Why are some e-books free?

It’s important to note that it isn’t typically Amazon that makes a book free for the Kindle…it’s the rightsholder (except in the case of public domain books).

There are three main reasons why a book will be offered free:

1. Public domain

This is the most common reason e-books are free. Copyright law has specific limitations built into it, the most significant one is that there are typically time limits. It varies by jurisdiction (usually a country) and it’s changed over time (it’s been getting longer in the US). When a book is in the public domain, the public owns it. Anybody can do whatever they want with the material, including selling it.

They don’t need anybody’s permission. They don’t need to pay royalties.

That’s why there might be a hundred editions of Romeo and Juliet. This is true in paper, too, by the way, but it’s easier to publish an e-book than a p-book (paperbook).

Why do people go to the effort to put out a free e-book of public domain material?

Some of it is simply altruism. Michael Hart’s Project Gutenberg is an example of this. It’s the grandparent of all free e-book sites, and in fact, other sites use PG books as source material. It’s a volunteer effort with no advertisements on its website or in its books.

Other people may do it for the glory, to entice people to get non-free books, or to sell advertising (at the site that has the free books, or, hypothetically, in the book itself).

Books first published in the US before 1923 are in the public domain…in the US. Thousands of the free books in the Kindle store fall into this category.

Books (and other materials) published after 1922 in the US may fall into the public domain if the publisher didn’t do something it could have done: published it without proper notice (although that’s not longer necessary); or failed to renew an expiring copyright.

2. Promotional titles

As I write this, there are about two hundred free promotional titles in the Kindle store. A promotional title is offered by someone who could legally charge for it (and may have done so in the past and may do so in the future). There are a couple of main reasons for doing this.

The first is to promote the sale of other books. For example, a publisher might offer the first book of a series for free, hoping that someone will go on to buy the other books (which won’t be free). Many of the promotional titles fall into this category.

Similarly, a publisher may be hoping a reader of a free book may buy other books by that author or from that publisher.

The second reason is to raise the profile of that book when the publisher does start charging for it (again). “Word of mouth” has traditionally been an important way to promote books. Someone reads a book, and then tells other people about it. Publishers have given “galley” copies to bookstore employees before the release of a book, for example, so that those employees will recommend those books to their customers. While movie studios have been more likely to “give away” their product (through free screenings) to promote word of mouth, publishers have done that as well.

In the internet world, word of “mouth” (which I call “word of mouse”) includes customer rankings and reviews on websites (notably Amazon itself). I’ve personally positively reviewed a book that I would never have read if it wasn’t free…not because it was free, but because it was good. People seem to be influenced by ratings and reviews: not just the content, but the number of reviews.

If you want to support a title in the Kindle store, reviewing it is a great way to go. I always recommend you be honest and specific.

Another thing that happens when you download a free book is that it moves up in the “sales”. There are two bestseller lists, free and paid. A free book will “coast” when the publisher starts charging for it, and be high on the paid list for a short time.

3. Waived rights

Some authors simply choose to give specific books away for free. It may be more important to them to get the book out there than to make money for it. Faith-based organizations have famously given away paperbooks in the past…in hotels, at airports, and door to door. Amazon doesn’t allow Digital Text Publishing independent authors to set a price of zero, which makes some sense to me (since they have costs involved in processing sales, returns, and customer service).

You may hear the term Creative Commons in connection with books which are under copyright protection, but for which the author allows free distribution. This is a particular organization that helps people use licenses for some things (for example, requiring attribution) while waiving other rights.

This post by Bufo Calvin appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog site.

9 Responses to “Why are some e-books free?”

  1. Flavors of free « I Love My Kindle Says:

    […] I’ve written a lot about getting free stuff for your Kindles (both tablets and RSKs…Reflective Screen Kindles). The link I just gave you there only scratches the surface. I’ve written specifically about why some e-books are free. […]

  2. jakaurora Says:

    And none of these if Amazon doesn’t bother itself….I have been trying to get a title free for 3 months…..it is free everywhere else. I has put up instructions and basically bypassed amazon. Sometimes that is all you can do.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, jakurora!

      First, let me point out that the post on which you commented is about four years old. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and it did give me a bit of a warm feeling to reflect on a post of mine being read a Presidential term later. 😉

      Things do change, though, and Amazon does give indies (independently published authors) a way (albeit a limited way) to make their books free.

