Should you be giving away free books?

by | May 2, 2018

Last Updated:
Apr 29, 2018

Isn’t it amazing to see a tweet from a reader gushing about your book? Or a new review loving your novel? But for those things to happen you need readers, lots of readers!

And that just isn’t as easy as it used to be.

I’ve been around long enough in the epublishing world that I remember a time when attracting readers was as easy as running a sale and spending $10 on advertising and that would net over 10,000 downloads. Now only Bookbub will give you returns like that and you’ll be paying way more than $10!

With over 8 million ebooks on Amazon, self publishing feels like you are setting up a booth in an amusement park of vendors – most of whom have been doing it longer and have better slogans, signs, or offers. How do you compete with that?

This set of posts is all about exploring methods of attracting readers. Or, really, finding ways for readers to discover you and your books and then turning them into fans.

And first up is the controversial practice of offering a book for free.

The idea of a free sample has been around for over a century and if you’ve walked into a supermarket you’ve seen it in action. Coupons for free products or a chance at a free taste in the aisles tempt you to try something you might have overlooked otherwise.

When it comes to books, this practice is often referred to as a reader magnet. A full book, novella, or short story is offered for free with the expectation readers will purchase other books. Sounds simple, right?

It can be. But there is a very strong push to NOT offer a book for free. Why? The argument goes that offering a free book creates a mindset that books should be free. Is it true? Maybe for some readers.

The world is full of a diverse people and a variety of circumstances. Sure, some readers would like all books to be free. It doesn’t make their wish correct and it certainly doesn’t mean it will happen. It isn’t like movies are free though I know people love free passes.

Most readers realize authors work and work hard to create a book and they deserve payment for that. The fact is some readers might only be able to afford free books while others are more than happy to try out something new and, if they like what they read, buy other books by the author.

On the other hand, don’t treat your readers like an ATM!

We’ll get back to that, I promise. But there is a use of free books designed to cash in on sales like a reader accidentally bought into an ebook pyramid scheme. Most readers are smart enough to see this method for what it is and if you want to assure yourself some reviews blasting your methods no matter the quality of your books, you want to avoid this!

But no, offering a free book isn’t somehow undercutting the entire ebook industry and you certainly aren’t betraying other authors who choose not to offer a free book. After all, if free books didn’t work, Amazon and other ebook platforms wouldn’t not only allow permafree books, but create a premium club that gives you 5 free days to advertise your book for joining.

Free does work.

But that doesn’t mean you should just slap free on one of your books and expect it to net you some readers! There is a strategy for creating a funnel to bring in not just new readers but to create fans, and that is what the free book is all about.

When free books work

Whether you are offering a short story, novella, or a full novel as your reader magnet, the key to success is the freebie must link solidly to other books you’ve written. In other words, it should relate to a series or have a continuing character (think Sherlock Holmes).

If you write a panthea of unrelated stories, a free book might not work for you unless it is a sampler of chapters or short stories related to all your books. Then, maybe you’ll get some read throughs. And hey, if you’ve tried this out, let me know in the comments how it worked!

Plus, you need to make sure readers know the story relates to more. Links in both the front and back of the book to the next story, the series, and you are really important. If you don’t do that and expect readers to Google you, you will lose a percentage of sales.

And whatever you offer for free has to be awesome.

I mean in quality of editing, prose, and story content. It can’t be so short that it doesn’t make any sense or capture reader interest. Something has to happen that will intrigue readers and enough of the character has to be shown that the reader bonds with her/him. If you don’t write something that captures a reader’s attention and makes them want to know more, then you are missing the point of offering a free book.

So you can’t just whip off a story, do a cursory edit, slap a cover on it and throw it on Amazon. In fact, your free story should be some of your best work if not the best thing you’ve written.

When free books don’t work

You can go all out and offer a full epic fantasy novel, but it won’t attract readers if the story isn’t good and if it doesn’t tie into other books you’ve written. In fact, the worse thing you could do is over something huge, full of description, and with a wandering plot. You want exciting, tight prose with characters that shine!

So the first couple of chapters of your full novel probably won’t work, at least not as well as a new short story. To really reap the benefits of offering a freebie, it will take effort to create the right story. And then more effort to make sure it is top notch with editing and a great cover. This book should be the one people look at not because it is free, but because it is the shiny jewel in your collection no matter what price point is on it.

