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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? 

39 comments:

  1. I think the power of free is dwindling a little bit b/c of the flood of books. But, it's also true that it works best for books in series. The sales don't always translate as well over to non-series books.

    The authors I know that put their book 1 for free do so in conjuction with adds (which Amazon reduced that power recently) and they do get a good burst of sales for the series and then yes, it goes back to normal.

    Others put book 1 for free permanently and they're doing extremely well. As with most marketing tools, it totally depends on the book and the market and how well the book does without the marketing tools.

    I haven't used it yet and I don't know that I will. :)

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    1. Great point, Laura! I can definitely see that putting the first book of a series on sale or for free could be a way to hook readers, particularly if the first book is a wow-me kind of story. With stand-alones, there just isn't enough drive to go out and buy another book the same way a series book might have in drawing readers into finding out what happens next.

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  2. I think readers (me included) stockpile free books and, as you say, forget about them. As an author, I have not yet taken advantage of the free books promotional periods offered out there, although I have done a few giveaways, where maybe one, two, or three books are given away for free. But nothing en masse. I just never saw the point in giving books away for free when BABY GRAND is already very affordable at $2.99 ($2.51 on Amazon).

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  3. My friends and I all want the opportunity to take advantage of the free promotion. We give one another chances and as mentioned "I'm more apt to give a new author a try when I can read their book for free"

    Oh and by the way, next week is my birthday and I will be having a free promotion for my book

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  4. Great points, Jody. I did read the other day one downside to listing a book for free. While the potential to reaching new readers exists, one writer expressed in a recent blog post that he also reached a large amount of readers who weren't afraid to leave really bad reviews for books that they never would have read had it not been free. So, I guess writers must weigh the benefits of increased downloads, thereby increased exposure to the Amazon algorithms, with the increased potential for bad reviews. For an established author who has a pretty good fan base, this decision might not be as big of a deal. But for the newer author who is just getting started, the risk is a little greater.

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    1. I hear you on the reviews, Heather. With a free download, you'll likely get some non-genre readers who pick it up simply because it's free. Thus they'll write poor reviews because it had "too much romance for my taste" or something like that. And then you want to say, "Well, it IS a romance, so what do you expect?" :-)

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  5. I'm way more committed to reading a book I purchase than one I get for free. But I'm also the insane kind of reader who will get a free or low cost book and then become hooked on the series, paying up to $8 for three other books in the series. Pathetic, I know, but true. If I fall in love with a series, I just have to finish it. And yes, library books have hooked me on writers whose books I now purchase regularly. I'm undoubtedly the kind of buyer marketers target with their "free" books.

    However, the free first book thing doesn't hook me so much for stand alone novels. It's when I see the extra characters from book one start to get into trouble that I know I want to read their own story.

    I have heard from authors who self publish (usually older series that they've gotten rights back to) that putting the first book in a series free or at low cost works really well. Most of these authors will then report the next books in their series sell 30,000+ copies all together. So if I had an old backlist, you could bet I'd be throwing up digital editions and seeing how far that could get me. But I'm on the other end of things, just starting off a with books whose rights I won't see for a long while. I personally have no interest in doing anything self published until I have a long, trusty record of books with publishers. And even then I don't know that I'd self publish. Time will tell, I suppose.

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    1. Good point about putting back lists for free. I'm still too young in my career to consider something like that. But it's something to keep in mind. After all, years ago, those books would have faded into oblivion. Now we can keep our backlists in front of readers so much easier. And can possibly use them in a free promotion to draw attention to newer books. Definitely a plus that's made possible in our digital age!

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  6. I've found books on sale and for free, both on my Kindle and physically, that I have yet to read. The list *is* longer with the freebies on my Kindle. But on the other hand, one free ebook I found really hooked me. I received the second book for free, then waited anxiously until the third was available. Now I'm carefully following the other series she's writing. I'm buying each ebook on release day, actually. So I can see both sides of the equation. (By the way, that author who is now my favorite is Cidney Swanson - http://www.cidneyswanson.com/ )

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  7. It's always difficult to pinpoint the source of sales increases if you are employing multiple methodologies in your marketing mix. Sometimes you receive anecdotal evidence that readers are hooked by a particular method, but it's impossible to gather statistically valid information since surveys and such involve voluntary response. We're all shooting in the dark to an extent, including the big players in the game, which comforts and worries me at the same time.

