Free fiction – does it work?

It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.
A couple weeks ago, TOR publisher offered its readers/subscribers a delightful treat – 4 free Martha Wells’ sci-fi novellas about Murderbot. The promotional offer signified a marketing campaign for the publication of a new Murderbot full-length novel, out this month.

Of course, the offer was limited: each novella was only available for download for one day, so the readers had to login to the TOR site for 4 consecutive days to get all 4 novellas. Still, it was an amazing gift to the readers. And it started me thinking about the writers who offer their writing for free and the ones who don’t.

Writers, with rare exceptions, are not rich. Should we offer our writing for free? Sometimes? Never? Does offering free reads actually work to increase our sales?

In my experience, it works for the writers who are already popular. The team Ilona Andrews, for example, posted all their Innkeeper novellas on their website for free as serials: a chapter every few days. Once a story was completed, it stayed on their website for some time, until the authors edited the texts and published the novella for sale on all the book-selling sites, simultaneously removing it from their bunch of free offerings.

I read all the novellas for free on their site, but later, I bought the paper versions of the first three novellas. I’m sure many of their fans did the same, so yes, it worked towards their sales: an advertising gimmick at its best.

On the other hand, I’m not sure it works equally well for a relatively unknown writer, although I encountered many instances when a writer made her first book of a series available for free in hopes to attract the readers to the next books of that same series. Does it serve? I don’t know.

Some writers offer free reads occasionally, like short stories on their websites, as a thank you to their readers and fans. So do some publishers: TOR and Baen among others.

I also encountered the opposite approach. A well-known speculative writer Wen Spencer (one of my favorite writers) not only never offers her fiction for free but also built her blog on Patreon, so you can’t even read her posts unless you pay. Truth to tell, it makes me upset with her. I own all her books, love them, bought them all as soon as they were published, and I expected some sort of recognition, maybe a willingness to communicate with her readers, in return. I understand a writer’s need to earn a living, but I think a blog on Patreon is an overkill and shows the author’s disrespect for her readers. How does it affect her sales, I wonder?

What is your stance on the issue? Do you offer your writing for free? Does it help your bottom line?

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22 Responses to Free fiction – does it work?

  1. Liz says:

    Some of my books are free to read on Wattpad, about 4 of them which are available for sale between $2.99 – $5.99. I sell a few copies a week of those books without advertising so even though I am not tracking where the sales are coming from, I’m going to assume some are from Wattpad readers who may want to own the book after reading, or in the case of a book that I’m still posting chapter by chapter, they want to get to the ending now.

    I never used to think setting a book free would get more sales and for an author with only one book, it won’t because you don’t have anything else to sell. But if your series has a minimum of 4 books, a free book 1 will generate sales to book 2 and then book 3. The key is to have a really good book 1 to begin with. One of my series has 5 books and so I see the sell-through when I give book 1 away. It all depends on your overall strategy, I guess.

  2. Natalie Aguirre says:

    I don’t have experience with this since I’m not published. As a reader, if I’ve heard good reviews about a book and it goes on sale or is offered for free for a few days, I might be more inclined to get it. I just bought a middle grade ebook that I saw on sale that I’ve been wanting to read yesterday. Hope this helps you figure it out.

  3. Pay to read her posts? No thanks.
    I think a free short story or first book leading into a series works, but not just any free book.

  4. I am not published and will not be published. It is an interesting conundrum though. I suspect that it rarely helps the new/unknown writer – but would be glad to hear I am wrong.

  5. A free book leading into a series works, but with so many free books out there, even that isn’t as effective as it used to be.

  6. patgarcia says:

    I am still working on preparing my manuscript for a publisher, so I don’t have any experience either. From my gut, I would say that maybe this writer is having a hard time. We so seldom know the motivation behind a person’s actions. There must be a reason and since she is one of your favorite authors, I would write her an email and ask her why.
    Shalom aleichem,
    Pat G @ EverythingMustChange

  7. I think it all just varies, with a lot of moving components and pieces. We’re all on such different writing paths that what works for one writer at one time might not work for another at a different time.

  8. Erika Beebe says:

    I think I might be upset too if my favorite authors wouldn’t reveal their blogs and tweets like anyone else. Happy IWSG day 🙂

  9. Steph W. says:

    I am unpublished, but hope to change that. I sometimes put a couple of paragraphs out for my family and friends to see. I guess I hope that it will get people interested. I think sometimes it feels good to just share something you are proud of. I can’t imagine giving the entire book away, though.

