The Risks of Offering a Freebie

by Jami Gold on September 29, 2015

in Writing Stuff

Sale tag with text: Should We Offer a Freebie?

Last time we talked about our options for handling reviews and criticism. Some authors avoid reviews, some intend to avoid them but peek anyway, and some don’t mind reading reviews. As with many things writing, we have to find the option that works best for our situation.

I’ve alluded several times to the fact that I knew my freebie short story would suffer from worse reviews than my other books. I was prepared for that possibility and accepted the risk, but I wanted to talk about the psychology behind the situation. The better we understand, the more we’ll know what risks we’re signing up for before making our decisions.

Especially as “offer a freebie” is a common suggestion for how to attract readers, I think it’s important to be fully aware of the pros and cons of that strategy. Only then can we make the best decision for us. *smile*

Why Might We Offer a Freebie?

As we’ve discussed before, freebies are good in certain situations. Freebies do expose our work to more readers. And if those readers like our work, they might buy our other stories.

In other words, freebies create a sales funnel, which funnels potential readers toward sales of our other books. We can offer something free to the widest possible audience, and then we can use the back of our book (where readers who enjoyed our story will be most likely to want more from us) to direct readers to our other stories.

That brings up the biggest reason for and against offering a freebie. They’re useful if we have other books available that we can promote to freebie readers, but freebies don’t do us much good if we don’t have other books in our list to use for turning those freebie-loving readers into paid readers.

But if we do have other books for sale, freebies correlate to higher incomes. The Copyblogger site has gone so far as to say that 100% of authors with a sales funnel will make more money.

Like Beverly Kendall found in her survey a year ago, for authors with an income:

  • Under $10K: 32.53% offered a series freebie
  • Over $50K: 68% offered a series freebie
  • Over $500K: 88.24% offered a series freebie

What Are the Risks of Offering a Freebie?

Attracting more readers and achieving a higher income both sound great. So why wouldn’t we want to offer a freebie?

The common risks come down to two main issues:

  • the psychology of free
  • the content of free

Let’s take a look at each of those…

Risk #1: The Psychology of Free

Psychologically, we appreciate things more when we have to work for them. Wealthy parents who are smart often won’t pay for their kids’ college education (at least not all of it) because they know their kids will take the opportunity more seriously if they have some “skin in the game.”

The survey I ran last year showed that—not surprisingly—people are more likely to read a book if they’ve paid more for it. If we’re spending $5.99 or more for an ebook, we’re going to make sure it’s not buried in our ereader. For the same reason, we’re not necessarily going to be in a hurry to read a free book. We’re simply not likely to appreciate it as much.

This psychology isn’t limited to ebooks. Free can make people feel entitled, like they don’t have to do anything to deserve even more.

When Facebook goes down, people gripe about how much they suck for not being available when wanted. (*raises hand* Guilty. I want my Twitter up all the time, and I complain when I hear rumors about potential changes.) Free services like Gmail or Hotmail or Yahoo often cause people to demand more. (“Why doesn’t it do XYZ? Why can’t I ABC?”) People complain about free apps all the time.

My free blog advice leads to emails or messages every day from people expecting me to be their personal mentor for career advice. My free worksheets and beat sheets trigger messages every week from people expecting me to troubleshoot why they’re having problems downloading or installing the files. (Even though 100% of the time, their downloading or installing issues are user errors due to their computers or lack of reading the directions.) They expect me to provide more. More free service, more free help, more free advice, etc.

I’ve said before that I’m pathologically helpful, so I’m happy to help—if that help is appreciated. I’m sure I’m not alone in that. We all want to be appreciated, to have our time and effort respected, etc.

And most people are appreciative (so this shouldn’t be taken as a “stop bothering me” plea *smile*). But those few that aren’t… Those who expect and get grumpy when I don’t have time… Those who think they deserve more… We’ll find those types everywhere, including grabbing our free books.

Those people who complain about free might go out of their way to leave a negative review because they don’t respect the book. Many won’t appreciate it because it’s free.

Before we spend money on a book, we’re going to make sure it’s something we want. We might not do that for a free book. So we’re more likely to get reviews on a free story complaining that it wasn’t what they expected or wanted.

That’s all a given for the psychology of free. We simply need to be prepared for lower star reviews on free books.

Risk #2: The Content of Free

Especially when we’re first starting out, we might not want to make a full-length novel free. We want to make money, and a novel takes a long time to write and edit (and likely costs more to pay for editors, as the word or page count increases). Understandably, many authors will offer a short story or novella for free instead.

However, the novel-favoring readers who would enjoy our usual writing aren’t necessarily going to appreciate a shorter work. I don’t blame them. Personally, I wish many short stories were longer. If I’m enjoying the story and characters, I want more of the same.

