The Challenges of “Free”

Yesterday, we talked about the strategy of making a book free and how/why that strategy can make the book sell better. There are, of course, some issues and considerations about making books free.

1. The idea that all books should be free.
This is a notion that has strong currency in some circles, and obviously the people who believe this are not going to be the people who buy books from authors or publishers, now or in the future. As such, they’re not really a market to target in terms of developing an audience of readers (and earning a living with one’s books.)

Now, there have always been people who prefer to read for free (or for cheap). You have found them at libraries, used bookstores, flea markets and church sales. I have no problems with people who want to read more books than they can afford to buy (or can justify buying new), mostly because I’m one of them. I do think that maybe my buying habits are representative of some percentage of such people – I buy a lot of books new, as well as trying new authors or new genres or classics in editions I can get more cheaply. So, my belief is that some of the people who get a free copy of one of my books will want to read more of my books  enough that they’ll buy them. Works for me. I try new authors in used editions or when I get a complementary print copy, and many of them move from there to my “buy-new” list of authors.

Which brings us to the question of which books an author makes free.

2. Management of Free Titles
I could rotate through my entire backlist of published books, making each book free in turn, but I think that would be dumb. Instead, I deliberately chose to put THE COUNTESS free, for several reasons. First, it is the first book in a trilogy that sold extremely well in print. People liked this book when it was initially released, and I have to believe that more people will like it now. Also, the other two books in that trilogy were also available for sale. In addition, this medieval romance trilogy is Scottish-set, which is the most popular setting in that subgenre. I think the book is representative of my medieval romances. Finally, I really like the new cover – it’s pretty, distinctive and also communicates the content of the book well.

I will not put the other two books in that trilogy free. If you want to read about Jacqueline and Esmeraude, you’re going to have to buy their books. 🙂

What other books will I make free? Maybe none – because of this next point.

3. The Changing Climate of Free
One of the interesting things about the digital book market is that it’s morphing almost minute by minute. There is an overwhelming amount of content available and visibility for new releases has really dropped. There is also an astonishing volume of free content out there.

At the same time, the number of e-readers is steadily growing, but many consumers seem to follow a similar buying pattern – although they initially grab a lot of free downloads, it takes most of them only a month or two to “get picky” and to start shopping for what they want instead of taking what is offered.

As a result, the effectiveness of “free” as a strategy is dropping – it takes far fewer copies downloaded for free to rise up a bestseller list than was the case even a few months ago. In January, for example, THE COUNTESS had about 2000 free downloads before even appearing at the bottom of the list of top 100 free historical romances. This month, it took only several hundred copies downloaded to rise to #30 on that same list. This must mean that there are many, many books having a comparatively small number of free downloads. Those authors are giving their books away for a specific period, but probably not getting the visibility bump of making a list as a result.

I suspect that in six months, “free” might not even work in terms of gaining visibility for an author or title. There will be another way to get a virtual end cap – there has to be, because online booksellers need to drive sales as much as authors do – but I’m not sure what it is yet.

One of the other changes in recent months is the mechanism of how a book gets to be free. Changes in this arena might shape the future of “free”. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about the KDP Select program, which is how THE COUNTESS went free.

4 thoughts on “The Challenges of “Free”

  1. It is interesting to watch all the changes in publishing right now. I’m looking forward to your thoughts on KDP Select tomorrow–I’m thinking of trying out one title that way.


    • Thanks *lizzie!

      btw, you WON on Friday! I haven’t had a reply from you with your snail mail addy. Send it to me so I can send your prize book to you!



    • Well, trying to explain what’s going on helps me to understand it better, Deb. Teaching is always like that for me. Plus there is so much changing right now – we authors really need to pay attention and think about our choices. It’s exciting but challenging, too. 🙂



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