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.
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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.

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“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.

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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.

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