Free: Still A Bargain

There is a free lunch, but some would have you believe it’s not good for you… because it’s free. Most people on IU, I’m guessing, are pretty comfortable with some version of the idea that you can sell more books by giving some away.

But not everybody out there in “writer web world” is and some even take it to the next step: moronic denial. Some examples of the arguments one runs into—and should beware of paying serious attention to:

You get what you pay for. I’m sure you’ve seen that said in discussions of freebies: that price actually establishes the worth and quality. Aside from the obvious objection (well, not obvious to all, I guess) that reducing a ten buck book to free or 99 cents doesn’t change its content, there’s a haunting idea that such thinking would mean that a guy would get a better experience paying money for what he gets from his wife for free.

Pricing establishes value and you need to value your work or nobody else will. And if you spend years making something, it must be worth a lot. Okay, most buyers aren’t stupid enough to think that a discount erodes value. But beyond that, the idea is practically un-American. Capitalism holds that price and value of goods is determined by consumer demand. The theory that value of goods is determined by the amount of labor that went into them is called “Marxism”. And we’ve all seen how well that idea worked out.

The flood of free and cheapie books on the market degrades the value and income of quality writing. You see this said a lot, oddly enough; often applied to indie books in general. A flood of crap competes unfairly with the good stuff. You know, the way all those Korean cars on the market bring down the value of Maseratis and Rolls.

Free stuff won’t pay off in the long run. Well… back in the Seventies a new kind of newspaper appeared in almost all American cities: the free weekly. In most cities they are now the most read and most profitable. The money, it turns out, isn’t in collecting quarters, it’s in selling ads in big circulation media. And one way to look at your free book is as a free advertising medium for your other books and your name recognition.

If these seem like goofy arguments to you, it’s great you’re not an idiot. But there are even loopier arguments: dozens of them in one Linked In discussion alone—the never-ending thread entitled: “For The Sake Of Writers Everywhere, Please STOP this!” You name it: appeal to artistic responsibility (yeah, art is valued by money), the evil of bringing down prices of established writers, get what you pay for, not with all my hard work, yada, yada. What emerges is a polarization between writers who have never tried using freebies, but are dead set against it because it seems too unnatural and wicked… and those who report using them to sales advantage, and therefore tend to take the view that they work.

The whole concept that it’s important to place high financial values on things that are important to your soul and self-expression, but it’s better to pay for it than not because price isn’t based on what people will pay, but what you think they should pay because of all the work you put into expressing yourself, is abroad and staunchly defended. Even though it’s patently nuts.

All of which ignores the real issue with using freebies and cheapies, which is not an economics thesis, but a marketing tool used around the world from punchcards to happy hours to one cent sales to most of Wal-Mart. But beyond that, is a very special tool when viewed in the context of the “Amazon ecosystem”. Freebies unlock the door to steps in a process of getting discovered. Sure, best-sellers don’t have to give away books… but they do. I have around a hundred free Kindle books from best-selling authors. Paul Levine almost always has one from his large catalog online for free. Warren Adler does freebies several times a year. T. Jefferson Parker recently gave away a title—and on BookBub, meaning he or his publisher paid $240 to give it away. Are they stupid? No, they understand how it works. Freebies build recognition.

One thing to keep in mind is that people can read for free in many ways. Libraries, for one. Piracy, for another. Used bookstores—freebies from the writer’s standpoint—are another. And the answer to all of these as well as to volunteer, “leveraged” freebies is the same as far as indie writers are concerned. To quote Cory Doctorow, “The problem isn’t piracy; it’s obscurity.” Replace “piracy” with any way that people get your book in their hands. We hear talk of “building platforms”, of yakking on social media to get recognition. What could do that more powerfully than a person actually owning one of your books?

Add to that the “ecosystem” approach of building reviews in order to gain access to all the Amazon-centered newsletters and suggestion sites/mailings, and freebie/cheapies start to shine as a great idea—at the right price. Freebies and “Countdown” discounts can be of significant value when used in a conscientiously applied program of oral hygiene and best use/abuse of the “Amazon ecosystem”. To see a ten point progression on how to apply that to your books (and learn what the hell “Amazon ecosystem” means, contact me at My Website to get a free copy of my pdf, “MS To Market”, prepared for my talk at the West Coast Writing Conference.

