Ask Dr. Wobs: What’s the best way to give away a free ebook?

I recently got this note from a reader who wants to write a book to help others (slightly edited here for space):

Dear Dr. Wobs:

I’ve been writing a document I call “My Life With a [specific medical device]”, which I’d like to make available at no cost to other people living with one or thinking about having one implanted. This isn’t a commercial project; I’m willing to spend money on it. I wasn’t fully prepared for what it would be like to live with a [medical device] for the rest of my life. Although I am not offering any medical advice, I do believe my experiences might be helpful to others.

I am interested in a few thoughts as to how I could make my document publicly available, most likely online.


I’ve redacted the name of Tom’s medical device since it’s not relevant to the answer, and for other reasons that will become evident shortly.

This post is for individuals hoping to produce and distribute a book or ebook cheaply. Corporations and consultant often produce and distribute ebooks, PDFs, and print books for content marketing purposes — and there’s plenty of advice on that, like this and this. But what if you’re just hoping to help people, and have no marketing goal?

How to help people with a book

Most people with a book want people to buy it. Tom has a different problem: he just wants people to read it because it will be helpful to them. So let’s break this down into three separate sub-problems:

  1. How can I write a short book that is useful?
  2. How can I publish that book?
  3. How can I help people find the book?

How to write a short book

There’s lot of good advice on how to write a nonfiction book, including my own book on the topic.

How does this advice change if you’re giving away the book for free?

Not much. The book still has an audience, must solve a problem for that audience, and must have a unique take on the problem and the solution.

In the case of a book like this, shorter is better. It’s fine to write it in simple tools like Microsoft Word. And you’ll still likely want to hire a copy editor to fix grammatical errors, but for a short book, that won’t cost too much.

How to publish a book (or ebook)

A Microsoft Word file is not a book — or an ebook. You need to get the book laid out in pages first.

The simplest, cheapest way to do that is to save your book as a PDF out of Microsoft Word. Now you have a paginated book.

If you want it to look better, you could hire a designer to format the pages. Again, for a short, text-based book, that’s not likely to cost much. You could also have the designer design a cover for you.

You can use free tools like SquareSpace or Wix to set up a website with a link for people to download the PDF.

If you want to produce an ebook, Amazon has instructions on how to create a Kindle ebook here.

Anyone can put an ebook on Amazon and price it any price, including free.

If you want to turn the PDF you made into a printed book on Amazon, that’s possible too, through Kindle Direct Publishing. This creates a print-on-demand book — so that potential readers can get their own copy printed and sent to them. Because that printing is not free, you can’t price a KDP print-on-demand book at zero, but you can price it at just a few bucks, if you’re not concerned about profit.

For advice on the basics of low-cost self-publishing, I recommend “The Self-Publishing Manual: Create and Publish Your Own Print and e-Book” by Bruce Jones.

How to help people find your book

Publishing is pointless unless people can find your book. But Tom has an advantage here. He’s written a book on a very specific topic.

When I search the name of Tom’s specific medical device, the only links on Google are for medical sites. And there is only one book on Amazon with that device name in it — and that book has zero reviews. So the field is wide open for Tom to have the definitive book on the topic.

By using the name of his device and the word “book” in his web site, Tom may be able to rank on that name in Google searches.

(I didn’t mention the exact name of the device is this post because I don’t want to rank on it in Google searches and pollute those searches that he could own.)

I also found that, surprisingly, no one has registered the name of this medical device as a dot-com domain. The dot-org is also available, and might fit better with Tom’s non-profit motives. Either way, Tom could inexpensively register one or both of those domains on a registrar like GoDaddy and point them at his web site. Having the device name as the web address would increase the likelihood that searches on Google would land on his site, where people could download his book.

Depending on the topic of your ebook, you may be able to use these techniques as well. If your book is one of a hundred books on a common topic, you won’t be able to rank on Google. But if you’ve chosen a unique problem to solve with an uncommon name, as Tom has, these techniques could work for you.

Free is just the beginning

You might think it’s easy to give things away. It’s not. You need to be where the people you want to reach are looking.

But if you invest just a little it in solving that problem, you can publish a book on a helpful topic simply and cheaply. If all you want your book to do is help people, that might make your readers very grateful.

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