Are Romance Writers Devaluing Their Work With Free and Discounted Books?

 

by Helena Fairfax

What do you think about free and discounted ebooks? Do you have hundreds of them on your eReader that you never read? Would you sign up to someone’s newsletter just to get a free book? Or do you think, “Why bother signing up to a newsletter, when there are thousands of free eBooks on Amazon all the time?”

There was a time – only a few years ago now – when someone came up with the great idea of offering one of their eBooks for free in order to hook in readers. A free book! This whole idea used to be new and attractive to readers. Paperback books are very rarely offered for free in bulk because it’s just too expensive, and so for authors to give away their work was once something excitingly new and different.

But is the idea of a free book still as attractive today? Do readers now just expect to get all their eBooks either free or at bargain basement prices? Have we writers just shot ourselves in the foot by giving away our work?

I’m curious about this question as it’s been the subject of a major discussion in one of the author groups I’m in. There are two viewpoints: some believe we authors are killing our own business by offering work at rock bottom prices, and that we are devaluing what we are doing – that readers think because our books are free our writing is also worthless.

There are others who think that offering books for free is a huge opportunity for an author to get known by new readers – readers who are otherwise reluctant to shell out cash on an author they don’t know.

Here’s a quote from Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, in Publishers Weekly: “Free devalues your work, right? Wrong. Free makes your work more valuable. As an author, you are a brand. Readers buy books from authors who have earned their trust. But to earn readers’ trust, you must first earn their awareness. If readers don’t know you, they can’t trust you—your brand carries no value to them. You’re invisible.

“Even if you’re already a New York Times bestseller, there are millions of potential readers out there who have never heard of you and have never read your stuff. Free makes it possible to reach new readers who would otherwise never take a chance on you.”

I’ve been giving this subject a lot of thought this week, as I planned to put two of my romance novels on special offer in the run up to Valentine’s Day. Was I doing the right thing by making my books available for 99p/99c? Am I devaluing them? I thought long and hard about it, and I realised that, yes, for me this strategy has worked in the past.

I give away a free novella to subscribers to my newsletter, and this has brought me new readers who are actually engaged and who I know read each newsletter I send out, because they reply to me with comments. Many of these subscribers have also bought the follow up to my novella. If I hadn’t offered the novella for free, would I have had these readers? No, I’m quite sure I wouldn’t.

On a final note, I came across this quote today in a Guardian article on how Waterstones managed to keep afloat in a changing market: “Publishers pushed a cheap-and-cheerful approach with eBooks, and it seems to have become more the associated domain of trashy, poundshop-type products,” said Simon Lowe, a former bookseller.

To anyone who doesn’t live in the UK, Poundland is a shop where everything – you probably guessed it – costs just a pound. I absolutely love Poundland. My best friend and I always check out the poundshop if we come across one in any town we visit. They’re the most fun place to shop ever. I still have the green frog my friend bought me for £1, sitting next to my pond, and the Poundland rubber ball I bought my dog is one of her favourite toys.

What do you think about this subject? If you’re a reader, do you have a stack of free books on your ereader that you never read? Have you ever fallen in love with an author after reading a free or discounted book? If you’re an author, have you found discounting your books brings you new readers? Or do you think it devalues your work?

 

 

 

Guest post contributed by Helena Fairfax. Helena writes engaging contemporary romances with sympathetic heroines and heroes she’s secretly in love with. Her novels have been shortlisted for several awards, including the Exeter Novel Prize, the Global Ebook Awards, and the I Heart Indie Awards. Her first novel was written through the UK’s Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme.

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16 thoughts on “Are Romance Writers Devaluing Their Work With Free and Discounted Books?”

    1. The market is certainly saturated with books, Cynthia, and discounting a book is no guarantee of increased sales, as you say. I have had some success personally with discounting books, and with offering them for free through KDP Select. Discounting has brought me new readers and some great reviews. I had to spend a lot of time promoting the discount, however, and also pay for advertising. Because there are so many cheap and free ebooks to choose from, drawing attention to our own is very hard work.

