Free E-BooksOffering the first book of a series for free has been a good strategy to create book sales for many authors. Someone reads the first book, then wants to know how the story finishes and—presumably—will buy the rest of the books in a series. I’ve certainly fallen under this spell before.

Author Lindsay Buroker is finding this model may not be working as well as it once did, as she recently wrote on her blog (which I was alerted to from The Passive Voice.) The above model previously worked for her so well, she was able to quit her job and write full time. But that was two years ago.

Things are still looking up for Buroker, but she has noticed changes on Amazon’s site have led to some decreased sales. Some of the changes have had to do with how Amazon shows books in its store.

All the free e-books resulted in something of a backlash from Amazon, though. They’ve taken some measures of late to make freebies less visible in the store, perhaps because they don’t make anything on those downloads.

For quite awhile, Amazon was showing the Top 100 free e-books in any given category side-by-side with the Top 100 non-free e-books. This meant that if I ran a promotion for my Book No.1, and it reached the Top 10 free in epic fantasy, it would appear right alongside all those George R.R. Martin books dominating the paid charts.

The 100 free books list aren’t as readily noticeable anymore, according to Buroker. Readers have to make an extra click if they want to find those lists. Buroker says by Amazon essentially burying the list, she has gotten less downloads of her book, something some other authors have noticed as well.

She’s not crying over the sales. Buroker says she’s still doing well, but the changes are noticeable to her and others. Just by scanning the comments on her blog, at least half a dozen authors have noticed the same thing.

Perhaps one of the issues free isn’t working out as well is because it’s become more difficult to find these books. Some websites have ramped up their own referrals to free e-books because Amazon changed the way it calculated referral money based on the number of free books downloaded through links.

If it’s more difficult to find free books, it means they probably aren’t finding the paid books by the same authors, either.

I think the free book route is just another marketing tool authors use. It will work for some and not work for others. That’s just the nature of the game.

It also means that some authors have to work harder on the marketing end. They might have to spend more money doing advertising, ramp up their social media efforts or find others ways to get their names out there.

I don’t think this is a case of “if you build it, they will come.” It takes a little more than putting a book up on Amazon, Smashwords or whatever platform you use to get readers to notice you—especially now. The marketplace is constantly growing and getting noisier and noisier.

Authors should look at free books as just one tool. Learn and grow from the experience to figure out the best recipe for marketing a book.

Also of note, some of the authors who notice the free book route doesn’t work for them may not have a good book. It might be harsh to say, but it’s true. If a reader gets a free book and doesn’t like the story, they certainly aren’t going to buy the rest of the books in the series.


  1. As I’ve said elsewhere, there are more books already written than I’ll ever live to read, so I’d rather choose books I want to read rather than pick up something for free. Free is nice to have if you can get it, but it’s not a selling point.

    For example, suppose there are two books by unknown authors: 1) seems highly interesting but $12.99; 2) is free and in a genre I read but not especially interesting. What book will I more likely read? I’ll pay to read option 1. Maybe I’ll download the free book and maybe someday get around to it. Or maybe not.

    For me the other problem with free is that the book is often the first in a series and I’m don’t read series. No go there.

    In short, I think authors should write books people will want to read as is, not books as sales leads to other books.

  2. “For example, suppose there are two books by unknown authors: 1) seems highly interesting but $12.99; 2) is free and in a genre I read but not especially interesting.”

    There is kind of an alternative. A book that’s $12.99 but comes with a “look inside” feature allows me to sample it.

    Of course, the book would have to be pretty darn good to be worth $12.99, and then only in print, but that’s me.

    The point still stands: write a good book, use a variety of marketing techniques to find your readers.

  3. Good points made. Free or not, I’ll only download books I’m interested in, with a good blurb and good cover. I think the last comment needs expanding: a lot of readers download free books in genres they don’t normally read simply because they’re free. This results in a greater chance they won’t like the book. They are not the author’s target audience to begin with.

