Giving It Away: Why Fiction Authors Should Offer Free Ebooks

by | Jun 5, 2013

By Jason Kong

Jason, who writes the storyrally newsletter for authors, last contributed 2 Ways Fiction Authors Can Start Using Social Media. Today he’s back to tell fiction writers why they should “give it away.” Here’s his post.

You could do it today.

Select one of your stories, convert it into an ebook format, and make the file available online for free. A download link through your website or blog is ideal, but leveraging other sharing platforms such as Amazon and Smashwords is good too.

Of course, that’s not really what’s stopping you. As a professional writer, you’re wondering about the upside of giving away your hard work without charge.

Glad you asked.

The first book

Getting anyone to try something new is difficult, especially when it costs money for that privilege.

Fiction writers face a special challenge. You already know word-of-mouth recommendations and positive reviews are critical to your marketing. But even strong social proof isn’t always enough to hook a new reader.

Why? Because a review reflects the personal taste of the reviewer. There’s always the risk that a story may not engage you the same way it did someone else.

Now imagine reading a novel you especially liked. Seeking the author’s larger body of work is a natural rationalization, because you’ve already enjoyed a story by the same writer.

That’s the difference between having a book described to you versus reading the book yourself. There’s no stronger endorsement than one coming from your own experience.

So give a newcomer an introduction to your work, by offering a free ebook good enough to sell. Have your story well written, well edited, and well packaged in a professional design.

Getting someone to read that first book is key. If you can make an outstanding impression then you have two opportunities: to gain a reader for the long-term, and the positive word-of-mouth from that reader (which can lead to more readers).

As always, the best marketing for a storyteller are the stories themselves.

“The best marketing for a storyteller are the stories themselves.” Click to tweet

Earning money isn’t your biggest problem

If you’re connected with enough people who enjoy your work, then it’s almost impossible to not make a living.

Charging for books is fairly straightforward. Finding people who value your stories enough to pay for them? That’s the hard part.

It’s especially true if you’re a budding fiction writer. When you’re just starting out, you’ll have no idea if your fiction resonates with anyone. Consider sharing your first story for free to find out.

If there’s an audience for your writing, you’ll learn soon enough. Use a newsletter or social media to open a communication channel with those interested. Then you’ll have people waiting for your next story or project.

Don’t have the mindset that you need to get directly compensated for everything you write. Building a platform for the long-haul is one of the best ways to support your career.

Free is here to stay

Maybe you’re still unconvinced.

The idea of writing for free may rub you the wrong way. Or perhaps you’re worried that all authors’ work will be devalued by this trend.

Unfortunately, your personal feelings won’t change reality. Cheap media isn’t going away. When anybody can self-publish, everyone will.

The world is going to get more crowded with wannabe novelists, which means more junk along with the gems.

Commanding attention is at a premium. If you already have it, you’re in great shape. For everyone else, you’re stuck in obscurity.

So try offering a story for free and see what happens, knowing you don’t have to do it forever. The best part about being a self-published author is that you get to decide your boundaries. Be at least willing to experiment and learn.

Do you have any experience (good or bad) with giving away a free ebook? Let us know in the comments.

profile of Jason KongJason Kong is a Contributing Writer for The Book Designer. He also runs Storyrally, an email-based subscription that helps fiction writers with their online marketing.

You can learn more about Jason here.

Photo by toddle_email_newsletters

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Jack

    Really helpful article. I was looking everywhere for this. Thank you so much for this great information

  2. B. K. Tomlinson

    I think that what started out as a viable marketing strategy, has morphed into something undesirable, that is now working against the majority of new authors. Why would you ever want to cultivate a pool of people as your potential reading audience, who are too cheap, or too broke to buy a $0.99 book, or even a $1.99 book?

    Never forget, that in everything we do, we are training people, through our speech and actions. What may be good for the publishing houses, isn’t necessarily good for individual authors. The market place is always trying to undervalue people, and over value products, in order to maximize their profits. We don’t have to help them with that, they seem to manage quite well on their own.

    With all the libraries out there, and the free public domain books that are available, people have yet to read what is now freely available.
    You can add your books to the pile, but you won’t find mine there.

