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Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Free Book Paradox

At what point is FREE detrimental to sales? If you follow my Back To Basics Blog and The Frugal Way Facebook page, you know I'm always sharing freebies. This includes books.

I've lost track of the number of books I've downloaded for free. Most of them are nonfiction, but the conclusions are the same. Why buy when you can get so many other books for free?

My 'To Be Read' pile is immense. The only time I buy anymore is if it happens to be a book from an author I know and can trust to deliver the goods. New-to-me authors come via the freebies. But my batting average for finding an author I really like through the freebies has been relatively small.

So do freebies help or hurt the author?

I have to filter in the fact that I'm particularly hard to please (so sayeth my husband). The law of averages says that eventually I'll find the right author for me. But even with the thousands of books published every day and so many of them offered for free or very cheaply, it's a little like being a fish in a pond with a thousand hooks but no bait.

A hungry reader might snap at the empty hook, but most of us are looking for meat. Sometimes it's the pesky fly who is constantly pimping her books. Sometimes it's the meal your buddy-fish are nibbling on.

I regularly see listings for free books from various groups. Often, the only thing guiding me are the titles and genres. To learn more, I have to investigate each one individually.

A lot of factors have to be met before I click the "buy" button. Did I like the blurb, the cover, and the reviews? More importantly, did I like the writing style? It must be doubly interesting if real money changes hands.

So does FREE help or hurt sales? I look at it like playing the lottery. You might hit the jackpot, but most likely, you'll walk away with a small prize. A little distraction, quickly forgotten by the next day.

Have you ever tried a free book? Do you think the author made the right decision giving it away for free?


This week on Back to Basics I posted a complete supply list for creating your own Pet First Aid Kit, and also a super-duper remedy for cleaning toilets.


Renee Miller said...

Funny, I've been working on an article this morning on pirating, DRM and free reads. I'm like you about books, although I will pick up a "new-to-me" author more quickly than you will. I think that has more to do with the fact that I review said books than anything. I haven't found many that I felt were worth the money either, but there has been one or two. F.G. Cottam, for example, was one I'd never have picked up. But I'm glad I did. That wasn't free, btw. I paid for the book.

I tend to view free books with a huge bias (whether that's right or wrong of me to do so is debatable, I agree.) because I believe that if the author thinks the work has value, she'll place a price on it. On the other hand, I think freebies can make a good marketing tool. It encourages reluctant readers to give you a chance. You, as the author, have to determine if the risk of said reader having a bias before they even open the book is worth the end result.

I don't know whether offering your books free works for or against the author. In most cases, I think it only works for the reader.

Maria Zannini said...

Renee: Exactly. Who doesn't want something free? The reader is the only winner here.

For the author, it's so hit or miss though. I've tried to analyze what makes me click 'buy' but there are so many variables involved. There is no single straight-cut answer.

Clarissa Draper said...

Thanks to Kindle, I buy a lot of free books. I'm choosy though because there are so many books to choose from. I watch for genre and reviews before I place it on my huge TBR list too.

Maria Zannini said...

Clarissa: When I first got my ereader, I downloaded anything I could get my hands on, but now I'm extremely choosy. If I don't think I'll read it within the next few months, I pass.

Ros said...

I'm a book blogger, so my experience of free books is skewed by the fact that I get given as much literature as I can handle for free already. With that in mind, I won't review free books any more, because for me half of the point is to help people decide whether it's worth their while to invest in a book. And I do think there has to be a good reason for a book to be free, so I'm often suspicious that it's because the book isn't selling well enough as a result of poor quality writing or editing.

Raelyn Barclay said...

I've tried a lot of free books but the percentage to read more from an author is relatively small. The freebies I seem to gravitate to are where the author is offering the first in a series, or trilogy, for free to drum up new readers for an older series. I also like prequel freebies which again is a marketing thing. Perhaps that's the writer in me.

After going through both eReaders and deleting a rather large chunk of misses, I'm definitely taking more time to decide. Like you, even with the freebie label, I have to like the blurb and now the sample has to give me something. I don't put a lot stock in the reviews on most sites but now I'm on Goodreads I'm finding a much better middle ground.

Roni Loren kinda talked about the same thing earlier this week. It's a new world of books :)

Stacy McKitrick said...

I don't have an e-reader, but I do get free books - from publishers at conventions. I've found some new authors this way and now I purchase their books when a new one comes out.

I do have a lot of books piled up waiting to be read - most of them gotten free at conventions. Now when I go to a convention, I'm very picky as to which freebie I want.

