Make Money By Giving Your Book Away For Free!

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Last year, on a cold November morning in Washington Square Park in Manhattan, two authors held a contest. They wanted to see who could give away the most books to passers-by in half an hour.

One of these authors, Daniel Handler, is better known by the pen-name Lemony Snicket. The other author was Neil Gaiman.

Unsurprisingly, neither author’s book supply lasted for the full thirty minutes. As it turns out, people really love free books.

It’s easy, of course, for two bestselling authors to justify giving away their books for free, but can you really justify doing the same? And is it actually possible to make money out of free books?

The answer to both questions is yes. Giving away free copies of your book may be the most effective marketing tool in your arsenal.

The benefits of digital gifts

An increasing number of writers are finding success by giving away free copies of their books online. Giving away free copies of your book will greatly increase your readership, for the quite obvious reason that your readers don’t have to part with their hard earned cash before they can start enjoying your writing.

The main concern that many authors have about giving away their writing for free, is that by doing so they are losing a sale. After all, what good is fifteen million free readers, if nobody is paying for it?

Conveniently, though, digital books can be copied perfectly for free – unlike physical books where if you give one away you’ve lost a copy, with digital books, you can give away endless copies without it ever costing you a penny. And once you’ve got a large readership enjoying your free book, you’re in a better position to offer them a book they have to pay for.

Seeing the big picture

The nice thing about free books is that they’re a gateway drug to your entire literary works. A casual reader will pick up your first book, enjoy it tremendously, and then be desperate for more – which will lead them to buy your other works. This is particularly true if you have a book series.

Bestselling author Hugh Howey gives away the first book in his Wool series for free on Amazon. He does this, safe in the knowledge that those who read the first book in the series are likely to be eager to read the rest of his works. This strategy must have some merit, as the Wool series is currently in development as a major feature film.

Free books aren’t a charitable donation, they’re an advertising tool. You’re not selling a physical thing, you’re selling a story – one which can be segmented and given away for free in order to lure in prospective buyers.

This is why many books on digital sales platforms let you see the first chapter for free – when your readers can see a glimpse of your writing style and the story, they’ll end up being enticed into buying your book.

Making the most out of free books

Just because you’re giving books away for free, doesn’t mean you have to give readers something for nothing. There are several great ways to get the most out of using your book as a free marketing tool.

One service, designed specifically for those using books as a marketing tool, is Pay With a Tweet, which allows users to ‘purchase’ a book by sending an automated tweet or Facebook message. This makes the most of the free book advertising strategy, as it means that your free readers are sharing your work with larger and larger audiences.

You don’t have to use this service if it doesn’t sound right for you – instead, you can offer the book for free but politely ask that readers follow you on Twitter or like your Facebook page. That way, you’ve got your readers following you regularly so that you can get them hyped up when your next book is due for release.

By reading your free book, those who enjoy your story become part of your social media army, spreading the news of your books as far as they can. When looking at it from that perspective, a free digital download for each marketing recruit doesn’t sound too bad!

Tipping is not a bad word

Alternatively, you can offer your book for free, with the recommendation that users give a donation. Speaking from personal experience, I can guarantee that this works more often than you’d expect.

After years of building an online following and sharing short stories for free online, I finally made a pdf download of my archive available to my readers. This wasn’t anything they hadn’t seen before, but it was a convenient digital collection for those who wanted it. I used the site Gumroad, which allows users to offer books up for a minimum price (in my case, for free), but allows customers to pay more if they wish.

Imagine my surprise when somebody paid $50 for my book!

A lot of your fans are eager to find a way to give back to you. When you present them with free stories, many will naturally feel eager to pay you for your work. Cultivating a loyal readership through generously giving away your stories is likely to return fantastic rewards.

As far as I’m concerned, there’s never been a better time to give away your book for free.

But what do you think? Have you ever tried offering your books for free? Have you ever found an author you enjoy through a free book offer? Please feel free to share what you think in the comments section below.

12 thoughts on “Make Money By Giving Your Book Away For Free!”

  1. its an interesting idea. I’m finding through my blog, and my twitter account promoting said blog :)….there is a huge number of self published writers out there, many of which are very good writers. However, speaking as someone who is rather overwhelmed with the potential reading material out there to review, the main obstacle all these writers face is differentiating themselves.

    How to capture eyeballs?

