Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

The Magic Bakery: Chapter Six

Chapter Six…

I get questions all the time about free. Should an author put up their book for free? How about their first book in a series? Does leaving something up for free forever work?

Interestingly enough, The Magic Bakery works perfectly to illustrate the answer to these questions so writers can decide for themselves.

All I’m going to be talking about in this chapter is basic, standard-retail sales practices. I won’t tell you one thing new in the world. You can see some of these practices working every day from grocery stories to music stores.

But explaining these practices to authors who do not understand basic sales of retail has been an issue. And thus extreme myths have built up around the use of free in book sales.

And it seems everyone has an opinion, often not based on anything but “It worked for me for a little bit.”

So using The Magic Bakery, let me show you some of the simple ways that free can be an effective sales tool for your products.

And some of the really boneheaded ways to use free that will hurt your business.

Copyright in Free

One quick point here in this book focused on mostly understanding copyright. When you give a story or book away for free, you do not lose the copyright protection on that work in any way.

My Basic Rule of Thumb About Free

Nothing ever sits on a bookstore shelf, real-wood shelf or electronic shelf, for free.

It is a very simply rule and when I say that to someone they automatically think I am against free. I am not. I am against using free in a poor business way. I use free all the time to help sales, as does WMG Publishing.

So now to the Magic Bakery to illustrate why this rule works for me and for others.

First, a simple positive way to use free…

A customer comes into your bakery. You have a wall of about twenty pies that are your novels, some are grouped together because they are series pies. All are priced. You may have a reduced price on a few first pies, but all are priced in a reasonable and fair manner.

You have a large counter in the middle of the room of short story pies, smaller and at a lower price than the larger pies on the wall.

You have specials you are running around the cash register.

And there, beside the specials, near the cash register, on top of a glass counter, you have a plate of bite-sized pieces of your latest creation for readers to sample.

The sign under that plate says “Take one.”

You have maybe a dozen pieces on the plate with small plastic forks and when those pieces of pie are gone, you take the plate to the back to wash. The idea is to get customers, for free, sampling your work so they will buy.

This form of use of free is standard in almost every form of store. You see this a lot in grocery stores. And in bakeries.

For authors, we do this as sample chapters in the back of another book.

Or free short stories for a week on a web site. And so on. Lots of ways to give limited, small samples in this modern world.

The key in sales are LIMITED and SHORT TERM.

Keep free short term and limited and never put it on a bookshelf anywhere.

Now the wrong way to use free…

A customer walks through your door and you have a wall of twenty pies in glass cases, all the smaller short story pies in a case in the center, and some specials near the cash register.

And there on your wall are three pies that say, “Free.”

And a bunch of short stories that are “Free.”

The customer can take an entire pie for free or buy one. As a customer, what would you do? Duh. You take the free pie and leave.

(Or you question the value of any of the pies and leave without anything.)

And, because of copyright, the pie is still sitting there after someone takes it for free. Magic Bakery, remember? So more and more people start hearing you are giving away free pies in your magic bakery.

And pretty soon your customers start to change. The only people who come through the door are people who only want the free stuff. They would never buy something under any circumstances, but you are giving your pies away for free, so they take one.

Pretty soon there would be lines out the door to get your free pies and you would make nothing. The free takers would crowd out and devalue the pies you are trying to sell.

That is the wrong use of free for any reason you may want to make up to justify it.

Now discounting is another topic. There are ways to discount first books in series to entice buyers into getting into a series. This is also a common practice in most stores, actually.

A Personal Example…

I live in a small town that has a huge discount mall. Now all smart shoppers know that the big chains mark up the prices before lowering them for the discount stores. Makes the “discount” price look better to those looking for deals.

Now I use the mall as a place to walk on rainy days. And at times, I go into stores to look around. The stores have their “discount” racks clear to the back. The discount racks are what is left of the normal merchandise that hasn’t sold and they are just trying to clear.

