Free Book Promotions Are Not What They Used to Be – Lessons Learned and Tips for Success

A lot of people won’t go free with their books, they think it’s degrading. They’ve worked hard, sometimes for years (I know I have) and it just breaks you inside to give away the result of your sweat and tears for nothing.

Plus we all know that anything not paid for is not taken into consideration. It hurts to give your baby away and it’s not even appreciated. A double whammy!

So why do it at all? Three reasons:

1. On Amazon, it helps to populate  that screen “Other Customers Also Bought” with books similar to yours – and therefore, your own book is also on someone else’s book page and gets additional exposure. And for indies, Amazon matters, it’s the place where they sell most of their books.

2. If successful – but you need to have 10,000 downloads and over – it helps to draw attention to your book and earns you bragging points that you can use with an eventual publisher or a literary agent if you happen to be looking for one.

3. There may be possible ties between Book Promotions (0.99 cents and free) and reviews, jumpstarting a wave of reviews on your book.  That can work into a huge breakthrough. More about that later.

As those who follow me here know, I did my own free book campaign last week, for Gateway to Forever, from 4 to 8 November and I wanted to share with you how it went. Compared to 2 years ago, the campaign was a dismal failure: the number of downloads was 75% lower ! I’m not kidding, the number was one fourth of what is used to be.

Conclusion? The market is obviously saturated, people have their e-readers bursting with books – so many that it is likely they will never get around to reading them.

Or will they?

There is a silver lining: since fewer free books are downloaded now than in the past, it means that the people who add them in their e-readers actually mean to read them!

Noteworthy is veteran, best-selling author Elizabeth Spann Craig ‘s opinion in this regard. This is what she recently wrote on her blog:

The only thing I’ve done with my self-pubbed books to garner reviews is to run sales.  I didn’t advertise the sales in any way…not on my blog, newsletter, Twitter, Facebook…nothing.  I just ran them.  The free promos tend to garner more reviews than the $.99 promos.
Pros with this approach are that your book finds its way into the hands of new readers.  Many of these readers tend to write reviews (expect them usually a month or so following the sale).  It’s free, unless you’re counting the cost of the lost sales (I like to think of that loss as a form of unofficial advertising). I put books out for free by making them free on Smashwords and then Amazon price matches.
The only con with this is that you sometimes hook readers who don’t read your genre and, perhaps, don’t even like your genre. They will sometimes write reviews too.   I think that most readers are savvy enough to realize that these types of reviewers simply don’t care for those types of books.
I got in touch with her and asked her whether she could illustrate this experience with some specific examples and here is what she said:
Hi Claude–Free absolutely worked better a couple of years ago than it does now…no doubt about it.
It usually takes about a month, I’ve noticed, although some speedy readers will leave them sooner.
As with everything in this business (heaving a big sigh here) there is not enough data on what works so my analyses on what works have been purely observational.
Here’s the evidence I’m working with (and I’ll use a recent example, since it’s freshest in my mind). The book that has been free most frequently is Dyeing Shame and it’s at 617 reviews right now. I’d “gone off” free mentally for a while last year (read a bunch of anti-free blog posts that influenced me) and I never put a 2013 release, “Death at a Drop-in,” out as free…it had only 54 reviews (which is pretty staggeringly low for that series).

Realizing I needed to do something (it was selling poorly), I decided in mid-October to run a free promo on it.

Now it has 27 more reviews (already…although I’m expecting more for later in November, since it does usually take about that long for folks to read and review).
And…I’m realizing it’s still free. 😦 And I even put a reminder on my calendar…will have to go in now and change it. But getting it to 81 reviews is worth it.

Please note something amazing here: She didn’t advertise her promotions in any way, either on Twitter, Facebook or on her (well-read) blog and I find this both extraordinary and…very wise!

Lessons learned?
1. Advertising Don’t tweet, don’t buy ads, most of them don’t work. Yet, I’ve got fellow writers happy with their ads, and it seems that certain advertisers are very good to help you reach out to new readers: for the US market, Bookbub and Kindle Books and Tips, and outside the US, Ebooks Bargains UK. One friend, using Kindle Books and Tips recently got 4,000 downloads, good for him!But there’s a catch with the better advertisers: for example, on both Bookbub and Kindle Books and Tips, you need to have 8 customer reviews and at least four 5-star reviews in order for them to accept your ad. I had four 5-star reviews but I didn’t have a total of 8 reviews, so they didn’t allow me to use them, sigh…I did try to advertise on Facebook. I boosted a post written under my alter ego on Facebook (I’m that blue guy called Boomer Lit – the logo of my Goodreads group that I set up two years ago to discuss Boomer Lit and that has now over 500 members). It had 18 “organic likes” before I boosted it (at a cost of $40) and a day later, on the fourth day of my free book campaign, it had over 4,400 “likes”, see the screenshot I took showing the result:

So I rushed to my Kindle Direct Publishing dashboard to check out whether the FB boost had had an effect on the number of downloads. I’m sorry to have to report, the impact was…Zilch! Nothing, zip, nada. If anything the number of downloads was way down that day, half of what it had been the day before.

 2. “Soft” advertising works better. I believe that Goodreads works (marginally) better than Facebook. They allow you to set up an “event” to tell your “friends” on Goodreads that you have a promotion (see here). Of the over 900 friends I’ve got, 13 (!) answered yes. That’s not much of a response, but it’s better than nothing. Presumably a lot of people click on the Amazon link to the book without telling you that they did.

As every marketing guru in the publishing business will tell you, what works best is the personal newsletter you send to all those who’ve signed up for it, and my experience seems to confirm it. Both the percentage opened and number of clicks was about double the industry average (around 40% opened the letter and 4% clicked through). And I’m sure a lot of my fellow writers do even better – please share your experience with us in the comments!

3. Free book promotions work better than Countdown Deals 
I’ve run two countdown deals for Gateway to Forever, one in the US and the other in the UK – alas, Amazon has not set it up for any other marketand I’ve noticed the results were (1) identical in te US and UK and (2) much lower on average than a free promotion, about half the number of downloads.

4. Free promotions work better than 99 cents. That is Elizabeth Spann Craig’s experience and it tends to be confirmed by my own experience with Countdown Deals (they are never free, they are simply daily discounts, starting from 99 cents and working your way up back to the original price).

5. The Best Days to go free are Monday and Tuesday. In fact, week-ends should be avoided, people tend to stay away from Internet, they go hiking, they do to discos or whetever. But on Saturday already my downloads were way down, about 20% of what they had been on the first day (which was a Tuesday).

Hope this information helps you.  And do share your experience, I’m eager to hear from fellow writers!

And if you’ve downloaded my Gateway to Forever, I hope that you are enjoying your read and if you do, please share your opinion with your friends, both on the Net and in the real world. If you missed out on the free campaign, you’re still in time to grab your copy at a highly discounted price ($2.99 – click here). Hey, I don’t plan to leave it that low for long, I really believe that it deserves to be sold at a higher price…

Alice, (one of three protags in Gateway to Forever) really expresses the way I feel about free promotions (chuckle!)


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