Why I don’t worry when people read my books for free: No DRM, Free Promotions, and Free Returns

Sometimes it just feels like several strands of conversations in cyberspace all come together to force me to write about certain topics. This happened to me this weekend when I read a post on SheWrites bemoaning Amazon’s liberal return policy for ebooks and then saw this same issue, along with a rehashing benefits of the KDP Select program, being discussed on the Yahoo group site, MurderMustAdvertise. And finally I read a post by Alan Baxter on Publetariat about DRM, entitled “I’m an author, take my stuff for free.” In all three cases, the arguments seemed to revolve around whether or not it is good for authors when people can get their books for free.

So, enough is enough, universe, guess it’s time for me to come out squarely on the side of Free.

When I think about DRM, using free downloads as a promotion, and Amazon’s ebook returns policy, I consider the following:

  1. I look at the issues from the perspective of the reader. If I want to sell books, I should be trying to make the reader happy, not the publisher, not the distributor, and not the blogging pundit.
  2. I consider the issues in the context of my goals as a writer. My goals are, first, to continue to make enough money to replace the salary I lost when I decided to write full time and retire from teaching and, second, to provide both entertainment and some historical education to as wide a market as possible. (Your goals might be fame and fortune, a wonderful review in the New York Review of Books, a nest egg for retirement, a book to give your relatives, etc. and therefore you might come to different conclusions.)

Let’s look first at the issue of DRM. Publishers (and sometimes authors) justify the use of Digital Rights Management technologies to prevent “piracy.”  They say that DRM is a positive thing for authors and publishers because it is designed to prevent anyone from getting content for free.

But, if you think about DRM from the point of view of a reader, it is a very negative policy. For readers, buying an ebook with DRM means they can’t share it or lend it to a family member or friend or transfer it from one device to another — all big inconveniences. As a reader, I prefer not to buy books with DRM, so why, as an author, would I want to sell my books with it?

But what about my goal as an author to make money? Well, in that area DRM is a failure as well. Over and over hackers (and actual “pirates” who do want to make money from stolen content) have demonstrated the ability to get around DRM. In addition, the person who goes to the trouble of hacking DRM or seeking out free download sites with pirated books was probably never going to buy my book anyway. There is even anecdotal evidence that when someone likes your book enough after reading it for free, they may be more likely to actually buy it or others you have written. So, as I see it, the “revenue lost to piracy” that publishers and some authors like to proclaim about is a phantom—I was never going to get that revenue anyway; but the revenue I lose when a reader chooses not to buy ebooks in general, or my book specifically, because of the inconveniences of DRM, is real revenue lost.

The impulse behind DRM (not wanting anyone to get your work without paying for it) is very interconnected with the argument that providing your work for free as a promotional tool devalues it and loses you revenue. Once again, if you look at the issue from the perspective of readers, getting free books is good. It is the reason that people go to libraries, the reason that they have embraced the Amazon Prime lending opportunity, (with the borrowing activity increasing from 295,000 borrows in December to 437,000 borrows in January), and the reason that over 27,000 people downloaded my historical mystery, Maids of Misfortune, in the 3 days I offered it for free.

So how does this help me as an author achieve my goals? You would think I would be grieving over all that lost revenue. But not if you consider why people “borrow” or buy books for free. Research on library borrowing shows that people who borrow books from the library will then go on and buy the book, or other books, by that author. This is also true for people who download free books. This is why people are routinely reporting that their other books show an uptick in sales after a free promotion of one of their books.

In January, after Maids of Misfortune’s free promotion, the average daily sales on US Kindle of the sequel, Uneasy Spirits, nearly tripled. Those folks who downloaded Maids of Misfortune for free are not “freeloaders;” they are my future fans! And they are loyal fans who have given me lots of positive reviews on Amazon and have told me in emails that they are telling all their friends about my books. Some people disapprove of free promotions because, they say, people may download books and not read them. Why should I worry about people that got my book for free and don’t read it? Just like the people who go to the extra trouble to get pirated books, those people weren’t going to buy my books anyway. In neither case does “free” reduce my income.

In addition, as I have reported on my blog about the results of my KDP Select Promotion, my free promotions resulted in much higher sales. In this case, “free” actually increased my income. During the first week after my first promotion, my average daily sales for my two books on US Kindle was slightly over 500 books a day and, even though the sales slipped some after that first week, the average daily sales for the whole month was still 225. After my recent second promotion, the first week average was 692 books sold a day. Compare that to my average of 45 books a day in November, before I did any free promotions. Big change! Big increase in revenue!

The main reason for the increased sales after a free promotion is that the free downloads boosted my books up into bestseller categories. This meant that readers of mainstream mysteries, romance, and historical fiction found them and bought them. Without the free promotion, those readers might never have discovered my books.