      When indies are part of the KDP Select program


      they can make their books free for five days out of each ninety-day enrollment period.

      Why doesn’t Amazon let everybody make everything free all the time?

      Well, there is a cost to Amazon for free books. There are maintenance, delivery, accounting, and significantly, Customer Service costs. Let’s say someone talks to Customer Service for five minutes about a free book, and let’s say (even though it might be low) that the rep makes $30 an hour. That’s a $2.50 cost to Amazon. If we say that the costs per book to just have them in the Kindle store for Amazon is as low as twenty-five cents a year, and rounding it off to three million books in the Kindle store, that’s…$750,000 a year. They need to be selective about which ones are free…

      Why allow the free promotion in KDP Select?

      KDP Select serves Prime members and Kindle Unlimited members. The former are the most valuable kind of customers for Amazon, and the ‘Zon is spending lots of money to keep them…this would be another example of that. KU members are paying $9.99 a month…not sure how the economics will work out on that yet, although I’d bet that being a KU member increases the chances you’ll be a Prime member.

      I assume by bypassing Amazon, you mean that you don’t have the book available at all through Amazon. If you check the publicly available Pricing Page, you’ll find this:

      “You must set your Digital Book’s List Price (and change it from time-to-time if necessary) so that it is no higher than the list price in any sales channel for any digital or physical edition of the Digital Book.”


      You can’t have it list-priced at zero somewhere else while it is for sale at Amazon not for free, since Amazon has this MFN (“Most Favored Nation”) clause, at least as I understand it. You may want to check with them if you have a question about it.

  3. Lauren Says:

    It’ s the most frustrating thing when you work really hard on a book & then make it available on the Kindle store for free, and then hundreds of people take advantage of that without leaving a review, and some probably don’t get around to reading it at all. Some writers will claim otherwise, but the only reason their book is free or cheap is to get a feedback in the form of a review on the Kindle store.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Lauren!

      Well, I would be one of those authors. 🙂 I regularly make my books free on my birthday, as a thank you to my readers (it’s the only place I promote it, although hundreds get downloaded from other places). Would I like more reviews? Sure, but it isn’t quid pro quo.

      I would put it as “one reason that some authors offer their books for free is in the hope of getting more reviews”. There are many other reasons, I’d say:

      * Not for formal reviews, but for good word of mouth
      * To encourage readers to buy other books from them
      * Goodwill, perhaps for books not even written yet
      * To move up on the “best seller” list
      * To be able to state that so many copies have been “sold” (Amazon uses the term sold for books which go for zero)

      As to frustration, that’s an symptom of a thwarted expected result. Perhaps you could reduce that in the future by working on your expectations…

      You’ve given me an interesting thought. I may compare books which are free (or have been free) versus books which are not to see which have more reviews. There is also an assumption that more reviews equals more sales. That would be my guess, but I might crunch some numbers to see what I can see on that.

      Oh, and I would also guess that most people are interested in reviews because of how they impact sales, not to actually get feedback which would cause them to revise the book or write future books differently, but again, that’s just my intuition.

  4. taz0047 Says:

    I just saw all Lovecraft books for free on the Kindle Store and many Frederick Nitzche for 99 cents on Spanish and for free in English so it triggered the question you just answered, it got me sad at first I thought the authors life work would be devalued but it’s just a great master piece that now belongs to the entire humanity, thanks for the information

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, taz0047!

      I’m guessing, based on your screenname and that all of Lovecraft is free, that you are shopping from the Australian Amazon.

      Australia has a different copyright term than the USA, which results in more books being in the public domain there…that difference is actually what created the issue with the George Orwell books back in the early days of the Kindle.

      As the publisher tells the story (and I think this is the most likely explanation), they had indicated that the book was available to the Australian market…and Amazon had made it available (accidentally, presumably) to the USA market.

      Amazon then pulled the books off people’s Kindles…without asking them.

      Amazon more than compensated people for it, and said they would never do it again…but even Jeff Bezos initially called the move to remove them “stupid”.

  5. Jamie Says:

    Thanks for the helpful explanations. Never thought about how public domain would come in to play, but now I look forward to checking out some old literature.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Jamie!

      Thanks for letting me know! I published that post more than six years ago, but I’m happy it is still helping people. 🙂

      There are a lot of great older books! If you want a recommendation, give me some idea what you like to read now and I’ll see I can suggest something…

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