The Strategic Use of Book Giveaways and How They Can Increase Earnings Potential

Free books

by Patrick Goethe

Do free books hurt authors (or publishers, for that matter)? The short answer is no. For the long answer, keep reading.

FunnelWhat’s Your Funnel?

This is the key question that every strategic author needs to ask. The funnel is the path that readers take from becoming aware of you to becoming a fan.

Giveaways (or freebies) are popular for good reason; they’re a classic, frictionless way to make people aware of your work. Just about every industry has some way of using “free” to their advantage, particularly game, software, and app developers. If you can get a sufficient number of people in the door, and they like your stuff, you can sell them other things once you have some kind of trust or relationship in place.

If you’ve seen the famous Alec Baldwin speech in Glengarry Glen Ross—it’s a favorite of mine—it’s the same idea being expressed. A-I-D-A. First, get people’s attention—whether through an ad, a freebie, traditional media coverage, whatever. That creates interest. And if all goes well, you have desire and action to make a purchase later.

I don’t find it useful to discuss (or demonize) giveaways in the abstract, because unless we can tie it to a particular strategy for a particular author at a particular time, it’s impossible to evaluate it properly. If the giveaway leads to paying fans down the road, it’s smart. If the giveaway leads to no further action, then it should be reconsidered.

I don’t believe that one giveaway leads to an expectation that all of an author’s books will be free. When we get a free cheese cube at the grocery store, we don’t expect to carry away the whole cheese without paying. When we consider ourselves fans of an author, we might expect promotional pricing for buying early, and of course fair pricing in general, but not free stuff forever.

If there is a broader problem with giveaways specifically in the indie author community, it might be that you’re possibly cultivating readers who don’t give a damn about you and are only out for the cheapest read. In other words: giveaways can attract low-quality readers. But they attract high-quality readers, too. This is how business works. Some leads will be good. Other leads will be bad. Business savvy authors learn over time how and where to use the giveaway incentive to increase the high-quality leads and reduce the low-quality leads.

What’s Your Demand Curve?

When I recently interviewed Richard Nash, we discussed how every author has a demand curve. Here’s what he said:

Certain activities you engage in, you may do for free, and certain activities you engage in are going to be very, very expensive. It’s free to walk into the Prada store at Broadway and Prince, but it is extremely expensive to buy a dress. It is less expensive to buy cufflinks or a blouse. It tends to be that most people who go in there buy nothing—which is also true of the Apple store.

Take the novelist and poet Jim Harrison. … I know Grove is always trying to figure out, “How are we going to sell more Jim Harrison copies?” And the answer is: it is really f—g hard to bend a demand curve for somebody who’s been in the culture for thirty years. [You can’t expect] some deus ex machina to descend [and move] the point along the demand curve for Jim Harrison-ness—where there are 20,000 people who want to engage for $15—to where there are suddenly 40,000 people who want to engage.

But the thing is, there are all kinds of other places on the demand curve that are completely underutilized. So in the case of Harrison, I remember several years ago Googling him, and the second entry was a Wine Spectator article, which I read and I discovered that he is an epic gourmand. He has arranged these four-day bacchanalian orgies of food and wine in Florida in the winter with a bunch of food cronies.

If Jim Harrison picked a bottle of wine for you to drink while reading the beginning of his next book, you could get one of those wooden unvarnished boxes, stick the signed hardcover of the book and a little explanatory note from Jim in there, and sell each one of them for three hundred dollars, easy.

You can also have a 99-cent download, and you’re going to get more people to read him. Are you going to cannibalize a little bit of paperback sale? I don’t think so at all, actually. Even if [you do], from a revenue standpoint and from a readership standpoint, both numbers have gone way up.

I’ve been trying to advocate for this with publishers for years, but basically they just don’t seem able to handle it—not at scale. On an ad-hoc basis, you’ll see a few publishers trying a few things.

Fortunately, where publishers mostly fail, indie authors can excel. (And startups and online-based entrepreneurs have figured this all out, by the way.)

The giveaway is one of the more powerful tools in the new author’s arsenal because it’s a way to get attention when you may not have anything else going for you. There is no demand curve for you yet. And especially if you have no publisher backing you, then it’s important to provide social proof to potential readers, or have some way of indicating merit before they’ll invest time or money. (Thus the race for reviews, social media presences, etc—anything that indicates your work deserves attention.)

But should established authors do giveaways? The “permafree” strategy is well-documented as an effective marketing tool—which means you make the first book in a series permanently available for free, as a gateway drug to the rest of your work.

Where I think indie authors run into trouble is when they only have 1 or 2 books to sell, and they have nothing else to offer readers—and even worse, they don’t establish any means to contact the reader in the future (via e-mail newsletter or social media). So there is no funnel or path for readers to follow. It is a dead-end road. The potential fan finishes the book, and then … you lose them. Maybe they’ll find your next book, if and when it comes, maybe not.

The other catch here is that your work has to have quality that matches the expectations of your audience. If it doesn’t, no amount of giveaways help. When the cheese tastes bad, you stop taking the samples.

What About Traditional Publishers?

As Nash points out, some are better than others in thinking more strategically about an author’s demand curve. They occasionally use the power of the giveaway, but more often they use the power of deep discounting. (Some have started their own versions of BookBub!) I do recall one notable experiment when Suze Orman’s newest book was given away in PDF format, right before its official release, in conjunction with an appearance and announcement on Oprah. The next week, the print edition hit the bestseller lists.

Also, while I was at Digital Book World, subscription services were discussed as a way to increase discoverability for authors’ backlist, and to get new attention for old books—an opportunity to build a pipeline of fans.

