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Are Free Ebooks A Waste of Time?


It seems like every blog these days has a free ebook. To get said ebook, you have to sign up for a mailing list in most cases, though some blogs are offering them with no strings attached. At one time, the free ebook was certainly a way to draw people in, enticing them to get on your list or become a member of your community. But with so many free ebooks out there, does it still make sense for you to offer one to your readers? Or is creating this kind of content just a waste of time?

Perceived Benefits of Free Ebooks

People are attracted to the word free. At least, that’s what bloggers count on when they offer a free ebook. Even if your name doesn’t get stuck on a mailing list of some sort in order to get the ebook, bloggers wouldn’t create them if there wasn’t some sort of benefit, right? You may notice links throughout the ebook, and most ebooks have a strong call to action at the end so that you do sign up, even if it wasn’t originally required, or (if you’re already on a mailing list) you buy something. Free ebooks can also help build your brand, because the hope is that someone will download the ebook (since it’s free) and get to know you, even if they would have more quickly clicked the back button on your website after getting the information they needed.

There are other benefits as well, but I see those as the big three: collecting names for a mailing list, getting people to do something you want, and building your brand.

There’s a reason I headed this part of the post “Perceived Benefits,” thought. While these might be the benefits that you hope you get from a free ebook, are you really going to get them? For some bloggers, the answer is no. Why?

  • Many people will sign up for a mailing list to get something for free and then immediately unsubscribe or never actually read your emails because they aren’t really interested.
  • People who download something for free often ignore a call to action at the end, especially if it is trying to sell something. Some even get angry that you aren’t providing more stuff for free.
  • Free ebooks can hurt your brand if they aren’t high quality, but if they are high-quality, you might not be able to afford giving it away.

Of course, this isn’t the case all of the time…but are you really getting the most out of the time you spent creating a free ebook? Maybe. But maybe not. Unfortunately, most bloggers don’t really think about it. They create free ebooks because “it’s what you’re supposed to do.”

“Free Ebooks Work!”

Whenever I bring up the free ebook debate, there’s always at least one person who points to the fact that his/her free ebook is “working.” Because you wrote a free ebook, you’re getting people to sign up for your mailing list or you’re making sales. But how do you know?

Because you have the numbers to prove it?

Maybe, but few bloggers actually do have proof, they just have flawed stats. Just because your mailing list is getting 100 new sign-ups a month doesn’t mean that your free ebook is the reason. Here’s a good example: I used to offer a free ebook on After Graduation for new mailing list subscribers. Then, I got curious and added a sign-up box at the end of each post which didn’t mention the ebook, but rather just said something like “keep in touch with me.” When comparing the numbers after three months, the sign-up box featuring the free ebook performed only slightly better than the sign-up box that did not, and this might have been attributed to other things, such as placement on the site and word choice.

Or, here’s something else to consider: are the people who sign-up because they want the free ebook really high-quality mailing list subscribers (i.e., they’ll buy something from you in the future). The people who are truly interested in your products might sign up even if you don’t offer something for free. If your free ebook brings 100 new people to your mailing list, but not a single one of those new people actually buys anything from you, ever, does it really matter?

My point is this: before you claim that your free ebook works, take some time to actually think about the stats you’re tracking. Even if your numbers go up, that doesn’t mean your ebook was worthwhile.

Ebook Fatigue

I’m not totally against free ebooks, despite what I’ve written in this post. I think they can be useful for some people. Actually, when a new blogger asks me for advice, a lot of the time, I recommend that they consider creating a free ebook to build their list. I think what is important to remember here is that your audience is probably not the same as the audience of some of the blogs you read.

In other words, if you’re a blogger, you probably read a number of “make money online” type of blogs – i.e, blogs about blogging, social media, affiliate sales, and so forth. Tons of bloggers in this niche have free ebooks. We’re all kind of ebooked-out. But keep in mind that your readers probably don’t see free ebooks offered every day.

For example, my mother would never get online to read this blog or Problogger or Social Media Examiner or any of the other blogs many of us read daily. What she might read online is a blog about sewing (my mom is a crafter). She would probably search for something on Google, say “sewing patterns,” and a blog might pop up. When she goes to that blog, if there’s something available for free (and she likes the blog so far), my mom is likely to sign up. She isn’t getting attacked on every site she visits with offers of free ebooks because most of her time online is spent checking her email or visiting non-blog websites.

It is sometimes hard to remember that our often audience has a much different experience than we do. So a free ebook might be right for you, even if you’re personally so sick of seeing free ebooks that it makes you want to puke. So, what’s the answer to the question I posed in the title? Are free ebooks a waste of time? They can be. It’s a question you have to ask yourself, and not everyone’s answer is going to be the same.


  • Prashant Kaw

    Alli –

    Terrific post and it could not be more timely. I planned to write a post in a similar vein. My whole issue with Free is that it really isn’t. Really what goes on is barter — your personal information for knowledge. People give away their info as perceived at no value but aggregated with tons of other users one’s personal info is worth something.

    In any case — Free ebooks have their place in the marketing ecology and are useful to end users and the company as well. I would be a hypocrite if I said I didn’t think they work or would not use them. Just philosophically don’t agree with the term “free” when it really ain’t!

    Thanks for sharing.


    • Allison

      Really good points, Prashant! I think many problems exist because a blogger’s “free” isn’t the same as a reader’s “free.” The blogger wants free to mean “I’ll buy something in the future to make up for it” while the reader wants free to mean “There are absolutely no strings attached and everything in the future will be free too.”

  • Tim Tyrell-Smith

    Hi Alli –

    A great question. I think it depends on the audience and the content. I wrote originally for job seekers and am now writing more holistically for the career-minded and those looking to get more out of life. I found my first two e-books were very well-received. They were longer than average (124 and 82 pages) and were well formatted with links to make it an easy book to bounce around. Mine were (and still are) free and I never asked people to sign up for anything. At the time, my site was about giving back and about building a sense of community. The free downloads are very popular for folks (job seekers) understandably sensitive to their finances.

    While my site still seeks to give back, I will be selling my next few e-books. They will be shorter than my earlier ones and the price will reflect that value.

    There are some great free ones out there like Chris Guillebeau’s “279 Days” and Leo Babauta’s “Focus” that add significant value without much (if any) promo or selling along the way. And I’m sure these are shared in a way that builds value for Leo and Chris. Value they never would have received if not for the free offer.

    E-books that are largely promotional pieces are not worth much. Free or paid, a book has to add value.

    • Allison

      Yes, I whole-heartedly agree – free or paid, value is important. If your free ebook is not very valuable, readers will be less likely to buy something because they’ll worry that the paid version won’t be worthwhile either.

      By the way, when you launch your paid products, let me know! I’m happy to help promote on After Graduation and JobMonkey, seems like those audiences would be interested!

  • Jeff

    What, no signup form at the end of the post?

    It seems like there has been a trend recently that free content is not such a great idea in any format. A few bloggers have been experimenting with different forms of paid content and membership lists.

    You mentioned the main reasons why you might not want to give away a free ebook when people subscribe, but I think a lot of people are rethinking giving away free content in any format because we’re creating a culture that people expect everything to be free.

    That’s not good when you are in business to make a profit

    • Allison

      I’ve noticed that trend too, Jeff. Also, your comment made me think of an email Jordan Cooper (http://notaproblog.com) recently sent about the problem with people expecting everything for free.

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