If it’s free, it isn’t a bestseller

On her blog, MsElenaeous Rants and Raves, fellow indie writer Elena DeRosa asks, If a book is free, is it really a bestseller? She concludes that it isn’t. And I agree wholeheartedly. More importantly, while the sudden rush of downloads of one’s free book provides a lift to the author’s ego, the long-term effects may prove a letdown.

DeRosa speaks of free books within the context of Amazon’s new lending library. This is the only legitimate way an author can offer their book for free on Amazon. Other free books on Amazon are so only because the book is offered for free elsewhere; it’s a function of Amazon’s price-match clause, not their basic policy. Authors whose books “sell” for free on Amazon have manipulated the system. This strategy can actually backfire on the author as Amazon tends to punish those attempting to manipulate its system by removing their books from the catalogue. Authors need to remember there is a cost to the retailer to store and deliver books, and books offered for free do not provide any revenue to offset those costs.

What indie authors also need to consider is that Amazon’s rankings are based on both daily and overall sales, as well as the number of reviews. In fact, Amazon doesn’t even use the term “bestseller” anymore; they use the term “popularity.” So your free book, if it doesn’t generate a plethora of reviews, will simply disappear when the next free book becomes prom queen for a day. The thrill will be short-lived.

And what of other sites where freebies are allowed, such as Smashwords or Sony? Anecdotal evidence reveals that offering one’s book for free doesn’t lead to sales: as soon as the book has a price attached again, the downloads fall back down, often to zero. It’s just coupon cutters filling up their readers. That said, the strategy can prove effective if you are offering for free the first in a series — if you have other books to sell — and if the freebie is well-written enough to catch your reader’s attention, but even this is a long-shot because too many of those who downloaded your freebie also downloaded hundreds if not thousands of others: it might be awhile, if ever, before they get around to reading yours.

And will your free book generate those reviews you imagine will result? To see if this were so, when doing research for The Global Indie Author I perused the top 100 “bestselling” free books on Sony. (I selected Sony because Amazon, as noted, does not make it a policy to offer free books; it is the same for Barnes & Noble’s PubIt!. Kobo has partnered with Project Gutenberg, which aims to digitize all public domain content, in particular literary classics, so Kobo’s top 100 free books are thus 60% Gutenbergs.) Of those 100 free books on Sony, three were samplers and eight were “user generated content via the popular eBook community Wattpad.com” (pirated?), seven were from legacy publishers (of which six were either romance or erotic fiction) and 82 were by indie writers: 81 published by Smashwords and one by the author. Of those 82 indie published free books, only five received any reviews and averaged only one to two reviews each. There was one notable exception with 21 reviews over a one-year period; it averaged a 2-star rating. So your chances of free books resulting in reviews are only about 6%.

This marketing gimmick worked in the early days of ebook development but it does not work well anymore because of the sheer volume of free product offered. It is little more than an attempt to manipulate the ranking system, which is a poor substitute for a valid marketing plan.


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