The Lasting Allure of Free

It’s an oxymoronic truth in almost all forms of commercial art: The more you give away, the more you sell. There’s very little I could add to this that Neil Gaiman hasn’t already covered. As he discovered with American Gods, when he offered an entire novel for free on his website, sales exploded. He had to fight tooth and nail with Harper Collins to get permission to do this (with his own work, no less), and even afterward, I’m sure the fine people at Harper thought it all some big coincidence. But it’s something that Kindle Authors are learning and even quantifying.

On the Kindle Board forums, there’s an 87 page thread about going “free” on the Kindle store and the effect is has on rankings and sales. Amazon must know how powerful this tool is, they only give us 5 free days for every three months. Authors agonize over when and how to employ their days. Two in a row? Three? Spaced out over the months? And then there are the websites we hope and pray to get a mention on: Pixel of Ink, E-Reader News Today, and dozens more.

Most authors spend many hours preparing for their free day. There are forms to fill out at the above websites, admins to email and beg, a lot of sitting around with fingers crossed, hoping.

The first time I offered Wool for free, 14,000 people downloaded it in a single day. Of course, a slim fraction likely read the story; one imagines there are digital hoarders who snag hundreds of free books with no time or inclination to read them all. But some must have read the story, because reviews took a bounce. As did sales and ranking.

Last week, The Plagiarist went free for two days. This short story has been one of my most obscure. It’s about the length of Wool and similar in theme if not in tone. It was ranked in the high thousands before it went free. Afterward?

In the top 300 of the entire Kindle store. With 12 new reviews, which should entice others to give it a try. It’s #1 in one sub-category and #2 in two others (behind Wool Omnibus. :) )

Here’s another area where the ignorance of big publishers stymies good authors like Neil Gaiman and gives us indie folk a shot. If they knew what they were doing, they would offer some of their books for free as well, squeezing us out of the top lists. Their sales would undoubtedly go up. It has been proven over and over by both traditional authors and indies.

But this kind of flexibility and forward-thinking is in short supply. It requires doing something great for readers and trusting the process to reward you in the long run. One more reason I enjoy having control over my product and being able to work directly with my audience, rather than through someone else.

32 responses to “The Lasting Allure of Free”

  1. Of course, going free wasn’t the only thing that helped you. You wrote a good book first. It was only a matter of time before your work to rose to the top, but I’m glad Select has helped you get there sooner.

  2. Very true. I bought wool in early January simple because it was .99 and it sounded interesting. At the time it had a lot of 5 star reviews ( but nowhere near what it has now). That story alone made me have to eventually read all your stories. I think the logic is obvious. Get them hooked on one story that makes them buy all the others.

  3. I agree with the first two commenters. Having a good book will definitely work in the author’s favor, and your is the best example I can come up with. Glad to see your results.

    By the way, what’s your secret for producing “literary crack”? I could use some tips. :D

  4. The $.99 is what got me to buy the first Wool and from there, I was pretty much hooked. I do have to admit, though, that Wool 2 was the one that really hooked me. SPOILER ALERT- After you killed Jahns and Marnes, I didn’t think I would be able to go on! haha

  5. I with, surprisingly… (XD) everyone above me, it’s cheep stuff that gets us in a buying mood.

    I love the Game Digital Distribution Platform (GDDP) Steam because I love their sales, they are epic, around 4 huge ones a year, (I think… I know Christmas and Summer bring on the massive sales… Which to me is funny cos I am an Australian who has Christmas DURING summer… you silly northern hemisphereians) and also steam ALWAYS have something on sale, I have over 100 items on steam, I have played 30 odd of them… I buy them for multiple reasons such as nostalgia (I got all the Doom, Quake and Commander Keen games just cos it’s what I grew up on), I buy them for the mere ability to say, “yup, I have that!” and I also buy them just in case I one day want to play it…

    And thanks to Steam’s sales and stuff, it has made me a very loyal Steam user, I go to steam to buy all the games I possibly can from them and that includes full price (and some of them are not cheap like they are for you American’s, I brought BioShock 2 for around $80 AU… god that game sucked… but anywho) and I also have convinced many people of the bonuses of Steam and converted them to the platform, what is my biggest selling point for it?

