When Promoting An Ebook: To Free Or Not To Free?

If you want to get your book into the hands of more readers, running sales is an effective strategy. Most authors do one of two things: run a $0.99 promotion or offer the ebook for free. Which is the better tactic depends on whom you ask.

arrow-964733_1280I’m currently running a free ebook promotion for Drake and the Fliers, and I wrestled with the free vs. discounted question pretty much until it started, despite it not being my first free promotion. I did one for Project Renovatio leading up to the release of Project Liberatio, hoping to get readers hooked on the series.

Drake is a standalone novel, so the reason for the promotion is different than making book 1 free in order to sell books 2 and 3. Simply put, Drake needs readers and it needs reviews. After seeing how many reviews my friend’s book got after promoting his free ebook on Bookbub, I was motivated to try a free promo with Drake.

I’ve been hesitant to offer my ebooks for free in the past for a few reasons (based on what I’ve read from other authors):

  1. Free ebooks are less likely to be read – no financial investment could mean less interest.
  2. Your book could get a bad review from someone who downloaded the free book but didn’t really like the premise – they downloaded simply because it was free.
  3. Perception of quality – something offered at no cost can’t be very good, right?
  4. No money will be made during the free promotion, obviously. You’re hoping to gain fans who will recommend the book to others, who will buy it. There is no way to know if it’ll work.

I am guilty of the first point as a reader, but I also purchase ebooks. If given a choice to read something I paid for or something I got for free, I’ll start with the one I paid for. I want to know if my investment was worth it.

On the other hand, there are some plus sides to offering an ebook for free:

  1. It gets into the hands of A LOT more readers. This is also why all of my books are available to KU subscribers.
  2. More readers could lead to more reviews. One site I checked said 1-3 reviews per 1,000 downloads is realistic. I’ve seen a similar rate cited for paid ebooks.
  3. Greater visibility after the promotion – the book will be ranked on Amazon’s free book list, but there may be carryover to sales after the promotion ends.

So we’ll see how this promotion goes, and if I gain any more wisdom on the subject I will write a follow-up post. In the meantime, I leave the question to you – pick the version that most applies to your situation.

If you are an author, do you offer your ebooks for free? What is your reasoning behind it? Have you had success with free promotions?

If you are a reader, how do you feel about free ebooks? Do you jump at the chance to download, or do you have reservations? Do you read the ebooks you get for free? 


45 thoughts on “When Promoting An Ebook: To Free Or Not To Free?

  1. Pingback: What Did You Like? 2016 In Review | Allison Maruska

  2. Your great post confirms what I have been reading about promos! I love free books in any genre and will buy more in a fiction series if the first was free. I self-published my first (and only, so far) eBook in July on Amazon for 99 cents. Got a few buyers…it’s a book on blogging photography. I am using KDP Select later this month to do free promo mainly to get some reviews, then hopefully resell for 1.99. I enjoy your site and am a new follower. I am in the process of creating a free eBook as a promo prequel for email subscribers. Exciting times!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. For my own part, when I download a free book I usually read part of it right away, and then, forget all about it. I published my 3rd ebook on Friday and have decided not to give it out free this time. My first ebook received a few sales after its first free promotion, my second book did not. Reading what others say on the subject some people do very well by giving their book away free for a time. Marketing though, is what plays the largest role in determining whether or not a book sells (something I am trying to learn).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree that it’s not ideal for every book. I’ve never done a free promo for my historical mystery novel and it’s done very well anyway. Drake’s promotion was great. I’ve seen a couple of reviews, and I’m hoping more trickle in over the coming weeks. I’ve seen some sales after the fact too.
      Marketing sure is tricky, isn’t it? We have to find new ways to get our book in front of potential readers all the time. I wish I could say I had a magic formula, but what works for one book doesn’t work for the next. Argh.
      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Friday Roundup – 2nd September | Stevie Turner, Indie Author.

  5. Thank you for posting this and for all of the comments people are leaving. I’m working on self-publishing my first novel later this year, and I’ve been thinking about price points and free vs. cheap. So this was really interesting and gave me a lot to think about. I’m going to need to bookmark it.

