Free Books: Why You Might Want to Give Your Work Away

free booksThere’s a certain underlying philosophy concerning free books that I want to touch on briefly here. Some people (including me) believe that a good way to find new readers is to remove the bar to entry by making your book free. Others believe this devalues their work. Both sides of the argument have merit.

If you’ve published a book, a significant amount of time and effort went into it. Actual blood, sweat, and certainly tears can be part of this process. Dang it, you’ve made something out of nothing. That’s a pretty neat trick. It should be worth something.

And it is. But now you’ve got to pull off another trick, possibly harder than writing the book itself. It at least requires different skills. You need to make others believe that your accomplishment is worth some actual cash. Money from their pocketbook, not just metaphoric money from somebody else.

person with huge libraryOver the course of my life, one of my recurring financial fantasies has been to able to buy all the books I want. Despite considerable effort put forth in this endeavor, I still fall short. The bills come first. I’ve lived a lot of my life in this place, and I don’t think it’s uncommon.

Back in the twentieth century (oh so long ago), we rummaged up free or cheap books from several different sources. The library. Borrowing a book from a friend. A stack of paperbacks from a yard sale.

And none of these made the author a dime–at least not directly.

My first experience of Tolkien was borrowing his books from the library. I absolutely adored LOTR, and it was a real wrench to give it back. So when I got my first minimum wage job, I used my paycheck to buy, in hardcover, everything that Tolkien ever wrote. This was repeated with many authors, although not the hardback bit. Even living at home, minimum wage doesn’t stretch that far. 🙂

buy buttonThis process is what free digital promotion tries to duplicate. Give people a book or two and hope they like what you write enough to click that buy button on your future endeavors.

Another, more important consideration for me, is that paid promotions cost money, and when you start, there’s a learning curve. (It seems like everything has a learning curve.) With paid promotions, you’re spending money to learn, which gets expensive fast. Not only that, but with newsletter marketing using promoter’s lists, even though you can re-use the same promoter again later, you’ll never get the same oomph you got from the first run. (It’s worth noting as an aside that BookBub is supposed to be an exception to this.) At any rate, if you muck up your paid promo like I did, this means that with a lot of the heavy hitters—Freebooksy, BookBarbarian, Ereader News Today—you’ve already diminished the usefulness of this resource for that book. I decided to learn how to do this for free before I spent money on it again.

Newsletter promotions don’t usually work for full-price books. The whole point of readers signing up to get yet more stuff in their inbox is that they’ll also get free and cheap books.


As a result, paid newsletter promotions usually don’t “earn out” in terms of the book being promoted. That’s easy to see with a free book. If you pay a hundred dollars to promote a free book, the way you’ll make most of your money back is by sell-through to other titles. (There’s also a tail sometimes, a leftover from the promotion, that can result in some paid sales.) And if you advertise a $.99 book, it’s difficult to break even just on the one book. Thirty-three cents of profit per copy doesn’t add up very fast.

Well, earning out on sell-through is great for folks who have a whole series out there. With five strong books, you can afford to lose money on book one. But what about the poor author who only has one or two books published?

social mediaYou can decide to just promote your book on social media, since that’s free. If you’ve built up a presence on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and/or blogging, I certainly wouldn’t overlook that resource. But the results from this endeavor tend to be small and time-intensive. You have to go be a real person in all these places. Nobody likes a feed that’s nothing but commercials.

Newsletter promotions give you way more results–I’m telling you this as a friend. People expect to be marketed to in a free or discounted book newsletter. They actually want to read about your story.

If you’re an author with only a few books, in the paid arena you have two choices, and neither of them are attractive. 1. Lose money, or 2. Do nothing until you have more books out and watch your offerings sink like a rock in the meantime.

Or you could set your book to free, at least intermittently, and then practice free advertising on it. Get some copies out into the world, and your only expense was time. Even though filling out all the forms seems like a never-ending purgatory while you’re doing it, the time investment is considerably less than even one form of social media.