  10. cleemckenzie says:

    I prefer to buy stories and give the authors some well-deserved royalties. Giving away books as loss leaders has been effective in the past, but I’m not so sure it does much now. Maybe it will get a few more reviews. As to Patreon, I never go there.

  11. Beth Camp says:

    Thank you for a thoughtful post! As an indie writer and OTA (older than average), I’m interested in trying different strategies and connecting with readers. I do run special promotions, including a BookBub freebie maybe once a year. Just a few weeks ago, mostly because of the pandemic, I ran a 3-book series for free, over 3 days each. The overall results? Better to run the promotion for 2 days, and the first day got the biggest hit. Anything positive? Yes. Some 350 possibly new readers found out about my books. As a reader, I also like to buy e-books to support writers I like as well, but I’m appreciative of freebies. I try to write reviews for those books I like, but as Thumper said in Bambi, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’.”

  12. Lee Lowery says:

    I have several published non-fiction articles (in food and wine) and two published fiction stories (horror). I’ve offered both of the fiction short stories for free on my site (the non-fiction is completely unrelated to and uninteresting to my fiction audience). The stories may interest readers in my longer fiction. But pay to read a blog? Yeah, I don’t think so. There are a zillion blogs out there, many run by best-selling authors that offer their info for free. If it works for her, great. But the phrase “penny wise and pound foolish” comes to mind.”

  13. kimlajevardi says:

    I understand the logic behind offering some freebies, but I agree that it works better under certain circumstances or for some authors.

  14. emaginette says:

    Definitely something to think about. I’ve heard of writers making the first in a series free in hopes of selling the rest of the books. I’ve heard of some people knocking their books price down temporarily for a promotion. But never heard of anyone charging, so a reader has to pay to read a blog post.

    I’d think twice if it was me. 🙂

    Anna from elements of emaginette

  15. I think offering a book for free is great for unknown authors because it’s a way of reaching people you wouldn’t have otherwise reached. It’s not perfect, though. You’ll always comes across people who simply want free and won’t spend anything more. But then, that’s balanced by those who pick up the freebie and love it and go on to buy other books in your series. It only works if you have other books to sell, of course.

  16. Donna Hole says:

    I have heard of a few authors that paved their road to being famous by posting story series for free on their blog, but I think those are exceptions. I think the “free” stories only work well for successful authors with a reader following.

    I have no real opinion either way here; all my publications have been in unpaid e-zines.

  17. Steven Rose, Jr. says:

    Except on rare occasion, I do not offer my stories for free. I’ll do so a few times a year as part of a promotion and I do so with limitation. Overall I charge for my stories. Too much time and energy go into making stories and when a person regularly offers them for free it can come across as either insecure on the writer’s part or as the writer being desperate to publicise and distribute the work.

    Charging to read a blog? I don’t really go for that. Blogs themselves are often used for promotional support and so it doesn’t do much good to charge to read them. Now I’m okay with charging for certain content that has extra value in which this is often done with subscriptions I believe. (I’m not sure, since I haven’t gone this route. Yet.)

    Overall, I believe in the words of the late author Harlan Ellison that goes something like “Pay the writer!” We don’t expect to get free food at a restaurant each time we go to one or free groceries each time we go to a grocery store. And so we shouldn’t expect to get a free book each time we see one in a store whether it’s an online or offline (brick-and-mortar) store.

  18. Denise Covey says:

    One thing I know, Olga, through my stalking all the promo sites, is that marketing ideas change all the time. Nothing works forever. It was very frowned upon to give a book away, but I just read a post on 20booksto50k FB marketing group where the author couldn’t get any paid advertising to work. In desperation, he offered the first book in a 3-book series free, and people bought his second and third books and he’s making a killing. You’ve got to find out for yourself what works and what doesn’t.

  19. Thank you Olga for your thoughts on freebies. Your analysis is thorough and I agree with you. I would even extend it to e book publishing for unknown authors. Although it enables them to get their book out there, I think that in the long run, going through the long and tedious process through a publisher, editor, launch and sales of paperbacks/hardbacks pays off in the long run over a career as a writer.
    Wishing you an inspired May in your writing endeavours. Take care, stay safe.

  20. Diane Burton says:

    As a reader, if a free book is really exciting, I’ll buy the rest in the series. So it was worth it to the author. As an author, I don’t like to give away my hard work. One of my books is at 99 cents, and I’ve seen an uptick in the rest of the series. So, I guess it works, sort of. Hope you have a good writing month. Stay safe.

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