But to get to that actually discounted stuff, I have to walk through their entire store. And every-so-often, that sales trick gets me and I see something I don’t mind paying full price for.

That is a standard retail trick of discounting to get a customer in to buy other stuff.

But not one place in any of those stores is there a free item. Why not? Because they are all businesses, that’s why not.

Writers need to learn how to act and think like regular business people.

So How to Use Free in Your Bakery?

A one-day give-away of one of your pies. Only for a very limited time and only for a very limited number.

I try not to laugh in writer’s faces who tell me they have “sold” twenty thousand books and when I ask, they actually gave away that many books.

Free is not a sale.

Free is free. A sale is when you make something from the exchange. So follow basic retail practices. If you are going to give something away for free, do it for a short time and a limited number.

And then make it special.

And again, never put it on a shelf of any bookstore.

Once again, over the years, I have tried not to laugh when writers go on about how to game Amazon’s system and get their book there for free. I have laughed many times, but not in the writer’s faces, luckily.

You ever wonder why you have to game the smartest business on the planet at the moment to get something on their shelves for free? Oh, let me think… They don’t make any money.

Yet they are a business. You are taking up their shelf space with something that makes them no money.

You walk into our Pop Culture Collectable stores here in town and there isn’t one thing on the shelves for free. So do we give things away at times? Sure. Free comic book day once a year. Things like that. Promotions that are limited and short term to bring customers into the store to buy other things.

Limited and short term.

There is no reason at all for us to go to the time and energy to get inventory and then put it on our shelves for free. No reason for any business to do that.

And certainly no reason for you to do that in your Magic Bakery.

Just imagine walking into a pie shop and there is a wall of pies that all look great, and five or six of them say, “Free” under it. Try to imagine that.

If you can’t imagine that, good. But if you want to start learning how to use free correctly, then start looking around at other businesses outside of electronic books and see what they do with free.

In the business and sales world, free is a powerful, powerful tool if used correctly and for the right reasons.

Make sure your Magic Bakery is a place someone can come to buy your wonderful work. And that free is used in ways (not on the shelves of your bakery) to entice buyers into your bakery.

Free is short time, limited supply, and never on the major bookstore shelves.

Simple Magic Bakery rules-of-thumb that are nothing more than standard retail business practices.



  • Harvey

    Dean, how do you feel as a professional writer about allowing “sampling” of your ebooks? (Amazon doesn’t give you a choice, but Smashwords does.) Also, what percentage do you recommend, if any?

    • dwsmith

      20% I would suppose. Think of it like a customer standing in a brick and mortar store, browsing. They can read into the book a little if they want. Same thing.

      • Patrick R

        Hi Dean
        Drawing on Mike’s point about giving enough of a tale up to a plot point/turn to have a reader chomping at the bit, hungry for “what happens next?”….I wonder about the perspective of how readers could be systematically drawn in quickly, and deeply, and held (as through the tools of the Depth, Advanced Depth, and Plotting with Depth workshops). Maybe such tools can help grab without always needing to give lots of story upfront as a sample – or might simply add to the punch, and page-turner feel?

        • dwsmith

          Patrick, that is what depth is all about. If you can’t catch and hold a reader quick in any circumstance, you are lost. And you don’t do that with action, you do that with depth.

    • Mike Lawrence

      Hi Harvey. I don’t know if this is a good answer, but I put up samples right up to the first plot point. That’s enough for the reader to get involved in the story and leaves them at a great stopping point where they can decided whether or not they want to hear the rest of the story. I hate Amazon’s 10% rule because it will cut off in the middle of a page. I prefer to stop at a point where the reader will naturally ask, “What happens next?”


  • Loyd Jenkins

    Sounds like ‘free’ has become its own myth. And here you are, busting myths again.
    It’s hard to remember, but we are businessmen.
    Thanks for the teaching.

