Does Giving Books Away Free Devalue The Author?

While I don’t have the final numbers, I can safely say that by the end of this year (2012), I will have given away somewhere around 250,000 free ebooks across all platforms. In 2012. Yes, that’s a quarter freakin’ million books that I gave away free this year.

“You fool!” Many authors will exclaim. “How could you do such a stupid thing? You’re devaluing your work, devaluing the work of other indie authors. If you keep this up, the entire self-publishing industry will collapse under the weight of Kindles and Nooks laden with free books that those readers will never read, and it will be all…your…fault!”

Well, I guess I’m a total pinhead. But I think I forgot to mention that in addition to those 250,000 freebies, I will have sold around 90,000 copies in exchange for the hard-earned cash of my beloved readers. And I very strongly believe that I wouldn’t have sold nearly as many copies had I not been so generous with the freebies.

Listen, it’s like going into one of those places like Costco or Sam’s Club where they have all sorts of free stuff you can nibble on. They give you some for free, and if you like it, there’s a good chance you’ll buy it. It certainly works on me!

It’s the same with giving away a book or two. While it’s great to have a 10% sample on your Kindle, Nook, Kobo, or whatever, the reader still isn’t sure what they’re in for, and whether the book is going to be worth it. This is especially the case if it’s a book that’s part of a series.

My solution? Give them the first book free. Make it a super-sample. That way the only risk they have to take is spending a little time reading it. After that, there are two likely outcomes: a) they don’t like it, delete it, and move on, or b) they love it and go on to buy the next book. Giving readers the first one free gets them past the hurdle of “Jeez, am I going to like this or is it going to suck like that last book I bought?” The free book eases their mind, because they now have a real taste of this author. I have gotten comment after comment, email after email of readers saying, “You know, I took a chance on one of your freebies, and wound up buying every one of your books!”

“Yeah, but a lot of people who don’t like it will leave me a one-star review!” Yes, that can and will happen, but unless your book really does suck (sorry, but that does happen, you know), most readers who don’t like the freebie aren’t going to waste even more of their time reviewing it. But those who enjoy a book will be more likely to review it, especially if it was a freebie that they really enjoyed and that led them to read your other $$$ books.

To prove my point, check out the books on my Amazon author page and see how many reviews each one has. Let’s ignore In Her Name: Redemption (trilogy) for the moment, because that was the first book I published and has had the longest to garner reviews. Of the other books, Empire, Season Of The Harvest, and First Contact have – by far – the most reviews. And guess what? They’re the freebies.

As for this whole “free books devalue indie/self-published authors,” I say hogwash. That’s a self-perception on the part of some authors that has nothing to do with the reader and nothing to do with effective marketing strategies. Go out on the web and look at how much stuff you can get for free. You get free samples in the mail. You get free samples from your doctor. You get free samples in the grocery store. Companies give stuff away free because they know it’s an effective tool to move prospective customers past their reluctance and closer to buying the product, whatever it may be. This is also why most successful companies have no questions asked return policies, free shipping on returns, etc. – it’s all part of reducing that “resistance to buy” thing and make customers comfortable with their purchase.

Again, readers want to read good books. That’s all, really. They don’t care about the ego or angst of the author (I certainly don’t!). Readers are also willing to pay for good books. And they’re much more willing to pay for good books if you give them a good book to try first…for free.

Now, maybe you only have one book out. Should you give it away free? That all depends. Are you hoping that your one book is going to be an overnight bestseller that will lift you to fame and fortune? Or are you in this as a business for the long haul, with the eventual goal of writing full time?

If the former, I say good luck – enjoy the kool-aid.

If the latter, I say yes, give it away free – just make sure it’s good (note: free crap is still crap). It’s going to take you a few years (yes, that would be years) to build up a fan base, and during that time your book isn’t likely to earn you a ton of money; it could earn some, but that’s short-term tactical thinking. You need to look at long-term strategies. Get people interested in your work by letting them read your first book free while you’re working on the second, which you’ll sell, and which your growing fan base will snap up as soon as it comes out (which, by the way, will boost the second book’s initial rankings). Will it be the next Harry Potter? Probably not. Keep writing. Then write more.

