Thursday, February 4

Indie Publishing Paths: What’s Your Pricing Plan? Part Three (The Freebie Option)

By Jami Gold, @JamiGold

Part of the Indie Authors Series

For the last several months, this Indie Publishing Paths series has explored how there’s no “one right way” to self-publish and be successful. The successful indie authors have all made different choices, so rather than worrying about finding the “right” way, we simply want to make the right decision for us.

The previous posts in this series have covered the steps we should go through to understand our options. We first need to figure out our goals and priorities. Then once we’re ready to put our book up for sale, we need to decide on the where (such as whether we use a distributor or we sell direct through a retailer or go exclusive with Amazon’s KDP Select), the when (whether we delay, use a preorder, or go for immediate sales), and the how much (whether we price high, in the middle, or low and whether our pricing strategy is a good match for what we want to accomplish).

Last time, we looked into why we might want to price our book lower than normal ebook prices. Specifically, we talked about the three business-oriented goals that pricing low might help us accomplish:
  • using our low-priced book as a “loss leader” for our other books (introducing our work to more readers, with a potential for more income down the road),
  • hoping our low price leads to more sales (maximizing income), or
  • hoping our low price leads to more exposure and/or better rankings (an amplifier that can lead to more readers or more income).

However, the thought process we have to go through when deciding if free is a good strategy is slightly different than how we choose to price low. Today, we’re going to continue our discussion of pricing strategies by focusing on the pros and cons of offering our work for free.

Why Is Free Different from Low-Priced?

If we charge a low price for our book (meaning, below the normal price or “sweet spot” for that length of book), we’ll still make some income, and we can hope the increased sales for a low-priced book will make up the difference in earnings. However, a goal of income doesn’t apply if we’re pricing a book not just low, but free. After all, zero income added to zero still equals zero.

The only business reason for pricing our book free is if we have long-term plans, such as the loss leader strategy mentioned last time. In other words, we probably should not offer a book for free unless:
  • we don’t care about business-oriented goals (like income) —OR—
  • we have a plan to convert freebie readers into paid readers.

Without that plan to hold on to our freebie readers, pricing a book for free just gives up potential income for no reason.

The Benefit of a Freebie: A Sales Funnel

Over a year ago, I shared insights on my blog from a survey Beverly Kendall conducted that dug into the elements that help maximize income for self-published authors. One of the elements was to offer a book for free, especially if the freebie was related to our other books (such as the first book of a series or a set of books marketed as a series).

From Beverley’s survey, for authors with an income:
  • Under $10K: 32.53% offered a series freebie
  • Over $50K: 68% offered a series freebie
  • Over $500K: 88.24% offered a series freebie

In other words, freebies correlate to higher incomes. This isn’t a surprise, as freebies expose our work to more readers, just like that exposure goal we covered last month—and if those readers like our work, they might buy our other stories.

This approach is known in marketing terms as a sales funnel. We offer something free to the widest possible audience, and then we use the back of our book (where readers who enjoyed our story will be most likely to want more from us) to direct readers to our other stories.

But a Freebie Won’t Help If…

Sales funnels are useful only if we have other books available that we can promote to freebie readers. Freebies don’t do us much good if we don’t have other books in our list to use for turning those freebie-loving readers into paid readers. The benefit applies only if we can use that page right after “The End” to sell the reader something else where we can make money.

The Risks of a Freebie: #1—The Psychology of Free

Psychologically, we appreciate things more when we have to work for them. The survey I ran in 2014 showed that—not surprisingly—people are more likely to read a book if they’ve paid more for it.

If we’re spending $5.99 or more for an ebook, we’re going to make sure it’s not buried in our ereader. For the same reason, we’re not necessarily going to be in a hurry to read a free book. We’re simply not likely to appreciate it as much.

In addition, people tend to assume a correlation between price and quality. Some readers even avoid free and $0.99 books, assuming them to be crap. So a freebie runs the risk of giving readers the impression that our work isn’t worth more money.

Some freebie readers go so far as to leave a more negative review because they don’t respect the book. Many won’t appreciate it because it’s free.

That’s all normal within the psychology of free. We simply need to be prepared for lower-star reviews on free books.

The Risks of a Freebie: #2—The Content of Free

When we’re first starting out, we might not want to make a full-length novel free. A novel takes a long time to write and edit (and likely costs more to pay for editors, as the word or page count increases). Understandably, many authors will offer a short story or novella for free instead. But readers who would enjoy our usual writing aren’t necessarily going to appreciate a shorter work, where plots, characters, and themes aren’t as well developed.

Another issue is that to promote the rest of our work within our freebie, we might include excerpts of another story or several pages of covers and book description blurbs for our other books. That can make readers upset when they reach the end of our free story sooner than they expected—even if our freebie is a full-length novel.