    As a reader, I love free books. I don’t download books just because they are free, but I am more likely to take a chance on a book, or try a book outside of the genre I like, if it is free. But I do look at the blurb, the cover, and the reviews to see if it’s something that intrigues me. Of course, I download books, and, like you, want to get to the ones I paid for before I get to the free ones, so there are dozens and dozens of books on my kindle waiting to be read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have so many books on my kindle that I’m always surprised when I scroll through them – “I have that?! Cool!” It’s like Christmas.
      I’m glad the post and comments are helpful! I can always count on the smart people around me to add to the conversation. 🙂
      Good luck with your book!

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I’ve got a permafree which is a collection of short stories that were previously published elsewhere. I don’t mind making it free as I was paid for some of those stories when they were first published, so it’s not necessarily a money spinner anyway. I think short term free promos can be useful but the three novellas I have with independent presses are only ever discounted to 99c. True, that does mean less people download, but the ones who do are more likely to read them. A couple of people have left poor reviews for my permafree, but it’s quite clear from the review that it wasn’t their genre to start with, and they only downloaded because it was free. Going forwards, I think I’m going to keep at least one book free, but everything else will only ever be discounted to 99c.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve tried the 99c route as well as the free route, and a short time free giveaway has been much better for getting my name out there than the short term 99c promotion. I’ve gotten a few negative ratings on Goodreads as a result, which was a bit difficult to stomach. I mean I knew that those ratings were likely due to a person just downloading because it was free and not a reflection on my writing, but they did take down my overall average rating. Even still, it is worth the risk as I’ve also gotten some great 5 stars as well from people who might not have ever seen my book had it not been for the promotion.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, you never know how those reviews are gonna go. Big picture, it’s better to have a greater number of reviews, even if some of them are bad. It shows that more than just your family and friends are reading your book. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Very interesting to read about the free book concept for promoting sales. Kindle gives away classics, which is probably a clever way of getting new readers to buy further editions of other Kindle novels. Classic novels are in our memory and we sometimes like to have a return read. Certainly once you become an author your second read of a classic novel will be with a different perspective. Guilty of reading Tolstoy’s short stories mainly to marvel at his character description! Free books or excerpts from self help or other non fiction are probably a very good way of attracting interest. There is also output to consider for a fiction writer. We are told about authors who produce good selling novels within months. Is this ever true? Mainly a novel is the culmination of several years-even ten years work from an initial first draft before copious rewrites prior to a final manuscript. My first novel is attracting interest and is now in a Kindle edition, as is my second novel. The lower price appeal hopefully entices additional readers from the first print buyers. But could you not upset your first readers by offering free copies? The dress/suit you pay ninety pounds for- in the sale next day for thirty?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve wondered about past readers getting irritated by the deal – but then I remember there aren’t very many of them. LOL
      Seriously though, this is such standard practice that I don’t think anyone would care. Books go on sale or are offered for free sometimes. That’s just what happens.
      As for producing many books quickly – that’s the current line of thought for creating income as an indie author. I’m not sure it’s possible to create and publish a whole book in a few months either – unless the author is like me and is clearing a backlog of finished books. Even so, it’ll take probably six months to finish edits and get the third book of the trilogy out.


