Why Free Books Don’t Sell eBooks

Last year I wrote a blog about how a book promotion with The Fussy Librarian was not a good use of your marketing budget, and I got a lot of feedback from readers who had had similar, lackluster results. I also explored other book promotion websites, but was unable to find one that had consistent, worthwhile results worth mentioning here. So I did some more research on different ways to get more book sales, and found that by far and away the most fervently recommended path was to set your book for free. The theory is that offering one free book will inspire your potential audience to take a chance on a new author, and then leave reviews or buy the other books you have for sale.

In this post, I will discuss a few ways you can go about doing this… as well as why I have found this to be an extremely ineffective way to sell books.

How to Set Your Book to Free on Various Platforms

Your first thought after reading that header is probably “Can’t I just set the price to $0?” Unfortunately, on websites like Amazon, setting your book to free is much more complicated. While some websites like Smashwords allow you to set a book for free any time you want, Amazon only allows free books under certain conditions. Here are a few of your options:

  • Free Promotions – Amazon offers authors the opportunity to set their books to free for a limited number of days in each quarter. In order to take advantage of this, though, you must enroll your book in Kindle Unlimited, which means that any readers with a paid subscription to this service can already read the book for free. There are upsides and downsides to this which I will discuss in a future post, but if you want to be able to promote your book for free on Amazon, this is the only way to do it. Once you have enrolled your book in this program, you can list your book as free for five days out of each three-month period. The book may become more visible then, and may appear on the daily lists of free books on Amazon itself.
  • Kindle Unlimited – As I just mentioned, the book isn’t truly “free” in Kindle Unlimited, but readers can read it for free if they have a subscription. The author gets a small payment per page read (the amount changes all the time, but we’re talking pennies or less), which some authors say is better than gaining no royalties from it at all.
  • Permafree – I have to be honest: the process for making my book permafree (meaning “permanently free”) nearly drove me crazy. Amazon does not ordinarily allow books to be listed for free ad infinitum, so its acceptance of your free book depends on price matching. First, you have to unenroll your book from Kindle Unlimited (if it was enrolled), and wait for the current three-month enrollment period to end. Then you must list the book for free on another retailer’s website (I used Smashwords), and send Amazon Customer Service an email asking them to match the price. For me, this took weeks of back and forth, because the price listing didn’t “take” the first time. Eventually, though, it worked, and one of my books written under a pen name has been listed as permafree for the last year. For a more in-depth description of this process, you can check out this tutorial.
  • Other Options – As mentioned previously, there are several websites that will allow you to mark your book as free whenever and for however long you want. But if you would rather just get your content out there for free without any rigamarole at all, you can post free chapters on your website (or put a free PDF of the whole book there if you want) or publish the book on a website like Wattpad. These options may not be as successful in funneling people to your other books, however, but as you will see in the next section, this may or may not matter.

Why Free Books Don’t Sell Books

If you do a quick internet search, you will find hundreds of websites and authors who declare that the best way to sell books is to list one of your books for free. This is especially effective for the first book in a series, they say. What you will not find are any websites or blog posts that will tell you what I am about to tell you: in the large majority of cases, this kind of promotion does not work.

Last year, I listed my first novel, Chase and Charlie, for free for three days around Halloween to capitalize on its thriller/horror theme. Without promoting it on any other websites, I got 312 downloads, which equals 312 new readers, right? Wrong.

Later on, I listed Portrait of a Sunset for free for just two days and got nearly 1000 downloads… and one sale of Love and Squalor. The goal of setting books to free is to give people a sample of your style so they will get hooked and buy your other books, leave a review or at least to make you show up higher on the Amazon listings. In my experience, the chances of either of these things actually happening are extremely slim. While I did see one sale of Love and Squalor as a result of my free promotion of Portrait, these results are not worth all of the potential earnings I lost in giving away so many books for free. One book sold per thousand free downloads is not a great percentage.

