Sunday, 15 April 2012

Free E-Books: Oversaturation. Readers versus Downloaders.

Our regular readers may have noticed we've started listing all the daily freebies here at

We've done this because we want to share the best indie books that are being given away free (and we do download and read a fair few ourselves). It has got us thinking however. Is the free download market oversaturated? Is there a point at which your eyes begin to gloss over the myriad offers of free books? We had over 50 today only, and at that rate you'd be downloading hundreds of freebies per week. It would therefore be perfectly possible to fill your entire kindle for a year without paying a penny, but is it worth  doing?

As a reader, I love freebies. I remember paying £15+ for a hardback of my favourite authors, and that price constraint meant I read less than I could have. At free however I can easily get my fill, and then some. I have items on my kindle that have languished for months unread, and I imagine many of you are the same. With the advent of free and 99 cent/99p ebooks we have become avid hoarders of digital books.

Do we actually read them though? Or have we just begun to have extremely distended to be read piles? I somehow doubt I'll ever read every freebie I've downloaded, particularly as there are more every day. I do make the effort to try and read those by authors I've chatted with on twitter, but there is a physical limit to consumption.

Amazon estimates we now read 6x more books as kindle users, than print readers. I'm not convinced by this stat. We might well download 6x more books, and ebooks might be 'outselling' print (inclusive of freebies) but actual consumption still has a ceiling. As a reader, this huge to be read pile isn't problematic unless said reader reaches capacity on his or her kindle, and then it's a case of managing files (which can always be re-downloaded).

For the authors among us, this isn't so good a deal. While it's easy to get 1000+ downloads, the number of readers that come out of that is much lower than the % that will get read by paying customers. The greater the financial investment, the less likely a reader is to waste it. By contrast the readers who consume free books are likely to have a cornucopia of choices. Very few of them will become the die hard fans that make or break an authors career (and I mean those who buy your book on release, and immediately want to know when the next one is!).

What it does do is get you visibility. Downloads and page views both feature into Amazon's listing algorithm (along with purchases, likes, tags, reviews, % conversion on samples to downloads, category listing, number of reviews, average of reviews etc. I should also note that Amazon do use a decaying average for review - you need consistent reviews to maintain your ranking).

By giving away a freebie, you'll probably wind up on lists, twitter feeds (inc ours!) all over the place. Those links will generate hits, and downloads which will increase your ranking. This does give a short tail after the free period ceases, but it won't be worth much, and will continue to shrink as more jump on board the free download bandwagon.

The real value in freebies is for authors with backlists. It's the crack cocaine principal in play. Give them a taste, and if they like it they'll be hooked. You can then cross sell all your other work.

For a debut novelist however, freebie downloads might not represent a great option as they do devalue your work. Once you've given it away it's much harder to sell it for a reasonable price. Wait until you've got more work out, and those freebies will do much more for you career than giving them away early.

As a postscript, I'll also point out Friday, Saturday and Sunday get many more freebies - there is a more obvious oversaturation on certain days of the week. It's silly competing to give your stuff away. Wait until it's a bit quieter, and hook in other bloggers and tweeters beforehand to ensure maximum coverage.        


  1. As an aside - Dan missed the obvious point that freebies can only be done in two ways:

    1. Kindle Direct Publishing. The downside here is you have to go amazon exclusive. That might lose sales, and has implications long term re market dominance, though that is another debate.

    2. Reduce the price elsewhere to force amazon to pricematch. This will mean a permanant drop until you remove it elsewhere. With a prolonged period of free giveaways it becomes exponentially harder to then sell the same work. You'll also be at the hands of 3rd parties such as smashwords, apple etc in terms of timescales for removal/ updating of prices.

  2. For another perspective on freebie promotions check out by @PeterCarroll10

  3. this is a fantastic post and really well-timed too because we were debating whether or not to make GDR free for a short period of time to attract more readers. But you're absolutely right when you say although it would be downloaded, it might not get more readers, because people have huge to be read lists. We've got 41 print books and several on our Kindles to be read that we're trying to work through and barely have time to make a dent in them. Plus we'd be so pissed if loads of people download it for free when we could've been earning that massive 25p per copy. So you've given us something to think about. Thanks :)

    1. Why not split your short story collection, and offer one free? Doesn't need to be the whole collection.

  4. Hi Dan,thanks for the link back to my blog. I think this is a very interesting take on the situation and very possibly the reason why my freebie failed to go as I'd hoped. Interestingly, I have a pal who had a completely different experience with his only novel. Check this out for contrast. As fo me, my publisher is keen to try Pandora's Pitbull as a freebie. I am not so sure. I will direct him to this article and hold fire for now! Cheers

    1. Apologies for the weird formatting and the typo!

  5. That's a very interesting contrasting view. I do wonder if the niche nature of his work (technothriller and humour are less 'busy' amazon categories) are what helped him to keep high in the rankings.

    He also seems to have had a somewhat somewhat mixed experience - "On Amazon US, 845 people downloaded freebies; I’ve since sold a further 75." The US is a much bigger market for ebooks, and I suspect oversaturated as far as freebies go (the take up per kindle account being much lower than the UK).

    If it isn't a case of oversaturation in the US then the mixed response must surely represent something of the luck element (combined with the fact he probably promoted more in UK waking hours than US - If you're doing an international freebie, schedule tweets to go out while you sleep, otherwise you will miss out on a huge market).

    His pricing also makes the book much more of an impulse buy than some. At 99p it's much easier to shift copies than at $2.99+ (see JA Konrath's blog for the ratios, he has some solid numbers posted up from multiple authors). Going from free to 99p isn't a big jump, but free to $2.99 is - so perhaps it's a case of freebies are most effective for .99 titles? Obviously we're speculating, but it would explain the varied nature of the results people are seeing.

    It would be interesting to do a compare and contrast of his marketing techniques for the freebie compared to yours, and a few other authors - without plenty of data it's impossible to do much more than spout conjecture (even if my gut says I'm pretty close on my suppositions).

    1. I have found it very hard to break into the US market as well actually. I have sold over 3500 copies of In Many Ways and given 2000 away in the UK, but have barely sold 100 in the US overall and only 250 or so went when it was free. This is despite it never having been above $0.99.

      I do suspect that I may have suffered because prior to the freebie offer, Amazon had discounted In Many Ways to 72p (their hit not mine) and when I came out of the freebie day that offer changed and it reverted to 99p. However, this was still pretty cheap, so perhaps it was about less promotion to their customers?

      What I found most impressive was that although Gary's book did do very well in a couple of niche categories, it also charted very highly overall. His experience was a major factor in making me try it.

      My publisher has tried a few freebie days with his other clients and they have had a modest impact on books which were not selling that strongly in the first place, so confuses the picture even more!

      All that said, I actually agree with your gut! I even suspect that perhaps Gary was a month the right side of saturation compared to me. After all, things move very quickly regarding such matters.

  6. I think it could just be that the UK is lagging behind the US by a few months as is pretty typical. Given our belated uptake of kindles compared to them, it would make sense that they're simply a few months ahead of us on the saturation curve, and thus make for a good early warning system: Freebies are good now for some, but are likely to become less so in a few months time.