To Free or Not to Free: Giving Away Your Ebook

by | Apr 19, 2018

By David Kudler

“Selling” for free

I had a client ask me recently why you can’t price an ebook as free on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform. The author wanted to promote her first book by giving it away — she’d been told that was the best way to make a splash.

I told her that you CAN “sell” your ebook for free on Kindle Direct Publishing — they just don’t make it easy. And it isn’t always a good idea.

Giving It Away: A History

Back when I entered the ebook publishing world, “free” was the marketing tip of choice. “Give your book away! You’ll make a fortune!”

It took a little while for me to figure out what the fuss was about.

In those days, Amazon and the other retailers didn’t differentiate between the rankings of free books and those that people had to pay for. For this reason, the bestseller lists on their sites were full of free books — either temporarily or permanently free (aka permafree). That gave the purveyors of those books a HUGE amount of visibility — it’s nice when your little five-thousand-word thriller is beating out big-name authors like James Patterson or Dan Brown.

The biggest benefit (if you’d only made your book free temporarily) was that, once you switched back over to paid, you kept your ranking. So that modest short story that a few thousand people had downloaded for nothing was now in the top ten at $3.99. This led to a windfall that lasted as long as your marketing and the quality of the book could keep it going.

The freebie boost also helped your author ranking, making all of your other ebooks easier to discover as well. So you could use a free story to plant yourself among the bestsellers — this was why people were touting the permafree giveaway as a great marketing ploy.

Alas, the retailers figured this out. About five or six years back, they created separate bestseller lists for free and paid books, so if you switched back and forth, you lost all of the momentum immediately — indeed, your book hadn’t been for sale for a while and so its ranking would have dropped while it was being given away.

Amazon, which had made it fairly easy to price your book at $0.00, made it a bit harder.

The freebie gold rush seemed to be over.

However, there are still reasons to offer your book for free.

Most of the retailers and aggregator/distributors allow you to set a price of zero. Not Amazon, however.

The Price of Nothing: Why Give It Away?

So why are people still interested in giving their books away? There are good reasons — I do it myself with a small number of my titles.

A word of warning: while free ebooks were all the rage a few years back, they seem to be much less effective as a way of marketing yourself or your book now. As mentioned, Amazon maintains separate rankings for paid and for free ebooks, so any boost you get by giving your ebook away will evaporate if you start charging for it again.

Also, separate populations of buyers have congealed — folks who pay for books… and folks who don’t. Those who “buy” free ebooks (or download pirated copies) are much less likely to pay for them, so you’re not really marketing to the segment of your audience who might actually make you money. Which is kind of what most of us want.

Nonetheless, there are some good reasons why you might want to go ahead and offer your ebook for free anyway (whether temporarily or permanently):

  • You’re looking for reviews (folks who download the free version from the Kindle Store should still be marked as “verified buyers,” which makes their review more credible)
     
  • The title is the first in a series; by giving it away you’re marketing the other books (this is what’s known in retail as a loss leader — just make sure to include links and blurbs at the back of the ebook to make it as easy as possible to buy the next title in the series or perhaps upsell to a bundle — a loss leader needs to lead somewhere!)[i]
     
  • You’re publishing the ebook not for the sales, but to establish yourself as an expert in a field (to promote your services or your speaking appearances, for example)

A fourth reason for giving your book away has nothing to do with selling it; you can offer your book (or a portion thereof) as an incentive on a service like InstaFreebie or on your own website in exchange for a reader’s email address. This remains the single best way to grow a mailing list organically, which as Joel Friedlander and other very bright people have assured me continues to be the very best way to market your own products. People sign up because they want to read your books; they’re the most likely prospects to want to read your new ones! [ii]

Jumping Amazon’s Hoops

Why don’t Amazon make it simple to set the price of a KDP ebook to $0.00?

Two reasons:

  1. It would make them no money
     
  2. It would take away one of the (rapidly diminishing) benefits of participating in the Kindle Select program, which allows publishers to market their ebook by having limited-time freebie giveaways (as well as “countdown” sales, and a few other, dwindling perks)

How to get Amazon to give your ebook away

If you have offered your book through Amazon’s KDPSelect/KindleUnlimited subscription program, one of the few remaining benefits is the opportunity to give your book away up to five days per 90-day term. [iii]

Even if you’re not, you can set your book as free on Amazon with a little finagling.

