Is it worth it for writers to give away free short stories (or entire novels)? I've heard people say that having freebies on your site can boost sales of your books. I'm not talking about giving away free copies of Novel X to improve Novel X's sales, but writing a completely unrelated story and offering it up as a freebie. Is there any "evidence" that this actually does improve your sales?
Tread with caution. A lot of caution.
Free stories to promote the author is a marketing strategy. As such, there are situations where it can be wonderful; situations it can be disastrous; situations it can be utterly harmless and entirely insignificant.
I think these are the central questions you've got to ask yourself when considering writing freebies for the web:
The most likely result of publishing pieces online is that nothing in particular will happen with them. They will likely fall somewhere between "nobody will read them because they'll never hear of them" and "some people will read them, enjoy them to some extent, maybe share with friends, but they won't be enthusiastic enough to go out and hunt for the author's other stuff." At the higher end of the spectrum, you've got "a lot of people who read this might be more favorably inclined to buy something of the author's if they run into it in the future." For most authors, that doesn't get them very far towards where they want to go.
Here are the situations where I think publishing free stories online sounds like a good marketing strategy:
That's where I'd see free stories as being really useful. If you're not in any of those situations, you've got to ask yourself very seriously just how you expect these free stories to make themselves useful - particularly contrasted with the option of receiving both pay and publication.
A really important note: you can look for free online magazines, and try to sell some work to those. That gets around almost all the pitfalls I've touched upon here, while leaving you with a freely available story you can link to, and that adoring fans can share around. That might be a good compromise. Another option is trying to negotiate, when you sell your work, that after a certain amount of time you get to publish your story free on your webpage (or link to it on the publisher's webpage). Not as odd as you might think - since they want the publicity too.
I can offer no evidence, but speaking as a reader, it would make me more likely to purchase a book if I had read and enjoyed the writer's freebies.
If your work is appealing, it should work.
Have you ever asked for a book to a friend, read it, fell in love with it, and started buying everything by that author? It happened to me with the Wheel of Time series, and with Jules Verne's works.
So, by giving away the books, you're doing what a friend would do: give you the chance to know the author, the chance to fall in love with the work, to appreciate it, and to buy it. On the other hand, it helps your public relations and gives you a "this guy's really cool and down to Earth" image that many a reader likes.
I think the important part about any kind of giveaway is to make it part of a marketing plan. I know the words "marketing plan" are rife with tedium and the apprehension associated with the buzz word but that's just because marketing has become something done by people with no connection to the products they're trying to get people to buy.
For the artist or craftsman marketing is just the act of saying to people: "Hey, you know what, I have this stuff here you might like to buy." Chances are if you are the author you have sought people out who, well, would probably be interested in reading what you have written.
You can act exactly the same as a marketdroid in this respect and just spam forums and messageboards with "BUY THIS" messages or you could wonder, as a writer, whose eyeballs you want scanning your work and then you can, you know, go to these communities, integrate, check them out and, when you have something of interest: mention it.
At that point your marketing plan should be a coherent message that you can deliver to interested parties. In my experience consumers of entertainment come in two flavours. Those consumers who aren't buying what you're selling and those who like the elevator pitch but want to know more before they commit. By "know more" I think, particularly readers, like to cultivate some sort of knowledge or ownership of an author before they take the plunge. This requires one of two things. Either the author has to be "available" e.g. has a blog, visits online communities, tries to meet and greet etc. and have some good, relevant materials expanding upon the type of fiction they write. The other option is that the author implicitly "promises" future availability by having a large canon of work available for purchase (I would say 8-10 novels freely available for purchase would be minimum). If a reader can see that, should they buy novel x they can benefit from 7 to 10 more no-brainer book purchases then they are more likely to take the plunge.
In these days of the interwebs there should be some mixture of the two.
Free stories/books could contribute to this but only as a part of that strategy. Sometimes you end up with frustrating edge cases: I, for example, love one author's two free e-books (neither were ever considered for publication by a publisher but one was represented by an agent for a while) but his actual published works are generic detective stories while the free books are out-there speculative techno thrillers. If the dude was paid to write out there speculative techno thrillers I would be in the queue to buy each and every one but I'm not in the market for a cookie cutter crime thriller. I'm sure there are others who are happy with whatever he writes. None of it would be worth much if he didn't also blog, do speaking tours and just, generally, make himself available to fans.
So, as a way to make yourself more available it is a step in the right direction but it's definitely not much use on its own. I offer free downloads of some novels but as they are part of a plan I haven't started to put into motion yet nobody bothers with them and they certainly don't sell.