Can Giving Away a Free Ebook Help Sell More Books?

free ebook Ice Cracker IIWhen I e-published my first novel, a high fantasy adventure called The Emperor’s Edge, I spent the first couple weeks posting about it everywhere. Message boards, Facebook, Twitter, etc. etc. etc. I even contemplated getting a custom CafePress t-shirt that I could wear at the gym (the natural place where high fantasy lovers hang out, of course). My efforts weren’t totally in vein, and I did sell a few copies this way, but I realized this was a tough way to make a dollar.

I decided to try a couple new tactics: advertising (which I’ve blogged about here before) and giving away a free ebook.

I only had the one novel out at the time, so I didn’t have anything full-length I could give away for free, but I did have a few short stories I’d written using the characters from the novel. I picked a tale that could stand alone and had someone design cover art (an expense that felt like quite a gamble since I wasn’t going to charge for the story and couldn’t recoup the cost except through sales of the non-free ebook). While I was waiting for the art, I headed over to the KindleBoard forums and asked what people thought of giving away a freebie as a marketing tactic.

I wanted to hear: I did it, and it worked great!

The majority of responses surprised me with their pessimism though. I heard a lot along the lines of “my free ebook has been downloaded thousands of times at Smashwords and I haven’t noticed it helping with sales.”

Erp. Maybe I was making a mistake. It was too late to back out though. I’d already paid for the cover art. I figured it’d be a “learning experience” if nothing else (I’m finding there are a lot of those not-particularly-profitable learning experiences in the world of self-publishing and marketing!).

I also checked out some of the free ebooks folks were giving away, which weren’t resulting in sales. There was a common thread: in most cases, the free book didn’t have anything to do with the non-free books the author was offering. They might share the same genre (though sometimes that wasn’t even the case), but most didn’t share worlds or characters.

As a reader who falls in love with a book (and its author) based on characters, I knew that’d be the way to sell me: introduce me to characters I like, and I’ll happily pay for more stories with them. I hoped that would be the case for folks checking out my free ebook.

I got the cover art back and uploaded Ice Cracker II to Smashwords, checking the boxes for distribution to its partner sites (I didn’t figure it’d show up in iTunes or Amazon since it was a freebie, but I’d heard Barnes & Noble would accept free ebooks via Smashwords, so I was excited about that—at the time I’d sold a grand total of two novels at B&N). I also uploaded it to Bookrix, Scribd, and Feedbooks, sites that let you post free stories.

At the end of Ice Cracker II, I included an excerpt for my novel, so readers would know it dealt with the same characters, and I also included links to the novel’s sales pages.

I’m not going to tell you I immediately became a bestseller (still waiting for that day!), but I did start selling novels at Smashwords and Barnes & Noble, bookstores where I’d previously had little luck. Thanks to my advertising efforts, I was already selling a few books a day at Amazon, so it was hard to tell how much the freebie helped there (I wish I could get the free story into the Kindle store, as I know that would help a lot), but I believe it did give a boost to sales there too.

Ultimately, I’ve gone from someone who was lucky to sell a few books a week, to someone who averages ten sales or more a day. With the ebooks selling at $2.99 a piece, that’s hardly quit-your-day-job money, but I think it’s an encouraging start for a newbie. It only takes 33 sales a day to move 1,000 ebooks a month, and if various posts around the web are any indication, you’re usually considered quite the success if you’re doing that well as an indie e-publisher. I don’t exactly write in a popular genre, so I’m tickled to be doing this well at this point. I’m looking forward to this summer when I will release the second novel in that series.

For more inspiration, you may want to check out my interview with Nathan Lowell, a science fiction author who got his start giving away his stories as podiobooks. He just started publishing the ebook versions of his books last year and already, with two ebooks out, he’s making more than he did with his day job.

For those who’d like to try giving away a free ebook, here are a couple suggestions:

  • Publish a free ebook that’s related to the body of work you want to promote (Brian S. Pratt, who makes six figures a year e-publishing, gives away the first full-length novel in a longer series of books.)
  • Don’t sweat it if you don’t have a novel to give away—a short story can work too.
  • Include an excerpt to one of your other ebooks (some people have reported that readers get huffy if the excerpt is as long as the story, so you may want to keep it short and sweet, so it doesn’t feel like the whole point of the free book was to plug your novel—even if it is!)
  • Include sales links to your other books (with an e-reader, people can download and buy without getting off the couch).

There you go: more than you wanted to know about my adventures in giving away a free ebook!

What do you think? Is giving away a freebie something you’d consider? Do you have any other suggestions?

  • Lindsay, it’s interesting to read how you did that. You should already consider yourself a success. It’s good for the rest of us to know how these things are done.

  • This was an interesting and informative blog post. I like the concept of the tie-in short. Thanks for finding a way to blaze that trail more effectively than the naysayers who went before you and for telling us about your experience.

  • What a great idea. I would have never thought of that. I’m going to get to work on the short for my novel right away. Not such a stretch as I have a book of shorts for sale also, just none that relate to my novel.

  • Thank you for the comments, guys!

  • Lindsay, You give some good, practical advice on free eBooks! I linked to your entry for my readers:

    I’m glad I found this blog, and look forward to reading more entries!

  • The connection between the free and non-free is a great point. Helpful too that you point out you could use shorter works as the freebies — “priming the pump” is the phrase, I believe?

    I especially like the idea of using that to bring people into a certain fictional world. Going to put that to work in my publishing plan!

  • Thanks for this article, Lindsay, It is really gratifying to read a realistic and detailed description of the process from someone who is making it work.