How free books and ARCs are slowly killing the indie book industry

By Kyle Perkins

Yes, I am aware this post may piss some people off, and yes, I am aware this is the sole marketing strategy for some people. I am also aware that for some people, this strategy totally works. That being said, this is why it’s killing the industry.

When I first started out as an author in what seems like a decade ago(a year), the only way to really get noticed or onto someone’s radar was by giving them free books. At first, that worked. It brought me a ton of loyal fans that to this day I love to death. However, I have been hearing from a lot of people in the indie community, that their book reviews have been on a steady and dramatic decline over the course of the last year. So, I did what any sane person would do, and I asked my fans themselves what the problem was.

The answer, overwhelmingly, was that each of them had no less than a few dozen books and ARCs on the back burner that they wanted to, or felt obligated to read. So, with so many people giving away free books and ARCs, there is no way possible for any one person to read everything, especially with the volume that all of the authors promote. Like I said, I am guilty of this, too. I have given away a lot of free books.

The problem is, the book community is generally too nice. So, when someone asks them to read an ARC, or they want to send them free books, they’re going to read them. Other people in the community only sit around and wait for free books, never buying a single book at all. A lot of those people just like “winning,” those competitions, then have no real plans to read or review the books. I mean, we can’t force anyone to read our books, and shouldn’t even if we could, but I think the readers in the community are being completely overwhelmed. How can we expect them to get excited about our new books when a dozen new authors that are popping up every day and shoving their books down their throats?

To make matters worse, if you want to stay competitive, you have to do it, too. The readers have come to expect free books. We started out by undercutting the competition by charging less and less, and for a while that worked, until people started doing it for free. Now, even the people that give them away for free don’t have an edge because everyone is doing it. So, if you’re approaching a new reader with a free book and they’ve never heard of you, your book is now worth less than nothing. It just gets put in a queue along with the hundred other books that have been crammed in their faces.

So, is there any way to fix this? Sure, by every author raising the prices of their books and not giving away free books at all anymore(so that people read them based on merit, not because they’re free), but that won’t happen. Even if 99% of authors did that, the 1% that gave them away for free would be all that people read, because readers have come to expect it. It would shoot them to stardom, while the rest of us fade into obscurity. In short, there is no way to fix this. We have all had a part in this vicious cycle, and now it’s snowballed.

At this point, I don’t foresee any new indie authors making anything close to a living, unless they get picked up by a big publisher that takes their books worldwide. Amazon has made it easy and convenient for everyone to get books, no matter where they are in the world. The indie community has made it easy for anyone to get free books, no matter where they are in the world(which makes it hysterical to me when people whine about their books being on piracy sites, considering most of the people that complain about it give their books away to anyone that asks).

With that being said, that’s why readers for the most part can’t even be bothered to leave reviews anymore. After people started lowering book prices, other people had to make them free to compete. By giving them away for free, it came with the understanding that the reader would review the book at the very least. That’s not even the case anymore. Some authors don’t even care if you review their books, they just want to push free books out to anyone that will take them for a little bit of exposure. That’s the bar we’re at now. We’re at the point where you can spend months on a book, give it out to a hundred people, and maybe ten will review it. If they like you enough, and aren’t weighed down by a thousand other free books clogging up their kindle.

For a lot of authors, this is nothing more than a hobby and a way to gain friends, as well as a bump in status in their social circles. To those people, they don’t care if they ever make a single cent off of their books. Those people, the vague-booking socialites that just want more “likes,” on their statuses, and people to pat them on the back, they will not understand this, and how it affects people that do this for a living. So, there will probably be people that disagree. The people who don’t really see this as a career, and more as a hobby, and the people that still want a bunch of free books(which, rest easy, the free books aren’t going anywhere).

If it sounds like I am bitter, or being salty about this… I’m not. It’s just the way things are, and it’s an observation that I’ve made spending over a year in this community and hearing from many readers and authors that agree with me. Some won’t, and that’s okay. At the end of the day, my article isn’t going to change the habits of even one person. This is just where I go to write down my thoughts. My live journal of this social experiment in time known as the amazon indie book community.

Anyway, rant over. Hope you enjoyed.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, can’t wait to hear from you.

PS: If anything I ever say offends you, don’t stress yourself out. Stress kills. Instead, just block me and not post vague statuses to garner attention for yourself. =)

12 thoughts on “How free books and ARCs are slowly killing the indie book industry”

  • Oh boy… *Hanging out to watch the comments.*
    I actually agree with you, this time. I was on the other side of the fence until recently. Not disclosing the acts of madness that changed my mind, but it’s true. Too true.

  • I can completely agree as a reader. I personally have hundreds of books on my tbr list. I do so reviews about once a month a review all books I’ve read that were not Amazon books (Amazon kindle books ask for my review as I finish them on my kindle) . Now when I read a book I really enjoy that is a series I do go buy the next then the next if I still am wrapped up untill it’s the end . I do feel terrible for the books that I have not read yet in my library, but with so many it’s impossible to get to them all.. You enter a giveaway..in that giveaway you sign up for 10 newsletters for entries each one sends free books ect ect ect… I am very greatful for my books.. it’s my most prized items in my life, but there are so so so many I wonder if I’ll ever get them all read. I love my authors and started taking the books to help with reviews then I ended up with more then I ever thought I’d own…

  • Sometimes I have a hard time getting people who LOVE my series to leave a review for an ARC, when it is clear that the reason they have an ARC is to read a review! I am trying an Advance Reader and Reviewer group now, in which members won’t get the next book unless they leave a review for the previous book. That being said, I know authors who do massive ARC send outs and have to pay taxes because their business is no longer a “hobby” (state laws). I’ve also been sent ARCs a week before a release, and that is not enough time! We really need a month or two. I’m seeing a decline in sales too, and my subsequent books are not selling as well as my first did. There could be a number of factors (blurb, cover), but I think it just gets harder as time goes on because bloggers are less receptive with all of their ARCs too, and the first book in a series is way more appealing, always.

