Writer Advice: My Experience with Free Promotions

posted in: Various Musings | 0

Jade provides tips for writers every week.

For a long time, I’d been conflicted about my feelings toward free promotions. It really does seem like a great way to attract new readers, because you’re offering them a risk-free way to give your writing a test-drive (er, test-read, in this case). I’d been indie publishing for a little while when Amazon offered what was then known as KOLL (Kindle Owners’ Lending Library). Writers had to agree to publish exclusively with Amazon for a period of at least 90 days (meaning their ebook couldn’t be bought anywhere else online during that time). In exchange, Kindle offered up to five days where a writer’s book would be offered for free (there are ways around this, however, where a writer can basically “force” Amazon to offer a book for free permanently—I did that years ago as well).

I didn’t stick with KOLL for long because, as I became more well-known, it became obvious to me that I was denying a segment of my readers the chance to read my new work for three months. I will admit that I have since tried it off and on (and my mind might always change again), but I am sour on the idea of free.

Because of declining book sales over the past two years, I decided to once more dabble in the Kindle exclusive universe a bit. Most indie authors will admit that a majority of their sales come from Amazon (I am no exception), but since Kindle unveiled its Kindle Unlimited program (basically a beefed-up version of KOLL), it’s not that way every day for me, and I know a lot of established authors who can and do say the same thing. Anyway, I’m digressing. I decided to pull my book Substitute Boyfriend from all other sites and try KU (I actually did it with a few books, trying different things, including advertising, another thing you can’t do on Amazon unless you’re exclusive—do you see the pattern here?). I’m anti-monopoly, so being exclusive bothers me anyway (and I even told my Amazon rep that), but…when your sales are dwindling and you feel helpless, desperation takes over. I dabbled—and that convinced me that being exclusive only benefitted one party in the action. But that wasn’t why I wrote this blog post. I wanted to tell you about free and your own books!

During its ninety-day KU run, I offered Substitute Boyfriend for free for a few days. On the first day, I sold (er, gave away) over 3000 copies, more than I had sold when the book was a new release. Now, mind you, this is a 99-cent novella. It’s not like I’m charging a mint here anyway.  The book had mostly good reviews (as I write this, the book has forty reviews on Amazon with an average rating of 4.5 stars). By the end of the free period (I can’t remember now if I did it for two or three days), I’d given away almost 6000 copies. Now…I’ve heard over and over and over again that you do it for exposure to new audiences, and I used to feel the same way. But guess what? I garnered maybe another four or five reviews (out of 6000 copies! Please let the reality and enormity of that number wash over you before continuing.  6000!). And I didn’t see the expected upsurge of new readers who liked my work after reading the book.

Oh, well, that’s because the book is a standalone novella, right?

Wrong. I tried the free tactic again a month later, this time with Tangled Web, one of my already bestselling books. Again, I regularly sell it for 99 cents but I don’t sell a lot of copies of it anymore, so why not? My thoughts again were what everyone else says (and it sounds logical!): Readers will take the free copy, read the book, and purchase the other books in the series. That would, if it worked that way, make it definitely worth it to give that book away for free.

But, unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. If you own a Kindle, flip through your library right now. How many books do you have on there that you haven’t read (whether you have borrowed them through Amazon Prime KU or just picked them up for free)? If your answer is a single digit, then you are in the minority.  But if you, like lots of us (myself included), scroll through lots of books you don’t even remember one-clicking, ask yourself this: how many of those books will you honestly ever read? You picked them up because they were free and thought, “Maybe someday,” but shiny new books distract you. There’s not a thing wrong with that…but it means that all those free books collect virtual dust and never get read.

Sound dismal? It is—to me, at any rate. My second experiment with Tangled Web garnered fewer free downloads, and I’m sure that’s because I’d already sold thousands of copies. I still gave away over a thousand…and, no, I didn’t experience a rush of readers picking up the rest of the books in the series.

Before I wrote Bullet, I made Nicki Sosebee #1, Got the Life, free on other sites, and eventually (through a looooong process) Amazon made it free as well (this is the way you can “force” free), but I had experienced the same lack of purchases on the other books in the series. My amnesia (and recommendations from other authors) led me to try again, but today I see no value in running a free promotion. Oh, sure, it’s cool to see your rank rise (but that’s for free, not paid, which means it’s not a bestseller, no matter how you slice it) and it’s exciting to think that your work might be read, but free has been disappointing for me. I’ve read other authors say it comes down to perceived value (that if it’s free, it’s worth nothing), but I don’t think that’s the case. I think it comes down to this: You, the reader, have been seated in front of a smorgasbord—huge!—and you only have so much room in your tummy. After a while, you’ve been sated and you have to wait for the next meal, also a giant buffet, and—even gorging—there’s only so much you can take in.

Some authors have experienced success with free, and that’s great. I am not among those ranks, and that is why I don’t recommend it as a technique for indie authors. I suppose if you’re completely new, it might be worth a shot, but if you’re halfway established, I don’t see a win anywhere in sight. Nada.

Got a writing question for me? Post below and I’ll be happy to answer it either here or in a future Saturday blog post!

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