Also, from a reader perspective, before we spend money on a book, we’re going to make sure it’s something we want. We might not do that for a free book.

Between all those issues, we’re more likely to get negative reviews on a free story, complaining that it wasn’t what they expected or wanted. In other words, the negative reviews might not be about an aspect we can control—short of writing a different story.

Weighing the Pros and Cons of Freebies

The main purpose of offering a freebie is to expose our work to more people. Some of those people will like our work and some won’t.

If all our reviews are positive, we might be reaching just our bubble of friends and contacts. It’s the negative reviews that prove we’re reaching a wider reading audience. Sure, some won’t care for our story, writing, etc., but some will.

We each have to decide what risks we’re willing to accept. But if we’re prepared for these risks (and know not to take the negative reviews personally), offering a freebie can give us the chance to reach more potential readers than we could otherwise.

Join me next month when we delve into how we can hang on to readers once they try us out. Until then, let me know if you have any questions in the comments! *smile*

After escaping Area 51 armed only with a ukulele, Jami Gold moved to Arizona and decided to become a writer, where she could put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fortunately, her muse, an arrogant male who delights in causing her to sound as insane as possible, rewards her with unique and rich story ideas.

Fueled by chocolate, she writes paranormal romance and urban fantasy tales that range from dark to humorous, but one thing remains the same: Normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Apple iBooks
| GooglePlay | Kobo | Additional Retailers

About Treasured Claim, the award-winning debut novel of the Mythos Legacy:

A shapeshifting dragon on the verge of starvation…

For Elaina Drake, sparkling jewels aren’t a frivolous matter. Without more treasure for her hoard, she’ll starve. On the run from her murderous father, she’s desperate enough to steal—er, acquire.

A modern-day knight seeking redemption…

Disgusted by his father’s immorality, Alexander Wyatt, Chicago’s biggest corporate titan, is determined to be a man of honor. Yet the theft of a necklace, stolen by an exotic beauty at his latest fundraiser, threatens to destroy all his charitable work.

A predator made prey…

Passion ignites between thief and philanthropist, sparking a game of temptation where jewelry is the prize. But when Elaina’s exposure jeopardizes Alex’s life, she must choose: run again to evade her father—or risk both their lives for love.


  1. I thought long and hard about this when getting ready for my latest release. In the end I decided not to offer a freebie. I have several short stories priced at $.99 and my only other novels are drastically different from the newest one.

    When people have asked me about my style of writing I point them to my fanfictions. I know it's unconventional but it is free and I put just as much time and effort into my fics as I do my original works. To be quite honest, most of my sales are from readers who have transitioned from my fics to my original works. I know this route isn't something that will appeal to very many, but it works for me. ^_^

    1. Great insight! Yes, fan fiction or work on WattPad, etc. could act as that freebie sales funnel as well. :) Thanks for sharing!

  2. Going along with this post today, I just came across this thread comparing the promotional sales of a free book with a 0.99 book:,230495.0.html

    Of course, I want to note, that just as we discussed in Part Two, what we might do for a short-term discount could be different from what we do for a longer term discount, like a permanently free book (permafree). In other words, the decision to go permafree is different from deciding on a short-term promotion.

    For a short-term promotion, we might very well hope to improve ranking and exposure enough to carry through after the price increases. (However, there are complications with that tactic, as Amazon separates rankings of paid books and free books, so a high-ranking free book will lose that exposure when switching back to the paid list. So there are no easy solutions for short-term freebies either.)

    I just wanted to share that there might be additional business considerations that apply for a short-term situation. :)

  3. "If all our reviews are positive, we might be reaching just our bubble of friends and contacts. It’s the negative reviews that prove we’re reaching a wider reading audience. Sure, some won’t care for our story, writing, etc., but some will."

    This statement really rings true. I've just released the 7th book in a series. All have very positive reviews. Sales have been decent all but no big bumps, just little ones from paid promotions. That leads me to believe I'm not reach many outside my bubble, as you put it.

    I recently pulled the 1st book out of the Kindle Select Program and dropped the price to $.99. It's being edited - hard to believe how much telling instead of showing I did - and, once that's done I plan to take it wide and advertise heavily. This post just cemented in my mind that I'm doing the right thing.

    1. I know the feeling. :) It's great to have wonderful reviews, but it's good to expand our readership too. Good luck with your re-release!

  4. Yikes! Now I'm undecided about what to do again. XD The exposure is great and I do want more readers to see my work, but you made a good point that it might also attract a lot of non-target readers. I wouldn't want negative reviews just because the reader doesn't like my type of story, rather than because my storytelling or writing skills are bad... Yet again, you're right that this is a risk that MAY be worth taking if we want it as a loss leader book.