  3. Russell Brooks

    I did the FREE thing once. It yielded positive results in the beginning, but I got a consistent lower ROI the next two times I did it (even with a three-month gap in between each). Eventually, FREE didn’t do anything for me, because once my eBook went back up to its regular price, there weren’t any sales.

    The first time I did a FREE promotion was through Bookbub. I had over 50,000 downloads of my debut novel, followed by several reviews–most of them positive. But was it worth it? Absolutely not. Imagine if only 10% of the 50,000 downloaders who enjoyed my book told one person about it. Then it’s correct to assume that around 5000 people would’ve purchased my book, right? That never happened.

    I had a theory as to why the FREE didn’t work and why it continuously doesn’t work. I went on and asked an open question: “How big is your Kindle backlog of eBooks?” No surprise, many people had over 100 eBooks. Not bad. Then, some replied that they had over 1000 eBooks in their TBR piles. Some even had as many as 3000 eBooks. And all of them were downloaded for FREE. Chances are, out of the 50,000 downloads, my book was most likely lost among the clutter. The chances of it ever being read are minimal if next to non-existent.

    So I had my answer. FREE eBooks are less likely to be read by people than the ones they paid for. A book that isn’t read will not generate word-of-mouth. A book that hasn’t created buzz will never generate sales.

    When I purchased an ad and priced my book at 99cents or even $1.99 through one of the reputable websites, I may not have gotten as many purchases, but at least I knew that my book was being read–considering the number of reviews that followed was closer to the number of purchases.

  4. Peter J Story

    Thanks for writing this. It confirms the approach I’ve been taking. I’m currently releasing my fiction novel on my blog as I write it. I break it up in excerpts as I complete each chapter. I’ve been doing it for about a month now, and have 2 fans that I know of! Woohoo! Because of this article, once I finish the story, I imagine I’ll release the e-book for free.

    • Jason Kong

      Peter: Just to be clear, there are other steps to take other than simply making your story available without cost. Getting the book in front of the right eyeballs doesn’t happen by itself, but if you can do that, then your work can more easily spread without the barrier of price.

      That initial discoverability is key to fully take advantage of free.

  5. Marla

    What about when it is free, someone takes your idea for their own and makes money off of your idea? If it is free, is it not at risk for stealing? Please reply.

    • Guest

      If you’re referring to “stealing” in terms of “piracy” aka unauthorized distribution on other websites, that’s different from plagiarism, claiming someone else’s work as your own, or writing something so similar to theirs it’s as if you really ripped them off. You can’t copyright an “idea,” only the medium in which it’s fixed, i.e. the story itself. Plenty of unrequited-love stories have been done since time immemorial: “Romeo & Juliet” is to “Twilight” as “Say Anything” is to “Titanic,” and all of them are to each other, pretty much the same formula.

      The exception, known as “fair use,” is applied on a case-by-case basis, but it does allow parody, which is why it’s possible to do a story called Harry Pothead Gets the Sorcerer Stoned about a young British marijuana smoker with magical powers who goes to an agricultural school called Hogweed. It is not, however, acceptable to do a story called Henry Parker and the Magician’s Rock about a young British magician who goes to a school for illusionists, called Warthog’s. The latter is plagiarism. The former is parody. But if someone wanted to do a “female version” of Potter about a school for girl witches, that’s in the “gray area” between outright plagiarism and working from a common idea.

      Speaking of “gray,” Fifty Shades started out as “fan fiction” of Twilight, basically with the vampire character swapped out for the S&M fanatic and the naive maiden swapped out for… the naive maiden. Stefanie Mayer, the woman who wrote Twilight, has not filed any sort of legal action against the British woman of the latter series, whose name escapes me at the moment (I have no interest in reading either of them).

      When all else fails, ask an attorney. I am not one, as you can see. All I can do is refer you to search Wikipedia for the article titled, “Fair use.”

  6. Glynis Smy

    I vowed I would never use a giveaway via KDP select. About ten days ago I gave in, and did one day. My sales have improved since that day. I will use it again in the future, for me it has been worth it, as I also broke into five new countries.

  7. Penelope Silvers

    I am leaning more towards the giving away of a “freebie”, and not in a KDP promotion. I am currently working on 5 flash fiction stories (500 words each) that I am considering giving away on my website. I am really stretching myself as a writer when writing these stories, and they will be like nothing I’ve ever done before. It could be an interesting test!

