’Splain it to me, Lucy…

           Let me start with a qualifier: I know I’m not the sharpest knife in the publishing drawer. That’s okay with me. But I’m probably not the only one wondering, so please bear with me and please, please, please shed some light on what I’m asking about here.

I have a Kindle. Sometimes when I pay for the download of a new book, I shudder because I could buy a nice ink-and-paper copy of the book for less money. I really like ink-and-paper books, but I’ve grown used to the Kindle. To being able to leave on vacation with a whole two weeks’ supply of reading within its slender confines. To the instant gratification factor of being able to start a book the minute I order it.

I like when a book is on sale or when I can get an electronic copy of an old favorite for $2.99. I enjoy the occasional 99-cent novella.

Then there are the free books.

In the first place, I feel guilty when I get a whole book for free. Because if it’s free to me, its writer isn’t making a plugged nickel on it. In the second place, way too many of these books—and no, I’m not naming names—are poorly edited and formatted. Some of them, I feel safe in saying, are not edited at all.

I get a daily email from BookBub, spelling out its offerings of the day. Some are free, some are 99 cents, some are more. Sometimes I order—today I did, only to find out I read it years ago, when it came out the first time—and sometimes I delete the message without reading all the way to the bottom.

Writers pay to be listed on BookBub—and probably other sites like this—and from the prices I found, they pay quite a bit. (This is coming from someone whose promotion budget wouldn’t buy pizza and a six-pack—make allowances.)

While their books are free, writers will see their “sales” spike on Amazon, going into the single digits for different categories. I’m happy for them when it happens, because they are so happy. In truth, I’d love to have numbers even close to what those are. In other truth, as much as I love writing, the biggest reason I’m in the publishing business for the money. Maybe it is because my sales have never been that big, but I don’t understand how these free downloads translate into a big enough paycheck to make it worthwhile. If an author’s voice is one I love to hear, she doesn’t have to give me a copy of an old book to make me listen or of a new one to get my attention.

A friend had a sparkling review just a week or so ago. The reviewer mentioned that it was the first time she’d ever paid for a Kindle download.


Of the free downloads I’ve “bought,” I’ve probably finished less than 20 percent. Some of the time it is for the reasons listed above, or sometimes the writer’s voice just doesn’t resonate. Then there is the fact that I’m overwhelmed by the sheer number of free offerings.

So I’m asking—with an apology if I’ve been offensive in the process. Is it worthwhile? Do a gazillion free downloads somehow translate into good sales of the money variety? If you offer your books for free, do you feel a little niggle at the back of your mind saying, “Hey, I’m worth a hell of a lot more than that.”? Do you feel betrayed if you get a bad review or no reviews on a free book? Do you feel—as I do—that you are increasingly lost in the numbers of published authors?

Thanks for any answers you have—and good luck to us all.


’Splain it to me, Lucy… — 24 Comments

  1. I was at a local writers event earlier this year and hot on the heels of bemoaning the difficulty of breaking into publishing and the demise of the advance, the workshop moderator mentioned that she and a friend share a linked Kindle account so they pay for one copy of each book yet both get to read it. The mind boggles!

    I’m too new to the game to comment as a writer, but as a reader my TBR pile is so high with things I definitely want to read that I don’t usually bother with mildly intriguing yet free downloads – in fact I think I’ve downloaded two since I got my eReader. On the other hand, I do buy second-hand paperbacks which, while supporting the independent bookstore, will generate no return for the author. So maybe my view from the moral high ground isn’t as clear as I thought?

    • I buy second-hand paperbacks sometimes, too, always with this faint little guilt thing going on. (I think I may have a problem with guilt, but that’s another post altogether.) And my moral high ground seems to be cluttered with “hmmm” about so many things!

  2. 1) I LOVE free downloads because a) like you, my budget is limited and b) a few of my friends put them up in order to catch the eye of new readers.

    2) Yes, some of the freebees are not worth it, simply due to the fact of poor editing/writing. But offering a book for free (or even .99) is a GREAT way to find new readers. And often these specials only run for a limited amount of time. The hope is, buy a freebee, become an instant fan, and order their backlist at the regular price.

    3) I’m sorry Liz, but why are you paying so much for your downloads? If I notice the Kindle price is a few dollars close to the print price, I go ahead and get the print copy. Why are you spending more that $5 on kindle books? The most I’ve paid for a download has been in the $10-15 range, and those were for anthologies. IMHO, no download should exceed $5 for 50-100K book.

