If I get my products in their stores, I can make TONS of money. Is it worth selling my soul to make that money? And, is there any way to prevent Wal-Mart from requiring suppliers to sell their souls, when there’s always someone willing to meet the price?

    How does offering a free promo on Amazon compare to having your book carried in libraries? It is different, there is no question. But what are the differences? I think that if you can unpack that, there might be some gems of insight inside.

    How does offering a free promo on Amazon compare to posting free short stories as a sample on your blog?

    In the long term, I don’t think we have to worry so much about Amazon’s monopoly. They don’t do anything that can’t be replicated by someone else, now that they’ve blazed the trail. If they turn evil, writers will look for another up-and-comer as a venue. There will likely be a period of time in there that will suck for writers. So, the free promos and gaming the system are good in the short term, and probably neutral in the long term, but probably suck in the middle term.

  • I’ve gotten a lot of free books for Kindle, as well as for my review site (http://crystalClearReviews.wordpress.com). Some of them have prompted me to purchase other books by those authors, many have not. I have a lot of writer friends who have also offered books for free – and like you, they saw an initial spike, but really, no more sales than average. As a promotional gimmick, I don’t think it’s any better or worse than anything else. Unfortunately, there’s no magic bullet out there to get your things noticed, especially these days.

  • @Jen – There are a couple problems in your comment, that are at the heart of the discussion:

    “No one forces writers to offer their books for free.” – The fear is that, sooner or later, the Amazon system will force writers to offer their books for free. The only way to get any sort of ranking/visibility will be to make the books at least temporarily free. The only way to gain sales is to gain visibility. What do you do when that visibility must come at the expense of sales?

    “I’m also of the opinion that if a writer is good, it doesn’t matter how they get their name or books out there, whether self-pubbed, agented, free, or not free. Their reviews will reflect it (well, the majority of them anyway), and they’ll find success.” – Unfortunately, this skips a huge middle step in the process. The hobbyist or newly minted pro just wants eyeballs and feedback. Money is almost irrelevant. The “successful” author already has enough of a fanbase (the proverbial Thousand True Fans) to maintain traction in the marketplace regardless what they charge (within reason).

    How do you make that transition from “money doesn’t matter, it’s not like I need my books to sell” to “money doesn’t matter, it’s not like my books won’t sell”? That’s a long, tricky uphill slog. And, along the way, there are a lot of steps where the actual quality of your writing is not the most important factor.

  • “On the other hand, I worry we’re cutting out one middle-man for another, except this one is a faceless insane Amazon algorithm that lives in the dark and seeks to undo all existence with his cybernetic Hands-of-Atropos. Snip, snip.”

    Totally agree. It always makes me laugh when self-publishers talk about “sticking it to the man”. Yeah, right. I’m not knocking SP, but don’t kid yourself that Amazon is anything other than a gigantic megacorp looking to make a big fat profit out of your brain-squeezings, as Chuck would put it. It’s swings and roundabouts, folks, not good guy vs bad guys.

  • Chuck,
    I’ve seen a couple of different posts about this topic other places and I think the concern you raise is valid. I recently saw a book that was highly acclaimed last summer went on sale for free. It was only .99 before that. But what I noticed about my own buying habits is that I didn’t run out and buy it now because it was free. I didn’t download it at all because, well, I didn’t think I was going to actually read it. I might in the future but I can’t justify downloading more books that I *might* read when there are so many books that I need and want to read.
    When my book first came out, I’d asked my publisher to drop the price for exactly the reasons you’d mentioned: drum up traffic and sales spike. They declined and explained the reasons as they were concerned about devaluing the book, a book that’s already less than a latte at $2.99. In hind sight, it was a smart move to keep the price stable, I think because it did *not* train readers to wait for a sale.
    What that does in the long run, I’m not sure but in a similar train of thought, I saw a thread or something somewhere that mailing out book marks had trained readers not to go looking for your book instead, they were waiting for their book mark or whatever to arrive before they went to buy. I’m not sure what the ramifications are of those reader habits on either count but it’s interesting that we’re all attempting to dissect reader habits.
    I think we’re still in turmoil for a while longer about the long range forecast for books, both digital and print. I’m concerned about Amazon’s dominance and yet, other retailers seem to be determined either not to compete or to compete badly as Amazon attempts to become the Walmart of the web. Target survived by differentiating itself from Walmart. Barnes and Noble must figure out how to capitalize on what it offers in terms of differentiation in order to survive. And amid all of this, writers must figure out how to maximize their ability to be heard in all the noise.

