This self-publishing gig is tough. From hiring an editor and cover artist to deciding whether or not to format books yourself or hire a formatter. (I wouldn’t have thought that necessary until I saw the really pretty formats of some ebooks I’ve purchased. All lovely scroll work at chapter headings and figuring out how to put title and author name on each page of an ereader … but I digress.) You get the idea, there are a lot of decisions to make.

And one of the hardest decisions an author has to make is pricing.

That’s right. Pricing. There are a lot of articles being written on the $.99 phenomenon. This POST offers an hypothesis as to why returns go up when the price goes down. Many authors are also discouraged because they feel pushed into scandalously low prices for their books. It’s not so much about feeling bullied by readers’ expectations that cause me to experiment with pricing … it’s sales.

I’m in this business for readers to find and (hopefully) enjoy my books. I’m not interested in putting in all kinds of time creating characters and weaving stories only to have my books sit in the dark, lonely nether regions of the internet, never to be downloaded to an e-reading device. Nope. I want them out in the world running wild and playing with all kinds of new readers.

This is one pricing list I’ve seen and it makes so much sense:
$0.99 – Books less 10,000 words
$1.99 – Books 10,001 to 20,000 words
$2.99 – Books 20,001 to 50,000 words
$3.99 – Books 50,001 to 75,000 words
$4.99 – Books 75,001 to 100,000 words
$5.99 – Books 100,001 words to ???

Now this might not make sense for everyone or for every book, but it’s a nice starting point. So then the question comes in … Where does FREE fit into this equation? According to some … it shouldn’t. Offering free books gives readers expectations that if they wait long enough a book will eventually be offered free and they will never have to buy another book. I don’t completely agree with that theory. The fact is, any reader has always been able to feed their literary addiction with free (libraries and convention giveaways) and drastically discounted books (garage sales and library book overstocks). Why wouldn’t the savvy digital reader expect the same thing?

For me personally, offering BLIND HER WITH BLISS, the first book in my sexy romantic suspense series for free was the best thing I could have done for sales. In February I reported my self-publishing numbers BEFORE my book went free. In March, I updated my sales figures. Sales continued strong through April … UNTIL I took the first book off the FREE promotion.

As in, I went from selling 20 books a day across all venues to selling 2. (I do realize that early spring is a slow time in general for digital book sales, but I’m sure this isn’t just that flux.) I suspect it has more to do with offering BLIND HER WITH BLISS as a loss leader which is bringing readers to my books. By the end of this month I will be offering it free again. Probably permanently. Yes, I’ve had 11,500 free downloads, but I know authors who have had four times that many downloads in a 2 day FREE promotion. So there are still plenty of readers who haven’t gotten my books.

I won’t do this with all my self-published books. But when a reader emails to tell me that she loved the free book so much she bought the whole series AND three of my traditionally published books … well, that makes me all warm and fuzzy inside. Some argue that free may be good for the individual, but not good for the publishing industry as a whole. I’m not sure. I only know it’s working to build my readership and therefore it’s growing my business.

And in the spirit of full disclosure my APRIL sales:

Free Downloads: 1666
Blind Her With Bliss: 40 books = $39.88
Deceive Her With Desire: 56 books = $110.31
Cheat Her With Charm: 38 books = $76.26
(Avg 35% drop in sales)

Barnes & Noble
Blind Her With Bliss: 177 books = $106.20 (through Smashwords)
Deceive Her With Desire: 51 books = $98.94
Cheat Her With Charm: 36 = $69.84
(Avg 40% drop in sales)

The month of May is dismal. I’ve sold a total of 30 books at Barnes & Noble, 36 at Smashwords and 35 at Amazon. The numbers speak for themselves.

44 Responses to Is FREE Fair to Everyone?

  • Interesting post Nina. I have yet to do a loss leader type formula, though I have put up a few .99 cent shorts that tie in with the sci fi erotic romance series I’m writing plus a short stand alone that I regained the rights to, which is my biggest seller. Otherwise my 2.99 novellas (29 K)sell better than the rest. It might be a genre thing but I get the feeling that people trust a book at 2.99 more than .99 cents.

    • Jenna – Last summer I tried having the whole series at $2.99 (which is what I charge for these short novels), but the sales were non-existent. I really think it’s the free book that’s putting the books out there for readers to find.

      Continued success to you.

  • Nina, Thanks for sharing your numbers and theories.
    I recently increased my prices for all three novels (100,000+ words each) to $3.99 and I have had a 30% drop in sales, but the income drop was not as drastic.

