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.