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May 28, 2014
By Betty Kelly Sargent
We asked some of the brightest stars in the self-publishing firmament if indie authors can still make money by giving away books.

Can self-published authors still make money by giving away books for free? Are the rumors true, that freebies no longer help boost sales for indie authors? We decided to ask some of the brightest stars in the self-publishing firmament what they think about this. As we all know, there was a time when offering your book for free, even for a few days, could boost your rank on Amazon and often lead to increased sales. But it looks as if things might have changed—sort of.

When we asked C.J. Lyons, bestselling author and indie publishing guru at No Rules Just Write, how she feels about the value of giving books away for free she says, “It depends on your goals. For new authors, it is a good way to reach new readers—but it won’t work if you have only one book. You need to have several related books, aimed at the same target audience. The free book attracts readers, and those who fall in love with the series will provide revenue when they start buying the rest of the books in the series.”

She also told us that in 2011 she gave away 35,000 copies of her then new book Snake Skin in less than 24 hours. After that she put a price on it so she could count sales, because she never includes free numbers in sales figures, and it sold enough to hit the USA Today bestseller list. “That wouldn’t work today, though,” she says. “Right now the market place is oversaturated with free books. It is not uncommon for the free e-books blogs to post over 100 new free books a day.”

For successful series author and blogger Joanna Penn at The Creative Penn, giving away books for free still makes sense. Joanna says, “I give away the first e-book in my Arkane series for free because it gives people a low risk way to try my fiction and then leads them into the other books, which are full price. It is also a great way to get reviews, so for authors who are not well known brand names, and who have multiple books, it’s a great marketing strategy. I set the book for free on Kobo and iBooks and Amazon will match the price.”

"Most authors do free and then hope for the best. Hope is not a marketing strategy."
Jane Friedman, writer and publishing guru at is a believer too. She says “Giving away an e-book for free is an excellent way to reach new readers, and can be most effective when you have another book that someone can immediately buy after finishing the first giveaway.”

Mark Coker, founder of the e-book publishing and distribution platform Smashwords, is also a big fan of free. “Thirty-five percent of the authors of the top 100 best selling series at Smashwords give away a free book as a promotion incentive,” he says. “And all of the authors of the top 10 bestselling series give away the first book for free as a way to launch the series. Sure, the impact of free has diminished somewhat recently, because there is so much 'free' competition now, but for us it is still an incredibly effective marketing tool.” In fact, just to show what a great marketing tool free can be, Mark gives away his own e-book The Secrets of eBook Publishing Success at Smashwords.

Penny Sansevieri of puts it this way: “Free will always benefit authors if they know how to use it. You can’t just give away a book and then make the reader do the work to contact you. You have to put your book to work.”  She suggests that authors include a letter to the reader at the end of their free book, encouraging the reader to contact them, asking the reader what they liked and didn’t like about the book and sweetly suggesting they write an online review. “Most authors do free and then hope for the best. Hope is not a marketing strategy.”

“An author with no following can most easily gain fans by giving their book away,” says Hugh Howey, bestselling author of the Wool and Silo series. “Free is a term so many wrong things are said about.” When it comes to the big question of whether or not giving away content for free devalues a book, “Not at all,” he says. “What devalues literature is having good books go un-read.”

Betty Kelly Sargent is the founder and CEO of