How free ebooks are good for well-known and obscure writers

My latest Guardian column, "Why free ebooks should be part of the plot for writers," talks about how free ebook releases benefit well-known and obscure writers alike.
Releasing a book as a free download isn't newsworthy in and of itself. It was, once upon a time, especially when that book had the backing of a major publisher. Publishers are often characterised as being conservative about the net, so it was surprising when it happened. These days, many writers have convinced their publishers to dip their toes in the water on this, and it's simply not notable when it happens again.

Which is not to say that free downloads have no role when it comes to promotion, publicity and marketing. Their main effect is to magnify any good feeling your book has generated, by making it simple for people who love the book to get it under the nose of their social circle.

Why free ebooks should be part of the plot for writers


  1. I’ve stopped providing e-books of my novels.

    I posted my first three on various sites like Memoware and, and in total there have been nearly 5,000 downloads — none of which has resulted in a single e-mail or book sale or anything I could measure as having gained a reader or a fan.

    I like your reasons for doing it, and agree with your piracy-vs-obscurity argument, but I got more feel-good human response and book sales out of doing a tiny five-minute reading at a club last night than I have in years of posting free e-books.

  2. I think you’re right. I love that the internet is becoming more and more like a big public library to me – a place to get to know and experience (pop)cultural things for free. And I don’t buy any less books because of it (it = both public library and internet), I just buy less things I don’t end up liking, and more books by authors I probably wouldn’t have heard of otherwise. This situation seems ideal for both writers and readers, and I think (/hope) there are a lot of people like me out there.

    Hamish MacDonald, I can understand that readings work better for you and definitely give more human interaction. But the fact that people haven’t e-mailed you after downloading your book doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t appreciate it or won’t buy more of your work, does it? I’d never e-mail a writer, however big a fan I become. Maybe there are a lot of people out there who are like me in that respect, too?

  3. I’ve never emailed anyone I’ve read a book by, either. It just strikes me as an odd thing to do. I like your books — not you.

  4. After reading your article, I think that a common ground has to be found between publishers, bookstores, and authors. One idea I’ve read suggested publishers could include 3-5 codes for free e-book versions of every deadtree book that is sold. This would enhance not only the value of the book (and justify the current $25-$30 retail MSRP on new hardcovers) but make ebook readers more enticing overall. While the Kindle remains a high-ticket novelty item, it’s hard to justify the purchase of one for a casual reader, especially when the majority of ebooks retail for the same price as a paperback — without the benefits of having an actual “book” you can get signed, lend to a friend, or resell.

    When the book is sold the author, publisher and bookstore all make money on the book sale. The buyer now has the option to use the codes for themselves (a copy on the bookshelf and a copy on the iPhone), share the codes with friends and relatives, or exchange them online with other book fans for other codes. Without knowing the exact economics, I wonder if publishers make more if a group of friends all chip in to buy one copy of a favorite book series rather than that copy being purchased by a library, especially if that “one copy” turns into ten more sales for them down the road.

    Remember, when Gmail came out it became so popular so fast because everyone wanted an invite, which were limited to just 5 per user. If there are just a certain number of codes available, each one has a non-monetary value that transcends the purchase. If the bookstore is a lunchroom, these codes are the chocolate chip cookies that the “cool” parents give as a snack.

  5. Good argument for free e-books. I wrote a book called the Rainbow Framework which is a philosophical framework but I have yet to make it an e-book. I also wrote a collection of satirical dialogues that I may put in e-book form but I need to research it more. For now I am working on fisheggs a art/ cartoon design series. Not sure how free e-book would apply to that but if the pictures were used non-commercially it could work. For now fisheggs remains in the obscure reference section.

  6. The free-ebook seems to work with me. I read on my phone while on a crowded muni bus/train a lot and so electronic texts work best. Free ebooks from modern writers then fit as I am not taking much of a chance in checking them out and I have easy access to these via the mobile net. If I like a book I usually then buy a physical copy for home. I also recommend these to friends and end up buying more copies to send to offline friends and family. I think I bought 5 copies of Cory’s last novel and have never read it in physical book form.

    I also would not write to the author usually as I assume they get a ton of mail after sending out a free book (“I give them books and now they want my time too?”). Did the writer here in the comments who mentioned not getting mail ask for feed back or make (him|her)self seem approachable?