  9. I had a great response to putting my thriller ‘For the Sake of a Child’ for free from July 23 – July 27th. . I had over 2400 downloads, and the book rose to number 3 in the Amazon Free ratings. Even now the free period is over, readers are still purchasing this book more than my other ones this month. I’ll definitely do this again.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thanks, Allison, for an interesting post with lots to consider, including wonderful comments that add value. I don’t think I’ve downloaded any free ebooks, but I have bought some ebooks that are still waiting to be read or finished (I’m part way through a few). Most of the books have been recommended, or are by authors whose blogs I follow. Unfortunately I do not make enough novel reading time at the moment, but hope to in the future. Sometimes I buy the books and they sit there, waiting to be read, just like the pile of books beside the bed. I’m probably not one to be taken in by a promo. I’ll consider how well the book fits my reading preferences and the likelihood of my reading it. I am happy to pay a fair price for a book. It’s a lot of work, and often expense, on the author’s part.
    Having said all that, I have currently launched my website of early childhood teaching resources, and have kicked that off with a promotional discount. What can I say?
    In your response to Penelope, you mentioned the promo going into two newsletters. I’d also be interested in hearing how that goes.
    Best wishes with your promo and future sales.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your habit of collecting ebooks that sit on our virtual nightstands sounds a lot like mine. I’m also happy to pay a fair price – I’ve done this more than a few times with authors I’m developing working relationships with, and they’re always surprised! I tell them I know how much work goes into creating a book. 🙂
      Good luck with your website and product launch! I’ll let you know how the newsletters go.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I hate the idea of free or 99p books. It undervalues all the work that goes not them – likewise music. £15 for a vinyl album is a fair price, and rewards the creator. Funnily enough, the exchange of money even enhances your relationship with the book/record. I’d rather sell no books than give them away. But this is only my opinion.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I always set the price to 99 cents for a few days after the free days, and put “Special Low Price!” In the first line of the description. Ive determined that you will make more money, and you will get better ranking. Why? Because you’ll have readers that are looking for free. When they see 99 cents, they’ll buy anyway.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Well, one thing: if you’re gonna offer your book for free, you could put up a blog post ahead of time letting people know you’re going to do it so we can get it.

    I would also then make a few comments in the post. People who have already bought it can recommend it to friends while it’s free. Less risk to them and their friends. Also, people who for whatever reason didn’t buy it before can use the free option now. Like you said, zero risk.

    As an author, a free book at the beginning of the series has historically generated lots of reviews and create a demand for the rest of the series. Since I have never done that, I can’t say if that works or not, but other people swear by it.

    My experience has been as follows. When I am trying to sell a book and I offer a different book for free, I don’t sell any of the book I’m trying to sell. People come and grab the free one and they don’t do anything else. I wouldn’t have a way to know if they came back later and bought something once they had a free sample, but authors much more popular than me have said that’s the case. So I am going to put some of my books up for free over the next 30 days and hopefully that garners some interest. It’s also possible to check out the free stuff and decide I suck. In which case, I don’t think I’ll get a lot of sales on the other books.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Consider this the “free book notification” post. 😉

      I’m not sure I’ve seen much crossover from a promo book to other titles either – I saw a boost in sales for The Fourth Descendant about the same time Drake came out, but that might have been a coincidence. Part of the reason I set up this free promo the way I did (control day, then two separate email/newsletter type services the following two days) is to see what’s effective and what effect, if any, those sites have on sales of my other titles.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I can’t speak as an author but I do enjoy free ebooks and have downloaded quite a few. I’m more likely to read a book if the cover and blurb excite me and not whether I’ve bought it or not.

    I’ve seen a lot of ebook offers, sometimes special promotions and I’ve been on a mailing list that regularly sends out info on the latest reduced or free ebooks. I think given how many books there are out there today and the (unfortunate) quality of some indie authors I’ve read, I find it hard to pay full price on a book by an unknown author. That’s where physical books in shops sometimes are easier for me, I can flip through the pages reading a bit here and there and spot if the book sounds good throughout.

    But with ebooks I think a lot of people will do the same and take a chance on a book if it’s reduced or free. I certainly don’t have issues downloading a free book, if it’s terrible I’ll just delete it later :).

    Liked by 3 people

    • I rarely download something just because it’s free, but I know a few people – I may or may not be related to them by marriage – who are “if it’s free it’s for me.” Doesn’t matter what it is. So people like that are out there. As proof, I mentioned I am running a free e-book. 50 copies got downloaded the first day. To my knowledge, very few pages got read. Now, maybe they’re all in the middle of other books and can’t get to it yet but that will prove itself out over the next month or so. If the number of pages never goes on the rise then I know people are downloading the book and not reading it. That’s worthless, then.

