Free Books and Bad Halloween Candy

In today’s free and easy e-book climate, e-texts of traditionally-published books are passed around like wax-paper toffee on Halloween night–you want some of this? Have four! Have six! No one likes ’em anyway. And that’s not even counting the scads of self-published e-books that are either free or 3 cents each. Most of those are the strawberry candies in the red plastic– no one wanted them either.

OK, I’m exaggerating. It’s not that free books are actually bad. Few books are as awfully nasty as wax-paper toffee, and many free books are very good–it’s just that their plentiful availability threatens to devalue them, like so many strawberry candies dumped straight in the trash can.

Seth Godin, prophet of social media and cultural change, thinks free books can be a good promotional tool. In fact, he thinks the way for debut authors to make it in this day and age is to give away their first books for free.

He said so, in this interview with Michael Hyatt of July 6, 2011. It’s well worth watching simply for all the debatable points he raises about where our book culture is headed and how we should handle that change. Seth Godin is an excellent persuasive speaker–but that doesn’t mean he is always right.

Free books have a very serious downside, and the best article I’ve read on that downside is by Janet Kobobel Grant of Books and Such Literary Agency. Here’s one of her main points, paraphrased:

Will free books flood the market to the extent that readers realize they no longer have to pay for their reading material?

Will readers think: “Why should I buy Ms. Ninja-Writer’s book now, when I can wait 9 months and get that same book for free as a marketing ploy for her next book?” In a tight economy, readers may resolve: “I am going to save money by never paying for a book again.”

My husband works in sales, and he is very good at it. He understands you can sometimes give away free stuff, but giving away too much or giving away the wrong products destroys your own customer base. He thinks this free e-book and 99 cent e-book stuff in the publishing industry is going to smash the market to tiny little pieces.

How many corporations can resist the lure of the quick buck?

Here’s the problem: corporations have always been very bad at resisting the lure of short-term gratification (such as temporary increased sales for a certain author) in favor of a wise long-term strategy (such as limiting or refusing the issue of free books). They have to compete, they want to make money in the ways they see others making money, whether it’s going to work in the long-term or not. For many executives, it’s easier to believe those who tell them that the short-term strategy is awesome and won’t cause any problems. Fewer executives want to hear the voice of caution and contrarianism–it’s too inconvenient.

MyΒ  question for you: Will the changes caused by free e-books permanently affect the ability of authors and publishers to make a living at their work? Will the major publishers collapse and only the best entrepreneurs rise out of the internet heap… entrepreneurs who may not be the best writers? Or do you agree with Seth Godin that free books are a fabulous strategy and the wave of the future for marketing?

52 Replies to “Free Books and Bad Halloween Candy”

  1. Excellent points Rosslyn. I have resisted the lure of developing free ebooks (despite my agents advice) precisely for the reasons you give. Having previously owned a small business I know that the prices you charge are what determine the perception of value you have in the marketplace. I prefer instead to “giveaway” small snippets of information from my books to attract readers.

    1. I like the partial giveaway strategy, Rick. It’s always interesting to me to see how authors think when they come from a small business/enterpreneurship background before they publish. Authorship must now be so entrepreneurial (even when we publish with huge companies) that an inovative, experienced entrepreneur-author can do great things if his/her book is good enough to back up the marketing.

  2. Interesting discussion, Rosslyn. I come from a marketing background, and in my experience if consumers get something for free they value it less. Although I certainly see the benefit of giving the consumer a free sample. But how do you give a free sample of a book? A chapter? Don’t online retailers already do this? Can’t you walk into a brick-and-mortar store and read a few pages for free? It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the marketplace.

  3. Thanks for the timely topic, Rosslyn. E-books have changed the face of publishing. I agree with Rick about using snippets to give potential readers a taste of the book. I’ve downloaded several free books to my Kindle in recent weeks, but have yet to read one. However, I have read 3 out of the 4 that I actually bought. Food for thought.

    1. Food for thought indeed. I’ve even found that I am more likely to read the print books I have purchased before I read *anything* on my Kindle. Solidity matters to me, though e-books are very convenient!

  4. I don’t think this topic is going to settle any time soon. It’s the old saying— why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? I might be fine giving away my book for free for a short time as a debut author so someone might risk picking up my novel and love it so much they’ll pay for the next one.

