In the title above, I left the “A” in capital on purpose. I don’t believe any author should put every book they have up for free if an author hopes to make money. Now, if an author is independently wealthy or if the author is in a ministry where he/she feels led by God to get the message out to as many people as possible, then making every book free makes sense. But if you need your writing income to help pay the bills, a free book is all about strategy. It’s one tool of many we have at our disposal.
You don’t have to offer anything for free, just as you don’t have to do any other marketing strategy. Despite the hype Amazon ads gets, I don’t use them. I also don’t do giveaways or go to in-person events to sell paperbacks anymore. I don’t care how beneficial other authors have found those things. I find them all draining of time and energy, so I won’t do them. You should do the strategies that best align with your personality.
Before I get into the value I’ve seen from using the free book strategy, I want to point out free is not effective for everyone. I’ve heard from writers who said they saw less sales after placing Book 1 in a series at free. They said $0.99 worked better for them. I’ve tried $0.99 on Book 1 in my series, and I found that $0.99 didn’t work as well as the free book strategy did. That’s why I go with free. My genre is historical romance. So if you’re a romance writer, you probably want to look at free if you haven’t done it already.
Does free work with standalones? I found a couple of horror/thriller authors that way. My reading time is limited, so I go with standalones instead of series. Not every reader out there is going to be a series reader. Some of us prefer one book to wrap everything up. So don’t think you have to only write a series to reach an audience with free books. Is it more challenging? It sounds like it is based off of what authors have said in writing groups over the years, but since I found authors through standalones they offered at free, I fail to see the problem with giving the free strategy a try. If you can hook a reader in with your writing style, the reader will check out your other stuff.
With all of that aside, this is why I’ve found having at least one free book in my catalogue to be a huge benefit in promoting my books.
The Problem of Visibility
Visibility was a lot easier to get back in 2009-2012. You used to be able to put the book up, and a lot of people would see it. A lot of people seemed to buy these books, too. I believe the reason it was so easy to sell books back then is that they were new. People were buying e-reading devices. They needed to fill them with content. Free did work very well back then, but so did pricing books. In fact, this was the time period where you could make serious money with $0.99. Today, things aren’t the same. Just because you put your book up for free, it doesn’t mean it’ll be easy for people to find you. But then, it’s hard to get noticed regardless of your price. For better or worse, there are a lot of books out there. What free does is offer a reader a risk-free opportunity to check you out. Sometimes a person will decline a new author because they have to pay for the book. Personally, I don’t think free devalues a book, but I know some authors do. I don’t believe this debate will ever be settled. You’ll have to make the call for your own books. If you feel free will devalue your work, then you probably shouldn’t put your book up for free. The last thing you want is to feel like you’re compromising your core principles.
The purpose of offering the free book is that you’re hoping people will take a chance on your work and end up falling in love with your ability to tell a story. This is why I believe free can work for standalones, as well as for a series. It’s important to have your own author voice. When you are true to your voice, you will stand out from the crowd. Voice is extremely important. It’s gives your writing flavor. This is why I don’t like critique groups. I feel critique groups squashes the individual writer’s voice because other writers are imposing how they would write the story on to your work. You are not them. You are you. Embrace it. Let your writing has its own flavor. When you do that, you’ll be able to connect with the right readers with your books. I don’t believe we are to write for every single reader out there. You are writing books geared toward a select group of readers who “get you” as a writer. These are the people you’re hoping to attract with the free book. Yes, you’ll attract those who don’t like your book, but you take that risk when you publish any book.
There is an alternative to outright putting a book up for free that feels “free” to the reader, and this will also boost your ability to be visible. The alternative I’m talking about are subscription services like Kindle Unlimited (KU), Scribd, and Kobo Plus. Yes, I know there’s a monthly fee people pay, but that fee covers all of the books that are in that particular service. If a reader pays for Kobo Plus, for example, they get to read all of the books in Kobo Plus without paying for any them. So to the readers, these books “feel” free. Each subscription plan has its own way of paying authors, but authors do get paid something in these plans. I used to fight this model because the actual sale of a book pays better, but, in my opinion, the popularity of subscription services in music and movies tells me that it’s only a matter of time before ebook subscription services are going to really hit the writing community. People will still buy books. They still buy music and movies, but there will be plenty of people who will only read books that are in a subscription plan. Once in a while, I’ll get an email or a comment somewhere from a KU reader who will let me know they’ll never touch one of my books until I put them in KU. I’m sure readers in other subscription plans feel the same way. The problem with KU is that it requires you to be exclusively on Amazon. That’s why I never put my books in KU. With Scribd and Kobo Plus, I can be on any retailer I want to be and be in those subscription plans. I like having a wide net. You will have to decide if you want to be in a subscription plan, and if so, which one(s).
A free book will typically get more reviews. Yes, some of the reviews won’t be nice. I know it’s hard not to take reviews personally, especially when someone is downright mean in the way they word things, but if you get enough readers to buy your book, you’ll end up with a negative review at some point. You can’t please everyone. In my opinion, there’s no sense in worrying about the critic. It’s better to focus on the person who “gets you” and loves your work. That why I don’t pay attention to negative reviews on my books. I’m not writing for those people. After getting 100 books into the world, I know what I want to write, and I’m going to write it. So these people aren’t going to change anything I’m doing.
However, there is still value in those negative reviews. They help potential readers decide if my style of writing is a good fit for them. I don’t want the wrong audience wasting their time on my books. Their time is better spent on books they will enjoy. (You get to this conclusion after dealing with negative reviews for over a decade. At first, it hurts a lot, but, in time, you will develop thick skin. Just focus on the people who love your books.) The good news is that your intended audience is out there, and free can help them find your book. These people will enjoy the book and give it the kind of reviews you’re hoping for. If you’re able to find enough readers who like your stuff, your positive reviews will outweigh the bad.
I’m not sure if reviews do anything to boost your visibility on a retailer. I wouldn’t look at reviews as a way to directly boost sales. I think the benefit of reviews is for the right reader to discover you. The reviews should give them a better idea of what your book is about when they’re trying to decide if your book will be something they will enjoy. For example, there are things a review says that might not be stated in a book description. As a reader, I like it when a reviewer points out if something I like (or don’t like) in a book. Quite frankly, some of the 1-star reviewers complained about things I actually liked, so I ended up getting those books because of them. Sometimes the negative reviews work in your favor.
If after reading this post, you don’t think free is your thing, then don’t do it. There are plenty of marketing tools out there. It’s better to feel good about yourself as a writer than to do something you can’t be enthusiastic about. Take it from someone who’s made mistakes she’s lived to regret. Be true to yourself. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. These are your books. You call the shots.