The value of making a book free

posted in: On writing | 8

Writing the book, I’ve found – however difficult it might be – is the easy part. Marketing it is way, way harder. There has been a plethora of posts about why it’s so much harder now to keep your author head above the flood of new books being published every day. And there’s Kindle Unlimited and BookBub and blog tours and NetGalley and a million other ways that aspiring hopefuls can jump up and down shouting, “pick me, pick me” – all for a price, of course.

I’m no different to all the other small voices out there. My sales have been declining for months, despite having fourteen titles. One of those is a novella, three are longer short stories and the rest are novels. I could just ignore the sales and carry on doing what I do, but I don’t write for myself. I want other people to enjoy my books – and I know some do. So what to do to increase discoverability. (Don’t you love that word? Makes you sound like an exotic holiday location.)

For a start, I put my two paranormal novels and my space opera novella, each of which sold less than five a month, into Kindle Select. None of those titles were selling anywhere else – Smashwords, Kobo, Apple, B&N or Omnilit – so it didn’t cost me to take them down from those sites. I saw results after a few days, with the number of borrows quickly outstripping sales. Mind you, that simply means I could buy three cups of coffee each month instead of one.

Sales had also dwindled to almost nothing for my science fiction romance titles. I’d written a new book for my Ptorix Empire series, and that was released on 15 January. No, I didn’t do a blog tour. I’ve never felt they did much for me. But the book is on the list for NetGalley in February, and I’ve touted it on a few blogs as well as my own. A few fans purchased the book, but it certainly wasn’t walking off the virtual shelves. Sales in January amounted to six. Wow.

There are four books in the Ptorix Empire series. The first, The Iron Admiral: Conspiracy (IA:C), has been around since 2010 and is part of a $0.99, 11-book boxed set, Nebula Nights. (you’ll find purchase links if you’re interested.) So I Cover of The Iron Admiral: Conspiracydecided to make it free. For good measure, I made Supertech, a short story that introduces Morgan Selwood who stars in the Morgan Selwood series, free as well. The idea, of course, is try one, buy the rest.

ST cover smlSupertech has been free before and it’s a short story. I didn’t expect a mad rush for it and although there have been downloads, the number to date is around 350.

The story for IA:C is quite different. I have found that I make more sales on Amazon US than anywhere else, by a very long way – well over 90%. So what I’m showing here is only Amazon US.

I made the book free at all outlets except Amazon (where you can’t offer a free book – I set it to $0.99) on 18 January. I did not advertise, beyond one Twitter post. The graph below shows what happened after Amazon price matched.

Free graph

The first peak was simply from being in Amazon’s free books section. Then the initial excitement died away. The second peak is as a result of buying a US$15 ad on eReader News Today. The book raced up the Amazon lists and was soon #1 free in store for Galactic Empires and #1 Space Opera and #1 Romance Science Fiction. The big goal is top 100 free in store. It didn’t quite get there, but it reached 110 which is pretty good for a novel in a niche market like SF romance. To date, there have been over 4,000 downloads.

Of course, we all know free downloads don’t necessarily mean readers, let alone fans. Many a free book languishes on a reading device, ignored and forgotten. But some people certainly did read the book. I’ve seen a substantial (in relative terms) increase in sales of the second Iron Admiral book – in fact all three titles in the series. And sales of my Morgan Selwood series have also improved.

Although I make most of my sales on Amazon, I will always make my books available elsewhere. Readers like choices and not everyone wants to use the Kindle interface on whichever reading device they own. I’ll take the novella out of Kindle Select when the three months is up, but leave the other two, which hardly sold anyway.

One thing I learned from this exercise is you don’t have to be in the Kindle Select program, where your book is exclusive to Amazon, to get the benefit of a short period where your novel is free. I reduced the price of IA:C to $0.99 on Amazon, and free everywhere else. Amazon soon price matched. In fact, the campaign was so successful, Amazon put the price back. I had to ask them to price match, which they did. Mind you, I’ve heard people complain they can’t get Amazon to stop offering their book free, even when the free offer period finishes at other vendors. That’s a risk to take into account.

I’m not a great believer in giving away my hard work. Writing IA:C took literally years of effort through a number of iterations. But I’ve earned some money from the book and I made a strategic decision to use it as an introduction to my work. I do not think the free option is feasible if you don’t have a swag of other titles. In both cases, I set the first of a series of a number of books free. Time will tell how long this initial boost will last. Meanwhile, I’d better get back to writing that next book.

So – if you’re reading this and you’d like to take advantage of the free offer, you’ll find all the ‘buy links for IA:C here . Enjoy.

UPDATE: They’re no onger free. But $0.99 ain’t bad.


8 Responses

  1. MonaKarel

    During my writing down times I’ll often troll through free or .99 books. I have to admit I go through them more like an editor than a contest judge. Editors can quit any time they want. Contest judges have to read the WHOLE thing. Too many of these books are not worth the time it might take to get to the good part.
    When I find a new author I like, then I will buy subsequent books.

    • Greta

      Agreed there’s a lot of rubbish out there. But many people do download free books to try. We’ll see how it goes.

  2. Leiah Cooper

    As a reader, not a writer, I can honestly say I love freebies.

    With a freebie, I can learn if I really like a writer or not. As we all know, and you point out, there are a LOT of books being published every day. It is an embarrassment of riches. But how are we to know if a book really is ‘riches’ or an ’embarrassment’? Believe me, I have found both.

    Authors that I am thrilled to find – and others that I wonder how they ever had the nerve to publish given the horrendous quality. If I hate a freebie, I can toss it without bothering to finish it.

    If I find an author that I think has potential and could use some encouragement, I am happy to contact them and encourage them as well as writing a review.

    And then, there are the authors I find that thrill me – that become automatic on my ‘must buy’ list. Maybe I wouldn’t have taken a chance on them without that freebie – I don’t have a large book budget, so I have to be careful. There is little worse than purchasing a book and realizing after the first chapter that it is a true waste of my precious budget.

    So – as a reader? THANK YOU for offering one of your books or stories as a freebie, or as part of an anthology. I ADORE anthologies – I have found several new (to me) authors that way… Cheers!

    • Greta

      Thanks for commenting. My husband is one who tries out free books. If he finds something he likes, he’ll buy the subsequent books. It’s nice to know he’s not the only one.

  3. Jo Skehan

    I am yet to put my toe in these waters. I hesitate even more so after reading of the trouble other writers I know, have with self published books. I write for other people too, but I also like to write for myself so I don’t think it would bother me too much if they didn’t sell well, but it seems a lot of hard work for nothing. I hope things pick up for you soon Greta, and when I eventually get the courage to try it out myself, I’ll no doubt be hounding you for info. xx

    • Greta

      And I’ll be happy to help if I can. The thing is that publishing right now is like quicksand. Everything changes in the blink of an eye, and it’s so easy to disappear beneath the surface.

      I know what you mean about all the hard work for nothing. Sure, I write for me, too. But it means so much to know other people have enjoyed what I’ve written.

  4. Julia Barrett

    Most people are struggling to adjust to this new market. Free may or may not work. I’ve decided no more free. Free definitely worked with KDP Select before the advent of KU. No longer. The downloads are minimal compared to what they once were.

    • Greta

      Yes, most of us are. It’s all choices, isn’t it? This worked fairly well for me. We shall see for how long.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.