  7. Bought books of Cory Doctorow and of Charles Stross only because I learned to like their writing – from easy accessible e-books.

    (@Hamish Macdonnald: Until now they’ve never heard of me …)

    Also bought books of series, where #1 of the series was out of print – but available (for free) online (BAEN and some of their authors know, that a “late” reader probably won’t buy #2 or #3 without access to #1).

    Since even big bookshops in Germany have less and less good original language SF&F in their bookshelves, at least some easy readable sample chapters will help to endear an unfamiliar author.

    (My definition of easy readable sample chapters: HTML, please.
    Full books: Mobipocket or Plucker)

    Thank you for your writing & your free books.

  8. I’ve never used ebooks before this month. I recently hoovered up a load of free ebooks to read on a trip. A reasonable amount of them were Cory’s.

    observations from an E/free/book noob:
    I have read 2 stories from the ‘overclocked’ compilation and enjoyed them, therefore I’d most likely buy if I happened to be next to it in a store.

    I usually buy 50% of my books when idly browsing a real-world store. A spontaneous purchase is triggered when I spot an author who I have previously enjoyed in a short story compilation (thank Gardner Dozois for that)

    The other half of my book purchases sit in an Amazon basket for months until I have a hefty package worth posting. I like the enormous postal book dump.

    None of the authors I purchase would ever know how I became aware of their books. There is no externally traceable connection between my second-hand store purchased ‘best of sci-fi’ books and my Amazon purchases at full price. Similarly with these free ebooks.

    I would normally be pretty unlikely to email any author and inform him/her of my path to purchase!

    Consider this a one-off.

  9. Point taken, about not contacting the author. It’s not an essential part of the reading process, for sure.

    I guess that, for me as an author who also has a day-job as a copywriter, I struggle to find effective ways to use my extra time to reach new readers.

    The company I write for is forever measuring and perfecting their marketing strategies, so there’s a temptation to apply this thinking to my book activities — and this is reinforced by the endless articles out there telling authors that they’re responsible for being their own marketing department, too.

    In answer to the question above, I do make it possible for people to reach me by putting contact information in the ‘About’ section of my novels, and I’ve also written articles on DIY publishing and host a “DIY Book” podcast on iTunes. I’m not doing it to try to make money from people, but to encourage them to do their own thing, too, and to also, hopefully, create some community around the works I’ve created.

    But I guess the question is what the measure of success is with an e-book. If the people who’ve downloaded my books have read them, that’s awfully cool, and I hope I did my job and entertained them. Or did they just download it ’cause it was free then never look at it? I can’t tell.

    So, I dunno. It kinda feels like the difference between piling up bricks and building a house. The e-book downloads haven’t generated any kind of visible support or community or following.

    And, yes, there’s the possibility that I just suck, but I have been told otherwise often enough to hope that’s not what’s at work here.

  10. BTW, I appreciate the “reader’s perspective” presented here, and you’ve all got me re-thinking this. It’s just a matter of how much energy a person can give to something without ever seeing an effect.

    I’m also fussy about typesetting my physical books, and scream a bit inside when I’ve run a manuscript through a service like the Amazon Kindle engine, which is like sticking your hand into a wood-chipper.

    To the other posters: What’s your favourite source for e-books?

  11. Hamish:

    I do make it possible for people to reach me by putting contact information in the ‘About’ section of my novels

    No offense, but that would strike me as somewhere between “creepy” and “pathetic” as a reader. I’m not 100% sure why even after a bit of self-analysis, but that’s my gut reaction to hearing about it.

    I don’t think it would particularly impact my opinion of the writing or decision to go buy a physical copy, but I certainly wouldn’t be inclined to email you.

    Continuing to think about it while writing this, I think it’s the poorly-disguised attempt to turn the basically passive experience of book reading into an invasively interactive one. Like posting artwork to a forum and then following up with a self-reply wondering passive-aggressively why there aren’t any comments on it yet after an hour. It seems… needy.

    Quite a lot of people don’t expect, or particularly want, to interact socially with the author or artist.

  12. Hi Hamish,

    The e-book downloads haven’t generated any kind of visible support or community or following.