    Er...the only book close the publication I have now, is the book that I already have published but that I made temporarily unavailable so I can make some big changes before I "re-publish" it. This is one of the character backstories to my main series, so it's kind of one of my "first" books. I have another novel done that is also one of these character backstories, but I haven't edited it yet, let alone had any beta readers go through it. ^_^ Well, at least these works are in English so it'll be easier to find beta readers than for my Chinese books...

    Anyhow, when I republish that aforementioned book, I would probably price it at $3.99. When I publish the other book as well, I can make my first published book $0 and this second book $3.99. They're side-quels (happen at around the same time), so neither book precedes the other, but hey, as long as it still has the loss leader effect, lol. I'll need to remember to include links to my other story at the back of the book.

    Oh! I thought of a problem. Since my two books (as well as two other future books) are sidequels, if I price one of them for free, would that imply to the reader that the free book is the least interesting? O_O Of course, I could number my character backstory books 1, 2, 3, 4 anyway even though they occur at around the same time, but the reader will still be made aware that they are side-quels. When readers see that each book features the childhood of one or two of the main characters, then would the free book's featured character be seen as...inferior somehow? Oh the horrors!

    Yes, I could have all four of my sidequel character backstory novels free, but 4 free in a series sounds a little much and I may be unwittingly sending the reader a message that this series is not good. Especially as I'm going to publish the backstory books one at a time and before publishing (and writing) the main series books.

    What do you think of that dilemma?

    1. Hi Serena,

      That's what a good blurb/description is for too, remember. :)

      Yes, some people might just pick up our story But most people will read the description, so the better we are at having that accurately reflect the genre, style, story arc, etc., the less likely we are to get readers who are completely outside of our target market.

      As for series books, many first books in a series are free, so if people know it's from a series, I don't think they'd judge as much for it being free.

      Use titles, subtitles, book descriptions, cover art, etc. to make it obvious they're in a series, and I think you'd be fine. :)

    2. Very true. :) I also heard the tip of making your cover reflect your genre. Well I don't know about that but I'll pick a font that sci-fi usually uses, lol. I also find that when asked to give feedback on a cover, I tend to critique the font but be happy with the image, lol.

    3. Yes, fonts are a bigger part of our cover's overall look than many realize. :)

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  6. Maybe I'm an oddball, but whether I received a book free or paid for it has no bearing on when I read it, whether I like it or what kind of review I post for it. In fact, I tend to read the free ones first so that if I don't like them, I can delete them and replace them--usually with ones I've purchased from an author I do like. I usually purchase my ebooks on Amazon where I can read an excerpt before buying or downloading for free. If the book isn't interesting to me in those pages, my experience has taught me that I won't find it interesting later.

    I have found new authors I like to read by getting their free books and am more than happy to pay for subsequent books if they look enjoyable. The price tag has nothing really to do with it.

    I would just say to write the best book you can, start it in the right place, end it well and you should be able to find readers. Maybe not overnight, but nothing good happens overnight. Usually.

    1. Hi Maurine,

      You're not alone in that. :) I was just sharing people's answers from a survey.

      However, we all know that what people intend ("I paid a lot for this book, but it's okay. I won't let it get buried in my ereader.") and what actually happens might not match. LOL! Thanks for sharing!

  7. Hi Jamie, you and the commenters have certainly given me great information to think about. And thanks, Janice.

    1. You're welcome, Tracy. Just give me a shout if you have any questions. :)

  8. Thank you for your generous offer, Jamie :-)

  9. One factor to consider: Who is your target audience? How do they find books? Where do they look for books?

    If it's a demographic that things free = worthless, then offering a freebie will be shooting yourself in the foot. But offering a freebie also makes readers less likely to actually sit down and read it (because they didn't spend money on it, they might forget they have it even if it's something they want to read!).

    In my case, one of my target demographics can't afford to buy books. That's one of the reasons I post full novels on Wattpad. If someone can only afford freebies, then they won't be able to read the full series.

    I'm also in a niche where folks generally want to see how I handle things before they decide to buy or not. [shrug] Makes sense. And folks need to read something like 3 novels by an author to be likely to remember the series exists, so my focus needs to be on getting folks to read those 3 (and on finishing the writing of the series). Making the first book free will be more effective once I have all 6/7 novels done, so I'm gonna be bumping up the price soon when I get around to it. Folks can still read free on Wattpad, and it'll make the 3-in-1 omnibus a better deal. Win/win! :-)

    1. Hi Carradee, Yes, great point about target audience!

      Some genres have definitely used freebies (especially of first in a series) more than others, which can affect those expectations. And as you said, niches can do even more to affect our decisions. Thanks for chiming in and good luck with your plans! :)

  10. we have a plan to convert freebie readers into paid readers.

    Or into an indie editor. Someone paying a full scale commercial edition. Or half scale or whatever.