    4) *ducking my head* I’m good friends with one author who has sent me every download as a favor. I had to jump in and buy her latest, since I was feeling guilty about her not making any $$ from me. And then *head slap moment* when she buys me a Kindle edition, she still gets the royalty credit. And her other sales make up for it.

    • Hi, Kenzie. 2.) I hope that’s how it works for people. I really do. 3.) I have auto-buys, and sometimes their downloads cost more than paperbacks. I’m at the downsizing age, so I don’t buy print copies of anything new–after I read it, it becomes clutter. 4.) We all have friends like that. :-)

  3. Hi Liz! It’s quite the conundrum, isn’t it. I can’t comment from the writer perspective as my work hadn’t been offered for free. From the reader prespective, I think it cuts both ways. I found one writer who I think is fantastic through a freebie – Alex Bledsoe. A few years back he offered a collection of short stories for free. They were wonderful, hooked me, and I’ve paid for his work ever since. On the other hand, I’ve stopped downloading freebies of authors I don’t know as I’ve started, and failed to finish, too many that were of poor quality. Looking forward to reading what other writers have to say on this topic. Thanks for bringing it up!

    • Thanks, Jim. And I have to admit, I’ve found an author or two that way, too, and maybe that is enough to make it worthwhile. It’s not the first time I’ve been slow to catch on. :-)

  4. The way its been explained to me: freebies are used to try to engage new readers. So, if a new-to-you reader sees a free or 99cent book, they’ll take a chance and download. The hope, from there, is that they like the book enough to pick up your regularly priced backlist.

    From a reader perspective, it’s worked for me – I picked up a Marie Force freebie a year or so ago and have glommed the rest of her backlist. She was new-to-me at the time and I hadn’t heard anything about her successes with self-publishing.

    From a writer perspective…I don’t know how well it works. But with so many writers doing it, it stands to reason there is some success rate to it.

    Great post, Liz…and very intriguing questions.

  5. I love freebie books, because I never know if I’m going to find a new treasure. Happened to me a couple of years ago, when I grabbed a free copy of “One More Summer”, by your good self. I’ve since bought everything else. Some freebies have been terrible, but if I’ve liked an author/book I’ve sought out other work by them, especially if it’s a series.

  6. I’m new a new writer with Wild Rose, and the free book program. Having heard the horror stories about badly written/edited free books, I worried my story would get painted with that same brush. But now I’m thankful for new readers and great Amazon reviews.

    How did I rank on Amazon during that giveaway time? No clue and not interested as long as the people who will enjoy my writing find it. I write because I must have a creative outlet, not for money or fame. So I like the freebies – so far.

  7. Last year Samhain put the first book of my Hauberk series for free for two weeks. It had almost 50,000 downloads, and I saw a huge spike in sales of the rest of my books. Back in 2010, Carina “featured” my Texas Tangle as a 99 cent book, and same thing happened. I was the #1 Best Selling author, for a day. It was cool, and yes, my other books spiked too. So it is definitely a good marketing tool once you have a backlist. But you also have to be aware that there are people who will download it simply because it’s free and will never read it, and there are those who will download without reading the blurb and discover it’s not their normal genre–“OMG it has SEX in it. How disturbing” and leave you a one star review. So you have to be prepared to be slammed with bad reviews too. As for myself, when I first got my Kindle I was downloading lots of freebies–now I’m more picky. I just don’t have time to read them, and I don’t want to be bothered having to scroll through all those extra titles that are taking up screen space.

  8. I think it’s the numbers that awe me, Leah. 50,000 downloads is beyond what I can imagine. I’m so glad it’s worked well for you, though–and for others. I’m just not sure I’ll ever have the nerve to find out for myself. Cowardice runs thick through my veins. :-)

  9. The statistics I’ve seen show that a staggeringly high percentage of free downloads are never read. Something like 80-90%. It’s true of me. I’ll download a freebie because, why not? And it will malinger on my Kindle until I forget why the hell I thought it looked interesting. Now, going by Leah’s numbers, even if 90% of those downloads weren’t read, that means 5,000 were. Which ain’t bad.

    So, as a short-term marketing ploy, it sounds like it works. However, I believe strongly that no professional author should give their work away long-term. The value of our effort is worth far more than that.