    The price of 95% of the things sold are sometimes more than 50% cheaper than if you were to buy them in a store, I got both of the original Mass Effect games for the price of the on sale Mass Effect 1 at any of my local game stores (And I got the Digital Collectors Editions)

    But as for free, I paid for all your stories yes, (Then you put Wool up for free… Grrrr… XP) but I managed to get a mate to read the first 3 wool books when you had them up for free during the leap day last month and he told me he was seriously now thinking of buying the rest…

    Hmmmm… I think I forgot my original point somewhere… So I will just go and hide back in my corner and stalk till the next time…

  6. Free is always a plus, but I think how you develop novels is really innovative (and a unique selling model) By breaking the reading experience up into short story serials, you can offer the first part of a story for free (or $.99)… this provides a low threshhold for readers to cross, as a result book one ends up a gateway drug of sorts for readers to sample who Hugh Howey is, once they discover that they are happy to pay more for followup work. I still feel like the $2.99 I’m paying is too low for the quality you offer. Question though, do you get paid anything when Amazon offers a book like Half Way Home through the kindle lending library for free? Right now I feel like I would rather buy the book to support you, then check it out for free and see you lose out on royalties.

    1. I make a little on “lends.” The amount varies month to month. On Free promotions, I make zilch.

  7. @Bob Ross- I think free is free, meaning he doesn’t get anything. BUT like we all said above, having something free is a good way to get people interested! Also, is your name really Bob Ross (I’m remembering the “Happy little trees” guy)

  8. I first discovered Wool in my now-abandoned phase of checking out $1 books. Hugh Howey is the only author I have returned to, and Wool is so obviously above the other few free/$1 modern scifi titles I have read. I picked up Plagarist on a free day recently and just got to it this weekend, I liked it a lot. I use free days to push my recommendation for Wool to other people, at least two have gone on to purchase the rest of them so far.

    1. Thanks for pimping me to your friends, Chris!

  9. No problem! I will continue to promote your stuff for sure. By the time a free day comes around sometimes I had already recommended it to someone once and the free day made it easier to recommend a second time :)

  10. @Hugh, thanks for that info. I’m glad you offer books for free to expand your audience, but as for me, I just bought Half Way Home, (even though I had checked it out on the lending library) I’d rather you get paid for your work…plus now that I’ve gotten to know you some over facebook and your website, I can’t just view you as a fiction creating robot, whose only purpose is to churn out work to entertain me…now as for other authors, they are out of luck! Fiction creating robots don’t need to eat…;)

    @Jill…oh yes, Bob Ross is the super cool name my parents blessed me with, I still say for halloween one year I am going to put on a fro, a denim shirt, and a goatee and go as…well…me/him…whatever!

  11. You! Yes, you–the Hugh Howey fan, the Hugh Howey reader! I’m talking to you! You don’t even understand how powerful you are, do you?

    My name really *is* Lisa, and I’ve had the honor of being along for most of Hugh’s journey (yo, I was there at the beginning) as he’s written and published and shared thoughts and counted reviews.

    I had already decided HH was awesome, but this is what blew my mind:

    He wrote WOOL as a standalone novella.

    Got it? Standalone. Nothing else to come.

    But then his readers started grumbling. “More!” they said. “When do we get to read more about the silos?” they said.

    And what Hugh did was phenomenal. (Even knowing how gifted he was way back when, I couldn’t have predicted this.) He wrote Wool 2, and Wool 3, and Wool 4, and Wool 5.

    Because his fans asked him to.

    I’m with some others who have reviewed the WOOL Omnibus: a new science fiction classic.

    I’m proud to be a fan of Hugh Howey.

  12. Erik Hyrkas { 03.11.12 at 9:17 am }
    “Of course, going free wasn’t the only thing that helped you. You wrote a good book first. It was only a matter of time before your work to rose to the top, but I’m glad Select has helped you get there sooner.”

    Uh huh, uh huh, uh huh. What he said. Cream always rises to the top. And you’ve got some of that heavy whipping stuff, buster!

