Free Books: Should You or Shouldn't You? Crunching the Numbers

One of the most hotly debated topics in the self-publishing community centers around free books. Should we or shouldn't we? Do they really work to build reader awareness of our books? Are we devaluing our work by offering it for free? My answers, and they are based ONLY on my own experiences, are YES, we should, YES, they work and NO, we're not devaluing our work by offering a book for free for a period of time. In fact, we're helping to ensure that new readers find out about our work.

Think of it in the context of a common business term: the loss leader. If you make no money on one book for a week or a month but you sell hundreds or thousands of your other books that you wouldn't have sold otherwise during the same time, is it worth what you lost on the free book? Did the loss leader do it's job if the hundreds or thousands of people who read your free book buy one or more of your other books because they liked the free one? How would that be a "loss" in the grand scheme of things?

Before we go any further, let's talk about how you make your book free in the first place. With Amazon, you have two options. You can enroll your book in the Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) Select program, which requires you make the book exclusive to Amazon for 90 days. In exchange for the exclusivity agreement, you receive five free days at any time during the 90 days and your book will be made available for lending to Amazon Prime subscribers. For each "lend" you receive a dollar amount that varies, but tends to hover in the $2.20 range. Some months it's a little more, some months it's a little less. Amazon makes available a certain amount of money ($600,000 for both May and June of 2012) that all KDP Select authors share. To calculate how much each borrow is worth, Amazon takes the total number of borrows and divides by 600,000. The other way to make your book free on Amazon is what I like to call "gaming" the system, meaning you make it free elsewhere and report the lower prices to Amazon and have others do so, too. Amazon prides itself on having the lowest retail price for all its products. If you publish direct to Kobo or Apple, you can easily make your books free on both platforms. More on that later. Barnes & Noble has no mechanism (that I'm aware of) to make books published through PubIt free. I hope they fix that before too much longer. We—and they—could be making a lot more money if they allowed us to offer freebies. You can distribute a free book from Smashwords to B&N.

My first experience with a free book occurred in February of 2011 when my first publisher, Sourcebooks, offered my second book with them, Love at First Flight (July 09 release), for free for a week when my third book with them, Everyone Loves a Hero, was released on Feb. 1, 2011. I later heard there were about 100,000 downloads of Love at First Flight that week. It went back on sale and went all the way to No. 5 on the Kindle list and sold more than 13, 000 copies in that reporting period. I still hear from readers who tell me they found me through that giveaway. In addition, Everyone Loves a Hero became the first of my published books to "sell through" the advance during the first reporting period, a major accomplishment for any traditionally published author. I credit the free book for these results.

At that time I had two self-published books available, True North (Nov. 2010) and The Fall (Dec. 2010). True North sold 51 copies on Amazon in November of 2010. True North and The Fall sold 832  in December 2010. On Jan. 3, 2011, the second in my Fatal Series, Fatal Justice, was released from Harlequin's Carina Press. In January 2011, I sold 2,087 copies of True North and The Fall. On Feb. 1, 2011, Everyone Loves a Hero was released and Love at First Flight was offered for free the first week in February. I sold 6,775 of True North and The Fall in February 2011. In March 2011, I released The Wreck, my third self-published book, and it sold 5,433 copies the first two weeks it was on sale and went on to sell more than 10,000 copies in its first month. It was the first of my self-published books to make the Kindle Top 100. My overall sales for March 2011 for True North, The Fall and The Wreck were 10,742. My numbers exploded the first week of February 2011, and they've been explosive ever since. 

To give you a better visual of the numbers, all of which were from Amazon at that time:
November 2010: 51 sales of 1 book
December 2010: 832 sales of 2 books
January 2011: 2,087 sales of 2 books
February 2011: 6,775 sales of 2 books
March 2011: 10,742 sales of 3 books (third book added third week of the month)

Where did the game change? February 2011 with a free book.

I enrolled True North in KDP Select during one of the first months it was offered. I used my five free days during the week after Christmas 2011 and had 45,000 downloads during the free period. True North went back on sale and sold 3919 copies in January 2012. In addition, I had 229 borrows in December that earned $405 and 938 borrows in January that earned $1583. I enrolled The Fall, my second-oldest self-published book, in Select after True North completed it's 90-day obligation. I posted it for free during Valentine's Day week 2012 and had 14,000 downloads. It went back on sale and sold nearly 400 copies, which isn't bad for the book that has been the least popular of all my self-published books. The Fall had some borrows, too, but nothing major. Next up, I offered Georgia on My Mind through the Select program in May. I used my five free days over Mother's Day weekend and had 59,265 downloads. It was the no. 1 free Kindle download for four of the five days it was offered for free. I received a LOT of mail from readers in May. Here are two that included the words we want to hear when we're offering a free book:

I just thought I would tell you how much I enjoyed your delightful book Georgia on my Mind. I loved all the characters and the sweet outcome. I like positive books like this one, and hope to read more of your books in the future. Your book gives one hope in a very dismal world! Thank you.

