Do Free Ebooks Really Hook New Readers?

*Image Source John Atkinson*

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Over the past couple of years with the rise of ereaders and ebooks, I've noticed an increasing trend in free ebooks. In fact, most online bookstores have a special place readers can go to browse free ebooks.

Usually authors and publishers offer those free ebooks for a limited time with one main rationale: to HOOK the reader. They want the reader to enjoy that book enough to take some kind of action including leaving a good review, talking about the book with others, and most importantly purchasing the author's already published and future books.

Over the past months, I've chatted with other authors and my publisher about the pros and cons of offering free ebooks. Whenever my publisher has offered my books or other Bethany House books for free, we usually see a short spike in the sales of that particular book after it resumes its cost. Apparently by making the higher end of free lists, the book hits the radars of new readers and draws interest.

However, I personally haven't noticed a spike in sales of my other books during a free promotion. Of course, over time the free ebook does hook some new readers (because fans have told me they read one of my books as a result of a free promotion and went on to purchase the others).

But . . . it's very difficult to breakdown how many sales result from such tactics, the same way it would be difficult to tell sales that result from someone reading my book free at the library and then going to purchase my other books.

The bottom line is that whether a reader gets a free ebook, free library read, or even a free ARC or influencer copy from a publisher, some become fans and some do not.

Even though readers can get free books from the library or through a publisher's review program, those kind of books come with strings attached. Obviously a library book must be returned on a deadline. And if a publisher or author gives ARCs or influencer copies, they usually expect the reader to make some promotional efforts as a result.

But when a reader downloads a free ebook, they have no obligations or deadlines. And I think it's the obligation-free aspect of a free ebook that may be troublesome in hooking new readers.

As I've analyzed my own habits regarding free ebooks, here are a few conclusions I've come to:

1. I always read the books I purchase. In fact, I make myself slog through it even if it's not especially engaging. I figure if I paid for it, I need to get my money's worth. This is usually true of ebooks that I purchase for as low as 99 cents, although I am more willing to give up halfway through on lower costing books.

2. I can download a free ebook and easily forget about it. For one thing, it's not physically staring me in the face like a paper book. But also because I didn't have to invest anything in the book, I have no motivation to actually read it. And with so many other books demanding my attention, it's all too easy to let the free books slide to the bottom of the stack that I'll read "some day."

3. I'm more willing to try debut authors if the book is free. While I may not always highly value a free ebook, I'm more apt to give a new author a try when I can read their book for free or at a low cost.

4. When I finally get around to reading a free ebook, the story has to WOW me in order for me to go over and purchase other books by that author. Once again, I have too many other books sitting around (particularly free books on my Kindle!). So if I'm going to actually purchase a book, I REALLY have to like the author.

In conclusion, free books haven't made me stop buying books of authors I love. I continue to do that. I'm not sitting around expecting to get all my books for free now. But free ebooks certainly don't have the hook power over me that publishers and authors hope for. And if that's true of me, I have to think that's true of other readers as well.

What do YOU think of free ebooks? Do free ebooks hook you into taking some kind of action like purchasing other books of an author or leaving a review? Do you value a free ebook as much as one you purchased? 

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