An author in the UK wrote to ask this: “I see a bunch of books on Amazon selling for almost nothing (and sometimes being given away for nothing). How does an author make money with that sort of thing?”
And several people have written to ask, “If a used book is selling for a penny online, is anyone making money?”
A note on giveaway books: You’re not making anything. You are trying to use free giveaways as a means of building a readership. In other words, you’re hoping that having the publisher give away copies of your novel will make them fall in love with your story, your characters, or your voice, and that those readers will go purchase copies of other books that will earn you something. So a giveaway is really a marketing strategy — a bonus, introducing your work to readers.
Brazilian author Paulo Coelho used this strategy effectively in the early day of the Kindle, and found thousands willing to download his book. That built a readership that continues to buy his works, and it’s a strategy others have used effectively. BUT it’s not a magic formula. Giving away free books is no guarantee that readers will buy your other works — in fact, there’s a growing sentiment among publishers that readers with kindles often have dozens of free books downloaded that they may never read. The books were simply downloaded because they were free, and “free” is something people like to see. They’ll pick up a free book and let it hang around, though they may or may not ever read it.
The problem is one of value — If you get something for free, does it have any value to you? I see a lot of authors who give away free books on the web but don’t seem to have any sort of strategy to use that to their advantage. More than selling books, I think it’s an ego thing… they like seeing their name on a cover, they want SOMEONE to read their work, so they offer it for free and hope others pick it up and read it.
For a professional author, a free book (or a new book offered at an incredibly low price) is there to serve as a sales strategy: A reader picks up a free short story or novella, is introduced to a character, and then is given an opportunity to purchase more books with that character. Or a reader is offered the first book in a series at a very low price, they like the story, and hopefully purchase the rest of the books in that series. But the economics are tough — you invest a lot of time and money in a book, and you make nothing. You have to take the long view and hope it turns into sales of other products.
By the way, I frequently get asked about all those one-cent used books for sale on Amazon. Obviously, an author is making nothing on the sale of used books, since royalties are only paid on new sales. And if the e-tailer is selling a book for a penny, they’re just dumping it, and hoping to make a bit of income on the inflated $3.99 “shipping and handling” charge.
Have you used free books as a strategy in your writing career? Has it worked well for you? Would love to hear your stories in the “comments” section.
Got a question about writing and publishing? We’re going to be doing our “ask the agent” segment again this month, so send us your questions!