Author: Lin Robinson

Linton Robinson was born in occupied Japan, schooled in Asia, and is now a 20 year resident of Latin America. Robinson is an award-winning journalist and noted photographer, with credits in top markets. His syndicated columns were cult favorites in the nineties. Learn more at his blog and his Amazon author page.

39 thoughts on “Free: Still A Bargain”

  1. I know that particular thread, and so many times I wanted to shout, “Get a grip.”
    Our work is a brand and if you don’t market your brand you can just stick it back in a trunk. Freebies draw attention plain and simple. It seems to work for Tide, Olay, major cereal brands etc. I have never seen anyone say, “No, no I don’t want it, its free uh huh not me.”
    Free doesn’t devalue your work. Good post Lin, thanks.

  2. Sorry, Lin, but I must disagree with this post. There are so many FREE books out there that no one has to BUY one anymore. I’m one of those authors who is firmly against freebies.

    1. I think I mentioned that there are two different groups of writers on this issue. You obviously aren’t in the “, understand it, tried it and it worked” group.
      One specific reply: if nobody has to buy books any more, why are ebook sales on the rise?

      1. Actually, I am in the ‘Tried it and it did nothing for me” group. I gave away over 8000 copies in two free days and that got me a few sales and no reviews. Who told you ebook sales are on the rise? Also if they are ‘on the rise”, what are they rising from? No matter how you slice it, freebies don’t benefit authors anymore.

        1. What sites and newsletters did you use to promote those giveaways? Did you target reviewers with them? Did you ask for reviews?
          Actually they DO benefit authors, and plenty of authors will tell you that. What you are saying is that they didn’t benefit YOU, not quite the same thing. Yoiu might ask yourself why best-selling, smart authors like the ones I mentioned do this. Even SPEND MONEY to give away free books. Why would they do that if it doesn’t benefit them?
          As I mentioned before, if you “got a few sales” without it costing you anything…is that a problem?”
          ebook sales have been rising from zero, I guess would be the answer to that one.

          1. And what best-selling authors are you referring to? Also be careful with the words ‘best-seller.’ IMO, a best-selling author is one who makes into the NY Times Best Seller list, not Amazon’s.

            I used a few websites when I ran my free days. I advertised it everywhere and I did request reviews where I could.

            This is the way I feel about freebies. I don’t like to give my hard work away for free. As stated somewhere else, when a reader has 700 FREE books on their kindle, when will they ever get around to reading yours???

          2. I am talking about the best-selling authors I mentioned in the article. NYT best-sellers. I don’t use that term to describe people who are #12 in an amazon category with 10 >’s in it.

            One thing that emerges pretty quick in discussions of this (SUBmerge might be a better word for the LinkedIn thread mentioned) is that it’s essentially faith-based. People don’t like it because it makes them feel cheap or something like that. People it works for do like it. Many are in between, working it and deciding on what to do with it.

    2. Many of the free books out there are amateurish, with a scant grasp of grammar or storytelling. In principle, I follow Lin’s line, but don’t want to be bunched together with, “I knocked this out this morning and I’ll upload it right away. What’s a revision, proofreader, beta-reader, editor…?”

  3. I recently joined a group on Goodreads that were discussing their TBR lists. I don’t know whether most of the commenters weren’t really readers or what, but most were boasting of having 600-700+ books on their Kindles they hadn’t read! I assume most of those were freebies. Worse still, I don’t think they ever intend to actually reduce the list by reading.

    That little insight really made me rethink the Amazon version of freebies. I think that mostly benefits Amazon.:(

  4. Standing and clapping, Lin. You’re only devaluing your hard work, etc., if you have just one book out there. Free promotions can get you sales on your other books.

    I just wish Amazon hadn’t taken away all of the bounce from free runs.

    1. Thanks for the deafening ovation, Lynne. It’s obviously more help with a bunch of books out, which is why guys like Parker and Levine do it.
      But it’s also helpful to newbies for building reviews, a vital part of an overall “amazon ecosystem” promo plan.
      Furthermore, most people experience a slight “bounce” of sales after going free. And to who say, “great, you gave away 1000 books and got 4 new sales the next two days”, I’d reply, “you got four sales out of nowhere without it costing you anything.”