  • -it’s hard to know if doing free promotions is bad in the long term because things are changing so rapidly the long term may be based on completely different rules.
    -I put one book in the Select program and saw a benefit nobody else has mentioned (maybe I’m “special”?)–foreign sales appeared out of nowhere. Significant sales at amazon.de where I hadn’t sold a single book before. Also saw an increase in sales in my other book which was *not* in Select, so there is the knock-on effect.
    -I won’t be putting my SF trilogy in Select, mostly because the 90 day exclusivity would not work with the release schedule I want. I still think Select is good as long as you understand the tradeoffs.

  • I use both the free and the cheapo $0.99 options for books. However, after getting some crappy books that way, I always look at the reviews, looking at the negatives first, if there are any. I also look to see if the author has published any other books.

    Free books on kindle don’t cost monetarily. However, all books one reads do require an investment of another type — time. I don’t to waste my time reading a book that I end up not enjoying.

    I have bought quite a few books after being introduced to an authors work through “loss leader” books. I hope that things settle out for authors though, If they don’t, there won’t be any incentive to write and publish.

  • As a reader (and in many other things) I always figure you get what you pay for, for one thing. The other thing is that if everyone and their uncle is giving away their books, how does that help anyone stand out? It’s just another freebie in a sea of freebies.

    As a writer, I look at Amazon and think, “How long before they drop the hammer on all these writers they’ve seduced and effectively have no other place to go?” That day is coming, you can bet the farm on that.

  • I am a library reader and I always check out a writer’s books from my library before I do any purchasing. I am self-pubbing a picture book this year and will sell to my library first. If I give it away at least I can let my tax money buy it from me first.

    And who knows, the person may actually buy a copy after their child is saddened by taking the book back. It’s happened to me.

  • Ooh! my name! I heard the Internet singing my name!

    I have thought about my success with KDP Select almost nonstop since it happened. I have tracked the success of the other books whose freebie periods tracked or overlapped my own, as well as a few others, and I’ve tried to read the tea leaves.

    The only reasonable conclusion I can reach is that this thing worked for me at this time with this book. For all I know, it may never work for me again – that magical portal might be closed.

    I compare the experience to my animated So You Want To…. videos — those worked to get me on the map and helped me get noticed. They worked for me at that time with that brand of humor.

    So the big takeaway for me is that all writers must stay up-to-date with new ways to reach readers, viewers, and potential business partners (agents, publishers, producers, other writers, and so son). I remind myself that my two most successful writing projects (the book and the videos) were basically brought to fruition through media that I paid little attention to not three years ago.

    You tuck away each success (or failure) and you move on with writing the stories or movies or whatever it is that you want to write while keeping an eye on what’s going on out there.

  • I have a love/hate relationship with free. When I first started out, I did free based on the school of thought that I was brand new and unknown, so needed to give potential readers a taste test.

    My freebies were short stories in ebook form and web fiction. There was one novella. The novella was, and is, the most downloaded work I have. Just at B&N, it was downloaded almost 7500 times. It received 66 or 67 ratings/reviews there…and was the only work I had out that received any 1 stars on.

    ‘Free’ have consistently been the only works of mine that receive less than 3 stars. All my paid work is rated/reviewed 3 – 5 stars.

    I kind of have the impression that ‘free’ is bad for business as far as ratings/reviews go.

