Why Your Favorite Author Probably Can’t Give You a Free Book

It’s a dilemma that many in my circles are puzzling over: in today’s world, authors have nearly limitless creativity and research sources and opportunities to get their stories out to a wider audience…but fewer people are willing to pay for them.

I’m an administrator for a few dozen authors’ Facebook pages, and from time to time I glimpse notifications of another message with the same question, phrased in a few different ways: “Why is your book (or ebook) so expensive?”

If you’ve ever wondered that yourself—and I don’t blame you, because I did too before I started working in publishing—here are a few thoughts that authors probably want to say but feel they can’t, because it seems a little too direct, a little too self-serving (even though it really isn’t).

It’s the same reason restaurant owners can’t give you a free dinner: because that’s how they make a living. Sure, a chef might comp a meal for a celebrity or a food blogger who will recommend the café to a large audience, but for the most part, they charge for their product both because it’s worth the money and because doing so allows them to continue making five-star creations.

Before I go on, let me first say: this is not intended to make you feel bad if you’ve ever requested a review copy from an author, talked about how ebook prices are too high, or can’t buy every new release that catches your eye. Not at all. You don’t have to feel defensive, because I’m also a reader who loves a good deal and lives on a budget.

This is just a different perspective, written in consideration of some people I care a lot about: our authors. It’s easy for them to get discouraged when hearing about general trends—readers buying fewer books at lower prices—or getting direct messages from readers concerned that their books are priced too high. My goal isn’t to scold anyone, just to ask questions that might be helpful when thinking about this issue.

“But I go through books so quickly!” I’ve heard some readers say. “I don’t have enough money to buy every book that looks interesting.”

I completely understand that. That’s why publishers and authors are huge proponents of libraries—they allow the government to chip in as a patron of the arts, and you can read a huge variety of titles for a grand sum total of…free! (Unless you’re like me and, ahem, manage to rack up the occasional overdue fine.)

Beyond that, though, most of us wouldn’t give a second thought about having to pay for other commodities that we use up quickly. Food, fancy coffee, tickets to sports or music or theatrical events—those things are all quickly over. They can’t even be re-experienced or lent to a friend like a book can. Yet I rarely see people asking for these products for free, or even expecting them to be dramatically discounted. It’s hard for me to understand why books seem to be the exception.

This is especially because I know readers love books. We can’t imagine life without the ability to enter other worlds and understand other experiences from the comfort of our own home, just by turning pages. We get so immersed in stories that we feel the heroes and villains are real. We can’t stop talking or thinking about those riveting plots and compelling characters.

How is it, then, that as a culture we seem to value a pumpkin spice latte more than the product of months and even years of an author’s time and effort? Why do authors keep noticing their sales dropping, piracy sites stealing from their paychecks, and notes from readers demanding lower prices? What makes a $15 meal at a restaurant seem like a good deal, but a $15 paperback seem too expensive?

I can’t answer those questions.

Of course, the title of this post is not always true. If you follow writers and publishers on social media, you’ll see book giveaways running almost all the time. And sometimes, authors will give free books to a launch team or influencers or whatever term they happen to use. Other authors are open to people requesting a review copy if they can demonstrate that they’ll put in effort to get others to buy the book.

Just know that if an author or publisher ever politely says no, that ebook won’t be on sale for a while, or sorry, I can’t give out more review copies at this time, they’re not trying to be mean. Authors have an abundance of creativity and story ideas and love for readers…but not always an abundance of free review copies to distribute. And that’s the way it should be so they can sell books in order to go on creating new ones.

So, how can you help? A few things:

  • Buy books. (Obviously.) Especially for the authors you love the most, put those books on pre-order…who knows, you might be part of boosting that author onto a bestseller list.
  • Give books as presents. If you’re going to spend money this Christmas season anyway, why not contribute to an author at the same time?
  • Support stores when you can. Authors really want brick-and-mortar stores to stay in business, because we’ve looked at the stats: every time a chain closes, like Borders or Family Christian or even a large number of independent stores, some of those book buyers just switch retailers, but up to one-third disappear altogether. Amazon is great for reaching people without stores in their area, but they could use a little competition.
  • Even if you can’t buy many books, there are other ways to help authors get more sales: leaving reviews and recommending your favorites to others, for example. But unless you’re willing to put in the effort to become a dedicated promotional partner, I’d say you shouldn’t ask authors for free copies, and even then, be gracious if they have to say no.

And with that, I want to thank all of you who are doing these things, and especially those who are taking time to encourage authors not just by buying their books but by telling them how much those books meant to you. It makes a huge difference!

45 thoughts on “Why Your Favorite Author Probably Can’t Give You a Free Book

  1. Excellent post! Thank you for sharing.

    Amazon has a fantastic allowance program that I subscribe to. Every month, a budgeted amount of money gets deposited to my Amazon Allowance. I never go over (ok, well sometimes I do) my allowance each month, and I have access to the new books I want. It’s a great program. I only mention this because it could help someone who loves books but think that they don’t have the money for them. This could be one way to make a book budget!

