The Trouble With “Free”

- 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.

2/ Piracy

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?


  1. Thanks for the insightful article showing the pros and cons of offering free content. I think so many of us are experimenting with this and having varying results that the effectiveness of offering a book for free can be hard to measure in a long-run. There are immediate positive results, but how long does that last?

    I did not realize that pirates would steal the books and then offer them free forever from some site. I am very naive and trusting. Appreciate that caution and will reconsider offering everything I have indie pubbed for free.

  2. i Love free books.. but i go for paperbacks.. i am not a fan of the ebooks, and for the same reasons.. i find that i will be more likely to read a new author if i get one of the books for free (whether by contest, giveaway or whatnot).. but if i like it, i will be buying them from now on..

  3. What a great post, Deborah! I agree this is a changing market and what works today might not work tomorrow, but I have found the free offer to help as well. We’ll just have to wait to see what the future holds for publishing. Thanks for the post.

  4. I’m sorry, Deborah, but I think your first point has nothing to do with “free”, it is just a strawman that is really only about ebooks at all. It’s part of the same corporate Koolaid being shared by the Big Six, having stolen the recipe from the music and movie industry, but it’s mostly just flavoured water to say, “Oh no, streaming is evil, or 3D is evil, or digital is evil, or THX sound is evil, or colour is evil, or talkies are evil”. And for piracy, the Koolaid makers really don’t know what they are talking about any more than they know how to do proper digital content distribution.

    All retailers have known for years that the key ingredient in low sales is “friction” for the buyer — friction slows down momentum from “impulse to buy” and “actual purchase”.

    Big department stores approach it by having stuff in stock, no ordering required. Because having to “order” something and wait is a “huge friction”. People often buy what is available in a store, even though they know a different model is available by ordering that they might like better. Remove the friction of waiting, increase sales. Futureshop makes money by having lots of choice in one place, no “friction” in having to shop around. Other stores guarantee “lowest price” so you don’t have to shop around. Again, low friction so you “glide right into purchase mode”.

    Amazon’s “one-click” ordering is the same…and their online sale of paper books (which is what has hurt bricks and mortar stores, not digital content yet) is based on reduced price + reduced friction in one area (deliver to your house, you don’t need to go to a store) while increased in another (you have to wait, but they’ve improved shipping so you can get it next day in many markets).

    iTunes did the same for music — they made it super super frictionless to get a track on your MP3 player in seconds, rather than having to find it on a pirate site. And they made it better than a retail store because you could buy tracks rather than whole albums. Your own personal playlist, in minutes, at your house, at less cost than a retail store? And easier to find things than on a pirate site? Near frictionless experience. Hasn’t eliminated piracy, and never will.

    Ebooks are the same — Amazon has made their one-click model so frictionless, it’s actually EASIER than a pirate site. One click, and it’s on your device, ready to go. Which leaves price as one of the few remaining barriers (not including big ones like preference for paper, etc.), and if it is “free”, even that barrier is gone. Meaning that it is EASIER for someone to take a free copy off of Amazon than it is to go to PirateBay, find a good version, DL it, maybe convert it, and upload it to their physical device. Free copies actually tend to reduce pirating, not increase it.

    On a more psychological basis, this makes sense — pirates fall into a number of categories ranging from those who pirate books they would never buy (they only take it cuz it’s free, including 100K+ copies of books they will never read, not unlike those hoarding shows) to those who buy some but not all (they have limited budgets so they buy some and steal others) and those who are truly lost sales (who steal it simply because it’s cheaper than buying). If the book is free? You just eliminated the need for those last two groups to pirate.

    Will the copies show up on pirate sites? Of course. Not because it was free, not because it came without DRM, not because of anything other than it is an ebook and pirates pirate books. Just as all the big ones show up. But it isn’t showing up cuz it was free — it’s showing up because more people out there have it, i.e. you increased distribution and somewhere in the chain, somewhere uploaded it. The $9.99 sale by an unknown doesn’t show up because nobody bought it anyway — there are no copies available that anyone wants. Put a different way? You’re not succeeding if someone isn’t pirating you.

