Does Permafree work?

WriterThere’s a debate in author circles on whether permafree is a viable tactic. While most people agree that it works, the strongest objection is that authors should get paid for their work. After all, if readers can get something for free, why would they ever pay?

There are certainly people who won’t pay for things nowadays. After all, music is pretty much free on Spotify, TV and movies are free through Netflix. Granted, there’s a subscription, but that’s less visible than a bottom line price for something. Certainly, when I’m looking for a movie to watch on a Friday night, $20 seems a steep price when another movie on Netflix is “free”.

However, people only wanting free just isn’t true. People are willing to pay for books, provided they love the author. As a reader, I’ve read a lot of free books. Ninety percent of them aren’t on the same level as a paid book from an author I like. And my time is more important than a few dollars.

The other argument for 99 cents people have is that if someone has bought the first book in the series, that means they’re a person willing to part with money for things.

In this post, I’d like to analyse my own books a little and see if I can prove or disprove any of the theories around permafree. Late last year, I went Amazon exclusive for three months, which meant the first book in my fantasy series was no longer free. I kept records of my sales before, during and after, so I can analyse them.

I should say that it’s difficult to analyse these numbers, since people read at different rates. I have no way of knowing if a person that downloaded my book has tried it. At the same time, the first two books in the series have been out for eighteen months or more, so things should smooth out over the long term.

Edit: As pointed out by Nathan Lowell, this tactic only works if you have a few books in a series, as I do. Without anywhere to go, a permafree book wouldn’t help sales. Thanks to Nathan for pointing that out!

Conversion to the Next in the Series

First up, how many readers does permafree expose my book to?

Paid vs Permafree downloads

While my book cost 99 cents, it was bought 98 times. While it was free, in the same amount of time, it was downloaded 3,623 times. Those 98 paid sales netted me approximately $34.

So, how were the sales of the next book? If paying for a book means that people are more willing to pay for the next one, the percentage of people reading the next book should go up:

Conversion Rate

As you can see, the conversion rates did go up significantly. Conversion was at 5.05% when the book was free and went to 12.96% when I went to 99 cents.

Once people read the second book in my series, the conversion rate to the third goes way up. So the conversion to the second book is very important.

Raw Numbers

However, the lower conversion rate doesn’t mean less readers of my series:

Number of Readers

In raw numbers, when the book is free the conversion rate to paid is lower, but it still ends up as more readers. 48 readers went on to read the second book when the first cost 99 cents. But 179 bought the second book when they got the first for free.

What does that mean in terms of income, though?

Earnings for Book Two

In the period I’m looking at, the second book was 99 cents. So the earnings were lower for it, however, it still earned $95.37 vs $62.80 for the lost sales of the first book. Even adding the potential income for the second book ($62.80 * 12.96%), I end up with $70.94. So permafree leads to a lot of exposure, which leads to 34% more sales.

Summing Up

Permafree works in terms of raw sales. Or at least it has for me. However, my numbers above don’t take into account some other factors. Permafree does lower the rating on a book on Amazon, which obviously damages sales. When my first book was paid at the very start, it had a much higher star rating than it does now.

A few reviews even say that they tried the book because it was free and didn’t like it. They might not read the genre normally, but a free book is an easy sell. However, I also have other reviews saying they normally never read fantasy and they loved my book. So it’s difficult to say if it’s a net loss, when I might have gained a reader who would never read fantasy otherwise.

Overall, however, in the couple of years since I’ve published “The Bite on the Line”, permafree has helped me to reach hundreds more readers than I would have at 99 cents. So for me, it’s a winning tactic I intend to continue with.


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