    • Jeffe — yes, Samhain sets up their titles to be free for two weeks only, and the Carina “feature” was for one day only. I was quite happy with both those events, and yes, I know they brought me new readers. I wouldn’t want to set up a book to go free permanently. Not knowing how long it takes me to write the thing in the first place, and the blood, sweat and tears that it takes. I can’t imagine any other profession willing to work for free for six months for nothing. (Yes, I’m that slow)

  10. I do freebies once in awhile for one simple reason–new readers. Readers who might have never found me otherwise have become fans, and as you mentioned, buy my other books.
    Do I feel betrayed by a bad review? I certainly don’t like them, but it’s the risk of a freebie.
    I’m sorry, but there are badly edited books from every publisher out there.

    • Thanks, D. And some of the free books ARE from publishers. I haven’t seen much bad editing from them, but enough other people have that I’m not going to argue the point.

      What you all are saying does answer my questions, really–thank you! It is worthwhile or you wouldn’t keep doing it.

  11. I can definitely explain free from an author’s point of view. Publishing is a business, and for me, being an author is a business. Yes, I love what I write and I love this career, but I still look at what makes the most sense financially. So does this mean I price all my books at $9.99? Of course not. Even those who speak out against free support low prices, but IMO that is a random distinction. I would far, far rather sell 100 books at $2.99 (this gives me $200 if they’re self published through Amazon) than I would selling 300 books at $0.99 (which makes me $90). That’s basic pricing optimisation. Now if you increase the order of magnitude, you can see the difference can be a huge amount of money. But even BETTER would be to have a free day and sell 300 books at $2.99! Then I’ve made $600, and at the end of the day, I can walk away with more money than if I’d never done a free day. That’s just good business, right? And this is a business.

    The next question is, does a free day necessarily get you extra sales? Well, there are no guarantees of course. But when a savvy author uses free…and then continues to use free, yeah, I’m gonna bet her numbers are good. It’s not difficult math for someone to see. Check your dashboard, royalties are up, keep doing what you’re doing.

    After all this defense, I admit that I don’t use free heavily. I do have a permanently free short story, but I don’t do those short term free days for a few reasons. One is I don’t like to support Amazon’s exclusivity. Two is I don’t think my books lend themselves to mainstream. I also use sales sparingly. I’d much rather have word of mouth and prices that are always reasonable enough to afford. That’s just my strategy, but there is NOTHING wrong with another strategy, especially if it’s making that author money. That’s marketing is supposed to do.

    Now, whether you want to try them as a reader is up to you. Some people are more sensitive to trying new authors, to dealing with typos and grammatical errors. There’s nothing wrong with being flexible or with choosing to stay within the bounds of publishers (who, as someone else noted, also use free days). But as an author/publisher, it doesn’t really matter whether one specific person never buys free. It doesn’t matter if one specific person ALWAYS gets free. All that matters is that in sum total, after my promotion and time has passed, that I made more than I would have otherwise.

    It’s funny to me that people balk against free books, but does anyone question when Tide sends little packets of laundry detergent in a mailer? It costs them tons of money to do that, and the recipient gets something of value. Because we know the goal is to get them to buy. That’s a small value, I realize, but there are larger examples. When you go to a local martial arts place, they will often offer your kid 2 months free membership. Again, no one questions this. Why should they? We are all clear that this is a marketing technique. The customer gets to “try before they buy.” This is the EXACT same principle with books. You are getting something has value, in the hopes that you will spend more later. It doesn’t have to work 100% of the time to be worthwhile to the business/author. Only some of it (the exact ratio to be worked out behind the scenes via royalty statements).

    • Thanks, Skye. Your explanations make perfect sense, though you lost me toward the end. I think free samples (first chapter, the short story you mention, a dishy excerpt, Tide, free month)are great and I wouldn’t hesitate to do that no matter HOW cheap I am. And let me say I’m not criticizing what anyone else does–well, except for the spelling, grammar, and formatting problems; I really do hate that–I’m just trying to get to the “how it works” part. Your explanation was great! Thanks again.

  12. An excellent discussion today. As Skye said, I’m for anything that makes money for the author. It’s one strategy to employ, and sometimes, as in Leah’s case, it works really well. It’s worth giving it a shot, at least on a limited basis.

    • Thanks, Jana. It must be worth giving a shot, with so many people doing it–including publishers. I was looking for the whys and “oh, reallys?” and I think we got them here. Thanks to everybody!

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