    And here’s the REAL shocker, building off your experience with the “post-free ripple-effect” on sales…some authors actually welcome placement on pirate sites. Because they know most of the pirates would never have bought it anyway…and like Amazon’s “free”, they consider it simple more exposure that might generate sales by that middle group of pirates in the future. A bit of a stretch in my view, but some of their numbers actually aren’t that dubious.

    I must admit that I also disagree with your predictions for #3 and #4 — I don’t know too many music artists who feel like they’re in the bargain bin because they sold a million copies of something at a $1 or because they gave away 10 million samples of their music. And most people I know who get ereaders actually are INCREASING their consumption, dramatically in fact. I, myself, have read more ebooks on my Kindle in the last year than on paper in the three previous years combined. Plus, I’m spending more money.

    Just some counter thoughts…I think your ebook “free” experience is the wave of the future. People will eventually settle on a price for ebooks, probably around $3.99 or $4.99 is my thought, once a bunch of big 6ers start to see the Agency model doesn’t benefit them anymore. Personally, I expect $4.99 for big 6, $3.99 for self-pub, $2.99 for backlists, $1.99 for something other than a novel (novella, short story, singles), and 99 cents or free for promotion price points. But it will take the ebooks to pass the 50% mark in sales, I think, to start moving that way…paperbacks moved together at one point, no reason the others won’t follow suit, but with the volume available, I don’t think the Big 6 have the supply chain lock they once had.

    Thanks for the piece, very provocative for thinking, even if I didn’t agree :)


  5. Oddly, I almost never pick up free books. Probably because I have enough back reading for years and select only books that I know I will read (and that is rarely what is offered). As a writer I do offer free ebooks sometimes to readers who write to me or are friends on facebook. It’s a way to say thank-you for the support. The dh tried an experiment with offer a book for free on smashwords and it got a lot of downloads, but it didn’t translate into sales for the series and no one reviewed it (another reason to offer books for free). So…. This is an individual choice thing. Hasn’t worked for me, but every author’s experience is unique and if it works for you then I think you should do what you must in order to eat.

  6. PolyWogg – I’m not at all sure that we disagree. Clearly you have done a lot of thinking about these questions, while my thinking about promotional strategies in this marketplace is still evolving.

    Interesting that this is the second time I’ve seen a reference to “friction” in a week with regard to consumers buying digital books – or not – the other mention was in Penguin’s decision to stop distributing books through Overdrive.

    Thanks for your thorough and thoughtful reply.


  7. Thanks for commenting, Angelique. Glad to hear that your experience with “free” has been good, too.


  8. LOL Alaina – I, too, am a huge fan of print books, yet to be converted to reading e-books. (I suspect it’s because I look at a computer screen for most of the day.) We should compare TBR piles one of these days…or maybe “ready for a new home” piles would be better.


  9. Thanks Maryann – I’m not sure where pirates get their content, but it makes sense that free content would be more financially feasible for them than paid content. As PolyWogg notes, there are authors who think piracy is a good thing, as it can lead to more readership.

    I think we all have to keep our eyes open in this market, as things are changing quickly. It’s quite exciting, isn’t it?


  10. Melanie – I never pick up free books either, regardless of format, and I wonder whether this is part of the reason using free as a promotion is counter-intuitive to some of us. Over time, I hope we’ll figure out why “free” works when it does, so that we can be more strategic in using it as a marketing tool.


  11. A provocative and thoughtful piece, but I tend to disagree with most of your numbered assertions. I don’t see free promotional ebooks as watering down the market, or making the author any more susceptible to piracy. (Most of my books were up on the pirate sites before they even existed as ebooks–and even the ones that had ebook counterparts were clearly scanned from printed books, not stolen from the ebooks.) As a previous commenter said, if a book is published at all, it’s probably going to be pirated.

