book promotion, book sales, self-publishing

So does free work?


Does it work to make your book free? The question arouses much debate, some of it passionate, and I’m not going to attempt to provide a yes or no answer. Many writers refuse to give their work away as a matter of principle, a position I fully respect, and in an ideal world, would prefer to adopt myself. Because writing takes time and effort, and working to give a product away isn’t something that’s done for cars, cucumbers or cupcakes, so why do it for writing?

The short answer is to gain visibility. Without visibility, selling your work is extremely difficult, but giving it away is easier. You might have a good cover and enticing blurb, but convincing people to fork out money on a totally unknown name is a challenge. But if you give them something and they like it, they’ll be more prepared to buy what you produce next. Or so the reasoning goes.

So this is what I’ve been doing. And since I promised a while ago to provide a few figures, here they are.

I made One Green Bottle, first in the Magali Rousseau mystery series, permafree on Amazon in September 2017. Since then, it’s been downloaded roughly 4600 times. Now, that’s all fine and well, but I have no idea how often it’s been read, or whether it’s disappeared into the welter of free books people have on their kindle without ever getting round to reading them. I’m not averse to seeing it downloaded free, but it would be nice to know if it actually gets read. However, that’s the same for most books, free or otherwise – feedback is rare, and once a book is out there, the author doesn’t know what becomes of it. The bottom line is sales figures.

Has the permafree book had any effect on sales of the others in the series? My guess is not, or minimal. It’s difficult to tease out sales resulting from my launch efforts (which so far are basically restricted to informing the 400 or so subscribers who open my newsletter) and the knock-on effect from the permafree. But if I take away sales occurring at launch time, the rest is a monthly trickle that falls a good way short of keeping me in coffee.

Am I despondent? Not at all. There are several factors that go against me. Firstly, I didn’t plan the series properly, so the third one I published was in fact the second one in Magali’s chronology. OK, Star Wars does that all the time but it’s confusing all the same. Secondly, I revised One Green Bottle so there’s a major difference in the current version compared to the initial release – also confusing. Thirdly, the covers, while fine in themselves, don’t correspond to the norms for the genre – they’re all being redone now for the release of a box set, so I’ll see what difference that makes. Did someone mention a learning curve? I’m still climbing steadily.

Of course, making a book free doesn’t mean that it will instantly become visible. You then have to let people know that it’s free. To that end, I enrolled Mystery Manor, the last in the series, in KDP Select, and then made it free for five days, which can be done once in any 90-day period. I then booked a slot on Freebooksy, who announced it to the 310,000 mystery novel readers they have on their email list. The result was just under 4000 downloads. And here there was a small but noticeable knock-on effect: apart from another hefty boost to the free downloads of One Green Bottle, there were 41 purchases of Cash in Carry, number two in the series (priced at $0.99), and 11 of Perfume Island, number three, priced at $2.99. The royalties covered roughly half of the $90 I paid for the Freebooksy slot.

I take some encouragement from this. Because again, the process could be improved – to enrol the last in the series in KDP Select when none of the others have been was illogical. But I’d always been reluctant to give Amazon the exclusivity they require for KDP Select, so it took me a while to take that step. I still don’t like it, but the fact is that I’ve made slightly more from Kindle Unlimited page reads than from sales.

The final verdict? In my case, the jury (composed of me and myself) is still out. But with better planning (conception and promotion) of the new series, and a greater backlist to offer, I should see a larger knock-on effect. On current evidence, it’s not worth making the first in the new series permafree – one seems plenty for that – but well-planned free promotions every so often might just do the trick. It’s a hard slog, because for every person who’s ready to pay for a book, there are a hundred freeloaders. But that’s the way it works – like panning for gold, you have to get rid of the silt and gravel first. And I’m an eternal optimist – there’s a lot more I need to do, but when I get to 10,000 subscribers, I hope to have enough nuggets to pay for my coffee.



35 thoughts on “So does free work?

  1. Shayla McBride says:

    Fascinating! I’ve struggled with precisely the same issues with even less clarity than you’ve brought to the job, so your experience (we may be related somehow, it’s almost eerie how closely we’ve tracked!) and results are very valuable to me personally. I think our mutual experiences exemplifies what happens without a clear plan and without excellent genre-appropriate covers.. What works for one may not work for another but one thing is very clear: Hoping that the fabulous books we’ve created will magically sell just doesn’t work. Separating the relentless hype of some promoters from the practical realities of authors like you and I is very difficult. Looks like you’re mastering what works for you. Thanks again!