    I am also a huge proponent of the book review. I feel like my duty as a reader is to tell others how good a book is. Word of mouth is one of the best forms of advertisement! I know my favorite authors work so hard on their creations, and they are trying to utilize their God-given talents the best they can. I want to support that.

    Again, great post!

    • I like the book budget idea! How fun. (And I’ve been good this year about staying within mine as well…with effort.) Thanks so much for passing on word about your favorite authors!

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  2. You raise valuable points. I sometimes sell things that I make and I say sometimes because people don’t value my time and the effort it takes to make good quality items. The reality is that it does take money to publish books as well. The cover art, the paper and we can’t forget the marketing team or the physical aspect of shipping the books to retailers. I value the whole process of creating a book and it would be nice if we could all do at least one of the points listed above to encourage our talented authors. Thank you for this post, it is so timely as we begin to think of our guest lists….books…a treasure to receive and each time we turn the pages.

    • Good point, Mardell. The salaries of the people working on the book to make it excellent–from editing to design to typesetting and production to marketing–is a huge “hidden cost” that goes into a book’s price.

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  3. I love your posts! You always have an interesting topic, and you are a good writer. Thanks for sharing this insight from behind the scenes!

  4. We also need to consider the fact that not all of the money from book sales goes to the author. There is a team involved in publishing a book and they all have to be paid, too.
    I wish I were able to buy every book that I want to read, but it isn’t in my budget. I have been blessed to win a few through author or reviewer contest. Sometimes I get to borrow one from a friend, or find a good sale. And sometimes I have to wait a while for a sale or a free ebook.
    I love reading, and I’m thankful for the authors who write the books that come alive on the pages for me. They deserve to be paid for doing their job, just like I do.

  5. Myself, being retired for over a decade, have to watch my money. I have a couple of local authors I know that I do buy books from new. I have also found that one of the Dollar Tree stores locally, does sell brand new books for a buck. Many of these have a publisher’s price of $20 – $30, or more. That would have stretched my budget quite a bit. I have a Facebook group that centers around local history. A local family has a second hand book store that I get some books from also. I figure that those books have been read by the original buyer, who then had no further use for them. I know that the authors do not benefit directly from used book sales, but I am doing my best to review, and tell others about the ones I like. So, just maybe, the author may pick up a future sale from someone who liked my reviews. As a part of that group, I have added a “My Bookshelf” page. I read, and post my opinions of my favorite authors, and others that have published books in our interest field. BTW not all of us can afford fancy coffee, I won’t even pay the exhorbent prices that restaurants charge for the horrible excuse for coffee nowadays. I have never felt any urge to put my grandchildren in debt so I could watch a sports event, concert, or any other entertainment. Books are our (my wife and myself) addiction, and like any other addict we get our “fix” however we can.

    • I’m with you on the fancy coffee, Gary! And I’m also a regular patron of my library. The ideas you mention sound great as well for spreading the word about great books!

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  6. Don’t hate me…but I think publishers need to find a way to get costs down.
    I love that you’ve opened this can of worms. Not all readers have disposable income
    Not all readers go to StarBucks.i for one don’t go there but I rarely but a book
    It is just not in my budget. Maybe at half price books but not full retail!. I feel sorry for the authors.
    I read and review. I post my reviews at all available retailers. I tweet and pin my reviews am thankful and grateful to the authors who use this medium.

    • Hi Sherry,

      No worries, I totally understand! Publishers are trying to keep prices at reasonable levels…but in the past several years sales have dropped, which makes it harder to remain profitable. (This is a big reason why several Christian publishing houses in particular have dropped their fiction divisions in the past few years.) Bethany House isn’t going anywhere, but that’s why we can’t discount books all the time. That said, I think you’re doing exactly the right thing in supporting authors where you can. It’s going to look different for each person!

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  7. ‘What makes a $15 meal at a restaurant seem like a good deal, but a $15 paperback seem too expensive?’ – This line really rams it home! However, I do kinda understand why readers might get a bit annoyed about eBooks costing a lot of money – they may feel like they’re not getting their money’s worth because they tend to forget that the product is the authors work, not the eBook itself (which can be easily copied a million times with hardly any cost.)

    When it comes to paper backs though, I’m always happy to pay $20-30 because I feel like I’m ‘getting something real.’ I buy paperbacks probably 2-3 times a month, which is a lot considering I barely have enough money to eat lol

    • Yep, I understand that too, Milly. One thing I usually say specifically on ebooks is that say 15 years ago a book released and people bought 10,000 paperbacks. Today, 3,000 people might buy ebooks and 7,000 paperbacks. So if we charged a dramatically lower price for the ebooks, we’d be waaaaaaay in the red, because the cost to actually print the book, the ink and paper and printing process, is a very small percentage of what your money is going toward. It’s mostly paying the author, editor, and publishing team, along with other business-type costs.

      That said, I’m totally with you. I prefer physical copies all the way.

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  8. Living on a fixed income, I utilize my local library a lot.  I can’t afford to buy new books and can’t afford a kindle.  That’s just life and I’ve accepted it.  God has blessed me by allowing me to win some giveaways this past year.

