Self-publishing: A Guidebook for the Tourist#5: ‘Free’ books

The internet is full of ‘Free’ books, you can’t go on writers forums without finding them all over the place. The Facebook groups are full of them, Twitter will throw them at you, readers sites like Goodreads and other book sites overflow with them. Amazon and other resellers even encourage it to a degree. The E-book revolution has brought about an avalanche of ‘Free‘, which like all good avalanches has crushed and destroyed everything in its path. Lots of writers have complained about it, blog posts are full of opinions on the negative impact it has had on the book market and the profession as a whole. These are opinions I agree with… But I am going to utterly ignore for an hour while I write this because instead of telling all the reasons ‘Free’ is bad, I am going to explain the reasons it can be good for you. With a caveat, however, that being why while you may want to consider making a book free for a short time, it has to be at the right time…


First off, however, if you have written your first novel and are thinking of making it free, even just free on a kindle countdown type deal… STOP NOW… Seriously, don’t do it, you’re making a grave error. It may seem tempting, giving your novel away for a while to get a lot of readers quickly, build up reviews, find an audience, get it ‘as it were’ out there. But that is not what is going to happen. Remember this important adage, ‘No one values that which they get for nothing…‘ and if they don’t value it, they may not even read it anyway. Kindles around the world are full of ‘free‘ books that got downloaded when they were on sale for nothing and are just left to collect virtual dust on the ram, before been deleted to sit on the cloud to make space for the next few free books that will never get read. Mine I may add is as bad as anyone else for this. So if you have written one novel, and are even considering making it free for a few days on Amazon, stop now. If you are going to give something away, give it with purpose.

Giveaways competitions and ARC freebies at this stage make sense, but not open house Amazon free book sales.

Giveaways because you offer to give away say, five copies of your novel, to random entrants to your competition will get people to sign up with their email addresses to your mailing list. At which point you can send them flyers, with the reasonable assumption they signed up with a degree of interest in reading your work. Or having signed up have a degree of interest now. It’s a good way to get readers to at least look in your direction, and if you do them through a site like ‘Goodreads‘, you are pulling them towards you. On ‘Goodreads‘ the giveaway competition service they run is tied to people marking your book ‘to read’. Which puts it firmly on their radar, and on the radar of their friend’s list as well. It also adds to the number of people who have marked your novel ‘to read’ so if someone looks at it on ‘Goodreads’ it looks popular. While everyone who doesn’t win a free copy is at least aware your book is out there now, and, by the law of averages, a few of them at leats will buy a copy, having had their interest spiked in the first place.

ARC freebies are giveaways with the express intent of getting reviews. They are an unspoken contract between writer and reader, ‘I give you a free copy, you give me a review.’ It’s a tried and tested formula, and if you’re going to give your work away, at least your going to get something back. There are dangers, be careful who you ask, and make sure if you’re giving out e-books you’re doing so safely with copy protection via kindle mail. But go for it all the same.

But, and I can not stress this enough, if you only have one novel, do not give it away in general… All your doing is adding to a flooded market and by the time you write your second novel 99% of the readers you found will have forgotten your first book and have no inclination to buy your next one. No matter how good the first one was…

The time to consider going down the ‘Free’ road is after you have a few books in print. Especially if you have a series written because readers read authors as often as they read books. Hook them with a free copy of your first novel, and while you have them on the line, they are far more likely to buy the second, third and forth. It is a truism that you will find repeated by most advice sites. I have read more than one publishing article that advises a writer to not even bother spending time promoting books till they have three or four written for this exact reason. Sad as it may be, it is true that readers are less inclined to buy the first novel if the writer has only written one book. Even heavyweights like ‘George R R Martin‘ and his ‘Game of Thrones‘ are subject to this rule. Long before the TV show came out, the first novel only really began to reach high sales after the third came into print. And that was not Martins first novel, he already had a large following, but the novel became a real best seller when there was a series of books on the shelf. Readers like to know they can read the next, and the one after that, before they commit to the first book. Even if your novels are unrelated to each other and not even in the same genre, such as my own ‘Cider Lane‘ and ‘Passing Place‘, having more than one book out there makes the first novel all the more attractive to a reader.

With this in mind, giving away the first book in a series makes a certain amount of sense. Many authors discount the first novel, putting it in the 0.99 bracket. Then give it away for short periods in the hope of hooking readers into a series, and as a tactic, it works. The same can be said for short stories and novella’s that lead into your novels and are permanently free on your website, or through Kindle, etc. Free is not a bad sales tactic. Indeed it is a damn good one. It has got me to try a new author on more than one occasion, and I have no problem with ‘Free’. Just use it wisely is my advice. If you’re giving something away, make sure it is to get something in return. Make sure it is to get a reader or two, to reach your audience.

