The value of free ebooks (here’s Chion, gratis!)

I’m coming around to the way of thinking that giving something away free is a good thing.

Against this attitude is the notion that every free gift is a lost sale. More than that, given the ability of computers to copy and share data with the greatest of ease, every free gift could mean countless lost sales. We all know about piracy. But the important question to ask is, when someone downloads your novel and enjoys a free read, would they have bought it otherwise? Speaking from personal experience, I’m willing to bet that the answer in most cases is no.

I once downloaded a free ebook of the novella Purity from Douglas Clegg’s website. Was I considering buying it? Nope. However, after reading it and enjoyed it a great deal, I was then on the lookout for Clegg’s work, and at one point I picked up Neverland in paperback.

One thing I’ve learned about self-publishing is that it’s about overcoming hurdles. The major one that sinks most indie authors is that they fall victim to releasing an overpriced paperback that few readers are willing to pay for. I managed to beat that one. But there’s another major hurdle that I’m only scratching the surface of: Hardly anyone knows who I am.

On a good day, I might get forty unique hits on my website. Some of those, statistically, will be brand new visitors encountering me for the first time. I’ve gone to the trouble of making my site as visually appealing as my skills allow. Visitors are encouraged to find out more about my latest novel, Chion. The book cover is on display; the blurb is listed; there’s even a decent-sized excerpt in both text and audio formats. You can do everything that you could do if you had found the novel on a bookstore shelf. Incidentally, I’m amazed at how many self-published authors don’t avail themselves of these benefits, especially with the bad rep that self-publishing has due to the torrent of unedited works for sale out there. Some indie authors expect the public to buy on the strength of a picture and a scrap of text. Forget it! But hey, there’s something I have to face: hardly anyone who visits my site buys my book anyway. Is this some failure on my part to hook the potential buyer? I honestly don’t think so. And I can back that up with a theory.

In stark contrast to the forty visits and zero sales per day my website receives, each copy of Chion (with a few exceptions), listed as a “Buy It Now” auction on eBay, sells successfully, and usually before the listing has accrued forty views. What causes this alarming difference in sales? The book is the same price, both on my website and on eBay, and is presented with the same hooks. So here’s my theory: You have to catch the web surfer when he’s in the mood to buy something. My novel sells on eBay because shopping is in the surfer’s mind when he’s there. Conversely, his credit card is probably the last thing on his mind when he comes across my site as a result of a Google search or a link.

Now, here’s a thought. How about I give an entire novel away free on my website? Chances are, instead of losing a sale that would never have happened anyway, what I stand to gain is a fan. Up till now, I’ve held the conviction that it’s enough to hand over a sizeable excerpt to readers, but now I’m not so sure. Friend and fellow writer James Maxon debates that there’s something far more attractive to the potiential reader about having the whole package. People will be more likely to begin reading an ebook if they know they have the choice to complete it. How much better is that than to have them think, “Well, it’s only twelve pages and then I have to stop. Don’t know if I’ll bother.” The problem is this: in order to motivate someone to read an excerpt, you have to already get them in the mood to buy the book. In the wrong mood, reading an unfinishable work will be considered time wasted. And as I’ve already illustrated, people are not usually in a buying mood when they visit a random website. I would never have have read Douglas Clegg’s Purity if there was merely an excerpt on offer, presented with a buy-it-if-you-want-to-finish-it option. There’s no shame in going about it that way; a worker deserves his wages. But it just doesn’t work.

It could be argued that I’m already giving away free complete fiction, in the form of short stories, and it hasn’t made much of a difference to sales. Actually, it’s worth noting that some people have told me they bought my novel on the strength of downloading one of my stories. But that’s beside the point. The purpose of free stuff is not to get a quick sale. It’s to crack the problem of hardly anyone knowing about you – to create as many people as possible who love your work and who check back often to see what you’re up to. Then, maybe years down the line, when the fanbase is large enough, you might be able to do some significant book-selling. To create that situation, you’ll need more than a couple of free short stories. Isn’t this exactly what Scott Sigler did? He released three or four novels over time in audio form, got really popular, then released a paperback and soared to the forefront of Amazon’s charts.