Success with these promos depends heavily on the size of the promoter’s email list and how squarely your book fits with their reader preferences. But if a particular site doesn’t work out, it’s no big deal. You just don’t use that promoter again. That’s the main reason I took this route.

If you’d like to read about a free promotion that I did, with lots of data on individual promoters, here’s the link:

And if you’re determined to only sell your books, don’t worry–I have posts coming up on that topic, too. It’s just…I was trained as a social scientist, and I like to test things first. 🙂


Avid writer and reader of Faerie tales and noblebright fantasy.

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15 comments on “Free Books: Why You Might Want to Give Your Work Away
  1. Thanks, Cathleen. 🙂 Sharing…

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Ann Coleman says:

    I think you make a very good point, Cathleen. If giving away free books gets your books in the hands of readers, then that is a good thing in the long run. People will want to read more of your work, and they will also mention your book to their friends. Like you, I have discovered some of my favorite authors for free!

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Thanks, Ann. I think we’ve got to charge at least some money for our books, if for no other reason than to break even on things like covers. (Says the person who just racked up an $800 cover bill this month. Ouch.)

    But I also think the real danger is anonymity. Like with many things, I think there’s a sweet spot in the middle of the paid vs. free book argument that avoids extremes. Hopefully my free promo posts will help others find that place for themselves. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  4. JM Williams says:

    My concern with free books, at least books for free or cheap in the marketplace, is less about the lower revenue and more about the lowered perception readers may have of the book itself. I think many people have a knee-jerk reaction to seeing a book priced for 99c or free, that the book is probably poor, amateur work. Ideally, you’d set it up so the book looks like it’s permanently on sale, 99c marked down from 7.99. 😀 But I think it’s different when you are handing out books personally for free. However, in my experience, that doesn’t guarantee reviews or greater readership. In my experience, I almost never get reviews or shares for the free books I offer. Maybe people just don’t like me. 😛

    Liked by 2 people

    • I don’t think you need to go to the “I must not be very good” place. (Or at least don’t hang out there if you can help it–it’s dismal.) Everyone struggles with this stuff. 🙂

      As far as I can tell, most of the copies you give away won’t be read, which is mildly depressing. Some will get cracked open but not fulfill readers’ expectations in some way (fantasy is quite diverse). Somewhere between ten and twenty percent of the total copies are likely to be read, maybe more, but not a whole lot. I’ve never heard an estimate of half, for instance. Anyway, free books tend to sit on ereaders for longer before they get read, too. So, in that sense, yes, they’re not being valued the same.

      But there are a lot more copies out there. I’ve only got one actual permafree–Dragon Hoard. I’ve given away five thousand copies–much more than I could probably sell, especially considering that it’s a collection and not a novel. So, say a thousand copies have been read. It’s something. Not sure how much, since I’ve read that many people have to read more than one of your books before they recognize your name. When you think of all the effort it took to get them to read even one, that can be demoralizing, so I try not to.

      If you want to get more copies of your book out in the world, there’s no reason why you can’t set your book to free intermittently. Then you tie into the sales mentality (act now), and it’s understood that this book is normally something you ask money for.

      Reviews are tough to get, paid or free. I rely heavily on goodreads reading rounds and Hidden Gems review service for these. For simply giving away free books, an average review rate is around 1 per thousand books. I’ve done better than that, but that’s not something you can count on.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. It’s such an interesting question, and you’re right that both sides have merit, Cathleen. I do free promotions routinely, and I find it does create an upward tick in ongoing sales, though it takes a lot of time to generate any momentum. I see the changes over years, not months. *Sigh* Thank goodness, I write for the love of it. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  6. An interesting post and comments too, Cathleen. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Cathleen, I really appreciate this series you’ve undertaken to explain the benefits and downsides of giving away books to promote your brand. You’re generous in explaining what confounds me. I;m not there yet, at least, I don’t have anything published yet and therefore nothing to offer. But at least I’m beginning to develop a plan – I will get to be flush with your skills and advice about how to promote my books. So I thank you sincerely for paving the way and for giving away more than just some of your books – but also for giving away your experiences.

    Liked by 2 people

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