Is Free Always Good?

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by Jordyn Redwood

Recently, I read a blog post that theorized Amazon may be leaning toward doing away with free Kindle downloads. You can read that post here.

When I was growing up my mother used to tell me, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” At that point in my youth, the phrase was to extol the virtues of abstinence but I think it applies in this area as well.

First, why is it a good idea to give away books for free?

Biggest reason-it allows people to take a chance on you and your novel without risking money. I do think it is particularly helpful for debut novelists who are trying to build a readership base. Word of mouth is the main marketing technique that grows readership but the difficulty becomes just that-getting a reader to take a chance on you as a relative unknown. Hopefully, when they do download your novel for free they read it and love it (versus letting it hibernate in their Kindle) and they’ll tell someone else or loan them that copy.

Rinse. Repeat.

Evidently, Amazon feels they are losing revenue. Of course they are. But evidently they feel they are losing too much money.

From my perspective, in lieu of the above which I do think is a benefit, I think often times readers are holding out on novels they would normally buy from authors they like waiting for the free download. My hope would be that readers understand that purchasing a novel really does help an author. It builds sales. Sales make an author look attractive to publishers-the one they’re working with or to a bigger publisher down the road. The risk of not purchasing books is that the author may not be able to traditionally publish again.

I think there is a better way to utilize free downloads and if I could change the system-I would do this.

1. Publisher and author working together. Honestly, why does Amazon get to have all the fun? When a novel is downloaded for free on Amazon the benefit to the author is the hope that someone will read it and love it and maybe increase ranking so other eyes will see the novel, too. However, I think anyone should be leery of claiming top seller status from a free download list. A better avenue would be for the publisher to give the author the e-file that the author could then offer on their website (for a limited time) in return for something like signing up for a newsletter, following a blog and/or placing the book on their social media sites. Help the author get something from the free download.

2. Consider only offering the first book in the series for free. This is hard for me to even write as I do see the value in the free download but I think this would also allow people to check the author out but develop the expectation that that’s the one opportunity. After this freebie-the rest of the trilogy can only be bought. I think also offering e-books for a lower cost could help generate better sales.

3. Consider offering the debut book when another is released in the trilogy. Again, in conjunction with a contest or marketing event that will increase exposure for the author.

What about you? Have you or your publisher given your book away for free? Do you think it helped build a readership? What are some strategies you think would make better use of a free download than just giving it away on Amazon?

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Jordyn Redwood is a pediatric ER nurse by day, suspense novelist by night. She hosts Redwood’s Medical Edge, a blog devoted to helping contemporary and historical authors write medically accurate fiction. Her first two novels, Proof and Poison, garnered starred reviews from Library Journal and have been endorsed by the likes of Dr. Richard Mabry, Lynette Eason, and Mike Dellosso to name a few. You can connect with Jordyn via her website at

Comments 0

  1. I suspect that the free downloads rarely work out well. The perception from the reader is that it’s free because it’s not good enough to be sold. That perception alone could tarnish an author’s reputation. Don’t we always assume (right or wrong) that the more something costs the better it is? I think a better tact is to offer the first few chapters free. If you get the reader to the hook or first plot point, then they’ll be willing to pay for the rest.

  2. I stalked the free download list on Amazon for a long time just because I was too poor to buy a ton of books only to read them once. (My assumption of course was that I would read them once.) But from the other side as an author, I don’t know that I would put my book on free download merely because I know my mindset held no loyalty to the authors. I read the book for the joy of reading a story and escaping into the world of fiction, not because I found an author I liked. Not an encouraging mindset, I realize, but also just what I did for the joy of reading.

  3. Jordyn, My previous publisher had–and still has–the policy of regularly offering some of their novels as free downloads for Kindle, Nook, and e-books. They say they have survey figures to back up this practice, even showing me the spike in purchases from a particular bookseller afterward.

    My current publisher will at times offer e-books at a reduced price, but never free, saying that their research has shown this to be much more effective than free downloads.

    My opinion? I don’t have any control over what they do, so I just keep writing books hoping someone else will publish them. If I ever join the indie, self-pubbing revolution, I’ll have to make a choice. For now, I remain what I call a “fearless non-combatant.”

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  4. I enjoyed your post, Jordyn! This is a topic I’ve thought about and discussed with fellow authors.

    Three months after my novel released, my publisher made it available for free download for 24 hours. Based on my observation, offering it for free gave the book a tremendous boost both in word of mouth and also in sales numbers in the weeks following the freebie period. I clearly understand how and why free downloads are beneficial to an author in the short term. What gives me pause, though, is the long term. I worry that this huge wave of free e-books is hurting our whole industry: publishers, brick & mortar bookstores, online bookstores, and authors.