    Doesn’t stop me from experimenting, but it has stopped me from doing limited time, free-for-all giveaways when I release new titles. I’ll still give free copies away, but I control who gets them and how many go out. You can bet that most of those free copies go out to people who’ve bought in the past and like my work. 🙂

  • Maybe the free book promo thing will be the end of the world as we know it. But I can tell you this. It has done AMAZING things for me and my books. I’ve sold tens of thousands of copies as a result in a very short time. I have earned more in Kindle royalties since Christmas than I earned from the Kindle in all of 2011. And that’s thanks to the free book giveaway (and not just me. I know a dozen authors who have earned almost six figures since Christmas). Sure, my sales have eroded since the giveaway…but have leveled off at a much higher number of daily sales than ever before. The sales mojo from the free books promo seems to be less powerful now that more authors have started taking advantage of it (or Amazon adjusted the algorithm that averages the “free” sales ranking into your “paid” ranking), but I, for one, think it exposed many more readers to me and my work….and was hugely lucrative. So maybe in the long run this free book thing will hurt us…but in the short term, it has been immensely positive for many authors.

  • Maybe it’s because I’m still not very into ebooks, but I feel like there’s a difference between the type of readers who snap up and read only the free books, and the type who buy books, regardless of the price, because of who wrote them (or what they’re about, etc).

    Then again, I get most of my books through the library (and only buy the few I really like), so I suppose I already expect books to be, essentially, free to read.

  • I don’t plan on giving mine away for free because I don’t think it’s fair to those who’ve already paid 4.99 and because I think all of our work — most of which took us months, if not years, for us to produce and most of which provides at least two or three hours of entertainment, if not far more — is worth more than we’re charging for it; even as “just” an ebook.

    No doubt this attitude will lead to slow growth, and could possibly doom my career, but I’m a big believer in slow and steady wins the day. And maybe deep down I can’t just accept that all my hard work has no value, even if for a short promo period… : )

  • mmhm, I’ve done the free thing with my novella DreamWeaver. The results were almost identical to yours. It did boost the sales of my other 2 books slightly. Gained me some readers and some reviews.

    I guess I can’t complain as far as that goes.

    I have also downloaded (notice I don’t say bought) some free books from Amazon. I ditched a couple of them before the end of the first chapter.

    BUT – big but – I’ve found half a dozen new writers that I like, who’s work I will actually pay real money to read. I’ve also discovered that I kinda like a genre that hadn’t been on my radar, Steampunk. Lotsa fun.

    So at the end of the day, I have to say that in my case the experiment is working as one would hope.

    Now – The whole Amazon monopoly and the tyranny of the free book thing is another kettle of fish. I’m with you in that it leaves a vaguely acrid aftertaste and I find myself curiously unwilling to jump in wholeheartedly. I am wary of the long term effects.

  • Chuck –

    Seth Godin predicts how the ebook pricing model might shape up on the Domino Project: http://www.thedominoproject.com/2011/12/how-much-should-an-ebook-cost.html

    “…the answer isn’t up to one author or one publisher or even a price-fixing cartel. It’s up to the market, which is a far more complicated entity…”

    I like his idea of a sliding price – a book is free upon release, and increases by a penny for every 10 purchases. A great book by a great author with a platform will cruise to Godin’s recommended max-price of $15 in no time, earning the author a hefty profit. But even a great book by a relatively unknown author stands a chance – people will be more willing to buy at the <$1 price in the beginning–taking a risk on an author they don't know–and the rising price-tag over time will demonstrate that the book contains a lot of value. Good reviews from early readers will also help push the book toward a higher price-point. A bad book will fizzle out – picking up negative reviews while the price-point is still low before stagnating.

    Ultimately, the goal is still to write the best damn book you can because that's the best way to persuade the market to buy your book at any price. And as Godin said, the market will determine the price — not Amazon. Ebooks level the playing field because they are so easy and cheap to create.