    I think books (of any kind) are not the sort of chatty medium that invites immediate discourse. I read a book and enjoy it, then pass it on to a friend with a recommendation (or not). It is very very rare that I would move that enjoyment into a public realm. Books create a mental island to inhabit for a while, they are not formatted to be directly ‘social’.

    Content creators these days tend to create the social / viral support for their work via side-avenues. These side-projects often build support for the creative product through familiarity with the author as a trusted brand. Yes, I hate myself for using that term too.

    I would say that “Hamish McDonalds LOLcats Blog and shit-shootin’ archive” would probably deliver a more push for your products than “Hamish MacDonalds Official Webpage”

    Example A: a blog of ‘Wonderful things’ *cough*

    It may seem like a completely unrelated enterprise, but I bet several hundred thousand people will half-recognize the blog authors name on a bookshelf. “Cody Doctoroid ,hey, I know that name!?”


    There’s a story in Naomi Klein’s No Logo (I think) about the time that CocaCola decided to pull their seemingly useless roadside advertising, as polls indicated they had no impact on consumer choice. After the ads were taken down their market share dipped dramatically.
    The roadside hoardings may not have been actively selling, but they did remind the public that the brand existed. That’s quite important in a media saturated world.

    Next time I’m in a book shop looking for new authors and I can’t remember author names I’ve enjoyed … I’ll most likely look at my phone for a reminder.

  13. OK, so I’ve read some of Cory’s books online and I’m now a fan. The next time I’m in a book shop and I see the latest from Cory Doctorow I might buy a copy (if the price is right!). I much prefer reading books – ink on paper – to text documents on my PC screen. So far, so good.
    However, I simply cannot imagine that I will not own an e-book reader within five years. I’d be surprised if I don’t have one within two. At that time, I can get the latest Cory Doctorow for free in the format I always use. So now, why would I pay for it?

  14. I have at least two authors who I’m reading all of their books for full price because of one free e-book at the start—-for the fantasy genre and others with sequels this makes perfect sense. If you enjoy the story you’ll want to read the conclusion.

    Likewise I find that trying out recipes posted on blogs has caused me to buy at least 10 cookbooks over the past 2 years as opposed to zero (I usually used magazines because finding a cookbook with more than one recipe I liked was impossible)

    Having the first experience for free really enhances the odds that I’ll buy more product, but if your product isn’t that good, it may actually cost you sales because I wouldn’t have paid for the first try and I won’t be buying any more. So if the cover is better looking than the work inside you probably shouldn’t try the whole free strategy.

  15. @Jerrill

    You’re inferring something that’s not intended — which is fine, ’cause there’s been nothing here to say what the content of that message in the colophon is. Here’s what it says:

    About the author
    Hamish MacDonald is a novelist and copywriter who lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. His other novels are doubleZero, The Willies, and Idea in Stone. He hand-bound this book.

    To read more of his stories or learn about micropress publishing, visit

    …So I’m not asking for friends, or reassurance, or going all Anne Rice on the Internet community if they don’t love me appropriately; it’s giving readers a way to follow through if they like what they’ve read and want more. It’s an attempt at whatever the authentic version of the call to action in a marketing message is.


    Sure, some authors happen to have a public presence that does all that work for them. Cory’s advocacy, for instance, is a great platform, and he’s able to follow through with stories that his community ‘get’, appreciate, and buy. But for those of us whose daily life isn’t visible, we’ve got to do something to get out there; what that is isn’t apparent yet, and I agree that, although social networking seems to be the way, it’s a weird and blurry line between the social and the networking aspects of it.

    So I’m doing a podcast to teach people how to write, make, and sell books themselves, and, yeah, aside from actually believing in what I’m saying and hoping it’s useful to people, there is that secondary thought about trying to create a platform. I don’t know, and I’m not sure anyone’s figured out yet, how much free stuff is too much. Not every author is going to want to put on a free dog-and-pony show, then give away the books for free, too. But that seems to be the prevailing model: you get paid not for your creative work, but for talking about it, opining, being an expert.

    Ah well, at least telling stories is fun. And there are people who read them. If any of this other stuff ever clicks, that’s great, but I don’t think a writer can really count on it necessarily working in his or her favour, and there’s way, way too much emphasis on numbers and celebrity anyway, rather than, say, trying to get better at the part where we’re telling stories.