Also, to promote the rest of our work within our freebie, we might include excerpts of another story or several pages of covers and book description blurbs for our other books. That can make readers upset when they reach the end of our free story sooner than they expected—even if our freebie is a full-length novel.

As authors, all we can do to counteract those reactions is to make our description as clear as possible. We can make sure our title or subtitle states “short story” or “novella” if appropriate. We can point out “includes an excerpt for XYZ at the end” in our book description blurb.

However, even with that heads up to readers, reviews of our freebie will often complain about the length (no matter if it’s a short story or a full-length novel or anything in-between). Many three-star-and-below reviews will state issues like:

  • Too short.
  • I wanted it to be longer.
  • It ended just as it got interesting.
  • I thought there would be more to the story, but the last quarter was all an excerpt for another story.
  • Not what I expected.

None of those are about the quality of the writing craft, story, characters, or plot. In other words, they’re not about an aspect we can control—short of writing a different story.

Are These Negative Reviews a Bad Thing?

These risks might make us question whether it’s worth it to offer a freebie. However, remember what we said was the main purpose of offering a freebie?

They’re to expose our work to more people. Some of those people will like our work and some won’t.

If all our reviews are positive, we’re likely just reaching our bubble of friends and contacts. It’s the negative reviews that prove we’re reaching a wider reading audience. Sure, some won’t care for our story, writing, etc., but some will.

We each have to make our own choices for what risks we’re willing to accept. But if we’re prepared for these risks and know not to take these negative reviews personally, we’ll also have the chance to reach more potential readers than we could otherwise. And reaching readers we don’t have a connection with is the only way we’ll succeed at selling lots of books. *smile*

Have you seen people act entitled or unappreciative when they receive something for free? Do you think that attitude can be avoided, or should we just accept it and be prepared for it? Have you ever been disappointed by the length of a free book? Do you agree that free books can attract more readers who aren’t our audience? Can you think of other reasons people complain about free (yet good quality) books? If you offer a freebie, what’s been your experience?

Join Jami in her upcoming workshop:
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23 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Emerald O'Brien September 29, 2015 at 12:34 pm

Great post, Jami! I agree with your points, and from personal experience, offering a book free does tend to create an opportunity for more readers outside of my audience to pick up my book.
The only free book I offer now is one you get when signing up for my newsletter. It’s the first in a trilogy, and seems to be helping to create a nice funnel as you mentioned.
Based on the psychology of free, as you described, it will be rare for me to decide to make any of my other books free. Most of the payoffs I’d like to see from offering a free ebook (more satisfied readers) aren’t there, except for the one I offer when readers subscribe. I’ll stick to just that offer for now!

Reply

Jami Gold September 29, 2015 at 12:46 pm

Hi Emerald,

Great point! We can also use a freebie as a strategy to encourage newsletter signups.

That’s a slightly different strategy–as it wouldn’t be about reaching the widest possible audience–but it can work great as an incentive. And in that case, we’re less likely to run into the “completely not our audience” risk (as they have enough in common to run across our newsletter) or the “completely unappreciated” risk (even though the “cost” of an email address is small, that exchange still helps add a sense of value). Thanks for sharing that fantastic insight! 🙂

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Gloria Chadwick September 29, 2015 at 4:04 pm

Hi Jami,

I’ve been reading your blog for a while, and really enjoying it, but your post today is really timely for me.

I’ve been thinking about doing an Amazon Giveaway for my NaNo Writer’s Survival Guide, but have been hesitating since other authors haven’t had a very positive experience with it. Some authors have said that the people who received the free book turned around and sold it on Amazon. Other authors have said that people will enter the giveaway just to get something free and they’re not even interested in the book.

Like you, when I offer a freebie, I’d like to be appreciated. A few months ago I offered a cookbook sampler with 40 recipes and included info about my cookbook (with 300 recipes) in the back of the freebie. Thousands of people downloaded the freebie, and not one person left a comment on FB or my blog just to say thank you. Kind of a bummer.

So, I’m totally turned off on freebies. On the other hand, I think if you have a series and want to reach readers, it might be a good idea to offer a novella or a series starter, but then, like you said, people will want more, and maybe even expect other books in the series to be free.

I mean, after all, they took the time and went to all the trouble to download your free book, so the least the author can do is make ALL their books free–NOT!! It doesn’t matter to them that you spent months, maybe years, writing the book, paying for editing and cover design–they do seem to expect and feel entitled to read your work for free. If an author offers a book for free, I think readers may expect more free books, and get angry when the author dares to charge a fair price for their book.

Anyway, I think the way I’m going to handle “freebies” is to offer an introductory price of $0.99 for a series starter. And the way I’m going to go with the NaNo Guide is to offer it at $0.99 for one or two days, then half-price for another week before it goes back up to full price.

