Thursday, January 19, 2017

Free Books: The Dilemma

By Jana Oliver, @crazyauthorgirl

Part of the Indie Authors Series

My blog post this month came from a chance encounter on Facebook, that source of profound conversations, and cat videos. The topic was indie authors giving away their books for free, or at a greatly reduced price, like 99 cents. The poster urged her fellow authors to hold the line, to not hand over one's work for little or nothing. She felt that by doing so we were devaluing our creativity, that we don’t think our books are worth the time, effort and tears we put into them. She further argued that top-selling authors don’t discount their books and readers still buy them. Some of the comments under the post agreed with that line in the sand, though those same posters admitted to using 99 cents or free promotions every now and then. The difference was whether the book was reduced for a longer period of time, or indefinitely.

Usually I would have skipped by this post, but recently I put the first Chandler Steele book (CAT'S PAW) perma free on five e-book retailers (iBooks, Amazon, Kobo, GooglePlay and Nook). This was after it was in Kindle Select for a few months and participated in Kindle Unlimited. When KU really didn't do much to build readership, despite a rather robust schedule of blog and Facebook posts, I decided to branch out to the other retailers. If you're interested in how I went about launching my pseudonym, check out my posts Hitting the Reboot Button: How to (Re)Launch Your Career (Part One and Part Two).

I'll be honest, I really have issues giving away a 330+ page book that took me months to write, a labor of love which cost me quality time with my spouse and friends, plus funds for a professional cover and editing services. I didn't have as much of a twinge of my conscience when I reduced a couple of my books to 99 cents for BookBub promotions, but the free thing bugs me. Because it does send the message that books aren't worth much. Even worse are those authors who bundle ten, twenty or more of their own books together (I saw one with 28 books the other day) and give them away for free, or at just under a buck. The message is received, whether we know we’re sending it or not.

That being said, I indulge in free books via BookBub on a regular basis, mostly because I’m a voracious reader (300+ books per year). Many of those freebies are the only book I’ll read from a particular author because the quality of the writing, or the premise, didn’t compel me to continue into the series. Still, there are some authors that I love so much I went on and on, buying every one of their books at FULL PRICE. And their backlist, too, because I knew the quality of the story they would deliver, and knew it was something I would enjoy.

Costco readily understands this marketing strategy: Put those tasty pizza bites on a tray, offered by a cheery lady in an apron, and you’ll give them a try. If you like that sample, you’ll buy a box or two to take home. Books, though my creative soul cringes at this thought, are products just like those mini pizza nibbles.

But even me, who writes for a living, occasionally hesitates at a $4.99 price point because I’ve been “programmed” to see that as a “high” number. I fear this mindset is not reversible, either. In my case, I give myself a stern lecture and buy the book, because authors have to make a living too. But the low, or free, price point does affect one’s perceptions (or at least it does mine.)

Since I’m just now dipping my toes in this particular pond, I asked a veteran of perma free promotions, Tawdra Kandle, a multi-published author and co-convention chair of Indie Book Fest, about her experiences.

Here’s her strategy:
“I’ve been using loss leader books for the last four years. Initially, I set those books as free, and that was effective for a while. My protocol was to release a series over the course of 6 months to a year, depending on my other releases scheduled. Once the third book was in pre-release, I would drop the price of the first in that series to free and arrange accompanying paid newsletter promotion (BookBub, Free Booksy, Robin Reads, Ereader News Today, etc.). The idea was that I’d reach a new pool of readers with the freebie, while the sell-through of the subsequent books in that series would make up for the loss of income from the free book.”
Unfortunately, over time, her readers came to anticipate that price drop and waited to buy the book. Some even commented that paying $3.99 is too much to spend.
Nowadays Tawdra is more inclined to drop the price of the first book to 99 cents, since it appeared that often free books didn’t receive the same reading priority as those that actually cost money. Instead of relying on paid promotions, she’s offering a free book to those who sign up for her newsletter. In so doing, she’s built a robust mailing list and has found a better ROI (return on investment) than with the paid promotions. I’m guessing this is because her core readership, those folks who really love her books, are also her newsletter subscribers.

Author and self-publishing guru Mark Dawson’s success with perma free promotions has been covered in his podcasts. In fact, at the top of his website he offers a free Facebook ads video, his “gateway drug” into his paid courses and, by extension, his books. He eagerly uses his freebies to drive sign-ups to his newsletter. In some cases, new subscribers buy his boxed sets during the sign up procedure. Despite the Facebook poster’s beliefs, Mark is a prime example that bestselling authors DO discount their books, and to great effect.

One immediate benefit I’ve noticed with the 400+ downloads on Amazon is an steady increase in reviews. I’d doubled the number (from a staggering three to six) in the matter of a couple weeks. In that regard alone, it’s been helpful as some of the promotional sites require a minimum number of reviews. I am also noticing a few readers are progressing onto the next books in the series, but so far not at the numbers I’d like to see. I may consider adding a sample chapter of the second book as back matter to entice readers into pushing that Buy link.

Clearly, there are pluses and minuses to the free/reduced decision, as noted above. Some authors do fine never chopping a dime off their books. Others, especially new ones, find discounting brings additional benefits besides readers. As to the argument that discounting our work is teaching readers it’s not worth anything, we’re way past that point. They’d learned that lesson well, from Walmart’s loss leaders to Costco’s food samples.

At this point, I don’t feel that limiting your pricing choices is wise, but then again, it all depends on your situation. I will continue to use perma free judiciously until it no longer serves its purpose, wincing as I do so. I’ll report back every now and then to let you know how that’s playing out.