It all boils down to this: Don’t underestimate the value of creating a fan.

So, I’m going to throw caution to the wind. Here’s a free PDF file of Chion for a start. Read it, copy it, post it anywhere! Ulterior will follow shortly, as well as a massive flood of videos, courtesy of YouTube: the entire Midnight Pictures catalogue, no less. Brace yourself.

[ Download Book ]

15 thoughts on “The value of free ebooks (here’s Chion, gratis!)

  1. Chris

    Wow, Darryl. This is a rather big decision for an aspiring writer.

    I wonder about Maxon’s reasoning on the psychology of giving the reader the whole book for free. It seems like wishful thinking. But I agree with your assessment that you’ll be more likely to acquire another fan, or, at the very least, engender a vague, nebulous, positive feeling about you and the book in the mind of a random visitor to the site which may (or may not) yield fruit later. So, I think this is a good step. It surely can’t hurt any.

    I’m also quite excited about the Midnight Pictures catalog on YouTube. I’m really surprised it’s taken you guys so long to do this.

  2. Ah well, if I never sell another copy of Chion, I’ll just blame it on ol’ Maxon. 😉 On my rung on the ladder of success, where I’m selling so few books that I get excited by every individual sale, I’ve got nothing to lose!

    I have Zombie Genocide uploaded already. I’ll make a big announcement when all the movies are on. Yeah, we should have done this long ago. I held off for a long time because I was slightly concerned about YouTube’s terms and conditions – about what rights you sign over to them when you upload your videos.

  3. Well, since it’s what I’ve done from the start, I can hardly express surprise and admiration, can I? It’s a worthy experiment, and let’s compare notes a few years down the line!

    And if I’m absolutely honest, I wouldn’t have been prepared to buy Chion just yet, but I’ll download it and read it. I was frustrated by a mere excerpt, but there are so many good books out there to purchase …

    If I like it enough, then I’ll read the next one. And if you continue to keep me as a reader, then I would certainly buy some of your later work for my collection. I buy a lot, and I mean a lot, of books.

  4. Thanks for your interest in my fiction, Lee. You’re one more reader I wouldn’t have had without the ebook – hopefully one of many to come. Hope you enjoy Chion.

  5. I enjoyed the CHION paperback, Darryl, and I’m sure others will enjoy the story as well.

    I’m eager to check out your film catalogue on Youtube. Unfortunately, the burnt DVDs you sent won’t play in my player. Now I’ll finally get to check out your films.

    Don’t forget to look into other video sites like Google Video and to post your work. (There are others but they escape me at the moment.)

  6. Ah, the old PAL/NTSC compatibility issue crops up again. Bear in mind, though, that your PC won’t have the same problem playing those DVDs. Whatever way you watch the movies, hope you enjoy them.

  7. Well, i’m probably the latest of your ebay ‘recruits’ and I have to say that i really enjoyed CHION.

    I started reading it at 10pm on Sunday night before I went to bed, and struggled to put it down. Needless to say, 100ish pages later, at 3.30am I thought I should really go to bed!

    I spent the next 30 minutes or so lying in bed wondering what was going to happen to Jamie and Tara, and ended up reading another 15 pages before I eventually fell asleep. I finished it last night.

    It was a great read, and I am pleased that I bought the book rather than download the ebook. So much so that, even though you say that ULTERIOR will be on here soon as a free ebook, I am awaiting a price from Shocklines to import a “dead tree” paperback copy.

    I think you are right with the “catch the web surfer when he’s in the mood to buy something” comment as I stumbled on CHION when looking for Stephen King bargains.

    As a result, your website has been added as a favourite and I intend to frequently check back for updates, but rest assured, you have another fan.

  8. Hi, Paul.

    Thank you for the really encouraging words 😀 . As an indie author, I get a little down sometimes by how hard it is to sell books, so you’ve given me a much needed lift.

    Regarding Ulterior, judging by what you’ve said, I’m guessing Shocklines are out of stock. I doubt they’ll be able to import more, because I personally was the sole supplier.

