There isn’t a right time that makes sense for every author; the question can only be answered in the context of your larger goals and what you would like to see happen after a reader acquires your e-book for free. Here are the most common goals.
1. Get the reader to purchase your next book at standard retail.
This goal makes the most sense if your next book is already available and on sale—or if it will soon be on sale.
It’s quite common for traditional publishers, in preparation for the launch of a new book in a series, to make the first book or prior book in the series available for free or at a discount. Self-publishing authors often do the same, and will even make the first book in a series permanently free, to keep the door as wide open as possible to new readers who may develop into true (paying) fans.
This strategy can be less effective if the next book is not immediately available. Depending on the genre, readers may be most primed to buy the next book as soon as they’ve finished the last one; if a long time passes until the next book is released, you may lose readers’ attention and motivation.
2. Boost your book’s visibility and thus sales.
Some authors make their book temporarily free to help its rankings at online retailers. Once the book is off promotion, there may be a halo effect of sales while the book coasts for a while on the higher ranking. It’s also a way to help spark more reader reviews, which can in turn help your book’s visibility and appeal.
The key here is that once you make the book available for free, it’s imperative to publicize the free book everywhere and anywhere. (Here’s a list of ways to do that.) Otherwise, the effect is likely to be minimal and disappointing.
3. Get the reader interested in other services and products that you offer.
For some nonfiction authors, the book offers a low-cost point of entry to other services and products. If the reader has enjoyed and benefited from the book, they may be interested enough to look up the authors’ other, more high-priced offerings, such as online classes or consulting. To work well, such opportunities should be mentioned in the book itself, and a website needs to be ready and waiting to capitalize on interest.
4. Build an e-mail marketing list.
Authors and other online entrepreneurs have used free e-books as a way to build their e-mail marketing list, which they then use to sell future books and products. Just be careful that you don’t start building an e-mail list that lies dormant and unused for months (or even years); e-mail names quickly grow stale, and people forget they signed up for your list. Ideally, you should have an e-mail marketing strategy in place—and items you know you’ll be marketing to that list—before you start giving away e-books.
5. Spread a message or story throughout a community.
Not all goals are related to financial gain; sometimes, it’s more important to spread the word or message about something, which may in turn help raise your profile or build a platform for future work. Established authors Chris Guillebeau and Michael Ellsberg both gave away free PDF e-books showcasing some of their most compelling stories and advice, and over the long term were able to transform that attention into paid opportunities.
Whatever career stage you’re at, it can be strategic and effective to make your work available for free. Just be sure you’re clear on what your strategic goals are, and how free work serves those goals—and then measure the outcome so you can improve your efforts the next time around.