Better Than Free

Giveaways can be an effective part of a larger content and marketing strategy. Don’t use them without considering your funnel, as well as your demand curve. If you have fans who value your work, they aren’t seeking everything for free—and in fact once you have a fanbase, they’ll be looking for experiences that are much better than a free book. Kevin Kelly commented at length about all the ways you can deliver something that makes it a delight for people to hand over their money.

Rather than pointing the finger at a community that you believe doesn’t value your hard work, ask yourself why what you’re offering doesn’t seem worth paying for. People don’t pay more for something because of a rational explanation (or an abstract complaint that culture costs money). They pay for something because they believe in it.

And if you haven’t seen the Alec Baldwin speech, here you go. (Language not safe for work.)

So, do free books hurt authors (or publishers, for that matter)? The short answer is no. For the long answer, keep reading.

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Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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Love your funnel – reminds me of my selling days at IBM where the funnel was described as Awareness-Knowledge-Liking-Commitment-Buy. Thanks also for the insights around giveaways.

Frances Caballo

Jane – I love this article. I’ve argued with myself over whether offering my books for free help. I do offer a substantial eBook for Twitter on my website, and I did offer my first book for free in the early months of its release, but that’s all I’ve done. Well, that’s not true. I occasionally sponsor a Goodreads giveaway program. I can see the value of offering the first book in a series for free; I’ve seen romance authors do that. This is definitely a great post that gives me food for thought. I’ll be mentioning it in my… Read more »

Hi Jane! Funnily enough, we’re in agreement. Porter’s lovely article actually concentrated on the comments that were provoked when I posted about how authors use free giveaways but don’t measure whether they are working. We ended up having a very lively debate about authors’ value, but my original article encouraged authors to look at whether they were getting good value when they gave a book away – which is what you’re demonstrating here as well. May I include a link to my original post? Many of the authors who responded had found giveaways didn’t work – and this was… Read more »

William Ash

But free books are not free books, they are promotional material. It is simply one form of advertising. In this case instead of spending money on an ad, for example, you are spending money on the promotional item. And if you are just giving them away without a plan or goal or strategy, you might as well bury them in the back garden. I think the fear is a self confidence problem that many artist have– they don’ t value their work and think no one else will. The pernicious idea have come in the self publishing community that reader… Read more »

William Ash

BTW, I find it interesting how the conversation in the indie community is evolving. In the last few years, the tone has become far more sophisticated and nuanced as from topics here and with Porter’s site.

What has not gotten more sophisticate is the autocorrect on my iPad. Sorry for the typos in the first post, and probably this one.

Ernie Zelinski

Here is my take on using books as giveaways. I will not use ebooks as giveaways but I will use print editions. With the right product or service, the more you give away, the more you end up selling. I have now spent approximately $40,000 giving away over 13,000 copies of the print editions my books. I give my books in many ways. For example, I am attending the San Francisco Writer’s Conference from February 13 to 15. Recently I received a newsletter from the organizers in which they asked for ideas for gifts to give away at the conference.… Read more »

William Ash

Ernie, but this is anecdotal. I am sure people give away books and see no return. You are writing is a specific genre and topic, which probably lends itself to giveaways. While 13,000 copies seems like a lot, it is just 1.5% of the total distributed. Or to put it a different way, your are giving away 15 books for every thousand. While I applaud your success, most writers are not going to be selling 850,000 copies of their book. When a thousand copy can be a great success for many writers, I would imagine they would want to use… Read more »

[…] The Strategic Use of Book Giveaways | Jane Friedman […]

Mickie Kennedy

Jane, That GGGR speech always makes me cringe… That aside, your funnel and its rationale is brilliant. There’s indeed nothing better than offering something up front for free, a strategy that works especially well if you have a series of books. If your third book is on its way out, give away the first two for a limited period, and watch as those freebies turn into sales for your third installment. Of course, as you point out in the first step in the funnel, the key is to build awareness first — and that means advertising, social plugs, and getting… Read more »

Penny Sansevieri

Jane, hi there! I just love, love this piece. I have to say that you’ve got it spot on. I tell authors all the time if you think free isn’t working for you, then you’re doing it wrong. In an age where 4,500 books are published each day you have to find more creative ways to build your tribe, sometimes just one giveaway at a time. I read a book called The Curve: How Smart Companies use Freeloaders to Find Superfans (Nicholas Lovell author) – and it speaks of the same thing. Excellent read btw, I highly recommend it. Giving… Read more »

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[…] Last week’s discussion on whether free books is devaluing our writing continues as Jane Friedman weighs in on free giveaways and their usefulness. […]

Barbara Meyers

Jane, I am glad I found you and your blog (courtesy of a post on the Novelists, Inc., loop via Porter Anderson). I’ve just returned from a booksigning event in my community which was hosting a classic car show and offered tables to crafters. I sold 30+ books ($10 each or 2 for $15) in four-and-a-half hours. That’s good for me since I’m a relatively unknown romance author trying to build an audience. I’ve done one free offering on Amazon for about ten days. 250 downloads, one review as a result. I’m still trying to figure out marketing. I have… Read more »


I liked reading this, though it did bring home certain failures of mine on the book promotion front. When it comes to promotion, sometimes I feel as if I’ve been given a pocket knife and told success is in the middle of a giant iceberg. Chop away, Grasshopper!

In any event, I’ve now got more to think about.

Love Good Blog

Wow, the Alec Baldwin scene is bloody. I’m just getting a toe in the water with figuring out how to attract more attention to my first nonfiction book. Loved your advice and the comments. Very thoughtful and experienced voices. Thank you!

Love Good Blog

And is that Kevin Spacey in the shot behind Baldwin? Such foreshadowing…

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