Does Giving Away Free Books Work?

The remarkable Lizzy Ford answers this question in her guest blog. She goes in depth into this unusual marketing strategy. It could be she’s onto something…

Here’s what she has to say about free!


Does giving away free books work?

My marketing strategy has earned me quite a few strange looks and quizzical emails.  It’s a simple, two stage strategy.  Stage one: give away all my books for free for 12 months.  Stage two: put a price tag on all future books while keeping the initial books free.  The singular emphasis of the first 12 months is on exposure with the goals being to build a fan base and backlist fast.  My books are free everywhere (which includes all major e-reader libraries and multiple other sites) except on Amazon, where they’re listed at .99 each.  Five of them, 3 in the UK and 2 in the US, are also free on Amazon.  I started the first stage of the strategy in January with the publishing of my first book, Damian’s Oracle. I’ve since published 4 novels, 1 novella, and 1 short story and will publish 5 more and revised versions of the first two I published before I had an editor and cover artist.

So, why free, aside from building a fan base and backlist?  I’ll frame this by emphasizing that my focus is long term.

  • First, downloads of my free books range between 10,000-17,000 a month, whereas my initial sales were only 30-40 a month.  Do I want 10,000 people exposed to my book or 30?
  • Second, I have about 65 writing projects either started or in mind.  I can spare the 10-12 books I’m giving away this year.
  • Third, I have a full-time job.  I can maintain what I’m doing as long as I need to without the extra income.
  • Fourth, my book budget for the month is about $400.  Since I’m giving away 10-12 books this year, that means each book gets an investment of $400.  What I chose to spend it on: professional editing, professional cover, paperback book giveaways.  All other marketing/advertising is done for free online.  Royalties are re-invested into the books.
  • Fifth, technology has gotten to the point where e-publishing and distribution is free.
  • Sixth, why not try something no one else has?  What people forget is that – if a marketing strategy/price point/distribution network doesn’t work – we have the power to change it.  Indie writers are entrepreneurs.

In December 2012, we start stage two, which is where all books I release from December onward will have a price tag.  We’re looking at two options to encourage those who are already reading my books to continue to do so: either 1) offering e-book versions of the books free to everyone on my mailing list or 2) offering a subscription service, where readers will pay something like $10/year and receive all my books with no other charge for 2012.

Below I’ve listed some measurable results, general observations, and lessons learned from the first few months.

Measurable results:

  • Damian’s Oracle (released 1/11) and Damian’s Assassin (released 2/11) are ranked at 88 and 89 respectively on Smashwords Top 100 Downloaded of all time, beating out several books that were published years ago.
  • Downloads of free version of my books range between 10,000-17,000 a month.
  • Damian’s Assassin and Katie’s Hellion (released 5/2011) are consistently rated in the top 5,000 in the US Kindle paid store.
  • My monthly sales look something like this:

January – April 2011: 30-40 a month (1.2/day)

May: 468 (15/day)

June: 805 (26.8/day)

July: 1200+ (Projected; 46.5/day)

  • My mailing list has gone from maybe 1 person a week signing up in April to 3-5 a day in July.
  • My website’s Google ranking has gone from 0 to 3 in six months.  Its Alexa ranking has gone from 7+ million to right around 600K.
  • My website’s unique visitor traffic has gone from a baseline of less than 20 unique visitors A MONTH in 12/2010 to a baseline of at least 200 unique visitors A DAY in July.
  • I have somewhere between 1200-1600 reviews and ratings across all my books.

More general observations:

  • 20%+ of my website traffic comes from outside the US and Canada.
  • The international market is the catalyst behind a recent decision to have my most popular book, Katie’s Hellion, translated into Chinese and Spanish.  The translations will likely be released this fall.
  • Steady increase in Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, followers/retweets/comments over the past 6 months.
  • Tons of readers’ feedback has helped me improve my writing, to include character development and pacing of stories, over a relatively short period of time.

Lessons learned:

  • One free book on Amazon will jettison the sales of your other books much faster than any other site listing your book for free.
  • You MUST build your online platform as you build your book catalog.  If people can find you easily, they’ll follow/friend/leave comments.  It’s important to make yourself approachable/reachable via your online presence for both the international market and the tech-savvy/dependent generations.
  • The only two things I’d advise anyone to pay for: a professional cover and editing.  Marketing and advertising can be done for free online.
  • Amazon has the lowest percentage of downloads to reviews.  It’s well under .1% for my books.  Barnes and Noble has a much higher percentage.  Somewhere around 2-3% of readers will leave reviews.
  • International traffic/interest in my books is coming almost solely from free e-book sites like
  • Grassroots, word-of-mouth marketing is still more effective than paid advertising.  Maximize this by:

– Making your website/contact info easy to find everywhere your books are and invite readers to leave feedback in your bios.

– Responding within 3 days to readers/reviewers who contact you.

– Recognize when you have a die-hard fan on your hands and reward them with an advanced e-book copy, free paperback book or something that makes them a fan for life.

– Including links to your site in every post you make on someone else’s blog and online forums/boards.

– Buy business cards (Vista Print is cheap) and hand them out to anyone you meet who’s interested in writing or reading!

– Start discussions on Goodreads; ask your readers for feedback on new ideas.

– Interview everywhere you can, whether on bloggers’, readers’, or other writers’ sites.

  • Goodreads giveaways of paperback versions will pay off almost immediately in terms of the number of people who see your book and want to read it.  I had 387 people enter the drawing for my first giveaway and 998 for my second.
  • On the tech side, back-links and posting new content to your site 2-3 times a week are huge for bringing in those using search engines to your site.
  • Also on the tech side, using something like Google Analytics will help you tailor your online activity to bring in the most readers/visitors to your site.
  • Joining a good indie writing group will help you build your professional network, which is a must for those just starting out.  You’ll be exposed to more resources and free marketing/advertising opportunities as well as make some friends.
  • The books selling the best and having the most downloads: Young Adult/paranormal.
  • I did a blog challenge in April where I tried to post every day.  It helped me build my site’s content very quickly.
Thanks Lizzy for that fantastic and fascinating look at what free can really bring. You can find Lizzy all over the interwaves at


Filed under Indie Publishing, Publishing

3 responses to “Does Giving Away Free Books Work?

  1. ommy

    Wow! Lizzy really thought of it all! I am a reader and if I am being offered a free book, I would so grab it and if it turns out great, no matter if the next book has a price, I would so totally buy it. Great strategy in spreading your work to readers fast. Kudos to Lizzy! 🙂

  2. Pingback: The Advantages for Authors of Book Give-Aways - Assisting Authors

  3. Lizzy, you’re making indie publishing a science! I definitely need to get another book out there. Congrats on your success.

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