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thanks for the feedback, Shayla. Yes, I think however much we seek to avoid making mistakes, there are bound to be several along the way, especially as it’s such a minefield, as you say, with all the dodgy sales hype around. I guess the take home message is to keep on learning and persevering – in which case it should work out some day. All the best to you in your journey!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. mimispeike says:

    Yes, a big problem to gain visibility. I had planned to give away my first book. Instead, I will show the first seven chapters on my website and charge for the full story. Maybe offer a seven chapter teaser for free. Has anyone done that? Is that a good idea?

    I’m creating a tabloid size poster/paper doll. I will place it up in various online locales, and also post it around in the real world. Book stores? Community theaters? I have the cat, a coat, and a hat for Sly as the ‘Marquis of Mischief’, a role he plays in a circus performance. I only need his boots. I’ll have in on my Facebook page in a few days. Then I have to research the cost of printing.

    I have a good-looking website with a lot of my art on it. My strategy is, get eyes to my site, entertain with the images, entice folks to read a few chapters, send them to Amazon for the full book.

    On my new iMac, my Kindle is finally working properly. (It never opened my library on the old Mac. I gave up trying.) I’ll get your boxed set. And review it.

    Liked by 6 people

    • You’ve got a plan, Mimi, that’s the main thing. Whether it’s a whole book or sample chapters, the reader magnet seems to be indispensable these days. I haven’t read any analysis of which is the most effective, but both are used a lot. Then it’s a matter of enrolling in joint promotions, which is why I need the newsletter to reciprocate other writers’ promotion efforts through their own letters. All in all, a process which requires a lot of patience – of which you’ve proved you have plenty.

      Liked by 5 people

  3. As a consultant, my slogan has always been, “The more you give away, the more you sell.” And it has worked. Does this work for authors?
    Depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. At this stage of my life, I don’t need to earn a living from book sales. At this time of my writing, I’m more interested in having readers than in making money. So I’m willing to give books away, even print versions.
    However, are people more likely to read freebies or books they’ve paid for?

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thanks, Mike, I take some encouragement from that! Good question at the end – I have no idea. My suspicion is that readers who go exclusively for freebies often don’t bother to read them, whereas those who get a combination of both may take them more seriously. Some research into reader’s attitudes would be useful there.

      Liked by 4 people

  4. Interesting article. I personally do not care about money at all in the sense that I would gladly trade a million-dollar advance for a million of the ‘right’ readers. I don’t think a million readers exist for the type of fiction I write but I trust you get my point.

    Liked by 6 people

  5. You’ve certainly provided some guidelines to consider, Curtis. It seems logical that they would work for any author with decent quality work to promote. As a reader, I don’t download most of the freebies I’m offered, and I always check for a writing sample before purchasing or freeloading unfamiliar work because I just don’t have time — or hard drive space — for writing that frustrates me. Even so, more than half the works in my Kindle app, free or purchased, are waiting to be read. And when it’s work I admire by an author I like, like Curtis Bausse, I pay for the book.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thanks, Sue. I haven’t had a Kindle for very long, and I try to make a point of reading everything I’ve got, whether purchased or a free offer. But the list does grow, and I can see why some people end up with hundreds and can’t keep track any more. There are also plenty of books on my shelf I still haven’t read…

      Liked by 4 people

  6. Jeannie Abbott says:

    I’ve had my Kindle for 7 years now and ONLY download FREE CLASSICS, apart from special anthologies! I am mean perhaps? The thing is, I get books I have never seen in print. Some of them are amazing, Shackleton’s Diary for instance !

    Liked by 4 people

    • Not mean at all, Jeannie – I think that’s one of the major attractions of e-readers. The classics you mention are in the public domain, and e-books give us the opportunity to discover many we might never have read otherwise.

      Liked by 3 people

  7. I’ve never thought of this before, Curtis. I sometimes see free books on Amazon but they always tend to be from the romance genre, so not really up my alley. I always thought those books were not any good too, because why would a write put their hard work out for free if they didn’t think much of it? This has certainly changed my perception. I once met a young man standing in a street in Leeds with a poster hanging off his body saying that he had written a book and to please ask for a flyer. I liked his sign because his wording was humble… just a hardworking writer trying to get his work out there. Apparently he stood in the town centre for a year, every single day, to try and get his book out there. I did buy his book on Amazon but through kindle so it cost me 99 pence and I didn’t read it yet because I am one of those people that buy lots of books and don’t read them for years but I admired his effort. Anyway. I just thought that was an inventive way to get the word out, not unlike your interesting experiment on making your book free!!

