Are There Downsides to Giving Away Free Ebooks?

| Posted in E-publishing |


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.

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Comments (46)

What’s the logic behind harsh reviews for a freebie? I would be more upset if a book I paid for was bad than one I got for free.

Authors think a lot about the dollar cost, but the biggest cost to a reader with an e-book is their time–leisure time they could have spent doing something they actually enjoyed. If I sacrifice six hours of my life to read an awful book, I don’t care if I paid for it or if I got it from the library–I can return the book, but I’m never getting those six hours back.

People outside the target market will sometimes take risks on free books because they’re free. But when they don’t like the risk they took, they might give it a bad review. As if it were the book’s fault. I’ve been burned in this way a couple of times. For example, I got one bad review from someone who admitted in their review that it wasn’t their type of book and they’d had misgivings about reading it for that reason. On the other hand, the blurb and cover kept enticing them, so there’s that.

You just made your cover too cool, David. 😉

I know, right? I’m good at two types of marketing: Wattpad and directing cover art, which is finding a quality artist and communicating your vision to them. Mostly getting the right artist. Love my artists. I also get some advice from a pro. I spent all the money I had at the time on my covers. Spending most of my budget on the new covers, too.

I’d guess it’s just that you get more people trying the ebook than would have if it’d had a price tag on it. So people who wouldn’t normally self-select themselves for the story give it a try anyway, then are disappointed when it’s not up their alley.

I like the “free first” business model, and have planned on using it since seeing EE offered free. I see it as a “teaser,” a way for the reader to get into your work without investing more than they may have otherwise. It worked for me–I bought the rest of the series–and I think it’s a great way to garner new fans.
I’m not sure I understand some of the negatives. I can see the points made, of course–but I think the benefits far outweigh the downsides.

The one that I could see, maybe, is that readers may think it’s not worth as much if it’s free. But I think that’s an attitude that’s passing; the quality of *paid* self published eBooks is so varied that the cost-as-qualifier argument is pretty moot now.

I also think the benefits far outweigh the downsides (probably obvious after all the posts I’ve done talking about giving away free ebooks!). The only thing that would make me reconsider things is if Amazon takes steps to bury free ebooks, so that they’re hard to find. Or Amazon could always disallow freebies altogether. I guess we just have to roll with the punches!

Generally, if I see free, I don’t think the book is worth much. Except when I can see that it’s the first in a series. Then I recognize that it’s a promotional and I’m not bothered. I suspect that many readers see it that way, too.

I’m definitely pricing my book 1 down when the second one comes out. Will I go to free when the third one drops? I want to wait and see what Amazon does over the next six months, but I probably will. It’s a great hook, especially since I write YA and teens are always short on cash.

Lindsay, I just finished Encrypted this weekend and really enjoyed it. Nice work!

I plan to experiment with free for two of my stories this fall.

I’ve been trying to get my short story, The Troll’s Belt, to go free the round about way, but so far it’s free on only Smashwords, Kobo, and Sony. Who knows when the Big River bots will do their thing? (Grin!)

I’m trying Select to launch my new novel and will use the free promotional days. I’ve heard so many mixed “reviews” of Select that I’m really curious. What will it do for me?

However, regardless of results, I’ll be pulling the novel from Select in January, because I want it available on all platforms.

While all my stories (so far) unfold in my troll-infested North-lands, they don’t form a series. I suspect the free novel works best for series. I am giving considerable thought to writing a trilogy! I like the characters roaming my imagination for that venture, but we shall see.

Thanks for giving Encrypted a read, JM!

It used to be that if you got a lot of downloads on your Select freebie days that it would help the book’s overall sales rank when it returned to paid. Some people got tons of sales that way. Amazon seems to have ratcheted that back though. I don’t know if you saw it, but I interviewed Ed Robertson on here a few months ago, and he talked about it:

I’m glad you’re working on a sequel to Encrypted. (I’m right in remembering that you said that, aren’t I?) I’ll snap it up once it’s ready!

And, yes, I know the algorithms have changed. I gather that even before the change, the results were mixed – great for some, nothing much for others. For a long time I was on the fence about whether or not to try Select myself. It could be sheer curiosity propelling me!

I had a great experience with Select on Storm Dragon in the spring. But by the time I got White Tigress up the algorithms were already shifting. Lacking sequels, I couldn’t sustain the numbers I got from Select after the algorithm change, though they’re still better than they were before.

A lot of people will get a free Amazon Prime with their new tablets around Xmas, which should give select authors a boost.

I’ve got two new books coming up. I’m planning for one of them to test Select but not the other.