    Let's just say Amazon becomes a monopoly and tries to cut into Suzanne Collins's earnings (chosen because she's #1 in the top 100 paid ebooks on Amazon). Collins writes shit people enjoy reading (I haven't read her work) and she could easily use her own website and PayPal to sell her books and leave Amazon out of the process entirely, taking in 100% of the profit for herself. Louis CK just did this with his most recent stand-up special and made more money in less time than he would have if he worked with HBO and sold DVDs through Amazon – http://www.louisck.com.

  • Chiming in as a reader: I download free books for my kindle on a fairly regular basis. It works out great for me, and I certainly hope it benefits the writers I enjoy.

    Off the top of my head, Dana Stabenow (discovered through free downloads of the first novels starring each of her series leads Kate Shugak and Liam Campbell) Marcus Sakey (via free short “The Desert Here and the Desert Far Away”) Parker Blue (via a free promo for Bite Methe first in her Val Shapiro urban fantasy series), and Lisa Wingate (free download of Talk of the Town, first in her “Daily, Texas” series) all have my money and my kindle real estate and my eyeballs and my eagerness to talk about them in blog comments (and elsewhere) because they crossed my path with a free promo. I don’t know whether my habit’s the exception or the rule, but free books do make me a new reader not just an archiver.

    And I certainly don’t believe pricing correlates to quality (“you get what you pay for”) in this area. I bought Laura Moriarty’s glorious novel The Center of Everything for $.01. I don’t know that I’d ever have seen it if that tiny price point hadn’t pushed it onto the kindle bestseller list, but it’s such a good book that I’ve since bought her kindle library and purchased physical copies of Center as a gift twice now.

    Absolutely, there’s a lot of dreck in the freebie bin, but that’s also the case at the $9.99, $4.99, and $2.99 e-book price points and at your local physical bookstore (should you be so lucky as to still have one). An easy way to filter for this is to consult the one- and two-star reviews: if they cite the author’s Inability to Grammar you’ll want to pass, if they’re hung up on the author’s penchant for profanity, then you snap that fucker up.

  • Every time I walk into Trader Joe’s I get a free food sample and coffee. Sometimes I buy the promo item. Sometimes I don’t. Free samples are just that -samples. It’s a promo technique. Nothing more. Some comments in this thread indicate an emotional attachment to the issue. It’s promo. Cost to author? Zero. Does it devalue books in the long term? No. It’s bringing in new people. Forget about the harvesters.

    Coming from an indie music point of view these questions look a bit silly. An indie artist must use every tool to make sales while still producing work. Authors can quickly get up to speed with the mindset needed to thrive amidst the new tools.

    Funnily enough a fair number of comments (here and on other blogs) are from writers saying they aren’t in it for money. Well, Smashwords is ready to help you with that.

    Long term effects of ebook freebies? Bigger pool of eligible readers versed in ebook consumption. Your 5000 freebies are not lost sales. Select is the promo of the moment. It’s only 3 months. Just another tool in the toolkit – a tool designed to raise visibility on the hottest platform.

    I downloaded Shotgun Gravy. Read it. It took time away from blog reading 🙂 I do feel I owe a review. I will move through the series. Keep em coming, for money, and I’ll buy.

  • I’ve been downloading a lot of free books to my Kindle lately because t’s easier to snag the free book than to download a sample, read that, then get the freebie if I like it. Problem is, I can’t keep up with reading all those free books so they sit there, unreviewed and unknown, and I don’t know if I have a piece of crap or a gem. If it turns out to be crap, I feel like I’ve been had and wonder if the wild free downloading has moved the book up in the rankings enough to give people the impression it is actually good. Getting free stuff is supposed to feel better than this.

  • @Martin Blasic: “Every time I walk into Trader Joe’s I get a free food sample and coffee. Sometimes I buy the promo item. Sometimes I don’t. Free samples are just that -samples.”

    The difference there is, Trader Joe’s gives you one meatball on a tootpick, or a couple of bites’ worth of a burger. If you want the whole package, you have to buy it. Putting your book up for free on the Kindle gives the reader the whole thing, period the end, no further obligation necessary. Sampling food at the grocery store is more akin to the Look Inside the Book Feature than the free KDP Select program.