I’m keen to hear your experiences with heavy discount pricing. And as always, feel free to ask questions. 

An international bestseller and the recipient of over a dozen major awards, Jana Oliver often laments that there are far too many stories inside her head at any given moment.

Best known for her young adult Demon Trappers series, she writes what intrigues her, and spends a good deal of time fretting about whether demons actually exist.

When not wandering around the internet researching exorcisms, or posting on social media (eerily similar, those two), Jana can be found in Atlanta with her very patient husband, and a rapidly dwindling collection of single malt Scotch.

Jana Oliver | Chandler Steele | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound |

About Cat's Paw

After five years in a Louisiana prison, Alex Parkin desperately wants to start over. Even more, he craves revenge against Vladimir Buryshkin, the New Orleans drug lord who framed him for cocaine possession. The second he walks out of prison, Alex is a wanted man, both by the Russian mob, and by Veritas, a private security firm that claims to be "on his side." When his sister is brutally beaten, he has to choose: Join forces with Veritas, or let Buryshkin destroy his family.

Because of the Russian mobster, Morgan Blake lost both her husband, and her career at the FBI. Now working with Veritas, she's eager to take Buryshkin down. So eager, she's willing to do anything to make that happen, even sacrificing a certain ex-con, if needed.

As a load of tainted cocaine hits New Orleans' streets, the body count quickly rises. To prevent more deaths, and a potential drug war, Morgan and Alex must learn that revenge comes at too high a price, and that love always has its own agenda.


  1. When I started buying paperback books, new off the shelf at Coles or WH Smith, most were $1.25 to $1.75. I'm not sure why the difference. I still have some of them. I just looked at one of the most recent paperback that came into the house, and it's $10.99. But after books and apps, what other product is given away free in it's entirety? That food-like pizza thing you mentioned is just a bite, not the whole thing. Electronics are cheap and getting cheaper, but they don't give them away. Even software that's "free" is often a trial version with various limitations until you buy it. Yet people complain that $1.99 is "too much" for a book. I'm not sorry, but screw you. A decent sized cup of civilized coffee costs more. I take the position that giving it away devalues the product in general, and teaches people to expect free. Give away a sample, "Read the first chapter of my new book free!" and include a link right there where they can buy the rest at whatever price you think is appropriate. But enough with the free.

    1. I hear you, Keith. I'd pay more for a cup of coffee at Starbucks. And yes, those pizza bites are samples, not the whole thing. I've tried first chapters, and often it does hook a reader. Given my experiment with CAT'S PAW, I'm inclined to go with Tawdra's idea -- the 99 cents option -- because of the mental sorting readers do that somehow places Free further down on the TBR pile.

  2. As a reader, when I find an author I love (free, discounted, or regular price), I load up on the back list, and I stay loyal. UNLESS one of two things happen. The quality of the work declines and/or the prices go up. One of my favorite authors (who I won't name) has done both, and now that I'm in the middle of two of her series, I won't buy new releases, at least not until the prices drop a year later. It makes me feel taken advantage of when eBooks cost almost as much as (or more than) paperbacks.

    As an author, I use and understand loss leaders. They can be beneficial, especially when you aren't a well known writer. But you raise a great point, Jana (through Tawdra), using them as newsletter builders is especially effective.

  3. I think that's probably the strongest approach (using free or heavily-discounted loss leaders to build newsletter lists.) I'm willing to pay a bit more money for a favorite author, but the quality has to be there or I back off. Which makes me incredibly sad.

  4. An interesting and never-ending debate! Personally, I find comparing a bestselling author's marketing to that of a new or indie author to be an apples-to-oranges situation--a bestselling author has earned reader credibility on quality at a mass market scale, whereas the indies have to earn trust still. I think freebies are a great way to do that--as long as you use those freebies to build a relationship with readers! Also, I don't give away full novels for this--I write novellas specifically to create these trust-building sales funnels. Right now I used one as an incentive to join my email list, and I intend to write a second as KU exclusive freebie as another way to introduce new readers. These works are part of the greater universe of my ongoing series, so they are specifically designed to both build that reader trust but also whet appetites for more of the series.

    I guess to me the bottom line is, free is good--but only when used very strategically.

    1. That's going to be my approach. It just seems prudent.

  5. Some authors have success writing a prequel novella or short story to offer as their freebie. I've seen piles of them on the reader sites.

    As more of a reader than a writer these days, I belong to close to a dozen freebie and book sale lists. I read close to 200 books a year, and, of those, I may start buying the rest of the series of maybe 3-6 books. Those series have to feed my particular cravings, be well-written, and unique enough not to be same-old, same-old. So, yes, freebies work in my case but very rarely.

    1. Sadly I don't have one of those. I should, but I haven't written it yet. It would have made sense to to that. I could offer my third book as free (it's a novella). It's a standalone, but some of it works better once you've read the first two.

  6. As a reader, I try to buy new books from my favourite authors at cost price, although I find that I can no longer read them all at the speed they write. I find new authors, either from low cost/freebies and tend to subscribe to their newsletters. I also try to review everything I read, but due to ill-health I have a backlog.

    As a writer, my debut novel/eBook stayed at $4.99 since the publisher didn't believe in dropping the price. Sadly, sales were low even with good reviews and I now have the rights back. Maybe, I will consider using that as a loss leader IF the sequel or anything else of mine is published.

    1. Glad to hear you have the rights back. That gives you so many more options.

    2. Doing a final re-edit - noting the reviewers comments - before submitting to another publisher. Final option will be self-publishing as medical bills come first.