Why “Free” (probably) doesn’t work

If you’re a self-published author, how do you promote your work? When writing for traditional publishers, I’ve done radio interviews, written promotional articles for newspapers and magazines, been supported by advertising campaigns, and benefited from the publisher’s media connections to get reviews and blurbs. Not to say that none of this is possible for self-publishers – and it’s not clear how effective these well-trodden promotional strategies are, actually – but it’s a much harder thing to be your own marketer (a word that makes me throw up a bit in my mouth, I have to admit, and a job I would gladly leave to someone else).

But if you can’t afford to pay a professional marketer (and I can’t), then you have to try something. One thing that’s often recommended is to give away some of your work for free. While this sounds like an alarming and distressing prospect, the logic behind it seems sensible. If you are a relatively unknown writer, then “free” allows readers to take a punt on you at no risk to their wallet. “Free” also gives you a greater opportunity of being discovered – the free book charts on Amazon and other retailers will provide a steady trickle of downloads and put your book in front of new readers. Free books can also serve as “reader magnets”, enticing prospective book-buyers to sign up to your newsletter, where you can then spam the fuck out of them politely suggest they buy your book.

But therein lies the rub – or at least one of the rubs: to use “free” to encourage newsletter sign-ups, or so that readers can discover you on Amazon, etc, you need more than one book. However, deleted scenes can be turned into short stories to be used as reader magnets, and with a bit more work into novellas, which can then be listed for free on the retailers. Which is pretty much what I did. So how has that worked out for me, you ask?

First of all, I can confirm that free books do indeed result in sign-ups and downloads. In the 10 weeks or so since my free sci-fi novella, Pale Kings, was uploaded and set to free, it’s been downloaded some 200 times on Amazon, 100 on Kobo, and then an average of 10 times on each of Apple Books, Google Play, and Barnes & Noble. In the interests of full disclosure, I did pay a one-off fee of £6 to get the book listed on Kobo’s free sci-fi books page – before which, download rates were closer to those on Apple, Google and B&N. However, now it’s on their free list (where it’ll stay until I change the price), it’s continued to be downloaded steadily ever since, so that investment was obviously worth it – in download terms, anyway. You can see from these figures that only Amazon and Kobo are really any use as discovery strategies, and so while I’m sure there are ways of driving traffic to the other three, I suspect your efforts are better spent on promoting your book in other ways.

But before we get all giddy at the prospect of giving away so many books for nuthin, we need to quantify the results. And what would these be? We can waffle nebulously about building your brand (bleurgh), or “getting your name out there”, but really the only quantifiable benefits to giving your book away for free are that (1) peope may read it, and then go on to buy one of your other books, and/or (2) they sign up to your newsletter (where they are a loyal potential-book-buying friend for life). So did either or both of these things happen? Well, no – or at least, not to such an obvious extent that it might not have happened via (e.g.) someone stumbling upon the paid book on Amazon, or visiting the sign-up page from a link on social media. There were a small number of sales, and a small number of sign-ups – single figures in both cases – but since I can’t know for certain how these things came about, then I can’t say they happened as a direct result of downloading my free book. (In the back of which – I forgot to say – was a call to sign-up to my newsletter so as to get a free short story – the aforementioned reader magnet). So, it’s a qualified “no”, I think, but still a “no”.

And what about free reader magnets? Do they work? Well, again, a qualified “no”. In terms of people signing up from casually visiting my site, conversion seems to be about 1 sign-up for every 100 visitors. However, there are other ways of encouraging this than simply waiting for random web-traffice. If you use book promotions – where you bundle your book with other authors looking for freebies, and then you cross promote the promotion (as it were) via social media, newsletters, etc – then you do get sign-ups. Quite a lot of sign-ups, in fact, if you persevere (Bookfunnel‘s promotions are a great way of effecting this, and My Book Cave is also useful). But will these subscribers hang around? Are they just there for the freebie, and will unsubscribe the moment they have it? Or – worse still – will they just leave your emails piling up in their inbox/promotions tab/spam folder, unopened and unloved? And does this sell any books?

The answers to the above questions seem to be “most of them”, “a few of them”, “the majority”, and “not many”. In other words, while most of the people who sign up will stay on your list, and only a modest percentage will actively unsubscribe, the majority won’t read your emails, but won’t unsubscribe either; they’ll just ignore you, leaving you wringing your hands over whether to delete their subscription or not. And of those who hang around, possibly reading your emails, there seem to be few book sales. So are reader magnets (and newsletters) worth it? I’m still not sure – about reader magnets, anyway.

“Simpleton!” You exclaim. “Don’t you realise it’s a numbers game!” Hurtful, but I appreciate that you feel passionately about this subject. Well, there is a certain logic to that response. Like the seed in the biblical parable, most of your marketing efforts will fall on fallow ground, get eaten by birds, or swept up by those motorised street cleaning vehicles. But if you can scale up, then the small percentage that does grow will make all the effort worth while! So, keep pumping out the freebies, make even buy advertising for the freebies, or buy sign-ups (via Booksweeps and other sites)… and so on. The assumption of this approach is, then, that with perseverance you will build a readership who will (eventually) buy your books. Perhaps.

As I say, there is a certain logic to this answer, and I can’t say that it definitely doesn’t work, if you’re patient enough. However, in the final analysis, it’s the logic of the email scammer/spammer. Of all the millions of scam and spam emails sent out every day, because of the low cost of sending those emails, the sender only needs a small percentage to work in order for their efforts to be rewarded. But this is like carpet bombing a planet to kill a fly. As if the answer to people not opening emails is to send more emails, the answer to people not buying your books is to write more books (so you can give even more books away for free, no doubt). And all the while you’re helping to saturate the market and further devalue “free” (and the quality of the books you’re pumping out), because everyone else is using the very same strategies.

But aside from the negative impact of such a strategy, just how valuable is “free” anyway? I’m starting to think here that the problem is “free” itself. People don’t just value free things; they value value (if you’ll excuse the tautology). Faced with two books – a free one by an unknown writer, and a discounted title by a trusted and quality author – most people will choose the latter. In order to make someone appreciate what they can get for free, you have to also convince them of its value. But if you’re an unknown author (someone without much “value”, in the average reader’s eyes), then you’re giving away your book (something thereby that is also without much “value”), in order to convince them that you and it are both valuable! It’s not only catch 22, it’s deluded.

So what’s the answer? I don’t know – I’m not here to sell you snake oil – but I do think that maybe “free” isn’t it. As part of a strategy to promote other things that have proven value, perhaps “free” can work. A free sample of the second book in a series appended to the first (that the reader has paid for and enjoyed), may prompt them to buy it. But here the free aspect is related to something they already value enjoy to shell out for. And so, the strategy will likely not work so well in reverse (a free book that then asks the reader to buy the follow up), because they may still be unsure of it’s value. In other words, “free” in itself struggles to generate value. A reader may download your free book, because books in themselves have some value, but it will thereafter likely fester on their Kindle unread.

If you’re going to give a book away for free (when so many others are doing the same), then you need another way to attach value to it – such as positive reviews, or some other form of social proof (but that brings its own challenges…). And even then, there is the problem of visibility.

Topics for another time, I think.

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