This brings me to the latest upset: Amazon’s policy of letting readers return ebooks within 7 days of purchase (there is anecdotal evidence that books are accepted beyond the 7 days.) Amazon is reportedly the only ebook retailer who does this (I know that Barnes and Noble has a no ebook return policy.) The concern that has been expressed in blogs and message boards is that people are buying books, reading them, and then returning them for a refund and that this is happening increasingly. In short, people are complaining that the Amazon returns policy is bad because it lets people get ebooks for free.

Well, by now you can now guess how I feel about this policy. I am all for it. Again, if you look at it from the perspective of the reader, this is a very consumer-friendly policy. (This should be no surprise since its attention to consumer satisfaction has been one of the reasons that Amazon has been so successful in establishing itself as the premier place to buy things.) There are lots of legitimate reasons why someone might want to return a book, particularly in this transitional stage of publishing when many of the bugs of ebook formatting haven’t been worked out yet.

Many ebooks (particularly some traditionally published or public domain titles) are badly formatted, and this won’t always show up in the sample. Sometimes the book doesn’t fit the description — you thought you were getting a cozy mystery and a third of the way in (after the sample) the sex and violence of a horror book shows up. Or maybe you clicked the buy button by mistake or were gifted the book two weeks after you bought the book and it was sitting in your to-read pile, or maybe it turns out the book was just badly written (in your opinion.) Whatever the reason, under Amazon’s policy, you return the book, you get your refund, and you are happy. And as a happy customer you are more likely to buy again and less likely to get angry and give the book a bad review or to swear you are never, ever going to buy an ebook again.

Are there people who are ripping off Amazon and publishers and authors by returning books they have already read? I am sure there are, but I don’t think this is a huge problem. Judging by the Kindle Board discussions, and my own experience, most books have a low rate of return. I seldom have more than 2% returns, although the rate does seem to go up after a free promotion. Last month, coming off of a free promotion of Maids of Misfortune, the rate of return for this book was just under 3%, but Uneasy Spirits, which had not been promoted, had a rate of return less than 1%. I have heard a number of people say that they had seen a book advertised as free, hadn’t noticed that the promotion was over, and then returned the book after realizing that they paid for a download. Others have borrowed a book thinking that they still had a free borrow and, when they discovered the error, returned it. This, not readers ripping off authors, may be the reason for the higher rate of returns.

Is this a growing problem? I don’t know, and I have only heard anecdotal evidence that it is for certain publishers. But if it is part of an organized attempt to rip off Amazon, I have faith they will figure it out and respond. If it isn’t, well then I go back to my earlier argument about DRM, and “free promotions.” The rip-off reader wasn’t going to buy my book anyway, and the satisfied Amazon customer is a potential new customer.

In conclusion, I believe that these three Amazon policies (allowing authors to publish without DRM, allowing authors to offer free promotions and book loans, and Amazon’s liberal return policy) are good for readers and that means these policies are good for me as an author. Is it good for all authors? Well, I think this has a lot to do with where your books sell well, whether or not you are traditionally published and with which publisher, and what your ultimate goals are.

What is bad for authors is when publishers and authors set the price for their ebooks too high, put books in the wrong browsing categories, put up badly-written and formatted product descriptions, refuse to put out the ebook edition at the same time as the print edition, don’t bother to get the ebook formatted correctly, and insist on using DRM.

These actions turn away readers and I can’t help but wonder if these might be the real reasons that some publishers may be finding higher return rates, not Amazon’s return policy.

What do you think?

19 Replies to “Why I don’t worry when people read my books for free: No DRM, Free Promotions, and Free Returns”

  1. This was amazingly well written. Thank you very much for putting this so succinctly!

    My partner and I recently started putting out some of our writing, and our biggest concern is finding readers that like what we write, and will connect with our stories. We’re niche writers (fantasy/scifi/erotica, for the most part) and we know we’re not for everyone – and that’s okay!

    I think so many authors feel so confident with their work that they feel their books should transcend potential reader’s tastes or genres, and that’s just not how it works. Let the readers get to know you. Don’t treat them like freeloaders just because they want to test you out before they give you money – they worked hard for their entertainment budget and should spend it on things they know they’ll enjoy.

    That’s how I like to be treated – and I’m more willing to support companies and individuals that treat me like a valued individual rather than a walking dollar sign where if I don’t give them money I’m depriving them of something they deserve.

    Maybe they do, but I should be able to make an educated decision on that. Libraries, free promotions, video game demos are all powerful things that I base my purchasing decisions on – for good and for bad.

  2. A very insightful post, thanks! It seems everyone is concerned of getting ripped off and this really puts some of that into perspective.

  3. Thanks so much for an insightful post. I am in the process of converting my self-published print novel to an e-book and am debating its pricing, so your information is very timely for me.

  4. I understand completely, though I paid for both Maids of Misfortune and Uneasy Spirits. I don’t return as I like to re-read sometimes and I like having it available. I actually prefer hardback books that I can add to my ever growing collection, but have turned to e-books because I am a voracious reader and cannot get books fast enough through traditional methods.