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thanks for the input, Leonora. Your initial reaction, that free devalues the work, may indeed be a commonly held perception, and making it free is not a trend I’m keen on. But it’s here to stay now, in practically all artistic fields, and it’s a matter of changing people’s perceptions so they understand why it needs to be done, and realise that free doesn’t necessarily mean poor quality.
      Hope your own writing is going well!

      Liked by 5 people

      • That’s very interesting, I am curious to see how this is taken up. I do think a lot of people expect things for free now, especially since the dawn of the internet, where a lot of things can be found for free anyway. I think with that perception the notion that being free equals poor quality won’t be too hard to eradicate 🙂

        Liked by 3 people

        • GD Deckard says:

          You are exactly right, OCEAN BREAM. But the “free” you refer to is for a free something that will make you come back for more of the same -free browser, free search engine, free social networking- all of which are not a book. A book is a one-off, a thing that when you have it you do not look for more of it. People who take a free book do not then want a six-pack of the book. Books are not a commodity.

          I think, selling a book is difficult in part because we tend to apply marketing strategies developed to sell services or Hershey bars, and they do not work to sell books. To the best of my knowledge, the only new writers making money are those selling a story that comes in a series of volumes. Readers get hooked on the story & want to read more of it.

          Liked by 2 people

  8. GD Deckard says:

    One thing to remember is that a book is not fudge. You can give away pieces of fudge and expect some people to come back to buy more of the same fudge.
    A book is not a commodity. It’s a one-off sale.
    I see no chance at all of a positive R.O.I. unless the author has a series, or a body of work, to promote.

    Liked by 6 people

    • It’s not fudge to us, GD, and nor to any reader once they’ve read it, but before reading it, at the pre-purchase stage when they’re browsing Amazon, it’s more or less a commodity like fudge, with just a lot of different flavours to choose from. Our challenge is to get them to taste the particular flavour we’ve been crafting for many years.

      Liked by 3 people

      • GD Deckard says:

        True But 🙂 Once a reader has a free book they are unlikely to buy it. And I would love to see a study on how many readers could be presented a list of the titles of free books that they own, and, name the authors.
        (Not that I have an answer to the problem, of course.)

        Liked by 2 people

  9. Perry Palin says:

    I don’t do e-books. I work plenty on a screen, but when I’m reading a book I like to have the paper copy in my hand. Okay, I know I’m old.

    My publisher once said that he was going to begin converting his titles, including my books, to e-books, but that never happened.

    My wife prefers to read a paper copy also. She was gifted a Kindle several years ago but she said she didn’t like it. We live in a rural area with terribly slow web service and we can’t download anything as big as a book at home. If we’re going to go to the public library to download a book, we might as well borrow a book off the shelves. My wife volunteers at the library every week, and we have plenty of paper books to read. I add this only to let you know that there is a potential readership out there that an e-book will never reach. I don’t know how large or small that potential is.

    I have given copies of my books to local influencers, local media types and book reviewers. I never traced a sale back to giving away those copies, though I have sold books after a couple of local people bought my books and then reviewed them in public media.

    As I have written before on threads regarding marketing, I most value personal contact, meet-and-greets and local readings, book signings in the library or bookshop, sale tables at community events, or speaking engagements. I like a lot of Mimi’s ideas and I like the story about the writer in Leeds with a sign and a flyer. I once bought a couple of chapbooks from a guy on a city street who said he was a poet. I liked the personal approach, didn’t think much of his verse, but at least he made a small sale.

    I will continue to watch for reports of marketing success. One of these days one of us will find something that really works.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thanks, Perry. Yes, the personal approach is effective, I’m sure – a real human being beats an online site any day. Unfortunately, living in France, my opportunities in the regard are limited, so I have to take the online route. It does have the advantage of potentially being able to reach a much wider audience.

      Liked by 3 people

  10. While GDD’s point about the difference between books and fudge rings true, there may be way to make a book be like a kind of fudge.

    Instead of making an entire book in a series free, one might make just the first chapter in a single book free.  Each chapter is like a piece of fudge, and those who enjoyed the free piece (and are curious about what happens next) will have to pay to read more.

    A possibly beneficial side effect of planning to have a freebie first chapter would be the extra incentive to avoid sprawl.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Yes, first chapters are also a good way to arouse interest. And sites like Channillo have made effective use of serialisation. How much to offer free – one chapter, seven chapters, a whole book – depends on how far one is prepared to go down that road, and as GD says above, a whole book only makes sense if it’s part of a series (so in a sense can be considered like a chapter).