I downloaded "Georgia on my Mind" yesterday and just finished reading it. I LOVED your 3 sweet stories rolled into one. You have a wonderful writing style and it was such a delightful bonus to read a story set in my home one of my favorite cities. I'm looking forward to reading more of your work.

It went back on sale and ended up selling 1,433 copies in May and had 377 borrows. To contrast, it sold 374 in April 2012 and 400 in March 2012. So it's clear that the free days sparked a run of sales that generated significant revenue in May. I haven't gotten my May report from Amazon yet, but I will let you know how much I made on the borrows for that month when I get the report. So far in June, Georgia has sold 665 copies and had 194 borrows. In the cases of True North and Georgia on My Mind, the KDP Select Program led to a decent bump in sales after the free period as well as some "found" money from the borrows. However, it bears mentioning that something seems to have changed at Amazon since the early days of Select. Many authors are reporting that they are no longer seeing the huge bump in sales they once saw after the free period ended. My numbers bear this out: 3,919 copies of True North sold after the free period in December whereas only 1,433 sales of Georgia on My Mind were recorded following the free period in May.

When Season for Love, book 6 in my McCarthys of Gansett Island Series, was released earlier this month, I very much wanted to offer book 1, Maid for Love, as a freebie to spark interest in my growing series. However, because of Amazon's exclusivity requirement for Select, I was unwilling to go that route because I didn't want the series to be incomplete on the other platforms for the three months it was exclusive to Amazon. So this time, I "gamed" the system. I made it free at Kobo and Apple (easily done since I publish direct to both platforms) and I made it free at Smashwords. I reported the free offerings to Amazon and I waited. And I hoped. On Tuesday of this Week, Maid for Love popped up as a free Kindle book. By Wednesday, it was the No. 1 free Kindle book, where it remains now. So far it has had more than 48,000 downloads (Friday AM: up to 56,000). It has been averaging a thousand downloads per hour.

Book 2, Fool for Love, has seen a very decent bump since book 1 became free on Tuesday. In May, Fool for Love sold 1,456 copies. It sold 302 between June 2 and June 9. It's sold 822 since Sunday and is trending in the top 40 for contemporary romance and is at no. 219 overall (Friday AM: 145). It was ranked at 1800 earlier in the week. If even 1/10 of the 48,000 people who downloaded Maid for Love for free so far buy the other five books in the series (speaking solely about Amazon here), then 4700 x 5 other books (and growing) = 24,000 sales. The books are priced at $3.99, of which I make $2.69. So 24,000 x 2.69 = $64,560. Every dime of that could be directly correlated to the free offering of Maid for Love. That total doesn't count the readers who go on to buy all 20 of my other available books as well as any future books I publish. Here is a sampling of what I've heard so far from readers:

I just finished my first Marie Force book, "Maid for Love". I enjoyed it very much, and am looking forward to reading about Janey and Joe (the couple in book 2), I am hoping those two characters find their way to each other, where it would seem they belong. I truly enjoy a romance novel now again and this one did not disappoint.

Hi Just read Maid For Love! To cute. Loved the story. Will read more, surely.

I just read Maid for love and went on to purchase the rest of this series all the way to Seasons for love.  Your book kept me reading until I finished it in a day and a half.  Can't wait to start Fool for love as soon as I finish this e-mail.  Thank you for adding some great romance.  Have been married 44 years, brings back memories of younger years!!!

Is there a glut of free books? Absolutely. Is there a very good likelihood that a large proportion of the people who downloaded Maid for Love this week will never read it? Absolutely. Regardless of these factors, my conclusion is that free books aid discoverability, one of the most important words in this new Wild West of publishing. With more and more people self-publishing their books, you need to do whatever you can to make yours visible. Offering a book for free is an effective way to raise your profile. Now, here's where the tough love comes it: It's got to be a good book, a well-edited book, a professionally presented book. Or what's the point? If you're not getting the results you want, go back to the product and take another look. 

A Few Lessons Learned in Offering Freebies
1. Free books make the most sense when you have other books available for sale. That's not to say a free offering can't be beneficial when you have only one book available. What I mean is if you are hoping to bring business to your brand, your brand should have more than a single offering to justify the cost of the bait. 

2. If you're enrolled in Amazon's KDP Select Program, I recommend using your all of your five free days at the same time. I've noticed the first day or two tends to be slow, things pick up tremendously the third day, and the fourth and fifth days tend to have the greatest number of downloads. That tells me it takes a few days to get the book into the free search engines, so if you're only offering your book for free for a single day or two days, you're not maximizing the search engine optimization. 

3. Make sure you're listing your other books in the back of each book, but especially in the one you're offering for free. The E-book Formatting Fairies recommend customizing all your books to each platform to include live links to your other books. If you make it easy for readers to buy your other books, they will be more likely to click on the next book and buy it right away than if you make them jump through multiple hoops to spend more money on your books.

Questions? Feel free to fire away! I'd also love to hear from other self-published authors about your experiences with free books.