Sunday, January 8, 2012

Free books!

I love free stuff. Who doesn't?

And I really love free books. For the last couple of months, I've downloaded on average two free novels and two short stories a day. I'm not talking about a load of old public domain stuff from Gutenberg, or classic literature from Amazon. I'm talking about modern books by contemporary authors.

It's not like I'm downloading any old rubbish. Every single day, I get carefully selected recommendations for between twenty and thirty free novels, covering a huge variety of genres. I've downloaded loads of books from the backlists of well-known print publishers. I read tweets and Facebook posts from dozens of authors and digital publishers talking about their new work. There's no shortage of free e-books, and the rate is rocketing. Nobody's quite sure how many e-books are published every month, but a figure of 50,000 seems conservative. However you look at it, that means there are hundreds, if not thousands of free e-books coming out every single day.

Sure, some of them have been mediocre. A few have been unreadable. But most of them have been pretty good. In other words, they've been just as good as the books I've paid for, either in print or digital.

Of course, I'm not actually reading two books a day. I'm accumulating reading material faster than I can possibly absorb it, and it's not costing me a penny. As a reader, I love this. All my reading needs are being taken care of, totally gratis, and completely legit. There are enough authors out there who want to give their work away that I don't need to buy a single book.

As an author and publisher, however, it concerns me massively. With this much good quality free material around, who's going to buy books?

A lot of writing blogs will tell you that the secret to making sales is to give your book away, build up a following, and then start charging when you've started to become popular. Sadly, it usually doesn't work. I recently published some of my fiction works. When they were free, I was getting 1000-1500 downloads a month. Once I put the price up to 99c, that dropped to just 1 or 2 a month - which is typical of most people's experience, from what I can tell. They'd been getting 5 star reviews, but even so, people weren't prepared to pay even a dollar. Why should they, when there are thousands of perfectly acceptable free alternatives?

A year ago, I wrote about the problems of the "freemium" software model. It's a nice idea in theory: you make a free product, get a following, and then charge your most dedicated users for a pro version. What usually happens, though, is that just as you start to charge, someone else comes along with a free version of whatever you're now charging for, and your customers go elsewhere. As long as there are people giving away free stuff to build their market share, it's almost impossible for anyone else to charge.

Obviously, this doesn't apply to the market leaders. As Seth Godin pointed out, if you want to read the latest Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett, you have no alternative. They're unique, they're the writing elite, and people will always buy their work. In fact, they'll buy it again and again even if they already have it. In some ways, it's less about the actual reading, and more like collecting. But for the majority of authors, there's no compelling reason why I need to buy their books unless they're part of a series which I've already invested time in.

The problem isn't the price. I got exactly the same number of sales at $0.99, $1.99 and $2.99. Single digits. If someone's decided they're prepared to pay for a book, then they're not going to hum and ha over a dollar or two. The fact is, there's a huge hurdle between free and paid, even more than between cheap and mid-price.

The problem is simply that the majority of people are not prepared to pay for e-books, because they know they can get plenty of good books for free elsewhere. Many readers have become conditioned to believe that digital books should be free. I've lost count of the number of people who've told me that publishers should make all their backlist available free "because it doesn't cost anything for an e-book". That's simply not true - even if you start from a digital copy, it takes time to make the digital book files, upload them, and so on. If all you've got is print, it needs to be scanned, which is time-consuming. And that's before you even get into the legal side of it, since the chances are that the original publishing contract didn't include digital publication.

As more authors give their work away, the more this view is becoming entrenched. With everyone scrambling to attract readers by giving away freebies, we're basically telling readers that there's an unlimited supply of good material and there's no need to pay. In fact, there's no real incentive even to read them. Grab them, stick them on your Kindle, and who cares if you forget about them? It's not like they actually cost anything. It's not like they're actually worth anything...

In the coming year, I don't think the big debate in e-publishing will be about what the "right" price will be. I fear it'll be about whether indie authors, small publishers, and self-publishers will be able to charge at all, or whether we'll be overwhelmed with the flood of free content.

Side note: during the writing of this blog post, I received 7 messages offering me a total of 41 free books, and downloaded 3 novels and 4 short stories. 


Kat said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt Kelland said...

If an author did that to me, I'd be seriously annoyed. I certainly wouldn't pay to find out how it ends.

India Drummond said...

Don't lose heart. People do pay for books. My first month as an indie author (May), I sold 50 books. In December I sold nearly 2,000. (In mid-December, I raised most of my prices from 2.99 to 3.99 (bar one of my five books which is still 2.99), seeing no drop in the sales figures as a result.)

Two of my five books (my fae series) sell MANY more than the other three. I have no idea why. But I have only recently started doing giveaways via the Kindle Select programme (I'm allowed to set my books to 'free' for five days out of 90), and I always make back any money lost from the promotion and then some. One of my books actually jumped from SELLING 77 books the week before a 3 day giveaway to 588 SOLD the week after the giveaway.

So, while I agree there are more books available free out there than ever, my own numbers tell me that people out there do still pay for books!

dirtywhitecandy said...

Thought-provoking post with many sound arguments. The problem authors always have is discoverability - until people have heard of you they don't know to try you. But books aren't free - writers' time isn't free. Their experience isn't free. Anyway that argument is already well rehearsed.