    I also think you’re right about having a loss leader for promotion being a very smart move for overall sales.
    Great job on the promo research and sharing!
    Stephanie Queen

    • Stephanie – I hope your sales drop is just a fluke. Hopefully over the summer you’ll see the sales in your series pick up significantly.

      Sometimes I think it’s only the very successful authors who post their sales. I think I’m more the norm and I’d like others to know they’re not alone out there.

  • Hi Nina. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and giving us the real numbers. I’ve had great results with my FREE promotion. I have 3 indie YA books published, (not a series) but only one with KDP Select. My first three day FREE promo, I had 28,000 downloads which drove my book into the #7 position on the Kindle Top 100 Free books list for a few days. That translated to about 800 sales in two weeks after the promo finished. A month later, I’m still seeing about 20-30 sales a day–a significant increase from pre-promo days. We’ll see if I get another big boost after my two days free this week. I think part of what makes those free days work so well is when you join with other authors to cross-promote. I’m part of the WG2E Beach Book Blast with fifteen other authors so we can help each other spread the word.

    As far as whether the FREE books are good or bad for the world, only time will tell. But my feeling is that giving is the way to get back. I have potentially reached 28,000 new readers in five countries and have touched the lives of thousands of people. Isn’t that why we write? Of course the paycheck is nice too:-) FREE is just one of the many ways to market your books and to keep momentum going, we just have to keep plugging along and trying new ways to reach more readers. The main thing is to keep producing quality material and not get hung up on the numbers too much. There will always be ups and downs in this business.

    • PJ – I keep forgetting to mention the disadvantage of going the loooong route free (not through KDP Select) is that my book isn’t free across all international markets. I do think if Amazon would price match internationally, it would certainly help sales of the other books in the series.

      And it is a matter of finding what works. I don’t know if free will hurt the publishing world in general. With all the changes happening I think we’re all going to have to wait and see how it shakes out.

  • Nina, as always you state the facts with such clarity. I don’t like offering my books free, but it is a good marketing tool. There are so many books out there that offering one or two of your books free helps readers to find you. My sales were slow for “A Catered Romance” when I first put it up. I offered it free and had over 13,000 downloads. After it came off free I sold over 1500 copies. That was good, but indie sales are a rollercoaster and sadly the high sales don’t last. But the sales for Catered, while not nearly 1500, are better now than before I put it for free. Same with “Storm of Desire.” Slow sales, offered it free. I didn’t have the the high downloads I did with Catered, but for four days after it came off free it was the number one Kindle book in adult fiction in the UK. I wouldn’t have had that if I hadn’t offered it free. I’m planning to offer Storm again free tomorrow and Saturday. All my books, except my anthology of short stories, and my RS, “Logan’s Redemption,” sell for $2.99. Logan is 80,000 words and I use it as my loss leader on Apple and Amazon so I price it at 99 cents. It’s $2.99 at BN. My BN sales are pathetic. Surprisingly my anthology of cat stories is my best seller on Nook. Go figure. This whole indie thing is a rollercoaster, but I’m in for the long haul. Now, I need to get my butt in the chair and finish my sequel to “Logan’s Redemption.” Thanks again for a timely column.

    • Cara – Thank you so much for taking time to share your experience with free promotion. I do believe it’s an excellent marketing tool that seems to be working at the moment.

  • Nina, thank you for the wonderful post and taking the step to reveal all that info. I’ve never done free except short stories I posted on my site. This year I decided to take the short stories and re-edit them, give them a cover so that they look more professional and such. I self published them and put them out for free. Why? for the reason that they were already offered on my site for free and it would be wrong of me in my opinion to charge people for that. I wanted to share the story with more venues and introduce people to my work who might not be familiar with it. Did I write this particular story to be free? Yup…I plan to do more of these with stories I had posted over the years on my blog or free reads page. I’ve learned a lot and want to make the story better and share it with readers. I plan to also self publish more books that I will sell so I can see how self publishing non free books goes for me.

  • Thanks for sharing this Nina. I believe that offering a free book is a good marketing tool so long as the author has other books to sell. I haven’t taken this route yet, but have a plan.

    I’m working like mad on a sequel to Fur Ball Fever featuring the protagonist’s dissolute-but-charming brother (Cold Feet Fever). I also plan to write a short novella about the ups and downs of my Fur Ball Fever protagonists (Wedding Bell Fever). At that time, I will offer Fur Ball Fever as a free ebook in the hopes that readers will want to find out what happens next.

  • Thanks Nina, as always, you are a wealth of knowledge in this self-pub industry. Thank you!!!

