The case for giving away a first novel for free is that people may give you a try on impulse if there's no outlay for them, and free books get many more downloads than pay books. By building your author "brand", accumulating fans, and drawing them into your work and your world, they're more likely to be prepared to pay for future novels.
The counter arguments are many. First, if you're a first time author, you don't yet have the follow-up novels available that would benefit from this strategy. Depending on the writer, a novel can take from a couple of months to years to complete, so that approach needs the long term thinking to be built into your plan from the start. Its also clear that there are a lot of free books of dubious quality out there, with poor grammar and spelling. If you price your offering in amongst these, it may get lost in the noise and low expectations. There is also the question of how many of the free e-books that are downloaded actually get read. If you've invested money in purchasing a book, you're less likely to just let it languish unread on your e-reader, and you're therefore more likely to become a fan who will buy subsequent titles.
As a scientist, I liked this interesting analysis on how differently priced e-books perform, with e-books in the $2.99 to $3.99 range appearing to give optimal returns. To me this feels about right for a novel by an unknown author. That equates to around £2 - £2.50, which is less than we spend on a coffee at Starbucks or Costa. A coffee takes the Barista around a minute to prepare and gives only 20 minutes of enjoyment. A book can represent a year of hard graft by the author, and keep you entertained for days or weeks.
However, the arguments seem to have been well worn in the writing blogs as to why people (myself included) are much happier to invest their money on an impulse to buy a coffee than to buy a book. We'll pop in to grab a coffee (and maybe a slice of cake) at the slightest opportunity, without giving it a second thought, but we tend to put a lot more thought into whether we're going to press the "buy" button for an e-book. Why do we have this different perception of the value of these two items? That might get a bit philosophical, but here's my thoughts.
I know I'm going to enjoy my coffee, especially if its from a coffee shop I've been to before. With a book, each one is unique, so I am taking a chance on whether I'm going to enjoy it. This is why people often stick with authors they already know and love.
If a coffee's bad its only ruined 20 minutes of my life - if I invest time in a book that's bad, I feel cheated out of a couple of weeks reading time (although I'm finally starting to learn to actually leave books I don't like unfinished, and start a new, better one).
Of course, even better is to buy a book and a coffee, and read one while drinking the other.
Alex has some strong opinions on why we should value books more highly which she will be adding to the blog shortly, but in the meantime I'd be interested to hear other opinions from folks out there.