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!

16 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!

  2. Hi Jessica, just found your post.
    A very good read. I too, have experienced the downloading of thousands of books across a dozen titles that were accompanied by a herd of crickets singing in the sales department. It is extremely demoralizing and borders on aggravating. I have also used review services (Expresso tours) where one shares the cost of a net galley promotion. It is a good concept and is probably useful for those who write in erotica or crime procedural thrillers, however for those who write in a genre such as mine, historical fiction, it was a dismal response. This is no fault of the service. They did their best, and their list is refined, however not towards my genre. It was an expensive waste of time and funds.
    Fussy Librarian provided a huge number of downloads, but no reviews.
    The Voracious Readers service which provides 25 select readers, (all very polite in their correspondence and you collect their emails) who will leave a review for a free copy, was a waste of time as well. It produced one review left on Goodreads, when the review does not move across to Amazon it is useless. I have an extremely low opinion of Goodreads. I believe there is an arrogance or sense of hubris that is somehow an innate trait of Goodreads readers who usually acquire their books for free.

    Now that the whinge has subsided, I will admit I am yet again trying a giveaway. This time it will be a perma free book funnel exploration in conjunction with a King Sumo giveaway. If one is burning money why not make it bright? I have also taken to another unusual marketing ploy which is through Airbnb. One of my books is set in Barcelona, where I live. I do a walking tour of the locations indicated in the book and then finish with a Catalan lunch in a unique venue. Everyone receives a book for free and are able to peruse my other novels and enjoy my Baileys and coffee creme brûlée.
    With the plethora of self-publishing advice in a saturated market, drowning becomes a distinct possibility. I believe alternative/ guerilla marketing is as valuable as burning downloads through KDP select. I actually considered going to London book fair and walking with a sandwich board of my books, hawking them and giving away free download copy codes on business cards (of the cover) made by Book Funnel. It would be reminiscent of an old town cryer. Perhaps I would be laughed out of London, but I may still do this. What’s to lose?
    I apologize for the long comment. Stay in touch maybe we can do a group promotion reduce costs and spread the joy? Cheers Kevin

    1. Hi Kevin,

      Thank you for reading! I’m sorry to hear that you haven’t been having any luck with free books either. I really like your Airbnb idea, though, I hope it brings you luck!

  3. I am still new to this game, as I have been a ghostwriter for 6 years, then I decided to take a leap of faith into self-publishing. During my ghostwriting career I wrote a total of 23 novels, 4 of which became national bestsellers, so, I assumed I can’t do any worse.
    Well, I followed the advice given by a client/friend whose book became a bestseller in 2016, wrote an entire book and made free, started a giveaway to establish my author platform, lavishly offer free books as reader magnets to sign for my newsletter.
    That was 4 months ago, I have a reasonable social presence, and a reasonable subscriber base for my newsletter, but none of that led to real sales, if you call 11 books in one month of launch sales, then I am selling.
    I still wait for reviews, after sending hundreds of copies to bloggers, I have only 4, and I can’t risk throwing more money in advertising until this number doubles.
    And my free book without much promotion got around 1000 downloads, resulting in almost nothing.
    Thank you for the enlightening article, I now know that I am not alone.

    1. You are definitely not alone — even if I wish that was better news! I have had the exact same experience and no reviews and not many sales to show for it, but hopefully soon we will both find a way that works! Thank you for sharing your experience. I was worried about what the reception would be to this post, but I am finding that a lot of people are in the same boat as we are. Maybe once people start talking about this reality instead of claiming that free books are the best way to get more sales and reviews, something will change. (I know that’s probably unlikely… but we can hope!)

  4. Hello,
    I`m a German romance author and had two days in a row perma-free for one of my books at the last weekend. It didn`t bring me more sales so far, but at least two good reviews. But people seem not that much into buying ebooks at the moment. I guess it has to do with this Corona panic. People spent already all their money on toilet paper and tinned food.

    I agree that some readers are looking for free and very cheap content only. An ex-“friend” of me is not ready to pay a single cent for any book, not only indie books but Diana Gabaldon as well. So she gets all her books from Onleihe. I have no problem with the poor people, pupils or students going to libraries. For them this system was made, but she earns more than me and kind of infected most of her colleagues. They will also borrow only now.
    And it is a damn myth that your books in the library will give you more sales. Don`t give your books in the library if you want to get them into Kindle Select in the future or if you just will still have this possibility open to you. Just one library licence sold will make this impossible for 4 years (depending on how long the library licence will last).
    I as a reader downloaded a free book from another author, read it and just bought three of her other books.
    On the other side I must confess I have downloaded a lot free books that I never read. But I still buy books and not only the cheap ones. The books I buy have a much higher chance to get read.
    If I have read from an author and liked it I will pay full price, a lot more than 0.99. If I will want and read a book does not depend on the price as much as how interesting the book is for me. But maybe I appreciate it more because I write myself and know of all the hard work the author put in it.
    I think there are different kinds of readers. Some will appreciate and pay more than 0.99 and some will want free or very cheap even for the bestsellers. The freeby seekers that won`t buy books or only buy for 0.99 are not my target audience. But I think you can indeed find a few new readers via freebies, but for 100 downloads maybe only one or less.