I agree with your psychology of free. I think people enjoy a book more if they’ve paid for it.

Reply

Jami Gold September 29, 2015 at 5:28 pm

Hi Gloria,

Ouch! Yeah, that kind of response of turning around to sell a freebie is terrible. 🙁

I’m not a big fan of giveaways because too many people entering tend to enter every giveaway (whether they’re interested or not, as you said) or are people who would buy our book but put off the purchase to wait and see if they’ve won (by which point, they’ll have forgotten their intention to buy). Just like with a permanently-free book, we should have a strategy (i.e., a purpose in mind) for giveaways. What do we want out of it, and will a giveaway actually accomplish that?

For me, my freebie short story does work at expanding my readership and leading them to the rest of my series. So by no means should this post be taken as “don’t do a freebie.” 🙂

But as you alluded to, the strategy is more likely to work if we’re offering the freebie as a series starter, because then the other books will be closely related in a “if you liked A, you’ll probably like B too” way. I also do the introductory prices for the pre-orders of my books–that way I’m rewarding those who sign up for my newsletter or read my blog or seem to care in some way. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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dolorah September 29, 2015 at 5:15 pm

I work in social services; of course I know the “psychology of free.” A shame that a few negative people who feel entitled ruing a good thing for all those who just want to take a chance – without consequences.

The indie publishing world makes a lot of negative people, both readers and authors.

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Jami Gold September 29, 2015 at 5:32 pm

Hi Dolorah,

Yep, that’s why I’ve decided to accept that as the simple reality and not let it bother me. I won’t let those negative people ruin it for the others who are appreciative.

So I’m not one of those negative authors, but I do think it’s important that we all know the pros and cons of our options, so I wanted to share what I’ve seen. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Zed Amadeo September 29, 2015 at 5:32 pm

This post is spot on with the experiences of other writers who’ve offered freebies and from what I’ve witnessed. I read a blog post awhile back that mentioned how people might comment that they don’t even like the genre of a particular free book, yet proceeded to download it, read it, and then complain about the genre. I’m thinking part of it may be that some might see a freebie as a chance to explore a genre they might not otherwise read relatively risk-free, since they didn’t pay a dime for it. On the other hand, as you mentioned, people also have a tendency to believe that they are entitled for more when they are given something for free.

I also appreciated this point: “It’s the negative reviews that prove we’re reaching a wider reading audience.” That’s an important and healthy dose of realism to remember if you’re struggling with a less-than-stellar, especially if it’s the first overtly critical review you’ve gotten.

Reply

Jami Gold September 29, 2015 at 5:46 pm

Hi Zed,

Exactly! And I’m a Pollyanna optimist, no doubt. LOL! But it’s true–it’s the negative reviews that prove that we’re reaching beyond the low-hanging fruit as far as potential readers. So I choose to see those reviews as a good thing. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Chris September 29, 2015 at 6:50 pm

Jami,

The best thing about your advice, especially in this post, is you make us think. Instead of just saying “you should blah, blah, blah”, you provide real information that we actually have to process in order to use. Thank you.

— Chris F.

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Jami Gold September 29, 2015 at 6:53 pm

Hi Chris,

Aww, thanks! Yep, I recognize that we all have different situations and goals, so what works for me won’t necessarily work for everyone else. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Tahlia Newland September 29, 2015 at 9:12 pm

The other factor you haven’t taken into account is that there are readers who only ever read free books. Because they always get them free they won’t pay for the next in the series.

The only free promotion I ever did for one of my novels netted no new reviews and I saw no obvious flow on to my other books so I never did another.

I have two short stories that are free and one of the short stories is a prequel to my YA series. They’re possibly the only reason I sell anything at the moment because I’m too busy editing other people’s books to spend any time on my marketing. That said, I’m not selling many. I think every author would benefit from having a free short, but I’m not a believer in free novels. I think they devalue all our work.

Reply

Jami Gold September 29, 2015 at 9:25 pm

Hi Tahlia,

Exactly! There’s a lot of psychology at work here.

Some readers won’t buy because they’re waiting to see if they won a giveaway of the book. Others–if they know a book is in KDP Select (those books exclusive to Amazon)–might wait for a book’s free days. Some might learn that certain authors/publishers charge a lot during a book’s first weeks and wait for the price to go down later. Etc., etc.

We have to be really careful about the precedents we set. Each strategy teaches readers what to expect.

And LOL! I understand about being too busy to do marketing–I have that same problem. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your insights!

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Carradee September 30, 2015 at 5:25 am

I have one free novel and a few free short stories on the vendors themselves, then more even freely available on Wattpad. I don’t sell much, but my titles that are on Wattpad sell more than my ones that aren’t.