    Wattpad is a good place to start. If a writer I’ve enjoyed reading on wattpad has other books available for sale I will buy one (though I’m not a millenial, getting them to part with their money may be more difficult). I find Amazon absolutely useless for finding new books and authors – there is just too much content to sift through.

    1. Yeah, I know what you mean. I have been reading about how to promote books and most of the experts say the same thing. They also say it is best to have your own website and promote it aggressively. I also create artwork and try to sell it on Etsy – I have the same problem. My products get lost under all the others. That is why I have my own websites and I use Constant Contact. I network like crazy, collect business cards, and send newsletters.

  2. Excellent article, I have received this advise from many top selling authors. I currently have one of my books for free, and even though my sales are still sketchy, I like knowing that some of my work is getting out there.
    I hadn’t heard about the sites your talking about- donations for your book. I’ll look into the one you mentioned.
    Thanks

  3. Matthew, do you happen to know of any author who tested the idea of having the buyers set the price for a book, calculated the resulting average price paid, compared it with the intended or actual later sales price, and published the data? I would love to see that. I have a very fuzzy memory of seeing such data a few years ago, but I cannot remember where.

    I am curious – for the case you quoted, how many people paid way less than what you expected or targeted, to offset the one buyer of 50 $? Most people I know would not think twice, and download the book for free. This includes a lot of authors. 🙂

    The only team I am aware of who does set-your-own-price campaigns regularly is the Humble Bundle team, and their results are not really comparable with any one author, as
    – they are selling ebooks from several authors as a Humble Ebook Bundle, so the buyers get from a bundle some books they want and some they do not, lowering the price buyers are prepared to buy,
    – most books have been on the market for some time, so their average perceived worth is lower in the eyes of the buyer, as compared to a new book,
    – some famous authors allow their new books to be sold in Humble Bundles, which raises the price buyers are prepared to pay,
    – Humble Bundles are charity events, which encourages buyers to pay more than they would otherwise have paid.

    Humble Ebook Bundle statistics are found with the other Humble Bundles on http://cheesetalks.net/humble/

    Just for fun – the data for the three Humble Ebook Bundle documented there show that buyers paid
    – for Humble Ebook Bundle 1: 27% of the featured bundle book prices, or 9% if you figure in the bonus books’ prices
    – for Humble Ebook Bundle 2: 15% of the featured bundle book prices, or 9% if you figure in the bonus books’ prices
    – for Humble Ebook Bundle 3: 16% of the featured bundle book prices, and 12% if you figure in the bonus books’ prices

    1. Hi Thomas,

      Thanks very much for your comment. I think this price breakdown might be what you’re looking for:
      https://fizzle.co/sparkline/generosity-pays-results-from-launching-a-pay-what-you-want-ebook
      This was an author who had, by his own admission, a relatively small following, but who found that around 49% of readers who downloaded his book chose to pay money for his free book – he made nearly $500 from a following of 166 subscribers, which I think is very impressive!

      For my own Gumroad attempt, I found not quite as much success, but the number was certainly fairly similar – while I don’t have the specific statistics anymore as this was several year ago, I think there was around one paid download for every three free downloads.

      It’s possibly a little different for Humble Bundles because it’ll all depend on the demographic being targeted. Humble Bundles will often be new readers who’ve never seen your work before, which is very different to selling a free book to an existing, very loyal readership.

      The thing is, while many readers are happy to enjoy things for free (myself included in many instances), there exists the common moral belief that if you enjoy something, you should support an independent seller (it’s different if you’re dealing with large companies of course). So when people choose to pay for a free book, they’re not really paying for the book – they’re purchasing peace of mind, that warm fuzzy feeling that comes from knowing that they’ve done the right thing morally and ensured that there’ll be more enjoyable work in the future.

      Or, to quote the popular meme, a lot of readers will, given half the chance, shout “Shut up and take my money!” at a friendly self-published writer.

      I’d really recommend reading Chris Anderson’s Long Tail theory (http://www.longtail.com/about.html). It’s the idea that if you cast a wide enough net on the internet, you’ll find enough key followers to support you. I’m looking to explore this idea further in a future article, but it’s a fantastic idea to read up on.

  4. Just found this article now…fantastic read that gave me a much needed boost. I collected my books from the printer, but on a closer look was not happy with the size of the print. The books look great but print is too small. Have sent them off again with the new layout, but I am now left with 400 copies of my book that I can’t sell. And as they are technically fine, I didn’t want to throw them into the recycling. So now I know what to do with them. Thank you. X

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