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    1. This is exactly what happens. It's always difficult to pinpoint sales sources. Obviously we can take a look at what happens to our books around the free ebook promotion and make some assumptions. Like I said, that free ebook always seems to sell better for a time after the promotion. But I'm not really sure how the free promotion contributes to sales on my other books. Because usually those kinds of sales happen more gradually over time and get mixed in with all my other sales on the books.

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  8. I haven't experimented with giving away, because to my mind it's part of a longer-term strategy. A freebie should in theory hook new readers to your work generally and you need multiple titles to keep them coming back (I'm not there yet).

    But then again, I've seen others use free promotion to boost their rankings and visibility generally with some payoff when the book goes off of free.

    I'm very selective about what I'll download, and tend to both look inside and read other reviews before even taking a chance on a freebie. A few I've picked up from traditional presses have been total clunkers. The only books I go bonkers downloading free are classics or lesser known works from "classic" authors. They've stood the test of time.

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  9. I can see both sides of this issue. I downloaded many, and I mean many, free books on my e-reader when I first purchased it. Now, I'm very picky on what I put on it because honestly some of the free e-books are terrible. However, I have found several authors I really enjoyed and have purchased a few of their other books.

    I agree I am more likely to read a book I purchase before reading a free book. Even if I'm in the middle of a free book I stop reading that and dive into the one I purchased.

    Price also makes a difference. If the e-book is the same or a little less than the paper edition, I'm less likely to purchase it. I have no idea why I think this way! ;)

    As a reader I think it is great to get a free book but I also understand authors need to be paid for their art.

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  10. From a reader's perspective I do think the free books introduce me to new authors. If I love a book and the author has more I will either get more from the library or purchase them. However like you said I have a million {figurative lol} on my nook and most of them were free, I have had to purchase very few. I also agree with what you said that I have SO many that I cant read them all. Honestly it sometimes comes down to what the cover looks like :/. However when I do find a book I like I will usually finish whatever books he/she has out. So while I cant say whether its a good business idea as a reader I do think that a free book will introduce me to a new auther/series and have a way of keeping me. I may not remember what book the author wrote but I will remember the authors name and typically if I liked or disliked the book. Hope that helps!

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  11. I personally love free e-books. Living on a retirement budget, I am reluctant to spend money on a book from a new author. I have discovered many new authors I love from first reading a freebie. (Including yours!) I especially love the ones that introduce me to a series. If I love the characters and the writing, I'm very apt to purchase the others of that series.

    I do leave reviews for free books. I feel more obligated to do so if I get a book for no money. I also love to tell my friends about new authors I find that way. I think a lot of my free books have resulted in sales for that book from people I know.

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  12. You make a lot of really good points. All I can say is from my own experience. I got Becky Wade's first book, "My Stubborn Heart" for free. Same with a few of Karen Witemeyer's books. Read them, loved them, preordered their next books. It definitely seems like an effective tool for debut authors. But like you, I have a lot of free books sitting on my Kindle that I haven't read yet.

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  13. I gave away 100,000 copies of the first book in my mystery series in August and September of last year. The result was several thousand new readers who went on to purchase the other four books in the series. I consider that a success. A 4-5% return rate isn't bad at all, especially when it didn't cost me anything to do. Those other 95% who downloaded the free book and didn't go on to read the others, wouldn't have paid for it anyway.

    The results are different from author to author, obviously, and from book to book, but it can be an effective way to promote.

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  14. I have TONS of free books sitting on my kindle. I've read a few. I usually try to work in at least one or two kindle books (free or otherwise) a month in addition to all of my other books I read.

    I admit that on a couple of them, it's the first book in the series, and once I finished it, I bought the others in that series. Others have been ones on my to - read list for months because I've seen them being advertised in various places and when it was free, I snatched it up. Others still are e-copies of ones I already own and love and wanted both the paperback that I usually bought and the kindle freebie.

    My mom's a great example. My brother and I gave Mom a Kindle for her birthday last year. She has read most of the free ones she's downloaded, but then got hooked on the author and bought all the other books from that author.

    I will admit that the Kindle freebies have helped me discover new to me authors. Some that I probably wouldn't have bought because my budget is so tight. And as a fiction reader, I'm more apt to download a free nonfiction book that looks somewhat interesting because it's free than I would be to go out and buy the same nonfiction book.

    There are other books that I know are coming out and I'll know I will want to read it. I try to request it from the library before I take a chance on buying it.