    • Jason Kong

      Sounds like a good opportunity, Penelope. Let us know how it goes!

      • Penelope

        I sure will, Jason! Thanks for the great article. ;)

  8. Maree Anderson

    I, too, was worried about the concept of free as a marketing tool. A book I’d spent months and months –in some cases years — slaving over… isn’t my work worth more than that? But then I got the opportunity to offer the first book in a series free for 48 hours through an All Romance eBooks promotion. And to my surprise, the sales of subsequent books in that series increased substantially for a couple of months afterward. Even so I wasn’t wholly convinced — yeah, I’m a hard sell. And I was among those who believed it’s not a good thing for readers to expect they can read your books for free.

    Fast forward a year, when I was preparing to release a trilogy all in one go. My returns for my self-pubbed books to day had been better than my small-press pubbed books (but frankly, that wasn’t hard to achieve!), but I felt I needed to try something different. And I figured what the heck: I’d make the first book in the trilogy free. 110k book. Free. OMG. Scary. Plus, I’d release a bundled eBook of the trilogy at the same time. AND I’d make the first book of that aforementioned series free (95k book. That had won a prestigious award. EEK!), as well as releasing a bundled eBook with all three books of that series, too. Might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb (as the older generation used to say here in New Zealand).

    Note: I’ve never enrolled in KDP Select because I believe in having my books available as widely as possible. So I’ve not had the benefit of Select’s free days. And I haven’t spent loads on marketing — I learned the hard way with my small press pubbed books that it was a very large outlay (of time and money) for little return. So my only real “marketing” is writing the next book.

    Well. What a difference to sales and revenue in a very short time. It’s substantially up across all my self-pubbed books. Plus, having two perma-free books got me some free publicity on iTunes, and for a month I was featured there as a breakout author. My iTunes revenue for the past two months was recently reported to Smashwords and I’m open-mouthed with shock. B&N reporting isn’t too shoddy either. And Amazon sales are steadily increasing. I’ll finally be able to help pay the mortgage (and then some!).

    I think in order to make “free” really work you should have a largish body of work out there that’s widely available across multiple channels. It also helps to have a series, or a similar body of work (i.e. same genre and similar length and writing style) for readers to glom onto once they’ve read your free book. You’ve created an expectation with that free book, and they will go looking for other similar books you’ve written to feed that expectation. I don’t get hung up on how many free downloads are reported on Amazon — I don’t have access to that reporting on some of my other channels, so the only measure of success is sales across my other books.

    Reviews: well, I’ve never been that visible (despite one of my self-pubbed books being optioned for TV), and therefore sales and reviews reflected that. I’m starting to get more reviews now because of my perma-free books. Amazon reviews are still lagging and I think that’s because it’s such a time-consuming process to write a review there. iTunes, however, just lets readers rate a book however many stars, which I think is excellent. Quick and easy. And it shows with the number of ratings. Of course the downside is that people who would normally never in a million years read your genre will be tempted because it’s free, and be vociferous in their displeasure if they don’t like it. Goes with the territory. But since having only good reviews tends to lead people to believe they’re not genuine, IMO having some sucky reviews tends to give genuine good reviews even more credibility.

    As for whether free is a bad precedent to set? Well, offering up a “free gift” or making something available for free is a proven marketing tool for retailers. I don’t see that books are any different. At our annual romance writers conference one of our sponsors (a publisher) will bring boxes of books for a display table let us take them at the end of the conference. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve grabbed a free book, loved it, and gone on to buy more from that author after I’ve gotten round to reading the freebie. If I see a review of a book that interests me by an author I’ve never tried before, I’ll often check if it’s available at the library. If I love it, I’ll buy a copy for my keeper shelf, and continue buying books from that author. If I see an eBook offered for free and it looks interesting, I’ll snap it up. And the same thing applies: if I love it, I’ll go looking for other books by that author to buy. And if they’re trad pubbed books, and the eBook price is prohibitively high (i.e. only slightly cheaper than the paperback), I’ll buy the paperback instead from Book Depository (free shipping worldwide!).

    Offering free books is a strategy publishers have used for years, and it works. I’m now a total believer.

