If you’ve stopped by my blog before, you’ve doubtlessly heard me suggest that giving away a free ebook (whether a short story, a novella, or a complete Book 1) can be a great way to boost sales of your other books. I’ve been doing this almost since the beginning of my e-publishing adventure, first with a short story and then, for the last year, with my first Emperor’s Edge book. I’ve had countless people tell me they tried my first book for free, then went on to buy the rest of the series. And my sales numbers do back up that notion.
But are there any downsides to giving work away for free?
I don’t buy into most of the “downsides” I hear mentioned, i.e., that it’s devaluing your work or that people will assume something free is junk and ignore it — the numbers of downloads I see (and sales of subsequent works) don’t support that belief. (I’ve notice that authors are very good at assuming their own beliefs are those of the market in general; real-world testing is, of course, a more logical way to make pricing decisions.)
That said, there may certainly be some less-than-ideal consequences of offering an ebook for free, and it’s up to each of us to decide whether the upsides outweigh the downsides.
Here is one thing I’ve noticed of late:
Bookstores may choose to prioritize paid titles and display them more prominently
For the last few months, Amazon was displaying it’s Top 100 paid and free side-by-side for various categories. Recently, they’ve started adding an extra click (people now have to choose the “Top 100 free” link at the top of the category page to see the list), which makes those most-downloaded titles a little less visible. I’ve also heard from folks browsing via their kindles that they have a hard time finding the free ebooks at all. I’ve had fewer than average downloads so far in October (though not by a large margin) and wonder if this change is the reason.
Amazon changes things around often, and we can count on them to do what’s in their best interest, so it’ll be interesting to watch and see what happens. If free titles become harder to find, it may negate the perk of having a free ebook in the store. Of course, we can still use advertising and other forms of promotion to drive potential readers to our book pages there, but there might come a time at Amazon where one would be better served by having an inexpensive Book 1 that will appear in the normal paid-book lists rather than a free one. Or, something I’m contemplating, it might make sense to have a free ebook and then a special not-free edition with cut scenes, interviews, etc, so that you can have a title in the free and paid lists.
Here are a couple of other possible downsides that people have brought to my attention:
A free ebook may receive harsher reviews than one a person had to purchase
I’m not sure I necessarily believe this — I think it’s more that people are seeing something that’s common with books that become more popular: with most titles, you’ll see fewer rave 5-star reviews once reviewers have no connection, however loose, to you (i.e. friends of friends, readers of a blog where you were interviewed, acquaintances from Twitter, etc.).
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that people still try books with 1-star reviews. As long as there are some good ones, too, it’s probably not a big deal. There are some extremely popular books out there (Shades of Gray, what?) with as many 1-star reviews as 5-star reviews.
Some people only “buy” free ebooks and won’t go on to try others
If this is true, then those folks weren’t going to be your customers anyway. You don’t lose anything by having them read your free titles (and you might even gain fans who will mention your books to friends, people who do buy books). Other people will use the freebies section, much as they would use a library, to try new authors without risking an $5 or $8 price tag. If they like the book, they’ll buy others in the series.
To snag those folks, though, you need to make sure your free offering is something good. I’ll see people “go free” with 3-page short stories that were rejected by 50 magazine editors. First off, this may not be a good example of the work you can do now, and second, such a short read isn’t going to be enough to turn someone into a fan. I’ve definitely gotten the most mileage out of having an entire novel free.
All right, that’s all that comes to my mind now (though I’m blogging from the road, so am a tad distracted as my dog lets me know that she’s tired of sitting on the porch at the coffee shop). Do you have any downsides to add? Or arguments you’d like to make? Please chime in below.