Frankly, I Don’t Understand FREE


Okay, I get it that FREE is one of the most powerful words in advertising and promotions. It is also one of the most overused. And many times FREE is not really FREE. Fior example, all those FREE membership cards at retailers that give you money back on your purchases. Ain’t nutting’ FREE about that. You get email blasts and text messages with ads, don’t you?

Anyway, I’ve been scratching my head for a while over why anyone would want to give away a book that took him or her years to write? It just doesn’t make sense because, it is both unnecessary and stupid – especially if you’re getting nothing in return. You see, a real promotion always has a purpose. Like the aforementioned FREE frequent shopper rebates. If you give your book away in exchange for reviews or to promote your latest book or as a means of capturing email addresses for future directed promotions, then giving something away makes sense. But what I see happening in the publishing world is a lot of indie authors giving away books hoping that in the process they will gain a fan base. That’s ludicrous.

Here’s why. People who are drawn to the word FREE are bargain hunters. They are not trend setters. They don’t go after the new and shiny. So the chances of ever getting them to buy your next book when it first comes out is pretty low. They are the bottom feeders of the market. They buy everything on clearance. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but you need to know that is the customer you’re attracting with the word FREE.

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Also, remember that any damned fool can give crap away. It takes no effort at all, really. We recently ran a FREE promotion to test its viability for a good, well written book with an attractive cover. In two days it received over 2600 worldwide downloads.Afterwards a few more books sold and a couple of new reviews appears in the days afterwards. So for the sake of giving away 2600 FREE copies of a great book, the end result was a few real sales and a couple of decent reviews. You be the judge whether it was worth it.

Now, the conventional wisdom of the FREE promotion is that it creates new fans for an unknown authors. Again, remember the sort of customer that is attracted to the word FREE. Granted, you may pick up some long term fans who are attracted to the word FREE because they have never heard of the author and it is a no cost way to test drive a book from that author. But I’m here to tell you, if that accounts for 10% of the action an author gets from a FREE promotion, that’s a lot. You decide if that is a worthwhile objective of the promotion.

For most authors, anything below $2.99 on eBook pricing is a loss leader.Indie authors who have lower production costs associated with their books may be able to eek out some profit at lower prices because they have not invested in professional editing or cover design. But once you factor in the cots of a real cover and a real editor you are realistically looking at a price point between $2.99 and $3.99 just to be able to make a few pennies per copy sold. The higher the production costs, the higher the necessary retail price for a break even point. It’s simple business.

Let’s forget about paperbacks because they have higher fixed costs. No sane person would give them away.

I posted a few days ago about about pricing art. In that article I stated that there are divergence trends in eBooks. Publishers are raising their prices while indies are continuing to drive the average retail price lower. The reason for the disparity is largely FREE and 99 cent promotions. Some of the price pressure comes from programs like Kindle Select. For those who do not understand the program, Amazon offers members of its Select program the ability to choose any Kindle title listed on the program for FREE. Actually it is not truly FREE to the member because he or she has paid an annual membership fee for the privilege. For the author, listing on the Select program requires an exclusive commitment to Amazon for 90 days – meaning you cannot have an eBook version of your novel on sale anywhere else. So, if your book is not on the Select program it has to be priced at FREE to compete. This is inane, though. You see, authors who are on the Select program are compensated for any book downloaded as part of the program. If you price at FREE to compete or even attract fans you lose money while those on the program do not.

I’m not saying you should place your eBook on the Select program. That’s your choice. I’m just explaining why it makes no sense to compete with the special deal through FREE pricing. If you are attempting to attract people away from the Select program for which they have already paid a fee, my first question is why? Those readers joined the Select program because one of the benefits was being able to download new books for FREE. What makes you think they will even look at your book?

Maybe I’m missing something. I could be wrong. there could actually be a valid reason or a FREE promotion for a book other than the few I have stated. I suppose anything is possible. There could be an honest politician somewhere and I do believe int he tooth fairy, Santa and the Easter Bunny. But I’m not inclined to promote my books for anything less that a break even price unless it is for a limited time and for a very good promotional reason. And you shouldn’t either.

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4 thoughts on “Frankly, I Don’t Understand FREE”

  1. I’ve just enrolled my third book – my debut chick lit novel into Select. I also have two other books which are on all the other platforms and they sell. But they’re in a smaller category than chick lit. I am using Select because I do genuinely believe this is the only way my book will gain visibility. I’ve been in it for a week now and so far I haven’t checked how it’s doing. So fingers crossed it will be doing something. I’m also about to release my 4th book and that will be going into Select straight away.

    Thanks for this article.

  2. As an example of your vehemently described “bottom feeder”, I’d just like to confirm that there are few of us actually buy based on the free book. Furthermore, we recommend. There are three book series that I chose the free download (not sure if it was a limited time, or not), devoured the book, couldn’t stop reading, and bought the remaining books in the series. My mother and my brother bought the entire series based on my recommendation that they will stop breathing and die without reading these books 😉

    Let me clarify. I wouldn’t give away a stand alone book. Only the 1st in a series. The ones who wouldn’t buy the rest of the series, wouldn’t have bought any of them – free or otherwise. A great author will hook a reader and from that point on, when they release a book, it’s sold.

    I completely understand your point of numbers, but I, for one, am grateful for those three free books, and the series I purchased because of the first one!

    1. Thank you for sharing your perspective. I agree with your point about serials. My publisher and I plan to release a ten book series I wrote a few years back collectively called The Wolfcat Chronicles. Over the years I have posted portions of it here and there receiving comments and feedback that were generally positive. It’s just I have never put the entire series out in publication. It is a monumental effort to produce ten volumes and a significant gamble of ra publisher especially since I’m not all that famous. But we both believe int he story line. The first two books are a sort of stand alone portion of the story. I wrote it as a prequel to the original story I composed in the summer of 2000, that constitutes the foundation for the next five books in the series. What we discussed was releasing the first two book simultaneously, or perhaps nearly so – like a couple of weeks apart – with the first book offered free. The problem is that only the big five publishers receive the special favor from Amazon of pricing their new releases at $0. They do this in order to force the use of Kindle select for all other authors. So the only way for a small publisher to price something at FREE is to do it for a couple of day promotion at two points or use another distribution channel. Since Amazon his the 800 pound gorilla for eBooks launching a promotion without Amazon is not a good strategy. So we are going to have to be creative in our promotions, perhaps pricing the initial book at 99 cents doing free promotions for limited times or offering some kind of rebate to buyers of the first book when they purchase the second book – Amazon doesn’t allow coupons at this point. So, giving away a book is not all that easy, either.

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