Free Ebook Experiment, Indie Author Desperation or Savvy Business?

Extreme Skiing and Psychedelic Mushroons: The Art of Chasing Fear by Jason MatthewsGiving away a free ebook draws varied and often strong opinions from authors. In writing forums, pricing arguments inevitably arise about the author’s hard work, a book’s worth, piracy, devaluation, the digital media evolution, traditional publishing versus Indie and more. Many authors insist books should absolutely not be given away for free, that readers only value books which are priced at a proper monetary amount. While it may be easy to see the immediate pros and cons of giving away free ebooks, my approach has always been on the positives that can result so it’s my belief that good things can rise from the freebie experiment, especially for authors with great stories and plenty of them. (Please note; this is not a one-size-fits-all approach to pricing, especially for authors who currently have just one or even two books for sale. For others, the free ebook experiment can be a boost to their ultimate goals and might be considered.)

Why would anyone give something away for free when it clearly has value? Why pay for the cow when the milk is free? There are three primary reasons, in my opinion.

1. Perhaps the reason nobody can deny is this–people love free stuff and an author can instantly get her/his name out there. Readers download free ebooks by the hundreds to thousands, especially if a buzz gets going. Those who download freebies don’t always read it immediately, as their Kindles, Nooks and tablets are likely full of such books, but they do download them. It is definitely a way to get an author’s name seen by thousands of readers in a short time. (Word of caution–make sure the writing is excellent and the book free of typos to help the reviews stay on the positive side.)

I’ve done this with three titles. Years ago I experimented in my first giveaway with The Little Universe, a full length novel that normally sells for $2.99 as an ebook and $10.79 as paperback. The giveaway was hosted at one of my websites in pdf format. Over 10,000 downloads occurred, the initial response causing my web-host to demand more allocated bandwidth to the site or allow it to crash from overuse. I opted for more bandwidth but pulled the project after three months thinking enough freebies had been released. (In hindsight, might have been wise to allow another 10,000 downloads, as it only resulted in about six unsolicited reviews and just a slight increase in sales.) However, the point was made to me that freebies get downloaded by the bunches and hopefully hundreds to thousands of new readers are exposed to the writing.

2. Another reason is to upsell. If an author has multiple books and/or short stories, why not give some of the shorts or even the first novel away to get readers interested in the others. Many will finish a book and think, Great story, loved the writing–what else does this author have? That’s when the hyperlinks appear for those paid stories in the Other Books By The Author section.

This was an obvious choice for a very short, 1,200 word bedtime story of mine, Shep Dreams Of Home. It was a perfect candidate to gift for free with upselling in mind. To my great surprise, over 2,500 downloads happened in just two weeks once the short story became available for free. Even more surprising, after that two week period, Amazon reverted the price back to 99 cents. The obvious happened; the downloads came to a grinding halt. Why did Amazon revert it back to 99 cents? I have no idea, and now there’s less chance for upselling from happy readers as it’s tough to sell bedtime stories at 99 cents. Since it is still available for free at Barnes & Noble, Smashwords and iTunes, perhaps Amazon will soon allow it to be free again per their low price match guarantee.

3. A third reason is for another motive, one which may not be apparent from the free ebook. This might be sending traffic to a website, or it might be something like generating interest in a television or film project about the story. In my experience, two skiing related stories are perfect for this, and one has just recently been listed for free on Amazon. It’s called Extreme Skiing and Psychedelic Mushrooms: The Art of Chasing Fear. In just a few days it’s been downloaded over 600 times even though it feels like a niche subject to me. Originally, this story and a screenplay called Minor Extremes were written in the interest of making films, both shorts and full features. Although James Cameron still hasn’t called with a film deal, it’s nice knowing that hundreds of readers are now downloading this story.

Logistics. Some bright students might be asking, How do I make my Kindle ebook free on Amazon when they have a 99 cent lower price limit? Well done, Grasshopper. The solution awaits in price matching at other venues. Retailers like Smashwords are perfect for uploading free ebooks and even distributing them to other sellers like Barnes & Noble and Apple iBookstore. Once the book is available for free at those other sites, Amazon robots will eventually match price with their guarantee. Readers may even report the book with the Tell Us About A Lower Price link.

As said in the opening paragraph, this approach to pricing ebooks may not be wise (or desirable) for every Indie author, but it does make sense to some.

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4 Responses to “Free Ebook Experiment, Indie Author Desperation or Savvy Business?”

  1. Michele Brenton Says:

    Sadly the free ebook is a complete waste of time and effort for a new author. That is if the author wants to get their book read by more people or if they want to achieve more sales.

    Yes thousands upon thousands of downloads will occur. But only a tiny fraction of people will actually get round to reading your offering.

    People love to download freebies. But they don’t value them. The people who will review after a freeby are nine times out of ten people who you either already know or people who have their own book out and would like to have the favour returned. Sometimes even they won’t have read the book.

    Not only is it a waste of time it can be highly damaging. There is a large groundswell of public opinion amongst the buying public. They are fed up of badly produced, typo ridden amateur stuff. Many of them will avoid the paid for product once they see the author offers it for free.

    The only sure way to get many readers is to write a wonderful book people love. If you do that each time someone reads it they will tell somebody else about it. True personal word of mouth is the best way to sell if you don’t have a massive publicity budget behind you.

    Be honest – how many films have you saved when you had cable that you never ever got round to watching? Ebooks take up no space at all – it is easy to amass hundreds of them on an ereader. You’d have to live twelve lifetimes to read them all.

    A download is NOT a read book. I wish it was.

    I started out thinking free was a good idea. I’ve tried it over years and watched other authors try it. It doesn’t work except very very rarely and it damages quite often.


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