    You may be in luck, though. Depends on how bad you want the book. in the US has had a single copy listed for years (like about four). I recognise it as a copy I sent to The Overlook Connection for review purposes. The review never happened, but Overlook decided they would sell the book, and they had the gall to list it for $19.99. By all means, buy this copy, if you feel you can afford it. I care more about getting my books into readers hands than holding a grudge against an unfair trader. Here’s the link.

    I wish I could tell you I’ll be bringing Ulterior out again for another print-run, but it’s hard to promote one book at a time let alone two. The 1070 copies out there may be the only ones ever.

    Thanks again, Paul. Hope you’ll stick around.

  9. Heidi

    Thanks for the Chion eBook – Damn! Damn! Damn! I had just ordered it from eBay yesterday! Seriously would have kept my wallet in my pocket if I had known.

    When I ordered it from eBay, which I found when I was browsing items ‘ending soon’, I was thoroughly excited, 1st edition signed book! So I looked at the description and read it was being put on eBay by its author. Intriguing I thought, let’s have a look at his website….

    On your website I firstly read the 12 page excerpt, quickly ordered the book in case someone else bought it! Then browsed/wrote all night through your website. Thinking of the book arriving soon, is it me or does every avid book reader get excited about a new book arriving soon? Anyway, (one moment I’m being tapped by my cat to give her a morning treat, totally irrelevant to what I’m saying, but I do have a habit of writing my thoughts – She always does it, she gives me a nudge and I have to follow her until she guides me to her destination whatever it is, treat, food, even opening the door for her!) Anyway, again.. Today I take a look at your website, which I have added to my favourites and find the full book!! Now I have it open in my browser, am desperate to read it, but can’t bring myself to spoil the novel!

    What I’m trying to say is take it off, I bought your book after reading the 12 pages, If I just came across it stumbling on the web, sure I would have read it, but I wouldn’t have got the same ‘excited’ feeling I get when I have discovered a new novel! Just by reading those few pages I knew I was in for a treat!

  10. “Now I have it open in my browser, am desperate to read it, but can’t bring myself to spoil the novel!”

    Save it for the paperback. You won’t have long to wait, as it’s going out to you today.

    “Thinking of the book arriving soon, is it me or does every avid book reader get excited about a new book arriving soon?”

    I love that feeling. Anticipation is half the pleasure in anything.

    “What I’m trying to say is take it off,”

    I work on the theory that most of those who have downloaded the novel weren’t planning on buying the novel anyway. So usually you gain a reader and lose nothing. Does a free ebook harm paperback sales? Well, it’s an experiment, and I have to say the results are showing that it doesn’t make a bit of difference – except that I’ve got almost a thousand extra readers due to the download option. Authors Cory Doctorow and Scott Sigler have made a great success of giving their ebooks away free whilst selling paper versions. So, despite conventional marketing wisdom, it’s a strategy that appears to have merit.

  11. Heidi

    Ok, ok. Good luck with your experiment! Although as you have said the results are drawing extra readers, so I will eat my words, after chewing them thoroughly and making sure they contain no additives!

    Saying that I still do love reading a few chapters of a book, and, if I find myself riveted, I search high and low to attain a copy of the full version!

    Do you think another option would be to have placed the full version of Ulterior on your site rather than Chion? As you no longer provide copies of Ulterior, whereas Chion is available to buy?
    Just a thought, as I personally can’t make up my mind as to whether a free eBook version of a paperback on sale is such a good idea. But, what do I know?

    I have your website on my favourites so I will eagerly await the outcome of the experiment.

  12. I chose to release Chion as a free ebook rather than Ulterior because I thought, “The most effective way to get somebody interested into your writing is to seduce them with your very best.”

    For a while, I was planning to release Ulterior free, too. But I held back, because I feel I want to polish it a little. I’m thinking of a paperback reprint, but when that’ll happen I’m not sure.

  13. C.

    What a great book! A thrilling and interesting sci-fi story, but at the same time such a profound message about human nature, feelings, love, faith… Certainly one of the best books i’ve ever read! I’ll look for more of your work and i will certainly spread the word.

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