I received an email from an author who has one of the top ten selling Kindle ebooks this week. She's ecstatic, and rightfully so. Most consider her a bestselling author now . . . even though the book is free.
The Los Angeles Times wrote a piece about the Kindle freebies. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2010/05/top-10-kindle-ebooks-all-free.html
There's a fine line between free meaning a introduction to quality or a sign of poor quality. When one thinks of free, one prepares himself for the strong likelihood that the product is lacking in some nature.
In the publishing world, free chapters are used to orient readers with a new novel, even a new author. Free ebooks have been used on websites to entice readers to buy products for years. Enter the Kindle, and I'm sure the IPad, et al will follow suit. An author offers a new e-book for free for a limited time, or more than likely, offers an older e-book for free on the heels of a new release. Give the reader a taste and see if he asks for seconds.
Some have fussed that one can't be a bestseller without . . . um . . . SELLING something. I don't care what you call it, and I don't care how you split hairs. The idea is remarkable, simple and successful. I wouldn't knock it if I were you. As a matter of fact, in my scanning for small to mid-level presses for my novels, I'm making sure the publishers are smart as whips about e-publishing. If not, they fall off my radar.
Free can be valuable indeed.