It's the age-old question: Do you give away books for free, or not?

It's hotly debated in author communities. When I first started out as an author, I gave away the first two books in my Hardwick series. It worked well. Then sales stopped. I partially blamed the freebies (I was totally, completely wrong about that part). And when I logged into different author communities, they said free didn't work anymore.

They said it undervalued their work.

They said it wasn't worth it.

I listened. I switched to charging for all of my books again. Sales slumped even further.

After a lot of analyzing of two years' worth of data, as well as a little common sense on my part, I decided to go back to giving away some of my books for free. This is why...

I still need the exposure

Let's be real: nobody is walking into a bookstore looking for the latest Tom Meitner book. At least, not yet. I'm not James Patterson or Stephen King or whoever. People don't know who I am.

As a result, I need exposure. I need people to discover me. I need people to build trust in me that I can write a good story and hook them in. I can't do that nearly as effectively when I'm charging them a few bucks versus just giving them a book or three for free.

I haven't earned the right to sit back and say, "This is how much my writing is worth." The market decides that, not me. And if the market doesn't trust me yet, then I need to earn that trust.

I trust my story

Hardwick is a series. I'm about to release the 20th episode in the series. I think it's a solid story and continues to build and take new twists and turns. I have a core group of readers who love the story. I know there's something to it.

Offering up a few for free means I am putting faith in my storytelling. I don't care that they get a few stories for free, because the goal of those stories is to get them so salivating for the rest of the story that they start paying. If they aren't buying after reading three books, then the problem isn't the price tag - the problem is the story isn't doing its job.

I believe that the story will do the job. In fact, Episode 3 of the first season is one of my favorite stories of the entire series. I want people to get there because I think that is the point where they will fall in love with the series. Then, I believe they will start buying.

Putting my work out there for free means I am trusting the work that I am doing. And if my work fails me, I need to make it better.

I trust my sales funnel

Story could be a problem, but so could the presentation of the books.

I recently updated my sales funnel and worked in some new language that I think is going to make a big difference. For one thing, I'm dripping out the books over the course of a couple weeks. I'm betting some authors are just sending out download links to their freebies and then walking away. What are you doing with this opportunity?

By dripping out the books and being really clear about it, I am trying to fight off the urge that some freebie-hunters have of loading up their Kindles and then forgetting about the free books. It happens.

Instead, I send them an email saying, "Here's the first book. I'm sending you another one in a week, so you better read this one now!" I'm already getting emails from new readers who are anxious to get the next one.

Then, a week after they get the second one, I'm sending out a survey to get a little demographic information from them. I can use that information to better know my list, and then I send them a link to the third book. That way, they start understanding that they have to take action to get the next book. Boom. They're warmed up for the next one.

Will this work? Only time will tell. But so many authors are just saying, "Freebies don't work!" without elaborating on how they're treating the reader and how they're presenting their freebies. It's an interesting little thing that I'm experimenting with here.

Yeah, it works

I offered two books for free back in the fall of 2016. Within two months, I was pulling in a significant little income. It worked like gangbusters. You know what didn't work? Full price.

Shoot, I put the first book on Amazon for free and on the first day, more than 20 people downloaded it without any effort on my part. That's 20 more chances in one day to make another fan that could potentially be supporting my work in the future.

It works.

I don't have a big marketing budget

Correction: I don't have a marketing budget. I'm broke.

Some success stories I read from authors who use advertising and quickly turned their books into six-figure powerhouses? They were able to test repeatedly. Which means they lost a lot of money quickly. But they used those losses to learn what was working and what wasn't, and they fast tracked their careers.

Good for them. That's how you do it.

But I can't do that. Not only am I not making what I need to make to do that, there's a 60-day delay in making a sale and getting the money anyway. So how could I even bother trying to get a budget going for advertising when I don't have any money?

You know what doesn't cost anything? A few free books. I can do that and get my name in front of people a lot more quickly and more cost-effectively than trying to charge for every word I write.

This is business, not art

The biggest flaw I hear from other authors is "it devalues your work."

Bull.

The market determines your value. You can say that your time is worth X, but if nobody is willing to pay X, then your time isn't worth X. By giving away some of my work for free, I'm laying out a case for readers to come trust me, so that they can believe that my time is worth X.

Will it attract freebie hunters? Sure. But as long as I'm clear about the fact that books cost money down the line, I believe I can avoid some of that.

Think like a business: you know those "Buy One, Get One Free" deals that stores run? It's not because they are trying to "devalue their work". They're doing it because it works. It puts the product in people's hands. It makes people more likely to buy. If you can get a little bit of free product in customer's hands and make some fans, they'll buy more.

Too many authors are thinking in terms of pride and what they get out of their work. But if you want to succeed in business long term, you need to think about your audience - your customer - your reader.

You need to ask, "How can I bring as much value as possible to my readers to build them into loyal, rabid fans?"

To me, the answer is, "Give them great content for free."

That's my strategy moving forward.