  • Funny that you should write this. I totally agree. I have given free books away and I only received a few reviews. Giving free books also opens up to trolls that like to swoop in and write bad reviews, even if they haven’t read the book. It’s apparent because they get the facts wrong in their review. Readers do expect freebies. I believe if you hand out your book free, the person on the receiving end won’t appreciate the jewel they have in their grasp. In my opinion, they will read it if they buy it. I feel my book is worth the money. It’s not over priced and it’s a story I’ve been working on for a long time. You have to convey to the readers that your book is above and beyond any other book out there. A bestseller. People will sit up and listen. And the good thing is that there are successful writers out there that sell their books. If they can do it then so can I. So, I no longer hand out FREE books.

    Jane West

  • I won’t disagree. And I’m one of those readers who has a bazillion books to read on her list that were gifted. I’m also someone who budgets out about $10 a month to make sure I BUY some books, too, because I just feel that’s only fair since I’ve been blessed with so many free ones. (Not to mention, when I get to know another author more personally, like on Facebook, I WANT to support them because I know they deserve it for their hard work.) I’m also an author, so when I DO finally have the time to read a book to its end, I post a review because I know the whole point of getting that free book was so that a review would be posted and will help that author/novel be more noticed on Amazon. I don’t get offended if someone else’s free book took precedence over my book on someone’s reading list. I mean, I get jealous, yes. But I TRY (try try try) to use it constructively to find ways to make my second book’s blurb more appealing in hopes that someone would choose to read mine first instead next time. Ya know?
    However… not everyone follow protocol or understands the implications of this whole crazy wacked out system. It’s screwed up for sure. I only wish I had a revolutionary idea that would change it all… but aside from creating a full SWAT team of “book review police”, I have no grand ideas that would change the world. 🙁

  • I think ARCS when used right are a good tool – but indie authors that don’t know what they’re doing use ARCs wrong, and I think it’s the responsibility of authors that know to tell them (we certainly do on the indie group I co-founded with my best friend on FB). I also think a little reader education wouldn’t go amiss. ARCs mean you’re agreeing to review them – freebies are freebies. If you can’t review an ARC, tell the author why, but don’t just…you know, drop off the face of the earth.
    But yeah, the freebie book issue, alongside gaming the system, alongside some other bits and pieces is making it hard for us to do what we want to do – which is be writers. But I’m pretty sure that things will get better. I have to be – I write. That’s what I am.

  • I’m currently trying to build a “street team” of advance readers for my first serial, so I guess I’m part of the problem. My general plan is to give the first episode to as many people as possible, then carefully cull anyone who isn’t leaving reviews. I’m still implementing it and don’t know if it will be successful or not. Unfortunately, there are so many other places people can get free books and stories (Wattpad, Fictionpress, etc.) that we really do have to give it away for free, at least at first. I hope to one day have enough true fans that it’s not necessary.

  • I saw this coming several years ago. Giving free books most definitely can boost sales for individual authors and help them build an audience. However, self-publishing has exploded in the past few years, flooding the market. There is more supply than there is demand for books, so price has plunged. Free books have contributed and accelerated the drop. People now have dozens, even hundreds of books in their Kindles that they haven’t read. In the old days of print books only, I doubt that most people had a stack of 100 novels on their bedside table waiting to be read. Now they do! Only it’s in their Kindles.

    You’re right when you say that authors as a whole would need to stop giving freebies and agree to up the price. I don’t see that happening. It’s a vicious circle. Unless you give books for free, you can’t compete. And when you jump on the bandwagon, you contribute to the problem.

    Reviews are harder to get, but to me, that’s only a symptom of the larger problem: the oversupply of books and the devaluation of books in the minds of the readers. I remember when $5 was the norm for Indie books. Readers don’t want to pay that anymore. With the price dropping, you have to produce more just to keep even, and you further flood the market.

    I foresee a market correction. It’s anecdotal, but many authors who used to earn a living writing, have gotten day jobs and have talked about quitting writing all together. As more authors fail to make a go it, they’ll drop out. Hopefully.

  • I think you’ve pointed to the Emperor and called it for what it is. I went through a stage of downloading free books offered by authors. Firstly, a section of a book presented as a book in the hope the reader is ‘hooked’ into buying the remainder, in my opinion, doesn’t work. I write a reviews of books I think worthy. Some authors contacted me, most didn’t. In the end I was overwhelmed. In an age where every email, every post, financial institutions, ‘quick surveys’ and a host of others vying for your attention, time (your time) is unscrupulously dealt with. My solution is to pay the much higher price for print books and ignore (unfairly) the plethora of e-books.

    • An addendum to my earlier comment: it is churlish to dismiss digital books and I will confess to snatching the odd chapter on my mini-reader in slow times at work. My solution should have included reviews of e-books for which I have paid (to exclude free offers). It’s not earth-shattering, but the best I can think of.

  • This is so true! I never thought about this. But I will definitely not give my books for free now that I read this (except maybe to family members, of course).

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