    • Jason Kong

      Maree: Really appreciate your taking the time to share details of your experience. There are many variations on how free can be used and I’m happy that it’s worked out for you.

  9. Paula Cappa

    It’s become clear to me that because so many self-published authors are flooding the market with their free books now, most of these free books today are being branded “junk novels.” As writers and authors, I ask you … Do we really want to encourage this? Self-publishing authors need to present quality, high standards, and professionalism if we are to remain viable and thriving in this industry.

    I did a freebie for my first novel 6 months ago. Over 1300 people downloaded my supernatural thriller. Results: No new readership that I can find, no new customer reviews, no sparks for new sales. In fact, sales dived. The free downloads momentarily boosted my sales rankings but that quickly faded within hours. So, what did the freebie accomplish? Are any of these 1300+ people actually reading my novel? I suspect they are not because so many people just can’t resist a free offer and want to just load their Kindles (and the Delete button is an easy press).

    I don’t think free-book offers are productive as they had been in the past. In fact, this strategy may be more destructive for s-p authors.

  10. Michelle Louring

    “The world is going to get more crowded with wannabe novelists, which means more junk along with the gems.
    Commanding attention is at a premium. If you already have it, you’re in great shape. For everyone else, you’re stuck in obscurity.”

    That’s the problem in a nutshell, isn’t it? All the promising books are drowning in a sea of poorly written garbage and the authors have to find some way to rise above.
    Given something away for free can be a great tool, but I’m also seeing a trend where readers are getting used to getting free books and more and more are starting to prioritize cheap over quality.
    Free definitely have upsides and downsides!

  11. Tracy R. Atkins

    If i could give away 5 million copies of my book, i would in a heartbeat.

    • Jason Kong

      Tracy: Why no 20 million? With digital files, the incremental cost to you is negligible. :)

  12. Dan Holloway

    Jason, these days almost all (and gettig to all as I revise and produce new editions) my ebooks are free, with paperbacks for sale. Admittedly I’m lucky in being a spoken word performer as well as novelist, because most of what I do is face to face, so paperbacks work well, but in my own work and in the small press I run I try to combine the two principles:
    • That no one should be barred from enjoying art for economic reasons. For this reason, pdfs of all our collections are available for free. And because we are aware that not everyone is lucky enough to have access to technology, we do what we can to bridge the digital divide and it is our goal that one day everyone everywhere will enjoy the possibility an equally rich cultural life, and that a life without poetry will only ever arise by choice and not necessity.
    • That those who make culture should be rewarded by those whose lives they touch so that they can carry on creating culture. Which is why we sell books. Unlike many small and poetry presses in this day and age, we also pay our writers (and artists) an advance. We even pay each of the contributors of individual works to our catalogue (which is one reason why it is a pound more than the collections). And whilst this isn’t very big, because we run limited editions, on a per book basis it is a lot higher than the industry standard.

    • Jason Kong

      Dan: I really admire what you’re doing here. I would hope your message and principles gets communicated in everything you do. It’s really generous.

      • David Antonelli

        I am a writer of literary fiction and film director with a total of 11 novels and 9 available as free e-books. Before I made them available for free I had gone through three agents, all of whom saw me as a very gifted and promising writer. After many near misses and two of these agents sadly passing away while they were in the process of promoting my books, I tried to go to small publishers myself and there had many near misses (publishers agreeing to publish my novel only to go bust a few months later, 4 out of 5 editors agreeing to publish my novel when 5 out of 5 was required) I eventually became fed up and decided to make my books available for free. I didn’t need the income but was craving for some kind of exposure. Well after 5 years of this with a novel or two a year being perfected and released, a have 25,000 downloads on Obooko and Smashwords alone and over 150 ratings and reviews, the average being 4.2 out of 5.

        So, I agree with Dan that e-books should be free and that the paper version should cost – sort of like an MP3 vs vinyl argument. Those people who got your e-book for free would possibly buy the paper version as well if they liked it enough, and lets face it, paper books are NICE to own, as is vinyl. And lets face it, in this world I can get any song (youtube) or film I want for free (even recent releases – just go to at a foreign language site and watch it with english subtitles). And youtube has not hurt the sales of vinyl as evidenced by the new trend of vinyl being available anywhere.