    1. I completely agree. There are some people (especially now during the Coronavirus crisis, like you said) that are only interested in free books. Which is great for the reader, but what about the authors? It isn’t fair, because the authors are trying to earn a living, and you can’t do that by giving things away for free, especially if that doesn’t result in any more reviews or sales.

  5. Hi Jessica,
    I’ve tried KU to no avail, no page reads, not even pennies earned. Smashwords recently ran an “authors give back” promo, where I set my books (4 of them, women’s fiction and romance) for free. I had more downloads for that promotional time (coincidentally, during the beginning of the Corona Crisis), than I had all last year. But my Amazon sales have flat lined for all of 2019-2020. And no reviews from anyone. People are lazy. They don’t realize that as indie authors, we needs those reviews. Though I’m skeptical about that too. I have a sneaky suspicion (though I can’t prove it), that authors who advertise with Amazon get bumped tot he top. I don’t advertise because I see the market as being too saturated. The day the Smashwords promo was over, and I set my books back to full price (between $.99 and $2.99) my downloads flat lined again. Now I’m wondering if all those downloads were just pirate sites.By trade, I am a graphic designer, and I saw the same thing happen when people started practically giving their work away for free (or $5.00) on sites like Fiverr. They undercut the graphic design market. Now everyone expects logos done for $5.00.
    I never expected to strike it rich by being an author. And when you really question most indie authors that say they are making money, most of them are still in the black because of their advertising costs. They are spending more than they’re bringing in. I think a lot of them are kidding themselves. Of course there are always exceptions, and congrats if you are actually turning a profit.
    And you can’t convince me that it’s because of just cover design. I have seen a lot of crappy covers where those authors “claim” to be making money.
    II don’t know what the solution is. Maybe go back to selling books door-to-door like the encyclopedia salesmen of the past.
    In any case, it’s good to know I’m not alone in my frustration. By the way, a few of my indie author friends and I have been making our own ads and putting them on each others blogs for free to avoid advertising costs. It’s in the early stages, but if we could get more people on board, it would definitely get more exposure at least, and hopefully, more sales.
    Happy writing!

    1. Hi Lisa,

      You are definitely not alone!
      And I agree, I think that the indie authors who claim to be successful because of ads are either exaggerating, or they are spending way more money on ads than they are bringing in. I had never used Amazon ads either, partially because I’m like you and agree that the market is too saturated, but also because I don’t really think it’s fair that you have to pay money to Amazon (who already takes a cut of any sales you may make) just so that your book isn’t completely hidden. But I did give ads a try a month ago (to be honest, I was desperate to just sell one book for the first time in a long time!!). It did absolutely no good at all. Unless you are willing to pay thousands of dollars to advertise, you won’t get anywhere, and you are basically throwing your money away. I tried the pay-per-click model, and the price per click was so high (and you have to keep raising it and raising it if you want to get any results at all) that I ran out my entire budget in two days and only got a handful of clicks and zero sales. I was paying at least double the price of my book per each click! I don’t see how that could lead to bringing in any money…
      So, long story short, don’t waste your money on ads!
      There has to be a better way, I just don’t know what it is yet!
      That’s a great idea to put ads on other indie author’s blogs. I hope it takes off and I wish you all the best of luck! :)

  6. I’m not published yet so it’s good to read this.
    Tell me,what were the results and statistics when you stopped giving free books,if you did?
    Were buyers more ready readers by purchasing and did you use the same marketing strategies that you did for free?
    Since I’m not published yet,
    I’m curious to know what you do to market your paid purchased books.

    1. Sorry for the delayed response! To answer your question, I saw absolutely no increase in sales after I stopped giving free books. In my case, it did not make a difference at all, in spite of most articles I read online saying that putting one book for free leads to more sales of your other books. From what I have seen (and what writers have been telling me here and elsewhere), people just want a free book, they aren’t looking to buy anything else. A lot of times they don’t even end up reading the free one! I’m sure there are some exceptions and that there are some people who genuinely read and enjoy the free book and it makes them want to follow the author who wrote it, but I haven’t seen this myself yet and neither have any of the other authors I have spoken to about it.

      I’m still trying a lot of different things in terms of marketing, but I haven’t found the best solution yet. When I do, I will let you know!

  7. I’ve reach the same conclusion. I’ve had the first book in my series on perma-free for most of two years. I don’t have a problem getting daily downloads, and I get great reviews. But it hasn’t resulted in many sales of the next two books in the series. For example, I’ve had about 30,000 downloads of the free book, and sold less than 400 of the third book. I suspect that there are readers who will never pay for a book, not when there are so many free books available to them. I even had a reader send me an email saying how the first book was one of her all-time favorites, and how she was dying to read book two but couldn’t afford the $2.99 price. Out of the goodness of my heart—that or stupidity—I sent her book two. Heck, maybe she’s homeless and on food stamps, a single mom trying to support five kids. Probably not. The sad thing is that when I switched to KDP, I made even less. You have to really love writing to do this, that’s the bottom line.

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