Chip MacGregor

December 1, 2014

Is giving away free books a good strategy?


An author in the UK wrote to ask this: “I see a bunch of books on Amazon selling for almost nothing (and sometimes being given away for nothing). How does an author make money with that sort of thing?” 

And several people have written to ask, “If a used book is selling for a penny online, is anyone making money?” 

A note on giveaway books: You’re not making anything. You are trying to use free giveaways as a means of building a readership. In other words, you’re hoping that having the publisher give away copies of your novel will make them fall in love with your story, your characters, or your voice, and that those readers will go purchase copies of other books that will earn you something. So a giveaway is really a marketing strategy — a bonus, introducing your work to readers.

Brazilian author Paulo Coelho used this strategy effectively in the early day of the Kindle, and found thousands willing to download his book. That built a readership that continues to buy his works, and it’s a strategy others have used effectively. BUT it’s not a magic formula. Giving away free books is no guarantee that readers will buy your other works — in fact, there’s a growing sentiment among publishers that readers with kindles often have dozens of free books downloaded that they may never read. The books were simply downloaded because they were free, and “free” is something people like to see. They’ll pick up a free book and let it hang around, though they may or may not ever read it.

The problem is one of value — If you get something for free, does it have any value to you? I see a lot of authors who give away free books on the web but don’t seem to have any sort of strategy to use that to their advantage. More than selling books, I think it’s an ego thing… they like seeing their name on a cover, they want SOMEONE to read their work, so they offer it for free and hope others pick it up and read it.

For a professional author, a free book (or a new book offered at an incredibly low price) is there to serve as a sales strategy: A reader picks up a free short story or novella, is introduced to a character, and then is given an opportunity to purchase more books with that character. Or a reader is offered the first book in a series at a very low price, they like the story, and hopefully purchase the rest of the books in that series. But the economics are tough — you invest a lot of time and money in a book, and you make nothing. You have to take the long view and hope it turns into sales of other products.

By the way, I frequently get asked about all those one-cent used books for sale on Amazon. Obviously, an author is making nothing on the sale of used books, since royalties are only paid on new sales. And if the e-tailer is selling a book for a penny, they’re just dumping it, and hoping to make a bit of income on the inflated $3.99 “shipping and handling” charge.

Have you used free books as a strategy in your writing career? Has it worked well for you? Would love to hear your stories in the “comments” section.

Got a question about writing and publishing? We’re going to be doing our “ask the agent” segment again this month, so send us your questions!

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  • Preston Brad Rentz says:

    Chip, I completely agree. My philosophy is, if you really believe in your product, it’s worth a price. Because If I really believe in the validity or value of something, I’m more than willing to pay good money for it. Thanks for writing about this. My publisher has suggested give-away’s, but i didn’t quite trust that approach. And those who like my book, or are curious about it’s content, have no problem paying for it. Besides, give-away’s can wreak
    of desperation.

  • Insightful post, Chip. Your thoughts on the perceived value of a free item are true. I have downloaded a lot of free books on my e-reader, but I haven’t read all of them. Paying for a book creates commitment from the reader, in my opinion. However, as you said and from Randy’s comments, free books can work if they are part of a solid marketing strategy.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Totally agree, Preslaysa. (And what a cool name.) I’m the same way — I’ve downloaded several free books to my Kindle, but not read many of them. Yet I tend to always read the books I pay for. Something to consider.

  • I have a question for your “ask the agent” segment. When an author has
    queried an agent for a project and she gets a response that says this is
    not right for their list at that time, should she refrain from sending
    that same agent a query with a subsequent project?

    Thank you for taking our questions.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      My quick take: If I say that, I’m not declining the author forever. In fact, if I like the writing, I may very well add, “But feel free to send something else when it’s ready.” Like all agents, I’m in the market for good writers and good projects. Saying no to one may not mean I’m saying no forever. Does that help, Saloma?

    • It helps a lot. Thanks, Chip.

  • I’ve had mixed results with giving away books. I think giving away signed hard copies in person is the most effective because for nearly every book you give away, you have another ambassador for the book. But it’s tricky… maybe I’m giving away the one book that person would have bought, had I not given it to her. Obviously the purpose of giveaways is for reviews and sales because of them.

    And this is precisely my problem with Amazon giving away certain products without the author’s permission. Agreements are often forged with the publishers and the author is the last to know of it. I noticed the other day that Amazon has a note on the audiobook for “Why I Left the Amish” ($17.95 or free). In fine print it reads, “Free with Audible 30-day free trial.” They are wanting people to purchase their Audible program, and they are using many of our products to do so. We authors don’t benefit, Amazon does. Just ten years ago, this would have been considered a copyright infringement. Interesting what we get used to… slowly over time.

    I think some publishers are very good at reaching a target audience with their giveaways, and others are more random about it. Random doesn’t work so well, as several people here pointed out. Without any investment, the reader may download it without a conscious desire to read that particular book. At least when I borrow a book from the library, I’ve invested the conscious thought and effort to order it and go pick it up and then return it afterwards.

    Thanks, as always for addressing relevant issues for authors.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Excellent thoughts, Saloma. And yes, the issue of Amazon making money while the authors are NOT making money is a real concern for many. Their new Kindle Unlimited program is making a lot of money for them, but authors everywhere are complaining about declining revenues. Appreciate you coming on to share your thoughts with us!