      Liked by 4 people

  11. Jeannie Abbott says:

    Perry, I understand your comments about e-books -v- paper books. The main reason I use my Kindle now for most of my reading is because I have eye trouble and can ENLARGE the print; difficult with a printed book! I’m sure it won’t be impossible in the future.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Perry Palin says:

      Yes, Jeannie, I am old and have a little trouble with small print. If I can’t read the page I use a handheld magnifying glass, and with my equipment for tying trout flies I have a magnifier with a good light that g works great for reading small print. My wife uses inexpensive cheaters from the drug sore.

      Liked by 3 people

  12. victoracquista says:

    Curtis, thank you for sharing your experience and provoking this important exchange.

    I think it is difficult to extrapolate your experience for a variety of reasons. Using free downloads as a loss-leader for a series is different than for a stand alone book (I think). If by giving a book away, one hopes to generate more sales in the series, much of the success of that might depend upon how well written the free book is, how well matched the targeted readership is to the people who downloaded the book, etc. For a one-off book, giving that away for free in the hopes that readers will like the work and then start reading other books that author has written, even if they are in different genres from the free download seems even more tenuous. It gets messy.
    I have a lot of free downloads on my Kindle. Some of them I’ve actually read and most of that sample aren’t very good.

    For my own books that I’ve given away (and gotten many downloads), I never found a bump in sales for that book after the free promo ended, and I never had a bump in sales in other books I have written. I also have not gotten a bunch of reviews following such promotions. For me personally, free has not worked out with respect to some monetary or sales boost.

    Still, free makes sense if you want to share what you have written and this is a different type of return on investment. It’s hard to know if what you wrote and someone downloaded for free had a positive impact. If you want to increase the chance of that happening, giving your work away might just be the thing to do. I’ve contemplated making one of my self-help books permanently free for that very reason. It causes me to wonder, much like the tree falling in the forest: if a book is published and no one reads it, does it make a noise?

    Liked by 5 people

    • victoracquista says:

      Another thought occurs to me since my previous reply. Although this is strictly conjecture on my part, I suspect there are many e-book purchasers who exclusively or near exclusively download books for free or at steep discount such as 99 cents. Appealing to this demographic may be successful in increasing the number of downloads, but is not likely to result in a worthwhile economic return on investment. I personally think the kind of readership we would all like to attract are those willing to pay full price for what we have created (which is still a bargain compared to many other purchases). I feel a sense of astonishment when I realize how willing some people are to pay for a high-priced coffee at Starbucks but who balk at paying full price for an e-book. An ephemeral pleasure balanced against sustained enjoyment. Go figure!

      Liked by 4 people

      • Those of us of a certain age and straitened socio-economic circumstances might recall visiting friends’ homes and finding 4-12 volumes of divers encyclopedia on their bookshelves: all letter “A”; all from different publishers; all given away at the grocery store “first volume free!” in hopes that the freeloader would later subscribe to purchase the entire set.

        It almost never happened.

        Thus countless papers were turned in by academically diligent, if topically deprived, children. Subjects: Aardvark. Astronaut. Austria. Alligator. Airplane.

        Liked by 4 people

    • Thanks, Victor. Yes, many factors come into play and one person’s experience is impossible to generalise. I think everyone agrees it could only work for a series, and even then might not. I just had a glimmer of encouragement from the figures – small and short-lived but enough to make me feel it’s not the time to give up on it quite yet. If ever I do, I’ll be hugely disappointed as I have no other strategy to speak of. So I’m pretty much betting the farm on this, and the question will be at what point I feel I have to cut my losses. Before the whole farm is gone, that’s for sure.

      Liked by 3 people

  13. Yet more thoughts on freebies:

    All freebies are not the same. With Amazon freebies you have no way (that I know of) to find out who’s reading your book. If I’m giving away a book, I want to be able to ask for feedback, maybe even a review. Thus I prefer sending out my own freebies–ebook, pdf, or print.

    Everybody is not your paying customer. Other authors are often the worst, for two reasons: they don’t have any money, and they have no time to read your books because they’re so busy writing. So they’ll download freebies but then not read them, so they can’t leave a review.

    The siren call of doing freebies should motivate you to write a series, since that may be the only way that freebies make sense.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Very true, Mike. Amazon freebies may lead to a small spike in sales for a series, but without knowing who downloads or buys (and you’re quite right, Amazon never divulges that), it’s not of lasting value. Which is why a newsletter is indispensable – my own subscriber list is still way too small to make any appreciable impact, but I do have a handful of faithful readers and can at least be in direct contact with them. Next step is to build my list to numbers where it can make more of a difference.

      Liked by 5 people

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