The Value of FREE - by Debbie Bennett

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.

Of course, by giving away a book, I’m hitting a different market. I write dark and graphic marmite books, so I’m fully expecting more bad reviews from readers who are not in my target market, who picked up a freebie and then hated it. Fair enough. Hopefully I have enough good reviews to compensate.

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...


Really interesting, Debbie. I've had the occasional good result with free books in the past although I stopped doing it altogether, went with the countdown deals - also had some good results with that with a week at 99p - and then took everything off Select and put it out elsewhere with D2D. Now I've just pulled a couple of vaguely related novels out of D2D, leaving the rest on and am waiting for them to disappear from all the other platforms before putting them back into Select, and therefore KU, for an experimental three months. But I don't write series, and most of my books are all different from each other. I do have a series in mind just as soon as I've got the latest book out of the way though! The thing is, we have to experiment all the time - because it's such a changing business. Keeps us on our toes, I suppose.
Lydia Bennet said…
Yes an interesting post Debbie, the pros and cons are not only amorphous but shifting all the time - why did you put it free on Smashwords and wait for amazon to price match, instead of just putting it free on amazon, just wondered if there's some advantage to doing this.
Chris Longmuir said…
I've never done free, and I reckon that those who rotate their books making each one free in turn results in readers marking time on them. Plus I suspect the majority of free ebooks are never read. I know that when I first got my Kindle I was tempted by free ebooks, but I never look at these offers now, it's not something that pulls me. And my one foray into a Countdown deal was an abysmal failure. But it's interesting you've had a good result and I hope your success continues. I reckon I'll never crack this marketing lark.
Debbie Bennett said…
@Lydia. You can't do permanently free directly on Amazon. Only either by being in Select and having your 5 free promo days per 9 day cycle - or by going free elsewhere and waiting for Amazon to price-match.

@Chris - I'd never *rotate* free. Why on earth would anybody pay for anything if they know it will be free sooner or later. Nothing except the first book will ever be free.
Debbie Bennett said…
I meant Amazon's KDP Select 90 day cycle of course....
Umberto Tosi said…
Thanks for a stimulating post, Debbie, and with instructive details! I'm evaluating my options with a couple of works going forward, so I find your post very timely. I assume you read "Free: The Future of a Radical Price" by Wired's Chris Anderson.

I found his accessibly-written history and analysis of the "free" merchandising strategy in the Information Age stimulating. I didn't buy it as a panacea, but could appreciate it's usefulness.

Your real-life account - as an author - brings the strategy into much clearer perspective. Good luck with all of it, going forward, and please keep us posted!

BTW - Anderson's book is available, free, as might be expected.
Chris Longmuir said…
Debbie, that's my feeling as well about rotating the books being offered free. But there are authors out there who do it, I reckon they've never developed a business brain!

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