I have never made one of my novels free, I have however made one of Kram Seyah’s free as an experiment. Kram, as you may know from reading my blog, is a writer of nihilistic erotica with swords and the occasional touch of sorcery thrown in. It’s a niche market within a niche market and was an experiment to start with. Written as much to satisfy my curiosity as anything else. As ‘A turn of the glass: Passions of the dragon queen: vol 1‘ is a novella, with a narrow target audience, it does, however, serve to illustrate the  ‘free’ market…


When I first released ‘A turn of the glass‘ at the strip end price of 0.99c it did not sell many copies. It is short even for a novella, just over 20000 words it barely qualifies as more than a short story in some respects. It would not be unreasonable to consider the minimum price you can sell for on Amazon to never the less be something of an over pricing of the book. Yet despite this, its is erotica and sex, as the old saying goes, sells. So I expected I might sell a few copies, and after a little bit of publicity, it did just that. It was not uprooting trees, but it was selling in dibs and drabs, a copy here and copy there, not enough to make me rush to write a sequel. The original was written as much to allow myself a break after the first draft of ‘Passing Place’. It would have to sell a lot more than half a dozen copies a week to make it a priority, and as with all book sales after the first month or so that half a dozen a week started to tail off. Remember this is a niche market within a niche market and a short novella, and I only did minor publicity work on it. The occasion facebook post, or mention on a forum in passing, and that’s about it. But part of the experiment was ‘volume one‘. As ‘Kram’ intended to add volume two and three etc. at some point. So I decided to put it on ‘sale’ for free through Amazon on a Kindle book deal and see what happened, and did a little (though only a little) publicity work on erotic writing forums and fantasy forums a day or so before.

In a week I sold over 400 ‘free’ copies of ‘A turn of the glass‘. Which was four times as many copies as I had sold previously in the three preceding months. Bare in mind when I say minimal publicity I mean just that, I was not trying hard to sell this. I relied almost entirely on the lure of ‘free’ and Amazon own internal publicity algorithms that go into action when a book goes on ‘sale’.

If you’re interested in the maths of how much ‘A turn of the glass‘ has made me, and how much money the ‘free’ giveaway cost me, here are some rough maths for the first 4 months it was in print.

General price 0.99c  giving a royalty per sale of 0.17c     100 sales

100 sales  = $17   or  $13 when its declared on my tax return.

Which is quite a bit less than I make for an hour at my day job… and ‘sales’ of 400 free cost me $52  after tax …   Clearly I have conned myself out of early retirement here…

The important figure though is 400 in a week as opposed to 100 in three months, and when I repeated the sale a few months later, it sold another 300 with no publicity at all apart from the inherent Amazon promotion.  In all free sales now stand at about 1200. Whereas I have sold about 300 in the 18 months or so it has been on sale. Which is not bad for something I make no actual effort to sell.

The point here is that if Karm Seyah wrote a few more volumes, all those free sales would have some benefit to him. If everyone who had bought volume 1 and only a quarter of those free sales went on to buy volume 2, sales of volume 2 would double. 600 rather than 300, and a quarter is conservative because readers read authors. Anyone who got volume 1 for free, then bought volume 2 because they enjoyed V1, is likely to also buy V3, V4, V5, etc.. even with the law of diminishing returns (a drop off of readers as you go through the volumes happens to all writers of series). So giving away volume 1 to attract readers can pay back multiple times in sales. Well as long as they enjoy your story, the writing is good, and it is enough to make them willing to pay for the next book.

Have faith in your writing …..

As I have said ‘A turn of the glass’ was an experiment, and as it is not really what I want to write its an experiment I have taken no further. It has however shown the power of the ‘free’ book and hopefully shows when it is worth using.

I know a few authors who’s single drive is to make money from writing. They are nice enough people, but I am not over enthused by their books. Perhaps because I know they care more about making money than the craft. I care more about finding readers than making money, but I resent the idea of all my hard work bene given away without purpose, and you should too.  ‘That which is given freely holds no value‘ as someone once said. I want people to read my work, but I also want them to recognise it has value, if only as entertainment. So should you with your own writing.

Kram Seyah may write volume 2 of ‘Passions of the dragon queen‘ one day. As I enjoyed the act of writing and it gave me a break from my other work which I needed at the time. Having given his work away for free, he may well sell a few more copies of volume 2. If those readers the ‘free’ fished up have not forgotten volume 1. In fairness, they most likely will have done by then, but the amazon algorithms will not have done so they may well see it pop up in feeds all the same.

When I publish the first two Hannibal Smyth novels I am writing, I will probably use the same tactic to boost sales. (I am deliberately planning to release them both within a couple fo months of each other.) My drive, as always, is readers not profit, and free books is a way to find readers. I just advise you use it wisely… because there is no such thing as a free book, it cost you more than a slither of your soul and a whole lot of time to write it in the first place.


Adios for now.



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1 Response to Self-publishing: A Guidebook for the Tourist#5: ‘Free’ books

  1. Pingback: Self-publishing: A Guidebook for the Tourist#6: The ‘Free’ book experience | The Passing Place

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