        So after I have given 10 and 11 away for free I will then turn around and try to find a publisher for the print version, with the argument that with a growing readership and track record for success it is justified. Any tips on this next step would be appreciated.

        I can understand other writers getting mad about free e-books and also the feeling that there is so much free stuff out there that is garbage that it sullies our name as independents, but we as writers have to just look at the world entertainment market and see the truth, that charging for an e-book has no long term viability because of the ease in downloading music, TV, and films for free, and that an e-book should only be seen as a conduit towards (eventual) paper publishing. Sad but true…


    • Guest

      I like your philosophy, and I like the idea of offering the digital copy free and the tangible one for a price. This is actually the model that the motion picture studios are (starting, and very rarely) to adopt: you buy the DVD or Blu-Ray physical copy and get a digital copy included, a computer file formatted for your iPad or other viewing device. I wonder if there’s a way to do this automatically, so that when people buy a physical paperback they get a unique, one-time-use download code delivered to their email address that enables them to access the digital version for their reader? Or comes on the receipt in the Amazon box?

  13. Vishal

    Great content is always going to sell. Giving freebies is a good way to market you ebook, but authors are not going to generate revenue through this.
    When you are looking to generate revenue from your ebook its not cool idea to list your ebook for free, but if you want to brand yourself, it can be a good way to create awareness.

    • Marsha Canham

      I would have to disagree strongly with Vishal. I’ve had Book One of my Pirate Wolf Trilogy free for over a month and the sales on the other two books in the series keep pace with the free downloads, far outstripping what the normal sales would be, and more than making up for what I am *losing* in offering the first book free. An added bonus is that the two other “seafaring adventures” I’ve written have seen a marked increase in sales too. I have been tracking the sales of my books steadily for the past two and a half years and I’ll be keeping Across A Moonlit Sea free for the foreseeable future.

      • Jason Kong

        Marsha: Thanks for sharing your results!

    • Jason Kong

      Vishal: You’re never going to directly earn money from something free, but the question is whether you’re better off overall for doing so.

  14. Tahlia Newland

    The idea of having a free taster is valid and I think necessary, but the defining word is ‘taster.’ Freebies should only be short stories not whole novels. There are too many novels going free and readers are beginning to get the idea that they should never have to pay for a book. That idea hurts the whole business. There are masses of readers who only read free books. What good does it do the business if no one if actually buying books because they have a mass of free ones to chose from.

    Giving novels away for free was okay when hardly anyone else was doing it, but now it’s selfish because it contributes to a situation that is ultimately damaging for the industry.

    Also just because someone downloads your free book doesn’t mean that they read it. Most avid readers have a file full of freebies on their Kindles and because they’re free they only get read when there isn’t something they wanted to read enough to actually pay for waiting for their time.

    Also note that KDP select free promos only works for those who are already selling a good number of books each day, ie those who have been in the business for a while, and even they’re saying you need thousands of downloads not hundreds to get any follow on sales. If you’re new, it isn’t going to give you follow on sales, because the way Amazon works their numbers now takes into account the numbers for the whole month.

    • Jason Kong

      Tahlia: Central to the free approach is that people will pay for what they value. Yes, there will always be some folks that seek or even expect the freebies, no matter how much they like something. But that’s true whether you personally offer a free eBook or not. These aren’t lost sales, because they were never going to be sales in any case.

      Will there be a scenario where someone stops after the freebie but would have bought a book from you if you didn’t offer the free eBook? Yes, of course. These are lost sales, but if the reader stops after only one book (whether it was free or paid) you’re not capturing a long-term reader anyway.

      Now, what about the person who would have become a long-term reader but didn’t know your work existed? Or just never had a compelling enough reason to try that first book because of price? Or borrowing that first book from someone or the library happened to be a tad less convenient than downloading online for free…

      The point of a platform is to keep in touch with readers interested in your work. Offering a free eBook allows you to expand your reach to find them. Freeloaders and one-off buyers aren’t these people, though it’s worth noting that they can still end up spreading the word for you even if they never spend a dime.

