Free e-books aren’t what they used to be


It used to be that offering an e-book for free was a sure way to get a bump in attention, move up sales ranks and possibly be on the way to bestsellerdom. Now, not so much.

The 2014 Smashwords survey, covering April 2013-March 2014, says free e-books are still good -- but they’re not the lure they used to be.

A free e-book at the iBookstore was downloaded 39 times as much as a book with a price, any price, for those books published by Smashwords. That looks good until you see the numbers from the past: The same book in 2013 was downloaded 91 times as much; in 2012, 100 times as much.


One hundred, 91, 39: That’s a steep downward trend.

Not that the e-book environment is sick -- it’s growing robustly. Overall, e-book sales were up in 2013 by 3.8% for total sales of $1.3 billion.

Smashwords, one of the leading self-publishing platforms with sales through all major e-book retailers, published 276,000 e-books in 2013 -- up from 191,000 in 2012 and 92,000 in 2011.

All those new e-books, however, mean all the more competition.

“While there is still much untapped greenfield opportunity for indies to leverage free, I expect the effectiveness of free will continue to decline as more authors learn to take advantage of it,” writes Smashwords founder and CEO Mark Coker in a blog post explaining the survey results. Speaking directly to his authors, he continues, “If you’ve never utilized free, now’s the time to do so before your window of maximum opportunity closes further.”

Like passing notes in class; I’m @paperhaus on Twitter