    It will be interesting to see how authors earn a living wage in the future. Or, will all of us be working two jobs?

    1. What interests me, Jordyn, is whether writing will even be considered a “job” anymore, or maybe it will slide further down the scale towards something like acting, in which 99% of those who do it are unpaid. Or will we develop a union, like Actor’s Equity, to separate the pros from the amateurs? I can’t see that–unionization is not a likely outcome of cyberwork and seems like more a relic of the industrial age.

  5. I keep hearing both sides of this argument, and maddeningly enough, each one sounds good when I hear it. I hate it when that happens! πŸ™‚ I do lean toward not giving books away, but have heard some authors offering free copies to the first 10 people to respond to a blog post, or something like that – in other words, some kind of short-term contest. That sounds reasonable and like a good marketing plan, but then, I’m certainly not there yet, and not the expert.

    I’m enjoying reading everyone’s thoughts on this. Thanks.

    1. Sherri – good point! I think those limited giveaways are not a bad thing. They still imply that a book has value. It’s offering the e-book free to anyone who wants it for a certain period of time–or forever–that devalues books in general, even if the strategy helps promote that particular author.

  6. I really think it depends on what sort of book you’re pitching. I download a lot of free, mindless fluff (to me) just so I can fall asleep at night. The books are usually pretty predictable…and forgettable. Their quality isn’t high enough to rope me into buying the next in the series, especially when there are so many similar free books I can be occupied with. These books also tend to be the majority of the ‘free market’. I think you should be careful if you’re writing/selling books in the genres that are currently flooding Amazon’s free list. Then again, there are many readers who really only read these genres and could be motivated to buy. You need to know your audience.

    Seth Godin’s policy of using free books to bait a purchasing audience is a good one, but look at how he’s doing it. I think it can work in his genre of writing in ways it simply won’t work in other genres. He’s established an authoritative voice, gained a following because of it, and gone forth with free and purchase-only books. How does a fiction author gain a following? Is offering a free book the only/best way? I’m not so sure, especially if your genre is already saturating the free market.

    My current opinion on free books is that you *generally* get what you pay for. The books I pay for are ones that come recommended by people/organizations I trust. I’ve also been baited into a purchase by reading a sample excerpt, but this is rare. I’m an avid reader, but I don’t have a lot of time to go exploring new authors all the time; recommendations are generally what push me to purchase – not free.

    1. I like your distinction between fiction and nonfiction. I thought about this too, when Seth Godin was advocating giving away a free book. His type of content and branding are different even from many nonfiction authors.

  7. I’ve totally been thinking about this lately! Here’s what I think….the first book offered for free, is a good idea – for a limited time, and as a way to help get the author’s name out there to the masses.

    Here are my caveats…

    The first book better be REALLY good!

    Only offer the first book for free. For example, let’s say an author lands a three book deal with a publishing house. The first book comes out. It’s been out for about a year when the second book comes out. At this point, I think it’s pretty genius to offer that first book for free for a limited time, to pull in readers who will then be prompted to buy book two. Here’s where the caveat comes in. Fast forward another year. Book three is coming out. I think it would be very stupid to then offer book 2 for free…..because like you said, Rosslyn, readers are going to catch on. I say, offer book one for free again, for a limited time. Readers will get the point that only the first book will be free. Hopefully those readers will fall in love with the author’s writing. And go on to buy books 2 and 3.

    This, I think, is smart. For both author and publisher.

    1. Katie, I think giving away only the first book might work, but unfortunately, that’s not going to happen! When an author doesn’t launch extraordinarily well right out of the gate (and that is the majority of the time, if you look at the stats) the publishers will give away subsequent books to try to get their money’s worth out of their investment.

  8. Rosslyn, these are fascinating thoughts. I admit that I’ve never really thought about this. As an author trying to break into the market and become recognized, I’ve often thought doing a free kindle version of my book just for a day or two, would be a good marketing strategy. But I think you’re talking more about people that will (self-publish) put their book out on Amazon or where ever for free in the hopes of making a name for themselves – is that right? Well, as we know, sometimes that works. And most times, as Juliette pointed out, those free books are forgettable. I will often download a free book when I see one written by one of my writer friends or if it’s a book that intrigues me, so I guess the strategy does work to get more readers, because if I like the free book, I’m going to spend money on the next one.