      • Debbie

        Have to disagree there, Jason. If somebody wants to read a book, it’s not rocket science to see it’s an indie and that it’s in KDP Select. And if so, it’s a fair bit will be free in the next few weeks, so why would anybody pay for it if they can get it for nothing? I don’t do freebies (other than review copies). Never have and don’t intend to. My books are inexpensive to buy and worth the money. I’m not (yet!) well-known but my fan-base is growing and my sales are steady.

        • Jason Kong

          Debbie: There are different ways to use free. The way I described in my post was as an introduction to an author’s larger body of work. The value I was referencing in the comments section was a reader’s interest in the author’s ability to tell a story. My commentary wasn’t directed at the merits of the free associated with KDP select.

          Also, I don’t mean to say that free is a magic bullet that will instantly transform an unknown writer to a household name. There’s a very real trade-off like most people have pointed out. It’s really up to each author to decide whether it’s worth it, and my intention is for people to know it’s an option.

          I’m happy to hear that your fan base and sales are doing well. Thanks for contributing to the discussion.

    • Marilyn

      Tahlia, I agree with you.

  15. Ed Krizek

    I thought perhaps the exposure would help me. Also wanted to see what people thought of the collection. In a way I am gratified s nice apparently I had something good enough to steal.

    • Jason Kong

      Ed: I like your take on that.

  16. Michael Mullin

    Well said Jason! My work completely lends itself to this angle. I’ve recently published a collection of 3 alternative fairytale retellings (a YA & up thing). I had been selling the first 2 as eBooks for 99¢ and now that 3rd story is complete and the collection is out (digitally and in print), I gotta change those settings and offer story #1 — the most popular one — for FREE! Duh, right? Thanks for kick. – Mm

    • Jason Kong

      Michael: Congratulations on your success!

  17. Ed Krizek

    I made my short story collection, “Afterlife and Other Stories” available for free. It was downloaded over 7,000 times, received 25 likes and 5 dislikes. Someone also stole the e-book and put it on Amazon in a Kindle edition for a fee. I saw non of the money if there was any. I have since had that edition removed from Amazon. I am not sure how these actions helped me. Now no traditional publisher will handle the collection so I will have to write more if I did want to sell some of my work.

    • Jason Kong

      Ed, I’m sorry to hear your stories were stolen. That’s terrible.

      Are you saying you regretted making your short story collection available for free? Or that you’re not sure if it made any difference?

      What expectations did you have when you chose to make “Afterlife and Other Stories” for free?

  18. Rosanita Ratcliff

    I like a good free e-book. I’ll also pay for a book by a new author if it’s 2.99 or less. Really, unless it’s really wordy, I don’t think any fiction e-book is worth more than 5.99. It’s electronic and unless you have a publisher, you’re getting 70% of that on Amazon. But, a recent scenario just happened to a group of us on Amazon. We pre-ordered a book by an author months before it was set to be released On the release date, we instead receive a now free book that is actually a sampler and not the actual book. If you’re going to give away a free book, make sure it’s a complete novel or novella. Even though the writing was good, the review is full of 1 star reviews due to the bait and switch that occurred.

  19. Frances Caballo

    I also agree, Jason. I recently offered a giveaway of 2 free books on Goodreads and it was amazing how popular my book became. Suddenly, I had five-star reviews and people wanting to read my book. On Black Friday last November, I offered my book for free on Amazon and there were 800 downloads. For authors building a platform, giving away free books — even nonfiction books like mine — makes a lot of sense.

    • Jason Kong

      Free books to build awareness and credibility works for non-fiction authors too, of course.

      Glad it worked out for you, Frances!

  20. Sue V

    This “try-it-for-free-to-see-if-I-like-it” reasoning is one of the driving factors behind illegal downloading of ebooks, according to what I’ve researched for an English 102 paper. (The others have to do with DRM, ignorance that it’s illegal, lack of funds and just being a douche that glories in pirating.) Unfortunately libraries just don’t have the breadth of ebook support for this segment of the reading population, so they go the e-piracy route instead.
    Supposedly (haven’t found concrete facts backing this up though) many illegal downloaders, having read for free something they liked, then go and legally obtain other works by the author. Be sure to add a links to your website and places to buy your work legally in the free copy — very easy to click those links once the story is consumed and the reader is eager for more by the author.