We’ve had a few clients get nasty reviews when they gave away their romances compared to people who paid for them. The romance reading community is a unique crowd and sometimes hard to please, I guess. Great tips Lindsay. Totally agree that giving away your book has some serious promotional value.

well, i was a person reeled in by EE1 showing up for free one day. it had been on my radar for a while. i’ve shopped with amazon for a very, very long time and over that time have trained it’s recommendation engine rather severely — if a book pops up on my recommended list, free or not, it’s there for a pretty solid reason and thus makes me pay attention to it.

that said — steampunk really wasn’t my bag. as an example, i don’t think i ever saw cherie priests works in my recomends until after i read EE. romance books aren’t my big thing either (which isn’t to say i don’t enjoy the occasional romantic endeavor, but lemme stop sidetracking here…)

but between the recommend, the price and the reviews i had absolutely nothing to lose and boy, what a rewarding endeavor it has been!

but before this gets to be a tl;dr type post, some comments on the points lindsay brings up:

1. the bestseller lists:

i’ll be honest, i almost never, ever look at them. i looked up lindsay’s author rank for kicks the other day, but that was the first time i’ve looked at such a listing in a long, long time.

as i noted, the heuristics amazon applies to match my tastes is important. but i also read a newsfeed of which books are/have gone free on any given day and that shapes a lot of the books i at least glance at considerably.

however, i think the single best form of advertising an author can get are reviews. a solid core of reviewers who can illiterate the strengths and weaknesses of a book far better than i ever will (yet another aside: my reviews by and large suck and i’m kind of ashamed of them for the most part, which is why i don’t tweet my brain out every time i finish a book and leave something on GoodReads — they might improve if i reviewed from my PC rather than from my kindle, though. not a fan of virtual keyboards.)

reviews also tend to be self correcting — i.e. the harriet klausners of the world are usually drowned out by the more competent voices and cranky 1 star reviews of one line or less are generally well and properly rebutted by an engaged audience.

that said, having a free book as a sort of seed germ for creating a loyal review base is the best single reason one could have for having a full length freebie in ones inventory.

2. harsh reviews.

well, to some extent see above. 🙂

but i would like to comment on why some people leave what one might perceive as harsh reviews on a free book:

readers have standards.

authors need to either meet or exceed them or else they aren’t gonna make it. i know that sounds laconic, but let me expand a bit on this concept:

if a book has a good story, but a crummy cover — it might fail to live up to the standards of the reader.
if a book has a great cover but crummy editing — it might fail to live up to the standards of the reader (etc, etc.)
but if a book is well written, well edited, well packaged — then it has a *HIGHER* chance to live up to a readers standards.

naturally, this isn’t a foolproof axiom (hence the *HIGHER* part and not something like ‘absolute’), but the point being — don’t you want your baby to have the best possible chance to succeed? if so, you gotta put in the hours. it isn’t fun for everyone and it’s why a lot of writers will happily franchise the bits and pieces they don’t like out to the publishing houses and their tempting contracts, but be that as it may — as someone who has packaged books in frontpage (never. ever. again.) and actually liked that aspect of publishing best, it’s really a matter of matching authors with artists and editors (imo, anyway.)

if you can do it all yourself — my hat is off to you, because you sir/madam have true talent!

but back to these readers and their meddlesome standards for a sec…

it may well come to pass that someone runs into a jaded cynic who is firmly entrenched with the belief that a book that is free or is sub-$5.00 can’t possibly be as good as something in the $10-15 range. my view on them is to just ignore them. well, actually i’d rather say something more akin to fornicate them (and with a few less letters than that), but i do not know what the mores of this blog are like. people like that won’t ever understand quality unless it smacks them harshly in the face and if that is the case, one really has to try not to loose sleep over that sort of stuff. might not happen (god knows i’ve let people chase me up trees and throw rocks at me for my works more than once so i wish i could take my own advice more. i was told that age helps in these matters. i beg to disagree. 🙂

3. the only good book is one priced above $x.xx

and again, i kinda said my peace on that in the above, buuuuut…

i’ve met people like that. they amuse me.

i’ve spent $15 on e-books as recently as last week. if *ANY* of these agency model wonders had ever given me 3x the enjoyment that lindsay’s (pardon the familiarity, btw) $5 books provided me with, it would have be a revelatory event on the magnitude of the the first time i saw ‘star wars’ at age 6.

but alas, i’m still waiting for such an event (ok, jim butcher came close with his codex alera series — fair is fair.)

honestly, the best one can do with such people is press on, regardless. write for the audience you can reach and is looking to reach you by whatever means and not the audience that isn’t likely to be reached by anyone, ever.

gah. i totally left a thought out there dangling with no conclusion. sorry ’bout that, but it’s 2 am and i begin packing up my belongings in a few hours (moving day this coming saturday!) and it’s kinda preoccupying me a bit. anyhow…it should read:

however, i think the single best form of advertising an author can get are reviews. a solid core of reviewers who can illiterate the strengths and weaknesses of a book far better than i ever will (lengthy aside removed), might as well be the burgeoning ebook moguls new best friends. it’s not just money in the bank — it’s like having gold bullion.