  13. @ Lisa, you nailed it! The reason Hugh’s fans become so loyal to him, are because they recognize QUICKLY, just how loyal he is to them. That’s pretty rare nowadays!

  14. wow my grammer sucks!

  15. @Lisa- That is EXACTLY why we love Hugh! He is so loyal to us, so we are loyal in return. An eye for an eye….(in a nice way!)

  16. again I agree with the people above me, I try every waking moment to pimp Hugh’s books and always end it with “And he is a top bloke to boot” or a less Australian version when talking to the younger people…

    The real key to Hugh’s success seems to be the fact that not only is he a phenomenal writer but also the fact that he writes for us and not for the cash, it seems more like a hobby than a job from my point of view which comes through in the work, comes through in the interactions with us lesser mortals… I mean us fans… and that means he is building an army of dro… umm… yeah…

    Cos in the end who do you like more, Mac Donalds or your friendly local deli/place to buy food? I love the fact that when I walk into the deli down the road each morning before TAFE that the staff know me and they greet me warmly, know what I am about to buy and we have jokes about my Dr. Pepper addiction and they find it strange when I don’t buy it so I prefer to go in there for a pack of smokes than to just walk across the street to the local super market where it’s actually noticeably cheaper. Why? Cos of the service, I will pay extra for people who make me feel welcome than to a generic customer service from people who just seem to hate what they do…

    Oh and the books also rock…

  17. I hope if the books start to taste foul, you’ll keep coming in out of pity.

  18. Oh I will XD

  19. I think we will ALL keep coming back, but I doubt it will be out of pity!

  20. Are you writing? get busy, son.

  21. I’ll reiterate what others have said. The cheap price got me to try Wool. The story and the writing kept me coming back for more. I’ve read a number of other cheap/free books in the apoc genre from Amazon, but most of the time I realize I just reading decent fan fiction. Wool was different. It had a substance and depth the other mind candy couldn’t touch. Free beer will get people in the door, but you gotta jam the tunes to keep them there. You jam, dude.

  22. Your free day worked well enough that a member of my sci-fi book club got Wool #1 and liked it enough to buy the rest, then told everyone at book club how great it was. A few picked up Wool #1 after that, a bunch more downloaded 1-3 when they were free last week, and everyone that got 1-3 free subsequently purchased 4-5. So you’re doing something right.

    1. Sweet. Have you all thought about discussing the series at a club meeting? If you do, let me know. I’ve Skyped into a book club meeting before, and it was a ton of fun.

  23. You can count me as someone who went on to purchase 3, 4, and 5. I saw that Wool 1 was free, read it then was able to read 2 through Prime for free. I then bought the next three and am eagerly awaiting future submissions. So, work on that…;-)

    1. I’m working on WOOL 6 at this very moment!

  24. Thank you! You write a captivating tale…this is the second series which I was introduced to via a free(or heavily discounted) first story. The other is the GFL series by Scott Sigler. If you are looking for evidence to show that a give-away leads to sales, I am one example that it does.

    1. Thanks, Bill! Glad you found my works.

  25. I have just finished Hurricane and came to your website to tell you that I loved all of your books. I look forward to reading what is to come and wish you a very successful career. You have an amazing eye for detail, and every shrug, hand gesture, and sound adds depth and texture to your narrative which is complex yet instantly understandable. I admire how you write across genres and have not typecast yourself. For example, I recently struggled through Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. It was well written and researched, but I kept having the feeling that I had been down that exact same road in The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons. The only reason I finished it was that I felt badly that all the clever twists and turns that the author knit into his story were unfairly gummed up by the residue that his other books left in my brain. Your writing is fresh and multi-dimensional. Keep up the great work! By the way, I got all your books for free as a Prime member. Do you make any money off that arrangement?

    1. Wow, Ninette! Thanks so much. Incredible praise. I’m blushing over here.

      Yeah, I make money with the borrows. The rate varies, but it’s not much less than I make on a sale. So enjoy the free reads!

  26. Glad to hear you are getting cash out of it!

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