I suspect it’s due to what I write: fantasy and science fiction that engages dark topics and themes. It’s the sort of stuff where the handling makes all the difference, and how can you get an accurate view of how I handle it without seeing a complete story?

Reply

Jami Gold September 30, 2015 at 10:32 am

Hi Carradee,

Great point! If our stories cover controversial issues or tricky themes, readers may want more proof than just the Look Inside sample to see how well we’ve handled the topic. In that case, a freebie that earns their trust could make all the difference in getting them to trust us for our other stories. Thanks for sharing that insight!

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Serena Yung September 30, 2015 at 7:47 pm

Lol I wanted to make all my first novels of my series free, but now I’m unsure again because I don’t want people’s beliefs that free means cheap in quality to ruin their enjoyment of my book, and as you said, they may disrespect your book just because it was free. :/

So yeah, I’m undecided on that.

Sorry, I was one of those readers who said Unintended Guardian was too short. ^_^”. Er, I hope my apology in the review saying that I’m probably being unfair because it IS a short story makes it better… And I must admit that short stories are not quite my thing. I much prefer full length novels, especially trilogies or other kinds of series.

(I think Mark Coker did a survey showing that readers tend to like series more than stand-alones? I don’t remember exactly. But I myself do certainly prefer series!)

BTW, Jami, do you think a reader should review a book that was not “their type” of story? Would it be unfair to write a review on a book of which you aren’t the target audience? Or would it be “dishonest” to not review books just because they aren’t “your type”? Lol yes, I have strange questions.

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Jami Gold September 30, 2015 at 9:41 pm

Hi Serena,

There’s no easy answer for many things in writing, is there? 😉

Oh! And no need to apologize. LOL! Short stories aren’t usually my thing either, so I understand. As I said, I knew the risks going in and accepted them. The point of this post is just to make sure that we’re all aware of those risks so we can be fully informed when we make those choices. 🙂

Hmm, for your question… Obviously, readers can do whatever they want. Reviews aren’t for the author. 🙂

From a perspective of “fair,” it depends. Sometimes saying why a book wasn’t their type helps let other readers know what type of book it is. A review saying that the book wasn’t their type because of the explicit sexual content can make other readers go “yay!” 😉 So there’s nothing inherently unfair about reviewing a book that isn’t right for us. As readers, we know that reviewers don’t “owe” the author a certain number of stars, so not giving a review just because it would bring down the star rating seems more of a policy to help authors than other readers–and that’s not the point of reviews.

If an author was getting the majority of their reviews from outside the target audience, they might want to take a look at their book description blurb to see if they were misleading people about what they’d find inside. Does that make sense? Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung September 30, 2015 at 10:00 pm

Yeah, no easy answer!

It does indeed help to specify why we don’t like it. LOL for the yay for the explicit sex scenes. XDD

I generally don’t write reviews unless it’s at least three stars, or if it’s a super popular book with tons of other positive and negative reviews anyway, haha. Some authors who like to review books think that withholding two and one star reviews is not being honest…Well, I still don’t want to post less-than-three-star reviews to the public, lol.

Good point for making the blurb clear. On the other hand, I think I read books where the description wasn’t attractive to me, but when I read it, I found that it was my type! So inaccurate description in the good way, lol. (I think I read the thought-to-be-not-my-type book because it was a bestseller and I was curious about it.)

BTW, I really feel the importance of story tropes that certain readers love. Some people think tropes are bad, but they can be good. Just watched Maze Runner 2 and WOAH it’s packed full of tropes I really enjoy. 😀 And now I really want to read the Maze Runner series, lol.

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Jami Gold October 1, 2015 at 12:40 pm

Hi Serena,

There are many valid reasons for authors to not write reviews below 3 stars, but I would hope that authors are always honest with their reviews. 🙂

LOL! Yes, certain tropes can be “catnip” to people. That’s where that subjectiveness comes in again. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Gloria Oliver October 4, 2015 at 12:14 pm

Thanks for the post, Jami!
I’ve been bitten by one of the freebie symptoms you mentioned. When I did a free book giveaway for “Inner Demons” last year at Goodreads, I was surprised when I got a bad review by one of the people who signed to win the book. My surprise came from the fact she stated she doesn’t like Urban Fantasy yet she signed up to get a copy and then bashed the for being exactly as advertized! I just couldn’t get around the fact the person signed up for something they don’t like, then had the affront to dislike it for the same reason. lol. So very weird…

Reply

Jami Gold October 4, 2015 at 12:44 pm

Hi Gloria,

Wow! Yeah, so they even went out of their way to sign up for something they knew they didn’t like. *shakes head* I don’t get some people. Sorry you had to deal with that, but thanks for sharing your experience! 🙂

Reply

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