    • Guest

      The other factor is pure economics, and the disgruntled anger that a lot of everyday Americans feel about corporations and rich people, period. $35 for a novel seems awful steep. And the prices for college textbooks are downright highway robbery. Two hundred bucks for a Goliath math tome I’m never going to use again except as a doorstop or footstool?

      This is why the Amazon pricing model works: It’s basically the Subway sandwich model. Mainstream America can’t afford filet mignon, but Subway will do. Five dollar footlong; five dollar novel-long. And hey, McDonalds, for all the gripes about quality, sure hasn’t suffered economically in offering burgers for a buck and a quarter. You can’t compete with zero, but publishers (and yeah, it’s usually the publishers) are downright greedy. Of that $35, a mere fraction goes to the author, maybe what, $10? It’s like lotto winnings after taxes. The bulk goes to the crooks. “So long, Pat, and thanks for the parting gifts. Now, I’d like to rent a vowel.” I’d rather spend five bucks on a book knowing that at least $4.25 is going to the author and zilch to the mega-conglomerates. King and Grisham can afford to bleed by now. I’ll pay the fin for a newbie and pirate “A Time to Kill.”

  21. Eliza Wyatt

    I released my first book for free about a month ago (a fast-paced novella of about 125 pages paperback). It’s been a real struggle, and while I still agree that my decision to give it away was the best for the series in the long run, I also have to overcome the hurtle where people assume that ‘free’ means ‘crap’.

    • Jason Kong

      Eliza: That’s true some people have the “you get what you pay for” mindset. But I think it’s also true that no one will try something *just* because it’s free. Meaning, you still need another reason for someone to give your story a shot, even if it’s a small one.

      The difference is that free removes a big reason (price) *not* to go any further.

    • Guest

      Well, free sure works for ice cream. Maybe offer a coupon for free ice cream along with the download? I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t like free ice cream. Wouldn’t want to know them either. ;-)

  22. Kelly Langston

    I work with Short Stories Cafe with this same concept in mind, only for short stories. Short Stories Cafe will push out (promote) an author’s work to readers via social media, twitter, Google+, Facebook. It’s goal is to connect readers to writers. A great way for an author to launch a new book is to post an excerpt on the Cafe, which links back to the author’s website and purchasing site.

    It’s hard to offer a chunk of work for free, but the return is promotion by connecting. It can work for you. Publishing a free short story is a bit less of a risk than offering an entire book for free…if you hesitate in doing that.

    • Jason Kong

      Kelly: That’s a good point about having a short story as a free offering instead of entire book. Learn through experimentation!

  23. R.

    Myka – Reading your response was like reading my mind. I haven’t done the ebook thing on my own, yet. But, that is how I am about buying ebooks from others and I will not pay more than $5 or $6 for an ebook. For that price, I’ll go to Amazon and get a used paperback version for a minimal amount of change plus shipping, if it exists. Or, I’ll just pass on it. Yes, I’m cheap, but as a reader, I can afford to be. If you don’t have what I want, there’s another author out there who does.

  24. Myka Reede

    Hi Jason. I couldn’t agree more – either free or 0.99 for a taste. Especially if you’re an unknown. This idea was presented to me a couple months back and it got me thinking (always dangerous) about my habits. In the past five months I have bought from six new-to-me fiction authors; all were 2.99 and lower. But I have passed on another ten because all their ebooks were over $7 (one was priced at $9). I won’t even pay that for a fiction author I like. While Amazon’s excerpts are ok, not enough for a new investment in an unknown author with only 15 or 50 glowing reviews.

    So I’ve modified my series strategy to include an introductory novella to give away. Here’s the scary part. What if people don’t like my freebie? Then they won’t buy my first book, which means no pay. Yikes. It has put a unique pressure on my current WIP to spend real time/money to get this little story perfect. Strange that it isn’t the same fear as when drafting my first book, but I believe it’s also one of those cases where fear is a great motivator.

    • Jason Kong


      Regarding your introductory novella, you’ve described two scenarios:

      1) People who like your freebie and become willing to buy a book from you.

      2) People who don’t like your freebie and don’t buy a book from you, but may have bought a book from you if the freebie didn’t exist (although they would have been disappointed doing that).

      Positioned that way, it does sound scary.