  • Wonderful post Nina, as usual so much to think about.
    XxOO Kat

  • Thanks for your excellent post, Nina. You’re right, there have always been ways to stock up on free books. I find that I buy more books now than ever before, even though I’m always downloading free offers. Though one possible disadvantage to free is that a book may be read by someone outside of the target audience who dislikes it, but downloaded it because it was free.

    I gave free a try after a month of watching my newly published book accomplish next to nothing in sales. In a two day promo, I had nearly 30k downloads and hit the #1 spot on the overall Kindle Free list. The promo resulted in nearly 2500 sales for the month of April. Sadly, sales dropped off a cliff on May 1, but it was a great run. In retrospect, I wish I had waited until my next book was out to put the first one on free and drive sales for both. I will probably set the first one to free again when the second releases and see if I can get a good push.

    • Lucy – Congratulations on all those sales! I do think it makes a huge difference when you have other books to offer with the free promotion. Here’s hoping your second set of free days drives sales for your other book.

  • Thank you for posting your sales figures. I was really interested in reading this.

    I hope things improve for the coming year.


  • No matter how many free books I get I still buy lots of books at the bookstore. I’m one of their good customers. It will be a sad day for me when there are no longer bookstores in my area.

    • Jackie – So many people are worried that bookstores will go the way of the dodo bird. I sure hope that never happens…and definitely keep buying those books! 😉

  • Very interesting, Nina! Thanks for the great post and info!

  • Vicki – It’s hard to know what will work for multiple books until you have them out there. Don’t hesitate to try different marketing strategies until you find one that works for you.

  • Hi Nina,
    Thanks for posting your numbers. May was a tough month. I did two days free and had only 2800 downloads. The last time, I had over 27,000 and sales for the next two days were awesome. But sadly, this time that didn’t happen. I’m giving up on KDP select for now. I might do one book, but having several on the program, I’ve not had the results I’d hoped for. May has been a disappointing month. Let’s hope June is better for everyone.


    • Sylvia – It’s so hard to know if it’s seasonal book sales or if we just don’t have the right marketing strategy for our books. The whole self-publishing thing is such a crap-shoot. What works for one author doesn’t necessarily work for another. Best of luck Sylvia. I hope your sales pick up.

  • I have one book free and have had some of the craziest comments posted. Not sure if that’s of any help…not when you have people admit that they don’t read romance and give you a “one” rating…on a romance book they took because it was free.

    • Marianne – LOL! Yeah, that’s the disadvantage of going free. Even people who don’t read romance will pick up your book and then rate it poorly because they didn’t enjoy it. *eyeroll* I hope romance readers find your book in the future.

  • Interesting post, Nina. Pricing is so difficult and so is offering the books for free. I hear so many different stories on what readers think. I’ve listed mine for free, .99 and 2.99. Sales haven’t changed no matter what I charge.
    Thanks for sharing your journey so far.

    • Amber – You’re welcome. I’m happy to throw the information out there so others might not feel so alone in their self-publishing journey.

  • Thanks for sharing, Nina. Love seeing what authors are doing and reading about their pricing strategy and freebies. There are so many variables. . .

    • Cheryl – Isn’t that the truth? What works for one person may not work for another. It’s important to try different sales avenues.

  • I’ve been thinking about putting one of my titles in KDP Select when I release the second in the series. But after reading some of the results I’m not sure anymore. Things are changing so rapidly I can’t keep up. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your experience.

    • Elysa – I haven’t tried the Select program. I’m hearing such a huge range of success and utter fails for that program. I’ve been more successful going the slow route through Smashwords.

  • My sales thru Smashwords are practically non-existent. I probably should opted out of B&N with Smashwords and go direct. I just haven’t had the energy. 🙂 I spend too much time checking my Amazon dashboard, don’t need another one to check. 🙂

    • My sales from Smashwords are actually coming through Apple. I probably would make more money going direct to Apple, but I don’t own a Mac … yet. From what people are saying, it may be something I’m considering soon. I think the royalties are better going direct.

      And I didn’t get B&N sales until I offered the first book free.

  • Self-publishing let’s us be our own boss, but sometimes being the boss is tough. So many choices, so many decisions. 🙂

  • You are not alone. I’ve seen a drastic drop in sales this month. Rather disheartening, but I’m hoping that when I come out with the second novella in the series it will help push sales again. Keeping my fingers crossed.

    • Teagan – I’m hoping it’s the end of the year mom craziness that’s slowed sales. Let’s hope the summer book buying season perks things up for all of us.

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