- by Deborah Cooke
Recently, there has been a lot of discussion in writers’ circles about the practice of offering free digital books as promotion and the repercussions of such a marketing choice. I’ve been trying to make some sense of it myself, so let’s wade in and take a look at the issue together.
There have always been free books. Back before the surface of the earth cooled and we had only physical books to read, publishers routinely gave books away. They still do.
At wholesale trade shows, like Book Expo, there are hundreds of books available for the taking. At genre conferences, like RWA National, there are so many free books available that attendees frequently ship boxes of books home. When I wrote for Harlequin, they routinely gave books away as promotion, including free books to new subscribers and books as promotion.
The rationale is that a free sample can persuade the consumer to buy more. It’s a technique used in many markets because it works.
So, what’s changed?
1/ Digital vs. Print Format
The first and perhaps the biggest difference is that these promotional copies back at the dawn of time (say, 10 years ago) were printed books. If a publisher gave away 1,000 mass market paperbacks, for example, those 1,000 paperbacks were the sum of the giveaway. Theoretically, 1,000 people could have one of those free books at any given time. They might be passed along and read by many people, but eventually they would fall apart and cease to be in the marketplace.
So, the first big problem with digital books is that they a/ don’t disintegrate and that they b/ have no limitation on quantity. A single free digital book can be copied and downloaded 100 million times, with no discernible effect on the master copy.
A single copy can populate the entire world of eReaders.
Pirated books – those that are made available for download for free or for a fee that does not go to the author – tend to be generated from free books. If you think about it, that makes sense. Pirates need a lot of content on their sites and the less they pay for it, the better that works for them. So, making a book free can be the same as feeding pirates.
With digital books, “once free” might be the same as “always free”.
3/ Perceived Value
It is human nature to put a higher value on items that cost us more. If we work hard to buy a car, that car might be precious to us. It represents and investment of time and labor. If we are born with a silver spoon in our mouths and are given cars at no personal cost, we might not value those vehicles as much. So, it follows naturally that the perceived value of a free book could be very low to consumers.
We might think that we got what we paid for. We might think the book is worthless. We might think the author is desperate or untalented.
We might not read the free book at all, simply because it was free.
4/ Erosion of the Book Market
Because there are so many digital books available for free, many authors have noted that even the most avid reader can have plenty to read without ever buying a book. There are people who choose to buy a Kindle eReader simply because there is so much free content available – the rationale is that you buy the reader then have books for the rest of your life.
There have always been people who preferred to read for free, for whatever reason. Back in the days of the dinosaurs (10 or 15 years ago) they would go the library, buy used books or even buy stripped books. With the exception of stripped books, in that market, someone had to buy the initial copy of the book. So, a book might be bought once – by a library or by a reader who resold her/his books – then read by many readers.
Stripped books, of course, were stolen goods but that didn’t stop people from reading them. In this market, it might well be that there never was an original copy purchased. If the book was offered for free, for even five minutes, those free copies could go forth and propagate forever.
It is possible that free books are eliminating the gross volume of book sales. It is possible that short term gain is eroding the future of publishing.
These are all formidable objections to making digital books free. So, why do authors and publishers keep doing it?
Because in a crowded marketplace, the real trouble with “free” is that it works. The current market is so filled with new titles and new authors that the greatest challenge facing an author – no matter how he or she is published – is visibility. This has always been a challenge, but it has become much worse in recent years. Getting the word out about a new author or a new series is tougher than ever, and there’s a lot more competition.
I have been more skeptical of “free” than most and probably more resistant to it than many. All the same, I tried an experiment in January and made a digital book of mine free. I was astonished by the number of downloads, then again, after the promotional period was over, by the growth in sales – for this book and my others.
“Free” worked. It increased the visibility of my books and increased my sales. It also worked really well. Surprisingly well.
Will “free” continue to work for authors? Maybe. Maybe not. Will readers continue to download free books? Maybe. Maybe not. Will there be other means of gaining visibility in this crowded market? Almost certainly. And maybe, over time, those marketing methods will erode the effectiveness of “free”.
We do live in the proverbial “interesting times” of that ancient curse, which means that assumptions can be challenged. What I learned from my experiment is that, in a changing market, I have to be prepared to try new things, to modify my strategies and to be open to possibilities.
What are your feelings about free books? Do you download them? Do you have different expectations of them than of books you’ve purchased? Do you read them more quickly or more slowly than those you’ve purchased? Do you believe that free books will continue to work as promotion for authors, or do you think this is a passing trend? If you are an author, have you made any of your books free? Did “free” work for you?