March 12 – 18: “Has offering free digital copies of back list titles affected sales?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5ITW Members Donna Warner, J. H. Bográn and Chad Bishop are on hand this week to discuss book marketing. A popular book marketing strategy for authors, with a back list of books, has been to offer free digital copies to encourage readers to buy a subsequent novel. Has this trend affected today’s sales? Follow along in the “comments” section below!


Chad Bishop is a writer who dreamed that others would be able to see the stories in his head. Being a writer is a dream come true and a compulsion that has to be exercised.



Donna J. Warner, before joining the fiction writing industry, first as a freelance editor and then as a published author, was communication manager for the Canadian Network of Toxicology Centres. Prior to that, she tutored ESL students; taught college-level education courses; and founded a registered private vocational school. A keen cottager, Donna enjoys the challenges of climbing in and out of her kayak without getting dunked and trying to outsmart fish. Home is a country property on the outskirts of Guelph, Ontario. She is a member of ITW and the CWC.


J. H. Bográn, born and raised in Honduras, is the son of a journalist. He ironically prefers to write fiction rather than fact. José’s genre of choice is thrillers, but he likes to throw in a twist of romance into the mix. POISONED TEARS is his third novel in English and has already garnered positive reviews and recommendations. Jon Land calls it “a splendid piece of crime noir.” Douglas Preston says it’s a first class roller-coaster ride. His other works include novels in both English and Spanish, short stories, screenplays. He’s a member of The Crime Writers Association, the Short Fiction Writers Guild, and the International Thriller Writers where he also serves as the Thriller Roundtable Coordinator.


  1. The idea of a free sample to entice the potential customer to buy into a product is neither new nor bad. You see people offering broken cookies in supermarkets, or half a cracker with tuna fish, or a thimble-sized cup with a wine, juice or spirited drink.

    The literary equivalent is the free-book (not to be confused with the pirated book).
    If you have a series of books, I firmly believed the offering of the first one as hook for the readers to buy into the rest of the series is a legitimate strategy. Successful? Results may vary.

    As an author of stand-alone books I can say the effect of free book promotions have had minimal impact on the sales of my other titles. For those I still depend on word of mouth and some reviews. I have friends who´ve written series and they swear by this tactic’s efficiency.

    However, with the advent of free books, I think people have become somewhat addicted to get way more books into the device that they have the time, or inclination, to read.

    How many free books do you have unread in your reading device?

    1. I think you bring up a good point that isn’t usually discussed. The free tactic works better when it works at all on a series. Romance and high fantasy use the free technique to sell a world/character or series.

      I would imagine doing the free method on a standalone is aimed at trying to get readers to buy into your style and not into a new world.

      1. “I would imagine doing the free method on a standalone is aimed at trying to get readers to buy into your style and not into a new world.”
        Yes, but my experience is that it’s not particularly effective.

  2. Internet data suggests that currently, there are more than 5 million eBooks available on New titles are appearing on the Kindle store at the rate of 100,000 each month. With hundreds of sites offering free eBooks, has this created a glut of free reading material that is adversely affecting royalty payments to authors?

  3. Yes, Jose, I agree that many, including me, tend to download more free eBooks than we may be able to read.
    Regarding this marketing strategy for authors of series writing, it is an interesting question as to whether this will result in readers buying on author’s back list of books. Hope to hear lots of opinions on this from other authors. I tried this marketing approach for my two crime thriller novellas, “Targeted” and “Death’s Footprint” only once. I did not see a spike in digital sales of either books after offering each one free for a couple of days with KDP Select.
    I’m now signed up with Kindle Unlimited for my series and am seeing slightly better results with this marketing tool than I did when I offered these eBooks free through KDP Select.

    1. From a sales point, I think 0.99 is the new free in terms of seeing an actual spike later.
      Promotion of the price is another topic altogether!

  4. Well said. I believe there will always be a substantial reader base with the opinion that if an author doesn’t value their work enough to charge for it, perhaps that quality of the material is not up to professional writing standards. Who knew years ago when we got into this business that writing would be easier than learning the ropes of book publishing in today’s market?