    1. Cathy, it’s not just the free books that are the problem, but the dropping prices of e-books as well. But that’s a whole other issue! Part of my point, though, is that when thousands of traditionally-published authors (or tens of thousands) are giving away free e-books even for one day a year, it makes a dent in the perceived value of books. And this style of giveaway never happened with print books, because it wasn’t possible to give away unlimited copies for free.

  9. I’ve been wondering about this lately as well… there are SO many free books on Amazon and there are days that I go on there and download as many as I can find… and then read a few chapters of each just to find out if I’m going to like them. It’s sad… because this is these author’s sweat and toil being given away for nothing. That said, I totally get it as a marketing ploy. In fact, just last week, I sent an email to a bunch of my friends and told them that Jody Hedlund was giving away The Preacher’s Bride for free. Several of my friends downloaded it and read it… and then proceeded to buy her new book The Doctor’s Lady because they loved the first one so much. So, if you’re giving away a book to promote another book, I totally get the reasoning behind it.

    1. It works now, but for me the question is what effect it will have on the general market in five years! πŸ™‚ That’s the point Janet Grant made in her article as well.

  10. I agree with the point Juliette made – I usually use recommendations from others to buy books I want to read. To me, “free” somehow implies that it’s not as high in quality, or it’s not worth paying for – even though that may not be the case. Perhaps it still has that association for some people? Maybe this is changing? I don’t mind paying for a book I want to read, and perhaps the perceived value of the book is more when you are paying for it.

    1. Chris, you’re right, word of mouth will always be the prime seller of books. But I think we’re running into a problem with the perceived value of books because everybody knows very well that there’s almost no overhead associated with distributing an electronic file. Because most of the public doesn’t know how much work goes into a book from editorial and design departments, it’s hard for them to value something that looks very much like an MS Word doc short story they could type up themselves. πŸ™‚

  11. These are some great thoughts on this subject–ones I haven’t seen discussed.

    I’m no marketing genius and maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about, but I thought Donna had a great point about a reader not appreciating what’s free. I can see where limited-time free books might be helpful for a debut author. My question is, if the first or second books of an established, successful author are offered for free to ramp up interest in a third book, doesn’t that seem there’s a doubt as to how the third book will be received? Or is that overthinking the situation?

    I like the idea of sample chapters. I know someone who downloads a number of them on her Kindle and chooses what she wants to buy from them.

    1. Sandra, nice point about the question of why the books of an established, successful author would be offered for free at all. If we look at the real mega-sellers of the book industry, we notice that at least for the moment, no one is offering those books for free.

      No one thinks JK Rowling or Jodi Picoult needs to ramp up sales by offering free product. πŸ™‚ But they were established before the boom in free e-books. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens to newer breakout authors.

  12. The publishing world is in a state of flux, and things are changing so quickly it’s hard to keep up. New technology and services are available all the time, and there are those who will want to give them a try. I think it will take time for publishers to see which of the many options available are viable in the long run. Right now many are flocking to jump on the free-book bandwagon. It’s good for readers in the short run, but I think it could have detrimental effects for authors and publishers in the long run.

    I can’t help but wonder why a traditionally published book is offered for free when I see it. On the one hand, I think a house is simply using a short-term marketing ploy. On the other hand, I wonder if a publisher is offering that particular book for free because it didn’t sell as many copies as they’d hoped, which can make me wonder if that title is lacking somehow.

    It will be interesting to see what happens with the free-book phenomenon in a year or two.

    1. Keli, very good point! And as we learn once we walk further into the realm of publishing, the vast majority of books do *not* sell as many copies as the publisher hoped, which is why the free book strategy may become so overwhelming to the market.

  13. Good Morning Rosslyn,
    Sometimes I wish we lived in simpler times. You answered Jordyn: “What interests me, Jordyn, is whether writing will even be considered a β€œjob” anymore, or maybe it will slide further down the scale towards something like acting, in which 99% of those who do it are unpaid.”

    This worries me. But there’s not much point in worry if it’s something we have no control over. It’s frustrating to have studied the craft for so long, finally been published, and now not knowing if the effort will show reward. I have to think it may come down to preseverance at this point and quality of product. it may also come down to quantitiy of product. I’ve been reading John Locke’s, “How I Sold 1 Million e-books in Five Months. That guy is brilliant but I think he was very smart to offer a lot of product quickly. I think the best thing we can probably do is just embrace change and hope for the best because this business is always changing.

