When new authors offer free books on their blogs and on Amazon, they sometimes find there are very few takers. “It’s free, for goodness sakes,” they say and begin to wonder if there’s something wrong with their post, their Amazon page listing or the Internet.
In an era where readers expect free and/or cheaper books, let’s set aside the argument that people don’t really value what they don’t pay for. That’s a thorny question for another day.
The first problem an unknown author has with free books is simple: prospective readers don’t even know the books exist, much less that they’re free. Obviously, if J. K. Rowling or Stephen King make their books free for a weekend, everyone will know about it. News travels fast.
But, if you’re unknown, “free” doesn’t make you known. So, before you start with “free,” the stage must be set via blogs, Facebook and other networking sites. If you have a following, people will see your posts about an upcoming “free book weekend.” If you don’t have a following, find a subject related to the book to draw people to your post. People who don’t know about you won’t search for your book and your name, but they will be searching for trending topics that might relate to your book.
Okay, what if you have a huge following and few people download your free book? There are probably a lot of reasons. One of them is, of course, that people who follow each other are doing it primarily to get their names out there, not to buy anything.
More importantly, though, is the matter of the reader’s investment. “Free” might bring a book into a reader’s house when they already know about it and already want to read it. Or, if you’re writing nonfiction–where author’s name recognition is less important than fiction–people may download “free” when it’s about their hobby, career, favorite vacation spot, or a national issue they follow.
The primary reason “free” doesn’t work for unknowns who haven’t already created a lot of buzz is very simply this: the reader doesn’t want to spend the time to read the book. Readers expect a lot of bang for their buck; more to the point, while they may waste many hours a day playing games on the Internet or watching silly television shows, they’re more protective of their time when it comes to reading books.
Mental Algorithm: DO I PURCHASE THIS BOOK? DO I DOWNLOAD IT IF IT’S FREE?
Most readers have a figurative decision tree inside their heads…how long is the book…have I heard of the author…what’s it about…are other people reading it and saying nice things about it…is there already talk of a movie deal…how many stars and how many reviews does it have on Amazon…are Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, The Huffington Post, Flavorwire, Slate, Salon and the nearest metro newspaper talking about either the book or the author?
You see where that’s going. Each time the reader says “no” in the decision tree, the book becomes less likely to be downloaded for free, much less purchased.
We can argue all we want that the reader spends time and money on other things, things that may seem frivolous when compared to the book. The thing is, those other things are known things. On Facebook, Candy Crush Saga provides a certain kind of fun within known time frames. A Happy Meal at McDonalds provides a known eating experience.
What an unknown book, free or marked down, provides for the amount of time it will take the average reader to read it, is unknown. As long as it is, “free” will mean very little to prospective readers who are already zoned out and maxed out by the thousand other prospective free/cheap books they can download today, tomorrow and for the rest of their lives.
“Free” may be nice, but it isn’t magic. You need better than free to tempt your readers.