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Sunday, May 20, 2018

Free or Not to Free—THAT is the question

By James M. Jackson

Ant Farm (Seamus McCree #1) Cover
Whether to give a book away is not the ONLY question facing authors who have control over such decisions, but it is one with implications.

When Amazon first made electronic book self-publishing easy, one of the successful promotion strategies was to give away a book—particularly the first book in a series. Readers were just getting used to eBooks and eReaders and getting one of your books into a reader’s hands was a successful strategy for becoming known. In the early days a free promotion could generate tens of thousands, maybe even a hundred thousand downloads.

Fast forward to today and the situation is different. Few people are just now buying their first eReader, so succeeding by getting your book to be one of the first downloaded is like trying to hop on a train roaring down the track at fifty miles-per-hour. Even if they don’t have a dedicated eReader and want to try out eBooks, they can read them on their computer or smart phone.

Readers who want free books have dozens of newsletters to provide them links to free books in the genres they prefer to read. The only way for an author to stand out in a crowd is to pay for promoting his book.

Many voracious readers belong to Amazon Unlimited or other subscription services, where after paying their monthly subscription, it costs them nothing to read their next book—but unlike free promotions, reading those books provide authors compensation.

Lastly, I have an untested suspicion that we have fostered a large group of people who will only read free books (electronic or print from libraries) and will not pay for their pleasure reading. A subset includes people who download stolen books, upon whom I wish the worst of computer viruses. If my primary writing goal was to have people read my books, then free is fine, but I’d like compensation for my writing, which means I need to find readers willing to pay for their reading pleasure.

Before yesterday, I have focused on reduced-price promotions of my books. I have had limited success with half-price sales or $0.99 sales of electronic books. Whenever I have promoted a sale, my Kindle Unlimited pages read for all the books in the Seamus McCree series increases significantly. I’ve read anecdotal evidence that the same happens when authors give away a book in their series.

Yesterday I began an experiment: I reduced the Kindle eBook price of Ant Farm (Seamus McCree #1) to free for five days (the last day is May 23). I also dropped the price on the second book in the series, Bad Policy, from $3.99 to $2.99. The prices for the other three books in the series remain at $3.99.

I’ve taken out ads, will send out my newsletter, and have written this blog. We’ll see how this works. My hypothesis goes something like this: For every 1,000 downloads, say 10% read the book. Of those, say 10% become fans and read the entire series. At current pricing, it costs them $15 to buy the other four books. Under those assumptions, each 1,000 downloads will result in $150 of sales ($100 of royalties). Plus, I expect I’ll end up with more read Kindle Unlimited pages, and I hope the publicity will spur sales of other books in the series to people who have read and liked some but not been motivated to buy the next in the series.

Regardless of how it works out, one thing I know is that I will not set up free promotions for the later Seamus McCree novels. It’s one thing to give away the first in the series in hopes of attracting new fans; it is quite another thing to set up readers' expectation that if they just wait long enough, they can get all the books for free.

So, if you haven’t read Ant Farm, here is the link to get the Kindle version for free.


James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree mystery series. Empty Promises, the fifth novel in the series—this one set in the deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—is now available. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at


Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Very interesting. Curious what the outcome of your efforts will be.

I'm caught between a desire to read real books instead of ebooks, especially after pounding a keyboard all day, while simultaneously down-sizing. Library books are the answer, and I do make purchase requests to the Cincinnati-Hamilton County Library System.

Jim Jackson said...

Margaret -- I figured I'd write a results blog after a sufficient time has passed to judge the promotion.

I also prefer print to ebooks; I donate books I don't keep to our annual church book sale.

Gloria Alden said...

Jim, I don't have an e-reader, nor do I want one. I actually don't do much promotion of my book other than giving the first book in my series to people who seem interested. I've found that once they've read the first one they want to read more. Every December I've a spot at my church's craft show and have found that people who have read my previous books buy the newer ones and others will buy my first book. I still get checks several times a year from Amazon for print books and my e-books, too. A local book store buys my books at a discount, of course, so that's nice. Mainly, I write books because I like to write and although it's nice to get paid for my books, I think I'd still continue writing.

Kait said...

I'm looking forward to the results of this marketing effort.

There have been a number of pros and cons in the free/discounted discussion lately on other blogs and on several e-mail lists I follow. Results vary, but the general consensus seems to be that free is better than a giveaway, and does equate to a nice bump in sales to the rest of the series. I've not seen a free/discount combination discussed. I suspect it will be even more productive.

Warren Bull said...

I am concerned that Amazon will teach a class of readers that books can be read for free and that writers who gripe about not gating paid are just whiners. I met a used bookstore owner once and asked him why he should make a profit on a book I wrote while I get absolutely nothing for my work. He admitted he had never thought about that.

E. B. Davis said...

I think making the first book in the series free is a really good idea. It allows readers to find out if they like the author, the main character, the series, and if they like the book, it whets the reader's appetite for the series. When authors put up book 2 or later, I can't help but wonder why. Most people want to read a book in a forward sequence. They won't go back and find out how the character started out because book 2 is their start point, their status quo. Get out there and get those readers immersed in your series, Jim. I've taken authors up on the first one for free (Bobbi Holmes) and ended up buying 16 of their subsequent books! PS--I am so over print books.

KM Rockwood said...

Thanks, Jim. Your meticulous research is such a help to those of us who are more inclined to mumble along, sometimes thinking "What if..." but never having the wherewithal to actually do the studies and compile the results.

Jim Jackson said...

Gloria -- Do you have a plan for when you run through the months?

Kait -- Here's a mini-update as of 6:19 PM Sunday. Two-day total ANT FARM downloaded 3,234. Other books purchased 20. Three-plus days left in the promotion.

Warren -- My sense is that horse is out of the barn and eating high clover. Therefore, the question is how to find those willing to pay for their reading pleasure.

EB -- I just need to find a couple thousand folks just like you!

KM -- See the comment for Kait regarding current stats. I'll give final details after the dust has settled.

Jim Jackson said...

*** UPDATE ***

ANT FARM is #26 in the overall Kindle store and #2 for both Suspense and Private Investigators!! (All in the free grouping, of course).

Mary Feliz said...

I don’t have control over the price of my books, but I run a book in, or my publisher does, every time the book is on sale for 99c. So far, it has always paid for itself and the book has always hit #2 I’m cozy mysteries when it has been on sale. As an author, I don’t know anything about the props or cons of a free book, but as a reader I steer clear of them. 99% of the books I’ve downloaded that were free, even when vetted by B.B., were terrible and I didn’t finish them.(not saying that’s the case with your books, Jim! I paid full price for Ant Farm and enjoyed it!)

Mary Feliz said...

I run a book on bookbub when the books are on sale. That line dropped a few word in the original post!

Mary Feliz said...

Ugh! And the books always hit #1 in cozy mysteries.

Jim Jackson said...

Mary -- although you don't have pricing control, your publisher can score bookbub ads -- something very few independent authors can do, even with books with terrific reviews.