R. Mac Wheeler said...

I concur with all your other readers. I've ranted (I'm not as tactful) about the same thing on my own blog.

- I think FREE is saturating the market and killing the prospects of many an Indie
- Why buy anything, when you have 400 more titles waiting for a perusal?
- I've learned to quit a book a lot earlier now…that hook better spear my gut

Regards, Mac

Maria Zannini said...

Ros: You make a good point about reviews helping people decide whether to buy or not. But I think reviews still offer that service even if the book is free. Chances are good that if I like one book from the author, I might like others too. I read review blogs not so much to learn about new books, but to learn about new authors.

Raelyn: To me, the best reason to offer a free book is to get people interested in the other books in the series. If they hook me with book 1, I very often buy book 2.

Stacy: This is true! I never thought I would turn down a paper book, but when I was last at a convention, I did.

FWIW: I was more likely to try a new author I met and spoke to at a conference than if I had been given a book.

Maria Zannini said...

Mac: Free can be useful for a series or for an author trying to break into a new genre. But even for them, they're competing against thousands of other free books glutting the market. It might've been a useful tactic a couple of years ago, but the public fatigues quickly. Free is no longer good enough.

L.G.Smith said...

To be honest, I don't understand why authors offer their work for free. It's like telling people you think your effort is worth squat. I understand the desire to lure people in by offering samples for free, but to publish entire novels and just give them away? Doesn't make sense to me. I honestly think people will take the work more seriously if they have to pay for it. Psychologically it has more value to them, even if it's $1.99. Just my opinion.

Maria Zannini said...

LG: The concept of 'Free' has been practiced since man first traded goods, so it's not an original idea. And it must work to some extent because people continue to use it across broad venues. The barrage of Facebook product giveaways are testament to that.

My qualm comes from its overuse, or in this case, abuse. Books cease to create incentive when there are hooks everywhere.

Barbara Ann Wright said...

I've only read free books when I've won them somehow. Of course, no one's ever offered me for nothing at all.

LD Masterson said...

I'm not big on free books. I think I've downloaded a couple but not sure I ever read them. I think I react to them on two levels. As a reader, if I'm interested in a book, I don't mind paying for it, and I'm from the "you get what you pay for" generation so I tend to be skeptical of freebies. As a writer, I don't like the idea of the market being flooded with writers who are willing to give their work away.

Mike Keyton said...

I think everything's been said, Maria, but that's never stopped me before : ). Thing is, buying something concentrates the mind - especially if you happen to be 'time-poor'. I mean, I've downloaded timeless classics for free on my kindle and have had problems - usually excuses - when it comes to actually reading them. What chance does an 'unknown' freebie stand?

Maria Zannini said...

Barbara: I've been aware of Carina giving some of their books away, but I don't know how they work that out with their authors. I've never put mine for free either.

Linda: Ref: As a reader, if I'm interested in a book, I don't mind paying for it...

Bingo. And therein lies the rub. How do we (as authors) impart that our books might be of interest to the browsing reading?

Mike: I face the same problem with print classics too. I buy them with every intention of reading, yet they remain on my shelf looking pretty.

Angela Brown said...

I've downloaded a few free books. Usually ones that are on a three-day sale or a special. But they're usually ones that would have a $2.99 to $4.99 price any other day.

I've had pretty good luck with free books. I'm not too picky, though I will turn my nose to a book that gives off whiffs of unprofessional work before I can even get beyond the first page.

Maria Zannini said...

Angela: Of those I've read, I can't complain. They were decent escapist reads. Only once did I return a book because it really was awful and I didn't know how else to remove it from my library.

Dee said...

I read contemporary romance mostly. I've downloaded dozens of freebies, maybe even a hundred of them, in the past year or so. I've found the vast majority of them are free because they're not good enough to sell. Really sad, and I'm quick to stop reading if they're really awful.

But occasionally there's a gem among the chaff, and in a couple cases I've gone back and bought more books by that author.

Jenny Schwartz said...

I'm not sure about free (I'm a writer, I believe in writers earning money!) but as a reader I do succumb to a heavily reduced first book in a series. Then if I like it, I go on to buy more at full price.

Melissa McClone said...

I don't have an eReader so usually read them on my mac. I've had my hubby download a few free books (mainly non-fiction) as well as friends who ask if I would to get their ranking higher. But I've never found a new author I'd buy a book from after reading a free book. But I have found authors from print books I've received at conferences that I've purchased. Not sure what the difference is though.

