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Book Giveaways: What’s Wrong with Free?

Book Giveaways: What’s Wrong with Free?

Here is a peek at the cover of a new project I am working on. It’s not my novel, One Degree. Instead, it’s an illustrated poem that will be used in outreach for the Climate Story Garden. The poem, The Mystery Garden, was inspired by a community garden I happened across decades ago. It raises a question humanity will need to answer as we choose, or don’t choose, to address the climate crisis: What truly nourishes us?

This book will be my reader magnet, and it will be given away free in exchange for newsletter signups. In effect, it is a type of advertising, but instead of paying to place ads, I will be offering this illustrated e-book to subscribers in order to build the audience for climate fiction. Giveaways like this are an important strategy in the author’s marketing toolkit. Making them a success, though, takes lots of thought because sometimes free doesn’t work (as I have found out).

Before e-books appeared, printed books were only given away sparingly, mostly as review copies, since they cost money to print and ship. It became expensive very quickly. Now, with digital books, a free e-book doesn’t cost a thing except time and the loss of income for the author. In the digital age, people expect all sorts of free services and products, such as free email accounts, free social media apps, and free content. Revenue generated through advertising is the only way this works.

For the author, the free e-book can sometimes increase sales through word-of-mouth recommendations. The recent spectacular success of Colleen Hoover may make you think that giveaways are the way to go. She is an independently published romance author whose novels have made the bestseller list after she gave away 5 of her e-books for free during the pandemic. There are caveats to her story to consider though. First, this author is writing in a genre with a huge, dedicated audience—romance. Second, she has 20 books published for readers to buy if they like the free one they read. Third, she was already fairly successful before her books went viral through TikTok videos that raved about how hard a reader cried while reading one of her books (many of the novels are deeply sad).

A free e-book works best for series or someone like Hoover who has an established backlist. It doesn’t hurt if you have a large following on social media to spread the word or can get an influencer or reviewer to recommend it on social media.

If you are just starting out, however, the free e-book isn’t going to go anywhere unless by chance all the stars align in your favor.

So, is there any use for a giveaway? Yes, there is value in going free if it is used to build an email list. That means not offering the book for free on Amazon, Kobo, or other online retailers. You would offer it through your website or social media, using a service such as BookFunnel or StoryOrigin to deliver the free e-copies in return for subscription signups. However, you don’t have to offer the whole book. Authors use content such as a prelude, a side story, a first chapter, or other bonus material. One blog post even suggests creating a question for the reader that they may want an answer to, and they will only get it by subscribing.

Unless you already have a reader audience, there is a huge problem with just giving away a book without asking for anything in return. If a reader downloads a free book from an online retailer there is no way for you to connect directly with that reader to let them know about future books, or local appearances, or awards the book received. I found this out when I independently published my historical mystery for middle grade readers in 2012.

While taking a graphic communications course, I wrote Simmie… with Secrets for an independent study project to explore how to create and publish an e-book. As a learning project, it served its purpose, but I couldn't promote it or connect this novel to any others I had written because, without a newsletter for readers to subscribe to, I didn’t have a way to collect the contact information of people who downloaded the book. This story about child labor was never one I wanted to profit from. I just wanted to share it with the world, but the book would have had more impact if I had understood the challenges of giveaways and found a way to collect that reader info.

It has always been a dream of mine to set up a non-profit that can simply give away my books for free. That's a lovely idea, but it’s not practical. Selling books, even free books, takes time, takes money. And I have found that people are less likely to value what is free. Humans place more value on something that is rare and costly. Yet, there's a place for free content, and I will be working on sending out The Mystery Garden as soon as the illustrations, the layout, and the formatting are done. It’s a book from my heart, and I can’t wait to share it with all of you.

*Just a note: I will be taking a break from posting for the next few weeks to get The Mystery Garden ready to go.