      1. I agree with the use of free as described above and in Martin’s book, “How I Sold 30,000 E-books.” I consider myself to be a very new writer and author. I need for people to discover my book using whatever promotional tools are available. The key is, as stated here, to write and publish more, thereby increasing the potential for a sale after a promotion. Musicians have been doing this successfully for years. A sample or a short song is free. If you like what you hear and want more there are many other songs to choose from – that cost money. It is how my son finds new artists. And I’ve picked up reviews from the free promotions.

  5. Good post, Lin. I don’t have a problem giving away free books–I do it all the time with the 1st novella in one of my series. And it certainly drives sales of the rest. Obscurity IS the problem, and free books help you get past that–to an extent. Currently, though, I’ve opted out of Select because I don’t like the exclusivity and I can change the price on my books easily for a sale, which works well for me in the short run.

    Equally important is the long run–which includes interacting with readers and writing more books. This ain’t a sprint and if you’re serious about this whole writing gig, I firmly believe your career should be looked at with an eye toward both short and long range planning.

    1. And about the time people started doing that, Amazon came up with Countdown, which works Select for discounts. They may be evil, but they’re sharp.
      In my “10 Step Program Of Obscurity Anonymous” (not the real title of the pdf I offer in the post) my steps include eventually leving Select once there is no more advantage in give-aways. Countdown complicates that picture greatly. But is probably an even better tool than freebies, and using the two together is something nobody has figured the best way to do yet.
      You’re so right about playing the long game.

  6. I don’t have a problem with giving away anything for free, as anyone just has to ask and I’ll give ’em a copy of any of my quiz books. I think the real problem lies in the fact that the utility of the free promotion has been whittled away at Amazon so much (and the algorithms doing that whittling are so hidden and changes are never announced) that the free promotion is no longer of any real advantage unless you happen to pay for promotion of that freebie on at least one and probably more of the popular websites (ENT, KBT, OSS, FBI, CIA, I can’t remember those initials to save my soul). That’s sort of hitting you where it hurts twice … since it seems now in order to make any real move in the rankings you will have to sell thousands of books for free. That ends up cutting into your paid market.

    And considering the jury’s still way way out on the Kindle Countdown utility (I tried it and it was completely useless), the allure of KDP is falling by the wayside.

    1. Jury definitely still out. There isn’t really enough experience to evaluate it. Many authors have to wait until their KDP period expires to use it. It will be interesting to see how it goes.
      I don’t pay those alphabet newsletters you mention to do freebies. There are over 150 that don’t cost anything.
      Many complain about the change in algorithms, but I’ve never seen that as anything particularly wrong. It was a bonanza, of very little advantage to amazon, but HUGE advantage to a lot of writers who became big stars (some of them even deservedly) by exploiting it… and it ended. Kind of like Happy Hour eventually ends. (To be replaced by the less popular Stupid Hour)
      The big advantages of freebies to new authors are in building reviews and “soft launches” and as “license to spam”. As you move along, they can be used in other ways. There’s generally a point when it’s better to ditch KDP and get on SmashWords, but it’s not something you outgrow–note Parker, Levine, Adler, etc.

      1. I have to disagree with you there, Lin. I’ve given away nearly 6,000 e-books through Amazon. I’ve got less than 20 reviews. Spread out over thirty titles.

        Books from free promotions, for the most part, go into people’s e-libraries and clouds and ADHD collections, to collect dust and never be seen again. They might be good and relevant for some reasons, but in my experience, reviews are not one of them.

        1. It’s REALLY hard to get 20 reviews. And did you ask for reviews? Did you ever do a free day just to hit fans and reviewers?
          The whole “people just stick them in storage” thing isn’t really the dismissal that people think it is.
          Am I the only one here who has read a lot of free books and discovered authors, and reviewed them? I doubt it.
          There is NO reliable statistic on how many freebies actually get read. (And if it did it would be meaningless because of a huge variable–the quality of the book) But the thing is, it can be evaluated that way. It’s like saying “billboards are useless because people drive by them without looking at them” or “TV commercials are useless because people just mute them or head for the bathroom” The obvious answer to that is that not everybody does. Ever form of promotion has a percentage number or return or conversion. For many it’s like one percent. And many of those are some of the most expensive ad buys in the world.
          And here we’re talking about something that doesn’t cost you anything to do.
          And, as I said, what could be a better “platform” plank to “discovery” than having your book on somebody’s Kindle or hard drive. Maybe they’ll read it tomorrow. Maybe they’ll read it next year. Maybe they’re one of whatever percent don’t read it all. So what?
          I’ve mentione a couple of times that big publishers with best-selling authors are starting to do this. If you subscribe to BookBub or whatever, you’ve seen it. Are we smarter than guys in New York who way promo budgets against many other means of selling books?