      But remember, the “loss” of sales from scenario 2 will be countered by all the people that wouldn’t have bought your book without having tried (and liked) your freebie first.

      I think the bigger point, though, is that you don’t want to focus on the folks who buy your books but end up unhappy doing so. You may have made money in the short-term but you’re not gaining a reader for the long-term.

      Offering a portion of your work for free allows you more chances to find the people who truly like your fiction. Those are the readers you want to reach and keep in touch with.

      And as you pointed out, it’s worth the effort to make that freebie really good.

  25. Tina Chan


    Thanks for sharing this post. I was wondering if you would recommend providing the first book in a series for free for the first week/month it comes out? I know that this article suggests providing the first book free and charge the following books in the series, but I need to at least break even (the cost for the cover design and editing isn’t cheap) before I can consider releasing the second book. Once I break even, then I would provide the first book free again….or do you think that would cause too much trouble/is unfair to the people who have to purchase the book?
    If that is the case, would what would you do?


    The Book Landers

    • Myka Reede

      Yea the cost thing got me too. One of the reasons why I decided on an intro novella, instead of book 1 for free. Same cost for a cover, but less for editing. With this revised strategy, I’m looking at what my break-even is over the novella and book one and charge book 1 at $3.99-4.99 instead of my original target of $2.99. Still running the math.

      Also I plan to show a retail price for my “freebie” that then you are buying a sale discount (just happens to be 100% and longterm). I think that would help in your case too. Say to the world, this is actually worth say 3.99, but you can get it on sale for free or 0.99. This helps two-fold: 1) they won’t expect the rest of your work at 0.99 and 2) people won’t be surprised if they pay a different price later on.

    • Jason Kong


      Temporarily offering a book for free as part of a launch can lead to a spike in downloads. But the scarcity strategy works even better when readers already place a high value on the author’s work.

      In other words, it matters if you’re Neil Gaiman vs. an unknown writer. In 2008, Gaiman was highly successful in driving up sales by giving away a digital download of American Gods for four weeks. Of course, at the time he was already established as a best selling author which made all the difference.

      The approach I’m advocating has to do with the long-term view of finding people who value your work. Offering a free eBook will give you a better chance of doing that at the cost of some sales. What I’m arguing is that the trade-off is worth it if you currently don’t have much of a following.

      Thanks for chiming in!



  1. To free or not to free… | The Apprentice Owl - […] the end, this post, stressing the importance of building connections, swayed me, even though it was written some years…
  2. 7 Reasons Why Social Media Isn’t Growing Your Fiction Readership (And What to Do About Them) by Jason Kong — The Book Designer - […] a frequent contributor, last posted here Giving It Away: Why Fiction Authors Should Offer Free Ebooks. Today he tackles…
  3. Warning: Online Marketing Shortcuts That Blow Up in Your Face | Molly Greene: Writer - […] Offering a free eBook […]
  4. January 15 Book Marketing Tip: Get over your resistance to giving away free copies of your book! | Marcie Brock, Book Marketing Maven - […] Giving It Away: Why Fiction Authors Should Offer Free Ebooks  […]
  5. Die Woche im Rückblick 31.05. bis 06.06.2013 | sevblog - […] Jason Kong (bei Joel Friedlander): Giving It Away: Whhy Fiction Authors Should Offer Free EBo… […]
  6. The Money Shot « Greg Klerkx - […] at US $2.99, I am in a better position to give it away during free promotions, as per countless…
  7. Giving It Away: Why Fiction Authors Should Offer Free Ebooks by Jason Kong — The Book Designer | C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m - [...] See on [...]
  8. Giving It Away: Why Fiction Authors Should Offer Free Ebooks by Jason Kong — The Book Designer | jack & Liz - [...] See on [...]
  9. Giving It Away: Why Fiction Authors Should Offer Free Ebooks. | Just 4 My Books - [...] See on [...]
  10. Author Jason Kong posts on “The Book Designer” – Want to sell books? Give your work away! | Thomas Rydder - [...]   [...]
  11. Freelancing tips for getting started and keeping balance : Odysen Blog - [...] Giving It Away: Why Fiction Authors Should Offer Free Ebooks, The Book Designer: Helpful for getting your name as…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *