‘Free’ doesn’t sell books – and here’s what does

I got involved in a discussion the other day about book pricing, covers and marketing profile.

What's this about? Click to discover...
What’s this picture about? Click to discover (bwahahahaha)….

In the process it seemed clear to me that there are many misconceptions about how books actually sell. The idea being argued was that if a particular book got a better cover and the price was dropped – maybe even to free – then it would start shifting copies.

Another argument was that the real benefit of this book wasn’t to sell copies, but as a sales device for other books associated with it. Both ideas were off-beam. I felt obliged to say so.

I’ll tackle the issues in sequence. They apply, in spades, to anybody trying to sell books.

Yes, good covers DO sell books – especially online where the cover is the front end and, with any preview, the only tangible aspect that a buyer gets to see.

But (and here’s the thing) covers only sell the book to somebody who happens to stumble across it cold. Good if they do, but it’s a bit random (last week Amazon sent me a promo urging me to buy one of my own books). What counts more are the people going looking for the book. People who know about it.

Sometimes, dropping the price also helps sales. One of the principles of economics is the law of demand, which states that – all things being equal – demand rises as the price falls.

However, that’s often quoted in isolation as if it’s the sole answer to improving sales. Actually it isn’t. What counts isn’t the price, but the ‘demand curve’, which is affected by a range of other factors, including perceived value and the notion of getting a bargain – and, most crucially, knowing about the book.

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This cover was commissioned by Penguin for one of my books with them. It’s the best cover EVAH! Did it help sell the book? Uh…no. But if you want copies, call me. I bought the last of the stock before they pulped it…

I recall a debate I had, years ago, about a periodical I was producing for an organisation. It was very specialist and hardly anybody wanted it – to the point where it cost more to administer the subscription system than the system was actually returning. I suggested making the whole thing free, seeing as the marginal cost of production was a fraction of the total cost of authoring the content, which wasn’t being recovered anyway. ‘You can’t make it free,’ one guy said to me (tongue firmly in cheek), ‘demand will be infinite!’

My actual argument was that free wouldn’t increase demand at all – which they agreed with for sound reasons. And, indeed, making it free didn’t shift demand, because the demand curve wasn’t solely guided by price.

In strict economic terms, the PED (price-elasticity of demand) was zero for that magazine – you can calculate that via a formula (percentage change in quantity demanded divided by the change in price, which in this case was 0/∞ = 0).

What happened? Well, demand wasn’t just a factor of price. The real arbiter was interest in the content – which in the case of this magazine, was limited to a specialist audience. It didn’t matter whether the mag was free or not. They were going to follow it up anyway. And people who weren’t interested – didn’t.

The other factor when it comes to pricing is perceived value. If a Kindle title is either 99 cents or permanently free, it’s telling buyers that it has no particular value. Whereas if it’s a reasonable price, it tells buyers that the vendor places worth on the product.

It’s a psychological thing. The buying decision then revolves around affordability versus utility (what will I get for my money?).

But there are ways to tip that, such as by periodically dropping that price. This, of course, is what the Amazon selling model is geared to, and with good reason. It’s a standard sales approach, and it works. People are more likely to buy if they think they are getting something valuable at a bargain price.

But that still pivots around people knowing about a particular book in the first place. And THAT is the challenge. Discovery. It’s getting harder as the world is flooded with self-pubbed titles. Books sell in bulk because people know about them – are talking about them – and through word of mouth. And a book that has plenty of buzz about it will sell at a reasonable price.

As for associated sales? This is known, technically, as cross-elasticicity of demand. A change in price of one item affects sales of another – variously through demand curve, through profile, and so on.

The killer is demand. If demand for Book A is zero (because nobody knows about it), then no amount of price-shifting will affect demand for related Book B. In other words, dropping the price on Book A won’t make much difference to Book B, though (for the reasons I’ve stated above) it will kill Book A.

Chance discovery, Amazon style. This is a list of recommendations they emailed me – books to buy. Starting with one I’d written. As if I didn’t know about it…

Demand for books comes from several places, including the appeal of the book. More on that another time. But the key factor is knowing about the book in the first place. Having one title considered ‘free’ as an advertisement for others is certainly a technique for doing that – and can sometimes work for a series. But it’s not so effective for books in general. It’s better to treat each title as a ‘profit centre’ of its own and apply proper marketing methods to uplift ALL the books in a publisher’s list or author’s ouvre.

So – the take-home lesson? Yes, a good cover is essential, and it helps shift the book to casual browsers. And yes, price counts – but not in the simplistic ‘free = infinite demand’ model of non-economists. Marketing and pricing is a lot more complex and subtle than that, and publishers – which includes authors self-pubbing, these days – need to understand it in order to get realistic return on their work.

Returns on work? Sure. Nobody else works for free, so why should authors and publishers give away their time and resources? And in terms of pricing, don’t forget that you’ll pay $4.99 for a cup of coffee that a barista takes 30 seconds to make. The barista’s time isn’t the only factor, of course – but it’s still way less than what you put into writing a book. You need to shift thousands of copies to get equivalent returns.

And that won’t happen if your hard-written work is given away for nothing – or even 99 cents.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016

17 thoughts on “‘Free’ doesn’t sell books – and here’s what does

  1. Discoverability! The Shangri-la of self publishing. I’m sure all would fall into place if a feasible method of discoverability was discovered.

    In a recent interview with self-published author Rachel Abbott she explained how she wrote a detailed marketing plan to promote her first novel. She didn’t say what was in it, but she had just sold her media company the previous year, so one assumes she had some professional understanding of the publishing world.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Even professional publishers struggle with the ‘discover’ problem at the moment. I’ve variously worked in the field – publishing and media – and have discussed the issue with some of the main houses in New Zealand in recent years. It’s a problem; and social media isn’t the answer – it’s essential to help profile, but it doesn’t sell product. From the publisher perspective, social media presence becomes an operating cost with little obvious return on investment, and the same’s true of authors. Yet without it, there’s no profile at all. I don’t know the answer (yet).

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      1. I’ve always considered social media to be more useful for writers that already have a following; a way of communicating with them. But as a way of building a following, not so effective.


  2. Another very thought-provoking and insightful article. The bottom line, for me, is free does not mean I will buy other books by the author – but it can let me know if I will enjoy the writer’s style of writing.

    It is also true that I will search for books that I am in the mood to read. (I write in one genre, but read many different ones.) So, tempt me all you want with a genre I am not interested, and I will not download it – even if it is free.

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    1. That’s the key issue – even if it’s free, there has to be interest before a potential reader will bother with a book. The challenge is getting the ‘interested reader’ and the potential books they might buy together – in which case, I think, they will buy the book anyway unless the price is an obvious gouge.


  3. This all makes a lot of sense. For me, I just gotta learn how to create the demand part. I’ve got a book out there, but hardly anyone knows about it. Self-promotion just isn’t one of my strengths. *sigh*

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  4. I agree with all of this, Matthew, except you barely mention the one big exception–a series. The first book in my 8-book mystery series is permafree. Before I made it permafree I was losing money on my writing. Now I am making money. Partly because that permafree book gets the series visibility; it has been in the top 50 for free psychological suspense on Kindle since I made it free. So readers looking for a new author in that genre see my book and they have nothing to lose by trying it out. And if they get hooked (as some of them do) on my writing style and my characters, they buy the rest of the series. It’s a strategy that works, for a series. But this is the only way that I’ve found free to be all that helpful.

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    1. I think my points still hold good for a series of which the first item is permafree: the series as a whole is not. Taken as a unit, it’s still paid for of which a part is used to advertise: same principle as a single book that is periodically made ‘free’ or put on a special price. I’m looking at something similar for a series of non-fic books I wrote in the 1997-2003 period. All the very best for your sales – sounds like things are looking up. It’s incredibly difficult, as we know, to get any kind of exposure on Amazon (and that’s true for mainstream published books took).


      1. Thanks, Matthew. I think of that first book like my uncle did about milk. He owned a convenience store and he sold milk for less than he paid for it, and less than the grocery store down the street. Because once people were in his store, they almost always bought something else. 🙂

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  5. Good points, Matthew. I am not the wealthiest person there is, and maybe even quite contrary, but I don’t mind paying for my books. I think, the answers to discoverability are somewhere in knowing the market, searching and cultivating the target audience. For me, a book is a valuable item. I love books, that’s why I will buy books. Also, there is the range of books I will buy. So, targeted marketing is the answer, as much as I personally hate customized content and adds. But another thing is that the Amazon must work on making it easier to find this customized content. For example, I challenged myself to read as many sci fi books released in 2015 as I can, review them, rate them, and award the best one (ones) with the award. The technical issues of locating all these titles are horrendous. Amazon does not make it easy, because the search parameters are rudimentary. Say, I am not interested in the best-selling and the most rated items, because, say, I want to find an underdog and help him shine. This is a tough challenge with thousands of items published in a year. My finger hurt scrolling down to way over 2000th item before I found the items in the time period I need, and the minute I click on it, I am kicked back to the beginning of the list. I don’t like to be hostage to Amazon’s marketing and want to find good books that get less coverage, I know they exist. But it is not easy even to the determined reader as I am.

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