          1. I don’t want to be compared to those guys in NY. I also don’t follow a writer no matter how many books he/she sells if what they do is something I don’t feel comfortable with.

          2. Huh? Nicole, nobody is asking you to follow anybody. You asked about what writers, I told you. They are major writers, published by big houses. This suggests that what they are doing is not as stupid as you try to make it sound. But nothing works the same for everybody. And that includes “don’ts” as well as “do’s”

  7. When I was still a newbie author, I was lucky and found a mentor to take me under his wing. He’s successful- makes thousands of dollars a month and got to quit his day job to become a writer full time. I asked him what he did to become so successful. His answer: write a free book. He said his strategy was to spend virtually no money to write a book and make it the first one in the series. He offered it for free and sent it out to the world. Well, folks liked the book, and when they found out he had more in the series, they forked out the $ and bought them. I decided to try his tactic, and for the most part it’s worked. Even if I don’t sell more books in the series, I have gotten readers to see what else I have available, and it has helped. He also told me that it takes from 4-9 years for an author to fully become notable in the writing community, and someone else said you need to have 10 novels under your belt. It all takes time, you can’t rush success. What works for one author may not work for another. Lin is right, everyone has different experiences with free books.

    1. Good words. There are several authors I’ve seen who have a “permanent freebie” as a loss-leader to their series. One would be Rebecca Forster, a USA Today best-seller. Her “starter book”, Hostile Witness has almost 2000 reviews.

  8. I’ve found the periodical freebie promotion works quite well, and I do see a nice little spike in paid sales afterward. I will continue to price-pulse this way. As DV says, this is a great way to get exposure, especially for those of us with multiple books. Great post, Lin!

  9. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I thought I was the only crazy in the world who thought free could still offer value… your call out of the “For The Sake Of Writers Everywhere, Please STOP this!” threads was hilarious and spot on.

    I would rather giveaway books to enable me to sell more books, than not give away books and have my books not selling. Free is a tool, to either boost rankings, boost exposure, to point people to your other books (or your mailing list which you can use to sell more books to people)… it’s not just giving the book away.

    Once again, thank you.

    1. Thanks, RJ. I’m right in the middle of my first “Countdown” discount campaign right now. After a couple of hours, shows a few 99 cent sales. I can’t wait to start having data comparing free to marked-down. One thing I’ve run into is a sort of concern about balancing free and discount for the same book. Does it make sense to give it away free, then try to sell it cheap a few months later? Does it make sense to sell it cheap, then offer it free? Makes things interesting.

      And, of course, like most tools, it’s not what they cost, it’s how you use them.

      1. Whether you use free or paid, the key is promotion. If people (especially a lot of people) don’t know it is free or discounted, then it doesn’t matter, since there aren’t a lot of eyeballs on most books that need visibility. Reaching out to the free and bargain ebooks sites definitely helps that (especially if you can afford and be accepted by BookBub).

        Another option is to find your book’s audience and reach out to similar blogs. While this is easier to do for nonfiction books, you can do it with fiction books too. Does your main character love their cat, and do parts of the story revolve around that? Find cat lover blogs and let them know your book will be free/discounted and why their readers would love it.

        With regards to doing free, then bargain later or bargain and free later, I see nothing wrong it… Hopefully, if you are promoting the promotion, people are seeing your book for the first time and have no clue what promotions you have done before… they only know it’s free or cheap now.

        1. I agree with all that. And yeah, if you can keep running it by another pool of potential readers, it keeps working. I’m scratching my head on that right now–how to hit more new eyes. I have extensive email lists for my niche non-fiction book, but right now I’m looking for how to flash my Countdown deal and not coming up with a whole lot of answers. I’ll keep poking at it.