    I have used free ebooks to promote my other books with pretty clear success. I don’t mean I’m rolling in dough, but I started a couple of years ago by giving away tens of thousands copies of books, to promote sales of a new title (which was a continuation of an out-of-print series). When I started selling those backlist titles instead of giving them away, sales did not seem harmed by the freebies–in fact, the series was better known because of them. After a while, when I saw sales lagging a bit, I made the first book in the series free again (it is free as I write this). My sales of the following books immediately started rising, and have stayed at the higher level.

    As a book reader, I download lots of free books. I have read and enjoyed many of them; others gather virtual dust on the virtual “to read” pile. I consider it a great way to try out new writers.

    What threatens to overwhelm the market, I think, is not the free books per se, but the flood of substandard books (free or otherwise) that have come in through the open gates. I think it’s mostly good that the publishing gates have opened wider, but there’s no doubt the signal-to-noise ratio has become a challenge we’ve yet to find a good answer to.

  12. You clearly have strong feelings about this, but history has proven most of these arguments wrong.

    Music is further down the road than publishing, but it’s the same road, and musicians in this digital age have found that offering listeners free access to their music often creates fans who later go on to buy the music. Subscription services like Spotify that offer streaming access to music incentivize me to purchase albums from artists I particularly like.

    In the same way, offering free access to e-books gives readers the ability to sample an artists work. For example, I got a free e-book from a YA author (who sells books traditionally too BTW) and I liked it so much that I went on to purchase her other books.

    The argument that offering free e-books leads to rampant piracy is simply not true. Piracy exists. It always will. And the people who are going to steal the book are going to steal it no matter what. If they can’t get their hands on it, they won’t suddenly turn into buying customers. They’ll simply steal a different book. You might think that’s a boon but I’d rather someone steal my book and know who I am than fade into obscurity.

    And you should look to author Cory Doctorow to see the concept done properly. He publishes his books traditionally, but also gives them away via the Creative Commons License. He is another author I discovered by reading a free book. People don’t pirate his books because he gives them away for free. That creates a feeling of goodwill between author and reader that might convert them into a buyer later on.

    Imagine a poor college kid. Can’t afford to buy the book. So he downloads it for free from the author’s website. He loves the book. The next year, when the same author’s next book comes out, the college student has a little extra cash and buys a copy of the book. In the example you set forth, that college student would have NEVER found the author and a future sale would have been lost.

    Many musicians have used the “pay what you can” model to great success. If someone can’t afford the album or simply wants to sample it, they can pay nothing for it. If they like it, they’ll pay more for the next album.

    Authors and publishers and agents are using the specter of piracy to frighten naive people into signing away their rights and chaining content to unnecessary DRM schemes that do little to protect the author and a lot to harm the reader.

    I appreciate a creator’s right to protect their content, but putting bars on all the doors and windows to keep burglars out of your house is stupid if it also keeps out your friends.

  13. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Deborah. I’m going to share this link in my book marketing newsletter this week.

    I have seen several other authors recently comment that they were pleasantly surprised with the results of their free ebook promotions (through Amazon’s KDP Select).

    For more ideas on promoting books by giving books away, your readers may be interested in this article by Vikram Narayan, founder of BookBuzzr Book Marketing Technologies — 7 Ways to Market Your Book by Giving Away Free Stuff

  14. Maybe if I had a backlist, I’d experiment with offering my books for free, but I don’t so I don’t. I am baffled by authors who tout their “bestselling rank” for free downloads. They didn’t SELL anything! I also am baffled by the idea that for years many authors believed they were underpaid for their work by big print publishers and now that they are in charge of their own destiny they are giving their work away. I’ve downloaded a couple of free books and have been disappointed so I’m always wary and haven’t done it in a long time. As my dad always said, if something sounds too good to be true it probably is. Good article, Deborah. Thought provoking whether one agrees or not.

  15. Barb, what many authors are doing is not so different from publishers offering free books or free samples of books in the hopes that will stimulate sales. I agree that some of what is offered for free is not quality work, but others are. There are a lot of us who are taking our backlist books and publishing the e-version ourselves. These are books that have gone through the vetting process of being published in paper by a traditional publisher, and we now have the rights back. Offering the title free for a couple of days does boost sales.