  4. @Greg, curious about why you don’t read series? Do you mean series where each book doesn’t stand alone as a separate story? I don’t like series where books end in a cliffhanger, almost forcing you to buy the next book, but I do like stand alone series books. Once I’m invested in a character, I want to keep sharing their lives, as long as each book stands alone.

    Oh, foreshadowing future events is okay, as long as it doesn’t take away from the current story.

  5. @Juli. As a rule, series often read as the same book rewritten with minor variations. About 10 years ago I read six books in the Honor Harrington series, but memory being what it is, I can’t be sure I just didn’t reread the same book over and over again. It was the same with two books by Jim Butcher. It was almost exactly the same bloody book. I’d rather explore new territory than revisit the familiar.

    Now some authors like Iain M. Bank have booked marketed as a “series” but the characters and scenarios are new each time. That’s fine. It’s not just Billy Bob the Urban Wizard hunting a vampire in barn in book 1, a werewolf in the woodpile in 2, then a goblin in the pantry in 3. I know some authors extend characters over 20 or 30 books, but there are too many books out there for me to give that kind of time to one author with one story.

    Trilogies that carry over the story across multiple books are ok. Kim S. Robinson’s Mars or James Ellroy’s Underworld books are good examples even if the story isn’t finished by the end of the book.

  6. I love series … even the ones with cliffhangers. I really enjoy following a character and the bigger story. I’ve downloaded a couple of free books, and bought the subsequent books. But I’ve also downloaded free books that I have not enjoyed and have not bought more books from that author.

  7. Amazon concealing free ebooks from casual browsers is hardly surprising. Years back, I clashed with it over a similar tendency to conceal less expensive editions of a print title to increase the sales of more pricey versions from other publishers. That’s what they were doing with my Across Asia on a Bicycle.

    The excuse Amazon offered me was similar to that mentioned above, that what it is doing is OK as long as some convoluted series of clicks will get you to the less expensive title. Amazon justifies that even if the book doesn’t appear at all in search results but only by following a link on another edition’s page. If you really want to find a specific edition on Amazon, the only safe way is to search by ISBN. I even had an Amazon programmer (I live in Seattle) tell me to never trust Amazon’s search results. That’s why.

    The software that does this seems rather mindless. Several years ago I toyed with heavily overpricing some hardback editions to move my title to the top of the search results, where customers would notice my much better priced paperback version and buy it.

    Amazon has made one improvement, perhaps as a result of complaints by outraged customers. About five or six years ago, they partnered with a firm whose name I have forgotten. The company did rotten work, releasing poorly scanned and never proofed replicas at inflated prices. The books were junk, but because of the markup, Amazon search engine gave them prominent play. In the case of my Across Asia, that even extended to hiding my edition of Across Asia. Amazon had to do that. My hardback cost less than that dreadfully done paperback and the paperback was less than half its price.

    I just checked and Amazon is not doing that with Across Asia at present. Amazon seems to have learned what I warned them back then–that trying to sell overpriced trash doesn’t make Amazon more money. It just means a no-sale.

    Amazon does have a CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform version of Across Asia, but it’s not overpriced and includes the warning: “This is an EXACT reproduction of an original copy of ACROSS ASIA ON A BICYCLE: THE JOURNEY OF TWO AMERICAN STUDENTS first published in 1894. This book may have occasional imperfections such as missing or blurred pages, poor pictures, errant marks, etc. that were either part of the original artifact, or were introduced by the scanning process. We believe this work is culturally important, and despite the imperfections, have elected to bring it back into print as part of our continuing commitment to the preservation of printed works worldwide. We appreciate your understanding of the imperfections in the preservation process, and hope you enjoy this valuable book.”

    Given that the book has no ranking, Amazon has apparently not sold a single copy. But what matters is that my edition ranks in search ranking well above that one. Amazon does seemed to have realized that search result rankings can’t sell overpriced junk.

    Over time, maybe Amazon will realize that helping to sell the first and free volume in a series makes sense for Amazon when they earn a profit on later titles.

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