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  15. I've downloaded oodles of free e-books to my Kindle Fire, often with the idea of helping boost an author's rankings, but I've yet to read a single one of them. I'm busy working my way through the books I've purchased, which comprise quite a sizable stack. While many of the e-books awaiting that distant someday when I have unlimited reading time are great stories I'm sure I would enjoy, the reality is I only have so much reading time, and I tend to spend it reading stories by authors whose work I know and love.

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  16. I discovered Jocelyn Green as a freebie release with Wedded to War. I loved it and recommended it to several other people. I have even found a few authors with 99 cent downloads or only a couple of dollars.

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  17. At first I went crazy with the free ebooks, but then I realized they don't seem to be a shortage of them. Ha.

    So now I'm pickier. I'll only download those I look interested in or if I'm doing it to help boost an author's numbers I want to help (like something I already have in paperback, I'll download the freebie) but like Keli, my physical stack is more intimidating so I work at that. So the only freebies I read on the kindle right now are the ones I purchased or the ones I would have purchased at some point but got for free before I did.

    I really like the 2.99 or less pricepoint for authors I'm not sure about. If it goes on sale for that, it's low enough that I get sucked in to buying it immediately to give them a try since I've been thinking about it, but not committed since they're new to me.

    However, the freebies from certain publishers I'm starting to expect will happen, maybe it's just because I'm a writer, but I have a feeling, some publishers who do this a lot lose when readers catch on that if they just wait until the next book releases, the previous one goes free.

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    1. I had to come back and comment that I like the idea of one free book or novella. Because if the purpose is to introduce someone to your writing, then that would work I think. It's the periodically offering all an author's books on free that I'm not sure I get.

      Though if you're hurting for reviews, maybe that's a way to get them, but if you're not, then that one freebie I think would do all the hooking necessary. My opinion only of course!

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  18. I have over 1k of free, unread books on my Kindle. This is partly because back in 2009, I downloaded anything that was free. I am much more jaded now because I've realized most are crap from self pub authors who don't edit. Next, I realized quite a few were series starters meant to hook readers and so the books were short and ended abruptly with a cliff hanger. I have given many bad reviews when the author pissed me off for blatent manipulation. I've found some gems, but they are usually via recommendation from a fellow reader that noticed a book they enjoyed was free. In the last year, I think I've followed two authors and bought their other books and when I did, I bought and read all the books each one hadavailable.

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  19. After homeschooling for more than a decade, I hadn't read for pure relaxation and personal enjoyment for years until my oldest got me a kindle for Mother's Day last year. Finding authors I enjoy without breaking the bank was tricky, and it was the free e-books and our church library that got me started. If I liked what I read, I was much more comfortable buying other books by the same author.

    So while I agree with every one of your points, I guess I disagree with your conclusion, at least for myself. Off the top of my head I can think of four of my favorite authors who I discovered because I got a free e-book from each of them. In each case I've purchased all or nearly all of their other books, either in the form of an e-book or a physical copy. So the free e-books turned out to be a pretty effective hook for me.

    Interestingly, the first book I ever read of yours was "The Preacher's Bride" which I checked out at our church library. I loved it and have bought everyone of your books since, including your latest. I haven't read it yet because I'm saving it for a very long car trip coming up. Even though it's killing me to see it sitting there, on my kindle, waiting. I feel like I should get a reward of some sort for my patience and self-denial.

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  20. Free ebooks can definitely hook new readers. It has hooked me for a handful of authors I might not have tried otherwise.

    The problem is publishers and authors want to see a spike right away, but that's not realistic. If the reader has never read the author before, she's going to want to read the free book before investing in the others. Then, many readers who download free ebooks don't read them right away. I don't. I'm now reading an ebook I downloaded a few weeks ago, and that's pretty amazing considering I read ebooks in between writing, editing, reading print books for review and everything else going on in my life.

    Often I don't get to ebooks until months after I've downloaded them because one has to download during the promotion, not when she's ready to read. But if after reading an ebook by an author I was unfamiliar with and enjoying it, I have gone back and purchased other titles. I'm sure neither the publisher nor the author directly ties those later purchases to the original free ebook download.

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  21. LOVE, Love, Love the discussion today everyone!! It's SO enlightening to hear the variety of thoughts about free ebooks!! Thank you ALL for chiming in! I appreciate it! :-)

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  22. Late to the party (not unusual), but had to chime in. The publisher of my first four novels was of the opinion that free ebooks "hooked" readers. My current publisher feels that carefully crafted campaigns with special low prices for e-books draw in readers, yet make them feel they have more commitment to the books.