I did a free promo through Kindle Select over Christmas with episode 1 of my novel - the first quarter of my book. Just episode 1 - people would have to pay as usual for 2, 3 and 4. It was an unforeseen advantage of having already split my book in 4 - I'd never have given the whole thing away free.

I got a lot of downloads, and who knows how many of those people will even bother to read it. But the knock-on has been worthwhile. A lot more people are buying the whole novel, or going for the print edition. Also, the episodes are selling more - even episode 1, which suggests it's staying on some recommendation lists.

Would it work at any other time but Christmas, when a huge number of people have new Kindles and want to fill them with goodies? Who knows.

Back to the question - is this a dangerous precedent? Or should we see it another way, as giving away review copies for a limited period?

There are no easy answers. And you're absolutely right that we need to be careful.

Matt Kelland said...

India, Roz - I agree free can work well as a promo tool for series. It works less well when you're giving away one-off books: you've given away the complete experience, and there's no need to come back to find out what happens next in the story.

The "review copy" argument doesn't quite work for me. Giving away review copies to people who will actually write reviews is fine. That's a good promotional strategy. However, what we're seeing here are two different things. First, there's the class of people who don't intend to charge for their books, ever. They're just happy to give them away. That floods the market with free content and makes it easier for readers to satisfy their reading needs for nothing, as well as reinforcing the idea that books should be free.

Second, however, there's no limit on how many freebies you might give away. You're giving it to as many people as can find it and grab it within the promo period. With the growing number of services promoting free e-books, that can run into thousands of give-aways. Perhaps things would be different if you could set the book as free to the first 100 people. Obviously that wouldn't give you the sales rank that comes from thousands of "sales", but it would give you some promotion without giving away too much.

I agree completely with India about pricing. If someone will pay $2.99, they'll probably pay $3.99. The extra dollar doesn't affect their decision. The challenge is getting them to pay at all.

Anonymous said...

I used to work at a place where a lot of new books were available for free - they were being sent in for review. I, like a lot of the staff, helped myself to the copies that caught my eye. Eventually, I moved house, so many times, I decided I had to trim down the stacks.
I kept my favorite reads and gave the others away. We're all out there looking not for a good read, but a great read. And when we find it, we are happy to pay and what's generating that lately, is word of mouth.

Pamelaknb said...

Hi Matt. Very interesting post. I too love the free books, but as an author, I too wonder what about the future implications. I think it will all work out well.

I can appreciate that authors find giveaways or freebies a good method of getting their works out there. Being discovered or even put on the first ten pages of your category on Amazon is key because I think most browsers stop looking after ten pages and if you're on page 52...oh well. :( Peoples fingers are tired of hitting the next button by that time.

I agree with the idea that people will always pay money for what they want to read. I think some use freebies by a way of introduction so that readers will give their works a try to see if they even like them.

I don't care if they have a food sample giveaway at Sam's club every day. If it's something free, I'll try it. If I like it, I'm going to try to unobtrusively get as many free samples as I can, until they politely ask me not to come by that particular booth again. And if I really enjoyed the sample, then guess what? I'm going right down that aisle and glady purchase that product.

In light of this, Matt or anyone else, why do you think our book samples (look inside feature) don't work the same way? Why isn't the sample enough to entice the reader to buy without us having to give away the entire book?

Craig G said...

Hi Matt,

Personally, I'm worried about the same thing. When there's a top 100 list of free titles in every category on Amazon, it's even harder to sell your work.

I think there are going to be people who ONLY download free titles. They're seeing the same thing with the groupon and living social deals. People will ONLY go to new restaurants when they have the coupon and never go back. They just go to the next place that has a deal.

Now, if it was a unique burger joint those people went into, like really crazy, amazing, gastronomical tug-job handing out burgers... well, they'd probably go back. Because you hooked them. You made them rave and love it.

That being said... it goes back to the unique nature of authors like Gaiman and Rushdie and Hammett and Salinger... those books are just irreplaceable.

So, maybe, and I'm thinking this out as I go, we really all need to just step up our game. Maybe the time of churning out novels is coming to a close. I mean, maybe John Locke wouldn't have gotten as popular in this market place, because his books are replaceable (disclosure, I've never read any of his books, but his is an example of genre fiction priced at a low price that's hit over a million downloads).

Maybe the solution to the problem is to sit down and think about ourselves as artists, and sit down and tell a truly unique story that will hopefully touch the minds and passions of our readers so they can't replace us with a free download from somewhere else.

Of course, then you have the problem of: how many favorite authors does each reader REALLY have?

Matt Kelland said...

Groupon is a perfect analogy. I've tried a lot of good restaurants for very little cost, and of those, I've been back and paid full price to maybe two that I really, really liked. Many of the local restaurant owners I know are pulling out of Groupon, because they can see it's not working for them. They get a load of people in and give them a cheap meal, which looks good (and makes good tips for the servers) but they don't turn into enough long-term customers to repay the cost of the promotion.

Going back to the samples question - I think we should be happy giving away free samples. I've read many books based on the opening few chapters. That's a great sales technique, but it's totally different to giving away the whole book.

One interesting technique I've seen for series is giving away Vol 2 - basically the freebie does you no good unless you bought the first book, but if you buy them together it feels like a BOGOF. Still good value for the reader, but at least the author is getting something and it's a clear statement that they value their work.