What he said.

Kurt, thank you for taking the time to address all of the points in the article. This is meaty enough for a blog post all on its own! 🙂

I’m glad you’re enjoying the EE books too! “Agency model wonders,” hah. I may have to steal that. 😀 I need to get back to Jim Butcher. I got the first book through audible, but have been distracted by podcasts of late. I’m glad you reminded me it’s on my phone!

Hi Lindsay,

I’m in the process of creating some free short stories to accompany an ebook I currently have on the market. Is it possible to publish a story on Amazon for FREE without using KDP? If you have any useful links about this please let me know.


Sorry I’m not Lindsay, but I don’t think this is possible right now. Amazon is really, really pushing KDP Select still, even though it’s been around almost a year.

I couldn’t find any way to do it, so I went with Smashwords. I’ve heard Amazon will price-match if your work is free somewhere else, but you have to inform them, and they have to make the decision to do so or not. I couldn’t be bothered.

Jayne and Paul, if you make the book free at the other stores (iTunes, B&N, etc.) through Smashwords distribution, Amazon’s bots will often price-match it to $0.

I did a video with more details on how to do it last year:

Thanks Lindsay, that’s very helpful. I’ve just started the tiresome Smashwords formatting which i’ve avoided over the past 12 months! Hopefully it will increase sales!

I have given away Kindle books via KDP Select and had some success but the giveaway with the most payback has been from Amazon price-matching a book that I had made free on Smashwords/Barnes & Noble/iBooks etc. The reason I made that particular book free was that it has a direct sequel, and ever since the first book has been free on Amazon, the sequel has been selling much better!

I think if you only have one book, the benefits of making that book free are less but even then it can help get reviews and it gets your book into customers’ buying history, which is a good thing.

We’ve had a few clients get nasty reviews when they gave away their romances compared to people who paid for them. The romance reading community is a unique crowd and sometimes hard to please, I guess. Great tips Lindsay.

Is there an echo in here or am I just drunk (again)?

After a lot of hard thought, I published my novel free on Smashwords. It’s a calling card, it’s a gesture of confidence, and I like the “First one’s on the house!” concept. It helps that my first is number one in a trilogy. I can see many long-term advantages to releasing the first one free.

No disrespect intended to anyone who’s commented or received a bunch of bad reviews, but I don’t think it’s a particular genre or audience that is pickier than another. I just think the vast majority of self-published books aren’t very good and, yes, as was said, a free run gets a lot more people to look at the book and notice that. Sometimes these are the first truly honest reviews that a book gets that aren’t from acquaintances of the author. These are the same reviews that would have come out if the book had gotten a lot of downloads and prominence at Amazon by other means.

My wife falls into the third category. She’s had a Kindle Fire for about six months now, and has yet to buy a book; she just opens Amazon, searches for the word ‘free’ and vacuums up the books that show up. No criteria for what she reads at all.
As someone who’s soon to publish their first book, I’m glad not all readers are like her 🙂


I’m an example of someone who read EE1 for free and went out and bought all the other books from the series as well as everything else you’ve published. I’ve read a lot of free books and if I don’t like them, I’m glad I didn’t spend a cent buying them. So, I don’t understand why someone would be upset and write a bad review. That doesn’t make any sense to me…

Some people love to review books. Some want to warn others like themselves away from the books.

It happens with bestsellers, too. Most bestsellers have a lot of good and bad reviews. Once a book gets enough buzz, people outside the target market will buy it and then be disappointed that it’s not what they wanted. Even if it was clearly outside their comfort zone. It’s just the way it works.

Thankfully, reviews have a limited amount of sway.

I’ve also gone and purchase an entire series from a free first book. I am very author loyal. As long as the book is reasonably priced and I like the author, then I usually end up purchasing several books.

I have no prejudices against free books. However, I do expect the quality to be on par with traditionally published books.

The only difference I’ve seen is that I am more willing to keep slogging through a paid book. For a free book, if it does not capture my attention by chapter 3, I usually delete it and move on. But if I paid for it, a small part of me keeps hoping it would get better. And when it doesn’t, then my criticism is all over goodreads. So my reviews is actually harsher for paid books that are poorly written.

