Before ebooks became common, handing out free copies of a new tome was expensive. Each had to be printed and shipped, often with a nice handwritten note from the publicist inside (I love those). These days, everyone can afford to share their book, as the marginal cost of distributing a book in digital form is zero.

Thus, it’s more than possible to now experiment with free books as a promotional tool for both the free title, for books in its series, and for an author’s larger collection of work. Buy one book by Author I Scool, and you might pick up another, if you liked it.

So, free books are a weapon, but one that carries an obvious risk: give away something that you could have sold, and it might cost you more than the benefit you derive from the promotion is worth.

Happily, we have some data on this sort of thing. Tim Hawken, an author of two novels, wanted to promote the release of his second. So, he marked his first novel, a prequel to the new work, free for a few days. The results were impressive:

Over the five days that Hellbound was put up for free, it was downloaded close to 4000 times, which is more than it sold in the past year for eBooks. Not only that, after the free period finished, sales were still higher by quadruple the previous month.

TNW contacted Mr. Hawken, and asked what the impact was on the newer title. He didn’t have specific figures, but stated that sales appeared to be about double what had previously been recorded. Not bad for the launch of a novel written by an up and coming novelist.

What’s key to all of this is that the dollar cost to the author was nil. The opportunity cost is a different story, but given the sales spike that resulted, I doubt the move to mark the book free was a losing one in any sense. Naturally, giving away something that you have labored over isn’t easy, but it can be, as shown above, lucrative.

Can we learn that much from a single example? It’s tricky. The problem is that book sales information is notoriously opaque, and ebooks remain a relatively new product variety. There is more information out there, if you so desire, so get reading. From my research, Mr. Hawken’s results were perhaps a little on the high side – he hit the top spot on the ‘fantasy’ ranking on Amazon for free Kindle books – but not far out of the normal field.

Digital publishing is young yet, making tricks like this effective to an extent that they might not be in the future, when ebooks are a more mature market. For more on how Hawken pulled off the entire affair, his post is worth reading.

Top Image Credit: Zhao !