Image: Matthew Loffhagen
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.
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.