[…] Are There Downsides to Giving Away Free Ebooks? — a thoughtful “business” type post by Lindsay […]

I don’t think that there is any disadvantage to giving free ebooks as long as they are well-edited with good stories. When a book is free, I am much more likely to try out a new author or genre. If I like the book, I always buy more books by the author. EE totally hooked me (in spite of the fact that I had a bias against steampunk and so it wouldn’t have been something that I would normally look twice at). I have gone on to purchase ALL of your other books and am eagerly awaiting more.

[…] Are There Downsides to Giving Away Free Ebooks? By Lindsay Buroker at Lindsay Buroker […]

[…] Are There Downsides to Giving Away Free EBooks? by Lindsay Buroker. […]

I wondered about your comment in an earlier blog about Amazon hiding free books so thanks for addressing that!

I agree with many commenters that I do think the value question has to do with whether or not the free or low price book is the first in a series. So I need to get my second book out, been a bit distracted by getting my on-line presence up and running lately. Almost there on that account….


I’d like to offer a reader’s opinion, if I may. I’m a reading addict and am constantly reading multiple authors and genres at once. Unfortunately I’m working on a limited budget for my addiction and there are many terrible authors out there (want an example, look at the bestseller lists). I personally will NOT buy anything from an author until I’ve at least sampled something they’ve done. It used to be that the free sample that Amazon gives for every book was sufficient until I was burned too many times by a sample that was able to pique my interest while the rest of the book had no follow through. I don’t judge based on novellas either. There are many authors with solid novellas for free whose novels are convoluted ramblings at best. Now I only read authors that have offered some entire work for free so that I can judge whether or not their writing is a fit for me. While I’m sure that there are people out there who will only read free offerings and never actually purchase anything, I’m also sure that there are others like me who use those free books to decide whether or not we’re willing to take the risk TO purchase an author’s works. And to this end, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed EE1 so much that I immediately bought and read the rest of the finished series and will be signing up for your newsletter. You and many others have found yourselves a loyal customer with this tactic and have gone onto my list of authors to track.

As far as receiving harsher reviews are concerned, I’m not entirely sure that I buy that. It’s my personal opinion that the reason that this appears to be so is because many of the free books ARE poorly written and unedited. I believe a search through Amazon’s free ebooks will support me on this. If the book is solidly written with a good plot, offering it for free isn’t much risk to the author. Also, I don’t believe the reviews are any different than if the book had been paid for. Even books on the bestseller lists get their fair share of bad reviews. And quite honestly, if the book is free, I’m more likely to be lenient in my review of it.

The one point that I have found to be true is that Amazon does not seem to be “hiding” the free ebooks but since I use the free books as my primary buying criteria, I had no trouble finding it. As a matter of fact, it was number two in my search results. 🙂

Meant to say Amazon DOES seem to be hiding free ebooks.

Lindsay, this is how you hooked me. I am on a tight budget so free e books are what i go to. I was hooked half way through and HAD to budget in your other works. 🙂 I think free e books are a great way to gain exposure. I’ve sent your name off to my lit prof. She was looking for new writers this year. Hoping she will pick something of yours.

[…] Because they can’t return your ebook and get a refund (since it was free), they take out their irritation that you wasted their time via an unpleasant review. Lindsay Buroker does a great job of explaining why free ebooks can counter-intuitively lead to negative reviews. […]

Hi Lindsay,
It would be good if you can bundle the entire ee series and make it available as a pack with a bundled price. I would definitely buy one.

Thanks, Asaph. The first three are available as a bundle at B&N, Kobo, and Amazon, and I’ll probably do 4-6 that way too eventually. I’ll think about a 1-6. Most people seem to go for the individual books even though the bundles are a better deal.

I think there are downsides, but only if you’re not using freebies right. The negative reviews will come, but if you get a flood of negative reviews, you might want to think about hiring an editor. The cheapskates will come, but (like you said) they probably wouldn’t buy your book anyway. I think freebies are a good way to get your writing out there and get some real sales.

I’ve been giving my books away free on (Kindle) since I published them. I’m suggesting everyone read them. You can look them up in Amazon under my name, Jonathan Waisman. I figure the book, “The Tipping Point” will be relevant, and when enough people have heard of me the “event” will begin. The Event is retirement, and me only needing to write for a living. No telling when it will come. For now I’m just trying to get my name out there. I look forward to being among “the lucky.” I’m told you create your own luck. The most promising way of doing so, they say, is hard work and perseverance.

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