In Defense of “Free”

Last week I came across an interesting post by social media maven Kristen Lamb about the dangers of authors making ebooks available for free. You should read the full post for yourself, but the general theme of the post was that because the ebook market is flooded with free stuff and most of it is worth less than a barrel of turds (because, hey, at least turds make good fertilizer) so making your book available for free could do more harm than good merely through the power of negative association.

As some of you may know, I’ve had some experience with the free side of the ebook market in the past, both as a seller and a buyer. And while I’ll concede that there are dangers in offering your ebook for free, in my experience there are also some advantages.

Last year Amazon made my ebook Derelict available for free without my prior knowledge or consent. It hit me as a shock, but it was perfectly within Amazon’s rights to make the change, and rather than gripe and moan about what was happening to my book, I decided to take a positive outlook on the situation. After all, it wasn’t like I was burning up the internet with that story before it was offered for free, and at least now people were READING it. And more than just reading it, some people responded with generally positive reviews.

Fast forward to a couple of months ago when Amazon took the book back to its original price. Of course it didn’t move in the same numbers as it did when it was free, but it still outsold the rest of my fiction by a factor of a thousand percent (that’s a multiple of ten for those of you who ain’t so swuft with the math stuff.) Today it continues to sell just as well.

Which is why, when I recently released another short story, The Fisherman’s Nightmare, I chose to make it available for free on Smashwords. Of course the free book selection on Smashwords is even worse than what it is on Amazon, and the traffic there isn’t nearly as heavy which means I didn’t have terribly high hopes for the story, but not only did it move at a reasonable rate, it also drove a few sales for my other paid books as well.

Now this is only anecdotal evidence, and I’m not trying to say that everything Kristen said in her post was wrong, but I do feel like there’s a little more to the story.

We all want to get people talking about our writing, and as an unknown author it can be easy to feel overwhelmed, lost in a sea of other authors of varying ability, all them trying to break through to become the next Amanda Hocking. There are lots of ways to get the message about your books out to the world, but the core of the equation remains: are they any good?

And whether you choose to spread the word via social media, or making your books free, or hiring out a plane to do skywriting, people aren’t going to respond if they don’t like your work.

Remember, there is plenty of bad self published fiction out there, and at whatever price it makes the rest of us look bad.

Do your part. Don’t make it worse.

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17 responses to “In Defense of “Free”

  1. I can definitely see it from both sides. I think free is not always a good bargain but neither is it always a bad one. Sometimes free is just what a new reader needs to get hooked.

  2. I set my one of my novellas for free, hoping the the five-star rating it had would be enough to hint to people that it wasn’t crap. I ended up with at least one review that said something to the effect of “I expected this novel to suck because it was free, but I really, really enjoyed it.” There’s probably something to be said of lowering people’s expectations if you know you can surprise them.

  3. I’m in the process of finishing my novel and deciding whether to epublish or try traditional publishing. Great post!

  4. Your experience with a free selection increasing traffic may be antecdotal, but when I heard him speak earlier this month, Smashwords founder, Mark Coker, reported the exact same experience. He said that for fiction, uploading more than one title seems to be very important, and that offering one of them for free has a lot of positive results.

  5. My biggest question about your post; how is it within Amazon’s rights to make your book available for free without your consent? While I would be willing to consider making a book available for free, it would have to be my decision, not Amazon’s. If Amazon suddenly decided that my book should be available for free without my consent it would be the last book that I would submit for sale on their website. While Amazon is the largest internet book seller, it is not the only one. If changing the price of my product without my consent is one of their business practices, then I would not be selling my product through them.

    • When you submit to Amazon one of the items in their terms of service says that you can set the “List Price”, but Amazon has control over the final price. The main reason this may come into play is when you have a book for sale at a lower price on a different ebook site. Amazon has a lowest price guarantee and they DO check other sites to make sure they’re users are not being undercut. This is what happened with Derelict, and it’s currently the case with The Mulch Pile which Amazon marked down from $2.99 to $0.99, to match the price I set for Nook (I knew it was going to happen this time. In fact I was rather planning on it.)
      I understand many authors would be angry about this, but in my mind Amazon has the most readers so that’s where I want to be. I’m looking at the long game here, and I think it’s in my best interest to suck it up, and play by their rules. You’re free to make whatever choice you want regarding Amazon, but at least now you know the lay of the land a little better.

  6. Being retired and living on a fixed income I LOVE the free books available on Amazon for my Kindle. Funny thing is I’ve read more GOOD free books than BAD free books. The nice thing about the free books is if they don’t hook me in the first two or three chapters I can dump them and I’ve lost nothing.

    And I’ll tell you something else, Many of the free books I’ve downloaded are better written and more interesting than some by the top-billed authors like Patterson, et al for $12 a pop.

    • And I’ve had much the same experience. Mind you my tastes run toward the weird and strange, but still. I’ve found great books that didn’t cost me a penny, and though I’m not retired my income isn’t what you’d call extravagant, so cost is an important factor to me as a reader.
      Not that there’s anything wrong with charging for an ebook, but I think most readers are smart enough to be able to sort the wheat from the chaff pretty quickly, whether they’re paying for those ebooks or not.

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  8. Unless I’ve heard very good things from people I trust, I likely won’t try out a book if I can’t read /something/ free by the author.

    Right now I’m putting a book available on my website for free, and on Amazon and Smashwords for $2.99. I don’t expect to make a lot of sales, but I just want to get my partner and I’s names out there so that if people do like us, they might be more willing to buy our paid stuff. It’s a pretty niche market (high fantasy with hardcore erotica), but I know there’s people out there demanding it and I just want them to know we’re out there.

    I think experimenting with pricing and finding what works for you and your style of books is very important for self pubbed authors. Some people will find that putting their stuff up for free for a time is best, others find that staying at .99 is best, and sometimes it’s a variety of pricing schemes. There’s no surefire way of finding your niche or your readership, no matter what other successful authors did.

  9. Good point. 🙂 Making your work available for free is advertising. There are always two opposing opinions about everything. And I do agree with your opinion about free stuff. I’m the type of person who would look at books for free. If I like them, I’ll buy them and recommend them to death. If I don’t, at least I got it for free.

    Also, it’s what Russell Simmons is saying about his works. Give it away for free. It’s much more about the enjoyment of working on the stuff. Then, it will come back to you ten fold. Considering that he was a hip hop mogul, the creator of Phat Farm (etc.), he knows what he’s talking about. You can say that he has a midas touch. Good luck with you.

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