But, since so many people claim to have had success with this method, I tried again. I have a series of Young Adult books written under a pen name, and I listed the first book in the series as permafree. This is said to be the standard method of gaining readers (and this is a very hot genre), so I expected a huge increase in sales. On paper, I have sold close to two thousand copies… but you have to put that “sold” in quotation marks. While there were maybe two or three downloads of the other books in the series when I first published them (on Smashwords, not Amazon), overall, the only book in this series that is being downloaded is the first one, the free one. And before you say (like I did) that maybe people just didn’t like the story and didn’t want to read more, I can say for a fact from looking at some analytics that the large majority of people who downloaded the book did not even read it.

People like free books, this is a fact. It is understandable (I myself am guilty of downloading books just because they were free), but the problem with this is that readers just indiscriminately download tons and tons of free books without any real intention of reading them. So their libraries are filled with books… and the authors’ royalty accounts are empty. And so are those all-powerful review sections of their Amazon page. If readers never actually read the books they download, this marketing idea of getting them hooked on the book so they will buy more or leave a review is completely useless.

As the old saying goes, why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?

Why It Matters and What We Can Do About It

If you are an author, you might think that any download is a good download, and once upon a time, I was inclined to agree with you. After giving away thousands of books and getting basically no royalties in return, though, I realized something. Authors are conditioning readers to expect to get something for nothing. We authors spend months, maybe even years, writing and perfecting these books, only to give them away to people who don’t always appreciate them or even read them. Already, readers think that $2.99 is too high a price for a book of 400 words that took someone whose name isn’t Stephen King the better part of a decade to write, so self-published authors feel pressured to list their book at a price point that is much too low for the amount of effort they put into it. Now they are given the advice to list their books for free to gain a wider audience, but this method just does not work.

You may think that I am speaking just from my own experience, but I have spoken to several other authors who have gotten the same results. The problem is, this reality never shows up on the ubiquitous “101 Ways to Market Your Book” lists.

Perhaps setting the first book in a series as free works for some authors, especially the ones who are already experiencing a high level of success. But for the authors who are still searching for an audience and looking to really break out, it is an exercise in futility. You feel very pumped at first when you see how many people have your book in their hands, but the crushing blow comes when you realize that it is not going to lead to more sales of your other books (or at least not any significant sales) in the end, and that you have just given away something that wasn’t really earned, but just expected.

I am not naive enough to think that one small blog from an author who is still trying to make a name for herself is going to change anything in the grand scheme of things, but I truly believe that this is just a small part of a bigger problem. Readers are expecting more and more from authors for less and less, and if we all keep giving this to them in the form of permafree or ultra-cheap books, we will never get the respect and royalties we deserve. Making your book free for a few days might be worthwhile, but giving away thousands of copies over the span of years probably won’t get you where you want to be.

So my advice is to not give away the milk for free: have the readers buy the cow. True fans will not have a problem paying you for your hard work because they support and appreciate you.


Do you have any experience with offering free book downloads? What were your results? Let me know in the comments!

2 Responses

  1. Thanks for going against the tide and saying what many have noticed but aren’t saying, as it goes against what all the bigwig indie advice! I think this strategy may have worked in the earlier part of this decade when Amazon publishing was still very new, less competition & thus ppl who came into indie publishing then, made a lot of $$$$ using the “make the 1st book is perma-free” strategy. This is simply not possible now with so many books in the market and our times being incredibly occupied with cells and Netflix & so many other distractions

    I’m also in the process of looking for more and low-cost to no-cost promotion methods. I’m trying to attend as many book festivals and book sales as I can and sell my books in person.

    1. Thank you for reaching out, it is good to know someone else has had a similar experience! I think you are right and that this strategy used to work, but now it just doesn’t anymore and the indie advice columns need to change the advice they are giving out about it to keep up with the times. I wish you the best of luck in finding better marketing methods. If you find something that works well, come back and let me know!

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