The Business of Free eBooks

by A.J. Cosmo

In the early days of Kindle Publishing you could take a “set it and forget it” approach to book giveaways. A free period, shortly after launch, basically guaranteed high downloads and inevitable sales. Over time, and with increased competition, free eBooks have lost a lot of their power as a promotional tool. Gone are the days of easy 1,000+ downloads. Now most authors celebrate giving away a few hundred copies.

Perma-free titles, along with the introduction of Kindle Unlimited, has further diminished the appeal of free eBooks. Anymore it feels like you literally can’t give away your books. So why then, under all this doom and gloom, do I continue to promote my work using free eBooks? There’s not just one reason, there’s ten.

  1. It’s Artistic Satisfaction– The act of giving away your material ensures that someone, somewhere, is reading your work. That’s artistic satisfaction, even if it doesn’t lead to any financial rewards. Most authors say they are grateful just to be read, but let’s be honest here, we write with the hope of making money.
  2. It’s Name Recognition– The only thing worse than no sales is having no one know who you are. Even if a reader never buys a book from you, the fact that your name has entered their conscious is reason enough to give away content. You want your name to be an option in people’s mind when they talk about books in daily conversation.
  3. It’s a Taste Test– If everyone follows the same quality standards, then the sale of a book will depend mostly on the taste of the reader. How can someone know if they like your work without sampling it? Even though Amazon offers preview chapters, there’s something special about getting a complete book.
  4. It’s a Loss Leader– Have you ever wondered why milk has been $2.99 for fifteen years? The cost of milk has gone up with inflation, yet it’s still pretty cheap. That’s because the store sells milk at a loss. Grocery stores know if you buy milk you’ll probably buy something else too. So if your eBooks have links to other titles, or if the free book is part of a series, then you are more likely to sell books when readers pick up the freebie.
  5. It Captures Emails- A free eBook, tied in with an email capture service such as LeadPages, can quickly grow your eMail list. These readers are giving you permission to sell to them, not just books in the same series, but anything relating to your work.
  6. It Keeps Up Rankings- Readers and algorithms constantly check the top of the best-seller charts. So, even though rankings reset when going from free to paid, the inbound links and “also viewed” carousel will bring eyeballs to your page and result in increased rankings. With well timed, and short, promotions you can fight constantly sinking tides.
  7. It Leads to KU Sales- Strange as it seems, many people experience a boost in Kindle Unlimited Page reads when putting a book on free promotion. The consensus is that the button to purchase the book for free looks the same as the Kindle Unlimited button to read  for free, so a simple mis-click means sales!
  8. It Leads to Reviews- Around .5%-5% of people who download your free eBook will leave a review. Those reviews can give you valuable feedback for improvement or a boost to your ego for a job well done. Either way, those reviews will inform other readers when they take a look at your work.
  9. Yes, It Still Leads to Sales- Generally speaking, around 1% of download numbers for a title will convert to paid sales after the promotion is over, so it really is a numbers game. Those small sales will lead to a higher ranking and, with luck, more sales down the line.
  10. It Gives Feedback- There’s nothing more heartbreaking than a dead book, however, even if no one is saying anything they are still saying something. If you can’t give away your book, then that means that something about the book isn’t working. Maybe the cover needs to be redone. Maybe it needs a fresh edit. Maybe the copy could be improved. And maybe, just maybe, the book came out of the oven too early. Use a bad promotion as a chance to take a look at your work and see what could be improved. It’s a tough market out there, give it your best.

In short, free eBooks are far from useless. They may not have the magical impact that they once did during the gold-rush days, but they are still an important, and sometimes very potent, tool in the independent author’s toolbox.


A.J. Cosmo is the author/illustrator of over thirty children’s books including the best selling “The Monster That Ate My Socks.” He lives and works in Los Angeles, California. Check out his website or say hi on Twitter.