  • Agreed, Lauren, that TJ doesn’t give away a whole meal. Authors must use discernment as to whether Select is for them. Anecdotal evidence on blogs leans toward the first in a series being a good freebie. That’s what Chuck did with Shotgun Gravy. That makes the freebie a sample, not the entire catalog. If a person is smart enough to write a book, they can put a few brain cells toward understanding a bit about marketing. That’s what it takes for a DIYer. Rare is the business that thrives without marketing.

    I’m not really Chuck’s ideal reader because I’m primarily looking for information to apply toward my own writing. But I’d never even heard of him, or Konrath, before jumping into the ebook frenzy a few weeks a ago. Their dedicated blogging is the marketing that drew me in. These people are working for the bottom line – sales. And it’s worked on me.

    I’m curious about Konrath’s 70 book giveaway. That did seem a bit like too much content to digest and want more. I downloaded the whole batch in a fever but have read only two short stories.

    As for our own careers, use DISCERNMENT.

  • My main problem with free is, like much of indie publishing itself, it’s bandwagon-jumping.

    In a lot of cases, it seems like it’s being taken as the obvious and easy method, for people who aren’t clever enough to figure out other marketing methods.

    The idea that you *have* to do it, to get rankings, because ranking is the only way to generate sales, is flat-out false.

    Case in point: TALES OF THE FAR WEST, which Chuck appears in: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0072P1GFY/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=adamantentert-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B0072P1GFY

    I didn’t release it for 99 cents — despite the conventional wisdom that you should for a first book in a series.

    I didn’t release it for 2.99 — despite the conventional wisdom that you should price at the lowest level of the 70% royalty tier, to maximize profits while still boosting sales on new properties.

    I released it at $4.99 — because writers need to be paid.

    I didn’t release it for free via KDP, because a) I don’t want it to be Amazon exclusive and b) I don’t think that free is necessary to drive sales.

    Instead, I used other marketing methods I had available — Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, the word-of-mouth of 700+ Far West Kickstarter backers — all of whom received a copy as part of their backing, and who were then encouraged to recommend it to friends.

    The result? Coming up on 300 units sold, digital and print, in less than 2 1/2 weeks available. And that’s not counting the 700+ that went to backers.

    Too many people are too willing to go down the same, well-worn paths that everybody is going down — and free releases are the current path of least resistance. Unimaginative.

    Do the marketing that suits YOUR book. This isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.

  • I’m not claiming to be a guru or do I play one on TV, but I don’t see the difference with a publisher putting out titles for free and an individual. The details are that a publisher is giving one out of thousands of books out for free. That’s it. An individual is trying ten times as hard to be seen in this market. Bottom line, it’s the same technique of bringing in warm bodies to take a look see around.

    Now I’m not a fatalist either, but I do think “free” sets up an expectation. Just like there’s an expectation to have the free sample before you buy a book. Can’t say with 100 percent certainty over time every reader will assume a “legit” self-published author has a free read for download. Much less has at least one title for 99 cents. But, I can’t say this won’t become the norm, especially if everybody’s doing it. *Insert cynical cliched saying here*

    Who knows, which I think is the slogan for this ever changing market.

  • Love your honesty on this post Chuck! I have yet to download a free book besides the few that came on my Nook (sad to see this product dying). Why? Because I am an writer and can not help but notice the mass of unpaid written work being created. How do we value good work if it is free? What is the inspiration for a field of professionals who are already working another job around their writing hours? Would the great Impressionists have done the level and magnitude of work they did if it had been handed out for free? Not sure.

  • Once Amazon has slaughtered their competitors, they will turn on authors next.

    They will no longer need the facade of cooperation, and will become a harsh (and stingy) dictator.

    Readers think they win (getting cheap/free product) but when the authors get slaughtered after the publishers, the authors will not be able to provide the same level of production.

    Pay the artists you like well, or they will not be artists long. And you’ll get no more of their art.

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