Skip to main content

Does Free Pay? The Pros and Cons of E-Book Giveaways

The February 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest features Porter Anderson’s in-depth article “Banking on E-Books,” which provides an overview of today’s e-book marketplace and discusses how savvy self-publishing authors can make money from their digital titles. Here, in this online-companion sidebar, Anderson delves into whether or not the kinds of free e-book giveaways that once had the power to translate into headline-making sales are still viable in 2013.

The February 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest features Porter Anderson’s in-depth article “Banking on E-Books,” which provides an overview of today’s e-book marketplace and discusses how savvy self-publishing authors can make money from their digital titles. Here, in this online-companion sidebar, Anderson delves into whether or not the kinds of free e-book giveaways that once had the power to translate into headline-making sales are still viable in 2013.

--

“Free books can be a great strategy.”

Barbara Samuel knows. The author of more than 40 books in her 25-year career, the Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame inductee today calls herself an “equal opportunity writer,” having published through a large publisher, and self-published, and been published by a small, independent press. As such, she has occasionally promoted her titles through free e-book giveaways—and has sold more than 200,000 copies of her e-books in less than three years. But that doesn’t mean it’s been easy.

“[One] trouble with ‘free,’” she says, “is that it’s very difficult to control the on- and off-sale dates across the various platforms. So you might have a book take off and you give away 100,000 copies. But then you can't get it off the free lists and onto the paying lists. Therein lies the trouble.”

Roz Morris knows wherein lies more trouble: “Amazon has adjusted its algorithms.”

Morris is more than once a bestseller, under a variety of names. She is an accomplished ghostwriter and a former publishing-company staffer who has authored two self-published books: the instructional Nail Your Novel, and the novel she nailed, My Memories of a Future Life, which she released in serial form. She makes two key points on the subject:

“First, Amazon changed its algorithms [in the spring of 2012] so that free titles had to score a lot more downloads to get into the chart listings. And second, with so many titles being offered free, readers grab them and don't read them. I gave away thousands of copies of Episode 1 [of my serialized novel], and it hardly translated into sales at all. But when people bought Episode 1, a high proportion went on to buy the others. Conclusion? People who got Episode 1 free weren't the right readers, and possibly didn't even look at it.”

Not everyone agrees that free e-book giveaways are ineffective, though. “Giving away lots of freebies in a short space of time on Amazon will usually lead to a bump in your sales afterwards,” says Let’s Get Digital blogger David Gaughran. “While that bump has lessened since Amazon tweaked things … it still exists and has a verifiable effect on sales.”

But Elle Lothlorien, in her extended write-up of the subject for Digital Book World’s Expert Publishing Blog, writes, simply, “Don’t do it.” She herself had early success with free e-book promotions, but says the methods that worked for her then aren’t viable for authors now for three basic reasons:

  1. There were fewer authors competing with free promos;
  2. A large percentage of readers appeared to actually have read the free books in those early days; and
  3. The post-promo bounce was bigger and lasted longer.

“Saturated” is the term I heard again and again when asking published e-book authors about their experience with “free.” The e-book market has become “saturated” with free offers, and readers “Hoovering up content” they never read, as Morris puts it. So while giveaways can translate into sales, that kind of success seems to be rarer and rarer as the e-book marketplace grows and matures.

--

To read Anderson’s complete article “Banking on E-Books,” check out the February 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest, available for instant download now.

From Script

The Secret as a Narrative Framing Element (From Script)

In this week’s roundup brought to us by Script magazine, read more filmmaker interviews from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, including an exclusive interview with Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic Audience Award and Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award winning filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz.

How To Write a Protagonist Leading a Double Life

How To Write a Protagonist Leading a Double Life

Inspired by personal experiences, author Kyla Zhao discusses how to write a protagonist leading a double life.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: Romance Writing Virtual Conference, 6 WDU Courses, and More!

This week, we're excited to announce the Romance Writing Virtual Conference, six WDU courses, and more!

Popular Fantasy Tropes for Writers

21 Popular Fantasy Tropes for Writers

Here are 21 examples of fantasy tropes for writers to consider and subvert when writing fantastical fiction.

Writing Goals and Intentions: 25 Prompts

Writing Goals and Intentions: 25 Prompts

Make this year your most successful writing year ever by considering the following questions to set your goals and intentions.

Is a Personal Essay Considered Journalism?

Is a Personal Essay Considered Journalism?

Journalist Alison Hill answers the question of whether or not the personal essay is considered journalism by defining the genre and offering examples. Plus, outlets for you to publish your own personal essay.

Forth vs. Fourth (Grammar Rules)

Forth vs. Fourth (Grammar Rules)

Learn when to use forth vs. fourth in your writing with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Bad Place

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Bad Place

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, make the setting the antagonist.

Gaslighting in Romance: From Jane Eyre to the Present Day (and Why Writers Should Care)

Gaslighting in Romance: From Jane Eyre to the Present Day (and Why Writers Should Care)

Gaslighting can work its way into the backstory of a character, but it can also be misused. Here, author Emma Barry discusses gaslighting in romance.