The other thing that will sink your read-through rate is not linking the freebie strongly to your books. I mean in plot, characters, and actual working links in the back and front of the book. Every time you publish a new book in the same world, you should be adding it to your free book and checking that all those other links are working. If not, those are potential lost sales.

Yes, the idea is to get readers to buy the next book, but sometimes authors take this idea too far and write a novella that ends in a cliffhanger. So the reader is compelled to pick up the next book, which, it turns out, is also a short book that ends in a cliffhanger. And the next book is even more expensive, just as short and ends in a cliffhanger… you get the idea!

I told you we’d get back to the idea of using your readers like an ATM. Don’t do it! This is scammy, feels scammy, and readers know it. You might get a few sales but you’ll also accumulate some harsh reviews warning off readers. You want readers to be interested in what you are writing and become fans, not feel like you are twisting their arm while picking their wallet. That isn’t a fan and they won’t be back for your next book.

Other benefits

There are some great benefits to offering a free book besides finding new readers. One is that a free book is easy to market. Once you accumulate reviews a free book will market itself, allowing you more time between paid advertisements. And advertising… there are a LOT of advertisers willing to promote your freebie. With so many options, you can rotate advertisers and reach a larger spread of readers without repeating yourself for months.

Of course, not everyone who picks up a free book from an advertisement is going to read it. A read through rate (people who pick up your first book and then go on to read the next) of 10% or higher is really the goal. If you offer up a freebie and don’t see that, look at your blurb and cover to see if there is something you can improve. You want readers to see your book on their ereader and WANT to read it next.

Picking up reviews is also easier with a free book. If you consider the very sad statistic that 1% of readers will leave a review, it means you need a lot of readers picking up your book. With a free download, that is so much easier than a paid book! If you want some tips on picking up more reviews, check out this post.

And a final benefit to free books is that you can test out story ideas by offering up novellas and short stories for free. If you develop a business mindset to writing, you’ll want to write stories that not only interest you but that readers want to read. And the best way to find out what readers want is to try out characters and stories.

This method works best when you already have readers who enjoy your work and won’t give the same results if you are a new author with only a small mailing list. But you can try it! Develop a story idea, write a great intro book or even offer a few chapters for free and ask for feedback. Do readers want more? If so, great! Write more. If not, try a different story line until you find one with readers waiting for the next book.

Final thoughts

Offering a book for free is a great way to market and reach new readers, but there is a reason Amazon offers only 5 free days every 90: exclusivity is even better. Readers will scoop up a limited time offer faster than a permafree. So maybe permafree isn’t the best option. It is just one of the easiest if you aren’t in KDP Select.

Another thing to consider too is should your current permafree remain forever free? After all, in five years, you will be writing a different story line and be writing better. You want the book used to attract readers to be your best writing and most engaging story. That will evolve over time. Your permafree should too. This is another way to deal with the idea of exclusivity. Allow what readers pick up to change as you write more.

Or, make what you offer for free exclusive to certain sites. Bookfunnel and Instafreebie allow authors to offer books for free that are only available as paid sales on Amazon. This is a great way to build your mailing list and an opportunity to send readers some great emails about your books and why they are going to love the one they picked up (and should read it!). Of course, without marketing or joining group promos, the book won’t get the same exposure as a few days free on Amazon with adversing. But it is an option if you want to test out the possibilities of a free book without jumping into it with a permafree.

A free book is a great way to attract readers, but remember you have to have the steps in place to make it worthwhile for you as an author. After all, you don’t want to just give away a free book. You want to create fans that will read your other books!

What do you think of free books? Do you use them to reach readers? Do you think they work? Or do you hate them and wish authors wouldn’t offer permafree books? Let me know in the comments!



Autumn is a best selling indie author, conservationist, & world traveler with plans for many more adventures both real and fantastical! She is currently settled in the wilds of Maine with her small dragonish dog and husband, searching for a portal to another world.

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Written by: Autumn

Autumn is a best selling indie author, conservationist, & world traveler with plans for many more adventures both real and fantastical! She is currently settled in the wilds of Maine with her small dragonish dog and husband, searching for a portal to another world.

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1 Comment

  1. Fiona

    I use permafree and Bookfunnel. Before I started doing this I had nearly no sales. Since, I have slowly increased my readers and sales. There is a place for free books but as Autumn has mentioned, the systems must be in place.

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