Why in the world would an author give away books for free? If we’re marketing our books to earn money to put food on the table, how can giving away books be a good idea?

Many authors are giving away their books for free all the time through BookBub and competitors like Ereader News TodayFussy LibrarianAuthorsXP, and many other book promo sites. These promo sites email readers lists of free books every day. 

So why would a reader want to buy a book if they can get thousands of books for free?

Is “Free” a Dirty Word?

Giving away a book can be an act of desperation. Some authors reason that if they can’t get anyone to buy their books, they might as well give them away for free. That approach can backfire and undermine the value of the book.

But there are occasions when it is beneficial to give away your book.

The Upside of Free or Deeply Discounted Books

Exposure

Offering your book for free is one way to gain exposure for your book. Readers who might not have been willing to buy a book from an unknown author are willing to take a risk on that unknown author if the book is free.

It’s the same strategy Costco uses when offering free cheese samples. You might not have purchased the cheese under normal circumstances, but once you taste it and discover it’s delicious, you’re far more likely to purchase a whole package.

Permafree

If readers love the story you gave away for free, they’ll be eager to buy the next books in your series or other books you’ve written. 

That strategy works particularly well for addictive first books in a series. It works so well that some authors permanently offer their first-in-series books for free and have adopted the term “permafree” for such books.

Not surprisingly, this is the same strategy adopted by drug dealers, who lure people with free “products” until they’re addicted. Most everyone’s first smoke was “free.”

Financially successful indie authors typically have many books and series to sell, which makes the permafree strategy particularly effective.

For example, when Naomi Novak offered her first book, His Majesty’s Dragon, for free, I jumped at the chance to read a new author who wrote dragon stories. I loved the book. When I discovered the other books in her series, I bought them all. She probably made $100 by hooking me with her first free book. 

Rooms Experiment

James L. Rubart’s book Rooms was free on Kindle for two weeks. For 12 of 14 days, it was the number-one book on Kindle! It got a lot of attention. He even received a call from the agent who represented Anthony Hopkins and Denzel Washington to see if he had an agent.

The Downside of Free

Jim’s experiment with Rooms was in 2010. Today, the strategy is so ubiquitous that one wonders if it still works.

Readers are catching on. They may hesitate to buy, knowing that the book will eventually be offered for free if they just wait. Even worse, some readers see how many books are available for free and begin to wonder why they should ever pay for any book.

Years ago, a company in Seattle named Lamonts sold clothes similar to Nordstrom’s but of slightly lower quality. While Nordstroms had a sale twice each year, Lamonts had a sale every single day. Their continual offerings of “70% off” became like a drug they couldn’t get off. Deep discounts were the only way they knew to keep customers coming through the doors. JC Penny’s tried the same strategy, and it was a disaster.

I fear the publishing industry is headed down the same road, training readers to believe that books should be free.

Free and discounted books work for a certain kind of consumer who only buys when they feel a sense of urgency. They don’t respond to “every day low prices.” They only act when they realize the sale is only for a limited time. 

Authors need to evaluate what kind of consumers or readers they want to attract. How and at what price point will you train them to buy? A reader might complain about a $1.99 book on BookBub, since most books are free or $0.99, and then turn around and buy a $5.00 coffee at Starbucks.

This phenomenon makes it hard for most authors to sell a book at a fair price.

I’m Not Anti-Free!

When I created the WordPress plugin, MyBookTable, we gave away a free version that included most of the features we built into the product. We called it a “freemium” product. However, we reserved two features for our plugin users who paid for the premium version of MyBookTable. Users who paid for the premium product had access to those additional features and other bells and whistles.

The money we earned from the paid premium product allowed us to maintain the free version.

In publishing, certain readers only want free stuff and will never buy any books. Other readers will take your free stuff, and after they’re hooked, they’ll buy your other books. 

Giving books away might be your best option if you’re just starting out. But you won’t see New York Times bestsellers offered for free unless it’s for a very limited time and part of an overall strategy.

How do I know if I should give my book away for free?

First, evaluate your reasons for giving your book away for free. What are your goals in offering it for free or at a deep discount? Determine how you will measure whether your giveaway accomplished your goals. 

Don’t do it just because everyone else is. People tend to be quiet about their failures, and while you hear about the giveaway successes, you’re probably not hearing about books that failed with the free strategy.

Is there a “sure thing” when giving away books?

The closest thing to a “sure thing” is a BookBub Featured Deal. Nearly every author who secures a Featured Deal with BookBub will reach number one in their Amazon category and cover the cost of the Featured Deal within a few days.

You’ll get a huge spike in sales on the first day of the deal. Readers who got the book for free (or at a deep discount) start talking about it to their friends. When their friends buy the book, the sale may be over, but they’re still willing to buy it because of their friend’s recommendation.

It’s easier to turn fame into fortune than it is to turn fortune into fame. One way to get famous is to give away your book for free.

How NOT to Give Away Books

Do Not Schedule Giveaways at Regular Intervals

Don’t have a regularly scheduled discount. For example, if you offer your book for free or $0.99 on the first day of every month, readers will learn to wait for the first of the month to buy your book. You’ll rarely sell a copy at regular price because readers know a discount is coming.

Your giveaway schedule should be unpredictable.

Promote With Integrity

Some authors “give away” the first 1,000 copies of their hardback books, with the small-print caveat that readers only have to pay $9.99 for shipping and handling. But if readers do the math, they’ll realize your print costs are only a couple of dollars, your media mail rate is only a couple of dollars, and you’re actually making a profit and not giving it away for free as you claimed.

On the other hand, that price may be lower than buying it from Amazon, even if the customer gets free shipping from Amazon. They’ll likely do the math to see if it’s cheaper to buy on Amazon with free shipping or at your discount while paying for shipping.

Customers don’t really know or care how much you make on a book. They care about whether it will be cheaper for them to buy now or later, here or there. 

Limited-Time Deals Create Urgency

The challenge for most authors is creating urgency to buy. Readers know your book will be available indefinitely on Amazon. If they can buy it tomorrow, why should they buy it today? The decision to purchase keeps getting kicked down the road until they ultimately forget about your book.

The urgency that comes with a limited-time deal gives customers a reason to “buy now.”

Most companies employ a “free” strategy in their marketing plans. Google gives away its search results for free. NBC give away their programming for free. 

Spend time researching how “free” fits your overall marketing goals. To help spur your thinking, I recommend reading, Free: The Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson. His examples will likely introduce you to free strategies that will help you sell more books in the long run.

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