Selling your ebook for free: yes or no?


It’s a quandary many of us emerging writers face: should we take a gamble and expect readers to pay for our self-published ebooks (and therefore potentially have few or no readers at all), or package up hundreds of hours of hard work and give it away in the hopes that many more readers will discover us and like what we do.

Let’s look at both sides of the argument.

Free books undermine our industry.

If we sell our first ebooks for free, what we’re doing is telling readers that even authors place little value in the skills, struggles and hard graft that goes into the creation of literary works.

We’d never expect a plumber to fix a blocked drain for free because they’re just starting out or because we’ve never heard of them before. Same goes for the local doctor, mechanic, dog groomer, musician, cake decorator and barista (or anyone, really).

So if we’re willing to pay such people, even if they’re new to the job or haven’t got many likes on review sites, why would we be okay with underselling ourselves?

By giving away something that required skill, dedication and likely more than 500+ hours of grit, tears and self-doubt, we jeopardise the industry we wish to thrive in. We tell the consumer world that writers and our contributions are of no value.

But we matter. Our work matters. And we deserve to be paid.

Free books are simply another form of customer service.

If we want a reader to invest their time on our writing, we have to build trust. It’s basic customer service 101. It allows readers to experience minimal risk while discovering new authors and new series that they otherwise would not have bothered with.

It’s about presenting a product in such a way that it stands out from the crowd. It’s smart marketing, and (for some) it works.

New authors who have experienced success with this method find that their first book—quite often written in such a way that a reader has to read the second book to get the full story—leads on to actual monetary sales with subsequent publications.

By giving away the first book, we get to build our author platform with readers who, having invested only their time so far, become our fans and are (hopefully) willing to invest in future works.

Free ebooks can give us the push-start we need to have a future in the industry we love.

What’s the best choice?

That’s a personal decision for every writer, and it’s not an easy one.

In my freelance work, I resent having to negotiate up because clients undervalue writers and editors. I’m often asked to work on the first article or webpage either for free or for a pittance to ‘prove’ myself. I can’t think of another industry where this kind of exploitation is the norm, and I can’t help but wonder if the prevalence of free ebooks plays a part.

But for my future as a novelist, sometimes I think the first book should be free so that readers can decide risk-free if they like my work. Like any emerging author, I want to have a sustainable career as a novelist, and obviously a fan base is crucial.

I might shoot myself in the foot if I don’t go ‘free’. But I could be shooting at the industry if I do.