  9. I actually love this article. I appreciate the respect shown both for authors and readers.

    I do have a slightly different take on it. In my experience, most people who ask for a free book wouldn’t buy it if they didn’t get it free. So giving them a code for a free eBook copy is not going to hurt me. But I have gotten a lot of loyal readers willing to put out effort to spread the word AND to purchase because I just sent one–no questions or favors asked. Some just can’t spend the money. They just can’t. And I’d rather give that person a free book (as long as I have it to give) than to miss both a sale AND a connection.

    Just another perspective on why someone might agree and yet do things a little differently.

    • Hi Chautona! I agree that giving away a free book (especially an ebook) can be a great way to win a fan and hook readers on your writing. We do that all the time with free ebook specials or free prequel novellas. That said, the goal is always to increase actual sales of future books. I’ve heard the idea that readers wanting a free book wouldn’t buy it anyway, but there is data out there that’s making me question that (take a look at this author’s experiment, specifically on piracy, but still related: http://maggie-stiefvater.tumblr.com/post/166952028861/ive-decided-to-tell-you-guys-a-story-about).

      But all that said, I still think your strategy can a savvy one for building your fan base.

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  10. Reblogged this on Stevie Turner, Indie Author. and commented:
    Maybe readers expect free books because authors are ‘ten a penny’ and most are also desperate to get their books noticed? It brings to mind the novel ‘Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinbeck, where there are so many families moving to California to seek a better life that when they seek work picking fruit, farmers pay them with food rather than with actual cash.

  11. I’ve discovered another issue with free books. Ever noticed your books sold (NEW and used) by 3rd party vendors on Amazon? Some author giveaways are resold. If a 3rd party vendor is selling a NEW book, odds are they weren’t interested in the book or author. Very irritating.

  12. These days folk complain when an ebook version will cost them $2.99. Preferring instead that the author give it away. Even then, do they bother to read it? No, they don’t. How do I know this? KENPR the device showing me how many pages of any given book I’ve written are actually being read!

  13. While I’m on the subject – I wonder how many of the ‘I refuse to pay for an ebook brigade’ realise that just because a book is being offered in that format, doesn’t make it inferior to a paper or hardback version, and therefore should only be available for free???

  14. As a poet I do, from time to time give away books. I do, however completely understand why other poets/authors do not. I have a fultime job which pays my mortgage and other bills. Perhaps (if my income depended wholly on writing) I would take a different position. Actually poets make very little income anyway! Your mention of restaurants reminds me that I have received a free meal (plus wine) in an establishment due to work carried out by a friend of mine on the establishment’s website. I felt a little guilty. However I introduced my friend to the place and have eaten there for more years than I can remember, so I shouldn’t feel overly guilty!

  15. Pingback: Why Your Favorite Author Probably Can’t Give You a Free Book | Campbells World

  16. Pingback: Reblog: Why Your Favorite Author Probably Can’t Give You a Free Book | ARMAND ROSAMILIA

  17. This article struck a chord with me as I’ve only just started publishing my books in print. I use CreateSpace [part of Amazon] to do the actual printing, but I did everything else myself, including the covers that took almost six months. So /my/ costs were negligible, yet once I calculated all the printing and sales related costs, I worked out that my ‘share’ of the sale price would come to just over $1 USD. $1 dollar out of a $15 print book. I was shocked. All that work for one dollar.
    I don’t regret going into print but honestly? it makes more sense for me to focus on the ebooks rather than print because print is so very expensive. 😦

    • I’ve done half and half. My ebook is in the Amazon Kindle store, but I had the paperback printed and bound by a local firm (they are in a box under my desk as I type this). iIve still got to do all the marketing, but at least what money I take will be mine.

      • I’ve just gone ‘wide’ by joining Draft2Digital, but both the ebooks and print books are available on Amazon via POD. I simply couldn’t afford to have my books printed via offset printing. That dollar isn’t much but I probably won’t sell many paperback anyway so…-sigh-

  18. When I give out free ebooks it’s like the ‘loss leader’ in the supermarket. That’s the product they price way below everyone else to bring people into the store. It’s the equivalent of the ARC and the giveaway, and the supermarket, like the author/publisher, is trying to stir up word of mouth about their brand/book. I did a 3for2 offer on my paperbacks last week. That costs me. It was a big school event, and I reckoned if I could get the kids to enjoy three of my books, they’d tell their friends…. and so the ripple goes on.
    Will I do a 3 for 2 on paperbacks again? Probably not. Do I keep the first ebook of my series as low as possible? Yes I do – come on in and find my series!
    What I’m really grateful for is the friends who buy my books, and then review them!

  19. I very much believe in libraries, but suggesting that they are in any way “free” just because most of them get some government support grossly mangles the truth. My local library gets about half a million dollars, not from some faceless government, but from me and others who own a home or rent a place to live. It adds to an already crushing burden of taxation. As I said, I support libraries; I would rather pay for this one than a lot of other programs. Please don’t even suggest that libraries are in any way free, though, because that is exactly the opposite of true.

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