By the time you have six or more books in your list, you’re working like a dog to (politely!!) promote your work, and you’ve been giving that first book (and maybe even another one) away in every possible venue (again, politely), you’ll be making some real money. Maybe it’s not enough to live on yet, maybe it is. Keep writing, because this is largely a numbers game, and the more titles you have in your backlist, the greater will be your long term residual income. And all the while that freebie(s) will be your best tool in building a wider readership.

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15 thoughts on “Does Giving Books Away Free Devalue The Author?

  • Kevin Boucher

    I will confirm your theory, as after reading a free sample book of yours, I purchased the rest of the trilogy. Then went on to purchase the rest of your ebook fiction. For the record I am eagerly waiting for the next books in the Harvest and First Empire trilogies to be released.

    Having never heard of you before I was hesitant to lay out good money on one of your books as I am with all new to me authors. The free book clinched the deal for me. Afterall, other than some time, what have I got to lose? I got to try you out without monetary cost and found a new favorite author. Mission accomplished! For both of us.

  • john

    Without the free book i may not have found your books at all.
    It was word of mouth that spread, and lead to a link, that let me get a book for free…i’ve since purchased all your books available in Kindle format…at this point i can tell you your marketing strategy was brilliant, and i’m a huge fan!
    I’ve sent the link for the free book to others with similar taste in books, so this campaign has been working. Thanks for that.
    I am eager for the next “In Her Name” installment.

  • Pandi (@LadyPandi)

    I absolutely agree, and have seen other authors who refuse to even entertain such a notion. Perhaps some readers believe that less expensive means not as good, and free? Well free must be garbage. This is such faulty thinking that I can’t even begin to grasp the reasoning.

    There is one author, without naming names, who put out a book for free, first of a series. I enjoyed the book quite a bit. When I went back to get the next one, it was over 10$. It wasn’t that good,.. so I didn’t buy it. On the other hand, I was told by a friend to read a certain title and it was a 10$ book, but it came with a very good recommendation and was an absolute banquet of a read. I bought it, loved it, and am on the second one now, which I was more than happy to shell out my cash for.
    My point is… what was my point? Ah yes, I believe the deciding factors of whether to buy or read a book vary greatly, here are mine…

    First and foremost, I am a sci-fi and fantasy fan, anything else is pretty much out.
    I am a penny watching person with not a lot of pennies to watch over, I look for deals, I like free!
    I read reviews, and lots of them… taking into consideration the author of the review, how they speak, do they seem like someone I would listen to?
    I also read reviews for free books, because my time is valuable, I don’t want to waste it.
    I am willing to spend money on a book I know I will enjoy. How much money depends on how much I want to read it, tempered with how much time I will get to enjoy it. I wouldn’t pay 10$ for a book I could read in two days, or that I didn’t think I’d ever read again.
    How do I know I will enjoy it? Without fail, it was word of mouth from someone I trust, or the description and good reviews of a free book that lead me to the next…

    I found Season of the Harvest on one of my “treasure hunting trips” through amazon’s list of free books, filtered by genre for SciFi & Fantasy. I truly enjoyed that book, it doesn’t even fit in with my usual flavor but I found the idea fascinating. I am a label-reader who will not eat things I know are toxic (I know, crazy right?) like aspartame and MSG, but I digress… this is why I read it.
    But then… oh look, that guy who wrote that book I liked has space scifi too! Oh lovely. So I actually bought the omnibus edition, (before it was “Redemption”) started that, found out there was a prequel, backpedaled and bought “The Last War”, read those… delicious! Bought “From Chaos born”, devoured it eagerly, and I can tell you I will buy the next, and the next… oh, and I will read them again, and again.
    Yes, it’s silly to give away free books to accumulate customers who love your work and know you as one of their go-to and trustworthy authors. Ridiculous.

    My apologies for the wall of text, I sit here with a cup of hot tea and a pile of tissues, a bad cold, and the desire to put forth my opinion on the subject… yes! You are positively right!…
    And then babble my fool head off about it.
    Short version, I’m a fan… I will give you my money because through a simple free book I became a long-time customer. Terrible thing, that.