    I went to a seminar at the ACFW conference about numbers in the CBA and they said that our sub-genre gives away more books that any other sub-genre in all of publishing. I have noticed a slowing of the give-aways in recent months, however, so perhaps our publishers are making an adjustment and coming more in line with what the market can bear.

  5. Ron– that’s an interesting thought I hadn’t heard before– it’s free because it’s not good. I wonder if that’s a perception among most readers.

    Christy– hmmm– so even if you liked the book it didn’t cause you do buy the author’s other works?

    Richard– I hear this a lot too that offering the book for free leads to a spike in sales. I thing that’s probably true if it ups in the rankings and then is offerred for a lower price. Don’t know how it translantes into sustaining readers.

    Becky– good thoughts. I’m becoming of the mindset that perhaps what the larger publishers are doing is better– offering the novel for a deep discount for a short period. I think there is more of a chance that if I buy a novel– I will actually read it.

    Great thoughts everyone.

  6. Hi Jordyn! I did a giveaway at the last minute on Super Bowl Sunday, and made it to #2 in the free store for satires. I gave away a bunch of books and have gotten two reviews out of the deal as well, so far. Small #s I know, but when you’re unkown and have a low budget (OK, almost no budget)…

  7. I think the most effective way I’ve seen this used is when a debut novelist writes a novella/short story tying into their upcoming release, as Jen Turano did. I tried her novella, loved it, and put her novel on my “must buy” list. It also helped sell a few of her books because my co-workers and I (small indie bookstore) were able to point out the book to customers, rave about the author’s writing, and recommend the prequel to get them hooked as well.
    On the flip side, when an author/series keeps showing up on that freebie list, purchasing their books gets bumped way down my priority list, if not taken off altogether. And, as we have a limited customer base at work and many of them read both ebooks and actual books, our store tends to be more hesitant in purchasing books that show up for free on Kindle.

  8. So I’m a little late on this, but I thought that I would chime in on free eBoooks. I think it can be a great tool if used correctly, but I have a bunch of books on my NOOK that I will probably never get around to reading, much less buy more of the author’s work.

    I was introduced to Erynn Mangum because of her free books. She has two series and offered the first books of each series for free I different times. I picked up both free books and went on to read the rest of the series at full price, which is rare for the bargain shopper I am. I also am eagerly awaiting Lisa T. Bergren’s sequel to “Glamorous Illusions” because I read the free book and loved it.

    But there are some authors I will probably never read, and I have their entire series. I don’t want to specifically name anyone (but you can quickly cross two names off the list). I received the series free and for some reason after I got them all for free, I was not eager to read them. And, what may be worse, since I received so many books from a specific author or two for free, I am reluctant to buy any more of those author’s books because I keep waiting to see if they go free or on a really good sale. Most of the time, I forget I have some of these books. In fact, I remember the books I pay for and will more likely read one of those over a free one.

    In my opinion, Susie May Warren’s team (now you can cross a third name off the list) does it best. They offered one, maybe two, of her books for free over the past couple years, and her books hardly ever go on sale. So when they do I am sure to buy them. I love her style of writing, so I’ll even pay full price for a book of hers if it fits into my budget.

    Of course, I like Janice Thompson’s team too. Her books are at very good prices that I can afford and not worry that I overpaid if it goes on sale later. She has books at different price points, so there is always something a reader can afford. My budget appreciates it.

  9. As a reader, I love all these free books. I’m a couple hundred books behind on my reading now, but I’ll catch up by the end of the year.
    A very few of the free books have introduced me to writers I have fallen in love with. Those few I have gone on to purchase books from. Most I read or started to read, thought “meh” and deleted.
    If the first few paragraphs are intriguing and well-written, I’ll readily buy it for .99 or 1.99. If I already know the writer, I’ll even spring for 2.99. When the price goes above three dollars, I begin to hesitate. I won’t buy any ebooks above five dollars unless I really, really want the book. Above five dollars I want something to hold in my hand beside pixels.
    Since I spend hundreds on books every year (mostly from Better World Books, Goodwill, and the local book store) I am always looking for the bargain. I am probably an author’s nightmare.
    And yes, I sometimes wait for the book to go on free. I can wait while I read lots of other stuff.
    There are a few authors that I will pre-order the hardback copy. There are a few authors whose books I liked enough to buy paperback versions to give as gifts.
    I don’t think I am the only greedy reader out there.
    As a writer, I hope my publisher does not have free days for my books. I think most people can handle .99 for a promotion for an ebook. I hope my books will be sold for around 2.99 for the ebook. I do think too many free books “ruin” the market.
    I’ve been spending a lot of money buying books to send to Rwanda to build up some elementary school libraries. Sometimes I wonder if I should bother since schools there may soon have one laptop per child computers. And then I remember that most Rwandans do not have electricity.
    This is a fast, fast changing world. I don’t know if anybody really knows what is next. And I wish I could be authoritative (snicker) about ebooks and what kind of pricing structure works best.

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