Authors Boost Income Giving It Up for Free

Here has been a trend in the eBook market for authors to give away some of their work for free as a way to acquaint readers with their work. This is a great promotional tool when used properly. When used improperly it can be a serious turn-off toward the author.

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Bloggy Bites

Many, many authors offer samples from their books as posts on their web site.  I do this myself, with posts that were enhanced to become chapters in my book, Writing for Profit or Pleasure; Where to Publish Your Work.  I have visited many blogs to check out authors I met through Twitter and Facebook.  On the whole, this is a less favorable means of sampling a writers work (in my mind) simply because I don’t like reading long articles on the computer.  A computer screen is hard on the eyes to begin with and so many authors try to be impressive with a dramatic web site that makes reading even more of a chore because of small type and colors that are difficult to see well.  Would you print a book with red type on black paper?  Then why expect me to read it on your blog?

Some bloggers go in for offering scheduled snippets, such as Six Sentence Sunday.  I feel these are more effective as an enticement than a 2,500 word sample chapter on a blog.

Appetizer Shorts

One way to get new readers familiar with your writing style and content is to offer short stories through regular distribution channels.  Mary Pax comes immediately to my mind because I’ve enjoyed her short stories: Small Graces, Plant Girl,  and Translations, which were offered for free through Smashwords, B&N and iTunes; and you may access these from her blog ( These bite-size stories gave me a peek into her imagination and style and convinced me that when her first book, Semper Audacia came out I wanted to be standing in line to get a copy.

Using short stories shows the reader that you can construct a complete story with a compelling start, endearing characters and a satisfying ending.  It showcases the best of your writing style in a way that doesn’t use up a lot of the reader’s time to decide whether they like your work.

Teaser Novella

A similar method is to give away a free novella.  The novella allows the author to better show their plotting skills and more fully develop the characters and is an excellent way to funnel readers into a series of books.  A great example of this is Flash Gold by Lindsay Buroker  a Steampunk novella that leads into her series The Flash Gold Chronicles.  More complex than a short story, yet still a quick read.  The characters introduced here will be the same lead characters in subsequent books, so it is part of a cohesive package.  You could almost consider this novella as the prologue to the first novel in the series: Hunted, except that the novella ended well enough that it is a stand-alone book in its own right.

Free Books

Some authors offer an entire, full length book as a hook to get readers involved with their work.  Again, this works particularly well when you’re writing a series of books that can use the freebie as a lead-in.  Michael R. Hicks is an example I have personally encountered where he offered me a free copy of In Her Name: Empire through his web site.  A full length book tells the reader whether or not an author can maintain the pace and intrigue through an entire novel.

This technique has long been popular among non-fiction authors who write on a particular topic.  They’ll offer one book for free that acquaints the reader with the authors’ style, experience and ability to convey information.  If they find that useful, they often buy others that delve more deeply into the topic.

The one exception to this category are those authors who are offering “a free book” that turns out to be the first few chapters, or worse the end of the book, and it ends in an invitation to buy the book to continue.  This *really* irritates me because I feel I’ve been lied to.  If it’s a sample, say it is a sample and I’ll accept it as such.  But if you tell me it is a “book” you’d better deliver a book.

This practice has also incurred some back-lash from Amazon.  The authors in question were offering their “free book” through their web sites under the same title as the full (paid for) book on Amazon.  As is Amazon’s practice, when it was discovered that apparently the same book was being offered for free, they price matched the one in their list, making it free as well!

Samples and Lending

Many on-line book distributors (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, etc.) allow potential buyers to sample a book.  This may be a chunk of the book that was defined by the author when uploading it (typically the first 10%)  that can be downloaded to your eBook reader or a sample chapter that pops up on your computer screen.  Both work in the sense that they give the reader a peek at the author’s style of writing.  I have gotten into the habit of requesting the sample on all Kindle books before I buy unless it is by an author I know well enough to be certain of their work.  Sometimes rave reviews from the general public turn out to be misleading, if not quite false.

Amazon allows a Kindle owner to share a book with another Kindle owner by removing the book from the owner’s Kindle and sending it temporarily to another.  In this way it works just like lending a paper book; if you lend it, you no longer are able to read it yourself.  At least in theory.  I haven’t tried this but I suspect that I could copy a MOBI file, e-mail it to a friend who could download it to their Kindle and we could both read it and comment on it as we went.  But that would be piracy.  I don’t even own an eye patch much less a parrot, so I won’t be going there.  I have bought Kindle books from Smashwords and installed them on my Kindle without the Kindle Kops showing up to question me about the appearance of an item I did not buy from them.

Amazon also has a lending library that is available to Amazon Prime members.  This allows the member to “borrow” a Kindle book and read it without buying it.  Amazon offers authors a share of a lending fund for their participation in the program.

I came across this just recently and, at first, it sounded intriguing. But further examination made me change my mind. For my own purposes, it would mean snatching my eBook(s) back from other distributors to give Amazon exclusivity (something they insist on in order to participate), thus limiting my market. Then there is that formula for “your share” of the fund. They make it sound enticing but I suspect actual revenues will be minimal.  An analysis of this is available from the SFWA web site

This may be a good tool for new authors wanting to gain exposure.  It effectively allows you to offer a free book to your reader and yet get a little income from it from Amazon.  But once this program takes off and is heavily populated, “shares” will diminish rapidly as you become one in a million.  For established authors, stick to the free samples of books to give readers a taste of your work.

The eBook Advantage

Most of these techniques of trolling for new readers are unique to the eBook market.  I have obtained a free print book (more like a booklet) from authors in the past, but always had to pay for shipping and handling unless I obtained it while at a conference or promotional event.  Just try writing to Pocket Books or Random House and asking them to send you two chapters of a book you are interested in buying and see what they say!

To be fair, however, if you can still find a brick and mortar book store, most will let you take a book off the shelf and read parts of it.  Some offer comfy seating and beverages while you peruse a book to decide if it’s worth your hard earned cash.  And, of course there is always the Library.

I have read many articles lately forecasting the demise of print books.  I doubt this is just around the corner.  Although there are many, many more authors publishing their work through Indie outlets than through legacy publishing houses, I suspect that paper books and even legacy houses will be with us for quite some time.  They just have to adopt some new marketing techniques


Free marketing is always good business.

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