  10. I don’t know if this on topic or off, but after about 12 hours of my first Countdown deal, I’ve got some preliminary feedback. This is “Mexican Slang 101”, a huge seller in paperback (no steenking ISBN) and 18 amazon reviews for the eBook. Ranked since it’s first day, but I haven’t done enough with it… pokes along at about 2 sales a day.
    So now it’s down to .99, a two buck discount.I put it up on about 80 newsletters and sites (it says here…I haven’t yet gotten an email that mentions it. And mailed it to a bunch of lists.
    So, at 12 hours into the deal, it’s sold about 19 books and 7 loans. (Which, as you know, also pay out something) Not exactly spectacular. But not nada, either.
    Enough to, interestingly, lift the book into 4 digit ranking for all bought Kindle books. To number 2 in a sub,sub,sub category. And–I love this–number 5 in Words and Language Reference. Behind only Strunk and White and 3 Angela Ackerman titles. Kind of fun.
    But… and this speaks to what JR was just saying,one of my major lists for it–multi-buyers, had a huge open rate… and ZERO click rate. They are interested fans, but already have it.
    Two people on FaceBook notified me that looking it up made them buy the paperback.
    Very preliminary, but interesting. I think my free download campaing got about 4000 downloads. It will be interesting to try this with a novel, without the pre-existing fan base. If nothing else, I’m cleaning my list for when “201” comes out next year.

    1. ALL FREAKIN’ RIGHT!!!!!!!!!
      “Mexican Slang 101” just passed up Strunk’s “Elements of Style” to be the number one kindle book in Grammar Reference. I just love it. It’s also number two in Books > Education & Reference > Words, Language & Grammar > Reference That’s ALL books, not just Kindle–and #8 in Words, Language & Grammar. This is really a gas.
      Under 4,000 rating on all Kindle.
      This is, by the way, based on only about 30 sales today.

      1. I’ve already figured out quite a few things from this initital Countdown. One is: you have a choice between just setting one price, or setting it so that the price “steps up” halfway through. So mine will be at .99 yesterday and today, then bump up to 1.99 for two days before going back to 2.99. I took the latter option. They mention that knowing that the price will rise is an impetus to buy.
        I would never do it again. For one thing, what are people going to feel like the second stage, knowing that they missed the break?
        But more importantly, you sign up for newsletters and sites… many of them listing .99 books. If they don’t get to you immediately, they’ll check your site and see it at 1.99 and dump you.
        I’m still figuring out a few more things.

      2. I thought my countdown thing would be over by now, since I set it up to step the price up to $1.99 (HUGE mistake I won’t make again). But it kept chugging along. Well over 100 sales over and above the baseline rate all told. Rankings stil #1 and #2 in its categories.

        As I say, I learned a lot and can’t wait to do another one for another book after first of the year. I haven’t completely figured out how to balance freebies vs countdowns (remember you can only do one or the other in one 90 day period) but it’s starting to fall into place.

  11. I gave away over 3,000 copies of my first ebook on ebook writing and then upsold people to a two part free teleseminar then into a writing workshop and then a marketing workshop and made over $13,000 in my first 6 weeks in business. I’ve also seen cases where by doing the free KDP giveaway for a couple of days people have increased their sales by up to 600%. It really depends on the topic, and how you market it at that point. But, I’m definitely with Linton on this!

  12. Very good debate going on, Lin I found this thread through Linkedin. I own a Book giveaway site and for the most part I tell people do do exactly like was said above give away the first in a series. They will buy the second and third book and you are getting your name out there.

    Yes the book boost with Amazon may not have been what it use to but it still gives you a chance to reach readers that would have never heard of you otherwise.

  13. At this point, the freebie promotion for the humor anthology “My Funny Major Medical” is going way beyind my expectations. Over the past two days there have been more than 12,000 downloads. The book is rated #1 free Kindle book for “Humor/Essays”, has maintained #2 in all categories in humor, and is rated on the first page for all Kindle ebooks.
    It is too soon to see if it will generate sales for the ebook, or for the paperback as a stocking-stuffer. Also to early to see what effect it might have on the books of individual humor writers whose work is in the book.

    This give-away has huge benefits, but I have to admit that it’s not that useful in the “make more money” terms most Indie writers want to see. The main purpose of this book is to promote the writers, who were not paid for their submissions. It seems to be doing that very, very well.

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