  • Kate Pavelle

    Hi Dean, this is a timely topic. First, how about InstaFreebie or BookFunnel as a way to get newsletter subscribers? I have a link to a free story with a newsletter sign-up in every book now, and I do occasionally rotate the stories (I have 3 free out now.) Two are out for sale, one isn’t. Would you stick just with one good enticement, and make it exclusive to the newsletter and not for sale? Getting subscribers has been a good exercise, it allowed me to build an ARC team, and boosted my sales somewhat.

    The second issue is the darn newsletter (I know Kris wrote about it last week.) I promised to include a free read in each issue, just like Kris has a free story every Monday. Do you think a sample read, something that the newsletter subscribers can get on Amazon, is adequate to fulfill that promise? I don’t. Every month, I scramble to come up with a give-away short, which I also publish. The question is, how to wean my readers off the freebies? Just stop? Because, 2 years later, I”m tired of giving free stories away. Sometimes is good, but not every month.

    • dwsmith

      Kate, all that is up to you. I have heard it working all sorts of ways.

      Just keep the free off your shelves and keep the free to a limited time. Past that, the variations are endless if you just hold to those two guidelines.

  • Gordon Horne

    A comment and a question:

    Comment: Oh how frustrating I find people who assume free means free reign. The Creative Commons license has among its various possible terms three choices for distribution: no redistribution, distribution with attribution, free to distribute. There is no assumption of free reign.

    Question: Similar to Harvey’s question, what do you feel is the added value of a free sample in the back of another work when Amazon and Apple allow free samples of all books and Kobo gives publishers the option? Is a sample chapter of one of your books in the back of another one of your books more effective than the automatic stand-alone store samples?

    • dwsmith

      Gordon, you would have to ask someone who actually cares enough to track that. Not a clue. As a reader, if I liked a book, I would like to get a hint of another book by the same author. But just me as a reader. I have no data and doubt at this point I would trust much data unless it was Data Guy or someone like him doing it.

      But why not? Done with taste, what do you have to lose?

    • Kate Pavelle

      Regarding a sample read in the end, there’s been a kerfluffle over this on FB. A reader complained that she thought she was buying a work of a particular length, but 20% at the end was advertising, including a free segment. A surprising number of people agreed with her. Apparently, people are value-conscious when it comes to word count, and are willing to pay accordingly. Not making the sample too big is probably a good idea for more than one reason. YMMV.

    • Sheila

      The added value of a sample in the back of a book is that the reader is right there. They don’t have to go off to the site to see it. This works really well for series, especially if the reader can click a link and be on the sales page.

      As to free, well, it’s all in how you use it. Just putting books up for free tends to land you in the middle of the swamp. You have to promote, have other work for readers to go on to if they like the free book, and basically make sure you’re providing a good experience.

      The downfall of free is that so many people will download anything that’s free, whether it’s something they normally would like or not. If not, you might get some one star reviews for the effort.

      I’ve been seeing some reports that authors are seeing better results with having their “lead in” book at .99, rather than free (perma free or in KU for the free days). I don’t know if this is a big enough phenomena for it to change how many authors are using free, or if it’s random chance. It could be genre-related. Or not.

      All I know is that having a free first in series works, as does having free and exclusive content for mailing list subscribers. It doesn’t work for everyone, but for many, many authors, it does. Again, genre, promotional efforts and content have a lot to do with it.

      Having everything free or as cheap as one can get it? I think it sends the wrong message to readers. Everything .99 is about five or six years old as a business plan. I’ve been around long enough that I remember the debates over indies ever being able to charge more. Thankfully, now authors are charging a fair price for their work, and keeping a large percentage of the revenue. How awesome is that?

  • Mike Lawrence

    Practical and sensible. I really appreciate these lessons on retail because my business acumen, such as it is, comes from the B2B world. I sell goods and services to businesses and nothing is ever free. In fact, I often walk away when they start haggling too hard for discounts because my skills and experience in that world aren’t all that common. But here in the retail world of books, I’m awash in a sea of product and it has been very difficult to understand how it all works. I’ve done free, gotten caught up in the circulation myth (People taking free pies does not mean they’re going to wave at the baker and say, “Thank you.”) and struggled with discounts, promotions and… gawd.