    1. Jill, I really appreciate this angle on the discussion! I take it all lightly in the sense that you’re absolutely right, we traditionally-published authors have no control over this general phenomenon. So, as with other cultural trends over which I have no control, I watch with fascination rather than dread. I have no doubt some very good things may come out of the democratization of the publishing process, but most authors may not get paid more than a penny for those good things. That’s life. I’ll look forward to seeing how it all shakes out.

  14. I was just thinking about this this morning! Rosslyn, you bring up some great points. I don’t really have anything profound to add, but I certainly see the importance of placing value on a product (books too!). When we pay for something, we are far more likely to see its value. Thanks for discussing this important issue.

  15. Wonderful food for thought, Rosslyn.

    I’ll share my personal experience just to show another side. This may not be typical, but here it is. In May, my publisher offered my first book A Tailor-Made Bride for free for one month to boost sales for the release of my third book, To Win Her Heart. T-MB had good sales numbers as a debut and the thought was that if people could get a taste they would order my other books. Judging by the comments on Amazon, there were a good number of new readers who tried T-MB and then ordered the others. There were some who tried it and complained that is was “too Christian”, but I didn’t mind. I was just excited that the book was getting into new readers’ hands. The most exciting reviews were those who said they usually avoided Christian fiction, but after reading my book they were going to give the genre as a whole another shot. Hooray!

    But here’s the kicker. My sales, actual paid purchases, went up for T-MB that same month. In fact, later this summer T-MB hit #17 on the CBA best seller list. Not my new release, my debut published a year ago. Crazy, huh? I think there were a lot of other factors contributing to making the list, including discount promotions at Lifeway and a RITA final, but I think the increased exposure from that short-lived free offer did no harm and possibly benefitted my sales on that same book.

    Now, will there be an adverse affect on the market as a whole down the line? Very possibly. I’ll have to trust the business gurus to figure that out.

    1. Thanks for this insight, Karen–very valuable. I’m going to play devil’s advocate in bringing up another possibility that has occurred to me.

      I know of another author whose year-old novel hit bestseller lists after discount promotions at a number of major retailers. Her novel was not being offered for free at that time. What do the two of you have in common? You both write excellent, well-crafted novels with wide potential appeal. No discount is going to put an unappealing book on bestseller lists.

      But one possible way to see it is that besides their quality, the central factor in the success of these good books when they dropped to a discount price is the pressure placed on book prices by all the free and cheap e-books. Perhaps you had a large number of potential readers out there who had heard good things about your novels and were saying “Hmm, I’d really like to try out a Karen Witemeyer book sometime.” Then, when the novel hit the new, lower price point that most readers are now willing to pay for an author they’ve never tried, all those potential fans ponied up and bought the book.

      This is just a theory, and I could be totally wrong, so I will be curious to see how this situation plays out with future discount promotions of talented debut authors.

      1. I think you may very well be right, Rosslyn. Even with hitting the best seller list, I don’t really expect much from my royalty statement because many of the books slod were discounted copies. But hopefully adding “best-selling author” to my credit will help boost future sales. One can only hope.

  16. Wow, when I read your post Rosslyn, I immediatly clicked onto the comment box to say something, but here I see everything I was going to say has been said! I agree with nearly all of it and it shows that we all basically feel the same.
    So much is undervalued these days, but any author worth their salt will know how many hours, days, weeks and even years go into writing a book, along with the tears and re-writes, so why would you place so little value on it by giving it away.
    It is a nice touch to offer freebies and can certainly help with marketing & promotion, but I would guess all those free books on Amazon, really aren’t even worth the effort of downloading them!

    1. Dee, thanks for your comment! Yes, it does seem odd, sometimes, that we spend so much time working (and weeping) on our books, and then they are taken so lightly. But I guess that’s one of the things we all have in common–we love the process enough to keep doing it.

  17. I can’t help but wonder if, in five years or ten years, we’ll look back at this maelstrom of change in the publishing industry and think “If I knew then what I know now.”

    I’ve spoken with authors who love the free ebook editions of earlier works to promote later ones, and I’ve spoken with authors who feel this devalues their work.