  16. When it comes to marketing anything, giving your products out for free at first is ALWAYS good whether being unknown, or releasing a new product. Especially with the economy today nobody wants to spend money on something they won’t like and may not be able to return. This is why many companies give out free samples in certain places. To do this with books is very good as well because if you like the free book, the next time the author puts out another, you will more prone to buy it. What may be another similar marketing scheme is releasing the first half of the ebook and putting the second half of it up for sale at the books full price. Many times I find myself buying a book, enjoying the first few chapters and then just stopping through the books repetition, or my lack of interest in the plot anymore. Almost every book I have finished I have loved every page.

  17. I only read books on my Sony reader anymore. And I won’t touch anything with DRM on it, so nothing published for the Kindle (or indeed on Sony’s store, which DRMs even free stuff) need apply.

    Almost everything I’ve read in the last two years, I got interested in by reading a free sample book first – mainly from Baen Books. I’ve bought over a dozen ebooks from one author alone – an author I’d never heard of before I read the first book of one of his series, downloaded for free from Baen.

  18. This is exactly why I’m releasing an eBook version with the print version of my new book, in 2 weeks when it’s published.

    You can go here for details and a preview of the cover.

    Currently, I’m planning on releasing it in PDF and RTF. I’m looking into ePup as well, for the Sony readers, and perhaps Kindle, though the recent unpleasantness has made me reluctant to go that way. Of course, I’m already publishing through CreateSpace, so it’s not like Amazon isn’t getting a cut anyway.

  19. “[T]he important thing to remember is that a free ebook isn’t publicity, it’s a tool for expanding your existing publicity and marketing.”

    That statement from the article should be in big glowing letters, because many of the people likely to be influenced by this article ARE NOT people with the backing of a publishing house. And it is precisely such backing that may be an essential element.

    I was influenced by Cory’s example as well last year when I POD-published my novel “Warkin” and released it as a Creative Commons ebook simultaneously. My experience has been far closer to Hamish’s than to Cory’s success. To paraphrase David Hume on the fate of his first book, “it fell stillborn from the presses.

    However, I would still release the ebook if I had it to do over again, simply because I have been able to track the fact that people have actually READ the thing since it came out. Sure, I wouldn’t mind getting picked up by a publisher for my next book, but having actual readers is cool enough.

  20. Remember when people said free mp3s (pirated or legitimate) increase cd sales? The problem is that the promotional format (try out new music on your computer!) became the mainstream format via the iPod.

    Similarly, when ebooks become the mainstream format via Kindles (etc), free ebooks will no longer drive print sales. At that point, we’ll need a different strategy.

    For the moment, though, carry on.

  21. OK, so I’ve read some of Cory’s books online and I’m now a fan. The next time I’m in a book shop and I see the latest from Cory Doctorow I might buy a copy (if the price is right!). I much prefer reading books – ink on paper – to text documents on my PC screen. So far, so good.
    However, I simply cannot imagine that I will not own an e-book reader within five years. I’d be surprised if I don’t have one within two. At that time, I can get the latest Cory Doctorow for free in the format I always use. So now, why would I pay for it?

    Multiple reasons.
    1 – Your friends birthday is coming up and you want to buy him a present. You have similar taste in books.
    2 – You much prefer to read physical books than e-books. Sure e-books come in handy when you’re on the road or something, but when you’re on the couch at home it’s just much nicer to read the paper.
    3 – You really appreciate the author and want to place his nicely bound hardcover (or softcover) on your shelf along with your other ‘prized’ books.
    4 – You simply really appreciate the author and want to support them.

    In the same way that CDs still sell (for some artists less, for some more) there is still a market for physical mediums.

    Another thing worth noting is that if you chose to get it online for free without Cory releasing it in this format you almost certainly could, so what is the point of Cory trying to stop it? More than likely all it would/could do is alienate his audience.

    Remember when people said free mp3s (pirated or legitimate) increase cd sales? The problem is that the promotional format (try out new music on your computer!) became the mainstream format via the iPod.

    For many artists free mp3’s still do increase CD sales. I can think of at least 40 bands I never would have heard of/bothered to listen to if I wasn’t able to download free mp3’s that I now own CDs for. Another important aspect with music (less applicable for authors but still worth thinking about) is that Live music attendance/sales has been increasing pretty much everywhere over the past few years.

    Remember that in most cases artists will make more money from their live performances than their recordings.

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