    So when somebody walks in the room and says, “Pssst, do it like retail”, and then explains what that means, it really clears the air. My current theory is that we new writers feel like we have to move product or something is wrong with our writing. Which is probably true in many cases. But giving it away won’t make people like it better. You just have to keep trying recipes until you get that pie that sells.

    You have also helped me understand something that is right in front of my face. I have several free books from well-promoted authors in my Kindle. Haven’t read a one of them. Not a single one. Since getting my last free book, I’ve spent money on three others and read those. But the free ones are just sitting there and I don’t really feel like reading them. Now, isn’t that interesting?

    • dwsmith

      Thanks, Mike. And yeah, free stuff tends to get tossed around like free stuff does. Next chapter in this I’m talking about perceived value. New fiction writers really, really have trouble with that concept.

    • Patrick R

      Hi Mike
      Do you do B2B titles in any way, as an indie writer? If so, what’s that experience like?

  • Big Ed Magusson

    Some additional thoughts… “free” is one of the challenges that I’ve seen several writers face in jumping from hobby to pro. They put their original stories up at various free sites, developed an audience, got feedback, improved their craft, decided to move from hobbyist to pro, and then discovered… that audience they’d built still expected all their work to be free. In fact, I have a good friend who gets 1-star reviews on his for-sale books because he hasn’t finished his epic free story and some readers are pissed at him for it.

    So not only does “free” draw a different audience that can crowd out the paying audience, but a lot of that audience (but not all) feels entitled. It was free before, so you *owe* them to keep producing for free. It’s horrific. It’s not an audience that I think any long term writer wants.

  • Vera Soroka

    I think putting samples in the back of your books is good. It’s been done by Trad all the time. One author I follow they always put a sample of her next book in the series and plus they always put a sample of her other book in another series for you to read. I like it and I would do it.
    Plus I like the ability to sample an author’s work on the retail sites. That is essential as a reader for me.

  • J. D. Brink

    Dean, I often find myself saying, “What a timely post.”
    I have had a note on my to-do list for a while asking “eliminate free?” But, coward that I am, I have not quite done that.
    I did have two short stories up that are older and I am not super-confident about that have been free for a while. Recently I realized that giving away stuff that I think is not great (“not good enough to charge for,” even?) is probably not the best way to attract new readers to the priced stuff. Even if they would be enticed by the free stuff (which, as you say, probably isn’t true anyway), letting them taste the older pies that maybe aren’t as good… probably not helping me.
    So I did return them to a paying price. But in return, I knocked something else down to the free sample. And just today, KDP processed that request. Otherwise I might have cancelled it. But I wont let it stay that way too long.
    Also afflicted with a lack of confidence and low book sales, the doubtful voice that always says, “What if I lowered my prices?” has recently come back up. I’m staving it off for now and can’t wait for the next installment to shore me back up…

    • dwsmith

      J.D., ever thought to ask that maybe your low sales are because you give stuff away on shelves and price too low to give reader confidence. There is stupidly high pricing as traditional publishers do, then there is too low making readers pass your work for fear of quality. Do you expect high quality in the Dollar Store? Not sure why writers don’t understand that concept while in their real lives they live by the concept. Something about writing causes all logical thought processes to go away for many.

      I do not look for a good bottle of wine at the dollar store. And I doubt I would even open or taste a bottle of wine a stranger handed me on the street for free. Just saying.

