FREE. Something-for-nothing. It’s worth what you pay for it. Cheap-and-cheerful. Race to the bottom.
There are lots of opinions about free in the context of free books. Or specifically free ebooks, since free paperbacks don’t make any kind of economic sense; I give away free paperbacks only for review purposes (and very occasionally to friends), since they have a specific unit print cost.
But free ebooks cost the author nothing. Except lost revenue, I hear you cry. When I have slaved away over a hot keyboard for many years, why would I want to give away my books for free? How can I make a living, a profit – or just break even – if I’m not earning any money from sales?
I used to think the same. More than four years into this self-publishing lark and I was a staunch decrier of free. I’d never given my books away, other than for reviews or as competition prizes or occasional giveaway promotions. I was a firm believer that the readers I wanted to attract were the ones who wanted to read my book and were prepared to pay for it; even if the price was less than a cup of coffee, it meant that the reader had specifically chosen my book and wasn’t just hoovering up any old freebie he or she could find. It mattered.
Then along came Kindle Unlimited.
Almost overnight my sales tanked. When readers are faced with a read-all-you-like for a monthly fee, they presumably go for the big names – the £6.99 and above books from the traditional publishers. After all, the higher-priced the book, the better deal they are getting for their monthly subscription. Putting out a new book saw a slight surge in sales but nothing significant. My income was a third of what it had been in previous months.
Now I know it’s not about the money. We write because we can’t imagine not-writing and the income is a pleasant bonus. Well, yes, but the money helps! I bought my daughter a car for her eighteenth birthday last summer – OK, it wasn’t a new car, but I still had proof that people liked my books enough to pay for them. I was a writer and people were reading.
So what next? If you can't beat them ... I could try joining Kindle Unlimited and getting paid per read/page read. But that would mean pulling my books from other platforms and I wasn't prepared to do that. So I tried the 99p price point - a cheap introduction to the series. Again I had a small spike in sales but it soon slumped back down again. So I set the first in my series – Hamelin’s Child – to free on Smashwords and waited for Amazon to price-match. It took a few weeks but as soon as the book was free on Amazon, I started seeing downloads. A couple of cheap promotions and overnight I was giving away thousands a day. But giving them away. There’s the clue. These aren’t sales. These are people who ‘buy’ every freebie they see and who are unlikely ever to actually read the book.
Or are they? Slowly but steadily, as my promotion-led spike in free downloads dropped, my sales started rising. A month later and despite giving away the first in my series, I’m actually selling more books – the subsequent books in the series. I’m generating buzz online and starting to see more reviews. I'm also finally making an impression on Apple and Barnes & Noble, whereas before I was only really selling on Kobo outside of Amazon.
I have another advert/promotion booked and another book due out this year. I’m sure Amazon will move the goalposts again soon, but for now, free is working!
Hamelin's Child will continue to be FREE on all ebook platforms for as long as it still works for me...