Home : Book Giveaways: Are They Worth it?

book-giveaway.fwShould you give away books for free? The value of book giveaways can’t be assessed by formula. The prevailing mythology suggests that the goal of publishing is to sell books, but the huge majority of indie publishers don’t do the math. Assuming you make (approximately) $5 per book, figure out how many you need to sell in an hour to make any kind of reasonable income.

Big publishers release 90–120 books each quarter through proven distribution channels. They have the funds to license the latest Disney princess story, and between perennial favorites (e.g. Dr. Seuss) and collections of (out of copyright) timeless classics, they’re prepared to move books in volume. Taking a “mutual fund” approach, they know that most of their books will go to the shredder, but if they can get one runaway hit (e.g. Harry Potter), the portfolio will be a win.

Indies typically have a single book, or perhaps a few more. They don’t have access to bookstore tables and tours, and they don’t print and distribute large volumes (20–30,000 copies) on spec. Assuming a typical book costs $4000 to produce (costs of professional editing, typesetting, and design), it has to sell 800 copies to break even—and this doesn’t return a penny for the time spent writing and researching.

I’m an enthusiastic indie publisher of 6 books; some are nonfiction and some are fiction. Here’s my take on book giveaways:

Start with a realistic assessment of whether you’re an artist or a business professional. If you wrote a novel—your way because that’s how you wanted to tell your story—you’re an artist. If you wrote a vampire romance novel or a javascript tutorial because you studied the demographics and psychographics of your target reader groups, identified vehicles for putting your work in front of them, and made some calculations around ROI, you have created a product for a market and are more of a professional. It’s not that you can’t be both, but publishing is a high-risk, high-competition, low profit per unit business that requires more of a strategy than “I hope readers like my work.”

I give books away all the time. I developed my own web-based eBook format for my sailing memoir; you can read it in its entirety with supplementary videos, photos, maps, and footnotes. You can read my writing style book here on my blog.

Why do I give these books away? Partially because readers sometimes purchase a hard copy – which brings me $5 and the joy of sharing my work. But mostly, it’s because these books are business cards. If someone reads my blog (over 100 free articles about writing, publishing, and book design), reads my story (which offers insights into my writing style, typesetting ability, personality, and cover design sensibilities), and implements the ideas in my writing style guide, I’ve got a good shot at earning the credibility that wins me a book production/coaching contract. That relationship-building exercise is 800 times more productive than one that leads to a book sale. I have other clients who are speakers; they sell thousands of books at the back of the room after their presentations. One sold 1000 copies at a single keynote.

Is your book a product, a relationship-builder, or a creative exercise? All are valid and valuable forms of expression, but conflating their purposes and hoped-for results will lead to disappointment.

As both an artist and a businessman, I give books away (or not) for various reasons. I met a 19-year-old girl who was working as a clerk at a marine store. She was fixing her boat up to go cruising so I handed her a hardcover copy of my sailing memoir. My only goal in presenting the book was to inspire. I met with a prospective editing client and handed him a copy of my style guide. It’s a cheap ($3.50) gesture to make, but it offers useful insights into how I approach writing and editing. Reading an editor’s books will help you decide if he or she is the right editor for you. My speaker clients give books to meeting planners all the time, but that’s so they can sell them to audience members. Sometimes, they make deals to bundle books with the speech so every attendee gets one automatically. Book giveaways are strategic measures—not something you do because the latest publishing article says you should.

What I don’t do is give books away to friends and anonymous, prospective readers. Any time I offer someone a free book outside of a business context, it never gets read because I’ve set the value (not just the price) at ZERO. Give a book to a friend and your friend will feel obligated to read it; that guilt factor sullies the book. I’d rather have my friend buy the book and then buy him a cup of coffee with the tiny profit I make. Those friends who aren’t interested enough to buy it won’t read it. Those who will will insist on paying for it. The others aren’t friends. Real friends know you paid for every copy, and will not ask you for handouts.

Should you give away books? The question, without context, is incomplete. Why do you publish? What are your goals? What’s your strategy? Book giveaways not backed by a plan will make free book hoarders happy, but they’re unlikely to further your goals as a writer or publisher.


Book Giveaways: Are They Worth it? — 13 Comments

  1. True book giveaways are a great relationship-builder in the long run depending on who you give it to. I have done that lots of times on all my 3 books. And it’s just amazing the benefits i have got compares to the book sales i made.

  2. I’m a first time author and gave away 20 of my books on Goodreads. The only two bad reviews I ever got for Not Going Gently. . .A Psychologist Fights Back against Alzheimer’s. . ., were from 2 of those people who received a free copy and then stated something like ‘I wouldn’t have finished reading it, except it was free!’ Thank goodness my Amazon reviews –for paid books– are so positive. I think you’re right that people value more highly something they have purchased.

  3. Thank you for your insight. As a new indie author I’ve been trying to learn everything I can about marketing, and your article has given me several good points to consider.

  4. Great summary, Dave. I’ve made so many mistakes in the past with six of my books. Book seven is being treated with more business acumen and respect. Thank you.

    And I love Joel’s remark ‘free’ isn’t a price, it’s a strategy. Seven words all authors should chisel in stone before they market.

  5. You nailed it on the head.. I’m a book promoter and own http://www.ilikeebooks.com I have many authors submit books during their giveaways since they think giving away the book to strangers will help them in some way. Thanks for the read! I plan on sharing this with some authors that use my website and I hope it will help them in some way.


  6. I’m a little confused here. Wouldn’t a friend feel awkward if not obliged to be asked to pay for a copy of a book? If feedback and spreading the word is needed where better place to start? But I think there is an implied obligation just in approaching a friend at all over anything commercial!
    If I have an idea I am just not sure is going to resonate it seems natural to ask a friend who can also give an entirely honest response – that is, if they are a friend!! I take the attitude of using whatever opportunity presents itself as sometimes the lucky break comes from never saying never or deflecting from the norm!

    • Jeremy, I think that’s whas I was driving at; real friends don;t ask for free books. Those who receive them rarely read them—or do so out of a sense of obligation. I bring my reader friends in at the pre-editor stage, before I send the final draft to my professional editor. I send them books as a thank you gesture, but if I value their input, I’d rather have that input before the book is released into the wild.

  7. Perfectly well said. Was the angle I was trying to express and you did it well.
    Provide the respect, it shall be returned maybe not the way you put it either but I believe it fits also.


  8. Excellent post, Dave. I expected an either/or essay, and instead got a thoughtful, well written explanation of the pros and cons of giving away copies. And I agree with you completely. When you’re running a business, sometimes you give away promotional copies. But you never, ever, give away books to “friends.” Friends buy your books because they’re friends! I give away copies to legitimate reviewers, and for promotional purposes, but none other.

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