In order to make your ebook “permafree,” you need to be selling it at one or moreof the other major retailers — Apple, Kobo, and/or Barnes and Noble, for choice — that does allow you to price an ebook at $0.00.

Once that price has shown up on the various stores, Amazon may pick up on the price drop all on their own and match it. [iv]

Sometimes they play dumb and don’t want to hear about it — you may need to tell them more than once, or you may need to get someone else to inform them. You can inform Amazon by going to your ebook’s Kindle Store page (the one on the front end of the store that buyers see), and click on the “Tell us about a lower price” link just below the book’s rankings. Share a link to the free ebook on the other site(s), tell Amazon the price at that site is $0.00, and you should be good to go.

An even better way is using the “Contact Us” link on your KDP page.

Once you’re there, you’ll see a How Can We Help? menu; select Book Details, then Pricing Your Book. You’ll see contact box. I fill it out with something like the following:

Subject: Please match the price of $0.00 on my book White Robes (ASIN B0725N8DM6)

White Robes (ASIN B0725N8DM6) is available at no cost at number of retailers including Barnes and Noble (https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/white-robes-david-kudler/1125298861?ean=2940153899497), Kobo (https://www.kobo.com/us/en/ebook/white-robes-an-interesting-army-seasons-of-the-sword-prequel), and Apple (https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/white-robes-interesting-army-seasons-sword-prequel/id1184003907?mt=11).

Please match that price.

David Kudler

Voilà!

It took a few hours but once that went through, not only was the book free on Amazon.com in the US, but on Amazon.ca in Canada, Amazon.co.uk in Great Britain, and all of the other Amazon store fronts.

Keep an eye on your “permanently” free book — occasionally, Amazon will decide to forget, and you’ll have to go through the whole process again.


[i] Note that this makes pricing your first book at $0.00 a bad idea, as I told my client.
[ii] For an excellent step-by-step walkthrough of the process of setting one of these up on your site, check out Nick Stephenson’s Reader Magnets. It does a great job of showing you the whole process of creating an incentive on your website — and the ebook happens to be permafree!
[iii] Once you’ve given it away, you can’t use the other promo — the countdown sale, which allows you to offer a book at a discounted price with a timer that lets buyers know the price is for a limited time only.
[iv] They seem not to be doing this as much if at all these days.
 
Photo: BigStockPhoto. Links may contain affiliate codes.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit

7 Comments

  1. Nicholas Italia

    I have a question: what if I want to give MY book away to a select number of people and those people only? For instance, I only want to make it free for John Jones and Sarah Smith, but no one else. What would I do?

    Reply
  2. Scott

    I have just about finished a novel. First one, thanks for you advice. I have a blog, scottspiritualcare.blog with WordPress. I have a possible traditional publisher. I think upgrading my premium account to business and get plugins necessary to give it away for signing up will be Smarter …☕️

    Reply
  3. Ian myers

    Is there a way to offer your book for free then ask for a donation if, and only if, they enjoyed it/then etc? Thanks in advance, Ian.

    Reply
    • David Kudler

      Hi, Ian.

      So you can certainly do this. The more typical route is to ask them to sign up for a newsletter — but you can also send them to a page on your site that has a donation widget. There are many for WordPress, and I’d bet that a number of the pre-cooked website systems (like Wix and Squarespace) have something similar.

      The reason that I go with a subscription sign-up (for which they get a couple of more free stories) is that the subscription, in the long run, is worth more to me than the single sale might net me. Make sense?

      Reply
  4. tanz

    Hi,
    My question might be a bit naive. Are price matching and perma free considered the same thing with Amazon? I read somewhere that Amazon isn’t doing price matching anymore, do you know anything about this?

    Reply
  5. acflory

    Great post, thank you. I had a vague idea about how to do the permafree thing but the step by step is very welcome. Bookmarked for the near future. :)

    Reply
    • David Kudler

      You’re very welcome! I’m glad this was helpful.

      Reply

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