The Pros and Cons of Offering Free Content

illustration-of-books-pvWith self-publishing, it’s very common to see authors offering a short story, novella, or even a full-length work for free. The purpose is usually to entice readers with the freebie and persuade them to purchase the writer’s other books. While this can be a good strategy, there are also some disadvantages to consider. If you’re thinking about self-publishing free content, it’s important to think carefully about the pros and cons to see if offering a freebie aligns with your goals. So, here are some pros and cons to consider when offering free content.

As I said above, the primary reason authors offer freebies is to gain more exposure and entice new readers to check out more of their work. Many authors write short stories or novellas that tie in to another book or series, as a means of persuading the reader to purchase them. After all, if the reader likes your work, they might want to buy more. Including links to additional books in your backmatter can direct readers to the rest of your work. Ultimately, freebies can expose your writing to more potential readers.

But there are also some disadvantages to consider. The most obvious downside is time. It takes time to write, even if it’s short. In fact, short fiction can be much harder to write for some authors. And in order to entice a higher number of readers, it should still be professionally edited and carefully proofread before being offered to readers. All of this costs time, effort, and money. For this reason, most writers can’t afford to offer more than a short story for free. Even those who can afford to put up a longer work for free often don’t want to, as it devalues the rest of their work. After all, why would a reader pay $9.99 for your new novel when they got the last one for free?

Additionally, readers might be less likely to actually read something they downloaded for free. If someone has paid for a book, they’re likely to read it, but a free download may get buried on an e-reader. So just because a free story gets a lot of downloads doesn’t mean it’s gaining a lot of new readers. Even if it is read, there are many people who only read stories that are free, and won’t be converted into paying readers. Charging for the work, on the other hand, may result in fewer downloads, but those who do read it may be more dedicated readers.

Another issue to consider is the length of your content. Most writers only put up a short story or novella for free—after all, it takes a lot of time, work, and expense to put longer works up for sale. But I can’t tell you how many short story or novella reviews I’ve read that say things like “I wish it were longer” or “too short” or “not what I expected.” It can help to put “short story” or “novella” somewhere in the title, so readers know what to expect. But even then, readers who are used to devouring novels aren’t necessarily going to appreciate a shorter work. Be prepared for shorter works to get much more negative reviews than full-length ones.

Negative reviews are also a downside of increased exposure. Say that you’ve written a paranormal romance series, and you write a novella set in the same world in order to encourage readers to check out the series. You’ll probably get a lot for readers downloading the story just because it’s free, and not because they’re avid paranormal romance fans. Those readers are much more likely to leave negative reviews, whereas someone who pays full price for a paranormal romance novel is probably already a fan of the genre and more likely to enjoy your work. So while the goal of offering a freebie is more exposure, that same exposure means your work will find readers who don’t like it just as it finds readers who do.

However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While seeing those negative reviews might be discouraging, I think that all reviews, whether positive or negative, can be helpful. A book with some negative reviews is reaching real readers, not just the author’s circle of friends and family; therefore, a lower average rating might actually make your work look more legitimate, as does a higher number of reviews and ratings.

Ultimately, I think offering a short story or novella for free can be a great strategy for introducing new readers to your work. I would caution writers to be prepared for the potential negative reviews, and I would urge them to keep in mind that downloads of a freebie do not equal book sales. But they can increase sales and exposure, as long as you’re willing to put in the additional work and prepared for the downsides.

What do you think? Have you ever offered a freebie, or considered offering one? What was your experience? What are the pros and cons I missed? Let me know in the comments!

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This post is part of my Self-Publishing Series. For more information about self-publishing, check out the other posts in the series here, and follow the blog to see future posts!

Related Links:

-5 Tips for Finding a Cover Artist

-Marketing for Indie Authors 101: Links and Resources

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-Publishing Plans and Release Schedules

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6 thoughts on “The Pros and Cons of Offering Free Content

  1. Jon Stephens says:

    What an interesting perspective. I appreciate this article because it paints the other picture. I was extremely sold on the idea of free being the new, best way to market. While I don’t know that I’m convinced otherwise at this point, you’ve definitely got some some great points to keep in mind so we aren’t blindsided by big downside of the strategy. Thanks for posting!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wayne Holmes says:

    I recently published a short memoir style book through Amazon’s direct self-publishing service. I’ve been considering doing a short-term promotion in April for autism awareness (the book is focused on special needs individuals). The book is already only $.99, so I would make it free during the promotion. Would you advise against this? I think I would only run the promo for about a week or so.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Aeryn Rudel says:

    The self-pubbed authors I know that have seen success with free products have offered the freebie as part of something larger and released it alongside a product for purchase. Often this will be a free short story that ties into a larger work, like a novel. People have short memories, and if they do end up liking your freebie and then go looking for more of your work, it’s important there is something for them to buy immediately (we live in an instant gratification society). If they have to wait for the next story or book, chances are they’ll forget about you.

    Liked by 1 person

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