    • Chip, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for your thoughts on the Amazon issue.

  • Randy Ingermanson says:

    Sure, Chip, a free e-book strategy can work very well. Back in May, I finally got my City of God series posted as e-books on all the major retailers. The first novel, TRANSGRESSION, was one I sold to you, Chip, back when you were an editor at Harvest House. The two sequels were books you sold to Zondervan when you were my agent. Those books lived out their lives and seemed to be dead–they were published from 2000 to 2004 and were long out of print.

    But in early June, I finally got Amazon to make the first one in the series permanently free. That same day, sales of the two sequels increased by a factor of 10 and continued climbing over the summer. The numbers peaked in August when I did a BookBub ad on the free book, and sales have been edging down since then. (What goes up must come down.)

    Some hard numbers: I’ve now given away more than 90,000 free copies and have earned a bit over $13k combined on the two sequels. This is not huge money, but it’s far better than they were doing before. I spent about $1350 on the new covers and a few hundred dollars in ads on BookBub and a few other places. But most of the marketing has happened on its own. My free book has also garnered an extra 350 reviews (it had gotten only 44 reviews in the first 14 years, and the 350 new ones have come in the last 6 months.)

    The permafree strategy is used by most of the successful indie authors I know. “Successful” means they are earning at least five figures per year. Some are earning six figures. And a couple are earning seven figures.

    We should be clear that a free book is not an instant ticket to fame and fortune. The quality needs to be there. (The book I’m giving away free won a Christy award in 2001.) If the quality is good, then free can attract many potential readers. Some small fraction of those will be in your target audience, and they will happily buy the other books in your series.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      EXcellent! Really happy to see you join the conversation and tell your story, Randy. (For those who don’t know, Randy Ingermanson’s site is a treasure trove of helpful information and resources for writers.) And great of you to reveal some numbers — as you know, I struggle with all the “post the book and make millions” crud that we see too often from ebook acolytes. So I find this helpful and instructive. Thanks for sharing from your wisdom. And for those who have yet to discover Randy’s writing, go get your free copy of TRANSGRESSION, which is a wonderful read.

  • I have definitely found some fave new authors via their free books. The key with free books, I think, is READING the sample chapters/blurb first. Sadly, many will download free books willy-nilly and then give 1-star reviews because they had no clue what genre it was, that there were Christian views, etc. So that can hurt an author. On the other hand, authors reach a VERY wide audience when they go free…an audience they may not be able to reach otherwise (even in CBA circles–freebies reach a crossover audience). Those with a high number of Amazon reviews (unless they are NYT bestsellers like Gone Girl, etc.) are often the books that have gone free for a while or are permafree (permanently free). Permafree books are highly effective if you have a series. I have heard of many who have bought an author’s other books in the series because they were “hooked’ in by the first free book. So it can be a very effective strategy if you know how to capitalize on it, I believe.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yeah, that’s correct, Heather. Perma-free is proving to be effectively in getting readers started on a story. Good reminder to read the sample, by the way!

  • Danika Cooley says:

    I read once on your blog (several years ago) that giving away quality material on a blog was a good way to build readership. That strategy is working well for me. I wrote a three year curriculum for the market I feel is most likely to appreciate my work with traditional publishers and made it available for blog subscribers to download weekly for free. My email list grows consistently and the topic of the curriculum is one I feel strongly about, so it is a joy to me to see it used.

    I packaged the same curriculum as full-year downloads and made it available for sale. Each year download is substantial at around 450 pages and having it all together is convenient for readers. During curriculum season I make a good income–on work I am already giving away in another format.

    I think the drawback is, as you mentioned, all the time and energy applied to a product that is given away. I’ve been working on building a platform through this free work for several years and have just recently seen the fruit of all that work. I am anxious to finish so I can start writing all the books I have dreams of publishing traditionally. Given my experience with the curriculum, I don’t think I’d think twice about giving away books occasionally. 🙂

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Danika. And you’re right– a couple years ago I was bullish on giving away content. But then everybody started doing it, and it lost some of its effectiveness. Still, nice to hear it’s working for you (and recent blog participant Jenny B Jones said that same thing, that it’s working well for her). So using the concept judiciously is probably the right approach. Appreciate you sharing your story.

  • I’m not published yet so I haven’t had any experience with giving away books.
    However, I have had experience with being on the purchase end. Most of the time, Kindle freebies I pick up end up staying on the Kindle unread until I get bored.
    However, in two cases, after reading the first free book, and then having my younger brother read it, we went on to buy five more books by the same author. (Jill Williamson was one of these authors.) This leads me to believe that giving away the first book in a series in hopes of gaining readers is a good marketing strategy, and one I plan to use if I do publish a series.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Jill Williamson is a great writer, so you chose well, Jessi. Thanks for coming on to comment.

  • Christa Kinde says:

    I created three short stories for my Threshold series, and Zonderkidz e-published them in fine style, with full-color illustrations. These companion stories are a marketing tool, so they’re free … and include a sample chapter from the full series. I’m sure the publisher’s goal with these is garnering new readership.

    Serials happen to be my strong suit, and I always have one or two underway. Posting stories on my blog allows me to interact with my regulars. I like giving them a reason to drop in. The goal with these has certainly been relationship. (And it’s fun!)

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