    I do wonder as well if it is doing the authors any favors to have their book put on Kindle for free, then to get a landslide of 1 star scathing reviews simply because the book was too ‘Christian.’ The person downloaded the book because it was free, didn’t bother to read the description or see who the publisher was, then got offended at the content and blasted the free book via review.

    Is this a good thing?

  18. This blog and the comments are thought provoking. It reminds me of something similar…One thing I noticed when I joined Goodreads, with my recent series, and started hanging out there…many readers there, inform other readers there, that they can get free books from Netgalley if they sign up as a reviewer. Then they alert each other when new books are available. Some of these readers are reading four books at a time, they admit they are speed reading. Then they are the first to offer reviews. It’s almost like they don’t take their review job seriously but are out for the free books. It is easy to sign up at netgalley as a reviewer.This does disturb me.

      1. Dianne, a thought-provoking comment! For me, it’s OK if readers speed read, even to review, as long as they are still catching the essence of the book and its plot and writing. I’ve speed-read books that did not hold my interest because they were too formulaic or the characters were stereotypical. But there’s speed-reading and speed-reading. My version of speed-reading is still pretty comprehensive. I’ll say this though–I have been the grateful recipient of a large number of reviews recently from a Litfuse blog tour which continues until next week. All of the reviews were very thoughtful and heartfelt. So take heart–there are plenty of people out there who really care about books and will give them a lot of attention, whether they’re free or not.

  19. Excellent post, Rosslyn, prompting a thought-provoking discussion. With my debut novel coming out in May 2012, believe me, I’d love a definitive answer. But this dialogue proves one thing: There is no once-and-for-all answer.
    I am now tweeting this post, hoping others will join in!

  20. I’ve downloaded a few free ebooks, and one of the ones I downloaded(House of Dark Shadows, which was traditionally published) was good enough that I went on to buy the next five books of the series in paper form because I don’t have an ereader. Since I don’t like spending money, I’ve gotten to the point that I rarely buy books unless I’ve read something else that the author wrote that I considered to be at least four, if not five, stars. This means that most of the newer books I’ve bought are the next in a series after I fell in love with the series while reading a library book or a free ebook. (Libraries might cause the same mentality as ebooks since people could get the idea that they don’t need to buy books when they can get them at the library.)
    If someone comes out with a new book, there isn’t much chance I’ll buy it unless I can read the first book of the series for free so I know I won’t be wasting money on a book I won’t like.
    I’m assuming there are other people out there that are like me and they’re buying books written by authors they already trust. For self-published authors, I’m guessing it’s even harder to sell an ebook when the buyers are going to mistrust the person because the ebook’s self-published. If they have a series, putting the first book out for free could get people to realize “hey, this guy’s really good,” and then buy the rest of the series. Even if that doesn’t work, having a bunch of reviews of the book could help future buyers make a choice.
    In my mind, if the author only has one book published, or the other books are very different from the one that was published, giving the book away for free is probably a bad idea. If the author is trying to promote a series, it might work, especially if the author is self-published and has to prove to readers that he/she can actually write.

    1. Jessi, you give us more great insight on how many of us are thinking about books! Thank you–this is very valuable. I’m intrigued by your points about series vs. non-series, and whether an author is trustworthy. Very important things to consider.

  21. I do think free e-books can be a good marketing tool however, they seem to add to the problem of value. I have a Kindle but I have only bought one e-book on it since May. The reason is that a) either the books I want are not out on Kindle or b) I can buy a paper copy for a dollar more (there is also that pesky problem of not having traditional page numbers which is a problem in a literature class). I just have trouble paying so much for something that is not really mine, truly I am paying for the right to read it. It is especially true of used books. Why pay $9.99 for a Kindle version when you can get the book used for one cent plus $3.99 shipping? It seems that an e-copy should be much less than a print copy. The free and low-cost e-books out there prove the point that they can be made inexpensively. So while it is a good marketing tool, it undermines the publisher’s claim that an e-book is worth as much as a print copy.

  22. Truthfully I don’t know what to think. Not only the writing world but the world in general moves very quickly on to the next best thing these days. That being said we can only do what we can do and try to guess right. I think giving away something I’ve worked on for four years would be the ultimate vanity–the only reason I would have written my historical is to get something out with my name on it, no matter how. Writers have the right to get paid.

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