5 Reasons to Consider Giving Away a Free Ebook

| Posted in Book Marketing |


FreeOkay, before some random Twitter person pops in and tears into me for suggesting something as blasphemous as giving away work for free, let me start out saying I’m not necessarily advocating giving away novels (short stories can work just fine) nor am I suggesting this strategy if you only have one ebook out there.

That said, you may want to try giving away a freebie if you’re trying to jump start sales. Here are a few arguments for why:

1. More People Will Find and Try Your Work

Free is a way to get noticed when the other methods you’re trying aren’t panning out (at least not to the extent you wish). Lots of folks troll through the free ebook areas at Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and Kindle.

Granted, some people collect wheelbarrows full and don’t read half of them. Others may enjoy the freebie but aren’t willing to pay for further works by the author. But for some readers, people who may be a part of your target audience, it’s a way for them to find you and try you with no financial risk involved.

At Amazon, the Top 100 Free in the various sub-genres is still relatively unpopulated, so this is a way to get noticed. I hope to have a freebie in the Kindle store eventually (it’s rather recent that indies have been able to get a free ebook listed over there: read this post on how to maybe possible make it happen).

2. A Free Ebook Can Be a Gateway to Further Sales

In the first month and a half my ebooks were listed at Barnes & Noble, I sold about five copies. Impressive, huh? After my free short story, Ice Cracker II, made its way to B&N, I started selling ebooks there. Oh, it wasn’t a quick ride to a bestseller list, but I started selling about 10 novels a day there (five months later, it’s dropped to 4-5, which is somewhat negligible compared to Amazon sales, but that’s still better than where I started, and it might be an argument for putting out a free short story once a quarter or so).

I believe short stories work best if they’re closely related to your other work. In my case, Ice Cracker II features the same characters as are in my Emperor’s Edge ebooks, and I included an excerpt to the first novel at the end.

3. Possible Publicity on “Cheap Reads” Blogs

The increasing popularity of the e-reader has birthed a slew of new blogs aimed at helping folks find bargain ebooks. The first week I released Flash Gold, my 99-cent steampunk novella, I posted a coupon code to the MobileRead forum, letting folks know they could grab it for free through Sunday. On Sunday morning, a popular blog published a post with the cover art, blurb, link, and coupon, and about 300 folks ended up downloading it that day.

That was a bit of luck, of course, but I had it happen another time too with a different free-with-a-coupon ebook and a different blog (the story was also picked up via MobileRead). Quite a few of these blogs have forms or email addresses, so you can always try submitting your deal to them as well.

4. Free Doesn’t Have to Be Forever

The fun thing about being an indie author and publishing your work digitally is that it’s easy to fiddle with price. Try making a book free for a couple of months, and if it doesn’t work out, raise the price. Or keep the price as is and use Smashwords to give away 100%-off coupons.

5. The Math May Work out Better Than You Realize

A lot of authors balk at the idea of working hard and then giving away their work for free, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen calculations figuring the (always abyssal) hourly wage if a book is sold at 99 cents or whatever it is. (These calculations rarely factor in more than a year’s worth of sales, but I digress….)

Instead of thinking of this one ebook that you’re not going to make anything from, consider the money you’re making from your body of work as a whole. If, by giving away this ebook for free, you increase the sales of the rest of your ebooks beyond what you might have made by charging for your free one, then you come out ahead.

In my case, Ice Cracker II was simply sitting around on my hard drive. I’d originally submitted it to an anthology, but it didn’t get chosen, so it was hanging out, collecting virtual dust, and making me…nothing. Now it’s helping me sell copies of my novels at Smashwords and B&N.

Okay, there are my five arguments for giving away freebies. Do you agree? Disagree? Have more to add? Let’s here it!

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Comments (15)

I can just repeat: I bought your novels and short story collections after liking your free short story, and now recommend Emperor’s Edge wherever the opportunity presents itself.

Having a complete work to sample is more attractive to me than the first 10% or 20% of a longer one, because I don’t have to worry about hitting a break at a high-tension spot, and because I can get an impression if the author is capable of wrapping up a story in a way I find satisfying.

I am trying to develop a habit of sampling and buying if I like, but I’m not really there yet.

I also wonder if “Are You Kidding Me?” has ever considered that authors today ARE already competing with more free reading material than anyone can ever handle in a lifetime. Considering things like Project Gutenberg, for the scary-to-some thought of competing with Shakespeare, E.A. Poe, Charles Dickens, and all those big old names. Or fanfiction archives, if you like that.

I saw you offered your latest as a freebie and since I didn’t have the book one I bought that when snagging your free ebook.
Freebies do spur sales and a smart business person would know that sometimes you have to let a little money slip through your fingers in order to reel bigger bucks in.

How do you get a free story to B&N. Through Pubit, I have to charge 99 cents. If I go through Smashwords, I can’t distribute a free story anywhere.

I’d be happy to give away whole (small) books if anyplace would allow me except Smashwords or through my own websites.