    1. There have been studies that suggest readers also have price quality confusion. If a book is free, it must be not as good as other books readers pay for. With this mentality, a reader gets into a rut of applying that value or lack thereof to all of the author’s books.

      First impressions are hard to undo.

  5. The concept of offering free books is the oldest sales technique there is. It’s not limited to the publishing industry either. Fundamentally, it says try this one book, item or widget for free and you will see that you like it and buy more. As a sales technique, I think it only benefits a writer at specific points in their career.

    If you are just starting out, my thought is this technique isn’t for you and could be detrimental. You may get a spike for your free book, but you won’t be able to maintain sales without having a vast enough written library. When you have a following and a library, about 6-9 books, then I’ve seen some of my friends use the free technique on their backlist, and they’ve seen a small uptick in sales.

    In the end I agree the new free is .99. Readers collect free books because they can. I don’t know a lot of readers who read all the free content, but I know they collect it for “someday.” We teach others how to value our work.

    1. My point exactly! 🙂

      Circling back to the original question, then I think we can all agree that, while the free-sample technique may work on series, it´s actually counterproductive for stand-alone work.

      If only Bookbub weren’t that expensive.

      1. What is considered marketing success from this strategy varies from author to author. It would be interesting to hear from other authors who write a series and have tried offering a free eBook to encourage sales of other books. I would welcome input from other ITW members on Members’ Only Comments web page if they wish to comment on this topic or contact me via my blog.

        The only ‘paid for’ e-mail service I’ve tried is with The Fussy Librarian for a one day sale at $0.99 for book #1, Targeted”. This resulted in some sales of “Death’s Footprint”, but the royalty generated didn’t cover the cost of the distribution charge. It may have had a more positive outcome if I had tried this strategy with Bookbub. But as you say, J.H., it is an expensive service and one that is selective with who they accept for book promotions.

  6. As we all know, BookBub is one of the most popular sites to shop for eBooks. According to over 7 million readers download thousands of titles without paying a penny. By signing up with your e-mail address, you receive daily e-mail alerts to free and deeply discounted eBooks.

    “The first book in a series can be free as a gateway to the rest of the series—Book Bub readers are 10x more likely to click on a book that’s offered for free than a discounted book.”

    As Chad commented, I have also read studies that recommend trying the free eBook marketing strategy only if an author has a back list of books published.

    1. Bookbub may say that, but I think its self-serving. If you offer a free book then bookbub benefits because they have free books to give to their readers.

      With the type of reach they have I don’t know if they could really make the distinction that the free book helped the sales or not.

  7. Some authors believe that giving away free eBook improves their book’s ranking on Amazon. The following comment on contradicts that assumption:

    “Best Seller and Category Ranks are based on customer activity – sales and borrows – of your book relative to the activity of other books. A book ranking #1 in Mystery & Thrillers is the book with the most activity in Amazon’s Mystery & Thrillers category. Books can appear in up to three categories. The book’s rank in each category will show under the Product Details section. Activities that may not be an accurate reflection of customer demand, including promotional Amazon Giveaway sales and purchases that are later returned, are not counted towards sales rank.”

  8. It’s been a pleasure to participate in this week’s Roundtable discussion on book marketing. If only there was a quick fix to achieving our marketing goals.

    My take away message from comments from fellow topic leaders. supplemented with my research and personal experience, is that we, as authors, must continue to: a) focus on creating quality content, i.e., no matter what marketing strategies we utilize, sales will not increase unless our work is polished to the best of our ability, edited professionally, and has benefited from input from beta readers prior to publication; b) continue to create a back list of books; and c) dedicate at least 50 minutes a week to investigate and select different marketing techniques to test.

    In closing, I offer the following quote:
    “A book worth reading is worth buying.” -John Ruskin

  9. Good comments and observations from all. It certainly seems a daunting task to determine if there are benefits. I agree with Donna’s last comment – we authors must continue to focus on quality of our work.

    We may find different sales and marketing approaches will work better at some points in time than others. For me, it’s the love of writing which motivates me to continue.

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