Pricing eBooks for Free – Case Study

freeI have some mixed feelings about the trend to price eBooks at $0.00. I think that an author’s hard work and creativity deserve more than the value of a pack of ketchup they give you for nothing at the drive-through window.

With that said, I also know that “free” works in mysterious ways. Companies have used free promotions with great success throughout history, and it still works when trying to persuade a consumer to try something new – with no risk.

Back in November, “Ripper’s Row” co-author Shawn Weaver brought up the idea of offering our first book in a planned trilogy as a free offering on Amazon and other retail outlets. ¬†Another author that Shawn and I know had tried it, and was claiming success. I was hesitant, but while sales of Ripper’s Row were very slow, decided there was little downside risk in giving “free” a try. Now keep in mind, this was just prior to Amazon’s ¬†announcement of the “Kindle Select” program, which allows an author or publisher the opportunity to price eBooks at free for a limited time.

We proceeded with out plan and set things in motion. Within a few days of pricing Ripper’s Row free on Smashwords, their affiliate markets like Apple and Sony priced the book for free. Then Amazon eventually matched the free price, and Ripper’s Row was listed at $0.00

Immediately, downloads of Ripper’s Row took off. In the first month, we surpassed 2,000 downloads. To date, about 7,000 people have taken advantage of the free eBook.

During that time, we went from 7 to 14 reviews – so the free pricing helped there. Within a week or so of becoming free, the sequel, Ripper’s Revenge began to increase in sales. Sales remained fairly strong for about 3 months, and have recently began to slow down again. Ripper’s Revenge had only been out for a month prior to this experiment, so I only have one month of “pre-free” data to go by. However, When Ripper’s Row went free, Ripper’s Revenge began selling at about 10 times what it did in the first month, and maintained that for 3 months.

Here’s the part of the experiment that I find most interesting: On Amazon, when I look at the section labeled “customers who bought this item also bought” – where a list of books appear. Since Ripper’s Row sales had been slow, this area didn’t have a lot of listings. But after several thousand customer “bought” Ripper’s Row for free, this section was now well stocked.

While browsing through this section, and discovering what our customers were reading besides Ripper’s Row, I notice that almost all of the books listed were also free – to the point that I wanted do do the math.

  • 86% of the books listed were free.
  • 10% were 99 cents
  • 3% were under $2.99
  • 1% were over $2.99

That told me a lot about free eBooks. It told me that there is a significant number of people who ONLY buy free eBooks, or perhaps load up on the freebies and only buy selected titles that are not free. It’s obvious that a number of readers take advantage of free books, and now with the Kindle Select program in operation, there is a never-ending stream of free eBooks hitting the market, and trying to capture readership. I’m sure, like us, they are hoping to increase sales of other titles that are not priced free.

I may not like giving away eBooks for free, but it did work to increase sales of our other titles – which are all modestly priced under $3.00 But with a huge supply of free books, it makes me wonder what it will take to beat free? With thousands of choices priced at free, what’s left to entice a reader? Does the effectiveness of FREE go away when everyone can do it?


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