The value of free books

Last weekend I ran a Riffle campaign to promote a "free" book giveaway. Actually, I didn't have to reduce my book all the way to free; I could have gotten away with 50% off, but I was curious about the true value of a free book. I wanted to know if a giveaway would increase my visibility (e.g. Facebook page likes, Twitter followers)? Increase book downloads? Result in spill-over sales after the promotion ended?

I first started thinking about the "free book" concept when I heard a talk by Hugh Howey, author of the indie WOOL series, where he mentioned that when he was starting out he gave away his book to anybody and everybody who would read it. He simply wanted his stories to be read and enjoyed by as many people as possible, which I think is a desire of most authors. Eventually his books peaked so much interest in readers that he became an international best-selling author!

But for as many people who say there's value in a free book, there are just as many who say art is not free and that giving it away only serves to devalue the work. Furthermore, there are many authors signed to big publishing houses who still have prices like $14.99 on an ebook--an extremely high value for a digital file, considering there are no printing or distribution costs.

I have to say I sit squarely in the middle of the two camps: I certainly don't want to give my book away for free on a regular basis, nor do I want to ask people to pay a high price for an ebook just so I can make more money. I think the answer lies in a hybrid pricing strategy that goes something like this.

1. Set a price for your ebook that compares with other authors in your genre. For example, in my case, if indie authors of new adult fiction are selling their ebooks from $2.99 - $4.99, then my price should be somewhere in that realm.

2. Develop a pricing strategy with well-timed promotions throughout the year, just like any retailer would do. For example, consider the Kindle Matchboook program (a free ebook with the purchase of a paperback), or changing your book pricing through Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), KDP Select, Smashwords or Bookbaby.    

3. Use "free" book giveaways strategically throughout the year. For example, set short giveaway periods to create buzz and generate interest in your book. Promote, promote, promote, and also ask people to share on social media. You'll also benefit from spill-over sales the following week(s).

As for me, my Riffle promotion weekend went relatively well. I received about 150 downloads and some residual sales throughout the following week, which almost paid for the Riffle fee. I also gained about 10 new Facebook followers and a handful of new Twitter followers, too. Whatever you decide to do, just make sure you constantly monitor your book sales and look for opportunities to run promotions to gain new readers. The worst thing you can do with your book price is set it and forget it. Give people incentives to read your book...and sometimes that's going to mean free.

Stacey D. Atkinson is the author of the newly released novel Stuck, which she published via her independent company Mirror Image Publishing. 

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