Do free e-books hurt Indie authors?


Those of you who don’t follow the e-book market like some of us madmen may not be aware of the split of opinions about the whole issue of free books.

The genesis of the current glut of free e-books probably stems from Kindle Direct Publishing’s Select program (“KDP Select”). If an author chooses to participate in KDP Select, he receives the right to post his book for free on Amazon for five  out of every ninety days.

When KDP Select became an option for Indie writers, many authors took advantage of it. In those early days of a year or so ago, a lot of authors saw tens of thousands of free downloads of their books.  They took this as a good thing because it was a way of putting their books into the hands of many readers who might not otherwise have taken a chance on an unknown writer.  This strategy worked well for some who saw brisk sales of their books when they reverted to the paid store on Kindle.

Then came an avalanche of free e-books as more authors became aware of KDP Select and jumped on the band wagon. Before you knew it, thousands of free books were available at any given moment.

I see two diametrically opposed branches of the discussion of the viability of free e-books as a sales technique.

First is the promotional branch which says simply that if an author can put thousands of copies of his book in the hands of would-be readers it’s great free advertising.  Shouldn’t that distribution of books build an author’s brand and ignite a word of mouth tsunami about the quality of his writing? Isn’t it a good way to get early reviews?

Second is the branch that asks: If readers can get a zillion books for free, why would they ever spend good money to buy a book?

I’ve gone both ways on this debate.  I have participated in KDP Select and used free days to promote some of my books.  I saw some good sales on some after the free days and a smattering of sales after others.

More recently, I have come to believe “free” has run its course, and that now all the proliferation of free e-books does is create a drag on the paid e-book market, especially for Indie authors.

I say especially for Indie authors because they are the ones on the firing line. Traditional publishers continue to price their e-books at a premium.  Their not so subtle subliminal message to readers goes something like this:  Indie books aren’t worth anything anyway.  That’s why Indie authors have to give them away.

That’s hogwash, of course, but it is we Indies who got ourselves into this mess.

The only saving grace in this for Indie authors is that readers can tell quality books when they see them.  I don’t believe a reader can care less who published a book.  I know I have never given it a moment’s thought, and I have bought a lot of books in my lifetime.

I still buy a lot of books. That’s right.  I buy a lot of books. To make my point as clear as I can, I will tell you right now that I don’t download free books.  If I see a book that interests me, I pay my money and expect the author to deliver the goods.  If he doesn’t then shame on him.  I won’t come back to him.  But if he does, then I have done my small part to give him a shot in the arm.  And when I read the book and decide to review it, I will have some skin in the game.

So, readers how do you feel about free e-books? Do you consider them bargain basement rejects or chances to discover new authors?

Indie authors, are you still giving your books away?  Has that strategy worked for you recently?  Will you keep doing it?

I’d really like to know where you stand on this.

(Stephen Woodfin is an attorney and author of legal thrillers.  None of his books are on the Kindle Free Store right now.)

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