  5. All I can say is that the strategy worked on me–I downloaded Maids of Misfortune for free–and loved it! Then I bought everything else you had available. As a reader, I have enjoyed trying out new authors and genres that I probably wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. I was reluctant at first to go digital. Formely my favorite thing do on vacation was to rummage through bookshelves of a local used book store to find something unusual, or diffirent, to read during the trip. However, amazon makes this available whenever the reader wants to sample something new. I love this as a reader and have discovered many new authors I’m now addicted to.

  6. You have dissected this issue in lawyer-like fashion. Nate Dawson would be proud. I don’t yet have enough e-publishing experience to completely grasp the issues but will always agree that the customer comes first. In comparing Amazon versus Smashwords, which e-bookstore provides authors the most freedoms or are they essentially equal?

  7. Thanks for the great post! I am doing my third KDP giveaway tomorrow for Cupcakes, Sales, and Cocktails. Hopefully it will give me a bump for both books in the series. I love all this marketing info.


  8. Very convincing arguments. I recently launched my first ebook, and on my publisher’s advice, went with the KDP Select program. What amazed me was, as an unknown, how many downloads i had during my first free days. I look on that as free advertising and a big step toward name recognition. And since I am a niche writer–traditional Regency romance–I can’t think of a better way to reach potential readers.

  9. I go along with the idea of giving readers an introductory free sample, followed by an invitation to buy a sequel at, say, 99 cents. Thereafter, they can be offered privileged terms on works of more substance with a higher value.

    But I don’t go along with the idea of freebies forever. You’ve conditioned the reader to expect everything for nothing! When and how will you then make any money?

    I think the Internet culture of ‘information yearns to be free’ (circa 1980) is toxic. Has anybody made any money – ever – by (really) ‘giving it all away’?

    1. Dear John,

      Under the Amazon KDP Select Plan a book is only free at most for 5 days in 3 months. When a reader goes on to Kindle to look for a book, say in mystery-women sleuth-on any of those other days and sees my historical mystery, Maids of Misfortune, they have no idea that a month earlier it was free for a day. They just see it and can decide to buy it. Obviously those who did get it when it was free didn’t feel they got a valueless book, because they then bought the next book in the series a double the rate.

      Before I used the free promotion days (I have only used 3) Maids of Misfortune did not show up in the bestseller category of women sleuths, much less in the top 20. Now that it is visible I sell 200 copies a day. I have made more money in the last 2 months since I enrolled in KDP Select than I made all of last year. This doesn’t work for every book, for a variety of reasons. But for my kind of light romantic cozy mystery (which have trouble becoming visible among the thrillers and hard-boiled mysteries) giving the book away for a limited time in order to push the book up high enough in the rankings to be visible has been very successful.

      As a reader I don’t equate the cost of the book I buy with its worth as a book. Most readers are used to the fact that hardbacks are more expensive than paperbacks, that books can be heavily discounted by bookstores, that over time the price of a book goes down, that they can get a book for free from the library, for a dime from a used books store. The book is the same in all these cases. It is good or bad on the merits of what is in the book, not the price on the cover. I don’t believe that most readers suddenly change their minds about this when it comes to ebooks. Sophisticated readers of ebooks like library readers seem to understand that free books are a way to test the waters for new books–and that some will be duds and others gems–but they appreciate being able to find out for themselves without spending any money.

      I never advocated giving my books away for free for ever, but have argued that authors shouldn’t be so afraid of someone reading their book for free that they use methods like DRM or non refund policy that punish the honest reader and that offering a book for free for a limited time can gain you new readers.

      M. Louisa

  10. Thank you Louisa for the excellent post. Your argument is eloquent and well written. As an author and a reader of eBooks, I heartily agree with you. I too had a very positive experience with a KDP Select 2-day giveaway, attracting 5,000 new readers. Sales of my other novel increased and sales of both novels have continued to far outpace their sales prior to the giveaway.
    Susan Fleet

  11. Very interesting, Mary Louisa. I had heard the argument that people who pirate are unlikely to become readers anyway, and that frustrating the genuine readers (with DRM) only results in lost revenue. I appreciate your expansion of that idea to Kindle Select and returns.

    Still, I don’t know. I personally don’t feel comfortable taking an author’s work for free. Even when authors who have appeared on my blog send me a copy for a giveaway or as thanks, I inevitably buy a second copy. I don’t have a lot of discretionary income, but what I do have mostly goes to books. I know how much work a novel takes to produce, and I want the author to be given the value of that hard won effort.

    I hope this works as you suggest with fans who become readers of other works and for life. But I want people to value writing highly and I wonder if we don’t simply value things we pay for more than things we don’t?

  12. I became an enemy of DRM while doing research for my PhD. I was buying (very expensive because they were academic) electronic copies of books to be able to word search, only to find that the DRM made word-searching impossible. Also, when I wanted to use a quote I found, I realized it was impossible to highlight and copy the sentence. This made me livid. So livid, in fact, that I decided to un DRM all my fiction work.

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