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  1. I post short stories on my blog – but I couldn’t afford to give away a book for free: full-length, properly proofed and edited novels will be at least six months work, longer if you set them aside for a while as the best writers advise…

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    1. I’m a very slow writer, Liz, and it’s at least six months for me, too. Add in the cost of the editing and artwork, and my books are worth far more than 99p/99c I put them up for when I discount them. Discounting has worked for me, though, in finding new readers. Can I afford it? No – but then I have to ask myself if I can afford not to, since this has been the best method I’ve found yet of reaching a wider readership. It’s a very tough equation, as another commenter here points out. It’s been interesting to find out other writers’ experiences here.

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  2. Brick and mortar publishing houses give away books by the 100s, 1000s. But these are to reviewers and interviewers, not just so readers can have free books. I worked at a book publisher and personally sent out these free books. We called them review copies. We also FedXed many of them. Personally, I’ve stopped giving my work away. it seemed to work at first, but no longer. In addition, we have to pay for most giveaway promo notices so we can give away a book. It’s up to the individual and it’s a tough call.

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    1. The big publishing houses can afford to give away print copies of their books to reviewers. Already they have an advantage over us indie authors. It’s interesting that it no longer works for you to give away your books. It’s worked for me, too, in the past, but I’m wondering if it will continue to work for me in the future. Thanks for dropping in, and for your comment.

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  3. The challenge is that what a writer hopes to accomplish is to attract a reader to their brand – and then stick with them. The problem is that, all to often, all a free book attracts is a bargain hunter who may or may not be interested in spending time giving that book a chance. It’s a tough equation. As a reader, I don’t care about free books. I have a few on my Kindle. I have no idea who wrote them and I will probably never read them. But I will go bargain shopping for cheap books by authors I know. That is very instructive to me. I am a cheap ass reader – I admit it. I hate paying full price for any book, regardless of the author. But free doesn’t attract me as strongly as a bargain from a brand I have at least heard of. As a writer, I hate readers like me because I am exactly the kind of reader that is almost impossible to attract. And yet, some people have paid to read my books. In that context, I hope and pray that I have given them value that they appreciate and will bring them back for more. Honestly, not sure I’ve done that, but I don’t think free will make a difference in that equation. I think what’s probably more important than price is quality and appeal to the reader. Setting a price to zero is easy. Attracting readers to your brand is much much harder. Those few readers who see your cover, read your blurb and decide to try you out absolutely have to be won over by the book itself. Regardless of price.

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    1. I have a lot of free books on my Kindle, too, Michael. I do at least give the free book a try if I’ve downloaded it, but there are only a very few instances where the free book has been an incentive for me to buy more from the author. You are so right when you say what’s more important is “quality and appeal to the reader”. I’ve found the quality of writing in a lot of free books isn’t a high standard. I think it’s this general lack of quality in free books, more than anything else, that devalues them. As a reader I’m starting to think “If it’s free, it probably isn’t a great book”. That’s a shame, as I’m sure there are a lot of really good books that are offered up for free. As you say, readers have to be won over by the book itself, regardless of price.
      Thanks for your great comment.

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    1. Hi Jessica, it really is a tough decision whether to offer a book for free or not. It’s worked for me in the past, but I don’t think I’ll do this again – unless possibly with backlisted books. I still can’t make my mind up whether free and discounting devalues an author’s work, or if it’s a worthwhile selling tool. It’s been interesting reading everyone’s comments on this blog. Thanks very much for dropping in!

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  4. I definitely come down on the side of – yes free! I’ve had great success with periodically putting the first book of my series up for free in order to find readers who are willing to go on and buy the other books in the series. But success is about how one promotes that free offer to get it in front of readers. And that costs money. Initially, I was extremely reluctant to spend money to give my book away. But once I got over that hurdle, all has gone very well. Good post. This question – to go free or not – is always an interesting one.

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    1. Thanks for your interesting comment, Francis. I agree it’s a hurdle to pay for promo to get readers to download your book for free, but like you, I’ve had success with this in the past. I wonder if this type of promotion will continue to be worth it, or whether readers’ Kindles are now saturated with free books? Time will tell! So glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

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