The following is my opinion. It’s based on my career and the careers of others who’ve shared their numbers with me. If you choose to run your career differently, you go on and do so.
Recently there was a bit of a kerfuffle regarding free digital books as promotion in which an author referred to them as career destroying (as in the authors doing the promo and everyone else too) as well as a number of other negative things I’m not going into because this isn’t about personalities, it’s about the issue, which I think is vastly misunderstood by the person making that argument. I also have seen free book promotions likened to turning yourself into “bargain bin” authors.
All I can say is this – I’m here. Not in a bargain bin. I hit lists, I sell lots of books. I have a pretty awesome career that spans digital and traditional publishing. Far from being in the bargain bin or destroying my career, I’m thriving. I disagree quite strongly with the assertion that giving books away for free in any format is going to destroy your career or undercut your perceived value as an author. I say that from where I am in my career so take the rest of this for what it’s worth to you one way or the other.
Writing books is my job. I am compensated for that job. I’d never presume to assume what anyone else made unless they told me. But I know MANY, MANY authors who make a very good living writing books and part of that living includes both digital books AND free digital book promotion. In fact, I make more money from digital books than I do from traditional publishing (and my digital books are priced at a lower point as well, just FYI)
I started out in digital publishing. My first contract was signed in 2004. Back then people told me digital books weren’t real books. They assured me I’d never make any money and no one would consider what I wrote to be as good as a book with a traditional publisher.
And then several years later, when digital publishing was not only still around, but finally being taken seriously, one of my books, Giving Chase, was given away in a free book promotion. It was one of the first wave of such promotions and it bumped the rest of the series AND all my other books – that, by the way, readers PAID for because they discovered an author they may not have otherwise. Then 18 months or so later (2011), Samhain did another promo of that same book and it was like double the numbers of downloads of the time before.
But here’s the thing – it pushed the following book, a book that was published in 2007, onto the USA Today list (as in people got the first book free and then BOUGHT the next in high enough numbers that a book published in 2007 sold enough to hit a list years later). My numbers for the rest of the series and for my entire backlist jumped in a major way as well.
I’m going to bold and cap this because I think it’s the bottom line here.
THE FREE PROMOTION OF THE FIRST BOOK IN THAT SERIES BROUGHT NEW READERS TO ME AND IN DOING SO BROUGHT ME MANY, MANY NEW SALES AND THAT HAS CONTINUED WELL AFTER THAT INITIAL GIVEAWAY.
Rather than “devaluing” my work and my career, that promotion brought me to the attention of people who may not have picked me up otherwise. It brought me to a new level in my career. More visibility. More sales. BECAUSE of a free giveaway.
As a promotional tool, free works. Not free forever, but a week, two weeks, whatever, to get readers to pick your book up, especially a book that is years old? What harm is it going to do to try? That’s a real question because, IMO, bookmarks don’t sell books. Cover flats don’t sell books. Books sell books. I’m going to repeat that. Books sell books. This is my perspective, but there is nothing more effective to get readers interested in your books than your books.
I give away my books all the time. By that I mean pretty much every month. I’m excited when my publishers come to me with promotion ideas that involve free books or excerpt samplers. I’m not harming my career when my publisher puts my paper books in a conference bag any more than when my publisher does a free promo of a digital book for a week or two. (That’s not to say I don’t want to be involved in such decisions, as it’s my book, I definitely want to be asked).
I can’t agree less with the idea that simply doing a free giveaway of your books means all readers everywhere will think my books aren’t worth paying for. Moreover, I can back that up with numbers that prove me right and that idea wrong. That said, aside from bonus chapters, I don’t think something being free as a permanent thing is necessarily helpful either. Price points ARE important and I do think they telegraph a number of things to readers that authors need to think on carefully when pricing their books (or publishers).
I get that it’s easy to be confused and scared about the current state of publishing. It’s confusing. It’s fluid and sometimes it feels unstable. It’s easy to want to hang all that on something you may not understand very well like digital publishing, or free book promotions. But it’s not useful, not really, to do so. We owe it to ourselves as professionals to do the work to understand things that affect our careers. Because blaming the shadows of stuff we don’t understand isn’t helpful.