I’ve read several some author blogs where people have expressed disappointment with results from venues where the author can give a book(s) away for free. I wanted to give my impressions of my own experiences with freebies to help authors find ways of getting the most leverage out of them.
Freebies, regardless of the method or channel through which you offer them, are neither “bad” nor “good”. It’s a promotional tool that, like any other tool, has strengths and limitations. There are two primary cases to look at: one for an author who only has a single book out, and one where the author has multiple books, some of which are likely part of one or more series.
The Single-Book Author
Let’s get something straight right off the bat: just because you’ve written and published a book doesn’t mean you’re going to be the next Amanda Hocking. Unlike John Locke (who was tarred and feathered for some questionable promotional practices: another lesson to learn), Joe Konrath, and a number of other bestselling authors who have either paid their dues in the publishing industry or already had an in-depth business background, I consider Hocking a genuine phenomenon. She won the lottery, albeit after a lot of work that led up to her “overnight success,” which itself is not directly replicable. It happens, but not often, and the luck factor trumps any level of skill at writing or promotion.
If you wrote your book with the intent of eventually writing as a career, consider your first Great American Novel – and probably your first three or four – like the drawings or paintings an artist creates to build their portfolio. While your first book may indeed earn you some money, its main value is in helping you build up a readership over time that will nag you constantly for your next book, and the one after that, etc.
“So you think I should just give away my first book for free? But…but…my effort deserves to be rewarded!” It will be if you stick with it. But your first book is just that: your first. You’re not going to be making $300,000 a year and join the Kindle Million Club with one book. Take the long view and do everything you can to get it into as many readers’ hands as possible (this assumes you’ve had someone edit the hell out of it, it has good cover art, and a good blurb that draws potential readers in to read a sample) while you’re working on the next one, which is where you’ll really start building your paid sales.
Amazon’s KDP Select is a great compromise for a first book, because you can alternate between offering it free (5 days out of 90) and paid (the other 85 days). And while I’ve become disenchanted for various reasons with Smashwords, that’s still an excellent venue for free book offerings, because aside from direct sales, they feed all the big retailers, including Barnes & Noble and Amazon (note: while you can select Amazon as a retailer, I don’t know for certain if books you list for free on Smashwords will show up for free on Amazon, but they definitely will on other retailer sites).
For those authors who have one book and have been disappointed in sales through KDP Select, the bottom line is that your readership is still in its infancy. You have to have thousands of existing fans to create enough word of mouth, fanned by consistent promotional efforts through social media, to sustain sales in significant volume. Most of the time after you put your book on a free promotion, you’ll see a spike in sales after the book goes back to paid status. But it might not be a big spike, and it probably won’t last for long. You shouldn’t expect it to until your following reaches critical mass.
It’s impossible to predict exactly when that will happen. But to give you something to use for comparison, I published the original version of In Her Name (which then became the Omnibus edition, then the Redemption Trilogy – which are largely unavailable now – and includes Empire, Confederation, and Final Battle) in 2008, but hardly did any promotional work other than chatting in a couple forums. Even at that, enough people liked that book and the next two (plus splitting the original one into a trilogy) that when I wrote the next one, Season Of The Harvest, early in 2011 and worked my butt off promoting it, my sales exploded.
Part of that explosion, I’m convinced, was because I’d been giving Empire, the first novel in my bestselling sci-fi/fantasy series, away for free for a while. I’d also built up my Facebook following and had about two thousand (which has grown a LOT since then) followers on Twitter. And when those readers found out I’d published my next book, they went out and bought it. And the spike in initial sales drove HARVEST up into the bestseller charts, where it stayed in the top 20 of both the horror and sci-fi categories throughout the summer.
So, the bottom line for your first book: it’s not a profit generator, it’s a reader grabber. If you make some money from it, great. But the main benefit it can give you is to build your following of readers who will eagerly await your next book, which they’ll happily buy (if you don’t overprice it). And the one after that, and after that.
The Author With A List
If you’ve got a list of titles, which ideally includes at least one series, freebies are gold. The basic rationale is the same as I indicated above, except now you have paid titles that you can lead your eager new readers to. Of the almost 150,000 books my readers grabbed in 2011, I’d say around 60,000 were freebies. Most of those were copies of Empire, the first in my In Her Name series, but that also included around 10,000 of the first In Her Name trilogy and 15,000 free copies of Harvest that went out the door as part of the KDP Select program over the course of two and three free days, respectively (I haven’t used the rest of the five days for each book yet).
Far from saturating the market, those KDP Select freebies drove paid sales back up into the 200 rankings in the Kindle store for a while for both books. Harvest doesn’t have great hang time, so it fell off the charts in about two weeks (note: different books seem to have different hang times on the charts, regardless of your efforts at promotion – wierd!). But the In Her Name trilogy is right around 1,500 overall in the Kindle store as I write this a month later, and is still in the top 30 of three categories.
The other books of the In Her Name series got dragged back up, too. Not nearly as high, but significantly better than before I gave away that big pile of freebies.
In the meantime, Empire is free just about everywhere: on Amazon, B&N, my web site, iTunes, Smashwords, etc. I tell people to download it, read it, and send it to their friends if they like it. Because a lot of people do like it, and those who do are either going to buy book 2 of the series (Confederation) or the trilogy collection. Ka-ching. Happy reader, happy not-starving-for-another-day author.
Be aware, however, that not all books are going to have this draft effect with freebies. I also have book 4 of the IN HER NAME series, FIRST CONTACT, in KDP Select. While giving it away has helped sales somewhat, and I’ve done it twice now, the number of downloads hasn’t been earth-shattering, and the effect on paid sales hasn’t been that significant. There are other forces at work there that I haven’t yet been able to pin down.
Also, while I’ve only had one go at putting the first IN HER NAME trilogy collection and SEASON OF THE HARVEST out for free on KDP Select, I’m not necessarily expecting the same stellar results from the next round. For one thing, when I put them free the first time, it was right before Christmas for HARVEST, and New Year’s for IN HER NAME. Both of those are big shopping periods, so I probably got a nice boost from that from holiday bargain hunters and newly-minted Kindle owners.
On the other hand, while HARVEST has fallen to a level where it makes sense to put it up for free again (because I’m not going to lose a lot of sales, anyway), I’m not going to do that for IN HER NAME yet. At a rank of 1,500 in the Kindle store, it’s still selling extremely well (the average for the month of January is over 100 sales per day), and it doesn’t make sense to give it away in the hopes of boosting the rankings what will probably be a nominal amount. The old adage “don’t fix what isn’t broke” comes to mind.
My last suggestion is that if you have a list and decide to enter them all (or some portion of them) into a program like KDP Select, don’t offer them free at the same time. If you do, and you give away your entire series free, well, that may not be so good. If a reader can pick up all of your books free, they’re obviously not going to come back to buy more, because there’s nothing to buy. Stagger your freebies, emphasizing the lead titles of any series, and try as much as you can to have your free days (if in KDP Select) bracket any convenient big sale periods.
Anyway, the bottom line if you’re an author with a brace of books under your belt is to offer at least one of them free. Ideally, I’d say offer the first book of each series you have for free once their initial sales taper off. Use them as loss leaders and get them into the hands of as many people as you possibly can, and make sure you’ve got your bibliography prominently displayed at the front and back of the book so people can find your other offerings.