      I do know that a crappy cover will make me not want to buy the book no matter who produced it, independent or traditional publisher. You can usually spot them a mile away. I can. If I t looks homemade in the least little bit, I do not buy it. The blurb is less important but still very important. I have been impressed with other people’s blurbs but I could not say whether or not I bought the book because of the blurb. Or if the blurb always matched up with what the book was about. Who goes back and checks? Suffice it to say, if authors can hire people to do their book cover, authors can hire people to do their blurb for them. The writing inside is usually what matters to me and within the first few paragraphs I know what I’m dealing with and know whether I want to read more.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Ooh I’m one of those people who annoys you then because I rarely read something right after I’ve bought it. These days it’s tricky for me because I read books I’ve been given to review so don’t have that much time for my own choices, but in the past I’ve often bought books from both bookstores and online digital ones and just kept them until I feel like reading them. Usually a few months after 😮 !
        Book blurb is definitely enticing for me if it’s done the right way. I think what bothers me about some blurbs is that they either read boring or worse, give away the ending. One author I knew explained the final scene in the blurb, though you didn’t know how it ended I didn’t want to know what the last scene is!
        And I agree with the book covers. I’m always attracted to a book by it’s cover. I once bought a fantasy book after seeing it on display from a distance. Book covers are probably the hardest thing to get right though, I’ve seen a bunch of covers even by traditional publishers that look so boring. I reviewed a boring looking book once and found it to be an amazing fantasy and one that had me glued to each page, but the cover was so simple and old fashioned and didn’t appear at all fantasy, it looked like contempory fiction about a teen girl, no an epic fantasy adventure which it actually was.

        Liked by 2 people

          • Yeah that author who did that told me they weren’t good at writing book blurbs. I offered to help but he said he wanted to do everything himself :o.
            I don’t often comment on the cover in my reviews but yes I would and have. With that book I was thinking of I told people not to be fooled by the simple cover. If a book’s really good and the cover’s really bad then I say something like that or that I’d prefer a more striking cover, etc. but I never go saying, I hate the cover (even if I do). Clearly some people do like the cover, even if its only the author lol


        • It’s a tricky business.

          I can tell that all the free books I’ve given away this weekend, by isolating the report, I can tell nobody has really read them. But if I don’t get a lot of sales of them going forward (of that book) and the page count picks up then I can assume they did! So it’s trackable to a certain degree. And if other book sales increase then there may be some association there. People think there is but it’s hard to know for sure.

          Liked by 1 person

  15. I was a reader first, so that’s what I’ll answer first. 🙂

    I love free books. I don’t always download them, but I definitely read the synopsis and I’ll take a chance on a free book a lot sooner than I would one which I’d have to pay to read. I’ve found free (or very inexpensive) books are a great way to get to know a new author and decide whether or not I like them – and if I do like the free book, I’m way more likely to spend money to get subsequent books by that author. (In fact, I’m kind of a sure thing in that regard.)

    I disagree that free automatically means low quality. I’ve read countless free stories that are substantially better written than stories for which I paid. Of course there’s a chance the free story is terrible… but frankly, the same can be said for anything written. And if it’s free, I’m less likely to be that annoyed by it. I don’t tend to leave negative reviews as a rule – but I’m much more likely to tell people I didn’t like a book when I had to pay for the privilege of not liking it, instead of reading it without the initial monetary investment.

    (I’m probably an anomaly there, though.)

    As an author… I haven’t done any free (or even discounted) promotions for my books yet, apart from enrolling them all in KU. It’s not that I’m opposed, I’d actually really like to try it. I just haven’t had time! I know the promotions are really only successful when you market the hell out of them, and that takes a ton of time to arrange. Plus, I write in a weird niche. I’m not all that sure a promotion would do me many favors.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for the great comment! I also disagree that free = poor quality. Back when I had a lot more time to read, most of what I downloaded was free and most of those were quite good.

      Drake is also in a weird niche, so I’m interested to see how this goes. Today is the “control” day, where I’m doing little promoting of the free deal – just a Facebook post, a tweet, and this blog post. Tomorrow and Monday it goes into two newsletters that I paid to have my deal listed. I’ll let you know how they each do, if you’d like.

      Liked by 2 people

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