Five Hard Lessons From A Free E-Book Experiment

Back in 2006, when my first novel, The Pirate of Panther Bay, was released (kindle edition available here), we were considering a range of marketing strategies in an effort to create synergies that could drive books sales. One of the ideas we adopted was providing a free e-book version through our dedicated web site, (You can read it here.)

We figured this would be a good marketing tool for selling the hard copy because quite simply (and simplistically) we thought readers would still want the feel of a solid, traditional book. And they would pay for it. We also thought offering an author-signed copy through the web site would be enough of an inducement to trigger a hard-copy sale. So, in theory, if we give customers a taste of a good product, they will want something with more substance.

I’m happy to report the free e-book has been a success. Nearly 120,000 people have viewed the ebook version of The Pirate of Panther Bay. And, we’re pretty sure people like what they read, because the ebook remains the strongest driver of traffic to our web site. The key was to get the book listed at web sites that specialized in providing access to free ebooks. So, is the top referring site to The third highest volume referring site (behind google) is

But, here’s the downside: We haven’t seen any impact on the hard copy sales of the book. Sales from the web site are practically non-existent (a topic I will discuss in a later blog post) and virtually all of our sales are through Ebooks, it appears, attract a different type of reader than hard-copy consumers. Hard-copy book sales might also have fundamentally different distribution systems and network effects than free ebooks although we are still trying to understand that effect more fully. Alternatively, and perhaps worse financially, readers who get access to their books on-line may well see digital versions and hard copy versions as complete substitutes. In this case, we have completely gutted the market and revenues for The Pirate of Panther Bay.

Of course, as an author, I love the fact my first novel is being read by tens of thousands of people. Unfortunately, as a business strategy, the free ebook was at best a diversion and at worst an unmitigated financial disaster.

In sum, here are the five hard lessons we learned:

  1. Free ebooks can help broaden the impact of your website by identifying new customers and driving traffic to your web site.
  2. For authors with a small readership base, niche authors, or authors with solo book projects, free ebooks will likely cannibalize hard-copy book distribution.
  3. Free ebooks don’t necessarily translate into hard-copy sales, especially if you’re asking visitors to pay for a product that is similar to or the same as the one you’re giving them for free. (Okay, you can say a collective “duh, no kidding.”) Reality confirms common sense.
  4. For authors with celebrity status, a large existing readership base, or a broad marketing platform, ebooks might make financial sense because they might create synergies with other products. You can sell personalized or signed copies, for example, or the hard copy still might have some consumer allure. Similarly, if you derive most of your income from speeches, workshops, or consulting activities, the free ebook can be an excellent way to market yourself and your product
  5. Free ebooks make sense only within a broader marketing strategy, such as building your brand as an author or using it as a “loss leader” to develop a readership for subsequent books (or editions if you write nonfiction).

Fortunately, I didn’t conceive of The Pirate of Panther Bay as a solo project. It’s part of a series. With any luck, and with the financial success of A Warrior’s Soul (out this July), I should be able to put Tortuga Bay, the second book in the Panther Bay series, in bookstores sometime in the summer of 2012. All those ebook readers of The Pirate of Panther Bay should be a ready made market for Tortuga Bay.

Author: SR Staley
SR Staley has one more than 11 literary awards for his fiction and nonfiction writing. He is on the full-time faculty of the College and Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University as well as a film critic and research fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California. His award-winning Pirate of Panther Bay series ( has won awards in historical fiction, mainstream & literary fiction, young adult fiction, and reached the finals in women's fiction. His most recent book is "The Beatles and Economics: Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and the Making of a Cultural Revolution" due out in April 2020 (Routledge).