Opinion: Pricing eBooks Free

This is something that popped up in my Facebook memories. I was going to reshare, but then realized it might be a good discussion topic for this blog, so here we are.

The Background

Two years ago today, Kristen Lamb posted this article on her blog: A Culture Addicted to FREE—How FREE is Poisoning the Internet & Killing the Creatives. It’s worth a read if you have a few minutes. When it went live, I shared it on Facebook with a long comment which I don’t want to repeat, but which you can read here. The free book I was talking about was The Beast, my very own twist on the classic fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast.

The Here and Now

Well, two years have now passed since Ms. Lamb’s blog post, and not much has changed, except that fewer people are willing to talk about it anymore. Smashwords CEO Mark Coker recently released the 2018 updated edition of his Smashwords Book Marketing Guide, in which his advice to authors still includes a strategy of pricing at least one book as free, and if you have a series, price the first book as free, despite his gloomy 2018 Publishing Predictions blog post, in which he predicted an increased glut of high-quality, low cost eBooks, and the demise of independent publishing by a rising, Amazon-dependent model.

It would seem like the two ideas are counter-intuitive. Why tell authors to play into their own downfall, rather than rally the troops to make a unified stand against it and demand fair treatment and recompense? But really it’s only a progression of cause-to-effect, and Mr. Coker is only doing what he feels will benefit authors most in this new climate.

How did we even get here?



Well, it went something like this: Amazon facilitated the rise of independent publishing. Independent authors took advantage of a system stacked against authors, priced their books lower to undercut the traditionally published competition, and upset the apple cart. Free and low cost eBooks flooded the market, creating a surplus of supply which led to an increased demand for the same, unsustainable free and low-cost eBooks. Recognizing a potential for more revenue, multiple platforms and distribution channels opened up to self-published authors, luring suppliers away from Amazon, which then forced Amazon to take measures to retain their upper hand among competitors by luring those suppliers right back again. Hence, KDP Select. Hence Kindle Unlimited.

Now we’re back where we started, with Indies still trying to compete with authors who somehow have a leg-up in the market by undercutting their prices even more, offering more books for free, and taking money out of their pockets, instead of earning money back from their books as they should. Because it’s cheaper to give away books than it is to invest time and money authors already have in short supply in a hardcore marketing push that might or might not pan out.

Here’s the thing. FREE does not seem to work anymore. FREE has created a culture in which people resent authors for charging a reasonable price for their books and go to extreme measures to avoid having to pay that price. FREE has led to a devaluation of books that is hurting every author out there.

Thinking Out Loud…

When was the last time you downloaded a free book and actually read it? I personally have dozens of them on my Kindle, and have yet to read one, because I keep putting it off and reading books I bought from my favorite authors, or based on friend recommendations. I would hazard a guess that most freebie downloads are impulse decisions that have less to do with actually being interested in the book in question, and more to do with the psychological aspect of acquisitiveness, just to own it, rather than read it. That book, sitting totally forgotten in someone’s account, does absolutely nothing to gain an author a new reader.

Of course, this is hardly a rule, and there are plenty of voracious readers who do read free books by the hundreds, which then becomes a problem in and of itself, because why should someone pay for an eBook if they can get so many others for free? In general, however I think people are far more likely to read something they paid for because they paid for it. They don’t want to have wasted their hard-earned money.

The book worth 50,000 downloads

And then there is the other camp: people who flat-out refuse to even consider a low-priced or free book, because they assume it’s an Indie book, and of poor quality by default. When I first made the decision to start charging a price for The Beast, I asked a friend of mine her opinion on how I should price it. She is a voracious reader, loves Indie books, and reads them almost exclusively now. What she told me was that she will check out a book if it’s free, because that feels like a good deal, a sort of limited time promotion type deal. But if a book is priced at $0.99 or $1.99, she will stay away, because it smacks of desperation and lack of professionalism.

And, in fact, the statistics Mark Coker published around that time showed that most people thought the same way. Freebie downloads were through the roof, $0.99 was the next best alternative, with the lowest number of purchases coming in at the $1.99 price point. Mr. Coker advised that the sweet spot for pricing was $2.99 for most novels. Isn’t that weird? How did an entire population of readers worldwide just decide that $1.99 was somehow the least worthy of all possible pricing? That seems completely arbitrary to me.

The Point

And it brings me to the point I am trying to make with this post. The eBook boom is over. The market is slowly stabilizing, but the chaos will continue for quite a while before everyone gets their ducks in a row. Author earnings have been steadily declining the past few years, despite eBook sales rising along the same timeline. Authors who made a mint in the early stages of the rise of eBooks are now being forced out of business, simply because there are better, or cheaper books out there. Authors who don’t publish exclusively through Amazon are seeing their sales decline as the cards get stacked higher and higher against them.

Free Science Fiction novelette

All of this tells me that supply has surpassed demand. It tells me that, to stand out, a book has to do much more than just be affordable. It has to be worth the time a reader invests into reading it, which means the most effective marketing strategy remains the same it has always been: Write a book worth reading.

Because of that, the only eBook I now have listed as free is Function: L1VE, a 9,000 word science fiction novelette that turned out to be too long to publish on my blog. It’s my little indulgence, to remind me that, as much as the business side of publishing always weighs on me, I write for the sake of whimsy, and that’s what this story was: a flight of whimsy.

If you click on the cover image, you’ll find more info on the story and links to where it can be downloaded (everywhere, except Amazon, because they don’t allow freebies). Have a gander and, as always, reviews are much appreciated.

Authors, chime in:

What has been your experience with pricing books as free?
Did it help you gain readers?
Did it affect sales of your other books?
Do you still do it, or would you do it again?

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2 thoughts on “Opinion: Pricing eBooks Free

  1. very well written – i am working on my first book of poetry and have fallen in love with Indie poets and now am trying to find some indie writers. I’m going to try to download your sci-fi! I personally love indulging in short story sci-fi. i do look forward to reading it.
    I was browsing another blog and noticed he had a lot of free ebooks and books priced at that range .99 to 2.99. It did cross my mind: are these even worth the read? I think its sad that writers/artists/creators in general have to lower their price just to appeal to people who like FREE
    but then there are people who want the writer/artist to get what they deserve and are paid for it. I wish i could answer the bottom question but i haven’t published yet, only bought a few books of indie poetry (that actually are very hyped due to social media/influencers)
    maybe someone else with more experience will chime in!

    Like

    1. Thanks for stopping by! 🙂 And yes, the fact that we judge books by their price tags is terrible. So many amazing books out there get overlooked just because they don’t fit some superficial marketing mold. So sad…

      Liked by 1 person

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