Business of WritingMy NovelsSelf-Publishing

The Failure of Free

As an unknown writer, I adopted early on the Cory Doctorow mantra that "for pretty much every writer -- the big problem isn't piracy, it's obscurity". Doctorow gives away his novels via his web site even as they're sold through the usual retailers. Apparently, this model works well for him. I thought it was something that, for me, was at least worth a try.

Sometime after I finished writing my fantasy novel, The Hall of the Wood, and had put it up on the various online retailer sites, I decided to also start giving it away via this site. I figured while I was busying myself with my next writing project I'd be, worst case, spreading the word about my work, name, etc. Best case, I'd surely get some reviews out of it or at least some (hopefully) positive feedback. Maybe someone might even go out and buy a copy as a show of support.

What were the results?

In all, I must have given away about 2,000 copies in between the time I first made it available as a download and when I finished my next (unrelated) novel, The Five Elements. Since that time, with very little promotion, I racked up another 7-800 downloads. All told, not great, but not bad considering the audience on this blog is somewhat limited (audience is key; I'll touch on that next post). So, out of 2700-2800 downloads, how many reviews or emails with feedback do you think I received? How many sales?

I got 1 review and a handful of emails for HOTW. Sales… so miniscule not even worth mentioning.

About a year ago I did the same thing with The Five Elements, except this time I put a nice note in the front of each PDF saying something to the effect of "Thanks for downloading. I'd love it if you could give me a review." Almost 1,000 downloads later, no feedback and no reviews.


So what went wrong?

Hard to say, but I suspect people were downloading the novels and never reading. I do this myself. I have a "folder of forgotten eBooks", either in Kindle or PDF format, which I've downloaded, categorized, and then never looked at again. Some people think this sort of hoarding goes on with eBooks priced at $0.99, too. I believe them. Whether free or 99 cents, both prices are cheap enough that most people aren't going to feel guilty enough or obligated to actually read the book. Pay $2.99, $4.99, $9.99 or even more for an eBook and I think the reader is much more likely to follow up the purchase with a read (and maybe even a review). It is for this very reason that some authors will not price their work at $0.99. I have to agree with them. If you think about it, by downloading a lot of free or 99 cent eBooks, a reader has simply transferred the hoard of cheap content from Amazon to their own personal device. Picking out what to read (or to read anything at all) becomes no less easy as a result.

With this in mind, I changed my strategy. No more freebies and no more of my eBooks priced at $0.99. Given the apparent correlation between price and the quality of the reader, I mapped out a blueprint of which I will discuss next post. Believe it or not, but this plan (so far, anyway) is working and I'm making sales every day.

Join my reader's group and get The Hall of Riddles (An Alchemancer Prequel) and The Assassin's Dilemma (An Assassin Without a Name Prequel) as a welcome gift.

Comments (4) -

  • LJ Cohen
    I completely agree with your reasoning here.  I think the time to offer a free or .99 eBook is when you have a series, with a new book ready to come out and you price the first low as a teaser.

    For those of us starting out with one or only a few books available, having a loss leader makes no sense.
  • Victoria Champion
    People put their books for free at Amazon for a very specific reason. As more people d/l it to their kindles, regardless of the price, including free, then that book goes up in Amazon rankings. This places it in the strip on various product pages that says "people who bought this also bought this". This is essentially FREE advertising at Amazon. Well, yes you might have lost some sales, but, you can consider those losses as loss-leaders, same as in retail. You will reach more people with a high amazon ranking. Highly ranking books also appear in the top 100 list, which apparently a lot of people use to decide what books to buy. What readers don't realize is that these books are not ranked high because of reviews, but of units moved in any way possible. So this method of getting one's book to rank high has proven to be successful in increasing actual sales for quite a lot of authors. Not everyone will achieve a successful push that translates into actual money-making sales, but a lot will, and have. Otherwise, the only way someone is going to see your low-ranked book is if they find it through some specific search or offsite. Offering your books for free at Amazon is gaming the system.  Your blog is not going to achieve the same effect. The only reason Doctorow got away with it is because boing boing is huge and owning a book by Doctorow is 'cool'.
  • Caleb Jenkins
    Scott - I'm glad to hear that you're making sales daily! I've read both of your books, and enjoyed them immensely, I'm really looking forward to your next book! Also, I'm *ashamed to say*, I've never written a review for either book, even though I keep telling myself that I need to go do that. I still will... hopefully this post will be the motivation that I need.

    Keep up the great writing Scott!
  • Scott Marlowe
    Thanks, Caleb. Appreciate the nice comments. I'd also appreciate the reviews. Smile

Where to Buy