      • J. D. Brink

        Completely agree that that is how it should be. I have written “perceived strength is strength” on my pricing matrix to keep me from altering it. In fact, what made me think about it was seeing that the most “expensive” books that other customers “also viewed” for one of mine were all of my own other books! Everything else was a 0.99 or a 2.99.
        I think that’s part of what drags us floundering newbies into those kinds of doubts. Looking at the number of reviews (which we have been taught to believe converts to actual reader popularity, which obviously isn’t necessarily so), it appears as if the 0.99 and 2.99 books are the only ones people buy. Obviously can’t be true or the big publishers would have gone under by now. But in a sea full of indie fish all trying to sell books, it sure looks like those are the only ones readers are buying. (Okay, lost my sea metaphor there…) Which in turn makes us want to post freebies, which encourages customers to not pay, or only buy the cheap stuff.
        It’s either a vicious cycle or just an illusion, but it sure seems like the market and reader price expectations are constantly being driven downward.

        • dwsmith

          Nope, prices have actually come up since the early days of indie and then the traditional people jumping on agency and setting their own prices very high. Prices are up.

          Only writers without self-confidence in their own work go to the lower numbers, or first books in series for funneling.

          And for heaven’s sake, never read reviews. Ever. Not ever. I have the hardest shell of almost anyone working in publishing, have been trashed by the best in the business for 40 years, trolled by masters, and reviews can still get through to me if I let myself read them. Stop now.

          • Patrick R

            Hi Dean

            Thanks to JD Brink on the points, including the “sea full of indie fish” – which has a thought jumping out for me about how writers differentiate their works. Maybe less about free because that is short-term (and as you advise, should be capped, limited) and mostly on developing multiple series IP/copyright for greater long-term impact? Then, in that “sea” islands are rising up, and growing – destination worlds, created by writers. Focus on island building?


  • Prasenjeet Kumar

    Hi Dean. I’m enjoying your Magic Bakery posts. I have a question. May be you could address this issue in a separate blog post. Location is critical to an actual bakery. Even if you are located in a mall (a marketplace) and have a bakery full of pies, you still need to be in a good location. If you are located near a fire exit, in a small corridor, where very few people venture, you may have a hard time selling your pies NOT because your bakery is empty but its location is poor. I want to understand how does this translate to the magic bakery concept. Or is it irrelevant?

    • dwsmith

      Nope, not irrelevant by any means. Basically, you must have your store available to anyone on the planet. Period. If you so something like Select, you have put your store down a very dark and limited hallway. So you have to be wide and everywhere, selling your work everywhere.

      You have to be in the world’s largest marketplaces, Amazon, Kobo, B&N, D2D and all the places it reaches. From there it is your signage (branding), word of mouth, and so on that will draw readers.

      Your web site, your publisher web site, and things like that will drive traffic to your store as well, and you could sell on both if you wanted.
      And then in the store have everything any customer might want in forms, from the different forms of electronic to paper to audio and so on.

      Location is everything and in book publishing that means world wide through every channel.

  • Patrick R

    Hi Dean
    Building on the discussion about a book with Main Story A then having a chapter or so, or sample, of another story (Main Story B…go buy!), would a short story or two also be a fit here, especially in the same world?

    Not necessarily as an alternative to promoting the other novel (Main Story B). Perhaps more of an extra, a treat – or treats. Like the main and b movie sort of double bill. Or extras on DVD sets. More of that world, really.

    Of course, those shorts are little Magic Pies in their own right, to market separately.


    • dwsmith

      Can’t see any reason to put a short story there, Patrick, unless you need to flesh out the book, but then I would worry about annoying readers. Only small first chapters or openings of other for-sale books.

  • Paula Gouveia

    I laughed at this, Dean, because it’s so close to home.

    There’s an ice cream parlor here in Cambridge that offers free samples UNLESS AND UNTIL the line goes out the door. For obvious reasons. Basic business sense.

    My kindle is filled with free giveaways that I downloaded several months ago. Will I ever read them? I dunno. Last week I bought and read a $12.99 ebook in one day. My to-read list is already toppling. I probably won’t read the free books. Who cares? They’re free. Maybe if I’m stuck on an island with my kindle–maybe.