Should You Give Away Copies of Your Book?

By on August 13, 2015

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Should 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 readbecause 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.

This article by Dave Bricker was originally published with the title Book Givaways: Are They Worth It at

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