As someone above posted, I totally see using it to get someone to buy a series. But even then I wonder if putting a lower price tag on it would work, too. I just don't think Free works the same way as it did a year ago. And I'm going to pay more attention to something that has a price one, even a lower price point, then a book offered for Free. But that may just be how my mind works.

Charlee said...

I find it doesn't matter how much or how little I pay for a book, if it isn't a book that fits my interests then it just isn't. I won't read it just because it is free. I have found some wonderful new authors by being given free books, but if I'd stumbled across those books I might have bought them anyway. Giving books away may help just because it increases discoverability when there are so many titles out there competing for readers.

Sarita said...

My tbr pile is so huge that trying free books just because they're free isn't incentive enough. At one time, before I had so many balls to juggle, I would've loved free books. Now I really, really have to be interested in something to add it to the must-read list.

Shelley Munro said...

I've been thinking about this recently. When I first got my iPad I went crazy with free books. These days I'm more selective, and it depends on genre and blurb. I'm picky because my to-read pile is so huge. There are only so many hours in the day for reading.

I said to my husband the other day - there are so many free books available. Why would I buy books? Of course I might change my mind once I get a chance to read some of my to-read pile. I'm sure there are some good books out there, but I'm equally sure there will be some that don't appeal.

Jennifer Shirk said...

Yeah, I don't automatically go for a free book. I have to know that I'll actually read it. So I do tend to investigate first. :)

Sarah Ahiers said...

I've downloaded a few free books. But i've actually yet to read any of them. I don't really know what that means about me

Nadja Notariani said...

I've downloaded free books, and all I can say is I've found some terrific reads as well as some I didn't finish. I suppose I haven't read enough 'free' ones to have the numbers to vote one way or the other.

I like it when authors offer a special deal - as I can get a bargain price to try a new author. The 'free promotion' is a great idea, but not hardly a day goes by that I don't get some invite or another to 'get it free'. So, I see your point in the post. In the end, I go with my personal tastes.

I do not mind paying for books. I love them! I read constantly. Once in awhile I peruse the reviews, but honestly, if I like the blurb, I buy the book. I have tried samples to see if the author's writing style is to my tastes, and that's worked well.

Maria Zannini said...

Dee: Although I haven't yet found one that makes me want to seek out the back list, at the very least the author's name is known to me. They get that much closer for me to choose them again at some future date strictly from name recognition.

Jenny: It troubles me that authors jump on the latest trend to give away freebies without understanding the concept on why or when it'll work.

Melissa: I honestly don't feel 'Free' works as well as it used to. People are using it wrong. 'Free' only works if it's being used as bait for other work.

Marguerite Butler said...

A really timely post, Maria. At least timely for me. I've been talking to my publisher and we agreed to offer a first book in a series for free when the fourth book is released. Book one won't be free forever, just for a limited time to attract new readers to the series. I'll let you know if I think it does anything to sales. I can't imagine offering a stand alone for free or offering one for free forever. Not unless it was a prequel or short story tied to a series world. Then I could see it paying off, but otherwise what is the point?

As a reader, I do try free books but only to see if I like a new author. Some are just "new to me" authors and some are brand new. I've found a couple of authors that way, but not many. There was one I found and liked, but when I went to download more of her books, they were all $14.99 for category romances. Yikes! I didn't like her that much and passed on buying anything else.

Maria Zannini said...

Charlee/Sarita: That's me in a nutshell. A high price tag might make me hesitate, but free or cheap is not an automatic 'sale' for me. My time is more precious than money.

Shelley: That's exactly the conversation I had with myself. What is more strangely intriguing is that now that information and stories are everywhere, has the novelist become passé?

Jennifer: And the investigation too takes time, so I don't even go that far sometimes.

Sara: It means you're just like the rest of us. :)

Nadja: I'm a little suspect of reviews lately. So many of them feel canned, rather than an honest gut reaction. A writing sample is my favorite way to choose a new read.

Maria Zannini said...

Marguerite: Let me know if you noticed a difference in sales. By the time you get to Book 4, you've already got your loyal audience. It makes sense to expand your reach outside your fans. Sounds like a smart plan.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I have never tried a free book though I have taken advantage of many free short stories. I can tell something about an author's style and decide if I want to buy a book from them.

Maria Zannini said...

Susan: I almost always read a sample before I buy or click for free, but that in itself is time consuming.

It's a classic case of too much choice and not enough time. :)