    Putting aside the one-star comments that the free books produce,the crux of the matter is whether people are more likely to read books that came free or that they paid for. I definitely think the latter is true.

    However, unless you're self-pubbed, the whole argument is moot, since the publisher's marketing department has the ultimate decision power.

    Thanks so much for the excellent post.

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    1. True, with traditional publication, sales and marketing do have the ultimate decision power. But I have to say, that with every ebook giveaway that my publisher has done, they've ALWAYS contacted me first to get my okay on it. They've always let me know when and for how long. And when I've asked them the rationale, they've always had a response that made sense. I think now that they've been doing it a while, they're learning more about the effectiveness or not. I've noticed that they've experimented and tried different things, and hopefully are beginning to land upon what works best.

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  23. I have used the free program under Kindle Select in the past but not for many months. Firstly, you have to restrict yourself to Amazon only for 90 days. Secondly, I have to wonder if free is so wonderful why aren't there lots of free things out there. I've yet to get a free haircut with hopes that I'll become a regular customer; the same goes for shoes or restaurant meals. I have seen discounts or buy one, get one cheaper or even free. But straight free, no strings attached? Only e-books. Maybe there are free songs on iTunes, I'm not sure.

    I think as writers we should all put a value on our time and talent. It is frustrating, though. I've read that at any given time there are thousands of free books available.

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  24. That's a hard one...

    I was super pleased with the # of free downloads I have... I figure if even 10% of them actually read them, then that's a lot of people who read it who probably wouldn't have otherwise.

    Also also got 20 more reviews in the week that followed, all but one were very good reviews (and from people I didn't know, LOL) so I figure a low % of the people who actually read the book will review it, so I'm pleased with the results. Don't have #'s as to the increase of sales that followed, but my amazon ranking stayed "better than normal" for the next week or two, so it at least helped a little!

    Personally, I have a LOT of free books on my Kindle that I haven't read, for the exact reason you named. I buy the ones that I want to read RIGHT NOW and, well, my time is limited, so that's where I usually go. But I turn to my free Kindle books when I need something new or am out of books, and I've found a few new favorite authors that way that I now buy their books.

    That said... how I buy and read books is MUCH different now that I'm an author from before I got back into writing. So I don't think I'm always the typical reader.

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  25. I recently took advantage of three free ebook offers from contemporary writers who self publish. I was disappointed in the writing quality. I assume these aren't fair representations of the self publishing market as a whole, but still. I'm grateful they were free. I'd wanted to post positive reviews on my blog. Instead, I'll have to refrain.

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  26. The timing of this post was interesting since it came shortly after a Facebook friend of mine posted that her cousin had her e-book up for free on Amazon. I downloaded it, and it sounds interesting, so I'll probably read it eventually. I also shared her status update since as an aspiring author myself, I like to do what I can to help other new authors out.

    I don't have a Kindle, but Amazon has Windows software that one can use to read Kindle books, so I do plan on reading it next week sometime. And if I like it, I plan on giving the author a good review, which is something I probably wouldn't bother with if it weren't free, but I figure it's my way of paying it forward to the author - the more good reviews, the more likely other people are to check it out, right? I don't know if that's actually true or not in reality, but the principle seems sound.

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    1. True, I do think that you can get a few more reviews by offering the book for free. But I would rather do that strategically by offering my book upfront to people who would be willing to influence (leave reviews, etc.), rather than leaving to chance to readers who don't have any obligation.

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  27. A lot of my current favourite authors I have discovered through reading a free ebook. I do agree, that many go unread, and that I'm more likely to read a book I've paid through all the way through, but I think that's because I evaluate a paid book far more than a free one. I'll download a free ebook just based on the cover or a short blurb, whereas I won't download a paid book without reading the sample, and knowing I wanted to read the book right now.

    So yes, free books are looked at differently than paid ones, I think there's no way around that. However, I've had many people who've read my free ebook say that they're looking forward to reading the sequel. I do think some of the trick to free ebooks leading to other book sales is through series, not stand alone books. You need a hook to lead the reader into wanting to know what happens next, which doesn't happen in a stand alone book in the same way.

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  28. I think you're right, Rinelle. If someone has a sequel or even a whole series that readers can purchase, then using the first in the series as a promotion makes a lot of sense and could help drive the sales of the following books. But that's if the first book hooks readers with a great story and characters they care about.

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