Free Fiction? Does it help or hurt sales?

So, yesterday, I was seized in the throes of envy. It happens to me occasionally, especially when I do the very stupid thing of comparing myself to other authors. It’s quite easy to let myself do this. I’ll troll ratings and look at people who are higher than me in the ratings and think things like, “She can’t even spell lightning, for God’s sake! Why is this book rated higher than Breathless?

(At such points in time, it’s useful to remind myself that I can’t spell Colosseum. Although, in my defense, I did happen to trust Microsoft Word’s spell check on that particular error. And coliseum is in fact a word. It’s just not the preferred spelling of THE Colosseum. I digress.)

This thought process is stupid and dangerous and utterly damaging. It generally goes something like this for me:

-Maybe Breathless isn’t selling as well because it’s just bad.
-No. It’s awesome.
-So, maybe it’s because it’s edgy. You know, with the word crotch being in the second paragraph and all. Lots of people are turned off by teenage girls having sexual feelings. It’s totally taboo.
-Um, then how come the Gossip Girl books sell so well?
-Well, maybe it’s because there’s so much violence and despair and gore.
-Right, so that would explain why The Forest of Hands and Teeth tanked.
-Maybe no one’s heard of it. Maybe you should do more marketing.
-Maybe. Or maybe the 4,000 people who read it for free online might have bought it if you hadn’t just posted it online for free.
-Maybe. Except if books that aren’t free sell better, then why has Invoke sold less than 20 copies?
-I don’t know! Maybe you just need to give Invoke more time. It’s been out two months. Breathless has been out two years. And let’s not forget that it’s selling the best.
-Well, maybe Invoke would sell better if I serialized it.
-Maybe. Or maybe series just sell better than stand-alones. Or maybe books with pentagrams on the covers sell better than books about King Arthur. Or maybe you’ll just have to recognize that no one on earth knows why some books sell better than other or why some authors make enough money to quit their day jobs and others don’t. And maybe you should just be glad you get the summer off, and that your books are making any money at all. STOP WHINING.

As you can see, living inside my head is extremely scary. Mostly, I’m torn. I’ve always been a library junky. I read most of my books free. I don’t tend to buy things unless I’ve already read them, and I’m sure I want to read them again. So sometimes, I feel really convicted about not offering a book for free. I believe in free fiction. From my data thus far, whether a book is free on the internet or not seems to have absolutely no measurable effect on sales. I guess I need more data.

How about you? How much of your fiction do you read for free (from the library or online)? How much do you buy sight unseen? Do you think people should be allowed to have a legal avenue to read free fiction?