    • Michael Hicks Post author

      Pandi – Thanks so much for your thoughts (and your support)!! I appreciate you and other folks who take the time to write comments, be they brief or more detailed. And I also hope you get over your cold soon! 🙂

  • nbravin

    The most wonderful thing about Freedom is that everyone has a right to their say. The Yah sayers and the Nay sayers. For me- I love to read. I read paper books and grew up with them. In todays electronic world, I have a Kindle. i am on my second one, having gotten the Fire around this time last year. Regardless of “media”, or maybe not so regardless, getting a chance to “Taste” an author, by reading a book or novella at no cost is an exceptionally good deal for me because I read so much and over so many varied subjects and Genre’s. So what is the end result, and why do i totally buy into what Michael is saying? It’s all in the budget. Yes, many books electronic are not exactly free, but at .99 cents or 1.99, or 2.99 they are not that expensive you may say. And certainly, sampling some of those low cost titles will help you find the authors you like almost as easily as the free titles. ALMOST, but not quite. Add it up, please add it up. I spend 40 to 60 a month buying books from authors I want to try, or books from those authors i really want to read. Frankly, I think I have found as many good authors from the no costs as from the low costs. and plenty of books that even at a dollar or three, were not really worth it. I would rather find a gem (like Mike) for free, and then spend a few more bucks on the rest of his books, than spend money on “not really what I want to read” and then have less $$$ to spend on what I do want.

  • Bill

    Baen did this years ago, and all the many books I’ve bought from them over the years were all written by authors who put up a book in their Free Library. I don’t think I’ve actually bought any that were not.

    I’d never have started reading your books (I’d never heard of you) if you hadn’t put up one for free on Amazon. I have now purchased every other book you have out and am eagerly awaiting the next publication.

  • trishadeb

    Worked for me too. Ended up buying the 2nd book to Empire last night through Amazon 🙂
    Wouldn’t have known there was a Michael R. Hicks out there if not for the freebie Empire and Harvest. Keep it up and more power to your writing.

  • Matt Oates

    I found you through the free book, because it reduced the risk of a trying a new author. But I would love to pay you now for what I’ve read. Your reasoning is utterly sound, but you missed one aspect specific to ebooks. Before the kindles hit the scene the techno savvy had “free” ebooks for over a decade as no author/publisher had caught on to digital media or the real demand that existed online. By giving away a book you completely and utterly remove the need for people to seek a taster outside of your control, which is a loss in sales and more importantly mind-share. They also see you understand the medium, which makes them want to reward your respect for the consumer. Authors that complain about ebooks and lament the erosion of things that are good and proper such as high price hard bound books; they just don’t get it. I love books, but I live in a two room flat I already have 6 book shelves.. not all books are born equal and I certainly don’t want to have to carry more books when I move. For those talking about weakening sales/markets or whatever, I was handed a *free printed book* in the street! I read it, but didn’t want to read or buy any more because it wasn’t a great book (free crap is still crap). That marketing behavior fills my precious book shelves, at least I have unlimited storage and thirst for ebooks, which will likely include everything you’ve written! Thanks for trusting in the consumer, and indeed the quality of your own work to earn the respect of your readers. If only all authors had that much self confidence they would be a lot richer!

  • Rob L

    Times are different, and print media must learn to adapt to it. Micro purchases are the norm. Almost every book gives away a sample on kindle. Giving away one of a trilogy is really no different.

    I recently read Under the Dome, then began searching for another book or series. I downloaded about 10 different samples, including First Contact. Knowing I had a complete book and that the rest were reasonably priced, I started it and coudn’t out down my iPad. I’m heading off to buy the next one now!

  • John M. Davis

    I agree Mike. I am now giving away 1k+ copies of Gunship prmer week, but have seen a 300% jump in sales of the series. Also netted FIVE 5* reviews this week alone. You are very wise when it comes to publishing, keep the great blogs coming!

  • john foley

    If I have only one nonfiction book, what about giving away the firt HALF of the book away for FREE, then if they like it they can buy it?

    • Michael Hicks Post author

      John – That would certainly be reasonable. I think the trick here is simply to offer potential readers something of significant value for no risk on their part.