Anybody want a free book? Click over and pick up your freebie:

A good marketing strategy is never blasphemous. It’s just smart business. Once published, we have to put on our business hats and put down the ink-stained fingers … so to speak.

Thanks for chiming in, Anke! I do download a lot of samples, but it’s nice to read a full story to make sure an author actually knows how to end a tale. *g* You’re right that there’s a lot of competition out there. It’s hard to get attention these days!

Thanks for grabbing EE, Patricia! One of the things I like about Smashwords is those coupons. Makes it easy to do short giveaways and specials. 🙂

Marva, you can opt in for distribution to B&N and Apple with your free ebook in the Smashwords Distribution Channel. Once it gets to B&N (back in January, it was a good three or four weeks for me), you can take down the version you have up through PubIt.

Mary, that business side seems to come hard for a lot of artists. I admit I’d hate to have to sell anything in person. I do better online, but still always feel like a goober throwing out links to my own stuff.

Great post Lindsay!

I’m trying so many more new authors now than I’ve ever done before. Part of that is the ease of downloading an e-book but a large part is the freebies. If I enjoyed the freebie that author is more likely to get my purchasing dollars because with e-books not being transferable I’m more stingy with where those dollars are going.

I am with Raelyn, I have used the ‘download sample’ so much and I am discovering books and authors that I never would have found or read before. Freebies a re great as well, but more me, more than anything else, it is the sample. For me, those samples are my freebies!


I clicked your link to go back and read about people who complain about authors giving a book away for free. A person who signed himself “Are You Kidding Me?” said:

“Just trying to get [your book] read by giving it away for free hurts ALL authors who will have to work for free in order to compete.”

My answer to “Are You Kidding Me?”:

No. It doesn’t. That attitude treats all books as equal fungible units of a commodity. They are not. Some books are better than others. Some writers are better than others. Who says so? The marketplace does.

However, the “marketplace” is not merely the distributor at which people may purchase a book. That’s only part of it. The other, very important and too often forgotten, part of the marketplace consists of the people who frequent it: the readers. They read, and they talk. They tell other readers what’s good, bad, and indifferent. They write reviews. And they buy… or not.

If you have a book that’s priced at $4.99 and you get someone to read it and they like it, they will say so, to someone, and the readers who like that book will come back looking for more books by you, and you will get a flow of readers, whether a big flood or small trickle, you will get SOME.

If your book is not very good, the readers will say that, too, and you will get few, if any, more readers and you will have to either fix that book or try writing another or stop writing and go wash dishes or something.

The key, however, is getting people to try your book, to discover your writing, to see if it is a good fit for them as readers. One way to do that is with the “preview” feature of the various bookstores. It is a good system, but sometimes it is not enough. Sometimes a reader has to read a good portion of the book, or even the whole book, to really get a good sense of the writer and the work. And you don’t get very many people to try, with no help from the marketplace, a writer who is completely unknown them. Not at $4.99 a pop.

But you will for free. Free will do it. Free will get people who don’t know you to try you. And once tried is perhaps liked.

Now, you don’t have to give an entire War-and-Peace-sized tome for free. But you CAN give a few chapters. You can give more than the distributor’s sample. You can give a whole short story. You can give a whole short novel. A lot of writers who have multiple books out will give one of them for free or for 99¢ as a sample of the writer’s work. In the same way as a fruit seller will give you a taste of one of his oranges so you can see if you want to buy more.

It works, and it works well, and the only people who will complain are the ones for whom the free marketplace is not working. The writers who are not good enough. They are the same people who wouldn’t want anyone to shout out that someone’s else’s oranges are better than theirs.

Because they just might be.

Raelyn and MS, definitely. Before I got a kindle, I never knew about free ebooks and downloading samples, but it’s such a great way to find new authors and then saving your pennies until something good comes along.

Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Peter! I agree that too many authors worry about other authors’ pricing decisions. They’re stressed out about the proliferation of 99-cent ebooks affecting what they can charge, but you’re right: if you can turn readers into fans, they’ll have no problem paying normal book prices for your work.

I love the idea and freedom of being able to set your price to what fits you best. I totally agree that if you’re a new name, a freebie for a couple of months could be the ticket to future sales.

Nice post!


I agree with Peter S. Hart, BTW. 🙂

Great article. You’ve brought me to the point of sitting on the fence. My honey is into music and he told me that Drake gave away three albums before he sold his first one. People liked it so much that they actually bought a version of the free album he released. If that model worked for books, I’d be happy.

[…] Many authors out there will balk at giving away their work for free, but there are an equal number who swear that a giveaway for a short length of time pumps up their readership and sales; this is true for traditional-pub or self-pub authors, but if you are with a traditional company, check with them first to see if you can. Self pubbed authors can do it whenever they feel the need to stir up some interest in their books! Here’s a site to read it for yourself: lindsayburoker 5 reasons to consider giving away a free ebook. […]

[…] >>  Five Reasons to Consider Giving Away a Free EBook // Lindsay Buroker […]

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