This is a very sensitive topic that I am going to try to handle with care, as I know some or many authors may disagree with me. However, this is a conversation I had with my personal assistant and the publisher of Writers AMuse Me Publishing. All of us came to the same conclusion: giving away e-books for free (outside of review copies, which are only given to select individuals) devalues both the author and his/her work. Now I’m not writing this article based on a conclusion among three people. However, I will use author Melissa Foster’s article to support my points, along with adding a few of my experiences as a YA author trying to compete with books being given away for free. Let me present this graph to your from Smashwords before I begin. Okay, so free books aren’t on here, but notice even books at $0.99 cents are selling way below books even priced at $9.00. This graph isn’t just talking about earnings monetarily, but also sales. Unfortunately I cannot find the article this graph was connected to, but the article did say that people are more likely to buy a book when there is a value attached to that book. In spite of what is shown on Amazon Bestseller lists, very few authors can get away with giving away a book for free and do well numbers-wise, then switch over to charging for their books and continue doing well. I have seen author friends do this, and their rankings didn’t improve greatly, for whatever reason. After all, in order for anyone to purchase a book, free or otherwise, those people have to know that book exists. Not to mention readers have to read your free book in order to trust you as an author. And a lot of readers have downloaded hundreds of free books.
Fortunately for self-published authors doing this, there are a myriad of services to help them out, compared to self-published authors who refuse to give their books away for free. There are very, very few free services to help out self-published authors who attach a price to their books. (I could be wrong. There might be enough for $2.99 and below). But I have done the research for my own book, and the only service I could find was The Fussy Librarian. But even TFL is charging now; the price luckily is very, very low. However, I don’t know how effective those free services are for self-published authors giving away their books for free. In fact, I had one author friend doing relatively okay with giving her book away for free, but then as soon as she attached a price to that book–just $2.99–sales plummeted–severely. It’s as though her readers began to expect that she would keep giving away her hard work for free. Or her readers hadn’t read her book at all, because it was for free, so there was no word of mouth going around. If readers pay for something, they want to make use of what they spent their money on. In fact, readers are more likely to read review copies, as a stipulation to reading a copy is leaving a rating or review. This is almost a guilt factor. This is not so for free books.
Now on to my points using Melissa Foster’s article to back me up. I encourage you to read it before reading further.
- Giving away a book for free devalues books overall. Melissa Foster says that “self-published authors have created a devaluing of the written word” (ALLi). This is a generalization, she admits. Many do not. My publisher has been helping AEC authors build their platforms, and one facet of this platform building encouraged me to do some interesting research, with the help of my PA. My PA and I noticed that the bestselling books for the YA paranormal romance genre were all being given away for free. These books don’t have their own separate bestseller’s list. They are part of the same list for all paranormal romance books–and there are over 1,000. How can anyone who has a price attached to his or her book compete with pages and pages of books being given away for free? To be noticed on Amazon, you have to have a great ranking; the number of reviews can help, too. Price is not factored into this. This completely contradicts the graph above, but I suspect that once a price is attached to these free books, the downloads plummet. If a price was attached to the book from the beginning, sales my be slow, but over time the payoff will probably be worth it more than if that book had been given away for free from the start. I want an audience AND money from my own book, both at the same time. Even if it means my career starts out slow, the payoff will probably be worth it in the long run. It’s my belief that if an author gives away a book for free from the get-go, readers will probably continually expect free material.
- “Mismanaged expectations.” Melissa Foster states that “many self-published authors hear about the outliers who earn hundreds of thousands of dollars, and they’ll do anything to try and reach that pinnacle” (ALLi). Therefore, authors will throw their work up for free in the hopes of building a wide audience that will pay for their next work. In most cases, this doesn’t help, which is why Foster calls it “mismanaged expectations.” As with publishing in general, only a small percentage of authors exit the gate as bestsellers.
- Interesting points that Foster mentions on why some authors give their books away for free–or post at 99 cents, which is a price point I’d rather have than a free one, because there is at least a value attached to it:
- “99-cent price point for ebooks
- KDP Select program (free ebooks)
- Unedited books/ebooks
- Gimmicks for sales and reviews (Kindle giveaways, etc.)
- Nasty reviews from other authors with the sole purpose of driving down ratings”
Now I am going to take some points from Melissa Foster and develop them on what we can do to bring value back to books. Overall, I think the problem with giving away books for free is that readers will download a bunch of these and never get to that book. Granted, you will see fantatastic reviews for a lot of the free books on these bestsellers list, but it’s likely rare, as any bestselling author is. But I do not download free books. I refuse to. I want that author to attach a value to his or her work.
- “Work together, not against each other.” I do not like the idea that another author is my competition. Our books are stories, not pens or toilet paper or cereal trying to use their prices to get people to buy more. Books are too complex for that. So while I may be saying how are priced books supposed to compete against free books, we authors need to ultimately uplift each other and not devalue our work by giving away our work for free. After all, if readers have no choice but to pay for a work, especially if free books are nonexistent, that will do so much more for all of us in the long run. I am not about competing with Twilight. I want to make it big, but I also realize lovers of Twilight may not love my book, just because it offers something different. Books are about catering to all different tastes. I don’t want books to be thought of in the same light as things that aren’t considered art. Books are art. Writers have passion. I highly doubt makers of cereal have the passion we have.
- “Publish only professionally edited work.” There are a lot of free books that shirk this altogether because they arrogantly think people are going to download their book and forgive a lot of errors–and many unfortunately do. This devalues hard work.
- “Get rid of the gimmicks.” Okay, I’ll admit I did this to gain adds on Goodreads by offering books similar to my own. But I’m not doing that anymore, because it was very gimmicky, and I wasn’t earning them by my own right. However, as reviews are concerned, I work for all my reviews. I worked for all 71 reviews on my book. It does take time to earn reviews like that, but they get rid of “freebie trollers,” as Foster calls them, so you can avoid bad reviews from people who haven’t even read the book.
- “Work smarter, not cheaper.” Gaining an audience takes time. I am with a small press, and it is taking me time, but I’m not going at it alone, which is a plus with being with a press. Don’t think about getting sales as fast as possible or growing a readership as fast as possible. Just produce the best book you can so you don’t shortchange your readers. It takes time, but it’s time well worth it. I have found my platform niche on Tumblr, and I have fallen in love with this platform and see it as a great launching point to build my audience.
- “If you drive price and quality down, it’s easy for readers to lump us into a group and ignore us all. Each of us, has the power to succeed and if quality and value is what we want to see in the indie world, then we, as a collective group, must work together to achieve it.”
I agree with Foster’s entire article. If indie authors want to establish a solid reputation amongst themselves, they must ban together, so to speak, and imbue quality in their work by not giving it away for free. Yes, there are books given away for free that have great ratings, but then it drowns out the rest of those who want to attach a value to their work. Authors, do not undervalue your efforts. If every single author never gives away a book for free again, readers will have no choice but to pay, will not expect free books (save review copies), and you will be making money that is well-deserved.
I am going to end this article with a crushingly honest statement: I am not impressed when an author boasts a high ranking for a free book in a genre category (especially since genre categories are so erratic on Amazon, like sword and sorcery???), even if that book has great ratings. I’ll be more impressed if your book has a value attached to it AND you can get readers to see the value in your book by purchasing it with their picky dollars. Then I’ll be impressed with a great ranking–even if it is just a 99 cent book.